Orchestrating democracy

If a lesson may be learned from the big live laboratory of democracy that is Italy, it might be the awareness that democracy requires failsafe mechanisms of early-warning to protect the enlightenment of its members.

Vincenzo De Florio
10 October 2012
Rome Orchestra. Demotix/Gabous Yahya. All rights reserved.

The Rome Orchestra. Demotix/Gabous Yahya. All rights reserved.

Any conductor or musician will tell you that a good orchestra is one that does not solely rely on an “enlightened” conductor to take all musical decisions. All involved are participating in the creative process of making music together, and they do so by taking responsibility for their respective role within the whole design. This requires two concurrent actions – on the one hand, the musicians commit themselves towards achieving a common goal, by sharing one's viewpoints; exposing one's ideas; confronting others; opening oneself to change, etc. On the other hand, the conductor must explicitly encourage these processes in the musicians and should be himself open to change and constructive confrontation.

The same applies to democratic organisations. Certain democracies appear to be more adaptive and resilient to change than others, proving able to sustain the welfare of their citizens, taking the right decisions and adjusting their function in a relatively short time. Organisational diversity and the cultural role of the individual are probably very important. By looking more closely at democracy in Italy, we might find some criteria for designing truly enlightened democracies.

An interesting snapshot of the state of democracy in Italy may be found in a bestseller, “The Caste – How Italian Politicians Became Untouchable”, by S. Rizzo and G. A. Stella. The spread of the term “casta” among Italian people and the media to refer to Italian politicians are tangible signs of the common feeling that the rules of the game have been thwarted and that democracy is being mocked by an eternal oligarchy that is only concerned in its own vested interests. The undeniable and alarming facts confirming that “something is rotten” are publicly available: above all, some of the mechanisms foreseen by the Italian Constitution to create a virtuous interplay between the citizens and their leaders are being dismantled:

  • The people’s will on the use of nuclear energy, public management of tap water, and public financing of parties, which was expressed with large consensus through past and recent referendums, has been time and again ignored.
  • The citizens’ role in the democratic process has been diminished by the so-called “pigsty law” by which voters can only choose a whole party list, and not individual candidates, thus giving the parties unchecked freedom to select which people to appoint to office.
  • In at least one case, a democratic instrument known as “legge di iniziativa popolare” (people’s proposed law, Constitution, Article 71) was initiated but its progress was inexplicably stalled – after nearly five years the proposal has not been yet discussed by the Parliament (interestingly enough, the proposed law was intervening against the privileges of  “the caste”, removing the “Pigsty law” and defining a maximum duration for holding a seat in Parliament...).
  • The Constitution, the very cornerstone of Italian democracy, has itself recently become the subject of attack and various attempts to diminish its power. The Italian Constitution is a remarkable text, and captures with elegance and hindsight a number of enlightened ideas. Particularly relevant here is its first Article, which states “Italy is a Republic founded on Work” (interpreted here as the definition of Italian democracy as the promoter and the result of its citizens' engagement). Regrettably, these foundational ideas have been time and again besmirched and the Constitution condemned as “too old” and “in need of urgent revisions”. Other constantly breached articles include the above mentioned Article 71 or Article 11, which states that “Italy rejects war […] as a mechanism to resolve international disputes”.

vicious dynamic is set up by the above as well as from other processes: having no say in public choices; with their democratic role and social rights ever more impoverished; and with dire prospects for their present and future welfare, especially for the younger generations – Italians are progressively losing their hopes of democracy, withdrawing into “smaller circles” (e.g. the family) or into themselves.

Use it or lose it

Citizens soon lose the ability or simply the aptitude to play the role of enlightened citizens. And while democracy suffers and social welfare nosedives, the only ones to gain are those who can exploit this loss of enlightenment to accumulate more and more power and wealth. It is interesting to realise how even the frustration of the people subjected to such a decline may be astutely coopted back into the very processes that reduce the enlightenment and welfare of people: the lack of stability and certainties transforms into fear of diversity, diversity being an important ingredient of any healthy society or living system.

If a lesson may be learned from the big live laboratory of democracy that is Italy, it might be the awareness that democracy requires failsafe mechanisms of early-warning to protect the enlightenment of its members. For example, perhaps we need democratic monitors within and outside each nation who can observe and highlight the risk of those “cancerous” processes emerging, which potentially undermine the people's enlightenment in the long term. Indicators (such as for instance the cultural value of public broadcasting) could be used to raise alarms and trigger corrective measures – of course, always resulting in new choices and a range of options rather than in a reduction of the existing ones. The management of these monitoring and corrective processes should be democratic and open to any person willing to provide their time, ideas, and contributions. The stable and ‘traditional’ cornerstones of our democratic Constitutions could be extended with rules to protect democracies from explicit or more subtle attacks from power groups.

The time is ripe for starting to think of some sort of “general systems theory” in the study of democracies, their emerging properties, and their syndromes – multidisciplinary theories that should include scientific disciplines such as microeconomics and the study of resilient and adaptive systems. In fact, with the increased complexity of our times, it is urgent that we recognise the nature of our democratic organisations as large, collective, adaptive systems, and realise that it could be necessary to complement existing “static” solutions – e.g. books of foundational principles – with more dynamic approaches based on e.g. teleological behaviours. Smart social organisations, such as the ones based on mutual assistance and participation described in these two studies, constitute preliminary examples of how to tap into the “social energy” of our societies for the benefit of all, and may be considered as first small steps towards “Self-enlightening Democracies” – democracies that are able to introspect, understand their state, and self-organise/self-adjust to promote enlightenment and combat internal and external threats to democracy.

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