(A Landsgemeinde, or assembly, of the canton of Glarus, on 7 May 2006, Switzerland. )
Direct democracy is a political system in which citizens directly exercise power without the intermediary of representatives. Initially equivalent to the concept of democracy since Greek antiquity, the gradual qualification of representative regimes as democracies has sometimes led to the use of the qualifier “direct” to distinguish technically practices that are closer to the experience of the century of Pericles. Applied to the economic sector alone, direct democracy is often called self-management.
Athenian democracy in the 6th century BC, is the first and only example of direct democracy in antiquity. She inspired many thinkers over the centuries, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis.
Some current democracies contain direct elements but always within the framework of a representative regime.
The modalities of the exercise of power within the theories, organizations, communities, cities and countries that have been related to direct democracy are relatively variable, but they nonetheless share a number of principles and practices, including political equality of citizens (or members) concerning deliberation and decisions (horizontality of power), the revocability of mandated or possible elected representatives, the imperative mandate, the meeting in assembly, and decision-making by majority, consensus, or unanimously. The appointment by lot, the rotation of mandates or the impossibility of renewing them are also practices frequently associated with direct democracy.
Anarchist theorists and activists, including those belonging to the mainstream of libertarian socialism, are also prominent advocates of direct democracy (as an alternative to parliamentarism that they severely criticize), extending it to the realm of production (self-management, economic democracy …).
Many countries have mechanisms (referendums, local assemblies, popular initiative) that come under direct or semi-direct democracy.
(Athens: In Antiquity, it was at the foot of the Acropolis and Parthenon, in the square of the agora, that the assemblies of citizens were held. )
Democracy refers etymologically to the power (kratos) of citizens (demos) and refers to the regime in force in Athens after the reforms made by Solon (-594) and Clisthenes (-508). The citizens (the entire Athenian population male of father of more than eighteen years, having the means to arm themselves) deliberated and voted the laws within Ecclesia. Daily allowances were granted to enable the poorest to perform their civic duties.
The draw was used to designate magistrates, as well as the members of the Boule, a council of citizens representing the different tribes, and having in particular the task of collecting the bills presented by the citizens and preparing the bills.
A relatively small number of judges and magistrates were elected, for functions considered as requiring special skills, and for terms generally limited to one year. The elected offices were more generously paid.
The elective offices were renewable as often as the people decided against the charges designated by the fate.
Forms of direct democracy in tribal societies
Some hypothesize that many tribes of the past eventually adopted a system of collective land management and social conflicts resulting from living in community. Resulting, if it has existed, a form of “direct democracy.” In German-Scandinavian countries, the “thing” council was the assembly of free people from a country, a province, or an administrative subdivision. So there was a hierarchy of these customary meetings. The place of the “thing” was often that of religious rites and that of commerce. Disputes were settled on this occasion, and political decisions were taken. Some idealists thought they detected a first form of direct democracy, although this is totally anachronistic to this type of primitive organization. Many other tribes have worked differently.
The European Middle Ages saw the emergence and strengthening of feudalism until the peak of absolutism in the seventeenth century. Local forms of democracy, however, developed at the same time, particularly in the Swiss country districts. It was the same, at least at the beginning, in the trading republics of the Mediterranean and in Novgorod.
Direct democracy of the Cossacks
The organization of the Cossacks was founded on egalitarian and democratic principles: without lords and preserving for nearly two centuries their independence from the state structures, they practiced free elections and made their decisions by plebiscites, within general assemblies (kroug in Russia, rada in Ukraine and among zaporozhers), which constituted the ultimate decision-making body, and in which the elected representatives had to give an account of their actions and decisions.
Popular assemblies of medieval towns
From the eleventh century, the communal movement developed in Europe, especially in Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy. This consists in obtaining communal charters by the inhabitants of a city, based on common oath, and aimed at guaranteeing certain liberties to the bourgeois (inhabitants of the city), as well as relative political and legal autonomy to the royal and seigniorial authorities. They were granted by the lords or by the king for a fee, and sometimes after popular insurrections. These charters provide for democratic modalities of municipal management, including the annual election of magistrates by communal assemblies gathered in churches or in public spaces.
Certain charters (for example, that of Sens, 1189, or that of Soissons, 1116, in France) provide for a fine for the inhabitants not appearing at the meeting (generally announced at the sound of the bells).