Thursday, 3 June 2010

Making the argument for anarchism in the electoral reform debate

On Tuesday, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about reforming the electoral system.

The point that caught my eye was this;
Five years ago, along with a small group of newly elected Tory MPs, we set out a programme for the diffusion and democratisation of power in Britain. We wanted legislation by popular initiative, recall mechanisms, autonomous local councils, directly elected public officials, a democratic upper house, a shift in power from executive to legislature, powers back from Brussels, and end to quangos and the use of referendums – lots and lots of referendums. We called our programme Direct Democracy and, last week, we launched it as a public campaign.
The rest of the article goes on to describe the positives and negatives of the coalition agreement on this matter.It then explains how the campaign "want to shift power from Brussels to Westminster, from Whitehall to town halls, from unelected functionaries to elected representatives." They insist that theirs "is an agenda that would have appealed to an earlier generation of British progressives: to the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes, to Wilkes, Paine and Fox."

I had come across Direct Democracy before, but hadn't really explored what its intentions were. I was under the assumption that - as with so many reformist initiatives taking radical names - it wouldn't be direct democracy as I would understand it from an anarchist perspective.

Indeed, it is not that kind of direct democracy. Rather, it is an intiative to make the current system more direct and give people more decision-making power, whilst maintaining the basic parliamentary framework. True direct democracy, after all, wouldn't shift power to elected representatives but from them. They would be reduced to a delegate role, the recall mechanism being there to remove anybody who would deviate from the mandate offered by the people in mass meetings.

There also wouldn't be much in the way of legislation. The only genuine "crime" is removing the life or liberty of others and, as long as they are not doing that, people are not bound by agreements, principles, or codes of practice that they disagree with. This is why the argument about "tyranny of the majority" is void in anarchist communism - in no way, and at no point, does it forcibly shove people into communes and collectives, or prevent people from trading goods and services in a free market.

Returning to the central point, however, this does not mean that the reformist Direct Democracy project is without merit. Anarchism, after all, is not just about seeking some utopia in the far-flung future but also about seeking improvements in the present. Whilst working towards revolution, there is no need to avoid pressing for beneficial reforms to the existing system.

The following are what Direct Democracy believes are the "first steps in renewing Britain;"
  • Scrapping all MPs’ expenses except those relating to running an office and travel from the constituency
  • Selecting candidates through open primaries
  • Local and national referendums
  • “People’s Bills”, to be placed before Parliament if they attract a certain number of signatures
  • Placing the police under locally elected Sheriffs, who would also set local sentencing guidelines
  • Appointing heads of quangos, senior judges and ambassadors through open hearings rather than prime ministerial patronage
  • Devolving to English counties and cities all the powers which were devolved to Edinburgh under the 1998 Scotland Act
  • Placing social security, too, under local authorities
  • Making councils self-financing by scrapping VAT and replacing it with a Local Sales Tax
  • Allowing people to pay their contributions into personal healthcare accounts, with a mandatory insurance component
  • Letting parents opt out of their Local Education Authority, carrying to any school the financial allocation that would have been spent on their child
  • Replacing EU membership with a Swiss-style bilateral free trade accord
  • Requiring all foreign treaties to be ratified by Parliament
  • Scrapping the Human Rights Act withdrawing from the ECHR and guaranteeing parliamentary legislation against judicial activism
  • A “Great Repeal Bill” to annul unnecessary and burdensome laws
As you would expect when this initiative comes from the centre-right, there is a lot within those points to be criticised. For example, I have already explained why it is the freedom of children - not parents, teachers, or schools - that will make education genuinely libertarian, and why that is not what the Tory plan (of which an LEA opt-out forms part) entails. Scrapping the Human Rights Act is also an unutterably abominable idea if the goal is safeguarding freedoms. These ideas must not only be criticised but actively opposed, as their end result is not freedom but "libertarian" private tyranny.

But, at the same time, there are suggestions that could be positive - as long as people engage with them. If they don't then, as with the Tea Party movement in America, the reactionary right could engineer an astroturf movement to mobilise people against their best interests.

Most importantly, the idea is part of a debate which is starting to emerge about how society could better be run and operated. If we do not strive to push the idea of anarchism, the idea of people making our own decisions rather than electing others to make our decisions for us, then it will be a considerable failure.

We will not win the argument in the mainstream. Nor will we get the political classes to realise their follies. But we can get the message through to ordinary people that the key to genuine change lies in self-organisation and mass participation.