The dust is settling after the British Brexit referendum – leaving us with this paradox: There was a majority in the population and in Parliament for Britain to remain in the European Union, but because of low turnout of younger voters, this majority did not prevail in the referendum. The matter was “put to the people,” resulting in a decision contrary to the popular will. Had the matter been left to Parliament, British EU policy would have continued to accord with the majority will of the people.
This paradox raises a question mark not only against the use of referendums but also more generally: is it a democratically good thing to encourage participation from below by the people in political decision-making? Is participatory democracy democratic?
In a series of posts on this blog, starting here, I will reflect on the theme of democracy and participation. The matter is all but simple. It might seem obvious that participation is a democratic good, but as so often what first seems simple on reflection turns out to be complicated.
I am in conversation with a student leader in Hong Kong who was one of the organisers of the “umbrella revolution” in late 2014 when up to 100 000 protesters occupied strategic sites in the city for a period of about two months and seriously disrupted governance and business. The action was in protest against what was seen as a stalled movement towards complete political democracy in Hong Kong. The student leader did not regret the action he and others encouraged at the time, but two years on needed to acknowledge, he said, that it had been of little or no consequence.
On the 21st of January 2017, the day the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions of women across America and around the world participated in Women’s Marches in protest against the anticipated policies of the new presidency. More than 600 marches took place in more than 80 countries, on all continents (including Antarctica), more than 400 in the United States, in probably the most massive political action from below ever seen.
It is easy to be sympathetic with young Hong Kong people who take to the streets in their demand for democracy. But did their action matter? It is easy to align with women across the world who stood up against the misogyny of the new American president. But did their action matter?
Of course, democracy depends on participation from below, but when and how? Of course, referendums are a democratic procedure, but when and how? Of course, manifestations of mass action are a democratic form of expression, but when and how? What is it right to do, and when? What works, and under what circumstances?
A sceptical view on participation was once expressed by the great Max Weber. He was an adviser to the German delegation to the peace treaty negotiations in Versailles in 1918 and got into a rambling and probably lubricated conversation one evening with General Ludendorff. (At one point he suggested to Ludendorff that he should offer up his head for execution as a way of restoring the honour of the German officer class.) Ludendorff asked him to explain the meaning of this thing democracy that he kept going on about. Weber replied: “In a democracy, the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ Later the people can sit in judgement. If the leader has made mistakes to the gallows with him.”
That we the people should just shut up and obey hardly corresponds to modern sensitivities, but could there be more truth to Weber’s provocation than we might like to accept? With participation, is it the more the better? Beyond voting in elections, how should we ordinary people be and get involved in democratic procedures and democratic decision-making?
In a thread of posts under the heading of “participation” I will try to find democratic answers to some of these democratic problems.