Rediscovering Democracy

Photo: Korean Resource Center

Political and economic systems can be designed just like gardens. We can design them in such a way that they will allow simple, harmonious living with nature, without much bureaucracy. It is not written in stone that there must even be taxes. Taxes are very practical, but, for example, Native Americans managed to do just fine without them for hundreds of years. And they did create a country, the Iroquois Confederacy can be considered as one. I’m not suggesting we get rid of taxation, my point is only that it’s not an obligatory feature of a design. Many people see governments with ministers and presidents as the only way of ruling a country, even in democratic systems. It may seem that since all countries are now ruled by some form of government – parliamentary, presidential or monarchal – it must have always been like that. Well, it wasn’t.

Swords and spears

Let’s begin this story in the age before kings. Not so long ago, in the 6th century, dozens of tribes lived on the lands around the Vistula river in Central Europe. Romans called these lands Terra Incognita – the Unknown Lands – as they were a blank spot on their maps. People settled there along the rivers. They were farming, fishing, hunting and gathering crops in the forests. They grew wheat, rye, millet, barley, beans, and had cherry trees, apple trees, plums and peaches. They kept sheep, pigs, cows and horses. They were the Slavic peoples. There was no country there at that time. People lived in small groups and if there was an issue that the community wanted to deal with, a meeting of the all members of the community was held. The leader was chosen only at a time of war, to lead the defense of their lands from invaders. This simple political system is now called a war democracy.

For some strange reason Slavic peoples were fighting not just with the occasional invaders or robbers, but also among themselves. There were also signs of cooperation however – a 100 km long, fortified wall with moats was built by several tribes to protect themselves (the remains of this wall still exist today). Due to frequent wars a group of farmers or hunters became professional warriors. This is a crucial moment in human history. A community transferred some of its original power to a small group of people who became a military elite, a squad stronger than the rest of the community. Their original job was to protect the settlement, but some squad leaders realized that they had power not only to defeat the enemies, but also to dominate their own communities. It was a physical power, a power of sword and spear. The squad leader called himself a lord, a prince, the one who will set the rules – and whoever didn’t want to obey his orders could be eliminated. And many communities did obey.

In the 10th century a prince from the Polans tribe, decided that he wanted to extend the area of his influence. He wasn’t satisfied with merely ruling his own tribe. He wanted more. He had the same kind of sickness as the kings of men in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – he wanted more power. So the prince gathered his troops and started to conquer his neighbours, successfully. At the end of his life he almost doubled the area of his princedom. You might expect that historians will condemn the ruthless acts of tyrannizing and killing people for the pride of some prince. But, actually, no. They call it the unification of a country.

It’s participatory democracy, or the alternative…

Click pic for full view. Courtesy: Throbgoblins

At that time of history, in the Middle Ages, if you wanted to justify your power, what could you do? There was no United Nations to turn to. The prince had an idea. He decided to baptize his country. It was very clever. Since he was baptized, he was not a pagan anymore and the kings from the neighourhood didn’t have a legal reason to attack his lands. And, he had to be recognized among the Christian rulers as a lawful one. What’s more, he could now receive a crown from the pope. This was really a big thing. It was believed at that time that the power to rule a country came from God, and if you were a king it meant you were chosen by God himself and everyone had to listen to you. Although he didn’t become a king, his son managed to do just that.

Now, in a traditional monarchy all the land is the personal property of a king. The king owns all natural resources, all forests, rivers, wild animals, rocks, everything. He is the lord of all people, their father and the highest judge. People were obliged to grow food for him and to provide him with goods and services. His power and his country could have been inherited by his family. Like a set of plates or a house. That was quite a change from the tribal rules where the land was common and people were free.

Since it wasn’t easy for one person to rule a whole country without telephones and the internet, the king decided to lease some of the land to his trusted colleagues, in exchange for keeping his power there. In this way feudalism was born and aristocrats, barons and landlords with it. There is no doubt that for the privileged ones this system was very beneficial. They didn’t have to do anything. They didn’t work. Yet, they received all they needed just because of their social status. You know, I’m sometimes tired with capitalism in Poland and I wish it could be gone as soon as possible, along with the whole concept of the industrial society. But we’ve had capitalism in Poland, in its present form, for only 20 years. Just 20! And think about feudalism. It lasted in Europe for some 1,200 years. The last feudal system of government in Europe was abolished on the 9th of April 2008 on the Sark Island in the English Channel. That’s just a year ago….

The collapse of feudal systems and monarchies in Europe started with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Next there was a time of Napoleon, World War I and the rise of communism, World War II and the division of the world into spheres in US or Russian influences, and at the end of the 20th century we have ended up with democratically elected governments in most parts of the world and capitalism as a dominant, global economic system. Although some countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Norway, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Japan or the Netherlands are still constitutional monarchies, the role of the monarch remains mostly symbolic. After many centuries, people can make decisions regarding their lives, for themselves, once again.

What is a democracy, anyway?

Bill Mollison writes:

In very recent societies, our basic ‘right’ is to vote, form unions, protest, or go to law (i.e. to support professional classes). Truly basic rights to grow or protect forests, to build a shelter, grow food, or provide water from our roof areas are commonly denied by local or state regulations. – Bill Mollison “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”, p. 509.

We can change that. We can use rainwater and grey water, build our own house and even have free access to a small parcel of land. We can pass a law to protect the forests and to clean up the streams. In a democratic country we, the people, can pass any law we wish. That’s the whole point of a democracy.

Democracy means that people, not the king, set the rules – people govern the country themselves or by their elected representatives. Do you agree? Please read this definition again. If you still agree, then we have a problem, because many countries that claim to be democracies plainly are not. Take the USA, for example. The whole world watched the 2008 presidential election and cheered after the Americans chose Barack Obama. No, they didn’t. In the USA people vote for the electors, not the candidates. The electors who pledged to vote for Obama received the majority of votes, so he won. OK, but does it really matter since Obama is the president now? Oh, it does matter, it does…. In 2000 Al Gore received about half a million more votes in presidential elections than the candidate from the Republican party. It was the same Al Gore who later starred in the “Inconvenient Truth” and won the Nobel peace prize along with the IPCC. And who became the president? George W. Bush. The guy who received less votes. Furthermore, corporations and their lobbyists have such a strong influence on US politics that some people call this system a corpocracy – a country ruled by large private companies.

In Poland things are different. Private companies are not allowed to sponsor political campaigns. We choose our presidents directly. The election process is clear, transparent and if there is even a tiny problem, like someone tearing down posters in the night, it is reported in the mainstream media. When our representatives get elected, however, things get less wonderful. For example, a person can be elected to the parliament, because he promised to help fishermen to set higher limits for catching cod. Then, after the elections, the first law that this deputy passes is a complete ban on cod fishing on Polish Baltic sea. Can he do it? Yes, he can. And what can people who elected him do about it? Nothing. Our constitution guarantees that deputies cannot be influenced by the voters. It’s even worse. Even if this deputy wanted to help people who voted for him, his political party may force him to vote as the party wishes instead, even against his own will (or they throw him out). And you cannot get to the lower house of the parliament if you are not a member of a political party. So, since neither the deputies nor the president have to listen to the people who voted for them, how can they be called our representatives? That’s not a democracy at all. This design looks more like an elective monarchy.

There are other problems with choosing our representatives. Our favorite candidate may have a very green programme – he or she may promise to promote renewable energy, invest in public transportation and support soil restoration. But for some unexplained reason they may also wish to promote genetically modified food. We may not share this enthusiasm with the candidate, but we cannot cross out this single point from his proposal – we have to vote for the whole package. The ban on GMOs may be proposed by some radical right-wing candidate, so we have to choose the lesser evil. Why not vote only for the ideas and solutions that we fully support?

There’s one more thing – the very process of elections has become a beauty contest. Voters don’t bother to think about implications of the economic or social programmes proposed. Some may vote because of the color of somebody’s tie or the cut of a dress. Some candidates don’t reveal details of their plans at all, or, they suggest solutions they know don’t make any sense, however they do so to receive more votes. This whole system promotes irresponsibility and short-sightedness. And even if people did elect a candidate who decided to implement sustainable solutions to change the current course, they may oppose them. They may not want to go to work on a bus, they may prefer to drive their SUVs. Why pay more for electricity generated from coal? I don’t want to pay more for that! The reason for this is that they didn’t think it over themselves and these new policies are imposed on them. Even if it is done by the candidate they have chosen themselves, people may feel resentful.

Do you know that there were no political parties in the early days of US congress? There were no Democrats, no Republicans, not even a Green Party. There was a legal restriction on formation of political parties. Why? To keep partisan interests out of politics. To be honest I don’t see what role political parties can play in a democratic system. There can be think-tanks promoting different opinions on economy or on various social issues, and I don’t suggest a ban, but I just can’t imagine why political parties need to exist. Perhaps they could be associations of people who have a similar world view, who meet for a chitchat over tea. But real discussions and decision-making takes place during open community meetings. It doesn’t matter who is in favor of which political party. All that matters is whether the idea presented is good or not.

In a democratic design people have a direct say in all issues that they wish to have a say in. What’s more, if people decided to invest in public transportation and to introduce a carbon tax, it means that they discussed this issue in their community. They understand the pros and cons, they have consulted on this with experts. They have digested the whole subject on their own and they have come up to a solution that they understand and accept. That’s something very different from voting for a candidate from a TV commercial.

Democracy means meeting together, like in the old days, before kings. It is discussing the matters of your community and taking free decisions. It means that all people can have a say no matter what their sex, color of skin, social status or religion is. If we agree on this, then we have to make some amendments in history books. In school text-books it says that there was a democracy in ancient Greece, in Athens for example. But, guess what… women and slaves didn’t get to vote.

Rule of the interest

Community-based democracy is a time-consuming thing. It’s not as easy as voting once every 4 years and then just watching the news and criticizing politicians while drinking beer in a pub. That’s one of the reason for leaving it all to our representatives.

When we were thinking how to design the process of decision-making in our city, the burning question was (and still is): how many people will come for the meetings? If only 1% of the citizens will come, would this vote be valid? Perhaps the remaining 99% of citizens would have a different opinion? And what about the city council? More than 60% of citizens took part in electing them, so they may have the right to decide on their behalf. The answer to this is pretty simple: the 99% of the citizens who didn’t come for the meeting, didn’t come most probably because they didn’t care about the issue. The 1% of those who did show up was interested in it, and since only they care about it, they have the right to make this decision (we assume that all citizens will receive a printed calendar of events to their mailbox, so they would all know about the meetings, and a major vote on a budget will take place only once a year, and small meetings would be scheduled on specific issues, such as selling public land for private investments). Here is an example: I may be deeply concerned about what happens with the woodland around the archeological site in our city. There are some plans to “revitalize” this area, and I would like to keep it as it is (I’ve seen a deer there, in the middle of the city!). So I would definitely come for the meeting about this issue. However, if there was a meeting about leaking roofs in the communal flats, I wouldn’t show up, because that’s not really something that I’m interested in, and I would leave it to the people who live in these flats. Certainly, some people may be on vacation or really busy at work, so an additional voting time could be scheduled for them.

Now, regarding the role of the elected city council. If you start the community-based democracy with the existing law, it is all based on trust and cooperation between the city council and citizens. The candidate for the city mayor must have it made very clear that he or she will respect citizen’ decisions taken in open public meetings after being elected. That’s why it doesn’t matter that the mayor was elected by a larger number people than those who came for a meeting. He or she was elected because of the pledge to respect the choice of the people. So, if only 1% of citizens come for a meeting, then their decision is valid. Those who are interested in the issue decide.

Democratic country – a network of communities

How much independence should local communities have? Actually, that’s not the right question. In a democratic country we could ask instead: how much of our independence would we like to give away? It makes sense to have the same traffic laws for the whole country. It is reasonable to have a common foreign policy, tariffs or an army, if you wish to have an army at all (Costa Rica doesn’t have one). Some other basic laws could be country-wide and… that’s about it. I may be forgetting something, but there are not so many issues that it makes sense to set one law for for the whole country. If people wish to harvest rainwater in their community, they should be able decide about it locally. If they don’t want to harvest it, they should be able to make this decision as well. It may be against the law to sunbathe naked on the beach in one community, while in the other it may be perfectly legal. Why should the deputies decide about these things for the whole country? Why should some dude from the parliament who has never been in our city decide about the primary school curriculum? All these decisions should be left for the local communities. The formal name for the process of making more and more decisions on the local level is decentralization.

And people could decide on the country-wide issues in their communities as well. Hmm… it would be interesting to vote on the foreign policy of our country! I can already imagine the discussions that we would have: tell Putin that we don’t care about the missiles he has! He can place them along the whole border if he wishes to! Yeah, yeah! And what about this EU food policy? What do you mean we can’t process cheese they way we did for the centuries? It’s dirty? Who says so? And this French guy, what’s his name… ah, Sarkozy, when is he coming for the working visit? I heard he wants to ban GM food in the whole European Union. Oh, wonderful! We’ll get rid of this franken-corn at last! It would be fun. And if you ask who I would vote for regarding our country’s support for the 2016 Olympics candidate, it’s Madrid (1).

We are starting with small steps, however. First a democratic municipality, hopefully combined with a Transition initiative. Then we need more democratic communities in our country, lots of them. But people can establish them only by themselves, if they wish to. It all sounds like a chance for a real change and a step towards a good life. So we try.


  1. The official support of the Polish government goes for Chicago, but they forgot to ask us about our opinion.