Bites of cultured, full-fat democracy

A Passion for Democracy - The Terms of Democracy
June 18, 1999

Recent revelations from the Oval Office have perhaps lent rather unfortunate connotations to the term "passionate democrat". Although hailing from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Michael Saward and Benjamin Barber are unashamedly passionate advocates of what the latter terms "strong democracy". Both, implicitly or more explicitly, find plenty to criticise in the polities they inhabit, which if not exactly "low intensity" are hardly the "full fat" - participatory, deliberative and direct - democracies that Barber and Saward are concerned to build.

Saward eschews the tautologism that inheres in any attempt to theorise democracy on the basis of extant political systems commonly labelled as such. But his ideal type highlights clear deficiencies in most real-world exemplars of what passes for democracy. Taking the political equality of all citizens as the unchallengeable foundation of democracy, Saward argues for a system that allows those citizens to have an "equal effective input into the making of binding collective decisions". Democracy, he insists, means "necessary correspondence between acts of governance and the equally weighted felt interests of citizens with respect to those acts". Any other practice of government - whatever it gets called - rests in essence on one individual's, or sub-group's, arrogation to itself of power to determine a community's best interests. And such usurpations rest inherently on an unsustainable claim to "non-contingent superior knowledge". "There are no philosopher-kings because there cannot be," Saward sagely points out. "Rulers can only model collective interests on the basis of guesswork and a contestable theory of the good, which may rub profoundly against the views of individual citizens given the latter's experiences, personal predilections, location and understanding of the appropriate way to carve up 'issues'."

However, Saward and Barber alike are fully alive to the obvious rejoinder to such direct and participatory mechanisms (including two-stage and "multiple-choice" referendums) as they both favour. Namely, without citizens themselves possessing adequate knowledge, their direct involvement in democracy leads swiftly to a tyranny of the ambient, ill-informed majority that coalesces on any issue put to the public test. Saward advocates the creation of an official information agency, which will disseminate unbiased reports, produce television documentaries and find other outlets via which to inform citizens before any such direct participation in decision-making. But Saward also insists that democratic rights extend much deeper than the mere provision of information. Education, of a kind that enables citizens to understand and, crucially, evaluate the information that informs their decisions is obviously a prerequisite of democracy, but so too, for Saward, is a basic income, access to adequate health care, and equal rights to freedom of expression and association.

Barber, although less programmatic than Saward, is also a vigorous champion of education in citizenship. Some of the most stirring of the 20 essays collected in A Passion for Democracy - the product of 30 years of reflection and advocacy - are indeed those in which Barber reminds us that "strong democracy" requires citizens not simply to engage in acts of individuated computation (processing data with which to make informed choices) but to enter into dialogue with others. Such debate requires verbal articulacy and generosity of spirit: "Civility is a work of the imagination, for it is through the imagination that we render others sufficiently like ourselves for them to become subjects of tolerance and respect. Democracy is anything but a 'natural' form of association. It is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination" - and one that needs to be taught.

Education in civics, as Barber points out, where it exists at all, is generally an instant switch-off. Watching the "time-consuming, demanding, sometimes interminable, and always certifiably unentertaining" deliberative processes of representative democracy in action is unlikely to grip the citizen spectator's attention for long. (No wonder that much time reserved on United States television for political coverage has been turned over to game-shows, and that much the same has happened in the United Kingdom, where television has voluntarily almost rescinded the hard-won right to televise Parliament.) Reaching informed decisions is a lengthy process, but it becomes an engaging and exciting one where we - the people - are meaningfully part of it, as citizens for life, not just for elections.

It is a testament to Barber's zest as writer and passion as democrat that he manages to make education in citizenship and participation in governance sound like an adventure in lifelong learning - and doing - to which we would all wish to subscribe. The language of democracy, like any other, is quickly lost if not given constant conversational airing. Like all languages it must also be open to constant adaptation and mutation. Canons and constitutions alike exist to be revised, scrutinised and rewritten by successive generations: "democracy is the debate about what democracy is". And, while open to the potential of new communications technology to broaden access to information and bring geographically dispersed citizens into something approximating face-to-face deliberation, Barber sensibly rejects the naively optimistic visions of a networked future in which technology, unaided, delivers a more democratic future. "In a world of communications Leviathans, democracy requires more than 'one man, one home page'." It is a point that politicians rushing to allow private corporations access to the classroom, or campus - a Faustian pact in which young consumers are delivered to the market in exchange for the promise of email for all - would do well to heed.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

A Passion for Democracy: American Essays

Author - Benjamin R. Barber
ISBN - 0 691 05766 4
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £20.95
Pages - 293

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