“Saying that a government represents public opinion and public will is the same as saying a part represents the whole.” —Carlo Pisacane
The representative system is a political expedient by means of which the bourgeoisie attempts to realize the principle of popular sovereignty without renouncing its privilege as ruling class.
The idea of popular sovereignty in its modern sense has been the dominant political conception since the revolutions of the 18th century. Before that sovereignty resided in the monarch, in the noble and theocratic classes, which held and exercised it through the right of conquest, through hereditary right and by virtue of a mystical divine investiture—in each case by virtue of brute force.
When the Third Estate demolished the power of the aristocracy and destroyed the myth of the divine right of monarchs by beheading the king, the bourgeoisie, heirs to the wealth that had belonged to the lords of the old regime, looked for a system that would let them legalize the privileges delivered to them thanks in particular to the insurrectional actions of the people, and to justify the exercise of political power without which they would not have been able to maintain their monopoly over such wealth for long. They found such a system by grafting the idea of popular sovereignty to that of representation through which the sovereign people entrust the functions of power to an elected body for shorter or longer periods. In every case the elected body consists of people from the bourgeois class.
The idea of representation is independent from the idea of popular sovereignty and has different origins. Whereas the latter was born in the simmering of revolution, the former came out of the thickest darkness of the Middle Ages.
“The idea of representatives”—wrote Rousseau—“is modern: it comes from feudal government, from that unique and absurd government in which the human species is degraded and the name of the human is disgraced. In the ancient republics as well as in the old monarchies, the people never had representatives: this word was not even known. It is very strange that in Rome, where the tribunes were so sacred, no one would ever have thought that they could usurp the functions of the people; nor would they have ever considered neglecting to take a plebiscite into account in the midst of such a great multitude…According to the Greeks, whatever ‘the people’ had to do it did itself; in fact, it was continually assembled on the plaza…”
Thus, the Greeks conceived of democracy not only as sovereignty, but also as the direct government of the people. This would not have provoked insoluble problems, because the democratic republics of Greece were founded on a slave economy, only free men were citizens and constituted the people. They were exempted from material labor which was carried out by the slaves and had all their time to devote themselves to the public thing.
Modern democracy is different. The emancipation from slavery and servitude slowly elevates all people to the dignity of citizens, creating a numerical problem that did not exist in ancient times.
But the representative system was developing independently of this problem. Before the emancipated slaves had yet aspired to the dignity of citizens, the monarchs felt the necessity of giving them the illusion of participating in the public thing…The origins of the representative system go back to the obscure times of the Middle Ages when christianity and feudalism shared in the management of the human herd. The position of the “serfs” eventually became unbearable, so they delegated some people…to present a list of their complaints before the lord. Thus, before the absolute and divine right these poor pariah personified the miserable existence of the governed clod. It was the first representation; England was its cradle. Its mission barely ended, this wretched delegation dissolved and we do not know how the obscure work of the centuries transformed this delegation into today’s powerful parliamentary assemblies.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that in those remote times of royal absolutism the peasant delegations had spontaneous origins. It is more probable that the dissatisfied peasants resorted to revolt than to petitioning the sovereign by means of unanimously selected representatives who might well lose their heads if the sovereign found them unbearable.
In the archives of the English monarchy, one can find the documentation of the most humble and utterly undemocratic origins of the representative system. Here one finds an ordinance of Henry III that dates back to 1254. In Britain, up until very recently, the nobles—the temporal and spiritual lords—were still to be seated, personally and by law, in the parliament where they represented themselves and the class that they constituted together. In the document mentioned above, Henry invited the lords to take up their posts in parliament and, furthermore, gave the sheriffs of all counties in the kingdom the order that they provide “two good and discreet knights” selected by the people of the county for the purpose of representing them before the council of the king “in order to examine the whole of the knights of the other counties who give help to the king.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, entry: Representation)
Here, in the regime of economic and political privilege, the essence of the representative system is already found. The peasants do not take the initiative to send their own representatives to the king; rather the king orders the dispatch of representatives to the council through the sheriffs, and he does not want them to be peasants, but gives the order that they be “good and discreet knights”. The king wants the funds that will be allocated in his favor to have the consent of the representatives of the people, but the sheriff must make sure that these representatives are people of high birth, which is to say’ people devoted to the king. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether the elected representatives of the counties represent the people of their counties; rather he wants to be certain that they represent the interests of the king.
The pretense of the representative politics is already transparent in this ancient document. In the current form of the representative system, the names change, but the substance is the same. “The sovereign people” elects its representatives, but these representatives—like the good and discreet knights of Henry III of England—must be good citizens above all, devoted to the constituted order, which is to say, respectful of the right to private property, of the capitalist monopoly over social wealth and of the authority of the state. In other words, rather than representing the will, the aspirations or the interests of those who elected them, they must represent the power, authority and privilege that the constituted order consecrates and protects.
“Representative government,”—the Russian anarchist Kropotkin wrote—“is a system elaborated by the bourgeois classes to gain earthly respect from the monarchic system, maintaining and increasing their own power over the workers at the same time. The representative system is the characteristic arm of power of the bourgeois classes. But even the most passionate admirers of this system have never seriously sustained that a parliament or municipal body really represents a nation or a city: the most intelligent among them understand quite well that this is impossible. By supporting parliamentary government, the bourgeoisie has simply sought to raise a dike between itself and the monarchy and between itself and the landed aristocracy without granting freedom to the people. Nevertheless, it is evident that as the people slowly become aware of their own interests and the variety of those interests increases, the representative system reveals itself to be inadequate. This is the reason why democrats of all lands bustle around searching for palliatives and correctives that they never find. They try referendum and discover it is worthless; they babble about proportional representation, representation of minorities and other utopias. In other words, they seek the impossible, namely a method of delegation that represents the infinite variety of interest of a nation; but they are forced to admit that they are on a false road, and faith in representative government vanishes little by little.”
…Political power has its roots in economic power, and since this remain a monopoly of small powerful minorities, it is inevitable that it is utopian to hope in the triumph of pure democracy, where the management of the public thing is truly the task of the people to the benefit of these same people.
The representative system is, in the final analysis, a contrivance conceived in order to give governments deprived of divine investiture the appearance of popular investiture. Anyone who is not satisfied with appearance and searches for substance in human relationships must necessarily find fault with the illusions perpetuated through this contrivance….