(What could there possibly be) Beyond Democracy?
text courtesy of special agent Rolf Nadir
Nowadays, “democracy” rules the world. Communism has fallen, elections are happening more and more in those poor underdeveloped third world nations you see on television, and world leaders are meeting to plan the “global community” that we hear so much about. So why isn’t everybody happy, finally? For that matter—why do less than half of the eligible voters in the United States, the world’s flagship democracy, even bother to vote at all?
Could it be that “democracy,” long the catch-word of every revolution and resistance, is simply not democratic enough? What could be more democratic?
Every little child can grow up to be President.
No they can’t. Being president means holding a hierarchical position of power, just like being a billionaire: for every one president, there have to be millions of people with less power. And just as it is for billionaires, it is for presidents: it’s not any coincidence that the two types tend to rub shoulders, since they both come from a privileged world off limits to the rest of us. Our economy isn’t democratic, either, you know: resources are distributed in absurdly unequal proportions, and you certainly do have to start with resources to become President, or even to get your hands on more resources.
Even if it was true that anyone could grow up to be President, that wouldn’t help the millions of us who inevitably don’t, who must still live in the shadow of that power. This is an intrinsic structural difficulty in representative democracy, and it occurs on the local level as much as at the top. For example: the town council, consisting of professional politicians, can meet, discuss municipal affairs, and pass ordinances all day, without consulting the citizens of the town, who have to be at work; when one of those ordinances inconveniences or angers some of the citizens, they have to go to great lengths to use their free time to contest it, and then they’re gone again the next time the town council meets. The citizens can elect a different town council from the available pool of politicians and would-be politicians, but the interests and powers of the class of politicians as a whole will still be in conflict with their own—and anyway, party loyalties and similar superstitions usually prevent them from taking even this step.
If there was no President, our “democracy” would still be less than democratic. Corruption, privilege, and hierarchy aside, our system purports to operate by majority rule, with the rights of the minorities protected by a system of checks and balances—and this method of government has inherent flaws of its own.
The tyranny of the majority
If you ever happened to end up in a vastly outnumbered minority group, and the majority voted that you must give up something as necessary to your life as water and air, would you comply? When it comes down to it, does anyone really believe in recognizing the authority of a group simply because they outnumber everyone else? We accept majority rule because we do not believe it will threaten us—and those it does threaten are already silenced before we can hear their misgivings.
No “average citizen” considers himself threatened by majority rule, because each one thinks of himself as having the power and righteous “moral authority” of the majority: if not in fact (by being so-called “normal” or “moderate”), then in theory, because his ideas are “right” (that is, he believes that everyone would be convinced of the truth of his arguments, if only they would listen sincerely). Majority-rule democracy has always rested on the conviction that if all the facts were clear, everyone could be made to see that there is only one right course of action—without this belief, it amounts to nothing more than the dictatorship of the herd. But such is not always the case—even if “the facts” could be made equally clear to everyone, which is obviously impossible, some things simply can’t be agreed upon, for there is more than one truth. We need a democracy that takes these situations into account, in which we are free from the mob rule of the majority as well as the ascendancy of the privileged class. . .
“The Rule of Law”
. . .and the protection afforded by the “checks and balances” of our legal institution is not sufficient to establish it. The “rule of just and equal law,” as fetishized today by those whose interests it protects (the stockbrokers and landlords, for example), does not protect anyone from chaos or injustice; it simply creates another arena of specialization, in which the power of our communities is ceded to the jurisdiction of expensive lawyers and pompous judges. The rights of the minorities are the very last thing to be protected by these checks and balances, since power is already reserved for those with the privilege to seize it, and then for the lumpen majority after them. Under these conditions, a minority group is only able to use the courts to obtain its rights when it is able to bring sufficient force upon them in the form of financial clout, guileful rhetoric, etc.
There is no way to establish justice in a society through the mere drawing up and enforcement of laws: such laws can only institutionalize what is already the rule in that society. Common sense and compassion are always preferable to adherence to a strict and antiquated table of law, anyway, and where the law is the private province of a curator elite, these inevitably end up in conflict; what we really need is a social system which fosters such qualities in its members, and rewards them in practice. To create such a thing, we must leave representative “democracy” for fully participatory democracy.
It’s no coincidence “freedom” is not on the ballot.
Freedom is not a condition—it is something closer to a sensation. It’s not a concept to pledge allegiance to, a cause to serve, or a standard to march under; it is an experience you must live every day, or else it will escape you. It is not freedom in action when the flags are flying and the bombs are dropping to “make the world safe for democracy,” no matter what color the flags are (even black!); freedom cannot be caught and held in any state system or philosophical doctrine, and it certainly cannot be enforced or “given” to others—the most you can hope is to free others from forces preventing them from finding it themselves. It appears in fragile moments: in the make-believe of young children, the cooperation of friends on a camping trip, the workers who refuse to follow the union’s orders and instead organize their own strike without leaders. If we are to be real freedom fighters, we must begin by pledging ourselves to chase and cherish these moments and seek to expand them, rather than getting caught up in serving some party or ideology.
Real freedom cannot be held on a voting ballot. Freedom doesn’t mean simply being able to choose between options—it means actively participating in shaping the options in the first place, creating and re-creating the environments in which options exist. Without this, we have nothing, for given the same options in the same situations over and over, we’ll always make the same pre-determined decisions. If the context is out of our hands, so is the choice itself. And when it comes to taking power over the circumstances of our lives, no one can “represent” us—it’s something we have to do ourselves.
“Look, a ballot box—democracy!!”
If the freedom so many generations have fought and died for is best exemplified by a man in a voting booth, who checks a box on the ballot before returning to work in an environment no more under his control than it was an hour before, then the heritage our emancipating forefathers and suffragette grandmothers have left us is nothing but a sham substitute for the true liberty they lusted after.
For a better illustration of real freedom in action, look at the musician in the act of improvising with her companions: in joyous, seemingly effortless cooperation, they actively create the sonic and emotional environment in which they exist, participating thus in the transformation of the world which in turn transforms them. Take this model and extend it to every one of our interactions with each other, and you would have something qualitatively different from our present system: a harmony in human relationships and activity, a real democracy. To get there, we have to dispense with voting as the archetypal expression of freedom and participation.
Representative democracy is a contradiction in terms.
No one can represent your power and interests for you—you can only have power by acting, and you can only know what your interests are by being involved. Politicians have made careers out of claiming to represent others, as if freedom and political power could be held by proxy. Now, inevitably, they have become a priest caste that answers only to itself—as politician classes have always been, and will always be.
Voting is an expression of our powerlessness: it is an admission that we can only approach the resources and capabilities of our own society through the mediation of that priest caste. When we let them prefabricate our options for us, we relinquish control of our communities to these politicians in the same way that we leave technology to scientists, health to doctors, living environments to city planners and private real estate developers; we end up living in a world that is alien to us, even though our labor has built it, for we have acted like sleepwalkers hypnotized by the monopoly our leaders and specialists hold on setting the possibilities.
The fact is we don’t have to simply choose between presidential candidates, soft drink brands, competing activist organizations, television shows, news magazines, political ideologies. We can make our own decisions as individuals and communities, we can make our own delicious beverages and action coalitions and magazines and entertainment, we can create our own individual approaches to life that leave our unique perspectives intact. Here’s how.
What are the democratic alternatives to democracy?
Radically participatory democracy, also known as consensus democracy, is already well-known and practiced across the globe, from indigenous communities in Latin America to postmodern political action cells (“affinity groups”) in the United States and organic farming cooperatives in Australia. In contrast to representative democracy, consensus democracy is direct democracy: the participants get to share in the decision-making process on a daily basis, and through decentralization of knowledge and authority they are able to exercise real control over their daily lives. Unlike majority-rule democracy, consensus democracy values the needs and concerns of each individual equally; if one person is unhappy with a resolution, then it is everyone’s responsibility to find a new solution that is acceptable to all. Consensus democracy does not demand that any person accept the power of others over her life, though it does require that everybody be willing to consider the needs of everyone else; thus what it loses in efficiency, it gains tenfold in both freedom and goodwill. Consensus democracy does not ask that people follow a leader or standardize themselves under some common cause; rather, its aim is to integrate all into a working whole while allowing each to retain her own goals and ways of doing things.
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"THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN"S SOULS"...AGAIN... TIME FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY?
What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."
Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?
Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.
How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.
In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.
We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.
This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…
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Thursday, October 2, 2008
(What could there possibly be) Beyond Democracy?