Sunday, October 6, 2013
By Biko Agozino
Most of the references around the world to 'opposition parties' were to the announcement of new opposition parties, the banning of opposition parties or the murder or jailing of their leaders, the perceived weakness of the opposition, or the intolerant might of ruling parties around the world. Occasionally, organized labor is recognized as the only viable ‘opposition group’, or religious groups and religious leaders sometimes fulfill the expectation of opposition groupings in some polities.
Moreover, a word search of the US Constitution - the first modern presidential constitution after which many existing presidential systems were cloned - revealed that the word was never used even once by the framers of the constitution. A similar search of the American-style Nigerian presidential constitution found no instance of the word. Why is it that a term that is used frequently in political discourse lacks any clear definition in law and in political philosophy around the world? Why is it that there is no official opposition party in the US and would it make any difference if the minority party is formally recognized as the official opposition party under presidential systems of governance?
Theories of governmentality (or the discourse of governance) are relatively silent on the role of the opposition as a part of civil democratic governance and Michel Foucault was also silent on this in his theory of governmentality with reference to the administration of populations in the European Middle Age that brooked no opposition. From African traditional political thought , similarly, there was no notion of a party whose official role it was to oppose the government of the day. Similar consensus philosophies of government can be found in Asia, among American Indian Natives, Aboriginal Australians and indigenous Europeans of different nationalities.
Machiavelli clearly advised the modern Prince to crush all opposition as the surest means of consolidating power. In line with this philosophy, Thomas Hobbes was unique among social contract theorists for recommending that the sovereign should be an absolute monarch who should have the authority to check the inherent selfishness of human beings or else they would revert to a state of nature that Hobbes saw as the state of a war of each against all where life would be nasty, brutish and short. However, we must not forget that Machiavelli and Hobbes were writing at a time that monarchs were believed to have a divine right to rule and so any questioning of the monarch’s authority could have resulted in execution for apparently opposing the will of God. Writing about 100 years after Hobbes in a relatively more enlightened time, John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau were bolder in calling for a representative system of government in which the people should have the right to elect their rulers and retain the right to recall them if they do not serve the best interest of the people.
The American founding fathers agreed with Locke and Rousseau perhaps because they won their independence after fighting against the army of the British monarch, King George. They debated whether to call their new leader, George Washington, a king, an emperor or a chancellor but finally settled for the president. Americans found persuasive, the argument of Rousseau that all men were created equal and endowed with the ability to reason by their creator for the purpose of choosing how they should be governed by themselves. If human beings were as bad as Hobbes presumed, by nature, then it would be inconceivable that such ‘a race of devils’ would one day wake up and slap their buttocks and come to an agreement to give up some of their rights in return for the equal protection of all by the sovereign. Rich white American men adopted the Lockean philosophy for centuries even while their fellow human beings continued to be enslaved (Locke did justify slavery under certain conditions) and while women were not regarded as citizens, a discriminatory practice that continued even after a constitutional amendment was passed to enshrine the principle of equal protection within the law.
Karl Marx was one of the earliest theorists of opposition politics for he openly challenged the assumption of the social contract theorists that since capitalists sign business contracts, then the origin of civil society must have been a philistine calculation of profits and losses in a similar social contract. According to him, whether the parties know it or not, there is not just one opposition party since both parties are usually opposed to each other‘s interests. The slave versus the slave master, the serf versus the free man, the capitalist versus the worker, or simply, the exploiter versus the exploited. Yet, even Marx predicted that some day, there will be no more need for an opposition because when the workers defeat the capitalists, they would build a classless society and bring an end to exploitation, an end to classes and to class struggles. He even suggested that the capitalist state would wither away along with capitalist law when society takes from each according to his ability and gives to each according to his needs. That was probably why Lenin ridiculed those who wanted to form an opposition group of left-wing communists as people suffering from an infantile disorder. Under all known communist style states, there is no room for an official opposition party. East Germany experimented with multi-party democracy but all the parties were subscribed to the same ideology and so could not count as opposition parties.
Marx Weber was one of the fiercest critics of Marx on socialism. Weber defined power as the ability to get people to do something even against their wish while Marx believed that human beings can be organized to do the right thing without being forced. Weber sharply disagreed with Marx that class struggle is the driving force of history and instead suggested that bureaucratization or rational administration was the driving force of history. He saw two types of leadership in the world - rational leadership and irrational leadership. Irrational leadership includes charismatic leadership under which people follow a leader because the leader is able to mobilize them into action. Gradually, according to Weber, the charisma of the leader will undergo routinization or increased bureaucratization. Weber saw the American presidential system as approximating a charismatic leadership model but he did not envisage a role for an official opposition party within what he saw as the technically superior system of bureaucratic leadership that is supposedly based on formal rules and was run by trained professionals.
Noam Chomsky agrees more with Marx than with Weber. To him, consent is manufactured by the bureaucratic media but dissent continues to be expressed across the world. Such dissent is seen by him to be politically incorrect because it does not agree with the dominant groups in society whose views are accepted as politically correct. Chomsky calls for greater access to the freedom of expression to be guaranteed to opponents of his own views so as to enable him to respond to them publicly. He notes that the reverse is the case around the world where opposition politicians are hunted down like common criminals, making it more likely that opposition would go underground only to manifest in less desirable forms.
The official recognition of an opposition party in some European systems of governance varies from country to country but in reality, hardly any of the opposition parties opposes the ruling party any more than the minority party does in America. The opposition system has survived more in the British parliamentary system where the two major parties duel daily in the House of Commons on policy options although everyone swears allegiance to the throne. In France and Germany where they have done away with the monarchy, they have a president and a Prime Minister or Chancellor who share power in ways similar to the Queen and the Prime Minister in Britain.
Americans may have rejected the terminology of official opposition because they have no executive dichotomy between the Head of State and the Head of Government as many European governments do. Perhaps the legendary pragmatism of the Americans led them to believe that the term ‘opposition’ is pretentious since all politicians swear allegiance to their nation and both the majority and minority parties cooperate to run the country together. In the presidential system, the people are seen as the ones who have the power to change their leaders either through a recall election, through a fresh election or through mass action. This makes it possible for an American president to remain in office even if his party is in the minority in the congress and the senate. Such a situation would trigger a fresh election in a parliamentary system that has an official opposition party.
The philosophical reasons for the US alternative terminology (majority and minority parties) should be re-examined as the Tea Party seeks to distort and truncate the US presidential system by trying to make an ideological minority tail wag the dog of democracy. The Republican Party Congressmen should not use their control of one-third of the three arms of government to hold Americans hostage unless President Barack Obama agrees to the defunding of his signature law that was duly passed and adjudicated to be constitutional by the Supreme Court, followed by approval in a referendum-like Presidential Election.
A common ground would be for the majority and the minority parties in Congress to pass a revenue-creating bill to end the Bush era tax cuts for the one percent of the population that do not need tax cuts and to deploy the extra revenue towards expanding the Affordable Care Act so that even more needy Americans could be covered and towards the rebuilding of public infrastructures to create jobs that would add to the recovery of the economy. To oppose a law that seeks to make anything like health more affordable to the people is an excellent good reason why the American Presidential Constitution evaded the provision of an official Opposition Party.
W.E.B. Du Bois was nearly jailed for trying to set up a Peace Movement during the era of McCarthyism but he was able to convince the US Supreme Court that peace does not belong exclusively to any enemy foreign country and that all human beings (including Americans) should be seen as peace lovers without any opposition to peace from any country. The same should be the case with making health care affordable and with raising revenue for the government to fulfill its obligations to provide equal protection of all. The Republicans are spinning this to suggest that President Obama does not wish to negotiate but he should agree to negotiate for increased revenue with which to make affordable care even more affordable as even ignorant people who oppose Obamacare for ideological reasons still confess that they support the affordable care act.