“The twentieth century will not go down in history as the century of information technology, space travel or nuclear power. It will not be remembered as the century of Fascism, Communism or Capitalism. Nor will it be the century of two world wars. The twentieth century will be the century of democracy. During the twentieth century, for the first time in history, democracy became a global standard. Make no mistake, the standard has not been really achieved anywhere, and democracy is continually crushed everywhere in the world. However, with a few notable exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Bhutan, every kind of regime lays claim to its democratic legitimacy. And they do that because they know that democracy has become the standard for the world’s population. That is a revolutionary fact.”
“Certain people are over and over again proclaiming to the world that democracy must spread to the whole civilized world. Salvation lies in making the whole of humanity democratic; everything will have to be smashed to pieces so that democracy may spread in the world. Well, if people go on to accept ideas presented to them as they are, with wholesale acceptance of the term democracy, for instance, their idea of democracy will be like the definition of the human being which I gave you: ‘A human being is a creature with two legs and without feathers: a plucked cockerel’. Concepts are taken for reality, and as a result illusion may take the place of reality where human life is concerned by lulling people to sleep with concepts.”
Ninety years separates these two quotes, which present two aspects of the same subject. The first is from the introduction to the English edition of the book Direct Democracy by the Belgian scientist, writer and teacher Jos Verhulst *. The book is being issued as a freely downloadable e-book in a total of six languages: the result of a possibly unique pan-European collaboration coordinated by democracy international (www.democracy-international.org), with which I have been involved.
The second comes from a lecture cycle given by Rudolf Steiner in Dornach in September and October of 1917 (published in English as The Fall of the Spirits of Darkness, Rudolf Steiner Press), a cycle in which Steiner repeatedly speaks of the urgent need for people to ‘wake up’, to separate illusion from reality and not simply accept the “ideas presented to them as they are”. (I am in no way suggesting that Jos Verhulst has fallen prey to illusion; on the contrary, the book is hard-hitting and clearly distinguishes between pseudo-democracy and real democracy). In the last lecture, Steiner refers approvingly to a book published seven years earlier by Francis Delaisi (1873-1947), French writer, journalist and economist, entitled La Démocratie et les Financiers. Steiner had this to say:
“It is interesting to note that in 1910 someone wrote that large-scale capitalism had succeeded in making democracy into the most marvellous, flexible and effective tool for exploiting the whole population. Financiers were usually imagined to be the enemies of democracy, the individual concerned wrote, but this was a fundamental error. On the contrary, they run democracy and encourage it, for it provides a screen behind which they can hide their method of exploitation, and they find it their best defence against any objections which the populace may raise.
For once, therefore, a man woke up [Steiner is referring to Delaisi] and saw that what mattered was not to proclaim democracy but to see the full reality, not to follow slogans, but to see things as they really are. This would be particularly important today, for people would then realize that the events which reign with such blood and terror over the whole of humanity are guided and directed from just a few centres.”
“everything will have to be smashed to pieces so that democracy may spread in the world” … “events which reign with blood and terror over the whole of humanity”. One frequently gets the strange feeling that Steiner could be talking about events in our own time, He was, of course, referring primarily to the world war which was then still raging; today he would have been talking about the phoney ‘war on terror’ and of the lies used to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, carried out ostensibly in the name of bringing ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Middle East.
The one aspect (the abuse of the concept of democracy for and by political and economic vested interests) does not cancel out the truth of the other (the idea(l) of democracy becoming a sort of ‘gold standard’ across the globe). As so often, ‘being really awake’ means being able to hold in ones mind (and soul) two - or more - conflicting ideas at the same time and to see the element of truth in each (or all). Such intelligent discrimination would, of course, sound the death knell to traditional party politics – which needs to create the illusion of significant differences in policy even where none exist, and where cooperation rather than childish opposition for its own sake would tend to produce better policies.
Viewed superficially, Jos Verhulst’s “revolutionary fact” would appear to be confirmed by the data provided by the US-based “Freedom House” organisation. Freedom House describes itself as an “independent non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, belief and respect for the rights of minorities and women are guaranteed." Not much that one could disagree with there.
The organization was founded by Wendell Willkie, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Field, Dorothy Thompson, Herbert Bayard Swope, and others in 1941. Originally launched in response to the threat posed by Nazism, it now describes itself as a clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world. According to Freedom in the World, the index of global political rights and civil liberties issued annually by Freedom House, 42 countries could be regarded as ‘free’ in 1976. By contrast, the number of ‘free’ countries today stands at 90.
“The Freedom in the World survey provides an annual evaluation of the state of global freedom as experienced by individuals. The survey measures freedom - the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centres of potential domination - according to two broad categories: political rights and civil liberties. Political rights enable people to participate freely in the political process, including the right to vote freely for distinct alternatives in legitimate elections, compete for public office, join political parties and organizations, and elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate. Civil liberties allow for the freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.
Freedom House does not maintain a culture-bound view of freedom. The methodology of the survey is grounded in basic standards of political rights and civil liberties, derived in large measure from relevant portions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These standards apply to all countries and territories, irrespective of geographical location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development. The survey operates from the assumption that freedom for all peoples is best achieved in liberal democratic societies.” [from the Freedom House website]
The rather rosy picture being painted is of a world (formerly beset by tyranny and dictatorship) gradually succumbing to ‘freedom and democracy’ – to the reign of noble “political rights and civil liberties”, in which there is real freedom of expression and belief and where representatives are genuinely accountable to the electorate. Freedom House’s list of ‘free’ states includes all the Western-style ‘democracies’, 49 of the 90 countries in this category being given full marks for both political rights and civil liberties, including, unsurprisingly, both the US and the UK. But is this not absurd? Can countries which have shown contempt for international law and human rights, whose governments lied to their own parliaments (and even to the United Nations), and which engaged in wholly unjustified aggressive war be designated as ‘free’ merely because they satisfy a check-list of ‘democratic’ institutions? Can countries which carry out acts of false-flag terrorism on their own populations be allowed to parade as democracies? Is Israel, also rated as ‘free’, really a country based on the rule of law and respect for human rights?
So are we dealing with real democracy – or a plucked cockerel? The 2006 Freedom in the World report on Israel notes only that “Israel's civil liberties ratings improved from 3 to 2 due to a marked decrease in terrorist attacks in 2005, as well as a surge of civic activism surrounding the country's "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip”. No mention of Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians, of the building of the illegal Apartheid Wall or of the severe discrimination against Israel’s own Arab population. Can a country which uses violence to suppress opposition, to create an illusory ‘peace’, be described as ‘free’? Can there be peace – or real freedom – without justice? Is Israel’s ‘freedom’ not an illusion, a self-deception?
Freedom House describes its board as being composed of “leading Democrats, Republicans, and independents; business and labor leaders; former senior government officials; scholars; writers; and journalists." An alternative, and probably more accurate, description (by campaigning American journalist Diana Barahona) was: "a Who's Who of neo-conservatives from government, business, academia, labor, and the press." Around 75% of the organization’s funding comes from the US government (through the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and the State Department). One website notes that under the Reagan-Bush administrations, Freedom House continued to promote the foreign policy objectives of the United States in Central America, "supporting the death squad-linked ARENA party in El Salvador while attacking the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, championing Contra leaders like Arturo Cruz, and serving as a conduit for funds from the National Endowment for Democracy."
Perhaps the give-away is Freedom House’s own declaration that it is
“working to advance the remarkable worldwide expansion of political and economic freedom.” Its primary commitment is thus to serving the expansion of liberal capitalism. As I write, the indications are that at the imminent G8 (+5) meeting in Germany in early June, the USA will once again refuse to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. But neither that, nor the fact that the last two presidential elections were ‘won’ by vote-rigging will affect its Freedom House rating!
One could be pessimistic and believe that little has really changed since 1917, when Steiner could in truth say (30 years before George Orwell wrote his prophetic 1984) that those who were promoting democracy: “.. fail to see that these institutions [of formal democracy] are such that it is always just a few people who pull the wires, while the rest are pulled along. They are persuaded, however, that they are part of democracy and so they do not notice they are being pulled and that some individuals are pulling the strings. Those individuals will find it all the easier to do the pulling if the others all believe they are doing it themselves, instead of being pulled along. It is quite easy to lull people to sleep with abstract concepts and make them believe the opposite of what is really true”.
Toru Okada, the main character in Haruki Murakami’s remarkable book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, records what his father-in-law told him: ‘All men are not created equal, he said. Japan might have the political structure of a democratic nation, but it was at the same time a fiercely carnivorous class society in which the weak were devoured by the strong ..’ – a reflection of the dominant Darwinian view of the world which still infects the politics and economics of all so-called democracies.
It remains true, as Steiner noted, that most of those who proclaim democracy have no idea what it means – that the reality bears as much resemblance to the ideal as a plucked cockerel does to a human being. Democracy literally means ‘people power’ - not ‘government by the people’ as it is often defined. The understanding that democracy is about the distribution of power is crucial. The definition of democracy by Thucydides, which used to head the preamble to the draft EU constitutional treaty (before it was quietly removed, for perhaps obvious reasons) makes this clear: “We call our constitution a democracy because power is in the hands, not of a minority, but of the greatest number”.
The reference is of course to political power – the right to make the important decisions. In a genuine democracy, that right belongs solely and inalienably to ‘the people’. Representative or parliamentary democracy can only be democratic if that is the system chosen by the electorate. If ‘the people’ have never been asked the question: According to what kind of political system do you wish the state (or other political entity) to be organised? – and have not been able to give their answer in a binding vote – then the prevailing system is not democratic, regardless of how many ‘political rights and civil liberties’ the people enjoy. Not surprisingly, Freedom House’s list of ‘political rights’ does not include the right to decide freely on the nature of the political system.
The right to choose the system under which one lives – and to amend it at any time (if there is sufficient popular support for change) – is fundamental; so fundamental that it must be enshrined in a binding, written code – otherwise known as a constitution. A constitution is an agreement between the people – not between a monarch or a government or a parliament or other representative system and the people. Equally fundamental to democracy is the principle of popular sovereignty. No state which does not ascribe to this principle can be called a democracy. In a list of 45 European countries (including Russia and Turkey) which I compiled for IRIE (the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe with which I work), there was only one country – the UK – which had no written constitution. The vast majority (34) of the constitutions endorse the principle of popular sovereignty, 11 do not; of these, five do not mention sovereignty at all, the remainder all have hereditary ‘royal houses’ (Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Norway). In the UK, sovereignty is (illegitimately) claimed by parliament.
On the surface, then, there would seem to be a great deal of democracy in Europe. The reality is more sobering. Less than half of those countries whose constitutions endorse popular sovereignty actually have provisions for the direct expression of that sovereignty; in effect, they have purely ‘representative’ systems which are rarely genuinely representative in practice. In most of the remainder, the provisions are so ‘user-unfriendly’ that they are little used and effectively undermine the principle on which they are supposedly based.
The general picture tends to support Delaisi’s cynicism: people continue to be told that they live in democracies, that their views are represented, and that the representatives are ‘accountable to the voters’. In reality, most systems could more accurately be described as ‘partiocracies’, in which what are effectively cartels of political parties divide power between themselves, operating increasingly like commercial companies, with business managers, fundraisers, and hired public relations consultants and ‘spin doctors’ to cultivate the correct ‘image’ and assist them in developing popular policies. Much of the parties’ energies are spent in defending, and if possible expanding, their ‘market share’ – largely through the advertising of attractive ‘special offers’ (usually tax and benefit adjustments, promises of greater security, wealth etc.).
Where the primary aim is to secure and then to hold on to power, truth and integrity become liabilities to be discarded whenever required by expediency. All modern democracies suffer from political corruption, some more than others. In another lecture given in 1917, to which I referred in an earlier article (New View Autumn 2005), Rudolf Steiner spoke of our time as one in which “humans will give themselves up to illusions” to a more than usual extent. “Illusions were always there, but they were always connected with other powers … in [our time, they are connected] with the forces of Evil. Illusion, maya itself, will be seized upon by Evil. Moreover, it will all be permeated by that element of which I have also told you – by cleverness, by intelligence.
It sounds paradoxical to assert that it is good for men that they can learn to know all these things. But the fact is, the human being can only come to spiritual freedom by growing strong through resistance. […] We must penetrate [evil] with consciousness; we must learn to know it – really learn to know it.” I take this to mean that we must be simultaneously realists and idealists: we must see through the illusion without becoming so cynical that we reject the ideal.
Switzerland is an example, both of real democracy (far from perfect, but without doubt the most extensive system of direct-democratic rights based on popular sovereignty anywhere in the world) and of the historical struggle for democratic rights over the last two centuries. A popular share in the exercise of political power has never been achieved without a fight - and Switzerland is no exception. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a number of interesting remarks on democracy in the 2002 Human Development Report, including the following: “Obstacles to democracy have little to do with culture or religion, and much more to do with the desire of those in power to maintain their positions at any cost”, and “ True democratisation means more than elections. People’s dignity requires that they be free – and able – to participate in the formation and stewardship of the rules and institutions that govern them.”
The history of the evolution of Swiss democracy is instructive. After decades of unrest, including occupation by Napoleon’s troops and a brief civil war, Switzerland was finally united in its present form in 1848 under the first federal constitution, which incorporated elements of the U.S. constitution (a federal state with central and cantonal [state] governments and parliaments) and of the French revolutionary tradition. The constitution did not endorse the principle of popular sovereignty and contained only one direct-democratic right (set out in Articles 113 and 114, almost at the very end of the constitutional text) – the right to a referendum on the revision of the constitution if 50,000 eligible voters requested this by giving their signatures. If the constitution was subsequently amended, the revised constitution had to be approved by a simple majority of the voters (men only – women did not receive the vote in Switzerland until 1971).
It was basically a liberal-representative constitution. It promised equal rights for all (except women and others not entitled to vote) and an equal opportunity to benefit from economic growth, but with the exception of the right to propose a revision of the constitution, the political system was purely representative – and elitist. Not all were to share in the country’s economic success: the railway entrepreneurs and new factory owners became extremely rich, while others suffered. Factory workers – men, women and children – worked 14 hours a day and more. Craft workers lost out to the new factories, and farmers had to pay high interest rates on loans because there was a shortage of capital as banks lent large amounts at profitable interest rates to the entrepreneurs. Grain prices fell while the price of land rose. The American Civil War raised the price of cotton imports.
Society was becoming split into haves and have-nots. The parliament and government were dominated by the same liberals who were also the industrialists, bank and railway owners (the few ‘pulling the strings’). Graft and sleaze were common. In the Canton of Zurich, the first stirrings of revolt and the formation of a democratic opposition movement began already in the 1850s, but it was not until 1867/68 that the breakthrough was achieved. This was partly due to a cholera epidemic which killed 500 of the poorest citizens within a few weeks, heightening the sense of injustice. The democratic movement collected 27,000 signatures (about 43% of the electorate) demanding a complete revision of the cantonal constitution. The liberal (cantonal) government caved in and set a date for a referendum on 26th January 1868. The turnout was 90% and the outcome was abundantly clear: 50,786 votes for, to 7,374 against. The general public was invited to contribute their suggestions for the new constitution, which was approved on 18th April 1869. The Zurich example inspired other cantons to follow suit and the mounting pressure for democratic reform across the country led to the inclusion of the federal referendum in the revised federal constitution of 1874.
Persistent democratic pressure then resulted in the progressive addition of further direct-democratic rights at both federal and cantonal levels. Today, Swiss citizens enjoy an unparalleled range of political rights at all political levels: national, regional (cantonal) and local. They include the right to demand a complete revision of the constitution. This happened in Zurich. The old constitution of 1869 was replaced by a new constitution in 2005, ratified by the voters in a referendum. It entered into force on 1st January 2006. It is a remarkable statement of popular sovereignty and collective responsibility and in my view a model for all constitutions across the world. I am in the process of translating it into English so that it can become widely available. Space allows me to quote only very selectively from it. It begins as follows:
We, the people of the Canton of Zurich, mindful of our responsibility to Creation and aware of the limits of human power, with a common desire to protect freedom, the law and human dignity and to further develop the Canton of Zurich as a cosmopolitan and economically, culturally and socially
strong member state of the Swiss Confederation, give ourselves this Constitution:
Art. 1 The Canton of Zurich is a sovereign state within the Swiss Confederation. It is based on the individual and collective sense of responsibility of its citizens. State power resides in the people.
In Switzerland, any amendment to the constitution must be submitted to a mandatory referendum. Laws passed by parliament can be challenged and submitted to referendum (the so-called ‘facultative’, or optional referendum) if 50,000 signatures are collected demanding this. Proposals for new laws (initiatives) also go to referendum (at local, cantonal and national levels) if the required number of signatures is collected. In several cantons, there are obligatory referendums on proposed public expenditure which goes above fairly modest limits.
The Swiss ‘government’ (the Executive) is composed of seven persons from four political parties. They work on the basis of ‘concordance’, or consensus.
Most Swiss politicians work part-time. The political hierarchy is quite clear: at the top are ‘the people’ (who have the greatest legitimacy); next come the two houses of parliament (which have a lower level of legitimacy); last i.e. with the least legitimacy, comes the ‘government’, whose function is not to dictate, but simply to propose.
The Swiss system is far from perfect. But democracy itself is a compromise. As Gandhi said, even if 99 out of 100 vote for something, it does not mean that the 99 are right: the one dissenter might be right. But democracy, when properly applied, does at least mean that every individual is free to express his or her own opinion – regardless of whether that opinion is objectively the ‘correct’ one or not. That is an important aspect. In a sense, society must move forward at the speed of the slowest: the alternative is some form of dictatorship – whether this is an obvious one, as in the case of Zimbabwe or North Korea, or a masked one, in the case of most so-called democracies. This recognition allowed former UK cabinet minister Lord Hailsham to describe the British parliamentary system as an “elective dictatorship” (long before the days of Tony Bair’s presidential style of government!).
Even a country like Switzerland, where political power is much more finely distributed (all 26 cantons are technically sovereign, having their own constitutions, parliaments and executives and in principle cede to the national institutions only those matters which cannot be dealt with at cantonal level, and the principle of ‘bottom-up’ sovereignty also extends to the local authorities) and where direct-democratic rights function both as brake and accelerator, placing significant constraints on parliaments and executives, and allowing citizens to inject new ideas into the political agenda, cannot escape from the danger of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, most clearly seen in referendums, which are often decided by a simple majority of the voters, with no minimum turnout requirement. Against this it must be said that there are no fixed majorities and that the political parties are relatively weak because people do not depend on them to represent their interests.
Because the Swiss are generally conservative, radical ideas are usually rejected. But they can at least be put forward and subjected to prolonged and open debate, which is probably the most important aspect of democratic decision-making. So, for example, the very radical idea of abolishing the Swiss army entirely was put forward in the 1990s by GSoA (Gruppe Schweiz ohne Armee) and attracted sufficient support (110,855 signatures) for it to go to a national vote. In the referendum held on December 2nd, 2001, the proposal received nearly 385,000 votes – almost 22% of the total vote - a remarkable achievement. The conservative majority rejected the initiative, but the issue had been ‘public’ for several years, time for everyone to be exposed to the arguments for and against and to reach a conclusion (which includes the option of deciding not to vote at all: only 38% of the electorate did so).
The initiative group still exists. It now campaigns actively against the manufacture, sale and use of all arms and is currently collecting signatures for a new citizens’ initiative aimed at banning all exports of arms from Switzerland. The initiative looks certain to gain the required signatures. The proposal must then be debated in both houses of parliament, which can either accept it (in which case there is no need for a vote), reject it outright, or present an alternative counter-proposal – in which case both proposals are voted on in the referendum, whose result is binding. To date, only 15 of the 256 citizens’ initiatives which went to a vote have been accepted – but they include important proposals which might not otherwise have become law. So, for example, there is now a national ban on food produced by genetic modification; there was a 10-year moratorium on building new nuclear power stations (not renewed); and trans-Alpine goods traffic must go by rail instead of road. Swiss accession to the United Nations in 2002 came as a result of a citizens’ initiative.
Without direct democracy, people are limited to electing representatives every four or five years. This is an enormous waste of human creativity and talent which we cannot afford, given the nature of the social, environmental, economic and other challenges now facing all of us. Direct democracy allows people to become active, to engage their will as well as their mind. Collecting 100,000 valid signatures (signatures are checked and up to 25% may be rejected) is no easy task. It is mostly done by activists standing on street-corners. And that figure applies to Switzerland with its relatively small population. If there were such an initiative right in the UK, the signature quorum would have to be much higher – as it is for the European Citizens’ Initiative, for which 1 million signatures are needed. The ECI is a really interesting example of ‘unofficial’ direct democracy – a response to a political system which is remote and unresponsive. The Convention on the Future of Europe, which was responsible for drafting the EU Constitutional Treaty, included – at the very last minute – a vaguely worded European citizens’ initiative right (Art. 47.4 of the treaty). It proposed giving EU citizens the right to make a proposal to the EU Commission, if at least 1 million signatures could be collected “from a significant number of member states”.
The Treaty was never ratified (voters in France and Holland rejected it in referendums), so the ECI does not officially exist (in any case, its precise provisions would have had to be drawn up and passed as an EU law). Despite this, groups throughout Europe decided that they were not prepared to wait for ever and simply launched initiatives, collecting their signatures mostly online. There are currently 18 such ‘unofficial’ initiatives in existence (cf. www.citizens-initiative.eu). The ‘OneSeat’ initiative has already collected more than a million signatures; the ‘Million-against-Nuclear’ initiative around 635,000. There is a clear feeling of frustration with traditional politics across Europe. In the U.K., with no direct-democratic rights at all, the Prime Minister’s online petition system has been overwhelmed, attracting more than 3,000 separate petitions and more than 3 million signatures. People are not generally disinterested in politics; if they do not vote in large numbers, it is because they see clearly that “just a few people pull the wires” and that “events are guided and directed from just a few centres”.
It seems that more and more people are refusing to be “lulled to sleep” with dishonest concepts and are demanding to have a say on the big decisions which affect everyone’s lives. Many have been shaken out of their daydreams by the stark evidence of that combination of lies and deception with great evil of which Rudolf Steiner warned 90 years ago. Many more need to wake up to the realities before major change from within will be possible (outer circumstances may trigger unexpected and unwelcome change). We can only hope that the awakening does not come too late.
“The human being can only come to spiritual freedom by growing strong through resistance” – resistance to evil, deception, cruelty and injustice. In Faust, Goethe presented the spiritual truth that the function of evil (represented by Mephistopheles) is to prevent humans from falling asleep.
Strong democracy, with extensive direct-democratic rights, is the best means we have for resisting evil without violence. It also creates the public space within which real concern for the other can be encouraged and produce practical results.
In this respect, the preamble to the federal Swiss constitution contains a most interesting statement: it refers to “the certainty that only those who make use of their freedom are truly free, and that the strength of the people is judged by the welfare of the weak.”
Paul Carline, Newhall, 30.05.2007
*(author also of Der Glanz von Kopenhagen - ‘Spiritual perspectives on modern physics’ (1994) - an Aristotelian interpretation of quantum mechanics - and ‘Der Erstgeborene: Mensch und höhere Tiere in der Evolution’ (1998), a non-Darwinian view of human evolution - published in 2003 in the United States with the title: ‘Developmental Dynamics in Humans and Other Primates’).