It is interesting to observe the cries of outrage at the good MP’s political quotation, some even demanding that he should retract it and apologise. Well, I guess we love freedom of speech, until that freedom is used to say something we don’t like. Regardless, I would instead prefer a discussion on the concept of democracy itself which most people seem to be treating as a matter of course without actually interrogating what this concept even means. But I guess democracy has today become like a god, one simply unquestioningly offer up paeans of endless praise and thanksgiving and treat questioning it to be a sacrilegious offense.

Anyway, the below is a re-post of one of my old post discussing in detail the meaning of “democracy”.


If the Allies at the peace table at Versailles had allowed a Hohenzollern, a Wittelsbach and a Habsburg to return to their thrones, there would have been no Hitler. A democratic basis of society might have been preserved by a crowned Weimar in contact with the victorious Allies.

Winston Churchill, 26th April 1946.

People’s Will? What People?

Since these are early days into our parliament’s first time with a sizeable opposition presence, I thought it would be good to write an analysis into the concept of “democracy” to whom people recently have been offering up unceasing sacrifices of praise and thankgiving but yet have not seriously meditated upon this god. To this “mediation” I now turn.

It is usual to speak of democracy as “representing the people” or as that system whereby society is ruled “by the people’s will”. But of course this talk of “people’s will/mandate/consent” is surelymetaphorical. Individual people have wills and consent, but is a society anything like an individual person who can “deliberate”, “decide” and have a “will”? A “body politic” a nation may be, but no one seriously believes that a nation has a literal body with a mind and a will.

If we examine the concept of a “people” more closely, the question becomes, what people? Within any nation, there are many different individuals and groups with many different conflicting interests, ideologies and values. So out of these many different conflicting values, interests and ideologies, which one “represents the people’s will”? How is the “people’s will” to be determined? The concept of “the people” as a unified entity, is not one which makes any sense.

One could of course appeal to the idea of elections and voting to determine “what the people’s will” is. But the problem with this procedure is that it is a purely formal determination. Does 51% of the population choosing A and 49% of the population choosing B imply that A is the “people’s will” and not B? So what is B then? Those who oppose the “people’s will”? Are 49% of a nation’s population suddenly “enemies of the people”? The French Revoluntionaries in fact accepted this horrible logical conclusion and started to persecute all those who opposed the Revolution as “enemies of the people’s will” and thus the gullotine was invented. Besides, why should we allow such a formal procedure such as “elections”, which is susceptible to rabble rousing, ability to manipulate the media and charismatic personalities and public image projection, determine the “people’s will”? The “people’s will” then simply becomes a function of he who is able to win a popularity contest.

The fact is that the “people’s will” is simply an ideological construct which has no real intelligible meaning or content, and is simply used by groups to push their agenda and condemn the rest. In the name of the “people’s will”, anything can be justified, from the horrors of the French Revolution to voting Hitler into power (yes, don’t ever forget, Hitler was voted into power by one of the most proportionate democracies in the world at that time, the Weimar Republic), the “people’s will” has been the cause of some of the greatest miseries and horrors in human history. For as Peter Scanlan observes,

The most odious and repressive regimes in the 20th century have “people’s” or “democratic‟ in their names, and that is no accident. The theoretical basis for democracy, egalitarianism, was responsible for the worst excesses of the French revolution; little blood was shed in support of liberty and fraternity. Had the hereditary principle been upheld in places as diverse as Libya, Greece, Albania, even Russia, had those monarchies not been overthrown and replaced by monstrous peoples‟ regimes, the very lives, never mind prosperity, of those peoples would have been saved.

The truth is that the concept of democracy as the “rule by the people’s will” tyrannically enforces a unity where none exists. There is no unified “people” speaking with one voice and of one will and of one mind. There are many individuals and many different groups with conflicting “wills” and “minds” and values. And to force a uniform “people’s will” unto the rest of the populance with so many different and conflicting cultures and values is simply tyrannical conformity.

I especially wondered at some people who commented upon the photos of the WP opposition members as they prepared to enter parliament saying, “Be the people’s voice” and also the recent “Occupy Raffles’ Place” thingy saying that they are the 99% of S’pore. Excuse me. We may legitimately complain about the disproportionate representation between PAP members and opposition members in parliament because of the GRC system, etc. But are these people forgetting that still over 60% of S’poreans voted for the PAP? Are they saying now that those 60% don’t deserve to have their voices heard through the PAP? Or that the PAP does not “represent” the voice of 60% of the people, and that only 40% of the people are the “real voice” of the people and not the other 60%? What nonsense is this? The minute we identify any particular party or group or ideology as being truly that “of the people” and the rest are not, that is the road to tyranny and oppression.

Another related concept is that of “representation”. The problem with this concept is simply that it is ambiguous. Represent… what? One obvious answer is that it “represents” the “people’s will”. But I’ve already demonstrated that the concept of the “people’s will” is not an intelligible concept by itself as there is no such unified entity as “the people’s will”. The other answer then becomes that “representation” is simply representation of the different conflicting interests, groups and individuals within a nation. Whether it’s gender, political ideology, race or religion, the idea is that a democracy must give representation or a “voice” to these many different conflicting interests and groups.

But as I’ve pointed out before, this simply leads to the paradox of democracy and eventually,political nihilism.

On one hand, democracy, as an ideology, is meant to be representative of the interests of the people. On the other hand, a democracy must also govern, that’s what they are elected for anyway. Yet, as we can see in Britain, these two needs will inevitably come into conflict. As a voter, you vote for the party which best represents your interest and your values. However, in order for your party to govern, they need to command a majority or a significant proportion of votes in parliament, and how else can they do this, but by compromising on the very ideology or values on which they have been voted on in order to garner the cooperation of the opposition? Thus, this systematic inter-party collusion has rendered practically meaningless the distinction of the three parties, as lots of Britons now say, they’re all the same! And if there is no difference between the three parties, thenwhat exactly are you voting for? The fact is that there is no such party that can truly represent our interests or values and we are forced to choose between compromises.

If the compromise does not come at the level of the legislature itself, it will then come at the level of campaigning. Either a party campaigns upon it’s distinctive principles and compromises them when they come to power in order to command a majority in the legislature, or they compromise right at the start during the campaign in order to get as many votes as possible from different conflicting groups and interests by making contradictory promises to each of them, as a monarchist observes,

Even assuming that elections genuinely represent the wishes of a majority of a country’s population, [which is quite unlikely!] one should consider whether the typical path to power of a president is really morally superior to that of a king. Politicians, even the relatively honest ones, are obliged to engage in a relentless pursuit of funds and to frequently make promises to voters. Conflicts of interest are inevitable; campaign pledges are likely to prove impossible or contradictory and consequently may be broken—the whole system invites corruption. The successful politician, especially if he is not independently wealthy, must be a smooth talker and a frequent compromiser and deal-maker, willing to sacrifice principles for politics. He must be willing to step on others to get ahead, constantly attacking his rivals. If a politician is not dishonest or mean-spirited at the beginning of his career, he runs the risk of becoming so as he immerses himself in the real world of politics.

How can a leader or party possibly “represent” so many different contradictory and conflicting groups? It can’t! But yet they need their support in order to command a majority and govern, and therefore campaign pledges and promises will inevitably be broken; and if so, in what sense of the word do they “represent” you? In Jon Stewart show, he pointed out that Obama before he was elected, promised an end to the detention camps, upholding civil liberties, the return of rule of law, etc. But now not only has he not close down that base, he retained the Bush policy of moving prisoner’s beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, and has now even authorised assassinations of their own citizens who are deemed a threat to national security! And this nation DARES to lecture the rest of us about human rights! The sheer hypocrisy! The sad fact is that, the minute a leader gets power, he must break his promises, how then can we believe that they “represent” us? What are we voting for? The whole system is corrupt and simply a farce.

For the Good of the People

The fact is simply that there is no such thing as “democracy”, in the strict sense of the word, as in, there is no such thing as “the people” to do any ruling, willing and consenting. But yet there is perhaps a kernal of truth to what may have been the root of the democratic ideal in that it is concept of rulefor the good of the people. Instead of trying to bring about some unintelligible idea of the “people’s will”, we should instead be looking to the concept of the people’s good or what in traditional political thought has been thought “the common good”.

But of course elections, representative government, etc, are not necessary to bring about the common good. In fact as I’ve pointed out, those governments have occasionally brought about the greatest evil (e.g. Hitler). Thus, if there is any value to representative government and elections, etc, their value is purelyinstrumental, simply as means to achieve the ends of the common good; there might be other instruments of governance or rulings which are equally suited, if not better, at bringing about the common good. After all, monarchies traditionally have always been thought to be leaders who ruled for the good and benefit of the people as in the words of Aristotle,

Monarchy is the one system of government where power is exercised for the good of all.

and confirmed by King Charles III of Spain in 1750,

I devote all my attentions to improving the welfare of my subjects, since I wish to save my soul and go to Heaven.

Representative government and free and open elections and debates have traditionally been justified by the idea that through such open discussions, we would be able to better arrive at the truth at what is the common good or what is the best for the country, therefore the justification of representative government is ultimately determined by the ends of the common good.

Of course there are some problems with this conception as well. To place this discussion in our local context, we can say that it is a problem of determining what exactly is the “common good” or “happiness”. There has been much talk in parliament about the concept of “happiness”, but “happiness” is not an unambigous concept. Different cultures, groups and ideologies have different ways of evaluating what is “happiness” or what is the common good. For all the talk in parliament about “happiness”, there has been very little willingness to engage this concept and examine the meaning of what makes for “happiness” or the “common good”.

In traditional political philosophy, the concept of the “common good” has been tied to concept of what promotes the “well-being” or “good” of the community. Unfortunately conceptions of the “good” cannot be made independently of one’s philosophical, religious and historical background. And this would involve a rather intense discussion into the history of each feature of public life and institutions and what makes for their growth and decay and how they contribute to the overall organism and ecological health of society as a whole.

Conclusion: The Passing Fad of Democracy

The fact is that true democractic rule is less than century old. Most Western nations never practice anything which we would call “democracy” today, i.e. universal suffrage, proportionate representation, elections, etc until the last century. Britain for example did not allow everyone to vote until the 20th century, as the vote was reserved mostly for land-owners and America’s democracy never took on the role which it has today. What most Western nations had for most of their history is simply a democratic or republicanbranch in government. This is especially true for Britain whereby parliament was checked by the monarchy, the church, common law and the House of the Lords. In other parts of Europe, it similar in that they were ruled by a combination of the aristocrats, the church and the monarchy.

Thus, democracy has barely a century of trial and error and strangely enough people today think that it is forever and it is the “End of History” or the best form of government which is the inevitable destiny of all human societies to develop into. But a century is barely a drop in the ocean of human history and there is absolutely no evidence that it is an ideal which is meant to be “forever” nor that it is the inevitable destiny of the world, for as the trouble in Europe and America and the Western nations show, democracy may be fundamentally unsustainable and it’s inevitable end may not be global enactment but collapse instead.

It may perhaps be time to set aside this false god and ideology, which there is no reason to believe promotes the common good, nor are it’s ideals intelligible and attainable anyway, given how elusive are the concepts of “the people”. Let us return back instead, to the age old question of the “common good” and what makes for the well-being, and good of the people.

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