A Paradox – Inclusive Elites II: Entitled Segregation, Research Time, 07/11/2016

Continued from previous post . . . It's a fundamental democratic concept of democracy – the leader of your government is not your master, but your servant. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s something we must accept if we’re to be thorough-going democrats.

Rulers and governments serve the people. And any obedience people give to governments, we do for pragmatic reasons or out of respect for our rulers humbly submitting to our ultimate authority.

Democratic philosophy, particularly following from Rousseau, thinks
of elections as expressing the will of the people in the actions of the
representative. But too often, elections are seen as ways to legitimate
an autocratic rule of law or justify the rule of a strongman, not to
point any fingers or post any pictures.
Having to run a country always creates tensions with the core concept of democracy. You need rule of law – popular obedience to rules – for any institution to run smoothly. Including civic and welfare institutions that manifest and guard the freedom and material dignity of a democratic society.

Yet it's always very easy for people who hold power from their positions in state institutions to gain a sense of entitlement – that their expertise in running the state justifies our obedience. Most dangerously, people in such positions can feel entitled to unquestioned obedience.

This is why we put extra obligations on those who hold power through democratic state institutions, in comparison to people who hold power in private institutions like large companies.

It’s difficult to do this with bureaucracies, but it often works through transparency. Like the Sunshine List in Ontario, that lists the name and salary of everyone on a government payroll who makes more than $100,000 per year.

Now, it's much easier to put obligations on our political leaders – we elect them, forcing them to reapply for their jobs to the votes of the populace ever few years.

I want to leave aside questions of representation. Representing the will of the people has been, throughout the history of democratic theory, the primary function of elections. But the metaphysics of how the whole process works is frankly a little shaky at best.

Ultimately, an elected official is one person who must channel the wills of thousands, millions, or billions of people if this metaphysics is to make sense. Ballot boxes, parliaments, and press conferences just don’t have this kind of power.

The presumption that citizens have an obligation to obey their
governments isn't a democratic principle, accourding to Jacques
Rancière, but the justification of a police state. One powerful film I saw
at SYFF about the terror of that principle is Suleima, an animated
short that dramatized the life of a real Syrian democracy activist.
No, elections are fundamentally about reminding an elite that their jobs depend on fealty to the wishes of the people. Because elected officials are an elite. They’re party activists, who are well-connected to all these institutions, and who have achieved enough success in their private careers to be tapped by a party apparatus to run for elected office.

Elections are the most intense methods we have of keeping institutionally powerful elites from getting too drunk on power, keeping them accountable to the public. Elections are the most effective means of enforcing accountability.

In most cases, of course. At least that’s the ideal. In all too many cases, elections are just seen as rubber stamps on the power of elites. An appearance of democracy and accountability so that an elite can continue to walk all over people’s rights and freedoms.

You can have elections in a police state. Even fair elections where the governing party stands a regularly decent chance of losing. Whether or not you have a secret police, you’re living under a police state if the bureaucratic and democratic office holders expect the people who obey them. And enforce that obedience.

Working with the Syria Film Festival has introduced me to a lot of good friends who have the real, lived experience of having grown up in a full-on police state. So while I’ve studied for a while that dynamic of enforced obedience in the abstract, my friendships over the last two years has taught me a lot about its visceral life.

Reading thinkers like Rancière, Mouffe, and Negri has given me a thicker understand of what democracy and freedom are fundamentally about – the relationship of power between a person and a government institution. And what the democratic impulse and idea does to the stability of that power relationship.

It blows that relationship to chaos. A chaos that we want. . . . To Be Continued

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