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Friday, March 24, 2023


Deepening Democracy: Strengthening Democracy and Civil Society


What Is Democracy’s Place in the Commons?

Living through the pandemic has exposed how precarious so much of our social and economic life. It revealed that many things we take for granted depend on a solid foundation of public and community infrastructure, democratic and egalitarian values and a sustainable eco-system.  We need to focus attention on fundamentally re-thinking the role of democracy and civil society in shaping our post-pandemic world. 

Those harmed most by this pandemic were often those most neglected and with the least power – people on low income, precariously employed and racialized communities, seniors living alone in long-term care homes.  Worse still, this included many of the very people we were counting on in communities across the country to support all of us in providing essential services, including food and other critical retail services. 

We have failed to create the social and economic foundations to support all people to meet their most basic needs. How could this happen in Canada, generally regarded as amongst the most democratic and egalitarian countries in the world?  What are the weaknesses in our democratic values and practices that allow such failures to exist?

As a starting point: What do we mean by democracy?  Much of what we refer to as liberal democracy is grounded in the thinking of the enlightenment, and most notably in the political theories of Locke, Spinoza and Montesquieu that influenced both the American and French revolutions.

This conception of democracy rests on the notion of individuals with inalienable rights, who voluntarily come together to form a political state based on certain core principles. These include: defending civil liberties against the encroachment of powerful interests including governments, institutions and corporate entities; clearly prescribing and defining the role of governments in regulating and intervening in political, economic, and moral matters; broadening the scope and ensuring the political, religious and intellectual freedoms of citizens; limiting and questioning the demands of vested interest groups seeking special privileges; and, framing rules and obligations in terms of actions designed to benefit all citizens and contribute to the common good. 

Liberal democracies are representative democracies that cede power to elected officials who are free to make whatever decisions that they, or more precisely their political party deems appropriate.  They are also structured as a government in power and an opposition which is adversarial thereby creating a barrier to cooperation and consensus building.  Other principles underlying democracy including accountability, transparency, reaching compromises to achieve broader agreement, and seeking to minimize concentrations of power and influence, are often sorely lacking in such electoral systems.

Particularly problematic in systems emanating from British traditions is the first past the post electoral system as we have in Canada.  This sets up the not uncommon situation where political parties can form strong majority governments despite securing between 37% and 45% of the popular vote.  This often leaves a majority of voters without voice.  It leaves a minority free to enact laws opposed by most electors. The democratic deficit is illustrated in the chart below.     

It is often said that we get the government we deserve. But is that really true? Isn’t it closer to the mark to say we get the governments our institutions are designed to perpetuate? Further, claims of voter apathy and disengagement from our political institutions reflect a deepening alienation from these institutions and the limited democracy, engagement and view of civil life they represent.

The Shift We Need

There are rumblings in the media that democracy is in decline. There are stories about the curtailment of democratic freedoms and concerns about the coarseness and stridency of political arguments often attributed to social media and the attraction of right wing populism.  But both political leaders and media pundits have been part of this decline as well.

As the recent world-wide study Democracy for All demonstrates, people are far from satisfied with the limited forms of democracy even in liberal democracies. They want more rather than less democratic choice and expression.  The right to vote is essential but simply entrusting others to represent them every few years isn’t working for many people.  Too often, elected officials simply do the bidding of political and economic elites who create the rules and reap the benefits. In countries around the world, global research has revealed a hunger for more participatory, deliberative and direct democracy.  They want a deeper democracy rooted in engaged civic life, that enables better decisions to be taken, and that holds decision-makers more accountable.

While the case for shifting to proportional representation (PR) as being more democratic is unassailable, political elites and corporate interests are generally hostile to the idea.  Canada’s largest political parties rarely promote it as they would be the net losers.  Most governments in PR systems based on multi-party coalitions may better reflect the interests of all Canadians but would lessen the control and influence of single party leadership.  While most Canadians support the idea, it’s not likely to be an election issue for most voters so is easily side-stepped by governments.  Even where efforts to make the shift have been brought forward, they have failed to pass in referendums.

At its heart, a deeper democracy must reflect the fundamental human need to have a voice and influence over the circumstances of our daily lives. To para-phrase consummate community organizer Saul Alinsky, to reclaim voice and political power, communities must:  recognize both the power they hold and the power they can generate; work with, extend and leverage the knowledge and expertise of their community; keep those with power off balance and make them deliver on the promises claimed under their own rules; and, recognize that a successful attack that keeps the pressure on can lead to a constructive alternative. 

What would such a deeper democracy look like?  It would require transformative changes in five areas:

  • Governance focused on community needs and local aspirations
  • Social and economic institutions designed to work within the carrying capacity of the ecological systems of regions, nations and the bio-sphere
  • Strengthened international governance and democracy to tackle global problems
  • Strong social rights and protections delivered through an emancipatory state consistent with UN declarations and cultural and political norms
  • A more democratized economy where the private market is embedded within a community- building goods creation, resource sharing and distribution system, and

Taken together, these changes would dramatically reshape society in ways that build solidarity, trust, community and a deeper democracy that improves both well-being and prosperity.

Participatory Democracy Focused On Community Needs and Local Aspirations

We need to see democracy as a process that has equity, inclusion and participation at its heart and is open to all. We need more local and community-level participatory democracy, including devolved and decentralised governance allowing communities to develop their own local solutions to the challenges they face. We must create stronger links between community-level democratic participation and policy-making of senior governments (e.g. more deliberative democracy through such means as citizen assemblies; regional elected citizens’ forums like the Brazilian participatory budgeting process). We need more direct democracy, providing there are safeguards against majoritarian abuse of power and manipulation of such instruments by political leaders.

Shift from a consumer/limitless growth economy to a solidarity/caring economy

The pandemic has again focused attention on the connections between economic inequality and lack of political power.  It is no accident that the most vulnerable, the most poorly paid, the under-housed, and the marginalized have been disproportionately affected.  Growing inequality since 1980 is the result of neo-liberalism’s winners and losers approach, and the legal and institutional framework that internalizes rewards for the powerful while externalizing risks to the rest of us.  We need a very different economic system today. A shift from one pursuing endless growth despite hazardous working conditions and ecological damage to one built around shared risks and benefits and the creation of vibrant and sustainable communities where everyone can live, work and thrive.  We need more local democracy, but equally important, we need to infuse our economic relations with a stronger commitment to democracy, to caring, shared ownership and workers’ rights, and to living within ecological limits. 

Strengthened International Governance to Tackle Global Problems

While we need deeper and more inclusive local democracy, at the same time many of the major problems of the day can only be tackled on a global scale, and we should all have a role in developing and implementing such global solutions. Three generations ago, in the aftermath of two world wars that bookended the Great Depression, we started down such a path by creating the United Nations but failed to fully embrace our obligations to humanity and to the planet.  Universal values underpinning our strong human bonds to each other are evident across all cultures.  These values assert our obligations to each other in terms of ensuring freedom from want and fear and sharing abundance fairly. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a major touchstone and essential foundation in deepening democracy. 

We need genuinely international institutions, rather than intergovernmental institutions, free from the narrow calculus that puts the wealth accumulation of the few above the needs of the many. But in creating these international institutions, how do we avoid repeating the failures of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that are to varying degrees agents of global capital?]

An emancipatory state that enables and supports civil society and living within ecological limits

To deliver on this promise, we must generate a re-invigorated civil society that in turn can transform senior governments from their current role as agents of neo-liberalism into the emancipatory state, one that plays an essential enabling role in fostering and safeguarding the Social Commons. This will entail:

  • Acting  as the steward of people’s human rights and a partner in creating the social, economic, and ecological conditions for respecting, endorsing, and enacting these rights; 
  • A legal framework that asserts the primacy of human rights and ecological sustainability and which makes  private corporate interests subservient to meeting human needs and holds them to account.
  • Senior governments as a partner in the initiatives of civil society, setting standards, allocating resources, and ensuring decisions and outcomes produce equitable access to resources;  and
  • A robust social protection framework designed to ensure that everyone can meet the basic necessities of life and  has access to sufficient resources and opportunities to achieve an acceptable community standard of living

The Journey Before Us

The participatory and democratic construction of the Social Commons is essential in forging the path and generating the political will necessary to create the emancipatory state.  It is grounded in a conviction to recognize human rights, and in the imperative of civic engagement and responsibility. The moral core of civic life speaks to actively engaging people from all walks of life as individuals or groups to address issues of public concern. To echo the words of the European think tank, the Commons Network:

We believe the world urgently needs a new narrative and that the commons represents a socially and economically sustainable paradigm for this. We believe communities, cities and regions, rather than nation-states, are the backbone of the new trans-local consciousness.

Such an orientation could emerge as a powerful alternative to the still dominant free market paradigm which places individual self-interest and corporate rights above the common good. All the institutions of democracy will count for little if our economies remain under the control of political and economic elites. We all need more say in economic decision-making and to have a voice in political decision-making, rather than one that is determined by others on our behalf and eroded or denied to us based on our social and economic status. We need to transition to a post-growth economy focused on a better distribution of the abundance nature has provided and that we can generate for all. This must be grounded in the provision of quality essential services, accessible to all, and the ability of everyone to participate in the management of our shared resources through a rebuilding of the Commons and democratizing our workplaces.

How could the practices of the Social Commons as participatory politics offer a different paradigm to the ways we currently live and work together?  How can we best assert the powerful bond of our common humanity as the crucial foundation for the democratization of the hierarchical, bureaucratic, institutional structures that define societies, including our own around the world today?  How best to find a fair and just balance between individual and social rights and our responsibilities to each other? How can we best reshape existing power relations that are heavily skewed to corporate actors to ensure that they are embedded within and accountable to the communities they serve?  

We face many challenges today each reflecting differing dimensions of current systems failures as well as revealing the seeds of change we need to cultivate. 

Exploring the transformations we need to embrace and cultivate, we will delve into many ground-breaking ideas that hold the promise of a more sustainable path towards democracy including: 

  • A shift from all the power resting with representative governments, to a shared power relationship where “we the people” are enabled and supported by senior governments through social and economic justice frameworks, and where local regions and communities work cooperatively to solve local problems and challenges.
  • Greater reliance on deliberative democracy focused on meeting human needs in ways that are equitable, inclusive and meet the needs of minorities, the vulnerable and less powerful
  • Reversing  enclosures and privatization efforts  to  re-patriate and enlarge the Commons – water, seed,  land and air rights, social infrastructure, public transportation, communications platforms and social media
  • Replace our archaic and largely undemocratic “first past the post” system with a system of proportional representation that better reflects the social and economic aspirations of everyone
  • Mechanisms for civil society to set clear limits and hold all governments accountable for actions that jeopardize the health of the Commons or shift the burden of risk from private corporations to the public (resource extraction, land use decisions, pollution/waste, tax avoidance)

Civil Society Must Show Us the Way 

Throughout much of history, it was civil society that shows us how to reimagine and deepen democracy. It is the locus of community, identity and a sense of belonging. It is also the place where contending ideas are shaped through dialogue and where innovation, invention and re-imagining possible futures take flight. 

There must be more to democracy than occasional formal and ceremonial choosing of our elites.  We must expand our understanding of democratic principles and extend them into all aspects of social and economic organization.  This requires much more than calls for openness and better accountability. It isn’t enough to simply make citizens the primary focus of our reporting systems.  They must become the drivers of democracy itself.  What does this mean?   

It means strengthening the role of both local and global democracy as crucial foundations.  It means making the locus of decision-making the most local level possible. It means extending democracy into our economic systems and processes, and supporting a shift to cooperatives, community and public enterprises in the provision of public goods and the caring and green economy.  It means embracing the concept of the emancipatory state as a protector of social and economic rights, as well as a protector of the eco-sphere. 

People are losing confidence in the promise of democracy not because of disinformation but because our leaders have betrayed our trust and routinely put private interests ahead of the public interest.  No amount of narrative spin has been able to hide the con job.  Today’s events show that people are hungry for more rather than less democracy.  This is the time to unleash the democratic potential of communities to reinvigorate civic life.  We need to deepen and extend democracy. Join us on the journey. 

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