Danilo Zolo on eklogecratic tools

August 9, 2010

Danilo Zolo’s book Democracy and Complexity (1992) is a critique of the “classical” and the “neo-classical” doctrines of democracy. The classical theory espouses the idea that in a democracy the entire population of a country, en masse, can – in some way, usually assumed to rely heavily on elections – determine public policy. The neo-classical doctrine, sometimes referred to as the Schumpeterian theory, asserts that the people do not, and indeed cannot, determine public policy. According to this theory, democracy is merely the situation in which people are able to occasionally select, through “free” elections, which elite group is to set public policy.

Zolo agrees with the neo-classical argument against the classical theory, namely, that a large population does not, and cannot, determine policy. He is, however, critical of the neo-classical theory as well. He argues that for various reasons (resulting from “complexity”) elections are not only not a tool for setting policy, they cannot even be seen as reflecting popular choice of an alternative among elites.1

One interesting part of Zolo’s argument is his treatment of three mechanisms that are often promoted as being conducive to democracy: universal suffrage, mass participation, and public campaign finance.

Universal suffrage (p. 79):

They [parliaments] arise in order to protect the autonomy of the civil society and its individual members from the ‘protective’ invasion of political power. Their job is to limit the executive power of the monarchy by imposing respect for the interests presented by the members of a particular stratum of the citizens, i.e. the holders of the ‘active citizenship’ identified essentially on the basis of property and wealth.

[…]

It may well be doubted, with Weber, whether the subsequent introduction of universal suffrage really succeeds in changing, at any deep level, the original ‘oligarchic-corporative’ structure of bourgeois parliaments or in involving them in a process of ‘democratization’ or popular diffusion of power. Extension of suffrage has probably only led to a modification of the selection procedures of political elites, aiding the process of the transformation of bourgeois democracy into modern party democracy.

Mass participation (p. 100):

[C]ontemporary democracy is party democracy – […] it is the parties and not the undifferentiated public of voters that are the effective agents in the so-called ‘popular sovereignty’. […] [P]arliamentary government is subject to the logic of the social division of labour and […] political activity demands levels of professionality and competence. The radical-democratic idea of government of the people by the people is […] a retrograde and anti-democratic utopia if it means political affairs being entrusted to unpaid amateurs working in their free time rather than to salaried officers of the State.

Public campaign finance (p. 119):

The final stage of this evolution [of the Western government system into the ‘party state’] is reached with the institutionalized public financing of the parties, a course adopted over the last twenty years by the legislatures of almost all the Western democracies. In every case the manner and type of financing are decided by the parties themselves – leading to a reappearance of the familiar figure of absolute power. Public financing, far from removing the perennial shortage of party funds and discouraging secret of illegal forms of private financing, in fact reinforces the party bureaucracies and concentrates power in the hands of central and constituency management, expanding the hierarchy of salaried officers, giving ground still further to expert advisers and marginalizing the simple party workers and grass-roots campaigners.


[1] In my mind, the question of the “validity” or “independence” of the choice of ruling elite is of little importance. Since the elites, as a bloc, have many interests that are opposite to those the rest of the population, it would make little difference whether the ability to select a particular elite was real or a mere mirage – the result would be an oppressing government in either case.

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