Book review: Beasts And Gods by Roslyn Fuller

"The problem is not that democracy is broken. The problem is that what we are engaged in is not democracy. This wouldn't really matter so much, if we were happy with the results we are getting. But we aren't."

Democracy as we experience it is not democracy as it was meant to be. Democracy, in the Ancient Greek from which the word is derived, literally means people power. And we have been conditioned to unquestioningly accept that voting in elections every four years, plus the odd referendum, is as much power as the people need. We believe we have a voice. We think that our views and concerns and aspirations are duly represented. But we've been had. In Beasts And Gods, Roslyn Fuller drops that penny for you. She drops it resoundingly, with writing that is clear and compelling. This is a non-fiction page turner.

All Hands On has a deep fondness for this book, and for its author. By way of disclosure, Roslyn kindly agreed to be interviewed for our pilot film - When Citizens Assemble - and she also took part in the expert panel that addressed audience questions at public screenings of the film in Edinburgh and Glasgow. She is a friend of our project. And our project is a friend of her. But she did not ask us to post this review. Indeed, we asked her to participate because we loved the book. We're not giving the book some love just because she agreed to participate.

Roslyn's preferred title for the book was The Democracy Delusion. And it delivers on that unmade promise.

The short story is that the ancient Athenians developed and enacted democracy in its truest sense. Demos (people of a nation) + kratos (power) = demokratia. Athenian democracy was based on mass-scale direct participation, intense deliberation and statistically significant citizen representation. But our modern democracies do not follow the Athenian model. The founding fathers of the United States modeled a system based on Roman republicanism instead. And, in perhaps the greatest political con trick ever pulled, they called it democracy. The label has stuck. In the process, as the book's subtitle lays bare, democracy changed its meaning and lost its purpose.

The system that we call democracy, the system that we hold so dear, has served only (and ironically) to take power further and further away from the people, and concentrate it in the hands of an elite few. Around 15% of the eligible Athenian population took part in its Assembly every two weeks. By contrast only 0.0003% of the Roman voting population were members of its Senate, a level which is spookily similar to the proportion of American voters in the House Of Congress. No system can be truly representative of the will of its citizens when power is concentrated in the hands of so few. No system which concentrates power in that way can be immune from corruption.

Roslyn lectures in International law and her book is as gripping as any courtroom drama. Like any good lawyer she has left no stone unturned. The level of primary research is impressive, as is her data analysis. She has questioned the witnesses, and she has anticipated all counter-arguments. She prosecutes her case with a potent combination of passion, logic and forensic evidence.

"The way I see it, there are really only two possible explanations [for why we keep voting for parties and policies that have obviously bad consequences]; either we are all so phenomenally stupid that we simply cannot help but consistently vote in our own worst interests, or something is fundamentally wrong with the system we use to convert public opinion into policy decisions."

As this book makes crystal clear, there are many things fundamentally wrong with our so-called democratic system. Beasts And Gods consists of a string of "the king is in the altogether moments" for the way that we are governed. Here are a few examples.

  • We have confused elections with democracy.
  • In fact elections are inherently undemocratic.
  • The Athenians knew this and deliberately developed a system (true democracy) that avoided elections and their inevitable problems.
  • Elections have always been bought and sold by corporations and powerful interest groups. Roslyn's data analysis shows a direct and disturbing correlation between election spending and election outcomes. In the United States when one side outspends the other by a factor of 2:1 there is a 90% chance of victory. When that ratio increases to 5:1, victory has historically been guaranteed.
  • We associate voting with freedom. So it is somewhat disorientating when the penny drops regarding the extent to which voting outcomes are manufactured by those with most to gain.
  • Under the first past the post election system we almost invariably end up with a government that the majority of voters voted against. This sounds counter-intuitive but this book unpicks the mathematics by which this comes to pass. The disparity between the mandate afforded to the victors and the level of popular support that underpins that mandate is often huge.

Roslyn Fuller is passionate about her subject, but she is no zealot. Because she has done the primary research, because of the rigour of her data analysis, she has earned the right to be forthright. She does not need to hedge, fudge, beat around the bush, pull punches, or sit on any fences. So whilst her tone is confrontational, her arguments also come across as entirely reasonable.

"If national democracies are increasingly looking like oligarchies, the international system is already there. The explicit inequalities in voting rights as well as the use of 'representation' to whittle down those entitled to participate to a minuscule number of powerful politicians and financiers effectively annihilates any residual content of democracy that might have theoretically survived the distorting effects of bribery and vote-skewing already present on the national level."

Most of the book is devoted to laying out the problems with the thing that we call democracy, which isn't. But the latter sections are concerned with an operating system for a modern approach to democracy that can replicate the defining characteristics of the Athenian approach - genuine representation, deep deliberation, and direct participation.

This is not without its challenges. Roslyn tackles these challenges head on but the tone of the book inevitably changes when it is suggesting solutions rather than defining the problems. She is speculating rather than demonstrating. Whereas she was preemptively over-ruling any objections earlier on, here there is reasonable doubt. Can Athenian-style radical democracy be made to work in the 21st Century?

All Hands On believes it can. Our project is about providing a moving picture document of record to show that it can. And it is no exaggeration to say that this book has been an inspiration.