"NOW:  What to do"


The theory behind our current democracy-model is that people – by joining parties or various other kinds of voting constituencies – can collectively achieve some measure of representation in the body politic. As we are all aware, this process inevitably devolves into a game of power-brokering. What could theoretically be a bottom-up process of democratic input becomes instead a top-down process of demagoguery and manipulation. Such a system of ‘competitive factionalism’ is ideally suited to enable power usurpation by well-organised wealthy elites, and that is precisely what has happened throughout the West. In the case of the US, James Madison and other Constitution-framers were well aware of these dynamics, and it was their express goal to avoid ‘too much’ democracy, what they called ‘mob rule’. They felt the nation should be run by ‘those who own it.’ They succeeded. And the mechanisms of usurpation work increasingly effectively as the scale of operation grows larger.

But my own critique of electoral systems is at a more fundamental level. Instead of focusing on the corruption aspect, which is scale related, I suggest that we start by looking at the problem of democracy in-the-small – the decision-making process at the local level. Our standard Western model for this process, I suggest, is Robert’s Rules of Order. That is, proposals are made and voted on, and when a proposal is adopted by a majority, then the matter is settled.

In this small-scale microcosm can already be seen the phenomenon of competitive factionalism. It is a win-lose scenario. Instead of the best-solution for the whole community, some majority faction achieves something favourable for itself – and the rest are simply out of luck. Majority voting leads to competitive faction formation as surely as fire leads to smoke, even at the smallest scale.

Robert’s rules, in typical practice, are about deciding among alternatives. My central observation, as regards democracy, is that ‘decision making’ is the wrong frame for the democratic process. I suggest instead that the proper frame is ‘problem solving’. As one argument for this frame shift, I – with some irony – point to the process that occurs in a typical working team meeting in a modern corporate setting.

In such a meeting a group assembles to solve a problem (technical, managerial, marketing, or whatever). Ideas and knowledge are pooled, via discussion, and the group moves toward identifying possible solutions. Suggestions might be rejected, refined, combined, modified, elaborated, etc, in a process of open discussion and mutual education. In decades of work in industry, I never saw anyone suggest a vote in such a meeting. It would be seen as absurd. How can you possibly solve a problem by voting? You can only do it by thrashing out the issues. I believe the argument for a consensus-like democratic process can be made more strongly by looking at these kind of models, than by emphasising the history of consensus, and its apologists, in the political domain.

Majority voting functions as a mechanism to externalise the problem solving process from the official political process. Problem-solving tends to move offline, into factional groupings (caucuses, party meetings, etc.) where legislative proposals (solutions) are worked out by other processes, not documented in any rules of order. Thus society’s path (at each level of scale) is ultimately decided by these other, offline processes – depending on which faction wins the majority in each case. Wherever the actual sleeves-rolled-up problem-solving is done is where the future is designed. That place – the place where trade-offs are considered – is, in some real sense, where power lies.

For democracy to work, and I think this could in some sense be rigorously demonstrated, the problem solving process must be brought online. That is to say, the problem solving process must become the official political process. Participatory democracy (suitably defined) is not just a good idea – it is a provably necessary condition if sovereignty is to truly lie with the people themselves. Genuine democracy requires that people collaboratively solve the problems that affect their lives, that they discuss together the trade-offs of different alternatives. If they’re ‘outside the loop’, they’re out of power.

Consider what this means at the local, community, level. Presumably we’re talking about some kind of town-hall scenario in which issues are talked through, leading to an actionable ‘sense of the community’ regarding the ‘best overall solution’ to the issues at hand – using collaborative problem solving instead of divisive voting. Clearly there are problems to be faced in making such a scenario workable (modern busy schedules, ethnic divisions within the locality, etc.) – but for the sake of discussion let’s assume that a town-hall meeting scenario can be made workable at the most local level. This very thing does in fact seem to work in
Cuba, where upwards of 85% of the population participate actively in such local meetings. Meaningful involvement in societal problem-solving is inherently motivating, and the community-collaboration process helps build a sense of community even in places where we now see only alienated consumerist family units.

Consider what kinds of issues need to be deliberated at this local level, in order to achieve a democratic society. Some might presume that ‘local issues’ would be discussed, and that ‘wider issues’ would be handled somewhere else. Not so. Not if “Genuine democracy requires that people collaboratively solve the problems that affect their lives.” TNC’s affect my life, GM crops affect my life, the inadequacy of public transportation affects my life, NATO affects my life, the existence of nuclear weapons affects my life. National issues, and global issues, are also local issues. The community is the only place where ‘the people’ can get together face-to-face, and anything not discussed there will a priori be decided in some non-democratic way. It is generally only at the local level that you (and you and you) ever get to express yourself. If something important is not discussed there, then you have no input to it.

Some problems – the ones usually called ‘local’ – can be dealt with entirely at the local level. I think it is self-evident that the more autonomous the locality, the more democratic the society – other things being equal. A mandatory ‘national curriculum’, for example, would be anathema in a democratic society, as perhaps would be a uniform building code. There are many exceptions – areas where laws and regulations need to be adopted more widely which constrain localities – including civil-liberties, child-labour, pollution controls, etc. etc. But by and large, in a democracy, a community would feel in control of its own destiny. The community is the fundamental governmental unit in a democratic society.

The other problems – those that involve a larger scale of society – obviously require a more complex process. I’ll skip the theoretical arguments and simply point out that this process scales up very nicely. Not only that, but we can see one implementation of the model working well in practice in
Cuba. The way they do it, after discussing a wide range of issues locally – not limited to the ‘local’ – is to select a slate of delegates to represent their locality at the next ‘higher’ level of government. These delegates are typical community members, sent off temporarily to represent the positions of the community – as discussed in session. They are not full-time politicians who, as in the West, consider that being elected gives them a blank check to go off and pursue their own (or their party’s) agenda.

In terms of the more abstract model, the system scales up this way. Besides handling its own affairs, the locality talks through the wider issues about which the community is concerned, especially those that are expected to come up for discussion in ‘higher-level’ sessions. The goal is not to come up with hard positions which are to be ‘sold’ or ‘bargained’ elsewhere, but rather to develop a ‘sense of the community’ regarding their values and preferences, as regards each particular issue. Unless the community discusses an issue, no one can possibly know what its ‘sense’ is – and there is no way anyone could ‘represent’ the community. (One reason our existing systems couldn’t possibly work.) The ‘sense’ only exists because it is developed in community discussion. Just as in a business meeting, this is a mutual-education, problem-solving process. It is creative work to come up with a community ‘sense’, and that is the work of real democracy – the true meaning of empowered citizenship.

What happens at the next level is again a collaborative, problem solving process. This is a fractal model, you might say. In the local meetings, individuals don’t come in with fixed positions, ready to sell them. Instead they come in with their own concerns, in all their subtlety, and participate in a collaborative process to find a mutually advantageous solution to problems. Similarly, at the next level, delegates come in armed with their ‘community sense’ – which is again a subtle fabric of ‘concerns’. And as in the local meeting, the assembled delegates collaborate together to find solutions that address the various concerns, to everyone’s mutual advantage. Threatened minorities (those whose local interests are somehow in conflict with wider tides of concern), rather than being ignored as in a majority system, are more likely to be at the centre of the discussion, since their concerns are the ones most problematic to incorporate into a mutually acceptable outcome.

That’s basically the model. It’s collaborative problem solving all the way down, and all the way up, with common-citizen delegates representing articulated agendas – and no professional politicians. There are countless peripheral issues, such as accuracy of media, which bear on democracy. But my investigation of democracy, over several years, both theoretical and empirical, leads me to this basic model as being both necessary and sufficient (!), as the core paradigm for genuine democracy. That is a very strong statement, and I don’t claim to have proven it here. But I think the sketch has the appropriate structure for a more complete exposition.

Cuba, fortunately for them, this process is more or less the official government structure. For this model to be applied in our pseudo-democracies, with their majority systems, a bit of thought is required. And again, there is a real-world example that can be used for illustration. It is only on the scale of a single city, but all the mechanisms are there. I refer to the “Participatory Budgeting project” (PB), which operated for a time in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The city officially operated under a majority electoral system. But there was a massive grassroots, bottom-up collaborative process (PB), which was empowered to work out the city’s budget. PB’s process was consistent with the model I’ve described, and it was large enough to exhibit several levels of deliberations. What happened in practice is that whatever the PB process came up with, was implemented verbatim by the elected officials. And the budgetary results were considered, by objective outside review, as being quite sound. The system worked.

Speaking more generally, there would be two parallel structures – the official governmental structure, and the collaborative problem-solving structure – the civil-society structure. The first provides the mechanism to carry out the bureaucratic necessities of implementing policy; the second provides the democratic process by which policies are formulated. Formal elections would become ritual formalities, much like
America’s ‘electoral college’ that has no volitional charter. A slate of delegate-candidates would be selected, at whatever appropriate level of the civil-society structure, and essentially everyone would vote for them – since everyone has participated in the collaborative process and is invested in its success. These elected officials would then carry out their implementation responsibilities using a similar collaborative problem-solving approach, and representing the articulated agendas of the constituencies with selected them.

Ironically, this parallel-structure system is extremely close to the system we already have in the West! In our current system we have a formal governmental system, and it acts as the rubber-stamp implementation agent for another structure – a structure which actually sets policy. That ‘other structure’ is the backroom deal-making environment in which moneyed interests and power brokers work out who the candidates will be, how the election issues are be framed, how the campaigns are to be staged, and what the legislative priorities will be once ‘their men’ are in office. Our policy-making process has always been separate from the official ‘democratic’ process, a point that I developed above in terms of ‘competitive factionalism’, ‘off-line problem solving’, ‘corruption’, and ‘usurpation of power’.

The two-structure scheme is a sound one. Our governmental structure functions well in its bureaucratic aspects, generally speaking, despite neoliberal smear campaigns to the contrary. The perceived ‘bunglings’ of government are due to misperceptions of what governments are actually trying to accomplish. Their actual (unannounced) task is to serve the interests of corporations – and they do a very efficient job of that. They only ‘bungle’ if you believe their pseudo-progressive lies about why they’re doing things. We simply need to replace the wealth-dominated structure that currently sets policy with a democratic structure. There’s no need to storm the bastilles, dismantle the parliaments, nor write new constitutions. The official governments can continue to do what they do now rather competently – carry out policy set by someone else. In this case, by the people.

But where is this civil-society structure to come from – the parallel structure which is to set policy. The answer is embarrassingly obvious. You’ve probably already figured it out. That parallel structure is the matured revolutionary movement itself. ‘The victorious movement’ = ‘The renewed, empowered civil society’ = ‘The collaborative policy-setting parallel structure’.

That is to say, the model for democracy is also the model for movement structure. The means are the ends. As Gandhi personified it, paraphrasing, “You must become the future you seek”. The movement itself must begin as a bottom-up, collaborative, problem-solving process. Activist groups, the scenario goes, come together and say “What are our different goals? How can we combine forces and accomplish them together? Let us articulate a platform that benefits us all, and promote it collectively.” From such a seed, everyone can be brought in, for in truth we are all in this together and all really want the same basic things. The process by which the movement plans its strategies and actions serves as training for how the movement – renamed eventually as ‘civil-society’ – continues into its ongoing task of guiding society’s evolutionary path.

Richard Moore, an expatriate from Silicon Valley, currently lives and writes in Wexford, Ireland. He currently runs the Cyberjournal "list" on the Internet. Email: richard@cyberjournal.org, http://cyberjournal.org. Address: PO Box 26, Wexford, Ireland.