Independent Citizens’ Assembly
Direct democracy cannot substitute for parliamentary democracy. If it confines itself to abusing and criticising parliamentarianism it will simply remain a second clientele for the corporate mass media, to be pitted against the parliaments in a «divide-and-rule» game refereed by the media. The «indignados» must move on and propose a system of organized competition between direct democracy and parliamentary democracy, to be enshrined in new constitutions.
There is a general recognition even in the mass media today that the liberal democratic political system is in terminal crisis and that what is needed are new forms of citizens’ democracy, direct democracy, deliberative democracy.There are many names for it.
What one unfortunately never sees, though, is specific, easily understandable blueprints of the forms that this citizens’ democracy might take, what its relationship would be with the existing forms of multi-party liberal democracy or parliamentary democracy, what its relationship would be with existing forms of direct democracy, such as referenda, plebiscites, the activity of citizens’ groups, non-governmental organizations, and so on.
The Swiss model is often cited and here I think it is worth a mention that the forms of democracy that exist today in the Swiss confederation, and indeed Swiss neutrality, are very largely the work of someone we mention frequently: the first governor of modern Greece, Ioannis Capodistrias. The specific type of polity of modern Switzerland was designed to keep the country out of the sphere of influence both of France and of Austria, which in the nineteenth century was of course among the great powers. Capodistrias was the foreign minister of the Czar of Russia at this time, and Russia had the most rational of geopolitical reasons to try to reduce the influence both of France and of Austria.
Having said that, does the Swiss model of direct democracy have anything to offer? Does it suit our specific needs now? We would argue that it doesn’t, because it does nothing to curb the power of mainstream mass media. The mass media can influence the outcome of a referendum just as easily as they can influence the outcome of an election. This is particularly the case if the subject of the referendum is in any way complicated or technical.
What is the situation with the mass media? Quite simply that the priority is on deceit and distortion. The most important realities will be subject to media blackout. What cannot be blacked out will be distorted to guarantee confusion and non-comprehension to all but the tiny minority that has found out the reality by other means. Issues that are given systematic high-profile media attention are very often fictitious.
Politicians who rely on this mass media for their election, that is to say virtually all politicians, cannot be expected to bring it under social control. The only solution then is to organize around it. In the age of the internet, unless it too comes to be controlled as tightly as the media, this is technically possible.
The desideratum, then, is for an Independent Citizens’ Assembly to be established. Independent citizens are citizens who can communicate with each other and with political supporters directly, not via channels that are mediated and under the control of others who can give and withdraw support whenever they want to, and also distort, change and manipulate content whenever they want to. Politicians and public figures who appear on the media that is not under citizens’ control should not have the right to a vote in the Citizens’ Assembly. They should have the right to act as advisors if their advice is sought, but not to participate in voting or decision making. This amounts to nothing more than restoration of a convention that used to exist in Westminster democracy before the age of the NGO in the form of a professional civil service. Civil servants were not supposed to speak directly to the media, but only through their responsible minister. The Citizens’ Assembly would restore, and indeed itself assume, some of these functions that used to be assumed by a professional civil service.
The Citizens’ Assembly would seek to compete with the universal suffrage parliament through a periodic referendum say once every five years that could decide on whether legislative powers should for the coming five year period be exercised by the Citizens’ Assembly or by the universal suffrage parliament. Whichever legislature lost the referendum would have merely an advisory, not a legislative, role. If the Citizens’ Assembly should win the referendum at the Pan-Hellenic or Pan-European level, this would automatically entail transfer of powers from the multi-party legislatures to the citizens’ assemblies at every lower level: national, regional and municipal, subject to challenge at these lower levels, where local referenda could be organized at the initiative of the losing side. This situation would be reversible, applicable also if the pan-European mandate should go to the multiparty legislature.
At the level of the European Union, the head of state should be chosen by a body of electors made up of the heads of state of the member countries and representatives either of the multi-party legislatures or of the citizens’ assemblies, whichever held the mandate. This would help to deal with one important source of the lack of legitimacy of the European Union which treats the national parliaments of the member states as if national sovereignty is vested in them. Sovereignty in Great Britain, to take just one example, is not vested in the parliament. It is vested in the Crown in Parliament.
The Citizens’ Assembly would have to make it clear at all times that it is not a political party. The political party allegiance of members of the Citizens’ Assembly, and other forms of allegiance such a membership of trade unions, employers associations, non-governmental organizations and so on, would be relegated to private status, similar to the status of a citizen’s religion in a properly functioning secular democracy. There would have to be a court with powers to judge when a member’s behaviour in the citizens’ assemblies was in violation of this rule. Any person behaving in a citizens’ assembly like the member of a party would be required to withdraw from the citizens’ assembly and participate in public life through the multi-party assemblies, not the independent citizens ‘assemblies. This is just a brief sketch of how a Hellenic and/or European Citizens’ Assembly could be feasible and how it could operate. There is nothing stopping European citizens from making the first move towards constructing such an assembly, and seeking powers for it. Under Article 11, paragraph 4 of the Treaty of Lisbon, “not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.”