The world in which we are thinking about and practicing democracy is a probably the most complex in history. For practitioners engaging in democracy work, it is evident that the concept of democracy nowadays is unclear; every time we engage in debate regarding democratic practices, we enter a terrain where different competing ideas and perceptions struggle for dominance. Naming things is important. A ‘government by all’ essence of democracy is where our starting point should be when attempting to make sense of our current, but even more our future, democracy work. To be able to design better strategies on democracy, we must apply the most up to date analytical tools to reveal and understand the discourses, practices, and actors that impact popular understandings of democracy today.
Save the name
Two main patterns are a threat both to the name and the essence of democracy. The first is the misuse of the name of democracy and the second is the outward rejection of the concept of democracy. The first exploits the name to fortify political elites in power, to silence minorities, practice authoritarian governance, and create crony economies. This pattern was on show during the ‘democratic transition’ process of the former socialist countries. The experience with democracy in these societies means that democracy is often seen as means to grab political power and exert economic control.
The second trend is evident in the increasing numbers of extremist groups almost everywhere. They prey on the dissatisfaction of people who suffer continued economic consequences of long-lasting austerity measures enacted after the 2008 crisis. Through the application of manipulative rhetoric, these groups succeed in gaining popular support for their openly anti-democratic ideas. They reject democratic values as a part of what they call the ‘failed liberal economic model’. Their claim is that democracy is not a government by all, but it enables the ‘one percent takes it all’ that is at play behind the curtain of democracy.
The result of these patterns and developments is an increasing level of confusion among citizens. As they try to figure out their place in the democratic process, they are confronted with a fluid and slippery concept of democracy. New communication technologies and political influence are amplifying these tendencies. They combine to produce the most heterogeneous political space in our history, both in terms of actors and ideas.
Break it down, bring it down
Democracy practitioners find themselves working in a complex and confusing environment in which various ideas are floating, and new actors are constantly entering the political scene. Sometimes, we need to turn to theory to try to make sense of what is going on; yet there too we will understand that classical political theory does not provide many answers. It is new theories bridging several disciplines that come closer to providing some answers. For example, in Hatred of Democracy, Jacques Ranciere identifies dangers to democracy and finds pathways for reinforcing the democratic ideal today. The new context is like nothing we have known before, so our work requires constant innovation, experimentation, and analysis.
Every human being craves clarity and stability. This influences the notion of democracy today. To avoid the confusion of these complexities, many people refer to democracy as the ‘name for it all’. When democracy is used to reference all sorts of things, many people strengthen their belief that democracy is not a good thing. In response, we as practitioners need to break down the concept of democracy into concrete and identifiable issues.
"many people refer to democracy as the ‘name for it all’. When democracy is used to reference all sorts of things, many people strengthen their belief that democracy is not a good thing. In response, we as practitioners need to break down the concept of democracy into concrete and identifiable issues."
One of the most important issues on which we can reinforce the democratic ideal is undoubtedly the economy. When economy is separated from democracy, we tend to see increasing support for authoritarian models which are touted as economic successes. Between free media and new jobs, people would choose more jobs. But is this really a choice at all? Jobs must be linked back to a democratic process of decision making in the economy. By proposing democratic economic models, we can put forward the case for democracy as a model in which the economy can serve everyone. Because economy is so important for people’s lives, it must be mainstreamed into participatory democratic processes.
Old ways of democracy are necessary but not enough. Elections are crucial but not enough. As democracy practitioners and active citizens, we know we need to bring the decisions on the future closer to the everyday life of people. In coupling economy and democracy, we can advocate for economic decisions (on taxation, subsidies, or investments, for example) to be made through a widespread participatory model. Democracy today needs new mechanisms to enable participatory practices which are made easier than ever through the new technologies of our age.
Movements that form the new alliances for change are determining social agendas and we need a new democratic process for these to be easily transferred into political agendas of parties and institutions. Parties are an effective model for pursuing politics, but we cannot ignore that many people choose movements for pursuing their own politics. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and #MeToo have generated a global mobilization of citizens, but national policy decisions are trailing far behind in addressing the grievances put forward by millions worldwide.
The increasing discrepancy between the social and institutional agendas risks weakening the legitimacy of institutions in the eyes of the citizens. States’ commitments and meaningful actions to pursue popular demands are one of the key elements in ensuring that democracy is a government by all. But very often the political influence of a small number of large corporations often wins over democratic demands of millions that advocate for the benefit of all. Recent Guardian research exposed ‘carbon bombs’ that are set to trigger catastrophic climate breakdown. These bombs are investment plans by the major energy companies in the world which, if not contained by national representatives, will open a wider confrontation between the movements from below and those who make decisions at the top levels of power.
Respond democratically to urgency
The pandemic and the war in Ukraine are reshaping both global and local conditions for democratic processes. At times when ‘rallying in unity’ is the dominant political aim, there is little attention and willingness for participatory processes. Decisions made for geo-strategic purposes do not tolerate local democratic practices. These pose an increasing challenge to democracy practitioners worldwide who must balance between the daily urgencies that we face on a global scale and the need to maintain meaningful local engagement of citizens that will lead to increased trust in democracy. During crises, effectiveness becomes the top priority of governments around the world. But, as seen during the pandemic, measures decided behind closed doors, even with the best intentions, can cause massive disobedience. Massive anti-lockdown demonstrations that took place all over the world as a reaction to government’s health measures were a consequence of urgent decisions. Many of those demonstrations were organized by groups who espouse suspicion towards democracy and the legitimacy of institutions, leading an increased level of confusion regarding who is really the anti-democratic actor. Even during the most extreme crisis, democracy has no alternative. Recent developments in Sri Lanka are only a glimpse of possible social upheavals that can shape into a pattern for responding to the deepening energy and food crisis.
When global and local conditions mix, we always need to push for more local democratic participation that fixes the wrongs before vengeful actors and practices take to the scene. At challenging times, when the long-lasting complexities become a confusing and unclear mix, we as democracy practitioners should strive for clarity. Defining democracy priorities of our work and focusing on concrete issues rather than general ideas will also influence more engagement by citizens in participatory democratic processes in their everyday lives.