Question (5/7): Many argue in favor of a “meritocracy” where less power will be given to the common people and all important decisions will be taken by a few exceptionally capable citizens in the name of the “common good”. Is this something that can realistically happen or will the utopia of meritocracy transform into a dystopia in reality? Wouldn’t it be better if we just leave politics to some really nice people to take care of it [I suppose, you understand that I’m just being sarcastic here]? What are the dangers behind the idea of meritocracy?
Answer: Isn’t this how our representative democracies are supposed to function by design: the best are elected to govern? And didn’t this form of meritocracy turn into plutocracy (government by the wealthy)?
The Federalists designed representation, not as a mirror of the people, but as a filtering system that selects the best and most capable citizens to exercise power on behalf of the people. They argued that the representatives know the public good better than the people themselves (Federalist 10). In essence they defended a political system that entrusts government to the elites (the propertied minority) and, out of fear, keeps the people out of it. That is what we call representative democracy; today it tends to take the form of a plutocracy. Judged by actual results and tendencies government by elites did not bring about peace and well-being, rather it has brought us permanent war and is pushing humanity to the brink of suicide.
It is perhaps helpful to distinguish between two views on democracy: a top-down or hierarchical view and an egalitarian view. The nature of society, humans and democracy appear to be very different in the ruler’s perspective than in the egalitarian perspective. Those in power usually prefer representative democracy that minimizes citizens’ power whereas for a majority of the people an egalitarian model of real democracy is preferable.
In a left tribute to Thatcher Slavoj Zizek wrote: “The large majority – me included – wants to be passive and rely on an efficient state apparatus to guarantee the smooth running of the entire social edifice, so that I can pursue my work in peace.” Zizek has no trust in ordinary people, they like to be inspired and agitated, but after the storm they want to return to their usual everyday political passivity. He doesn’t believe in people’s self-organisation and calls it “the last trap, the deepest illusion that should fall”. To free ourselves from our blind reliance on RD we need a Master – a Thatcher of the left – to pull us out of our political intertia and motivate us to participate in the emancipatory struggle for freedom. (Click to read Zizek’s article)
Ada Colau, long term activist and present mayor of Barcelona, holds an opposite position. Based on her experience as a spokesperson for the Spanish anti-eviction movement PAH she shows deep trust in ordinary people. “Delegating institutional politics to a few professionals and just voting every four years has been a disaster. Putting the control of public resources in the hands of the few has led to widespread corruption and criminal public policies. It’s up to our generation to democratize democracy, to take back our institutions to put them at the service of the people. (…) We feel able to do this because there are so many talented and dedicated people working to make this change happen (…).” (Click to read the source)
It is true that people power in the form of mass protest and agitation comes and goes; to make it durable it must be institutionalized, and this can be done in the form of direct democracy, a dynamic and disturbing element that makes change possible at all times and without the need of crisis. Direct democracy – people’s assemblies, the right to initiative and referendum – is not a myth to be discarded but a reality that exists and can be measured in centuries.