Democracy

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Description

Murray Bookchin:

"By democracy, of course, I do not mean "representative government" in any form, but rather face-to-face democracy. With regard to its origins in classical Athens, democracy as I use it is the idea of the direct management of the polis by its citizenry in popular assemblies -- which is not to downplay the fact that Athenian democracy was scarred by patriarchy, slavery, class rule and the restriction of citizenship to males of putative Athenian birth. What I am referring to is an evolving tradition of institutional structures, not a social "model."4 Democracy generically defined, then, is the direct management of society in face-to-face assemblies -- in which policy is formulated by the resident citizenry and administration is executed by mandated and delegated councils." (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/CMMNL2.MCW.html)


Discussion

The Limits of Western Democracy

Ulrich Vom Hagen:

"Democracy is a contested concept. Robert Dahl (1956) argues that when Western policymakers use the term democracy, they mean polyarchy, a system in which a small groups rule and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites. The concept of polyarchic democracy accepts that in liberal-conservative parliamentarianism many different elites rule a polity. The Canadian political philosopher C.B. McPherson (1962) refers to a culture in which people value each other in terms of how much they posses and think of their talents as private property as possessive individualism. A combination thereof is the situation in Germany and many other EU states. In the purest concept of Capitalism, there can be wide-spread ownership. In practice, Capitalism concentrates large quantities of productive wealth, and monetary wealth, into the hands of relatively few. It is also why both forms of Capitalism - Austrian and Keyensian - fail and why it's time to think about a third, distributist way." (Facebook, April 2012)


Contemporary Crisis of Democratic Governance

Paul Hirst on the fourfold crisis of democratic governance:

"The crisis of democratic governance today is fourfold:

First, there is the fact of the widespread decline of political participation in the mature democracies. In the UK general election of 2001 only 59.4% of the electorate voted and the government was elected on 25% of the vote with a massive majority (the latter fact is an artifact of the UK’s first past the post system but it does nothing for the legitimacy of the resulting government). Such trends are not recent in countries like the USA, but they are now beginning to appear in countries with a strong record of political participation like Switzerland. This can be read as a high level of satisfaction with the existing state of affairs and, in a context of post-ideological politics, indifference as to which party wins the election. There is some truth in this but to conclude that participation is not a problem would be complacent. Declining participation is coupled with evidence of widespread alienation from politics and dissatisfaction with politicians. Elections no longer confer lasting legitimacy because of the low turnout and thus their unrepresentative character. Elections decide who forms the government, they can express dissatisfaction with outgoing governments, but they provide no lasting legitimacy for an incoming government’s policies. Hence the parties constantly seek to determine public opinion through polling and focus groups. Governments begin to electioneer from day one after their victory. Government and electoral politics are increasingly merged. Policies are often adopted for short-term reasons of managing the media and appeasing public opinion. Far from demonstrating government by consent, this amounts to using office for manipulation. This process of permanent electioneering begins to feed back negatively on public opinion, it reinforces alienation and the perception that politicians are unprincipled manipulators dedicated to spin at the expense of substance.


Second, states are widely perceived to have lost governance capacity both because of globalization and because of the shift from public to market provision of services. Thus it is part of conventional wisdom that the scope of political action has shrunk considerably and with it the relevance of decisions at national level. Thus a decline in public involvement in national politics would appear to be a rational response. Political activists do exist but they are concerned with single-issue campaigns, with local politics, and with transnational movements. If states matter less, then the last place to invest political energy is in conventional national level politics, unless you are a professional political careerist. Thus the anti-globalization protestors, the principal activists for an alternative democratic politics today, see the solution in supranational protest movements working to create a “global civil society” and in governance through the emerging institutions of a new global democracy.

In my view this perception of the decline of national politics in the face of globalization is wrong. Grahame Thompson and I have argued in Globalization in Question both against the proposition that states have become weaker as a result of the globalization of the economy and against the idea that a cosmopolitan democracy at the global level is possible. It cannot be doubted that both politicians and the media are convinced by the globalization narrative and thus attempt to convince the public that the state can do far less than it once did. Public power becomes at best a means of facilitating the operation of global and national markets. Globalization becomes an excuse for presenting certain policies as inevitable. It is also a means of deflating citizen’s expectations as to what policies can accomplish. This is a valuable tool for politicians in the context of rising citizen expectations in the advanced countries and public service states that have become more expensive and difficult to manage.

If that is the case in the developed world it is even more so for democratic regimes in the developing world. Cynics argue that one reason democracy has spread so widely outside the developed world is because it now matters less. The scope of popular decision has been severely restricted and thus the threat of giving some power to the people diminished. The Cold War is over, ideological politics are in retreat, and markets have set the terms of political choice. Democracy may now confer little legitimacy on governments, but authoritarian regimes have even less. Elites cynically reckon that if democratic politicians fail then it is the people who have chosen them. For established elites in developing countries democracy, if it can be established at all, seems attractive for the very reasons that lead to the perception that it has failed and can accomplish little.


Third, the social foundations of democratic participation and political pluralism in a strong culture of voluntary associations are threatened by a widely perceived decline in non-political participation. Thus not only do people not vote, they don’t join either. Political parties and non-political associations suffer alike. Charities, for example, have been forced to replace reliance on voluntary giving and volunteer workers with marketing professionals and paid collectors to extract contributions from a disengaged public. As the chair of a voluntary association I can testify that it has got tougher over the last ten years to recruit and retain activists.

There are many imputed reasons for this decline in voluntary action, and you are all familiar with the arguments of Robert Putnam. It is important to recognize that modern social life does not facilitate traditional collective action, whether explicitly political or in the voluntary sector. Cities and suburbs are often very low density, especially in the USA. People commute long distances to dispersed occupations by isolated car journeys. Occupational structures have changed considerably and diversified, considerably reducing the social salience of large plants with a predominance of manual workers. Such factories and residence close by them provided the foundations for the core of active trade unionism and for much wider political action. People relate to the world more and more through electronic media, spending more time in isolated and private consumption. This trend toward home centredness and individuation is paralleled by the growth of value diversity and lifestyle pluralism. This means that when people do join communities they are communities of choice not fate. Such choices are often for specific function bodies that do not lead to wider forms of association. The dominance of association by choice also means that people have little in common with their immediate neighbors. These tendencies make the web of associations more fragile and association outside of narrow chosen communities more difficult. Association now tends not to feed into wider activity or into politics.


Fourth, the fundamental fact is that the scope of both formal democracy and voluntary association is limited in the advanced countries because they are organizational societies. The classical conception of representative government envisaged a definite social architecture: a limited state and a self-regulating civil society. Civil society was made up of numerous competing associations, individuals and firms. This meant that the tasks of government were relatively limited, most of social life could be left to govern itself, and thus government was relatively easy to render accountable by representative institutions. Our institutions of representative government are predicated on this model, but it has been obsolete since the rise of big corporations and state collectivism in the late nineteenth century. Modern societies are not self – regulating, nor is the modern state limited; both the public and private sectors are dominated by large hierarchically managed organizations. Into the 1960s this did not prevent democratic control. Elected representatives could feed decisions into relatively stable and uniform public bureaucracies and the state and the unions could regulate the actions of big corporations. Changes in the organizational structures and environment since the 1970s have made organizations harder to regulate or to subject to countervailing power. These changes are beyond the scope of this paper, I have discussed the upshot of these changes for democratic control elsewhere in From Statism to Pluralism. The public sphere has shriveled as state agencies have come to be run like commercial businesses and as politicians have substituted the notion of managerial transparency for political accountability. Civil society has been further hollowed out as large companies have come to dominate not only classic “economic” activities but also former public services and leisure activities.

State agencies and private companies are both weakly accountable to society as a whole and also do not give voice to their stakeholders. Citizens are thus disempowered as both employees and consumers. Citizens have little choice over the provision of public services, least of all over how they are delivered. Most employees have little choice but to work for organizations in which they are not consulted. Thus the organizational society does not foster democratic values of consultation of the interests affected by a decision or participation in public debate on policy; rather it encourages hierarchical control and its obverse, passivity on the part of the controlled. It is hard to see how a democracy can prosper in which people’s everyday social experience is that they are expected to take what they are given as consumers of public services and to do as they are told as employees.

The shift toward the privatization of public services and of companies toward the primacy of shareholder value has reinforced the tendency of the organizational society toward hierarchy. Only top management matters and it is subject to little check by countervailing powers, rather it is constrained only by the stock market. New pressures have reinforced top-down control, organizations public and private are subject to ceaseless change from management initiatives and as a result of market pressures. Such changes are most marked in the UK and the USA, but they are beginning to happen elsewhere too. The upshot is that for most people work does not provide a source of identification or stability in their lives. Work no longer provides a basis for association. Citizens come to experience the organizations in which they work and which affect their lives as sources of restless change and unpredictability. They adapt by passivity and conformity, seeking control through the private sphere. Thus organizations have an effect that weakens the possibility of an active democratic citizenry.

If these four tendencies are real and irreversible, then democratic government is headed for a crisis. Institutions that have no ‘spirit’, that exist because there is nothing else, become corrupt and eventually fail. Montesquieu taught us that. Modern democracies have minimized the role of value commitments and of active citizenship necessary to their functioning. They have required neither the ‘virtue’ of classical republics, nor the ‘honour’ of aristocracies. Still, they do require a bare minimum of mass participation in the formal political process and of joining the interest associations that underpin it. Modern democracy may not require a thick script of political ‘manners’ in the way that many previous political systems have, but it does require something more than a cynical political class propelled into power by the votes of a minority of a politically comatose citizenry." (http://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-hirst/renewing-democracy-through-associations)

Paul Hirst is an advocate of Associative Democracy.


Fourfold Struggle for Democracy at the Dawn of 21st Century

Anthony Barnett:

"First, the need to achieve the fundamentals of democracy in dictatorships and authoritarian societies: fair elections, the rule of law, a free press and open media, the right to assembly, equality for women, freedom from persecution for minorities. We should have added explicitly a secular state. From Iran and Saudi Arabia to Russia and China the battle for these democratic basics demands our solidarity. Although not in a patronising way as if we in well-established democracies, let’s say the US, the UK and India, are not notably challenged in at least some of these features.

Second, with the world being governed by international forces beyond the control of nation states, we need to make international power democratically answerable even when it cannot be voted for – for example transparency and accountability at the UN, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and international corporations themselves.

Third, in countries like our own that are established democracies, there is a growing awareness that our potential for self-government is being stolen and suborned as political parties shrivel. The response is a growing demand for government to be opened up directly to citizens in new ways so we can engage with and participate in public affairs, via citizen assemblies, new forms of deliberation and participation and referendums… what we may soon learn to call “Real Democracy”

These are three different kinds of democratic struggle. They are taking place simultaneously and threaded together by calls that can be heard in each for openness, dignity, trust, voice, opposition to corruption, the refusal of arbitrary power…

I now think that they are in part joined together by a fourth kind of democratic struggle. This is the fight for modern liberty and human rights. It involves a resistence to the growth of the surveillance and database state and forms of 'smart' administration and corporate marketing that hollow out rather than enhance self-government, and a battle to secure forms of digital power, such as informed consent, which now need to underly all efforts for democracy and rights in the 21st century, whether these are to secure the fundamental freedoms, apply them internationally, or ensure that they assist ongoing participation." (http://www.opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/long-and-quick-of-revolution)

History

Origins: Democracy was not a Greek invention

John Keane:

"The claim put forward within most Greek plays, poems and philosophical tracts, that fifth century Athens wins the prize for creating both the idea and the practice of democracy, seemed plausible to contemporaries. It continues until this day to be repeated by most observers. But it is false.

The Life and Death of Democracy, the first attempt to write a life and times of democracy for well over a century, shows that the little word democracy is much older than classical Greek commentators made out. Its roots are in fact traceable to the Linear B script of the Mycenaean period, seven to ten centuries earlier, to the late Bronze Age civilisation (c. 1500-1200 BCE) that was centred on Mycenae and other urban settlements of the Peloponnese. It is unclear exactly how and when the Mycenaeans learned to use the two-syllable word dâmos, to refer to a group of powerless people who once held land in common, or three-syllable words like damokoi, meaning an official who acts on behalf of the dâmos. What is also unclear is whether these words, and the family of terms we use today when speaking about democracy, have origins further east, for instance in the ancient Sumerian references to the dumu, the 'inhabitants' or 'sons' or 'children' of a geographic place. But these uncertainties are tempered by another remarkable discovery by contemporary archaeologists: it turns out that the democratic practice of self-governing assemblies is also not a Greek innovation. The lamp of assembly-based democracy was first lit in the 'East', in lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Syria, Iraq and Iran. The custom of popular self-government was later transported eastwards, towards the Indian subcontinent, where sometime after 1500 BCE, in the early Vedic period, republics governed by assemblies became common. The custom also travelled westwards, first to Phoenician cities like Byblos and Sidon, then to Athens, where during the fifth century BCE it was claimed as something unique to the West, as a sign of its superiority over the 'barbarism' of the East." (http://www.thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org/about/book_introduction.html)


First Expression: Assembly Democracy

John Keane:

"Democracy, like all other human inventions, has a history. Democratic values and institutions are never set in stone; even the meaning of democracy changes through time. This point is fundamental to The Life and Death of Democracy, which singles out three overlapping epochs in which democracy, considered both as a way of deciding things and as a whole way of life, has so far developed.

Its first historical phase saw the creation and diffusion of public assemblies. This period began around 2500 BCE, in the geographic area that is today commonly known as the Middle East. It stretched through classical Greece and Rome to include the world of early Islam before 950 CE; it came to an end with the spread of rural assemblies (called tings, loegthingi and althingi) to Iceland, the Faroe Islands and other offshore havens of what later came to be called Europe. Except for the bright moments associated with Scandinavia and classical Athens and republican Rome, this whole period is usually seen as a dark era of undemocratic degeneracy. 'With the fall of the [Roman] Republic,' says one respected commentator, typically, 'popular rule entirely disappeared in southern Europe. Except for the political systems of small, scattered tribes it vanished from the face of the earth for nearly a thousand years.'

That perception, steeped in modern Western prejudice, is piteously false. The truth is that during the first phase of democracy the seeds of its basic institution - self-government through an assembly of equals - were scattered across many different soils and climes, ranging from the Indian subcontinent and the prosperous Phoenician empire to the western shores of provincial Europe. These popular assemblies took root, accompanied by various ancillary institutional rules and customs, like written constitutions, the payment of jurors and elected officials, the freedom to speak in public, voting machines, voting by lot and trial before elected or selected juries. There were efforts as well to stop bossy leaders in their tracks, using such methods as the mandatory election of kings, limited terms of office and - in an age as yet without political parties, or recall and impeachment procedures - the peaceful, if usually rowdy, ostracism of demagogues from the assembly, by majority vote.

Many of these procedures played a vital role in the famous city of Athens, where, through the course of the fifth century BCE, democracy came to mean the lawful rule of an assembly of adult male citizens. Women, slaves and foreigners were normally excluded. The rest gathered regularly, not far from the main public square, at a spot called the pnyx, for the purpose of discussing some matter or other, putting different opinions to the vote and deciding, often by a majority of raised hands, or by chunks of pottery or metal cast by hand into a pot, what was to be done. This first phase of democracy saw the earliest experiments in creating second chambers (called damiorgoi in some Greek citizen-states) and federated alliances or consortia of democratic governments coordinated through a joint assembly known as a myrioi, as happened among Greek-speaking Arcadians during the 360s BCE. This period also witnessed important efforts to create ways of being that would later be regarded as vital components of a democratic way of life. Many of these innovations happened in the Islamic world. They included a culture of printing and efforts to cultivate self-governing associations, such as endowment societies (called the waqf) and the mosque and, in the field of economic life, partnerships that were legally independent of rulers. Islam poured scorn on kingship, and triggered unending public disputes about the authority of rulers. Towards the end of this period, around 950 CE, its scholars even revived the old language of democracy. The world of early Islam emphasised as well the importance of shared virtues such as toleration and mutual respect among sceptics and believers in the sacred, and the duty of rulers to respect others' interpretations of life. During this phase Muslims' belief that human beings were bound to treat nature with compassionate regard, as if it was their equal, because both were divine creations, also surfaced. That imperative would later come to trouble all democracies." (http://www.thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org/about/book_introduction.html)


Second Expression: Representative Democracy

John Keane:

From around the tenth century CE, democracy entered a second historical phase whose centre of gravity was the Atlantic region - the watery geographic triangle that stretched from the shores of Europe across to Baltimore and New York down to Caracas, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. This period opened with the military resistance to Islamic civilisation in the Iberian peninsula, which during the twelfth century CE triggered the invention of parliamentary assemblies. It ended on a sorry note, with the near-destruction worldwide of democratic institutions and ways of life by the storms of mechanised war, dictatorship and totalitarian rule that racked the first half of the twentieth century. In between, extraordinary things happened.

Shaped by forces as varied as the rebirth of towns, religious struggles within the Christian Church and revolutions in the Low Countries (1581), England (1644), Sweden (1720) and America (1776), democracy came to be understood as representative democracy. This at least was the term that began to be used in France and England and the new American republic during the eighteenth century, for instance by constitution makers and influential political writers when referring to a new type of government with its roots in popular consent. Again, nobody knows who first spoke of 'representative democracy', though one political writer who broke new ground was a French nobleman who had been foreign minister under Louis XV, the Marquis d'Argenson. He was perhaps the first to tease out the new meaning of democracy as representation. 'False democracy soon collapses into anarchy', he wrote in a 1765 tract that reached the reading public posthumously. 'It is government of the multitude; such is a people in revolt, insolently scorning law and reason. Its tyrannical despotism is obvious from the violence of its movements and the uncertainty of its deliberations. In true democracy,' concluded d'Argenson, 'one acts through deputies, who are authorised by election; the mission of those elected by the people and the authority that such officials carry constitute the public power.'

This was a brand-new way of thinking about democracy. It referred to a type of government in which people, acting as voters faced with a genuine choice between at least two alternatives, are free to elect others who then act in defence of their interests: that is, represent them by deciding matters on their behalf. Much ink and blood were to be spilled in defining what exactly representation meant, who was entitled to represent whom, and what had to be done when representatives snubbed those whom they were supposed to represent. But common to the second historical phase of democracy was the belief that good government was government by representatives. Thomas Paine's intriguing remark, 'Athens, by representation, would have surpassed her own democracy', provides a vital clue to the entirely novel case for representative democracy that was made forcefully by late eighteenth-century publicists, constitution makers and citizens. Often contrasted with monarchy, representative democracy was praised as a way of governing better by openly airing differences of opinion - not only among the represented themselves, but also between representatives and those whom they are supposed to represent. Representative government was praised as a way of freeing citizens from the fear of leaders to whom power is entrusted; the elected representative temporarily 'in office' was seen as a positive substitute for power personified in the body of unelected monarchs and tyrants. Representative government was hailed as an effective new method of apportioning blame for poor political performance - a new way of encouraging the rotation of leadership, guided by merit and humility. It was thought of as a new form of humble government, a way of creating space for dissenting political minorities and levelling competition for power, which in turn enabled elected representatives to test their political competence and leadership skills, in the presence of others equipped with the power to sack them. The earliest champions of representative democracy also offered a more pragmatic justification of representation. It was seen as the practical expression of a simple reality: that it wasn't feasible for all of the people to be involved all of the time, even if they were so inclined, in the business of government. Given that reality, the people must delegate the task of government to representatives who are chosen at regular elections. The job of these representatives is to monitor the spending of public money. Representatives make representations on behalf of their constituents to the government and its bureaucracy. Representatives debate issues and make laws. They decide who will govern and how - on behalf of the people.

As a way of naming and handling power, representative democracy was an unusual type of political system. It rested upon written constitutions, independent judiciaries and laws that guaranteed procedures that still play vital roles in the democracies of today: inventions like habeas corpus (prohibitions upon torture and imprisonment), periodic election of candidates to legislatures, limited-term holding of political offices, voting by secret ballot, referendum and recall, electoral colleges, competitive political parties, ombudsmen, civil society and civil liberties such as the right to assemble in public, and liberty of the press. Compared with the previous, assembly-based form, representative democracy greatly extended the geographic scale of institutions of self-government. As time passed, and despite its localised origins in towns, rural districts and large-scale imperial settings, representative democracy came to be housed mainly within territorial states protected by standing armies and equipped with powers to make and enforce laws and to extract taxes from their subject populations. These states were typically much bigger and more populous than the political units of ancient democracy. Most states of the Greek world of assembly democracy, Mantinea and Argos for instance, were no bigger than a few score square kilometres. Many modern representative democracies - including Canada (9.98 million square kilometres), the United States (9.63 million square kilometres), and the largest electoral constituency in the world, the vast rural division of Kalgoorlie in the federal state of Western Australia that comprises 82,000 voters scattered across an area of 2.3 million square kilometres - were incomparably larger.

The changes leading to the formation of representative democracy were neither inevitable nor politically uncontested. Representative democracy did not have to happen, but it did. It was born of numerous and different power conflicts, many of them bitterly fought in opposition to ruling groups, whether they were Church hierarchies, landowners, monarchs or imperial armies, often in the name of 'the people'. Exactly who 'the people' were was a vexed point that produced much mayhem. The age of representation witnessed not only a remarkable revival of the old language of democracy. The word itself was given new meanings that would have struck ancient observers either as oxymoronic or as plain nonsense. The second age of democracy saddled itself with new epithets. There was talk of 'aristocratic democracy' (that first happened in the Low Countries, at the end of the sixteenth century) and new references (beginning in the United States) to 'republican democracy'. Later came 'social democracy' and 'liberal democracy' and 'Christian democracy', even 'bourgeois democracy', 'workers' democracy' and 'socialist democracy'. These new terms corresponded to the many kinds of struggles by groups for equal access to governmental power that resulted, sometimes by design and sometimes by simple accident or unintended consequence, in institutions and ideals and ways of life that had no precedent. Written constitutions based on a formal separation of powers, periodic elections and competing parties and different electoral systems were new. So too was the invention of 'civil societies' founded on new social habits and customs - experiences as varied as dining in a public restaurant, playing sport or controlling one's temper by using polite language - and new associations that citizens used to keep an arm's length from government by using non-violent weapons like liberty of the printing press, publicly circulated petitions, and covenants and constitutional conventions called to draft new constitutions. Municipal government flourished in some quarters. A culture of citizenship rights and duties was born. Remarkably, this period also spawned - in the cooperative and workers' movements in the Atlantic region, for instance - the first talk of 'international democracy'.

The age of representation unleashed what the French writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville famously called a 'great democratic revolution' in favour of political and social equality. Spreading from the Atlantic triangle, this revolution often suffered setbacks and reversals, especially in Europe, where it was mainly to collapse in the early decades of the twentieth century. The democratic revolution was fuelled by rowdy struggles and breathtaking acts, such as the public execution in England of King Charles I. Such events called into question the anti-democratic prejudices of those - the rich and powerful - who supposed that inequalities among people were 'natural'. New groups, like slaves, women and workers, won the franchise. The formal abolition of slavery marked off this period from the world of assembly democracy, which often rested on slavery. At least on paper, representation was eventually democratised, stretched to include all of the population, at least in those countries where it was attempted. But such stretching happened with great difficulty, and against great odds. Even then it was permanently on trial; in more than a few cases, the United States and Spanish American countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included, the definition of representation was actually narrowed by withdrawing the right to vote from certain groups, particularly black and poor and indigenous people. Not until the very end of this second phase - during the early decades of the twentieth century - did the right to vote for representatives come to be seen as a universal entitlement. That happened first for adult men and later - usually much later - for all adult women. But even then, as the experiences of totalitarianism and military dictatorship were to show, the opponents of democratic representation fought hard and with considerable success against its perceived inefficiencies, its fatal flaws and supposed evils. They demonstrated that democracy in any form was not inevitable - that it had no built-in historical guarantees." (http://www.thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org/about/book_introduction.html)


Third, and Contemporary, Expression: Monitory Democracy

John Keane:

"changes in the real world of democracy are happening as well. For some six decades now, assembly-based and representative mechanisms have been mixed and combined with new ways of publicly monitoring and controlling the exercise of power. In the new era of democracy, representative forms of government do not simply wither, or disappear. It is mistaken to think that they are heading for oblivion, for the old representative mechanisms that operate within the framework of territorial states often survive, and in some countries they even thrive, sometimes (as in Mongolia, Taiwan and South Africa) for the first time ever. There are also plenty of efforts to revitalise the standard institutions of representative government, for instance by fostering civic interest in the work of politicians, parties and parliaments, as has been attempted during the past two decades in the clean-up and public accountability and civic involvement schemes (known as machizukuri) in Japanese cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki. But for a variety of reasons that are traceable to the devastating effects of World War Two, and that now include mounting public pressure to reduce corruption and foolish abuses of power, representative democracy is morphing into a type of democracy radically different to that our grandparents may have been lucky to know. For compelling reasons that will become apparent, The Life and Death of Democracy christens the emerging historical form of democracy with a strange-sounding name: 'monitory democracy'.

What is meant by 'monitory democracy'? Why the word 'monitory', with its connotations of warning of an impending danger, admonishing others to act in certain ways, or checking the content or quality of something? A vital clue in responding to these questions and understanding the changes that are under way is this fact: the years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens' needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of 'monitory' democracy is a 'post-Westminster' form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include - to mention at random just a few - public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts' reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, 'blogging' and other novel forms of media scrutiny.

All these devices have the effect of potentially bringing greater humility to the established model of party-led representative government and politics. The same humbling effect is reinforced by the spread of monitory mechanisms underneath and beyond state borders. Forums, summits, regional parliaments and human rights watch organisations, as well as open methods of cross-border negotiation and coordination (OMCs) and peer review panels, of the kind practised respectively by the member states of the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, all begin to play a role in shaping and determining the agendas of government, at every level.

Experiments with spreading democracy through the institutions of civil society, into areas of life beneath and beyond the institutions of territorial states, are also much in evidence, so that organisations like the International Olympic Committee, whose membership is otherwise self-selecting, are governed by executive bodies that are subject to election by secret ballot, by a majority of votes cast, for limited terms of office. With the help of a new galaxy of communication media, including satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet, the public monitoring of international organisations of government is also growing. Bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) find themselves under permanent or intermittent scrutiny by their own legal procedures, by outside bodies, and by public protests. In the age of monitory democracy, loud calls for 'global democracy' can be heard. And for the first time ever, there are even creative efforts to 'green' democracy. Time and money and energy are invested in building bio-monitoring institutions geared to the principle of public scrutiny of those who exercise power over our biosphere, which in effect is granted a virtual vote, a right to be represented in human affairs. There are growing numbers of examples of these experiments in 'democratising' our interactions with the world of nature, in whose affairs we act as if we are an outlaw species, with criminal tendencies. Independent monitoring bodies responsible for whole geographic regions and civic organisations sponsored by friends and protectors of the earth are cases in point. So, too, are newly established independent science and technology assessment bodies. An example is the Danish Board of Technology, a body rooted in much older Danish traditions of public enlightenment through networks of adult education (folkeoplysnig) but designed, in the new circumstances, to enable high-profile public consultation exercises, and to raise the level of parliamentary understanding of citizens' hopes and fears, in matters ranging from genetically modified food and stem cell research to nanotechnology and laboratory experimentation on animals.

In contrast to those policy makers, activists and scholars who suppose that the fundamental choice facing contemporary democracies is that between accepting the terms of Westminster-style electoral democracy and the embrace of more participatory forms of 'deep' and 'direct' democracy - in effect, a choice between embracing the present or returning to the imagined spirit of Athenian democracy - The Life and Death of Democracy carves out a third possibility, one that has much contemporary history on its side, an option, the growth of 'monitory democracy', that needs to be recognised for what it is: a brand-new historical form of democracy. All the trends towards monitory democracy described later in this book illustrate the pertinent points: that what we mean by democracy changes through time; that democratic institutions and ways of thinking are never set in stone; and that exactly because they are the most power-sensitive polities ever known to humanity, democracies are capable of democratising themselves, for instance by inventing new ways of ensuring equal and open public access of citizens and their representatives to all sorts of institutions previously untouched by the hand of democracy." (http://www.thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org/about/book_introduction.html)

Source: The Life and Death of Democracy. By John Keane


More Information

  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Jacobin spirit: on violence and democracy. Jacobin. 2011 Summer; 3–4:15–17.

Available from: http://jacobinmag.com/summer-2011/the-jacobin-spirit/.

"Žižek attacks the common view that the existence of liberal democratic institutions (free elections, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and so forth) is a reasonable measure of the freedom of a people, and that the decisions of democratic parliamentary governments should be accepted as expressions of the will of the people. He argues that in a capitalist society, violence and coercion originating largely in the private sphere (property ownership, employment, family relationships, etc.) permeate the entire society and compromise not only the official liberal institutions themselves, but even the conscious decisions of the masses (in voting, for example). In effect, Žižek asserts that the masses in a capitalist society are acting under duress. Citing U.S. policies toward Chile and Venezuela as examples, he argues that such duress is often imposed deliberately and systematically in such a way as to coerce the decisionmaking of an entire people toward a particular result. For this reason, radical leaders are justified in following the example of Lenin and Robespierre in using violence when expedient, and disregarding majority rule in cases where current majority opinion is subject to coercion and is at variance with the manifest best interests of the masses. Žižek points out that even conservative mainstream political leaders have taken a similar position when their populations were subjected to sufficiently extreme coercion; for example, General de Gaulle claimed in 1940 that only he and the Resistance could speak for France as a whole, not Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government, even though Vichy had overwhelming majority support in France at the time (estimated even by one French Communist leader at 90%)."