The Limits of Parliamentary Politics

Ballot box

Earlier this year, when Christopher Luxon ruled out working with Te Pāti Māori after the election, he justified his position by saying, “we believe in one person, one vote. We believe that we are all equal citizens and equal under the law.” Despite the alarming lack of awareness from a Leader of the Opposition – our ballot papers have both a party and electorate vote, and landlords may vote in local elections wherever they own property – there remains a further question: is voting for representatives really the pinnacle of democracy? And if so, why is it typically disregarded at the earliest convenience?

The essential condition of representative democracy is that its members must be able to influence the decisions that impact their lives. This seems to be common sense: those affected by decisions are the ones who have a say in them. What develops is a particular understanding of free will: individual choice cannot be separated from political agency. We vote to ease inflation, because we know that will determine what we can buy. We vote to improve access to healthcare to ensure our bodies are fit and healthy. Our choices are confined by certain conditions. But surely any political practice should be subject to scrutiny. Even—or especially—if it is one we agree with.

The arrangement of Parliament is supposed to protect and carry out our rights as citizens. It does little, however, to encourage active participation. We only visit the ballot box once every three years, and in doing so, surrender the right to recall the representatives we elect. On reaching office, these representatives maintain considerable autonomy from their constituents. For instance, we elect a party based on an aggregate of proposed policies, but we may not choose which ones should, or should not, be carried out. On the other hand, when an opinion poll or non-binding referendum declares majority support for a particular bill, the government may decide to disregard it as it pleases.

Geography, too, throws up a major challenge. In elections, we are encouraged to think on a national level and consider the “national interest.” In theory, our choice at the ballot box should only impact our constituency. But countries aren’t isolated units cut off from the rest of the world. Rivers, pipelines, railways, internet cables, satellites, and cargo ships bind us intimately together. More than ever, national borders are sites of transmission and overlap. That we can’t draw neat lines through ecosystems, global supply chains, or the internet, should at the very least make us question the ability of consent. At the time of writing, Canadian wildfires are forcing an entire population out of Yellowknife, choking the air in New York. The New York Stock Exchange is swaying the supply of goods in the US, but also in Europe. And not all of these decisions are incidental. Did the citizens of Samoa get a say when New Zealand sent military police to shoot them on the streets of Apia in 1929? Did the people of Iraq send absentee ballots for President Bush before he decided to invade in 2003?

Of course, these international decisions are rarely made by countries acting alone. Because each nation’s environment, economy, and communications are so tightly wound into global networks, they simply cannot decide their direction independently. Global bodies such as the United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, European Union, and International Monetary Fund all make crucial decisions that transcend national parliaments and determine what policies they can execute. Very few of these bodies are appointed by democratic election, meaning they have the power to make decisions behind the backs of the very citizens they govern. Decisions such as the one suggested in a memo by Lawrence Summers, Chief Economist of the World Bank, in 1991:

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. . . . Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?

The very fact a man like Summers can reach such a position without election is a sickening development. (Then again, he was also hand-picked to join Obama’s administration in 2009. No-one elected him then, either).

This leads to the final – and most important – problem. Even the most “advanced” liberal democracies surrender the power of producing and distributing resources to the impulses of the Market. In no country are the people who do the producing given any democratic say over what is produced, how it is produced or how it is distributed. That the immense political power held by media companies and banks is available for purchase, rather than subject to democratic accountability, attacks the very idea of representation. This is no mere accident. Capitalism has given us the material capacity to send every child to a good school, lift them out of poverty, provide them with food and stable shelter, and look after them when they get old. But it can never meet these needs, otherwise it would not have anything to sell us, or keep us returning to work. True democratic control over these resources would render the system powerless. Not only is Capital happy to wrest political agency from individual choice, this is the very engine that keeps the system in motion.

It would be an error, then, to suggest changes in our current government can address the root of the capitalist crisis. We cannot fundamentallychallenge capitalism on the legislative level, because it is not strictly a legislative process. It operates according to the laws of the market; sometimes regulated, but not determined by Parliament. The only way to replace an existing political system, like one based on a market economy, is through revolution.

Reformist and revolutionary struggles, however, are not wholly opposed. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, they are merely different moments in the development of a society. Our current laws are nothing but the products of revolution, when we understand revolution as the formation of a political order (the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for instance). Yet representative democracy need not suppress revolutionary struggle. Reforms are the very means by which the working class gains the strength for political transformation. Fighting for reforms gives us experience in struggle. And what we gain through reforms — access to education, healthcare, rest, child support, and public spaces — can give us sustenance to fight.

How we go about achieving these reforms is, of course, the subject of much debate. A common line in these discussions is that we can’t achieve progress without having a “calm and rational” discussion – anger and disruption have no place in the course of positive political change. Certainly, we should be open to discussion. Any program that seeks to wield power should be tested on the strength of its ideas. But is the assumption really true that anger and disruption can never produce equality and acceptance? Only if we accept a sanitised view of history.

We might remember that the right to representation itself is rarely given politely. The only reason ordinary people hold any authority in these “calm and rational” discussions is because we struggled for the right to do so. Queer rights did not progress because we magically persuaded people that bigotry was bad. Key turning points in that movement came when trans women performed protests, pickets, and sit-ins at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966, when they resisted the police at Stonewall and occupied the streets. On the rare occasion when these narratives of progress are told, they are often told from above, overlooking their revolutionary character. We are told about the upstanding leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, but not their socialist underpinnings. And certainly not about the Deacons for Defense and Justice who warded off the KKK from Civil Rights marches with shotguns, or the township uprisings, strikes, and road blockades in Apartheid South Africa.

Conversation and debate is a valid strategy, but it cannot be the only strategy. Changing the order of things requires disorder, rupture, non-compliance. We should not shy away from the fact that mass politics is one of fury alongside care. This may be an unsettling conclusion. Fine! Let’s not pathologise resentfulness and anger. These are surely unavoidable emotions – especially under capitalism. The Liberal insistence on calmness civility advances whether or not the conditions for these have been met. That is, it includes no requirement to address the source of one’s discomfort. This is like telling someone who is hurt or grieving to “put their chin up” or “move on.” It becomes impossible to give our full attention to hardship when our politics centre on reconciliation. Let’s have none of these demands. To heal, reconcile, and rebuild requires us first to dismantle, undo, and unsettle.