Democracy gives people the power to vote out a government which they do not like, and to install an alternative. It is a vital defence of liberty, and it is at risk.D13

Some previous civilisations, including the Ancient Greeks, have had long periods of democracy, in which citizens were qualified to vote. Theirs was a slave-owning democracy. Ours—in the industrially developed world—is an energy-owning democracy, with political standing underpinned by widely-available access to energy, the equivalent of many slaves working for each citizen night and day.D14 Democracy depends on the assumption that electors have some power and standing in the state which cannot be spoken for by others. As citizens’ access to energy unravels, loss of political power is likely to follow.

Democracy is necessary for our freedoms, but it is fragile and, among its flaws, here are five:

1. “The majority support it” is not a sufficient argument from which to conclude that a policy is advisable or just. For instance, a decision to kill all people whose name is Stephen and to redistribute their assets among everyone else could be considered rational, in that it would make the majority wealthier. This is not a merely theoretical point. Totalitarian regimes—the Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany—have all depended on large-scale support for the vision they propose, although some minority groups are invariably singled out for punishment. This support becomes strained in later years, but it is there, and the regime does all it can to reinforce it. Its existence is seen as proof of the justice of what it is taking such pains to achieve, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is written as a warning of this deception. Democracy, he shows, is not a sufficient defence of liberty; on the contrary, liberty depends on its own vigorous and perceptive defence, especially if there is a democracy in place complacently insisting that it is taking care of all that. Democracy is both a child and parent of liberty, but will let it down if given half a chance.D15

2. Democracy does not recognise any right of franchise for future generations, even though their interests are affected by decisions taken in the present. Nor does it recognise any right of franchise for past generations, who had an interest in their genetic and cultural bequest to the present. In fact, there is a notional case for giving the vote to the unborn: an independent Responsible Legacy Panel (RLP), with a substantial block vote, could represent the interests of future generations; a Responsible Inheritance Panel (RIP) could represent past generations in the same way. As Edmund Burke reminds us,

it is only those who listen to the dead who are the fit guardians of the unborn . . .D16

. . . for what the dead gave us is the whole of our cultural language, enabling us to exist as a society. Perhaps a block vote might be taking matters too far, but the two panels could be required to publish meticulously-researched and serious manifestoes before each election, and to bring another voice, a deeper debate and a source of judgment to the unchallenged platitudes that precede elections in which just one generation gets the privilege of the vote.

Democracy has the potential to support good judgment, since it recruits talent and is accountable, but the combination of reductionist thinking and an ethic strongly biased towards the present impairs its ability to steer a complex civilisation along the desired path of sustainability. At the time when the right to vote was being extended, this possibility was discussed at length by historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, and with more brevity, by Flinders Petrie:

When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority, and the civilisation steadily decays.D17

3. Elected governments are free to take huge, society-transforming action, such as opening its borders or surrendering powers to other states, about which there has been no democratic discussion or vote. The reasons behind election wins have more to do with things like the need for a change of government, given the evident failures of the previous one, than they are about considered discussion and approval of what the new government will actually do. There is in fact a case for this freedom to decide without consultation—Edmund Burke argued that electors should elect representatives, not policies; but in practice, they elect neither. Even the representatives themselves have little say in the executive decisions, and the large scale on which democratic government operates means that decisions are disconnected from the local presence necessary for right judgment.D18

In fact, democracy gives a strong mandate to governments to get involved in the life of the political economy that elected them. It invites the government to reinvent itself as management and service provider, and voters to reinvent themselves as customers. And it inherits a long and hard-to-reverse history of intensification, relying on overall principles and bureaucratic regulation—that is, usurping the direct participation and presence of citizens and building failure into the systems they control.

4. Democratic debate is drawn to reductionist thinking; it addresses symptoms, one at a time. Non-democracies may be as bad, or worse, in this respect, but it is exactly the wrong way to treat a complex system. Democracy’s potential for careful systems thinking is undeveloped. As a general rule, it feels more comfortable with—as Bernard Crick puts it—“idiot simplification”.D19

The process of selecting representatives is biased towards those with a clearly-pronounced mindset—a bundle of views which sit comfortably within an electable party. Passionate reductionism, often fuelled by resentments, is typical, but is not representative of the population as a whole, by whom it is seen as a misfortune. The best hope for the sufferer is a lifetime of palliative care in politics, where, with luck, it will not be noticed, for the men and women there are as mad as he.D20

5. A political class may develop, to which most politicians belong, whichever party is in power, providing a guarantee that the political elite’s interests will be well-represented, so that it does not matter too much to them whether they are in government or not. Voting the government out will have no effect: it will just produce a reshuffle of the people you would like to get rid of. Proportional representation may in some situations provide particularly good growing conditions for this.D21

But these are wrinkles in the democracy we already have. The heart of the matter is the democracy we will have, or will want to have, in the local communities of the future. It can come as a shock to realise that the representative democracy that we know is a rather feeble compromise, imposed by the scale and centralisation of the modern state. Democracy began with direct decision-making: not voting for decision-makers, but getting together to decide.


Related entries:

Commons, Groups and Group Sizes, Virtual Crowd, Reciprocity and Cooperation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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