Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.


Wang draws a connection between this idea and Western ideas of participatory democracy, but insists that there is a difference – that the Mass Line idea makes the decision-makers responsible for acting in accordance to mass sentiment and interests rather than allowing them to shirk that responsibility and shifting it to the people or to interest groups. Indeed, it seems that the Mass Line idea rests on a notion that is largely foreign to the Western conception of democracy: that elites have a duty to act morally – in the interests of the people – and that this duty can be achieved through proper education and through intellectual and practical routine practice.

Wang thus contrasts the institution of elections to that of the Mass Line and claims that the latter mechanism is an alternative, possibly a superior alternative, to the former as a basis for democracy. Western theorists would tend to summarily dismiss this idea (if they even consider it worth addressing at all). There is some superficial justification for such a dismissal: if one accepts that people and groups of people tend to be self-serving (an idea that is common in liberal thought as it is in Marxist thought), it is indeed not difficult to see (and maybe difficult not to see) the whole idea of the Mass Line as a sham, an elitist facade that is built upon a self-serving view of the elite as benevolent. However, if such a view is adopted, it is also hard to explain why groups of oligarchs living at the end of the 18th century in North America and Europe would institute a system that disempowers themselves and hands power to the people (“democracy”). Yet this notion – far from being summarily dismissed – is routinely implicitly accepted in the West.

Based on the suspicious liberal mindset, rejecting the “self-serving view of the elite as benevolent”, it would also be hard to explain why advocates of sortition-based participation and deliberation would be addressing themselves to powerful officials and advising them to cede some of their power to citizen bodies. Why would decision-makers do that unless they see this not as an opportunity for democratization but as an opportunity to construct “a sham, an elitist facade”?

16 Responses

  1. I’m glad that Yoram his finally acknowledged that Marxism (either in its Russian on Chinese variant) is closer to his democratic ideal than electoral-based systems.

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  2. > “[…] it is also hard to explain why groups of oligarchs living at the end of the 18th century in North America and Europe would institute a system that disempowers themselves and hands power to the people (“democracy”).”

    As a good Marxist, I’m sure Wang would have an answer for you – that the menacing armed power of (first) the bourgeoisie and (post-1848) the proletariat made it clear that instituting elections was the oligarchs’ least bad option. The presence of the occasional Washington among the serried ranks of Cromwells, Bonapartes, and Bolivars does not contradict the thesis that elites usually work in their own interest.

    > “Based on the suspicious liberal mindset, rejecting the “self-serving view of the elite as benevolent”, it would also be hard to explain why advocates of sortition-based participation and deliberation would be addressing themselves to powerful officials and advising them to cede some of their power to citizen bodies. Why would decision-makers do that unless they see this not as an opportunity for democratization but as an opportunity to construct “a sham, an elitist facade”?”

    I agree, this is a mystery! I put it down to a residual, unjustified liberal-technocratic faith in politicians’ good intentions. It may still yield useful initial results, in the form of proofs of concept – juries given peripheral powers as a sop to politicians’ constituents. But I don’t see any wholesale replacement of elected legislatures occurring in any country without a legitimation crisis and protesters facing state violence in the streets.

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  3. Oliver,

    > As a good Marxist, I’m sure Wang would have an answer for you

    For Marxists the institution of an elections-based system is not a difficulty because they do not see elections as a democratic mechanism. The difficulty is for liberals who claim on the one hand that they are suspicious of elites and at the same time they claim that the elite-instituted election-based regime is democratic. (Of course, those elites insisted that it is not democratic, but we are not supposed to dwell on that either.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Keith,

    > “I’m glad that Yoram his finally acknowledged that Marxism (either in its Russian on Chinese variant) is closer to his democratic ideal than electoral-based systems.”

    Let’s be careful with our terms here – Marxism is a theory of political economy, Leninism is the failed 20th-century attempt to apply it by means of a self-declared vanguard party.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “if one accepts that people and groups of people tend to be self-serving (an idea that is common in liberal thought as it is in Marxist thought)”

    Really! If one accepts this simplistic view of human nature then one is an idiot! In fairness, mainstream Economists use this simplification in order that their algorithms are tractable. Which led to their ultimate humiliation when Her Majesty the Queen, asked, on a visit to the prestigious London School of Economics “Why did nobody see it [the financial crash of 2008] coming?”

    The answer is of course that their models assumed human motivation was solely to be self serving, vividly summarised in the slogan ‘Greed is good’ by Gordon Gecko in the 1987 film Wall Street.

    Blimey! If both Liberals and Marxists are just as limited in their ideas of human motivation then the results will also surely lead us to a Great Crash.

    Please assure me that there is more to Political Theory than a view of the population, the Demos, as a collection of single-minded greedy robots?

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  6. Conall,

    There is a world of difference between ‘tend to be’ and ‘without exception are’, so you can rest easy about the barrenness of political theory! But your analysis of why nobody saw the 2008 crash coming is off. The mortgage bubble that produced it was not born of anybody’s unexpected selflessness – it was a matter of bad mortgage debt being fraudulently sold as good.

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  7. Yoram,

    > it is also hard to explain why groups of oligarchs living at the end of the 18th century in North America and Europe would institute a system that disempowers themselves and hands power to the people (“democracy”).

    That is not quite what the US Founding Fathers did. Note that the first five presidents were Founding Fathers, which does not accord with the usual meaning of “disempowers themselves.”

    The system was set up to place rule by the people in check. The president and Senate were initially not elected by the people. Some of the Founders may have been motivated by a wish to preserve slavery (from pending slavery abolition by Britain).

    They also presumably knew what Aristotle and the Greeks new. The winners of popular elections (which at the federal level initially only meant the House of Representatives) tend to be from the elite portion of society, not everyday citizens.

    Also, there was initially a property qualification for voting.

    And they had to provide a system the public would support, and they were basically British which meant an elected parliament and legislatures were what they were used to and what was considered legitimate. In Britain it was King, House of Lords, House of Commons. In the early US it was president (not elected by the people), Senate (not elected by the people), House of Representatives (elected by the people who met the property qualification). The Senate had (and has) the power to block legislation from the House, and the president had (and has) the power to veto legislation (which can only be over-ridden by a 2/3rds vote in both the Senate and the House). All of the important federal officials (such as the Supreme Court) were chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate (not chosen or confirmed by the only federal body initially chosen by popular election).

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Oliver,

    > Let’s be careful with our terms here

    Just a word of caution: Sutherland is generally quite careless (or maybe simply care-free) when representing other people’s ideas. It’s good to keep that in mind when reading his comments.

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  9. Simon,

    > That is not quite what the US Founding Fathers did. […]

    I of course completely agree. The US (and French) founding oligarchs were very explicit about not aiming to create a democracy but a “republic” – a regime where power is entrusted to the “natural aristocracy” (their humble selves, as you point out).

    My point is that despite the founders’ own words, mainstream Western political science takes it for granted that they did create a democracy. This notion not only contradicts the founders own words, it also contradicts the liberal idea that an elite cannot be expected to act in the general interest unless it is constrained by competition, or some other incentivizing mechanism. If we accept that the Western founding fathers acted selflessly, maybe the Chinese communist elite is just as selfless and committed to the public interest?

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Simon: Thanks for this important take-down of the founders. The mythology surrounding this generation is entirely misplaced. What if they had lost the Revolutionary War? We’d be a super-rich, super-powerful version of Canada today, with no Civil war and much better race relations.

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  11. Human motivation is a hot mess. It is a mistake to base any political theory on some notion of what people generally are motivated to do. It is much easier to theorize about what people are motivated to do in specific situations. I don’t have to say that human nature is generally violent to predict that violence is likely if I put a single glass of water in front of a bunch of people dying in the desert.

    We know more about human cognition that human motivation. We know, for example, that people use reason for two purposes: to come to the best answer for themselves, and to convince others of something. The founders (and enlightenment thinkers generally) really only paid attention to the former. We know about both, and our challenge is to create the circumstances for one or the other as desired.

    What are the circumstances needed for the first use of reason? Privacy, disinterest, and anonymity. For the second? Exactly the opposite: Publicity, interest (i.e. having a stake), and fame. The question is how to sprinkle these two sets of conditions into the pie in order to achieve the system wide outcome we want.

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  12. Yoram,

    > a regime where power is entrusted to the “natural aristocracy” (their humble selves, as you point out).

    True, but of course they don’t say that in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, even though it is part of the point.

    The Constitution is of course in some ways a remarkably democratic document for the time, as is I think widely agreed. For example, the preamble begins “We the People,” (which is a commitment to democracy whether an honest one or not) and then sets out the purposes of the Constitution as including to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty …”

    The Declaration is also a remarkably democratic, such as stating “all men are created equal,” that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” and that the people have the right to change their form of government.

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  13. Simon,

    I am not as impressed with the constitution or the declaration as you seem to be. To me these are platitudinous, duplicitous documents that attempt to hide quite specific oligarchical ideas (which are explicated elsewhere) behind high sounding words.

    “We the people”, for example, is pure vanity. The authors of the document are nothing like the “people”. The fact that they see fit to claim to represent the people is a reflection of their elitist mindset.

    “Promoting the general welfare” is a standard claim by any regime. The question is who is going to determine what is in the general welfare. As far as the founders are concerned, the ability to judge issues of such importance is limited to the few, not the many. Somehow such dramatic differences in natural ability – and thus in well-deserved wealth, power, status – is completely consistent with “all men are created equal”.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Oliver “There is a world of difference between ‘tend to be’ and ‘without exception are’”. That sounds like a bit of a ‘trust me’ cop out!

    The failure of economists models in 2008 were not as you say because of dodgy lending, but from another of the economists’ simplifying assumption that money is not an operational variable.

    It seems to me that all hubristic Grand Theories should be treated as suggestive not explanatory. As with CV19 ‘test,test,test’

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  15. Yoram,

    I see the Constitution differently. The Constitution of the Founders, and also with the subsequent Amendments that greatly improved it, is (as we agree) very lacking in democracy.

    But basic premises endorsed in the Constitution, and expounded further in Lincoln’s statement about government by and for the people, are highly democratic, and imply a far more robust democracy than what exists.

    The present lack of democracy in the US is contrary to the basic statements of American democracy (just powers from the consent of the governed, all men created equal, right of the people to change their form of government, We the People, the general welfare, the blessing of liberty, and so on). For example, furthering the general welfare is not consistent with the domination of US politics by a corporate oligarchy.

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  16. Electoralism has an inherent tension between the oligarchical nature of the system and the democratic nature of the rhetoric that it promotes as part of the competition for votes. It is interesting to think about this tension as stretching all the way back to the wording of the founding documents of the electoralist regimes, where democratic slogans are being used as the justification for regimes that were deliberately designed as oligarchical.

    Liked by 1 person

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