The meaning of the term democracy is difficult to pin down so first it is necessary to give some consideration to the historical and modern connotations. ‘Democracy’ originated from a Greek word meaning ‘rule of the people’ and is a direct antonym to another Greek word, meaning ‘rule of an elite.’ Already it is clear that in the modern day this boundary has become blurry. Athenian democracy, where the form of government originated, had limits on who could participate (only adult male citizens could vote) but they voted on each individual piece of legislation and only elected military generals and money handlers (who were subject to review and could easily be dismissed). Democracy as a form of government is different to other forms of government such as monarchy or oligarchy, but again these boundaries are not as clear cut as they appear. Democracy can be split into direct and indirect democracy, based on the extent of public participation within the decision-making process. Certain principles are also associated with democracy such as strong institutions, rule of law, free and fair elections and a free pluralistic press. In addition to these structural criteria, the freedom to organise and speak out is also considered to be democratic. For this article I will use ‘modern democracy’ to describe democracy as it is seen today.
The UK’s form of government is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system (indirect). The UK sovereign is meant to be politically neutral and no longer has any executive powers, but they still play a constitutional and representative role. It should be noted that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have limited devolved powers. The parliamentary system in the UK consists of the unelected House of Lords and the elected House of Commons. The House of Lords consists of various hereditary peerages, appointments recommended by the Prime Minister and religious-based positions. They act as a check on the 650 members of the elected House of Commons by scrutinising bills, sometimes delaying or offering amendments. The UK uses the first-past-the-post system whereby the person with the highest vote in a constituency will become a member of parliament (MP). Whichever party has the most MPs will have a mandate to form the government. This system of governance has come under increased scrutiny and there is a widespread disillusion within the UK population. In 1950, voter turnout was almost 84% but at the last general election turnout was just 65%, 2001 hit an all-time low of 59%. Over the last 6 months, government approval has averaged 30%. This shows that there is a severe disconnect between the government and the people.
Freedom House calculated that in 2000, 63% of the world’s countries were ‘democracies‘ and in the latter half of the 20th Century, countries like Germany, Spain, Greece and Brazil notably moved towards a democratic model. Democracy clearly has an appeal; democracies on average tend to be richer, there is often less corruption and war is less frequent. Having a democratic model is often related to solid economic growth as both tend to complement each other (China is an obvious exception). However, when considering this relationship within the context of capitalism, the democracy vs capitalism dichotomy breaks down as it can be argued that the powerful western democracies laid the foundations and are the driving force behind capitalism. When you consider that capitalism is utilised to accumulate wealth and use wage labour, it raises questions about the nature of modern democracy that we see today. Indeed, the Occupy movement challenged the financial system as well as political institutions suggesting some sort of relationship between the two. Claims that economic freedom fosters the progress of political freedom also indicate that capitalism and democracy are closely associated. A Marxist perspective would consider the influence of wealth on the political process, arguing that under capitalism the economic elite will always wield undemocratic power regardless of the political process in place, effectively limiting true democracy. In this sense, Moshé Machover talks about bourgeois democracy, whereby citizens have the right to vote but in a very limited way. He uses a hypothetical example of a government privatising railways (this also applies to a wide range of services), essentially moving them from the sphere of democratic decision making (politics) to the sphere of economy thus limiting the influence that people can have via democracy.
The last decade has unveiled some underlying problems with modern democracy. The disconnection between citizens and government manifested itself during the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis. The bailout of private banks in 2008 with taxpayers’ money, of which RBS and Lloyds were the main recipients, and the subsequent award of £100,000,000’s worth of bonuses raised questions about the role of a democratically elected government in supporting private banks that had effectively failed. Many of the countries severely affected by the financial crash have only recently begun to see positive growth; meanwhile the global economy has been driven by developing countries, particularly China, representing a shift in global power. Despite the many perceived failures of the Chinese government (human rights, media plurality and environmental damage), its efficient model of government is achieving a scale of economic growth that will ensure China is a major global power for the foreseeable future. Further concerns over democracy in South Africa (corruption), Turkey (media crackdown) and especially Egypt, where the first democratically-elected president was arrested after taking an autocratic approach with further troubles over press freedom, violence and oppression in the lead up to new presidential elections, raise doubts over whether democracy is really an effective model. At a recent Overseas Development Institute event, Anne Applebaum (Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute) highlighted that there is a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, while at the same event Anne Bernstein (Centre for Development and Enterprise, South Africa) mentioned that from an African perspective, authoritarian models do have an appeal.
There is no doubt that the meaning of democracy has shifted and adapted over the course of history, but with modern democracy proving to be increasingly unrepresentative, it is time to ask whether democracy is an ideal worth developing and how it can done. The ideals of democracy transcend politics and democratic thought heavily parallels decentralisation. Indeed, Anne Bernstein talked about the differences between democratic culture and political democracy. Harald Wydra, in his book ‘Communism and the Emergence of Democracy’ also noted that “political democracy emerged as a by-product of its social foundations.” He further discussed how Aristotle defined democracy in terms of poverty, rather than numerical majority, “Even if the majority support the rule of the rich, the system remains an oligarchy. Even if the rule of the poor is based only on a minority, it is still termed a democracy.” This touches upon an important aspect of modern democracy, that it is perceived to be the rich that rule. This expands to include the influence of corporate interests, which can undermine democracy as they typically influence the political sphere from (and for the benefit of) the economic sphere.
The Internet is perhaps the greatest example of democratic culture, while the rise of cryptocurrencies also reflects a societal shift towards decentralisation. Given the apparent centralised nature of modern democracy, it has moved away from the democratic culture that gave birth to the political ideology (in the modern sense anyway). Can modern democracy return to a truer form of democracy through decentralisation and how can this be achieved?
Autonarchy encourages direct democracy through forms of instant communication and the ideals were first laid out online by Israeli revolutionary Aki Orr in 1996. When you consider the improvements in electronic communication since then and how embedded it has become in our culture, it makes the political system in the UK look extremely outdated. Autonarchy advocates a State that is run by all citizens, how this would work in reality is up for debate but the notion that we can use electronic communication to become more involved in politics is a basic idea that makes sense in current times. An article by Steve Rushton, who has also been commissioned for an article on direct democracy in Iceland, highlights how Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir is pushing for political change. She talks about a <blockquote> need to redefine leadership with a circle of power, rather than a pyramid.</blockquote> Delving further into Iceland, The Citizens Foundation is a non-profit based in Reykjavik that promotes online debate in Iceland and worldwide; they developed ‘Your Priorities’ to allow anyone to submit ideas to improve their community and then vote, oppose and debate on these ideas. Better Reykjavik represents a successful utilisation of this tool, as there is now open collaboration between the city council and the foundation, with community-suggested proposals often debated within the council. Finland has also implemented a form of e-democracy, with the flow of information between representatives and citizens greatly improved. This is an important step in bridging the gap between citizens and government, but there is still room for considerable improvement. In the UK, if an e-petition gains more than 100,000 signatures then it will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. Often the petitions get lost in bureaucracy with little feedback or discussion. There is a ‘Your Priorities’ site for the UK but it is underused, however a version of the site that focuses specifically on the NHS encourages debate and develops reports that get sent to the NHS board. Connecting citizens with the government is vital for the health of a society and the Internet provides the easiest way of achieving this.
Another way of decentralising politics would be to give councils greater power to raise and spend money. Councils are more likely to be adaptable to local needs and can be more efficient in delivering results compared to broad investments from central government. Local councils are also more connected to local people, China has found this out as citizens are more likely to direct their concerns at a more accountable local government rather than the sometimes abstract and invisible central government. Combining increased power for local councils with better and more direct citizen collaboration would be a step forward for creating a more accountable and inclusive politics that better serves the needs of the people, “Local government of manageable size for democratic rule could be the antidote against various kinds of imperialism.“
Democracy has come a long way since its Greek roots, and the modern democracy that we see today in the West is part of a paradigm that is proving to be ineffective for developing equality and sustainability. Citizens are feeling increasingly disconnected from members of parliament and it seems that the economic sphere is exerting more and more power over state institutions. The tools are there for a more democratic (in the true sense of the word) political system and there will no doubt be challenges in implementing this. Perhaps bringing democracy (partially) back to its historical roots where inadequate performance could be punished is necessary, as Tony Benn said in a speech to the House of Commons in 2001 <blockquote>If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.</blockquote> We need to combine lessons from the past with the tools of the present and future to create a political system where everyone can effectively contribute, ‘the world we want’ depends on it.
Massive thank you to Michael Szkolny for some very helpful comments on this proposal
Further reading that I haven’t incorporated into this piece: