Thursday, August 23, 2007

Democracy and the Great State

All free men feel that the only tolerable condition of Government is Democracy. No such man will tolerate the compulsory direction of his actions by any temporal authority save the general will of his fellow-citizens. This great truism I shall assume as the foundation of all that I have to say in this essay. With those who do not feel its truth, with those who regard a Hereditary Aristocracy or merely the Rich or Experts or Men in Advance of their Age as the proper repositories of political power I shall not here argue. I will argue with them when they have answered the plain question of the Jesuit Suarez, "If sovereignty is not in the People, where is it?"

Democracy, then, we assume as the fundamental condition of the state of society which we desire to create; but it is of vital importance to have in our minds a clear and unalterable idea of what Democracy means. Democracy means Government by the General Will. That is to say, it means that such laws as the mass of the population approves are passed and enforced, while such laws as are obnoxious to the mass of the population are rejected. It is clear that this has on the face of it nothing to do with special devices such as representation, by which modern men have attempted to achieve the end of Democracy. Despotic institutions, hereditary rulers, and representative bodies must alike be judged from the democratic standpoint by whether they do or do not result in a system of Government which accords with the general will of the people. Democracy, considered in this sense, is not a new thing (as our Moderns suppose), but just about the oldest thing in the world. In what Mr. Wells has christened "The Normal Social Life" practical Democracy has always prevailed in the matters which most deeply affect the ordinary existence of the common man. Now and then, no doubt, a far-off ruler not chosen by him might force the common man to take part in a war which was not of his making. Taxes not levied with his consent would occasionally be imposed upon him. But in the matters that concern his daily life, in his sowing and reaping, in his buying and selling, in his marrying, in the bearing and upbringing of his children, in his religion, and in all other things for which such a man normally cares, his actions would be regulated by the customs of his tribe or commune, and any disputes would be settled by a council of his neighbors. That is to say, these matters would be settled by the general will. He would be living, whether he knew it or not, under the conditions of Democracy.

Now in this, as in other matters, what we must seek to effect is a return to what is wholesome and natural to Man in the Normal Social Life while availing ourselves of the advantages which a more elaborate system of society affords us. We must seek under the conditions imposed by the growth of larger States and the consequent necessity of a more extensive political organisation to obtain that which is obtained so easily in a simple society by the meeting of villagers under a tree. The matter is the more urgent because so long as our system of government remains essentially undemocratic every step in the direction of Collectivism will be a step away from Democracy. It is no use denying that the "permeation" of our politicians and others with what are called "Socialist" ideas has tended, up to the present, rather to diminish than to increase the power of the General Will. Not only have measures directed towards the regimentation of the poor and tending, not to Collectivism, but to the Servile State been rushed through under the inspiring title of "Social Reform," but even where the direct Nationalisation of capital was involved the rich have known how to turn the Collectivist philosophy to their use. An example at once deplorable and farcical may be found in the extraordinary history of the National Telephone Company, whose monopoly was first secretly created and then ostentatiously bought (at an exorbitant price) by "the Nation"—that is, by the politicians, some of whom had also been directors. I can conceive no state of society—not even a frank plutocracy —more odious than one in which the governing class held all the economic power and administrated everything, nominally on behalf of the public, really on their own. And that plutocratic Collectivism is an extremely likely end to the efforts of a generation of Socialists, unless the machinery of the State can be made really to reflect the General Will. The method by which most modern societies have attempted to solve the problem of Democracy is the method of Representation. Since it is obviously impossible that all the members of a great modern Nation, still more of the larger federations of men which the future will probably see, to meet together in one place, and there to discuss all the details of political administration, it is thought that the same end might be achieved if certain groups of such men delegated their power to some person chosen by them who should have their authority to speak in their name.

Now it is clear that the success of this experiment depends essentially upon the exact correspondence between the actions of the delegate and the wishes of those from whom his authority is derived. I say this is clear to any one who has attempted to think out the problem of representation. It is apparently by no means clear to a great many writers in the press or to a great many speakers on political platforms. These people are forever drawing an entirely meaningless distinction between "a Delegate" and what they call "a Representative." What this distinction means I have never been able to conceive. A man must vote either according to the wishes of his constituents or against those wishes. If he does the former he is acting as a faithful delegate would act. If he does the latter, he is neither a delegate nor a representative. He is an Oligarch. For how can we say that a man "represents" Slocum when he is in the habit of saying "Aye" where the inhabitants of Slocum would, if consulted, say "No"?

Now it is pretty obvious to most of us that, in England at any rate, there is absolutely no such relation as I have predicated as essential between the "Representative" and the people he is supposed to "represent." With the special causes which make this divorce more complete in England than elsewhere I shall have to deal in a moment. But apart from those special causes there is that in the very nature of the Representative System which tends to render it unrepresentative. In England to-day the Member of Parliament is not really in any sense chosen by his constituents. But even if he were so chosen it would still be true that the very fact of his having been marked out from his fellow-citizens for special governmental functions would give him a point of view which would not be quite an accurate mirror of the mind of those fellow-citizens. Put him in a room with several hundred other men similarly marked out from their fellow-citizens, and this psychological result is indefinitely intensified. It has always been so with political assemblies, however democratic their constitution, and in all probability it always will be so with them. The divorce between the Politician and the Citizen is, of course, enormously increased when the former takes to politics as a profession. The Professional Politician is the dominant figure in the Government of all civilised countries to-day, and nowhere is he more dominant than in England, where a large number of innocent persons refuse to believe in his existence. That Politics should become a profession was perhaps inevitable so soon as the government of the country was no longer the affair of the citizens themselves. At any rate, in all known periods after politics had emerged from the primitive condition of the village community the Professional Politician has existed. I shall discuss later how far he can be eliminated, but while he exists the important thing is to recognise that he does exist, to recognise that in all Nations which have developed to the point to which England has developed a class has appeared of men who make the government of the people their ordinary means of livelihood. In moments of high civic excitement it has sometimes been possible to conduct the affairs of state without the payment of Politicians. This was so, for example, in the high hope and anger of the French Revolution. Then men entered politics urged by a passionate desire for social justice and a passionate patriotism, and left Politics (sometimes by the Tumbrils) poorer than they were in the first instance. It is doubtful whether, in any case, such self-devotion could be made permanent in times of comparative quiescence. But one thing is certain: with this intense self-devotion to the common weal inevitably goes an instinct that Politicians should be poor men. The great and determining characters in the revolutionary drama of France boasted that while they administered millions they themselves lodged in the cheapest lodgings and dined
at the cheapest restaurants.

Nothing could be more absurd than the present practice in England, the practice, I mean, of rewarding success in politics with salaries varying from £ i, 200 to £10,000 a year, and then pretending that these sums are of no account at all to the persons who receive them. Such a practice directly tends to produce corruption of the worst kind. A Professional Politician may be, like a Professional House-Agent, a perfectly honest man—that is, he may endeavour to give in return for his salary honest and efficient service to the State. But we all know what would happen if it were a general assumption, which it was "in bad taste" to challenge, that House- Agents were entirely indifferent to their fees and were actuated solely by compassion for persons whofound themselves for the moment homeless and by a desire to see them adequately housed. Such a general assumption would be used by really dishonest house-agents to cover their offences, while the honest house-agent, working, no doubt, for money but fairly earning it, would find himself handicapped. And that is exactly the condition of English Politics to-day. Politics in England, and largely throughout the civilised world, are for the most part a means of livelihood for those who concern themselves with them. No doubt it is true that a large number of men enter the House of Commons without any intention of increasing their income, some from vanity and the desire for an honorary distinction, some (very few) with a desire to express their personal views, and here and there (the rarest thing of all) .a man determined to voice the opinions of his constituency. But these are not the men who direct Parliament or really determine the Government of the County. The men who do this are the Professional Politicians. These may be broadly divided into two classes. There are the men who belong by birth to what we may call the governing class. These are considered to have a right to co-option into salaried political posts. It is to them that Mr. Belloc's amusing poem refers:

“It happened to Lord Lundy then,
As happens to so many men,
About the age of twenty-six
They shoved him into Politics.
In which profession he commanded
The salaries his rank demanded."

This is on the whole the most harmless and least corrupt kind of professionalism in politics. Such men are apprenticed to politics as a profession (that is, as a means of making money) just as men of humbler rank are apprenticed to be Solicitors, Greengrocers, or Compositors, because their parents happen to be able to command for them an opening in these trades. Such men, if they happen to be honest men, often try to do their best to earn their money by serving the community to the best of their ability. This method of choosing governors is repugnant to Democracy, but is not clearly reignant to plain morals or to the national interest. is the method by which all oligarchical States are governed. It was the method by which England was governed during the eighteenth and the greater of the nineteenth century. A much worse form of Political Professionalism has arisen of late years. Young men, conscious perhaps of some talent, enter Parliament with the deliberate intention of getting a salaried place from those at whose disposal such places and salaries are placed. Such a man violates, of course, the essential idea of representation as it has been outlined above. His intention is not to serve his constituency, but to serve those from whom he expects his pecuniary reward—that is, the very Executive which he is supposed to check and criticise. If a sufficient number of such men are returned to the representative assembly, it is obvious that such an assembly will exist only to ratify the decisions of the Executive; that is to say, from the democratic point of view, it will not exist at all. And that practically is the state of the case at the present time. Men—that is, the men that count—enter Parliament with an eye to a professional career. This career can only be obtained by leave of the small co-opted group which constitutes " the Government" and "the Official Opposition"—that is, those who, though not at the moment in receipt of public money, expect to receive it when a change of government shall take place. He knows very well that certain votes and speeches will hurt his chances of ever making any money in politics, while certain other votes and speeches will help him to do so. Naturally, like any other man pursuing his trade, he desires to ingratiate himself with his customer; and he speaks and votes accordingly. Add to this the fact that in England the Executive has the power at any moment of ordering a dissolution of Parliament, that Elections are very expensive, that only very rich men can afford to finance their own candidatures, that a vast secret fund exists to finance such candidatures, and that this fund is readily placed at the disposal of those—and of those only— who are ready to act as the subservient retainers of the successful professionals, and you have an adequate explanation of the undemocratic character of English politics to-day. I have already said that it is dubious whether we can ever dispense altogether with the Professional Politicians under ordinary conditions. But one thing is clear. If Politics are to remain a profession, that profession must in the public interest be most strictly safeguarded. That is to say, every temptation to which the politician may be subjected to act against the interest of those who employ him must be most carefully provided against; and any disposition on his part to prefer his private interests to his duty of obedience to the general will must be immediately and rigorously punished. It is to this end that I now propose to devote some consideration.

One necessity stands out manifest and incontrovertible. If politics are to be an Profession, the profession of Executive Administrator must be kept strictly separate from the profession of Delegate to the Legislature. If this is not so, the Legislature can never in the nature of things be really independent of the Executive, and can, therefore, never really act as an effective check upon it. Every member of the Legislature body will be on the lookout for the more profitable administrative posts. These posts will of necessity be in the gift of the Executive. They will necessarily be bestowed upon those of whose conduct the Executive approves. The Executive will naturally approve of the conduct of those who do not oppose or even criticise it. Therefore there will be (as in fact there is to-day) an immense pressure upon members of the Representative Body not to act in a representative fashion, but rather to use all the power and influence they possess to support, not those who have elected them, but those from whom they expect benefits.

It is obvious that in any state of society some one or other must be intrusted with the business of practical executive administration. It is equally obvious that no man can reasonably be expected to take on such a task as a mere hobby. He must be paid for it; it must be his means of livelihood, in a word, his profession. To that there is, in the abstract, no more objection than there is to the profession of Doctor, House-Agent, or Butcher, provided always that the employer of such a man— i.e., the Community—has as full a control over him as a man has over the tradesmen he employs. A butcher does not supply you with such meat as he may think will suit your health or personal efficiency, but with such meat as you demand. So long as the expert administrator confines himself to endeavouring to satisfy his clients as the butcher does and makes no pretence to an authority superior to that of his clients, he is harmless and may be exceedingly useful. It is impossible to deny that the details of administration in a modern state are so complex that the sheer routine work of administration does, and must, involve a degree of special knowledge to which the ordinary citizen cannot and would not choose to attain. So does the trade of a bootmaker. I cannot make a pair of boots. I have to ask a bootmaker to make them for me. But—and this is the essential point—I am the judge of the pair of boots when made: if they do not fit me I reject them and dismiss my bootmaker. I am in no way deterred from following this course by the assurance that the bootmaker is "an expert" or that he is "more advanced" than I, or by any other of the pretences by which oligarchy is being once more foisted upon the people.

The great problem, then, is that of the control of the necessary professional administrator by the General Will. It is, I admit, an exceedingly difficult problem, and for the present I can see no solution save the old expedient of a representative assembly- defective as I know that expedient to be. I have often wondered whether some one would not one day hit upon a method of extending to general politics the much more really democratic method of the Common Jury. I have often had a fancy, for example, for a Second Chamber constituted upon that principle—a name chosen by lot from the voting list of every constituency, attendance to be compulsory, and a reasonable and equal remuneration to be granted to every person compelled to attend. I am quite confident that such a chamber would represent the General Will a great deal better than either the House of Lords or the House of Commons has1 done in the past, and would make very short work (to the great satisfaction of the mass of the population) of much legislation that has passed with ease and with "the consent of all parties" through our present Parliament.

But I do not pretend to have any such scheme ready for practical advocacy; and so for the present we must rest content with the representative system, doing, at the same time, all that we can to prevent its abuse, to mitigate its inevitable failings, and, above all, to keep it continually controlled by the direct expression of the General Will. Let us first draw as clear a distinction as we can between the inevitable defects of representation and the accidental evils to which it does make it quite intolerable in this country. Take the latter first.

In England to-day representative government suffers from two prime evils. First, the representative assembly is not independent of the executive, and therefore cannot control it. Secondly, it is not freely chosen by the people, nor does it derive its effective mandate from the people; but its composition is selected and its programme devised by those very professional politicians upon whose actions it is supposed to exist as a check. I have already adumbrated my view of the first necessary step in dealing with the former of the two evils. The members of the representative assembly should in no case whatsoever be allowed to become administrators paid by the Executive. Let them be paid, by all means, for the services they render as representatives to the people by the people whom they represent, and let the people who pay them see that they are really represented. But let them all be paid exactly alike, whether they support or oppose the Executive, and let there be a strict rule that no one shall within, say, ten years of sitting in the legislature receive public money in any form from the Executive. In that case, if commercial motives enter in any way into their calculations, they will find that their interest lies primarily in standing well with their constituents.

Their constituents can deprive them of their salaries; the "Government" cannot. On the lowest motive, therefore, it will be better for them to please those who elect them than those whom they are elected to control. What, then, will become of "the Ministry"? It will disappear. The professional head of a department—strictly excluded from the assembly—will remain. The popular assembly elected to control that permanent head will remain. Probably the assembly will find it convenient to divide itself into Committees for this purpose, though such Committees should have no more than investigatory and advisory powers. The decision must rest with the assembly itself. But the "Minister"—that is, the Professional Politician who has entered Parliament by pretending to represent some body of electors and has consented for a salary not to represent them, but to represent instead the Caucus that pays him— for him the new Democracy will have no use. But when you have liberated the Representative Assembly from the control of that little group of Professional Politicians which is commonly called "The Government," but which I have always preferred to designate more accurately as "The Two Front Benches," you have not, therefore, necessarily made it really responsible to the people. That is, you have not achieved Democracy. It must be insisted upon again that, though the present political regime in England intensifies all the evils and dangers of Representative Government while depriving it of all its uses, yet there are evils, there are dangers which are not created by the regime, and which would not necessarily cease with the overthrow of that regime. They are found in America and elsewhere where that particular regime is unknown. They are inherent in the nature of Representative Institutions themselves. Every body of men cut off from the ordinary life of their fellow-citizens and vested with special powers tends, unless popularly controlled, to become an Oligarchy. We can see both in history and at the present time examples of assemblies internally free but irresponsible, and governing according to their own interests or prejudices, without regard to popular mandate. The Grand Council of Venice was such an assembly, and the English House of Commons in the eighteenth century; to a certain extent the French Chamber is such to-day.

Against this peril the only real security is a vigilant and instructed popular opinion. With such an opinion always goes an extreme distrust of the representative, a feeling that he will always cheat you if he can, and a determination that he shall not be allowed to do so. Walt Whitman saw very far indeed into the truth when he set down as one of the conditions of his ideal State that the people should be "always ready to rise up against the never-ending audacity of Elected Persons." The chief change needed, then, is, it must be admitted, a change in the popular psychology. Nevertheless, there are changes in machinery which would be the necessary accompaniments of such a change, and which may do a great deal to make it easier. And here I come to methods which the peculiar independence of the several States of the Union has already enabled America to put to the test, in certain cases, upon which an American writer may be better qualified to write than myself. Chief among these is the re-creation of the electoral unit as a thing capable of political initiative. What I mean is this We say that Slocum sent Sir Josiah Gudge to Parliament to carry out a certain "programme." As a matter of fact, Slocum had nothing to do either with choosing Sir Josiah or with framing his programme. It could have nothing to do with either as things stand even if the special corruption incidental to the English political system was removed, for Slocum has no organised and articulate political existence. In a word, it has no initiative, and has to take its programme from Sir Josiah, and Sir Josiah from whatever Unknown Powers may have decreed his candidature. It is obvious that if we are to have democracy this state of things must be ended. Whatever body of men elect, our representatives must be organised for collective action, must be articulate, must be capable of framing their own demands, of choosing, controlling, and, if need be, punishing their servants. I am inclined to think that it will eventually be found that a better system of representation can be obtained by representing men by their guilds or trades rather than by their localities. The geographical method of election really dates back to a time when small local units, still essentially in the phase of the Normal Social Life, had a natural homogeneity. They have no such homogeneity to-day. The State no longer consists of a collection of village communes; nor is the type of State the government of which we are here discussing conceived as being organised in such a fashion. But the State must always consist of groups of citizens co-operating for certain necessary social purposes, and it is to the Guilds, which will naturally, under a system of co-operative production, spring up throughout industrial worlds, that I should look to find the Electoral Unit of the future. I do not wish to trespass upon the subject of industrial organisation, which is dealt with in this volume by other and abler pens; but it is so essential to Democracy that the Electing Body should be one with large powers of control over its own affairs that I should be very glad to see these Guilds invested with considerable powers of self-government under the general supervision of the National Executive.

Of course, it would not do to give the coal-miners, for example, irresponsible control of the coal-fields. The coal-fields must be national property; on that we agree. But I do not see why all details of management, such matters as the hours of labour, provision against accident, and the like, should not be settled directly by the organised workers concerned. If such powers were vested in these Guilds, you would start with the immense advantage, from the democratic point of view, of an electing body accustomed to debate, to decisive action, and to the control of its own affairs, which would be able to thrash out the instructions to be given to its delegate, and to send him to the representative assembly with a real mandate derived from themselves. Incidentally it should be remarked that such an infusion of reality into the operations of the electoral unit would go far to meet such cases as that of the United States, where the evils arise, not from the oligarchical control of a small clique, but rather from the omnipotence of a political Machine subject to no real popular control. And a further check upon the development of a two-party system in which there is no wider alternative than the chances of two candidates may, perhaps, be found in some such method of voting as Proportional Representation affords. Of course it is essential that the control of the Electing Body over the delegates should be absolute. Two checks on their action would greatly help to accomplish this. The first check is the Recall. Not only should elections be reasonably frequent, but a certain proportion of the Electors should at any time have the right to demand a general poll on the question of whether the delegate was or was not carrying out the mandate of his constituents. Should the vote go against him, the delegate would have to resign, and another would be elected in his place. The mere threat of this action would probably be enough in most cases to prevent the delegate from shamelessly and continually violating his trust, as is so often done to-day.

The second check is the Referendum accompanied by the Initiative. How powerful a weapon even under the present degrading political conditions is the popular plebiscite may be perceived by noting the horror with which the Professional Politicians regard it, and the panic which seized them when one of their own number was imprudent enough to mention it a couple of years ago. But for the Referendum to be a really effective democratic weapon it must be capable of being put into force, not merely on the initiative of the legislature itself or on any section of it, but on the initiative of a fixed proportion of the Electors. Indeed, for my part, I am disposed to think that under the freer political system such as I have sketched no substantial alteration of the laws should be passed without a direct appeal to the popular will. To those who are incapable of looking beyond the corruptions and futilities of modern politics such a pronouncement will doubtless seem absurd. But we are presupposing that those corruptions and futilities are at an end; and when they are at an end there will be no need whatsoever for all this plethora of legislation which we have come to think of as something inevitable. When one comes to consider it in the abstract it is really rather absurd that a nation should have to keep some six hundred men busy for nine months in the year at the interminable task of continually altering its laws. If just laws can once be established, it is reasonable to suppose that for some considerable time at any rate they will prove adequate Doubtless from time to time some unforeseen change in economic or other conditions may necessitate modifications, but I do not look forward in the Great State to the unending legislation of our own time—a legislation which owes its necessity at best to the need for patching up a system in process of active decay, and at worst to the requirements of the Party "Programme" and, what is much more important, the Party War Chest No doubt the change from the present basis of society to a juster and healthier one will mean a good deal of drastic law-making—and I suspect a good deal of law-breaking also—but, once the change accomplished, I should expect a vital alteration of the laws under which citizens are to live to be almost as rare a thing in the State of the Future as it was in the settled and happy communities of the past. Such are a few of the comparatively rough and crude suggestions that I would make for the democratic organisation of the State of the future.

They pretend to be nothing more than an outline, and even as an outline they will doubtless require much modification. Every democrat must feel a certain disinclination to lay down hard-and-fast conditions for the future, if only for this reason, that, if his democratic faith be genuine, he desires that the people should have, not the form of government he likes, but the form of government they themselves like. That is what has always made me dislike answering detailed questions as to how this or that would be done "under Socialism." I may have thought of a very ingenious answer, but it does not follow that it is the answer that my fellow-citizens will give. And it is for them, not for me, to pronounce the ultimate decision. Securus judicat orbis terrarum.

From the book "Socialism and the Great State" published in 1912 by Harper & Brothers

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