Democracy as decentralised power

If we think of politics as the instituted distribution of power then democracy will have to be conceived as a system of decentralised power. We may compare and contrast this to other systems such as autocracy where power is in the hands of a single ruler, oligarchy where it is in the hands of few people, aristocracy where it is held by a culturally-defined elite, technocracy where power is exercised by policy experts, ochlocracy where the mob reigns supreme, and so on.

In effect, modern republics do interpret democracy as a decentralisation of sorts. We may infer thus from the application of the principle of the division of powers. Different entities are tasked with pursuing the distinct functions of the state. The executive is separated from the legislative, which is different from the judiciary, which is distinct from the monetary, and so on. What the separation of powers does is to introduce a horizontal form of decentralisation among the functions of an otherwise uniform state. The separation of the state’s powers does not, in and of itself, guarantee the decentralised distribution of authority. It does however place constraints on the state with the objective to hamper any attempt at the accumulation of power in the hands of some of those who may happen to exercise it.

In a representative democracy, we may add that bottom-up legitimation is connatural with decentralisation. By that we mean that the process by which a relatively smaller collection of people gets to decide on behalf of a larger population starts from the broadest social group possible: the demos at-large. Representatives come from the body politic, decide on its behalf and for its well-being, yet they never assume the role of the demos as the final decider, for that would no longer qualify them as representatives. Ultimate authority rests in the demos. It is never forfeited nor transferred to a ruling elite. It is only delegated to smaller groups of people and only within a certain legal framework that, among others, guarantees the continuity of democratic rule.

Such bottom-up legitimation indicates a vertical form of decentralisation. Those who get to exercise power—the representatives of the demos—are not capable of depriving the demos from its legitimation function. They are designated as representatives because of—and thanks to—the decisions of the citizens. Further, and what the custom of periodic elections introduces, is that delegates cannot permanently deviate from their voters’ demands or concerns, for that would result in their removal from office.

The bane of a modern republic is the centralisation of authority, be it in its vertical or horizontal form. Our notion of decentralisation has been inferred from the proposition that politics is the instituted distribution of power. Attention should be given to the term “instituted”. This connotes a purpose, an intention, a social-cultural process that may be codified in law. We do not think of power as some natural phenomenon, for that would not be politics. The state of nature or the “law of the jungle” is the absence of politics. Instances of revolution or war are a form of cultural institution, where a given group seeks to change the established order in accordance with its own conception of political order. Such occasions may disrupt the stability of the state or states involved, yet their ultimate objective is to introduce a new type of stability within which social peace may be achieved. This is not to suggest that they are necessarily right or wrong. One cannot make definitive judgements in the abstract. It only is to claim that the disruption of a certain establishment aims at creating another status quo rather than at perpetual strife.

Modern republics are constituted as such. The constitution is the state’s primary law. It is a legal corpus that establishes a given set of parameters for the realisation of practical morality, while setting out the modal features of the distribution of power. The word “constitution” also means “composition”. The state’s primary law, apart from being its legal cornerstone, is also a purposeful organisation of its inner structure.

Strictly speaking, a republic is not necessarily democratic. It is a state operating in accordance with the rule of law whose raison d’être is to promote and to preserve the common good, the res publica. The interpretation of what may the common good be will determine the quality of the state. In a democracy the res publica can only be conceived in relation to the demos, its well-being, its capacity to maintain its legitimation function. From this perspective, we may posit that the res publica is good inasmuch as it is enjoyed by all, and common so long as it is good (since the good qua good has to be universalisable).

Democracy is the system for conceiving the common good as a function of the decentralised distribution of power. Democracy is not the “rule of the many”. Though decisions may typically be adopted in accordance with a majority vote, their qualitative features must always comply with a certain corpus of rules that guarantee the application of practical morality. The notion of “majority rules” if applied without any reference to a framework of rules can only be a form of actual or potential tyranny: the rule of the mob, or the rule of a dominant group over the rest of society.

If a democratic system degenerates to the point where power becomes abusive or concentrated in a certain person or group thereof, then the institution of decentralisation is abolished or inwardly corrupted. A democracy is not instituted once by means of introducing a constitution. Decentralisation is continuous, exercised and understood as such through the conduct of day-to-day politics. No legal document can, in and of itself, guarantee the instituted decentralisation of power. What rules do is frame the conduct of individuals and groups within the polity. It is for this reason that democracy cannot just be exogenously imposed on any given people, but rather has to emanate from—or be anchored in—their own cultural will.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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