Democracy is not new. My no, not at all. Humans have lived in democratic communities for most of the time. That means, for millions of years. And this type of social life may still be stored in our genes. We lost it in the agricultural revolution, only some thousands of years ago.
We are now trying to regain it since about 150 years. But it is hard to reinstall democratic habits of low-tech, small communities with hardly any specialization other than between men and women. We now have to deal with large-scale society, advanced technologies and a wide specter of labor specialization. The village has become the global village, with potential similarities but also with huge differences.
With increased levels of information and education, many have come to doubt the functioning of the democratic project. They notice that voting is rather pointless as long as elections omit high officials, journalists, lobbyists and the hidden powers represented by those lobbyists.
We can hope for improvement through next elections, but elections are part of the very same political system that we try to modify through elections. The last thing we should expect is that those we bring into power will try to change it. They are the ones who benefit from that political system and will not want risking the benefits of their personal investments.
To my mind, the core problem is that our elections delegate power to persons. It is ‘representative’ democracy. We have come to suppose that ruling a country is a specialized job: “It has to be done by people such as politicians and their advisors.” The consequence is that more than 99% of the citizens are to meekly implement what the experts decide. Schools and mass-production have turned us into the standard citizens who make the wheels turn.
Therefore, we as citizens cannot improve society through elections and hoping for politicians to do the job for us. If elections and politicians do bring improvements it is because the wider society has arrived at a point where a majority want something, for instance, more equality for women.
But the desire of more equality for women does not come from elections. It evolves in society, whereas elections are just an instrument. Neither does the desire of more equality for women come from politicians as opinion makers. They follow the trend, put that desire on their agenda.
So, instead of mostly focusing on elections, we may at least also focus on society, or perhaps even more. Change has to come bottom-up, through creative thought and by inspired action. Elections reinforce routine thinking and are therefore, next to their benefits, a dangerous instrument in the hands of those who want our conformity.
What can we, in our attempts to improve politics, learn from our stone-age ancestors? And what have qe unlearned in farm society? What might we recover from the community organization used by democratic stone-age tribals and perhaps set free of what is still waiting in our genes?
Our stone-age ancestors show that democracy does not have a government. It is government, a certain type of government. All people are involved in managing the community. They notice a problem, discuss it, use earlier knowledge provided by elders, decide, test, re-decide and implement again, as an ongoing, joint process.
It is not a separate segment of society, like we at present see as politics, next to economics, education, health care, religion, sports, arts, and other such segments. No, tribals apply politics as an integral part of everybody’s daily life.
Now, do we have any chance of re-enact parts of this stone-age life in our high-tech, globalized and specialized lives? Well, here is the garden where we can experiment, discuss, use available knowledge, decide, test, re-decide and implement again, as an ongoing, joint process. What can we re-enact from the long gone past that, however, may still be slumbering in our genes waiting to be used again?
Which differences are simply too large to bridge? How can involve more citizens in ongoing management? How will citizens acquire and use sensible information? How to clarify, just to mention one immense challenge, the integration of issues ranging from the local to the global level? Can we hope for proper use of Internet and social media? Other media. Civil society? School education? More and better personal meetings, at various levels of scale?
In shaping the behaviors of future adults, mothers have most of the influence. In wider society we may use the power of collective consumer actions. Improve legal support to employees so that they become more vocal. Start more economic and ecological initiatives from below and keep those initiatives running. Teach constructive initiatives and their consolidation. Improve and safeguard information such as in the social media. Maintain communication between initiatives to learn and support each other.
In the visible domain, school education, established media and social media may need our critical and creative attention. In the hidden domain, the enormous power of large companies can be counterpoised, not by trade unions, but by consumers. The power of banks may be undermined by bottom-up financial initiatives that bring rivaling influence.
It’s all very difficult. But is difficulty a reason to give up? Let’s start with small steps. I can give a few ideas and welcome positive responses.
Have you heard of Vote Match, ‘Stemwijzer’ in Dutch? It is an Internet tool, developed to help voters prepare for elections by testing their political preferences. “The user enters his/her opinion in response to some thirty propositions, and the program calculates which party most closely matches the user’s points of view. This is an attractive means to provide voters with information on political parties’ stances on an extremely wide range of issues.”
It is used by millions of people in the run-up to Dutch and European parliamentary elections, but also for municipal and provincial governments and the water boards. Furthermore, it has been developed for the French presidential and parliamentary elections. German, English, American, Swiss and Bulgarian version coming up.
It is produced by the Dutch company Prodemos.