So the US election is done then - the latest in a line of too-close-to-call votes between highly polarised groups. Beyond anti-racist relief and Four Seasons disbelief, I found myself reflecting on how ill-suited our democratic systems appear to be for the times in which we find ourselves. An election where over 60% of the population are worried about climate change, but turn in a vote that makes decisive action on either virtually impossible. How did we get here?
Enter the late, great David Graeber who had a few things to say on the matter. He noted that whilst the Greeks didn’t actually invent democracy, they did manage to polarise decision-making with staged conflict and turn it into common practice.
"Ancient Greece was one of the most competitive societies known to history. It was a society that tended to make everything into a public contest - from athletics to philosophy to tragic drama… so it might not seem entirely surprising that they made political decision-making into a public contest too …"
So in 200 BC or so, the principal achievement of those conflict-obsessed, control-freak-Greeks was not to invent democracy, but to popularise the niche concept of “majoritarian democracy” - or democracy by voting. For Graeber, this idea emerged hand-in-hand with military states and only really occurs when 1) there’s a feeling people should have equal say in making group decisions and 2) there’s a coercive apparatus capable of enforcing those decisions. In other, more egalitarian societies from the Berber to the Sulawezi where coercive power isn’t quite so acceptable, other forms of consensus-based decision-making took precedence. Maybe those Greeks weren’t so smart after all:
"If there is no way to compel those who find a majority decision distasteful to go along with it, then the last thing you want to do is hold a vote: a public contest which someone will be seen to lose. Voting would be the most likely means to guarantee humiliations, resentments, hatreds, in the end the destruction of communities."
Sound familiar? We’re so used to connecting the idea of democratic participation with majority voting, we forget the hazards of it, and that there are other alternatives. At Something More Near, it's rare for us to be asked about the relative merits of electoral reform, but we do spend a lot of our time helping groups to agree on a path forward - and these ideas are instructive. There’s more to be said about the promise and peril of scaling these kinds of principles from village-scale to business-scale and even country-scale (I’m looking at you, sociocratic method). But whatever your politics, it’s worth reflecting on what the election might tell you about how you stage your own decision-making. If you’re looking to deliver real change, it might be time to put the vote away.
Participation specialist. Major projects for Tate, World Health Organisation, Museum of London and Franco Manca. Co-founder of Something More Near.