What’s wrong with the democracy we’ve got?

How we make decisions is the key to how our society is organised. It influences every aspect of our lives including our places of work, local communities, health services, and even whether we live in war or peace.

Many of us have been brought up to believe that the western-style system of voting is the highest form of democracy. Yet in the very nations which shout loudest about the virtues of democracy, many people don’t even bother to vote any more; they feel it doesn’t actually make any difference to their lives as most decisions are made by an elite of powerful politicians and business people.

Representative democracies

Power and decision making is taken away from ordinary people when they vote for leaders – handing over power to make decisions to a small elite with completely different interests from their own. Being allowed to vote 20 times in a lifetime for an MP or senator is a poor substitute for having the power ourselves to make the decisions that affect every aspect of our lives.

In any case, there are many areas of society where democratic principles have little influence. Most institutions and work places are entirely hierarchical – students and employees don’t usually get a chance to vote their superiors into office or have any decision making power in the places where they spend the greatest part of their lives. Or consider the supermarket chain muscling its way into a town against the will of local people. Most areas of society are ruled by power, status and money, not through democracy.

What’s wrong with voting?

Compared to this, working in a small group where everyone votes directly on important issues may feel like having democratic control. However, voting creates a majority and a minority – a situation in which there are winners and losers. If most people support an idea then it will be voted in, and the concerns of the people who opposed it can be ignored. This situation can foster conflict and distrust as the ‘losers’ feel disempowered by the process.

The will of the majority is seen as the will of the whole group, with the minority expected to accept and carry out the decision, even if it is against their deeply held convictions and most basic needs. A majority will find it easy to steam-roll an idea over a dissenting minority rather than looking for another solution that would suit all. People might sometimes choose to bow to the will of the majority, but, in a voting system, when people constantly find themselves in a minority they lose control over their own lives. A vivid example is the imprisonment, in many European ‘democracies’, of those refusing military service.

It’s true that majority voting enables even controversial decisions to be taken in a minimum amount of time, but that doesn’t mean to say that this decision will be a wise one, or even morally acceptable. After all, at one time, the majority of Europeans and North Americans supported the ‘right’ to hold slaves.

The alternatives are already here

We have these moments of non-capitalist, non-coercive, non-hierarchical interaction in our lives constantly, and these are the times when we most enjoy the company of others, when we get the most out of other people; but somehow it doesn’t occur to us to demand that our society work this way.

Many people accept the idea that voting is the ‘normal’ way of having democratic control over the decisions that affect us – after all, it is often presented to us as the only possibility out there. However, a rejection of voting is nothing new. Many people struggling for social change have recognised that changing the way we make decisions is key to creating a different society.

If we are fighting for a better society where everyone has control over their own life, where everyone has equal access to power, where it’s possible for everyone to follow their interests and fulfil their needs, then we need to develop alternative processes for making decisions; processes that recognise everyone’s right to self-determination, that encourage mutual aid and replace competition with co-operation.

The alternatives to the current system are already here, growing in the gaps between the paving stones of state authority and corporate control. We only need to learn to recognise them for the seedlings of the different kind of society that they are.

Homeless people occupying empty houses and turning them into collective homes, workers buying out the businesses they work for and running them on equitable terms, gardening groups growing vegetables collectively; once we start looking there are hundreds of examples of co-operative organising that we encounter in our daily lives. Many of these organise through varying forms of consensus decision making.