Are the people good enough?

Responses to the Brexit vote have revealed a disturbing current of anti-democratic sentiment. We need to challenge these attitudes and commit to a deeper form of democracy.

Benjamin Ramm
16 January 2017
The Purifying Pot of the Jacobins (1793), alluding to the Law of Suspects enacted under Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety

The Purifying Pot of the Jacobins (1793), alluding to the Law of Suspects enacted under Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

(Bertolt Brecht)


The people… are they good enough?

(Maximilien Robespierre)

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, supporters of the European project have been confronted with how to make sense of their defeat. Some have acknowledged that the Remain campaign was woeful, and that the result revealed deep-seated anger at the political class, but there has also been an alarming amount of anti-democratic reaction, some of it laced with contempt towards the electorate. Notably, it has been suggested that the result exposed the weakness of direct democracy, without acknowledging that many voters expressed their frustration at the failure of decades of an unrepresentative parliamentary system. The ongoing confusion about the meaning of Brexit forces us to clarify our definition of democracy, and acknowledge that it is not a guarantee of either liberty or equality.

The voices of dissent have been heard across the progressive spectrum, from liberal lawyers to Marxist intellectuals. A week after the referendum, Slovenian Leninist Slavoj Žižek told me that “popular opinion is not always right. Sometimes I think one has to violate the will of the majority”. This sentiment was echoed days later by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, poster child of the Paris 1968 protests and a long-time Green MP, who told France Inter:

If the people want the death penalty, I am against the people, because the death penalty is unworthy of humanity. We must stop saying that the people are always right.

Cohn-Bendit is surely correct to say that popular consent for a policy does not make it ethically just or politically wise – particularly in the context of the far-right in France ahead of the 2017 presidential election. But there’s a fiendish paradox at the heart of left-wing thinking since Rousseau: how do you free the people, not only from their material conditions, but from their servile selves, from their ‘false consciousness’, as Marxists put it? If revolution offers transformation, how can the yet-to-be-transformed recognise its promise – and what if the people do not opt for their best interests? (In this regard, Žižek has defended both Robespierre and Lenin, who argued that a vanguard of visionaries is required to guide the people).

The legalistic critique is exemplified by the patrician condescension of A.C. Grayling, who argues that MPs have a democratic duty to ignore the EU referendum because the vote was merely advisory. Grayling’s argument is premised on the notion that the system of representative democracy works soundly: “In parliament the electors’ representatives are required to act in the best interests of their electors, which they chiefly do by acting in the best interests of the country”. Any observer who thinks that the political class does indeed offer “constant democratic supervision” – and that ignoring the referendum result will not stoke greater anger – is either naïve or misinformed. Grayling argues that “anything done by a government can be recalled at the next election”, but this is not true, especially in the case of war.populism is a reaction to the democratic deficit, with opportunistic politicians exploiting the perception of powerlessness

Grayling’s conviction is born of a basic fallacy: that British ‘subjects’ chose this parliamentary arrangement, when in fact they were (reluctantly) granted a very limited form of democracy, only after a long struggle. He claims that “representative democracy is a filter that guards against descent into forms of populism”, when in fact populism is a reaction to the democratic deficit, with opportunistic politicians exploiting the perception of powerlessness. This bind is exacerbated by a disproportional voting system, and the tabloid fetishisation of ‘real people’. As it became clear that the Leave campaign had won, a jubilant Nigel Farage declared it was “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people”. These mythological ‘real’ people are defined by who they are not – ‘inauthentic’ cosmopolitans, citizens of nowhere. (This social conservatism is not restricted to the right: Blairite and Brownite politicians celebrated “hard-working families”, Blue Labour romanticised working-class communities, and Nick Clegg appealed to ‘Alarm Clock Britain’).

Recent referendums have illustrated that the will of the majority is no guarantee of liberal values or egalitarian policies. In Colombia, a tiny majority rejected a peace agreement that would have ended a 30-year conflict, while in Thailand 61% voted to ratify a constitution proposed by coup leaders. In Egypt, liberals have found themselves supporting a military dictator over the Islamist democracy of the Muslim Brotherhood, for fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – a term used in relation to Brexit by former prime minister John Major.a more accurate description of our system is not ‘rule of the people’ but ‘rule of the parties’ – we remain imprisoned in their binary trap

“What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will?”, asked a despairing George Monbiot. What if it acts as “a justifying myth for liars and charlatans”? (Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte were foremost in his mind). Monbiot discusses Achen & Bartels’ book Democracy for Realists (2016), which claims to debunk the “folk theory of democracy”. But it fails to acknowledge that a more accurate description of our system is not ‘rule of the people’ but ‘rule of the parties’ – we remain imprisoned in their binary trap. Monbiot acknowledges that innovative new forms of plebiscitary democracy (citizen juries, participatory budgeting) have proven successful, but echoes the realist approach to “understanding what we are” – irrational, tribal and incurious. Plato and the anti-democrats of ancient Athens shared this view, only for the city-state to flourish during the democratic period, with citizens nurturing a great civilisation.

Achen & Bartels’ work is one of a number of recent anti-democratic tracts, including Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy (2016). A more insightful and helpful analysis is offered by David Van Reybrouck in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy (2016), pithily summarised in this short video:

The House of Lords would provide the perfect test-bed for sortition, as Anthony Barnett argued in his book The Athenian Option. This is one tool for constructing a ‘deliberative democracy’, in which citizens have time to consider and confer. Gilbert Ramsay explains the concept in relation to the work of two leading American political scientists, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin:

Deliberative democracy is a concept which aims to overcome the fact that, in conventional democratic votes, citizens are asked to decide on issues about which they know little, do not know to whom they can turn for accurate information, and in any case have limited incentives to expend time and energy on becoming better informed. In the case of the British referendum, Ackerman and Fishkin proposed that the referendum debates should be accompanied by the mass engagement of British citizens, first in small groups, building up to larger assemblies. The groups would be provided with factsheets with content vetted by both sides, and trained facilitators would help the group to develop questions and focus discussions. Another proposal informed by Ackerman and Fishkin’s work was made by Andy Rynham, who called for a one-off bank holiday ‘deliberation day’ for the referendum.

With deliberation comes the possibility of persuasion – of convincing a Trump voter or Brexit supporter, for example, of the error of their ways. This does not ignore the structural barriers that inhibit constructive engagement. It may be that deep, participatory politics can succeed only in a more concentrated, localised environment, another argument in favour of greater devolution. Above all, inequality undermines the mutual recognition that underpins social cohesion – it weakens democracy and opens it up to populist manipulation, as classical scholar Paul Cartledge makes clear.

“I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world – far more revolutionary than socialist ideas”, said Tony Benn. In 2017, at a time of social and ideological rupture, democracy’s radical potential lies in its opening of a space in which to imagine an alternative. But democracy is not primarily a theoretical consideration: it is a habit, enhanced and perfected with each interaction. As we face up to unprecedented technological and ecological challenges, progressives need to advocate and practise new direct forms of democratic engagement. The Left cannot despair of, or hold in contempt, those who reject its message. We cannot work for a better world without faith in the citizens who will build it, and without challenging the systems that hamper them from doing so.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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