Kropotkin: Against Representation

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from several essays in Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel. I did not have room for Kropotkin’s essay on “Representative Government.” This is the second part of that essay to be posted here, focusing on his anarchist critique of political representation.

vote nobody

Representative Government Part 2

The faults of representative assemblies should not in fact astonish us if we reflect for just a moment on the manner in which they are recruited and in which they function.

Must I offer again the picture, so disgusting, so thoroughly repugnant, which we all know — the picture of what happens at elections? In bourgeois England and democratic Switzerland, in France as in the United States, in Germany as in the Argentine Republic, is not that sad comedy everywhere the same?

Must one tell how the agents and electoral committees contrive, canvass and carry out an election, making promises on all sides, political in meetings and personal to individuals: how they penetrate into homes, flattering the mother, the child, and if necessary caressing the asthmatic dog or cat of the “voter”? How they spread themselves around in the pubs and cafés, trying to convert the voters and entrap them in their discussions just as their counterparts in roguery try to involve them in the “three card trick”? How the candidate, making himself desirable, appears among his “dear voters” with a benevolent smile, a modest look and a cajoling voice, like an old vixen of a London landlady trying to capture a lodger with her sweet smile and angelic looks? Need we enumerate the lying — entirely lying — programmes, whether socialist-revolutionary or merely opportunist in orientation, in which the candidate himself believes no more than he believes the predictions of an Old Moore’s Almanac, yet which he defends with a spirit, a sonorous voice, a show of feeling, worthy of a clown or a wandering actor? It is no wonder that the popular theatre no longer limits itself to exhibiting Bertrand and Robert Macaire as simple rogues, Tartuffes or swindlers, but adds to these traditional types the representatives of the people, in quest of votes and pockets to pick.

Finally, must we talk about the cost of elections? Surely all the newspapers keep us well informed on this question. One has only to reproduce the expense lists of electoral agents, in which figure roasts of lamb, flannel waistcoats, and sedative waters sent by sympathetic candidates to the “dear children” of their voters. Need we also recall the cost of boiled potatoes and rotten eggs “to confound the opposing party” that occur in the electoral budgets of the United States, or the costs of libellous placards and “last minute tricks” that already play such an honourable role in our European elections.

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

Thus it is, and it cannot be otherwise so long as there are voters to give themselves masters. Think only of the workers, who are equal among themselves, taking it into their heads one day to pick rulers; it will be just the same as ever. Perhaps roast lamb will no longer be distributed, but praise and lies will, and there will be no shortage of rotten eggs! What better can people hope for when they are willing to put up their most sacred rights for auction?

What, in fact, is asked of voters? To find a man to whom they can confide the right to legislate on everything they cherish most: their rights, their children, and their work! So why be surprised when two or three thousand Robert Macaires turn up to compete for these royal rights? We are seeking a man to whom we can confide — in the company of others chosen in the same lottery — the right to ruin our sons when they are twenty-one, or even nineteen if that is more convenient, and to shut them up for three years — or even up to ten years — in the pestilential atmosphere of a barracks! And to let them be massacred when and where the rulers want to start a war which the county will be forced to carry on to the bitter end once it has been started.

Such rulers can close the universities at their will, and either force the parents to send their children to them or refuse entry. Like a new Louis XIV they can favour an industry or kill it if they prefer; sacrifice the North to the South or the South to the North; annex a province or give it away. They can dispose of something like three billion francs a year, which they snatch out of the mouths of the workers. They retain the royal prerogative of naming the executive power, a power which, however in agreement with parliament it may be, can at the same time be just as despotic and tyrannical as the former kings. For, while Louis XIV could command a few tens of thousands of officials, the new rulers can command hundreds of thousands; while, if the king could steal from the exchequer a few paltry bags of coins, the constitutional ministry of today can “honestly” pocket a few millions by a simple manoeuvre at the stock exchange.

It is astonishing to see what passions come into play, when there is a call for a master who can be invested with such powers! When Spain put its throne up for bids, it was not in the least surprising to see the brigands flocking in from every side. As long as this commerce in royal powers continues, nothing can ever be reformed; elections will be fairs at which vanities are traded for consciences.

Furthermore, even if one manages to reduce the power of the deputies, if one breaks power up by making each commune a State in miniature, everything will remain the same.

direct democracy anarchism

The question of true delegation versus representation can be better understood if one imagines a hundred or two hundred men, who meet each day in their work and share common concerns, who know each other thoroughly, who have discussed every aspect of the question that concerns them and have reached a decision. They then choose someone and send him to reach an agreement with other delegates of the same kind on this particular issue. On such an occasion the choice is made with full knowledge of the question, and everyone knows what is expected of his delegate. The delegate is not authorized to do more than explain to other delegates the considerations that have led his colleagues to their conclusion. Not being able to impose anything, he will seek an understanding and will return with a simple proposition which his mandatories can accept or refuse. This is what happens when true delegation comes into being; when the communes send their delegates to other communes, they need no other kind of mandate. This is how it is done already by meteorologists and statisticians in their international congresses, by the delegates of railway and postal administrations meeting from several countries.

But what is being asked nowadays of the voter? Ten, twenty, even a hundred thousand men, who do not know each other from Adam, who have never even seen each other and have certainly never met to discuss a common concern, are expected to agree on the choice of one man. Moreover, this man will not be mandated to explain a precise matter or to defend a resolution concerning a special affair. No, he will become an instant Jack of All Trades, expected to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law. In such circumstances the nature of delegation is betrayed and it becomes an absurdity.

The omniscient being whom everyone is seeking nowadays does not exist. But suppose we can present an honest citizen of probity and good sense and a modicum of education. Is he the sort of man who will get elected? Obviously not. Hardly twenty people from his grammar school remember his excellent qualities. He has never sought the limelight, and he despises the means by which attention might be drawn to his name. He will never gather more than two hundred votes!

He will not even be nominated as a candidate, but instead they will choose a lawyer or a journalist, a glib speaker or scribbler who will carry into parliament the ways of the bar and the newspaper office, and will add himself to one of the herds that vote with the government and the opposition. Or perhaps it will be some merchant, anxious to get the title of M.P., who will not hesitate about spending ten thousand francs to gain a scrap of fame. And where life is notably democratic, as in the United States, where committees spring up constantly to counterbalance the influence of great fortunes, the worst type of all is elected, the professional politician, that abject being who these days has become the plague of the great Republic, the man who makes politics an industry, and practices it according to the methods of great industry — with display, pizzazz and corruption!

Change the electoral system however you like; establish the secret ballot; make elections in two stages, as in Switzerland, make all the modifications you can to apply the system with the greatest possible equality; arrange and rearrange the voting lists; the intrinsic faults of the institution will continue. Whoever manages to gather more than half the votes will always be a nonentity, a man without convictions but anxious to please everyone.

That is why, as Spencer has already remarked, parliaments are generally so badly composed. The members of parliament, he says in his Introduction, are always inferior to the average of people in the country, not only in terms of morality but also in terms of intelligence. An intelligent people always seems to demean itself in its choice of representatives, and betrays itself by choosing nobody better than the boobies who are supposed to act on its behalf. As for the honesty of the representatives, we know what that is worth. Merely read what is said about them by the ex-ministers who have known and understood them.

funny-pictures-auto-joke-politics-366241

What a shame it is that there are no special trains to allow the electors to see their “Chamber” at work! They would soon be disgusted. The ancients used to make their slaves drunk to teach their children the evils of intoxication. Parisians, go to the Chamber and see your representatives at work so that you will become disgusted with representative government!

To this rabble of nonentities the people abandons all its rights, except that of dismissing them from time to time and naming others in their places. But since the new assembly, chosen by the same system and charged with the same mission, will be just as bad as the last, the great mass of the people end up losing interest in the comedy and restricting themselves to a bit of patching up here and there by accepting a few of the new candidates who thrust themselves forward.

But if the process of election is already marked with such constitutional and irredeemable faults, what is there to be said of the way parliament fulfils its mandate? Think for a moment, and you will see at once the insanity of the task you have imposed on it.

Your representative is expected to express an opinion, give a vote, on the whole infinitely various series of questions that surge up in that formidable machine — the centralized State.

He must vote the dog tax and the reform of university instruction, without ever having set foot in a university or having known a country dog. He must pronounce on the advantages of the Gras rifle and on the site to be chosen for the State stud farm. He will vote on phylloxera, on tobacco, on guano, on elementary education and on the sanitation of the cities; on Cochinchina and Guyana, on chimney pots and on the Paris Conservatory. Having never seen soldiers on parade, he will rearrange the army corps, and having never seen an Arab, he will make and remake the Muslim landholding laws in Algeria. He will protect sugar and sacrifice wheat. He will kill the vine, imagining he is protecting it; he will vote for reforestation against pasture, and protect the pastures against the forests. He will know all about railways. He will kill off a canal in favour of a railway without knowing in what part of France either of them may be. He will add new items to the Penal Code without ever having consulted it.

An omniscient and omnipotent Proteus, today soldier, tomorrow pig breeder, in turn banker, academician, sewer-cleaner, doctor, astronomer, drug manufacturer, currier and merchant, according to the Chamber’s orders of the day, he will never hesitate. Accustomed in his function of lawyer, journalist, or public orator to talking of things he knows nothing about, he will vote on all these questions, with the sole difference that in his newspaper he amused housemaids with his nonsense, and at the assizes he kept the sleepy judges and jurors awake with his voice, while in the Chamber his opinion becomes law for thirty or forty million people.

And since it is materially impossible to have his views on the thousand subjects on which his vote will make law, he will gossip with his seat mates, spend time in the bar, write letters to warm up the enthusiasm of his “dear voters,” while a minister reads a report crammed with figures put together for the occasion by his administrative assistant; and at the moment of voting he will declare himself for or against the report according to the nod of his party leader.

Thus a question of pigfood or soldier’s equipment will be merely a matter of parliamentary bickering between the two parties of the ministry and the opposition. They will not ask themselves whether the pigs really need more food or whether soldiers are already as overloaded as desert camels; the only question that interests them is whether an affirmative vote will profit their party. The parliamentary battle is carried out on the backs of the soldiers, the farmers, the industrial workers, in the interests of the ministry and the opposition.Proudhon in 1848

Proudhon in 1848

Poor Proudhon, one can imagine his disappointment when he had the childlike naiveté, on entering the Assembly, to study profoundly each of the questions on the order of the day. He offered figures and ideas, but nobody listened to him. Parliamentary questions are all resolved well before the bills are presented by that very simple consideration: is it useful or harmful to our party? The scrutiny of votes is made; those submitted are registered and the abstentions are carefully noted. Speeches are made principally for the sake of effect; they are heard only if they have some artistic value or lead to scandal. Simple people imagine that Roumestand has aroused the Chamber by his eloquence, while Roumestand, after the sitting, works out with his friends how he can keep the promises he made to capture the vote. His eloquence was no more than a cantata for the occasion, composed and sung to amuse the gallery, and to maintain his own popularity by sonorous phrases.

“Capture the vote!” but who in fact are those whose votes are captured, so that the totals cause the parliamentary balance to lean one way or another? Who are those who overthrow and remake ministries and give the country a policy of reaction or of external adventurism, who decide between the ministry and the opposition?

They are those who have so justly been called “the toads in the marsh”! Those who have no opinion, those who sit always between two stools, who float between the two principal parties in the Chamber. It is precisely this group — fifty or so nonentities, people without convictions of any kind, who sway like a weather vane between the liberals and the conservatives, who allow themselves to be influenced by promises, places, flattery or panic; it is this little group of nobodies who, by giving or refusing their vote, decide all the business of the country. It is they who pass the laws or pigeonhole them. It is they who support or overthrow ministries and change the direction of policy. Fifty or so nonentities making the law of the country, that is what, in the last resort, the parliamentary regime has been reduced to.

It is inevitable that whatever may be the composition of a parliament, even if it is stuffed with stars of the first magnitude and men of integrity— the decision will belong to the toads in the marsh! Nothing in that can be changed so long as the majority makes the law.

After having briefly indicated the constitutional faults of representative assemblies, we should now show these assemblies at work. We should show that all of them, from the Convention to the Council of the Commune in 1871, from the English parliament to the Serbian Skoupchtchina, are plagued with incapacity; how their best laws — according to Buckle’s expression — have been no more than the repeals of preceding laws; how these laws had to be torn from their hands by the pikes of the people, by insurrectional means. That would be a tale to tell, but it would go beyond the limits of our review.

Besides, anyone who knows how to reason without being misled by the prejudices of our vicious educational system will find for himself enough examples in the history of representative government in our age. And he will understand that, whatever the representative body may be, whether it is composed of workers or the middle class — and even if it is wide open to social revolutionaries — it will retain all the faults of representative assemblies. These do not depend on individuals; they are inherent in the institution.

To dream of a workers’ State, governed by an elected assembly, is the most unhealthy of all the dreams that our authoritarian education inspires.

Just as one cannot have a good king, whether it is Rienzi or Alexander III, so one cannot have such a thing as a good parliament. The socialist future lies in a quite different direction; it will open to humanity new directions within the political order, in the same way as in the economic order.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. [...] Here [...]

  2. Kropotkin’s words still support my rationale for not voting. I dare to be a nobody. . . and I still have a voice of dissent.

    Daniel Claverie
    djclaverie@yahoo.com

  3. Thank you, Mr. Graham, for this essay. Its amazing how timeless Kropotkin’s arguments are. His bit on the “toads in the marsh”, in particular, applies perfectly to both “undecided voters” who candidates aim for and who basically determine elections and “centrists” (I prefer to call them “unprincipleds”) who are always on the fence on issues and sway back and forth between positions depending on which way the wind is blowing.

    I was wondering if you could include more of Colin Ward’s essays? I know that there are about 5-6 of them available for reading at The Anarchist Library (like “The Anarchist Sociology of Federalism”), but no more are available online aside from those. I would love to read his ideas on urban planning. Apparently, his “The Child in the City” book is one of the best books on urbanism.

    Thanks again.

    From an Indonesian anarchist.


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