We have descended a long way from stated ideals of the original proponents of democracy. The great march of freedom has been replaced by national and international political discourses consumed with fundamentalism and extremism of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Hindu types. Lofty ideals about the nature of humanity, progress, and a bright tomorrow when racism, fascism, apartheid and sexism would be discarded to the dustbin of history to be replaced by a loving, green and peaceful world have been all but forgotten.
The situation has led to a sense of disempowerment or resignation if not exacerbation among the greater populations at large. Instruments for the protection of civil liberties have become blunted and unresponsive. Politicians act like agents of the ‘market’ – whoever or whatever that elusive policy determiner may be. Wars are launched and maintained for indefinite periods in the face of public opposition. At best, public opinion is seen as something that must be managed rather than followed. Talk of ‘people power’ has been replaced by ‘leadership quality’. Put simply, representative democracy seems to fail the public.
What is democracy?
So it is time to go back to the drawing board and ask the question: what is democracy? What was the essence of all the fuss made in the first place?
Democracy has in essence three separate aspects:
The free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government
A system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making
The control of an organization by its members, who have a free and equal right to participate in decision-making processes.
The core problem with the situation today is that while the first two aspects are to varying degrees practiced in various countries, the third aspect is hardly ever practiced anywhere. This raises a fundamental question on the practicality of the ideal itself: how is it possible for individuals to participate in government-level decision-making if there is a dearth of democratic organisation in social institutions or organisations such as the family or the office. There is always a representative or leader in place wherever you go and whatever you do. The question is: Why?
A simple answer to the question of ‘why’ is found in the capitalism/democracy dichotomy. But this is not a satisfactory answer to those who believe in freedom in a personal, human way rather than the intangible ‘market’ way. In fact, the mysterious ‘market’ appears to successfully negate democracy and our efforts to achieve it.
The driver for this contradiction would appear to be in the system of representative democracy itself: Giving up individual freedoms in a social contract that essentially disempowers the ‘masses’ in favour of the chosen few. Put differently: where exactly is the ‘power’ of the average citizen today in between transient election fevers?
Perhaps this is the case today largely due to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Perhaps it is time to roll back the power of the oligarchy.
Toward deeper democracy
How then would one approach the question of achieving greater accountability and democracy today? Despite the foregoing arguments, we are not here looking at the idea of revolutionising the work place. That is at once too obvious and too impractical short of a global revolution. What may be more practical is to start at the top, and to aim specifically at reducing the decision-making influence of the new aristocracy: the super rich, the multinational corporations, banking warlords and the military-industrial complex. And the key to this shift in power may in fact rest in the Internet.
In the context of such a large and constantly increasing number of delicate and confidential transactions being conducted over the World Wide Web today, one has to wonder why it is that so many decisions are still being made by elected representatives rather than directly by the people themselves through an Internet-based voting system. And why not extend its use to the legislative domain too? Also, why is it that a single person – a president – has the right to declare war on another nation without consulting the people first; and an illegal war at that too? Why is it that when an elected Congress or Senate or any other parliament fails to defend a national Constitution and to resist war crimes, no one has the power to do anything?
The experience so far
Thus far, there is little evidence of any significant deepening of democracy with the rise of the Internet. In USA, the expected impact of first-hand information on web sites like YouTube has been minimal, particularly in terms of disastrous policies like in Iraq. We are once again reminded that an information tool is just a tool, and the powers that be can use it just as effectively – if not more so.
Similarly, what voting takes place on the net is usually in the shape of opinion polls on sites like vote.com run by political sycophants directing debates in favour of the exigencies of representative democracy, rather than their original stated aims of direct democracy, as with the case of Dick Morris’ Direct Democracy and the Internet (pdf). Furthermore, academic institutions such as the George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet devote much of their efforts toward self-explanatory topics such as ‘Constituent Relationship Management: The New Little Black Book in Politics’ (pdf).
Without meaning to ignore the Internet’s hugely interactive nature, we are here simply pointing to the lack of people power in the decision-making process itself, despite a real potential for this. With a vastly growing number of on line users and less and less of a generational gap in its usage, the Internet’s biggest impact so far remains at the level of its ever growing ‘potential’ to transform democracy.
In Europe, the Internet has quickly become a central feature of social services, education, advertising and business transactions as well as political discourse. As expected, existing institutions have latched on to its speed and efficiency, and reduced costs on several fronts. Of particular interest to us is the situation in Switzerland, which has a long-established system of direct and indirect democracy, and we shall return to this example later.
The impact of the Internet on power relations in other parts of the world is harder to gauge. On the one hand there are the famous Egyptian bloggers who have caused considerable embarrassment to their government with their exposures of torture by the Egyptian police, but with limited impact. Similarly, Iran displays a decidedly vibrant Internet culture, but with little impact on government policies so far. Google’s well-publicised servility to Chinese government pressure is a good case in point where the threat of the Internet to an undemocratic regime was palpably felt and somewhat curbed.
There are very real positive signs, however, as well documented by a Japanese enthusiast, Joichi Ito’s ‘Weblogs and Emergent Democracy’, and initiatives such as Steven Clift’s ‘DoWire Group’. A South African and an Indian can now debate the issue of Palestine on the Al Jazeera or the BBC web sites with the advantage of avoiding the rigmarole and risks of setting up personal web logs.
None of these examples, however, display any fundamental shift toward direct democracy within countries or in inter-governmental organisations. On the contrary, none of these organisations or their agencies operates under management systems that even remotely resemble democracy with the sole exception of the UN’s toothless General Assembly. These institutions claim to propagate democratisation, good governance, transparency and/or ‘poverty reduction’ globally, yet they have taken few concrete steps toward leveraging the potential of the Internet in their policy-making processes.
The international NGO’s too tend to use the Internet most effectively for fundraising purposes, while failing to make waves in the promotion of human rights and citizens’ participation. There have, however, been some positive steps undertaken by the likes of the Athens-based access2democracy, which is a member of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.
For sure, there are many practical questions to consider. One can anticipate several of the inevitable objections:
Election fraud is nothing new in any country, and whatever preventive measures exist today can be replicated for a web-based voting system too. It is a matter of the political will and transparency. A web-based system indeed would be easier to monitor independently.
A constant and old anti-democratic argument has been the competence of voters on technical or sensitive issues. We know full well that most legislators do not bother to read what they are voting on. On the contrary, elected representatives are highly susceptible to party political, financial and lobbyist pressures, and as such are largely incompetent for the legislative jobs they hold.
Time constraints or lack of interest
It can be argued that the average citizen may not be interested in or have the time to deal with a broad range of issues that politicians typically deal with. This is an important barrier that would need careful consideration of how a direct voting system would be organised. However, just as in the above point, politicians have shown a distinct lack of interest in dealing with their responsibilities with the required professionalism and dedication. The average citizen has a personal stake in many if not most of the political decisions made. They may well make the time and develop the interest in their own affairs in a surprising manner. Furthermore, and as with other tasks, the legislative workload can be shared or distributed according to the level of interest.
An almost singular case of direct democracy
An outstanding example of the real and practical potential for the exercise of direct democracy is Switzerland. This tiny country became a federal state in 1848, with a government made up of 7 members whose largely symbolic presidency is rotational. While legislators are elected as in other countries, the people of the country have the concrete power to propose their own legislation and to repeal legislation passed by elected representatives. Popular initiatives have succeeded in passing legislation, while referenda have to be held on all cases of popular opposition to new parliamentary legislation, and on major international agreements.
On local matters, people’s participation is deep, and can extend to local referenda on issues such as the purchase of a painting for a local museum. In some districts, people vote on every single piece of local legislation proposed. Among the various criticisms made of the Swiss system, the most important one relates to its inertia or sluggishness (assuming for the sake of the argument that ‘slow’ is ‘bad’): It can take up to five years for popular legislation to be finalised.
For our purposes, it is clear that the Internet may in fact be an essential tool for alleviating this inevitable sluggishness in a system of direct democracy.
Our foregoing analysis raises more questions that it answers. Any honest discussion of the potential for direct democracy must also face difficult issues such as cultural ones. Also, we have to recognise that the Internet is a mere potential tool for the exercise of direct democracy – not its foundation. But political transformations have always been attempted in the face of longstanding established interests and power relations. The case for direct democracy fundamentally rests on a belief in the goodness of people, and our natural right to govern ourselves. This is no more than a belief in democracy extended to all the people all the time. As such, most arguments against direct democracy are in essence anti-democratic. Most likely, a mixed system of delegated and direct democracy would work best, at least to start with. And a natural place to start such a movement would of course be the Internet.
Interestingly, a web-based voting system would also put an end to two or three-party monopolies at the reign of power. What better way to end the rule of ineffective and self-serving political parties than to hold elections for representative houses on the Internet? Manifestos can be more easily scrutinised; question and answer sessions held; and the policies of candidates can be better debated instead of the current razzmatazz of balloons, excruciating music and nauseating celebrities.
It really is time to take control of our lives, and to address the key question of ‘what is to be done?’ It is only then we can truly be the responsible and engaged global citizens that most of us aspire to be. Given the performance of the powers that be, our survival may depend on it.