Democracy in Crisis
“In sharp contradiction to the belief that democracy is only a way to Socialism is another viewpoint which is also quite popular in Socialist ranks, namely, that true democracy is possible only in a Socialist society and that what we have now as democracy is an illusion and has only a formal character.”
Everywhere in Europe, but with special intensity in Spain, a strong distrust of politicians, parties, and to a certain extent representative democracy, is gaining currency as the feeling of the vast majority. Expressions like “they’re all the same” or “voting is useless”, which were never unheard of, are nonetheless acquiring the social imprimatur of common sense, although paradoxically many of those most likely to utter them will, when it comes to the crunch, show up at the polling station and have a care for what ballot they put into the urn. It’s undeniable, though, that there is a crisis of legitimacy, and the belief that those who in theory represent us for the common good are in fact looking to their own sectional interest (or that of their patrons) not just first, but exclusively, is increasingly widespread.
There are many responses to this situation: resignation (it is inevitable that someone must rule and that they will be corrupted in so doing), depoliticisation (what is required is a neutral, capable, non-ideological government by technicians), relativism (my party is bad but it is not as bad as your party), and of course a number of more rupturist views. The general thrust of these is that what we have right now is not truly democratic, and that some formal or procedural change is required to introduced so-called real democracy. That was the name of one of the primary movements during the 15M, Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now). Likewise, the structure of parties such as Izquierda Unida (United Left) or the PCE is regarded as undemocratic because of their internal structure. Some of these claims have some merit, but many are ultraleft wishful thinking dressed in liberal language.
So why is there a common belief that democracy as it currently exists is not real? The simplest explanation would be that those whose policy options are not victorious project their own desires–or, less prosaically, values–into the population as a whole, and find themselves puzzled when they don’t see them win. A more nuanced argument would consider the fact that the working class majority often if not always votes against its own objective interest.
It is of course true that there are distortions to democracy inherent to liberal capitalism. The privately owned media, which acts as a key organ of deliberation and propaganda; inequality in economic capacity, resulting in imbalanced campaign spending; the electoral system itself, with participation floors or unequal districts and simple inertia result in a flawed mapping from the policy choices, values and interests of citizens into the composition of forces in Parliament.
It is, however, no less true that the fundamental obstacle to socialism, understanding by this the transition towards a new mode of production that is not presided by exchange value, is plain and simple that most people don’t want it. All analysis has to start from the unavoidable fact that, no matter how one is to set up the franchise, the census, the decision rule or guarantees and safeguards such as imperative mandates or recalls, any system at all responsive to the popular will–hence any democratic system–will not yield socialist results.
In spite of this reality, an all too common socialist response to this crisis is to claim that a truer, somehow purer democracy would allow the working class to express its genuine interests, in a way that is somehow unreachable under current arrangements; or, on the other hand, that democracy should be abandoned as a principle altogether. While this latter substitutionist position has no effective following in most of the European contemporary left, the former viewpoint’s popularity keeps growing. Hence the necessity to address its different manifestations.
The Greek democrat achieved this extraordinary force and versatility because he had two great advantages over the modern democrat. The first was that in the best days of the democracy, he did not understand individualism as we know it. For him an individual was unthinkable except in the city-state. The city-state of democracy was unthinkable except as a collection of free individuals. He could not see himself or other people as individuals in opposition to the city-state.
–C L R James
With the dislike of our current representatives, comes a dislike for representation itself. After all, many of the problems we live stem from the reality that our mechanisms of representation keep choosing people who are, in the statistical sense, all but ordinary. Parliament sitters are more educated, richer, and better connected to capitalist elites–when they’re not outright members in good standing–than the common citizen, and so, one may wonder if getting rid of them wouldn’t help us express our own needs and wants more clearly. Additionally, the tactical considerations in Parliament are such that the programmes on which politicians are elected to it are seldom more than an excuse.
Against this state of affairs, the idea of direct democracy seems appealing. If representatives are usurping the peoples sovereignty by disregarding the needs of their voters, why not do away with them altogether and let each citizen represent themselves directly?
Indeed, why not? There are, after all, numerous historical precedents. The most popular one is ancient Athens and its assembly, but there are other instances of direct representation. Some of the counterarguments against it (the presence of slaves or the lack of universal suffrage in such societies, for example) are not sound. The amount of leisure and worker productivity we enjoy today is so much higher, that even if one accepts that Athenian citizens couldn’t have diligently ruled themselves without slaves to tend to their work, there is no reason why such considerations should apply here and now.
There are, however, good reasons why direct democracy should not by itself constitute the fundamental principle of decision in modern polities. First, the interconnected nature of decisions requires a coherent plan; second, the size and population of modern polities makes direct democracy problematic; third, the scope of state action requires a large number of quick decisions; and fourth, even if all these problems could be overcome, there is little evidence that it would place socialists at an advantage.
The modern state is a very complicated machine. While Athens, as a Polis, functioned with 3 or four levels of organisation (council, assembly, ad hoc commissions and permanent appointments) Spain has thirty degrees of civil service, with five groups, several subgroups, and innumerable corps (special or general) and, within them, scales. From the president of the cabinet down to some minor functionary there can easily be fifteen decision points, each of them with a certain degree of autonomy within the scope of their functions, going through state secretariats, subsecretariats, technical general secretariats, general secretariats, general directorates, general subdirectorates, services, sections, bureaus, offices… And this setting aside all the lateral organs that participate in decision-making such as supervisors, inspectors, consultative bodies, interveners…
For a machine this size, with so many mobile components, to work at all, there must be a coherent guiding plan. Such a plan requires the centralisation of decisions in people who have a holistic understanding of the state, and even with such a body and its advisory councils and organs, it is not seldom that the state acts across purposes. Setting aside policy implementation, which is primarily a bureaucratic and not a legislative task–though I will point out that the supervision of bureaucracy is one of the fundamental conditions for effective popular government–submitting each decision to referendum by the whole census presents us not with the likelihood, but the eventual certainty of contradictory and incompatible lines of action. The most effective full-timers will get lost in this labyrinth from time to time, and lay people have no chance at all to successfully negotiate it.
It can be alleged that the existence of such a complicated bureaucracy is itself antagonistic to the people’s interests and that socialists should wish to dismantle it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The adequate establishment of socialism entails, inter alia, the even application of norms–whether legal or technical–and the functional centralisation of information into nodes that are capable of processing and acting on it quickly and accurately. It is hence necessary to divide labour into specialised bodies and to coordinate them, and while such a task may not require quite the degree of stratification modern bureaucracies manifest, I’d be sceptical about the possibility to much reduce it, much more so when the scope of state action is to increase in embracing the whole planning and logistics of the productive economy.
Those who see in direct democracy the solution to all our ills may contend that, under such a system, there is nothing stopping organisations such as parties or advisory bodies from issuing recommendations to their voters. Indeed there isn’t, but then we find ourselves at a crossroads: either such recommendations would effectively so constraint the direction of voters that we might as well resort to representation anyway, or the results would be relatively independent from such recommendations, in which case we find ourselves against the same problem described above.
Regarding size and population, it is true that we have means of mass communication that were unthinkable in Athens time. It is no less true that using such means for voting presents certain difficulties. Authentication and privacy, and particularly endpoint security, make any form of electronic voting highly problematic, to the point that organisations such as the Free Software Foundation consider it inadvisable even if using free software.1 More importantly, however, and aside from the problems of reliable electronic voting, simply having every citizen in the census issue their individual vote presents us with a much diminished understanding of what democracy is about. Within the Athenian assembly, democracy was understood as isonomia–equality in rule. Such an equality required not simply that everyone could freely vote and for each vote to count the same, but for all views to have a fair chance, and for deliberation to take place in the most impartial way possible.2 Having a meaningful deliberative process including millions of people spread over hundreds of thousands of squared kilometers on a frequent enough basis to constitute the ordinary legislative procedure for a modern state is, to say the very least, an open research question.
Regarding the scope of action, while it would not be fair to call the political environment of Athens simple, it is certainly the case that today’s polities find themselves confronted with decisions that are more frequent, must be taken faster, involve a much higher depth and breadth of domain knowledge, and have much more difficult to discern higher-order effects. It is considerably easier to decide whether to agree to peace under such and such terms, than whether a particular tax change will result in larger or smaller overall receipts, how it will affect the economy as a whole, and so on. These questions are sufficiently complex and detailed that we require specialised bodies to study them in depth, and if we were to delegate our own decisions to the findings by such bodies, in that case we may as well abolish democracy altogether. It is in fact the case that representatives have at least a better chance to analyse and critically assess the proposals of bureaucratic bodies, while individual citizens would find themselves at odds in reaching a genuinely informed position. The best intentioned electorate, confronted by a constant stream of highly complex and specialised decisions, would fall into civic exhaustion and disengage from politics in sheer self-defence.
Even if all these problems could be overcome, however, there’s little evidence that the spontaneous, unformed position people take would be more progressive or helpful to the socialist cause than representatives are. The electoral system doesn’t by itself fix all the other structural conditions which give capitalists hegemony in society, and so we would find, as we found in Switzerland, which makes frequent use of referenda, that people would be just as swayed by false consciousness as they are when they choose representation in Parliament, and perhaps even more so.
“The Socialist character of the Soviet democracy—that is, of proletarian democracy in its concrete particular application—consists first in this: that the electorate comprises the toiling and exploited masses—that the bourgeoisie is excluded. Second in this: that all bureaucratic formalities and limitations of elections are done away with—that the masses themselves determine the order and the time of elections and with complete freedom of recall of elected officials. Third, that the best possible mass organization of the vanguard of the toilers—of the industrial proletariat—is formed, enabling them to direct the exploited masses, to attract them to active participation in political life, to train them politically through their own experience, that in this way a beginning has been made for the first time actually to get the whole population to learn how to manage and to begin managing.”
Another remedy to the current democratic malaise–one which some disciples of Saint Trotsky have assiduously recommended for decades from their sects’ organs–is Soviet democracy–or council democracy for those who wish to avoid unfortunate connotations. Council democracy is characterised, substantively, by a restricted suffrage to the toiling classes–usually workers, peasants, and in Russian conditions soldiers. In its form, it differs from the common variety of representative democracies we’re accustomed to by two features. On the one hand, instead of choosing a few members from each district to meet in a Parliament, councils choose delegates which attend higher or more central councils, forming a pyramidal structure that culminates in a supreme organ. This mechanism, which is meant to articulate the will of the people through ever higher distillation, gives rise to the majority of technical problems that arise from the form. The other peculiarity of councils is the fusion of legislative and executive tasks, whereby the members of a council do not nearly set policy, but actively participate in its implementation.
There are principles of council democracy that parliamentary systems would do well to imitate, and in fact have in some cases done so. The possibility to issue imperative mandates to representatives, and the right to recall them, constitute useful additions to the good functioning of representative institutions–and we must not forget that councils operate on representational principles.
The pyramidal structure of councils, however, results in power dilution. Each time a level is set between the voting base and the decision, the likelihood for representation to fail increases. This failure in representation is not the result of malfeasance on behalf of delegates, which would be simple enough to fix through recall, but is a structural feature of such an arrangement even when delegates act as transparent proxies for their electors. For example, given three councils with three members each, when debating whether to pass a measure, we can obtain the following result:
This problem, which becomes more acute in the presence of unequally sized councils, an inevitability if they are to correspond to genuine functional productive units or geographic areas, makes of council democracy not a higher, but a lower form of democratic representation. Arguments from its proponents insist on the imperative mandates or recall mechanism for delegates, or, with more reason, in the value of collective decision-making and the participation of citizens in the deliberative process. The former are features that while traditionally are absent from parliaments can be relatively easily implemented. The Venezuelan constitution, for example, makes use of recall referenda, that can be called by a certain number of citizens. Likewise, mandates can be negotiated through similar channels. The question of deliberation, however, is a genuine point in favour of council democracy. The truth is, though, that there are alternatives to deliberation through federated councils, and those are much preferable given the inherent democratic deficit in this form.
Aside from theoretical considerations, the form of councils has never endured for a long period of time. Whether an accident of history or an inevitable result given its flaws, the truth is councils have not proven capable of maintaining power. They quickly get substituted by more expedient, and significantly less responsive forms, through the creation of executive bodies and commissariats. The fusion of legislative and executive functions, a reasonable goal which was also shared by the early legislative assemblies, which regarded the executive as a delegated parliamentary committee, hence never bears much fruit.
The proponents of council democracy often see in this separation of powers traditional parliaments have a fatal flaw. Since the parliament, which is the democratically responsive body, is not granted executive power, it cannot direct the bureaucracy and carry out its tasks. This complaint is somewhat valid, but it’s possible to merge ministerial work with parliamentary commissions, although rarely done in practice for what are probably historical reasons–the doctrine of the separation of powers has taken strong root in bourgeois jurisprudence. Such is not an argument against the parliamentary form, given that the form can very easily incorporate executive work, but is instead an argument against councils, given their poor historical record as seats of executive power.
Other ideas to improve on democracy are relatively new and exotic. Here one could include so-called liquid, or delegative democracy, multicameralism, demarchy, different forms of sortition, and voluntary constituencies. Notably absent from the assortment of proposals is any reinforcement of the party as an institution.
Some of these ideas, and very particularly sortition, may present us with potential improvements to democratic representation. Others, however, are of very dubious utility. Liquid democracy, for example, is characterised by people being able to vote directly, or choose a representative to do it for them ad hoc, who can in turn choose another representative. There are three fundamental problems with such a system: cycles in the voting graph, the structural nature of scale-free networks, and the rules to determine separation of concerns, since such a system relies on people being able to use a different representative for, say, medical issues and education.
Since liquid democracy allows people to vote in indeterminate chains, it is possible, and indeed likely, that at some point there will be cycles, such that A delegates on B who delegates on … who delegates on A. Given the principle of secrecy used in elections, it would be difficult to solve such cycles, since warning of the existence of the cycle itself could be an exploratory mechanism to find out other people’s votes. In short, liquid democracy has technical deficiencies that do not always allow to resolve a vote, a fairly basic requirement of a voting system.
Scale-free networks–such as links on the web, or friendships–are characterised by a power law distribution. This means that the nature of these networks is to have few central nodes with high connectedness surrounded by many peripheral nodes with low connectedness. In the context of voting on a liquid democracy system, this would result in power pooling to the central nodes in the network, and there’s little reason to suppose that those nodes would use this power equitably. After all, we are here because representatives weren’t ordinary. It is very unlikely that the central nodes of a liquid democracy would be ordinary, either; and the very same mechanisms and reasons making people famous would act in such a system. It would constitute a projection of a Facebook-like model into the realm of power, which is something that, at least speaking for myself, fills me with more dread than longing.
Multicameralist ideas conjoining different principles of representation (direct vote, representatives, sortition, technical experts) are often proposed, but they would result primarily in a slow-down of legislative activity. It’s not only contrary to democratic principles, but highly questionable in terms of administrative efficiency, to block all decisions that do not match an ever-increasing number of decision rules. It’s an ideal proposal to interfere with the cogs of the state, but such interference is both contrary to the popular will and the common good, given that decisions are impossible to elude or postpone without harm to all.
The party: the missing guest
Of course most of these ideas are impractical not only because of their negative or ambiguous effect on the democratic character of the state, but more simply because they would require a considerable constitutional and legal upheaval to be carried out. Even relatively simple changes in the electoral system are likely to require parliamentary supermajorities, and thus we are in Spain condemned to the harmful use of provinces as districts to which a minimum of two seats in Congress must be assigned. Such changes to the democratic infrastructure, so to speak, would have presumed the conquest of the existing representative institutions, since nothing of the kind could be done without Parliament and referenda, and hence we find ourselves before a reality Lenin saw more clearly than his successors:
the first problem of any rising party consists in convincing the majority of the population that its program and policies are correct.3
Here, then, is where we must begin in addressing what deficits may exist in democracy: the party itself as an institution of mass and class power. What is the reason for people’s distaste for the party form? Some of it is due to the increasing consensus, which is profitable to the press and the capitalist class, that all parties are dens of corruption. Some, undoubtedly, due to structural deficiencies in parties themselves, not the least of which being their reluctance in incorporating young members to their organs of decision.
Fortunately, and unlike the electoral system, the internal mechanics in parties are relatively easy to change, and this is yet another reason why any progress towards a more democratic polity must begin at the party. However, not all such changes are beneficial.
There’s a recent insistence, from people forming new alternative parties such as Podemos, that parties must improve their internal democracy. This claim, which has merit, however comes accompanied by some specific prescriptions that are much more problematic. The main way such an improvement is meant to take place is through the institution of primary elections, ideally opened not exclusively to party members but to everyone who wants to vote through payment of a nominal fee.
I’m not the only one to be sceptical about primary elections. Historically, the Spanish left has looked at them as a trivialisation and an Americanisation of politics, and I think these claims are reasonable. What matters about a party is, primarily, the actions it carries out and the programme it defends. The persons that happened to find themselves in organic responsibility for the party are relatively speaking irrelevant. An improvement to party democracy must comprise the effective creation of organs of opinion and deliberation where all party members can participate and thereby shape party policies, systems which assure the responsiveness of the party organs to its base, such as recall, rotation, and perhaps a sortitioned committee of guarantees, as well as referenda to be initiated by the base in case of disagreement.
Parties are to public opinion as the civil service is to the state. They are the necessary organ to articulate and make it function properly. The use of groups based on geography, specialist interests and political orientation, and vigorous debates within the party about substantive policy questions would assure the actual democratic alignment we are seeking. Democracy is not merely a matter of exercising power but of articulating a collective will. The use of such active debates would help us reach effective solutions and serves an essential didactic function for the class in learning to rule itself.4
- Nonetheless there is important ongoing research on this question, such as Extending handivote to handle digital economic decisions, and so we cannot deny the possibility that such an objection may be overcome in the future. ▲
- Hence some suspicion of rhetoric, as an art that could make an argument sound better than it is, and disrupt isonomia, as not all men are equally good orators. ▲
- Quoted from The Soviets at Work. ▲
- Multiple studies show that deliberation results in people’s opinion actually changing and converging, and that it reaches better results. This study on judicial decision-making shows how group decisions are better, deliberation helps in difficult cases, and its results improve future decisions. ▲