Knowing that your vital interests are affected by factors
beyond your control is a recipe for stress. It's not what democracies should be
about. But it has become the new normal.
— Joris Luyendijk, author of The Guardian's banking blog, reflecting on the recent financial crisis
This is a short book with a simple premise: our democracies are failing and we need to regain control of our future. I will propose five concrete measures that could allow us to do so, yet my true goal is to help initiate a public debate about how we can reform our political systems.
Who is this ‘we’ that I write about? ‘We’ are the citizens who find ourselves living in so-called representative democracies and increasingly questioning what that truly means. You might be Greek and trying to halt a draconian ‘austerity’ program that is wrecking your country and that you never voted for. You might be a US citizen who opposes your administration's eagerness to embark upon yet another military adventure in the Middle East. You might be one of the millions of Brazilians who have taken to the streets, outraged with a political class that finds money to invest in sports stadiums but neglects essential public services. You might be British and still incredulous that your government has been complicit in secretly building a global surveillance machine that records everything we do online. You might be one of the many thousands of protesters who—for various other reasons—have recently come together in places as diverse as Istanbul, Kiev, Madrid, Sofia or even in the small Sussex village of Balcombe.
Or, on the contrary, you might not have particularly strong political views but still believe—like the vast majority of citizens in any ‘democratic’ country—that the political class simply isn't accountable to the general population. The last few years have made it evident that this is no longer a concern just for a handful of activists with specific agendas. It concerns all of us.
You might call yourself a progressive, a conservative, a libertarian, an environmentalist, an anarchist or an I-don't-believe-in-politics-ist. It doesn't matter. Nor does it matter what angers you the most: corrupt and self-serving politicians; inaction over global warming; our nations continuously racking up debt; the erosion of your civil liberties; or the unjust wars fought in your name. What matters is that—whatever our nationality, political orientation and main grievances might be—we all realize that those who govern us do not represent us. That shared awareness unites us, and it means that we can do something about it.
♦ ♦ ♦
We live in societies gripped by palpable, widespread frustration. We all know how bogus the promise at the core of our political systems is. Yet, and without actually believing it for a second, we desperately cling to the fiction that voting every four or five years ensures that the politicians we elect will represent our interests. We try to ignore evidence to the contrary, though this realization dates back at least 250 years. Even for Rousseau, it was already evident that, in a democracy, ‘the . . . people believe themselves to be free, but they are gravely mistaken. They are free only during the election of their parliament. When the election is over, they become slaves again.’
In today's materially affluent societies, much of our frustration stems from feeling that our lives are determined largely by external factors over which we have no control. We might oppose our government's radical measures, but against a determined political class there is little that even massive street protests can do. A majority of the population might watch in disbelief as politicians concoct an excuse to launch a military strike against some faraway nation, but no number of enraged tweets will keep the jet fighters on the ground. It may gall us to see yet another government decision favoring a business conglomerate at the expense of the public interest or another politician buying votes with expensive bridges or other public works for which future generations will pay. Yet we read it in the news, feel the bitter taste in our mouths and . . . swallow it because that is all we can do.
This sensation of powerlessness is something most of us know all too well. All over the globe, large parts of the population find themselves with no control over the crucial decisions that their political classes make, some of which will bind them for generations to come.
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Yet feeling we have control over our lives is a fundamental human need. In fact, a growing body of research confirms that a strong sense of autonomy is one of the essential elements for mental well-being. For psychologists working on this topic, ‘autonomy’ has a well-defined meaning. It is not about being independent of others. Instead, autonomy means that one has substantial control over one's activities and endorses the values implicit in them. In other words, an autonomous person is a ‘reasonably free’ agent who has a say in how things get done.
For example, studies of workplace satisfaction have found that one of the defining characteristics of a satisfying job is a sense of autonomy—that is, feeling that we have some control over how we do our job. This is something that most of us can easily relate to: when at work, few things are as frustrating and soul-deadening as having company rules and/or a supervisor who tell us exactly how we should go about the most minute aspect of our tasks, leaving us no space for choice or creativity in our work. The space for choice and ‘having a say’ in what we do is exactly what autonomy is about and why it matters for our mental and emotional well-being.
Not surprisingly, autonomy has been found to play a key role in many other areas as diverse as how well children do in school; patient outcomes in health care; the performance of athletes; and even attempts at predicting the general levels of self-reported ‘happiness’ across different countries. From here, it is hardly a stretch to suggest that feeling powerless over the crucial political decisions that affect us all may well be an important element of our societal malaise.
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If the mere feeling of powerlessness is causing such widespread frustration and deadening our souls, then our actual powerlessness is harming us in an even more direct way. Our present inability to take meaningful collective action on issues such as climate change and the fragility of the financial system threatens us in very real, palpable ways. There is widespread concern over these problems among the citizens of developed countries. Yet our political leaders seem unable—or unwilling—to deal with them in a timely manner.
If there really is such generalized frustration and unvented anger towards our political system, one might wonder what explains the absence of widespread social unrest. The answer to this question has two parts.
The first has to do with economics. In some regions of the world, it is still half-possible to maintain the illusion that we continue to live according to a ‘shared prosperity’ model. This is perhaps most notably the case in some countries of northern Europe, where the combined effect of accumulated wealth, high living standards and a tradition of redistributive policies successfully masks the fact that we citizens are no longer in control.
Let's look at what has been happening in parts of the world where this mask of prosperity has slipped. A two-hour Easyjet flight is all it takes to bridge these two universes.  Across southern Europe, massive protests and social unrest have become widespread. In Athens, Madrid and Lisbon, you will hear protesters mention banks, the EU and the IMF—but, most often, you will hear them accusing their national politicians of not truly representing the citizens who elected them.
Granted, it can be easy to read too much into rally slogans, but there seems to be a salutary and widespread awareness that it is ultimately not an economic but a democratic crisis that Europeans have been living through. And it is where this veil of prosperity is falling off that the true nature of our ‘democracies’ becomes most visible.
The second, and probably more important, reason why this frustration hasn't yet fully materialized into a serious threat to our political system is our continued inability to propose clear, convincing alternatives. For example, we—the citizens—have to account for the paradox of the ‘Indignados’ and ‘Occupy’ protest movements that successfully mobilized enormous crowds in the wake of the 2008-2010 banking crisis but seem to have (so far?) left no lasting mark on our political landscape(s). Or consider publishing phenomena such as the late Stéphane Hessel's ‘Indignez-vous!’ in France and the anthology ‘Reacciona’ in Spain, books that brilliantly speak to the public's frustration. Like the protest movements, these books garnered huge public attention but did not give rise to sustained social movements working towards reform.
I take the somewhat unfashionable view that much of the power of modern-day protest movements is lost whenever they fail to articulate a list of concrete demands.  Our repeated inability to do so has led many to believe the fiction that there are no credible alternatives, that we are stuck with the-world-as-it-is and that the best we can hope for is occasional progress in a policy domain we care about. The main goal of this book is to help foster a debate that can eventually change this state of affairs.
♦ ♦ ♦
We all have our own grievances over policy matters. Some of the more common ones have already been mentioned, but others include the decline (or, if you are lucky, stagnation) of real wages, the dismantling of social services, the way immigration is handled or any number of other important issues. My purpose here is not to engage with any of these substantive matters.
Instead, it is more important that we realize that our political system is at the root of our problems. Unfortunately, and unlike a number of worthy causes, talk of broken governance systems sounds positively boring. But it only seems so because we keep mistaking the forest for the trees. No matter what our personal dissatisfactions are, the ultimate problem is the fact that our politicians—for a variety of reasons discussed in the next chapter—simply do not represent us. In a sense, most social, economic and environmental ills are merely symptoms of this disease. Of course we should keep fighting those symptoms, but it is also about time that we start addressing the source from which they all stem. And that source—in all of its decidedly unsexy glory—is the profound brokenness of our democracies.
♦ ♦ ♦
Among other things, this means that voting out one politician or party to bring in a different one will not solve our problems. Time has made it clear that this is not merely an issue of casting. If the play stinks, replacing the actors will not make it any better.
♦ ♦ ♦
So, if our political system is the problem, what can be done about it? This book argues for five specific measures. The first four address our central concern: namely, increasing citizens' control over their government and, thus, ensuring that it acts in line with the public interest. The fifth proposal focuses on defining this very notion of ‘public interest’ in a way that is adequately long-term oriented rather than myopic. None of these ideas has any tie to traditional notions of ‘left’ or ‘right.’
This book is most definitely a ‘version 1.0.’ Its goal, as mentioned earlier, is to draw attention to the problem and have us start a discussion of how to get out of this quagmire. To be a part of that discussion and to learn about upcoming events, don't forget to join us at http://rebootdemocracy.org.
In the rest of the book, I will be your guide on two brief tours. The first combines insights from the social sciences with commonplace observations about our political reality. On this journey, I will introduce you to the web of interlocking mechanisms that prevents elected officials from truly representing the public interest. On the second tour, I will take you around the globe in search of ideas for reforming our democracies. We will witness the range from successful, thriving institutions to well-meaning but ultimately failed attempts at reform, not forgetting a glimpse into Soviet architecture and acrimonious nighttime meetings in an old palace in Lisbon. We will try to learn something from all of these.
Let's get started.
1. ^ Paul Mason's Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions offers a glimpse into this other reality.
2. ^ For the opposite argument, see David Graeber's The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement.