Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 3/3

Shmuel Lederman: “Representative Democracy”

Lederman’s intervention began with a theme quite familiar to this forum but one that still surprises the general public, probably due to our prevailing Whiggish and/or mythological approach to teaching political history—at least in the US.

Until the 19th century, elections were considered “an anti-democratic or aristocratic form of government.” It was assumed that winners of elections would be powerful or celebrity-like figures, Lederman underscored. The question that he attempts to answer is, “how did elections come to be associated with ‘democracy’ beginning in the early 1800s?” In an upcoming APSR [I think] article he argues that European Imperialism and Colonialism had to do with the recognition of elections as “democratic.” Lederman reasons that one cannot separate—as Western political theorists have—John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on the proper form of government for India (and other “barbarian and semi-barbarian” parts of the world)–tutelage or “enlightened despotism”–from his thoughts on “the only rational form of government” (for civilized Europeans) generally. You “cannot take out the East India Co.” from Mill’s thought and be left with something democratic, insists Lederman.

Rather, Lederman explained, there is a common thread between the “civilizing” trope in regard to the “backward” places on Earth in the 19th century and the “meritocracy” myth behind today’s electoral representative government. “Enlightened despotism” and “representative government” were and remain mutually reinforcing ideas.

Lederman underscores that there were democratic alternatives to representative government at the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier). There were, for example, among workers’ movements schemes for pyramidal council systems that would involve the population as a whole in decision making. The very fact that Mill, like the American founders and French republicans, had to make a case for representative government reflects the fact those alternatives were seen as a threat. [One might add that perhaps humans are not by nature simply willing to let others rule over them; but that might get this blog censored for being “populist.”] Evidence that the council system and freedom as self-government, the themes of Arendt’s On Revolution, were not mere aberrations in her political thinking, Lederman adds, can be found in her letters to her long-time friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. In the letter Arendt expresses her pleasure that the book earned his “approval,” because “every word you wrote strikes at the very heart of what I mean to say… Heinrich’s experience, of councils, to the experience of America.”

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