What would real democracy look like?
In the debate over the Seanad we are faced with a choice between a totally undemocratic and elitist institution selected, you can’t really call it elected, by only 1% of the population and increasing the power of an unaccountable, unchecked Daíl full of privileged politicians who also don’t represent ordinary people. We reject this false choice and call, like the great Indignados movement in the Spanish plazas for ‘Real Democracy Now!’.
This raises the question of what kind of institutions would make real democracy possible. To answer it let’s begin by looking at what makes our current institutions – and not only ours but the American Congress, the British House of Commons, the German Bundestag and all these so-called democratic parliaments – in reality such farcical talking shops.
The first factor is that politicians are highly privileged. TDs are paid €87,258 with generous expenses and allowances on top and many of them get extras such as the Party Whip gets an additional €17,458 and the Taoiseach is paid €185,350(compared to €163,000 for the British PM and €171,000 for the French President). This level of privilege, which goes hand in hand with status and ‘connections’, makes politicians out of touch with those they claim to represent and attracts opportunists who are in it to line their own pockets.
The second factor is that politicians are basically unaccountable. They make promises at elections and then break them once they get in (Labour are specialists in this). They do this because they know there is no real way their constituents can hold them to account except after five years when they can go to the electorate again as part of a party machine with a fresh set of fake promises, designed to fool the electorate.
The third, and perhaps most important factor, is that the TDs, MPs, Senators or whoever they are, do not actually control the state or the economy and therefore do not really run society at all. Decisive physical force is in the hands of the armed forces and the police which are not democratic at all but are officered by people closely tied to the elite, the rich and big business. Decisive economic power, which in the long run is even more important, is in the hands of the giant corporations and banks which are controlled by a tiny minority of the super rich like Denis O’Brien with his personal fortune of over €4 billion (that’s 100,000 times as much as the annual earnings of the average worker!). This state of affairs is basically the same in all western societies and between them these people run the parliaments much more than the parliaments run them. So no matter whom you vote for the system remains the same.
But each of these factors can be remedied and real democracy is possible. TDs and all elected deputies should simply be paid the average worker’s wage so that they live the same life style and experience the same difficulties as the people who they represent. The right wing will claim that unless we pay high salaries we won’t attract ‘the best’ people. This reverse is the case: deputies willing to serve for an average wage will be far better representatives of the people than those in it for the money.
Then all elected representatives should be made accountable by being subject to regular recall by the electors. This doesn’t and can’t happen in the present system because the electors are not organised and have no connection with each other – instead they vote as atomised individuals at elections called from above by the government. What is needed is election by collectives who meet together regularly and to whom the TD or representative is accountable – i.e election by popular assemblies. Then if the politician broke their promises or went against the will of the people they could easily be removed by a simple vote.
The best base for these popular assemblies would be meetings in large workplaces where people already form collectives. Imagine all the workers in each factory, hospital, call centre, business headquarters, bus station, school, college etc met once among to elect, reelect or recall their delegate to a local or town council and that council in turn sent delegates, also recallable, to a national council. Once such a structure was in place it could easily be expanded to secure representation for all the other sectors among the people, like pensioners, the unemployed, carers, self employed, students, young people and so on.
But if the national council elected in this way is really going to run society democratically it has to be in control of the key economic institutions and centres of wealth – the banks and major industries. These would have to be nationalised i.e. become the collective property of the state, but they would also have to be run democratically by their workers not by highly bureaucrats as at present. This could be done by electing management teams in much the same way and on the same principles as the election of political representatives. State officials – army officers, judges, police chiefs etc - could also be elected and made accountable to the democratic councils.
For those of us accustomed to the rule of politicians like Charlie Haughey, Bertie Aherne, Brian Cowan and Enda Kenny (or Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama), politicians who enrich themselves while serving the even richer, all this can sound outlandish and revolutionary.
It is not outlandish because it would be very simple and transparent to operate and because the beginnings of a system like this have started to develop not only in the occupations of the Spanish squares in 2011 but whenever working people have risen up against the system and tried to take control of society such as in the Paris Commune of 1871 or the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (where the democratic councils were called ‘soviets’ – simply the Russian word for council) or in Spain in 1936 or Chile in 1970-73 or, indeed, in Ireland with the Limerick Soviet of 1919 .
But it is revolutionary. The only thing less likely than the Daíl voting for such system – Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas – would be the Denis O’Briens, the Michael O’Learys and the Richie Bouchers agreeing to it. Nothing short of real people power – mass mobilization on the streets and in the workplaces – would needed to make such genuine democracy a reality.