It’s very easy to mistake voting for democracy. We talk about voting all the time: for example when we’re in a group of people discussing several options someone will often say “my vote is for…” when announcing which option they prefer. But that’s all a vote is: a preference. Previous generations fought for and won the vote simply because that was what was denied them in the political process. We often confuse that with the fight for democracy. In fact, many academics refer to our system as republicanism rather than democracy for that simple fact. Democracy was and still is something much more than simply voting.
Of course some people died for the vote. So whenever we get the opportunity to vote it feels like we should because what was hard fought for can also be taken away. I won’t deal here with the fact that people have died for an awful lot of things that we don’t feel guilty about ignoring (I might at some point write a blog about joining a trade union because people died for those to exist). I think it’s safe to say that voting itself has become a byword for democracy rather than just a simple mechanism within it.
I would argue that democracy is so much more than just voting. In fact, in many examples voting gets in the way of democracy and actively prevents us from getting more involved as it is used as a means to an end which normally results in somebody else (a representative) being empowered, after which we tend to be shut out of the process. The recent first conference of the Civil Service Rank and File Network held debates where voting was only to be used if consensus could not be gained. Admittedly, the room was not packed and so consensus was perhaps easier to achieve than it might have been. But we shouldn’t assume that consensus is dependent on small groupings dealing with small issues. There are mechanisms within democratic thought that allow complex issues to be discussed en masse without recourse to simple voting.
One such method is to hold an indicative vote on an issue at the beginning of discussions to find out broadly how many people are in favour and how many people are against the motion being discussed. It is then possible to break into those two groups and work on a possible wording of the motion and debate the issue as two coherent blocs instead of a multiplicity of individuals. This means that each bloc of people works on gaining consensus on why they are for or against the motion and then when the two blocs meet up they can debate the motion with one nominated speaker from each. If consensus cannot be reached between the two blocs then ultimately a vote may have to be called. However, this should be by exception and hopefully the participants would react to the debate accordingly and actively seek consensus and compromise.
I was very interested to see last year a worldwide set of proposals put forward by the Occupy movement agreed via consensus democracy. This set of proposals had been drafted by individual groups of Occupy activists and agreed at higher councils to which the local groups were federated. Once it was agreed by everybody it was then syndicated around the world.
This is direct democracy in action and what I find interesting about it is how trained we’ve become to consider this as counterintuitive and unworkable. It is assumed that direct democracy will be slow, unwieldy, or simply impossible. We are taught that politics is about a clash of ideas that can never be resolved because of ideology and the constant threat of competing ideas and ultimately violence. It makes you wonder why anybody ever tries to convince anybody else of their opinions. But these examples show a different way. They show that consensus is possible and that there are methods for federating it upwards to the global level. Thinking about this positively it seems to me that there is a world of possibilities here if only we were offered the opportunity to explore them.
What I’m finding with getting involved with activism within my trade union and in the outside world is that these possibilities do exist. I think the reason why the Civil Service Rank and File Network conference felt so positive for me was that everybody embraced the idea behind building consensus and made it work. It meant that attendees could freely give ideas knowing that nobody else would shoot them down in flames. A difference of opinion was a reason to listen. This I feel is the way forward not just in trade union activism but within the way we live our lives generally. If we can mimic this kind of activity within our unions there might be a chance one day that we can put this way of working actually into our daily lives, including at work. Perhaps the dream of a horizontal structure without masters or bosses isn’t so unrealistic after all.