The middle-class has a new idea to transform India. The hero of the India Against Corruption movement, Arvind Kejriwal, has announced the formation of a new political party. It will solve corruption, provide free education to all that will be better than private education and bring down fuel prices. How will the party with no name achieve this? Kejriwal will reveal this, after having thought about it, in a few weeks. I cannot wait.
But Kejriwal has revealed the secret weapon which is the basis for his reconstruction of India. It is direct democracy. The people will decide everything. All law and all policy will be voted upon by the population. Fantastic.
What exactly is direct democracy? How does it work? We know because the Greeks had it. Aristotle described it in The Athenian Constitution. Basically, every decision, whether executive or legislative, was taken by direct vote.
Athens was a direct democracy because, with only 50,000 citizens, it had little diversity and was manageably small. But even there, since it wasn't practical for all citizens to vote every day, only a few did on a given day. These were chosen by lot (picking out a number or a colour from a pot), and by neighbourhood in rotation. Every citizen was equal and equally qualified.
Aristotle described how government servants, military generals and court jurors (there were no judges) were elected and picked randomly by lot.
Socrates had a problem with this. "In a storm, would you decide a ship's captain by lot?" is his constant question in Plato's dialogues. The answer is obviously no.
In the modern state, foreign affairs is the domain of experts, not popular opinion. This is because international relations are conducted in a snakepit with no rulebook.
Economics requires expertise, not collective wisdom. Interest rates, excise duties, deficits cannot be determined by popularity. Neither can income tax rates and their method of collection in a culture where morality is low and tax theft common if not normal. If I remember it right, Kejriwal himself paid his own taxes tardily, and after a stern notice.
Perhaps Kejriwal wants us to vote for some things that directly affect us, and not all. How will we decide which things? By vote?
Direct democracy is susceptible to demagoguery and the passion of the mob (which in India is quick to form). The comic playwright Aristophanes had a favourite target, the demagogue Cleon, who kept pressing Athens to continue their ruinous war with Sparta.
Will India resist her Cleons, of whom we have many? I doubt it. Gujarat's voters continue to vote for a party whose ministers are being convicted for mass slaughter.
Democratic opinion is not always infallible.
After the Battle of Arginusae, in 406 BC, the Athenians executed their own generals after a vote in anger. The mercenary and historian Xenophon, who recorded this, said the Athenians then regretted the action. Socrates fought in that battle and was influenced by the wickedness of the citizen voters. He constantly asked if direct democracy had merit, angering those in power and resulting in his trial.
It was a jury of a few hundred Athenian men that convicted Socrates and instructed him to commit suicide. The charge against him was corrupting the young, but writer IF Stone in his Trial of Socrates showed that the execution was actually for opposing direct democracy.
Ultimately, everyone fell out of love with direct democracy and it produced a backlash that changed history.
Aristotle went on to tutor Alexander, who dismantled what remained of the democracies of Thebes and Athens. He then conquered and left colonised for centuries the area covering Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and some of Central Asia before being beaten back in Punjab.
Plato himself detested direct democracy as much as Socrates did. He had no faith in the mob's wisdom. His The Republic was the opposite of direct democracy. A Nazi-style supremacist state that had no place for individual freedom or even poetry. His last work, Laws, the only one without Socrates in it, was softer and less totalitarian.
All systems have been tried, and all have failed, before the wisdom of democracy with elected representatives. India already has this.
First Published On : Oct 7, 2012 10:40 IST