Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Power, representation and the state

There is now a competition between the Tories and some members of the New Labour cabinet about how to “redistribute power” in a bid to defuse an historic political crisis that shows no sign of abating.

Tory leader David Cameron is today setting out a series of proposals about changing the relationship between MPs and the government, including the idea of fixed-term parliaments, while Alan Johnson, the health secretary and a front-runner to succeed Gordon Brown, is advocating a form of proportional representation when it come to voting.

Cameron, astutely, put his finger on the key question in an article in The Guardian, where he wrote: “The anger, the suspicion and the cynicism – yes with politics and politicians, but with so much else besides – are the result of people's slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them, and over much that determines whether or not they'll live happy and fulfilling lives."

But what neither Cameron nor any other establishment politician is going to ever acknowledge is that this has always been the relationship between people and power in Britain and all other capitalist countries adorned with a representative democratic political system. Representation as a form of politics was designed from the outset to act as a barrier to and not as an access to power.

Representation as a modern political concept has its origins in the thinking of James Madison, one of the key architects of the American constitution. Concerned with the danger, to him, of “majority tyranny”, he wrote that representation provides a mechanism

to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

So Madison’s objective was clear – to avoid decisions “pronounced by the people themselves”. Instead, they would be “represented”. Representation is, therefore, a transfer of power to others, its alienation. This seemingly voluntary giving up of power enabled then allowed the ruling classes to consolidate their rule through the construction of specialist institutions which evolved into the capitalist state, of which Parliament (and Congress in the US) is a subordinate part.

What Cameron and others are talking about are some cosmetic alterations to formal procedures in order to continue to disguise this essential truth about the nature of power in capitalist society: that ordinary people have no power – and can never access it – so long as the state continues to sustain the basic relationships of capitalism, whereby the rich and the powerful make the key decisions. This is the material basis for the alienation in society that Cameron refers to, which is reflecting itself in politics so sharply precisely because of the collapse of confidence in the capitalist economic and financial system.

In Unmasking the State, we put forward a series of proposals for a new, transitional democratic state which would replace the existing institutions and actually give ordinary people direct access for power so long denied them. Some of these ideas are summed up in our People’s Charter for Democracy, which we urge you to sign and help build the momentum for the revolutionary transfer of power itself to the majority.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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