This series of posts offers commentary on the first and last paragraphs of John Burnheim’s “A First Approach to the Issues”, from the introduction to his book Is Democracy Possible? The Alternative to Electoral Politics. [Hyperlink takes you to the entire book online.] Burnheim’s thought leads directly to the practice of Sovermian demarchy and to the framework of our constitution.
Burnheim (1927- ) was a Catholic priest for nearly two decades before leaving the Church, and is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Sydney, Australia.
“Democracy does not exist in practice. At best we have what the ancients would have called elective oligarchies with strong monarchical elements”.
This quickly becomes painfully self-evident to anyone examining — and certainly to anyone living in — the Western democracies of the present. We know that a majority of eligible citizens don’t even vote on most of the dozen or so occasions that arise in an average lifespan to elect a president or prime minister. Participation in elections for other less visible public offices is generally even less.
One clue to the direction Burnheim will take lies in his reference to “the ancients”. Though citizenship in Athens excluded large numbers of its residents (women, slaves, foreigners), those who could vote — free adult male citizens who had completed their military training — could also participate directly in their own governance. In actuality, this amounted to at most no more than 30% of the population, so that one can both easily and justly critique such low rates of enfranchisement. But anything resembling Athenian direct democracy — the ability to vote in person and speak in assembly — remains alive in the present only in small town-council meetings in some communities in the U.S. today. (Athenian citizens were not merely permitted but expected to take part in ten gatherings of the Assembly each year — and in some periods were paid for attending.)
Nor has technology solved the problem. While we could now easily permit direct voting by millions, the ability not merely to assent to another’s proposal or candidacy but to initiate either oneself still lies outside our means.
Next: most discussions of democratic theory rarely question generally low, largely passive and infrequent citizen participation (to say nothing of significant dis-enfranchisement as it continues to occur in the U.S. with absurd voter laws, gerrymandering, etc.) but …
* * * * * * * * *
NOTE: Individual posts express the opinions and perspectives of the author and do not necessarily reflect official Sovermian policy or practice, unless explicitly indicated as such in a particular post.