DEMOCRACY – HOW CAN WE FIX IT?
HANDMAIDEN OF THE RICH, CATALYST FOR CONSUMERISM AND CAMOUFLAGE FOR CORPORATE POWER...
JUST SAY 'NO'
As the UK reaches yet another stalemate over Europe and the United Nations fails to reach solutions on global warming, it's a good time to have a closer look at what we call “democracy”. Where did it come from? Why was it invented? Has it ever worked well for the common good? Who has a vested interest in promoting it? Does it really offer electors a full range of options? How can we change things without revolution?
The present system of “democratic” government has a very short history. It effectively began when the British cut their king's head off in 1649. Of course the idea had much earlier origins as a system used very effectively about 2000 years ago by the ancient Greeks. BUT note right away that the ancient Greek system worked in almost exactly the opposite way to the populist “democracy” which is our dominant system today.
Lessons from the Ancient Greeks The ancient Greeks strongly believed that selection of leaders by lot was much fairer than populist elections where choice could (and probably would) be heavily influenced by money and position in society. There were three different groupings within Greek democracy: the Assembly, the Council of Five Hundred and the Courts of Justice.
The Assembly Every Greek citizen had the right to participate in formulation of laws by participating at the Assembly which met almost every week to decide the laws of the country. In practice about 5000 people might attend (from the total of 40,000 male citizens over the age of 18 – slaves and non-citizens were excluded). Decisions were taken by majority vote.
The Council of 500 Its members were chosen by lotfrom the citizens. The Council met every day and dealt with all day to day management issues. Each member served for one year.
The Courts The courts dispensed justice – there was no police force in those days. Its members were also chosen by lotfrom citizens aged over 30 years – and they were paid a small wage for doing this work. This system is the basis of the “jury” system we still use today.
Ostracism The only elections which took place in ancient Greek democracy took place when citizens wished to rid themselves of bad leaders. Each year the Assembly would ask the citizens if they wished to “ostracise” any members of the governing bodies. If the answer was “yes” then an “election” would take place where the names of potential “victims” could be written a a small piece of pottery by each participant. (The word “ostracism” means small piece of pottery in greek.) The citizen whose name was written on the greatest number of pottery shards was then “ostracised” which meant being expelled from the city for 10 years! This was a powerful threat against bad behaviour and irresponsible decisions.
The Greeks realised at the outset that populist elections where everybody had a vote would lead to short-term populist policies (jam today and hardship tomorrow) and would attract wealthy and “power hungry” individuals to put themselves forward as candidates. Choosing government by lot not only produced a true representative sample of the population, it also (because the representatives did not need to seek re-election) avoided the dangerous attraction of popular short-term policies at the expense of long term needs.
Early Days in Europe The “democratic” system of government which was introduced in England in the 17thcentury had no enlightened or high principled origins. It was a purely pragmatic way in which wealthy property owners took over power from the discredited king. Only those who owned 2000 acres or more were entitled to vote – and, as history shows, the property owners were not going to give up their dominant position easily. A survey conducted in 1780 showed that less than 3 percent of the English population were entitled to vote. So, make no mistake, the democratic system we have inherited today began as a device to protect the wealthy. It was a fundamental principle of all the newly emerging democracies of the 18thcentury (both after the revolution in France and the struggle for independence in America) that MEN OWNING PROPERTY were the only people entitled to vote. What we call “democracy” would never have been introduced unless it served the interests of the established wealthy classes. This imperative is particularly striking in the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” created by the French after their revolution in 1789. For all its high flown idealism, the term “citizen” actually only referred to “active” citizens (men over 25 years old who owned property). “Active” citizens comprised just over 4 million people out of a French population of more than 29 million. Even to the idealistic revolutionaries it seemed inconceivable to offer voting rights to the masses who held no stake in the country. Exactly the same principle was enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 . In effect our modern democracy was based on principles almost directly contrary to the ancient Greek ideals because it began as a device to enable the wealthy to keep their hands on the reins of government.
Expansion of the Franchise would empower the new Merchant Classes As the industrial revolution gathered pace in England more and more people moved into the cities as wage earners. Fuelled by new sources of credit available from the developing commercial banks, the rich emerging industrial sector (based in the cities) began to compete for power with the traditional land owning classes. The new merchant classes realised that extending the right to vote to include more of the new wage earning classes would be an important way to provide them with access to the power which was still in the hands of the landed gentry. This idea was encouraged by what was happening in France and America after their revolutions. From early in the 19thcentury there were growing pressures to extend the franchise. The landed establishment resisted strongly but opposition was further inflamed in 1819 by the Peterloo massacre in which 11 protestors were killed. Finally Lord Grey, as Prime Minister, passed the first Reform Act (1932) giving the vote to all male citizens who owned property with an annual rateable value of £10 or more. This increased the voting population from about 3 percent to about 15 percent. Further Reform Acts followed until women (over 30) finally got the vote in 1918.
Democracy as the catalyst for consumerism. If the merchant and industrial classes were to be successful in their bid for power they needed to pursue policies which were popular with the wage earning classes. The objectives of full employment and high economic growth are one clear result from this imperative. Finally,with the introduction of “universal franchise” and “professional” paid politicians, we arrive at today. It is a system which suits the profit oriented corporate world very well. We now face all the dangers which were foreseen by the Greeks and emphasized again by those who opposed the “Chartist” demands for extending the franchise in the 19thcentury. We have short-term “populist” policies at the expense of important long-term objectives. We have rampant consumerism and constant demand for “economic growth” at the expense of very serious potential long-term damage to Earth's life support systems. We have well paid wealthy professional politicians who are totally unrepresentative of the general population (more than half of US politicians are millionaires!). These politicians are more interested in keeping their jobs than serving the general good.
Property Ownership is the Heart of the Matter At the heart of all this life threatening dynamic lies the remarkable institution of “ property ownership”. Virtually all modern civilisations have been strongly protective of this institution – because the people who own property are the people in power. Kings and Emperors depended for their power on the loyalty and practical support (usually by providing armed soldiers when required) of those to whom they granted ownership of land – and generally this institution of ownership was protected by the death penalty for those who stole or poached. The wishes and needs of property owners have dominated the development and operation of our political systems for at least 1000 years. Even the famous “Magna Carta” resulted from the determination of large landowners to protect individual property rights from the arbitrary power of the King.
In our modern world of our nation states the priveliges of property owners are protected by the police. At the same time we blithley assume that “free” market economics and the price mechanism will encorage property owners to behave in ways that are good for society! Perhaps it's time to think again?
So now we can answer our 6 Questions about Democracy!
Where did it come from?It was an idea promoted by the Greeks 500 years before Christ. Their version which chose government by lot worked pretty well for 200 years.
Why was it invented?The Greeks originally invented it to prevent tyrannical rule. The English landowning classes re-invented a different version 2000 years later to take power from the King.
Has it ever worked well for the common good?When the land owning classes had a big vested interested in running a successful country, it probably did. In today's version our representatives no longer reflect the demographic reality of their constituencies. Success in elections depends on having money; the need to win elections encourages short-term policies and boom and bust economics; policy development is strongly influenced by commercial lobbyists; and economic growth which is disastrous for Earth's life support systems, remains a primary policy objective.
Who has a vested interest in promoting it now?The banks and the corporate world do because they depend on bouyant consumerism and continuous economic growth. The present professional politicians depend on it for their livelihoods. The corporate world uses it as a camouflage which provides the masses with the illusion of influencing government.
Does it really offer electors a full range of options to vote for? No. You can only vote for the names and/or political parties on the ballot paper. This often means just voting for the least worst option – or not voting.
How can we change things without revolution? Four possible answers......
Just say “NO” We could eliminate what I call the “democratic deficit” by introducing the possibility of voting for “None of the Above”. But a better option would be to give voters the chance to “Just Say NO”. We could do this even in the present system by creating a “shadow” political party with the name “ SaNO”. It would have a constitution conforming to the requirements of the Electoral Commission and its candidates would stand only as a device to enable people to register their “SaNo” vote.
Create Citizen's Assemblies We could campaign for major policy issues which cut across party lines to be referred to a “Citizens Assembly” - a representative group chosen by lot to make recommendations after full discussion and consulting with experts. This has already been done very effectively in the Republic of Ireland.
Move to Sortition In the even longer term we could develop a truly “representative” democracy by choosing our represenatives by lot so the governing assembly would reflect the actual demographic of our society. This is a system called “Sortition” and is now being actively promoted by various pressure groups. Sortition would follow the lessons of the ancient Greeks. It would eliminate the huge expense of elections andthe need to spend large sums promoting political candidates. More important still, it wojld remove the need for representatives to prioritise short-term political objectives because they would have no need to be popular in the absence of elections.
Create a “game” that teaches citizens to escape their addiction to consumerism. This could be on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous – each individual working on their “addiction” within a small support group. Make new friends, save money, have a healthier lifestyle – and “save the world”. This is the game of “Metanoia” - bringing people together to have fun and make a difference. With a suitable “app” on smart phones this could and should go “viral” and it's an exciting prospect!