In Beasts and Gods: How democracy changed it’s meaning and lost it’s purpose,1 Roslyn Fuller picks through our democratic claims to fairness, equality, freedom, and representation; and finds all of them wanting.
Fuller presents a compelling case against our electoral/representative democracy. Using case studies from all over the world, plus devastating statistics, Fuller shows how modern democracy has enabled those with wealth to obtain political power, and then those with political power to gain more wealth. Simultaneously, the rest of society are excluded from public decision-making and not even represented in the process.
With clear examples Fuller unpicks many of the myths that continue to support our hold on electoral democracy as a sacrosanct institution.
- Representation is “mathematically impossible” when such a small number of citizens represent an entire nation. Furthermore, Fuller claims, tinkering with the system will get us no closer to accurate representation.
- Getting elected costs money, meaning that those who are rich, or have access to money (from corporate donations etc.) have a greater chance of being elected. Pulling together statistics from various nations, Fuller shows that as the amount of money spent in a campaign increases so too does the chance of being elected. So much so that if one candidate spends just twice the amount of another, the chance of being elected can be 90%. If that ratio increases to 5:1 then the chances of election become 100%
- Not even the use of referenda can make a difference. Because referenda are used so infrequently, they just become another bottleneck (as Fuller terms them), along with elections, for the rich to assert their influence.
- Participation is one of the greatest myths of electoral democracy. Large corporations have the inside running and the rest of society is shut out. Even using petitions only gives the petitioners the right to ask politicians to do something, they do not enable citizens to do anything. Protest is often claimed to be essential to democracy, but as Fuller exclaims, “far from being a part of democracy, protest is a reaction to a lack of democracy.” (emphasis in original)
- Those who control the media essentially also control the political system and who gets elected. Fuller uses damning case studies to prove her point.
- But it gets worse. Once we get to international politics and representation, the problems at national level only get heightened, intensified and exacerbated. Taking just one of Fuller’s many examples, the IMF is a case in point. Although the USA has just 4.4% of the world’s population it has 16.7% of the votes on the IMF. Japan at just 1.8% of the world’s population claims 6.2% of the vote. Meanwhile, those on the Indian subcontinent with 20% of the world’s population hold on to just 2.8% of the votes. This, and numerous other examples indicate how the poor are cut out of decision-making, thus exacerbating the power/wealth imbalance.
It would seem that democracy is broken and that we need to fix it. But, asserts Fuller, what we have is not even democracy. It doesn’t even derive it’s identity from Athens where we have been taught it comes from. Our present system finds its roots in another city and another system – the oligarchic Roman Republic. Whatsmore, Rome decayed from the inside and there are signs that our current electoral system is doing the same, for the same reasons.
So, what does Fuller suggest we do? Look to the true source of democracy she replies: Athenian demo-kratia, literally "people power." The Athenians had already tried elections and had discarded them as being not democratic enough. They brought in two new elements in public dialogue and decision-making: the Assembly and the cleroterion.
Most of us will have heard of the Assembly, whereby any Athenian citizen2 could turn up to participate in public discourse and decision-making. Up to 15% of those eligible did so, a far cry from the 0.01% (or less) that make up most of the parliaments of electoral democracies today. However, many of us will not have heard of the cleroterion. It was a simple piece of technology that allowed for a very simple method of selecting public officials randomly. Yes, randomly, much like a lotto system today.3
The Athenian democratic system had a lot going for it, according to Fuller. It was fair, it was representative, it was equal, it provided for freedom. Most of all, it was – democratic.
But, can it work today? Why not, replies Fuller. She describes a number of already existing technologies and processes that enable the use of both direct democracy and random selection. For example:
- Participatory budgeting which originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but now used in New York, London, Toronto, Cologne, Paris and many other municipalities around the world.
- Citizens Juries whereby citizens are randomly selected to make public decisions on a number of issues. The use of such juries is wide-spread and have proved to be highly effective.
- Online technologies such as LiquidFeedback, Loomio and DemocracyOS can be used in much the same way that the Athenian Assembly was used.
“We simply need to create a parallel politics that encourages real democracy. Indeed, when one is locked into a self-perpetuating system, which is what the electoral representative system is, this is the only approach that really has any chance of success.”That is something that we can all do. First though, get a hold of this important book and read it. It will change the way you think about democracy.
1. Roslyn Fuller, Beasts and Gods: How democracy changed it’s meaning and lost it’s purpose, Zed Books, London, 2015
2. At the time (6th to 4th centuries BC) citizenship in Athens did not include women, slaves, children or metics (Foreigners residing in Athens). However, such criticism does not deny the basic democratic ideas. We must remember that even our electoral system has only allowed women to vote since the early part of the 20th century, and many indigenous people have been disenfranchised until very recently.
3. Indeed, the cleroterion bore an uncanny resemblance to modern day lotto machines.