This blog follows my previous one about the yellow vests movement in France. If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so as it is clear and complete. One idea broadly supported by the yellow vests movement is citizens’ initiated referendums. Public referendums are a means of direct democracy. I thought I should elaborate on democracy before moving on.
Direct democracy versus representative democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote directly on the laws of a country. They can submit proposals to public referendums and revoke their representatives when they cease to act in the general interest. Direct democracy works best in smaller countries or at a local level. Representative democracy is a form of government in which people elect representatives who will legislate on their behalf. All democracies today are representative. This form of government is preferred in countries where the great number of people makes direct democracy difficult to implement.
The social contract and the drift towards authoritarianism
The social contract is a philosophical and political theory that is the basis for representative democracy. People accept to give up some of their rights to their representatives - or government, who will legislate on their behalf in order to guarantee their rights and liberties. John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher whose ideas influenced the Enlightenment period, was one of the pioneers of the social contract theory.
When the government and elected representatives can no longer guarantee people’s rights and liberties, the social contract is broken. When democracy fades away, we drift into ‘soft’ authoritarianism. John Locke argues that when this happens, people are no longer bound to the social contract and have the right to take action to replace the representatives or the government in power.
The example of the Athenian democracy
The Greek city-state of Athens became the first democracy in the 5th century BC. Citizens - which didn’t include slaves, women, and men who hadn’t accomplished their military service - were allowed to take part to popular assemblies during which they could debate and vote on every single issue affecting the city. Athens’ direct form of democracy was groundbreaking in the sense that it involved ‘normal people’ in the decision-making process of their city. Unfortunately Athens’ democracy was short-lived and the city fell under Macedonian rule less than 200 years later.
Democracy needs education to work
There was however one limitation to Athenian democracy: education, or lack thereof. Many officials in Athens managed to talk their way into positions of power without the proper knowledge to perform their duties. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who experienced Athenian democracy, criticised and exposed some of these demagogues in public. He would be sentenced to death for it.
Democracy without education leads to populism. This is one of the reasons why we are seeing extreme political groups gaining popularity across the world. Education is the cure for society’s ills and it should be the priority of any government that claims to act in the interest of its citizens. One can argue that most governments today are better off with a dumbed down population.
You may disagree with my following statement but to me, voting should be a privilege, not a right. Giving voting rights to uneducated or uninformed people is like playing Russian roulette. Some thinkers have formulated the idea of a voting licence, similar to driving. While I'm not entirely sold on the idea, I do think we need to open the debate on the importance of education for democracy.
The example of workers cooperatives
A workers’ cooperative is a business that is owned and controlled by its employees. No more middlemen, or stakeholders, to pull the workers' strings. Workers cooperatives are true democratic workplaces. Employees decide on their working conditions, what they produce and how they produce it. They decide what to do with profits, they elect their leaders and they have the power to revoke them.
The side effects of having a business owned by its workers is that better working conditions produce happier workers, which in turn drives productivity up. So far, the data available has shown that workers’ cooperatives are beneficial for local economies, have a higher success rate than standard business structures and are less affected by economic downturns.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the origins of democracy, its different forms and why it is worth fighting for. I welcome any comments or ideas and if you made it to this final sentence, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to read my work.