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So what else is there?
by Si Mitchell 10.05.01
(continued from Democracy What Democracy?)

Politicians don't like it, but the anarchists have been doing for centuries - no, no, not white overalls and armchair stuffing - but abstaining from voting.

If it's humiliating to be ruled, they say, then how much more degrading is it to choose your masters? Abstentionists believe that voting gives elections, and the administrations they produce, a false legitimacy.

Nineteenth century French abstentionists described parliamentary action as a pell-mell of compromise, of corruption, of charlatanism and absurdities which does no constructive work.

The Italian Luigi Galleani said: Abstentionism strips the state of the constitutional fraud with which it presents itself. A significant minority of libertarian Britons have been skipping ballots and spoiling papers for many years and statisticians admit they are unsure how many of the eligible twelve million people who failed to vote in 1997's general election did so out of apathy or in protest.

After all, people who don't want to vote are unlikely to fill in questionnaires on voting.


Democracy does not exist in practice. says John Burnheim in the opening to his book Is Democracy Possible? As first strikes go, it's not a bad one. At best, he adds. We have elective oligarchies with strong monarchical elements. Burnheim goes on to explain how elections do little but legitimise the political pantomime where personalities outshine the issues.

Despite achieving full attendance in every incarnation of the national curriculum (taught in schools whose make-up is the very antithesis of democracy), elections and democracy are not the same thing.

So what is the alternative? The Liberal Democrats and a few loose-tongued Labourites are big fans of electoral reform. Proportional Representation (catch it now in a European sub-state of your choice), has several forms.

Pam Giddy, director of PR's number one standard bearer Charter 88, claims: Our aim is to make sure everyone who wishes to be involved in unlocking democracy can find an active role in the process, but PR voting, be it preferential, transferable or shut-your-eyes-and-jab-em-with-a-pencil is still just a choice between preselected careerist politicians, resulting in unrecallable, runaway government.


To belay bosses fears of 'subversive' Trade Unions running riot in the workplace, Labour introduced quorums into their 1999 Employment Relations Act. This means, workers can only get recognition as an organised bargaining group if they win a ballot supported by a minimum fifty per cent of the workforce.

Needless to say, there is no move to bring quorums into mainstream politics, not least by the Sunderland MEPs who mobilised an awe inspiring 1.5 per cent turnout for their last election or the Bristol City Councillors who only managed to mobilise a third of voters in 1999.

Australia, and until recently Holland, get around the turnout trap with compulsory voting. Though politicians from all three main UK parties recoil from this suggestion - prefering the non-attendance of inert voter apathy, to the antagonism of serious disenfranchisement. Not everyone would agree. The Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani felt: Abstentionism strips the state of the constitutional fraud with which it presents itself.

The Swiss have taken the referendum route. Any citizen can force a referendum on any issue under government consideration if backed by a petition of 1 per cent of the electorate, or on any issue at all, if backed by 2 per cent. This has led to quarterly referendum days. Though it is the state who set the question, and it is the state who provide the 'information' supporting 'both' sides of the argument.


It is questionable whether people can know enough to make rational decisions on the very large range of issues that have to be faced, says John Burnheim . This point has nothing to do with the ignorance of the mob. It applies equally well to professional politicians, social scientists or any other aristocracy. It is an argument against all centralisation of decision making power.

British politicians have been reluctant to go down the referendum road. Bristol City Council discovered a few months ago that they couldn't steer the outcome of a referendum on council tax levels even with a highly selective question coupled with emotive threats of education cut backs. Council leader George Micklewright was dissapointed by his city. It seems people just can't be trusted to do the right thing.

The UK direct democracy campaign back a system of electronic voting for mass referendums either through interactive TV, the internet or cashpoint style street machines. Though if people are disinterested enough not to vote, it is unlikely they'll participate in constant button pushing to vote on a host of issues that have no direct impact on their lives. Again Burnheim thinks this is not enough: People would be reduced to accepting or rejecting proposals from their armchairs. There is no way in which any significant proportion could participate in framing them.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic has always seemed a pointless task. I mean, how many different ways can you set up a few dozen chairs; in a circle, a pile, chop them up for life rafts. Whatever you do, sooner or later you're going to end up treading icy water in the dark. John Jordan, a time-served activist in the British anti-roads movement of the 1990s, holds little hope for electoral reform.


The solution to such problems is usually seen as electoral politics with a new content: better candidates, new parties, fairer procedures,a better-educated electorate, says Professor Brian Martin, who has been addressing democratic alternatives for many years at Australia's University of Wollongong. The major complaint is seen not as the electoral system itself, but with the people who are elected and the policies they implement.

The illusion that democracy can be assured by so-called democratic control of the state is disastrous, argues Burnheim. The state cannot be controlled democratically. It must be abolished.

John Jordan has just returned from Chiapas where he has been studying the decision making processes used by the Zapatistas, a network of indigineous communities fighting, with some considerable success, for recognition in Southern Mexico. Though they have an army, decision making is done by collective consensus during village assemblies.

Consensus decisions are reached by negotiation, and the discussion only moves forward when nobody feels they need to block the consensus. It is this negotiation (apart from that conducted by the single-ideology politicians within very limited boundaries) that is missing from Western style electoral politics.


Zapatismo is not a party nor a guerilla force, wrote the Zapatista Army's super-charismatic pipe-chuffing spokesman Subcomandante Marcos. It is a creator of possibilities that poses the question: 'What is it that has excluded me?'... and stipulates that the response is inclusive.

Jordan believes a model has been created in the Mexican jungle that we can all learn from. Zapatismo has an ability to grasp change, to dissolve vertical structures of power and replace them with radical horizontality. It has the courage to demand nothing for us, but everything for everyone.

This 'roots-up' process of consensus decision making - very similar to the workings of a courtroom jury - has been emulated by activist groups for some years. Well executed anti globalisation protests, of tens of thousands of people, from Seattle to Melbourne to Prague have been organised with consensus reached decisions.

Large numbers of people are often accommodated by creating assemblies of delegates. Groups within the assembly or federation have autonomous control over their actions, though delegates from different groups come together to make decisons that effect everyone.


Unlike representatives delegates are members of the source group (perhaps from a street or village), are beholden to them and can be recalled at any time. The danger, as various trade unions and progressive organisations have discovered, is that 'professional' delegates morph into representatives and it's rule by personality all over again.

Supporters of so-called 'strong government' argue that if decisions were left to consensus, nothing would ever get done. Tory MP for Dorset South, Ian Bruce, told thinks that anything short of First Past the Post, winner takes all (the decisions) elections, would result in unthinkable outcomes on a par with having a committee installed as managing director of a company (his choice of analogy).

Surely it's not too presumptious to say that had a workers committee been in place at West Lothian's Motorola last month, Bathgate may not be heading for ghost town status today.

With representation and inclusion floundering like a couple of drunks in the shallows of corporate autocracy, Bristol City Council's decision to hold an access-for-all Democracy Day seemed like a fresh step. However, a cursory glance at the forty white faces (and one black sheep) put paid to any hope of representative debate. No need to worry, debate was not on the agenda anyway.


Suggestions of a democratic approach to the day's workings were quickly brushed aside and City Council 'facilitators' made sure everyone got a pencil and no-one got exposed to a different point of view. Though their mandate was to look at the state of democracy in Bristol, chair of the Commission Paul Burton admits that central government control is so strong that there is only narrow scope for change at local authority level.

Despite being asked to consider limited options for neighbourhood committees, the real task of the Commission, generated in number 10, is to recommend which sort of Ken 'what ever happened to him' Livingstone-style-Mayor, Bristol swaps it's present Council committee system for. The government thought if they made the leadership more prominent, people would take more of an interest in local politics, says Burton.

It could become a fashion show, I'm not convinced turnout will double because Bristol has a mayor.

Bigger leaders with brighter smiles. Cheers Tony, just what democracy ordered? Apart from the deep seated knowledge that their task was a thankless, if not pointless, one, all the preordained speakers on Democracy Day were united in their deference to Athenian democracy.


Strangely though, they all forget to mention a couple of key aspects - namely the Greeks' outright rejection of a centralised controlling state, and how they selected their decision making bodies at random.

Randomly selected juries are one of the few decision making bodies that large numbers of people still have faith in. (A faith not shared by those in government wishing to restrict access to them - judges, after all, are easier to keep on the political track).

Considering the pressures put on them by the law, the lawyers and the judges, juries fair pretty well. In his book Is Democracy Possible John Burnheim proposes a comprehensive alternative to our system of elected representatives that he calls Demarchy.

Anarcho syndicalists have been promoting self organisation through popular workers and community councils for years. Realising the unliklihood of imminent global revolution, Burnheim has tried to address the question of how to institute direct democracy in our present industrialised, corporatised and shot-between-the-eyes society.


He suggests we get rid of politicians, bureacracy and governments altogether, and instead replace them with decision-making groups of randomly selected citizens. Democracy is possible only if the decision makers are a representative sample of the people concerned, he says.

Each group could address a particular need of the community - such as schooling or rail transport - within a defined locality (perhaps 10,000 perhaps 100,000 people). He calls this a decentralisation of functions.

Where decentralisation simply means centralisation on a smaller scale - bringing as many issues and powers as possible together under a single local authority - is of very dubious value, says Burnheim.

Group members could be chosen randomly from people who volunteered specifically for a group whose function concerns them. The random selection principle could easily be designed so that membership was representative in terms of sex, ethnicity, age, income and so on. There would be no deference to a higher authority, but negotiation with groups whose tasks effect their own.


Demarchy recognises that it is impossible for single bodies to make far-reaching decisions in any kind of informed way on a wide range of issues. So functional groups would have a strictly limited domain.

The legitimacy of random selection lies in regular replacement, rather than experience or popularity in the polls. Group members would serve a limited term in office, perhaps two years, then someone else would have a chance.

Political wheeling and dealing would be reduced. Lobbyists would have a harder time applying pressure to decision-makers and there would be no career politics and no culture of playing for re-election. The demarchist does not believe that there is any group of people whose capacities entitle them to a position of special or wide ranging power in the community, says Burnheim.

The motivation would have to be; to be seen to be doing well. Everyone who nominated themselves, but was not selected, would be sure to scrutinise the group's performance, as would ex-members whose decisions were being overturned.

No central state would mean no central police force or army. Demarchic decisions would have to stand on their acceptability by the community. Unpopular decisions would lapse by unobservance. Unlike distant politicians, demarchic bodies would be more likely to address the underlying causes of crime, poverty and social exclusion.


Maintaining the state's monopoly on 'legitmate' violence would be unneccessary. Burnheim argues such a decentralised state would be impossible to invade, and would be virtually no threat to its neighbours.

Juries could call on all the expertise they wanted, and tests suggest people would be quick to grasp the issues. The Institute of Public Policy Research are one of a number of British bodies who have been conducting tests with citizens' juries for some years, using panels of 12-16 randomly selected people to address issues ranging from community safety, health service provision and decency on television.

Members of the public were willing to take part in decision-making and were capable of grasping complex issues, their report concluded. The juries were a powerful tool for consensus building... helping participants take a wider and more objective perspective.

Similar studies have been conducted in the US and by the University of Wuppertal in Germany for over twenty years, where a 500 strong randomly selected 'planning cell' was used to formulate telecommunications legislation in 1991.


New Labour are not unaware of citizens' juries, and have been cynically using their ability to address the genuine concerns of communities for consultation and to gain insight into what people want. But this is a far cry from people making their own decisions.

Burnheim is candid that his theories need to be expanded, questioned and tested. For a fairer system to prevail, there would have to be some serious redistribution of land and wealth - though demarchic groups could tackle this. Perhaps land could be leased and a rents system could replace taxation. Also elite groups such as political parties, corporate managers, trade union bosses and military leaders would undoubtedly oppose any threat to their power.

Burnheim does point out that demarchy need not appear overnight and could be introduced in a piecemeal way. Is there any good reason why randomly selected citizens groups should not replace government appointed quangos, addressing such issues as pharmaceutical licencing, planning or police complaints? Surely a randomly selected jury would fair better than the bodies presently packed with financially concerned parties and industry representatives.

Electoral representative government is not working. We are coerced into acceptance of our poor democracy through threats of the 'autocratic alternative'. If you don't want Blair you gotta have Xiang Zemin. Yet this is not the case.


Of course those in power, those who hold the wealth and the corporate muscle are in no hurry to look for an alternative. Big-business-as-usual is fine by them. Those peddling reform do more harm than good by dissipating any energy that could be spent addressing genuine democratic alternatives.

If we sit on our hands until those in power choose to give even a little bit of it back, we will have a long wait. Maybe we should emulate India's Kernataka State Farmers who have discarded government control in favour of self-organisation. They tie politicians to trees who dare to enter their communities.

If we are to progress surely we must be ready to change, and if we want genuine democracy we must be willing to stand up and take the word back out of the mouths of the Blairs and Bushes who have bastardised its very meaning.

If we want freedom and want liberty we must be willing to try something better. Let us look in silence, let us learn to listen, wrote Subcomandante Marcos about how would-be-leaders must defer to the spirit and wishes of the people.

Perhaps later we'll finally be able to speak.

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