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.


  1. It’s not a naïve idea, but there is one possible blockage I should like to raise: What about geopolitics? Geopolitics is relevant both at macro and micro levels.

    Let’s say I and some others decide that we want to live in an ethnically English community with the relevant interpretation of the convivial code to apply between members, reflecting the tradition of English liberty. In that scenario, how do we ensure that we have the necessary exclusive space to make such a community viable? We would need to have private property from which we exclude others (save for visitation purposes) who would not be compliant with our sense of Englishness and therefore could not live with us.

    You may answer: Well, just buy some property, or buy a whole village or town or region, or whatever, and make that exclusively English. What if that is not feasible? I do not believe that living arrangements in the real world can always be entirely based on voluntary association.

    A geopolitical association (which is what we are really talking about here) is not of the same order as the sort of private association that might be formed between people who have similar interests. In my ethno-secessionist example, what we would be saying is that individuals who are not ethnically English cannot live with us (though we may extend the criteria to allow individuals who are of an assimilable or closely-kindred ethnicity, such as Scots and Welsh people, maybe Germans, etc.). But what if I and others don’t want to move from where we live now? Will we have to compromise, bide our time, fight a war, or what?

    • Tom,

      In my vision, you can form your community in a number of different ways. At one extreme, a group of people can club together and buy property in which they live as a commune, under their own communal laws. At the opposite extreme, the community can be virtual; for example, a blog (which seems to me to be the nearest we have today to the 18th century coffee house). In between, you can have a salon which meets regularly, such as the one Christian Michel runs twice a month in London. Or a club of people who live in different places, but meet from time to time at a clubhouse. In all three cases, the society, through its officials for the time being, has the right to control who may be admitted to the club’s (physical or virtual) property, and what regulations they must obey when on that property.

      If you want to carry on living where you live now, but associate primarily with English people, then the clubhouse or salon option would probably be the best for you – say, an “English Traditions Society.” This could accept as members, if it so desires. English people only (though it would first have to define clearly what “English” means).

      Of course, as things are now, the state would probably try to stop you doing such a thing, and force you to admit non English people. So, given that situation, you will have to bide your time, and fight the good (non-violent) fight for a better and freer order of things.

      • Neil,

        I think there is a great deal of common ground between us. I have studied your ideas as carefully as my meagre intellect (and the limited time available to me, as I must earn a living) allow, and I believe you are fundamentally right, but there is an important difference between us in that I do not believe that your vision will manifest itself as you would ideally like. What gets in the way is human nature: the territorial imperative, the sexual imperative, and our innate tribalism. It is these factors that produce geopolitical problems. When you refer to common interest groups, in practice and in reality these are most likely to take on an ethnic form, and as I have said, even those that don’t initially, will in time become ethnic due to the natural human tendency towards ethnogenesis.

        I think the question of how geopolitical associations could work is therefore fundamental. In my view, any theory/vision has to take account of human nature and how this affects social arrangements. The most important factor, I believe, is physical space. A group that controls territory then controls all that happens within it (not absolutely everything to the nth, but you know what I mean). Obviously an ethnic community must involve alliances that at times will be awkward – I am not suggesting that all white people or all British or English people, can or even should get along all the time and in all situations – but the point is that a shared ethnicity is the necessary predicate for healthy societies in which we can live as free individuals. To amplify the point – If I am an Englishman living in a Moslem community, how can I be fully individual? Virtual societies, etc. are insufficient in that scenario.

        In no way do I call for violence, nor would I support violence – let me make that clear – but human beings are violent, tribal and territorial. I don’t see this as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, it’s just the way we are. Thinkers who treat these things as ‘bad’ are in effect moralising rather than analysing, and much of the evils of the Left (which you highlight very well) come from this Prometheanism.
        I also do not accept that a deracinated liberal social order can exist simply on the basis of agreed juridical principles. Liberalism itself has to be framed ethnically, or it cannot work.

        The human predilection for violence extends down to the most mundane situations: for instance, if you or I saw a small child standing in the middle of a busy road, we would forcibly remove them to the pavement. That’s an act of violence. [In fact, a couple of months ago, I was faced with that very situation in real life: the child’s parents were lazily walking along some way behind, completely oblivious to their own infant sat on a tricycle in front of oncoming traffic. I removed him to the pavement, whether he liked it or not]. Sometimes political violence reflects a similar ethical principle.

        As far as I can see, most of our political arrangements are based on the pregnant threat of violence. For instance, (to simplify) Magna Carta came into being when it was clear that unless the then-King agreed a charter with his nobles, he would be overthrown.

        We probably need a New Charter in which the state is abolished or minimised and in which we have new arrangements along the lines you suggest which allow people full freedom of association, with all the consequences (both good and bad) that flow from that type of situation. I am pretty confident, though, that this New Charter will not be possible without the use of, or threat of, violence and coercion, due to the plain reality that we have alien populations (i.e. people who don’t share our Englishness or Britishness) who now control micro-geopolitical space, impeding healthy geopolitical associations among English people – and they won’t move away if politely asked to. All this suggests to me that much like quantum physics, politics – big or small – is a paradoxical endeavour, and at times contradictory: freedom can be seen as a geopolitical battle, in which to be ‘free’, we must first act collectively and use force to establish a perimeter in order to enable the settled establishment of laws and customs that promote and enable freedom. Therefore, freedom requires unfreedom and tolerance requires intolerance.

        On a slightly different but related note, I see that people are now discussing what Britain’s political and trading relationships might be after Brexit and a persistent idea that comes up is the development of ever-closer relationships with the White Commonwealth countries, i.e. Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Obviously I would support this, but what I do find slightly disturbing is that some of these same people are calling for what would amount to a reboot of the EU, but in the Anglophone world: a confederation, even full-blown political union, of the White Anglophone world. I would be totally opposed to this, but here we have further evidence for your argument that democracy is flawed. It seems that some people just haven’t learned the lessons from the disaster of the EU and never will learn.

        • I agree entirely that current political arrangements are based on the use and threat of violence. The idea of “politics” originated as a means of mutual defence; and one of the things political government is supposed to do is adjudicate and thus solve conflicts, as well as seek to avoid conflicts in the first place. But the current political system actively causes and fans conflicts both inside and outside individual states. It’s a failed system.

          As to ethnicity, if living in an ethnically homogeneous community is so important to you, then my system allows you to do just that; though you will have to move. But ethnic homogeneity isn’t a hot button issue for me; nor, indeed, for quite a lot of other people, including those who think of themselves as “cosmopolitans” (see my recent book review). At the risk of a pun, I’ll say that I find ethical homogeneity more important than ethnical homogeneity.

          I think you’re trying to have your cake and eat it if you demand at the same time that (1) you want to live in an ethnically homogeneous geographically based society and (2) you shouldn’t have to move in order to do that. In effect, you want to kick immigrants out of their properties if they happen to be near you. Would you then, by analogy, believe that Americans and Canadians not directly descended from the original natives should be kicked out of the US and Canada? Or non-aboriginals from Australia, and so on?

          As to the idea of a united Anglophone bloc, I couldn’t agree more. Words like “union” and “united” are, for me, big red flags.

          • We differ in that I acknowledge human nature and seek a society based on it, for better or ill. I have no ‘vision’, as such, I just believe in the existence of a normal, healthy society, with both its upsides and downsides: which, in a nutshell, is what national socialism means.

            You want to transcend our essential nature and your utopia is a society based on free-floating ethical principles with presumably everybody acting according to strict reason and rationality. I do not believe this is possible without extreme authoritarianism. Not that I am suggesting this applies to you, but you would not be the first ‘libertarian’ I have come across who is in reality a closet authoritarian.

            You think ethical homogeneity is possible without ethnical homogeneity, whereas I don’t (or at least, I think it would be difficult to sustain). I believe a precursor of liberty and ethical living is a reasonable degree of homogeneity. I think this is almost true by definition, since we cannot even begin to formulate ethics without a common understanding about how to interpret minimal universal moral precepts. What is ethical for one nation or tribe may not be so for another, much depending on the material circumstances (including cultural evolution) of each discrete group. As an example, I believe that some Amerindian tribes found it ethical to discard their older tribesmen and women, leaving them to starve and die out in the open. To us, that would be unthinkable, but who are we to judge which is the better interpretation of morality?

            What you seem to be suggesting instead is that people will not necessarily form into tribes if allowed freedom of association, but will form other non-ethnic types of associations in lieu of ethnic identities. I completely accept this may be true of some, but they will be outliers: perhaps ultra-rationalists who think that ethnic homogeneity is “bigoted” and “racist”. it will not be true of most – as can be seen by the way people behave now. The phenomenon of white flight is real and is all the evidence needed to show that human beings are tribal, whether or not they acknowledge themselves. Thus, whatever you may think about racism and ethnicism, these “bigotries” are essential.

            At least we can agree, I think, that different types (i.e. ‘nations’) of people will develop collective self-interest in order to protect the values that matter to them. The collective/individual dichotomy is therefore overly simplistic. But I would go further and say it is not possible for these interest groups to live as they wish unless they have control of physical space. If I am surrounded by Moslems, this will obviously impede my freedom to live as I wish, since I am not a Moslem and being a Moslem is a ‘total’ (all-encompassing) identity. Thus a community of Moslems manifests as a totality of values and suffocates or subordinates anything in conflict with it, and my Englishness would be sublimated into something else, or snuffed out entirely. This is the reality. Surely this is why we have nations? Nationhood developed organically as an efficient way to separate different sorts of people into interest groups based on geographic proximity and relative strength, while retaining maximal individual freedom and allowing for significant genetic diversity within each national group: tall people, short people, thick people, clever people, etc. The reality of national groups is a completely separate point to the question of statehood, which is a relatively modern innovation, but the differentiation and assortment of people into ‘nations’ is why we have the concept of ‘peace’.

            If instead we lived out in the open without any distinctions or boundaries, then human nature would be unleashed at its rawest and we would have something akin to the way animals behave on the plains of Africa. In understanding human nature, I follow Huxley’s dictum that we should first study animals:

            I DO believe immigrants should be removed from the geopolitical space that belongs to the national English, but that does not mean I disrespect their property rights: they can be compensated or they can be allowed to retain their property for as long as required to sell it reasonably on the open market as a consequence of being deported. As for your other objection that it may be unfair to kick out non-native descended peoples from a given physical space, this planet has no completely autochthonous peoples. All settled populations are the result of migration and the use of force (violence) by one group against another. It is therefore fatuous to speak of the indigenous rights of “aboriginals” in Australia and even of the indigenous rights of the white British themselves. We British and English have settled rights to this archipelago, but this can only be sustained on the basis that we are willing to use force to defend these rights and overcome those who would deprive us. That would apply, too, to any interest community and is why borders and ethnic exclusivism are necessary – and it is ultimately the justification for political violence. Just like the lions on the African Savanna. We can either fight or die. That, at root, is Nature.

            I commented on your book review about cosmopolitanism, and I pointed out that the modern neo-liberal understanding of ‘cosmopolitan’ is not truly cosmopolitan, but if anything, contrary to it.

            • Tom,

              I put my view on tribalism on my “Political Community” thread a few weeks ago. It’s important, but from my perspective it isn’t everything.

              Isn’t your idea of kicking people out of their homes (albeit with some degree of compensation) rather authoritarian?

              • Yes, but I’ve never claimed to be an actual libertarian. I do believe in an end point that is libertarian, but I do not see how it is possible for individual Europeans to live freely in, say, a Moslem society. If I’m surrounded by Moslems, in what sense am I free?
                Whereas if I’m surrounded by my own kind, I can then be myself, as I am living within my own culture. Physical space is a factor here, because a culture cannot be sustained without its own exclusive space. That’s why we have borders. Without borders, there can’t be ‘peace’ because we would have a constant struggle between different cultures for spatial supremacy.

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