Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi
Once upon a time, many years ago, I happened to be in the local leadership faction of a single-issue campaign. The details don’t matter. But one fine day a message arrived from the national office saying they were planning to hold a kind of convention that would vote (unanimously) in favour of the campaign’s position and against the government’s, and asking us to elect our quota of delegates. They gave us to understand that this was envisaged as something broader and more representative than a typical conference, so that just electing the delegates in the usual way at our next local meeting would not be quite appropriate: could we involve the masses?
It would perhaps have been possible to organize real elections. Candidates might not have found it very easy to differentiate themselves from one another during the campaign, given that most people can sit in a hall for a few hours and then vote ‘Yes’ and that nothing more was required; but the attempt could probably have been made. I do not remember that anyone considered it. What one or two of us did, of course, was to sketch out a suitable slate ourselves: a few known names to give it heft, a few less prominent individuals who deserved a pleasant honorific, a few who could be held up as representing important sections or organizations, and absolutely nobody at all from the internal opposition (deliberate, conscious wreckers, every one of them). We then kept the list ready in our back pockets until a good opportunity presented itself.
The opportunity that came along was a protest we had called, to shout at a local MP for voting the wrong way. Two or three hundred people turned out, in slightly indifferent weather, on a patch of open ground outside the building he was using for his event; and we invited the assembled crowd to elect their delegates. At least, one of us read out the list of names and asked for votes in favour. No particular provision was made for alternative nominations, for counting the vote, etc.; hardly anybody had even been warned there might be an election that day, so we did not expect to have to deal with any rival slate.
And I was fairly confident the procedure would work. Not that anyone would really believe it was in any meaningful sense an election—but that we would get the ratification we were after without much fuss. Oh fine, you want to stitch it up, stitch it up then. Doesn’t matter who goes to the convention anyway. The internal opposition might stand to one side, scowling comically like cartoon villains; they were hardly going to disrupt the rally by complaining about a fake election for sinecure positions, and few would support them if they did. I expected the hands to go wearily up—a few at first, then everyone’s. I thought people would put up with it.
But they didn’t: they cheered. They whooped and punched the air. They chanted ‘THIS is WHAT deMO-cra-cy LOOKS LIKE! ’ They applauded; and as the applause died down, they expressed themselves in no uncertain terms about the difference between this democracy and the democracy exemplified by the despised MP—a contrast entirely to the disadvantage of the one who had been elected by a ballot of tens of thousands of people, against other candidates, on a day announced in advance.
It was the joy. The pride they took in it. The unprompted assertion that this empty, pointless exercise was what democracy looks like—even superficially. It left me unsure there is any pseudo-democratic procedure so debased that the people who are allegedly represented by it will not, under some circumstances, actively hail it. Not just tolerate it, but praise it. The thought is an unwelcome one: but if we are serious about democracy it is an issue we will have to grapple with—regardless of whether we chance to find ourselves today among the arrogant and unaccountable leadership, or the querulous and irritating internal opposition, or the easily manipulated masses.
Friday, 19 July 2019