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Currents of thought and instruments of direct democracy

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Philosophers and currents of thought linked to direct democracy

Age of Enlightenment

In the 18th century, Europe rediscovered the democratic ideal with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, theoretician of popular sovereignty, and the encyclopaedists who were the Enlightenment. The author of The Social Contract (1762) advocates a representative system in which the sovereign people themselves exercise the legislative power and delegate to elected magistrates only the judicial power and the executive power. Criticizing a representative system without conditions, he ironically mentions the English believing themselves to be free when they were only on election day, then becoming slaves again. He elaborated a draft constitution for Corsica in 1765 and especially a long text on the possibility of a republican reform of Poland in 1772 (Considerations on the government of Poland).

Some economists or moralists consider it impossible to set up such a system on a national scale. Some seem to think that small organizations such as schools, businesses, free associations, cooperatives, political action groups, micro-societies, can achieve direct democracy more easily than large organizational and institutional groups similar to states. Others argue that with the advent of computer tools and communication networks such as the Internet, direct democracy is now accessible to nations and federations of nations, an approach called Government By Ideas.

Rousseau is aware of these difficulties, as evidenced by numerous passages of The Social Contract (book I, chapter III, book III, chapters XI and XV…). But the meaning of the oft-quoted phrase from The Social Contract should not be misunderstood: “If there were a people of gods, they would govern themselves democratically. Such a perfect regime is not suitable for men.” Indeed, in this passage from chapter book III, chapter IV, Rousseau speaks of democracy in the very specific sense in which he understands it: not the sovereignty of the people, but the government (executive power) exercised by the people (book III, chapter III). For Rousseau, the people can only judge with righteousness on questions of general interest (“It is not good that he who makes the laws executes them, nor that the body of the people diverts its attention from general views, to give it to Particular Objects”, Book III, Chapter IV). But the executive power (like the judicial power) deals with particular questions, in which the people would be judge and party. The texts on Corsica and especially on Poland show that for him, what he calls the “republic” (legislative power exercised directly by the people) is achievable, certainly at the cost of gradual and difficult reforms, even in large States.

Modern regimes, which are gradually being put in place in the wake of the French Revolution and the American Constitution of 1787, are mainly based on representation and election. This is the main criticism that is made of them, put forward by the “people”, but government of a new oligarchy which will be “elected”.

Cornelius Castoriadis is one of the last philosophers to have devoted a large part of his thinking to the idea of ​​direct democracy, which he defended as a central component of the “autonomy project” he developed, which gave itself for ambition to establish an autonomy (freedom) as well collective as individual. He was thus strongly critical of representative systems, which he considered not as democracies but as “liberal oligarchies”, in that, far from allowing all citizens to exercise political power, they imply the constitution of a class of politicians who, once elected, cannot be removed outside of periodic elections.

Anarchists and councilists

The councilists, certain syndicalist-revolutionaries and certain anarchists are in favor of direct democracy for all decisions.

  • For the councilists (also called council communists), direct democracy must take the form of workers’ councils.
  • For the anarcho-syndicalists, the organization of a libertarian communist society is based on a sharing of decisions between two main federated bodies: organization of production via the unions; organization of daily life via communities or municipalities.
  • For most revolutionary syndicalists, it is the unions that should be the structures of direct democracy.
  • Some libertarian communists do not recognize themselves in anarcho-syndicalism and prefer communal-type forms of direct democracy.

The choice of vote (election) and/or consensus is also problematic for decision-making, among all these trends. Conversely, other forms of democracy can be described as partial or incomplete.

Instruments of direct democracy

If we commonly combine all the instruments described here under the label “direct democracy”, we also use the terms participatory democracy or semi-direct democracy which emphasize that these mechanisms are in our time generally combined with elements of representative democracy.

Popular initiative and petition

Very close to the ideal of direct involvement of the people in political decisions, the popular initiative is particularly developed in Switzerland, California and other American states. This mechanism allows citizens to propose laws which are then voted on by all voters. Various mechanisms also make it possible to oppose a law by petition or to propose an amendment to the constitution. In Switzerland, the federal authorities can also propose a counter-project and voters can choose to vote for one or the other of the projects or for or against both projects.

Another mechanism of direct democracy is recall, which is practiced in some American states. This recall allows a sufficient number of citizens to demand a referendum to interrupt the mandate of an elected official or a civil servant. A particularly publicized example is the recall of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003. This practice is close to revocability.

In any case, the political parties, the pressure groups (lobbies) or the groups of citizens play a major role in the formulation of the proposals and the collection of the signatures necessary to trigger the referendum procedure, the social classes which have the means to get organized then use this mechanism more willingly.

Referendum and plebiscite

Generally linked to the idea of ​​direct democracy, the referendum exists in many countries, and allows citizens to vote directly on legislation. However, it is a government or an elected assembly that generally retains the initiative for the referendum and control of the questions asked as well as that of the alternatives proposed to the voters. In some countries, the constitution requires the use of referendums for certain decisions. This type of procedure became widespread in Western Europe during the second half of the 20th century.

Local assemblies and general assemblies

Also linked to direct democracy, assemblies are essential for debate and decision-making, especially at the local level or during social movements.

Many regions of the world have local assemblies where any citizen can take a large part in debates and decisions.

One of the most striking examples is the Landsgemeinde which has existed since the Middle Ages in certain Swiss cantons and survives today in Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden. All the citizens are called upon to meet in the open air once a year to elect the magistrates in charge of administering the canton and passing laws. In Glarus anyone can take the floor, ask a question or propose an amendment. In New England, in the United States, such a system, the New England town meeting, has existed since the 17th century: each year, the inhabitants of each village meet to vote on all the questions of their governments. They make all the laws of the villages and decide the budgets for the following year.

Draw of representatives

When it is necessary to appoint delegates carrying an imperative mandate or to appoint magistrates, drawing lots constitutes the primordial principle which allows the equality of citizens. Montesquieu thus asserted in On the Spirit of the Laws, “Suffrage by lot is of the nature of democracy. Suffrage by choice is that of the aristocracy. The lot is a way of electing which does not afflict anyone; it leaves to each citizen a reasonable expectation of serving his country”.

This system, referred to as stochocracy, has had practical applications which remain limited. Ancient Athens practiced the drawing of lots for magistrates and for legislative representatives, via the council of 500 members of the “Ball“. Only “Strategists” were elected into the “Ecclesia”. The Anglo-Saxon formula of jurors drawn by lot to judge in criminal matters has spread in many countries, including in France at the level of the assize courts.

In Iceland, following the financial crisis of 2008 which indebted several Icelandic banks and led this country to bankruptcy, a unity government of different progressive parties was elected in Iceland in 2009. This government set up the election of a new constituent assembly which took place on November 27, 2010. For this, 1,000 Icelandic citizens between the ages of 18 and 89 and who had never had a national elected mandate were chosen at random from the population . Of those 1,000 people, 522 chose to show up and were given equal television time to present their program. 25 of these citizens were then elected by the entire population to create a new constituent between February 2011 and the summer of the same year. Supported during a constitutional referendum in 2012, the constitutional reform ended up being suspended for an indefinite period following the legislative elections of April 27, 2013.


Durkheimian criticism

Direct democracy was criticized by Émile Durkheim since it essentially negates the distinct role of the state in relation to society. Every society must, according to him, be led by a minority conscious and reflective of the thoughtless thought of the masses. In this sense, democracy is relative to the level of awareness that the State has of society (through the communication it maintains with it) and to the extent of the diffusion of this awareness in the social body (the domains of society unrecognized or ignored by the state being by definition “unconscious”). Thus, governmental thought should not be confused with the will of the governed: the state is not a summary of popular thought, but rather a distinct organ which superimposes on this instinctive thought a more meditated thought. In the same way as the central nervous system for the living organism, it comes under the highest reflective concentration of the social body and has the duty to direct it in the most rational way possible (understand in this sense the most beneficial for the whole ).

If the State is too close to the multitude, it will then be absorbed by it and it will be impossible for it not to make the law. On the contrary, if the state detaches itself too much from the population, communication will be cut off and the government apparatus will essentially act as an oppressor. Durkheim therefore advocates the establishment of “secondary groups” (territorial or corporate) that would act as intermediaries between the population and the state in such a way as to prevent the multitude from imposing its will on the state while protecting it against his oppressive attitude. Ultimately, it would be a question of establishing as much communication as possible between the state and society in order to ensure that each of the groups that make it up are recognized and represented. Democracy could then be exercised directly between the population and these groups, as well as between these groups and the State, but the relationship between the multitude of individuals who make up society and the State would be essentially indirect.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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