The rulers call it chaos, we call it democracy

Friday, 14th September 2007 at 7:57 UTC 2 comments

A friend and regular blog reader always uses lines from songs for her posts, and as I considered writing this, I was listening to a favourite Rovics song of mine when I heard the above line and decided that maybe it summed up the truth about democracy. Not the democracy we have right now, the lowest common denominator whereby we vote in a political elite, but real, deep, humane, abiding, inclusive, listening, responsive democracy. Real Democracy.

I was chatting with one of the people I respect most for their commitment to democracy, no matter what, yesterday. He and I were discussing how many people’s understanding of democracy has become incredibly limited, mostly focusing on the idea that we have democracy simply because we can vote every year (as it happens in a Union) or 4-ish in most states. You see, the original meaning of democracy was “rule by the common people”, about a million miles from the reality of Westminster/Capitol Hill.

You see, real democracy does not leave room for a state that rules over its subjects. Instead, the state has no subjects, and it becomes the subject of its inhabitants. The whole structure is meant to be turned up side down, not reinforced through an added process for giving legitimacy to the same old political elites. You see, many people today do see voting as the end of democracy, rather than the beginning. They don’t see that a system which concentrates huge amounts of power in the hands of a very small number is still the same as a system which concentrates huge amounts of power in the hands of one person and their inner circle; monarchy/dictatorship and elected democracy come down to the same thing.

In Brazil, there’s a system being used in the city of Porto Allegre which allows the local citizens of whatever class or education to bring proposals for how the cities budget should be spent. The budget is shared proportionately into different districts of the city, but in total the city is 1.5million people. The system is clearly laid out, but some of the meetings get a bit messy and require some expert chairing to say the very least. What it means is that the final budget reflects what the people want, not what the politicians want.

Many opposition politicians were very angry when the system was brought in, claiming it would cause chaos, which it has, but only as far as the process is concerned. The thing is, the city still runs perfectly well, if not better. But instead of taking the decisions as far away from the people as possible, the decisions are taken in the neighbourhoods where the people live.

There were claims that no local citizen would understand the difficulties of budgeting for a large city; this was clearly the wrong way to look at it. This view was informed by the engrained sense that experts understood these matters and the ordinary people could never ‘get it’. Yes, many came with unreasonable demands, which they were mostly able to rework into more workable solutions after the process was explained. But the thing is, the assumption that experts are needed comes about for two reasons.

First, because the processes were never explained to people for them to be able to engage with them. Second, because those making these claims were locked into a kind of politics which is so in awe of corporate and elite interests that it always ends up making excuses every time the people get mad at it, rather than simply anticipating the stress and avoiding it by doing the democratic thing and making the decision the democratic way in the first place.

But democracy is so much more than voting. Its about giving people a chance to use the power themselves. We vote because we don’t care what becomes of those who lose out. We vote because we want things over and done with quickly. What would happen if, instead, we had a process for decision making which was iterative, basically saying we would seek agreement multiple times, and each time amendments would be made to see if a new proposal might be more acceptable than the old proposal? What if we required 90% agreement on something, rather than 50%?

Consensus is more democratic because it empowers everyone, and no one is left out. Sure, sometimes things have to move along a bit faster than consensus processes allow, but at least try to work towards a solution which nearly everyone can agree with, rather than one which excludes a few people every time.

I’ve seen some really tragic misunderstandings of democracy go around. An organisation I’m familiar with, and which holds occasional mass-meetings where all members are invited to bring motions and ask questions comes to mind. Someone suggested that a pot of money be made available at each of those meetings for a campaign which those attending would have to chose between themselves. Various proposals could be brought to the meeting, but the group which was successful, as long as it allowed everyone to get involved with its campaign, would have the write to spend the money on its campaign in the way that it saw fit.

Instead, those with the most power within the organisation wanted the rules written so that they still had the final say on how that money was spent. You see, its not that they don’t trust that the ‘winners’ will spend it right. What they are saying is that the membership has no right to decide how the money is spent, that job must remain with the leadership, and that is that. This attitude is not democratic. It does not seek to let the common membership rule the organisation. It might be in tune with the kind of democracy which allows the membership to vote once in a while, but it still ultimately causes the membership to live in the hope that the leadership might do as they ask. If that pot of money is made available, for the first time, the membership will get to spend the organisations money the way it chooses; it is, after all, their money.

Democracy is not the refined art of polite people deciding how things should be run while everyone else ignores them. Democracy is everyone taking part in making something happen. This vision may have been hijacked somewhat, but its still a vision worth having. This is why in many ways anti-Globalisation protests are really pro-democracy protests: they are saying that the rearrangement of global politics to suit an elite which is elected by less than a 10th the worlds population* is anti-democratic, and that real democracy requires that they, whether they are students in London, coffee house workers in Seattle, or peasants in Africa, Latin and Central America, Asia, or Eastern Europe.

The thing is, complying with the current form of democracy may be a great way of showing gratitude to those who fought long and hard to get us (and keep us) this far, but if we want to continue the process towards deep democracy, we must not allow ourselves to be consumed within this system, but instead to step outside it at crucial moments to force change towards a system which doesn’t listen to its subjects, but instead is subjected to the will of all.


* If the global elite are signified as the G8, and their populations are: USA 281m, UK 59m, Germany 83m, France 61.5m, Italy 57m, Canada 33m, Japan 127m, Russia 145m (figures from Wikipedia), totaling 846.5m, and the world’s population as 7billion, then its about an 8th, but this assumes that everyone on the census can vote, and doesn’t allow for children and dispossessed.


Entry filed under: democracy, Human Rights, Participation, Politics.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jonathan  |  Friday, 14th September 2007 at 10:57 UTC

    the one point I would disagree with you on is consensus. I really don’t see how consensus decision making is inherently more democratic than other forms of decision making. personally, I find consensus meetings incredibly oppressive, in that there’s a very large pressure to conform to the majority opinion – in short, it lends itself strongly to groupthink, with all the problems arising from it.

    as well as that, what you see as a benefit (continuing to discuss issues until a consensus is reached) can very easily become a means for a handful of people to delay any decision being made by continuing to block, add amendments, etc. even without that deliberate intent, it’s very easy to get into the propose-discuss-amend-propose-discuss-amend… cycle where nothing actually gets decided, we just have endless discussions about what we’re trying to decide on.

    our decision making processes should reflect our needs, rather than attempting to tailor or groups to a particular organisational model. I find the activist consensus fetish frustrating.

  • 2. Greg  |  Friday, 14th September 2007 at 11:31 UTC

    So Graham, which groups can you list which use a consensus model? Are they anywhere near diverse as the country, York council or even my university? What hope is there of getting 90% of people to agree in any of those organisations? Change is often necessary, but change annoys people – there will always be objectors. Consensus either allows minorities to hold everyone else back* or else it just co-opts minorities by making them feel bad and forcing them to change, because they’re the only ones holding a process up.

    *Not the same thing as minority rights, which are very important to protect from the whims of the masses.


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