“But that’s undemocratic!” Ruthless Criticism

“But that’s undemocratic!”

Notes on a popular bad habit in public debate

No doubt: somebody who argues this way does not agree with something. But instead of accusing the other of what he does, he accuses him of what he fails to do, thus doesn’t do: the opponent’s conduct falls short in showing respect for the democratic process. So from the outset this criticism doesn’t aim at identifying the antagonism which criticism always presupposes, but the opponent’s authorization. Instead of arguing out the perceived conflict, thus tackling the matter of disagreement, one tries to commit the opponent to a recognized standard, to honor a common value which he allegedly tramples.

This attempt is always paradoxical. One does not take a stand in the name of one’s own interest. That doesn’t come up, even though it’s the driving force for the anger. Rather, one criticizes the other in the name of an allegedly offended value – and thereby documents that one is ready to make one’s own interest – the reason for the annoyance – relative to it, because one wants to demand the same of the opponent. One accuses him of reneging on the democratic process, thus of not subordinating his interest to this standard. One believes, paradoxically, that an opponent who is accused of putting his interest above the democratic procedure, thus of not giving a damn about the esteemed value, can at the same time be counted on, by the mere appeal to democratic values, to nevertheless still subordinate his interest to them. Vice versa, this attempt to appeal to a common higher value rather than to criticize can, however, also be turned against the critic himself: if everything depends on adherence to democratic procedures, objections are dropped if the opposite side can prove that everything took place according to the “rules of democracy.”

Rarely, in appealing to common democratic values, do critics want to follow this implication of their own argument. The popularity of the objection “undemocratic” performs the proof that apparently anything served according to law and rights is harmless. But only because these critics – against all the facts – allow their own kind of dogmatism: actually, if everything would have “really” happened “truly” democratically, the same result would not have come out as the one that did. They trace the decision which doesn’t suit them back to the method by which its came about, and say that it simply couldn’t be democratic – with this result. As if democratic procedures were invented so that all interests find consideration!

These critics are seldom shy in providing evidence that those they criticize lack a willingness to show consideration for others: they are castigated for “locking themselves behind the authority of their office,” as if the responsibility of an office holder was not established so that he can decide according to his own discretion; “formal-legal” arguments are attacked, as if the one criticized is “really” not entitled to the rights he invokes. The main and general point is always the “unwillingness to engage in dialog” on the part of the one under attack, as if readiness to talk about everything would also guarantee that everything is considered. Even the demanded and so seldom held vote, whether it is now legally scheduled or not, indicates whether one decides “autocratically” and does not – as would be proper – hand over his interest, on an equal footing alongside all others, to a vote for everybody’s evaluation. In short: that which, in the opinion of these critics, signifies democracy is missing all over the place. Thus good faith in the philanthropic meaning of democratic procedures always plays the lead role in the critique.

An impartial view of this procedure could show that it is not about consideration of others, but that the whole vote is a method of bullying others: Everyone knows that the vote is decided by the majority. The winner of the vote acquires the right to brush aside the interests of the minority. The minority has to submit to the majority vote and accept that their own interests don’t apply.


Which of several clashing interests will prevail, and which are left by the wayside, is actually the only decsion that a vote can bring about. If it were simply about deciding what is to be done, one must discuss the project and the means to realize it. For substantive decisions, voting would be counter-productive. However, such substantive debates imply a common interest in the substance dealt with. Whoever calls for a vote assumes that, to the contrary, there is nothing to discuss. It thus starts from irreconcilable interests between which it wants to bring about a decision. And voting is only good for this: to decide which interest should prevail over the others.

It is also no mystery why so many praise the vote as an achievement of civilization. They so take for granted the antagonism of interests which they find in capitalism that they think the war of all against all is an alternative that always remains in force. Only if one considers it the most natural thing in the world that the advantage of one is always the disadvantage of the other, if one fears all-around war – in comparison with that, the domination of the minority then seems a desirable recourse.


It is not even true that voting could prevent conflicts from erupting by bringing about a binding decision for everyone. Voting can not produce a bindingness of the outcome. If it is indeed only a vote, then each person is free to compare the majority decision with his interest and align this interest in accordance with the result of the vote. Every loser in the vote can consider whether he supports the result for the sake of the common ground that preceded the vote and is “strained” by this – or whether he doesn’t support it because the differences outweigh their common ground. Then he doesn’t want to be the dominated minority of the majority and parts ways with the others. Resignations and splits are part of political parties and membership groups because people who want something different have to go their own way.


If it is not left up to the voters whether they accept the result, if the vote is thus binding for all involved, then that is because the result is made binding. That, however, can only be the act of a power standing above the voters that can force everyone and forces them to accept the result completely regardless of their own interests. The bindingness of the result for all the opposing interests of the voters exists only as an act of a supreme force which has subordinated all interests.

Contrary to all rumors that “we all” have handed over only “our responsibility” to the state, this force must exist before that and regardless of the antagonistic interests which it permits and imposes cooperation on. Antagonistic interests which by themselves are not at all capable of common ground do not come to a consensus. That must be imposed on them – by a power which subjects them all equally and whose decisions they all have to obey. Mutual subordination under the state force is the precondition of every binding vote. That then is what the voters’ common ground consists of: they are all subjects of the state force. And that is a common ground that does not at all exist between their interests.


If only the state with its power can ensure the bindingness of resolutions that are not to the liking of a good part of those affected, then the vote is also its work. It decides where it allows the vote, where it manditorily dictates it, and where “democracy is out of place.” It schedules a vote or calls it off according to its discretion. In short: the supreme force organizes voting as its means, and not only where the antagonisms of the bourgeois world should take a procedural form useful to the state.

The whole voting process has its starting point in the democratic state power’s relation to its subjects, where it comes into its own: in the election, this “highlight of democracy,” nothing is decided anyway, but consent is acceded. The citizen may “choose” between the different figures who run for political offices in which the reasons of state have already been long defined. And the citizen always says “yes” to the reasons of state, to the purposes of rule, when he “decides” whether he prefers a Republican or Democrat or maybe a Green for president. It would certainly be absurd if, of all things, the supreme force let the sovereign use of its power be given by those it rules over.

But even here – in the highest echelons of power – it proves its value, that it can then give a medium between antagonistic interests, only when this is undisputed in advance – and that elections are only good when they stage-manage acclamation. Only if the exercise of power is stable may elections “decide” something, namely: who may exercise it. In a power struggle for a real alternative state leadership, no vote in the world could prevent a civil war.

By the way, these critics themselves recognize that democracy is a process of exercising power and nothing else. The meaning and purpose of the whole procedure – the “yes” to being ruled – becomes the theoretical yardstick for every criticism: it returns the accusation “undemocratic,” by asking for democratic legitimation: from where do the critics get their authorization? Who gave them the right to criticize? The majority, who are righly called silent because that’s their function in a democracy? No, critics are not allowed to call themselves the majority! They prove this by breaking their silence and having something to object to! Anyone who criticizes can only have entitled this himself: Self-appointed! Shut your mouth!

[Translated and adapted from Sozialistische Gruppe]