Dysfunctional Democracy


The dysfunctional nature of the current political system – and, in particular, of democracy – has been thrown into sharp relief by recent events in Catalonia. In this brief essay, I’ll try to diagnose the problem, and to give a broad outline of a possible solution.

The Catalan situation

Here’s the background, as far as I can make it out. A desire for Catalan independence from Spain has been simmering since the 1920s. The Catalans were on the losing (Republican) side in the 1936-9 civil war. They and their culture were suppressed during the Franco years. After Franco’s death, they joined the new, democratic Spain as an autonomous region. But many Catalans, particularly on the political left, still wanted national independence; and this desire has grown over the decades. In 2006, matters came to a head when the Catalan parliament issued a new “statute of autonomy” for Catalonia, which was then overruled and modified by the Spanish parliament in Madrid.

The People’s Party, a right wing Spanish party which has been in power since 2011, but back in 2006 was in opposition, challenged the statute further in the Spanish constitutional court. When the court gave its verdict in 2010, it declared several of the articles in the already weakened statute to be unconstitutional. The results? More than a million people marched in protest in Barcelona. A series of symbolic referendums on independence were held in various parts of Catalonia. In 2014, a full referendum on independence was planned by the Catalans. The Spanish government tried to block the poll, but the Catalans went ahead with it anyway. It resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence, but a low turn-out. It seems that most of those opposed to independence boycotted the poll.

And so to 1st October 2017, the date set by the Catalan parliament for a binding referendum on independence, with a single simple question to be answered Yes or No: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The Spanish government, having already declared the referendum to be illegal, sent thousands of Spanish police to Catalonia. On the day, they raided polling stations, and used strong-arm tactics in an attempt to stop the poll. Several hundred people, along with some police, were injured in these raids.

But these police tactics didn’t manage to stop the poll. As in 2014, there was a big majority in favour of independence, but a low turn-out. It looks as if, again, most potential No voters stayed home; and it’s easy to understand why. During the following week, there were demonstrations in Barcelona both for and against independence. The consensus among pollsters seems to be that the population of Catalonia as a whole is split roughly down the middle on the issue.

My reaction is sympathy for those Catalans who want independence. For, other things being equal, a smaller political unit is more likely to deliver better and more responsive government to its people than a larger one. And the larger the number and the smaller the size of the political units in an area, the easier it is for people who find themselves oppressed in one place to find another place more congenial to them. People in the USA have known this for decades; if you don’t like California, you can move to Nevada or Texas.

But my sympathy for the Catalan separatists has been bolstered by recent events. For first, people have been subjected to strong-arm tactics for doing no more than expressing their views on the subject. And second, the Spanish government has acted, for many years now, in a high-handed way that is totally dismissive of the Catalans and their aspirations. While claiming that Spain is a democratic country, they have treated, and are continuing to treat, the Catalans in an undemocratic manner.

The problem

The way the current Spanish political system is, there’s no possibility of compromise on this issue. Catalan independence (or not) is an all or nothing decision, and whichever way it eventually goes, the losers will be angry. And even more so if there is evidence of bad faith in the matter by some of those concerned, such as the Spanish government.

It seems to me to be a major failing of democracy that it puts people into these all-or-nothing, polarizing situations. And the results can often be decided by a very slim margin. Last year’s Brexit vote in the UK, and Donald Trump’s election as US president, are examples. In both cases, the losers were (and still are) fuming and scheming. Yet, at least, people did get some kind of say in those decisions. Whereas the Catalan separatists are being denied a voice entirely. (Of course, I should add, Brexit isn’t done and dusted yet. And it may yet be that it’s those of us who voted Leave who will have reason to end up very, very angry).

Actually, democracy is often even worse than that. Political parties set out their stalls and their agendas, to tempt those they think are likely to vote for them. And when they get power, they seek to implement these agendas good and hard. Usually, they also do lots of other bad things they didn’t tell us about. Democracy has, in effect, transmuted the out of date doctrine of the “divine right of kings to rule” into a right of politicians and political parties to force their agendas on to people who don’t want them.

Where parties differ on policies, this often leads to a see-saw effect, with alternating periods of good and bad for the supporters of one party, or bad and good for everyone else. This leads to polarization of views among different groups of people. But where the parties agree on issues, it’s worse yet. When all the main parties support the same bad policies, such as heavy taxation or the green agenda, then everyone is subjected to them, and the people have no come-back. That can only lead to the people and the political class becoming polarized against each other. Thus any country, that uses “democracy” in its current form, will become more and more divided, and in the end is likely either to fall apart, or to descend into civil war or tyranny.

The solution

How to deal with these problems? I’m certainly not going to put forward monarchy or oligarchy as a solution. The EU and the UN have been steps in completely the wrong direction; they should be abolished. Fiddling with democracy within nations – proportional representation, and the like – doesn’t seem to address the real problems. Nor, I think, does anarchism offer any way forward.

But I think there’s a way out of the trap we’re all in. What we need to do is de-politicize government. We need to get rid of Big Politics and its agendas, and simply let people pick their friends and run their own lives in their own ways. We need to make a world of live and let live.

How could we do this? Well, part of the solution must be smaller governmental units. That’s why Brexit and Catalan independence are important. But they are only the first steps on the road. Devolving power to smaller and smaller units, like Swiss cantons or even individual towns and villages, is a necessary part of the fix. I think it may also have a side benefit of preventing concentration of military power, and so lowering the likelihood of warlike aggressions.

The other part of the solution is more radical. We need a way of deciding conflicts between individuals and groups from different jurisdictions. We need something which can function between individuals and groups as international law is supposed to between nations.

What can fulfil this function, I think, is a generally understood and agreed code which people should follow in their interactions with people and groups outside the particular societies they belong to. I call this the “convivial code.” (“Convivial” means “living together.” In my use of this word, I follow the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun.)

The convivial code, I think, will be simple and fairly brief. Here’s my shot at an outline of it. First, it will require each of us to respect the rights and freedoms of all those who themselves respect others’ rights and freedoms. Including such rights as life, security of person, property and privacy, and freedoms such as those of religion, thought and opinion, association and movement. Second, it will aim to provide objective justice for all, which I see as the condition in which no-one is treated, over the long run and in the round, worse than he or she treats others. Third, it will place on each of us a responsibility to compensate anyone to whom we do objective harm, if they ask for it. Fourth, it will require each of us to do all we can to fulfil our side of contracts we voluntarily enter into, as long as the other parties do the same. And fifth, if we choose to have children, it will require us to bring them up and educate them until they are able to function as adult human beings and to behave
according to the convivial code.

I envisage that, within limits, societies will be able to add to or vary the convivial code for the conduct of their members, as they see fit. Thus socialists or anarchists who don’t accept the idea of private property, for example, will be able to impose communal ownership of property within their communes. But the convivial code won’t allow them to do what socialist politicians do today, and forcibly take away the earnings of those who don’t want to be in a socialist commune.

In the long run, I think we can reach a position where all government is decentralized and local. Governments will continue to use the forms of law of their particular countries or regions. Societies of all kinds – including local communities, religious societies and businesses – will be able to legislate their own rules for members. And these may, and in many cases will, include some form of democracy, or voting to select the society’s leaders or the policies that the society will follow.

But all interactions between societies or their members, and people or groups outside, will be governed everywhere by the convivial code alone. It will not be allowed for any group to impose their agenda on anyone else; for such an imposition violates the convivial code. Thus, no-one will be forced to live under any political or religious ideology they don’t like. And any conduct which violates the convivial code – for example, the recent actions of Spanish police and politicians over Catalonia – will be judged by an apolitical and unbiased court, and compensation ordered or criminal punishment meted out as may prove appropriate.

In such a world, the Catalans would not have to decide between being politically independent and being part of Spain. Those who feel a strong Catalan identity could join the Catalan Society. And those who prefer strong contacts with those in other parts of Spain could join the Spanish Friendship Society. (Some might even join both!) Neither group would need to give up their identity or their preferences for the sake of the other. And both would behave towards each other in a convivial manner, not a political one.

A radical idea? Yes. A naïve idea? Maybe. A workable idea? I very much hope so. A popular idea? That’s up to you.