This is democracy in practice

However ruthless monopoly forces may be in limiting freedoms, the Democracy Manifesto challenges us to consider if the unruly power of the market isn’t also a home of democratic freedom.

It was a privilege to join the last two sessions of the global conversation on democracy and participate in the discussions on the draft Democracy Manifesto. Here are my comments.

The Democracy Manifesto does more than argue that democracy belongs to the world and not the West and cannot any longer be defined by western canons and experience. These are familiar arguments. But the discussions were not conventional. Coming from the West I found their spirit unusual, emancipating and enjoyable. The reason, I think, is that equivalent seminars in London or Oxford, New York, Washington or Paris, would have been undertaken with a frown. While recognising the same shift in how democracy is defined, the sub-text would have been how do ‘we’ respond to and manage this ‘loss’. It would have been seen as a problem that ‘we’ should, if possible, do something about.

Whereas our global conversations saw not a problem but a solution. If the Democracy Manifesto is at all influential it will itself contribute to the democratisation of democracy. The seminars were not just about ‘re-imagining democracy’ they were reimaging democracy. Tiny though they may have been in the larger order of things, they were a political action helping to actually universalise ‘the universal’. We shared this experience as a gain to be welcomed and not a loss.

Second, the Democracy Manifesto recognises traditional forms of historic, consensual decision-making other than voting as a living part of our democratic heritage. But as by Han Sang-jin from South Korea argued in the second seminar, there can also be particularist, closed and socially hierarchical aspects to these forms of government. Democracy is modern. It is impatient. And now, thanks to the internet, it can learn to be direct and ongoing on a large scale: open, networked and deliberative rather than just selective, representative and occasional. For sure it needs to include earlier, historic forms of deliberation, participation and consensus creation. But these need a modern articulation. We should learn from and incorporate the past but not try to go back to it.

Third, democracy is being stolen. Everyone can feel this. The more education, higher living standards and communication makes democracy realisable, the more corruption, state power and corporate influence undermines it. International companies and financial institutions and markets now exercise political power over our lives. Self-determination has to include forms of politically democratising ownership and the market place. But a little understood aspect of this is the transformation of the modern state into an autonomous vested interest linked to but distinct from corporate power. This means that the very instrument of democracy - government itself – has become an autonomous form of power over citizens, for example in the form of the ‘database state’. This has to be countered by the development of modern liberty in the digital age, ensuring the privacy of persons, families and social groups and control over one’s personal information and data as well as the transparency, openness and accountability of power.

Fourth, the draft of the Democracy Manifesto seems to suggest that capitalism should not be linked to democracy. But despite the oppressive role of corporate power and especially the corporate media over societies as a whole, the exploitation of working people and our manipulation and atomisation in the jobs market, there is also an undeniable democratic aspect to the market place. It has opened up choice, innovation and the freedom for enterprise. However ruthless monopoly forces may be in limiting these freedoms, the unruly power of the market is also a home of democratic freedom.

Fifth, democracy is national even if it is not only national. One of the striking discussions for me in our global conversations was learning about self-determination that does not claim sovereignty and can develop within – or across – traditional nation states. Nonetheless, the core of self-determination means a people working out how to manage their differences while sharing a common government. The framework for democracy is universal human rights. But the spice of life is particular. Even as democracy is networked, the primary arena for the working out of democracy remains nations and states.

Some time ago I co-authored a global overview of democracy which identified three ‘fronts’: the need to support people in their struggle for fundamental democratic rights such as free elections, free speech, the rule of law, in countries which do not have them; the need to deepen democracy in our societies which do enjoy these rights to bring it to life with new forms and direct participation; and, third, the need to ensure international institutions have democratic legitimacy. I still think this three-part account is helpful if one bears in mind that these struggles all inter-relate. But it remains a schema. The Democracy Manifesto promises a rich and influential planetary rethinking of democracy from within, making these links come alive, so that the aspirations for a shared freedom and self-determination can belong to us all.

PS: I have just seen Robert Kagan’s portentously titled booklet, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. This recognises the collapse of America’s presumption that it had become the single defining power after 1989. It is an example of a western writer simply assuming this to be a ‘problem’. Kagan writes, “With the dream of the post-Cold War era dissolving the democratic world will have to decide how to respond… History has returned, and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them.” It is clear that by “democracies” and “the democratic world” Kagan means a North Atlantic order that does not include India, Brazil, Turkey or Chile among its desired “shapers”. It is an extreme example of the claim the Democracy Manifesto overturns. 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy