Democratic Essentials

The sweet trolley arrives, with a pavlova-shaped report on the Lisbon Treaty referendum findings.

One of the words that appeals to me most in French is essence. That is, the stuff they fill up their cars with. I have always presumed that the name of the substance refers to the process that resulted in its production. That is, you drill for oil, do all those things you learned about at in Chemistry class and have now forgotten, and what you’re left with at the end of the process is the essence, ready for all your motoring needs.

But also enticing is the possibility that essence means ‘that which is essential to the car’. That is, a car is not really a car without petrol.

In light of this, consider the Irish Times’s leader comment on the aforementioned Lisbon Treaty report.

An indictment of democracy

Why the headline?

Voters have a poor objective knowledge of how the EU works, especially on the No side. This extends well beyond the Lisbon framework to encompass basic understanding of its purposes, membership and functioning. This is a lamentable state of affairs in a modern democracy which shares so many decisions with other states. It is an indictment not only of the Irish referendum campaign, but of the EU, its leadership and its institutions at large.

So, to paraphrase, it is democracy -in the form of the Irish state and its agencies and the European Union as a whole- that has created a situation in which citizens don’t know sufficient amounts about the institutions that serve them in order to make an informed decision on how they ought to work.

But if you have a situation where citizens don’t know enough in order to make informed decisions about the institutions, what this indicates is an absence of democracy, if democracy is to mean anything beyond than a state in which you have periodic elections.

Once you make the formal leap from considering democracy as a process in which people as equals arrive at agreements on how they want things to work, to democracy as a mere form of state, then the danger is that any action taken by institutions of state will be legitimised on the account of the fact that said action is ‘democratic’. One could see the latter on display in arguments made by pro-Lisbon commentators in the aftermath of the treaty. One grimly amusing example was made by Mary Frances McKenna, director of the Business Alliance for Europe, in the Irish Times:

What type of democracy is it that says one country can dictate to 26 countries? What type of democracy is it where one country demands that others respect its vote, but refuses to respect the vote of the other 26 countries? What type of democracy is it that one country tells 26 countries how to ratify its laws? It’s not a democracy at all. What it really is, is dictatorship masquerading as the voice of the dispossessed.

Disenthralling ourselves from the visions of hundreds of millions of Europeans trembling before the diktats of cruel-mouthed Hibernian pseudo-lumpenproletariat, it’s clear that for the commentator, democracy is a form of state. The implication here is that it’s unacceptable for one state -Ireland- to ‘tell’ other states how its laws should be ratified, since the ratification of those laws is -given that the states themselves are ‘democracies’- eo ipso democratic. And how, it follows, can anyone oppose democracy?

But the difficulty in all this ‘but it’s a democracy!’ crack is that grounding the discussion in these terms is to confer an a priori legitimacy on the actions of state institutions, even when citizens may not have had much of a say in the formulation of these actions. That is, it is perfectly possible for what is considered a ‘democracy’ -a state in which citizens vote periodically- to act in ways antithetical to democracy, if we conceive democracy in terms of people as equals arriving at agreements on how they want things to work.

There are lots of ways in which this formal gap or deficit can be legitimated, and one of these is through the act of boring people to death. Mindful of this, I will cut to the conclusion.

The essence of democracy has to be a demos that knows what it’s doing. That is, one that has knowledge available to make sufficiently informed decisions, and representative mechanisms for arriving at agreement on what those decisions ought to be. If either of these is missing from a given political situation, that isn’t an indictment of democracy, any more than a 2CV with no petrol in it is an indictment of automobility.


1 Response to “Democratic Essentials”

  1. 1 euandus November 4, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Fortunately, the EU Parliament will shortly be strengthened. On the other hand, I think the appt of EU officials by state leaders does not contradict democratic principles because those leaders have been elected and repuplican democratic principles don’t function as well directly at a very large scale. If you are interested, here is a related post:

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