Building toward participatory democracy

Most writing that I’ve been able to find on the topic of ‘participatory democracy’ focuses narrowly on decision-making procedures; on consensus decision-making processes, voting systems, workers councils and syndicates, recallable delegates, and the like. All of that stuff is interesting, but I don’t believe this is what we need to focus on in order to actually bring about participatory democracy.

Think for a moment about what it would actually be like for society to be run as a participatory democracy. Very large numbers of people would have to be able to participate in making decisions that affected their lives. The people who live on your street, and the people who work in your local shop, and your local pub, would have to have some way of communicating with each-other, negotiating, and reaching a decision. This doesn’t just require a new set of procedures, it requires new skills, and also a cultural change, a move toward a new social norm of engaged, responsible participation.

Furthermore, the move from representative democracy to participatory democracy would fundamentally change the type of decision that people can make. We’re used to democracy being a multiple choice test, where we choose candicate a, b, or c, but in participatory democracy the questions are long form and open-ended, requiring creative, collaborative problem-solving. Do you have the skills to do this kind of work, in collaboration with people you don’t know, who might come from a different background than your own? I’m fairly sure I don’t. This isn’t a problem of rules and procedures, but of communication skills, and of the social norms that limit the kinds of conversations we are able to have.

We tend to think that through the Internet we have access to the whole world. We don’t. In general we have direct person-to-person access to people in our (real-life or Internet) social networks: family, friends, colleagues, and people who are only one step removed from us, even if we have never met them directly. On the Internet we theoretically have access to the whole world but in practice we only have person-to-person contact with those in our own social bubble. In my own life I’ve found it’s rare that I attempt to communicate with people whose backgrounds and expectations are different from my own, and when I do, it takes three times as long as I’d expect to exchange information, and is fraught with misunderstandings. Almost all of our information about the world outside our bubble is filtered through corporate media, whether it’s the BBC or the Washington Post or Al Jazeera, or an aggregator such as Google News or Yahoo News. We absolutely do not know how to talk to people whose lives are different from our own, and this is a huge barrier to participatory democracy.

It’s not really surprising that we’re bad at talking to people outside our own extended social networks, since until fairly recently there was no reason for most of us to do so. People sometimes point to the anti-social behaviour that occurs on many Internet discussion forums as being evidence that people are naturally barbarians who are only capable of behaving in a civilised manner when they can see each-other face-to-face, but I think that’s a little like looking at the way people drove in the 1920s and concluding that people are fundamentally incapable of devising a way for flows of traffic heading in opposite directions to share the same road without crashing. Just as the invention of the motor-car led to the evolution of both formal and informal rules governing traffic, the Internet, and in particular forums, blogs, and social networks, are pushing us to develop new ways to communicate. We’re still in the early days of instant access to anonymous text-based communication with other humans all over the globe, and we still crash a lot, because we haven’t developed a sensible set of rules to govern our behaviour yet.

Our poor communication skills aren’t the only barrier. Participatory democracy cannot meaningfully exist without openness and transparency in both government and business, but transparency is only useful if people are able to actually see and understand what decision-makers are doing, and make a decision about whether it is reasonable or not. We would need to find ways to meaningfully participate without having to spend our lives in meetings (or the online equivalent). This is not as impossible as it may sound: in a system where government is open and transparent and delegates can be recalled, 99.9% of people may quite happily ignore what the Ministry for Agriculture is doing, safe in the knowledge that the 1 in 1000 who happen to be Agriculture Geeks are following the Ministry’s every move, and will raise a fuss if they think anything is being done incorrectly.

So if rules and procedures do not pave the path to participatory democracy, what does? The answer is anything that builds a culture of participation, communication, and engagement. Some of the things I see building towards this are:

— The movement for open data and open government, demanding that ordinary people have access to the information needed to criticise, or to participate in, governance.

— Websites such as Wikipedia, and Stackoverflow, which provide useful, crowd-sourced information, along with a level of quality-control.

— The development of respectful, useful Internet communities for discussions of difficult topics, e.g. the feminist blogosphere, and the ongoing project of creating ‘safer spaces’ – zones where society’s normal, oppressive norms are challenged.

— The Occupy movement with its general assemblies, where an attempt is made to ensure all participants can make their voices heard.

— Workers’ co-ops, and other organizations run non-hierarchically.

There is good work being done, but a long way yet to go.

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