Seven Billion Cheers for Direct Democracy
By Moti Nissani - Real (or direct) democracy provides the least-flawed way of governing countries, reform organizations, and institutions. In a real democracy, the people themselves make all major political, legal, and judicial decisions. To objectively evaluate the overwhelming evidence in favor of real democracy, we must overcome at least three conceptual barriers. A few highlights of ancient Athenian democracy show that Athens was far better governed than any contemporary “democracies.” Two recent referenda forcefully show that real democracy is just as effective in the contemporary world as it had been in ancient Greece.
Revolutionary strategists must ask themselves: How can we best structure our own movement? And: What kind of political framework should we aim for, once we relegate the Banking-Militarist Complex to the dustbin of history? The answer to both questions is the same: genuine (or direct) democracy.
Democracy, for the Greeks who coined the word, meant “power of the people” or “rule of the people.” Perhaps the best-known example of a genuine democracy in a highly-advanced, highly-literate, polity, is Athens and its sister democracies of Ancient Greece. There, all significant political, legal, and judicial decisions were made directly by the people. Democratic Athens went to war if, and only if, the majority so voted; a man was exiled, or condemned to death, if, and only if, his fellow citizens so decreed.
The USA, Britain, France—even better-governed Norway and Iceland—might or might not have free elections, but they are not democracies. As a result, in the USA, even when elections are not rigged, once in power, the winners routinely defy voters’ sentiments. Thus, for instance, most Americans did not wish go to war in 1917, were opposed to the colonization and pulverization of Iraq, and have never been in favor of their country’s ongoing program of biospheric carnage. But in a “democracy,” American style, the majority’s preferences are routinely ignored.
Eduardo Galleano whimsically captures the essence of contemporary “democracies:”
“The other day, I heard about a cook who organized a meeting of birds—chickens, geese, turkeys, peasants, and ducks. And I heard what the cook told them. The cook asked them with what sauce they would like to be cooked. One of the birds, I think it was a humble chicken, said: “We don’t want to be cooked in whichever way.” And the cook explained that “this topic was not on the agenda.” It seems to me interesting, that meeting, for it is a metaphor for the world. The world is organized in such a way that we have the right to choose the sauce in which we shall be eaten.” [my translation] <Juan O’Gorman, Enemies of the Mexican People>
Conceptual Barriers Against Genuine Democracy
Our task is not simply proving the superiority of genuine democracy to all other known political systems, but also letting go of ingrained prejudices.
Barrier 1: Cradle-to-Grave Propaganda System. Genuine democracy—along with compassion and rationality—pose the greatest threat to the enemies of the open society. No wonder then that since infancy we have been inculcated against it. We have been lied to incessantly about the virtues of the Roman republic on the one hand, and about the horrors of Greek “mob rule” on the other hand.
Barrier 2: Opposition of Intellectuals. Throughout the ages, genuine democracy has been laughed at by self-serving, brilliant, oligarchs. A historian of Ancient Greece, writing in 1900, remarks that “few sights are stranger” than the spectacle of some Athenian intellectuals and first-rate thinkers “turning their eyes from their own free country to regard with admiration the constitution of Sparta,” where a free thinker “would not have been suffered so much as to open his mouth.”
The self-serving falsification of the historical record continues to this very day. Karl Popper:
“The history of the Peloponnesian war and the fall of Athens is still often told, under the influence of Thucydides’ authority, in such a way that the defeat of Athens appears as the ultimate proof of the dangerous weaknesses of the democratic system. But this view is merely a tendentious distortion, and the well-known facts tell a very different story. The main responsibility for the lost war rests with the treacherous oligarchs who continuously conspired with Sparta. . . . The fall of Athens, and the destruction of the walls, are often presented as the final results of the great war which had started in 431 B.C. But in this presentation lies the main distortion, for the democrats fought on. At first only seventy strong, they prepared under the leadership of Thrasybulus and Anytus the liberation of Athens, where Critias was meanwhile killing scores of citizens; for during the eight months of his reign of terror the death-role contained nearly a greater number of Athenians than the Peloponnesians had killed during the last ten years of war.”
“But after eight months (in 403 B.C.) Critias and the Spartan garrison were attacked and defeated by the democrats who established themselves in the Piraeus, and both of Plato’s uncles lost their lives in the battle. Their oligarchic followers continued for a time the reign of terror in the city of Athens itself, but their forces were in a state of confusion and dissolution. Having proved themselves incapable of ruling, they were ultimately abandoned by their Spartan protectors, who concluded a treaty with the democrats. The peace re-established the democracy in Athens. Thus the democratic form of government had proved its superior strength under the most severe trials, and even its enemies began to think it invincible.” <Thrasybulus receiving an olive crown>
Moreover, the writings of the enemies of democracy have been deliberately preserved, while the writings of the friends of democracies, from Democritus to Thomas Paine to Subcomandante Marcos to Gerald Celente, have been incinerated or ignored by the powers that be. We are thus left with the impression that most creative thinkers have been opposed to genuine democracy.
Barrier 3: The Ruling Faction of America’s Revolutionaries was thoroughly Anti-Democratic. For Americans, there is still one more conceptual barrier to acceptance of genuine democracy. Some founding fathers were genuine democrats, but the winning faction falsely (and self-servingly) equated democracy with mob rule.
Americans are taught to admire the revolutionary founders of their republic. Americans are not, however, often reminded how averse some of these founders were to the Bill of Rights, how they proceeded to betray their countrymen by establishing the Rothschild-controlled First Bank of the United States, how they brutally suppressed popular uprisings, and how close they came, during the Adams presidency, to establishing a dictatorship. These betrayals have been glossed over by the official record, so Americans find it hard to believe that such courageous, principled, and brilliant men chose a second-best political system for their contemporaries and descendants.
Some of the advantages of genuine democracy are immediately apparent. Unlike contemporary western republics, in Athens promises to the people could not be as readily broken, for the people were always in charge. Influential Athenians (especially the oligarchic variety) were just as bribable as their contemporary western counterparts, but in a system where real power, at any given moment, resided with the citizenry, the damage was more limited. The information system in Athens was never taken over by the oligarchs. Athenians breathed cleaner air, drank chemical-free water, and ploughed healthier soils for their sustenance; their schools were private (not state-run), and they exercised daily; they were thus in better mental and physical shape than contemporary Americans. Hence, in Athens, human beings came close to their truer intellectual, artistic, and civic potential. In a genuine democracy like Athens, dissident organizations could not be readily co-opted, elections and trials could not be as readily rigged, and politically-motivated assassinations were rare. Overall, the Athenian system served the public interest far better than American oligarchy.
The ancient Greeks recognized the link between genuine democracy and greatness. The historian Herodotus, himself not an Athenian, clearly perceived the causal connection between freedom and excellence
“Thus did the Athenians increase in strength. And it is plain enough, not from this instance only, but from many everywhere, that freedom is an excellent thing; since even the Athenians, who, while they continued under the rule of tyrants, were not a whit more valiant than any of their neighbors, no sooner shook off the yoke than they became decidedly the first of all. These things show that, while undergoing oppression, they let themselves be beaten, since then they worked for a master; but so soon as they got their freedom, each man was eager to do the best he could for himself. So fared it now with the Athenians.”
Pericles, an influential Athenian before and during the Peloponnesian War, put it this way: :
Our political system does not compete with institutions which are elsewhere in force. We do not copy our neighbors, but try to be an example. Our administration favors the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy. The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit; and poverty is no bar. . . The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and do not feel called upon to nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way. . . But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right. . .”
“Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner. . . We are free to live exactly as we please, and yet are always ready to face any danger. . . We love beauty without becoming extravagant, and we cultivate the intellect without lessening our resolution. . . To admit one’s poverty is no disgrace with us; but we consider it disgraceful not to make an effort to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect public affairs when attending to his private business. . . We consider a man who takes no interest in the state not as harmless, but as useless; and although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. . . We believe that happiness is the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, and we do not shrink from the danger of war. . . To sum up, I claim that Athens is the School of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian grows up to a happy versatility and to a readiness for varied emergencies—to self-reliance.”
Unlike the United States, which has always fostered oligarchic governments in its empire, the Athenians fostered genuine democracies in theirs.
Athenian lawmakers understood human weaknesses, and they knew from bitter experience how bribery could undermine justice. Obviously, it is easier to bribe, and deform a passion for justice in, a judge than a jury, and hence, all trials were by a jury of one’s peers alone. The people, not paid experts, were deemed most qualified to decide judicial cases. There was no presiding judge telling people that their task was to serve an abstract law (as opposed to simple justice). Nor was there a jury-free appeal system, which often, in America, nullifies the people’s verdict.
But Athenian juries were definitely corruptible too; to circumvent that problem, juries in important cases were randomly selected from the entire citizen body and numbered 500 or more (roughly 2.5% or more of the total number of citizens). Often the caseload was too heavy, and so the number of jurors for each particular trial was reduced to fifty. Now, a rich man might try to bribe all fifty, so the legal system placed a safeguard against that eventuality: The decision as to which 50 jurors of the 500 would be assigned to any given case was made by lottery, just before the trial began.
The Athenians knew that power-seekers could not be trusted, so they filled many important public offices by lot. Moreover, most office holders maintained their positions for extremely short durations. Athens thereby bypassed, to a certain extent, a key problem in all other extant political systems: The ascendancy of the psychopaths.
The Athenians did not give their rich people tax cuts, thereby leading to an ever-growing mal-distribution of wealth. Athenians respected private property and wealth, but expected their leisure class to make greater contributions to the public, by sponsoring musical festivals or dramas (another Greek word), for example. When the majority decided to go to war, the rich had to risk their lives too. Moreover, in times of war, each rich man was expected to contribute one battleship to the navy of the city—that is where our word liturgy (public service; literally, a public building) came from.
The contemporary decline of republics like the USA or Italy can be explained in part by their system of banking and money creation. In these republics, the bankers in charge of money creation try to fabricate the impression that the private, for-profit, central banks are under public control. Witness for example the names they choose for their key institutions—Bank for International Settlements, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Federal Reserve, Bank of England, First Bank of the United States. In reality, these institutions are controlled by a few banking families. The politicians, media, the bought economic profession, pretend that these privately-controlled institutions serve the public interest, but the reality is the exact opposite: The only goal of these institutions is to further enrich and empower their owners, and they can only accomplish these goals by impoverishing and enslaving the vast majority. These institutions do not serve a nation—they parasitize it. They are worse than the black plague, because they never go away. Instead, they steadily, mercilessly, and incessantly devour their host. They are, by far, public enemy number one. This, along with the fraudulent fractional reserve system, permits the concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of the banking octopus and its military, academic, drug, death squads, industry, health, farming, and mining tentacles. It also permits destructive and deliberate manipulations of the money supply, and the devastating boom-and-bust economic cycles which further enrich and empower a few banking families and enslave the public at large. I shall have more to say about this banking plague elsewhere, but for the moment let me just say this: If I were forced to choose between the current rule of bankers, on one hand, or the rule of the Mafia, on the other, I’d choose the Mafia, any day, any time.
The Athenians, by contrast, did not have that parasitic fifth-column in their midst. They had access to plenty of silver in their own national territory, and the state (not private interests) issued the national silver or copper currency. The state did not accumulate debt as a matter of course, did not suffer the depredations of fractional reserve money creation, nor planned booms and busts. The Athenians thus avoided the horrors of a bankers-dominated economic and political system.
Another salient feature of Athenian democracy involved ostracism (their word). Athenian democrats well knew that their worst enemies were the oligarchs within their own walls. In rare cases, these traitors were brought to trial and executed. But the Athenians did try to live up to their ideal of moderation. Individuals who were deemed a threat to the democracy were selected by an anonymous vote of the assembly and ordered to leave the city for ten years. They retained their citizenship and possessions but were required to remain in exile. By law, only one person could be ostracized in any given year. As a matter of historical record, though, ostracism was rarely applied.
The remarkable political maturity, compassion, and tolerance of a free people can perhaps be best captured through two specific historical examples.
The first involves post-war reconciliation. A contemporary legal scholar holds that the first well-documented example of a “self-conscious transitional justice policy is provided by the classical Athenians’ response to atrocities committed during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants . . . The Athenians carefully balanced retribution and forgiveness . . . remembering and forgetting.”
Another historian comments on the same historical occurrence:
“In 404 BCE the Peloponnesian War finally came to an end, when the Athenians, starved into submission, were forced to accept Sparta’s terms of surrender. Shortly afterwards a group of thirty conspirators, with Spartan backing (“the Thirty”), overthrew the democracy and established a narrow oligarchy. Although the oligarchs were in power for only thirteen months, they killed more than 5 percent of the citizenry and terrorized the rest by confiscating the property of some and banishing many others. Despite this brutality, members of the democratic resistance movement that regained control of Athens came to terms with the oligarchs and agreed to an amnesty that protected collaborators from prosecution for all but the most severe crimes.”
Does this exceptional act of amnesty (their word) and forgiveness sound like mob rule?
Another touching example of Athenian greatness, of compassion in the midst of a struggle for national and personal survival, is related by Thucydides:
“Immediately after the invasion of the Peloponnesians all Lesbos [a Greek island], except Methymna, revolted from the Athenians. . . . However, the Athenians, distressed by the plague, and by the war that had recently broken out and was now raging, thought it a serious matter to add Lesbos with its fleet and untouched resources to the list of their enemies; and at first would not believe the charge, giving too much weight to their wish that it might not be true. But when an embassy which they sent had failed to persuade the Mitylenians to give up the union and preparations complained of, they became alarmed, and resolved to strike the first blow.” After a prolonged siege, the Athenians prevailed, and, at first, the assembly sent a trireme with the order to execute all the men of the rebellious island, and to enslave the women and children. The following day the assembly reconvened, and narrowly voted to overturn the first vote, and spare the lives of most Lesbians: “Another galley was at once sent off in haste, for fear that the first might reach Lesbos in the interval, and the city be found destroyed; the first ship having about a day and a night’s start. Wine and barley-cakes were provided for the vessel by the Mitylenian ambassadors, and great promises made if they arrived in time; which caused the men to use such diligence upon the voyage that they took their meals of barley-cakes kneaded with oil and wine as they rowed, and only slept by turns while the others were at the oar. Luckily they met with no contrary wind, and the first ship making no haste upon so horrid an errand, while the second pressed on in the manner described, the first arrived so little before them, that Paches had only just had time to read the decree, and to prepare to execute the sentence, when the second put into port and prevented the massacre. The danger of Mitylene had indeed been great.”
Ask yourself: Have the Roman or American republics just once behaved thus? And if not, isn’t it high time that we reclaim as our own a political system capable of such wartime wisdom and compassion?
Other Key Features of Athenian Democracy were:
- · Near economic self-sufficiency of the average household
- · A genuine free enterprise system (largely absent in modern so-called capitalist societies)
- · A less materialistic world view
- · A small state
- · Minimal taxation in times of peace
- · Involvement of the majority in civic affairs
Athens was certainly no utopia. Slavery was widespread and neither women nor foreigners enjoyed the full franchise. The Athenian Empire often exploited and lorded over its member states, at times brutally and even cynically suppressing defections. Influential Athenians were eminently bribable and often betrayed their city. Athenians seemed unable to conceive of a genuine union, on equal terms, with sister democracies, and were thus, in the end, enslaved by the Macedonian dictatorship. But Athens, I believe, still provides the best starting point for a free, rational, and compassionate society. We can copy its basic framework of genuine democracy, while avoiding its major weaknesses.
Two Modern Examples of Genuine Democracy in Action
In some contemporary republics, on rare occasions, the people are allowed to decide an issue directly (through a referendum), without massive rigging. In such rare democratic outbursts, the people often vote wisely. Here are two examples.
The Italian Demos vs. Nuclear Power
We have been warned about the menace of atomic energy right from the beginning of the nuclear age. Many years later, in 1977, for instance, Ralph Nader and John Abbot wrote:
“What technology has had the potential for both inadvertent and willful mass destruction . . . for wiping out cities and contaminating states after an accident, a natural calamity, or sabotage? What technology has been so unnecessary, so avoidable by simple thrift or by deployment of renewable energy supplies?”
When the decision is left to the psychopaths, they of course choose short-term gains and empowerment, even though a nuclear power plant may consume more energy than it produces! After them, they might think, is the deluge. But when the people are allowed to decide, they often make the right decision, the bankers’ propaganda avalanche notwithstanding:
“Italy is a nuclear free zone since the Italian nuclear power referendum of November 1987. Following center-right parties’ victory in the 2008 election, Italy’s industry minister announced that the government scheduled the construction to start the first new Italian nuclear-powered plant by 2013. The announced project was paused in March 2011, after the Japanese earthquake, and scrapped after a referendum on 12–13 June 2011.”
The Icelandic Demos vs. the International Bankers
The global economic crisis is now in its fourth year, and, the propaganda system notwithstanding, the situation is getting steadily worse. Real unemployment is nearing levels of the great depression while the middle class is steadily losing ground. Given the growing misery of the American people, one would think that the USA would stop its extremely costly wars of aggression, yet the United States is spending now even more on killing innocents abroad. One would think that the USA would dismantle its extremely costly police state apparatus, but the bankers and their puppets are actually spending more money on subjugating and humiliating the American people. One would think that, in such hard times, greater income equality would be attempted, but in fact the gap between the rich and poor has grown by leaps and bounds from 2008 to 2012. One would think that the DC mafia would permit the bankruptcy of the international banks that caused the crisis to begin with, and which, moreover, according to this mafia’s self-professed capitalist (let alone Christian) ideology, are too big to exist. But just the opposite is taking place: to prevent the deserved bankruptcy of these banks, our politicians (that is, the big bankers themselves or their pawns) have robbed the American people of trillions. Consequently, the economic hard times will continue unabated, or grow far worse, for years and years.
As of June 2012, there has been only one exception to this sad tale of gargantuan theft—Iceland. There, thanks to an inordinately courageous and decent president, the people were allowed to decide their fate, twice, despite the strenuous opposition of the international bankers. “These were private banks,” said Iceland’s president, “and we didn’t pump money into them in order to keep them going; the state did not shoulder the responsibility of the failed private banks.” The people voted and, consequently, Iceland is now in far better economic shape than countries such as Greece, Spain, or the USA. In Iceland, too, some bankers actually ended up paying for their crimes, and the country has, in the wake of the crisis, moved in a more democratic direction. The people of Iceland
“took a different path than the United States after their financial crisis and nationalized the banks, threw some the people responsible for the crash in jail, and bailed out the homeowners instead of worrying about only bailing out the banks. And now they’re coming back and their economy is growing again.”
Even the mainstream press, on the rare occasions when it covers the Icelandic story, underscores the fabulous potential of genuine democracy:
“Icelanders who pelted parliament with rocks in 2009 demanding their leaders and bankers answer for the country’s economic and financial collapse are reaping the benefits of their anger. Since the end of 2008, the island’s banks have forgiven loans equivalent to 13 percent of gross domestic product, easing the debt burdens of more than a quarter of the population . . . The island’s steps to resurrect itself since 2008, when its banks defaulted on $85 billion, are proving effective. Iceland’s economy will this year outgrow the euro area and the developed world on average . . . The island’s households were helped by an agreement between the government and the banks, which are still partly controlled by the state, to forgive debt exceeding 110 percent of home values. On top of that, a Supreme Court ruling in June 2010 found loans indexed to foreign currencies were illegal, meaning households no longer need to cover krona losses. . . . Iceland’s $13 billion economy, which shrank 6.7 percent in 2009, grew 2.9 percent last year and will expand 2.4 percent this year and next . . . The euro area will grow 0.2 percent this year and the OECD area will expand 1.6 percent, according to November estimates. . . . Iceland’s approach to dealing with the meltdown has put the needs of its population ahead of the markets at every turn. Once it became clear back in October 2008 that the island’s banks were beyond saving, the government stepped in, ring-fenced the domestic accounts, and left international creditors in the lurch. The central bank imposed capital controls to halt the ensuing sell-off of the krona and new state-controlled banks were created from the remnants of the lenders that failed. Iceland’s special prosecutor has said it may indict as many as 90 people, while more than 200, including the former chief executives at the three biggest banks, face criminal charges. . . . That compares with the U.S., where no top bank executives have faced criminal prosecution for their roles in the subprime mortgage meltdown.”
It is no accident that, when given a choice, the Italian people rejected nuclear power, despite massive false advertising by the moneylenders. It is no accident that, as of June 2012, the only country with any chance of escaping serfdom, Iceland, was able to do so through a referendum, despite massive false advertising by the moneylenders. What worked so well for the Ancient Athenians is obviously working just as well for any country choosing to give genuine democracy a chance.