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“They don’t represent us”

From a political point of view, the idea of representation is clearly a modern one

From a political point of view, the idea of representation is clearly a modern one. Ancient Greeks did not require representation because their democracy was direct. People were not represented in ancient republics and monarchies.

We can talk about a representative government when there exist mechanisms such as universal suffrage whereby individuals are elected and endowed with political power and functions, which they exercise in the name of those who cannot do so personally. Thus, a division is established between the representatives and the represented, or the rulers and the ruled.

There are two principal, complementary ways of understanding the notion of political representation. 1) Representation as a delegation of power and functions; or 2) representation as a representativity (or identification mechanism), that is, as the quality that allows electors to identify with or see themselves reflected in the (social, cultural, ideological and valuative) characteristics of those whom they have elected. To some extent, the legitimacy and credibility of political power depends on both models being perceived as being functionally valid.

This explanation, more academic in nature, will now allow us to pose a number of more current questions. The first one is whether we believe that our representatives --particularly during the recession years-- have carried out the tasks entrusted to them so as to ensure the common wealth, whilst paying special attention to the most needy. Were they authorised (i.e. did they have the authority) to do what they have done? Were they allowed and expected to bail out banks and evict low-income families? The second question is whether we believe that our representatives --particularly during these years of territorial crisis-- have truly identified with us, and with our national, cultural and self-government demands. For instance, has the Spanish government embodied and supported, among others, the voice of Catalonia’s representatives? Has it listened to their tax, education or language demands? Or, rather, has it persecuted and fought them? In both cases, have the conditions of representation been appropriate?

My conclusion, encapsulated in a third question, would be this: both during the recession and the territorial crises, has the gap between the electors and the elected widened or become narrower? Do we still regard our regime as being truly representative?

When some shout “they don’t represent us” what is at play is the validity of at least two theories: political representation as a theory of authorisation (or delegation); and representation as a theory of identification (or representativity). I feel that representative mediation in Spanish politics is in a crisis state on both counts. Can our representatives still maintain the discretional power to act and decide in our name? Maybe so, but the 15M phenomenon1 and Catalonia’s independence movement no longer accept this. The repeated calls to start a second political transition and a new constituent process (to refound Spain or for an independent Catalonia) are evidence of this. And the stack of slogans that we have collected here and there in the last five years point directly at the target of the old idea of political representation: “The Spanish parliament does not reflect Spain’s plural nature. Due to a compromising voting strategy, elections are now about choosing between two parties whose policies on big issues are far too similar. New formulas of political representation must be sought for the sake of the smaller parties and to guarantee them a proportional representation. Open lists that allow for preference voting are part of the discussion towards a more participatory democracy. The right to decide, in general --and referenda in particular--, must be viewed as valid tools for voting and participating in government decisions. Referenda must be binding and called on any relevant decision that concerns the citizens. Political parties have become bureaucratic, more akin to an organ of the state than to a component of civil society, which has driven a wedge between them and the people. How could you be represented by someone so remote from you? The use of legislative initiatives by the people gives citizen participation greater scope. They have the power, but we are more”. The list goes on.

In The Social Contract Rousseau claimed that only a politically active people is truly free and that excessive delegation of functions on the institutions and representative actors can become a major hurdle for active citizenry. On seeing the drift of Spain’s extractive elite, many people have become upset by the realisation that the representatives have the upper hand on those they represent and sovereignty has shifted from the latter to the former. Now it has dawned on us that authorisation --that is, the granting of authority in a democracy-- should never be total but reversible. The title deed of sovereignty belongs to the citizens by right, but our representative have become the de-facto indispensable, life-long tenants of the premises of power. We were deprived of the joys of ownership (that is, the exercise of sovereignty) but in return we were guaranteed our safety, welfare and the comfort of a pleasant institutional dwelling. The convergence of today’s crises and their gravity has torn the fine print of those contracts to pieces. These are, therefore, the last desperate cries of a clinging Ancient Regime: the new gag law, the disproportionate fines for booing the Spanish anthem at the Cup final, the constant resorting to courts of law, the shift from political discussion to legal action, the growing tendency towards a democracy of indictment that misuses judges and courts of law to favour the criteria of the Spanish government, and so on.

As a slogan, “they don’t represent us” has struck a chord both in Madrid and in Barcelona. In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol some are thinking about electoral and constitutional reform, a more representative form of democracy (electronic direct democracy, direct democracy methods, citizen councils, consultative forums, deliberative polls). Meanwhile, in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, the political representation crisis with Spain has prompted many to take onboard Rousseau’s revolutionary proposal: “being independent is to act according to our own will; being free is to act without being subjected to the will of others”.