Reclaiming Democracy

[Extract from the closing chapter of The Nature of the Beast.]

We in the Western democracies smugly act as if we are the culmination of political evolution.  Yes, history is dominated by authoritarian rule, many despotic and a few wiser and more benevolent.  However, since “we” invented modern representative democracy none of that applies.  The people rule, we assure each other, and democracy is spreading around the world.

Except of course that every advance in democracy has been resisted, sidestepped and undermined by those who want the world to be their servant.

Modern democracy was invented by some colonial Americans, and a noble endeavour it was.  Immediately, however, the common people, who were needed to pull off the revolution, began to be excluded.  The author of the most inspired and inspiring vision of the revolution, Thomas Paine, arguing always for the rights of ordinary people, was sidelined because of his religious beliefs, which were not so exceptional for the times, and died with little recognition or gratitude from his countrymen1.  A century later the Supreme Court of the United States supposedly ruled that corporations have the rights of “natural persons”, although it seems the court never made any such ruling2.  This can only be viewed as a direct subversion of the revolution.  Another century on and the US government is controlled by big money, and the Supreme Court ruled that few limits can be placed on corporate political spending.  The media have been owned by the rich for a long time, now democracy is also sponsored by your local friendly global corporation.  The other democracies have followed their own paths to a comparable state.  Modern democracy is a dry, empty husk of the vision so many fought and died for.

Yet the forms of democracy are there for us to reclaim, re-invigorate, and enhance.  The ability of the commercial media to control the flow of information and the terms of much of the debate has weakened a little with the advent of the internet.  Perhaps their grip will continue to weaken, as increasingly fast internet undermines the business model not only of newspapers but also of the fixed-schedule broadcasts of all the concentrated media companies.  The rule of greed, epitomised by Wall Street, is being challenged as I write by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The rapid spread of OWS around the world is the first real sign of an end to the modern passivity that contrasts strikingly with the  challenge to established power that flowered for a while in the sixties.  We will see if it grows into a serious challenge to the modern plutocracy.

The economic reforms suggested in this book will require political power to implement.  As yet there has been no serious attempt to fix the structural problems that brought on the Global Financial Crisis of 2007, so another and greater crisis is highly likely, perhaps led by the dithering fools in charge of European finances at the moment.  As not only the greed but the folly and destructiveness of the money power becomes too big to ignore, its hold on power will weaken.  There may well then be a contest between authoritarians and democrats.  Democrats will prevail when and where they can persuade ordinary people to reach for a more prosperous and peaceful life that can continue indefinitely.

If ordinary people gain a fare share of the wealth they help to produced, and if the voices of the self-interested rich and the fearful demagogues are muted, then representative democracy can be re-invigorated.  If the range of ideas on offer is broadened to include sensible reform of the economy, of benefit to the many, and if the range of political candidates is broadened to represent all points of view, then representative democracy can function closer to its potential.

We need not stop there.  Among the reforms proposed here is a broadening of the kinds of ownership we use.  There is no reason businesses cannot be owned by employees, or customers and others with a direct interest in the health of the service it conducts.  There is no reason infrastructure and essential services need be owned, or sold off to, narrow private interests.  They ought to be owned by those they serve.  Distributed ownership ought to be direct, rather than through government as in the socialist model, because government ownership only leaves the entity vulnerable to manipulation by politicians.  Contracts for construction can include the progressive transfer of ownership as the builder gains a reasonable return.  If those kinds of ownership become widespread, then many more of us will enjoy the benefits not only of a fairer share of profits but also of a voice in the day-to-day business of our society.  We will have acted on William Greider insight: “Democracy itself will always be stunted by the exaggerated political power exercised by concentrated wealth.  The problem is not that capital is privately owned, as Marx supposed.  The problem is that most people don’t own any”3.

Representative democracy can be improved as well.  A perennial problem is that governments, bureaucracies, parliaments and political parties have interests that are not the same as those they supposedly represent or work for.  The principle difference is that they have power, even if only conditionally and temporarily in theory.  In practice there are many ways in which the branches of government can prolong and enhance their power, and they have been doing so for a long time now.  The American concept of the branches of government exerting checks and balances can be extended.  Some systems include and ombudsman whose role is to monitor some aspects of the functioning of government.  The network governance model mentioned in Chapter 16 extends this idea by having separate boards or overseeing bodies.  One such body might oversee the daily functioning of the governance system.  Another might oversee its concordance with constitutional principles.  Such bodies, or chambers, would need greater independence, financial and political, from the major power centers of government, and this is not a simple challenge, but it is one worth accepting.

The dominant model of business governance is autocracy, the top-down hierarchy.  Management fashions might fluctuate between more centrist and more distributed or “flatter”, but they are still dominantly variations on autocracy.  We notion that the boss is in charge and we are subservient is so pervasive that we hardly think it might be otherwise, except to dream of starting our own small business and being our own boss.  Yet the network governance model actually developed in the context of businesses, to ensure the enterprise was serving its stake holders well, and using the valuable information they can supply.  Thus not only the ownership but the governance of business can be made more democratic.

With these possibilities sketched, we begin to see the emptiness of the current rhetoric about democracy.  Most employment is in large organisations, in which there is very little pretence of democracy.  I referred to political democracy as an empty husk, and the proof is in the cynicism and disinterest of most of the population for the political process.  It will take time to penetrate this cynicism and apathy.  A common attitude is that we all know politicians are liars, it will always be thus and I don’t want to waste my time with it.  Only as some people begin to experience both political and workplace democracy, and to appreciate their benefits, is the idea likely to spread that we can have a much more democratic society.  The whole of society, not just the political tip of the iceberg, can be run much more by the people.

There are still more possibilities.  The potential of sociocracy4, also developed within a business enterprise, is not only to give people a chance to offer their opinions of how things should be, but to enable them to be directly and continuously involved in running things.  Sociocracy has the potential for a big step towards resolving the great ten-thousand-year problem of living in large groups, which is how to constructively harness our repertoire of social behaviours in societies in which we cannot know and interact with everyone, and how to maintain healthy flows of information, ideas and opinions throughout a society.  Sociocracy is not likely to catch on quickly, because it requires the cultivation of social skills and personal maturity.  It is likely to develop only slowly among receptive communities and groups, and to slowly spread from there.  Nevertheless I find it an exciting development with immense potential for our future.


1 Kaye, H.J., Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. 2005, New York: Hill and Wang. 326 pp.

2 Hartmann, T., Unequal Protection: the rise of corporate dominance and the theft of human rights. 2002: Rodale Books.

3 Greider, W., One World, Ready or Not. 1997: Simon and Schuster.

4 Buck, J. and S. Villines, We The People:  Consenting to a Deeper Democracy. 2007, Washington D.C.: 277 pp.


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