As we all know, even today Greece gave up the direct democracy invented by its ancestors. In fact, the ancient Ecclesia-style democracy of Athens cannot be found anywhere in the world.
This content was published on July 23, 2015 – 2:06 PM
Liu Junning, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University
Switzerland, despite being applauded as a model of direct democracy in a modern society, in fact applies indirect democracy instead. However, its political system leaves room for direct election and referendum.
Why is direct democracy not possible in modern societies? There are several reasons. Direct democracy has high costs and risks, it can lead to conflict and be emotional.
As direct democracy often requires votes and assemblies at the national level, its economic, social and political costs will be considerable. In particular, it can give rise to an overpoliticization of society, leading to the domination of politics over everything else.
Direct democracy is indeed a zero-sum game, an instrument which aggravates social conflicts, it divides a society between majorities and minorities, and minorities will see their positions, their interests and their rights violated.
Therefore, direct democracy tends to cause unrest, intolerance and injustice.
Historically speaking, such a democracy, when put into practice, was either strangled by foreign aggression and civil unrest, crushed under the hands of a tyrant, or collapsed when it became the vassal state of a superpower.
In such an Ecclesia system [the term refers to the political assembly in ancient Greek history], even if every citizen were Socrates, the citizens’ assembly of ancient Athens would be just a clumsy squad.
Direct democracy lacks procedures, promotes rigid uniformity. It restrains society and causes despotism.
Such a democracy requires all citizens to have an unambiguous yes or no opinion, which is quite often extreme, on every issue.
It ignores the complexity and ambiguity of issues, so this decision-making often encourages people to resort to their basic emotions instead of their rational judgment.
This mode of decision-making leads to a strict uniformity well known to the Chinese population, ignoring the fact that citizens often do not have a clear position on many issues.
Frequent elections and votes seek precise answers and a clear definition of the issues. But not all questions have a clear and crystalline answer.
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Direct democracy requires participation, demands absolute dedication of citizens to the state. As a result, it disguises individuals of the right to manage their personal affairs.
Direct democracy does not allow the distinction between public and private; citizens must participate in public affairs as individuals.
Consequently, it challenges the interests of civil society and intermediary institutions, it atomizes society and asks individuals to confront the state upstream.
By virtue of its direct mode of decision-making, it excludes procedures and intermediate layers, results in the absence of a filtering mechanism for messages and opinions, and thus leaves room for manipulation and emotionality.
Due to the lack of a corrective mechanism in the direct democracy process, once the impulsive public dominates the public welfare, it will end up digging the latter’s grave.
Direct democracy contradicts republicanism.
In direct democracy, the “people” is often a concept of exclusivity, there are always some who are left out. In ancient Greece, women and slaves were not included. Direct democracy promises autonomy to all citizens, but it is, in practice, a majority rule.
Because after each vote, there is always a minority whose opinion is rejected.
The will and domination of the people are not equal to the will and domination of everyone: as long as it is the will of a majority, it cannot be that of everyone.
As long as the majority decision dominates, there is a minority whose will is repressed. As long as the majority reigns, there is a minority which loses. Therefore, so-called direct democracy is not a popular rule, but at best a majority rule.
Direct democracy assumes that everything can and must be subject to a decision by the people.
However, the truth is that not everything can or should be decided by the people.
The Ecclesiae in ancient Greece shows that this system does not tolerate singularity, so much so that a philosopher like Socrates was tried and found guilty of corrupting the minds of youth, and then sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, although a large number of citizens participated in legislation and justice, the distribution of official positions was decided by lot rather than votes.
The different capacities and expertise of individuals have been erased. This amounts to political and power egalitarianism. It would not achieve better results than economic egalitarianism.
Direct democracy is not practical, its main obstacle would be the problem of size.
It is also linked to the human biological structure, i.e. man is not able to give full attention to more than one speaker at a time.
Thus, the agenda of any larger-scale assembly depends on its organizer (s) to decide on a timetable, appoint speakers and regulate meetings.
The larger the assembly, the more privileges the organizer (s) have, the weaker the voice of ordinary participants and the more limited their chances of playing an active role in politics.
Effective communication and discussion would be even more difficult.
If one or more powerful organizers could dominate the outcome, direct democracy would be dead.
Although direct democracy requires as many participants as possible, the more people participate, the less effective they are.
In addition, it is easier to manipulate a majority than a minority. As a result, direct democracy would often become a “paradise” for ambitious schemers.
The best way to manipulate a decision-making body would be to increase its size. An assembly of thousands of people might just be a forum for the organizer (s) to report, but not a parliament for everyone to have their say.
Direct democracy in the strict sense only exists in the imagination of a utopian dreamer. That of ancient Athens was not an absolute direct democracy, as these assemblies were not open to all citizens and the administration was carried out by representatives elected by the tribes.
Even if we copy the Athens model, dividing a state into smaller political units of 50,000 people each, and applying direct democracy in those units, the state regime would never be directly democratized.
As long as each unit elected people to form the national parliament, it would be an indirect representative democracy, instead of a direct democracy. Therefore, in modern societies, direct democracy is simply not feasible!
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