Talk about a “crisis of democracy” has become something of a journalistic cliche. But that makes it no less true. The institutions of representative government were dysfunctional before the global pandemic – the COVID-19 has only exacerbated those failures and revealed the incapacity of political elites to protect the people from economic deprivation, illness, and death. As we hurtles toward a potential disastrous presidential election in the U.S., the burning need for basic changes in the constitutional order could not be clearer.
Unfortunately, the American left has done very little thinking along these lines. There is, however, a deep well of political thought for us to draw on: the radical, or “plebeian” republican tradition. In her new book Systemic Corruption: Constitutional Ideas for an Anti-Oligarchic Republic, the Chilean, New York-based scholar Camila Vergara argues that representative governments around the world are suffering from systematic political decay. She draws on the plebeian republican tradition to diagnose the failures of representative institutions, and proposes the establishment of new political organs that allow the people not just to choose representatives, but wield power themselves.
Here, Camila speaks with Socialist Forum about her book, the plebeian republican tradition, and the meaning of political revolution today. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Socialist Forum: You’re from Chile, where there were mass demonstrations against the government last year. Many of the demonstrators demanded and are still demanding a new constitution for the country. Why did this emerge as a leading demand there? What specifically are the demonstrators demanding?
Camila Vergara: The situation in Chile starts from the neoliberal model that was constitutionalized under General Pinochet in the 1980s. And it basically ties the hands of the state to do any public spending more than already is doing. All the services are privatized. So social services are few, only for those who cannot afford to pay their own way, and there are waitlists. Like everywhere else there is a collapse of social services, especially because of privatization.
The same as here in the U.S., you can go bankrupt in Chile after being in the hospital. Chile was the first country where neoliberal reforms were officially implemented and was a laboratory for neoliberal policies. Then came Reagan and Thatcher. It was kind of like, let’s try this in the developing world under a dictatorship and see how it goes, and then we apply it piecemeal in the developed world.
So Chile is a very controlled example of the neoliberal model gone wrong. Everything is privatized, there’s no protection for work. Wages are low and we have a very high cost of living. Like Bernie Sanders, the people are calling for free public education and the abolition of student debt and other debts – the middle class spends 75% of its income paying debts. So this is a very troublesome situation. Everything is commercialized. When the subway fare hikes started last October in the subway system, it hit the lower and middle classes deeply. When they protested, all the accumulated social demands started coming out again. Student, environmental, and pension demands – our seniors die in poverty because they need to save for themselves.
So everything crystallized in this demand for a new constitution, which is not new. In previous electoral cycles, voters organized to mark their ballots to support the convening of a constituent assembly. There is supposed to be a national plebiscite asking Chileans whether they want a new constitution on October 25th. It is kind of an open question if it is going to happen or not. The pandemic is not yet under control, and there is violence against indigenous peoples in the south of the country. President Sebastián Piñera, who is conservative, has been trying to shape the rules of the game to prevent radical changes, like the two-thirds supermajority rule to vote in new constitutional articles he managed to impose, which will give conservative sectors of the country the possibility to block social demands coming from the bottom.
The plebiscite was originally scheduled for April 2020 but due to the pandemic it was postponed for October. COVID-19 actually gave us a little bit of breathing room, because basically we were not ready to really engage this process in the spring. People were not ready to start putting lists together, candidates, and demands. Now, there are a lot of initiatives, grassroots trying to articulate the demands coming from local organizations in order to shape the constitution-making process. To contribute, I published a book in Chile back in March, República plebeya, that is basically an abridged, customized version of Systemic Corruption for Chile that calls on people to organize themselves by following a DIY practical guide to establish local councils.
SF: Demands for a new constitution or a new republic seem to be common on both the Latin American and European lefts. You see it in Chile, you see it in Spain and France with Podemos and France Insoumise. By contrast, the U.S. Left doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in these kinds of questions. And if you do raise these sorts of questions they’re usually greeted with a sort of incomprehension – like why are you even talking about this? Why not focus on economic or bread-and-butter demands instead?
CV: The Left in the U.S. and Latin America is very different because the populations are different. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, and most of the people – the indigenous population, the Mestizo population – have been outside of formal politics, many of them not even registered to vote for years. They come from more communal organizations, and the central government was always seen as the white, European conqueror.
The left in the US has tended not to come from the oppressed, it has come predominantly from the impoverished, white middle classes. Its leaders have tended not to come from classes or groups that have been totally excluded. So, the constituents are very different and therefore the horizon of possibilities and the scope of demands are different. In Latin America, political conflicts tend to be less about political parties and more about popular sectors against the elites. Moreover, there is more fragmentation of parties, whereas in the U.S. the party system is more stable. The only third party that really broke through was the People’s Party of the 1890s, and I think this marks the origin of the Left in the US. But even then the party pushed mostly for things like debt relief, not for abolishing the property regime per se.
In Latin America, populist movements have also been focused on bread-and-butter issues, but they are connected to constituent processes because they need to incorporate the majority of the population into the constitution that has always been oligarchic in its origin. Here in the U.S. there is still a lot of reverence in the Left for the constitution and for the founding that you don’t find elsewhere.
Systemic Corruption and the Republican Tradition
SF: Your book is about corruption, but not corruption in the everyday sense of the word. You talk instead about what you call “systemic corruption.” What do you mean by that?
CV: The book starts with the premise that we have a faulty definition of corruption that is merely juridical, that is very different from the ways in which various political philosophers have talked about corruption over the centuries. There has always been individual corruption in politics. But there is another, more important form, which is corruption of the system as a whole, the devolution of good government into a bad or deviant government. If the government was democratic, then the test of good government was whether it was being carried out to the benefit of the people or the republic as a whole, and not for a section. Throughout the history of political thought, there has been an ongoing battle to counteract corruption. In the eyes of the philosophers, the “pure” regime forms, like monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, had no counteracting elements so were therefore more susceptible to corruption.
So political philosophers wanted to search for a regime type that would endure longer. It’s not that you can save the regime from corruption, because as Plato says, everything corrupts because nothing can be kept exactly as it is. The question is how to delay that corruption, and make freedom last for as long as possible so it can be enjoyed by everybody. This is how the idea of a “mixed constitution” came about. The idea is that you need to mix the different strata in society into the political system so they can check each other and keep their ambitions in place.
Our representative governments come from that lineage, but they aren’t really mixed constitutions because they don’t incorporate a popular element. In a mixed constitution, there is the one, the few, and the many. But in a country like the U.S. we only have the one and the few – the president, and then the few who are elected representatives in the legislature or the judges. The many are left only to authorize the use of power by others instead of actually wielding power themselves. So in the end, this kind of false mixed constitution corrupted very fast, despite resets coming out of major wars, or a huge wave of legislation like the New Deal.
The specific form of corruption for our time is the progressive oligarchization of political power. It is not about individual quid pro quo corruption but about how rules of the game have been crafted to benefit the elites disproportionately, and systematically, to the detriment of the common people. And there is no one person responsible for this situation. It is the structure as a whole, which if left to its own devices reproduces itself and reproduces its own inequality. Then it becomes very difficult to put a stop to this.
SF: All of this is very much rooted in what we would call the “small-r” republican tradition of political thought. But this a broad tradition, and it has many different strands and currents. What are the main currents of republicanism and how do they differ from each other?
CV: The literature divides republican thought between ancients and moderns, or by region or country. What I do in the book is to look at republican thought from the constitutional perspective and divide the tradition in two strands, depending on who is the acting sovereign. In the end, every constitution needs one power to decide Yes or No, whether something is constitutional or not. If we think about it in this way, that there’s always a power that needs to decide what is valid and what is not, then this agent is sovereign. In our structure it’s either the Supreme Court or the constitutional tribunal. Or in a country with a parliamentary government it would be parliament. So in our representative governments today we have either the judicial few or the legislative few acting as sovereign. They are authorized by the people, supposedly, but they are still the few, still the aristocracy in a sense. Republican thinkers who agree with this political set up in which the few have the final say are part of the mainstream elitist strand.
There is another strand within republicanism that gives the final say to the popular element, to popular assemblies. And this is a strand that has been completely neglected in the literature, or misread, or just underplayed. And of course, the father of this tradition is Machiavelli, who has been hugely demonized from all sides. He was a plebeian himself. He was invited into the bureaucratic apparatus without having any nobility. So he already was kind of pushing the limits of the possible. For the first time, here’s an intellectual who says, “the people are better than the few to decide in the end, what is freedom and what is not, what is domination and what is not.” And therefore the people need to be the guardians of the constitution. They need to have the power to decide. And this is outrageous for the elites, because the majority of republican thinkers were aristocrats.
So there are aristocratic republicans and plebeian republicans, who are differentiated by the rights and powers they give to the people and to the elites. The hegemonic strand has been aristocratic republicanism, which we trace from the English mixed regime that emerged in the 17th century, to James Madison, and down to Philip Pettit today, who is the leading philosopher of what is called neo-republicanism. Some of us want to push back against this on the grounds that this aristocratic strand works as a justification for the system that we already have.
SF: Yes, in many ways the “hero” of your book, and of plebeian republicanism in general is Machiavelli. I think this would come as a surprise to many because in the common wisdom his name is synonymous with being ruthless, power hungry, and cynical and being interested in power for its own sake, not the welfare of the many. Why was Machiavelli so skeptical of the few? Why did he view the people as the best protector of republican liberty? Why did he think conflict between the few and the many was good for establishing and maintaining a republic?
CV: In addition to giving guardianship of liberty to the people, the basis of Machiavelli’s constitutionalism is conflict. He argues that the conflict between the few and the many is productive of liberty, that good laws only come from this productive conflict. In this sense his thinking is very different from all the medieval Christian literature on constitutionalism, in which social harmony is productive of freedom and the good society. But Machiavelli says, “no, conflict is the only thing which assures that a law will not dominate the plebeians,” because the few are the ones who actually write the law, or fund its administration, or carry out its execution.
In this way he is a realist, not in the sense of being interested in naked power only, but of being attuned to the basic conditions of humanity. For him, human beings are not good by nature. Actually, they’re wicked and fickle, and even if they’re good people they cannot be trusted. So you cannot trust the elites because the elites will likely act on their own behalf when given the opportunity to exercise power. Therefore, the people need enough power to check them, to surveil the lawmaking and the policymaking and to actually veto government actions if they conclude that they are aimed at dominating them. So if the constitution is going to assure liberty for plebeians, not only liberty for the few, it needs to arm them with lawmaking power and also military power.
Machiavelli’s own experience in government was very decisive. In Florence he was tasked with running the war with Pisa. Florence was a republic at the time governed by the people through the Great Council and with liberty for all. However, standing in the background, was the oligarchy and its control of the republic’s funding sources. Florence didn’t have a standing army, so it used mercenaries every time they had to wage war. This meant the Florentine government had to go and ask the oligarchs for money to pay the mercenaries. So the oligarchs had a powerful seat at the bargaining table because they effectively controlled the purse strings.
What Machiavelli says is that there’s no way that we’re going to stop depending on the oligarchs unless we can become financially independent from them. So he created a conscripted army of citizen soldiers, and in this way he liberated Florence from the grip of oligarchy and won the war against Pisa. The basic lesson from Machiavelli is that we need to socialize the means of liberty’s protection, whatever those means of protection are. Because if those means of protection are funded by the oligarchs, or are privatized, then the republic cannot be free because we will always be dependent on the financial elite. This is what we need to rethink for today. What would it really mean for a republic to be free from dependence on the financial oligarchy?
SF: In certain respects this seems to anticipate later analysis of the ways in which the dependence of modern liberal democratic states on tax revenues and a good “business climate” constrain them from doing things in the interest of the people or the working classes.
CV: Yes, he is so very innovative in that regard, and anticipated a lot of strategic and political issues that are alive today. This is also connected with the idea of debt —a core republican theme, the idea of debt being a form of slavery because it produces dependence. In ancient Greece, the only way the popular sectors were able to participate in politics was when their status as debt slaves or indentured servants was abolished. Today we have new calls for the abolition of debt, and the philosophical arguments can be found in the republican strand of thought.
Plebeian Republicanism and Political Revolution
SF: It seems that this plebeian or popular strand of republicanism is in many ways compatible with socialist politics. That it could potentially fill in the theoretical gap concerning the political realm that many conceptions of socialism suffer from because they can reduce politics to economic relations. A figure like Antonio Gramsci, for example, draws very heavily on Machiavelli to formulate his conception of politics, and he called the revolutionary party the “Modern Prince.” Can republicanism flesh out, for example, the idea of “political revolution” that Bernie Sanders talks about? At the same time, what might some of the areas of conflict or tension be between a republican conception of politics and socialism?
CV: I started my research on radical democratic theory and I hit a wall. When you read it, you start to ask, “Hey, who is going to actually carry this out?” And there’s no way to do it. That’s why I started searching for other frameworks. From Machiavelli, I understood that there was a politics of the Left that predated democratic theory. It’s different from communism, in that it says you cannot ultimately abolish the distinction between the few and the many. There will always be the most advanced, the most talented; those who society has determined are “better” in some regard will always have structural power over the majority. Maybe not immediately but in the long run, and this is what Robert Michels addresses in his work on organization and oligarchy. It happens. So, republicanism starts from the division between the few and the many, and understands that division as permanent. Politics is the way of dealing with that division, and how through that division, you can assure liberty for all.
Now, this is not aimed at establishing an equilibrium of forces between the few and the many, because the idea is that the few will always try to dominate the many because they have power. So it is in that kind of conflictual relationship, that politics really begins – because if there’s no conflict you just have domination of one class over another. So the original class struggle is the one in the Roman Republic, and it actually was a political conflict in addition to an economic class struggle. Remember that the Gracchi brothers —the Tribunes of the Plebs — were killed because of their attempt at agrarian reform.
Another benefit from choosing plebeian republicanism as a theoretical framework is that it doesn’t have the problem of exclusionary citizenship. Athenian democracy was only for Athenians, but the Roman Republic was expansive and open. The wealth that came from conquests, would be divided among the new subject populations that were not really Roman, so the people didn’t really have a nationality based on ethnicity or lineage. The people were the plebeians, the ones who were not noble – that’s it. Citizenship came from serving in the army, and if you served, you were a citizen. The people also had their own political institutions that were in a sense a sort of unions for the people. The plebeians would decide their demands in the Plebeian Council, and then the tribunes would go and work to implement them, go to the Senate to force them to cough up the money and to the magistrates to make sure they enforce the laws.
One of the most important lessons from plebeian politics in the Roman Republic is that even if basic rights are recognized and the people have institutions and representation, the problem of enforcement remains, and this is something the Left needs to reckon with. Because it’s not only about organizing and making demands and having popular authority, it’s actually making sure that that authority transforms into policy and law and that you can legally and materially force the powers that be to carry them out.
SF: In your book, you call for the establishment of a new plebeian branch of government. You offer some pretty detailed prescriptions for exactly what it would look like or how it would work. Walk us through the broad outlines of that proposal. What are some of the key institutional features and how would they work?
CV: The basis of the proposal is not my own idea, I based it on the constitutional blueprint of the Marquis of Condorcet in revolutionary France. This guy was an aristocrat and a class traitor who thought most politicians were just useless or corrupt. As a member of the National Assembly he pushed for free mandatory education for both girls and boys, women and men until college, because he saw this as the only way to have citizens who could engage in politics and maintain a good republic. His proposal didn’t even make it to a vote, which made him realize that egalitarian proposals would not come from representative government.
As Machiavelli, Condorcet is a realist and materialist thinker and therefore took into account what was already in place in making his proposals. He wanted to institutionalize the assemblies that spontaneously formed throughout France to draw lists of demands to be discussed by the Third Estate. Building on these self-organized local meetings, he proposed a mixed constitution in which a network of primary assemblies of the people would be the sovereign. While elected representatives would continue to do their job, this network of assemblies would have the power to veto legislation, policy, and appointments, initiate legislation and even a constituent process. To enforce the popular will, Condorcet proposed to remove public officials who supported actions that were vetoed by the people. So he builds in an enforcement mechanism in order for the representatives to behave correctly and obey the demands of the people. He was all about checking the corruption of the aristocracy because he was one of them, and saw their venality first hand. If the people were not involved in protecting their own liberty, their liberty would be taken away. Also, if you think about this from a game theory perspective, the introduction of a new player changes how the existing players play the political game. Condorcet, who also was a mathematician, saw that only the introduction of a new player would change the actions of elites. The political elites cannot police themselves but need a strong outside enforcer.
Condorcet also saw these local assemblies as a way to harness and direct the revolutionary energy in France. For him, protest should not be repressed, but needs to be channeled through institutions. He was against the idea that popular input should come through protest in the streets, because the ability to exercise power through protest was not equally distributed. And if we think about it, fascists and reactionaries also take to the streets and protest and make their demands that way. So, in a way, it is very dangerous to claim that a President or a Congress have to obey the will of a people that is in the streets and threatening violence. Instead, these energies and demands should be processed through popular institutions and backed up by constitutional procedures to assure adequate enforcement.
Following Condorcet, I propose to incorporate this network of local assemblies as a new plebeian institution that would conform to the current liberal constitutional structure, and therefore could be established without raising serious constitutional challenges. Most plebeian thinkers today, for example, John McCormick and Lawrence Hamilton, propose class-based institutions that actually conflict with liberal legality, that are against equal political rights because they exclude the rich. What I propose is designed as an add-on to the existing constitutional structure of any representative democracy because it doesn’t conflict with basic liberal principles or have any specificity more than the actual organization of power at the local level.
SF: How would this new system of assemblies relate to the existing representative institutions in the US or other liberal democracies? What role, if any, would political parties play? Would parties organize in these assemblies or are they conceived of as strictly non-representative, non-partisan spaces?
CV: Plebeian institutions need to be non-partisan and would be added to the existing structure, so parties stay the same, Congress stays the same. The thing that changes is that these institutions would have to obey the mandate coming out of the network of assemblies. If, for example, a majority of assemblies decides in favor of “Medicare for all,” legislators would have to write and pass a bill establishing it. The people don’t need to bother with the details; they give a mandate to legislate on the basic proposal or demand. So the people would force the hand of Congress, and force the party that doesn’t want to legislate on that, to actually do it instead of deciding that they don’t want to. How the mandate is actually implemented is where partisan politics comes in. The goal is to break the strangulation of politics by both Democrats and Republicans.
SF: You propose what you call “strictly political” criteria for membership in the popular assemblies, not eligibility according to income or property ownership. Wouldn’t allowing relatively wealthy people with a good deal of social and economic power to participate open the assemblies up to elite capture?
CV: Because the local assemblies are local and territorial, and because the few are by definition few and tend to all live clustered together, I don’t think this would be a major problem. In New York, the richest people are in either Tribeca or the Upper East Side. And if the Upper East Side has four assemblies full of rich people, they can demand and veto whatever they want. But they have to, in order for that to have any weight, to be seconded by the majority of assemblies in Manhattan, for example. So their power to influence politics would be reduced. It’s very good that they’re clustered together, because each assembly essentially would have one vote, which means they lose even more of their power. If the majority of citizens or other assemblies are on board with what they want, so be it. But I don’t think that elite capture in this regard is an issue. Elite capture is a huge problem in representative institutions, because those representative institutions are composed of and are run by the selected few. So you need to just bribe or influence a couple and then you have a skewed result. But in a network of primary assemblies, of which there are thousands, this sort of thing becomes much harder.
Establishing income criteria for participation is ultimately arbitrary, and such arbitrariness could hinder the whole project. One year I could be too poor to be from the elite, and the next year I could be too rich to be from the people. Also, you want the young generation of class traitors to be socialized into the power of the people, right? You don’t want to exclude them on the basis of class, because then you reify class. Being a class traitor myself, then I think it is necessary to in a way desegregate politically, because the upper classes need to understand that voting for things that are good for everybody can actually be in their own interest too.
When you are yourself in an assembly, and need to discuss and argue about public issues with your peers and neighbors, you might move your initial positions or views a little bit. In a representative institution, your representative is not required to have any empathy or to change their views through debate. Representation allows for polarization, and I think discussion among peers would bring more diverse points of view and less polarized conversations.
SF: What would you say to someone who read your book, thought it had a lot of interesting and useful things to say, but then said, “Oh, this proposal for a new branch of government is fanciful, it’s unrealistic. Let’s just try to pursue our goals and demands within the existing political framework instead of getting sidetracked down this road.”
CV: It’s clear that we’re in a crisis of democracy. If we want real change to protect the liberty of the people as a whole, to tackle structural racism, class exploitation, domination and inequality on every level, you need to look at the political structure and modify it. You cannot modify little by little, because of the tendency of systemic corruption and also of path dependency. Of course, it sounds like an illusion just to say, “Abracadabra! We have a new institution for the people.” But we need to remember that this is how institutions were born to begin with. That Congress didn’t exist before until it was written down in the Constitution and created from there. The office of the President didn’t exist before. These institutions were put on paper and then materially established. However, as the history of popular mobilization shows, the institutions of the people are never granted, are never given willingly by the elites. They are taken. So therefore, the people cannot wait for a savior to just create these institutions. People need to start organizing at the local level and taking power for themselves. That could be in the streets or can be in an assembly.
There is a role for leaders, however. A figure of the type that I call a populist revolutionary, someone like Bernie Sanders or maybe in the future AOC, could use the power of their office to create institutions and fund them through their executive power. If you’re going to meet in assembly, you need space, you need some money for food, you need some money for transportation. It needs to be subsidized and funded. My approach is, if you build it, they will come. You give the people resources, the infrastructure they need to gather, and they will begin to act together, politically, instead of just being individual consumers.
In Chile people are creating what are called cabildos, which are local councils throughout the country. The idea is to establish these councils and keep them going so they could be normalized and institutionalized with time. Now that we have a constituent moment maybe they can be incorporated and, in this way, create for the first time in modern history a mixed regime in which the people have their own political institution. Chile could go from being the laboratory of neoliberalism to the laboratory of real democracy, where the people have power not only to authorize representatives, but wield political power themselves.
The strategy can’t be to just conquer the White House, and make some gains here and there, playing by the rules of the game. The rules of the game are oligarchic rules and have been since the beginning. The Senate is there to filter popular power, to stop any redistribution claims. There would be a huge blockage for whoever comes to power. Imagine if Bernie Sanders was elected President. His program would have been sabotaged from day one. And he couldn’t just implement it anyway in an authoritarian fashion, because this wouldn’t have been legitimate for the other half of the population who didn’t vote for him. But a network of popular assemblies, in which all the people can participate, without exclusions, has an authority that is uncontestable. That is the only way I think a leader can actually get away with all these changes – being supported not by the people on the streets, but by the people in assemblies, voting in favor (or against) what the President is doing. Only backed up by this kind of popular authority can a leader legitimately bypass the oligarchic blockage.
That’s why I would say that if we want to have a real political revolution, we need to institutionally empower the people. And I say this as a critique to the Sanders campaign, and also the new People’s Party that is supposedly going to be launched now, because when it comes to strictly political questions, they have nothing new: free and fair elections, proportional representation, and ranked voting. How is that revolutionary? How does that amount to a political revolution? We really need to think outside of the box.