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The dangerous fallacy of ‘democracies’ and the need to reinvigorate real democracy

July 19, 2023

The “democracies” is just the conventional term for that bloc of states. Internally, the democrat is an enemy~Jacques Ranciere[1]

Language is a powerful tool. This holds true for politics as much as for any other aspect of social life, if not even more. And there is one specific term that has been used left and right by ruling elites, as well as by grassroots social movements. I am speaking, of course, about ‘democracy’.

It is really impressive what the range of regimes and contexts that use this term are. In fact, almost everywhere you are situated around the planet, you most probably are told that you live in some sort of democratic system. Everything seems to be ‘democratic’ in some way and, as Cornelius Castoriadis suggests, even when a corporal with 10 machine guns and 20 jeeps somewhere around the world tries to seize power, he wouldn’t do it without first declaring that he wants to establish some sort of democratic regime[2].

First of all, there is the so-called representative democracy, which today has come to be perceived as the default form of ‘democracy’, where people’s political participation is limited to the election of a governing body once every four years. There are also systems with greater citizen input, often referred to as participatory and deliberative democracies. In these, except for the occasional elections, people get to vote also at sporadic referendums etc. There even are regimes that go under the name of “democratic monarchy”, where along with elected governments there is still a functioning monarch. And finally, we have direct democracy, where communities and even whole societies function on the basis of radical equality and the absence of hierarchical structures.

And here a very logical question emerges: how can all these models, so diametrically opposed to each other, all go under the banner of ‘democracy’? The simple answer is that most of these examples, except for the last one, have nothing to do with anything even remotely democratic. Instead, it is the ruling classes that have taken an advantage of a term that once emerged from the grassroots and stood for the revolutionary restructuring of society. As a result, a false sense of popular empowerment is given, since the constant usage of ‘democracy’ is intended to remind people that they supposedly are “in charge”, despite the fact that they barely have any input in the management of public affairs.

The idea of ‘democracies’ as opposed to democracy is to suggest that as long as there is some form of electoral processes going on, then the people are in control of the steering wheel: they don’t have to seek further empowerment but to elect ‘more suitable’ rulers. This, of course, is completely false since the election of representatives, from its very nature, presupposes some kind of vertical form of governance (and thus the retaining of the bureaucratic State), where the majority of people are excluded from direct participation in the management of public affairs.

It is well known that the citizens of Ancient Athens, where the concept initially emerged, meant something radically different from what we have today. Although the Athenian society of that time was plagued by slavery and patriarchy, with slaves and women being excluded from political life, it nonetheless underwent a revolution that saw the establishment of democracy, or self-management by the citizenry. For the Ancient Athenians such as Aristotle, there was clear distinction between a democratic system and elections for representatives — the former was based on popular assemblies and sortition, while the latter was viewed as the building block of oligarchy. Although critical of democracy, Aristotle underlined its grassroots character:

A democracy exists whenever those who are free and are not well off, being in a majority, are in sovereign control of the government, an oligarchy when control lies in the hands of the rich and better born, these being few.[3]

This understanding of democratic politics as popular self-management continued throughout the ages. 18th century thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau were well aware of the difference between democracy and representation: for him, when a government lies in the hands of the whole people or of a majority of them then we have a democratic society, while aristocracy or oligarchy is when the government is restricted to a small number of citizens (i.e. representatives).[4]

Thomas Paine, the man of revolution, had a similar stance on the issue to other prominent figures of that period. He too made distinction between representation and democracy, understanding that in its original form the latter stood for a society governing itself without the aid of secondary means.[5]

Arguably the moment when this clear distinction between democracy and representation became blurred was in the 19th century, with the publication of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. In this work the author positioned electoral processes at the heart of democratic politics: Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds.[6] This sets the tone for a confusion that will serve ruling classes and demagogues in the years to come, while diluting the revolutionary project.

In the 20th century Lenin will continue blurring the innate antagonism between electoralism and democracy. He goes as far as to suggest that we cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions.[7] This forced him to accept statecraft as inevitable and seek the essence of revolution in the economic sphere alone, since the political one, and with it the top-down flow of power, doesn’t have alternatives.

This type of thinking persists to this day. Many prominent thinkers, like Marxist economist Richard Wolf, continue this tendency of equating our current representative oligarchies with democracy. For Wolf, we do live in a political democracy because there are elections for government (which supposedly empowers people politically), which leads him to the conclusion that we also need to bring elections for employers to the work place, so that we can also empower people economically:

there’s a democracy in the way you reside — your home, your neighborhood — because you vote for the people who are mayor or senator or governor. But you don’t vote for your employer.[8]

Of course, there still are voices that make the crucial distinction between electoral statecraft and democratic self-management. Such examples include people such as British economists Cockshott and Cottrell, who emphasize this stark opposition:

Parliamentary government and democracy are polar opposites. Democracy is rule by the masses, by the poor and dispossessed; parliament, rule by professional politicians, who, in numbers and class position, are part of the oligarchy.[9]

Unfortunately, the confusion has prevailed, leaving such voices in the margins. This has created a twofold problem. On the one hand, it serves the interest of the ruling elites as it offers an ideological veil that obscures the hierarchical character of the dominant bureaucratic system behind narratives and iconic processes of popular pseudo-participation. In this way an attempt is made to instill and maintain a feeling among society that, in a way, we are all complicit in the actions of our governments since it was us that have elected them. No matter how minor or insignificant our input really is — we voted, therefore we participated and are somewhat co-responsible for the actions of those elected in power. Of course, this logic is completely fallacious, since as Castoriadis suggests, people are not free even on election day,

as the deck is stacked, the pseudo-options are predetermined by parties — and, what’s more, they’re empty.[10]

On the other hand, this confusion obscures the alternative to what we have today in terms of systemic form of social organization. By suggesting that we already have a system that empowers people politically makes us blind to the existing power discrepancies. Thus, the political field is abandoned and instead fixes are being sought in the economic, cultural or other fields alone. This leads to a dead end, as there cannot be popular empowerment in any separate sphere in a top-down setting that separates society into layers of small elites with authority and overwhelming disempowered majorities. While struggles in each of these single fields are of great importance and contribute to the wellbeing of us all in the ‘here-and-now’ and can often increase our space and time for movement, there cannot be a revolutionary change unless we overturn the very skeletal structure on which modern societies are built — meaning radically altering the existing power-relations and decision-making processes on society-wide scale.

This is where democracy comes in. From its inception until today it suggests that when it comes to the rules that mediate our life in common, every single one of us can and should participate equally in their shaping via grassroots assemblies. And when decisions should be coordinated on a larger scale, encompassing more than one self-managed community, then revocable delegates get chosen via lot to attend confederal coordinative councils and cantons. In this way it is further ensured that power remains at the grassroots, because as Jacques Ranciere explains:

We should distinguish between delegation and representation. In a democracy, logically enough some people will carry out certain activities on other people’s behalf. But the delegate plays her role only once, which is not true of representatives. Drawing lots was once the normal democratic way of designating delegates, based on the principle that everyone was equally capable.[11]

Thus, a radical change is offered that entails the radical restructuring of all fields. With bureaucracy and elite-rule gone, it is up to all members of society to directly alter the rules and limits that give shape to collective life. It is ridiculous to think, for example, about economic inequality in one such setting, because as Murray Bookchin has suggested, economic processes will be absorbed by the political sphere:

The economy ceases to be merely an economy in the strict sense of the word — whether as “business,” “market,” capitalist, “worker-controlled” enterprises. It becomes a truly political economy: the economy of the polis or the commune. In this sense, the economy is genuinely communized as well as politicized. The municipality, more precisely, the citizen body in face-to-face assembly absorbs the economy as an aspect of public business, divesting it of an identity that can become privatized into a self-serving enterprise.[12]

One such radically egalitarian and participatory perspective is viable only if we liberate our imaginary from all the burden of domination — including electoral representativity. As long as we find ourselves incapable of thinking about democracy beyond elections we will be running in circles — wondering why those we have elected turned into a distinctive class with its own interests that go against those of the overwhelming disempowered majority. This last point is becoming increasingly evident to people everywhere around the world, as a result of which abstention rates are soaring almost everywhere.

But this growing refusal to engage in electoral spectacles can lead either to further political cynicism, or it can lift the ideological veil of ‘democracies’ and show representativity for what it really is — a basic pillar of oligarchy and elite-rule.

It is the latter case that will allow for egalitarian and communal perspectives to emerge, offering a vision of the total abolition of political representation and its replacement by the direct and unmediated participation by all through grassroots institutions (such as popular assemblies and councils of revocable delegates) in shaping social life. What we can do from today is to insist persistently that there are no countless types of ‘democracies’: if there is any form worth of the name democracy, it is the one that renders domination of humans over other humans and over the natural world obsolete.

[1] Giorgio Agamben (ed.): Democracy in What State? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p77.


[3] Aristotle: The Politics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p1290.

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Jonathan Bennett, 2017), p33.



[7] Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 25 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing

House, 1964), p424.


[9] Cockshott & Cottrell: Towards a New Socialism (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1993), p159.

[10] Cornelius Castoriadis: A Society Adrift (Not Bored, 2010), p220.



Photo by Enric Domas on Unsplash

Yavor Tarinski

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher, activist and author. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. He is a member of the administrative board of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, of the editorial board of the Greek digital journal & publications Aftoleksi, as well as bibliographer at Agora International. Among his books are "Concepts for Democratic and Ecological Society" and "Reclaiming Cities: Revolutionary Dimensions of Political Participation".

Tags: direct democracy, political economy