Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation (I). Man-mass and post-democracy

Ants inside a cristal pipeline
Anthill inside, courtesy by Marcel de Jong

This is a three-part article entitled Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation. From mass democracy to the networks of democracy.

This first part deals with Man-mass and post-democracy and how democracy seems not to be maturing at all, or even going backwards due to lack of democratic culture and education. The second one deals with the Digital revolution and technopolitics and reflects about how the digital revolution might be an opportunity not only to recover but to update and transform democracy. The third speaks about what kind of Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation could be put in place.

There are two complementary views of citizen participation. The traditional view is that participation helps us to design better laws and public policies thanks to making more people work on them, with different visions and with different knowledge. Thanks to this greater concurrence, we get more effective laws and policies —because their diagnosis and range of solutions are more adjusted— and more efficient, since consensus is increased, conflict is reduced and design is technically better.

This view, which we could describe as essentially technical, can be complemented by another vision much more philosophical or even political in the sense of social transformation through ideas. This second view is that participation of a deliberative nature could constitute a kind of third stage of democracy, taking the best of Greek democracy (direct) and modern democracy (representative), at the same time that it contributes to addressing more and more manifest shortcomings of both: on the one hand, the cost of participating; on the other hand, the increasing complexity of public decisions. However, this third stage, given its deliberative nature, by definition must occur in new spaces and with new actors, to incorporate the current design of democratic practice centered almost exclusively on institutions.

Greek democracy has often been idealized as the perfect paradigm of public decision making: citizens, highly committed to the community, assume the responsibility of managing that public. They inform, debate, make decisions and execute them. Without caricaturizing what was of course a much more elaborate public management scheme, there are at least two aspects that are worth considering. First, the relatively simple sociopolitical context of the time. Second, the existence of citizens of a lesser degree or directly non-citizens (women, foreigners, slaves) on whose shoulders were discharged many tasks that facilitated that citizens with full rights could do politics.

The next reincarnation of democracy will take place several centuries later in a totally different socio-economic reality that will change rapidly on the back of science and the industrial revolution. The modern liberal democracies, given the greater complexity of the context, as well as the greater (and also increasing) concurrence of free citizens, will resort to the creation of the State and the institutions of democratic representation for its administration. The delegation of power will be a radical transformation of the exercise of democracy that in turn will transform social organization —and vice versa.

Some authors, however, alert us both to deficiencies in their design and signs of depletion. Ortega y Gasset, among others, warns in The rebellion of the masses that the technical and social advances have not been followed by similar advances in the fields of ethics or education, understanding education not as technical training for professional development, but in the humanistic sphere of personal development or as human beings. These so-called mass-men, says Ortega, are capable of operating with revolutionary technologies, but have not been able to grasp the historical dimension of humanity and, with this, are unable to understand and even to rule their own destiny. Ortega warns —and his warnings can be complemented by Elias Canetti‘s reflections on the dynamics of mass and power masses— how easy it is to end up controlling these masses, as well as the degeneration of that manipulation that we have come to call fascism.

In a less destructive but equally worrisome version, Colin Crouch describes the current situation of democracy as post-democracy. Crouch explains that the growing complexity of decision-making, as well as political disaffection due to a feeling of alienation and ineffectiveness of politics, expulse tacitly or explicitly the citizens of the public agora, leaving them in the hands of elites who control, with an appearance of democracy, all the springs of public life.

Paradoxically, the “solutions” that have appeared for one case (the mass-man) or for another (the post-democracy) are opposite and complementary at the same time: before a mass-man incapable of ruling himself, one aims for technocracy, for political meritocracy to its limit, for the professional rulers that are above a misinformed and ignorant citizenry, for the political aristocracy as a solution. On the other hand, the fight against post-democracy, the struggle of the elite that “does not represent” the citizen, has often led to populisms where a messianic leader, belonging to the people and not to the reviled elite, stands as foreseer of any solution, easy and simple, and many times consistent in finding a scapegoat to sacrifice along with the corrupt political elite. That populism derives in fascism is, as many authors like Rob Riemen say, only a matter of time.

The question that remains latent, however, is whether there is a middle ground between fascism and aristocracy. It would seem that in this middle term there should be at least two concurrent circumstances: first, to go beyond education based on information and move towards the upbringing of full citizens, in the sense of individuals aware of their social environment and rights and duties towards their peers and their project as a collective; second, to provide instruments so that these trained citizens can democratically express their wishes and needs within this new globalized and complex system and, above all, under the protection of destructive populist drifts or the dispossession of their rights by the aristocracies.