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The Past and Future of Democracy

The needed ideas are starting to filter up from the past.

Fair Vote Canada is at it again. The FVC politburo has latched onto the idea of “sortition”. This is an essential element of any authentic democracy.

The Ancient Athenians and the Renaissance Florentines all had elements of sortition in their constitutions, along with popular assemblies and other things. Sortition means, electing some important governing and legislative bodies by random selection, as in a jury. It is a brilliant way to prevent stacking of government by special interests.

However, the FVC folks seen able to consider sortition in only the most limited ways. Partly they want it used to create “truth panels” for various controversial issues. But mostly they focus on its use in “constituent assemblies”.

Constituent Assemblies are when a group of citizens is assembled to draw up or amend the constitution of a state or substate. Having failed so often to get a referendum passed in Canada for their beautiful idea of proportional representation in Canada, they now see this as the way forward. They want governments to convene a citizen’s assembly, get it to decide the precise format for a new proportional representation voting system and just apply it, without a referendum.

For those unfamiliar with “proportional representation”(PR), that is the form of representative legislature in which the members are not elected in single member districts, as in Canada and some other countries. Instead, they are elected in multimember districts by one of several methods. The principle of PR is that the number of seats held by a political party conforms to the popular vote they received.

Of course there is very little chance that any level of government in Canada will switch to a PR system, or allow an assembly to discuss it. The Canadian oligarchy is highly “immobilist”, hostile to any kind of change to the established structures. They are even more hostile to any change coming from any citizen initiative.

This gets us to the central problem of any reform of our representative system. We do not live in a democracy. We do live in an Oligarchy, the rule of a privileged class.

The current problems of the Canadian Polity come from the fact that it is an Oligarchy. As the ancient Athenians and the Guardian newspaper tell us, elections are the way an Oligarchy is run. The real democracies we have as examples have used sortition and delegative assemblies, and sometimes referenda, in their design.

There seems to be no way to convince the devoted FVCers that changing the way our legislatures are elected will not solve the basic problems with our government. They hold up several foreign governments, notably Germany and New Zealand, as examples of the advantage of PR. They do not want to look at the problems these polities have developed in recent years.

Germany is now ruled by a “consensus” coalition of four parties, which theoretically cross most of the political spectrum. The “consensus” is around policies which the great majority of Germans do not want, which are ruining the country and leading into a pointless conflict.

In New Zealand, a party and its leader were governing so well that they got over half the vote in their latest election under PR. Then the countries elite decided that they did not like her policies, and to force her out and put someone more amenable into office. After a year of economic sabotage and mass media perception management, they have now succeeded.

So increasingly, PR in Canada is being understood as an inadequate and simplistic solution to a complicated problem. Yet the true believers in FVC are too deeply invested in it to rethink. I have put some effort into that, read about it here, and I waste no more time there.

I think the idea of PR as a solution in Canada will have to fade away one funeral at a time. Meanwhile, they become more dogmatic, cherry picking what supports their thesis.

The FVCers quote this article in the British Newspaper, The Guardian, where it talks about sortition as the future of democracy. They ignore it when the same article says that elections are about oligarchy, not democracy, and argues for sortition as a means of choosing legislatures, not for “constituent assemblies.”

Of course we are even less likely to get our elite class to grant us government by sortition than by PR. Any change is going to come about the old and messy way, through full system breakdown, turmoil and revolution, and a new established order. In such circumstances a core group of people need to understand what really needs to be changed.

The encouraging thing in these times is that there are very good ideas of what a post oligarchic order should be like. Post Oligarchic in the western context means, post Capitalism. It has become an old truism that capitalism and democracy do not coexist.

If the post capitalist order is not based on an authentic democracy, it will not last long. It must be about more than just sortition. Delegative assemblies will play a prominent role. An honest ‘information ecology’ must be developed.

These ideas will annoy the typical FVC supporter. They are “centrist”, “Liberal” kinds of people. They are really pretty comfortable with oligarchy; that is their real problem.

They will be much more annoyed at what I will start saying about what we have to do to get to a real democracy. It is not just a ‘revolution’, but a period of transformative dictatorship. This concept needs to become less controversial.

Dictatorship is a very dirty word for people brought up in this idea that they live in a democracy. However, in many situations no other workable governments are possible other than a temporary dictatorship. Of course dictatorship is always a transitory condition.

Reality is that there are no conditions present in which Canada, or most western nations, could go in one jump from oligarchy into a real democracy. Capitalist oligarchy would have to be broken up in detail and a socialist economy soundly established. A generation would have to be educated to be functional in a real, epistemic democracy.

Marx talked about the “dictatorship of the proletariate”; the provisional government which would manage the transition into a socialist system. Machiavelli and Gramsci wrote about the “armed prophet”.

Machiavelli is one of the most misrepresented of the famous political thinkers. His own political career was about trying to defend the Florentine republic against the tyranny of the Medici family. His famous observation is that armed prophets succeed and unarmed prophets die.

Gramsci was one of the smartest Marxists after Marx. He picked up on Machiavelli’s observations and suggested that a movement to remove capitalism would need to act like an armed prophet or be destroyed. He also knew that it would not be a matter of just storming the palace, but a long process of dissolving old institutions and building new ones.

Democracies of the past have usually required some arbitrary means to get them established. Old Cleisthenes had to make himself dictator of Athens before he could create its famous democracy. He broke the power of the clan chiefs by regrouping everyone into the ten Demes instead.

Most of the medieval city states of Europe which developed effective democracies did so after wars with feudal lords. In the case of Florence, Duchess Matilda of Tuscany had simply told the cities in her domain to govern themselves and then refused to name her successor. Cities all over the Holy Roman Empire copied Florence’s model of government.

Many people will argue that this medieval model of government, based on guild membership, was not democracy. They are fixated on elections and majority rule as the only way to do democracy. These are really awful ways of running government.

So, there is a problem with defining what is or is not democratic. The solution is in understanding that democracy must be about results, not processes. Plenty of polities have been very democratic on paper and horrible tyrannies in practice.

The main identifying characteristic of a democratic system is that it delivers a good quality of life to the ordinary people within it. By that standard, China is presently one of the more democratic states on earth. This is one reason why western oligarchs hate it so much.

It does not matter what kind of structures are put in place to allow the people to choose officials and decide policy, if capitalists are allowed to run the economy and create massive private wealth. They can employ thousands of agents to capture government. They can spend billions to control all media and build a disinformation matrix around everyone’s head.

A real democracy is essentially a meritocracy. The point is to get the best people in charge of all government functions, set mandates for them, and monitor compliance. Merely winning popularity contests managed by public relations firms does not qualify anyone for anything.

Achieving such a standard will require development of effective deliberative bodies. This will require some combinations of sortition, local assemblies delegating to higher assemblies, and referendums. It will also require development of an honest information ecology, which is a big topic by itself.

This may seem impossible to achieve in reality, but the present reality is already disappearing. The western world is presently in collapse, which is also a big topic by itself. This is a time to start thinking seriously about what to replace the present capitalist oligarchy with, and how.

Seen this way, FVCs ideas seem fairly pathetic. However, most ideas from the last century which are presently being brought forward as solutions for this century’s problems, are likewise pathetic. The most relevant ideas for these times seem to come from some way further back in history.

We are actually relearning ideas from the past in order to create a better future. That requires building a real democracy, not the updated oligarchy the FVC people think will fix everything.

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