Direct Democracy is Dictatorship.

Perhaps psychology will help us design political systems better than philosophy. Of course, there is a lot of haggling around why psychology is hardly a science. But a few will dispute the fact that it is more sciencier (albeit less sexy) than philosophy. Polity that works for the populi cannot be learned from the philosophy or high ideals that our (and others) constitutional texts propagate. What actually matters to the citizen is how those in power have acted when presented with an opportunity.

There is a cottage industry that teaches us how to acquire power and preserve it. They quote from Sun Tsu to Machiavelli as if these men have written something that we don’t already know. The Hoi Polloi is definitely taught to be sceptical and, to some extent, selfish by the larger society. Irrespective of the ardent religious appeal of the propaganda in favour of altruistic morality, most of them grow up to not trust others unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Most enduring systems of power are designed to override this suspicion by abusing the organis gullibilties of the masses.

You can package a war machine with an allegory of their mothers. You may have to camouflage by creating a national image that is seeped in kindness, compassion, and the glory of being old. I would like to write more, but this article is not about creating comprehensive national power. This assumes that such a system is somehow in place (say, like our own constitutional republic) but someone sets sail to capture power within it. And this discussion must be limited to Democratic or quasi-Democratic systems.

We are well aware of the way popular elections could be swayed through the efficient use of propaganda, which is an intuitive application of social psychology. One needn’t be conversant with the theories. The long practice of politics does endow some of us with a knack for messaging that will resonate with the people. But civilised societies do impose restrictions on the quality and manners of public discourse. They can be bypassed with ingenious strategies like dog whistles. But a more practical and sustainable means will be to launch a blitzkrieg of promises (much like Lebensraum) that help you masquerade your real agenda.

The appeal for direct democracy is one such. It is simply not deliverable in complex societies of high order. Especially when you are looking at a population that is barely struggling under the yoke of a punishing economy as well as social systems loaded against them. Also, the power of people is nothing without organised mechanisms that ensure that their will is properly transcribed and coded into machines of power. For example, the government machinery at the tail end works under the instructions of civil servants. And they are not directly answerable to people. If we were to put a microscope on every decision and action taken in government offices, the people would be reduced to subjects who act according to rules. If this system has to act democratically, government alone will not do. There should be citizen operated machines that feed the government as well as the bureaucracy of the day.

The entities that we call political parties are supposed to ensure this. But in practice, it is an extremely difficult thing to do. This is because they are vehicles towards power. There is indeed some element of democracy that exists in them. At least, they pay lip service to them. But then, if they are competing with each other in a social system that is loaded, they cannot be democratic. When you are forced to partake in activities that cannot be public (which to some extent is the staple of public life by virtue of design), you are drawn towards secrecy. And as we know, secrecy cannot breed democratic spirit. There would hardly be any doubt about who distributes the tickets for contestants to Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabh. The average voter is hardly a party. I am not complaining about this, but I am highlighting it because the question of functioning democracy that operates levers of power according to the popular will shall factor in the limits of organisational capacity.

It is here, that the calls for direct democracy falls flat. If there are no mechanisms for people to express their will, it cannot direct policy. Or when whatever mechanisms exist are cleverly dismantled, some demagogue could appear on top (via the games of power) and claim that he/she represents the popular will. The lavish grace of power is enough to manufacture consent, and the fiction of popular will could sustain their bid to stay in power. The citizen is robbed of the opportunity to direct state policy. The most crucial aspect here is the intermediate leadership, which are in direct contact with people. By definition, they are accountable to the community. They are embedded in the community on an organic continuum. From households to the local leader, there are no chasms. They are one and the same.

Here, we are not even assuming that the average voter will direct state policy. But the policy has to be crafted by machines that are modular, with popular control over these modules. Without it, democracy can hardly deliver it to those at the bottom. Here, I strongly argue that complete democratic decentralisation with avenues for people to actively change the course of their lives is the only way to go about democracy. The missing piece in popular discourse is the role of intermediate or lower leadership of a political party (or other vehicles of power in community, caste, or religious domain).

The biggest obstacle to dictatorship is a robust, intermediate leadership that is visionary. It might seem ironic in a discussion on democracy. But, oligarchs (or regional satraps in a quasi-democracy) are the most credible defence against centralised dictatorship, provided they are connected to popular machines of power. It is a different matter if all these satraps, or powerful intermediaries, are tyrants. Then, they become the hallmark of patronage based dictatorships. They bow to the wishes of the dictator, but it can’t be denied that only they have control over resources that could potentially dethrone the dictatorship.

One popular fiction in democratic propaganda is that we only have petulant megalomaniacs as dictators. But in real life, most of them are soft spoken, urbane ‘gentlemen’ with a purpose. They wouldn’t have climed the ladders of power, if they were a pain in the ass for everyone around them. They know how to please and, in turn, get what they want. Oligarchs or satraps are more like “friends” to the dictator. They could be loyal, yes, but they are certainly not servants of the dictator. The dictatorship will do everything possible to make their situation precarious. The “comprador” class would most certainly be popularly hated. It only makes the dictatorship more powerful. They are forced to pledge their resources to the upkeep of the dictatorship - without which they will perish.

We spoke about them in detail only because they command reasonable resources to unseat the dictatorship. The goal of democracy is to create intermediate leaders who hold considerable power - on behalf of the people. All standard laws of democracy - changeability of personnel, accountability, etc - applies to them. But the focus of democracy should be in creating such passionate, ambitious and ever powerful regional satraps. If the supreme leader can unilaterally control all tickets to the Lower House, pick Chief Ministers, and mess with state government machinery, the federal setup we have will crumble. This is true in most constitutional democracies. Not just ours.

The call for direct democracy is very attractive. It is indeed good if it comes from the bottom and limited to decision making in a small, close-knit community. However, when that call comes from the very top, it should be alarming. The ulterior motive is to disarm intermediate leadership, which have familial, kinship and honorary ties to the community. And arguably, they are much more effective tools of mental control than fictions like propriety and constitutional allegiance (of the individual).


The gist of this article is to look at leaders whom you interact with and choose wisely. And they should have good bosses at the regional level. If not, get into your party of choice and try to effectuate that change. Democracy dies in darkness; in the same bed will lie the lazy citizenry, dying along with it.


Written on May 31, 2024