Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Comment | Sydney Morning Herald
10 May 2015


On display in Canberra's Parliament House is a 13th century copy of a famous agreement. In 1215, King John acceded to the demands of his rebellious barons and signed the 'Articles' at Runnymede, near Windsor. This year marks the 800th anniversary of that event and there are celebrations and exhibitions around the world. In English history, the "Magna Carta" formalised the proposition that a monarch's rule was not absolute; but needed the assent of his subjects: propertied barons. The treaty is usually cited as the precursor of the English Parliament, and indeed of modern democracy itself. Yet Magna Carta had little to do with demokratia as it was originally conceived.

The barons' feudal land tenure became the defining qualification for parliamentary membership. As late as the US Declaration of Independence, in 1776, most voters were still vassals of the local grandees as they could be bought for money and/or concessions. No voter had an unfettered say, as the secret ballot (first introduced in Australia in 1856) was only adopted in the US and Britain much later. Thomas Jefferson described the first US Congress as a "natural aristocracy", since it was, as with the British House of Commons, constituted by wealthy, white males. The American founding fathers eschewed the very word "democracy", as that word conjured up the original Greek model.

Thus modern democracy was born of privilege and nurtured through class conflict. Conceived in partisan contest, initially as kings and barons, then as landed gentry in elections, the disenfranchised became chartists, then socialists, and the ultra-disenfranchised became communists. Even though the claims of the working class and the suffragettes have largely been resolved, the saga continues in a fossilised relic of divisiveness. Modern democracy rejected the Athenian ideal of equality, wherein the poor, as much as the rich, were automatically accorded a place in government.

In this 800th anniversary year, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a resolution to start a reading list, and recommended as his first book Moises Naim's The End of Power. Naim's proposition is that, with the advent of the internet and better education, knowledge and power are so diffuse that the notion of unassailable authority is a thing of the past. In the era of "here comes everybody" we feel empowered to live a more self-directed life, and we expect to do so with cheaper and smarter tools. Our social and political networks have exploded into myriad tribes. Yet, still, our greater desire is for collaboration.

An "existential crisis" is how the Economist magazine describes the current state of democracy in Britain. I think that descriptor can be extended to most nation states. As the tribal drums beat on the heart of the public realm, the only paradigm is one of campaigning candidates, and of government and opposition. In this cacophony of rhythms, there is a desperate competition for relevance, peppered with rhetoric and hyperbole. Our politicians, wizened representatives forged in electoral bear pits, entreat us to believe that there can be no more deserving. Raised on a bloody battlefield, modern democracy knows nothing but a brutish struggle for power, and no other means by which to achieve equality and dignity. 

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his Leviathan, with its striking frontispiece: a king with sword in one hand and church staff in the other, and a body constituted of people, with their backs to us and their gaze towards the giant. The image sought to describe 'the social contract' whereby power, both material and spiritual, can only be exercised by assent of the people. Seemingly just and fair, this metaphor persists today, but the premise is that of acceding to a supreme authority – more imposed than implied. Let us for a moment imagine a Parliament – or at least a House of Review - constituted of people selected by lot, like a jury. You might say: it may well be representative, but it can't possibly be competent!

We've lost sight of the true genius of democracy, of trusted public decision-making, wherein power and competency reside, from the outset, in everyday people, unnamed and unadvertised.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is founder of the new Democracy Foundation.