Ask yourself: what is democracy? You would think that would be a simple one. For most of us “democracy” is voting, but dig deeper. Voting itself is meaningless if you do not have genuine choice. Cuba is a vibrant, healthy, democracy with lots of choices of candidates to vote for. It remains a one party state. You could also vote for different Communist Party candidates in the old Soviet Union. It was not CHOICE between different ideas. it was a choice of candidates. We like to believe that Western Democracies have pluralism because we have more than one Political party. Yet these organisations require wealthy sponsors. Thus it is that your choices are carefully edited down to only those that are deemed acceptable. Politics remains, at best, a “pretend choice”. It is faux-democracy.
It was Winston Churchill who said (actually he was quoting someone else) that
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
He was lying. He was a Politician. That is what they do. We naturally assume the only alternative to democracy is totalitarianism. It is the sort of false dichotomy that we can normally attribute to a Politician who is interested in self-preservation. There are real alternatives to democracy that are more democratic than voting for Political parties.
So, what is democracy then, if not voting? Democracy is the participation of the citizenry in policy decisions. That is how it was in ancient Athens – the home of the original democracy. Many will feel uncomfortable to learn just how little voting happened in the Athenian system of democracy. There was partially a representative democracy because not everybody can be involved in running things all the time. Instead they took turns at random. The representatives didn’t need to “represent” anyone other than themselves although they could take professional advice on the issues at hand. They were chosen by drawing lots in a system called “sortition”. That was how democracy was founded and how it survived for literally thousands of years. The concept of voting is really only around 200 years old and has curious origins. Contrary to everything we have been brainwashed to believe, voting was introduced to curb democracy.
Any reader of Noam Chomsky will be familiar with the concept of the crisis of democracy. The “crisis” being “too much” democracy. Too many people wanting to participate. The democratic principle is fine as long as establishment elites get the result they want. The trouble with the pesky electorate is that they keep wanting something else – and that normally meant denuding the powers of elites. It would never do that the people should be allowed into the corridors of power. They had to be kept at bay. But how? The answer was simple. So simple that it is utterly repulsive. As the modern “democracies” evolved with universal suffrage the new voters were offered an illusion of choice. They would be given a vote and a number of options. Those options were political alliances that evolved into our modern political parties. It was a system that could be deliberately engineered with money and power to prevent any genuine choice.
Those who are not fans of Chomsky may well roll their eyes to heaven but support for this hypothesis comes from a new source. In David Van Reybrouck’s “Against Elections – The Case For Democracy” [ISBN 9781847924223 Bodley Head 2013] the author tackles the problem of democracy from a new angle: why doesn’t modern democracy resemble the Athenian ideal? His conclusions are the same as Chomsky’s and he uses many of the same sources to reach them. He does not, of course, ever refer to Chomsky which means this work is much more palatable to the likes of The Times and The Observer newspapers who have openly praised this book.
Thus it is that our elections became a charade. Politicians became media personalities with sound bites. Witness the shocking management of the Conservative Party effort in the British General Election in 2017. It was a shameless display of cynicism. The Prime Minister endlessly repeated the same sound bite whilst refusing to engage in debate or meeting the public. Every appearance was a carefully stage-managed photo-op with the media herded around like dutiful cattle. It was political theatre. Thankfully the electorate smelled a rat and the effort back-fired when the opposition Labour party displayed good-old-fashioned political tools, like policies, mass rallies and baby kissing.
Reybrouck describes the disorder that afflicts modern “democracy” as “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”. We voted until we dropped and it got us nowhere. It has lead to the rise of the so-called “populists” who peddle simplistic solutions offering ‘new blood’ (from outside the professional Political classes) who will inject ‘common sense’ into democracy. Writes the author:
“..common sense is the most ideological thing imaginable.. [it] is an ideology that refuses to recognise its own ideological character, like a zoo that sincerely believes it is an example of unspoilt nature.”
The idea that such populists are ‘at one’ with the values of ‘the people’
“…is a belief that tends more towards mysticism than politics: no deep current exists, only marketing. Populists are political entrepreneurs trying to gain as large a market share as they can, if need be by deploying a little romantic kitsch.”
Reybrouck describes the dilemma of democracy as a balancing act: efficiency versus legitimacy. Mussolini may have got the trains to run on time. His regime was efficient but it had no legitimacy. Likewise a form of democracy that goes back to the voters again and again may seem highly legitimate but it would be highly inefficient. Nothing would ever get done. If populism won’t work then what will? There is “technocracy” (experts in charge) that would be very efficient but it would lack legitimacy. There is “anti-parliamentarianism” (think of the Occupy movement & endless referendums) which lack efficiency. So we rest in no-mans land – unable to go forwards or back. Forever locked in the idea that we need to vote to be free.
It is tempting to believe that the failings of democracy could be fixed by offering better choices. But what if there was another option? What if we brought back the sortition and engage citizens in a newly-invigorated, deliberative, participative, policy-making process? It would make political parties obsolete or convert them into think tanks. The newspaper billionaires could publish their filth day after day but no amount of money could directly influence the policy-making process. Only individuals, chosen at random and given full access to the facts could make those choices. Of course the propaganda of the mainstream media would still influence the general public’s attitudes but the money would be taken out of politics. Policy could no-longer be paid for. You would have to convince everyone in the general population because the selection would be random. You simply would not know who to target. You could not bribe everyone.
Rebrouck describes our love affair with voting as “Electoral fundamentalism” which we nobly try to export to other part of the world as if it is a one-size-fits-all panacea to the worlds problems. It dates back to at least the American and French Revolutions of 1776. The author invokes the works of Edmund Burke, James Madison, John Adams and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain the spirit of those times. Voting was designed to take away power from an absolute monarch and give it to a new bourgeois elite. It was not designed the empower all the “people” only a select few. Democracy was deeply frowned upon in those times as it was equated with chaos. A ‘democrat’ had the place of an “anarchist” in today’s parlance. The original revolutionaries wanted rid of the King but they were not democrats in the modern sense of the word. Instead they wished to vote amongst themselves for a new form of aristocracy. Such it is that modern America has no democratic underpinnings. The modern Democrats can win the popular Vote but a populist Republican can become President. Citizens should hold their tongues and know their place.
Democracy’s more recent demise has come with neo-liberal policies that decimated civil society organisations and engineered a new aggressive form of commercial mass media in its place. We no longer have trade unions with power. Instead we have Rupert Murdoch with way too much power. Government no longer spoke to “social partners”, instead it met in back rooms and struck deals with oligarchs. A new era of “post-democracy” was born. People now only understand the world as a media created image that only misleads. It instructs them that up is down and black is white if these are the messages that serve power. In referendums people vote on gut reactions without proper deliberation as to the impacts of their decisions. Voting has become a game. It didn’t matter who you voted for because the government always got in. There is no informed enlightenment. Politics is a gladiatorial combat played our as part of the bread and circuses that keep the masses amused and dis-empowered.
The system will not change because it suits the politicians and it suits their paymasters. Any alternative forms of democracy will be resisted. Just look at the bizarre results of the UK Referendum on changing the voting system to Proportional Representation. It was an absolute no-brainer for anyone who wished to build a democracy. Yet the press and politicians convinced the turkeys that Christmas was good for them. To replace the theatre of parliament with the hum drum realities of deliberative democracy would mean a serious reduction in TV ratings. Most experiments in such democracy have been technical successes but were quickly abandoned because nobody was interested enough to watch them on TV. Yet those experiments have happened and there is now quite the sub-industry in papers written about the topic.
If we care to look, the blueprints for a revival of democracy now exist. Unlike so many other Utopian dreams, these have been tried and tested. The road maps are there but the political will for their implementation remains absent.
“Unless they face the threat of revolution political parties will not be quick to dissolve themselves overnight in order to make multi-body sortition possible…”
It doesn’t need an overnight revolution. Political parties can simply be phased out or slowly converted into something else. The author does not quite layout a plan for how we convince career politicians to conjure themselves out of existence but we must try.
“Treat responsible citizens as ballot fodder and they’ll behave as ballot fodder, but treat them as adults and they’ll behave as adults.”
Politicians have no wish to treat the public as adults. We the people, do not trust politicians and they do not trust us. Their very existence implies that mere people are not to be trusted with important decisions. We now have enough evidence to contend the opposite. Politicians are no longer to be trusted with the running of the country. All we need are multi-body assemblies with membership pulled at random from the general public. The random choosing of representatives from the general population is deeply threatening to tradition hierarchical power structures. Democracy today is a facade that has only the pretence of legitimacy. So unsettling is the very idea of NOT-voting that it appears almost nowhere in any serious debate.
This book is a shot in the arm. It was genuinely refreshing. It presents ideas that are so outside the mainstream that they seem shocking – at first. But they are the right ideas. We have ploughed through a hundred books that have offered us less solutions than this one. If you read one book about the reformation of democracy make it “Against Elections”. This is an idea whose time has come. We should work to generate enthusiasm for the multi-body sortition solution. It must now be on the table or democracy is done for.