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Democracy: Why It Should Be As Direct As Possible

In ‘Democracy: Why It Should Be As Direct As Possible’ Jon Bigger offers up a response to a recent opinion piece on Freedom News, entitled ‘The Second Greatest Lie: An Anarchist Critique of Democracy.’ 


Freedom recently published an article calling for a debate on whether direct democracy was desirable [it can be found here]. Titled “The Second Greatest Lie: An Anarchist Critique of Democracy”, it was actually more a stream of consciousness on direct democracy. To go into the faults of that article would be a task few would take up. It was frankly very confused but the writer should be thanked for opening up a debate on the issue. I want to put the case for democracy and explain why it needs to be as direct and participatory as possible.

First an understanding needs to be gained of what democracy is. It is a very over-used word. It comes from the ancient Greek words demos and kratos meaning people and power. On a very basic level then it should denote a political order in which power rests with the people. In ancient Greece this actually involved mass general assemblies and citizen participation in decision making, although that didn’t include slaves or women. On that basis it would be contra to anarchist beliefs to want to copy the ancient Greek system of democracy per se blibcom.orgut it’s an interesting juxtaposition in comparison to the dominant form of democracy which is akin to the Roman Republic with its senators.

In effect then modern debates about democracy run along the lines of people either preferring a Roman or a Greek version of government. Anarchists often turn towards the Greek version because in theory it allows for greater participation and therefore an opportunity for self-governance, which is arguably our ultimate aim. The history of direct democracy does not require sentimentality or deference though. This system had its faults and it not desirable as a replacement for the liberal democracy we currently have in the UK and elsewhere. As anarchists we shouldn’t be concerned with finding an off the peg replacement for the status quo.

If anarchism is seen as an experiment to be conducted pending a future anarchist society, rather than a ready-made system to be put in place once a revolution is achieved, then direct democracy can be seen as part of that experiment. This ia na experiment that can be continually tried and tested until we have got to where we need to be. We don’t need to wait for revolution. Consensus decision making, committees, workplace and community structures can become the place where these experiments play out. There is no rigid set of rules here. It should be for each group to decide the best method for self-governance and even then there is no obligation to use the same method all the time or for every decision. Some decisions might not be suitable for consensus and some groups might prefer voting anyway. Others might wish to experiment in different forms of consensus decision making. It is for us all to support the efforts of others to find out what works for them and see if it can be adapted for our needs.

One criticism levelled at democracy in the article was that it naturally leads to informal hierarchies emerging. Yes, it does. So what is needed is a way to ensure those hierarchies can be disestablished when they emerge. It remains unclear as to how that can occur without further direct democracy. In fact, direct democracy allows for such disestablishment and it is illogical to conclude that because hierarchies form then direct democracy should be avoided. On the contrary in a direct democratic system the responsibility for ensuring domination is curtailed rests with the participants, directly. This means a continual renewal of the anarchist principles underpinning the group in question. This links closely with the concept of mutual aid in as much as it is in everybody’s interests to prevent hierarchies from emerging and smashing them when they do. Direct democracy is the answer rather than the problem as it was presented in the article.

There is also the issue of individuality. Once a political ideology is broken down it always concerns the relationship between the individual and the collective within a society. For anarchists there is a desire for freedom to be absolute. Yet that has to be squared with the need for a harmonious community. Again, direct democracy can help. There are occasions where an individual may withdraw their cooperation on certain matters. How the group decides to handle such decisions is important. Finding a way, perhaps on a case by case basis, for people to withdraw from groups without incurring the wrath of the majority is an experiment anarchists could do well to try. Without it direct democracy could still mean majority rule or else individuals may block consensus decisions from being reached. Do we allow an individual to break free and under what circumstances? How do we handle those moments where an individual does more than break free from the collective and acts in a way which would currently be labelled criminal? Direct democracy can be extended to decisions of justice and I would argue that it needs to. As a community we can’t just say ‘anything goes’ but neither can we allow an over-arching system of government to be re-erected once it has been got rid of. The key point here is that as anarchists what frustrates us about government is our lack of participation in the decision making process. Again, it is hard to see how we can solve that by ditching the notion of direct democracy. On the contrary it is our best opportunity to find a way to resolve these issues.

Direct democracy shouldn’t be seen as an end point then but one of continual renewal. It would be naïve to think that once an anarchist society is achieved then problems of hierarchy will wither away. They won’t. Just like patriarchy, racism and other forms of domination, society will need to guard against losing democratic participation and the gains achieved. In short anarchists will need to nurture direct democracy in order for an anarchist society to flourish. The experiments have already begun. We need to record what is learned for future generations and ensure that groups, committees and activists can carry on the experiment. We should resist the urge from some for us to ditch these principles. They are absolutely essential if we are to achieve self-governance.

Jon Bigger