Representative democracy as the centralization of legitimate competition

Written 20 October 2013

Thomas Hobbes’s definition of a commonwealth involves a multitude of people gathering and selecting a sovereign to represent them. This sovereignty, however, is theoretically not an autocracy as the sovereign chosen to rule over the people is bound by contract to act as their representative. He (or it, if it is an assembly) is thus the arbiter of what interests should take precedence in the commonwealth. Even without going into a deep exegesis of Hobbes’s theory of government, it is clear that his prescription of government is inherently unstable since there is no means to check the power of the sovereign and furthermore — and more importantly — groups whose interests have not been enacted will take means to change that.

Representative democracy is thus an attempt to take away this instability caused by autocratic rule. But this was not implemented as a result of rulers’ prudence — interest groups were able to gather and force governmental changes, or even comprehensive revolution. This is largely only made possible through the power of capital, thus giving capitalist or mercantile classes special power. In states where a strong capitalist class has developed, but little reform in the way of legitimate representation of interest groups, the capitalists are able to influence change through their control of capital and finance which the state is in need of. Thus, the state allows for means by which interest groups can check the power of the state in order to prevent any cut-off from much-needed finances. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by establishing assemblies or parliaments.

The only means of checking the power of the central authority is thus left in the hands of the monied classes. While there may be many factions within this assembly, the core interests of capital are still largely united. Nevertheless, these groups bring about reforms which check the power of the state (such as various freedoms and rights) which are extended to the populace as a whole. However, the majority of the non-capitalist classes (I will hereon call them the weak classes, as they have little power), are not represented in the assembly. Class differences become apparent and voices rise among them seeking their own representation. If the assembly refuses to open representation to them, revolution often occurs. Once the weak classes are able to gain representation, they compete with the capitalist classes for their interests (given that they are still allowed to retain influence; the central government would either be abolished or considered obsolete by this point). But, theoretically, it is inherently impossible for this to be an even competition, as the weak classes would far outnumber the capitalist classes.

The capitalist classes will eventually realize that they must reform their behaviors in the new state if they are to survive. Since the weak classes are often less educated and thus less aware of political realities, the capitalist classes devises means by which to influence them. The most basic means is propaganda, by which they wean away some of their representation towards their direction. The various factions within the capitalists classes will all adopt similar behaviors and eventually be able to control large parts of the representation of the weak classes. In order to stem revolt, each faction takes up popular slogans or appeals which benefit the weak classes. Thus, various interest groups are formed with the backing of the capitalist classes which represent the interests of the nation. The result is a fusion of the two main classes around various interests. Thus, it is not unusual to see a party or faction which seeks benefit for the weak classes being led by capitalists.

It should be noted, however, that in these interest groups, the weak classes are not entirely welded with the capitalist class. Oftentimes, the interests of the weak classes change, meaning that the capitalists have to form new propaganda strategies so as to not lose (and also to gain) representation. It can be said that this partnership can be symbiotic relationship, where both classes have their interests fulfilled. However, the weak classes have much more potential power than the capitalist classes, since they are of course much larger. If the weak classes are able to successfully organize, they can operate independently of the capitalist class and perhaps even control it. Until then, however, the capitalist and weak classes are in partnership.

This form of representative democracy thus becomes an arena for the legitimate competition of interests. Parties become representatives of interest groups which compete with their counterparts in order bring about desirable policies. Most other forms of competition are delegitimized as they would bring about instability. An assembly can stem some of the tensions which are seen in societies without a form of representative democracy, where competition over interests are fought on battlefields or through other violent means. Because there are means by which representatives can be replaced, interest groups wait till the next election in order to bring in new representation instead of forcefully bringing about a change.

Class conflict in such a system is largely gone and is replaced by conflicts over interests. Although I have largely avoided pointing to specific examples in the previous paragraphs, it is difficult to explain further without using them. The American political system is dominated by two parties (Republican and Democrat), both of which are heavily funded by the financial community. The main conflicts between the two parties are driven by the various interest groups they represent. A recent case is the conflict over the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare). Although it could fairly be said that this was a conflict over class interests, a large number of the people who opposed Obamacare are those who would benefit from it. The capitalist class which had funded the Republican Party was able to successfully use propaganda to effect their interests, while at the same time defending the social values of the weak classes they represent. However, with changing demographics, the Republican Party is changing its propaganda so as to not become irrelevant.

As should be clear, the theory I have laid out here is for well-developed representative democracies which have existed for a relatively long period of time. Once the system has become stabilized, the theory above states that an assembly will become an arena for legitimate competition over interests and the two main classes will be welded to each other in a symbiotic relationship. This relationship, however, seems to be threatened. As I will explain in later posts, advancing technology and methods of communication may allow the weak classes to be able to effectively organize largely free of the influence of the capitalist classes. Alternatively, advances in technology will allow interest groups to be more united and thus operate independently of the government.