Saving democracy, part two

NOTE: in my last post I raised concerns about a breakdown of decision-making processes in the government. Here’s what co-ops have to do with that:

Consider the parable (attributed to Paulo Friere, I believe) in which someone is sitting on a riverbank. He sees a person floating by, struggling against the current. He jumps in and rescues the person, but no sooner are they onshore when someone else comes floating by. So he jumps back in and repeats the good deed. And again there comes someone down the stream. This time, he turns and begins running upstream. Those already rescued cry out in indignation at his lack of compassion for the drowning, to which he replies “I’m going to find out who’s throwing them in.”

We face many urgent and specific problems (like health care), and it is good to struggle toward finding solutions for these problems. We should seek to help people obtain affordable healthcare and break up the obscene profiteering and concentration of power that led to the reform impulse.

However, sometimes we have to step back and look upstream. It is good to work on whatever issues are before us, but  at some point we’ll run out of energy unless we can address the systemic issues.

“Grassroots” gets thrown around a lot in our political dialogue, but many initiatives and groups that claim that label are using the same giant and ailing processes that have allowed things to get to this level of dysfunction. They may be a step in the right direction, but don’t provide a real challenge to the problem.

Cooperatives are the true grassroots of democracy. They are micro-democracies, in which everyday people can participate in the processes of democracy – making and considering proposals, debating issues, building consensus. Without this sort of everyday practice of democracy and equality, is it any wonder that our larger democratic systems are breaking down? How can they be maintained without a citizenry that is familiar with democratic process?

We generally treat democracy like someone who sits on the couch all year and then tries to run a marathon. We’ve got to regularly exercise our democracy muscles.

For example of how that could work, consider the northern Italian province of Trentino, where one in 50 citizens are on a cooperative’s board of directors at any given time. Assuming that average length of service is five years during fifty years of adult life, that means that roughly 1/5 of the people in Trentino have direct experience of sitting in a governing body.

Democracy (and decision-making in general) is an organizational technology for getting things done. In order for a large technological system to function it needs lots of support, both in the present and the past. Higher levels of organization are dependent on simpler predecessors. Either way, the giant and complex cannot exist for long without the small and simple.

We need to get democracy active throughout society by creating as many democratic bodies as possible. Gradually, people trained in grassroots democracy will be elected to school boards and local committees, city councils and county commissions, and eventually state and federal legislatures. Then we’ll be much better equipped to deal with the constant attacks from those whose interest are against democracy.

Democracy must be continually renewed, and the urgency of real grassroots democracy becomes all the more clear when it gets to the current point that it is arguably falling apart at the top.  We can no longer afford to simply hope that our government’s democratic processes can maintain themselves. We have to take matter into our own hands and rebuild democracy from the bottom up.

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