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Proudhon on Democracy
The following article was written by Kenneth Gregg and published at CLASSical Liberalism, February 22, 2006.

P-J Proudhon’s understanding of democracy is a classic example of the concerns about the representative democratic process which many classical liberals expressed. The following was written a few weeks after the February (1848) Revolution in Paris had replaced the constitutional monarchy of King Louise-Phillipe with that of a nominally democratic republic.

The illusion of democracy springs from that of constitutional Monarchy’s example — claiming to organize Government by representative means. Neither the Revolution of July (1830), nor that of February (1848) has sufficed to illuminate this. What they always want is inequality of fortunes, delegation of sovereignty, and government by influential people. Instead of saying, as did M. Thiers, the King reigns and does not govern, democracy says, the People reigns and does not govern, which is to deny the Revolution…

Since, according to the ideology of the democrats, the People cannot govern itself and is forced to give itself to representatives who govern by delegation, while it retains the right of review, it is supposed that the People is quite capable of at least having itself represented, that it can be represented faithfully… This hypothesis is utterly false; there is not and never can be legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit: to know one is sufficient to pronounce the condemnation of all.

In order that the deputy represent his constituents, it is necessary that he represent all the ideas which have united to elect him… But, with the electoral system. the deputy, the would-be legislator sent by the citizens to reconcile all ideas and all interests in the name of the People, always represents just one idea, one interest. The rest is excluded without pity. For who makes law in the elections? Who decides the choice of deputies? The majority, half plus one of the votes. From this it follows that half less one of the electors is not represented or is so in spite of itself, that of all the opinions that divide the citizens, one only, insofar as the deputy has an opinion, arrives at the legislature, and finally that the law, which should be the expression of the will of the People, is only the expression of half of the People.

The result is that in the theory of the democrats the problem consists of eliminating, by the mechanism of sham universal suffrage, all ideas save one which stir opinion, and to declare sovereign that which has the majority.

…In every kind of government the deputy belongs to the powerful, not to the country… [It is required] that he be master of his vote, that is, to traffic in its sale, that the mandate have a specified term, of at least a year, during which the Government, in agreement with the deputies, does what it pleases and gives strength to the law through action by its own arbitrary will…

If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it; the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty…

By virtue of democratic principle, all citizens must participate in the formation of the law… [and] all must pay their debt to their native land, as taxpayers, jurors, judges and soldiers.

If things could happen in this way, the ideal of democracy would be attained. It would have a normal existence, developing directly in the sense of its principle, as do all things which have life and grow.

It is completely otherwise in democracy, which according to the authors exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work.

In fact it is not true, in any democracy, that all citizens participate in the formation of the law; that prerogative is reserved to the representatives.

It is not true that they deliberate on all public affairs, domestic and foreign; this is the perquisite, not even of the representatives, but of the ministers. Citizens discuss affairs, ministers alone deliberate them.

It is not true that citizens participate in the nomination of officials. It is power which names its subordinates, sometimes according to its own arbitrary will, sometimes according to certain conditions for appointment or promotion, the order and discipline of officials and centralization requiring that it be thus…

…According to democratic theory, the ‘People’ is incapable of governing itself; democracy, like monarchy, after having posed as its principle the sovereignty of the People, ends with a declaration of the incapacity of the People!

This is what is meant by the democrats, who once in the government, dream only of consolidating and strengthening the authority in their hands.

From Anarchism (New York: Atherton Press, 1970. pp. 40-69) edited by Robert Hoffman.

Just a thought.

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