The Landsgemeinde: Switzerland's direct democracy.

I asked in a previous blog (entitled “Kenosis”) an ending question: “So where’s the archetypal democratic society in our world?”

I had before that defined democracy:

Every voice counts, every voice is heard, and every decision is made based on what the people say and think, NOT on what the government decides without the people’s consent.

This is, more accurately, a definition of direct democracy, which Wikipedia more closely defines thus:

“Direct democracy is a form of governance in which people collectively make decisions for themselves, rather than having their political affairs decided by representatives. Direct democracy is classically termed “pure democracy”.”

The idealistic appeal of this system of governance (or, if you’re an anarchist, autonomous non-governance) is obvious, but it is my contention that there is no “pure democracy” anywhere in the world. All decisions made, whether chosen directly (through petitions, referenda, or recalls), by consensus (through thorough discussion within communities that treats minority and majority views equally) or by representation (through elected officials who represent political viewpoints), are not going to be perfect in reflecting the views of the whole population, or even the majority of the population.

Consensus may come closest, but we do not have a way to get 62 million UK citizens into one place (except if that place is the United Kingdom and there was some way of video-linking everyone!). Geography seems to be the arbiter of fair political representation, and it won’t let us have it.

Thus, and of course, grassroots democracy comes to mind. This uses the principle of subsidiarity to make the case that as much decision-making authority as practical is to be shifted to the organization’s lowest geographic level of organization. This is because the local community CAN be influenced by our actions and our ideals far more than a whole nation can. Start small, build up a consensus, and share your community’s values and activity across your city, your country and the world.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this ideal of “grass roots localism” (in contrast to the hands off “localism” that the Conservative Party now seems to believe in) means the individual makes decisions, then the household, then the street, then the neighbourhood, then the district, then the town/city, then the sub-region, then the region, then the country, then the supra-national alliance. All of these are communities in their own right, but the decisions should be made from the bottom up and as a community, not as atomised individuals.

Inevitably, however, there will be times when one person will be working harder on something than others, times when people take on responsibility for the upkeep and progress of the community’s interests, perhaps because they have a particular specialism or interest. Representative democracy, whether by election or consensus, is not an inevitability, but it does seem the most logical way of representing a whole city’s wishes in a manageable way.

This does not mean that all the worst excesses of that system, as we know it, are required. Take political parties. It is clear that the majority of communities these days are not formed of people who are members of political organisations, but by consensus within communities it is hard to rid the world of political parties – there will, it seems, always be slight divergences in belief just large enough to justify ideological positions and the creation of political parties. However, partisan interests bring some of the worst things to communities, and would it not be easier just to ban political parties?

Are communities, in themselves, non-partisan? This is akin to asking if communities are an amorphous blob of activity in one direction. The clear answer is always no, as even communities of two (e.g. married couples, perhaps) disagree about some things. Thus, partisanship begins with the individual, and is an inevitable consequence of diversity and there being, to be blunt, more than one person in the world.

However, the non-partisan system of democracy is worth bearing in mind. Independent opinions are always important, and those who stand for election as independents can raise some of the more troubling issues that political parties might not have the scope, or the all-round expertise, to deal with (even if they can’t raise much cash – regrettably). An ultimate goal would be for society to be less based around partisanship, factions and interest groups, but more around the issues themselves, and focused on those with the expertise to solve problems.

So, let’s go back to the question and look at the world. Where is there that fulfils the criteria of a democratic society? It would need to have:

  1. an emphasis on grassroots decision-making
  2. a consensus-based model for governing
  3. an emphasis, when not conflicting with 1., towards the participation of minorities or those who are not often consulted
  4. a constitution that was malleable and could be reformed easily by the people
  5. no monarch or singular person as elected head of state (even if elected)

The answer is, quite weirdly, Switzerland.

It has no monarch. It has no single head of state. Instead, it has a federal council which acts as a collective head of state. (These are not directly elected, instead elected by the Swiss Federal Assembly, the equivalent of both of our Houses of Parliament voting together.) The full renewal of a term on the council lasts for four years (I would place it at two). This is the consensus model of governing a country – each person is accountable to the other six on the Council, and the titles of President and Vice-President rotate yearly.

A referendum MUST be held on any proposed change to the constitution. A referendum can be requested for any law to be passed. If a citizen wants, they can call a referendum on a law that has already been passed.

While they don’t have a right of recall on the federal level to reject their representatives, some cantons allow recall elections to take place if you can gather enough signatures. (Cantons are the principle of subsidiarity made flesh – the local community that, in at least two cases, can still be gathered together in general popular assemblies to make decisions – proper grass-roots!)

Swiss democracy is not without its problems – with minorities and the underpriveleged not getting as much representation, and the top table being dominated by just four parties, like most other democracies – but it has constitutionally built a democratic example for us all.


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