Democracy, both as an idea and in the ways in which it is practised, is:
The basic flaw in democracy is the concept of demos, or the people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 21 (3) promotes democracy in these terms:
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
The problem is that there is no such thing as the will of the people. A million different people have a million different wills.
The job of distilling these wills into one single will inevitably leads to an adversarial process. “The will of the people” becomes synonymous with “the will of the majority” or more accurately “the proposal that can get the most votes”. When there are more than two proposals or candidates representing proposals it frequently becomes “the proposal that gets the biggest minority”.
The processes tend to encourage dogma or simplistic solutions such as privatisation or “giving people choice” rather than any proper analysis of problems and development of solutions.
Democracy is tied to group decision making, the idea that groups can make decisions. In reality only individuals make decisions. A “group decision” is only some sort of abstract of the decisions of a number of people at a particular time. Such “decisions” may have little relevance as they depend entirely upon the individual decisions that people make afterwards. In a simple example, a group may “decide” that it will gather at 9:30 the following morning but the individual decisions mean that the group does not actually gather until 10:15.
The obvious problems of majority voting democracy have led to many alternative forms – participatory democracy, consensus decision making, proportional representation and so on. All of these, however, come down to trying to make group decisions that represent “the will of the people”. Inevitably these processes are skewed towards those people who have the most influence or are the most aggressive.
The history of democracy has been the history of groups or individuals competing for the mantle of representing “the will of the people”. At its best this involves people being given a choice between sets of proposals or manifestos each of which will be a compromise between the wishes or wills of its proponents. Hardly anyone would be satisfied with all elements of the complete package. More often the choice has been distorted through combinations of manipulation, coercion and bribery, including their modern forms of media manipulation, tax breaks and pork barrel politics.
The result is, and always has been, to coerce people into giving up their power to the same sort of people who would rule under any system.
As Hobbes wrote in Leviathan:
A Common-wealth is said to be Instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, Every One With Every One, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly Of Men, shall be given by the major part, the Right to Present the Person of them all, (that is to say, to be their Representative;) every one, as well he that Voted For It, as he that Voted Against It, shall Authorise all the Actions and Judgements, of that Man, or Assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men.” ( Hobbes, T. (nd). Leviathan [online] Project Gutenburg. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm [Accessed 7 September 2020])
In other words “you must abide by the will of the majority” The losers in a democracy depend on the benevolence of the winners for any influence and frequently this is not forthcoming. Indeed there are many examples of democratic bodies enacting rules or legislation to suppress dissent.
Crucially it also enables the rulers to deny responsibility for their decisions on the grounds that they are “the will of the people”. We rarely hear politicians saying “I decided that ...” or “I believe that this is the best option”. A classic example in the UK is government ministers telling parliament and the House of Lords that they must not vote against proposals, e.g. for the Identity Cards Bill in 2005, “because it was in the Labour Party's manifesto”. There is no hint of “we coerced the Labour Party into putting it in the manifesto”.
Though to all intents he is a dictator, Robert Mugabe was elected by democratic processes leading him to claim "My people say I am right in the things I do and that's what I listen to."
Autocracy is in effect more honest than democracy. At least it is clear who is responsible.
It can be seen that democracy is a tool of oppression.
I distinguish between oppression and persecution or treating people badly. Oppression is coercing people into feeling that they do not have options that, objectively, they do. By “feeling” I mean a deeply held, not even conscious, internalised belief. People feel that they must do this or they cannot do that even though others (sometimes not many people) can see that this is not the case. Sometimes people will argue why they should or should not do things, they will give a rationale for what they feel. At other times they just behave compulsively, even sometimes when they know it does not make sense.
Persecution is often oppressive because it reinforces victims’ feelings of helplessness. However there are times when it is not, particularly when it is obviously unjust. In such cases the people who are targets of the persecution may find good strategies for coping with it or become more empowered and rise up against the oppression.
Democracy provides a positive feedback loop for oppression. Oppressed people elect oppressors who further oppress the people.
This comes about because people are not, in fact, divided into oppressors and victims. The less empowered people are, in other words the more oppressed they are, the more they will behave as both victims and oppressors. They will behave as victims towards people they see as superior, or up hierarchy, but persecute people they see as inferior or down hierarchy.
The idea that someone who has been treated badly would not treat others as they have been treated is a myth. Very few people make that switch. The general experience is that people who have been bullied will often bully others who they experience as being down hierarchy from them. The history of immigration is of each wave of immigrants persecuting the following waves.
Assertiveness is closely linked to confidence and being in our own power. Using the language of assertiveness, non assertive behaviour is passive, aggressive or both (manipulative behaviour is hidden, and so passive, aggression). The less assertive someone is the more they will behave passively towards those who they feel are up hierarchy and aggressively to those they feel are down hierarchy. This can typically be observed in the ways people relate to authority (up hierarchy) and children (down hierarchy).
So, back to democracy and how this works in practice. In the UK we see people tending to elect those who seem up hierarchy, people who are rich, toffs or Eton and Oxbridge educated. These are people who are not, in fact, particularly self empowered. They consequently enact oppressive measures, measures that will tend to lead people to be more oppressed. Most of these people will remain under the thumb but some of them will find their way up hierarchy and become the even more oppressed and oppressive, disempowered, elected representatives.
These are ways in which people are oppressed under democracy, by reference to the pillars of institutional oppression. Some of these are directly to do with democracy, others are things that democratic organisations do.
In each case each pillar reduces people’s ability to see the options that they have, to act on those options, to feel that they are free to choose or some combination of these.
The message of democracy is that it gives people a say in or influence over the decisions that affect them. In reality it does the opposite, it takes away people’s opportunities to participate.
There are many things that someone in their own power can do, and others that they could do under different systems, to influence the decisions that affect them, but they are not as a result of democracy. Under democracy people are supposed to give up these possibilities in favour of various versions of putting a cross in a limited number of places on a piece of paper and then doing as you are told.
The success of democracy, such as it is, relies on propaganda. We are told repeatedly from childhood onwards that democracy is wonderful, that it gives people a voice and that there is nothing better.
Why, then, does the USA want to impose democracy on other countries when its agenda is clearly imperialist? Assuming, that is, that they do want to impose western style democracy rather than simply destabilising countries in a process of divide and rule. What comes with the package is massive corporate influence, control of the media and USA cultural imperialism. In other words, the USA should be able to manipulate the “will of the people” to elect governments that will do the USA's bidding.
The deceit relies on the apparently unassailable assertion that democracy is a “good thing”. So, if the USA and its allies do whatever they think necessary to impose democracy on a country, that has to be all right. The UK government is democratically elected, so it is all right if they take away human rights that have been fought for for hundreds of years.
If anything is wrong, it is your fault. You have not exercised your democratic rights properly, if you had everything would be all right.
The problems in education, the health service, local government and so on are nothing to do with the democratically elected government. It is all down to incompetent or lazy teachers, nurses, doctors, refuse workers and everyone else doing the actual work of providing services.
When anything goes wrong under democracy it is nearly always the fault of troublemakers or antisocial elements, never the decision makers at the top. The failures of democratic regimes in the middle east is the fault of “Islamists” and terrorists, it is nothing to do with governments failing to gain sufficient consent for their actions or the corruption and coercion of international plutocracy.
The problems in the UK economy are all due to immigrants or idle young people.
E.g. making school governors responsible for managing schools. What this means is that control actually goes up to the centre, whereas when county councils in the UK managed schools they had the expertise to do it well and to stand up to central government interference.
Voluntary organisations are now being expected to carry out the work that was previously delivered by professionals employed by government (national or local).
A characteristic of oppressive organisations is that they keep tinkering. The UK governments, for example, have repeatedly made changes to the organisation of the National Health Service (NHS). Performance targets are set for the NHS and other services, and changed in response to the latest crisis.
The voluntary sector in the UK has largely been taken over to provide services formally provided by government organisations. Organisations now have to compete for short term contracts with no guarantee of further contracts or what the requirements of future contracts may be.
The national curriculum for UK schools and the exam systems are changed at the whim of government ministers.
Micromanagement is a feature of oppressive organisations. A typical education authority may have a 100 plus page handbook with detailed, prescriptive and bureaucratic instructions about how teaching should be carried out and what forms should be filled in.
Building regulations in the UK have become so complex that most people would have difficulty doing their own work in compliance with the regulations.
Maintain a high unemployment rate, threaten organisations with closure if they do not meet the government's requirements, promote the threat of terrorism.
In the UK since 2006 the threat level - the likelihood of a terrorist attack - has never gone below substantial (see the MI5 web site).
In the media the reporting of crime is sensationalist and gives the impression that crime is far more prevalent than it actually is.
“We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.”
The idea is promoted that you cannot have anything unless you pay for it, the individual is primarily a consumer and everything can be bought if you have enough money. One result of this is parents who are poor do not know what to do with their children because they feel that everything costs money. They do not consider the options of walking or going to parks, museums and libraries many of which are still free – and getting there by bicycle.
People feel that they cannot take action unless they have money. Voluntary organisations have become dependent on grants and fund raising. Yet there is a lot that can be done by people getting together and pooling their non financial resources.
On the other hand elections are bought. Even though paying for votes directly may be illegal, huge sums of money are spent persuading people to vote one way or another.
Democratic processes tend not to allow for:
These are consequences of so called group decision making and the idea that there is a, single, “will of the people”. Dissent, as discussed above, is often repressed. Although it is clear under majority rule that there is opposition it generally has little influence. In many democratic countries attempting to overthrow the government or democracy are treated as near or actual treason. Where the line is drawn between legitimate and treasonable opposition varies, but there are plenty of examples of harsh punishment being meted out to critics of democratically elected governments.
Although having an effective opposition is seen as desirable in advanced democracies, in practice they often have little influence unless they can outvote the government. There is little sense of of governments needing the consent of all sections of the population. There is little constraint on governments persecuting minority groups. The rights of minorities, where they exist, are achieved by actions outside of democratic systems.
When there is one a decision to be made it is unusual for the decision to be to pursue more than one approach at the same time, particularly if they seem to be in opposition. In contrast, if people act in their own power they may pursue a range of possibilities, preferably but not necessarily knowing about what other people are doing. In some cases this means that people can act in their own best interests, maybe having little impact on others. In other cases it can result in the optimisation of action by discovering multiple actions that work in harmony or testing actions by competition.
Democracy supports people's tendencies to jump to solutions. Often these involve reacting to the symptoms of a problem rather than addressing its causes. So if crime goes up the answer is harsher penalties or more police intrusion to detect offenders. These set the agenda and the debate focusses on them. There is no proper problem analysis or search for a wide range of possible approaches to solving problems.
Many people are well aware of these failings and there have been various initiatives to try to overcome some of them. Direct democracy gives people more opportunities to take part in decision making but it still ends up with voting for competing proposals. Various forms of proportional voting have been explored in order to try to ensure that policies have the support of a clear majority or that representatives represent the true balance of opinion in an electorate. Whilst these are some improvement they do not overcome the fundamental flaws of democracy and at worst they give credence to the idea that any democracy is “a good thing”.
What, I suggest, people want or think they are getting with democracy is the opportunity to influence whichever they want of the decisions that affect them. Probably the nearest that anything called democracy comes to achieving this is Participatory Democracy. The problem here is that it is not really democracy because it moves away from the will of the people to taking account of different wills. By so calling it, however, it still lends credibility to the idea of democracy.
If what you have is a horse then you do not call it a modified zebra. What has been missing is a word for a truly participatory system of government and organisation that clearly indicates what it is, as distinct from democracy. We can now call that panocracy.
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Updated: 7th September 2020