Direct democracy: socialism’s neglected ultimate weapon


What if you could vote with your phone?

If the American majority was currently allowed to determine national policy through direct voting, we would be pursuing some policies completely opposite to what Congress is doing.  We would legalize marijuana, withdraw from Afghanistan, pass single-payer healthcare, tax the rich more, and legalize same-sex marriage.  This is probably the tip of the iceberg; there is probably a whole host of issues on which the people would differ from Congress if we really had our hands on the levers and built up some momentum.

Switzerland recently faces two Left-economic ballot measures: a cap on executive salaries, and a guaranteed minimum income equivalent to roughly $30,000 a year in US dollars.  They unfortunately rejected an executive salary cap, which is perhaps not a surprise in one of the financial havens of the globe, but the fact that it could even get on the ballot means that society was forced to discuss the measure as something being considered seriously.


Existing and Future Direct Democracy

In Steven Piott’s book on the history of direct democracy in the USA, Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America, he recounts how I&R was established in large part during the economic unrest of the 1880s, as farmers and workers sought to achieve pro-labor legislation, break strike injunctions, establish public utilities, and build the Populist Party.  It’s no coincidence to me that what small measures of direct democracy do exist in the USA were established during a time of labor battles, when people were entertaining the idea of socialism and experimenting with third parties.

Some measures of direct democracy already exist in the USA, in certain places: state and local initiative, referendum, and constitutional amendment.  New Jersey just experienced the oddity of adding a minimum wage increase to its state constitution, because it’s the only way we Jerseyans have to bypass Congress and the Governor, or as a participant in the I&R era wrote, “Some recent state constitutions have come almost to resemble bodies of statutes.”

However it’s very rare that the Left pays much attention to any of these.  In some cases this is our own fault, but it’s also often because the obstacles to actually utilizing the existing measures are so difficult that ordinary citizens could not do it without having funding from a giant foundation and such.  In order for direct democracy to transform from a bizarre legislative relic to a vibrant institution of mass empowerment, it will have to live up to certain standards:

  • Easy to Propose Legislation: It doesn’t count as democracy if so many signatures are required to get a bill up for vote that you have to give up your job in order to go around getting enough.  In general this means that we should support a relatively low signature requirement for laws to make it to the voting booth.  That being said, sometimes having paid petitioners can help, so we need to support laws which let campaign workers do their job seeking signatures, unobstructed.  We must also pressure the government to create a clear way to get signatures counted, instead of pulling a cheap trick and trying to get signatures disqualified.  Or we could skip this problem entirely by using the method, where Obama agrees to address any proposal which gets a certain amount of signatures, except in this case, it would mean the measure is up for popular vote.
  • More Voting, More Often: If direct democracy lived up to my insane fantasies, it would happen every month.  In fact, it’s even imaginable that we could create a system where legislation was counted as valid if it had a national majority, with people having “static votes” for or against, and they could change their votes.  (Damn it, the 159,999,999th person changed their vote in the middle of the night!  There goes the healthcare law!)  But seriously, the pace of change in the USA is slow precisely because of Congress’ bizarre scheduling system and because direct democracy only happens during elections, with public questions slapped onto electoral ballots as an afterthought.  Direct democracy should occur more frequently than elections by far.  Our democracy should attempt to be a real-time reflection of what the people actually want.  This means that even an annual vote would be much too slow.  The Swiss currently vote about four times a year.
  • Easy to Vote: Polling stations need to be opened, and not use annoying procedures which discourage people from showing up.  We may need to open more polling stations to make them convenient.  We must oppose the Voter ID laws which are entirely engineered to reduce the Black vote and not to improve security.  Finally, we could do away with polling stations entirely by turning the ballot system into a digital affair based on phones and computers.
  • Fully Funded: If we aren’t going digital, we need to pay for the polling stations – and in Black and Latino neighborhoods, we need to make sure that people of color aren’t cheated of their votes by ensuring that polling stations are even opened!  If we are going digital, which would be awesome, someone has to pay for it.  Frankly it would be no great expense to provide America’s voters with cheap phones capable of voting, other devices created specifically for voting alone, or hell, since we’re commies, let’s just get everyone a smartphone and make the rich pay for it.
  • Fraud-proof: If we are going digital, cyber-security will be a huge concern.  Direct democracy doesn’t need to be born with a black eye after it turns out the entire vote was hacked.  This would be the only real justification for going paper.  Either way, opponents of direct democracy will place under brutal scrutiny.  For the purpose of ensuring everyone’s vote counts the way they wanted it to count, we should live up to that scrutiny.  This is something that the state and its full resources could certainly manage – but will they want to?
  • Possibly optional: Some German researchers have been toying with an idea called “liquid democracy,” which allows direct democracy, but also the option that a voter may refer their vote to someone that they trust, whether that person be an elected official, or actually any individual that they choose.


Expose America’s False Democracy by Attempting to Practice It

Instead of scoffing at democracy, socialists should be its greatest champions, and the first thing to establish on that count is that we stand for democracy in societies which do not have it – and this includes the “democratic” West!  We must argue everywhere that we literally do not live in a democracy, that just because we have free speech does not mean we control our government, that the government is tightly controlled by the wealthy through a combination of campaign contributions, bribes, connections, and a bureaucratic separation between the state and the people in the form of “representatives.”

Many socialists argue that because we do not live in a democracy, it’s not worth trying to enact changes through the system.  The opposite is true.  It is precisely because the system is rigged that we must attempt to utilize it, thereby exposing it.  In order to achieve a revolution, we will need to create a “trigger scenario.”  People don’t flood the streets for just anything.  Americans already have a vague consciousness that our government serves the wealthy instead of us.  But we need a sharp, illustrated, concrete scenario of ordinary citizens attempting to exercise democratic sovereignty, and seeing it obstructed in practice.  This is the ultimate trigger scenario, and direct democracy makes it much more sharp and concrete than practically anything else.  (Another possibility would be through the use of a third party.)

We do not know what goes on behind the scenes of our government.  It is entirely possible that there is a shadow government of corporate handlers who act as the true “party whips” of the ruling class and ensure that, at least on the critical issues, Congress votes to continue empowering and enriching the wealthy and the corporations.  This is not really far-fetched.  With so many lobbyists, so much corporate money in politics, and so little transparency, really anything could be going on.

What if there is such a force lurking within the ruling class, and we achieved direct democracy?  What if we started enacting legislation which badly damaged the position of many industries?  We could wipe out the healthcare capitalists by nationalizing healthcare.  We could wipe out the petro-capitalists by subsidizing green energy, or withdrawing the US military from various regions.  We could dismantle the narco-capitalists by legalizing drugs.  We are talking about billions, possibly trillions of dollars of the wealthy liquidated overnight.

If we did these things, the hypothetical corporate shadow government would never allow it.  They would be forced to either (1) surrender, (2) tell the governing politicians to try illegally vetoing us, destroying their last shred of credibility, or (3) initiate a civil war for open corporate rule, or at least the overturn of direct democracy.  Again, this is the “trigger scenario.”

It is precisely because the system knows that billions of dollars hang on the line with their every vote that they do not want to let us anywhere near the levers.  Even if Americans did not pursue Left legislation at first, there is always the threat that a new mood would sweep the people, and the masses would go Bolshevik in a way that corporate-sponsored politicians would never dare, nationalizing industries, punishing the true criminals, funding social programs, and enacting laws that actually make sense.

This is why, even if we never achieve direct democracy before a hypothetical revolution, we ought to raise our voices for it loudly.  Either the system will dramatically weaken itself by caving and letting us have it, or they will discredit themselves by stonewalling on it, thereby turning direct democracy into the promise of the socialist future.


Socialism’s Troubled History with Democracy

Standing up for direct democracy, as the next expansion of democracy above and beyond representative democracy, is the best way to clear socialism’s name for its horrible record with democracy in the past.

Many socialists profess to advocate a radically democratic system, where workers directly manage themselves, and government is run by immediately-recalleable delegates from these workplaces or other community councils, which also practice direct democracy.  That is wonderful, but tragically the reality of “socialist” practice has often been to either abandon these institutions, or to restrict them so brutally that they are emptied of content or power.  Ironically, many socialists do not even run their own organizations anywhere near as democratically as the admirable systems they claim to fight for.

First there is the problem of countries where socialists have actually taken power.  By and large almost every example of “socialism” in the world has relied on secret police to repress political dissidents.  The usual pretext for this is to stop the re-establishment of capitalism, but this is a weak argument because socialism should be able to sustain itself even if it has to allow free speech to market advocates.  If we are correct, then socialism should prove itself to be superior to capitalism in practice.  And then in some cases it is not even really political dissidents who are repressed!  Socialists need to step back and realize that, while socialist unity is a necessary goal and I will work with anyone who disagrees with me on this, the lack of democracy in socialist history is a deep crisis that will continue to hold the socialist movement back, and hold the world revolution back, until we correct our course.

Some defenders of bureaucratic regimes counter that they were trying their best to be socialist in difficult conditions, but weren’t perfect.  However, this is not merely a problem of “imperfection”: there is a disturbing, consistent pattern of non-democracy across nearly all of world history’s regimes which have called themselves socialist, and if someone does not find this disturbing, we should find that disturbing.  This is where anarchists break off and conclude that all endeavors involving the state must necessarily end up as some kind of tyranny.  Socialists who value democracy offer a different take: we endure the misfortune of this era’s main bastions of “socialism” being undemocratic, with the main bastions influencing all their smaller allies to imitate their model.  We can acknowledge this, and lament this, while still insisting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Left organizations themselves are often still based on a representative voting system.  This may have been necessary in times past where direct voting was not technologically feasible, but that is no longer the case.  Some groups insist that democracy happens through a collective conversation, in which only the people in physical attendance truly participate.  However, again, the world has evolved: there is no reason that the proceedings could not be broadcast in a livestream to the group’s members, so that each member’s vote could be informed, but still truly counted.  (This would require groups to have a clear and objective, not vague and subjective, definition of what it means to be a member and get a vote — this itself is an improvement many groups could use.)

Of course some Left groups don’t practice democracy because they place a very low value on it.  Inheriting the idiocy of the Cold War binary, they associate democracy with the capitalist enemy!  They value a “monolithic party” which is completely contrary to democracy.  While a monolithic party could be democratic theoretically, open advocates of the monolithic party tend to practice top-down forms of organization where not only are the group’s actions monolithic, but even speech within the organization is expected to be monolithic, and thought as well.

Critics of the monolithic party model often end up practicing it unintentionally.  It is easy to let democratic centralism, with free competition of ideas but unity in action, devolve into simply a cultish obligation for everyone in the group to have the same ideas.  Striking the balance might be possible, but has historically proven difficult.


So what do we do?

At this stage the organizing will be primitive.  There is already a grass-tops organization, Citizens in Charge, which fights to protect initiative and referendum laws through court battles, and which does legal research to keep track of the status of these types of things.  In the past they supported one or two state-level campaigns to achieve initiative and referendum, but most of the time it’s the typical non-profit stuff.  Their work can be useful to us, but if that method was going to turn direct democracy into the kind of mass insurgency that I am imagining, it probably would have already.

Things we can do:

  • Educate ourselves: There is a lot to learn on this topic, and most of the Left has not taken any time to research it whatsoever.
  • Make people aware of it: We need to make this a “cool” issue, but it won’t be hard, it practically sells itself.  While it may be a long time before any institutions change their internal practices, it’s definitely worth bringing up in activist groups and political groups.  Even bring it up to your roommates or family or whoever, you’d be surprised how many ordinary people are supportive of the idea.  But this can also be achieved with any of the following…
  • Create a national hub: It’s easier to raise awareness, or do anything at all, if the dispersed people from across the country are in touch with each other through web sites, social media, and conference calls.  This also helps with education, since whatever people learn then trickles through the network.
  • Be direct democracy’s “boots on the ground”: While direct democracy may seem like a “systemic” issue, there is no reason not to treat it like any other issue.  We can and should demonstrate for it.  We need to build local clubs that socialize, have fun, educate themselves, and make the issue visible to the public in their locality.  It’s the classic method of “base-building,” in contrast to the non-profit legal battles.  The environmental movement just put themselves on the map by tying themselves to the White House fence; it may seem silly, but if it works to take us from non-existent to known, maybe it’s worth considering.
  • Consider supplementing our movement approach with a lobbying approach: Fact is, some Congresspeople may already support direct democracy, or be of the temperament that they would support it once they hear of it.  This is not so much about getting it passed immediately (though that is great insofar as it is possible).  It is more that if we can get one prominent Congressperson discussing direct democracy and taking it up as a cause of their own, it dramatically raises people’s awareness of the concept.
  • Openly advocate a fairly radical, national bill as a long-term goal: Local-level fights are winnable, state-level fights are harder, and the national fight is not winnable at this time.  However, the states and municipalities are not where the USA’s truly decisive legislation is formed.  In order to promote direct democracy as a real transition of power, we will have to propose it as a national issue, and advocate a strong, accessible, frequent form of it.  (Side note: to comply with the US Constitution, this bill wouldn’t so much abolish Congress, but would be a Congressional authorization of citizens to make legislation — similar to a Congressional authorization of the President to take military action.)
  • Find winnable battles too: We may have to start small, but this is all part of making people aware of the concept and building local bases.

We have an opportunity to turn around a century of dragging socialism’s name through the mud.  As tribunes of the people, we must not be democracy’s laggards, but its spearhead.  The technology is available.  All that is required is the political will.  It is the wave of the future, and as with all waves of the future, we either ride them or end up crushed beneath – we either establish ourselves as social leaders, or get left behind as irrelevant and behind the times.

And remember, when we finally do achieve this system, try your best not to mis-click, because policy will someday be determined by your very own fingertips.

One thought on “Direct democracy: socialism’s neglected ultimate weapon

  1. Pingback: Midterm Elections, Direct Democracy and Legitimacy |

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