“Government by Discussion” Prabhat Patnaik

Professor Amartya Sen in his new book Collective Choice and Social Welfare which is a considerably expanded and updated version of his 1970 book with the same title, emphasizes that democracy must be understood as “government by discussion”. The idea of democracy being “government by discussion” really belongs to John Stuart Mill, though this particular phrase was coined by Walter Bagehot. The appeal of the idea lies in the fact that if government decisions are taken after public deliberations, then their opaqueness disappears; associated with it is a narrowing of the gap between those who “govern” and those who are “governed”.

Such narrowing is the essence of people’s empowerment. Electing a government every five years or so does not truly empower the people; their empowerment comes from their being able to influence government action, and they can do that only when such action is preceded by extensive public discussion in which they can participate.

Implicit in this notion of course is the belief that the people at large can participate meaningfully in public discussion on government policy, that such discussion cannot remain confined only to certain “experts”. This requires public education, and, not surprisingly, one of the hallmarks of all oppressive regimes is both to deny access to education to the people at large, and then to use this very fact of their lacking education to deny them any role in decision-making, on the grounds that the issues being decided are beyond their comprehension.The conception of “government by discussion” demands both public education and widespread public participation in discussions, on the basis of which alone policy decisions should be made.

The basic epistemological premise that the people are perfectly capable of participating meaningfully in discussions on policy issues affecting their lives, provided of course that education and information are not withheld from them, is common to both certain Liberal strands and the Left. The real difference between them arises with regard to the incompatibility between what can be loosely called “the structures” of the present capitalist society and the institution of a “government by discussion”. The difference may not be so much on the fact of this incompatibility as on the implications of this fact: while all versions of liberalism  that recognize this incompatibility would nonetheless hold that the “structures” of the capitalist society are malleable, the Left would hold that these “structures” are resistant, and that overcoming their resistance requires not social pressure but social transformation, i.e. a transcendence of these structures, and hence of the society that is characterized by them, and its replacement by an alternative society which actually makes “government by discussion”, or real democracy that overcomes the opaqueness of decision-making, possible.

Let me give an example to make this point clear. In Greece there was significant public discussion, even a referendum, on the question of the “austerity measures” imposed by the “troika” of financial institutions. The overwhelming bulk of the society was against such measures, but doing away with them required concessions to be made by this “troika”, i.e. by finance capital whose base lay beyond the Greek borders. And ultimately the will of finance capital prevailed over the wishes of the Greek people, so that the drastic “austerity measures” continued even under the Syriza government that had been elected precisely on the promise that it would do away with them. This is an example of “government by discussion” being undermined by the will of finance, i.e. a consensus among the people being defeated by the power of the capitalist “structures”.

But must this always happen? There were two quite distinct issues involved in the Greek case. The first was the fact that while the Greek State was a nation-State, the finance capital that confronted Greece was globalized finance. It was not under the jurisdiction of the Greek State, which could not therefore impose upon it the wishes of the Greek people. This fact is a consequence of globalization and gives finance in today’s world an immense power over countries that remain within the vortex of globalized finance; and those countries which may opt to get out of this vortex would face severe opposition from globalized finance. This is because any such opting out limits the area of operation of finance, curtailing its profits, and also poses a threat to its future in case others too choose to opt out.

The second is the fact that even in the absence of this “global-national” contradiction, there is a basic opposition between the interests of finance and those of the people who can no longer tolerate such “austerity”. This opposition would have been there even if the finance capital that was insisting upon such austerity was entirely based in Greece and hence nominally within the jurisdiction of the Greek State. And this opposition would be there even if the public discussion that occurred in Greece and produced a consensus against “austerity”, had got generalized to a setting wider than Greece itself, and produced a similar consensus against austerity among the European (or even the world) public as a whole, against pan-European (or even global) finance capital. (Indeed Amartya Sen, aware of the “global-national” dichotomy that has acquired such pertinence in the context of globalization, suggests that public discussion too should take an increasingly international character, a suggestion that had already made an appearance in Adam Smith’s writings).

If, say, within a particular country, the consensus among the people is for measures that go against the interests of finance capital, then this would affect the so-called “confidence of the investors”, which in turn will cause capitalists’ investment to fall, causing recession and unemployment. If the State does not undo the measure that led to such a denouement, which would mean either the State betraying the outcome of the public discussion, or the outcome of the public discussion itself changing because of the resistance of finance capital (both of which would entail a withdrawal from the earlier consensus), then it will have to step into the breach and itself undertake larger investment through the public sector. Such larger public investment in turn might further impinge adversely on capitalists’ investment decisions, further require stepping in by public investment, and so on, leading ultimately to a transcendence of the system.

But long before such an economic sequence leading towards a transcendence of the system would have got “peacefully” enacted, there would have been not-so-peaceful political attempts by finance capital, both to sabotage genuine public discussion and to ensure that the State paid no heed to it. Before the outcome of public discussion impinged adversely on finance, finance would have taken steps to nullify this outcome. (And, needless to say, when the implications of globalization, in the form of heightening the “global-local” dichotomy, are superimposed upon this picture, the tendency towards such nullification becomes infinitely stronger).

All this of course may not happen as the sequel to just one outcome of public discussion, which, in the case we have been discussing, relates to rolling back the “austerity measures”. But if we are thinking of “government through discussion” then the resistance of the “structures” of capitalism becomes a perennial hurdle to democracy so understood. The belief that this is not the case, and that an “equilibrium” can be reached at any level involving some co-existence of capitalist property alongside State intervention in deference to the outcome of public discussion, amounts to a belief in the malleability of “structures”.

This is the belief that Keynesianism, a quintessentially liberal doctrine, had entertained. But the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism and the “rolling back” of Keynesian demand management, to a point where “sound finance” and “fiscal responsibility” are now being successfully insisted upon even in the midst of a crisis, gives credence to a Left perspective rather than to a liberal perspective.

There is however a deeper matter here. Let us suppose for argument’s sake that the transcendence of capitalism is not necessary for effecting democracy as visualized by Professor Sen. Let us assume, to start with, that the State under pressure from public opinion undertakes certain measures that are resisted by capital; what I have argued above is that overcoming such resistance would entail an escalation of State intervention, but let us assume that such escalation need not be a persistent process, and that after some escalation a new “equilibrium” can be found where no further escalations become necessary.

But intervention must be escalated at least up to that point. Typically however even before that point is reached, intervention stops because the nerves of the “reformers” fail, and the outcome of the public discussion is sought to be so tailored that it adjusts such pusillanimity. Instead of public discussion influencing policy, the perceived limits of policy are made to impact on the outcome of public discussion.

This in fact is what “reformism” really amounts to. The difference between “reformism” and “revolutionism” lies not in the fact that one wants “reforms” while other does not (setting its sight only upon a revolution); it lies in the fact that the former backs down from reforms when the going gets tough, while the latter remains committed to the reforms. The Kerensky government backed down from “land, peace and bread”; the Bolshevik Revolution did not. And therein lay their difference.

Professor Sen’s characterization of democracy as “government through discussion” is important. “Structures” constitute an impediment to it. The point is not an abstract one of whether reforms demanded by such “discussion” can succeed or not within the capitalist system; the point is the concrete one of persisting with reforms. Revolution according to the above analysis is the outcome of a persistent commitment to reforms.

(The article was originally published in the People’s Democracy, Vol. XLI No. 09, February 26, 2017)