Is direct democracy desirable and/or possible today?
Is direct democracy desirable and/or possible today? The question is addressed first theoretically, with reference to Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, which actually categorizes direct democracy as one of the corruptions into which a democratic system can descend, by an insistence on too much egalitarianism. Direct democracy is considered as an ideal, which is desirable insofar as it offers a critique of contemporary politics, but whose possibility is limited by whether or not it can be feasibly implemented. Two contemporary case studies are brought in to examine the question further: the experiment with internet-organized direct democracy in Estonia, and the experiment with social-media-inspired direct democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Estonian model is critiqued for its heavy reliance on a highly vulnerable technological infrastructure, suggesting that direct democracy in Estonia is only possible for as long as Vladimir Putin refrains from cyberattacks to cripple Estonia's political infrastructure. Meanwhile Occupy Wall Street is critiqued for its lack of actual governmental goals, where in essence the public practice of direct democracy was intended as a rebuke to the existing system, but where it did not legitimately show that direct democracy was capable of governing a country or achieving legitimate political or policy goals. Paper concludes that technology has rendered direct democracy more possible than ever at the present moment, but that its desirability is mainly as a corrective critique of corruptions of present representative systems of democracy.
Direct democracy has, arguably, never been practiced in reality. Proponents usually point to ancient Athens in the 5th century BCE as an example of direct democracy, but any number of contemporary Athenian sources (such as the dramatist Aristophanes) can be adduced to demonstrate that the actual Athenians viewed their own democracy as hopelessly corrupt and unable to live up to the high ideals set for it. In some sense direct democracy is, in itself, an ideal -- and by understanding it in this way, we can realize that the concept of direct democracy is desirable even if it may not be entirely possible to realize.
It is worth noting at the outset that Montesquieu, one of the earliest Enlightenment theorists of democracy, viewed democratic systems as very easily corruptible. However many proponents of the idealized form of direct democracy fail to note that, in some sense, Montesquieu considered the ideals of direct democracy to be one of the corruptions that a democratic system could take. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu writes that
The principle of democracy is corrupted not only when the spirit of equality is extinct, but likewise when they fall into a spirit of extreme equality, and when each citizen would fain be upon a level with those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, incapable of bearing the very power they have delegated, want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges. (Montesquieu VIII.2)
We can view the concept of direct democracy as being intimately related to what Montesquieu identifies as the "spirit of extreme equality" which corrupts the "principle of democracy." His argument is that direct democracy -- wherein the people essentially insist on usurping a function that ought to be delegated to representatives -- is in itself a corruption of the workable form of a democratic system. Now obviously Montesquieu must be taken with a grain of salt -- notoriously he also thought that democracy of any form (even representative democracy) was impossible in Russia and China for reasons of climate and geography. And more to the point, as Melvin Richter notes, "Montesquieu was not a democrat. He did not mince words when he discussed what he called the basest class of the people. He accepted the view of his English friends that the votes of the unpropertied cold easily be purchased. Hence it was right to exclude them from the suffrage." (Richter 336).
Yet it is worth noting that the ideal of direct democracy is desirable because it keeps at bay the first and primary corruption that Montesquieu sees in democratic governments: the tendency to reach a point where "the spirit of equality is extinct." If we look at contemporary American politics, for example, we can see Montesquieu's competing "corruptions" of the democratic system at work. The United States is not a direct democracy, and it has definitely reached a point where many believe that "the spirit of equality," if not quite extinct, is at the very least fatally compromised by inegalitarian tendencies. For example, the vast inequality of wealth that can be observed in the contemporary United States undeniably plays a role in the corruption of American representative democracy: Montesquieu's vision of the votes of the unpropertied being easily purchased has turned into a different way in which money corrupts politics.
It is worth noting, however, that the way in which direct democracy represents a challenge to the corrupting influence of money in democratic systems is the chief reason why it is desirable (if not possible to implement perfectly). The most salient recent example of this is the Occupy Wall Street movement. In an interview with The Nation magazine, Nathan Schneider (one of the organizers of the Occupy movement) noted that the idea of direct democracy was central to Occupy's ends and means. When asked what the "demands" of the Occupy protesters were from the government, Schneider indicated that the form the protest took should be viewed implicitly as the demand for direct democracy:
…the NYC General Assembly seemed to be veering away from the language of "demands" in the first place, largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself -- and the direct democracy taking place there -- which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand. When you think about it, this act is actually a pretty powerful statement against the corruption that Wall Street has come to represent. (Schneider, 29 Sept 2011)
The difficulty of assessing Occupy Wall Street remains, since it seems to have accomplished nothing apart from its own existence for a short period of time. Yet it is worth understanding the centrality of the concept of direct democracy to Occupy as being partly a critique of existing corruption in democratic systems, but also as a burst of optimism related to technology. Occupy Wall Street could not have taken place without social media technology, smart phones and Twitter and all the rest -- in that sense it is intimately related to other forms of techno-democracy from the Estonian governmental system to the Arab Spring protests and their use of online social media.
This is, in some sense, not a new phenomenon. Technological advances can frequently give rise to visionary political thinking -- one need only turn to the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution would inspire William Godwin's Political Justice (which goes beyond advocating direct democracy to a straight-up anarchism or libertarianism) but would also cause Godwin to believe that technology would soon make death obsolete. In reality, of course, the advanced engineering of the Industrial Revolution would make no more lasting contribution to democratic politics than the guillotine. But in this case we are faced with something different: the form taken by online social media is sufficient to make people think that direct democracy might indeed be implementable. If we began with the question of whether direct democracy was desirable and/or possible, then it is worth noting that the Internet has for the first time offered a vision of how the idea might technologically be made possible. The most salient example of this, as mentioned, is the post-Soviet state of Estonia. Juri Ruus, in a 2011 paper included in Local Direct Democracy in Europe, notes that the information technology is, in fact, being pushed toward the implementation of direct democracy in Estonia:
A well-developed information society facilitates the work of local authorities and contributes considerably to the development of democracy. In Estonia, which is famous for its rapid development of information technology, local authorities are required to publish any important information about their municipalities on a website. This is set out in the Public Information Act. In recent years, there have been mostly positive developments regarding direct democracy developments. For instance, the Estonian Civil Society Concept has been worked out by the Representative Council of NGO Rountable and accepted by Estonian Parliament in 2002. The concept regulates generally the relations between public authority and civic initiative. In many local councils the representatives of the citizen associations are members of the regular council and expert committees….Research shows that 10% of the ideas of citizens, inhabitants of the country, are being acknowledged and put into practice by government, ministries or parliament. In the former case, although public intervention has so…