Translated from a text by Freerk Huisken
Letter: Democracy and “true democracy”
“... I think we agree on our criticism of the ruling democratic system. Except that this system doesn’t have anything to do with true popular government. Somehow, I think your criticism is misguided, if you want to say something against democracy.”
I doubt that we really agree. But first things first: on the one hand, it could be irrelevant what you want to call the form of government which ensures that the citizens elect a government that they regularly entrust their affairs to, despite being constantly at odds with those who are elected and their policies for good reasons. Put “parliamentary system” or “ruling political system” or democracy in quotation marks. One thing, however, is clear: this political system has governed the citizens here for decades and, for all the complaining by the citizens about what the administrations are doing to them, it has at the same time established itself as a political system that is always appreciated by voters, making it unassailable. There is – by the way, always with parliamentary majority approval – the 5% clause that ties admission to the election to commitment to the constitution, and parties – such as, e.g., the former Communist Party of Germany – are banned even when they are only suspected of wanting to do something against the “free democratic constitutional system.” This system is regarded in politics and public, in schools and science as the epitome of civilized values. My critical remarks are aimed at this political system, which every four years enlists the citizens to empower a government to rule over them. Do we agree on this?
The way you start your criticism – and this is the other thing – is particularly wrong: You accuse the ruling democratic system of not being something else. It’s pointless to label it as a mistaken deviation from an ideal of democracy; and indeed for several reasons: firstly, because the ruling form of democracy is thereby presumed to be something different, better, more in line with the people than it actually is; secondly, because this can be interpreted as an invitation to the politicians to remember “true democracy”; thirdly, because the politicians are assumed to be laboring under a misunderstanding of their own form of rule, and actually to have no political interest of their own in the really existing democratic parliamentarism; and fourthly, because with this negative definition – the ruling democracy is not the true democracy – you spare everything this positively represents from any critical evaluation, that is to say: what the bourgeois political system aims at here. To put it another way: your claim that we agree on the criticism of the ruling democratic system is at the same time qualified with the judgment that this is not true democracy. That’s why you can forget my criticism in the end: “...somehow I think your criticism is misguided.”
Your construction of an ideal democracy is based on the constitution, according to which democracy is the “rule of the people.” Take this literally: what should the people rule over? Over themselves? How is one and the same subject, the personally united people, supposed to be the one who exercises power and at the same time a subject who suffers? At first glance, this sounds like illogical nonsense, and it is, objectively speaking. But you probably didn’t mean your ideal that literally.
As a critical person – I have to assume, because you don’t elaborate – you translate true democracy into the image of citizens who want to have a say in their own living conditions, especially in their own living spheres, who want to delegate competent colleagues to represent their interests and to provide appropriate means to adequately carry them out in practice. So far so .... clear. But imagine that political-economic are conditions like this: here, wage earners organize their interest in more pay, job security, and better working conditions, while employers want to carry out and realize the exact opposite interests. Imagine the relationships between landlord and tenant, taxpayer and tax collector, enemies of refugees and friends of refugees, etc. In our beautiful society, the interests of the citizens exclude each other according to class position, vested rights, and positions of power, and sometimes also according to political points of view. And the fact that every wage increase has to be fought for, and that entrepreneurs are occasionally extorted by strikes, does not exactly show a consensual pursuit of citizens’ wishes either. Your ideal of democracy, to put it politely, does not at all fit the ruling economy, let’s call it the free market economy or capitalism. Yet in contrast to the real existing one, you consider it the perfect form of political system for this society. In other words, your image of democracy is based on the idea of people pursuing interests that are discussed and determined collectively in a social network based on the division of labor; an idea that you will find difficult to find in capitalism with its class conflicts and other types of antagonisms.
I suspect that you’ve fallen for what people in this country have learned to think of by the term “people,” but which does not apply to what “the people” is. The people is not a community of people of the same standing and perhaps even somehow of the same nature, as the talk about the national identity of the members of the people – by no means only in the right wing camp – would have us believe. A people is first and foremost an abstraction, an abandonment of all the economic and political contradictions that prevail here. Seen in this light, this imagined communal identity of a “people” does not exist in reality. Anyone who gets involved in “high level politics” with the first person plural, the great “we” in the name of all other citizens, should take notice of this – of course, always only ideologically.
However, the people does really exist in one respect, which is not at all abstract. But this reality is miles away from your popular ideal, and even turns it upside down. What unites all members of a national people is the very nationality that is imposed on them. They are not Germans by choice, but by legal act. And this includes at the same time the submission of all members of the people to the rule of law. Regardless of income, social status, or political opinion, citizenship means that the law, which is enforced through violence, is equally valid for everyone as an inviolable guideline for all their freely-set efforts to “pursue happiness” in life. It is not a result of freedom and equality that these efforts then work out very differently, and it is not a result of everyone being equally obliged to respect private property, but a result only of how much private property they have themselves; in other words: how the various members of the people are separated – not at all abstractly – by property. Then they are “employers,” landlords and landowners who, in everyday life, increase their income at the expense of people without property, “employees,” tenants and renters. In the next election, they are then called upon – just like at every World Cup – to once again fill the ballot boxes equally, freely, and secretly as the united people. The people of the state thus exist in reality, but only as the mass of citizens defined as citizens of the state and subsumed by law under the ruling political purposes. It is at the same time not a contradiction that the mass of citizens are subordinate in democracy, but the very joke of the democratic order of this class society. The different free uses made by the citizens of their respective material resources creates growth, fills the state budget, and reproduces the class antagonism which is reflected year after year not just in poverty and unemployment statistics.
Seen in this light, “government of the people,” which is laid down in the constitution and idealized by you, does not make much sense. If you take a closer look at the functioning democracy, then the people do indeed appear twice; but not in personal union. The law governing elections allows every member of the people who has been declared eligible to vote for a government which then rules the people who have just voted in the “name of the people”: everything the government decides is then considered to be the will of the people – after all, with their vote, the people have authorized it to make decisions. This distinctive doubling into an empowering people and a government that is empowered in relation to them and that carries out its freedom to make decisions independently for a period of time is of course not decided by the people, but is presented to them as the form of government that suits their interests, namely by representatives of the national cause. It must of course rely on the majority of the people subjecting themselves to this circus of freedom. And they do. However, declining voter turnout and “political disillusion” are carefully recorded. Transitions to practical criticism of democracy from the left and – unfortunately, more often today – from the right are not yet drastic. The elected rulers have everything under control with their monopolized legal power in this country, and who they use it against is no great mystery in view of the economic and political contradictions that have been hinted at: a lavishly equipped judicial system bears witness to the fact that, for many members of the people, the free use of their economic resources does not produce the desired results. This manifests itself in a large number of small thieves and a smaller number of big thieves, but above all in widespread discontent. When citizens then express their disappointment in their government, they can be sure that they are not just recognized by politicians. They are encouraged to express their discontent in a democratically appropriate form: Every four years, in free, equal, and secret elections, citizens can express their displeasure with “bad governance.” They translate their notorious discontent into a ballot mark and thus turn it into consent to being ruled. In this way, rule does indeed regularly emanate from the people, who then continue to be governed in their own name.
Democracy, through which political life is organized here via the exercise of power, is not based on a misunderstanding of those in government. Rather, democracy represents the organization of a rule that fits capitalism quite perfectly. And this is the only way that popular rule exists. People who want to get rid of the economic conflicts that make the lives of the masses such an ordeal and want to mutually organize the conditions for meeting needs really have better things to do than re-establishing a violent rule over themselves.
2. “... a lot made sense to me. But I have two objections to your answer. What makes you think that I am pursuing an ideal democracy and thus retracting my criticism of the ruling political system? And secondly, I don’t share your view that citizens turn discontent into approval with their ballot mark, as you write. They are still discontent. They are not cheering for the government now.”
On the first objection: you are differentiating the democratic system that exists here from your idea of a better democracy. In doing so, you are constructing a common ground, namely that between a bad and a good realization of the same system, with the same democratic goals. You thus declare the real existing democracy to be a mere failure of what it actually is at its core in this country: your true rule of the people. In this way, your negative criticism ultimately ennobles precisely the system you want to replace with a better one. In other words, if you consider how people can best organize their lives together, you would quickly come to the conclusion that a central prerequisite needed for this is, namely, production relations in which they do not stand in absolute conflict with one another, as characterizes capitalist production relations. At the same time, this would be a judgement that a democracy, which uses its political system to functionally organize this absolute conflict for its national interest, can’t be your concern. You can see from this consideration that you are so attached to a positive value judgement about democracy – and also about the people – that you can think of nothing else but democracy when you start criticizing the prevailing democracy.
On your second objection: of course, the voters’ discontent with their government does not disappear when they – take this literally – submit their vote. Many of them even go to the polls with the idea that it won’t matter anyway. What I meant was this: in the act of voting, they cede practical responsibility for their concerns about rent, health insurance, job security, etc., to the government. They may think whatever they like: their act speaks volumes. It is a declaration of consent to the politicians, that they alone now have to take care of the citizens’ concerns. The voter has a four-year intermission. In the meantime, he is allowed to cultivate his long-lasting discontent, which is constantly being nurtured anew in everyday life, with a lot of grumbling. This – and only this – is what the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of opinion is for.