Let's all be accountable ....
Except to the people, that is.
In a democracy, we expect the affairs of a country to be managed, as far as possible, according to what the people want. This is not easy to do in practice, especially with the current system of elite representative democracy, but it does happen to some extent. What is much more problematic is when other, unelected, actors, insert themselves into political decision-making. Whilst this is often defended as “accountability," and therefore good, it is more correct to see it as part of an internal struggle within dominant elites to control and influence the direction of a country, in a context where the people can no longer be relied upon. So what are the structures here, and what are the processes at work?
We’ll start with a recent event. You may have noticed that the second round of the French parliamentary elections took place on 19 June. Something quite extraordinary happened. The populist, right-wing, National Assembly (RN) party of Marine Le Pen won 89 seats out of 577, more than any other individual opposition party. Nobody (and certainly not Le Pen) had expected this, and bewildered commentators asked themselves, how could this happen? Or more precisely, how could this have been allowed to happen? In fact, the technical explanation of how was quite simple: for once, the two-round system of French politics had functioned correctly, and the RN’s share of the vote gave them approximately a proportionate number of seats.
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But it wasn’t supposed to work like that. It has been accepted for decades that the French electorate was morally obliged to ensure, by voting tactically, that the RN never received its fair share of the parliamentary seats. This was described as the “republican barricade," against the evil of the RN. In 2017, it still worked, but in 2022 it didn’t. The incomprehension of French elites has been something to behold: how could the French electorate have failed in its duty in such a fashion? Now, it’s true that the original National Front (FN) of Le Pen’s father, was a pretty unsavoury organisation and well worth voting against. But that was in the days of reasonably representative, reasonably mass political parties, where ordinary working class and lower middle-class people had alternatives to the FN to vote for. By removing that option, by transforming politics in France into what it is in most countries, a team sport played between different factions of the political elite, the establishment has driven a large segment of the population towards a party about which many people have legitimate doubts. Clever, that.
There is nothing especially abstruse about this process, and you really don’t need learned books, research programmes and insights from the psychoanalysis of the authoritarian personality to understand it. People tend to vote for parties that represent, or at least acknowledge, their interests, and if a party no longer does that, they will stop voting for the party, or stop voting altogether. This was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the move towards elite Professional and Managerial Class (PMC)-based political parties. (It’s worth noting that some, at least, of Macron’s party tried the same trick against Mélenchon’s LFI, on the other side of the political spectrum.)
But simply relying on imposing a moral obligation to vote against populist parties of Left or Right is risky. What happens if the people can no longer be trusted to do that? How do you ensure the wrong people don’t get elected and the wrong choices made? In the past, for as long as there were genuine differences between parties, and parties themselves had mass memberships, the problem was containable. Most people were prepared to go along with the system, believing that their vote could change things, if only at the margins. That’s no longer true, and not only do people increasingly not vote, which is awkward in a democracy, but when they do vote, it might be essentially a vote of protest against the system, out of a desire to demonstrate a lack of faith in it. So other methods have been required as well.
What I’m describing here is not actually an elite conspiracy, although I suppose it could seem like one. Rather, it’s a product of the fact that in most western countries there is now a professional political class, with links of family and education to similar classes in the media, professional and intellectual worlds, who mostly think alike, and who believe, and tell each other, that they know what’s best, and so should be allowed to rule. This political class itself is drawn from a far narrower and far more homogeneous group than at any point in modern history. (When I was a small child, we lived near a street named after Keir Hardie, the first leader of the British Labour Party, who grew up in desperate poverty, was sent out to work at the age of seven, and at the age of ten was working in the coal mines. I wonder if the current Labour leader, by coincidence called Keir something-or-other, has ever even heard of him?) So this professional political class, narrowly based and insulated from much of real life, but with close and overlapping contacts with other parts of the establishment, naturally thinks that it knows best, and that we need guidance, as well as correction if we make the wrong decisions.
But this class is only part of a larger PMC, which also includes the traditional establishment professions: law, education, banking, the media, the public service and so forth. Structurally, we can look at much of the rhetoric around the functioning of today’s political system as different expressions of the class power of the PMC, and to some extent a reflection of the competition for power and influence within it. It’s not an exact analogy, but the organisation of, say, the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union, with its selective membership, its universal grip on society, and its internal struggles between factions, is not a bad analogy to the all-embracing elites of the kind most western societies have today. The pressure for “accountability” is thus both a mechanism for checking the behaviour of governments who might do the wrong thing, and a reflection of the genteel power struggles that go on within any elite group.
In principle, “accountability” sounds a good idea. Governments, we are told, should be “accountable” before Parliament. They should be “held to account” by the courts, the media, and even that strange and perhaps mythical beast “civil society.” But in practice, there are a series of problems.
The first is what is actually being referred to in real life. What does “accountability” feel like? How does having it feel different from not having it? How would anyone know if you (or they) were “accountable” or not? What is the actual result of being “held to account,” by, say, the media? After more than thirty years spent in government, I have to admit that I have no idea, and as far a I know, nobody else does, either. It becomes clearer if we think of this vocabulary as code for different power relationships. The analogy, as often with Liberal political ideas, is with a private company. At the end of the year, the company accountant produces accounts which have to be submitted to another accountant for an independent audit. There is therefore a structural power relationship involved, since an auditor could refuse to certify the accounts. What does this have to do with government?
Not much, except insofar as you accept the Liberal conception of politics, which is essentially that the electorate is a contract-awarding authority which engages one of a series of competing contractors to run the country for a period, after which their performance is audited, and they may or may not be re-hired. But most people don’t see politics like that. It’s true that on issues of public expenditure and project management, parliamentary bodies can sometimes do good work, and pose useful questions on behalf of taxpayers and citizens. But that’s not all that advocates for “accountability” usually have in mind.
Rather, they see government and parliament as quite separate entities, neither of which should be too powerful, and each of which in turn should be obliged to share power with the courts. Now this is effectively the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, usually attributed to Montesquieu when he wrote briefly about the English system in The Spirit of Laws (1748). He suggested that this system was superior to the Absolutist system of France, where the King had all the elements of power in his hands. In England, he argued, the Executive (the Monarch) had to share power with Parliament (essentially landowners at that point) and the Courts. In that way, the oligarchy that ran the country was better balanced, and each group could have a share in power. The group that was missing, of course, was the people, even the middle classes: only about five per cent of the adult population had the vote.
In 1748, it was possible to think of “the Executive” and “Parliament” as being quite separate things. That’s obviously not the case in most countries today, where everybody has the vote, and the Executive is often just the party that controls Parliament because it has most seats. In such cases, the idea of “parliamentary accountability” is essentially meaningless, because parliament is not really a separate actor, still less a coherent one. I would suggest, indeed, that it’s logically impossible to be “accountable” to a body of which you are in fact part. Take a simple example. A government is elected by a majority of the population on a platform of radical economic reforms, including higher taxes for the wealthy, which it then proceeds to implement through the majority it commands in Parliament. In what sense, if at all, is it “accountable” to the members of the party that lost the election, who want to see taxes for the wealthy cut?
Everybody, I think, would accept that governments owe the people an “account” of what they are doing and what they intend to do, and part of this must include, for example, explaining what proposed laws mean, defending positions against criticism, and seeking support in a parliament. But that is best seen as a democratic duty imposed on governments by the need to serve the people. In that sense, parliament can be considered an agent of the people. To see it as a vaguely defined right of other parts of the political system makes much less sense.
The real structural function of “accountability” in a Liberal parliamentary system is two-fold. First, Liberal political theory considers politics as a bit like a sports competition: you win some, you lose some. Not all of the players are in successful teams, not everyone can be in government at the same time, and indeed not everybody wants to be. But by diffusing power in this way, and by creating structural power relationships, everybody gets something, and then there’s another match, and perhaps the roles change. After all, you yourself may be in opposition next year. And if you are not in government, and not going to be, you may still have access or even influence, and this will do you no harm in other future (or indeed concurrent) professions you may choose. The other structural reason is to find ways of slowing, down or even stopping, government initiatives which elites do not approve of. A government with a strong mandate on a controversial issue can still find itself obstructed by all sorts of parliamentary manoeuvrings.
If the issue of “accountability” is problematic in parliament, it is even more so when the courts are involved. Now, at first sight this may seem strange. After all, governments are obliged to obey the law, aren’t they? This a constant, whether the system follows the Anglo-Saxon Rule of Law norms, or those of continental Europe, such as the French État de droit. Clearly, a government is not the right actor to decide whether, overall, it is acting legally, nor whether its every act is consistent with the law it says it is implementing. In all countries (some more than others) courts have a quite proper role in adjudicating such issues. So where is the problem?
Essentially, we go back to Montesquieu, or at least the way in which he is understood. Government has always been regarded by Liberal political theory as a necessary evil at best. Thus, like Parliament, the Courts exist to protect the average property-owner against overreach by the Executive. Indeed, in a truly Liberal state, the functions of government were traditionally limited to enforcement of contracts and protection of property rights. The idea that government might actually be necessary, and even useful, for wider purposes is a much more recent development, linked to the rise of democracy and mass political parties, and is an idea which Liberals still have trouble with. Thus, they believe governments should be subject to correction and oversight by other parts of the system, in case they become too powerful, or are elected to do the wrong things. At the same time, other parts of the PMC—journalists, NGOs, politicians from minority parties—also increasingly turn to the courts in the hope of furthering their ambitions and increasing their influence.
One of the consequences of this way of thinking has been to turn courts from interpreters of law into makers of policy. Obviously, judges are not machines, and different judges will interpret the law in different ways, but at least it’s the law that is at issue. But recently, both national and international courts have been asked to rule on issues which are only “legal” in the sense that the appellants justify their claims with reference to a Constitution, or to an international agreement of some kind. And increasingly, under the rubric of “soft law,” courts take into account in their judgements documents which are not legal in nature at all: declarations, resolutions, even communiqués after international meetings. Often, judges are being asked to overturn legislation voted by national parliaments.
In many cases, appellants bring before such courts issues which are not legal at all. The proper and honest response for judges to make would be to recognise that fact, and to say that the issues are not legal issues and the texts cited do not help to decide them. But judges are human beings, and few human beings, and even fewer institutions, will willingly forego a chance for greater influence and useful publicity. And in any case, the motives of appellants are often purely political: not expecting to win the case, but hoping to change the policies of governments by generating negative publicity. It’s hard to argue that courts have any inherent legitimacy in such cases: after all, parliamentarians from even the most minor and obscure political parties have actually been elected.
If “accountability” is therefore questionable in the case of courts, it is even more so for the media, NGOs and “civil society," which are in practice overlapping and competing parts of the PMC ecosystem. Now it goes without saying that both journalists and NGOs can do, and have done, useful and important work. But it’s quite wrong to present them, as sometimes happens, as though they were countervailing powers, preaching at government from a position of moral superiority (an idea that does not survive much close contact with either the media, or many NGOs). In particular, there is a dangerous and counter-productive tendency to see both the media and NGOs locked into an oppositional relationship with government, forever uncovering scandals, revealing secrets and generally acting as agents of resistance on behalf of society. Once again, this is an attitude which reflects traditional Liberal distrust of government in any form. Similarly, groups asserting that they speak for various ethnic or gender components of society, and usually headed by members of the PMC, have succeeded in extracting concessions and money from governments, outside the recognised political procedures.
So the easiest way to understand the structures and processes behind the discourse of “accountability” is to see it as the way that the PMC argues and negotiates with itself, in a world of overlapping circles of power and influence, where no one centre can be allowed to become too powerful. After all, the elites move between the various spheres, and sometimes occupy them simultaneously: a politician may go on to a lucrative media career, a lawyer may also advise and work for NGOs. If one part of the ecosystem seems to be getting a little out of control, other parts can step in to restore order. Above all, the system is multiply redundant in obstructing attempts from any quarter to challenge its power, or to advance the interests of ordinary people.
The best metaphor I can think of to encapsulate this ecosystem would be an extended upper-middle class family of high achievers in the traditional liberal professions. So one child has gone into law, another into banking, a third into the media, a cousin is in politics, another is a diplomat, another cousin runs a high-profile NGO. Conversation around the table at Christmas is relatively limited in scope, because they all share very much the same sets of ideas, but becomes animated when the talk is of who gets to use the family second home and when, who pays for the upkeep and repairs, and what shall we do with the apartment that Granny left and shall we sell it or rent it out?
Liberalism, the dominant political force in modern western societies, has been elitist since its conception: it’s just that we are more conscious of that now, as the gap between the interests and preoccupations of ordinary people and the PMC continues to grow all over the world. But maybe I am being a little unfair in singling only Liberalism out for criticism. The sociologist Robert Michels developed what he called the Iron Law of Oligarchy, based partly on his experiences in the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War. All organisations, he argued, even the most faultlessly democratic, ultimately wind up being run by a “leadership class” which takes decisions and renews itself. Anyone who has observed, or participated in, organisations large or small, is likely to find this argument persuasive, but it’s clear that, beyond a certain level of complexity, it applies to nations as well. Perhaps the PMC is, in part, a natural consequence of a complex society
The problem is the rest of us, and especially those whose only relationship to the PMC will be that of a servant class. What most people seem to want is not accountability “to parliament” or accountability “before the law” or anything similar: they want governments to be accountable to them, in a way which they evidently are not at the moment. In earlier times, pitchforks were brought into play when all else had failed. These days, governments are supposed to be accountable to the people, albeit in a clumsy and indirect fashion, but this is less and less true in practice. Ironically, if all this were a conspiracy, then the problem would be easier to manage. It’s one thing to try to confront people who are just interested in power: it’s another case entirely if they are irretrievably convinced that they are morally superior to you.
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