Democracy is a word that has come to mean very different things to different people and, surprisingly, many people do not even properly understand what democracy really is!
Some people understand democracy to mean a system that provides freedom of choice. Regarding politics, this would mean having the choice of who gets to govern us. In a wider context, the idea of being democratic would refer to the freedom to decide and to choose across a broad spectrum of affairs, those things that affect our personal lives and the make-up and functioning of our society. But these are not correct definitions of what democracy really is. Commonly, today, many people confuse democracy with liberalism, freedom and prosperity alike.
In the political context, democracy is more properly defined as (a:) “government by the people; especially according to a system whereby the majority gets to decide who rules” and (b:) “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free and fair elections”.
The concept of our modern democracy originates from the Greek (dēmokratía) meaning “rule of the people”, which is derived from dêmos “the people” and krátos “power” or “rule”. As a political system, this originated in 5th century BC in Greek city-states, and most notably Athens, where the Athenian political representitives were chosen and important decisions were decided by majority vote by the citizens.
The definitions that the Greeks gave to political regimes focused, in the first instance, on the empowered or ruling body. Firstly, there was a single person (one), monarchia, and secondly there were a limited number of persons (the few), oligarchia. Lastly, Demokratia (the many), implied that the ruling body was large and inclusive.
In the narrowest sense, democracy refers to a voting system or voting rule that determines the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule.
Of course there is not much point in having a vote about a single choice. A range of choices need to be on offer for the concept to work. So one of the first requirements of a democratic system is that there should be multiple choices on offer. Philosophically speaking, there is a difference between having multiple choices on offer and freedom of choice. In reality, the range of choices from which we can choose from usually turn out to be fairly limited and therefore the concept of complete freedom of choice is an unobtainable ideal. In fact, in a democratic system where our “choice” ends up being in the minority, we are still free to choose but our choice has no or very little effect and therefore changes nothing.
As a voting system, democracy involves arithmetic. But when it comes to choosing a national government, simple arithmetic can cause the basic democratic system to fail in its stated purpose, i.e. fairness. And this is where a large part of the problem lies.
To obtain a true, arithmetical majority, fractions excluded, a 51% vote beats a 49% vote when 100% of the voters participate. This is would be a true “rule by the majority” within the proper definition of democracy. Although, as you will appreciate, the actual outcome of the democratic process is that the wishes of just under half of the voting population will be ignored. This is a glaring short-coming in the simple majority system.
When the percentage poll is 70% (the approximate usual figure in many national elections), a 51% vote is no longer a true, arithmetical majority. Although not accounted for in any democratic system that I know of, the other 30% of the electorate have actually cast their vote – for representation by those not participating in the elections. Now we can debate endlessly what this choice really means and whether any account should be taken of the abstainers, sometimes referred to as the “silent voters” or the “apathetic vote”. However the bare fact remains. In this case, a 51% majority translates arithmetically into about 36% of the total possible vote and that percentage would grant the power to govern (often referred to as the “false majority”).
Democratic – yes. Fair – no.
In reality, of course, voting systems used in democratic elections are not so simple as my previous example. For many and varied reasons many different types of concepts and formulas are used (see here). In virtually every single democratic voting system existing today, indirect representation is the system used and this can be divided into three main categories: plurality, majority and proportional representation.
Two common systems in use are the “highest average method” and the “largest remainder method”. Both of these systems sometimes apply a threshold of anywhere up to 10% and the calculations can become fairly complicated. A threshold means that a party must obtain more than the threshold percentage of total votes before it can be allocated any parliamentary representation. A party whose number of votes fail to exceed the threshold is then excluded from the final count and the total number of votes that are then used to calculate the final percentages are reduced accordingly. Since the total voter percentage in national elections is usually somewhere between 60% to 80%, one advantage of proportional electoral systems is that they produce “better looking” results.
Even a cursory examination of all of these voting systems leads one to conclude that, under many conditions, they still cannot, objectively, pass the true “fairness” test and therefore they serve only to make the voting results appear to be more acceptable by providing numbers that give the illusion that the “majority” winner criterion has been achieved. The only time that a true majority will occur, with the usual size of total percentage vote, is when the voting pattern is skewed heavily in favour of one political party.
These days and in most countries, if voting numbers are any guide to go by, people are voting with their feet and turning their backs on the democratic process. In my opinion, this does not mean that people feel that the concept of democracy is wrong, it just means that a loss of faith has developed in the “one person, one vote” system of choosing our national governments.
Poor turnouts at the polls is not a new phenomenon. This problem has existed for ages. At lower level elections (ie. municipal or in a club, society or association), a low percentage poll is common and is usually accepted to be the norm.
The rights of others not to be excluded from social and economic development, mandates that political arrangements must work for the full realization of the happiness of the least advantaged. But the issue, it can be said, is not really poverty, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite. The cruel truth is that the biggest obstacle in realizing the fruits of a just society is that many of our politicians owe a thing or two to their rich backers. Patronage has become the very instrument to ensure that those who are in power, both in business and in politics, perpetuate themselves.
I am sure that these problems have challenged the minds of political scientists but no solutions seem to be close at hand. Mostly, the citizens have just accepted the inevitable and carry on with their daily lives. This acceptance does not, however, contribute to the smooth functioning of our society or our nations.
Although the Greeks have been acknowledged as being the founders of modern-day democracy, some Greeks were also the first to realise that the system had some serious short-comings.
Plato’s thesis that democracy naturally evolves into tyranny was also adopted by Polybius, who believed in an anakyklosis, a natural circular evolutionary process from monarchy into aristocracy, aristocracy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny. Plato knew from bitter, personal experience the dangers that could develop by the rule of democracy. I refer to the condemnation and execution in 399 B.C. of Plato’s mentor Socrates. Socrates was convicted of “corrupting the youth” and “impiety” by a jury of hundreds of Athenian citizens, under the influence of the democratic party demagogues of the time. Indeed, reading Plato’s book “The Republic”, Books VIII–IX, one gets an exact description of the transition of the Weimar Republic in Germany into Hitler’s National Socialist tyranny and this was done under the banner of democracy.
When asked what democracy was, a wise man once said:
“It is a system in which the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are going to represent and repress them.”
The problems of democracy were not lost on Sir Winston Churchill either, one of the finest and most astute politicians and statesmen of the 20th Century.
So despite the many different variants of democratic systems in use today, it would still appear that they all suffer from the same or similar problems. You don’t have to be an expert to see that modern-day democracy is far from perfect.
Sometime in the 18th century, the word equality gained ground as a political ideal, but the idea was always vague. In his book “Liberty or Equality – The Challenge of Our Time” that was published in 1952, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn argues that a simple and very dangerous concept has emerged: that equality of political power is not always embodied in democracy. He presents a case that democratic equality is the very basis not of liberty, as is commonly believed, but of the total state. He uses national socialism as his prime example. He further argues that the old notion of government by law was better upheld in old monarchies, restrained by a noble elite. Aristocracy and not democracy, he maintains, gave us liberty. On his side in this argument, he includes the whole of the old liberal tradition, and offers overwhelming evidence for his case. In our times, it does appear that war and totalitarianism have sailed happily under the democratic flag.
As dated as the book may be, in the current political climate in the EU, these are warnings that we would be best advised to heed!
Despite what many people think, Europe’s plunge into democracy occurred fairly recently, about in the last 200 years or so and still by 1900, Europe had only two democratic republics (France and Switzerland). So, by no means is there a long and traditional history of democratic principles and ideals here in Europe.
As a solution to re-establishing some democratic principles in the EU institutions, it seems to me that making the electoral cake bigger and bigger, will not make it any easier to cut the cake any fairer. In fact, it will make it more difficult. And this is one of the key factors why a “United States of Europe” is never likely to work any better than the EU systems that are already in place. To be sure, there is wide acknowledgement that the political system currently used to control and manage the EU has many short-comings and does not seem to give the results that most people desire or demand. And I am sure that not many people are fooled by the existence of a European Parliament. However, it may also be likely that the architecture of our “Union” is not suited to democracy, just as it has proven not to be suited to autocracy. Possibly something completely new is going to be required.
Thomas Fazi is a writer, activist and award-winning filmmaker. He has also translated into Italian the works of authors such as Christopher Hitchens, George Soros and Robert Reich. A few years ago he wrote a book, “The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent – and How We Can Take It Back”.
Thomas has been repeatedly questioning the ideas and concepts that the movement, Diem25, is proposing as a solution to our problems in Europe in many of his articles and on his blog. In the following article, he makes important points regarding the EU, nation states, sovereignty and democracy.
by Thomas Fazi (18 April 2016)
Why Varoufakis’ movement could be the last nail in the Left’s coffin.
Regarding Varoufakis’ movement, I don’t deny that totally rewriting the international system in a radical way would be great, and I think that is what we should aim for in the long run. But this idea that some people in the European Left have, that you can somehow skip the nation-state and change things directly at the regional or even global level, without, for example, being bothered with winning elections at home – not only do I think this is wrong, I think it is dangerous. It could be the last nail in the Left’s coffin. We have already lost terrain to the extreme Right all over Europe. The reasons for this are of course various, but it is partly because these movements and parties are the only ones who are willing to use the ‘n-word’: to speak of the ‘nation’. So unless we develop a progressive, well, a progressive nationalism sounds quite bad, so we definitely need to find a better word, but we have to develop a progressive agenda that understands that change – especially in the eurozone – must first happen at the national level. If not, we are doomed.
In what way?
I believe that today we are facing two scenarios. The first one is increased disillusionment, the increased feeling of detachment from politics caused by the technocratisation and centralisation of power at the European level, which will eventually obliterate what is left of even formal democratic processes. In many ways, this is the situation we are already in today. The second scenario is that the system simply breaks up: that the EU collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, inconsistencies and injustices. This collapse can come from outside, through a new financial crisis that the eurozone is unable to handle. Or it can come from below. Imagine that a truly right-wing, nationalistic party took power in one of the bigger European states. France is the most obvious example, with a Le Pen victory and a subsequent exit from the eurozone. If this happens, it could certainly bring the whole system down, and in that scenario the Left would find itself totally unprepared. Therefore I think the following: it is not so much about what we want anymore. About what would be the ideal solution. In many ways I agree with Yanis Varoufakis. What he suggests is the best solution: a federal system with a central fiscal authority that would support productive investment in each country and a policy of full employment while guaranteeing currency stability, and so on. Of course, a progressive, Keynesian eurozone would be fantastic. But we also need to be pragmatic. What are the chances of this happening? Or better, what are the chances of this happening peacefully? If anything, this is something that may come about after a crisis, after the eurozone, as it is constructed today, has collapsed.
In your book, The Battle for Europe, you held a different position. Tell us about that.
Yes, in my book I took what we could call a classic progressive federalist position. I argued that a unilateral exit by any single country would have disastrous consequences, and that this alternative should be avoided almost at all costs – unless the right conditions were first created at the national level. In that book, I said ‘Look, let’s give it a chance, let’s try to change Europe’, and this is still what I hope for in the long term. What has changed, though, is, well – these last two years.
The defeat in Greece, you mean?
The SYRIZA experience was very educational for me. Many on the Left, including me, believed that a SYRIZA government would somehow lead to a continental wave of change. That just the thought of one country leaving the eurozone would be enough to put pressure on the European powers to come to an agreement. Instead we saw the opposite happening. Never before did we see the European leaders reacting in such an aggressive way as they did towards SYRIZA. We saw the European Central Bank (ECB) playing with fire, singlehandedly creating a bank run in Greece – creating conditions that could have easily led to an ‘accidental exit’. Then Germany’s Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble came along and said he was for a Greek exit, and that changed the cards on the table completely. We witnessed how uncompromising the current German political establishment has become. They no longer believe in a ‘European Germany’. Clearly they want a ‘German Europe’, and during the negotiations Schäuble actually gained popularity in Germany for his tough stance towards Greece. With this I am trying to say that, given the current political context, even if we somehow managed to forge some kind of magical alliance between, let’s say, the Mediterranean and periphery countries against austerity, which agrees upon a platform for change, and those countries were to go to Germany and say ‘Listen, you either accept these reforms or the eurozone will collapse’, well… then I think Germany would choose the latter. And this leaves the European Left in a paradoxical situation. Basically it means that even if we obtain the conditions for a reform of the eurozone, it is precisely these conditions that will lead to the union collapsing.
Unless there is a political shift in Germany…
Of course, but no country can tie its destiny to what the voters in another country, in this case Germany, decide. That is unsustainable. Even when I advocated a federalist solution, I meant that what we needed first was to gain power in our own countries, and then create an alliance of states: whether you want to leave the euro or to reform the eurozone, the battleground for me was always primarily the national level. Of course you need transnational alliances between people and movements and workers and so on, but none of these groups can in the end implement any type of change unless it is translated into an alliance between nation-states. I don’t see how else the reforms we want could come about, given that the decisions in Europe are taken at an intergovernmental level. Varoufakis’ stance on this is quite unclear. It is not obvious how he thinks that we can obtain these changes, though he clearly rejects the national level as the place to focus on. But if not there, where? In the European Parliament? Do we seriously think that it is through this institution that we can change Europe? We could have a 100 per cent socialist European parliament, but to be honest I don’t even think that would be enough, given the current institutional arrangements (such as the radical independence of the ECB, etc.).
If I have understood you correctly, you question the DiEM25 strategy on two levels. One is what you have spoken of so far, which is the approach of having a pan-European strategy. But you are also critical towards the goal in itself: that the solution they suggest can lead to a supranational democracy. What do you mean by this?
Many of those who define themselves as progressive federalists, who say they want a ‘United States of Europe’, always have a hard time giving concrete examples of what this would look like. Ideally I share the federalist vision. But would I be comfortable delegating the decision-making process on all big economic, financial and monetary questions to Brussels or Frankfurt? One can to a certain extent argue that it is already like this, but formally countries still have some power. And even if we were able to create something that is more democratic than what we have today… You know, federalists usually argue that the European Parliament should have more power, and that this institution should be the main organ for decision-making in the union, but if we look at today’s composition of the European Parliament – with a conservative majority in some kind of grand coalition with the Social Democrats who largely share much of their ideological convictions, even on issues like austerity – I would ask: do we really believe that this parliament would have given Greece a better treatment? To be honest, no, I don’t think it would have. The first thing that we now need is for European citizens to be put into a position where they can once again imagine a better future. And maybe in the long run be able to imagine a future where decisions are made at the European, and not national, level. But to do this people must first stop having to worry about feeding their family. This requires a radical economic policy, for full employment, for workers, which I think only individual, national governments at this time can implement.
But the precondition for this is to go back to one’s own national currency?
Look, technically speaking it is of course possible to achieve all this at the European level. The ECB could easily finance a coordinated reflation of all member states. It could support a policy for full employment across Europe. Just think if the ECB spent the money that it is currently printing through the quantitative easing program on this instead of channelling it into the financial system. We are talking about an enormous amount of money – 80 billion euros per month – that the ECB is creating out of thin air. This is how central banks operate nowadays. We could juxtapose this amount with media reports on the ‘100 million that the EU has finally agreed to give Greece’ to deal with the refugee crisis… I mean, this idea that we have no other choice than to impose austerity because we are running out of money is the most absurd concept ever. But to get back to your question: technically we could implement a radical economic policy at the European level tomorrow. The question is: is it politically achievable? I am sad to say but I have concluded that it is not. I don’t see Germany supporting a massive fiscal stimulus all over Europe. A third alternative is of course for Germany to leave the Eurozone. This could be interesting. But if we look at the situation in other countries, there is little reason to hope that this would lead to an ideal eurozone. With Germany out of the picture, the leading country in Europe would be France, and the French socialists are perhaps even more neo-liberal than the German Christian Democrats. In other words, we have few reasons to believe that anything progressive could come out of a France-driven eurozone.
Okay. So, to get this clear: technically it would be possible to implement a progressive Keynesian policy at the pan-European level for the entire eurozone, but politically it is not. But would it be possible for any single country within the eurozone to autonomously pursue a progressive strategy?
The question is interesting because it is a gamble. Let us imagine this: Italy could announce that next year it is going to implement a big debt-financed fiscal stimulus. The question is then: how would the ECB react? Italy would need the support of the ECB from here onwards, to avoid paying an excessive interest rate on its newly issued debt. But supporting Italy’s move would mean for the ECB to go against everything that the eurozone represents, such as fiscal responsibility, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, the ECB could easily crush Italy’s plans by bringing its banking system to a halt, just as it did in Greece. But this would mean really risking a potential disaster. A Greek exit might have been possible to handle, but an Italian exit? What are we… the eight biggest economy in the world? It would be a massive global event. And it would be a hard choice to make for Mario Draghi. I would love to see how he would react. But to answer your question: yes, technically a member state of the eurozone could announce a fiscal stimulus – but whether the ECB would support it or not, that remains to be seen. But any government willing to try this must of course be prepared to leave the eurozone. Which the Greek government was not. You don’t need to have exit as your first choice, but anyone reaching this point must be prepared to make that choice, psychologically and technically. And potentially it could be catastrophic; there is no reason to deny this. It is all a matter of how it is handled. So when Varoufakis claims that a collapse of the EU will inevitably lead to a new crisis like in the 1930s, I think he is playing dirty. He simplifies the arguments and uses the same scaremongering tactics that the eurocrats use every time someone tries to suggest an alternative way of doing things.
But as you said: all this requires that the right national conditions are present first. Are they now? Or do we risk playing the ball into the court of the extreme Right?
For most countries I would say: no, the conditions are not there. I wouldn’t advocate for any country to leave tomorrow. I believe that a neo-liberal or a neo-fascist exit would be just as, if not more, disastrous than what the peripheral countries are experiencing in the eurozone today. Not even in the countries with strong Left movements, like Spain or Portugal, do we see the necessary conditions. Here there is a political obstacle: the progressive parties are biased against an exit from the eurozone. But it is not only an institutional question. To break with the eurozone – if the idea is for this to be the first step towards implementing some kind of socialist program – it will demand a lot more then just having a left-wing government in power. It would require well-organised grassroots movements, powerful unions, a high level of consciousness in the masses, and a serious political education, for example on the short-term problems that probably would emerge. If all you care about is buying the latest iPhone as cheaply as possible, then you would immediately start protesting against a government that took you out of the eurozone, since import prices will likely rise quite considerably at first. Neither are the cultural conditions there. We would, for example, have to deal with the xenophobic backlash that could arise in the wake of a generalised sense of insecurity about the future. So this is not only about technicalities, like the exchange rate or the inflation level. It is easy to be swept away by the idea that all that is needed is to leave the euro and then everything will be fine. In the current context, this is just a new utopia. But having said that: the situation now is so serious that I think we should consider this possibility, however dangerous it might be. This is the conclusion I have come to.”
[This is the English version of an interview with Thomas Fazi by Lotta Elstad originally published in the Norwegian political magazine Manifest Tidsskrift]