Modern democracy traces its history from classical Athens in the 6th century B.C. to the present day. According to its original definition, democracy is a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of formal political power. In modern 'representative democracy', this equality in decision-making is substituted by the 'right to vote'. Modern centralized states require decision-making powers to be concentrated in the hands of the few. As globalization spreads, this trend extends over territories and more and more of us come under the power of a smaller, less accountable elite.
Does it have to be this way?
Real democracy does not mean a particular type of government elected by a majority vote. Rather, real or genuine democracy means a consensus achieved within a particular community. One of the features of real democracy is smallness—democracy means personal knowledge of others. A real democratic decision is one which truly embodies the will, the feelings, or the spirit of a particular community. Thus, a system is only genuinely democratic when it is local—when it deals with local concerns and local issues and where the representatives are not only part of the community but carry out the will, the feelings of the community. Furthermore, real democracy gives the people of a community power over their own affairs and their own area or region.
In Anglo-Saxon England, a folkmoot or folkmote (Old English - "folk meeting") was a governing general assembly consisting of all the free members of a tribe, community or district. It is true that the word 'democracy' is Greek but Germanic tribe cultures also – and especially the Scandinavian parts – had a deep tradition of 'grass-roots' democracy. English government originated in these "moots", meetings - perhaps held under oak trees - where small communities thrashed out their differences. This provides a vital historical model which shows that a society based on community, organic democracy and environmental harmony is not merely a dream, but could be an achievable ideal. Furthermore, each community would choose someone to represent it at the next level of government: such as the folk, leet, hundred (roughly, groups of 100 households) and shire. These will in turn send representatives to the regional assembly - the witan.
The dangers of parochialism that might follow on from this decentralisation can be reconciled by confederalism with other communities. A direct democracy, in turn, avoids the corruptive "politics" produced by political professionalism, bureaucracy and top-down representative systems of government. Citizenship, expressed through popular assemblies can avoid a statist "politics" based on the privitised, alienated "constituent" who exercises little control on their own affairs or that of their community.
Elsewhere in the world traditional democratic forms have been successfully revived by autonomous movements:
- In Mexico the Zapatista Army of National Liberation have developed their own system of autonomy as a response and alternative to globalisation. This has especially been the case since the government betrayed the 1996 San Andrés treaty, which would have granted limited autonomy to indigenous regions of Mexico. Since the government failed to live up to its commitment, the Zapatistas made the decision to claim and construct political autonomy unilaterally. The social structure is a bottom-up model that facilitates the inclusion of all members of society by allowing local social structures to be included in the framework of the larger Zapatista social structure. Insisting that the communities are the backbone of the social structure ensures that the demands of the people are those that dictate the direction of the struggle. The Zapatista struggle is about having a choice: a choice of government, education, social structure, livelihood, and freedom of dependence on an outside power.
- The Arouch Movement or Berber Arouch Citizen's Movement (Kabyle: Laarac) is an organization in Algeria representing the Kabyle people, an ethnic Berbers group of the province of Kabylie. Their name, Arouch, is the plural form of the word Arch, referring to a traditional Kabyle form of democratic political assembly. The movement was started after the Black Spring disturbances in 2001, in which 126 Kabyle protesters were killed by Algerian gendarmes. The Arouch have a horizontal structure and no leader. The Arouch views about the status of Kabylie are as diverse as the number of its representatives, some supporting a federal state, others support a regional autonomy, and the rest are for decentralization.
These examples are useful in showing how traditional forms can be adapted to the needs of modern communities. We can be inspired by the past but must not indulge in historical re-enactment. We must draw out and build upon our liberatory traditions to create the society we want to live in now!