RECAP: “Two Views of Universal Suffrage: Anticolonial and Neoliberal,” with UVA Prof. of Politics Kevin Duong

In his 1920 Black Water, W.E.B. Du Bois described universal suffrage in terms importantly different from our procedural norm. “In people,” Du Bois wrote, “we have the source of that endless life and unbound wisdom which the rulers of men must have.” Votes, for Du Bois, weren’t simply there to be counted. Rather, they were a way of gifting the “whole experience of the race to the benefit of the future.” With this, he envisioned, the ballot could become a means both to spur on a new unity between human beings and subject the economy to democratic control.

In some respects, Du Bois was decades ahead of his time. As UVA Assistant Professor of Politics Kevin Duong noted in framing the confrontation over ideas about universal suffrage on which his talk would focus, with the age of decolonization that spanned the 1940s through the 1960s came similar conceptions of mass franchise as a way to promote economic democracy and eradicate the color line. This utopian view, which came to be associated with African Socialism, was hotly contested by neoliberals of the era, whose fear of a majority non-white electorate in the former colonies led them to a conception of suffrage that might preserve engrained imperial hierarchies through conceiving of the franchise not in terms of votes but instead in terms of purchasing power.

To provide context for the central tenets of the anticolonial side of said confrontation, Prof. Duong turned to Vichy, France, in 1944, where a re-founding was taking place. Included among the delegates tasked with drafting a liberation constitution hospitable to the reality that France couldn’t disavow Nazism while also continuing to forge an empire on racial grounds were poets Aimé Césaire (of Martinique) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (of Senegal). While their role in the drafting process was anything but symbolic, this was hardly reflected in the charter that ultimately emerged, which gave white settlers an outsized voice in the former colonies through nefarious gerrymandering ploys that destroyed longstanding community boundaries. For Césaire and Senghor, Prof. Duong explained, the new constitution was as defective in theory as it was in practice. Specifically, both saw the constitution’s individualist conception of the ballot as indicative of a form of suffrage that could only reproduce a European construction of society and, in this, serve as a vector for cultural assimilation and repression. The voice of Black Africa, for Césaire and Senghor, was not individual but familial. It was the voice of a whole race, a whole people, meaning that any mode of universal suffrage that did justice to the communal, fraternal societies of Africa would have to be corporate in nature. To organize the franchise around a collective African voice would, Césaire reasoned, gift an alternative value system to the world through which ante-capitalist and anti-capitalist principles could uplift the prosperity of all Africans while likewise disseminating religion and a cooperative strain of federalism to all corners of the former French empire.

Where Césaire and Senghor, like Du Bois, saw in traditional African civic values the seeds of a non-Soviet form of communism that might lead to economic democracy, the metropoles saw in the idea of equal citizenship and mass franchise a path toward France eventually becoming a colony of her former colonies (and a bankrupt one at that). Still, by the 1950s, the decay of empire and the rise of anticolonialism were irrepressible, and so neoliberal intellectuals set out to craft counterarguments to universal suffrage, conventionally understood. Some, like Arthur Shenfield, selectively cited the 18th- and 19th-century liberal canon in decrying any call for one person, one vote as arising from a failure to appreciate “the hideous dangers of totalitarian democracy” that he thought would inevitably take root wherever formerly colonized voters became a majority. Limiting the franchise, Shenfield somehow deduced, was desirable for all races involved. Though less enthusiastic about racial discrimination than Shenfield, fellow Mont Pelerin Society member William Hutt likewise interpreted universal suffrage as a practice which would merely transfer power to a new majority without any constitutional limitations in place to prevent retaliatory abuse (Prof. Duong added, however, that the Mont Pelerin men were equally put off by minority rule, which they equated with the rule of private interest). For Hutt—as for neoliberal icons like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—a suitable, universally inclusive alternative to the voting booth existed in the marketplace. Even while acknowledging the inherent inequalities that were built into their neoliberal vision, Hutt and Co. still argued that by supplanting the voice of the people with the price mechanism in conceiving of political participation, we might prevent the lethal rise of privilege and arrive at a system in which democracy adapts to individual preference. Or, as von Mises bluntly put it, “in political democracy…the votes polled by the minority do not directly influence policies.” In the market, however, “no vote is cast in vain.” Far from egalitarian, this vision was inclusive precisely because it was in-egalitarian.

As Prof. Duong noted in closing, where anticolonial advocates believed in sovereignty and agency—in a Rousseau-ian vision of a politics of self-transformation and of a voice that depends on our bond with others—the neoliberals believed in a system which had no room for collective self-determination outside of preference dictating commodity valuation. For the neoliberals, he explained, the people don’t speak but rather the market speaks us.