From Cairo to Kiev: Is Party Representative Democracy still an effective system of governance in the 21st Century?
In both Egypt and Ukraine, two nations culturally worlds apart, we have seen party leaders, voted in by a perfectly reasonable electoral process, ousted by angry mobs on the street. Those doing the ousting are calling it a democratic process by direct action of the people unsatisfied with being unrepresented. Political leaders around the world are calling it a people’s movement towards freedom from repression from authoritarian regimes. The people who are ousted though are reminding the mobs and their supporters that what legitimized their authority in the first place was the ‘democracy of the people’ in action at the ballot box.
Although the complexities of both situations are endless we can observe that in our current systems of governance and our notions of democracy there will always be some who do not feel that they are being represented, that their needs and ambitions are not being met by the political system as a whole. The Scottish people are saying it about our London-centric Parliament. The Occupy movement worldwide are convinced that our governmental elites are looking after big business vested interests before the needs of the population. Surely, at this stage, we must question if we are using the right tool for the job or if there is a better alternative to self-governance and democracy by the people.
Let us examine what we think of as Democracy, ‘rule by the people’, then let’s compare that to what we have in place around the world today. Since the cold war it has been established that a democracy is where people are wholly represented by political parties often being made up of an elite group of people groomed for governance. Those nations choosing Communist/Socialist alternatives, which in its original form was meant to be a system of ‘governance by the people’, have been vilified by the other nations as being un-democratic on the basis of there being no choices in political representation by more than one political party.
In the UK we vote in representatives for our local constituency to represent us in government. They make all kinds of promises that they are not contractually obliged to keep. They often belong to a major party which has a ‘chief whip’ who persuades them to vote the party line otherwise stay on the back benches without any portfolio of real responsibility in government. They often have alternative careers alongside their parliamentary role where they earn far more than their earnings for occasionally attending Parliament and who is to say if their newfound employers influence their decision when it comes to voting on legislation presented to them. Often the legislation is drafted by members of the business sector most effected by the legislation itself and the devil is therefore in the detail, talk about vested interests. The parties themselves are funded by private businesses who are in effect investing their money into a regime that best serves their business interests. They are looking for a direct and relevant return for that investment and that comes down to influencing policy decision. Is this the best form of democracy we could have in the 21st century? Ultimately, is this any kind of democracy at all?
We have talk radio and TV political debating shows, we tweet, we post, we blog but in fact, we have no say whatsoever in our governance once we plant our mark on a small slip of paper once every five years. Some take direct action in order to grab some attention to their plight but then the disruption itself often turns people against them. Then there is political spin, PR, misinformation, redirecting of the narrative etc so that ordinary people turn against protagonists even before authorities have to lift a finger or send in the riot shields, this is what Chomsky has referred to as manufactured consent.
Every time we find out about a new scandal of politicians feeding their own pockets or corrupted parliamentarians telling us one thing but actually doing another, we feel ever more disenfranchised about the political process itself. The comedy star Russell Brand declared that he had no interest in voting as long as the vote was for very similar people with very similar ideas of taking authority over the people for a period of time. Voter turnout is at an all-time-low not just in the UK but all across the developed world. This is a vote that people fought and died to get. This is the democracy we are led to believe is the ultimate prize and we seem to be just accepting it as if it were really ‘The End Of History’ as Fukuyama has suggested.
Modern European nations are finding themselves having to form coalition governments more often exactly because they cannot find enough support to take governance over the other major parties and in these cases compromises to policy decisions are made. Meanwhile, across the African continent political parties are often formed across cultural fault lines, both ethnic and tribal, and end up gaining support by militias with AK47s going at each other for dominance of the nation and its resources. Middle Eastern Nations tend to take comfort in having an authoritarian leader in power but, as we know, there is a breaking point. There is a global network of powerful capitalist multi-national industries lining up to support the regimes in these nations that will offer them the cheapest resource supply with as few owners and middle men as possible. I know this is all horribly simplified but as we look across the world can we really say that we are progressing towards a better place?
Libertarians are arguing that what we in the west have is systems of governance that are born out of previous systems of rule by royal families and warlord dictators and are only compromises towards appearing democratic for the purpose of maintaining controlling interests by wealthy elites. On the face of it a conspiracy type statement, all-be-it with glimmers of truth although their solution amounts to having small or no government and instead some kind of organized system of anarchy. The US senate is based on the senate of Rome (Senex meaning literally wise old man) where the rich aristocratic land owners (and some nouveau riche plebian upstarts) were self appointed to govern wisely by looking after their vested interests while carefully avoiding riots from within and invasion from outside thereby providing a minimum standard for the Capite Censi (general population). There is plenty of evidence that suggests that early British Parliamentarians and the US Founding Fathers were appalled by the idea that the illiterate masses could be given some sort of governance of their own affairs. After all, look what happens when mobs become motivated.
What do we think of systems of governance by the people? Some say that endless debates by the entire population would just cripple any attempt to do actually anything at all and that without leadership we’d become ships without captains. Others say that on these occasions history is littered with examples of authoritarian dictatorships taking power in these leaderless vacuums and Sun Tzu talks at length about the efficiency of clearly defined effective leadership with chains of command in The Art Of War. It was no coincident, for example, that after the French Revolution France was targeted by outside forces wishing to take advantage of the seemingly leaderless regime and this is the void that Napoleon filled, eventually declaring himself dictator then emperor to the cheers of the masses who had themselves been part of the revolution and the detachment from feudalism.
The fear then of ‘mob rule’, of anarchy, of weak leaderless bureaucracies, and of communist authoritarianism is what is keeping us banging our heads with the same systems of governance unchanged for centuries. So have we given up on expecting more for our political systems? Are we no longer concerned with progress where political self-governance is concerned? And why does every criticism of our current system sound like a quote from conspiracytheory.com ?
‘Parliaments have been a legal barrier between the people and the exercise of authority, excluding the masses from meaningful politics and monopolizing sovereignty in their place. People are left with only a facade of democracy, manifested in long queues to cast their election ballots’ A quote from Gaddafi, of all people, his criticism of party representative democracy taken from his Green Book, and look what happened to him.
Here we are in the 21st Century, with our collaborative online models, our global platforms for voicing opinion, our WiKi interactive direct news portals, our instantaneous peer review and debate of scientific development, and we have to ask: with all this collective intelligence why can’t we come up with something better than Party Representative Democracy?
Well, the UK Humanist Party is presenting an alternative. They are promoting an idea of Direct Democracy where people actively and openly participate in a framed debate on public policy, development in and around 12 debating centers called The 12 Pillars of Governance, one for each of the major departments of government (Education, Health, Justice, Economy, Industry, etc). A committee of specialists in each department are voted in for their core subject knowledge and activism in the field and work towards new legislation directed by the will of the people in the debating space and ultimately voted on once a year (times twelve departments i.e. people vote once a month on the issues) by a direct online voting system. They are working right now on a citizen-sourced UK Constitution as a moral center point on which to base the new model.
They argue that each of the twelve government departments would then be able to be judged upon their progress against what amounts to be an index of clear, constitutionally defined ‘social objectives’ rather than our current index of economic growth that actually only provides capital growth for the owners of major wealth, resources and property. They have a new economic model of ‘sustainable collective economics’ that offers an alternative to the expansionist economic model currently in use that is destroying our planet through over-population and resource stripping. There’s is a plan of prosperity by the majority without economic growth that only benefits the mega-wealthy. It requires a nationalization of the currency supply away from the hands of banking cartels and that in turn could only happen if parliament was being governed truly for the benefit of the people of the nation. To many this sounds radical and yet the support for this party is rising in the most sensible of intellectual circles. The only thing radical about it is the fact that while the many are complaining about the problems with governance so few are actually working on changing the system itself.
So, the next time you feel that social problems are not being dealt with in the right manner then just consider for a moment – ‘is our current system of government fit for purpose and is it due to solve this problem? If not, then let’s have more conversation about the type of system that will solve problems. It is up to us to design it.
Be the change.
Author of Now Utopia
Co-founder of The Humanist Party