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Peter Singer on Direct Democracy

from 'Democracy and Disobedience',
pp105-107, Oxford University Press 1973.
Dr Peter Singer is an eminent Australian Professor of Philosophy and Bioethicist who stood as a Senate Candidate in Victoria for the Greens in 1998. He has written widely on bio-ethics, animal liberation, democracy and on social questions. Democracy and Disobedience began life as his thesis, submitted to the University of Oxford in 1971 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy. Although Dr Singer demonstrates his awareness of anarchism in his writings, he identifies with the platform of The Greens as a political reform movement.

Anarchists would extend this philosophical definition of direct democracy to a democracy of the workplace (workers councils or anarcho-syndicalism are two examples) and democracy of the neighborhood (town meetings or libertarian municipalism). In recent years anarchists have been prominent in implementing consensus decision making for small groups, and spokescouncils for decision making and coordination amoung larger collections of groups involved in campaigns, projects or activities.

See also in the Anarchist FAQ:

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Democracy, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it, means '(State practising) government by the people, direct or representative.' My third model is a form of direct democracy. The members themselves take the decisions about how their community is to be organized. Direct democracy can claim to be the basic form of democracy, both historically and conceptually. Historically, Western democratic thought goes back to Athens in the fifth century B.C. In the Athenian city-state at that time, the citizens met in a General Assembly and there, under conditions of political equality and free debate, discussed and voted on the major issues that faced the community. Admittedly, not all those who lived in Athens were citizens in the legal sense, and it is sometimes said (though just as often denied) that Athenian citizens would not have had the leisure demanded by their political system, were it not for the existence of slavery. I do not know whether there is any truth in this claim. In any case, within the limits of its qualifications for citizenship, the Athenian system was an example of direct democracy like our third model association. Whatever obligations exist in this third model would also exist in a direct democracy.

Conceptually, too, direct democracy is the basic form of democracy. The idea of representative democracy implies representatives who 'take the place of' or 'are present instead of' others. Representative democracy is therefore in virtue of the meaning of the term a substitute for something else, and this something else can only be direct democracy. The question we are going to have to ask about this substitute is whether the reasons for obedience that hold in a direct democracy also hold in a representative democracy. Before we consider this question directly, however, let us ask a more general question: why accept a substitute at all ?

One of the most common platitudes in political theory, repeated in all the elementary textbooks, is that while direct democracy might be all very well in a small city-state, it is obviously quite unrealistic in a nation-state of several million people. In fact, this platitude is certainly false. With the communications technology available to us today, an extension of Athenian-style democracy to a modern state would be perfectly feasible.

Without going into details, it is easy to envisage vote-recording devices installed in private homes and public places, linked to a central computer and operated by means of some personalized device, like those already in use for obtaining cash from the automatic machines outside banks. Proposals could be debated on radio and television, and the public could contribute by telephone - not everyone, of course, but then not everyone could contribute in Athens. If, then, we have not seized the opportunity provided by technological advances to restore democracy to its purest form, it must be because for one reason or another we are unenthusiastic about such a restoration. Maybe people would find it inconvenient to vote frequently, or consider themselves incompetent to express an opinion on major issues, or perhaps those who are influential in forming opinion on these matters are apprehensive about the decisions that might emerge from direct popular votes on issues relating to racial equality, capital punishment, or foreign policy.

Peter Singer, 'Democracy and Disobedience', pp105-107, Oxford University Press 1973.

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