Exclusion can be Democratic

Is it always more democratic to involve everyone? I want to argue ‘no’. Rather, I think that where a power imbalance in one arena already exists, the most democratic thing to do in another arena is to weight things so as to give more power to those who are at the bottom of the imbalance.

For example, I would argue that a political system that gave formal political power only to the propertyless is more democratic than one which gives equal formal power to the propertyless and the propertied (though the latter is at least more democratic than the historically more common form, which gives power only to the propertied). That is, the dictatorship of the proletariat is more democratic than universal suffrage.

(Well, it would be anyway, because it is a system of direct, not ‘representative’ democracy, but even independently of that…)

To argue this I want to poke into the notion of ‘democracy’. What does it mean? It means ‘rule by the people’. But who are ‘the people’? How is this category drawn? Surely, it is drawn by looking at who is being ruled – for example, ‘the people’ for the election of the UK government doesn’t include people living in New Zealand, because they are not subject to the UK government (though it should probably include people living in, say, Afghanistan…)

But then the formula becomes ‘rule by the ruled’. And that’s a sort of anti-rule. What I mean by that is that the whole idea of a relationship between one who rules and one who is ruled gets subverted if it’s the same person in both roles. Self-rule is the point at which rule stops being rule.

So ‘democracy’ means not just a particular idea about who rules, but a general opposition to rule – an attempt, as far as is to possible, to minimise the actual ruling of some people by others. But in that case it must be against power imbalances: it must be a general principle of seeking equality. In which case in follows neatly that the most democratic thing, where an imbalance of power already exists, is to rectify it.

Of course each of the preceding steps of argument could be disputed, but I think they are reasonable on the face of it. And the conclusion is in a way intuitive and obvious. As communists have rarely tired of pointing out, formal political equality becomes meaningless when economic power (and with it donations, bribes, media, education, and everything else) lie in the hands of one class. The only really equal contests then will be contests between factions of the ruling class – which is exactly what we get.

On the other hand, if that economic power in the hands of one class was opposed to a political power entirely and exclusively in the hands on another class, and if that other class was organised, numerous, and self-aware enough to use it effectively, then things would be a lot more equal. They would also be a lot more tense, of course, and the equal contest much more aggressive.

But as far as democracy goes, the dictatorship of the proletariat (which as I’ve said, is the economic aspect of an idea, the exclusive union of the powerless, which can be generalised to other areas) is the most democratic form of society, short of communism itself.

10 Responses to “Exclusion can be Democratic”

  1. charliemarks Says:

    It is a testament to the perversion of language that the phrase “democratic capitalism” is used seriously to describe our society…

  2. Sophia Marsden Says:

    May I ask what is so great about democraticness?
    It seems to me like an ideal for its own sake.
    I know this is off topic, but I just …I genuinely do not get it.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well, the value of democracy – or really, the value of equality, is a much broader topic than this fairly modest post. If I had to summarise, I’d say:

    1) group decisions will approach to the optimum as the distribution of power approaches to equality, and conversely as inequality (tyranny) grows, so will the use of group resources be skewed towards minor goods for some (power, luxury, etc.) and away from major goods for others (food, safety, etc.).

    2) a relation of equality is a relation of freedom – neither side can compel the other to act substantially against their wishes, so they will act most voluntarily. And people are better off when freer for myriad reasons.

    3) equality puts each person in the positions of both master and slave, rather than letting one person be principally master (what they want = what happens) and one principally slave (what someone else wants = what they do). I think this is the best setting for personal growth and fulfillment, a balance between autonomy and dependence on others, better than either in excess.

  4. Sophia Marsden Says:

    1) To some extent it might be the case that group resources could be too skewed to what you call “major goods”. I mean the positive experiences of generations through getting to see the Sistine Chapel or listen to William Byrd… if someone said to me right now “Either you die or no-one ever gets to listen to Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices again… then I am really not sure what I’d do, but I… almost rather hope I’d choose to die. Also I am not sure group decisions would actually in reality optimise the way you suppose, has there actually been any studies on that?

    2) Would you tell those reasons. I don’t know that it’s just a given, certainly not a universal given.

    3) I think this is reification to a massive degree. The realities of human relationships are far too complex to be so easily summed up.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    1) resources could be too skewed to what you call “major goods”
    Right, so the issue here is between investment and consumption. Certain sorts of things – great art of scientific advances or industrialisation – can only be acheived by sacrificing the current consumption, up to and including the very lives, of many people, but the utility they generate over time outweighs that. It’s a dubious thought (how do we decide that the Sistine Chapel is so beautiful that it’s worth death?) but it’s equally dubious to deny it outright (how do we decide that it’s not?).

    So instead of straightforwardly confronting it, I’ll try to deflect it by pointing out that consumption is also a form of investment in human capital. Starving people, homeless people, illiterate people, cannot do science or art, cannot advance their society (as much – obviously there are rare exceptions). So a society that focused on meeting everybody’s basic needs first would have a lot more resources available for ‘investment’.

    Even if this isn’t accepted in general, I think it must be for our current age, when we could quite clearly meet basic needs and still have huge resources available for research, development, investment, etc.

    “I am not sure group decisions would actually in reality optimise the way you suppose”
    The main idea I’d refer to is the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. £10 means a hell of a lot more to someone who’s starving than it does to me, who am not. To come at it from another angle, if there’s a group who can be killed without having any power to raise objections, they will be killed much more lightly.

    In terms of empirical data, the issue of ‘equality of power’ is so hard to judge that simple exerimental testing is difficult. But I’d point to such things as the fact that countries with democracy and a free press, famines are very rare – for example, India had periodic famine sunder the British up until 1943, but stopped after independence, while China, without those things, had the world’s largest in 1960. Conversely, the world as a whole is in the middle of an ongoing famine, despite quite adequate food, because of the inequality of purchasing power.

    “Would you tell those reasons.”
    Ha, so neither “equality” nor “freedom” is a sufficiently strong agreement-button for you. Very well, I will do my best to justify the last three centuries of political innovation.

    At the most basic, I suppose the value of freedom is, firstly, that other people don’t know as much about you as they think, and that you are the best judge of where, when, how, and with whom to live out your life. That applies to political rulers and it applies to social norms ruling individuals. Perhaps we differ in the confidence we have in the likeliehood of someone else’s decision about your life being based on rational knowledge or on their personal issues and worldview.

    And secondly, that being active and doing things because you chose to is central to self-realisation. Admittedly this is a rather fuzzy claim, and it connects up with

    “The realities of human relationships are far too complex to be so easily summed up”

    I guess I think that sometimes there are general truths. I don’t dispute that relationships are enormously complex, but the complexity of the weather, though it stops us predicting it beyond a short way into the future, doesn’t prevent us from framing general truths which are by-and-large, all-in-all, and on-the-whole.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think I should add, regarding the first point: it made me very angry. If you think, in the abstract rarefied ether, ‘well, the value of the pyramids over the years is clearly greater than the value of the whole lives of the slaves who were eaten up by them’, it seems almost reasonable. But when you bring it down to ‘hey you! I and my refined tastes are so important that we will happily destroy everything you hold dear, in total self-satisfaction, against your will’…it’s odious. Someone who could say that in practice, I would be outraged by them, disgusted. I would think: how dare you make that decision for other people? How dare you decide that a pretty ceiling is worth more than someone else? Who the hell do you think you are?

    But I didn’t play that up because I recognise that framing an argument in the ether isn’t the same as acting it out in reality, and that sometimes emotional reactions distract more than they clarify. But I thought I should register that response.

  7. Sophia Marsden Says:

    I admit I was rather disturbed myself when I first realised I felt like that.
    When I was watching a documentary about the bombing of Dresden and when they were talking about the death toll I just sat there disinterested, but when they mentioned the destruction of irreplaceable books I sat up in horror shouting “no!”.

    I think it is always a moral wrong to kill someone. I am not sure that I would extend that to it always being an absolute evil that someone dies. Obviously the people in Dresden were killed.

    But if I have 200 quid and I spend it on having a pretty painting commissioned, I don’t think that is evil because I could have used it to buy food to give to the starving. Lives are ultimately a lot more transient than paintings or books or buildings.
    If I die now, well I have had a good enough life so far. 22 years is more time than I really “deserved” because no-one deserves to exist at all. I am immensely privileged to have lived as long as I have. I might like to live longer, but in the end, we all die eventually, now, in 20 years, it won’t make half as much difference as the destruction of an irreplaceable book.

  8. Sophia Marsden Says:

    On the “people don’t know as much about you individual choice etc” reason…
    I don’t think they have to. Social organisation is not really about “me”. It evolved. It is the way it is, or it was the way it was, because it worked, bits that didn’t work quickly died out, bits that did persisted. That’s the value of tradition.
    But then …yea these last three centuries, everything has changed so quickly, that I am not sure that’s true anymore. It’s like we are just riding crests of innovation, but there is no hope for stability ever again.

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It is the way it is…because it worked”
    But what’s “worked”? Worked just means, it was able to reproduce and maintain itself. That’s consistent with vast amounts of needless death and suffering, and immense untapped potential. Tradition tells us about how to get stability, sure (though as you say its lessons have become less easily applicable in the modern age) but stability is only one good among many. Principally it has told us how to make oppressive elite rule stable, how to keep structures of exploitation and murder stable.

  10. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think there’s three issues I want to take up here. Firstly, does the wrong of killing imply the evil of death, secondly, are you evil for spending your money a certain way, and thirdly, will your death be as important as an irreplaceable book.

    So 1) I think the distinction between ‘killing’ and simply ‘letting there be death’ is relative to the position from which you’re making a decision. The more power and influence you have over the course of events, the more you’re in a position of responsibility for other people, the more they come together. So they will be very close from the overall social position, of the group, which has the supreme power and the position of greatest responsibility. From that position, causing it to be the case that someone dies is very close to killing them.

    Relatedly, 2) the issue with your £200 is that you’re not in a position of much responsibility, nor do you have a great amount of power over the flow of resources and so forth: you’re just a person trying to get by. So you are proportionately very little evil. You are a bit; I am a bit. Almost everyone is ‘evil’ to some extent, in that our social system forces us to become complicit in its injustices, the more so the more power and responsibility we have. I don’t think anyone can claim clean hands.

    But if the issue is 3), that you really think a pretty painting is more valuable than a life, even your own life, I guess I’d have to ask where that value comes from, if not from the insight or pleasure or emotion that it will contribute to other human lives. And I’m very sceptical that any but the most exceptional of books will give people so much as to add up to the whole of existence for one person.


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