Democracy is an achievement, not a recipe

There is—thankfully—considerable colloquy on the quality of our world’s democracies. People talk about whether democracy is actually a good idea while others claim it’s just the least worse. In this text I will attempt to convince you that democracy is not only a good idea, but actually a great one. All this with a transcendental shift in our perception of democracy:

Democracy is not a system; it is an achievement.


We can’t have democracy if we do not think in democratic principles. It’s like agile when developing software. You can’t switch to agile by adding a standup and a retro—it’s not a recipe1. You can only be agile if you have the agile mindset. In the same way, you can’t be a democracy just by having your leaders elected2. You can only have democracy if you include everyone in the actual decision making processes. When venturing democracy, there is a constant need for self-reflection on whether everyone is actually involved. This requires a continuous, active examination of societal processes, an everlasting reworking of the methods of decision making. That's core to the democratic mindset.

Recipe status

It's evident in the global society that we view democracy as a set of rules that once applied, all societal desires will be aligned and non-zero sum benefits will unequivocally emerge. One piece of this evidence is the common remark: democracy has failed us; or: democracy doesn’t work. But that’s not the case. There is a limit to the range of influence of any social structure. Nothing will force all our interests to be aligned—only our agency. If not this, then what's left is searching for loopholes in extraneously established laws with the purpose of making one’s life easier at the expense of the whole society's betterment.

That's not to say this is an argument against social structures. On the contrary, it's one in favour. The disparity in this text's thesis is that these structures should be created directly from the people they are designed to apply to, not from a handful of elected officials.

Against chain of agency

Democracy, by definition, is when people themselves have the power to make political and societal decisions. It was, historically, the dialectic antithesis to oligarchy: when power resides with the few. Indirect, or representative democracy, the current prevalent version of democracy, is not democracy, but rather an oligarchy.

In representative democracy, politician (i.e. one who discusses and decides on societal issues) is a career. Whereas, in democracy, everyone is a politician and is expected to actively engage with any societal issues at hand. That is in addition to their job3.

Representative democracy politicians aim to convince people to vote for them via superficially dramatic campaigns, rally-style theatrical performances, and by employing fanfare. There are no real societal plans being discussed4 between the politicians and the people, just statements and ambiguous responses—approval or rejection—from the public.

However, discussion is a core feature of the democratic framework. How can a team make a collective decision if there is no discussion on the issue? In other words, how can a people make a democratic decision if there are no processes to discuss issues?

Across the whole wide spectrum of actionable politics, in representative democracy a citizen makes, on average, two political decision every four years5. As mentioned, achieving democracy means people exert the governing power. Nevertheless, half a political decision per year is not nearly enough for people to be considered actively involved in the decision making process.

As essence

Before we argue against the shortcomings of direct democracy, there is a case to be made for the essential quality of democracy as a societal framework6. Why is democracy important?

Proposition 1: People value autonomy more than life itself. Indications are spread across history, ranging from the motto of Greece to the ethos of Breaking Bad.
Proposition 2: Sharing our lives with other people (friends, family, strangers) is part of the essence of our humanity.
Proposition 3: It follows from 1 and 2 that being autonomous together with other people is vital.

Democracy is the actualisation of this: making collective decisions on how we live. Undoubtedly, fundamental. I would go as far as to say that there is no point in life without this sport of endeavouring democracy. If not for it, our life would be either an autonomous loneliness or an enslaved collectivity.

In defence of

Let's assume Fred, our imaginary assistant for the demonstration of the argumentative against the shortcomings of direct democracy.

Fred: “Well, that’s all nice and stuff, but we can’t have direct democracy because people are not well educated to have opinions on significant matters and/or they will make horrible decisions. See Brexit, for example.”

Fred, allow me to disagree. For one, there are solid arguments to be made in favour of Brexit, regardless of Brexiteers basing their vote on the silly ones.

It is true that people will be unknowledgeable on a variety of issues that they will be asked to give opinions on. However, during an honest discourse where all voices are given equal ground and are heard in the same level, it is an argument of human rationality and aligned interests that people are going to behave responsibly7.

Another argument to be made here is that there are, and have been through recent history, multiple political leaders the intelligence of whom is highly questionable. Yet, we survived. Therefore, I have little fear that the consequences of a potential lack of intelligence will be destructive.

Finally, freedom is more important than making the best decision—it’s more important than life itself, for many! Let people decide for themselves, even if it kills them. How much more different would it be from the present, when elected leaders decide for people, and it still kills them8?

Fred: “So you’re saying instead of Trump ordering the police to kill people, people will accidentally kill themselves and that’s ok. Great stuff! You know what, direct democracy is never going to work because people don’t have time to talk politics all day. Not to mention that many don't even care about politics. They have jobs and are busy with their actual life. Direct democracy was only good when it was invented, when they had slaves to work the fields, in ancient Athens.”

Come on, Fred, you know the first part is a straw man.

Here's the thing about people's time. All these decisions already are part of their busy life. Politics and societal issues unavoidably affect everyone and the only other path is lack of action—being a puppet while others decide for your life and the civic institutions that eventually you, too, will encounter. Is that not a core part of everyone's life? It seems fundamental to find the time for it.

There are many things to say about all this people's busyness and the concept of bullshit jobs is one of them. The work ethic that is currently permeating the global society is one that associates work with self-worth9. David Graeber describes Bullshit Jobs as meaningless jobs that exist only because it's shameful to not work. Hence, we had to invent jobs such as door attendants and airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive to keep up with the demand for virtuous suffering.

In regards to the argument of people not being interested in politics, I see that more of an aftereffect of the complete disaster that modern politics has been10, rather than an inherent characteristic of people not concerned about how they live. Ultimately, many may not care, but at least those who do will have the capacity to act.

Fred: “Well, you didn’t convince me at all. We have this system for so long now; it's not perfect—nothing is—but it's so much better than all the previous ones11. We're not going to make such an inconsiderate change and abandon it for something evidently not working.”

Today, I learned that up until 200612 one could take liquids on a plane. It sounds like a magical time, but it was only fourteen years ago. Something so established and familiar didn’t exist until very recently. The point I want to make is that changes seem scary but only from afar. In the end, this world is all about risk taking and change.

Another point about radical change is technology. It has evolved enormously during the last twenty years, not to mention the last hundred. Who could ever imagine in 1920, that humanity would be so intimately enmeshed in a global cybernetic network?

Yet, on the other side, how much have our societal and political systems change since then? It’s only fitting that a change of an equivalent radical degree is waiting to happen on how our societies work.

  1. There is some disagreement over this but here's a book that expands on agile requiring the appropriate mindset. 

  2. Elected is many times better than not elected, yet still not good enough. 

  3. In Ancient Athens, they didn't need to do that since slaves would do everyone's job, for free. In the modern world, until robots can do all jobs, I think it’s important that we do both products/services and politics. 

  4. The worst version of this absence of real discussion is attacking the opponent’s credibility, the one of the lowest quality of the techniques of persuasion. 

  5. Two elections, one for the local authority and one for the country-level authority. This is an average of western countries, but I assume it can also vary, as I'm not aware of all European political systems. Notable exception is Switzerland, in which multiple referendums take place and other direct democracy processes occur frequently. 

  6. I'm consciously avoiding the term political system here. 

  7. There are also indications that people will behave as you expect them to. I expect them to make serious, responsible decisions that will affect the whole. 

  8. Trump prompted the police to not be too nice to the people protesting for rudimentary justice

  9. Max Weber coined the term in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Protestant work ethic is the principle that hard work and discipline are a righteous person's driving ideals. 

  10. It is neither accidental nor satisfactory that young smart people allow themselves to become absorbed by the realms of academia or industry rather than politics. 

  11. This is another iteration of the famous Churchill quote that helps us accept the inadequacy of the status quo: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." 

  12. I learned that from this very interesting video on security by Oliver Thorn.