Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Democracy and the General Will

Throughout the generations political thinkers have struggled with the tensions between public and private interests. Rousseau went to great lengths to stress the importance of the ‘general will,’ and the need for such a will to trump individual interests. For his time Rousseau was fairly radical in believing that a group of democratically representatives should elected who would pursue the general will. It has now become almost universally accepted that such representative democracy is the fairest and most attractive political system. However, in our rush to embrace various forms of democracy, we have failed to properly examine the problem of the general will. Instead people have rashly assumed that a government elected through some form of democratic process automatically represents the general will. However, this is by no means necessarily the case. Even if we assume that a general will can be said to exist (which is an arguable point in itself), for such a will to be manifest in an elected government, that government would have to be significantly free of undue influence both internally and externally. However, everyone knows this not to be the case. First of all, significant numbers of people simply don’t take part in the democratic process in many countries. But perhaps more importantly the democratic process itself is increasingly subject to the influence of moneyed interests, and as a result governments that are supposed to represent a general will really represent a fairly narrow interest of a relatively small elite. This problem is made even more difficult by the fact that international pressures significantly hamper what a national government is able to do regardless of its goals.

We are faced with a fundamental political problem. Democracy is the favoured way of forming and practicing a general will, but at the moment it seems unable to achieve this basic objective. Depressingly, this fundamental problem is not even on the political radar in most countries. And to make matters worse, when Western countries do not like the results of a democratic election they simply disregard the entire process. Hamas, for example came to power in an election that was promoted by the Western powers, but those very same powers refused to recognize the results because they had branded Hamas as a ‘terrorist’ organization. Elected governments all over the world have done questionable, and even evil, things. To call Hamas a terrorist organization while imagining that the US State is a paragon of virtue is irretrievably naive. Advocates of democracy must come to terms with this fact. In the meantime we have to advocate for the reformation of democracy itself so that it can, sometime in the future, truly represent a general will.

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