Thursday, February 09, 2006

What is real democracy?

Over the past few years, I've been trying to understand how a truly democratic society might operate, and how it can avoid the re-emergence of a ruling hierarchy. My investigations have been wide-ranging, looking into, among other things, political systems, social movements, revolutions, ancient societies, organization theory, and group processes. Much of this time has been spent examining models and rejecting them. For example, I've concluded that political parties and competitive elections can never be democratic: they are unreformable; they always lead to the emergence of ruling elites; that is their nature, and indeed that has been their purpose historically.

Finding models that show promise has been more difficult. My investigations eventually led me to the following sources of inspiration: indigenous socieities, the very earliest civilizations, the anarchist literature, and certain group-facilitation processes. From these inspirations, I arrived at two principles which are, I believe, the core principles of genuine democracy.

The first principle: Harmonization

This principle is about decision making, and how conflicts-of-interest are to be resolved. In our societies today, conflicts are resolved by means of power: the most powerful faction gets its way. It's a win-lose system. People join parties or special-interest groups in order to have some hope of exerting influence in society. Harmonization is about resolving conflicts through respectful dialog. It is about taking into account everyone's concerns, and coming up with plans and solutions that deal fairly with all those concerns. Harmonization is not about choosing among alternatives, rather it is a creative, problem-solving process.

The most surprising thing about harmonization is that it is possible. For most of my life, I assumed such things weren't possible. When I thought of political change, I thought in terms of "us progressives" overpowering "those conservatives" - an adversarial approach. I then had the privilege of experiencing harmonization in some interactions with groups, and that opened my mind to new possibilities. I then looked more deeply into facilitation processes, and learned that harmonization is practically achievable, even in groups with strongly conflicting views. I also learned that harmonization is an ancient and venerable tradition, used for hundreds of thousands of years by indigenous societies. Divisions between "right" and "left" are not nearly as important as they seem: they do not reflect different economic interests, or even different visions of what would make for a "good society," but are more a reflection of different responses to propaganda.


The second principle: Localism

This principle is about the seat of sovereignty, and the extent of sovereignty, in a democratic society. This principle arises from the nature of the democratic process. In order for a group to operate democratically, it is necessary for everyone in the group to participate in the process. That is to say: scale is important - size matters. In a local community, by means of something akin to neighborhood meetings, it is possible to establish a genuine democratic process, based on harmonization. The city-states of classical Greece provide useful models in this regard - although we must also take into account that those were slave-based, male-dominated, imperialist societies, and the dialog process was more debate oriented than harmonization oriented.

From these and other considerations, I've been led to the principle that the local community needs to be the basic sovereign unit in a democratic society. For this purpose, a community is "just the right size": large enough to be a viable political entity, and small enough that it can operate on the basis of an inclusive democratic process. Within a community, everyone's voice is heard, and everyone's concerns are taken into account - by means of harmonization processes. Similarly, within a region, each community's voice can be heard in regional councils, and each community's concerns taken into account. And so on, up to global councils, also operating by means of harmonization. No permanent seats of government are needed, which would help avoid the emergence of heirarchical power centers and ruling elites.

12 Comments:

Blogger Chris Zumbrunn said...

It's what we here in Switzerland call the two fundamental principals of "Concordance" and "Subsidiarity" with power being delegated from the bottom up towards higher levels where it is (and only where it is) necessary.

Unfortunately these principals are not being understood as well anymore and to many mistakes are made where power is delegated to higher levels to quickly and to unconditionally. Mostly because the Swiss people are to content with there situation and to lazy to do the work themselves at the lower level (or to afraid of the responsibility?).

June 18, 2005  
Blogger rkm said...

dear czv - Can you say more about what Concordance means and how it works?

I've read a lot of good things about the Swiss system, particularly in Leopold Kohr's The Breakdown of Nations, which analyses the effect of scale, and advocates a move toward smaller entities. His book was the inspiration for Small is Beautiful.

As you point out, however, the Swiss system has its flaws. In particular there is the power of the banking interests and large corporations generally.

June 18, 2005  
Blogger Chris Zumbrunn said...

Concordance means different things at the different levels of Subsidiarity. While at the individual and community level it is very much focused on full consensus development and accommodating to minority concerns, at the state and federal levels this starts to become more abstract: Collaboration of all "major parties" above the threshold where one interest group would be so dissatisfied with the outcome that they cannot accept the result and would collect signatures to force a referendum.

While these principals can work "naturally" at the grassroots level, they will need help "by design" on levels that are farther removed from the individual.

A power delegation pyramid that is truly "subsidiaric" ends up being a carefully balanced house of cards that will collaps if any aspects of the system are altered/removed without introducing new ideas that will keep the system finely tuned.

For example, Swiss banking secrecy is a puzzle piece related to the conditions under which Swiss citizens are prepared to declare and pay taxes. Rather than the Government slapping a tax on its citizens, the system is about the individuals providing funds for the realisation of what was decided by vote.

The continued existence of Swiss banking secrecy, which proved so successful for Swiss banks, is not a result of the power of the banking interests but is due to the Swiss citizens never authorizing their Government to look into their bank accounts. Instead citizens can get a tax deduction for their holdings in bank accounts that they declare voluntarily while funds that are not declared are anonymously and automatically slapped with a higher tax that the banks pay directly to the government.

June 19, 2005  
Anonymous Rex said...

What is Real Democracy? Real democracy occurs among people who are humbly committed to Cosmic Community (& therefore to respecting all life) & are also willing to admit their own fallibility. Such people I call ‘communiteers’. Real democracy can happen most readily within groups of communiteers, small enough to know each other fairly thoroughly but diverse enough to be stimulating. I like to call such groups: Cozy Caring Communities. One of the mains jobs of a CCC is to nurture ‘communiteers’. Cosmic Community occurs when everybody is a member of a Cozy Caring Community & is, therefore, busy working toward building Cosmic Community everyday. But we don’t have to wait until everyone is a committed ‘communiteer’ because each communiteer becomes the fundamental sovereign unit of any democracy.
With billions of sovereign units, we are bound to encounter serious disagreements, but since war or doing harm (intentionally) to each other are not options among communiteers, communiteers welcome every disagreement as a golden opportunity to refine our understanding of the reality we all must learn to cope with daily. Unfortunately our reality can never be known directly; it can only be known when it can be confirmed by further experience (either our own or others’ experience), but even universal confirmation (consensus) can never guarantee that our collective & harmonized wisdom (wisdom=what actually works) will produce the results we desire. Nothing can. “The future’s not ours to see.” So the best we imperfect human beings can do is to make the harmonization & testing of our wisdom an on-going task

June 19, 2005  
Blogger Chris Zumbrunn said...

Regarding violence... Yes, violence has to be part of the answer: Because in a "real democracy" the people have to be in control of "violence" and not be controlled by "violence".

But it can be a non-violent movement that forces an elite in power to surrender control over violence (because they cannot use it to defend it, otherwise they look like dictators in a banana republic to the rest of the world).

June 21, 2005  
Blogger Chris Zumbrunn said...

More on violence... The people are in control of violence if they are the army. The ultimate power is military control. It's probably a dream to think that a society could get away without having a military force (although a very nice one). If the people do not control the army, they will be controlled by one.

To a very small extent, "violence" can be delegated to a professional police force. But any large and important security tasks cannot be delegated in a "real democracy" and have to be taken care of by the people.

Professional armies attract lunatics that will not hesitate to go to war. And they are socially unfair because they lure the economically weak to do the dirty work for an elite. Broad based obligatory militia forces ensure that the army will not be used against the people and, frankly, that it will not be used, period.

June 21, 2005  
Anonymous Steph B. said...

"...the local community needs to be the basic sovereign unit in a democratic society. For this purpose, a community is "just the right size": large enough to be a viable political entity, and small enough that it can operate on the basis of an inclusive democratic process. Within a community, everyone's voice is heard, and everyone's concerns are taken into account - by means of harmonization "

It could happen that people can develop stonger ties between them in cyberspace than inside their own local community, and in this case harmonization is easier to achieve, but this form of transcending the "local" could trigger a form of mental "delocalization" of individuals.

June 27, 2005  
Anonymous steph b. said...

An interesting point of view on democracy:
http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/democracy.html

July 12, 2005  
Blogger interested1 said...

You have been blessed with an incisive mind. Penetrating, clear, and sharp; Great book! Will the masses read it and join hands together in reclaiming their heritage of love and peace?

February 27, 2006  
Blogger rkm said...

To steph b:

re/ cyberspace vs. local communities: It is hard for us to see this in proper context without having experienced real community awakening and empowerment. In our current socieities, overemphasizing indiviualism, we have a hard time distinguishing between networking and community. People sharing common interests is different than people sharing a commons.

re/Treanor: You link to a long piece, with some very interesting observations. I've emailed Treanor, and perhaps he'll chime in here, if he's not too busy.

March 02, 2006  
Blogger rkm said...

To interested:

Thanks for your encouragement. I take it you've read the book? Can you share what you feel you got out of it?

Having 'the masses' read the book is not actually my objective. The purpose of the book is not to change public opinion by changing one mind at a time. What I'm hoping for is that certain people read it, people who are then motivated to go out and pursue social transformation in new ways, based on the principles of harmonization and community empowerment. The book is intended to act as a catalyst. If a harmonization movement emerges, and gains momentum, the book is unlikely to play any further role in the story.

March 02, 2006  
Blogger Rex said...

On another thread I said that a community can only be a fundamental sovereign unit of a democracy if doesn't interfere with the sovereignty of any other community & I still hold that view. But a problem then arises: how could we ever act if we had to wait for all the other communities to OK our proposed acts before we can act on our proposals? So I'd now like to propose that communities try not to interfere with other commuities sovereignty but go ahead & do whatever seems to them to promote a happy, healthy habitat for all humanity (& all life!) with the expectation that (if any other community raises an objection) they will immediately enter into a harmonization-collaboration with the objectors!

March 15, 2006  

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