I want to advance three propositions: first that the term ‘democracy’ needs a much closer definition than it is commonly given. People chuck it around and mean different things by it, thus generating confusion and stasis. Second that democracy as we now experience it needs to change, to upgrade from some Victorian era style practice to respond to the challenges of tech that mediates and drives our lives. Third and perhaps less obviously, that democracy is about community development. Someone once said that ‘all politics is local’, so I want to argue that those local ties and collective action of community need to come to the fore in order that democracy has a real purchase on people’s lives.
Democracy needs closer definition
All too often the exhortation of democracy is lazily deployed. Usually as a clash between representative or managed democracy and more direct participative forms of democratic practice. Those who are on the wrong end of some perceived stitch up are often quick to appeal to higher democratic standards. But unless we are clear that democracy is not one single thing but a highly contested and multiform practice we are kidding ourselves. To insist on the bromides of more democracy for all and any social ill is worse than useless if it doesn’t come with a clear notion of existing democratic practice and future desired forms of democratic practice. Closer appreciation of the diversity and validity of competing forms of democracy might, but only might, help avoid what Robert Michels’ called ‘the iron law of oligarchy’, the swapping one form of oppressive complex social arrangements for another.
In ‘the life and death of democracy’ John Keane noted three forms: assembly, representative and monitory democracy. The assembly of Mesopotamia and Greece privileged direct contact with one another, a radical equality in decision-making, noting some important exclusions. The representative era of elected politicians that arrived with the universal franchise places decision making with the people’s representatives. It is democracy at several steps removed. Keane notes that this in turn is increasingly overcome by monitory democracy whereby larger non-governmental actors – NGOs, lobbyists, special interests – pull the strings, shape the policies and dictate the timing, detail and presentation of decisions. An example might be advice given on tax laws.
Democracy needs to change and upgrade
There are many ways of breaking down different forms of democracy. What Keane has to say is not definitive but it has the virtue of underlining that democracy is fluid and mutable. It can grow, flourish and it can wither and die. There has been no corresponding upgrade in democratic practice to match recent social and technical changes. The changes that have arisen, the role of twitter and facebook in US presidential elections, has been less edifying. If the future is digital, the human being is just so much data, biddable by algorhythms of uncertain provenance. The machine, not the human, increasingly has the defining say in matters of agency. Consciousness is not the issue here. A lot of the chatter about the singularity is nonsense. It doesn’t matter if machines cannot dream or fall in love; it is about intelligence, manipulating variables. They win hands down. We may have passed a certain threshold already. Keane described the death of democracy; others term it post democracy. However just because democracy is deracinated, a plaything of unscrupulous elite power, there is always the possibility that it might be consciously recuperated. Arguably by restoring it more fully to the human arena, insisting on unmediated person to person experiences. Paulo Freire believed the world was changed one conversation at a time. That interventions outside of this were invasive oppressions that denied our deeper humanity and that humanity is negotiated by relationships, by the questions we ask each other, the new worlds we go onto create. Freire is idealistic, he believed another world is possible. Perhaps we can approach it from another angle; with the advent of machine learning and AI we might consider that, another world has arrived, palpably inhuman and that, in the final analysis, all we have is each other. Democracy might enable a conserving as well as a liberation of the human; our last best hope.
Democracy is community development
Like democracy, community development is contested. In its better moments community development or many of its similar variants bring people together in a direct engagement with one another over local issues. Rather than a cross in a box every few years, there is a relational process, a sharing of power, and opening up of possibilities. When it works it is the real deal. Mostly it is an afterthought, a cosmetic exercise or a minor irritant. It doesn’t change things that much. Mostly decisions are taken elsewhere as you would expect in a representative democracy. As the market and state develop symbiotically, civil society atrophies. Volunteering and activism is for cranks; it is not really socially validated. The occasional prize giving and gongs belie a peripheral activity. That could change. In fact it will change. Where there is death, there is rebirth. My best guess is that it will be anchored more truly in community and a renewed sense of citizenship. Look out for ideas like ‘sociocracy’ that open up self-organisation and ‘wirearchy’ which disrupts hierarchy and privileges emergent shared knowledge. Democracy is a work in progress; if we want better we can make better.