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.

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