The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy, Takis Fotopoulos (2005)

Chapter 13:

Direct Political Democracy


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Public and private realms


It is clear that all the dimensions of the multidimensional crisis we considered in the first part of the book bring us back to the issue of democracy. This demands not just to revive the tradition of the Greek polis but to transcend it as well, so that the reintegration of society with polity, but also with the economy and Nature can be achieved. In this sense, democracy should be seen as irreconcilable with any form of inequity in the distribution of power, that is, with any concentration of power, political, social or economic. Consequently, democracy is incompatible with commodity and property relations, which inevitably lead to concentration of power. Similarly, it is incompatible with hierarchical structures implying domination, either institutionalised (e.g., domination of women by men), or objective” (e.g., domination of the South by the North in the framework of the market division of labour), and the implied notion of dominating the natural world. Finally, democracy is fundamentally incompatible with any closed system of beliefs, dogmas, or ideas. So, democracy has nothing to do with the present dominant liberal conception of it, nor with the various conceptions of the ideal society which are grounded on religion, spiritualism, or irrational beliefs and dogmas.


The conception of inclusive democracy that forms the core of the proposed new liberatory project, is a new conception, which, using as a starting point the classical definition of it, expands its scope to other areas where collective decision-taking is possible. It is derived from a synthesis of two major historical traditions, the classical democratic and the socialist, although it also encompasses radical green, feminist, and liberation movements in the South. Within the problematique of the inclusive democracy project, it is assumed that the world, at the beginning of the new millennium, faces a multi-dimensional crisis (economic, ecological, social, cultural and political) which is caused by the concentration of power in the hands of various elites, as a result of the establishment, in the last few centuries, of the system of market economy, representative democracy and the related forms of hierarchical structure. In this sense, an inclusive democracy, which involves the equal distribution of power at all levels, is seen not as a utopia (in the negative sense of the word) but as perhaps the only way out of the present crisis.


A fruitful, perhaps, way to begin the discussion on this new conception of democracy may be to distinguish between the two main societal realms, the public and the private, to which we may add an “ecological realm”.


The public realm in this book, contrary to the practice of many supporters of the republican or democratic project (Arendt, Castoriadis, Bookchin et al) includes not just the political realm, but any area of human activity where decisions can be taken collectively and democratically. So, the public realm includes:

  • The political realm which is defined as the sphere of political decision-taking, the area where political power is exercised.

  • The economic realm which is defined as the sphere of economic decision-taking, the area where economic power is exercised with respect to the broad economic choices that any scarcity society has to make.

  • The social realm which is defined as the sphere of decision-taking in the workplace, the education place and any other economic or cultural institution that is a constituent element of a democratic society. Finally,

  • The ecological realm which is defined as the sphere of the relations between the natural and the social worlds.

To my mind, the extension of the traditional public realm to include, apart from the political realm, the economic, ecological and “social” realms is an indispensable element of an inclusive democracy. We may therefore distinguish between four main types of democracy that constitute the fundamental elements of an inclusive democracy: political, economic, ecological and “democracy in the social realm”. Political, economic and democracy in the social realm may be defined, briefly, as the institutional framework that aims at the equal distribution of political, economic and social power respectively, in other words, as the  system which aims at  the effective elimination of the domination of human being over human being. Correspondingly, we may define ecological democracy as the institutional framework that aims at the elimination of any human attempt to dominate the natural world, in other words, as the system which aims to reintegrate society and nature.


The meaning of political democracy


We may distinguish various forms of political power-sharing in History, which, schematically, may be classified as either democratic or oligarchic. In the former, political power is shared equally among all those with full citizen rights (typical example the Athenian ecclesia), whereas in the latter political power is concentrated, in various degrees, at the hands of miscellaneous elites.


In the political realm there can only be one form of democracy, what we may call political or direct democracy, where political power is shared equally among all citizens. So, political democracy is founded on the equal sharing of political power among all citizens, the self-instituting of society. This means that the following conditions have to be satisfied for a society to be characterised as a political democracy:

  • Democracy is grounded on the conscious choice of its citizens for individual and collective autonomy and not on any divine or mystical dogmas and preconceptions, or any closed theoretical systems involving social/natural “laws”, or tendencies determining social change.

  • No institutionalised political processes of an oligarchic nature. This implies that all political decisions (including those relating to the formation and execution of laws) are taken by the citizen body collectively and without representation;

  • No institutionalised political structures embodying unequal power relations. This means, for instance, that where delegation of authority takes place to segments of the citizen body, in order to carry out specific duties (e.g., to serve as members of popular courts, or of regional and confederal councils, etc.), the delegation is assigned, on principle, by lot, on a rotation basis, and it is always recallable by the citizen body. Furthermore, as regards delegates to regional and confederal bodies, the mandates should be specific. This is an effective step towards the abolition of hierarchical relations since such relations today are based, to a significant extent, on the myth of the “experts” who are supposed to be able to control everything, from nature to society. However, apart from the fact that the knowledge of the so-called experts is doubtful (at least as far as social, economic and political phenomena is concerned), still, in a democratic society, political decisions are not left to the experts but to the users, the citizen body. This principle was consistently applied by the Athenians for whom “all citizens were to take part, if they wished, in running the state, but all were to be amateurs ... professionalism and democracy were regarded as, at bottom, contradictory”[1];

  • All residents of a particular geographical area and of a viable population size beyond a certain age of maturity (to be defined by the citizen body itself) and irrespective of gender, race, ethnic or cultural identity, are members of the citizen body and are directly involved in the decision-taking process.

The above conditions are obviously not met by representative “democracy” (as it functions in the West), soviet “democracy” (as it functioned in the East) and the various fundamentalist or semi-military regimes in the South. All these regimes are therefore forms of political oligarchy, where political power is concentrated in the hands of various elites (professional politicians, party bureaucrats, priests, military and so on). Similarly, in the past, various forms of oligarchies dominated the political domain, when emperors, kings and their courts, with or without the co-operation of knights, priests and others, concentrated political power in their hands.


On the other hand, several attempts were made in the past to institutionalise various forms of direct democracy, especially during revolutionary periods (for example, the Parisian sections of the early 1790s, the Spanish collectives in the civil war etc.). However, most of these attempts were short-lived and usually did not involve the institutionalisation of democracy as a new form of political regime that replaces, and not just complements, the State. In other cases, democratic arrangements were introduced as a set of procedures for local decision-making. The only perhaps real parallel to the Athenian democracy, as Hansen notes, were four Swiss cantons and four half cantons which were governed by assemblies of the people (Landsgemeinden) and, in their day, were sovereign states.[2]


So, the only historical example of an institutionalised direct democracy where, for almost two centuries (508/7 BC―322/1 BC), the state was subsumed in the democratic form of social organisation, was the Athenian democracy which, however, as we saw in the last chapter, was a partial political democracy. Furthermore, I refer to “institutionalised” direct democracy in order to make clear the distinction between democratic institutions and democratic practice, which may still be undemocratic, even if the institutions themselves are democratic. It is therefore clear that the institutionalisation of direct democracy is only the necessary condition for the establishment of democracy. As Castoriadis puts it: “the existence of a public space (i.e. of a political domain which belongs to all) is not just a matter of legal provisions guaranteeing rights of free speech etc. Such conditions are but conditions for a public space to exist”.[3] Citizens in Athens, for instance, before and after deliberating in the assemblies, talked to each other in the agora about politics.[4] Similarly, a crucial role in the education of citizens is played by paedeia. Paedeia is not just education but character development and a well-rounded education in knowledge and skills, i.e. the education of the individual as citizen, which can only “give valuable, substantive content to the «public space»”.[5] As Hansen points out on the crucial role of paedeia:

[T]o the Greek way of thinking, it was the political institutions that shaped the “democratic man” and the “democratic life”, not vice versa: the institutions of the polis educated and moulded the lives of the citizens, and to have the best life you must have the best institutions and a system of education conforming with the institutions.[6]

Confederal democracy


The basic unit of decision making in a an inclusive democracy is the demotic assembly, i.e. the assembly of demos,  the citizen body in a given geographical area that delegates power to demotic courts, demotic militias etcetera. However, apart from the decisions to be taken at the local level, there are a lot of important decisions to be taken at the regional or confederal level, as well as at the workplace. So, an inclusive democracy today can only take the form of a confederal democracy that is based on a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies in the various demoi, which, geographically, may encompass a town and the surrounding villages, or even neighbourhoods of large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of co-ordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves. Their function is thus purely administrative and practical, not a policy-making one, like the function of representatives in representative “democracy”.[7]


As regards the decisions which have to be taken at the places of work, the proposed scheme, as shown in the diagram in the next section, envisages a system of demotic and workplace assemblies in which people as citizens and workers respectively take part. Finally, delegates from the demotic assemblies take part in regional assemblies and the confederal assembly.


The first issue that arises with respect to a confederal democracy is whether, given the size of modern societies, direct democracy is feasible today. A related issue is how the regional and confederal councils can be prevented from developing into new power structures that will start “representing” demotic assemblies.


As regards the question of feasibility in general, as Mogens Herman Hansen points out, summarising the results of recent research on the topic, “modern technology has made a return to direct democracy quite feasible-whether desirable or not is another matter”.[8]


Also, as regards the related issue of how the degeneration of confederal councils into new power structures may be avoided, modern technology may, again, play a significant role. An electronic network could connect the demotic assemblies at the regional or confederal level, forming a huge “assembly’s assembly”. This way, the confining of the members of the regional or confederal councils to purely administrative duties of co-ordination and execution of the policies adopted by demotic assemblies is made even easier. Furthermore, at the institutional level,  various safety valves may be introduced into the system that will secure the effective functioning of democracy. However, in the last instance, it is paedeia that may effectively condition democratic practice.


A common objection against the democratic decision-taking process is that it may easily lead to the “tyranny of the majority”, where various minorities ―defined by cultural, racial, or even political, criteria― are simply oppressed by majorities. Thus, some libertarians declare that “the majority has no more right to dictate to the minority, even a minority of one, than the minority to the majority.”[9] Others stress that “democratic rule is still a rule ... it still inherently involves the repression of the wills of some people.”[10] I think that there are two issues here that have to be examined separately. First, the question whether democracy is still a “rule” and second, how minorities, even of one, may be protected.


As regards the first issue, it is obvious that those assuming, erroneously that democracy involves a form of “rule” confuse non-statist democracy with statist forms of it. The fact, which is simply ignored by libertarians adopting this sort of objection against democracy, is that in a non-statist conception of democracy there is no conflict between democracy and freedom of the social individual, since all social individuals equally share power and may take part in the decision-taking process. Furthermore, as Bookchin points out, the alternative proposed by them, consensus, is “the individualistic alternative to democracy”[11] ―an alternative which, in fact, assumes away individual diversity that supposedly is oppressed by democracy!


As regards the second issue it is true that there is a problem of how minorities, “even of one”, are protected against majorities and, in particular, how certain fundamental individual freedoms are safeguarded against democratically taken decisions by the majority. The historical answer given to this question by supporters of statist democracy has taken the form of “human rights”.


Thus, it was the liberal conception of human rights that was developed first by liberal philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau) and the associated English, French and American revolutions. Liberal individualism, the economic doctrine of laissez faire and the liberal definition of freedom as “freedom from” constitute the pillars on which these rights are based. Then, it was the turn of the “second generation” of human rights (social and economic rights), which originated in the socialist tradition, namely the socialist thinkers and the mass movements and revolts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In consistency with the socialist conception of freedom, which is defined positively, the socio-economic rights in this category are, also, defined positively; their aim is social equality, mainly in the form of an equitable participation in the production and distribution of the social product, achieved through state intervention. These rights are therefore “collective” in the sense that they belong more to communities or whole societies rather than to individuals (right to work, paid leave, social security, education, etc.).


However, both the liberal and the socialist conceptions involve a view which sees political and socio-economic rights as somehow separate from each other a view that, as a Green activist put it, is a by-product of a conception that sees social existence as being truncated into separate —political and economic— spheres.[12] But, a more fundamental characteristic that both the liberal and socialist conceptions of rights share is that they presuppose a statist form of democracy. Human rights are mostly rights against the state; it is only in forms of social organisation where political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of elites that many “rights” are invested with any meaning, whereas in a non-statist type of democracy, which by definition involves the equal sharing of power, these rights become meaningless. This is, for instance, the view adopted by Karl Hess when he states that “rights are power, the power of someone or some group over someone else (...) rights are derived from institutions of power.”[13] In principle, therefore, the issue of human rights should not arise at all in the case of a non-statist democracy as we defined it.


Still, even in an inclusive democracy, the question remains of how best to protect the freedom of the single individual from the collective decisions of the assemblies. Classical anarchists like Proudhon and Kropotkin, as well as modern ones like Karl Hess, look to contracts in the form of voluntary agreements to regulate affairs between people in a non-statist society. However, to my mind, the issue of protecting individual freedoms against majority decisions cannot just be left to voluntary agreements, which could be easily broken. This is a very important issue that should be decided democratically like all other important issues. If a consensus requirement in establishing (or in annulling) such freedoms may be impractical or even morally wrong, this should not mean that such an important issue could be left to be decided by the simple majority of a local or regional assembly. This is therefore perhaps an area where decisions have to be taken by confederal assemblies with the requirement of exceptional quorum and majorities.


However, democracy requires a significant degree of cultural homogeneity for it to be tolerable. Cultural divisions may create resentment against majority rule or intolerance with respect to the rights of minorities. Therefore, despite the above safeguards, there may still be problems of oppression of racial or ethnic minorities by majorities. One possible solution to such problems may be the one suggested by Howard Hawkins[14]  in connection to the US experience, i.e. to advance a program of minority-based demoi, or even confederations of self-governing communities, wherever minorities are geographically segregated. But, in case such geographical segregation is non-existent, perhaps, different institutional arrangements should be introduced, creating separate minority assemblies within the confederation, or perhaps giving minorities a veto “block” vote. Of course, institutional arrangements create only the preconditions for freedom. In the last instance, Individual and collective autonomy depends on the internalisation of democratic values by each citizen. Therefore, paedeia plays, again, a crucial role in this connection. It is paedeia, together with the high level of civic consciousness that participation in a democratic society is expected to create, which will decisively help in the establishment of a new moral code determining human behaviour in a democratic society. I suppose it will not be difficult to be shown that the moral values which are consistent with individual and collective autonomy in a demos-based society are those that are based on co-operation, mutual aid and solidarity.


The attacks against direct democracy


The demand for direct democracy has recently been attacked from various quarters, even supposedly libertarian ones,[15] and of course from statists of the civil societarian variety like Andre Gorz and Norberto Bobbio. What is surprising is that one of the main arguments Gorz uses against this type of society is that it will necessarily be in opposition to individual autonomy,[16] presumably, because it will represent another system whereas the objective should be to abolish everything that makes society a system. In the process, however, Gorz makes clear that he takes for granted the system of market economy and the state insisting that, as  Finn Bowring points out,  the socialist aim should not be to eliminate the system or the sphere of heteronomy, but to restrict it where it cannot be dispensed with![17] On the other hand, Bobbio, adopting the negative definition of freedom as “freedom from”, characterises liberal democracy as “the only possible form of an effective democracy” capable of protecting the citizens from state encroachment.[18]  In the process, he attacks what he calls the “fetish” of direct democracy on the usual grounds of scale (ignoring the proposals of confederalists) and the negative experience of the student movement (ignoring the fact that democracy is not just a procedure but a regime, a form of social organisation). In essence, therefore, what Bobbio, as well as Miliband[19] and other writers in the same ideological space promote, is a form of economic democracy to complement liberal democracy.


Another common objection raised against this type of social organisation is that the “complexity” and the size of today’s societies make such a society a utopian dream. Thus, Andre Gorz, again, argues that a decentralised society is impossible because it implies the “radical elimination” of industrial techniques, specialised functions and division of labour and the return to autarchic communities or to a kibbutz type of society.[20] However, a confederal democracy presupposes nothing of the sort. Not only is modern technology perfectly compatible with such a society, as Murray Bookchin has shown,[21] but also the talk about a return to autarchic communities or to a kibbutz-type of society represents a total misconception of the proposals concerning the economic organisation of such a society. As I will attempt to show in the next section, a confederal democracy neither rules out specialisation and the division of labour, nor depends on a system of autarchic communities ―a system which, today, is not feasible anyway. What the proposed system does rule out is the market economy and representative “democracy”, institutions that the “radical” thought of thinkers like Andre Gorz cannot do without!



[1] Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) p. 308.

[2] Ibid., p. 2.

[3] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 113.

[4] Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, p. 311.

[5] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 113.

[6] Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, p. 320.

[7] Murray Bookchin has described a similar scheme which however is based on communities and does not involve a proper economic democracy since it assumes away the problem of scarcity, see “The Meaning of Confederalism”, Society and Nature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1993).

[8] Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 1. The references quoted by Hansen on the feasibility of direct democracy today include: F.C. Arterton, Teledemocracy (Washington, D.C. 1987), I. McLean, Democracy and New Technology (Cambridge, 1989).

[9] Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible (London: Harper, 1992), p. 22.

[10] L. Susan Brown, The Politics of Individualism (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1993),  p. 53. 

[11] Murray Bookchin, “The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism”, Democracy and Nature, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1996).

[12] V. Ramaswamy, “A New Human Rights Consciousness,” IFDA Dossier 80 (Jan.-March 1991), p. 9.

[13] Karl Hess, “Rights and Reality” in Renewing the Earth: The Promise of Social Ecology, John Clark, ed. (London: Greenprint, 1990), pp. 130-33.

[14] Howard Hawkins, “Community Control, Workers' Control and the Cooperative Commonwealth”, Society & Nature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1993), p. 75.

[15] See e.g. John Clark, “The Politics of Social Ecology: Beyond the limits of the city” and my reply in Democracy & Nature, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Nov. 1999), pp. 523-576 and Suzan Brown, The Politics of Individualism.

[16] See André Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology (London: Verso, 1994), p. 3.

[17] Finn Bowring, “Andre Gorz: Ecology, System and Lifeworld”, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, No. 24 (Dec. 1995).

[18] See Perry Anderson, “The Affinities of Norberto Bobbio,” New Left Review, No. 170 (July-Aug. 1988), p. 21.

[19] Ralph Miliband, “Fukuyama and the Socialist Alternative,” New Left Review, No. 193 (May-June 1992).

[20] Andre Gorz,A gauche c’est par ou?”, Lettre Internationale (Summer 1990).

[21] See Bookchin’s essay “Towards a Liberatory Technology” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (London: Wildwood House, 1974).