Friday, July 16, 2010

Hillside Democracy


Introduction to the section on Participatory Democracy, 
Part II of People Without Borders

By John Taylor; 2010 July 16, Kalimat 03, 167 BE

Universal Participation Under the Hillside

An ancient Athenian would be shocked at the professionalism that has crept into what we call "democracy." Our professional civil servants are promoted according to results of standard examinations. This was a much later development that came out of Confucianism in China, a country used to dealing, then as now, with a much larger population.
The Athenian democracy, in place of our unionized public employees, expected each citizen, no matter what his daily trade or profession may be, to serve the public periodically. Democracy was not delegated to bureaucrats or politicians; it meant hands-on, full-time but temporary service by amateurs, rotated among the whole population. Since each adult freeman was going to carry the burden sooner or later, the question of who served next was decided by lot.

So important was random selection that when Aristotle briefly defined democracy in the Rhetoric he did not even mention votes or elections. Instead, he defined democracy as a system of drawing lots. In another work, "The Politics," Aristotle holds up the city of Tarentum as exemplary, since it combined random rotation with popular elections.

"The example of the people of Tarentum is also well deserving of imitation, for, by sharing the use of their own property with the poor, they gain their good will. Moreover, they divide all their offices into two classes, some of them being elected by vote, the others by lot; the latter, that the people may participate in them, and the former, that the state may be better administered. A like result may be gained by dividing the same offices, so as to have two classes of magistrates, one chosen by vote, the other by lot. Enough has been said of the manner in which democracies ought to be constituted." (Aristotle, Politics, VI)

Like Tarentum, modern representative government is a mixture. Public servants work alongside elected representatives, but both are professional, full-time workers. This is efficient but it encourages specialization. Our vote is designed to act as a sort of "fire and forget" smart bomb that encourages citizens to participate in an election and then forget their civic duty until the next election. In the duration, voters hope that those they elected will not forget about them. Opinion polls around the globe indicate that citizens have doubts about delegating power to representatives, leaders or political parties. Trust of government is down, and,

"... majorities in all nations polled endorse the democratic principle that "government leaders should be selected through elections in which all citizens can vote." However, most do not think that input from the public should be limited to elections. In other words, few subscribe to the view of the British philosopher and legislator Edmund Burke, that the influence of the public should be limited to occasional elections. On average 74 percent endorse the view that the public should have ongoing influence and 22 percent hold the "Burkian" view that elections are the only time the public should have a say in the government's decisions." ("World Publics Say Governments Should Be More Responsive to the Will of the People," May 12, 2008, <>)

Most people agree, then, that democracy goes beyond the right, important as it is, to participate in elections. Democracy should mean government by the people, not just for the people. Unfortunately, most agree that in practice it would not be easy to institute universal participation in public service on the national level. Professional public officials are extremely efficient. Participatory democracy in Athens was an experiment that worked, although for less than a century, because it was a relatively small city state. The number of participants was further reduced by excluding slaves, women, the poor, colonials and foreigners.

Governments of today rule over millions of people, not thousands. Even more challenging, the populace itself is far more diverse, with wide cultural and linguistic gaps. Many of the issues that confront us are more complex too, and local decisions can have a broad geopolitical impact.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of room for broader participation at the local level. Families, city blocks and neighbourhoods are at present powerless. They generally do not even exist as political entities. The result of this lack of local control by local people is surprisingly dire.

I think that future historians will point the finger at our weakness at the local level for our maddeningly slow reaction to the challenge of climate change. With strong organization and pooling of funds and credit at the grassroots level, we would surely already be ordering solar panels for every roof, wind turbines at every street corner, and installing shared, regional heating and cooling systems into every city block and construction survey. New homes would have to be designed not to waste energy on unnecessary heating and air conditioning. A recent book on the history of air conditioning points out that over the past two decades increased use of air conditioning has doubled energy use in the United States, and more than tripled in Ontario, where I live.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the World Belt and hillside infrastructure described in the first half of People Without Borders could be built in the first place without stronger participatory democracy in families, households and neighbourhoods. Once construction is underway, however, the hillside design itself will set the default on participatory government. The World Belt would immediately begin intensive training for millions of residents in the habits and mores of high social cohesion on the local level. Common, shared ownership of the hillside infrastructure would allow neighbourhood institutions to automatically pool funds and credit in cooperative banks and storehouses. As we shall see in the section on hillside economics, this even permits them to print their own currency.

The flexible structure of the ROO housing system -- movable units headquartering work, home and play, as well as full service facilities -- is designed to give each citizen the leisure to participate fully in local culture, including more participatory forms of local governance. Residents have the right to opt out and live alone, but everything from the street level to the rooftop gardens is designed to encourage everyone to participate actively. As citizens get into the habit of full engagement, involvement and concern, it will feel natural to re-introduce the better elements of older, purer democracies, including amateurism, universal participation and choice by lot.

It is impossible to predict exactly where this might take us, but this section attempts to describe some possible directions.


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