Breakout working group from a session at Fearless Cities on 'Building non-state Institutions'. Bertie Russell. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the end of history, remember? The last political product you’d ever need to buy because it’s so convincingly good. But just look at it now. In most countries it works at half cock, being undermined by mass abstention and populism; or else its existence is threatened by oligarchs and autocrats who see it as a useful means to legitimise their regimes. Indifference, apathy, cynicism, disillusion, ignorance and disengagement are rife. Sometimes you have to wonder whether democracy is worth bothering with at all.
Clever political analysts in the universities of the west say we face a stark choice: take action to save democracy or start planning its funeral. They take a practical, managerial approach to the problem. They know what is best for us and they want to direct us along the right course. They can tell us exactly what “liberal democracy” is so that we do not have to think things out for ourselves.
These “Directors of Democracy” work from high vantage points in Yale, Harvard, Oxbridge, London, Paris. They cosy up with politicians and move in the circles of the state and of the national media. Their narrow range of political experience leads them to make two assumptions that they are not challenged on because they mostly debate with others of their own kind
One assumption is that democracy is a set of institutions. Another assumption is that there are those who give the orders and those who take them – although the latter have to be given the impression that they are nominally in control over the former.
Power, in theory, travels upwards in a democracy, from the people but we can all see that is very rarely true. In practice all decisions are made by cabals on high. So naturally the Directors focus their attention on national political structures that matter and the personnel that shuffle into and out of them (as well as having privileged access to jobs in business and the media).
The governed masses are not that interesting to the Directors. They see the people/electorate as the recipients (not the originators) of democracy who should be grateful for what they are given. The only political function of the masses is periodically to legitimise the ruling classes by making crude marks on ballot papers. They are not expected to ask difficult questions of their superiors or demand meaningful choices.
The people are not considered to be plural and heterogeneous but singular: so many cohorts whose views are averaged-out as psephological statistics for bureaucratic purposes. It often sounds as if they want to maintain democratic systems for the sake of the systems themselves and the people that run them.
This approach to democracy may be well intentioned but it is misguided. Democracy cannot be understood from the top as if it were an exercise in management and the people the equivalent of company employees, required to conform to their job descriptions and not expect to have a say in the board room.
The Directors, armed with their standard issue political theory; moving in premiere-class cosmopolitan circles and enjoying an unrestricted overview of the liberal western world, are baffled when the people express irrational choices against their own interests; when they elect populists who believe in breaking things and building walls; when they express a preference for authoritarian leadership – even military rule – as an alternative to democracy with its petty rivalries, deadlocks and record of broken promises.
The only solution the Directors can think of is to treat erring voters who go bad as misinformed consumers. If democracy is to survive and spread, they reason, it needs to be more efficiently marketed; it needs to be more aggressively sold. Which means more of the same, rebranded and treated to packaging that appeals more to the flighty internet generations.
The Directors have got democracy back to front, upside down.
What they do not realise – or do not want to realise – is that if democracy is to succeed in the twenty first century it cannot be something handed down by the wise men and women of Yale and Oxford. It has to be something that individual – dare I say ‘ordinary’? – human beings understand.
To fix democracy, we have to begin by coming up with a modern, living definition of the word to replace the stultifying “collection of institutions whose composition is decided by election etc”.
We have to get down low and look at the political system from the perspective of individual people. That is where the real democracy is or should be.
We have to ask voters what they want and be prepared to hear, not try to educate them into enlightenment. Few political analysts do this any more. Who wants to do field work when you have algorithms to play with? Most politicians strictly avoid listening to anyone who doesn’t accept the message their parties have previously formulated. Everyone is so busy bandying about the word “democracy”(and “sovereignty”, and “legitimacy”) but no one wants to stop and think through what it really entails.
Democracy is not some complicated macro-politico-socio-economic process that needs constitutional specialists to operate it. It is much simpler than that. It is the way in which two or more people discuss a topic they have in common, make a decision about it and ensure that the agreed action is taken to the satisfaction of all involved.
On the foundation of this simple transaction, we build crazy superstructures that become job-creating schemes and play rooms for ego maniacs; that chew up resources and spread disappointment.
That, at least, is what it looks like from down below and outside. If democracy is to be trusted again, we have to change this perception and to change the perception we have to change reality. And they way we need to change reality is to install true democracy at ground level. Those who would dictate to us about democracy should come down here and inhale the real thing.
Get our weekly email