Summary: Liberal and Direct Democracy;the Successful Idea of Democracy

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The above sketch of the relationship between democracy and modernity suggests how successful the idea of democracy has become over the past two centuries. But despite the apparent victory of liberal democracy worldwide, a major fault line in the debate around democracy in the twentieth century has been and still re- mains the one between liberal, or representative, democracy on the one hand, and direct democracy on the other.

The political system in the city-state of Athens between 450 and 350 bc, generally regarded as the first exist- ing democracy, is frequently referred to as a particularly direct form of democracy. The Athenian Assembly, whose membership was between 20,000 and 30,000, met regularly, and had total power not only over policy-making, but also over implementation of policy in every detail. Officals who were responsible for executing policy were temporary and selected by lot, so there was no permanent bureaucra- cy. However, the system was most illiberal, to say the least, by modern standards: only men were allowed to vote, the system approved slavery (the ratio of slaves to other inhabitants was 3:2), foreigners were also excluded, so there was direct democracy for a minority of citizens. The private sphere was, arguably, taken care of by non-enfranchised individuals in order that others could participate in direct democracy; in modern times, by contrast, citizens’ private sphere is given greater emphasis and political power is delegated to rep- resentatives who are elected by the mass of citizens relatively infrequently. It should also be pointed out that ancient Greek communities were relatively small and were nothing like today’s large and complex societies.

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Despite these drawbacks and differences, ancient Athenian democracy has remained a reference point for debate for centuries. Discussion of direct and representative democracy is found in the writings of such philo- sophical giants as John Locke and Benjamin Constant, who both favoured individual rights over the voice of the people, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx, for example, stressed the importance of popular rule. Marx was particularly critical of representative democracy, arguing that in the 1871 Paris Commune there was for the first time ever the real possibility for the people to be represented fairly, so ‘instead of deciding once every three or six years which member of ruling class was going to misrepresent the people in parlia- ment, universal suffrage was to serve the people’ . Today, direct democracy is still favoured in particular by analysts and activists on the left, who often argue that: (a) material benefits and power in mod- ern societies must be far more evenly distributed before a deeper democracy is possible; and (b) that formal decision-making must take place on a far wider basis than the election of national or local representatives who come from a small elite of semi-professional politicians. Since the early 1970s, feminists and environ- mental groups and analysts have also often advocated more direct forms of democracy, introducing notions such as diversity, difference and local experience as important areas of consideration.

Proponents of liberal democracy, on the other hand, argue first that there are severe practical constraints on direct democracy. Given the sheer size, complexity and diversity of modern societies individuals simply do not have the time, the inclination or perhaps the ability to become involved in decisions regarding a vast range of issues affecting their lives either directly or indirectly. This might particularly be the case with increasing internationalization. Second, individual freedoms are at stake as well, which might be compromised by excessive concern with the public sphere or excessive political demands put on people as citizens.

There is no doubt that in terms of practical government, liberal democracy has for the time being at least won the battle against direct democracy. Pure direct democracy, where there was no permanent division of labour between the politically powerful and ordinary citizens, between the elected and electors, is certainly hard to conceive of given the sophistication and complexity of modern societies, however much political, economic and social change took place. So from a practical point of view fully-fledged direct democracy which was a sort of perfected form of Athenian democracy would seem impossible, although it should perhaps remain a model to be striven for. For analysts in the liberal tradition, however, representative democracy is not only more realistic but also more just, because it protects the rights of the individual’s private sphere, which are threatened when so many decisions are subject to widespread deliberation.

Today, one of the most developed general defences of representative democracy comes from John Rawls. Rawls argues that there are certain fundamental liberties that should take precedence over popular rule in order to ensure that individuals are free and equal; these are political liberty (the right to vote and be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom, from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. Typical of the liberal democratic approach, Rawls insists first on the inviolability of these basic liberties rather than the importance of popular rule, in part in order to protect the private sphere of individuals against what he sees as often counterposing interests of the public sphere. Liberal analysts establish this hierarchy partly because they believe that the degree of in- fluence of an individual over decisions is small anyway, and needs to be put in perspective by the importance of the private sphere. A major role for the State and the government therefore is to protect the individual against infringement of their freedom in the private sphere, rather than to encourage debate and deliberation to establish norms and strategies in the public sphere.

Critics of liberal democracy often argue that the triumph of a liberal approach has meant that the public sphere is left weak and underdeveloped, with a population that is overly privatized, therefore depoliticized and un- willing or unable to take part in debates about public issues, all of which severely undermines the fundamen- tal principles of democracy. Jürgen Habermas argues that popular sovereignty would need a favourable political culture with ‘convictions, mediated by tradition and socialisation, of a population in the habit of exercising political freedom.

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