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Banal Appreciations of Democracy

If there's one thing that Rob Ford's temporary removal from office has taught me, it is that so many pundits believe that a crude notion of democracy is the highest good. [For those readers outside of Toronto or Canada, Rob Ford is the conservative mayor of this city who was ordered to leave office at the end of 2012 due to a breach in conflict of interest but who was reinstated at the end of January after winning his appeal.] That is, there is often this a priori assumption that an unqualified notion of democracy––based only on the electoral equation of 50% + 1––is the most important moral value, and it is this value that separates capitalist democracies from all the terrible "totalitarianisms" that we have been taught to fear as evil and undemocratic.

Directly following the 2011 court decision that was intended to push Ford out of office (he spent municipal money on the football team he coaches, then he voted to uphold this decision in council after being warned that this would violate the conflict of interest by-laws), innumerable columnists and liberal commentators began complaining about how "democracy was violated" by this decision.  What was most amusing was the predominant tendency to qualify this fear of democratic violation with a banal "I am Rob Ford's biggest critic, but…" or "I despise Ford's politics, but still…" and a whole host of attempts to argue that, while me might not agree with Ford's politics, we can at least agree that he was voted into office by the people and that his removal by a court of law undermined the will of the people and thus democracy itself!

Rob Ford in regalia.

Leaving aside the fact that a large percentage of Torontonians never bothered to vote for anyone in the first place, or that the anti-Ford liberal vote was itself undermined by a scandal that removed his only real opponent, this uncritical endorsement of democracy has now become such a hallmark of left-liberal discourse that the equivocation democracy=Good has become common sense.  Those of us trained in philosophy might immediately ask what makes democracy "the good", what are the values behind the enshrinement of democracy as "the good", and whether it is possible for democratic practice to violate the very principles upon which it is founded… Here we enter the realm of ethics and value judgments, and it is worth remembering that Plato rejected the equation democracy=good because the democratic practice of 50%+1 had put his teacher to death.

But forget Plato and his problems with Athenian democracy (especially since his solution was elitist idealism), or what we philosophy mongers have to say about democracy.  It is probably better to focus on the obvious problems resulting from this unqualified appreciation of bourgeois democracy and its ballot box.  Ford was originally ordered to step down because he broke the law, and bourgeois democracy always depends on bourgeois legality––though clearly it can be bent, here and there, for millionaire mayors.  Move beyond legality, though, and into the ethical realm that legality [falsely] claims to honestly represent and the irrationality of this democracy-is-the-highest-good discourse becomes even more evident: if Ford was removed because he was guilty of murdering children would those pundits griping about the violation of "democracy" have defended him?  Would this removal undermine the will of "the people"?  Answer: if the ruling class believes that children should be murdered, then it wouldn't be a moral problem in the first place!  This is not an off-hand statement: the murder of children in work-houses in early industrialism was acceptable, even for bourgeois ideologues such as Mill who endorsed suffragism; and children are murdered in similar work-shops, or annihilated as collateral damage, even today.

In any case, we must wonder at this robotic repetition of the values of bourgeois democracy when it makes no sense even according to the values of the pundits who cannot shut-up about it––because it is hard for me to imagine that these same liberals who complained about Ford's temporary removal out of love for "democracy" would be writing the same columns if he was found guilty of child murder.  Of course none of this should matter: those of us who demand a revolutionary situation think the Fords of the world should be prevented from participating in elections in the first place, that if elections persist they should be based on a different constitution, and that maybe there are other notions of democracy that have nothing to do with multiple parties and ballot boxes.

The fact is that the unqualified 50%+1, as the general principle of bourgeois democracy, is a problem in and of itself. [Note: when I say general principle, I mean it applies to a 50%+1 of a popular voting system, a 50%+1 of parliamentary representatives, or some other particular variant.]  Even the left liberal legal theorist Ronald Dworkin, who was not all interested in endorsing some communist principle of democracy, thought that this equation amounted to demagogy.  In his reply to Patrick Devlin's reactionary appeal to "democracy" as the reason why homosexuality should be illegal (Devlin argued, to put it simply, that since the "majority of people" were "disgusted" by homosexuality this constituted some kind of democratic will and thus it was moral to keep it illegal––not that he ever went out and polled the masses to verify this appeal to "democracy"), Dworkin argued that this crude electoral democracy could undermine the democratic principle itself.  After all, a demagogue could convince the people to vote away their right to vote in the first place––just as fascism was voted into government by the people of pre-WW2 Germany––and so to cling to this un-nuanced "will of the people" discourse in the first place was somewhat non-sensical.

Even still, this banal appreciation of democracy remains the refuge of liberal pundits and columnists.  The fact that the electoral circus might be the very space through which fascism emerges is rarely considered: the democratic principle must hold, it is better than chaos, we must defend the "will of the people" when we haven't even bothered to investigate the class composition of the people who vote in the first place!  It's enough that we can count votes, and in the counting decide who has the right to rule and pronounce this right good.

[Just to keep long-time readers "in the know"––and based on popular request––I am in the midst of preparing a new round of "Tao of Mao" comics.  Hopefully the next post will be the first in this limited series.]


  1. Great article as always. Mind if I ask you what you mean by democracy that is more than the 50+A formula?

    1. Easy: a democracy that also includes a constitution. Obviously bourgeois democracies include constitutions: you cannot just vote to murder minorities anymore (though bourgeois law does work to protect certain inequalities), just as you cannot vote to abolish private property. The idea here, as Ronald Dworkin pointed out in his reply to Devlin, is that there needs to be some structural mechanism that promotes the democratic will––that in order to participate in a democratic manner something more than just voting is needed to make democracy function. (The article is worth reading, even if Dworkin is a left liberal.) So democracy in a socialist context would hopefully have a constitutional framework that would stand directly against capitalist restoration (i.e. a constitution that forbids the accumulation of private property, etc.) and for proletarian values.


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