The new frontiers of democracy

By Christophe Aguiton

[Español, Français] To talk about “systemic alternatives” means to address concepts or experiences that result from real social practices which emerged either recently or in the past, and which question, partially or entirely, the current system of domination. In this way we have to examine the ways in which these alternatives are managed, that is, the democratic models that ensure their regulation.

The question of democracy has been a major issue over the past thirty years and has been mobilized by various actors as part of their different struggles. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated regimes gave the United States of America the unique status of superpower, and the country has used democracy as a fundamental value to ensure its hegemony ever since. In the 1990s, “free-market democracy” became the vehicle of neoliberal globalization during the short historical period when the United States defended multilateralism. Thereafter, democracy was associated to the struggle against terrorism in order to justify military interventions in the Middle East. More recently, democracy was once again called upon, only this time to defend different models than those advocated by Western governments: Victor Urban in Hungary and many of his European counterparts in Eastern Europe have been upholding an “illiberal” democracy, while in Asia many governments have been following the Chinese example of an authoritarian regime whilst maintaining the occasionally tenuous appearance of a democratic functioning.

The actors of the mobilisations of the past decades – the alter-globalization movement, the Arab Spring protestors and those of the Occupy movements or Nuit Debout – have also placed democracy at the heart of their demands.  This requirement is all the more powerful as it collides with the practices – deemed anti-democratic – of international institutions, from the IMF to the WTO, which impose austerity measures or prioritize the profits of multinational corporations regardless of the consequences for local populations. However, the definition of the term democracy, referred to by these movements, remains imprecise. It is sometimes understood simply as a synonym for civil rights and representative democracy based on the election of representatives who manage institutions, a city or a state in the name of the people. The term can also be limited to the respect of popular sovereignty against international institutions. However, it can go beyond these traditional forms as well and re-assert itself as a “real democracy”, with often blurred edges. In this chapter, we will see that what we refer to as systemic alternatives call for original models of management, which can pave the way towards thinking about “radical democracy”. However, before doing so, we need to start by revisiting traditional models of democracy.

Representative democracy is rooted in the French and American revolutions of the 18th century, when the constituents of that period, for example Sieyès in France or Madison in the United States, deemed that people were incapable of deciding on their own. Thus, they put forward elections of governors whose two concerns were: establishing a relation between the governors and the governed, in which the latter accept the power of the former, and which would guarantee the latter’s belonging to the elite. This system has evolved over time, especially with the generalization of the universal suffrage in the 20th century, but it continues to be subjected to a twofold critique. The first is concerned with the reproduction of elites while the second deals with the membership of the governors to dominant classes, which makes them incapable of opposing the diktats of multinational corporations, financial markets and, more broadly, the rules of neoliberal globalization.

The workers’ movement and leftist political parties have not really put forward other models of democratic functioning. Karl Marx drew many lessons from the Paris Commune, as he explained that another type of State was necessary – namely, one not originating from the bourgeoisie – and put forward some ideas for creating a workers-led government. Not only were some his propositions questionable, such as the fusion of the legislative and executive functions, but they were also cast aside by the European social democracy, which mobilized at the end of the 19th century to secure political freedoms and universal suffrage inside the frameworks of existing political systems. The lessons drawn by Marx would later be echoed by left-wing political theorists such as the Dutch Anton Pannekoek in 1912, and followed by Lenin in 1917, and would inspire the revolutionary wave which swept Europe at the end of the First World War. This wave saw the emergence of new political models such as the Soviets in Russia and the workers’ councils in Germany or Hungary. However, the Soviet experience rapidly turned its back on the democratic hopes that these new models had generated..

In the 20th century, with the exception of minority currents – either libertarian or councilist – the majority of the workers’ movement was divided between communist parties defending the Soviet model and the socio-democrats, socialists and labour movements which integrated, uncritically, the representative system of Western democracies. Much was forgotten about the warnings of certain philosophers from the Enlightenment Period, such as Montesquieu, who reminded us that the Athenians from the time of Pericles relied on drawing lots and direct democracy so as to not deprive the people of their real power. Recently, David Graeber suggested another approach based on democratic practices of Native American nations or those of the pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy at the beginning of the 18th century. These experiences are based on processes of egalitarian decision-making processes in communities distanced from State power. He follows the line of work of James C. Scott, who studied the highlands population of South-East Asia, which managed their lives without the presence of a State for decades, if not centuries. These experiences are useful insofar as they are located to a certain extent outside the realm of State power.

The commons

The commons are a particular type of social relations: the common management of a material or immaterial good by a group of people. In this way, the commons differ from private property of the means of production – central to the capitalist system – but also from the State and its institutions.

What is of great interest in this case are the features of this “common management” of goods, as diverse as the water irrigating oases, pasture land, cooperatives of production or digital commons such as Wikipedia or Openstreetmap. Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, theorized the specific rules inherent to the management of these commons. The eight principles she put forward are the following:

  • A clear definition of the object of the community and its members
  • A coherence between the rules relative to the common resource and its nature
  • The participation of users in the modification of the operating rules concerning the common resource
  • The responsibility of those monitoring the exploitation of the common resource
  • The gradation of sanctions for disrespecting the rules of exploitation of the common resource
  • Rapid access to local instances of conflict resolution
  • Recognition of self-management by governmental authorities
  • Multi-level organization of activities of appropriation, supply, surveillance, rule enforcement, conflict resolution and governance

These principles are inherent to all commons. When it is not the case, there is a risk that the commons turn into a classical enterprise.  This was witnessed in numerous cooperative banks or agrarian cooperatives which saw the management of the commons detach from the users to turn into multinational corporations, like in the case of Lactalis, one of the main international actors of the lactose industry. These experiences highlight a recurring challenge for the commons , which are easier to manage when they are at human scale. However, a number of digital commons have succeeded in keeping their specificities despite their global scale. Wikipedia is the biggest knowledge-sharing platform that the world has ever seen, with more than 50 million articles in nearly 300 languages and hundreds of thousands of active contributors in 2018. The management of Wikipedia is an example of the aforementioned principles established by Elinor Ostrom. The rules of editing and the principal of neutrality are clearly explained and the users are associated to the definition of common rules. Sanctions are imposed as a measure of last resort after long stages of discussion and mediation, and conflict resolution is assigned to managers closest to the users in a system where different levels of surveillance and governance co-exist.

The first principle of the functioning of an organization as vast and complex as Wikipedia is to entrust decision-making to end points, i.e. as close as possible to the users. This is an important observation as this proximity in the processes of decision-making brings the online encyclopaedia closer to the locally-based commons. It also inscribes itself in the logic of “de-globalization” practices or degrowth, which emphasize the re-localization of the economy and trade by favouring short circuits and direct relations between producers and consumers.

Alternative practices of ecofeminism, buen vivir and rights of non-humans

Re-localizing the economy and trade is an essential step towards “re-embedding the economy into society”, to quote the famous phrase coined by Karl Polanyi. The first American ecofeminist activists and indigenous movements in Andean countries defending the rights of non-human beings and “buen vivir” are faced with another challenge: the dichotomy between nature and culture emerging out of the Cartesian philosophy of Western modernity.

Indigenous movements of Andean countries defend the rights of non-human beings and buen vivir (or vivir bien) as two elements that cannot be separated from their conception of the world. Such cosmogony is based on the idea of the “whole” in which duality is everywhere: life and death, human and nature, past and future. This whole then is built on opposing couples (men/women, individual/community, human/nature) and is based on the idea of “care” of one’s self, of one’s community and of the inseparable whole of human and non-human beings. Finally, in this cosmogony there is no linear conception of time or progress. The arrival in power of progressive governments in Bolivia and Ecuador in the 2000s led to major constitutional reforms which introduced buen vivir and rights of non-human beings into fundamental laws, as well as the concept of a plurinational, pluricultural State. These advances opened up possibilities which did not materialize into something concrete, since the governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa turned towards policies favouring extractivism and a strong personification of power in the 2010s. However, the potentialities of these concepts are still present. For instance, the Bolivian constitution established the existence of three forms of democracy: representative, participative and communitarian. Thus, classic forms of political representation can co-exist with decision-making processes based on consensus, without denying the existence of unresolved tensions. For example, this can be seen in the balance between rights and responsibilities in indigenous communities, in which responsibilities predominate; or in the risk that the nomination of authorities in men/women pairs in the cosmogony of buen vivir should be limited to a symbolic equity, whereby women are still limited to a passive role in the public sphere

The first American ecofeminist activists have mobilized since the 1970s against pollution and damages to the environment, and have faced two rejections, both derived from the anthropocentric vision of European modernity. For the majority of feminists, the ties to nature advocated by ecofeminists reflect a type of essentialism which confines women to their “natural” role, linked to childbirth. They refuse to see that ecofeminists do not seek to value a “role” of women linked to their essence, but rather to invert a double stigma: that which considers nature as inferior to culture and women inferior to men. They seek to rehabilitate, re-appropriate and reclaim nature, for all of humanity, not just women. In doing so, they are also confronted to the dominant ecological movements in the United States, such as the Sierra Club, founded at the end of the 19th century by John Muir, who theorised the concept of “wilderness” – the wild nature that needs to be protected from human activities. For the Sierra Club, the women who struggled against pollution faced an issue of public health, not an environmental one. They embrace the division between nature and culture in the name of environmental protection, a division that ecofeminists would question through the concept of “environmental justice”. Politically, the American ecofeminists, often of African or Native American descent, are kept at a distance from institutions and the government. The democratic practices of these movements are separated from the State and are based on the principles of care, i.e taking care of each other in these collective experiences where new social relations and ways of relating to nature emerge.

Apart from obvious differences between the alternative practices which we have briefly presented, two identical elements can be found. The first is the distancing from State institutions, present not only in the commons – an alternative to both capitalism and statism – but also in buen vivir and ecofeminism, which are collective experiences that retain their autonomy and independence. The second element common to all these practices is the practice of care. This characteristic is inherent to all types of commons, whether agricultural common goods of pre-capitalist societies, workers’ cooperatives or digital commons like Wikipedia and Openstreetmap: if we do not take care of them they die, either by integrating the capitalist system or by becoming obsolete. However, this obligation is also at the heart of ecofeminism and buen vivir. These two elements, while extremely important, are not the only lessons that can be drawn from these practices.

Managing alternative practices in a democratic way

Democracy, in its largest and most widely accepted meaning, is a means, amongst others, to manage human activities. It is understood that a large number of these activities are not managed democratically, starting with enterprises in a capitalist system. This observation is by no means a definition of democracy – a definition which is all but clear, starting with the most popular phrase “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This is because it leaves a series of questions unanswered, ranging from the most simple ones such as the necessity to have a State at the national level and the same guarantees in all levels of management of human activities, to more complex controversies such as the notion of sovereignty, whose framework of application is all but clear.

In order to better understand what insights alternatives practices can bring to democracy, it is useful to recall the different ways in which representatives can be chosen  in a groupe of humans exceeding a certain size as well as the different mechanisms allowing for decisions to be made. Representatives can be chosen through elections (which the majority of countries do today), the random drawing of lots practised in Athens in the 5th century BC, designation processes used today to designate popular juries and, finally, voluntary engagement which can be found in a series of open spaces such as World Social Forum or assemblies like Occupy, as well as in the material and immaterial commons. With regards to decision-making processes, there are only two: the vote and the consensus – which is not necessarily a decision based on unanimity but rather on “apparent consent”, in other words, without having to employ a right to veto.

Alternative practices are very diverse and many elements influence how they are to be differentiated. The first is concerned with the opening or closing of the communities we are referring to. The commons that allow the users to live of their production, mountain pasture, irrigation, and workers’ cooperatives are all closed. In other words, only those who have a right to access the commons can participate in how they are managed. On the contrary, digital commons and communities constituted around an object or a project such as ecofeminism, social forums of the alter-globalization movement, assemblies of Occupy movements, and occupations of large projects like the ZAD (Zone à Défendre or Zone to Defend) in France are open, even if most of the decisions are taken by those more seriously engaged.

The second element deals with the public or private nature of the functioning of the commons. For knowledge commons, such as free softwares, the public nature of how they are produced is considered essential. However, when dealing with more expert know-how, such as the movement for peasant seeds in which the actors are marginalized and stigmatized, their practices are exercised with more discretion, if not secrecy, by trustworthy people. Finally, there is also competence, a determining element for communities of technicians such as the managers of the Internet, who are less present in activist communities, but still considered ancillary for digital commons like Wikipedia.

The importance given to competence drives processes of decision-making towards a democracy of technical meritocracy. The internet is thus managed, on a technical level, by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), a structure which does not have a legal status, is open to everyone and makes decisions based on consensus and “running codes”, in other words based on the capacity to prove the validity of technical suggestions. Activist spaces such as assemblies of NGOs and other movements during climate summits or World Social Forums are also open to all, but knowledge of languages, starting with English, is a pre-requisite, as well as the understanding of sometimes very technical debates such as climate negotiations.

The public nature is the very basis of the existence of free software developments, considered as commons of humanity. The “Free Software Foundation” defines free softwares through the respect of four freedoms: freedom to use these programmes, study them (which requires the publishing of the constitutive code), distribute them and improve them. Other knowledge commons such as Wikipedia or Openstreetmap can only develop thanks to a clear, public coding of their procedures, thus establishing a “procedural democracy”, which we will come back to later on. However, there are also a series of practices which are more related to expertise, or which are exercised with great discretion or secrecy in order to protect the marginalized or oppressed communities who use them. The farmers using seeds that were selected by their communities for centuries, as well as certain species of domestic animals because  of their adaptability to their territory, refuse the idea that these might be considered commons of the humanity as they fear, rightfully so considering past experiences, that governmental scientific institutions will force them to use specific patented seeds or normalized species in the name of food security and production necessities, or that private companies – by means of bio-piracy – might steal these local know-hows by “protecting” them through the use of patents. In the same vein, many communities do not divulge their practices of traditional medicines or religious/communitarian rituals, which are often rejected, or worse prohibited, by the State. This is where we find roles dedicated to women, which the ecofeminists lean on, and social practices such as the ones in Andean communities embracing buen vivir. All these cases of confidential practices can be referred to as “esoteric democracy”, as the rules only apply to insiders, yet in a differentiated way, based on different skills and the respect of traditions which can play a very important role. It would be impossible in such a short article to convey all of this diversity, but it is clear that these practices are the furthest possible from State power.

While there are commons, like knowledge commons, which are open to all contributors, others can be, on the contrary, reserved for those who detain the rights of property usage. This is the case of commons of peasant origin or production cooperatives emerging out of the struggles of the workers’ movements in the 19th century. Democratic practices are obviously different in these two cases. Restricting the number of beneficiaries of certain commons makes it possible to consider the practice of voting, since the electoral perimeter is set and known, like in the case of the production cooperatives. Laws may differ slightly from one country to another, but voting is generally the rule. In France, for example, the law compels cooperatives to hold general assemblies and to use them to vote and elect directors, discuss the appropriation of the balance sheet and the allocation of profits. In some cases, the general assemblies of partners can also be decisive in determining the most important investments or buying shares of other enterprises. Conversely, open spaces such as the commons or militant spaces like World Social Forums or Occupy-type assemblies rarely use voting, and instead decide by means of consensus of the people who participate in these decision-making processes voluntarily.

The influence of procedures, skills and strategies on democratic forms

We will now study the same issues from a different angle, looking at how procedures, skills and strategies affect democratic forms.

Collective human structures, whether they are political, economic, associative or cultural, need to be managed, and this management always involves three elements of completely different nature: 1) the rules and procedures which can evolve overtime but which represent the common law to which all concerned people need to refer; 2) the skills which can be necessary to the management of the structure in question and; 3) the strategy understood as the objectives that a human collective can set itself and the means to achieve them. However, while these three elements are always omnipresent, their respective weight and importance can greatly vary, which leads to very different forms of democracies.

If the procedures and common rules are non-existent or fragile, this leads to less democratic or undemocratic forms of management, which gives the strongest considerable leeway. On the other hand, if absolute priority is given to the respect of common rules and laws, we can talk about a democratic mode of management, in which case it is a procedural democracy that prioritises the sometimes fussy respect of procedures over questions of strategy. We find this in many commons, whether they emerged out of pre-capitalist social relations of production such as water management in oases or mountain pastures, or digital commons like Wikipedia. In both cases, strategies are non-existent, as the water and pasture are supposed to be there on a regular basis and there is no steering committee for Wikipedia that would decide an editorial policy. It is simply a question of checking that all people with user rights have equitable access to natural resources or that the rules of editing of the biggest encyclopaedia of the world are respected.

The relation to skills was always discussed in democratic regimes. In debates which followed the independence of the United States, for similar reasons, the anti-federalists pleaded that institutions should represent the people as they are, regardless of the competences of one or the other. In contemporary democracies, we have seen that the representative system leads to the selection of the “best”, in other words, of those who are competent. However, the discourse continues to proclaim that politics is not a profession and that national representation should be much more than the image of the people. In the same spirit, universal suffrage has settled the question of the voter’s competence. Nothing is required of him/her/them, and every citizen has the right or even the duty (depending on the country) to vote whatever the level of understanding and interest of on-going debates. This absence of expectations is at the same time indispensable for a democracy which wants to implicate the people in its entirety but also facilitates the division between representatives and represented.

The alternatives presented in this article are not aligned with this approach. This is not because the question of competence is absent, but rather because the division between representatives and represented, which is at the heart of representative democracy, does not arise in the same ways. Skills are essential in technical digital communities like internet managers or open source developers. Their spaces are open and all those who wish to participate to the IETF or to the development of free softwares can do so. If representatives of these communities sometimes exist, their role is extremely weak because everything is decided based on consensus. What matters most are the technical skills and the level of commitment in these communities whose functioning we can describe as technologically meritocratic democracies. The other communities presented in this article, whether they are open digital knowledge commons like Wikepedia or Street or experiment alternative ways of living, such as militant groups of the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes or the ecofeminist communities of Oregon, or more enclosed indigenous communities practicing Buen Vivir or pre-capitalist commons can also require specific skills, but to a much lesser extent, and they are also based on consensus with representatives who detain certain codified reduced roles and where a degree of commitment is essential.

Strategy is a recent concept in politics. Emerging out of military world and codified by Carl Clausewitz at the beginning of the 19th century as the art of combining battles to obtain political goals, strategy as a concept became omnipresent since the 20th century as much in the discourses of enterprises than in that of politicians. This omnipresence, amongst political leaders, refers to the conversion to political liberalism of most political families in Western countries at the end of the 19th century. This is an ideology according to which societies can decide of their own future by using resources of social sciences and especially promises of progress based on the development of science and technology. In contemporary democracies, universal suffrage is supposed to be means to decide between different strategic proposals which determine the future of societies.  We know that, too often, these different proposals disappear after elections for the benefit of neoliberal globalization. However, this does not invalidate the interest of this strategic debate constituting an essential asset of representative democracy, a system whose limitations we previously highlighted. The alternatives mentioned here  are not aligned with this approach, again with the exception of workers’ cooperatives in which general assemblies can tackle strategic questions, albeit too rarely. Indigenous communities have a vision of time which is unrelated to the promise of progress while pre-capitalist commons depend first and foremost on cycles of seasons. For somewhat different reasons, their promise being above all linked to living in harmony with nature, the result is the same as for militant communities experimenting alternative ways of life. As for digital communities, they have also removed strategic questions from their democratic model. Wikipedia’s goal is to develop an online encyclopaedia in as many languages as possible. However, to achieve this, it refuses all editorial targeting and lets the community of contributors who can produce articles on all possible topics, provided they comply with the rules of publishing. Openstreetmap works in the same way: each contributor participates in this common effort by mapping what he/she/they want. The only known case of “strategic irruptions” were during natural disasters such as the earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti in 2010 when the community was mobilized to urgently contribute to a map of the city essential to guide emergency relief services. Technical communities of the Internet or free software also refuse any strategic orientation; choices orienting any kind of development are made by individuals and collectives and not by instances of central planning of the communities.

Conclusion, two ways of acting in politics

Democracy is most often assimilated with the respect of the right to vote and political pluralism. Conscious of the limitations of this definition, activists from diverse strings of the left sought to expand the content of democracy without limiting it to elections and other mechanisms of representative democracy. Participatory democracy, invented in the 1980s in Porto Alegre Brazil, was out forward by the alter-globalization in the 2000s and numerous leftists municipalities put it in place, on all continents. Parallel to these experiments, other extensions of the field of democracy were put back into the forefront. This was the case of direct democracy, with the popular referendum in Switzerland or the possibility of dismissing elected representatives, practiced in some Western states of the United-States for over a century, and most recently integrated in the Venezuelan constitution. However, all these devices are only extensions and improvements of representative democracy based on the election of representatives. In the same manner, it allows to answer to strategies questions by voting on laws or proposals, organisation of public services or democratic, social or environmental issues. These are significant improvements but they are not part of the issues tackled in this article.

The alternative practices described in this article are of another kind. They do not consider the strategic questions that are at the centre of contemporary political system, yet they are profoundly political. They consider that no one is more legitimate to ask these questions and provide the answers than the people and collectives at the heart of it. For the actors and actresses of Buen Vivir and ecofeminism, it is about taking care of one’s self, the others and nature in an inseparable whole and about managing collectives which produce goods and knowledges autonomously, for the good of the commons. Beyond the lack of strategic dimension, these democratic practices have a number of other points in common:

  • The divide between represented and representatives does not exist or is very limited
  • Consensus is the favourite decision-making process
  • Voluntary engagement and a degree of implication is essential, not only in open communities but also in the case of more restricted commons where the absence or weak implication of actors can lead to the degradation or the destruction of that commons
  • The autonomy of the communities vis-à-vis the State is decisive

Here we have a form of policy based on the autonomous application of its principles and practices. This is a form of everyday politics that creates new frontiers for democracy through the very existence of these alternative practices and that can also participate in the radicalization of representative democracy on at least two issues. Firstly, the techno-scientific government, whose importance is increasing, is a co-construction of the actors of science and technology, political institutions and actors of “civil society”. However, it is clear that this co-construction is dominated by big companies and the political institutions that are close to them. The development of alternative practices and lifestyles can give a completely different direction to the choices to be made on politico-scientific issues such as agricultural practices (seeds, pesticides …) or climate change. The second question concerns the law, an often neglected aspect. At the root of Western modernity and capitalism are two founding myths: that of unlimited state sovereignty as defined in Hobbes’s Leviathan and the institution of property that allowed John Locke to associate private ownership with general prosperity. However, as we have seen, the commons have survived and developed rapidly, as well as alternative lifestyles that we can find under different denominations on all continents. Through their very existence, these practices have created laws, such as the “general public license” of free softwares, the “creative commons” of the knowledge commons or the proposal of the Bolivian government to adopt a Charter of the Fundamental Rights of Nature at the UN.

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