How can we bring about a democratic society?
We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy – from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses – that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—Frances Moore Lappé, “Time for Progressives to Grow Up”
My views on the nature of a democratic society, as described in my first posting, What is real democracy?, may not be shared by everyone. Nonetheless, most of us would like to see radical reforms in our societies, preumably including a lot more responsiveness to what ordinary people really want. What I'd like to explore in this thread is how radical change might be achieved.
To begin with, I'd like to enumerate some of the methods people are currently using in the struggle for change, and explain why I believe they cannot succeed.
The most obvious method is of course the political process. People join parties, support candidates, and vote - all in the hope of influencing their governments. Back in the days when political parties offered differing programs (e.g., the British Labour Party vis a vis the Tories), this might have made some sense. But today, when parties all represent corporate interests, like tweedly dee and tweedly dum, no real choice is available to us.
We can see how "responsive" our political leaders are by noticing their response to the overwhelming No votes to the proposed EU constitution in France and Holland. Rather than taking this as a cue to reconsider their agenda, European leaders came out in unison saying that they would now undertake a campaign to persuade voters to change their minds! And in the U.S., with its Diebold voting machines, the election process itself has now become a sham. When we also take into account that the mainstream media pushes an elite corporate agenda, it becomes clear that the political process is rigged against us - it offers no real hope of meaningful change.
Another common method of pursuing change is to support protest movements, such as the anti-globalization movement, or the anti-war movement. Even though these have been massive movements, some of the largest in history, they have been totally ignored by our governments, except to the extent they have been brutally suppressed. Before the days of globalization, governments were concerned when masses of people protested. We sometimes got meaningful reforms, such as the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Freedom of Informaton Act. But in today's neoliberal climate the universal attitude of governments is, implicitly, "The people be damned." They know the political process can no longer change things, so they have no reason to pay attention to popular protests.
Other people think a third party approach can make a difference, as with Nader campaign (U.S) or the Greens. In fact, polls show that a majority of people in the West are in favor of strong environmental controls, so one might expect people to flock to the Greens. And because of anti-war and anti-corporate sentiment, lots of people should flock to Nader. But because of the logic of Don't waste your vote, people feel forced to vote for one of the mainstream candidates - and so Nader and the Greens have never escaped from marginal status. Furthermore, to the extent Greens have been elected to office, as in the EU Parliament, they have watered down their goals in response to "political realities." If we look at history, we find that grassroots-based third parties have always floundered on these same shoals: either they stay marginalized, or else their original purpose is lost. Again, we have reached a cul de sac.
Other people, notably on the Internet, pursue an agenda of public education, presumably based on the belief: "If only people can undertand how bad things are, then they will demand change." Unfortunately, public education would only help if the political process were responsive, which it is not.
Finally, there is the path of revolution and armed insurrection, which no one seriously proposes today, and which I include here only for completeness. Besides the fact that this would be a horribly destructive way to pursue change, it has no chance of success in today's circumstances. Back in the days of the American and French Revolutions, a farmer's rifle was just as good as a soldiers. Today any attempt at revolution would be met with attack helicopters and tanks. This option is a total non-starter for us in the West.
The most promising historical model I have seen is that of Gandhi's movement for Indian independence. The characteristics I find most promising here are the movement's non-violence, it's inclusiveness, and its uncompromising demand for radical change, i.e., an end to British occupation. The one big problem with Gandhi's movement, however, is that it was dependent on Gandhi himself, who we might characterize as an enlightened and charismatic leader. As soon as independence was achieved, he was assassinated and his real vision for India was never realized. There are two major reasons why a charismatic leader is not a good approach. The first is vulnerability to assassination. The second is that if we want real democracy, we must learn to take responsibility for our own movement, rather than counting on some white knight to ride to our rescue.
Based on these kind of considerations, I've come to the conclusion that a successful movement for radical change needs to be based on the same principles that I propose for a democratic society: localism and harmonization. Harmonization is about finding our common ground as caring human beings. By means of harmonization our movement can be all inclusive, and avoid adversarial politics. For this process to work, we must begin at the local level, in our communities. It is at the local level that we can meet face-to-face and learn to really listen to one another. In order for us to bring about change, there first needs to be a we. At the local level, by means of harmonization, it is possible for us to find our identity as We the People. From that beginning, we can work effectively toward creating democratic societies.