The People's Parliament of Rojava. Photo: Studio Jonas Staal

Direct democracy and the passion for political participation

  • November 19, 2019

Autonomy & Authority

For a radically democratic and ecological society we need to build democratic and resilient communities capable of deepening citizen participation at all levels of public life.

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher and activist whose publications and talks center on the possibilities of direct democracy and commoning practices as an alternative to the current social imaginary. He is the author of Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality (Durty Books Publishing House, 2019). He is a member of the editorial team of the Greek political journal Aftoleksi, bibliographer at Agora International and member of the administrative board of TRISE. In the past he has co-founded “Adelante” — the first social center in Bulgaria as well as the first Bulgarian Social Forum.

Here, editor Eve Olney, discusses some of the ideas presented in the book with Yavor, regarding where direct democracy might situate itself within societies’ current crisis-led sets of conditions.

Eve Olney: I would like to begin with an issue that your book addresses directly. Current discussions concerning conceiving an alternative social imaginary to neoliberalism, predominantly tend to focus on public/worker protests in tandem with creating internal pressure within institutions to create better conditions for citizens. You propose something beyond this approach. How do you respond to the former line of reasoning?

Yavor Tarinski: The tendency you describe is trapped in the imaginary of statecraft. It shares the fallacy of the separation of the economy from the wider political architecture of society and its supremacy over other social spheres. Due to this tendency, trade unions and worker parties operate within current hierarchies and bureaucracies with the aim of steadily improving the conditions of workers. However, people or groups operating within this imaginary neglect the question of concentrated power that is simultaneously advancing in other spheres, such as the social or ecological ones; essentially reproducing a similar precarity.

People also fall for the dominant narrative that convinces us that neoliberalism is the regime of freedom and individuality. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Neoliberal logic imposes, in a bureaucratic manner, the same social formula regardless of unique and different local contexts. As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests, “capitalism [in its current neoliberal stage] has become a form of state, a bureaucratic form of organization and regulation of life.”

In my book I present the general social and historical tradition of direct democracy that challenges the very foundations of the political architecture of today. At its core is the question of who gets to institute the different aspects of our society? In other words, it is a radically different way of managing power.

Greek-French philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis presents the social project of autonomy as an alternative to the current oppressive neoliberal social ordering of society. Within Castoriadis’s scheme of social organization the project of direct democracy acts as a continuous social condition of self-instituting. Castoriadis’ notion of self-instituting involves all members of society participating directly, equally and consciously in the formation of all institutions in order to make collective life possible.

This kind of self-governing goes beyond current capital-orientated concepts of democracy, and acknowledges that democracy cannot be limited to one field of human activity such as economics alone. Bookchin reminds us that:

Workers have always been more than mere proletarians. [They] are also parents who are concerned about the future of their children, men and women who are concerned about their dignity, autonomy, and growth as human beings, neighbors who are concerned about their community, and empathetic people who were concerned with social justice, civic rights, and freedom.

Today, in addition to these very noneconomic issues, they have every reason to be concerned about ecological problems, the rights of minorities and women, their own loss of political and social power, and the growth of the centralized state — problems that are not specific to a particular class and that cannot be resolved within the walls of factories.

This does not suggest that the struggle for better material conditions is not of importance for social emancipation, but that it cannot be advanced if it does not challenge the very foundational basis of our societies and the way power is being distributed vertically. I would argue that it is this current socio-political framework is the cause of widespread alienation and passivity within today’s societies.

Yes, you talk of the strong influence of “capitalist economism…over traditional radical ideologies.” This infers an incredibly challenging task in setting the seeds to create a social understanding of the kind of direct democracy you are describing in your book. Working within current apathetic or oppressed parts of society you must also attempt to counter historical, strongly-held Marxist ideals from the radical left. Have you found possibilities of where/how direct democracy might find a space to situate itself within this?

First of all, traces of direct democracy can be found in popular efforts at re-organizing forms of people power, even when such efforts don’t explicitly claim this goal. We saw democratic seeds in the public squares around the world with the Arab Spring, Occupy, Indignados, Nuit Debout, and more recently with the Yellow Vests. The latter went further than previous movements by attempting to establish a democratic confederation of autonomous local groups, under the form of the Assembly of Assemblies.

In such cases grassroots movements attempt to radically re-imagine the institutions that structure society by introducing non-hierarchical decision-making bodies to redistribute power equally among all. The success of such popular endeavors towards direct democracy varies. As Marx wrote, about one of the most significant among them — the Paris Commune — “the great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.”

Political organizations, therefore, do have the choice of attempting to sustain a particular social movement through a more in-depth pursuit of self-organization. However, this requires any activist collective to being open to a direct democratic mode of governance regardless of how that might impede their own political ideology.

As witnessed during the dissipation of the austerity “movement of the squares” in Athens in 2011, social conditions rarely fit the specifics of different activist group’s ideological preconditions for radical social change.

In order for the first option to be obtainable, activists would need to demonstrate patience and abandon attitudes of revolutionary vanguardism. As Castoriadis argues, the activity of revolutionary militants has no privilege; it is but one component of a historical movement. The following steps can reinforce a radical social transformation beyond capitalism and statecraft:

  1. Mapping emerging/existing social counterpowers (participatory commoning, the right to the city etc.) and nurturing their direct democratic traits;
  2. Abandoning ideological dogmatism. Didactic methods of operating obstructs radical political organizations’ interactions with the general public and can lead to the organization’s sectarization.
  3. Addressing the difficult question of managing power within a democratic non-hierarchical manner. This includes the abandonment of the logic of anomie (a term which derives from Greek language and it suggests existence in a state of lawlessness), that is favored by some anti-authoritarian activists.

We must always bear in mind, as Israeli thinker Aki Orr suggests, “A society can be run by direct democracy only if most of the people want to decide policies themselves.” History has taught us too many lessons about how a revolutionary vanguard cannot bring genuine social emancipation.

During a recent book launch and discussion of “Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality,” (SPARE ROOM, Cork, 2019) there yet seemed to be a need on your part to clarify to individuals your specific critical positioning and understanding of direct democracy. What do you find to be the most generalized misconception of this? Also how do you position the Ancient Greek notion of “paideia” in terms of how it is augmented into your developing argument?

The term “direct democracy,” like most political terms today, has been used by various political tendencies to serve different ends. The most common misconception equates the concept with referendums, plebiscites and the case of Switzerland. The Swiss model operates strictly within the dominant imaginary, which seeks to improve the current system without addressing some of its fundamentally anti-democratic core structures.

This logic however is completely false as it does not take into account the separation of decision-making and implementation, which is embedded in referendums. One example is the 2015 Greek referendum, in which 62 percent voted against new austerity measures, but the SYRIZA government passed them anyway, just in a different ideological wrapping.

To further complicate things, concepts of “direct democracy” have also been espoused by the far-right, such as the Czech far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party. Here, the term is embedded within nationalistic notions of citizens’ rights towards protecting their sovereignty and where the “non-national” is cited as a threat to the country’s social stability.

This is entirely contrary, for example, to the inclusive essence of the project of direct democracy expressed by the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, popularly known as Rojava, where popular participation, female emancipation and an ecological mindset all together contributed to the building of a more democratic and egalitarian society. These examples feature in my book. I think that Judith Butler has explained clearly why there is nothing democratic about the far-right:

If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project. That is hardly democratic in intent or in effect.

The revolutionary essence of direct democracy was initially enunciated by the people of ancient Athens. Certainly there were serious shortcomings like slavery and sexism, but what did emerge from the polis was the idea that society can be managed by people without special skills or knowledge. This reasoning was then institutionalized through the use of the general public assembly as the highest decision making body and the fact that citizens had the opportunity of being selected as magistrates by sortition.

The ancient Athenians spoke of “paideia,” a concept that understands that the education of the individual is not limited to time spent learning in institutions and recognizes all experiences and exchanges throughout their life as being significant in their development as a citizen. A crucial element of this lifelong learning was participating in the popular deliberations that took place at public institutions.

This cultivated a civic culture that maintained a passionate involvement in public affairs and lawmaking. Castoriadis has argued that it was this passion for political participation that made the self-governance of the Athenian polis possible.

Nowadays it seems more urgent than ever to create a democratic culture that can lead people to reclaim power from the governing elites who are currently pillaging the planet and our societies. This is something that the current passive consumer/voter seems unable to achieve. We are in dire need of more people engaging in grassroots decision-making and in genuine civic paideia.

Well that brings me to your argument for the necessity of direct democracy being implemented in all spheres of public life. In order to achieve social equality and rid ourselves of escalating exploitative everyday processes we must reinstitute through self-organization and non-hierarchical governing structures. In practical terms can you discuss how we might achieve that transition, for example, in the educational sector?

We need to imagine different forms of organizing the type of society that we want to bring into existence. We can move into visionary thinking as long as we keep our visions as kinds of political compasses and not as blueprints to be followed to the letter. I would argue that those who struggle against the ills of a certain political system but do not offer an alternative to it are politically impotent. To only strive at blocking new degrading measures is precarious at best.

A strategy towards a direct democratic transformation of society in practice is twofold. On the one hand, it requires social movements pushing for changes, which will embed further citizen participation in the official institutional processes. This means demanding equal wealth distribution as well as equal power distribution. This is in keeping with participatory budgeting or citizen’ assemblies within the current institutional framework.

On the other hand, there is also the need for the creation of autonomous democratic decision-making bodies, independent from the dominant institutions — structures that can allow local communities to express their collective will and enable them to confederate with one another, resembling the strategy of dual power. This can radically challenge the supremacy of the State and capitalist technocracies.

For the education system in particular I would suggest we need to embed the participation of the students with the wider community in the formation of the colloquium, as well as the management of the actual educational facilities. Such experiments have taken place in Summerhill or in different Kibbutz.

We need to expand this radical rethinking and practicing of education. This implies the emergence of student and social movements dedicated to the rediscovering of the concept of paideia and breaking away from the current perception of education as a tool for the production of cadres that will serve the capitalist economy.

I am interested in how you frame “The Democratic Individual,” in the book. Many institutional and social spheres seem to be endemically corrupt and self-serving. Assuming a critical argument where the individual “anthropological type” might shift significantly through ongoing direct democratic processes can be often dismissed as a gross naiveté on the part of those taking such a position. Can you talk a little bit about how you challenge such resistance to this idea?

I would agree with you regarding the corruption of contemporary institutions. This was the central argument of Rancière in his Hatred of Democracy, where he suggests that our society is being governed in such a way that everything essentially democratic is being actively resisted. We hear a lot about individualism nowadays and unfortunately many anti-capitalists fall for this narrative.

What we have in reality has nothing to do with being free as an individual but is actually a global uniformity of unseen proportions worthy of an Orwellian novel. The neoliberal doctrine is an extremely bureaucratic multiplicity of regulations and norms that are often strictly enforced. Different populations are force-fed its doctrine regardless of their unique contexts.

Bureaucrats and capitalists tend to frame the concept of the individual within specific attitudes that suit the needs of a neoliberal social economy. The notion of individual freedom, for example, is predominantly situated within consumerism and mediated by mass marketing industries, television channels and much of social media. Mass consumerism also serves as a great distraction from public affairs, as it encourages people to maintain a focus on their own individual needs and desires.

We are already witnessing the negative implications of such a society. Social protests demanding urgent needs therefore tend to remain within a consumerist imaginary of capitalism. For example, within this particular social framework exist voices who talk of the so-called e-democracy as a force for change. But the public discourse surrounding this subject is filled with shopping terminology. “It is comfortable”, “You can do it from your home”, “It only takes couple of mouse-clicks”. Such phrases are strongly reminiscent of arguments for online shopping.

This shaping of neoliberal subjectivity is the foundational basis of the current system as well as being crucial for its maintenance and is, therefore, being actively reproduced.

A popular argument against achieving a radical change in society is based upon this kind of skeptical framing of subjectivity. It is reasoned that people are naturally self-serving which conflicts with the idea of groups participating equally in decision-making. They are right to a certain point — the current attitude described above is the antithesis of such a society. But I am reminded of an argument made by William Godwin in 1793, that it is erroneous to judge mankind such as monarchy and aristocracy have made them, when judging how fit they are to manage for themselves.

We are not destined to live as passive consumers. The ancient Athenian civic culture, for example, was based on the Greek notion of “astynomous orgas” — the passion for law-making. There are many more examples like the Parisian communards who passionately deliberated in the sections.

The democratic individual that I attempt to trace through different historic and philosophical experiences, is the type of citizen that will be able to operate within the institutional setting of a direct democratic society. How such an individual will appear has everything to do with your previous question about paideia, as well as the efforts of social movements to self-organize within their communities.

It is not an easy task. But as Rousseau has suggested, democracy requires citizens to arm themselves with strength and consistency.

I would like to apply some of the ideas around the interrelationship between the individual and society to current situations in Ireland. For example, I was part of a panel discussing the Irish housing crisis recently and I had an acute sense from the audience that they felt utterly powerless and overwhelmed by the global scale of their individual problems. They held no hope of improvement and actually expect much worse coming down the line. Yet, they still looked to external governing structures to finding solutions.

I am wondering if you have thoughts regarding how and why “crisis” as in global crisis, housing crisis, bank crisis etc., is mediated in this compartmentalized way and how this shapes the individual’s view/understanding of their subject position within the current social imaginary?

What you have observed during this panel is something that I have encountered often — this sense of helplessness and insignificance before the grand scale of the world. It can be compared to the feeling you have when thinking of the vastness of the universe and our microscopic place in it.

However, I think that this comparison is wrong. History is filled with examples of individuals or communities evoking significant social changes. They often remain invisible due to our modernist fascination with large scales. The dominant social imaginary tends to view our world as a chessboard of nation-states and transnational technocracies. Since our societies are being structured in this manner, our individual worldviews are being shaped analogically. It is those at the top who make the rules and not the people at the grassroots.

This is also why the public’s response to crisis is to resort to means that operate within the dominant organizational order such as the political parties. How many times has a supposedly radical left-wing party taken power and then retreated from their initial promises? This results in increased popular cynicism and apathy. Even when armed with the best intentions one cannot make institutions intended to serve the few, suddenly work for the many.

It is true that those who oppress and exploit us operate in a tightly knit web of globalized and centralized power. We cannot change things if we think and act within the frame of the current system.

If we want create a radically democratic and ecological society, we will have to abandon all bureaucratic and exploitative means. It is not enough to consume ethically or vote for the lesser evil. We have to build democratic and resilient communities capable of confederating with each other so as to tackle large-scale issues. As Castoriadis has said, “an autonomous society cannot be instaurated except through the autonomous activity of the collectivity.” This might sound too general or abstract, but the direct democracy of which we are speaking represents such a paradigm shift, that must surpass both globalization and localism and can lead towards genuine social emancipation.

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Eve Olney

Eve Olney works across multidisciplinary research practice as an independent researcher, activist, creative producer and educator. She is a member of urban activist group Urban React (Greece) and the collaborative commoning project Living Commons (Ireland). Her work is published and exhibited across, art, architectural and sociopolitical activist forums.

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