It is the lazy conceit of the political class that “representative democracy” is the most reliable way of carrying out the public will. Just as George W. Bush showed how the accountability mechanisms of state power are often more notional than real, the government of Iceland has now exposed its disdain for public opinion on matters of democratic empowerment. A recent blog post by Thorvaldur Gylfason gets right to the point: “Putsch: Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution killed by parliament.” Gylfason is an economics professor blogging at the German blog Verfassungsblog (“on matters constitutional”).
Iceland’s constitutional drama got its start following the 2008 crash. As viewers of the film Inside Job will recall, the financial collapse was devastating to Iceland, which had set itself up as an offshore financial center. After citizen protesters banged pots and pans in the street, demanding a new government, a new post-crash government eventually chose 950 random citizens to give their thoughts on a new constitution. An elected constitutional council used social media to solicit the views of the public.
This open, thoughtful process was later invalidated by the country’s Supreme Court, which was dominated by justices belonging to the discredited political party responsible for the financial crash. In response, the Icelandic parliament established a new constitutional council to draft a constitution. That four-month process in 2011 yielded some remarkable reform proposals, as Gylfason writes:
The constitutional bill stipulates, among other things: (a) electoral reform securing ‘one person, one vote’; (b) national ownership of natural resources; (c) direct democracy through national referenda; (d) freedom of information; and (e) environmental protection plus a number of new provisions designed to superimpose a layer of checks and balances on the existing system of semi-presidential parliamentary form of government. The preamble sets the tone: “We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society where everyone has a seat at the same table.” The people were invited to contribute to the drafting through the Constitutional Council’s interactive website. Foreign experts on constitutions, e.g. Prof. Jon Elster of Columbia University and Prof. Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago, have publicly praised the bill and the democratic way in which it was drafted.
When the proposed changes were put to a public referendum in October 2012, Gylfason writes, “67% of the electorate expressed their support for the bill as well as for its main individual provisions, including national ownership of natural resources (83% said Yes), direct democracy (73% said Yes), and ‘one person, one vote’ (67% said Yes).” An email campaign organized by ordinary citizens persuaded 32 of 63 members of parliament to publicly declare their support for the bill.
But rather than accede to the clear public will, the Icelandic parliament has now tabled the bill, guaranteeing its demise – while quickly passing a new law that will require a two-thirds majority of the next parliament to approve any constitutional changes. The law also requires support by 40 percent of eligible voters, which means that 80 percent of voters would have to show up at the polls to change the constitution.
What are we to make of this contemptible turn of events?
The lesson for me: “Representative democracy” is too crude, centralized and corruptible a vehicle to faithfully represent people's collective interests. Elected officials will rally to protect their own self-serving interests and power even if it means conspicuously flouting the public will expressed through legitimate channels. I don'tsee this case as one of a few deceitful legislators. I see it as a structural problem of liberal democracy as a system of governance. Legislators see the will of voters as contrary to their own self-interests.
The Icelandic putsch validates the claim made by Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignados of Spain and other citizen-protesters that state power as now constituted is itself the problem. The conventional “checks and balances” on power imagined by 18th century constitution-writers are woefully inadequate today, and the system is incapable of reforming itself from within.
I think the Icelandic putsch illustrates why we need to develop different types of (distributed, democratic, commons-based) governance models. These smaller provisioning and resource-management systems – for natural resources, research, software code, etc. – could not only be more responsive and accountable than state systems. They could begin to supplant and challenge the state’s unaccountable power and its furtive, anti-democratic alliance with market players.
We have known for a long time that “liberal democracy” is filled with empty formalisms and rigged outcomes. Even though the system is structurally limited in what it can achieve, it nonetheless delivers valuable “side benefits” to legislators and well-connected insiders: the real basis of its durability. The Icelandic putsch against the public is fascinating for revealing these gamy realities so clearly. That doesn’t happen very often. The next move lies with the Icelandic people. Has state-engineered "democracy" defeated the people?
On a brighter note, a recent article by Bernardo Gutierrez describes “how net parties are changing the rules of the political game” (translation by Stacco Troncoso & AM Utronco/Guerrilla Translations). A tip of the hat to Michel Bauwens for bringing this piece to my attention.