Direct Democracy

What is Direct Democracy?

Direct democracy is different from parliamentary democracy in a number of important ways:

1. Direct democracy is about 'originating' ideas as much as it is about 'approving' them. In parliamentary democracy, people are never asked for their own ideas - they are only asked to 'approve' or 'disapprove' of ideas already prepared for them. Direct democracy is radically different in that way. Direct democracy is based on the realistic notion that 'people know best how to look after their own situation'. We don't need specialists to tell us how to run our places of work or our communities. Anarchists argue that we are quite capable of doing this ourselves. All we need are the resources and the right to do this. Direct democracy is the method.

2. Direct democracy is based on delegation not representation. The crucial difference between delegation and representation is that delegates are only elected to implement specific decisions. Delegates do not have the right to change a decision previously made by an assembly of people. Delegates (unlike representatives) can be immediately recalled and dismissed from their mandate if they don't carry out the specific function allotted to them.

3. Direct democracy is as much about the workplace as it is about the community. In parliamentary democracy, the workplace is 'immune' to democracy (save what rights workers have won through their unions). In direct democracy, the operation of a factory or a plant or an office will be via a general assembly of all workers. This body will decide on conditions of work, will elect re-callable managers, and will organize how work is done. It will also elect people (as delegates) who will coordinate with the other places of work and with the broader community. Regional organization will be managed through a federation of workplaces using a delegate structure.

[From Chapter 9 of "Parliament or democracy?", Workers Solidarity Movement Pamphlet]

Literal direct democracy (as opposed to consensus, which is sometimes also referred to as direct democracy) is a bottom up method of decision making that uses voting as the means to arrive at decisions. Direct democracy on a small scale can be as simple as a group of people voting by a raise of hands or the marking of ballots to arrive at a decision. Large scale decision making by direct democracy is usually in the form of "councils" of elected delegates whose role is to represent the will of their group at the council. These delegates are recallable, they can usually be recalled for any reason that the group the delegate represents thinks is sufficient grounds for recalling them.

The voting results in direct democracy decisions which determine whether a vote "wins" or "looses" is typically majority vote wins (especially when used on a small scale). But other methods, like forms of proportional representation or using voting to get the majority opinion and then using consensus to incorporate disagreements into the final decision, can be used to modify the voting process. In direct democracy, anyone can call a vote on an issue and anyone can technically call an assembly, however, a group or council can draft and approve guidelines for calling votes and calling assemblies.

The following article describes how the Zapatistas have utilized direct democracy:

From "The Zapatistas, Anarchism and 'Direct democracy'"

Published in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, #27 Winter 1999

What the Zapatista movement has been about since 1994 is the construction of a system of direct democracy. They form an organizational and decision making network involving hundreds of thousands of people. There are 32 rebel municipalities, each one with 50 to over 100 communities. More then 500,000 people live as part of this decision making network. There are five language groups - these along with high mountains, jungle and bad roads make any form of libertarian organization difficult. Yet this is exactly what the Zapatistas appear to have constructed.

Village assemblies

The areas the Zapatistas openly organize in are rural and extremely poor. Small communities of a dozen to over 100 families are typical, forced to live off the land without the benefit of modern agricultural machinery.

Some of the men will have worked outside the village in local towns or even as far as the USA but in the villages themselves the only political presence tends to come from the Catholic church's local variety of 'liberation theology' and the EZLN itself.

Diez de Abril is a new community founded on land seized in 1995. Those who moved onto the land had worked it before the rebellion. They met in assembly on the land before the take over, decided how to divide up the land and decided to call the new community 'Diez de Abril' after the day (10th April 1919) when Zapata was assassinated.

The routine weekly assembly happens after or even as part of mass on Sunday. It is open to all to attend and all over 12 have speaking and voting rights although votes are very rare. This meeting can go on for hours and typically resolves practical questions concerning work in the community or expenditure of community funds. One long running debate was whether to buy a tractor or a truck. There may be other assemblies if needed during the week.

The assembly elects delegates called 'responsibles' to coordinate work in particular areas. These delegates serve a limited term (one to two years) and are subject to recall within this time if it's felt they are not 'leading by obeying' (i.e. the Zapatista slogan for following the mandate given to them).

There are also collectives that carry out particular tasks within the community. They are set up by and answerable to the assembly but are otherwise autonomous. Collectives in Diez include ones for coffee, cattle honey, horticulture, bread, sewing and chicken. Some of the production of each collective goes to its members; the surplus goes into a central community fund controlled by the assembly.


The 'Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee' (CCRI) is the body that actually commands the army. This body (or indeed bodies as there are also regional CCRIs) is composed of delegates from the communities. It is not in itself a military structure.

Regionally it is capable of making decisions that affect individual communities. For instance when one community in the region of Morelia wanted to occupy land shortly after the rebellion "the local Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, (CCRI) ordered locals to wait, expecting a region-wide land settlement after the 1994 dialogue".

This in itself is not necessarily a problem if the CCRI is a genuine delegate body. In many revolutionary situations it makes sense to hold back militant sections in case premature action results in the suppression of the movement. In this case I'd probably have disagreed with the decision but the question is how it was made and who made it. The people of the region or some unaccountable body acting in their name?

A month after the rising the Mexican liberal paper 'La Jornada' which extensively covers the Zapatistas interviewed some members of the CCRI. One called Isacc explained the accountability of the CCRI:

"If the people say that a companero who is a member of the CCRI is not doing anything, that we are not respecting the people or are not doing what the people say, then the people say that they want to remove us ...

In that way, if some member of the CCRI does not do their work, if they do not respect the people, well compa, it is not your place to be there. Then, well, excuse us but we will have to put another in your place".

The Consulta

Even still the CCRI does not have the power to make major decisions, such as peace or war. These must instead be made through a 'consulta' - crudely a referendum but one where intense discussions in each community is as central to the process as the vote itself. These take months and have been a great source of annoyance to the Mexican government, which always wants an answer to its proposals on the spot or within days.

One EZLN communiqué explained the consulta process as follows:

"The consultations took place in every community and ejido where there are members of the EZLN. The study, analysis, and discussion of the peace accords took place in democratic assemblies. The voting was direct, free, and democratic.

After the voting, official reports of the results of the assemblies were prepared. These reports specify: the date and place of the assembly, the number of people who attended (men, women and children older than 12 years old), opinions and principal points discussed, and the number of people who voted."

This broadly ties into what observers who have seen consultas take place tell me. It was such a consulta that decided that the 1994 rising should go ahead, a year before Marcos and the army command considered they were ready. Consultas since have decided to enter into talks with the government, to accept the San Andres agreement and later to break off talks until the government implemented what had already been agreed.

The councils

These regional structures are designed to make the big decisions, the questions of war or peace etc. However, obviously state wide meetings are far too unwieldy to settle smaller questions. The rebellion has also meant Zapatista communities refusing all contact with the Mexican state - right down to refusing to register births and deaths.

The practical problem thrown up by the need for inter community coordination saw the formation of regional councils. These are known as autonomous municipalities. 100 communities for instance make up the autonomous municipality named after the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon. Tierra y Libertad, on the border with Guatemala contains a total of 120 communities.

"Within the newly created municipal structures, the communities name their authorities, community teachers, local health promoters, indigenous parliaments, and elaborate their own laws based on social, economic, political and gender equality among the inhabitants of diverse ethnic communities."

A Mexican NGO in detailing the government's attempts to smash these communities explains how they function:

"The communities of an indigenous zone or area are the ones who decide, at an assembly of all their members, whether or not they will belong to the autonomous municipality ... It is the communities who elect their representatives for the Autonomous Municipal Council, which is the authority for the municipality. Each representative is chosen for one area of administration within the autonomous municipality, and they may be removed if they do not fully comply with the communities' mandates ... Those who hold a position on the Municipal Council do not receive a salary for it, although their expenses should be paid by the same communities who request their presence, through cooperation among the members. In some cases, members of the Council are supported in their farm work, so they can dedicate themselves to their [Council] work, and not have to go the fields."

These structures are obviously ones compatible with anarchism or indeed revolutionary syndicalism. They key checks of mandate and recall are there. The fact that these structures are not consciously anarchist but arise from a blend of indigenous practice, Marxism and Liberation Theology should not prevent us standing in solidarity with them.

More importantly, whatever their origins they offer a current model of some of what we talk about in practice.

Chiapas is isolated and extremely poor, the fact that libertarian structures can flourish in such harsh conditions in the midst of a Low Intensity war can only demonstrate how valid they are.

Direct Democracy pros and cons:

Pros: Direct democracy is often a fast and efficient way for groups to make decisions. Direct democracy is viewed as being a results-oriented method of decision making, as opposed to a process-oriented method. Finally, direct democracy is considered a very flexible method of decision making that is applicable to a wide variety of situations.

Cons: Some people view some forms of direct democracy as being too efficient and results oriented and not process oriented enough. Some people consider the use of "majority rules" voting, as in some forms of direct democracy, to be undermining of egalitarianism in a group decision making process.


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