Disclaimer: Some of the following ideas, in different forms, exist in various countries. This is from my personal perspective in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Democracy ← demo- (“people”) + -cracy (“rule”).
In contrast to the present day, democracy in classical Athens meant direct democracy. There was no concept of indirect (representative) democracy.
Let's re-define democracy as a gradient. An example of ultimate, 100% pure, democracy would mean that every person being affected by a decision has taken part in its making. On the other hand, a most inferior example, 0% democracy, would mean that only one person makes decisions for everybody, e.g. dictatorship.
Using the above definition, representative democracy falls somewhere in between, though definitely closer to the side of 100% democracy rather than 0%. This level of democracy should be improved, however, this is not necessarily something that citizens want. Cities are expected to work as services. By paying taxes, people expect that the state (or mayorship) will fulfill their needs no-questions-asked. Though needs are very different per person, there are some universally accepted, such as infrastructure-related ones. For example, everyone would vote in favor of nice parks, well-built roads and pavements, parking facilities, policing, et al.
City societies play a major role in one’s life. The interaction between citizens is important in the metric of culture quality. One could say this is just a matter of culture aesthetics and not objective quality. However, what if we turned the previous idea of cities-as-services upside down? Let's call it "citizens as city makers". Citizens could take part in the matters of the city as actively as the city council. Everybody would contribute actively to the evolution of the city, people would communicate with fellow citizens, and the percentage of the demoracy gradient would significantly rise.
In addition to the above argument, there are certain issues arising in systems implementing representative democracy that would be improved with the "citizens as city makers" proposal. Indicatively:
- The only point in time citizens make any decision regarding the whole is the day of the elections. This is an extremely rare event, once every four or five years.
- Citizens do not spend time studying the policies or plans of the candidates in order to find the best solution for the whole city.
- Citizens have no strong opinions or opinions whatsoever, on current issues, yet they are mandated to vote.
- Citizens do not perform retrospective analysis of the candidates to improve their voting skills.
- Citizens prefer to vote in favor of someone who shields their own interests even when this harms the majority's interests.
The idea of "citizens as city makers" is, of course, very far away for the major urban centres of the west. Towards reducing this distance, an overview of three practical ideas follows.
Postal code groups
An online forum-like application where citizen groups discuss issues they face in the city. Cities can have large populations, thus discussions can become awfully difficult. To counter that, let groups be divided by postal codes. Citizens will communicate with public written messages posted at the postal code group forum. The content of these messages can range from menial tasks such as fixing broken garbage bins and street lamps to very momentous ones, like creating pocket parks and organizing culture festivals.
Detailing further, the application's sophistication can contribute to the quality of the implementation of the aforementioned tasks and projects. For example, the application can bother the person or people in charge of the venture to provide updates on how it is progressing. This will contribute to transparency.
The purpose of borough assemblies is to re-create the idea of agora. Having a general assembly where every citizen can meet and discuss is a core notion of democratic systems. Nowadays, citizens never meet each other with the purpose of discussing city matters. This is the exact opposite of how a democratic system should work.
Cities are divided into boroughs. In order to make an assembly more manageable we can use this concept and divide city assemblies to borough assemblies. Also, instead of weekly meetings, monthly ones can be more feasible1.
As it was previously discussed, elections are highly inefficient and fail to meet any quality standard. Various ways need to be devised for their improvement. One domain is information. Most citizens are never acquainted with even the names (let alone the actual plans) of candidate mayors. This is absurd as the basis of representative democracy is that every voter chooses the candidate with whom they agree the most; how could they if they have not listened to them?
An official informational website that includes plans of all candidates could contribute correct—a tiny bit—this beyond ludicrous yet completely accepted state of affairs.
This is an example of how these ideas can help improve the state of a city.
In the city of Thessaloniki, Greece, the following has happened repeatedly: a thief steals someone's bag from a restaurant. The police, using the restaurant's cameras, identify the thief, and respond that this is a known thief, who gets caught regularly by them. However, the prosecutor releases the thief the following day. Even if a particular thief goes in jail for a few months, they will return to their theiving life soon enough.
This is a bizarre situation that transpires because of citizens' detachedness and centralized laws, which are destined to work on all scenarios, country or continent-wide (reading between the lines: EU).
Using the ideas of borough assemblies and postal code groups, local citizens that experience this situation can contribute actively to this problem. My expectation is that their action would be much more effective because it would be much more focused, in contrast to a solution from a centralized government that is required to create one law to cover all cases.
I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe.
– Douglas Adams
It is expected that this text has had more of a detrimental effect to one's belief on the possible success of democracy rather than beneficial. This truth becomes even more apparent when the proposals of this text are actually implemented. Yet, absence of despair is recommended, as this is a one-way street: nihilism is deprecated.
In Switzerland, a cantonal assembly still exists in some parts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landsgemeinde ↩