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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 29 – Mill on Representative Government

The utility of free speech, then, lies in preventing a tyranny of the majority and in insuring continued progress towards the liberal utopia of a capitalist society of class harmony and friendly individual competition. As this society develops materially and intellectually it will begin to approach the day when all political questions can be settled scientifically. Unfortunately, until that day has come substantially nearer, the tyranny of mediocre conformity must be prevented, and not only through persuasion, not only through appeals to long-run self-interest, but also through a limitation of the political power of the working majority.

One of Mill ‘s biggest worries, you will recall, was that of “class legislation”. The landowners are still dangerous, feudal survivals are still dangerous, but the rising working class is even more dangerous. One the one hand Mill wants the working class to acquire political power, because it is, to a significant extent, through political participation that it will be elevated. On the other hand, Mill trembled at the thought that the working class would use its political power to establish a compulsory minimum wage, or a tax on machinery, or a graduated income tax… Anything that interfered with capitalism as a system of production Mill assumed to be contrary to the greatest good of the greatest number. Because material progress is very important to raising the general level of prosperity and therefore making it possible for individuals to lift their noses from the grindstone and open themselves to the elevating influences of politics, education and so forth.

How will the progress of utilitarian enlightenment take place in this situation, when the working class would be almost certain to use its political power against what Mill regarded as their own long-run self-interest? How can the civilizing vanguard do their work? Really the problem is even more difficult, because Mill thought that while the average middle class person was more enlightened than the average working class person , the middle class as a whole was itself still much in need of elevation. In his words, the whole English people, not just the lower classes, were characterized by “trampling, crushing, elbowing and treading on each other’s heels”. So really the hopes for progress would have to come from a very small minority.

Mill’s qualified approval of what he thought was socialism, and his view that as capitalism develops it will more and more take on cooperative features, could suggest to some a similarity with Marx’s idea that capitalist society inherently contains forces that are moving it in the direction of socialism. But Marx’s notion is that capitalism is inherently self-contradictory; it must eventually self-destruct, whether in the direction of socialism or barbarism. What emerges out of capitalism in conflict is a very different system. Mill is saying something quite different: that the as yet unrealized essence of capitalism is something very much like his qualified socialism, his liberal utopia. For Mill, capitalism is developing this, its own inner nature, slowly and peacefully, without the necessity of wrenching conflict. Gradually the crushing, elbowing and trampling is giving way to the utopia of rational, free, equal, harmonious, cooperative competitors. The main obstruction to this development is the presence of feudal survivals. If we defeudalize capitalism completely, then capitalism could show its real stuff. And that, of course is its facilitation of the utmost development of the capacities of the individual. Some people still believe that the only thing wrong with capitalism is that it has not yet been tried.

In realizing that there was an incompatibility between the present inequalities of wealth and power in capitalist societies and his goal of the utmost development of all the specifically human capacities, Mill ran up against what some people think is the fundamental dilemma of liberalism : that it believes very strongly in equality of opportunity which, even without “feudal survivals”, ends up producing a situation in which equality of opportunity is impossible. It is, in other words, a self-contradictory goal, a self-destructing paradox. There is perhaps only one thing that could alter that, and it is extremely illiberal: a scheme such as Plato outlined in the Republic which, translated into our own society would mean an automatic 100% inheritance tax and the removal of all children from their homes a few years after birth to be subjected to an absolutely common upbringing.

In Mill’s view, however, there need not be an absolute equality of opportunity. Inequality is not per se a moral failure. It is bad only in its consequences, as an obstacle to the improvement of mankind. Moreover, the gross inequality that Mill witnessed is not to be attributed to capitalism itself, to capitalism in its ideal purity. It is therefore a remediable evil. Capitalism, as a real historical system, has unfortunately grown out of feudalism, which was based on force. But capitalism per se is not based upon forced, but upon ability and merit. Thus for Mill, over time, the result of economic development as it became more perfectly capitalist, would be a tendency to equalization. The position Mill is trying to hold is that the system of production is separable from the system of distribution. The inequalities in distribution are an unnecessary distortion introduced by the survival of large feudal concentrations of wealth and power. But the system of capitalist private property is just in itself.

As Mill’s career progressed, however, he began increasingly to advocate state intervention in the economy. But this was not to take place in the sphere of production. State intervention was not to interfere with the laws of capitalist production. Which are the laws of nature for Mill as much as they were for Locke or earlier utilitarianism. Interference with those would be a critical thrust at the heart of material progress. However, it is possible to interfere on the side of distribution in order to remedy some of the gross inequalities and lay a foundation for other aspects of progress.  So Mill adds his voice to those of other prominent liberals who were moving in the direction of what we now call the welfare state. The principle of the welfare state already appears in Mill’s work on political economy, where he allows state interference in cases where certain beneficial activities cannot be provided by private industry and in cases where individuals cannot take care of themselves. There, the state can be seen as “a mutual insurance company for helping that large percentage of its members who cannot help themselves.” And, indeed, many welfare state schemes are run along the lines of state-run, non-profit insurance.

Some people persist in calling this socialism, but it is the principle of the modern welfare state. It is not yet even Mill’s own version of  “qualified socialism”. Basically, the liberal model of life in society, as a rat race, persists. The welfare state merely attempts to make the race less heated, less “do or die”. Competition is still the motor, but it becomes more humane. There is pity and a “helping hand up” for the “losers”. As competitors gets more enlightened  about their self-interest, boom or bust, succeed or fail will turn more and more into a friendly, cooperative rivalry. The rats will no longer be biting and shoving each other. Also, a floor will be built under the race, so that when one of the weaker individuals falls out of it, he need no longer fall into hopeless dependence on the charity of others. Society will provide a welfare floor so that those thrust out of the race can, in a sort of limbo or purgatory, take stock of themselves, gather their energies, and preserve the hope of some day getting back in.

But what about the state itself? Mill’s presupposition is that the more education, and particularly education through political participation there is, the more people will become rational. But until that happens they are likely to be tyrannical if given power. In order to prevent this, Mill proposes, simultaneously, that the people must be allowed a share in power, for the sake of their education in rationality, and that there is also the need for a temporary hegemony or even dictatorship of the vanguard of the bourgeoisie (my terms, not his). His fullest account of this political order is to be found in Representative Government. This temporary dictatorship can wither away, in the fullness of time, when the people are properly educated. In order to construct this hegemony, Mill proposes a number of interlocking institutional schemes that do not need to be gone into in detail. But they must at least be mentioned.

First comes a limited franchise. Those without an ability to read, write or do arithmetic are excluded from voting, as are those on poor relief, because they had failed in the market. Bankrupt persons who had not discharged their debts were to be excluded, as were a much larger group, those who did not pay direct taxes (i.e. pretty much everybody who did not own at least some land, such as the land their house was built on). Mill’s fear is shown in these exclusions, which aim at members of the working class who are “irresponsible” and who show evidence of not having and/or understanding their stake in the system.

Second, there is plural voting which, in short, means more votes for wealthy and especially educated individuals than for poor individuals. The electorate is to be divided into categories according to wealth, education and, primarily, occupation, with members of the lowest category to have one vote and members of the highest to have five or six. You might say that this is frightfully undemocratic, and it is. But it should not be forgotten that today we have a de facto system in which 30-40% of the electorate do not even vote, even for elections for high office. And the top 3-5% do a great deal more than vote.

Next there is a requirement for a second legislative chamber to restrain the more democratic lower house. This is a tory or traditionalist Whig notion that is odd to find in a modern liberal, and for which earlier utilitarianism, including James Mill, had no use. Very dear to John Stuart, and also along these tory lines, was his proposal for an unelected legislative commission. Actual legislation was not to be drawn up in the House of Commons, but by a special agency consisting of the expert and the wise. It is they who would initiate and formulate legislation. The House of Commons will only deliberate, suggest revisions, accept or reject. In other words, Mill is opposed to the idea of the popular mandate, which brings up the next point, the abolition of pledges. Members of Parliament are not, as conditions for re-election, to be expected to follow particular policies. Parliaments were to run for a maximum of seven years, as they did then, and not for one year, as James Mill proposed. Elections were not to take place by secret ballot, but openly. And finally, and perhaps most characteristic of Mill, was his requirement for a specific scheme of proportional representation (specifically the one devised by a man named Hare). Mill thought that this scheme would ensure that minorities, and especially minorities of intellectuals, would find their way in increasing numbers into the House.

Through these various devices Mill thought that the wiser citizens would have a disproportionate and deciding influence in the policy making process and in the politics of the country, and at least hold the balance of power in Parliament. The tyranny of the majority would be prevented while the atmosphere of political discussion, and social life in general, would be elevated. This would be educative for the masses of the people and would help to elevate them progressively, over time, so that at some indeterminate point in the future, schemes like this would have outlived their usefulness, and the institutional, legally based superiority of “the wise” might begin to whither away.

The utilitarian bourgeois intellectual (as a latter day philosopher king) is set to self-destruct or whither away in an indefinite period of time. At that time the common person will have been raised into sufficient rationality to achieve his glory, which is to let the better minds lead. At the same time he/she will be sufficiently morally reformed by participation in politics and decision-making (especially at the lower levels, in the sorts of things handled by local governments such as libraries, sewer systems, traffic regulations…) that she/he will willingly give his/her energy to the community in the full knowledge that the long-run self-interest of everyone coincides, that in a cooperatively run capitalist welfare-state there are no longer reasons for holding on to the illusion of class conflicts.

What is distinctive of the wise, until that time, is their rationality; as opposed to the ordinary person, especially the ordinary member of the “operative classes”. Rationality is knowledge of one’s own long-run self-interest and knowledge that this is identical, or at least compatible, with the greatest good of the greatest number. The superior people are those free of “sinister interests”. A sinister interest, a phrase originating with Bentham and James Mill, is not what Rousseau had called a particular interest. Liberalism recognizes only particular wills. A sinister interest is a particular will oriented to the short term only. If an interest is oriented to the long run, if it is enlightened, then it becomes apparent that everyone’s interests, although selfish, are in harmony – ultimately and essentially in harmony.

This is a notion basic to modern reform liberalism. The interests of all classes are essentially but ultimately in harmony. All class conflicts concern only apparent or short-run interests. To be rational means to be detached from the urgency of immediate self-interest, to be in a position to bring all parties into harmony with their own long-run self-interest, and thus with each other.  Only those who are well-educated and comfortable enough to take the long view, can be detached and critical. Karl Mannheim, the 20th century sociologist, would call this person the “free floating intellectual”. And this is pretty much what Mill considers himself and people like himself to be – the vanguard of the liberal bourgeoisie and as such the vanguard of the whole people. The bourgeoisie turns out to be the universal class, the class whose interests are identical with those of humanity as a whole. And the detached, critical intellectuals are those members of the bourgeoisie who are best able to perceive its true long-run class interests as the interests of the entire people. Although this vision has in common with toryism a very high valuation of harmony and the notion that the whole is ultimately and fundamentally unconflicted, it is not really tory.  It is not a vision of societ as an organic unity of hierarchically arranged classes, with the “best” as the brain of the whole thing.

When they have become rational individuals everyone will prefer poetry to pushpin and a sort of friendly, harmonious, gentlemanly rivalry will organically take the place of the cut-throat competition and brutish grasping that characterized the capitalist economy of the time. So Mill’s plan is for what has been called a “sociocracy”, rather than for the more narrow technocracy favoured by earlier utilitarianism. The earlier utilitarian idea was that government could essentially consist in more or less scientific survey research with public policy being the technical adjustment of action to the express wishes of the voters. We leave it to the experts to determine what the people want and how to deliver what they want more efficiently. This is the sort of “techno-democracy” which is a very important part of liberal-democratic ideology today. Mill’s sociocratic ideal, where the wise are educating the less wise, where the ends of government are formed by the informed rather than the uninformed, where democracy consists more in training in citizenship and participation rather than in getting what you want, is much further from us.

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