THE AXIOMS OF DEMOCRACY

February 4th, 2013 by Darin Robbins

There are basic premises that direct democracy is built upon in order to be the most effective way to organize society and collective action.

In the multiple debates and discussions about democracy, specifically direct democracy, there has been attempts to define it. Or at the very least, to distill what is its most basic principles and the traits that exist in all forms of democracy. The major obstacle to this analysis, and the discovery of the axioms of democracy, is that the American tradition has been more about representative democracy than direct democracy. The emphasis on representative democracy is based on the inherent belief at the time that direct control by the people was dangerous and that direct democracy was nothing more than mob rule. This was used as an excuse for the landed and propertied class of the American colonies to recuperate the freedom gained by the American Revolution and redefine it through the lens of limited government and natural rights. The theory of natural rights proposes that there are certain rights that are outside of the decisions of any government, or any changes that could be made by a democratic body. Thus, they are inalienable rights. However, it can be argued that the purpose of natural rights do not necessarily need the institution of a representative government that in the end perpetuates the power of the status quo and the elite that profit from it. On the contrary, representation can be an abstraction and alienation of the popular will, and is an almost impossible way to reflect what free people truly want in a collective sense. The result is that representative democracy reproduces the state and limits the possibility of democracy. In other words, there are axioms of democracy that exist outside of the decision making process of the particular democracy in question. These axioms, as first rules that are self evident and do not need to be explained, insures that the fear of mob rule does not actually happen in direct democracy. They are the foundation for how democracy has worked throughout history as the best way for a group of people to self-organize themselves. Enumerating these axioms will help to insure that the direct democratic tradition is able to refute the charges of mob rule that is so easily used against it in order to defend an existing hierarchy and power structure. The axioms of democracy are the founding rules that allow democracy to happen.

The first axiom of democracy is equality of participation. This idea, articulated by Jacques Ranciere, begins with the distinction between the police and the political. The police is the order of government that includes and excludes participants. This process of selective inclusion and exclusion is called the partition of the sensible, where only a few are allowed to speak and the identity of citizen is restricted. Since the public sphere is defined by the ability to speak as a form of participation, the political is in marked contrast to the police. The political is an expansion of the ability to speak and a universal inclusion of all those who were marginalized by the police order. The political is inherently democratic. Therefore, Ranciere states that the practice of democracy begins with the assumption that all are equal, and so the participation of all those who are equal is valid in the democratic process. Democracy does not make people equal, but expresses the preexisting equality through the right to participate in democratic decisions. What changes between the police and the political is the eradication of the partition of the sensible and how that partition is used as a method of control. In American history, the abolition of slavery is the best example of this equality of participation, where the exclusion of black people from the identity of not only citizens but human beings was done away with. Though the full effects of abolition was delayed severely by segregation, the idea that democracy begins with the equality of all those involved was very strong in the dedication and goals of the abolitionist movement. Equality of participation insures that any actual democratic process acts as a level playing field for its participants, and thus protects the rights of each member.

The second axiom of democracy is the empty sovereign position of authority. As proposed by Claude Lefort, each social grouping has a position of authority. This can be the role of leader or that of an expert, but it acts as the reflection of the total group identity. This position of authority, and its right of sovereignty, has a general perspective that accumulates all the particular viewpoints of each member of the group. The sovereign position of authority can be that of a king or a high priest, but in a democracy this position is empty. That means that any member of the group can fill this position, and in fact multiple people can take turns occupying this position. What this implies is that anyone in a democracy can be a leader or expert, and their role is only temporary since each person is just as eligible to be an authority as anyone else. There is no natural elite or aristocracy, those who would use the goal of getting things done or upholding the principles of the group as an excuse for the formation of hierarchy and centralization of control. In American history, the suffrage and enfranchisement movements are an example of this empty position of authority. Both the struggle to expand voting rights as well as the right to run for office already implies that in a democracy anyone has the right to take on these roles and make decisions that involve the general viewpoint or interest of the society rather than just isolated interests. The representative function of the position of authority is open to everyone, and dependent on the democratic process. These roles are in the long-term always an instrument of the democratic body and not the apex of power that can be seen in a monarchy or oligarchy. The empty sovereign position of authority is an organ of democracy, and in order to remain an organ that effectively does its job of reflecting the total perspective of the body, it must be filled temporarily and be open to all participants.

The third axiom of democracy is the social imaginary. Also called the imaginary institution of society, it was put forth by Cornelius Castoriadis as a way to explain the formation of the values that are shared by a society. These common values originate in the humans minds of the participants of that social group. Each member has desires and needs that are expressed collectively as a set of solutions to problems. Democracy allows each participant to express an idea that is then manifested by the democratic process. The inherent equality of democracy insures that the input by the imagination of the individuals is never overpowered by one person or faction. In other words the collective action of a democracy, the changes it makes in the world, begins with the human mind and what that mind can imagine as individuals. The democratic process is the method by which individual ideas become collective action, and as such it is a tool rather than an institution that forces individuals to conform to a constant majority rule. The best example of the social imaginary can be found not in any specific historical movement but in the workings of parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules Of Order. Both of these methods organize collective activity in order to make sure that each person has the ability to propose an idea or action, an idea or action that of course comes from their own individual power of their imagination. Therefore, democracy is a collective expression of human autonomy and self-determination. It is a form that facilitates the content of the human mind.

These three axioms all converge to set the stage for democracy. They allow direct democracy to happen and be effective. The actual process of democracy, regardless of whether it is the economic democracy of cooperatives or the political democracy of the New England town meeting or the democratic education of the Summerhill school, all have the common theme of immanence. Immanence can best be defined as the opposite of transcendence, where all actions are internal to the group in question. That means that there is an internal formation of change, an internal equality of parts, and an internal causality of relationships. All action and control begins with those who participate in the group. Democracy as an immanent structure is a direct challenge to transcendent forms of organization that is controlled by an external force such as a king or god. When a democracy is truly immanent, it elaborates on the three axioms. And as a democracy begins with equality of participation, the empty sovereign position of authority, and the social imaginary it results in autogestion, horizontalism, and subsidiarity. Autogestion is self-management, and is a lack of hierarchy when decisions are made. It is the extension of one’s individual freedom in the collective context. Horizontalism is when those who are affected by decisions have the ability to make those decisions. It is also in a collective context and allows an expansion of those who can participate based on the right to control one’s own destiny. Subsidiarity is the idea that the best decisions are made at the most local level. This complements democracy since it is at the local level that direct democracy is the most effective and where the choices of individuals matter most. All of these characteristics gives a proper description of what actually occurs with direct democracy. The application of these three axioms not only insures a well functioning democratic process, but also refutes the claim made by many that democracy is merely mob rule. The axioms check against the negative connotations and demonstrates that individual rights are protected without resorting to the limits and abstractions of a representative system. A representative system that constantly defers the will of the people. The nature of democracy must be understood in order to practice democracy, and the best way to teach democracy is to practice it.

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