why democracy is over-rated

Within the western world we have always taken our particular society to be the model to which other, less developed societies should aspire. With the current economic depression, and building climate change, it is increasingly impractical that other countries should aspire to exactly our model of consumerist democratic capitalism.

The sacred cow amongst all the features of our society has always been democracy. It is difficult to defend consumerism or capitalism as something that starving people should aspire to, but democracy is surely all that is right about our society.

Democracy is invaluable in a post conflict society, unfortunately those are not that rare. It is useful in polarised debates.

However democracy is ridiculously clunky. You are allowed to vote a few times each decade. Is that really the best we can do.

It creates all sorts of distorting behaviour.
It encourages ridiculous and polarised arguments.
It encourages careerist politicians to align themselves with political parties, rather than their own ideals.
It places undue reliance on the small number of people who can combine popular support with the technical ability to govern to an adequate standard.

For a long time we have been defending democracy as a least bad system, rather than one that was actually good in itself.

But the bulk of the world is not run through democracy. I live within a small family, it is not democratic, nor is my wider family. My working environment is not democratic, nor is the community organisation that I am involved in.

That is not to say that people's concerns are ignored, or that things are never put to the vote.

All of these systems operate on a common sense sort of approach, where clear roles are ascribed, people have the opportunity to raise concerns, if you want something done, you will probably have to do a fair chunk of it yourself, and finally people have broadly similar abilities to do something.

These are not situations where there is a lot of telling other people to do something. There is a lot of asking people, influencing people, supporting people, being given permission to do things, etc etc.

Practical experience even supports this. If you are in a group that is forever putting things to the vote, then you are in a group that is frankly disfunctional. If you are in a group then there should be sufficient common ground on what you as a group are actually about, that issues that are so divisive and binary that they require a vote, should be remarkably rare.

The answer to a post democracy society is not that we should all be voting more often. Within America where they vote on propositions it is worse than anarchy. Democracy makes appalling decisions all the time, Hitler was democratically elected.

The people who make decisions should be the ones who have invested the time and effort to gain some understanding of the issue, and have some investment in the outcome. Clearly this has to be wider than just a particular interest group, demonstrating their venality. Recently British MPs seem to have been demonstrating far more venality than public interest.

There is a good supply of people willing to represent the public interest, probably never enough. These people are like gold dust within our modern super complex society. They are not motivated by greed or power, but the simple human desire to make things better, to leave things somehow better than they found them, or look after things that they know to be valuable.

These people are the capacity within our society, and they need to be nurtured and supported. They need to be offered opportunities, and development, given confidence and validation.

We want to live in a society that is more finely tuned to us. We do not all want to wear standard Mao jackets, whether they fit or not, all drive Model T Ford's in black, whether we like the colour or not.

I live in a small country, but I keep on getting told that all manner of things need to be administered on a regional basis, and even a region is far too big an area in which to make generalisations. Just as consumers of goods we demand near infinite variety and customisation, from houses to tee-shirts, as consumers of public goods, we demand a highly nuanced product. One that reflects where we live, our asprirations, how we see ourselves.

And between the public good and the private goods, there is a third area. The times when we are not delivering a public or a private service. Do we stop and offer advice to a traveller with a map, do we smile at our neighbours, do we tidy up the spilt rubbish, do we volunteer within our community. We increasingly need to operate within all these different realms if we are to create the kind of society that we want to live in.

That is not to say that these changes are onerous. We instinctively want to live in a village with a common village green, where we know everyone, and everyone knows our name, we want to know what is going on, and have people take an interest in our well-being.

Strangely the public sector seems to be falling behind the private in providing this sort of nuanced neighbourhood. Look at Amazon, RedBubble, LiveJournal. We want to create little online neighbourhoods, to look out for each other, insult each other from time to time, disagree certainly, but we keep on coming back to the honeypot of human interaction. That is why media is dead. How slow to watch a film, or tv programme. We want to be there with our friends, real or virtual. We want to stop to get a cup of tea, then make jokes as they occur to us. The interactivty with people you enjoy is now the killer product.

I have long argued that any meetings that are not enjoyable are unsustainable, any job that is not enjoyable is unsustainable. If you have to bully people into doing something you can only do it until they find another option.

While the private sector is increasingly offering this sort of nuanced, interactive, fun, engagement, the public sector is stuck with old models. The public sector still works on democracy, struggles with the idea of focus groups and qualitative evidence gathering, what do they tell us, are they undemocratic, why not stick a user group/board on top, would that fix it.

What is required is truly decentralised decision making. The centre has a function, but it is not the top of the hierarchy. It is merely one node within the structure. A node with more connections than most, granted, but merely a node that specialises in facilitating and co-ordinating other nodes within a network.

Through my life I have always thought that the real decision making power lay somewhere just outside my direct experience, whenever I accessed one source of power, I realised just how limited and constrained it was. They were able to influence, and make decisions granted, but not on a whim, and only within certain parameters. Where ever you go to, the real power seemed to lie somewhere just out of reach, just beyond the horizon.

That is because all the nodes just have different types of power and influence. None are absolute. The accounting department is no more or less important than the chief executive's office.

We need to change the narrative, away from the cynical red-top and Private Eye narrative that those who make decisions are venal and self serving. The people who make decisions are ourselves. The barrier to entry is not money or who you know. It is the patience and diligence of getting involved and accepting you have power but like a cyclist that power is only proportionate to how much effort you put in, how much you actually do yourself.

A world of cyclists is always safer than a world of motorists. Because the effort and energy and decisions are decentralised and spread out. It is more difficult for cyclists to make bad decisions, they make bad decisions more slowly, and suffer the consequences more directly.

We need to re-engineer our world where we are not cynics but participants. Where it is our time and energy that drive decisions. Where we know things could be better, and we work towards that. There is a role for government in this, for the private sector, but the real motor needs to be the people asking for more power, not politicians trying to find someone to take it.

[attached video by Bruce Sterling is on a vaguely similar theme, and is incredibly worth listening to.

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2009/07/video-from-reboot-11/

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