This week, The Dig and ScoopCitizen launch an engaged journalism series exploring key aspects of the transition required for Aotearoa to navigate the crises we face, and to thrive as a resilient and democratic nation.
This series seeks to investigate how we can embrace and weave together the best ideas from the ‘global tapestry of alternatives’ that will reshape every aspect of our society over the coming decade.
Welcome to the Meta-crisis
We live in a time of transition on many levels. For better or worse, disruption, social change, revolution, and evolution are occurring at an exponentially accelerating rate across our global civilisation. The current era is increasingly being characterised by many leading thinkers as a time of ‘meta-crisis’ – ie multiple systemic crises converging into one meta-crisis affecting every aspect of our complex system simultaneously.
Academic and philosopher John Vervaeke believes that underlying this meta-crisis is a deeper problem that he terms ‘the meaning crisis’ – a lack of shared ‘grand narratives’ and systems to make sense of our complex world. Perhaps nowhere is this lack of shared understanding more evident than in our lack of a coherent and commonly agreed definition of what we mean when we talk about democracy.
So, just what do we mean when we talk about ideas like ‘Transition’, ‘Democracy’, and ‘Citizenship’ of Aotearoa? Furthermore, how might we upgrade our framework for understanding such concepts to be more suited to the times in which we live?
What do we mean by ‘Transitional’?
The visionary systems thinker Peter Pogany perhaps understood the nature of societal transitions better than anyone. He believed that since human society (like nature) is a ‘complex adaptive system’, its nature is to change through ‘punctuated equilibrium’, ‘chaotic transitions’ and ‘bifurcations’. This means that humanity doesn’t adapt to radically new situations through reasoned debate, but through shocks in the system (usually tied to the biophysical realities of energy use).
When one of these crisis points occurs, Pogany said, first, the old ‘global system’ disintegrates and the old institutions lose legitimacy, then, a ‘cambrian explosion of alternatives emerges’, carrying the seed forms of the next system, but these alternatives need to fight it out before a new stable global system emerges.
He saw the relative stability of the post-1945 liberal international order as one of these periods of equilibrium. However, crucially, he also pinpointed the 2008 global crisis as triggering the disintegration of that global system of the liberal order and its institutions into the current age of confusion and transition.
Regardless of the exact date, evidence all around us suggests we are very much in the midst of a chaotic period of transition and change. COVID-19 has at the very least, revealed and accelerated this already underway delegitimisation and disintegration of almost every established aspect of the social, political and economic systems of the liberal order.
The key message of Pogany’s work is that we cannot avoid the chaos of this transitional phase any more than we could have stopped World War Two or the French Revolution once they had been set in motion. However, accepting this reality frees us up to positively shape the new stable system that will eventually emerge from this time of great revelation and rearrangement.
We can achieve this by focusing our energy on nurturing those ‘alternative seed forms’ that preserve the best elements of the old system and help accelerate the emergence of a better stable system.
A New Global System
So what would a better system emerging from this great time of transition look like?
The failure of the current world order to avert crisis, suggests that such a new system must feature some very different design elements such as:
- Better meeting the essential core needs of all humans such as food, shelter, community and a sense of purpose, and
- A better understanding of the biophysical realities and limits of the planet.
However, history also tells us that achieving these goals requires a system that is grounded on a bedrock of truly democratic and representative principles and decentralised power and involves all citizens more meaningfully in decisions and actions affecting their essential needs.
Systems that trust that citizens know what is best for themselves generally leads to happier and more prosperous communities and environmental outcomes. Humanity is far more capable of taking part in decisions affecting our lives and surroundings than we are given credit for. A system that understands this truth could unlock vast amounts of latent human potential .
As legendary political philosopher Jurgen Habermas said, political culture does not drop from the skies, but is cultivated on the land or left untended to wither together with the rest of the plants in the garden of democracy. We need to consider how we can best tend the ‘alternative seeds’ of our emergent new political culture and institutions in this time of transition to create the right conditions for an upgraded form of democracy to emerge.
What do we even mean by Democracy?
The 20th century has been called the century of democracy’s triumph due to the rapid spread of liberal democracies across the world under the banner of the liberal international order. However, this ideology of liberal democracy coupled with free-market capitalism championed by the powerful Western nations post-WWII has fundamentally failed to deliver more democratic outcomes for citizens.
The harsh realities of the escalating meta-crisis around us (from inequality, to climate change, to COVID-19) suggest this system of governance has not helped us to collectively make sane decisions about managing our resources and activities.
If we follow Vervaeke’s ‘meaning crisis’, logic, this is a result of a lack of shared sensemaking apparatus about what we mean by democracy. Former Greek Minister of Finance and academic Yanis Varoufakis has highlighted this problem, stating that our current usage of the word democracy has departed wildly from its original Greek source meaning:
“Cleisthenis’ Demos was imagined as the State itself; as an active community of citizens in which the political sphere, the economy, the State and civil society all co-existed within the Assembly: Democracy was about the Demos getting (physically) together and engaging in a contest of opinions about what ought to be done. The point of the exercise was not to stage a process whereby the rulers consult the people but one in which the people rule.”
Is the idea of democracy as propounded by acolytes of the liberal international order really based on this definition of democracy?
The reality suggests otherwise. The ‘meme’ or ‘accepted narrative’ of democracy has been consistently used by powerful Western nations to justify inherently anti-democratic activities in order to maintain their imperial domination and exploitation of territories and resources.
Such anti-democratic activities include the commission of atrocities, convenient blindness to corruption and political violence, and a vigorous suppression of free speech, and grassroots political cultures. This was already a reality of political life in the global south, the communist bloc, or any nation that defied wholesale absorption into either of these imperial blocs post-1945. However, such anti-democratic and non-representative systems have become an increasingly normal feature of political life in the West in recent years.
These inherent hypocrisies are eroding faith in the ‘democratic’ ideals of this liberal world order and leading to its delegitimisation and collapse. Many Citizens globally are asking the valid question, of how a system so devoid of the basic tenets of representation, equality, participation, and accountability can be considered a democratic one?
It is perhaps unsurprising in this context, that general trust in liberal democratic institutions and representatives is in decline across the world. However, what is concerning is the fact that the main outcome of this delegitimisation has been the resurgence of fundamentally anti-democratic and authoritarian far-right populist movements across the world.
Widespread participation and active engagement were never a central consideration in the design of the systems of Western democracies. As Varoufakis points out, “Magna Carta, the defining document of Western democracy, was not about fashioning an Athenian-style masterless Demos: It was about entrenching the rights of masters vis-à-vis the Monarch.”
However, if we ever could, we can no longer seriously claim that liberal democracies include an ‘active community of citizens’ engaging in a contest of opinions. Indicators of a truly functioning democracy such as voting turnout rates, and membership of political parties or trade unions, have all reached historically low levels in most Western nations in recent years.
A comprehensive 2017 study shows that there is a highly variable relationship globally (by nation and party) between voter desires/political promises, and actual legislation implemented by elected officials. Even worse, the landmark 2014 Gilens & Page study demonstrated an increasingly strong correlation between legislation implemented and the interests of those funding the politicians.
These, and many other studies, show data to support an interpretation that the once shining beacon of liberal democracy, the USA, is now essentially a plutocracy (or dictatorship) controlled by “economic elites and organised groups representing business interests”. Recent political developments in the U.S since 2014 (such as a war on journalism and the gutting of the US Postal system) have only worsened this situation.
In Is New Zealand becoming a plutocracy?, Maria Armoudian and Timothy Kuhner point to the Gilens and Page study, then go on to argue that in NZ we face some of the same threats that are unravelling the United States’ democratic representation. The authors point to the unregulated lobbying industry, opaque political fundraising, and corporate and foreign donations in particular.
So, what can be done to reverse this steady decline of democratic representation and the resurgence of authoritarianism globally?
Roslyn Fuller in Forbes, writes that in order to rediscover what democracy should be for the modern nation state we need to “go back to what the ancient Athenians invented in the 5th century BCE, where every citizen regularly participated in discussion and voting for the laws that would steer their livelihoods and survival.”
Fuller is in good company in the belief that new technology and communication tools can now provide the means to scale up for millions of people what ancient Athenians did for a small number of privileged citizens.
There is no shortage of Innovative thinking, technologies, or projects demonstrating how crowd-sourcing democracy in the modern era might work. For example a 2005 paper outlined 57 Democratic Innovations from Around the World including ideas like Participatory Democracy, Participatory Budgeting, Citizens Juries and Assemblies, and much more. Notably bold experiments on a National level include Switzerland, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Portugal, and Brazil.
A recent OECD Report, Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions – Catching the Deliberative Wave, states that “Public authorities from all levels of government increasingly turn to Citizens’ Assemblies, Juries, Panels and other representative deliberative processes to tackle complex policy problems ranging from climate change to infrastructure investment decisions.” The report explores trends, best practices, reasons and routes for embedding such processes into public institutions to give citizens a more permanent and meaningful role in shaping the policies affecting their lives.
Democracy 2.0 in Aotearoa?
So where does New Zealand currently stand in this Democratic transition?
As Max Rashbrooke sums it up in his contribution to the Transitional Democracy series:
“Imagine a twenty-first century piece of software trying to run on a twentieth-century computer, and you have a fair picture of the New Zealand democratic system”.
In this current age of transition in which everything is up for redefinition, it is clear that our political establishment could be doing far more to support and facilitate truly democratic participation. We must begin to develop a new definition or ‘grand narrative’ for democratic governance both as a nation in Aotearoa and as a global society.
So what might a system worthy of the definition of Democracy 2.0 look like in Aotearoa?
TLDR: I speculate that it might be based on Māori worldviews, involve constitutional reform to reimagine the relationship between Māori and the crown, be genuinely participatory, decentralised, bioregion focused, and make use of modern communications technology. It might also ensure that we move beyond divisiveness, call out culture, and censorship, towards a culture of more inclusive, civilised, and compassionate communication.
How do we get there?
The systems, the technology, and the popular support for such democratic innovations to be adopted are all here already. The only thing still lacking is clear political will from our representatives. Just as turkeys will not vote for Christmas, politicians on most points on the ideological spectrum appear to be loath to hand over any real power to citizens. This means that if we want to upgrade our democracy in New Zealand, it is up to us all to drive this change both from within and outside of the established political system.
To do this we might consider becoming active and engaged in the political process via parties, local politics, or advocacy groups. We can also join collaborative efforts such as Predator Free NZ, or efforts to regenerate our local environment or community infrastructure. We may also want to launch, or take part in discussions about increasing democratic participation everywhere we can, in our local communities, our schools, our workplaces, and even our online environments.
In other words, we must work tirelessly to tend the garden of our new political culture by fostering the positive seeds of the global tapestry of alternatives thrown up by this transitional time to ensure they grow into a stable new truly democratic system.
The Transitional Democracy Series
ScoopCitizen is walking the walk on participatory and deliberative engagement by running the Transitional Democracy series in the lead up to the 2020 election and beyond.
This series weaves together and explores powerful ideas from the global tapestry of alternatives that may shape our society in the next decade. It will feature expert analysis, comment and panel discussions exploring crucial questions around both the democratic transition and transitional thinking reshaping every aspect of our society.
Transitional Democracy highlights the key, ideas, thinkers, projects and champions building the new systems and democratic institutions, practices and infrastructure for our future world.
The Transitional Democracy series will establish five new long-term CitizenDesks covering five key Transitional spheres up to and beyond the 2020 election:
- Transitional Democracy
- Transitional Livelihoods
- Transitional Ecology
- Transitional Wellbeing
- Transitional Thinking
We welcome contributions in the form of submissions or suggestions on any of these topics from freelance journalists, academics, political parties, or NGOs, as well as from ordinary citizens.
Take Part in the Transition
The ScoopCitizen ‘engaged journalism’ service provides a safe and deliberative members-only ‘engaged journalism’ space.
ScoopCitizen is a place for learning, discussion of ideas and collective action using ScoopCitizen tools via our partnership with GovTech startup NextElection and engaged journalism methodology.
This is an attempt to bring more participation and engagement with you, our readers into the process of creating quality journalism.
The series seeks to address the following questions:
- How might we as a society composed of both Māori and Tau Iwi (other peoples) agree to relate to each other and live together in Aotearoa, NZ?
- How might we make the process of the collective governance of our nation more open and participatory for all citizens?
- How might we create the resilient, adaptive, and stable society that we need to face the precarious global threats of this transitional time?
- How might the groups of people, living in our communities, cities, bioregions, and our nation share and manage our resources in common and act as custodians for nature and future generations?
Sign up to ScoopCitizen now to stay tuned and participate as we develop the conversation on the Transitional Democracy series.
If you want to support us to expand this conversation and bring on even more great journalists to cover these CitizenDesks please setup a one-off or regular donation to ScoopCitizen via Press Patron. All funds raised will go to creating more quality content on this issue.
Comment here via NextElection