The case against representative democracy

Building a democratic movement isn’t a matter of personal preference or organising style. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. Rather, it’s a question of what’s effective at fostering resistance, what’s not, and what works against it. Direct democracy isn’t just “an alternative” to representative democracy: both are at odds with each other. In essence, this antagonism stems from two different conceptions of unions: one as an association of workers or students, and the other as their representative. Understanding it requires a brief look at the history of the labor movement.

“A union is an association of workers banding together for a common purpose. Historically, unions emerged from the conditions of emerging capitalism. First in craft production, then amongst industrial and service workers. In the early days, unions couldn’t be anything but such associations. There were no legal union rights, employers refused to recognise them and unionists faced harsh repression.

However, over time employers were forced to come to terms with the fact that unions were a fact of life. They began to recognise them as the representatives of the workers, to be negotiated with on their behalf in order to secure the shop floor peace and order necessary for profit-making. Thus the second function, the representative function was born. Many unionists actively fought for this, and saw the acceptance of unions as a victory.

As unions became accepted by capitalism, they more and more came to resemble capitalist institutions themselves, with a hierarchical structure topped by salaried bureaucrats, dedicated legal departments, and numerous other full time staff. Today, the associational and representative functions are completely intertwined. Indeed you join a union in order to be represented. But when this process first began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century, it provoked a backlash from the more radical rank-and-file elements, a broad current known as syndicalism.

Historian Bob Holton writes that one of the major factors behind the British syndicalist movement was that “instead of undue repression it was increasingly agreed [by bosses and politicians] that trade union demands could be more effectively diffused by bargaining and in particular by utilising union officials as a mediating influence between labour and capital.”1

Although they differ in many ways, parallels can be drawn between the role played by these bureaucratic labor unions and by student governments or federations. In public they will present demands on behalf of their membership while in private, they will always compromise to accommodate whoever is sitting opposite, whether employer, administrator or politician.

What makes this possible is bureaucracy, which concentrates knowledge and power in the hands of a few individuals. Through their influence, which becomes far more important than that of other members, they will get a greater say in their organisation’s development and political orientation. Over time, those attracted to such privileged positions will seek to consolidate it, and by doing so will guide the entire organisation towards increasingly conservative positions. When (and if) challenged, they will often cite the need for efficiency and the dangers of risk-taking.

Avoiding bureaucratisation isn’t a matter of choosing the right employee or electing the best candidate. It’s not a question of trust, competence or sincerity. It’s about fighting against things that have the potential of lifting fellow students or workers into a positions of relative power. The first of which is the power of representation.

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