Only about one in four people bothered to vote in last month’s election to the European Parliament, the lowest ever in a national election in Britain. Some are saying that this is a threat to democracy and an insult to our forefathers who struggled for the right to vote. Maybe, but only if you define “democracy” as the kind of representative system we have today where, every once in a while, we give the politicians a blank cheque to do what they want, or can get away with, in the meantime. Whether we can call this charade, in which rival leaders parade before us asking for our votes, a real democracy is another matter.
A real democracy is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of leadership. It is about all of us having a direct say in the decisions that affect us. Leadership means handing over the right to make those decisions to someone else. We don’t vote for leaders to implement this or that decision; we vote according to our ideological inclinations to give them a “free hand” to make decisions.
Does that mean that in a real democracy all our time will be taken up with making decisions leaving no time to do anything else? Not at all. A person may not be particularly interested in, or significantly affected by, what happens in a neighbouring community, judging that this is something better left for them to decide. On the other hand they may well feel concerned by the problem of global warming but, within the framework of a “representative democracy”, the only recourse available to them is to join some environmental lobby group to petition governments who are under no obligation to comply with their wishes but who will in fact be more obliged to attend to the needs of Big Business whose very activities have directly contributed to this problem.
The point is that the very mechanism of decision-making we have today is a product of the social system we live under. The market economy, with its built-in contradictions and conflicting interests, has massively complicated the process of decision-making itself. It has moved it further and further from the ambit of “ordinary people” as the system itself has become more and more globalised. It is this that has made the paper pledges of our elected leaders seem increasingly irrelevant and ineffectual as they attempt to grapple with the monster that holds them in its tightening thrall.
We have at our disposal today the very means, in the form of modern telecommunications, that could enable us to resuscitate the ancient model of Athenian democracy on a truly global level. What we conspicuously lack is the will and the imagination to look beyond the crippling assumption that capitalism is here to stay. In the meanwhile we delude ourselves into thinking that the economic dictatorship imposed by this class ownership of the means of living can somehow be made compatible with democratic control within a system of political “representation” which is essentially adapted to that end. But we can have a real democracy—as soon as a majority of us are prepared to replace minority class ownership by common ownership.