In the last few years a host of organisations such as 38 degrees, change.org and Aavaz have sprung up with the intention of stimulating grass roots activism. The principal tool these organisations employ to redress the balance between the people and our elites is the petition. The petition is viewed as a mechanism to both challenge and influence a myriad of political policies that have been traditionally forced upon the people by those who govern us. The petition represents an alternative to the street protests that hitherto seemed the only viable means of persuading our policy makers to change their minds on a given issue.
The above organisations, along with a host of other NGO’s are deemed to constitute a fifth pillar of our postmodern Western democratic societies, and one that gives the common man a vehicle by which to voice his opinions in a collective and coordinated manner. Thus on the surface these organisations would appear to offer the people a stake in the checks and balances of the political process, a facet traditionally lacking in Montesquieu’s separation of powers, that is in the trias politica model in which a legislature, an executive and a judiciary are decisively independent from one another in order to prevent a concentration of power in any one branch. These three telamons of liberal democracy are further supplemented by a media that at least in domestic affairs should be able to operate entirely free from any interference on the part of the state and while Montesquieu’s thesis seems credible in theory, the practicalities of governance seem to infer that his ideas are to a degree fallible after all, since street protests and a need to gather signatures to overturn government legislature are in themselves evidence thereof.
A stark reality that remains irrespective of the apparent “separation of powers” is that power is nonetheless distributed unevenly, that is to say that the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, not to mention the media, are all institutions that represent an elite which has divulging interests from those they collectively govern. So even if we are to presume that all branches of the trias politica are endowed with symmetrical influence upon one another and that they are able to act devoid of corruption or without any flux in power, the fact that power is polarized from the largest sections of society and concentrated in an elite undermines the stasis on the grounds of a “conflict of interest” vis a vie the demos. Marxists view this in terms of both intellectual hegemony of the elite over its citizenry and a continuation of general economic class domination. It is precisely these imbalance that social movements including the petitioners are seeking to redress.
At face value both the petition and parliament who have created a special committee to discuss petitions which collect over 100,000 signatures appear to enrich our democracy, but as is the efficacy of Montesquieu’s balance of powers irresolute, so too is the petition as a democratic institution not beyond reproach. After all exactly how democratic can a petition be? It is their nature after all that only those who agree with a petition actually sign it and hence the topic is deprived of any notion of political plurality. While parliament may adhere to discussing an action that obtains 100,000 signatures, government is far from obliged in acting upon one, they are after all non-legally binding. This latter reality underpins once more the unequal distribution of power in society. Key therefore is how effective have petitions actually been?
In November 2015 38 Degrees triumphantly announced that they had succeeded in defeating George Osbourne’s proposed cuts to tax credits, but the significance of such a victory is brought into question when we analyse further data, since in fact no other petition that year had achieved its objective. While in 2016 according to Amelia Tait of the NewStatesman none of the top ten most popular petitions managed to achieve its stated aim, equally disappointing was the realisation that four of the ten petitions were even denied the stipulated debate by the committee. The imputed success of 38 degrees in the face of such statistical evidence leads one to surmise that their one off claim to victory has deeper associations in coincidence then the organisation truly being able to influence political policy.
This ineffectualness even serves as a caveat for the democratic health of the nation, as it adds to a sense of disenfranchisement and disengagement with the political process. When people cannot effect change, social pathologies such as anomie have the potential to sow the seeds of radicalism in those who feel politically ostracised. Giving citizens’s initiatives genuine teeth as a way of staving off political apathy and its inherent dangers should therefore become a priority. A tool is hence needed to give the petition democratic legitimacy while simultaneously enabling people access to governance. Certainly normative issues at the very least should not be out of bounds for the general public.
One petition by a small English political party, which failed to capture public attention, sought to challenge the current political distribution of power while simultaneously seeking to challenge the unipolarity of the petition. It was headed “Petitions that obtain 500,000 signatures should automatically force a referendum.” It was an attempt not only to bring attention to the idea of direct democracy, but also to radically change the nature of power distribution within the UK. Naturally the petition as all others depended not only on wide public support, but also on parliament and the house of lords actually agreeing to change the dominance of the trias politica. The authors of the initiative were in no doubt of the futility of such an exercise, but should this detract from the merits of direct democracy (Also known as pure democracy) as a viable tool to be employed in the political process? Naturally there are counter arguments to such ideas: for example in Plato’s republic Socrates argues that it should be the experts or “philosophy kings” who direct a nations course, after all when we are ill we seek out a qualified doctor and not one whose education entails him to work as a butcher or a carpenter. Correspondingly it is our politicians given their proficiency who should rule over us, but while this may ring true for professions such as dentistry or plumbing, such a reductionist application is barely relevant with regards to governance, a field where our experts seldom tend to agree on anything, furthermore politics as is economics or sociology are not sciences that conform to some gold standard by which their theories may be corroborated. Indeed modernity has continually exposed the inability of our elites to manage crisis successfully, whether this be economic, environmental or ultimately those of a violent nature.
Reducing Political violence
Undeniably it is the coercive nature of politics that has been humanity’s persistent abomination. The late RJ Rummel calculated that in the past century alone 262 million people were killed due to government. He coined the term “democide” to refer to such politically induced murder, be this through acts of deliberate starvation, genocide, state sponsored assassination of political opponents, through neglect or of course through acts of war. History has shown time and again that humanity is not safe in the hands of politicians, that politicians are fallible and that the concentration of power within the hands of an establishment, structured in a hierarchical pyramid is conducive to war, not to mention acts of genocide and other barbaric forms of state crime. The processes of dehumanization and deindividualization, both of which are highly implicit in crimes such as genocide or war, are present even within our modern forms of governance and have their source in those who rule over us. The dissemination of such ideas primes societies for war by creating nonchalance in regard to horrific acts committed against outer groups. Social psychologists from Philip Zimbardo to Stanley Milgram have shown the dangers of authority in interpersonal dynamics associated with hierarchy, the vertical flow of power downwards, the kinetics of groupthink inherent in traditional forms of government, be they current forms of democracy, autocracies or dictatorships, present real dangers from which democide stems. It is therefore of the greatest importance that such structures of power are removed. As Janis noted in her research into the socio-psychological dynamics of inner groups “Members of the group become excessively protective of the group as an entity, restricting membership to those also loyal to the group, isolating themselves from any information counter to their own image of the group, and viewing threats to their policies as threats to the group. Because of the insular quality of such groups, they can take extreme actions without realising the impact. Such issues pertaining to the dynamics of group think are especially apparent within powerful institutions that supplement and guide our politicians. These institutions are defined by Glennon as the deep state and they comprise organisations such as GCHQ, M16, M15, the top military brass and the bank of England among a whole host of other organisations. They represent a form of bureaucratic governance in which unelected individuals are granted immense power to set the agenda.
Indeed, such organisations may be found not only within the confines of the nation state but may also take supranational connotations. Examples thereof are NATO, the IMF, Europol, INTERPOL and the European Union itself. These institutions are marked not only by a lack of democratic accountability, but more often than not are institutions defined by internal cultures that in some sense are associated and nurtured in the context of their constitutions and by the theories beholden to their relative field not to mention the agency indicative of their employees. Naturally the kinetics of group think therein are also not to be discounted in the way these organisations form their policies nor is their influence on the political process. This means that states can become beholden to specific doctrines or ideologies. An example thereof are the neoliberal economic policies of the EU, IMF and World Bank or the clearly discernible US foreign policy direction, that irrespective of the president seems to be dominated by major realist players such as Brzezinski, Friedman, Mearsheimer not to mention the likes of Kissinger. When such powerful bodies are able to set the long-term agenda for a nation, the politics of representive democracy become irrelevant just like the separation of powers. Between nation states this can lead to perpetual war as a lack of transparency in the decision making process only reinforces traditional suspicions on the interstate level.
Only direct democracy, by decentralising the power of both key institutions and of key individuals, can lead to a genuine change in direction in which both the citizenry and the nation-state itself be freed from surreptitious dogma. It is a given that the current neoliberal world with its emphasis on individuality and competition presents a genuine challenge to peace as well as the environment, and without direct democracy these issues will only persist.
Direct democracy: a tool for peace?
For years the West has promoted its brand of democracy across the world. In Iraq, when the US failed to produce evidence of the weapons of mass destruction by which the war was legitimised, in the Western hemisphere an effort was then placed on the virtues of democratisation once the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was complete: similar actions have taken place in Libya and Afghanistan while movements have been supported in Syria to the same end. In each of these cases the removal of the relevant regime has been met with civil war. As explored above these wars were generally driven by the elites and foreign policy agendas of the countries involved and contrary to the wishes of the people, thus underscoring the limitations of representative democracy. This limitation is further highlighted by the subsequent civil conflicts it has only served to inflame in each of the nations where the Western alliance has sought to implement their brand of democracy.
That you can simply apply a transatlantic notion of democracy to nations that are deeply heterogenous by their nature has, if anything, only fuelled the civil wars, as various ethnic groups and movements seek to fill the power void left by the removal of a dictator. Representative democracy in its essence cannot address such ethnic tensions and invariably leads to the largest ethnic group dominating the country. Given the social tensions left behind by war, the dominant group will invariably be seen by the minority groups as an oppressor, whether this manifests itself in real terms or simply appears that way by those struggling to lead a decent life among the ruins of war is irrelevant: of importance is only how each group perceives the other and if it leads to greater conflict. Essential therefore to a more peaceful transition is the adaptation of a system that goes beyond the ethnic groups, i.e. a system in which one cannot dominate the other. Direct democracy by encouraging referendums on policy rather than voting for a particular party or persona removes the interethnic element that is a highly contributive factor to the ongoing civil wars. What’s more, bringing people into the political process would appear to reduce anomie and associated social pathologies and can unite people towards a pulpable brighter future, one in which the citizens believe they can define their lives. Pure democracy in a world where principals such as independence, choice and freedom are celebrated, must be viewed as imperative. It is essential that the political arena keeps up with the other sectors of society anything else is destined to maintain a bloody and unjust status quo. It is time we look at the systems that govern us, systems that have wrecked untold damage to human kind throughout history: only by decentralising power we can achieve Eudaimonia.