Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : a Paradigm
(2000 - 2011)
From totalitarian democracy to libertarian polyarchy
Politics as democracy (^)
The current form assumed by contemporary politics in most countries is democracy.
Nowadays, there is no politician nor political party who does not call himself a democrat.
Democracy is a magic word, referring partly to historical reality and partly to fairy tales.
This magical aura that surrounds the word democracy has its foundations on:
- historical reasons. Certain societies (e.g. the Athens of ancient Greece, the States of the early American Federation) that have prospered in the past, are said to be founded on democracy.
- theoretical appeal. Many famous and highly esteemed persons (Rousseau, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc.) have celebrated the virtues of democracy as the best system of governance.
During the XX century, the full appearance of the masses and their movements (socialism, syndicalism, trade unionism) on the political and economic scene, with the pressing demands for recognition of their role and rights, added new impetus to the claims and aims of democracy.
From that moment onwards, in many countries, politics became associated with democracy or with the fight for democracy.
Given the importance attributed to the term/concept "democracy" it needs to be analysed in its:
- etymology (descriptive)
- ethics (prescriptive)
- praxis (practice).
Democracy : etymology (descriptive) (^)
The word "democracy" comes from the Greek δημοσ (people, multitude) + κρατοσ (power), meaning the power of the people.
If we take democracy in its simple etymological sense, as power in the hands of people (the multitude), it would refer simply to any instance when many people have assumed some decision, autonomously, on any subject.
From this it would follow that, a lynch mob and a gentlemen's country club, both with power in their hands, should both be included under the label of democracy. Certainly, feeling would resist this wide application of the word democracy, but logic should insist unless further qualifications are added to the term.
This is why, based only on etymology, the term democracy does not refer, necessarily, to a noble or progressive reality, unless it is complemented by ethics, that is by prescriptive characterizations and qualifications.
Democracy : ethics (prescriptive) (^)
In his famous definition of democracy, Abraham Lincoln characterized it as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." (1863)
In practical terms, this definition stresses the fact that power is located in the hands of everybody (the people) and is exerted directly by them, in the interest of everybody.
According to this very appealing definition, a democratic organization is the one in which the government (governing body plus ruling decisions) is:
- composed of everybody (i.e. assembly of the people)
- run directly by everybody (i.e. decisions taken by the people)
- in the interest of everybody (i.e. benefiting all the people).
With respect to this view, only the concomitant presence of
- universal personal participation
- universal active involvement
- universal positive benefices
makes the use of the term democracy appropriate and the striving for it worthwhile.
In fact, the persistent appeal exerted by the word derives from the (implicitly assumed) contemporaneous presence (or pretence of presence) of these three factors.
It is then necessary to endow the word democracy with these strong qualifications given the fact that the term is universally used as indicating the best way, from an ethical point of view, of administering a society (i.e. conducting common affairs, solving common problems). Because of this deep and wide positive characterization, no ambiguities should be attached to the word otherwise it might be used to cover all sort of abominations.
We need to see how this prescriptive characterization fares in current reality.
Democracy : praxis (practice) (^)
In the course of history, democracy, while keeping the same positive emotional connotation, came to represent in actual fact something very different from what Lincoln had expressed in so noble words.
Keeping the same appealing term while altering or adulterating both form and content, it is one of the most (ab)used tricks of political discourse and practice.
Contrary to its professed nature, the reality of democracy, especially during the XX century, has been characterized by:
- delegation. Universal personal participation (as in a general assembly of a village debating topics of common interest) has been deemed infeasible and impractical as towns grew in population and the territorial nation states took over, controlling very large areas. So, participation in political activities was limited to particular occasions (the electoral process that replaced the town meetings) and to particular people (those whose name was in the electoral register with the exclusion, for instance, of so-called foreigners). The delegation of responsibility through a vote, without proper discussion, unless we include propaganda as a way of debating, became the rule.
- representation. Once participation
had gone, it was logical that universal active involvement could
not exist any longer it being a further and deeper exercise of participation.
The concomitant result of delegation was that some quick-minded individuals
offered their services in the huge untapped market of political representation
as the paid voice of "the people."
The deliberations on social topics and the carrying out of political acts became the prerogative of a few particular personages who acted in the name of the many. So, professional figures took over the (political) decision-making process while the individuals were taken out of it, except for the few moments necessary, every so many years, to cast their vote and chose their masters.
- imposition. The safeguard and
enhancement of the interests of everybody, that is of each and every one
composing the people, was deemed an impractical unworkable factor for the
implementation of the new version of democracy (delegated representative
democracy). In the new democracy, the majority would rule in the name of
the "public" interest. No serious objection was raised that the so called "public" interest could very well be contrary to the interest of a relevant number of people and certainly was not the interest of all the people.
The imposition on everybody of the will of the majority (real or fictitious, considering the electoral systems all along history) replaced the attainment of universal benefits via the political process. The particular gains of some people (the so-called majority) became the legitimate hallmark of democracy even if that meant crushing the way of life or the life altogether of other people (the so-called minorities).
In order to affirm its power, the presumed majority at the ballots has also used bullets whenever a presumed minority has tried to go its own way (from America in the XIX century to Europe in the XX century).
The updated version of democracy could, very well, be characterized as government imposed to all the people, without the consent of many people, in the name of all the people.
The pre-conditions for democracy (^)
This new (fake) version of democracy took over and became the creed and deed of XX century politics because the pre-conditions that favoured the development of the original (true) democracy had all but disappeared.
As a matter of fact, the idea and the practice of democracy had started emerging within the circumscribed reality of some Greek cities, in the local assemblies of the Vikings, in the alpine communities of Switzerland, in the popular government of mediaeval cities and, later on, in the town life of New England.
All these experiments and manifestations of democracy were characterized by three factors:
- small: democracy developed within a small entity, and the smaller its reality, the more pregnant was the democratic experiment and the more effective its performance.
- free: the towns where some democratic experiments took place were free territories or freer (e.g. offering more choices) than the surrounding countryside. As the saying went, "town air makes free"; and the freer the town the more democratic its government and the more flourishing the arts of life.
- abstinent: a limited territory and a circumscribed intervention, focused only on some aspects of life in common, characterized the temperate non-intrusive government of the best democratic experiments.
These three aspects of classical democracy sustained and reinforced each other. Restrictions of freedom in one town could make people move to the next town or, even, push them to found a new settlement, diluting the concentration of power. The undue interference by the rulers could lead to an uprising and to the driving out of those in power who had become a nuisance to the inhabitants of the city.
The disappearance of the pre-conditions (^)
Probably, only in a few very limited historical cases, the co-presence of these three factors took place. For instance, in some towns of the New England in the early phase of colonization or in some communities in the Swiss mountains.
Certainly, with the outbreak of the First World War and the coming into overall dominance of the nation state, the bucolic image of small town life based on democratic practices was totally shattered, at least in Europe, surviving perhaps as a folkloric example somewhere in the plains and mountains of the Helvetic Confederation
In its stead, the new reality, centred on the nation states, was characterized by the following aspects:
- big vs. small
The cult of bigness became the new creed of the XX century: "Big is good and more is better" could be taken as a typical slogan of that century. The highest building, the largest ship, the biggest city, the richest country, all these became matters of pride and propaganda even when the gigantic size was associated with gigantic troubles, as the tragedy of the "Titanic" showed in an exemplary way.
- monopolistic vs. free
The monopolization, by the state, of the means of communication (radio, TV), the monopolization of the territory (called national sovereignty), the monopolization of the exercise of power and violence, the monopolization of the conferring of licenses and professional titles, the monopolization of the internal market (protectionism); these are only some aspects of the new climate that characterized XX century version of democracy.
- absolute vs. abstinent
The (centralizing) national state got into the habit of intervening in every field, putting forward a law for every occurrence or possible case, exercising an absolute sovereignty over everybody and everything within its jurisdiction. The so-called absolutism of the kings of the "ancien régime" pales if compared with the range of controlling and intervening power in the hand of the so called "democratic" states (i.e. their "democratic" rulers) and the means at their disposal for exercising it.
These new aspects made the survival of democracy as depicted and advocated in Lincoln's words, a practical impossibility. In its place emerged, more and more, strong, centralized governments, with wider and wider powers of intervention on every aspect of social and personal life.
Nevertheless, the magical feeling associated with the word democracy remained and so the word got preserved and it is still in current use even if its form and content have been totally modified.
In fact, the disappearance of the pre-conditions led, during the XX century, to the disappearance of the tempered classical democracy based on individuals and small communities and to its replacement by the totalitarian contemporary democracy centred on nation states and large bureaucracies.
The totalitarian democracy (^)
Totalitarian democracy is here intended to mean a system of government centred on the nation state and on the silent acceptance of its overall supremacism. This translates into:
- exclusive territorial sovereignty
The state arrogates to itself the topmost power over everything (e.g. rights of expropriation) and everybody (e.g. rights of imposition) within a specific territory. From the subjugation of native Americans to the destruction of the Chechnyan town of Grozny, exclusive territorial sovereignty has meant the crushing, by the central state, of any independent or slightly unruly entity.
- extensive decision-making sovereignty
The state, in a totalitarian democracy, has the power to intervene in relation to most of the aspects (almost the totality) concerning the life of individuals under its territorial jurisdiction. To justify this extensive power, totalitarian democracy has accepted the myth of the general will as the expression of the majority. It would be more correct to say that, through the myth of the general will, the individuals count for nil while the generals (i.e. the army élite, the political élite, the economic élite, etc.) count for everybody. The might of numbers (majority rule) becomes the right assigned to a few to impose wide ranging/all inclusive decisions.
In this respect, it is perhaps not pointless to remember that, in the past, Socrates and Jesus Christ, among others, have been condemned to death by the will of the majority or by representatives of the majority. In more recent times, overwhelming majorities have supported fascism, national socialism and communism (to refer to the best known cases) or have been more or less willing accomplices of the atrocities perpetrated by the state rulers in the name of the majority.
Throughout history, when exclusive and extensive power has been conferred on anyone (be it a single person or an organization) under whatever justification (be it the will of God or the general will) crimes and misdeeds have, almost inexorably, followed.
In the second half of the XX century, many states have lost some of their most aggressive features but they still remain big organizations with the pretence of monopolistic power that they try to exert in an absolute way. In other words, the cosmetic changes towards a more liberal state of affairs, still cover a totalitarian democracy whose real brutal face comes to the fore in situations of crisis, reaffirming its power through the usual armoury of statism (i.e. bombing, blasting, beating).
Democracy as statocracy (^)
During the XX century, society has died by suffocation because the state has invaded and occupied the entire scene previously taken by individuals and communities. Totalitarian democracy is then a better characterization of democracy in the age of statism; totalitarian democracy can also be defined as statocracy (everything for the state, from the state, by the state).
The main characteristics of current totalitarian democracy, i.e. statocracy, are:
The personal feeling of impotence in changing the political situation through voting for parties that repeat more of the same and behave even more the same, has bred disillusion and disaffection in the electorate.
This means that a compact minority can dominate, through state power, an entire society. If only 60% of the people bother to cast their vote, in a majority system with two parties, 31% of the electorate can impose its will on the remaining 69%; with three parties competing, 21% of the people could rule a country through an appointed élite.
This 21% can give to a party a huge parliamentary majority so that not every representative's vote is necessary for the passing of laws. So, like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes, power is exerted by the smallest piece deep inside (the inner core) while the largest one on the outside (e.g. the Parliament) performs only the function of the "democratic" cover (justification for unlimited action) and shield (protection from indiscreet looks).
For example, an American President, concentrating in his hands an incredible amount of power with respect to the entire world, can be designated by less than 30% of the votes of the national electorate (e.g. Ronald Reagan in 1980 with 27%). As for representatives allegedly elected by the majority of the adult population, only 35% of the electorate turned up to vote for the USA Congress in 1978.
In the U.K., in 1974, the Labour Party gained a Parliamentary majority with 39.2% of the vote. In 1983, the Conservative gained 61% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 43% of the vote. And the situation has since deteriorated as far as participation to the polls is concerned.
Totalitarian democracy is dominated by some individuals (leaders), supported by lobbies and surrounded, very often, by a cohort of mediocre people. This has the effect, sooner or later, of transforming even clever individuals called to positions of responsibility into total morons. So, when total morons are themselves elected to high office (for instance the Presidency of the USA), we can only imagine the menace to peace and well-being they represent.
Mediocrity becomes then the rule, procrastination the practice and unlimited irresponsibility one of the privileges associated with totalitarian democracy. With the justification of a popular mandate, the politician has been given the licence to squander resources and bring chaos into the world without being accountable for it.
The state and the parties that dominate the state are made up, mainly, of professional figures, that is by people whose exclusive activity, throughout their life, is to meddle in politics and in political administration.
Here is the real power, that gives reality and continuity to the implementation of the totalitarian democracy.
The role of the bureaucrats is, essentially, to run people's lives; they are at the service of any power, once they are granted that their role, i.e. their existence, is not questioned.
Bureaucracy is the pillar of totalitarian democracy.
Beyond totalitarian democracy : polyarchy (^)
Towards the end of the XX century something has started changing with respect both to exclusive and extensive sovereignty of the state.
Nevertheless, we are still totally stuck with an empty word (democracy) and with obsolete practices that state propaganda wants us to believe are the highest attainments of humanity, i.e. the best of all possible worlds as far as social organization is concerned.
On the contrary, this revised version of democracy, the current mino-medio-buro-cracy, in one word, this monster of statocracy, is a backward and obsolete form of organization that survives only due to the inertia of the many and through the cheating perpetrated by the few (sometimes a large few) who have a big stake in parasitism. Most of the people are only unaware hostage of the state power.
To individuals and communities who want to count, that is to be in control of their lives, the only message of current democracy is: let's have another election, the result of which is to have the same or similar unaccountable representatives, elected by an even smaller minocracy, imposing on everybody even more deadly strictures called state laws.
To get out of the confusion, created by the misappropriation and misuse of the magic word 'democracy,' might require we drop that word altogether.
To do so, more than a revolution, that is always an affair of imposition, we need a personal re-evolution, a peaceful profound re-orientation of minds and hearts and deeds by willing, conscious, responsible individuals and communities.
Democracy, to be real and effective, needs to regain the pre-requisites of smallness, freedom and, most of all, abstinence from intrusion in people's lives even if committed in the name of the people.
A more appropriate word to characterize democracy in future might be 'polyarchy' because it conveys the idea of variety that could exist but only if the three pre-requisites (smallness, freedom, abstinence) are satisfied.
Democracy, especially representative democracy, is based on the contrast between a dominating majority and subjected minorities. Polyarchy goes beyond the opposition between majority and minorities because it supersedes the very ideas of majority-minority in favour of the idea of variety, dignity and acceptability of existence of any entity (provided it does not want to impose itself on others, reintroducing the devious opposition of majority vs. minority).
Polyarchy is characterized by the move from the central state, one and indivisible, to the individuals forming communities, many and multipliable (from "ex pluribus unum" to "ex uno plures").
Polyarchy is the networked organization of small/appropriate entities based on
- universal principles (ethica:
- local customs (historica: experience)
- specific-general rules (practica: expedience)
sustaining and promoting the
- empowerment of individuals
The technological progress of the last centuries is giving individuals enough free time to attend to civics (administration of specific interests held and shared in common). In conjunction with cultural progress, this means that we can stop delegating to professional representatives (i.e. people who practice representation as their profession) and start delving into problems in order to design solutions. Problems and solutions are and should be:
- limited to what concerns and affects the individual(s)
- limited by the power and freedom of the other individual(s).
This means, for instance, getting rid of all sorts of repressive laws concerning behaviour that does not damage anyone and whose only aim is to restrict the freedom of movement, settlement, action of a person.
- empowerment of communities
Communities result from the linking of affinities and sympathies amongst individuals not necessarily in close spatial proximity. One of their tasks is to tackle problems and devise solutions:
- limited to what concerns and affects the community
- limited by the power and freedom of other communities.
Each community should leave to its members the power and freedom of:
- getting off: the possibility of leaving one community for another, wherever in the world.
- opting out: the possibility of dropping out of some proviso in the community provided that no damage ensues to anybody.
- splitting up: the possibility, for a group of people, of seceding from one community, club, association, to start a new one.
- linking in: the possibility of networking with individuals belonging to various communities (e.g. for the solution of problems affecting humanity at large).
- setting criteria to: the possibility of applying selective membership provided that it does not affect the universal enjoyment of natural personal rights (e.g. the rights of movement, settlement, action, in a broad sense).
Up to now parties and people have tried in different ways to transform the state and to implement democracy. Now the time has come to extinguish the territorial state and to go beyond majoritarian democracy.
To do so, each one needs to participate in the effort to elaborate a paradigm of personal and social life that does not rely on the impositions of the state but on the empowerment of individuals and communities and leading, through them, to the direct satisfaction of common needs.
The effort should bring to a flourishing of free experimentation and joyful emulation between individuals and communities, where mirroring (imitation) of the best experiments is interspersed and superseded by marvelling (invention), that is the coming into existence of extra-ordinary and more appropriate ways of dealing with problems, old and new.
And so Life evolves.