Dysfunctional democracy

Dysfunctional democracy

By Neil Lock

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.



Autumn Cote Added Oct 9, 2017 - 10:08am
Please note, to improve readability, I highly recommend adding white space between paragraphs.  As always, many thanks for your participation with Writer Beat!
Neil Lock Added Oct 9, 2017 - 11:56am
Thank you Autumn, I know that now. This is the first post I have put on to WriterBeat myself. It would help if authors were able to edit their posts when they have got things like that wrong.
BTW, someone - I think it was probably Opher Goodwin - had up-thumbed my essay before I could even get in to look at it myself!
Autumn Cote Added Oct 9, 2017 - 12:15pm
You can edit / add white space to already published articles.  Simply click on your name in the upper right hand corner and it should be self-explanatory from there.
 I didn’t follow what you’re saying in your second paragraph.  Recommendations do not impede your ability to edit your article...if that’s what you’re saying.
Dave Volek Added Oct 9, 2017 - 12:48pm
I think this Catalan/Spain issue is festering itself in so many places around the world. When one group does not feel it belongs, the motivation for a separate state is strong.
If we call this polarization a failure of democracy, there would be a lot of truth to that statement. But if a sub-state chooses to separate, then the same polarization can occur in the smaller state: rural/urban split, low/middle/upper class splits, business/labor/ government splits, etc.  If we keep the same tools, we will find new ways to foster contention and confrontation.
The current way of politics has to go--whether that be in big countries or little countries. Since 1997, I have been working on a new system of governance that does away with political parties and their noisy election campaigns. In Tiered Democratic Governance, voters choose someone they know has good character and competence for governance. 
George N Romey Added Oct 9, 2017 - 12:54pm
We dont have democracy we have feudalism now in developed countries and that is going to lead to anarchy.
Bill Kamps Added Oct 9, 2017 - 1:26pm
Neil, democracy does not insist on an all or nothing proposition. Nearly always it is possible to compromise.  The fact that our politicians choose not to compromise doesnt mean it is the fault of the system.  The fault Neil, lies not in our system, but in ourselves.  To paraphrase WS. 
Polarization is encouraged by gerrymandering which encourages representatives from the extreme rather than from the middle. 
Neil Lock Added Oct 9, 2017 - 2:31pm
Autumn: the only options I have on the menu I get when I click on my name are "My Profile," "New article" and "Logout." How do I edit a post I have previously authored?
As to my second paragraph, I was congratulating WriterBeat people on being quick on the uptake. I mentioned Opher Goodwin as my probable up-thumber, because I had commented on his thread just ten minutes previously, and he's in the UK so would be awake at that time of day.
Dino Manalis Added Oct 9, 2017 - 5:27pm
Catalonia deserves some autonomy, but it should remain part of Spain, united and strong!
Autumn Cote Added Oct 9, 2017 - 9:27pm
Forget the paragraph breaks, my advice is to offer as many personal replies to your commenters as you have time for.  
Jeff Jackson Added Oct 9, 2017 - 10:57pm
Don't the Basques have a similar problem? We have cultures that are hundreds of years old that wish to address the political issues that they face without a country overseeing what they choose to do. As I understand it, the Swiss are a confederation, that the provinces have so much autonomy that getting anything through nationally is quite difficult. Heck, they have 4 different languages. Catalonia has it own language as well, and is a thriving, unlike the rest of Spain.
Neil Lock Added Oct 10, 2017 - 12:46am
Dave Volek: I agree with your diagnosis. The 16th-century system that is the political state is out of date, and it has to go. But my point was that, other things being equal, a smaller political unit is likely to be better for its people than a larger one.
George: I think you may have understated your case. Under feudalism, the rich and powerful had at least some sense of responsibility for “their” people. But in a political state, with its “sovereign immunity,” the rich and powerful are almost never held personally responsible for the damage they cause.
Bill Kamps: I hear this meme that “we” are responsible for all the problems in politics quite often, and I don’t understand it. But then, I’m an individualist; so the idea of collective responsibility as opposed to individual responsibility makes no sense to me.
John G: When the political right do bad things, the left castigate them. When the left do bad things, the right lambast them in return. But as far as I’m concerned, ultimately politicians like Rajoy and Maduro are all on the same side; the side of the state.
Jeff Jackson: Yes, the Basques are in a similar position. That, I think, is why Rajoy is keeping up such a hard line. If he allows the Catalans anything at all, the Basques will demand more. As to the Swiss, I think the de-centralized nature of their system has been a big plus for them, since 1848 at least. But it does look as if, recently, they are moving away from this somewhat.
Neil Lock Added Oct 10, 2017 - 8:22am
John G: Would you like to be more specific on who are the "those" of whom you think I am one?
Neil Lock Added Oct 10, 2017 - 8:32am
Dave Volek: I've had a quick read of your TDG website. Some interesting ideas in there. I'll try to make time for a more thorough re-read later. It seems that the main difference between us is that you see society as the important thing, and individual people as secondary; whereas I am concerned for the most part with people, and see society (or societies) as merely something that people create to help satisfy their needs.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 10, 2017 - 9:15am
of whom you think I am one?
A statist. 
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 9:20am
As you say - it appears to be a fifty fifty split with no way forward.
We have the same kind of situation here with Scotland and gave them a referendum. Fortunately they voted to remain. I think the UK is stronger together.
Personally I'm in favour of outward looking societies with more global approaches. I'd like to do away with countries altogether and move to a federalised system.
I have sympathy with those Catalans who have issue with their right-wing government but this is an issue that goes way back and is tribal. I think we should move on from tribalism.
One people one planet.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 10, 2017 - 9:57am
 I'd like to do away with countries altogether and move to a federalised system.
Yeah, let's do away with countries and make what you just did away with on steroids. 
To paraphrase GHWB:
"Countries- Bad
One Country - Good"
Rah rah rah sis boom bah go team go we're...... Ah, hmm.... we're ah, oh yeah, slaves yadda yadda yadda......
Because after all, total power never corrupts totally. 
Uh uh. 
Nosiree Bob. 
Way to go hall monitor!
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 10:04am
Jeffry - you're meant to be an adult. Please start behaving like one. You're behaving like a twerp.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 10, 2017 - 10:45am
You're behaving like a twerp.
Only to you dear hall monitor. Only because you ARE a twerp and I have to tailor my expression down to something you are possibly able to understand. 
opher goodwin Added Oct 10, 2017 - 6:33pm
Jeffry - you are so simple you're not hard to understand. You are just so childish and silly one wonders what you're doing on a debating site. You sound like a complete uneducated dick.
there's a poem that John Cooper Clarke wrote that was obviously written for you (maybe a bit too erudite for someone of your mentality though):
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 10, 2017 - 7:04pm
one wonders what you're doing on a debating site. 
A.) This isn't a debating site. 
B.) Calling out prats like you.
Neil Lock Added Oct 11, 2017 - 5:08am
Opher: We need more outward looking societies, yes. But we need that outwardness to be in the form of trade, not political "unity."
As to "one people one planet," no thanks. Yes, we do all (well, most of us) share a common humanity. But there has got to be political diversity – and the more of it, the better. Because each individual is different, and not everyone can thrive under all political conditions.
John G: Thank you for a good answer. I do indeed see the state and its politicians as frequently acting against the interests of the people they are supposed to “represent.” As to a socialist state versus a corporatist and crony-capitalist one, they’re both bad, but in different ways.
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 5:30am
Neil - in order to solve universal problems we need universal answers. At present humanity spends much of its energy vying with each other (often violently) instead of cooperating.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 11, 2017 - 5:41am
there has got to be political diversity – and the more of it, the better. Because each individual is different, and not everyone can thrive under all political conditions
Jeffry Gilbert Added Oct 11, 2017 - 6:02am
in order to solve universal problems we need universal answers.
Spoken like a true hall monitor. 
It's like designing a chair let's say. You do a survey worldwide and discover the average height or both male and female is 5' 5" or whatever. Under the universal solutions mandate all chairs must conform to the state design and specifications for people 5' 5". 
How well are those chairs going to work in the Netherlands where the people are much taller? 
Same goes with political conditions. You for instance clearly prefer to be micromanaged by the state whereas others prefer to be left the fuck alone. 
Rather than forcing those that don't fit in your political climate to conform to your way of thinking you go where you will be happy and the other will go where they're happy. 
That way everyone is happy rather than everyone being miserable.
What's with the constant value judgments? The you know better smugness? The my way is better so it's the only way? 
Tell us HRH HALL MONITOR who appointed you King?
Neil Lock Added Oct 11, 2017 - 6:13am
Opher: in order to solve universal problems we need universal answers.
Yup. And that's what I'm trying to provide with my "convivial code."
humanity spends much of its energy vying with each other (often violently) instead of cooperating.
Right you are. We need a framework within which people and societies can trade-trade, not raid-raid. Again, that's what I'm trying to provide.
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 7:03am
Jeffry - universal solutions do not have to be uniform. Working out global things has to take account of differences and include the wide range. Your inferences are severely limited. You have a knee-jerk response. Things are more complicated than that.
Globally we need to:
Reduce pollution
Stop environmental degradation
Stop Multinationals exploiting people, polluting and corrupting politicians
Stop tax evasion by the wealthy
Curb international crime
Stop wars
End poverty
Stop terrorism
Protect human rights
Ensure freedoms for women and children
As things like this know no boundaries of nations and laws are being flouted by unscrupulous, greedy individuals, we need a global body that has the power to deal with these issues.
At the moment most of the world is in turmoil. Billions are suffering. The environment is being decimated. And we are being exploited by people operating globally with impunity.
So what's your solution?
opher goodwin Added Oct 11, 2017 - 7:04am
Neil - it is not just about trade is it? It is about human rights, environmental destruction and a host of other things isn't it?
Benjamin Goldstein Added Oct 11, 2017 - 1:41pm
I was busy recently and did not follow the Catalan thing.  I abhor the police violence which was utterly unneccessary. If the poll was not legal, it could have simply been ignored. The central government should work to make such polls legal in future.
Scotland decided to remain in the UK. Great Britain left the EU. Both peacefully. Let people decide! They know their stuff.
Saint George Added Oct 12, 2017 - 3:56am
We need a framework within which people and societies can trade-trade
"Trade-Trade" = "Markets-Markets".
Quite the opposite of "Authoritarian-Socialism".
Saint George Added Oct 12, 2017 - 4:39am
That's why you're a communist, I guess.
Saint George Added Oct 12, 2017 - 6:12pm