Power To The People Beyond Parliament: Why Not?

Iwent to the President’s House, where I’m not allowed, which is strange. I thought he worked for me. This thing we call a democracy is really some bullshit anointing system for elites. Every few years they pretend to give a shit and then retreat behind castle walls, like kings and queens. The President’s House was actually the Queen’s House before. They just changed seats.

A few days later my wife and I bicycled into the city, to visit Temple Trees. It’s more the traditional center of power, the Prime Minister’s residence. Never been there before either. Now the barricades are broken down and the protestors have broken in. ‘Open To The Public’ is written on the wall, so we went in.

Young couples were taking selfies on the lawn, people were there with their families. Someone was playing the piano, someone draped in a Sri Lankan flag was taking a nap on a settee. On the other side, a carrom game was going on. In the garden, they’d set up a community kitchen and were feeding people.

There were signs on the wall to not damage anything and nobody did. People just walked around the halls of power like it was a museum. There were cops and military there, but not beating or gassing people like they have been. There were there to project some order, but non-coercively. You could feel that people actually had power in that place for the first time in our history.

These are fleeting moments, these revolutionary interregnums. Soon enough there’s another reign, the people get chased out, and some other elite closes the door, kicks out the people, and takes his seat. But it’s a moment nonetheless. It shows how things could be done differently.

The argument is always that if you do away with the existing order, you end up with anarchy. But I’ve read about anarchy and it’s just organization from the bottom up, without coercion. We’re told that we need state violence, we need laws to cage us, we need elites to have these palaces and comforts, but do we? As Leo Tolstoy said, “But why should we suppose this? Why think that non-official people could not arrange their life themselves as well as government people arrange it, not for themselves, but for others?”

Even within ancient democracies like Athens citizens (a violently proscribed category) had real power. They could physically attend ‘Parliament’ and were selected by lot for most positions. And indeed, that intrinsic power is still there. A massive protest like Sri Lanka had on the 9th is effectively a people’s parliament, convened on the streets. But this possibility is rigidly legislated out of existence, rigging the rules to preserve rule by elites. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organised violence.” Tolstoy was an anarchist, but you don’t even have to go that far.

Even if you believe in democracy, what are you believing in? Modern liberal democracy has taken one form of democracy (representative) and made it the only possible one, but Aristotle said democracy had many species. The Greeks were constantly experimenting with different forms from city to city, and from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes an aristocracy, sometimes an oligarchy, sometimes a dictatorship. These weren’t even bad words to them, just different forms. As Aristotle said,

“Some persons think that there is only one species both of democracy and oligarchy; but this is not true: so that every one should be acquainted with the difference of these governments, how great they are, and whence they arise; and should have equal knowledge to perceive what laws are best, and what are most suitable to each particular government: for all laws are, and ought to be, framed agreeable to the state that is to be governed by them, and not the state to the laws:”

Today we still have these different forms (aristocracies, dictatorships, oligarchies) but we just refuse to talk about them. We have these weird public bribery festivals called elections and act like that gives representative democracy this great legitimacy. We have two-party states, both paid off by the same oligarchs, and call it this great freedom. Our idea of democracy is philosophically flaccid. It’s a religious belief, used to justify priests and rulers taking your grain quite piously.

There were these scenes in the Sri Lankan occupation where ordinary people took turns in the President’s chair, smiling and shaking hands. It’s played off as a joke, but now, this is what democracy actually looks like. Actual people in power, not power delegated to a rotating cast of increasingly hereditary elites. Why can’t we have ‘power to the people beyond Parliament’, as the protestors say? Why couldn’t we just put random people in Parliament by sortition, the Athenian way.

People would say that method wouldn’t scale beyond city-states, but I don’t think democracy has been proved to scale beyond city-states at all. We’ve taken what Aristotle saw as a more oligarchic form of democracy and scaled it well beyond normal load limits and ended up with… globe choking oligarchies.

The truth is that the more contained democracies in communist states are also a democracy, and far more accepted by their peoples. According to a global survey, “the countries considered most democratic by their citizens are China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.” The truth is that people everywhere are losing faith in representative democracy because it sucks and telling people to ‘vote harder’ is not fixing anything.

We might as well carry the spirit of the Sri Lankan Aragalaya (struggle) into actual governance and put random people in power. Honestly, how could it be worse. A Parliament selected by sortition would immediately have 51% women, young people, minorities, and most vitally the poor. The Parliament would be mostly poor people for the first time anywhere, not rich people pretending to give a shit about them. Why don’t we take power to the people literally? Why do we have any faith left in these genteel elites? They haven’t been gentle with us. They don’t deserve it.

I honestly think (and write) about sortition a lot, but I really thought about it as I wandered around the palaces of power, surrounded by my people, feeling quite safe and free. Why are we still so elitist that we think our people can only choose their betters? That these anointed rulers simply must live in comfort and surrounded by armed guards? You can see the rank bullshit architecturally.

Temple Trees, the President’s House, these public properties are closed to the public. That shows you who actually has power, and it’s not you or me. These are all inherited colonial structures, occupied by our white rulers who looted us, and now we’re getting looted by kalu suddas (black whites) in the same way.

Hell, these rulers sat in comfort and sold us out to the same western banks and imperial capitalists like the white masters did before. That’s the western debt trap that Sri Lanka is drowning in today. Why should we preserve these colonial bastions where they can exploit us in peace and quiet? Why should we take this territory and never give it back?

As I tweeted somewhat virally, Presidents don’t need palaces. They should get regular public housing. If they don’t like it they should improve public housing. Politicians don’t need fancy cars, they should take public transit (and have cars taken away). If they don’t like it they should improve public transit.

Why can’t our leaders live and walk among the people? Why can’t most posts be selected from the people randomly? I think representative democracy is so beloved by the rich because they can game it so easily, but it’s not the only game in town. There are many types of democracy. This was obvious to the ancients and remains obvious if you think about it a little bit.

I sound crazy when I bring it up, but why shouldn’t random people have direct power? Why shouldn’t most political offices be a chore we all share—like chopping up onions in the community kitchen—and not some gilded privilege that we pass onto our idiot sons? Representative democracy claims it gives power to the people, but that’s a marketing ploy. I don’t see us anywhere. We can’t even walk into the seats of power without catching a beating.

Now that Sri Lankans have taken over the seats of power I can physically see that another way is possible. I fear that it will fade once this revolutionary interregnum is broken, but it was there. I saw it, however briefly. It was there. People can have power beyond a President, beyond a Parliament, we can even take over these seats of power and rule ourselves, taking turns, and sharing. I’m sure it will get beaten back by rich people that want to keep their own stuff safe behind their walls, but there is another way.

People's power is physically possible, not as a protest, not as a request to elites, but as a demand, as an occupation. Sri Lankans today occupy most seats of power and we shouldn’t just keep them warm for the next set of elites. We should never give them back. Power to the people beyond Parliament is possible. We have to break the poison pill of ‘liberal’ democracy the British left us and find our own way.

This is part of a longer train of thought on democracy which you can follow here if you’re interested.