31. Real democracy

Ch 31

Real democracy (to redistribute political power)

First, a general word about power, which gets the next three chapters all to itself.  The draft Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities says this about power: “The exercise of power, whatever the rules through which it is acquired, is legitimate only if it accounts for its acts to those over whom it is exercised and if it comes with rules of responsibility that measure up to the power or influence being exercised”.

In other words, the use of power is only acceptable if it is stays inside responsible boundaries, and stays accountable to those it affects.  These three chapters look at power from the perspective of politics, wealth, and weapons in turn.

As discussed in chapter 5, democracy is the “least bad” form of government, primarily because it is based on the management of political power through the ability of citizens to replace their political leaders on a regular basis.  This, along with other institutions of most democratic states, is aimed at minimising the entrenchment and abuse of political power.

Unfortunately, democracy as it is practised at a national level in most affluent countries is no longer real democracy.  While most elections held in our representative democracies don’t include ballot-box stuffing, the manner in which the elections are prepared for, and the actions of governments in-office (from whichever “political parties”), are both now deeply corrupt.  And they are corrupted by the problems of wealth and power.

Elections are won by the application of wealth to identifying and either bribing or frightening marginal voters, aiming to shift the necessary few percent to your “side” and give you the requisite majority.  The tools used to do this are the manipulative tools first developed for propaganda (notably during the Second World War), and refined by the advertising industry from the 1950s on.

A large majority of voters will consistently vote for “their” side, regardless of whether it changes its spots.  It is the minority of voters who are not consistent who decide elections.  And the requirement to obtain a Parliamentary majority through swaying the few rather than the many seems to drive competing parties closer together.

This is even true in multi-party systems like New Zealand’s, where a few smaller parties hold the balance of political power.  And the dominance of oppositional rather than consultative politics also seems to contaminate the “lots of small party” systems in Europe.

They call all this “the fight for the middle”.  And it is based on a misunderstanding of what really underlies long term democratic effectiveness.

George Lakoff[i] suggests that the US conservatives have built their power-base by consistently espousing their values, and deriding, denying or colonising competing values.  In their own dishonest way, they have remained true to their core values.  This has “forced” the progressives to shift more to the right to compete.  And Lakoff says, correctly in my view, that the progressives are making a mistake.

The way to build abiding voter support over the long term is to stand on your values, not to trim and hedge towards the centre so as to sway the few without scaring the many off.  If voters vote largely on identity then a consistent and sincere identity, eloquently defended, is the key to electoral success.  Being trustworthy.

One of the main reasons voting is dropping off in many “mature” democracies is that increasing numbers of people see little point in voting in elections which they think they can have no effect on, for people whom they distrust or see as indistinguishable from one another or both, who espouse policies which they do not enact, and enact policies which they did not espouse.  And those increasing numbers who feel disenfranchised come mostly from the poorer in our society.

Nation-state democracy is now a system run largely by the wealthy and powerful for the wealthy and powerful.  If you are in any doubt about this, just research the history of tax-cuts for upper income earners, tax avoidance by corporations, and reduction in real wages and services for lower income earners, in the Western democracies over the last 30 years.

And the larger the democracy, the bigger the power-span, and the truer all of this is.

New Zealand is a smallish country, but even here we are infected by the problems of wealth, power-span, and forgetting our deep values and identity in “the fight for the middle”.  We were recently treated to the spectacle of the soon-to-be leader of the opposition Labour Party jettisoning the party’s policy of introducing a capital gains tax on the basis that it would be unpalatable to voters, despite the fact that he believed in it himself.

Surely, you say, this is democracy in action?  Obeying the will of the people?  No, it’s populism in action – setting aside your beliefs to try and buy votes.  We have no wealth taxes of any significance in New Zealand, and if Labour was indeed the party of the workers and the poor, as its early history and its very name suggest, then the introduction of some sort of wealth tax would surely be one of its core economic policies.

The point I am trying to make is that we no longer have real democracy in our national electoral processes, where the will of the people is honestly determined and then acted on.   We have manipulation of voters by dishonest advertising, and promises made by political parties with the sole aim of getting into power, and little or no commitment to act on them.

And the actions of governments-in-office once elected are little better.  Their policy-making is driven by those who have best access to them, not by any electoral promises made.

The United States again provides an extreme example of this.  Lobbying has long been a dishonourable pastime in the US, and those with the deepest pockets are the most effective lobbyists, as discussed in chapter 15.

In New Zealand, we also have examples of this sort of corruption.  A recent “Land and Water Forum” provided a largely consensus-based set of proposals by all the groups affected after a long and arduous consultation process.  But these proposals were “cherry-picked” by the Government so it wouldn’t upset some of its friends.  But these proposals were “cherry-picked” by the Government so it wouldn’t upset some of its friends[ii].  

And, in 2013, having been forced to conduct a referendum on the question of asset sales as a result of a petition from more than 10% of the voting population, the government announced its intention to ignore the results of the referendum.  The referendum was conducted, 67% of respondents voted “No” to the asset sales, and the government duly ignored it.

These are all examples of derailing real democratic processes by using the power obtained from elections which are democratic in form, but not in substance.

Real democracy

For me, real democracy involves the informed consent of a majority of those affected to processes, policies and practices.  And, to avoid tyranny of the majority, it includes safeguards which ensure that the specific processes, policies or practices enacted do not trample on the rights of dissenting minorities.

There are some loaded words in that definition, which I would like to pick apart a little.  “Informed” is very important – real democracy involves not the “perfect information” of a discredited economic theory, but an ongoing effort to inform and engage citizens on matters and potential decisions which may affect them, now or in the future, raising debates about pros and cons so that, when decisions are taken by democratic process, each voter is as well informed as possible.

This, of course, does not mean that each voter can be informed about, and get to debate and vote on, every issue.  The larger the group, the less likely this is to be possible.  And at any sizable group level – say above the size of a village – it is impossible.  The information part can be achieved, but the engagement and debate part cannot, even with modern discussion and decision-making technologies.

This is why we need “informed consent on process”.  If the voter cannot directly engage with an issue, they can engage with the processes used to decide that issue.

Such processes as representative democracy (the choice of people to express our will in larger forums for a period) and citizens’ juries (the selection of a group of people to debate and even decide on specific issues) are attempts to deal with the problem of size and distance using the processes of real democracy.  Some of these have been given informed consent in the past, and are subject to occasional review (for example, most national representative democracies are based on constitutions which have some form of democratic consent supporting them).  But both are subject to corruption as a result of their separation from the actual voters and the access that the wealthy and powerful have to them, as we see so clearly today with our national democracies.

Power needs to be passed out of the local sphere – the sphere of direct democracy – grudgingly.  The Catholic Church coined the term subsidiarity to express this in relation to the purpose of institutions to serve individual requirements.  The European Union has taken it up to describe the relationship of the Union as a whole to the member states.

Subsidiarity means taking decisions and acting at the most local level possible.  The definition I like best, because it describes what we would normally call the “higher” political bodies as the subsidiary ones, is:

“The principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level”.

Real democracy embodies subsidiarity.

And here’s an important dilemma for you.  We need to cooperate better at a global level to change our current direction.  Naomi Klein describes it as “needing a Marshall Plan for the Earth”.  And I am advocating the return of power to the grassroots.  How can I reconcile the localisation of power with the need to act at a global level?

We have seen examples where subsidiarity has clearly led to preferring local gains (in the short term at least) at the expense of the planetary good.  A telling example is the current burning of forests in Indonesia, allowed by local authorities to support their local economies.  This is having a dramatic external effect in both smoke and smog in neighbouring countries and also acceleration of global warming.

And local decision-making is not always positive in social terms either.  Small communities can be not only parochial (ie too concerned with local issues at the expense of wider concerns) but also narrow-minded, particularly if isolated – small towns and rural areas are not noted for their acceptance of racial, ethnic, sexual and behavioural differences[iii].

Subsidiarity is not enough on its own.  There are economies of scale available from working at higher levels, and the “local good” needs to be reconciled with the “global good”.  Some economists even argue that global warming is simply and only the result of local economies being able to act for themselves, without consideration of wider impacts – that it is the ultimate result of externalisation of costs (by societies, not just by corporations)[iv].

I have two partial answers to this dilemma.  The first is that in many ways it is the sum of local actions which will create the necessary changes – to working with Nature, and to the thrift economy in particular.  And it is increasingly clear, for example, that cities and regions are far more active in addressing our current challenges than national governments.  But they need to be actions taken with a more concerted will.

The second is that it is a risk we have to take.  We need more of a “dumbbell” of power, where relatively trusted global institutions such as the United Nations are ceded power from the local level to act on their behalf globally.

Between the global and local levels, the nation state and the for-profit cooperation have created a “rugby ball” of power, with most of the strength in the middle – and they have abused that trust and power for their own national or corporate benefit.

The other term I’d like to spend a bit of time on is “the rights of dissenting minorities”.  First, the requirement to not “trample on their rights” is specifically about rights.  It doesn’t mean watering down proposals to meet the wishes of a minority (as in the Land and Water Forum example above).  It means not infringing on any of their basic human rights when carrying out the proposals.  They might not like it, but they will have to live with it.

And second, their rights include the right to continue to dissent.  While this might have considerable nuisance value, it is central to the individual freedom that underlies real democracy.  Abbie Hoffman once observed, “You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.”[v]

If our “mature” democracies are moribund, where do we look for leading examples of real democracy at a more-or-less national level?  The only ones I am aware of I garnered from Raj Patel’s “The Voice of Nothing”[vi].  They are regarded as “brave experiments”, but they are real, and have attracted large numbers to them.

Neither is a nation state.  One is a transnational movement, La Via Campesina, and the other is the revolutionary Zapatista movement in southern Mexico.

The Zapatistas practise what Patel calls “slow politics”, using a mix of direct and representative democracy (including a rule of “no more than one term in power”) and careful deliberative processes that are increasingly being seen outside as exemplars of political and judicial process.  Oh yes, and after a 12 day shooting war 20 years ago, they have built and staffed schools and health clinics, and are working on better common use of the lands they have occupied.  The placard at the entrance to their territory says “Here the people lead and the government obeys”.

I have referred to La Via Campesina before, under the need to abandon industrial agriculture.  They are also a good example of real democracy in action.  They have of the order of 200 million families as members, across about 70 countries, through the organisations for which La Via Campesina is an umbrella.

They formed 20 years ago to fight the privatisation and destructive exploitation of agricultural land driven by the pro-market forces of the World Bank and corporations throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  And they learned how not to run democratic processes from the World Bank’s attempts at “consultation”.

They created an internal structure which included being unable to instruct any of their member organisations (ie subsidiarity).  Their processes are highly participative, and involve continuous learning.  They are learning to describe their rights, and to fight for them, in their own way.

Their core goal is “food sovereignty”, and, to achieve this, they have to succeed against the privatisers, the marketeers, the Monsantos, and all of their attendant paraphernalia.  They are a democratic force aiming to protect their own rights against market society.

And, by their very existence, they represent a powerful indictment of the decreasingly democratic societies of the affluent world.  They are more sophisticated democrats than we are, and they are struggling to hold on to the little they have against the forces of our “developed” societies.  The great thefts continue, but resistance is increasing.

To rebalance political power, and to reduce the influence of the wealth, we need to reconfigure our democracies closer to what I call “real democracy”.

In particular, we need to practise subsidiarity based on understanding and acceptance of global issues, we need to build institutional arrangements that ensure due, safe, and effective democratic process when direct democracy is not possible, and we need to ensure that dissent is supported, not stifled.

Read on, about “Restitution and redistribution…”>>
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[i] In “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant”, George Lakoff, 2014

[ii] See “Why Forest & Bird Has quit water forum”, NZ Dominion Post, p A11, 9 March 2017

[iii] Thanks Daphne Lawless for this last point, in “Against conservative leftism: why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, p15 of Fightback, Issue 22, 2016

[iv] Still trying to find this reference again

[v] Quoted in “The Value of Nothing”, loc 2436

[vi] “The Value of Nothing”, loc 1661ff