We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Participatory Democracy Tends to Replace Representative Democracy

The following interview with Jean-Louis Laville and Roger Sue gives an optomistic view of the growing participation in community organizations. They accurately point out that there is not an established social state in some "developing" countries and that participation in diverse organizations is starting to fill this void. Meanwhile in France, the type of organizations in which people participate is changing faces due to new pressures and the co-optation by hierarchical state structure of some old organizations. They note that all around the world, people are creating organizations in the form of networks that distinguish themselves from former social movements. The full interview and additional information below it on the webpage positively reflect on the prospects for participatory democracy in the future. -Editor

Participatory democracy is tending to replace representative democracy, while new forms of citizen action are appearing through a rapidly increasing number of organizations. An interview of Jean-Louis Laville, a sociologist at CNRS-CRIDA1.

Label France: What does the recent rapid growth in the number of organizations reveal, in France in particular?

Jean-Louis Laville: The act of associating, which in France hinges on solidarity, is intrinsically linked to modern democracy. Indeed, when one adopts the principle that we live in a society of free and equal citizens the problem of living together is posed, since the social system is no longer guaranteed by reference to a transcendent authority. This structure, in fact, encompasses two concepts of liberty: the right to do what does not harm others and the power to
commit oneself, to associate with others. This is to do with occupying the public arena that constitutes modern democracy, in other words, that capacity to devise together a form of social bond, freely entered into.

For a little while now, three phenomena have been contributing to the greater visibility of the voluntary organization sector. The first concerns the structural change of productive activities: jobs linked to education, health, services based on face-to-face provider-user contact, the areas in which voluntary organizations are active, are increasing.

The second is linked to the restructuring of the Welfare State: many activities were organized with finance and regulations emanating from the Social State. Lastly, the crisis of the traditional institutions of socialization such as the family, the Church, political parties or trade unions, has encouraged community networks to flourish, which are no longer inherited but chosen.
At the same time, it is also the forms of public commitment that are changing...

We are witnessing both a crisis and a resurgence of voluntary service. Some political parties and trade unions, institutionalized organizations, are seeing a disaffection of their membership while other structures are expanding rapidly. Once we had forms of militancy, to which one subscribed for the duration - people committed themselves to a cause for twenty or thirty years - they made sacrifices - they were prepared to neglect some aspects of their lives - and very much based on delegation. Now, people want to play a more active role, and obtain rapid results. They have less confidence in representative democracy and are more involved in participatory democracy.

Isn’t this commitment less idealistic, directed more towards the individual?

Interest and disinterest mingle in the stories of individuals and communities. An unemployed man who gets involved in an organization for the jobless, what is it that makes him decide to act? The desire to improve his situation or the feeling of belonging to a group ignored in public life? Probably both. Ditto for the Aids militants. Certainly, commitment is often linked to a personal experience, but, at the same time, this drive to form a genuine movement to win recognition of a decent status for the sick cannot be explained solely by personal interest.

It is true that there is a paradox between this aspiration of citizens to become involved and the rise of individualism. Historically, individualism has been associated with emancipation. But alongside its advance, it was rooted in society, tried and tested from participating in the great institutions. Now, with their function disrupted, they no longer constitute such poles of reference, and this can lead to an individualism experienced as a withdrawal into the private sphere, a lack of care for others, and become an obstacle to democracy. Moreover, for me, the future of the relationship between the individual and democracy is in part contained in the coming changes in a number of everyday services.

For example?

With women’s involvement in working life, the care of children and help to old people at home are no longer provided by the traditional family. Organizing these services thus becomes a problem for society. Now two models can be envisaged; that of private companies, which will define standardized interventions and will adapt to the user perceived as a consumer, with the risks of selection by money to which this leads: and one based on a community spirit, which will try to instigate a dialogue with users, perceived as citizens, and attempt to involve them.

Behind these changes, there are really two models of society being sketched out. Depending on the option chosen to regulate these relationships between the generations, forms of collective action will be supported, people seeing that it is possible to be committed to simple actions which make for a very structured community life; or negative individualism will be consolidated.

Is the voluntary organization movement a new form of social movement?

A social movement is a form of integrated collective action, highly delegated, which aims to bring about changes generated by relationships based on force. Contemporary forms of voluntary group action seem to make our way of understanding it inadequate. When an association of the unemployed is formed, political groups systematically try to wield power in it. The old ways of working, referring to a sacrificial militancy, thus represent themselves as being the only social movements and deny all legitimacy to more recent forms of organizing.

Another example: the mobilisation of the NGOs at the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle (United States) in December 19992. This is not the construction of a social movement as it used to be seen: there is no single movement, which, through the mechanisms of representative democracy, constitutes a homogeneous force standing up against the great powers. It is organized much more as a network - and on an international scale - than as a pyramid, with, moreover, the help of the new technologies. If this is indeed collective action proving its ability to affect decisions, can one nonetheless talk about a social movement?

Are we not witnessing the emergence of new forms of citizen action, of the involvement of civil society?

Today, economies can no longer be regulated solely at national government level. Thus there are attempts to democratize the economy through a variety of citizen actions. These phenomena assume that it is possible to have an interdependent, human economy. At the supranational level, this is expressed through co-ordinated campaigns like those in Seattle which plead for world trade to be regulated by equitable commerce, respecting social and environmental rules.

At the infranational level, this takes the form of actions whose object is to generate local development, not focused on the market economy but oriented towards economies useful to the people living in a particular country. In both cases, the difficulty is managing to reconcile in action the ability to ask critical questions and the construction of a society. The fact that the networks concerned are seeking to act together underlines the link between these forms of action.

Can we conclude, after Seattle, that a world-wide civil society has been formed, a planetary democracy?

It is obvious that we no longer live in triumphant liberalism and that a counter-power with the capacity to intervene has appeared. On the one hand, there are nonetheless difficulties in reaching a definition of common objectives for networks that have come out of the same rejection. On the other, in all regions of the world, community life is making progress and, in developing countries, this advance is part of the process of constructing a social State, which does not yet exist. In any case, we must stop seeing civil society as being in opposition to the State. They are complementary, and it is exactly this that is being reformulated in various countries. The actions of organizations in civil society must be thought of in relation to those of social rights and thus of public intervention3.

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