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Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!

 

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