FAQ on Participatory Democracy

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[Here’s an attempt of mine to answer some questions from the nine people from our local community who attended a recent talk and discussion I gave at our home on the ‘Just a Bit of Politics’ text which I recently posted at this blog and have now also slightly re-edited into 16 Theses.]

G’day folks,

Many thanks again for coming along to the last convivium on Tuesday on ‘Just a Bit of Politics’. Thought I’d try and answer some of the questions/critiques raised there regarding the ‘good society’ or participatory democracy (PD). Often easier in written form than off the cuff.

1. Wouldn’t this be ‘anarchy’/chaos? (Chris)

Nope. PD and self-management are not disorder, but ‘free order’, i.e. bottom-up self-regulation (autonomy) instead of top-down regulation by others (heteronomy). This is actually the way nature, an ecosystem, actually works: it works by the intrinsic controls built into the system’s behaviour (made up of complex behaviours of diverse organisms and conditions), not by some extrinsic top-dog regulating it all (‘nature knows no king of beasts’). The ‘chaos’ shoe is in fact on the other foot: in attempted top-down, extrinsic regulation, the social or modified natural system is often highly vulnerable to disturbance, and thus chaotic in that sense (e.g. the monocultures of industrial agriculture). The top-dog regulator never really knows what’s happening at levels below, e.g. CEOs and workers. The original meaning of ‘anarchy’ BTW is not ‘chaos’ but precisely this kind of intrinsic self-regulation without (‘an-‘) a ruler (‘archon’), i.e. not disorder but ‘free order’. Having said that, no doubt PD and freedom will often entail a little more human ‘messiness’ and time involved. People will have to make decisions about such issues. Which brings us to our next point.

2. Nobody would have enough time for this? (David)

Time will indeed be needed for the participation of everyone in democratic decision-making. Citizens of the Greek polis had enough time for PD because a lot of the menial work was done by women and slaves. Work time thus needs to be reduced. Advanced capitalism is already running out of work. A PD should have little problem deciding how to reduce work time equitably, technologically and eco-sustainably (some options may be: a 20 hour week, a guaranteed minimum income for all, automation). Work will also be less because a simpler, re-localised, post-carbon economy will mean the loss of much energy-intensive or superfluous work (e.g. in aviation and mass tourism, marketing, finances, mass retail, luxuries, mining etc.) The time needed for PD should be within bounds however, and should also be experienced as interesting, meaningful, fulfilling, pleasurable rather than as some kind of ‘sacrifice’. If it isn’t, it isn’t PD but some new form of heteronomy: someone else is calling the shots.

3. People don’t want to run the whole country, they’re happy to delegate that? (David)

In a PD most grassroots decision-making will be related to people’s own local and regional areas, the areas they know best and usually care about most. That’s where the important decisions regarding the fulfilling of most people’s basic needs, investments, allocations and ecological stewardship will now be made. For democratic, energy and ecological reasons, these things will have to be re-localised, decentralised. ‘Small is beautiful’ for both democratic and ecological reasons. Renewable energy production, small factories and workshops will have to be spread over city neighbourhoods and what are now rural regions, just as a lot of food will have to be grown in towns and cities. Of course some economic, political and ecological decisions will still have to be made with respect to regional, national and global issues and exchanges. Two principles of PD can help guide solutions to these issues: ‘horizontality’ and ‘self-federation’. In the former, the internet can now enable direct local-to-local, grassroots communication and exchange across regions, nations and the world. In the latter, the internet could also facilitate a bottom-up process whereby local areas elect temporary, recallable, rotating delegates to regional councils for regional questions and exchanges, and these elect delegates to national councils for national and international questions and exchanges. To that extent, people in local areas would also be involved in decision-making regarding the region, nation and world.

4. Who will maintain the roads and railways? (Pam)

Self-managing neighbourhood/village and workers’ councils, for example, should be more than capable of liaising to ensure the equitable maintenance of all necessary infrastructure, including roads and rail. A post-carbon society will necessarily have much reduced traffic on roads and more public transport. Rail could be managed by liaising between regional and national council federations. Transport was collectivised in the Barcelona of the Spanish Revolution with great success.

5. Isn’t this all about corruption? (Pam, Kerry)

Nope. It’s about what’s accepted as perfectly legal and legitimate within the system of capitalism and its state. Corruption just points to what the system actually encourages and enables everyday by its very structure. The abuse of power just points to what power-over-others (heteronomy) in the form of the state or capital does everyday. You can only do favours for money or influence if you have the decision-making power to grant those favours in the first place. The real problem is that in our ‘democratic’ system and capitalism the power of decision-making itself is undemocratic (heteronomous). Politicians don’t just switch from people-orientation (‘Water’) during elections to capital-orientation (‘Coal’) afterwards because they are ‘corrupt’ but because their role as politicians within the system is to do precisely that: pursue the interests of capital (‘growth’) and state (‘national interest’). The political and economic elites are closely enmeshed on several levels. Politicians and state bureaucrats routinely meet with big business reps to make decisions and refine policies behind closed doors, and that’s perfectly legal. Before or after their political stints they often work for big business, often for those who helped fund their election campaigns, and that is perfectly legal. They can ‘democratically’ send troops overseas to lay waste countries and kill thousands of innocent people not at war with them. That’s undemocratically defined as the ‘national interest’ and nobody considers that ‘corrupt’. Unelected corporate bureaucrats within large companies routinely make perfectly legal, profit-oriented decisions that increase suffering among people, environments and future generations because they have the unchecked power to do so. They can perfectly legally transfer their trillions to offshore tax havens, their workplaces to low-cost countries. Even if all the egregious corruption were wiped out overnight, the system of state and economic power would still be undemocratic, heteronomous, immoral and ecocidal. ‘Whoever you vote for, the government (heteronomy) gets in.’

6. Shouldn’t we be working together with the elites to bring them around? (Richard)

Everyone does what they consider necessary. Of course we should be tolerant of that. However, from my autonomy/self-management perspective, I think both history and logic shows that elites are the very last to come to the party of deep change simply because they have the most to lose, namely power, status, privilege, wealth. So, on the whole, I think it’s a waste of time to want to ‘work together’ with them. When things are relatively peaceful, they will often try and co-opt you into their system and way of thinking, perhaps even offering you some position within it as a way of disarming you. (‘Alternative’ and ‘progressive’ parties offer one great way in). If and when threatened (or long before) by mass initiative, autonomy, grassroots decision-making, they will almost always resort to repression and violence, since these threaten their system of heteronomy, their power, their wealth and privileges, their monopolising of political and economic decision-making. This is NOT a question of people’s personal characters, gender, race, sexual orientation or faith. People with power and wealth are more pleasant or more unpleasant characters, just like us. Men or women, black, white or beige, gay or straight. Thatcher or Obama, Rudd or Gillard, Abbot or Turnbull, Milne or Wong, Reinhardt or Murdoch, …The personalities of these media celebrities, even their often ‘good intentions’, are not the issue. It’s their OBJECTIVE social role within a whole system, their role as heteronomous order-givers and wielders of power over others, that is in question from a democratic perspective. That’s where their tolerance ends. It’s an either/or here: either autonomy, bottom-up self-management, or it’s heteronomy, top-down authority, you can’t have both together. Which brings us to our final question.

7. Isn’t this too black-and-white? Isn’t there always something good and bad about everything? Isn’t there a danger of becoming like what you oppose? (Francine)

On the most abstract, metaphysical and poetical of levels, I perfectly agree that nothing is merely black or white, good or bad. ‘Both-and’ seems much more true that ‘either/or’ on that level. On the level of political reality, however, I disagree that EVERYTHING can or should be fitted into that ‘both-good-and-bad’ notion. (That’s what I meant by ‘category error’: simply equating two different categories or levels). I think autonomy and freedom are good, heteronomy and oppression are bad. I can see as little good heteronomy (for adults) as I can see ‘good’ torture, good genocide, good hunger/poverty, good exploitation, good slavery, good racism or good rape. For me these are unequivocally bad and very ‘black-and-white’. I think autonomous political action is in fact usually motivated by outrage at such unnecessary suffering caused by various forms of patriarchal, political or economic heteronomy or oppression. In my view this outrage is more human and ‘natural’, since based on sympathy or empathy with (perhaps even love of?) the victims, than not feeling any outrage. The fact that everyone may be abstractly capable of murder or oppression in no way excuses murder and oppression, especially when these are political ore economic. It should be made clear perhaps that to feel outrage is not to feel hate, that political opponents need not be seen as ‘enemies’. I assume Jesus felt outrage rather than hate when he threw the merchants out of the temple. I assume he saw the issue as a black-and-white one. I assume he was aware enough of his own motivations and his own ‘darkness’/blind spots to not become like the merchants. The fact that one cannot psychologically feel outrage all the time, or one would go completely mad, is another issue. Here I personally find a certain spirituality/philosophy, poetry and literature, physical activity, gardening, self-mockery and HUMOUR are essential for the politically aware and autonomously active; otherwise it’s burnout, madness, sectarianism, dogmatism, bickering, self-righteousness and all the rest of what makes normal ‘politics’ so absolutely bloody tedious.

For those who want to perhaps pursue the topic of autonomous politics a little more, I’d recommend as possible starting points:

a few of the political and spiritual essays on my own blog (just scroll down the two Essays lists)
The Simplicity Collective (http://simplicitycollective.com/)
Common Dreams (US, for progressive interpretations of the news): http://www.commondreams.org/
The International Society for a Participatory Society (IOPS): http://www.iopsociety.org/
Open Source Ecology (DIY hardware for a decentralised, self-managing eco-society): http://opensourceecology.org/
and three workers’ self-management projects in Spain, Greece and France:
Catalan Integral Cooperative (www.cooperativa.cat/en/)
vio.me (a self-managed factory in Thessaloniki: http://www.viome.org)
Association Autogestion (for those who read French: http://www.autogestion.asso.fr)

Warm regards,



~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on March 11, 2014.

4 Responses to “FAQ on Participatory Democracy”

  1. thank you peter…do you mind if i forward this ?

  2. On “working with elites”: I think everyone would find it problematic identifying elites. Such an identity is contextual and exists on a continuum of power relations- if the person is on a picket line, we don’t judge him by his Rolex watch, right?

    I think also that there is strain of western Buddhism/mindfulness that has trouble being “judgmental” to the point of total relativism, ie “there is no wrong or right”. Or, who am I to try to convince someone of something.

    • Yep, glad we agree on that flat version of Buddhism/mindfulness, Dave. Don’t understand why you find it ‘problematic identifying the power elites’ who call the shots in the economy and politics. We could maybe start with the 200 who own about 40% of the world’s wealth, no, and then work our way down the ‘continuum’? One criterium might also be: they don’t stand in picket lines, with or without their Rolexes…

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