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Post-democratic musings: The problems with democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
2nd January 2013


We can do better than this. We can govern by user groups, respect individual rights and global commons, and collaborate using stigmergy and concentric groups. Where necessary, elite expertise can be contained and used through transparent epistemic communities and knowledge bridges while control remains with the user group.

Food for thought. Republished from Heather Marsh:

“Around the world, people lamenting the demise of democracy, or fighting for the birth of ‘true’ democracy need to take a closer look. Democracy is a universally failed concept, not because we have not implemented it properly but because the ideas were flawed to begin with. Advocates of democracy as a system of governance usually hold that it will produce the greatest satisfaction among the governed by allowing the voices of all to be heard. If democracy was implemented in the way it is intended by any common definition to be implemented, the resulting society would not allow all voices to be heard and it could not be considered either fair or enlightened. ‘True’ democracy is at best only one step removed from ochlocracy or mob rule; in a society where the majority create the laws, the laws can always be changed to allow for the Salem witch trials, the current Guantanamo military commissions, or many other examples where mass panic allowed the revocation of years of law in order to persecute a minority.

There are two options commonly held to be our democratic choices; direct or representative democracy.

Direct democracy

A pure direct democracy is a pure tyranny of the majority. When a majority rules, there is no need for compromise and a minority will have their needs unrepresented, resulting in governance by the majority, not governance by the people. As in all systems where groups hold the highest power, individual rights are always at risk.

A direct democracy is impossible in actuality as no one can have the time to participate in every decision concerning them, and certainly not to educate themselves to provide meaningful input in every decision. To make the best decisions, expertise is required on each topic. Direct democracy does not always provide the best solutions, it provides the most popular, the most expedient, or even the most advertised solutions, more frequently as the decision becomes more complex.

Direct democracy gives equal weight to all votes, the expert and the novice, the completely dependent and the unaffected. Expert opinion is overshadowed by volume, which negatively impacts the resulting decisions. Allowing votes by people unaffected by the issue at hand results in not just uninformed decisions but also persecution of minorities.

Direct democracy is very susceptible to a hidden oligarchy, as those at the bottom of the social classes have no time available to represent themselves or to study the issues being debated. Secret clubs, and block voting are difficult to combat and also do not lead to decisions of the most benefit to all.

At its most pure, direct democracy is mob rule, or governance by decree. This system will allow the mob to override the decisions of constitutions and law, and does not allow for a reliable and consistent social contract for all members of society. In this form it is hard to argue that direct democracy is even a system of governance at all. Governance by decree is governance by whim, and not just or fair governance under most definitions of the words. If an individual is to enter a binding social contract with a society, it is essential that they see and can rely on the constitution of the society they are contracting with.

Direct democracy is very popular currently as an alternative to the more widely attempted and therefore more obviously failed representative democracy. The Pirate Party uses liquid democracy as an idea to tie votes to expertise and incorporate some aspects of direct democracy within a representative system, but this is a recycled idea from historical democracy that was replaced for a reason. Before secret ballots and one vote per person became the norm, people were regularly intimidated out of their votes by tyrannical spouses, employers, or others in a position of power. Liquid democracy is not a new system, it is a return to a previously failed system. It allows both an accepted rule by demagogues and a fertile ground for corruption, vote buying, and intimidation. These are things that were fought and exorcised in earlier times, there is no logical reason to expect a different result from a system that has been tried. Women and minorities fought far too hard to overcome this system to allow it to return.

Representative democracy

Representative democracy evolved as a means to overcome some of the obvious flaws of direct democracy. Representative democracy has become a cripplingly paradoxical system which celebrates nouns over verbs and is far more concerned with representation of every conceivable group than the governing actions being taken, resulting in a system where individual rights are negotiable, bigotry is integral and action is carried forth with no debate. Representative democracy is designed not to care about individual rights but to care about what noun each person can identify with and how strong is the lobby group associated with that noun. Representative democracy is divisive, ineffectual and based on impossible principles.

There are two underlying concepts which must be universally accepted for representative democracy to function: groups may act as individuals and individuals may act as groups. These two ideas are fundamentally unsound. While these contradictions were required in earlier attempts at representative governance, the idea was always flawed and recognized as being flawed. As we have progressed to the point where we can eliminate these weaknesses, we have instead greatly increased their use and stopped questioning their appropriateness. Presently these two concepts contribute to fundamental paradoxes throughout the current system which can only be remedied by rejection of the underlying concepts.

A group is a collection of individuals united for a certain time and space by a specific idea, experience or other common bond. Individuals have the ability to associate, to exchange ideas, to agree, to cooperate, cohabit and in any other way to collaborate, but the group they form does not become an individual. It cannot logically be granted a voice, a vote, or political or legal power. It is only in a system governed by groups and one which does not respect individual rights that such power seems essential.

Any group of affiliated people is an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of its group members. Unlike individuals, who have the power to change their minds and allegiances at will, or to act outside their own best interests, an organization has a mandate to promote a specific idea and represent a specific group. If a group were to fail to promote its mandate and population above all others, the group would be acting contrary to its reason for existence. Systems of ‘checks and balances’ implemented to counteract power of representatives presupposes that none of the representatives are to be trusted and therefore how can they be trusted to check each other? The first goal of nation states is to defend their citizens against the ‘other’, an idea which has led, and will continue to lead, to divisive politics and human rights violations.

In a system where groups representing individuals is the norm, as in the current representative political systems, there is a chronic problem of ensuring representation of all minority groups and hearing their rights alongside other larger groups. The issue is not solved by having more and louder minority groups, in every conceivable combination, making futile attempts to ensure that every group has a seat at every table and designing amplification algorithms for their voices, it is solved by ridding ourselves of all groups speaking as individuals and letting every individual speak for themselves. If individual rights for everyone are put above any group consensus, are a given in every assembly, if they are applied equally without distinction of any kind, there is no need for any group to have further representation. The completely incongruous situation we have found ourselves in under the current system, where groups demand and sometimes obtain special ‘individual’ rights, would be unnecessary. No group can properly represent the diversity of its members, only the individuals can.

People in systems of corporatist groups are proud to identify themselves as members of various groups instead of by their own actions. Anyone proud to self identify as a member of a group is at best a bore, at worst group affiliation allows them to circumvent personal responsibility and demonize ‘outsiders’. A corporatist group has no place in a consensus based system which respects all of its individual participants equally and a group does not have the flexibility to accurately represent individuals. Group representation of individuals contributes to the infantilization of the individuals and allows them to relax and not educate themselves or take part in their own governance. They are frequently less interested in the topic than in the social aspect of being in solidarity with their peers. Groupthink is not only a waste of potentially valuable contributions, it can allow flawed initiatives to pass simply because no one wishes to raise an objection, either the people who wish to maintain their membership in a group or the people who are too intimidated to disagree with the group.

There is no occasion for group endorsements or condemnations of anything when the individuals have their own voices. Both condemnations and endorsements encourage what ought to be assemblies of individuals with equal voices to place undue importance on pleasing the individuals belonging to the opposing or endorsing group. Dissenting voices from the group are not represented, and individual nuance is lost.

Group affiliation behind individual voices allows listeners to reject ideas before hearing them. Labeling an idea as coming from The Left or The Right is enough for many people to refuse to listen to it at all; other equally irrelevant group affiliations result in equally damaging bigotry which prevents communication on any topic. In a system which is built on communication and consensus, such barriers are insupportable.

Corporatist groups are fundamental to all centralized and totalitarian government systems, and antithetical to all open and consensual governance. Corporatist groups produce the same effect locally as they do nationally and globally; the cells create the whole and it is a fundamental contradiction to expect corporatist groups to create a consensual system. It is impossible to reconcile corporatist thinking at any level with an open system of communication and governance.

A group may take an action together, may communicate, may assemble, may agree on points, but a group never has one mind, one personality, one set of values. A group is not an individual and must not be used to represent individual thought.

Conversely, there is never a need for an individual to act as a group. We no longer live in a world where one individual has to make a long arduous journey to appear in person to represent their town or region, we need to work to ensure there is no reason why individuals cannot represent themselves in any circumstance. If the members not speaking are not interested then they should not participate instead of lending excess weight to another voice. If they are interested but do not understand, the system needs to be changed to allow for ease of understanding, probably by use of concentric user groups. If individual voices cause too much noise, the system needs to be modified to provide a solution. Individual voices are to be treasured, not lost for expedience.

If an individual represents a group we must ask who will have the right to represent the group? What will they be allowed to say? What will the wording be? If any member of the group disagrees, if any word is not approved, then the person speaking for the group is no longer representing the group. That person is now speaking as an individual with words unfairly weighted by group affiliation and the individuals in the represented group who allowed this are equally guilty of misrepresenting themselves as being part of a voice they failed to approve. An individual speaking for a group is a dishonest mask for an unfairly weighted individual voice in almost every circumstance.

When individuals speak as groups we frequently do not even know who the individuals behind the groups are or what their individual opinions are. In many cases the group is just the voice of one individual, sometimes an individual who speaks, votes, exercises political and legal power and obtains money or other rewards through many different groups. The group names encourage the public to attach undue authority to an individual voice, to think they are donating time, money or effort to a cause for many which benefits only one individual, to fail to question the background or connections of an individual they do not see.

Corporatist groups tend to be very personality driven systems, where a charismatic leader is given authority not commensurate with any expertise or experience. Where the representative falls short in knowledge or experience, they then have the authority to hire the needed expertise; a perfectly fertile ground for corruption and cronyism as well as incompetence. The representatives are assumed to carry all of the attributes and values associated with the group and given trust and blame not earned by themselves. The task of representing others is impossible and perilous in actuality, so the job is rarely taken up by anyone except as an opportunity to further a personal agenda.

It is understood by all that groups and individuals are different entity types with different attributes. The idea that the two may have their attributes exchanged for expedience is no longer expedient. Corporatist groups contribute to an extraordinary degree to the most problematic aspects of the current system, starting with the ones illustrated here and escalating into legal corporate personhood and democratic dictatorships. In order to create a system without the same failings, these two concepts must be rejected as part of the design. Individuals must begin to communicate as ideas and actions, not nouns. Groups must be given only those attributes which are logical to them, such as the ability to assemble.

Voices, votes, legal and political power are natural rights of individuals not groups.

Hidden oligarchies

In the iron law of oligarchy, Robert Michels holds that any political system eventually evolves into an oligarchy and his logic tests well against any system that has been tried so far.

Representative democracy is the most dishonest oligarchy of all as it insists on the falsehood that the voice of its oligarchs are the voice of the people and the subsequent falsehood that their rule is rule by the people. Democracies have not eradicated oligarchy, they have driven it to secrecy, a state of affairs ironically most abhorrent in a democracy. Instead of confronting the problems inherent in an oligarchy, democracy denies it exists while practicing it openly. Oligarchy is not necessary, but it can only be overcome in a completely open and transparent system which allows the most widespread participation by all and knowledge for all and recognizes and accommodates expertise and greater levels of knowledge (see Concentric groups, knowledge bridges and epistemic communities). Communism has failed for the same reasons, by denying and pretending to eradicate elitism instead of acknowledging it and using it to the advantage of society. Many advocates of both democracy and communism hold that their ideas have never been properly tried, but the refusal to recognize and control the causes of oligarchies is the reason the concepts behind both will never be implemented despite widespread attempts. These ideologies fail at the gate because of a fatal flaw; when a round peg does not fit in a square hole despite numerous attempts we do not say it has not been tried, we say it doesn’t work.

Representative democracies do not provide for expertise in governance as representatives are elected by land mass and time span, not system, and are usually elected for charisma, not expertise. Athenian sortition likewise made no attempt at combining expertise with authority. Subjects that the majority is unqualified to speak on are delegated to similarly unqualified political representatives, segregated from other representatives by land mass. These representatives appoint experts who obtain their positions by cronyism with the politician instead of expertise acknowledged by the entire interested population. The politicians and experts in the current system then provide for no meaningful feedback from users of the system, outside of occasional polls; these polls are conducted on test populations which another group have decided shall be considered representative of the population as a whole and used to provide input on only the questions the experts decide. There is no transparency of any meaningful kind that would allow users of the system to audit what the experts were doing.

We can do better than this. We can govern by user groups, respect individual rights and global commons, and collaborate using stigmergy and concentric groups. Where necessary, elite expertise can be contained and used through transparent epistemic communities and knowledge bridges while control remains with the user group.

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