People sometimes say, in relation to direct democracy, that it ‘would never work’ and is ‘obviously impractical’, meaning by this that it would be vastly impractical to decide every single political question by a vote of a vast, billion-strong popular assembly.
Which is of course true, but also beside the point. We live in a representative-democratic political system. But we do not live in a system where every position of power is elected, nor where elected representatives decide every political question, setting aside any question of whether that would be good or bad. Our civil service, our judiciary, our armed forces and police, are all run on principles other than representative democracy – setting aside questions about the economic ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.
Yet our political system is representative-democratic, not because the representative structure (elections) is applied universally, regardless of any other considerations, but rather because the representative structure is applied selectively, in such a way as to be dominant. Not every single position of power is elected, but the most important ones are, and the ones that are typically can direct or exert strong influence over the ones that are not.
So similarly ‘direct democracy’ should not be taken to mean a political system where the direct structure (popular assemblies) is applied straight-out to every single question, regardless of any other considerations. Rather, it means a political system where the direct structure is the dominant structure – where it is applied selectively to the ‘commanding heights’ of the political system, in such a way that popular assemblies can push the rest of the political system about.
Obviously what ‘dominant’ means will look different in the two cases. The dominance of the representative structure means things like having the head of government elected, i.e. that figure(s) who operates on the largest scale, i.e. the whole country. Obviously popular assemblies aren’t able to do that – indeed, that is rather the point.
Instead, dominance would mean (maybe?) that everyone who is elected is elected by a popular assembly (or by those elected by…), operating at a scale small enough for people to meet in it regularly, neighbourhood or workplace level, and that because these assemblies meet regularly, i.e. are organised in their own right, not just once every fear years, they are able to directly control their representatives – i.e. to say not just “please don’t do this or in three years we’ll possibly vote for someone with slightly different policies but who we are therefore unable to control on all the other issues”, but rather “right you, out! Now! Unless you abide by what we’ve just voted on.”
Which, strangely enough, is what socialist revolutions seem to have an odd habit of producing, for however short a time.
Take home message: describing a political system as ‘directly democratic’ doesn’t mean popular assemblies are the only institutions, it means they are the dominant institutions.