By Christos Zografos
“My friend, it’s worth existing for a dream, even if its fire ends up burning you” (1980s Greek song)
Nearly a century-and-a-half ago, in May 1871, one of the most impacting attempts to realise direct popular self-rule was suppressed through bloodshed. The Paris Commune, the name given to that event, is one of the most commonly mentioned modern attempts at establishing some sort of direct democratic self-rule for a considerable population (Paris at the time counted some 2 million inhabitants). Around 20,000 Communards paid the price of making that attempt with their lives, and approximately 7,000 of them with exile.
Many criticisms have been raised against the Commune. The Soviet historiography acknowledged the Communards’ good intentions but reprimanded them for not having attempted to seize formal, institutional power – as the Bolsheviks did. After violently crushing it, the official French state interpretation would try to co-opt the Commune by finding positive aspects in its attempt to correct the authoritarian turn of French imperial politics at the time, but still condemn it for its anarchy and violence. Many contemporary critics from the Left reject the value of the Commune as a middle-class, intellectual, and politically innocent utopia, which ignores the practicalities of politics and power.
Consistently, when the Paris Commune is mentioned, heated debates ensue about the value of direct democracy for changing the world. Differently to representative democracy, which involves electing representatives who make decisions about public policies, direct democracy is a form of popular self-rule where citizens participate directly, continuously and without mediation in the tasks of government. It is a radical form of democracy that eliminates the distinction between rulers and those governed.
The key institution of direct democracy is the deliberative assembly. Such assemblies are meetings where citizens make decisions by listening to and discussing among them different views on a matter, reflecting on each other’s views, and trying to make a common decision without coercion. Direct democracy allows citizens to control decisions taken over their own destinies instead of relying on self-serving politicians, and is acknowledged for producing highly legitimate decisions.
Today, several communities around the planet use elements of direct democracy as a vehicle not only for political transformation, but also for transforming human interaction with nature. Interestingly, and similarly to the historical Paris Commune case, in many cases they do so under conditions of political and economic stress. One of the most notable contemporary cases is that of the Kurdish autonomous canton of Rojava, which emphasises gender equality in political office and participation, and incorporates direct democracy into decision-making processes in its effort to transform society on the basis of the principles of Murray Bookchin’s social ecology.
On the other side of the planet, in the American continent, many indigenous, campesino, and Afrodescendant communities practice self-governance and assembly-based decision-making. Direct democracy in those cases is part of an effort to materialise the principles of autonomy, communality, and respect for diverse forms of life stemming from those communities’ cosmovisions. And in India, radical ecological democracy initiatives such as the Arvari River Parliament of 72 riverine villages in Rajastan have signalled attempts to achieve transitions towards a bioregional vision of ecological units governed democratically by local communities, where cultural diversity, human well-being and ecological resilience are core values for decision-making.
Similarly, reclaiming citizens’ right to decide over their future has also swept across the global North during the recent times of the so-called ‘economic crisis’ – or perhaps more accurately, the latest crisis of capital accumulation. Citizens have questioned the capacity of the representative model of democracy to provide accountable and transparent governments. Calls for direct democracy have been fuelled by rejection of an economy and politics of inequality and a feeling that government has been hijacked by a closed group, the infamous 1%, who exploit their position of power to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority (the 99%).
In Spain, assembly-based decision-making processes popularised during the ‘indignados’ movement have empowered social movements to disrupt urban development dynamics that exclude poorer social groups from the right to housing. What is more, they have spurred the creation of bottom-up political formations that have taken power of municipal politics, and which now pursue more equitable, participatory, and environmentally sustainable models of the city.
So, could direct democracy be a good vehicle for building a new ecological consciousness? The more ‘scientific’ answer would be: possibly.
Many scholars sustain that increased participation and direct communication between people who have different visions and priorities about how to use the environment and its resources, is the only legitimate route for deciding such use. They claim that, as a practice, direct democracy crucial for deciding not only about local issues, such as what to do with forest commons or how to regulate urban traffic and pollution, but also about global issues, such as deciding on what is the human impact on the environment, something that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment exercise actually did. They further argue that such direct interactions allow for people to get to know each other, appreciate each other’s visions and concerns, and so make it easier for reaching common solutions.
Critics point at the limits of rational communication and democratic discourse for changing the world. Feminist scholars in particular, argue that radical decisions, such as the ones required for addressing current and pressing ecological crises, are the result of motivation, and motivation is linked more to emotions, socialising, and bodily experience. They further argue that radical change requires leadership rather than horizontality (which is implemented with direct democracy), and that conflict rather than consensus (favoured by deliberative modes of decision-making) has historically proven more influential for achieving such change. Rational discussion among differing visions, can only achieve slow and questionable results if your perspective is that things need to change fast and radically.
Although this is not the place to ‘resolve’ this issue, it is important to note two things. One, that those concerns are both incisive and important. Two, that there are interesting theories and techniques around, such as for example Process Work, that try to integrate some of those concerns, such as the importance of emotions, bodily experience, and socialisation, with deep democracy.
Perhaps a final point to note is the “story of the brook”. Kristin Ross, who has recently written a history of the Commune, tells the story of a chapter on “The history of a mountain stream” (or brook) that Élisée Reclus, a Communard and geographer, wrote in a children’s book. In that chapter, Reclus praises the stream as superior to the river, because the river’s waters may be torrential but follow the direction of a pre-carved gully, whereas the stream’s waters may be much weaker, but still it makes its own, unpredictable way. Ross tells us that this image can be helpful for understanding the disproportionate historical power of the Commune in relation to its small scale. Perhaps it could also be helpful for understanding the inspiration and potential of direct democracy for transforming consciousness, and transforming the world.
Christos Zografos is an environmental social scientist. His research looks at the politics of environmental transformation and conflict in the field of political ecology, and explores the relevance of plural values, deliberative and direct democracy for sustainability decision-making and degrowth transformations in the field of ecological economics. Currently, Christos is a Ramón y Cajal Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.