In considering the possible mechanics of a directly democratic society we should note that different decisions are different. In particular, there is a difference between decisions that involve discrete choices and those which involve a continuum.
For example, electing a representative/selecting a delegate is a discrete choice – you cannot send half of one person and half of another. Setting aside the extent to which on important and/or simple questions, they can be sent with binding mandates, so that their identity is unimportant, for all the fiddly negotiating and compromising, the elector is making a discrete choice.
What this means is that information gets lost, in particular through “wasted votes”. 60% of people vote one way, and the votes of the dissenting 40% have no effect. If this is summed over elections done in a great number of assemblies, and then summed over the different rungs of assemblies at higher and higher levels, a lot of votes will be wasted, and so there is a lot of ‘noise’ in the result.
If our goal is the accurate transmission of the popular will as ‘signal’ from individuals up to high-level decisions, we might want to avoid this. Especially because the overall effect is likely to be a distortion in favour of the norm, in favour of established forces.
This problem is seen in the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system used in UK elections: a government can get only 30% of the vote, but win more than 50% of the parliamentary seats, because the votes of losing and smaller parties are spread out and form small sections within each constituency which are ‘wasted’. This is a representative rather than direct system (in the sense that electors have no ongoing organisations by which to actively control and dictate to their MPs) but the problem is the same. Plus the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and all that stuff.
Correspondingly, one attempt to address the problem is ‘proportional representation’, i.e. voting without local constituencies. This however removes any local link to particular representatives – which whatever it’s significance in a representative system, is hardly much good when the local constituency is meant to actually exist as a political force and be in charge.
Hence the further suggestion of a mixed voting system, with some constituency representatives and some ‘compensating’ members. But this seems to me to be completely the wrong way to approach things. The reason for the problem was the nature of the choice being made – it was a digital choice, between discrete options, so it involved losing information. Why ‘compensate’ with another digital choice?
I would suggest that it makes far more sense to compensate, whether in a representative democracy or a direct democracy, with a decision that is continuous. As a particular example that seems promising to me, something like a preliminary budget-setting.
What I’m envisaging is something along the following lines. There is (set up by more complex means) a scheme of different options for collective expenditure (whether that’s the direction of the whole economy, or the government’s special spheres like health and income support and the army). There is also a scheme of different sources of revenue. These could be more or less detailed.
A very simple case might be “healthcare-education-defense-social support-other” next to “progressive individual taxes-regressive individual taxes-corporation taxes-borrowing” (yeah, my knowledge of all this fiddly stuff is pretty poor, sue me).
Then, for each interval of time, each citizen ‘votes’ by 1) doing a percentage allocation of resources to the different items in the first scheme, 2) doing a percentage allocation of income drawn from the different sources in the second scheme, and 3) giving a desired relative amount of spending (this would obviously be different in a capitalist society and a socialist one, and between different sorts of both).
The body tasked with drawing up a budget (whether that’s a parliament or a supreme soviet) then has to balance their figures in such a way that each of those segments receives/gives the amount of funding that has been democratically decided upon (presumably with some acceptable margin). And the total amount of spending has to correspond to the decision (again, with a margin).
The key thing is that these numerical votes can be mathematically averaged, in such a way that the number of votes ‘wasted’ is limtied by the rounding error (i.e. if you round to the nearest hundred pounds, nearest thousand pounds, nearest penny, etc.). Each voter can feel correctly that their vote had some direct influence – some few pennies are going to this sector or that which otherwise would not be.
Are there problems with such a scheme? Well, it’s not perfect, but no arrangement is. It would certainly (maybe this is the main thing I’m eager for) totally change the character of political debate, if introduced right now. Instead of personality politics, about which candidate is ‘the right kind of guy’, political activists would have to go out and argue over whether people should raise their percentage allocation to this thing or that thing – i.e. talking about issues, and about the nuts and bolts of what’s happening, not just about personalities.
Obviously it’s open to the standard “people are too damn stupid to run their own society” objection, but then so are all democratic measures. I have great faith in the stupidity (and cupidity) of politicians.
I suggest this both as a possible structure of a future socialist society (I envisage it as a sort of ligament holding the top and bottom vertebrae of layers of federated councils/assemblies together) and also as a possibility for our own society in the here and now, not as a revolutionary change on its own but as an interesting reform. I’m interested in people’s thoughts – is there a huge problem I haven’t envisaged?