Voting leaders into office is not an attribute of democracy. Rather, democracy selects its office-holders by lot. In a democracy, power is completely diffuse. It is the purpose of this blog to show that democracy cannot be reached, even in theory, from current systems of government that are in place throughout much of the world.
From the title you are suspecting that this is going to be one of these usual gripes about ‘democracy’ (those apostrophes are very deliberate) and the deficiencies of ‘democracy.’ Almost everyone will admit that democracy is a work in progress but that we are ‘getting there’ even though we are not getting there fast enough. The widening of the franchise over the last two centuries serves as sufficient evidence. And, many of the same people will argue, we can make incremental changes to arrive at an ideal democracy … at least this is so for those countries that have embarked on a liberal-democratic course.
Well, I am going to disappoint if you are expecting recommendations for more frequent elections, more efficient committees, decentralized decision-making and the like. Instead I wish to demonstrate that, no matter what changes are made or how much more intensely the ‘will of the people’ is listened to, there is no way (from our current position and trajectory) that we can arrive at a true democracy.
There is one key attribute that indicates whether we can term a form of government ‘democratic’ or otherwise today. The attribute is that of the election. In particular, the election must not be unduly influenced by the acting government. So, even more precisely, we can say that the ‘free and fair’ election is the attribute of a democratic nation-state.
The other side of this equation is where criticism is usually directed. Indeed elections can be held, but the vote must be directed towards someone or some corporate entity, i.e. a party. Party politics invariably involve money and this cash is used to secure control of the mass media. This mass media tends to skew the ‘natural’ order of society and the same parties, serving particular interests, dominate over extended periods of times. Perhaps it is only serious social upheaval that upsets the apple-cart. The same issue will obviously arise with any ascendant party over time.
Again, in theory, it is considered possible to get to a true democracy from the current paradigm of party politics. For example, parties could be abolished and everyone representing a constituency could meet in parliament.
However, it is impossible to arrive at a democracy from the current form of representative government, even theoretically. The fact is that in a democracy power is held by all those who are enfranchised. In particular, it is crucial to note that voting is not an exercise of power as such. Any voting system has to immediately draw a line between a small number of those who stand for election (and the word ‘election’ itself signifies an elite who are ‘elect’) and a large number who vote. The attribute of a democracy is not that of an election, but that of the lot.
In the democracy of ancient Athens, the lot ensured that power was diffuse. A majority of the enfranchised held some sort of office for a set time. They wielded direct power. There were elections held in other polities during that age, but these elections were understood to be attributes of aristocratic forms of government.
Of course, there were many brakes in place in ancient Athens. Office-holders only served for a short time and could not hold office again for a longer period of time. They had to render account for their actions while in office. They could be legally sanctioned if it was felt that they had acted illegally. Penalties were quite stringent.
Perhaps most importantly, and this is often glossed over, only a small fraction of the people living in Attica were enfranchised. Women held no power. There were many more slaves than freeman. Obviously children couldn’t hold power and neither could aliens.
As an analogy (albeit not one I would recommend taking to extremes) we could characterize the difference between a real democracy and a so-called, modern democracy in the following way: a real democracy is like a co-op where everyone takes a share in the ups and downs of a business. A modern democracy is more like a ‘plc.’ People contribute to the business. But they are not owners in a real sense. It is that ownership, that taking responsibility as well as having the right to wield power, which is the hallmark of a democracy.
A few important points, so as to conclude. First, ratcheting up the efficiency or intensity of voting within current, so-called democracies will not eventually lead to an ideal system of democracy. Secondly, instituting real democracies would invariably mean restricting the franchise within a given area that a State claims jurisdiction over. Thirdly, mere populism is not the attribute of democracy and so the claims of many of those who fight for ‘democracy’ to be instituted globally or who fight for ‘democracy’ within their own country are fatally flawed. Finally, with these points in mind, it should be said that current systems in place in much of the Western world (most accurately denoted as aristocratic in nature) are not illegitimate given what has been said. Horses for courses; governments are made for peoples, not the other way round. This intention of this blog has only been to highlight what a true democracy entails.
Colm Gillis has authored two books, the latest publication is The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt. His Amazon page is here.