Is Representation A Living Political Idea Politics Essay

The life of representation: a discussion of its processes, consequences and boundaries. If the accounts of the philosophical debates of the classical world demonstrate anything, it is that ideas are fragile and tenuous. Few claims passed from the lips of even the greatest thinkers without meeting challenge and contestation, and even those concepts which most consider to be self-evident, such as the nature of our existence, continue to be objected to scrutiny. This is certainly true of representation; plausible claims to represent a group or an interest are a prerequisite of legitimate authority in contemporary politics, and ideas about representation underpin, either implicitly or explicitly, all forms of political organisation, forming the foundation for the social structures which exist today. But ideas themselves are not static objects upon which can be built stable and eternal institutions; they are fluid, dynamic concepts, subject to adaptation and contestation. The ‘idea of representation’ is one example of such a process; it is the subject of a multitude of theories attempting to encapsulate its nature, none of which can offer more than a ‘snapshot’ of one particular moment in this idea’s unbroken and interminable progression.

This essay makes two central assertions. Firstly, that the idea of representation ‘lives’ in the sense that claims about the term are constructed according to the historical, cultural and political conditions under which they are debated and formulated. Secondly, that the life of representative ideas are restricted by the political and social structures under which they are formulated, and that this structure-agency model can account for the variety of ways in which representative ideas are, or are not, circulated in theory and practice. To demonstrate this, I begin with a preliminary discussion of how representative claims relate to the process of politics, questioning whether they are a feature only of representative democratic institutions or, in fact, an essential ingredient of all political organisation and action. Part two will analyse theoretical and empirical evidence which demonstrates the ‘livingness’ of representation in politics, using the definitions presented by Huysmans and Prokhovnik as a guide. The final part questions the nature of representation itself: why has it proven to be such a dynamic concept, and why does it play such an important function in our perception of politics? Through this analysis, I hope to demonstrate the ‘livingness’ of representation implicitly, by highlighting the difficulties and contradictions experienced by theorists attempting to formulate a universal model; the implication being that representation lives not only thanks to its linguistic malleability, so to speak, but also because the philosophical pursuit of a comprehensive narrative inevitably fuels rather than transcends the process of historical, cultural and social adaptation.

Part one: How is representation political?

Politics is of course a living political idea in itself, in the sense that its definition is open to contestation and adaption. Adrian Leftwich identifies two broad approaches to the conceptualisation of politics: the first asserts that political activity is a process of discussing and acting upon collective interests among a group; the second maintains that politics should be understood as the arena where groups or their representatives undertake political decision-making (Leftwich, 2004, pp.14). Leftwich considers the second to have the narrower focus of the two, being more concerned with the structures and functions of conventional government and strategies for gaining political power than with the more fundamental activities which the body politic claims to represent, such as the organisation of labour or assertions of class, local or national solidarity. This ‘arena’ definition limits the scope for examining broader, historical theories of representation, whilst necessarily making assumptions about the validity of representative claims made by state institutions, and for this reason it will not be adopted here. Politics is understood here in its most fundamental form: as a process of collective decision-making and action for a common good, the sort of which exists in every human community, irrespective of the presence or absence of an officially recognised government (Hague and Harrop, 2004, p.4).

One’s appraisal of the importance of representative ideas for politics will depend on how representation is understood. Consider Michael Saward’s model for analysing representative claims, which maintains that all political activity requires that every person, position, idea or object involved in the process be represented in some way. Saward identifies four components of this claim-making process: maker, subject, object and audience; according to this model, political representation involves a maker claiming that a subject represents the interests of an object to an audience, for example: the Labour Party (maker) claims that the Conservative Party (subject) stands for the interests of the wealthy (object) to the British working class (audience) (Saward, 2006, pp.304). [1] This broad understanding of representation seeks to move the concept beyond the conventional political realm, framing politics itself as the result of the process of claim-making and contesting, turning on its head the more conventional understanding of representation as deriving from political activity. Understood this way, it is difficult to imagine what politics might look like if it were absent of representative claim-making, for even the classical Athenian direct democracy relied on participating citizens making claims about the best interests of themselves and the collective whole, even if they did not act in a representative capacity on behalf of other citizens (Pericles, 2008, pp.145). Likewise, even dictators are obliged to make claims about representing somebody’s interests, be it their own circle of cohorts, sub-sections of society or the national interest as a whole, and their retention of power is often closely linked to the legitimacy of these claims in the eyes of their audience.

By focusing on representation as ‘claims’ rather than as “an achieved, or potentially achievable, state of affairs as a result of election”, Saward’s framework highlights that many complexities exist in the relationships among his four involved parties (op. cit., pp.298). Unlike traditional theories such as those put forward by Thomas Hobbes or James Madison, which understand representation in terms of authority and popular consent, it avoids culturally and historically-specific assumptions about the legitimacy of political power which lead us to a static and institutionalised view of representation, and instead provides a model which can accommodate varying forms of relationship between claim-maker, representative, represented and audience. It also suggests that representatives, rather than being chosen, may choose their constituents to further their own political objectives, and appreciates that legitimacy in the eyes of state institutions is not the same as legitimacy in the eyes of the object, the represented.

Part two: How does representation live?

Huysmans and Prokhovnik summarise their interpretation of the livingness of ideas by presenting six ways in which they live:

as inspiration, as a means of mobilising support,

in political debate and through association with political theorists,

by being changed, adapted and re-appropriated,

by being institutionalised,

through their consequences, and

by circulating in political theory and practice

(The Open University, 2008).

If we were in the business of ticking boxes, we could point to movements such as the Indian National Congress in British India, or its African counterpart in apartheid South Africa, as examples of the representation, or specifically its perceived links with self-government and liberty, inspiring and mobilising support. We could equally draw attention to how classical ideas about the merits of direct, participatory democracy favoured by the Ancient Greeks have been adapted and re-appropriated in political debates about representative governments that raged at the turn of the 19th century in France and the United States, and how these ideas were institutionalised in constitutions and practices which survive today. There are countless empirical examples of representation influencing political events in the ways set out above, but this approach does not illustrate very well the livingness of the idea itself. In order to appreciate this, I want to consider the consequences of the interaction between theory and practice on the ideas themselves, in other words, how representative ideas are manipulated through political events, rather than their consequences for politics.

Philosophical examinations of representation are sparse in comparison to other political concepts such as power or governance, nevertheless the idea has been the subject of a significant transformation in recent years, being appropriated from its conventional usage and applied to a growing number of essentially modern political problems. Christopher Stone’s paper Should Trees Have Standing famously attempts to expand the representative model to grant legal rights to natural objects, and Robert Goodin takes this idea further by suggesting political representation for non-humans, and even future generations. There would appear to be a wide philosophical gulf between such ideas and the traditional concept formulated by Thomas Hobbes, whose work Leviathan, the first English book to deal explicitly with the term, understands representation to be a form of covenant between representative (actor) and the represented (author). Hobbes: “some have their words and actions owned by those whom they represent. And then the person is the actor, and he that owneth his words and actions is the author, in which case the actor acteth by authority” (1651, p.99). This emphasis on the consent of the author and the authority of the actor contrasts sharply with the trusteeship model of representation found in Stone’s and Goodin’s approach. It is interesting to consider the reasons for this conceptual gap, as Hobbes’ dualistic author-actor model requires considerable reformulation before it can be utilised to address the interests of objects which can express neither their interests nor their consent.

Leviathan is of course better known for its ideas about the rights of the sovereign and social contract theory than for its brief exploration of representation. [2] Its concern is with outlining the extent to which certain forms of government or contracts, and to a lesser extent representation, can be considered legitimate; in the case of the latter, legitimacy derives primarily from the consent of the represented. Goodin’s approach, however, bypasses this aspect, believing that all interests point to “objective values” which representatives can be reasonably expected to deduce and act upon, focusing instead on the rights of certain groups to be represented in political matters:

“In so far as natural objects have objective values that can properly be construed as interests, those ought be politically represented just as any others. To deny them representation merely on account of whose they are would be as unacceptable as it would be to deny other interests representation because of whose they are” (Goodin, 1996, pp.837, emphasis original)

It is evident that ideas about the right to represent and to be represented have undergone a process of transformation over the centuries. Certainly, the works of Hobbes and other great thinkers had a profound influence on intellectual ideas about representation, but global political events have also shaped the concept’s meaning. The problems of climate change and natural resource depletion have led to the appropriation of a traditional concept in order to address modern political realities; when the livingness of representation is considered from this angle, the ways in which historical circumstances and events bear influence on the idea become apparent: how important was the outcome of the Cold War in constructing the now widely-accepted view that liberal democracy is the most economically successful and sole legitimate form of representative government? Would Hobbes’ ideas about sovereignty by institution or John Locke’s Treatise of Government enjoy as much authority, had events conspired to bring defeat to the Allies at the hands of Fascist governments in the Second World War? Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, which famously concludes that liberal democracy represents the final stage in the evolution of human forms of government, is itself an example of a thesis whose credibility rests upon a series of historical events whose outcome were by no means certain, and whose plausibility relies completely on the assumption that future historical events will not bear any influence over future ideas about representative government (Fukuyama, 1989, pp.3). This view is shared by John Dunn of Cambridge University:

…there is no shared grasp of how much of [the Soviet] defeat came from a strictly economic superiority, how much from a political superiority which genuinely lay in the aspects of western Europe [sic] and the United States’s own political structures which are regarded as democratic, and how much from sheer luck. (Dunn, 2005)

Political events, then, have consequences for political ideas as much as ideas help to shape events, and commonly-held ideas about representation are, to some extent, a reflection of the historical experiences of those which espouse them.

Representative democracy as a system of government has, over the course of the twentieth century, become what Dunn describes as “the sole credible secular basis across the world on which to claim the right to rule and be obeyed”, to the extent that when Fukuyama’s thesis was published in 1989, its superiority over other forms of democracy required no qualification; the representative form had supplanted alternative versions (such as the Athenian model) completely and was synonymous with democracy itself. And yet there is mounting evidence to suggest that, in Britain at least, the existing models of democratic government are increasingly seen as outdated and unrepresentative of modern citizens, a situation commonly referred to as the ‘crisis of representation’ (The Open University, 2008). Declining voter turnout, cynicism and apathy towards political debate and the increasing popularity of extra-governmental organisations in the form of single-issue campaigns and protest groups are cited as evidence for this ‘problem’, implying that the phenomenon is new and perhaps the result of a ‘broken’ political system (Whittam Smith, 2010). This perception is interesting because the founding principles on which modern representative systems are based warned quite explicitly against participatory decision making, and early representative theorists were more concerned with mechanisms which could limit participation rather than expand it. The British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, and later US republican James Madison, made persuasive arguments in favour of a trustee, as opposed to delegate, model of representation: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” (Burke, 1887, pp.95). Likewise, Madison believed that direct participation was both unmanageable and undesirable in all but the smallest of city-states, owing to the dangers of factionalism and oppression of minorities, dangers which are best overcome by filtering public views through “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations” (Madison, 1987, pp.126).

Given this, it is curious that the ‘crisis of representation’ in Britain is perceived as such: at what point in history did the electorate begin to expect an inclusive and participatory political process? It can hardly be argued that intellectual discourse has led to these expectations, considering the lack of any significant challenges to the current representative model since the end of the Cold War, a fact already discussed. The complaint that politicians are unresponsive to the general will is a peculiarly modern one, and provides further evidence that ideas about representation are alive through cultural and historical re-appropriation. These new ideas about the appropriate level of public participation in British politics stem, arguably, from a series of events as much as they do from the intellectual merits of the argument being made: the Iraq War and the financial crisis played as much a role in the current debate about the representative deficit as the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post electoral system, as do the technological advances which have made political debate about political alternatives simpler and more accessible (The Open University, 2008). It also suggests that elitist arguments about a government of ‘the best men’ may also prove to be historically specific, and could one day be subject to greater contestation without the protective back-drop of liberal-democratic states’ economic and military superiority over the rest. This implies that, for a living idea such as representation, the end of history is a misnomer, for it would require a detachment of politics from historical incidents and nothing less than the end of human social development itself, a situation even Fukuyama acknowledges is unlikely (1992, p.xii).

Part three: Why does representation live?

The analysis so far highlights the difficulties with formulating a universal theory of representation, given that its meaning is socially constructed and susceptible to adaptation. But this affirmation of the ‘livingness’ claim is an unsatisfactory conclusion to the discussion, for it leaves unexplored the underlying mechanisms which keep this living process alive, and evades questions which might shed light on why it has become such an important and institutionalised feature of modern politics. What are the characteristics of this process; does it evolve faster, is it more open to contestation or more difficult to conceptualise than other political ideas such as power or justice, and if so, why? Do models such as Goodin’s or Hobbes’ offer insights into some universal principles, or is the pursuit of a culturally-neutral theory of representation ultimately a fruitless one? Through these questions, I aim to take the claims of Huysmans and Prokhovnik one logical step further, seeking a more elegant account of the livingness of representation, and political ideas more generally, than the bullet-point criteria offered.

Hanna Pitkin’s 1967 book The Concept of Representation, widely regarded as a contemporary classic, is concerned with identifying the meaning of representation in its most fundamental sense, peeling back its secondary connotations until only the most basic attributes, common to all understandings, remain:

“representation does have an identifiable meaning, applied in different but controlled and discoverable ways in different contexts. It is not vague and shifting, but a single, highly complex concept that has not changed much in its basic meaning since the seventeenth century. There is indeed, no great difficulty about formulating a one-sentence definition of this basic meaning. Several commentators have done so, and in this sense one correct definition can be singled out: representation means, as the words etymological origins indicate, re-presentation, a making present again” (Pitkin, 1967, p.8, emphasis original).

There are two interesting points to note about this approach: firstly, it seems to contradict constructivist claims about the concept, implying that representation itself is universal in the way it is used and understood in everyday language, whereas the theories presented to explain it are socially constructed. Secondly, it asserts that all theories about representation are fundamentally describing the same thing, no matter how different their outward manifestations make them appear. Whilst Pitkin acknowledges that its meaning is adapted to social and cultural contexts, she uses an alternative theoretical model to explain this, likening individual theories to a ‘flash-bulb photograph’ of the overall concept, each offering a partial view of the whole, as seen from the perspective of a particular cultural context. Although this offers an alternative insight into how representation lives, Pitkin’s reductionist approach has been criticised by Saward and others for focusing “too strongly on the definition of representation (what it is) and less systematically on the constitution of representation (what it does); in doing so, it misses key ways in which the former is parasitic on the latter” (Saward, 2010, p.9). It does not help us to understand why a citizen of seventeenth century England, such as Hobbes, can be satisfied that the monarch can embody the sole legitimate claim to represent its subjects, whilst a modern citizen can complain that the democratically-elected government of the day is unrepresentative, or how the legitimacy of modern claims to represent are dependent on electoral processes rather than the God-given right of monarchs. Nevertheless, the metaphor is a useful one for conceptualising what is going on in political theory, even if it stops short of addressing the underlying reasons for the diversity of perceptions on offer.

Earlier it was observed that the transformative effects of historical events and changing political landscapes are causative factors in the livingness of representation. This is not to say that ideas have no impact on political events, clearly they do; but it does suggest that social and political structures might limit the theoretical scope for conceptualising representation. Influential works such as J.S. Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government are often taken to be objectively valuable for their contribution to and influence upon democratic forms of government, but this is misleading, because an idea’s significance depends upon the context in which it is received. Pericles’ assertions about the superiority of direct democracy carry little weight in modern political debate; likewise Mill’s arguments for extending the suffrage to women would in all likelihood have failed to persuade Aristotle of its merits. [3] This suggests that contemporary views about representation are also subject to the constraints of the structures under which they are formulated, structures which dictate the boundaries of legitimacy in representative claim-making. This observation is simple to illustrate; try to imagine representative ideas inspiring political action in Nazi Germany or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, or a theory of inclusive politics such as Mills’ circulating in a society based on religious doctrine with limited access to scientific knowledge, such as existed in Medieval Europe. It follows that the process by which representation evolves is to some extent interconnected with broader issues of political power, and that its institutionalisation, adaption, appropriation and circulation in debate and practice is subject to the limits permitted by the structures within which it exists.

Huysmans/Prokhovnik: more elegantly. Tie everything together: Saward, Pitkin etc.

How does this all relate to the six ways in which representation lives discussed earlier? Can they be pulled together,


Considering the broad range of social and political structures that exist across the globe today, it is not surprising to find so many different examples of representation living through its interaction with politics: more democracy means more variety, and more ways of representation being understood. Some theorists, such as Fukuyama, assert that the spread of liberal democratic ideals and values is a triumph of representative politics and a confirmation of its social and economic superiority over alternative forms of organisation. The reality of this situation is likely to be a little more complex, for if representative ideas are permitted to live only as far as the existing political structures allow, it follows that any future events which threaten to transform those structures may also threaten democracy’s position as the sole legitimate form of representation. Such a scenario carries far more plausibility today than it might have done at the end of the Cold War, with the emergence of China and re-emergence of Russia as superpowers threatening to overtake the liberal-democratic states of North America and Europe as the global economic powerhouses. But the threat to the structures which have promoted representative politics over the last century are not only external; the increasing political power of big businesses in free-market economies, combined with the inability of rigid democratic institutions to adapt themselves to the changing nature of political activity in the twenty-first century, could also potentially compromise the legitimacy of representative democracy, altering notions of what constitutes a legitimate representative claim (Greenson, 2010). Ideas live, and the idea of representation has a special propensity to do so because of representative claim-making’s central role in modern political activity, but this living process can only take place within the wider social structures, which define it parameters and dictate the course it takes through history.

Pitkin p.4: Has this discussion of the livingness of representation highlighted why so many theorists fail to agree on the true nature and meaning of the concept?

Rather than searching for an eternal theory, is it not more useful to understand the factors which cause its evolution?

What are the implications for static political institutions? Do they also have to find a means to ‘live’? Would this be desirable? Implications for trust in politics?

Ideas are more than abstract objects at the disposal of politicians and theorists for explaining natural and social phenomena; they are processes by which knowledge is created and provide the foundation upon which human beings base their interaction with one another. Thus the numerous contemporary understandings of representation found among the nations of mankind are less the culmination of centuries of political discourse as they are a snapshot in time which allows us to understand the historical and cultural context in which they were produced.

This dynamic political idea influences, and is influenced by, its interconnectedness with a range of other political concepts, and it is this web of relationships which causes ideas to ‘live’ in the ways described by the Huysmans et al.

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