Beyond Voting: It’s Time to Reimagine Democracy

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reimagine: to imagine again or anew; especially: to form a new conception of.

During election time, we can easily get lost in the notion that voting and politicians are at the centre of democracy. And yet, democracy is so much more.

Today, democracy’s detractors point to the US experiment to denigrate the idea. In Canada, our politics have to a degree followed suit.

Consider the possibility that American democracy is not actually rooted in an authentic equality or true democracy. Consider seeing it instead as a protest movement. There was a political elite looking to throw off the yoke of another political elite. How can it be ‘for the people and of the people’ when so few of the people were actually involved? Dissidents were ridiculed, tarred, feathered, and murdered in front of their families. Others fled north. Races were enslaved. Genocide was enacted against Indigenous people. It was a protest. And, it was a violent one.

As it begins, so it goes.

Having followed logically from its genesis moment, our democratic politics are rife with debate rather than dialogue, competition rather than collaboration. What team wins seems more important than just about anything.

That is one view of democracy. It is a view that puts citizen participation in government-led processes at the forefront. It is a limited view. And, it is not a form of democracy that has much more to offer us as community members than it already has.

By seeing democracy predominantly as participation in government-led activity, we can be blinded to a much richer and effective form of democracy.

French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville noticed a richer source for a deeper democracy. He referred to it as the mother of all science. He called it ‘the art of association.’

This form of democracy is far more potent and powerful. It is led by citizens and community members. It is centred in the freedom of agency and association with one another. What de Tocqueville noticed was people working with one another, in place, with persistence, to address what was important to them, with the materials already at hand locally.

This form of democracy is enabling and ennobling of community members in their agency and in their giftedness.

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Let us consider, for a moment, what happens when we vote. What our political elites would like us to believe is that we have exercised our power. What we have done is given away some of our power. With the ballot box, we have pinned our power to the purveyor of promises yet to be unfulfilled.

That being said, I believe it is critically important to vote. The people who represent us will have influence in a system that has power disproportionate to its abilities. Better people are better by far.

But, with this small act of participation in government-led functions, let us not leave the rest of our power on the table to waste.

Consider that there are powerful people. This is an acceptance of a power differential. We have become quite comfortable with power differential. We defer to it all the time.

But here is the thing: concentrated power is not a lot of power when compared to diffused power. Power in a hierarchy is Power Over (in most cases). Power in the art of association is Power With.

Having hosted hundreds of gatherings and led a six-years-awarded democratic workplace, I have seen how much more power there is in a group, room, organization, or community when it is diffused. When everyone in a group is exercising their agency, there is exponentially more power in the room than when only one or a few are doing so from the top.

That such power is not explicit leaves it underutilized. When we leave the voting booth, let us not forget the other 98% of our power and to take it with us and into community.

Our communities are filled with more potential and wonder than we can imagine. Every community teems with an abundance of talent, ideas, knowledge, wisdom, care, and inspiration.

Unlocking this abundance is what a reimagined democracy is and is for.

Imagine what community life would be like if each of us was seen and heard, if our gifts were recognized and enlivened, if we as community members came together to create the things we wanted to see. What if, in our uniqueness and diversity, we were supported in our goals by those near to us, and they were supported in their goals by us?

In diversity and interdependence, we have the ingredients for whole and healthy community life.

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One of the challenges we face in realizing this reimagined democracy is the force of narrative. The dominant narrative, the one purveyed by mainstream media, corporate communications, and political campaigns, is for the most part an institutional narrative. It isn’t really for or by the grassroots at all. It doesn’t tell our stories, it doesn’t much illuminate or consider associational life. In that sense, the dominant narrative is repetitive and repressive.

There is another Peterborough. There is another story. And, it isn’t just happening here.

Associational life and deeply democratic approaches to community, livelihood, lifelong learning, environmental stewardship, and food, to name a few, are alive and well all around the world.

For 15 years, my colleagues at Axiom News were on a search to tell stories that illuminated and appreciated the value of generative, grassroots, and deeply democratic efforts around the world. What we encountered offers some direction about the elements of a reimagined democracy.

 

Citizen-Led Community Building

In Europe in particular, there is a sense that the state is in retreat or has come to recognize the limits of its usefulness. Additionally, there is the sense that too much of community life is reliant upon institutionalized programs and professional services.

In Bregenz, Austria, there is an Office of Future Related Matters. This office has had, for ten years, the mandate to answer any call to host a community conversation about something that is important to citizens or elected officials.

The creation of citizen hubs or citizen studios as places for an association of associations and citizens is an attractive prospect and there are examples sprouting up around the world.

 

Democratic Workplaces

The amount of work that has been done on this is mind-boggling. Democratic workplaces are a fascinating field of action and study. Democratic forms of governance, ownership, and operations are myriad. Employee-owned firms are far less likely to be transient. They are rooted locally, owned by the people who work in them, and perform better than publicly traded firms for longevity, rootedness, employee retention, wage rates, and profitability.

Cooperatives are not to be ignored either in our thinking. According to the International Cooperatives Association, “the world’s top 300 cooperatives represent a global turnover [revenue] of 2.1 trillion USD. They generate partial or full-time employment for at least 280 million people either in or within the scope of cooperatives, making up almost 10% of the entire employed population.”

There is a highly competent network of legal and advice support systems for cooperatives. Cooperatives are a form of deep democracy and have been formed by communities in Canada for decades to enact important functions in community.
When you consider how much time we spend at work it stands to reason that, if our workplaces were democratic, more of us would be trained up in our agency and understanding of deeper democracy.

A society of democratic organizations is a more deeply democratic one.

 

Unleashing Local Capital: Social and Intimate Finance

I have come to see capitalism as the ideology or worship of capital, of money. Absentee investment is the root of so much in the way of dissociation. Money for money’s sake, and not for what it can do. Instead, we should look at intimate and engaged investment, that puts the power of money to good use.

And yet, there are so few mechanisms for someone who is lucky enough to have steady work to find a way to invest in an intimate way in their community’s enterprises. There are mutual fund and financial services managers galore who are conduits into the capitalist markets, but there are so incredibly few ways for us to invest in our local economy intelligently, easily, and with the support of a stable infrastructure.

There are tools here and there to accomplish this. Social and community bonds are a developing form and some of them are fairly simple. Peterborough’s Mount Community Centre exists today, in part, thanks to a community-bond process. RSF Social Finance is doing interesting things. The folks from Totnes and the Transition Town movement worldwide offer up success stories too.

It is strange to me that it is easier to invest in businesses, markets, and systems we know little about and over which we have absolutely no control, than it is to do so in our local economy.

Think of the money invested by residents of Peterborough that is not invested here.



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Unleashing Pent-Up Capital

Another crying shame is how much money is tied up in foundations, charities, and private funds. I know of a local project in town. The person trying to get it off the ground has an indication of interest in providing a good chunk of seed money contingent on the getting of a charitable partner. The difficulty the foundation has is that it legally has to flow the dollars to a non-profit with charitable status. And that means finding a non-profit willing to govern the funds in trust, and for whom the project is germane to its stated reason for being. After several rejections, the project, which is pretty much ready to rumble otherwise, is stuck. The money is available, but the channel is not. If you know of a channel, please call me.

In the meantime, large endowment funds for the most part do not spend their stored-up capital. They only spend the interest on that capital. These means that a tremendous amount of money concentrated and granted to foundations, usually by way of massive business operations of years gone by (many of whom arguably do owe a debt to society for resource extraction, infrastructure, and such) lies sitting untapped and unused. What if this capital was unleashed to support local people in rising up to create the communities they wish to create?

Right now, this capital is tied up and can only be flowed through institutions, many of whom are confined in their own silos and programs.

In the meantime, citizen expertise and willingness to work is left rotting for lack of fertilizer.

In a reimagined democracy, we could connect the people who have the money but don’t know what to do with it, with the people who know what to do and don’t have the money. And, we could create the flow-through and elegant structures necessary to bring new things to life.

This money was concentrated in the previous and passing age. It would be a tremendous help if it could be harnessed to usher in the new one.

 

Schools

What if we as community members took on the responsibility of educating our youth?

What happens in our school systems is a result of a demand by large systems for numerate and literate workers more than 150 years ago. That we still educate that way is atrocious. Schools too can to be reimagined and integrated into community life in much richer ways.

Among others, Sam Chaltain has been working with schools to change the way they work. Rather than educating children to be economic producers, we could be supporting them to discover their giftedness, purpose, agency, and the arts of associational life.

In contemplation of any child’s proclivities and penchants it probably isn’t that hard to imagine someone you know, or someone they know, who has an aligned teachable they’d love to pass along.

 

Inclusive and Generative Journalism for a New Narrative

The stories we tell shape our culture. Journalism as a civic art, to be of real assistance to democracy, has a few things to overcome.

The first is where it looks for the emerging narrative. Institutions have resources and power. This is how they continue to dominate our news narrative. The people, on the other hand, are more loosely organized and their resources and power are less concentrated. They can be harder to find. Who is to tell their story? How do they get the attention of our storytellers? Fellow journalists, where is it that we are looking for our news? Let’s look to community and those who are exercising their creativity and agency.

Secondly, we must transcend to higher states of inquiry. Consider carefully the questions we ask. Every question either reinforces the current narrative or it cultivates new life.

Do your questions rest in who-what-when-where-why, then report on the observed facts, thus reinforcing them? Or, do they mine for giftedness, emergence, and what is about to happen? Do they surface what is possible now that wasn’t possible before? Do they tug away at discovering how our source might go about getting there, and what sort of support they would like from their fellow community members? Do you dare anticipate what might happen next and print it?

A third thing to address is change theory. It is time to move beyond industrial-age change theory. Approaches like biomimicry, asset-based community development, and appreciative inquiry are all well-tested approaches. They are fresh, accessible, well-taught, and supported by communities of practice. To get good at them takes a change of mind and lots of persistence.

A fourth hurdle is one of context and content knowledge. Media in general knows how to cover business and politics as usual. So, it does. Its approach to narrating the cycle of protest, debate, and competition fans those flames and reinforces an old narrative. It has yet to see past its current paradigm of democracy. It believes it is serving, as the fourth estate, as well as it can by doing what it has always done. It too often serves to reinforce the institutional-system-world narrative. It has so far done little to emphasize an alternative narrative. It is beholden to its dissociative embeddedness in the institutional narrative of protest and debate.

Every election we allow ourselves to become yet again distracted by the circus at the expense of illuminating the enabling and ennobling stories of real democracy, that of civic and associational life.

A new expert storyteller will learn to be comfortable and transparent with their subjectivity, to deepen the arts of inquiry, to recast their view of democracy, and to point their gaze in a different direction. They will become aware of the forms and functions, stepping stones, and life cycles in and of a reimagined democracy.

It is not at all that we need to create something that is not there. We have only to have the imagination to see where it already exists. We must then illuminate and cultivate it.

These are but a few of the elements of a reimagined democracy.

What comes to life for you when you consider a reimagined democracy?

Where have you seen something like that at work?

What could you do, as a first small step, to bring that closer to being true here in your community?

What would you like from your fellow community members to make that happen?

 

Cover photo by Yvonne Hollandy.

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