Democracy's Dilemma And/Or Its Dangerous Dream
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
DEMOCRACY DIVIDED: Who's In Charge?
There is a deep and persistent dilemma at the core of what most of us understand as democracy. On one hand, democracy takes a unique and radical approach to "sovereignty", that is, the right to supreme or final authority within a community. Every other political system assigns sovereignty to a particular elite sub-group or power-wielding institution: monarchy (royal family rules); aristocracy (lords and ladies rule); plutocracy (wealthy rule); theocracy (religious leaders rule); and so on. Only democracy rejects this pervasive and pernicious dichotomy between rulers and ruled, offering instead "popular sovereignty": the dangerous dream in which the whole public, the people undivided, exercises legitimate and final authority.
Democracy's citizens have no rulers, no elites, no institutions above them; in a well-functioning democratic polity, they are self-governing and their collective will prevails. As examples, we can point to intentional and Quaker communities, smaller scale collectives, small Town Meetings, and Native American and other indigenous peoples' councils. The shared heart of all these directly democratic social forms is that everyone in them, and even those outside but affected by them, has a voice to which others must listen and owe respect; group decisions and policies are then shaped as far as possible by all of these voices. It is this inclusive process that carries final authority: it is not subservient or merely advisory to any individual, privileged group, or power-wielding authority.
But whatever else, "democracy" is still a political system: enter now, the "State" or "Government". Whatever their differences, these entities typically represent themselves - and are widely seen - as having exclusive, supreme, or at least final authority. They, and not the people they rule, are sovereign. And this holds no less in a "democracy" than in any other political or governmental system.
Citizens may gather and demonstrate against a widely unpopular leader, war, or Patriot Act. But the government, from its own standpoint and most of ours as well, can always legitimately overrule them. The law of the land is not established nor is it to be officially and authoritatively interpreted by citizens, but by legislators, courts, and enforcement agencies. A dilemma thus arises: democracy both requires and is incompatible with government. Or, restated: democracy both requires and rejects popular sovereignty.
Democracy's dilemma is well illustrated by a mystifying statement in the US Constitution (from Article IV, section 4; the so-called "guarantee clause"):
But what kind of supreme power can citizens possibly hold where that very power is exercised, over and against them, by others? On its face, this appears to be a muddle-headed inconsistency or a piece of verbal chicanery; either way, what the citizens are left holding seems nothing more than an empty promise of self-governance.
The US Constitution is not the only place where this strange game of giving what is later taken away is played. We find equally baffling analogs to the guarantee clause in two of the most respected partisans of strong forms of democracy, Carole Pateman and J.S. Mill. The former's Participation and Democratic Theory opens with a conception of ideal democracy as "rule of the people by means of the maximum participation of all of the people". Nonetheless, the book's final section meekly accepts a timeworn objection to participatory democracy: that in very large electorates, "the role of the individual would be confined to a choice between competing leaders or representatives."
The contradiction is even starker, certainly it arrives much more quickly, inside this key paragraph from John Stuart Mill's Considerations on Representative Government:
....it is evident that the only government which can fully satisfy all of the exigencies of the social state, is one in which the whole people participate;...and that nothing less can be ultimately desirable, than the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state. But since all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally in any but small portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of a perfect government must be representative. (my itals)
Both thinkers are here ensnared in democracy's dilemma: while at first they call for maximum participation by all, rule of the people, admission of all to a share in sovereign power...they fall back from this high road to endorse the exercise of power over the governed by leaders and representatives. In the end, their positions are hard to distinguish from such open repudiations of democracy's dangerous dream as this, from political scientist Seymour Lipset:
Democracy in the sense of a system of decision-making in which all members or citizens play an active role in the continual process is inherently impossible. This however is compatible with a new image of democracy, one involving many diverse and conflicting organized groups, each controlled by elites, each limiting the power of the others, and all allowing some access for their constituencies to their leaders. (from Lipset's Introduction to Robert Michels' Political Parties)
You may be tempted, perhaps, to respond that where elections are fair and free, where citizens are able to choose between a spectrum of candidates, their sovereignty or supreme power is preserved. Such a system can be an improvement over blatant and vicious dictatorships. But having "some access to one's leaders" is a far cry from exercising final authority. Having a periodic opportunity to exchange those who actually govern - who decide how to spend public revenues and when and where to declare war - should not be confused with having a share of sovereign power.
And who really selects the slate of candidates? Not certainly those who will be governed by the winners, but a small, remote, and rarely diverse clique of "professional politicians". Seen in this light, representative systems are not merely the every-so-often exchange of one's rulers, but operate much like casinos: citizens can shift dealers or rooms, but wherever they go the house has set the game against them.
And people know this. They know that "representatives" in general owe their allegiance more to what is good for their party than to the common good and more to those who finance their careers than to the people who cast ballots.
G.D.H. Cole, the English guild socialist, who Pateman described as one of three major theorists of participatory democracy, put it well in his Essays in Social Theory:
...the (representative) system actually denies the right of the individual to participate because having chosen their representative, ordinary people have nothing to do except to let other people govern them....Politics for the politicians! That is the last corruption of a democracy that has knocked the foundations from under its own feet.
Most often, the "ideal system of representation" is anything but. And in any case, it tends to subvert rather than rejuvenate democracy's dangerous dream.
THERE MUST BE A WAY OUT OF HERE: Reinventing both Democratic Government and Popular Sovereignty
When you find yourself in a dark and dismal tunnel without a flashlight or a map, it's wise to retrace your steps and even wiser to call out for help. Let's ask, then, how did we get into this messy dilemma and what is keeping us there. Should we gain some clarity on this, we will then have a better idea of where to find guides who have coped effectively with the darkness.
What in large part underlies the apparent incompatibility of popular sovereignty and government's claim to final authority, I believe, are two assumptions. Central to an outmoded story of democracy, they are as widely shared as they are misguided. These assumptions hold that:
• representative (or indirect) forms of democracy and those in which citizens directly exercise authority are incompatible or mutually exclusive. According to this assumption, these two forms of democracy are related much like days of the week (or athletic events): Any given day (say, September 12th) can fall on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but not both (and possibly neither). And any given sports event can be either a football or tennis match, but not both (and possibly neither). Likewise, according to this assumption, a community can have either representative or direct democracy, but not both (and possible neither). Let us call this the Incompatibility Assumption.
• that "direct democracy" or "citizen sovereignty" comes in only one variety, that involving face-to-face deliberation, dialogue, and decision-making of an entire body of citizens within a single Assembly or Town meeting setting. I will call this the Assembly of All Assumption. From it, the conclusion that "direct democracy" or popular sovereignty is impossible in any "community exceeding a single small town" seems an easy and obvious inference. For even towns of fifteen or twenty thousand residents cannot hope to convene all of their adult members into a single public space, at a given time, for meaningful face-to-face communication.
Once we are no longer held captive by these two assumptions, we can begin to look for guidance in writing a new story of democracy, one that can revive its dangerous dream. This narrative, I will argue, is already emerging, and it is being written not so much by theorists as by pioneering initiatives and experiments - concrete working models. In it, both representative and direct forms of democratic governance are reconstructed, or newly invented, so that they not only co-exist but function together harmoniously. Accordingly, I have coined a term, Di-Rep Democracy, to refer to these ground-breaking cases; I will single out just two from a much larger family of renewed democracy.1 Their creation reminds us, as John Dewey wrote, that "Democracy must be reborn in every generation, and education is its midwife."
The first of these models took shape initially in
Have you ever wondered just how public revenues get allocated; by what process it is decided, say, that more prisons rather than tuition-free colleges will be built? And why we citizens have so little say - nothing, in most cases - over how these allocations?
Where popular sovereignty prevails, we the people, have an authoritative voice about the uses to which our tax money is put. Sound like a philosopher's impossible dream? Not in
Over the past two decades, Brazilians been experimenting with what is called the Participatory Budget process (PB). These experiments provide us with our first working model of Di-Rep democracy. Throughout Brazil (and now in over 1200 communities in perhaps 25 other countries), communities ranging from state-like regions and metropolitan centers to tiny fishing villages are employing the PB to provide ordinary citizens with a substantial measure of direct public authority ("supreme power"), which they exercise in collaboration with elected government officials. (For some parallel north american examples, see chapter 8 in Matt Leighninger's excellent and well-documented book, The Next Form of Democracy. There is also recent news of an effort in
The PB works by providing control over the allocation of certain public revenues, largely those directed towards new community improvements, to citizen groups and their delegates. Virtually any non-profit and non-governmental organization, whether new or old - a neighborhood, a city-wide group of parents or artists, squatters, etc. - can submit a budget to secure public funds to address a perceived problem or unmet need. Typically, these budget proposals have called for more affordable housing, better infra-structure, additional facilities for public education and public healthcare, battered women's shelters, etc. Since public funds are always limited, a citizen's assembly or council made up of delegates from fund-seeking organizations, is then established to make the hard decisions as to which budgets are to be funded and at what levels. Elected government representatives and other state officials play a supportive and educative role: they can attend but cannot vote in the citizen assemblies. Rather than ranking, approving, or rejecting budget requests, they assist citizen groups prepare thorough and well-researched budgets, and help facilitate conflict resolution, where needed.
It's hard to think of an idea with as much concrete potential to bring together a wide range of citizens and citizen-shaped groups. In
In short, the PB provides us with a clear form of Di-Rep democracy, in which power and authority are shared between citizens and elected officials, rather than concentrated in the latter's hands. In contrast to the old democracy story, direct and indirect democratic processes are not seen as incompatible or eternally adversarial. Instead, there is direct discussion and shaping of the major elements of a local group's budget, and this is blended with an indirect process in which selected spokespeople refine the initial budget and make the best case for it within a Citizen's Council. Those who sit on this Council are part-time delegates, who continue to work and live their daily lives in close connection to their constituents. They are not professional or full-time politicians, living and working far apart from those who have elected them. This makes them both more accessible and easier to oversee and hold accountable. In the current term, one used by the UN's Urban Management programme and the World Bank - citizen delegates provide we-the-people with a far more transparent relationship, and form of representation, than do most political party candidates. (For more on this notion of "delegates", as contrasted with "representatives", see the works of Edvard Kardelj, e.g., Self-Management and the Political System.)
Moreover, there is elasticity in defining just what counts as an eligible group; new groups are encouraged, and constantly emerge. This enabling of newly formed citizen groups to share budget-making authority provides a continuous opportunity to expand the scope, or inclusiveness, of direct democracy.
In all of these ways, the PB departs from narrowly political and non- (or anti-) participatory forms of representation. Cole's pessimistic description of ordinary people under a representative system fits the old democratic story almost perfectly. But he overlooked the possibility - which the PB has begun to make a reality - of Di-Rep democratic forms in which citizens and their representatives share in governance over the allocation of public revenues.
Thus far, the PB has provided concrete working examples of Di-Rep Democracy; these reveal the falsity of the first old democracy assumption: that governments can be directly or indirectly democratic, but not both.
But what of the second official assumption, that confines "direct democracy" to very small and marginal places?
Renewing Direct Democracy: Inclusive but Dispersed Participation
Drawing on a family of approaches, from contemporary ones such as participatory planning, community visioning, and community-wide study circles to the venerable "charrette" - a "collaborative planning process that harnesses the talents and energies of all interested parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change" - ordinary citizens have addressed short term crises, instituted new policies, and developed comprehensive 10 or 20 year plans.
Typically this has involved bringing together as many diverse factions within a given community as possible, enabling them to form small working groups or task forces, supporting dialogue, deliberation, and conflict resolution both within and among those working groups; and, finally, authorizing them to start making changes and initiating solutions agreed upon through this process. In short, these approaches provide ordinary citizens with hands-on opportunities for what could be called "inclusive but dispersed direct democracy", opportunities in which all stakeholders in a community have the opportunity exercise both initiative and authority.
Cities such as
In the light of emergent authority, we can distinguish two forms of "direct" democracy. In both of these, ordinary folks, all of us, have the opportunity to retain and exercise sovereignty; the difference arises from how, and when, this obtains. The first of these two forms is the familiar one of town meetings, popular assemblies or councils, Greek city states, Swiss cantons, etc. Here the entire body of citizens or members meets regularly together, face-to-face, and at the same location and time, to decide on key policies. Let us call this, the Assembly-of-All form of direct democracy.
The second form also enables continuous participation and initiative by all stakeholders, but in a dispersed manner. Within this re-invented form of direct democracy, entire communities are offered the opportunity to join (or form) relatively small groups authorized to initiate a process of dialogue and deliberation on a chosen issue or problem, e.g., rural poverty or racial conflicts. Each of these face-to-face groups meets, debates, deliberates, dialogues, and reaches decisions on its own; their separate results are then reconciled by elected delegates or spokespersons. In doing so, participating citizens literally create the policies and shape the priorities of the larger community, even though they may only rarely or even never meet in a single body or Assembly. It is this which I am calling the "Inclusive-but-Dispersed"(IBD) form of direct democracy.
As just mentioned, especially in larger communities, a process of gathering and reconciling the results from separate task forces or sub-groups takes place. This was the case in
As in the case of the PB, the reconciliation component here is typically carried out by means of delegates selected from individual task forces or local sub-groups. But this delegated process is most often combined with a principle of direct action: if a study circle sub-group or a participatory planning task force reaches a consensus with practical implications, it is encouraged to find ways to implement that agreement. (For example, in
Nothing, we should note, prevents IBD, this unsung but empowering form of direct participation, from being part of a Di-Rep democracy; that is, from contributing to a representative democratic system. In fact, most study circle and participatory community processes have functioned in just this way. Once again,
In addition, several municipalities have supported extended processes of citizen dialogue and participation. This is the case in
What's crucial in all of these separate initiatives is their reinvention of direct democracy, through processes which enable stakeholders to learn from and with each other and co-develop what Tom Atlee has called their "collective intelligence". Over the past two decades, a large number of organizations have arisen in the
In Conclusion: There's Light in the Tunnel
Are we, then, out of the tunnel, beyond democracy's dilemma? For sure, there's no shortage of democracy-renewing work to be done, but an important sort of progress has been made. The light we have found is not at the end of the tunnel, which is probably unreachable in any case. Rather, it is right there with us in the midst of democracy's dilemma, and much more useful to us because of that.
The PB and IBD forms of democracy's new story reveal that ultimate democratic ideals such as those of Mill and Pateman, where all have a participatory share in sovereign power, do not have to remain inaccessible, or beautiful but marginal irrelevancies. On the contrary, pioneering and pre-figurative paths are available to us, here and now, to start reclaiming democracy's dangerous dream of popular sovereignty.
More specifically, new forms of Di-Rep have been invented, and have placed their roots down besides us in the dark tunnel; they show us how popular sovereignty can arise within combinations of direct and indirect democracy. Some of these have given a measure of control over public revenues to non-government and non-commercial stakeholders. And though Assemblies of All may have little currency in today's massive societies, many other forms of "maximum participation by all" involving direct and dispersed face-to-face processes and citizen delegates have arisen in communities that are as large as some nations. These have often utilized processes that build trust among strangers and even enemies, offer multiple opportunities to directly participate to everyone involved, and facilitate problem solving initiatives which have created their own authoritative light of popular sovereignty.
No doubt, these are all "experiments", and some may turn out to have little impact on the entrenched old story democracies. Others may fail to engage sufficient interest or commitment from a citizenry as yet unprepared to exercise, or to share, sovereign power. There is of course no guarantee that the new story will prevail over the old one. (Who among us could provide it?)
Nonetheless, Di-Rep democracies have clear advantages over those that now prevail. Beyond offering paths to regain popular sovereignty, their multi-stakeholder representation and inclusive but diverse direct processes, provide additional and citizen-driven checks on the usual "parliamentary" or "indirect" forms of government. Had these new democracy restraints been in place to a substantial extent, the recent eight year global nightmare of an Imperial USA presidency - which easily cruised by the traditional separation and balance of governmental powers - might well have been avoided.
At the same time, as we have seen, the new story involves collaboration, a sharing of governance, between direct processes and representative institutions. This, it seems to me, gives it a definite edge over both (a) unlimited forms of direct democracy ; e.g., government by binding referenda that can give near-tyrannical power to self-isolated and dogmatic majorities; and (b) power-arrogating types of representative government (as lauded by Lipset and lampooned by Cole) that reduce citizens to political spectators disabled from any real influence over those who rule or the major priorities of their own society.
Some have argued that these steps towards popular sovereignty are a delusion, since they cannot threaten the powers-that-be and will only serve to "co-opt...trade unions and social movements." This is the thesis of Joao Penha's widely circulated "The Trap of the Participatory Budget", which condemns the PB as a collusion between the World Bank and well-placed careerist politicians in Brazil who have walked away from their new democracy talk. But it is unclear just what such a critique, even if its premise is true, would reveal, other than the old news that leaders frequently have clay feet. Nothing follows from this as to whether it makes sense to rededicate ourselves to demanding more of any future PB initiatives. In addition, Penha's objections seem at best exaggerated and have been challenged by more fine-grained and comprehensive accounts of these Di-Rep budgetary initiatives: Gret and Sintomer point out, for example, that the PB was utilized in Porto Alegre to introduce a 300% increase in progressive taxation, cope with a city-wide gap in revenue, and direct much of the new funds to those previously under-served.
Moreover, in recent months, a sustained dialogue has begun between the
What if anything will emerge from this intriguing experiment is anyone's guess. But, down a very long and windy road, it just might eventually yield federal support for - or even potentially nation-sized forms of - Di-Rep democracy. It is always wise of course not to be naive or excessively hopeful, but efforts to upscale shared governance are far from unknown.3 Let me conclude with one of them, an ongoing project called "Horizons", carried out across the entire northwest region of the
...a community leadership program aimed at reducing poverty in small rural and reservation communities (populations of fewer than 5,000 with greater than 10% poverty rate) faced with economic decline and demographic change. The program's goal is to help communities understand poverty, help them commit to action for improvements, and then to bring about lasting change. (This and subsequent Horizons quotes are from http://www.nwaf.org/Programs.aspx?pg=Programs/Horizons.htm)
What strikes me most about Horizons is two-fold. First, its scope and duration: the initiative began in 2003 with 36 communities in seven states, and is now entering a phase involving "as many as 200 communities", which will run through 2010.
Secondly, Horizons is firmly based on a very diverse set of collaborating partners: the small rural or reservation communities; a region-wide private foundation; two national non-profits focused on developing community leadership and dialogue capacities; and Cooperative Extension departments from each o the seven states involved. In this we see the seeds of one variety of upscaling: the extension agents are in fact not only state (public university) employees, but operate under the Morrill Act, a federal law creating land grant institutions of higher education; the non-profits bring models and decades of experience with inclusive community participation, leadership development, and shared governance; the foundation convenes, coordinates, and funds the project, while providing small grants to the individual communities.
As for concrete poverty-reducing results, here are some of them:
One community created a local version of the Circles of Support program. This program teams families who are working to get out of poverty with three other teammates who offer expertise, guidance and other support. Its hallmark is reciprocity, and the fact that it is volunteer driven. The people who take part are not "poverty specialists" or social workers - they are fellow community members. This straightforward approach to poverty reduction is very effective. (In one town that implemented it, participants' monthly income went up by an average of $1,500.) But it also builds capacity in the community. People who would not ordinarily mix learn about one another. People get into the habit of helping one another. Many other Horizons communities have also begun building on their assets, rather than focusing on what is missing. "People are coming together," according to one participant, "to build from our native strengths and most valued assets ...from our old barns, our church groups, our entrepreneurial spirit."
Communities also developed new organizations and structures for the purpose of community betterment and poverty reduction. For example, at least four Horizons communities have organized community foundations to act as a clearinghouse for grants and other support. This provides a needed infrastructure that other direct-service efforts can rely on as they move ahead and do their own work. In all, 11 Horizons communities created or are creating new organizations to work on poverty reduction. They are building on their own strengths, not waiting for [poverty] reduction...
Now if we can only get the Office of Public Engagement, together perhaps with the federal Corporation for National and Community Service to shepherd Recovery and Reinvestment funds into the Horizon project and others akin to it....But there I go, chasing that dangerous dream again.
Len Krimerman is a co-founder of GEO, the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter (www.geo.coop), formerly Changing Work Magazine, and of the International Institute for Self-Management. A non-doctrinaire anarchist, he currently directs the Creative Community Building Program at UCONN, which takes Dewey's statement about the need for democracy to be reborn in every generation literally, and prepares students to both take and remake power by creating their own generation's democracy. He is also writing on the rise of what is known as "solidarity economy", and its need to collaborate with what can be called "solidarity governance", examples of which are described in the current paper.
1. For more types of cases of Di-Rep, as well as additional philosophical clarification and responses to objections, see my Humanity and Society article (August 2004): "A New Democratic Theory and the Problem of Marginality".
2. This section's title, "From Brazil to the World" also appears as part of the title of a July 2003 "Declaration" by Tarso Genro (a past mayor of Porto Alegre), the rest of which is "Twenty Theses for a Theory of the Democratic State". I draw a lot from this Declaration, in particular its 15th thesis:
The state can no longer "descend" toward society through political representation alone. Hence the need for the creation of a new non-state public space [which] emerges from dialogue, from decisions elaborated under tension, from repeated confrontations...in which the direct presence of citizens' and civil society organisations (along with political representation) induces and agrees on immediate responses and long-term projects. This is the non-state public space - a system-process based on representative democracy combined with direct participation...a space integrated by representatives from labour sectors as well as by organisations originating in popular autonomy, which alike contest the "abdication" of public functions by the neo-liberal state.
3. Check out Carmen Sirianni's very new book, Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance, which is replete with examples from many levels of government , including federal regulatory agencies. ("Di-Rep" and "Collaborative Governance" are definitely part of the same family.)
References & Resources
Abers, R. (2000) Inventing Local Democracy.
Baiocchi, G. (2005) Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participation in
Goldfrank, B. "Lessons from Latin American Experience in Participatory Budgeting". www.internationalbudget.org/themes/PB/LatinAmerica.pdf .
Gret, Marion and Yves Sintomer, The
Penha, J. "The Trap of the Participatory Budget"; http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/11044.
di-rep and shared goverance
Atlee, T. The Tao of Democracy. (2003) Available at email@example.com
Audefroy, J. and Ortiz, E. "Lessons & Proposals. Understanding Partnership Worldwide"; at http://www.hic-net.org/document.php?pid=2534 .
Kardelj, E. (1980) Self-Management and the Political System. Belgrade: Socialist Thought and Practice.
Leighninger, M. (2006) The Next Form of Democracy. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
Northwest Foundation. "Prevailing in the Long Run"; at http://www.nwaf.org/Programs.aspx?pg=Programs
Sirianni, C. (2009) Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance. Brookings Institute: Washington, DC.
Wainwright, H. (2003) Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy. London: Verso.
Direct Democracy Re-Invented
Edwards, M. and J. Gaventa (eds) (2001) Global Citizen Action. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Olivera, O. Cochabamba! Water Wars in Bolivia. (2004). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Rahman, Md. A. (1993) People's Self-Development. London: Zed Books.
Rahman, Md. A. "Insights from people's self-initiatives in Bangladesh"; at http://www.bracresearch.org/publications/peoples_self_initaitives (sic)pdf.
Shiva, V. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. (2005) Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Some of the organizations in the USA supporting new forms of direct democracy include: America Speaks: www. americaspeaks.org; Everyday Democracy: www.everyday-democracy.com ; National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation: www.thataway.org ; International Association for Public Participation: www.iap2.org/ . See also the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation: http://www.c2d2.ca/;
http://www.mstbrazil.org ; English language web site pf Brazil's Movimento Sem Terra, Movement of the Landless (which this year turned 25).