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The Relationship Between Voting Reform and Democracy Revised 2022


This year I tried again to run for the board of Fair Vote Canada. If you are not familiar with them and the idea of Proportional Representation, go here.
This is not because I think I can win. I want to try to get these people to rethink their premises. I want to see a movement for a direct democracy develop in Canada. Rather than start something from scratch, the best way would be for a group like FVC to evolve their thinking.
Tinkering with the voting rules to create a parliament based on proportional representation will create a smoother running oligarchy. However, any system of elections and political parties is a plan for an oligarchy, not a democracy. A democracy is about popular assemblies choosing delegates to higher assemblies, special bodies chosen by lot, and so on.
People need to start getting interested in this because what we have now is not working. The countries which have proportional representation find it is not working for them either. Austerity minded capitalist elites are enforcing their ideas against the public will.
I have had a long relationship with FVC, read about it here. At this year’s AGM, they would not let me run. They had a lot of candidates and wanted to limit the slate to fifteen.
I do not have a case of sour grapes here, I find these grapes actually pretty sweet. I can continue to write and to argue for a move away form electoral reform toward real democratic reform. FVC is becoming ossified around their single idea and makes a good foil.

On the relationship between Voting Reform and Democracy.

I am an exponent of the proposition that the biggest danger to democracy is the idea that we already have it. It is difficult to talk about democracy in modern times because it has been so sharply suppressed. However, people need to begin thinking about what a real democracy is and how it would work.
I have always been interested in the way government systems work or fail to work. I have been interested in democratic reform for a long time. I have been involved with FVC off and on for over twenty years. I present this piece for the information of the membership of FVC and anyone else who may be interested in serious democratic reform in Canada.
This is a revision of an earlier essay. I will concisely explain what Voting Reform and Democracy are about; that they are not the same thing, and from this how FVC needs to either reinvent itself or go away.
There are three basic problems with advocating a PR system in Canada. First, it is not going to solve the problems for which it is presented as the solution. Second is that it has become clear that the deep oligarchy in Canada are simply not having PR. Third is that when the opportunity finally becomes available for systemic changes in Canada, people are going to be interested in direct democracy, not in electoralism.

What a real democracy is.

A democracy means government by popular assemblies. The foundation of any democracy is the local assembly, in an area small enough that everyone can come together in one place. Face to face interaction is important and ‘electronic democracy’ is nonsense.
These assemblies choose, not representatives, but delegates, to regional and national assemblies or legislatures. The delegates report back, receive instructions, and go back to the legislature with those instructions. There are no elections, no terms, and no political parties.
Officials are appointed by these bodies to manage the government programs mandated by them and to serve at their pleasure. They are given policy guidelines and are monitored by the assemblies. The popular assemblies appoint their own staffs and decide which experts they will hear.
This is not an original or radical idea. It is how real democracies have generally worked. There is huge variety in the details of how old democracies functioned, but whenever a democracy has a chance to get established, the citizenry always seem to come up with this basic plan, even with no knowledge of previous democracies.
Frequent features of democracies include sortition; the practice of choosing individuals or committees by lot, to fulfill specific functions. Committees are usually appointed in some way to look into specific issues and problems, and prepare recommendations to the full assembly.
A near universal feature is short patience with people who waste the assembly’s time. An assembly is a place to conduct the public’s business. It is not a place for every crackpot around to air their grievances and pet schemes.

What Elections, Parties, and Representation are for.

Aristotle explained it first and best; election to public offices is a plan for oligarchy. Sortition is the key feature of how a democracy operates. The idea that democracy is about political parties and election of ‘representatives’ would have seemed very strange to people from ancient times up unto the nineteenth century.
Our present representation system did not develop because of popular demand. It was imposed in the face of great opposition. During the early twentieth century people tried in many places to establish direct democracies instead.
Rule by political parties and representatives came to be accepted only in the post war era. Capitalism was able to deliver a general prosperity for awhile. As inequality has grown in the neoliberal age, new generations of people are realizing there is something wrong with this setup.
What we have is an oligarchic system with some similarities to the Roman Republic. There, the Plebians, the commoners, got to vote on who among the Patricians, the aristocracy, would govern. In our present system, only candidates acceptable to the elite can be heard.

Why Proportional Representation will solve nothing.

The demand for a change to a direct democracy tends to be stronger in those countries with the longest experience of proportional representation. That people in Canada imagine that rejigging the voting system will solve anything important is pathetic. Canada and North America are several generations behind Europe, the most socially and politically progressive part of the world.
PR advocates in Canada look to this progressivity as the result of the PR systems some, but not all, European countries employed. This is a ‘with, therefore because of’ fallacy. These countries were more advanced and had PR because they were more progressive, they were not more progressive because they had PR.
Most of these countries which early on developed a PR system did so not because of popular demand, but to try to make electoralism more acceptable to people who still wanted a real democracy. A PR system was easier for oligarchs to manage in countries where there were many effective political parties; parties which could effect the result of elections. However, PR also increases opportunities for corruption; there are more parties and party officials who can be accessed.
For these countries, PR worked well enough during the post war happy times. Since the turn of the century, conditions have deteriorated in these countries. The old argument between oligarchs and democrats is being renewed.
Proportional Representation systems are shown to be as much an obstruction to meaningful change as any other representative system. Political parties are always much to the right of their supporters, who have no control over party bureaucracies. When change is needed, there is only a deadlock at the centre in the legislature and no mechanism for citizen directed reform.

Why meaningful governmental reform will not be achieved through citizen’s assemblies and referenda.

I once thought PR might be an intermediate step toward direct democracy. At one time it seemed like that was what was happening in some countries. During this century there have been wide spread efforts to curb and reverse democratic developments.
Some members of FVC are enamoured with referenda and citizen’s assemblies as ways around the obstruction of politicians and party bureaucracies, to create systemic reforms such as PR. It is hard to see why people still hold to these ideas, as they have not worked. The problem with referenda is the same as with general elections; powerful interests have developed very powerful narrative control machines which are nearly impossible for any citizen led initiative to overcome.
As for Citizen’s Assemblies, we have recently seen several examples of rigged assemblies being used to create support for something a powerful interest wants. The question to be asked about any citizen’s assembly is; who assembles the assembly? Politicians are not going to put in place a process which can put them out of a job.
A Citizen’s Assembly would have to be created by the citizens. They would have to create some sort of body to organize it, with a substantial funding source. They would have to be able to force government to comply with its decisions.
If an entity can be built powerful enough to do that, why bother with mere systemic reforms? You have already created the form of government you need. You can tell the ‘representatives’ to go home and can begin governing by direct democracy.

What will lead to better government

The present system is not going to change itself from within. This is true in Canada and throughout the western world. Whoever says otherwise is working for the system or is being manipulated by those who are.
The present system is clearly in its last days. Predicting the future is a risky business, but the next years are certain to be turbulent. At the far end of it I believe we will have a better government with strong elements of direct democracy and few elements of electoralism.
During this we will see massive civil disorder in western countries as people fight for real democracy and an end to self serving oligarchy. Most of this turbulence will occur everywhere else but quiet Canada. In the end we will go along with whatever changes have occurred in the more advanced western nations, mainly in Europe.
What FVC should do.
PR in Canada is an idea which time has passed by. We will have a transformation to direct democracy before we ever get PR. Thus, advocating for PR is a waste of time, energy, and resources. FVC needs to stop, rethink, reset, and even change its name.
What I will do is to continue to read, think, and write about many subjects but I will be paying increasing attention to democratic reform. Follow my blog.

Recommended Readings.

My reading list is up to four books now.

“They Can’t Represent Us” Verso books, ISBN 978-1-78168-097-1
Accounts from people involved in democracy movements in recent years, also explaining the basic problem with “representation.”

“Against Elections” Seven Stories Press ISBN 978-1-60980-810-5
Explains the origin and real aim of “representative democracy” as a way of preempting real democracy and preserving oligarchy.

“Democratic Illusion” University of Toronto Press ISBN 978-1-4426-1124-5
Uses some local examples from Canada to show that unless it is actually set up and run by the public, deliberative processes will usually be another instrument of control.

“Why China Leads the World” Ingram Books ISBN 978-1- 7358213-1-3
Makes the very good point that governments which produce the outcomes its citizens want are democratic and those which do not are not.

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