The limits to established democracy and alienation from diverse forms of power require alternative models because without alternative visions, we risk being stuck in the status quo; a dystopian reality in which powerlessness continues. In contemporary democracy, all citizens theoretically have equal power to vote. The problem is that voting power does not always translate into the decisions governments will make or the decisions made by other important actors. There are several key reasons why the power to vote can be limited in its ability to reflect popular will or the interests of individuals.
By Jonathan M. Feldman
Politicians today ask us to preserve the welfare state or open the door to increased reliance on the market. The problem is neither approach by itself will promote equality or promote democracy. A society based on political and economic inequality is not democratic. Immigrant communities in Sweden are often excluded from political power, qualified jobs, live in communities which they did not design, and have little input in the media sphere which informs public debate and discussion. The power to vote in elections provides little leverage because powerlessness in various arenas contributes to apathy about voting, i.e. a belief that voting won’t make a difference. Moreover, the power to vote in and of itself often provides little power because of the way decisions are made both before and after citizens vote. For this reason, some regard voting as a very passive act that leaves in place the configurations of power that shape the most important arenas of peoples’ lives. Moreover, elections often ignore the key problems regarding how society is configured.
The limits to established democracy correspond to the diverse ways in which power is accumulated in society. The powerful are those who control access to resources and their distribution. By controlling the sources of power the powerful control access to diverse forms of power and the ability to accumulate it. Citizens, workers, consumers, users and audiences are alienated from the accumulation of economic, media and political capital. Social exclusion and discrimination is a symptom of this powerlessness. Penalizing discrimination is important, but is not the same thing as a program of democratic power accumulation. Legal monitoring does not create the organizational innovations necessary for giving people the power to organize work, wealth, media access or political representation in the government. Discrimination is not simply a problem to be administered by professionals. It also requires changing the distribution of resources.
The limit to established democracy and alienation from diverse forms of power requires first an alternative model, an alternative vision of how to accumulate power. Without alternative visions, we risk being stuck in the status quo, a dystopian reality in which powerless continues.
The alternative vision can be implemented by a transitional strategy used to accumulate power in its diverse forms. These strategies correspond to new kinds of networks, institutions and policy objectives that help the disenfranchised (powerless) accumulate power in its diverse forms. We risk a society where the powerless become disposable (Goodman, 1968; Krugman, 2005; Wacquant, 1996).
Finally, we should be aware of how such alternatives are prevented and the elaborate means used to limit real change. An awareness of these limitations should make us more sensitive to the stumbling blocks that prevent a more authentic democracy from taking hold.
The Limits of Established Democracy: The Status Quo Perpetuates Inequality
While some older established immigrant groups have been successful, it is widely recognized that other newer immigrant groups have faced critical problems. These problems have several origins but one involves the gap between the capacities of immigrant groups on the one hand and the requirements for full social participation on the other. The full range of capacities where immigrants may have disadvantages include deficits in: qualifications, job skills, social contacts (“social capital”), accumulated wealth, language skills, “representative power” in the media, political power in the government, knowledge of social codes, and knowledge about organizing or economic alternative models, e.g. technical knowledge related to community organization and economic planning. Within Sweden, new immigrant groups are relatively powerless in their representation within qualified jobs, and some groups are over-represented in unemployment statistics.
The social gap between immigrant and non-immigrant can also be visibly seen in the spatial division between more and less immigrant dense neighborhoods. We can contrast the design of suburban, immigrant dense residential communities which lack the aesthetic values and green spaces of more central city, less immigrant dense neighborhoods. By “aesthetic values” I mean that these areas often have higher dwellings organized in spaces that are not broken up by trees, a concentration of street level shopping or even traffic. Instead, we have a massive organization of concrete people warehouses that are deadened by homogenous forms. While there is an unfair stigma attached to persons from immigrant neighborhoods, this does not mean that the government should maintain its silence about the unequal distribution of cultural and community resources that unfairly gives an advantage to the inner city.
Inequality is Based on the Limited Nature of Contemporary Democracy
In contemporary democracy, all citizens theoretically have equal power to vote. The problem is that voting power does not always translate into the decisions governments will make or the decisions made by other important actors. There are several key reasons why the power to vote can be limited in its ability to reflect popular will or the interests of individuals.
First, the ideology, philosophy or world view of parliamentarians exists independently of voter preferences. Sometimes this ideology or political philosophy is heavily influenced by party structures and decisions, but at times the reputation of a party that voters identify with may diverge highly from what a party does. In other cases, decisions are made in a way that appears to be independent of ideology or philosophy because it is influenced by expert opinions. These opinions appear to be beyond the realm of ideology and politics. One case may be a decision to invest more money into military jet fighter programs because expert opinion links such programs to the support cutting edge technology and defend the country. The problem here is that such weapons systems: (a) provide little defense against terrorist threats, (b) divert engineers from working on more critical tasks tied to innovations that create more jobs and (c) represent an opportunity cost against investments in education, training and other needed programs.
A second, related, point is that parliamentarians can also be influenced by outside experts based in organizations independent of the political parties or voter influence and control. For example, parliament members are increasingly influenced by the media and so-called “think tanks.” These groups influence parliament members after they are elected. They help influence the opinions of the public at large or channel the views of experts or elite groups linked to them. As described above, some large groups, like corporations and trade unions, have organized a strong presence in the media and think tanks. During the debate on the so-called “wage earner funds,” these groups helped shape how the parliament made its decisions.
Third, many key decisions are made by bureaucracies (if not elites) which are independent from immediate parliamentary control. The parliament may make a formal decision to improve opportunities for immigrant businesses, for example, but not specify priorities as to the kinds of businesses that should be developed. Some questions that might not be asked is whether or not resources are evenly distributed in the business through a cooperative or whether a priority should be placed on entrepreneurship that creates higher skilled and waged employment. These decisions may be made at a lower level than the parliament. In some cases, decisions are made by local neighborhood leaders who are appointed but not even elected. The power to appoint therefore becomes more important than the power to vote.
Finally, questions about democracy and interests can be applied to spheres outside the areas usually addressed by government and “the state.” In such spheres the power to vote can mean very little. One key area is the way in which work and decisions within the workplace are made. Voting does not mean equality in power to gain access to the means of livelihood or the organization of work. The workplace can operate according to authoritarian principles but the parliament can operate according to participatory ones, i.e. be influenced by what a majority of parliamentarians or voters want. With outsourcing of manufacturing and service sector jobs, the limits of formal democracy in government become more apparent. Large corporations can decide to move out of a neighborhood or city and the government can do little about it. In such cases, “economic power” is more important than “political power” especially if the government fails to regulate or penalize the mobility of capital. Equality in economic power is therefore sometimes necessary to maintain access to work. It can require that workers control their jobs by owning them because the government can always claim that regulation will force a company to move overseas. In other cases, citizens may have the right to vote but work in bureaucracies that are hierarchically organized and in which key decisions are made by those above. This is especially problematic when those lower in the hierarchy have less power and more knowledge about job requirements than those higher in the hierarchy.
Some of these limits correspond to what John Maurice Clark, a leading institutional economist based at Columbia Univesity, described as “inherent difficulties of democracy.” These include the following:
- Voting is on promises, with inadequate check of fulfillment, which comes later..
- There are too many issues for the voters, other than interested minorities, to five sustained attention to each…
- We buy our political goods in multiple packages, resulting in uncertainty as to what people are voting for, or have voted for…
- The disinterested citizen is mostly in the position of the amateur, handicapped in contests with professionals. His vote is divided, while interested groups lobby, and to a less extent vote, as units. So instead of the disinterested citizen holding the balance of power between interested groups, as [John Stuart] Mill hoped, it is too often the other way around…
- Last but not least is the inherent difficulty of effective participation in complicated technical questions, by a citizen who is incapable of devising a technically competent plan for dealing with them, and who can be fooled by quack remedies (hence the importance of some of the moral requirements of democracy). “Planning” itself is a case in point; the common man didn’t invent the idea; it has been propagated by intellectuals… (Clark, 1949: 3).
Contemporary Democracy as Alienation from Diverse Forms of Power: Defining Democracy
The Greek roots of the word “democracy” have been used to define democracy as “the rule of the people.” This meant “the rule of the people as opposed not only to the rule of one person” or “the rule of the best people, the aristocracy” (Wallerstein, 2003: 160). The sociologist and political thinker Immanuel Wallerstein defines democracy as follows:
One possible usage of “democracy,” on widespread definition today, is freedom from arbitrary political power. According to this definition, democracy is more or less the realization of an individualist liberal political agenda. Its outward measures of how democratic a country is become whether or not there are free elections in which multiple parties contend, whether or not there exists communications media not under the direct political control of the government, whether or not one can pursue one’s religious faith without state interference—in short, the degree to which all those things that are usually summarized as “civil liberties” are in fact practiced within the bounds of a particular state (Wallerstein, 2003: 150).
The problem, however, is that democracy in practice can be limited by corruption, material inequality and “complaints about the inadequate inclusiveness of citizenship” (Wallerstein, 2003: 151). One limit to inclusiveness can be found in distinctions between groups: “the concept of citizen always excludes every bit as much as it includes.” Distinctions are also drawn between “civilized and uncivilized countries” (Wallerstein, 2003: 161). In fact, “ever since the concept [of citizenship] was launched, virtually every state has tried hard to limit the applicability of the concept in reality.” This occurs when new “binary distinctions” gain more importance than the difference between citizen and non-citizen. These include: “bourgeois-middle class/proletarian-working class, man/woman, White/Black (or persons of color); breadwinner/housewife; productive worker/unproductive person; sexually mainstream/sexually aberrant; the educated/the masses; honest citizen/criminal; normal/mentally abnormal; of legal age/a minor; civilized/uncivilized.” In sum, while “citizenship” in theory includes “everyone,” these “binary distinctions reduce this ‘everyone’ to a relatively small minority of the population” (Wallerstein, 2002: 182-183).
Robert S. Lynd, another sociologist and political thinker based at Columbia University, gave this definition of democracy:
Democracy is a political system which seeks to remove all arbitrary hindrances, by persons or classes, to the growth to full maturity of the interests and capabilities of all persons in the society; which seeks to do so by actively structuring the conditions of living ahead so that the person shall have the optimum setting, in terms of education, opportunity and basic security, for realizing the potentials of himself and his children for growth; and which gives effective control to the people themselves over all decisions and policies that effect in any important sense the conditions under which they are to live (Lynd, 1949: 3).
The sphere in which decisions can be made and interests exercised should not be confined to the state, however. These decisions can also include the work organization, decisions about capital investment and control over economic resources, control over programming in the media and cultural sphere, and the organization of land, housing and environmental resources. A key area where decisions are made and interests exercised includes the question of how various products and systems are designed and the criteria used to design them. Examples include: the design of residential space, design of educational systems, design of products, and design of political discussion programs on the radio.
The rise of professionalism, capitalism and bureaucratic elites have placed constraints on demoracy. The democratic revolution against the monarchy and the evolution of capitalist forms is associated with “the disentangling of the sphere of power, the sphere of law and the sphere of knowledge…law and knowledge assert themselves as separate from and irreducible to power” (Lefort, 1988: 18). This means that different kinds of specialist knowledge become domains of power such that the democratic problem is no longer reducible to the relations between one central authority in the monarchy and the king or queen’s subjects. With the creation of new domains, new hierarchies emerged in all kinds of spheres be they science, law, immigrant relations, etc., in which power is exercised (Lefort, 1988). This corresponds to what social critic Ivan Illich calls “The Age of Professions,” a period he argues “will be remembered as the time when politics withered, when voters, guided by professors, entrusted to technocrats the power to legislate needs, renounced the authority to decide who needs what and suffered monopolistic oligarchies to determine the means by which these needs shall be met” (Illich, 1977: 12).
Democracy as the Obverse of Alienation
Let us then look at how citizens are alienated, or separated from, diverse forms of decision making power required for democracy. We noted earlier that as workers, citizens, and audiences from less dominant groups are subject to the decision making power of elites and professional managers loyal to them. As workers, voters and listeners to broadcasts whose content tends to reflect dominant interests, they participate in the very structures that limit their power and reproduce unequal power relations. The strategic question is how to exploit the economic, political and media capital of the disenfranchised through new structures and networks that challenge the status quo. This requires building upon the capacities of the disenfranchised.
Obviously these different forms of power are related to each other. For example, the political capital organized by the state can be used to regulate decision making in firms (corresponding to economic capital) through regulations and demands made as a customer for a private firm’s products. Hence, political capital influences economic capital. When a company establishes or financially supports a think tank or sponsors a form of media, it gains political and media capital. When the media gives a platform to a politician supporting workers’ interests it may influence the disposition of economic and political capital.
Power is exercised in diverse forms within any democracy (Laski, 1949; Russell, 2004). Different forms of capital can be exchanged for one another (cf. Bourdeiu, 1983; Russell, 2004), blurring distinctions between categories. Nevertheless, the fundamental point here is that the present use of capital represents an alienated form of how capacities are used. Some argue, however, that economic capital is central. This is evident in the power of corporations to exploit various forms of capital, their greater ability to accumulate revenue, labor power, and technology gives them an advantage. Nevertheless, some forms of protest activity, Internet organizing, and political control of bureaucracies can also produce capital without requiring the running of a business.
Another way to approach this idea of alienated capacities is to explore the diverse ways the capacities can be organized. The renter pays landlords who use the tenants’ money to advance the landlord’s interests vis-à-vis the tenant. If the renter owned their own home, they could better control the property I which they lived. They could also gain as future claimants (cf. Ellerman, 1990) of the value of property that appreciated in value. If the disenfranchised joined together and formed a food cooperative, then they would gain the profits and economic resources represented by middleman businesses, i.e. the profits of ICA and other food chains. If the disenfranchised organized their own work and networked their businesses in a cooperative franchise, then they would gain a more direct share of the profits generated by their labor. If the disenfranchised joined together to buy a television station, they could use that station to generate capital (by advertising products) and use the broadcasts as a political tool to mobilize voters and citizens. The media can be used to organize consumers, voters and workers for a common agenda of political and economic reconstruction. If networks were to link each form of power together, then each form of power would be used to extend the other. Listening to a station would build an audience for political alternatives. Shopping would promote an alternative development agenda. Working would promote a different society. This all assumes that the resources from these organizational intermediaries (like cooperatives, electronic media, and alternative banks) redirected their resources into an agenda to support democratic and equitable development.
Let us compare this situation to the status quo. Now, we get discussion programs which address isolated pieces of social problems. We get political parties that either support entrepreneurship, but not equality. Or, they support equality but not entrepreneurship. Or some parties discuss ethics of crime, but not the ethics of inequality. We get attacks on ineffective bureaucracies, but no discussion of alternative ways to organize resources to meet needs. Thus, while many abuse the sick leave system, many would not be sick to begin with if they organized their life differently through different forms of alternative or preventative medicine. Instead, we just get discussions of cutting resources, not changing regulations or increasing investments in alternative medicine. Environmentalists rightly condemn pollution and dangerous power sources, but rarely fight to promote an alternative technology agenda or economic democracy. The universities, media, politicians and foundations often take integrated problems and carve them into isolated pieces such that the need for a comprehensive solution is ignored or unrecognized.
Inequality Based on Occupational and Professional Power
One key problem is how the divisions between immigrant and non-immigrant background citizens and workers are based on class divisions. The professional managerial class corresponds to a strata of the population that includes professionals including: engineers, professors, psychologists, architects, lawyers, doctors, journalists, as well as certain groups of administrators and managers. The class or occupational power of the professional managerial strata was explained by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in an essay called “The Professional-Managerial Class” which investigated how this occupational strata functioned in the United States. They defined this class as follows:
We define the Professional-Managerial Class as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations…By the culture of a social group we mean its total repertory of solutions and responses to everyday problems and situations. This is transmittable repertory, and the means of transmissions may be anything from myths and songs to scientific formulae and machinery…Their role in the process of reproduction may be more or less explicit, as with workers who are directly concerned with social control or with the production and propagation of ideology (e.g. teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts, etc.). Or it may be hidden within the process of production, as is the case with the middle-level administrators and managers, engineers, and other technical workers whose functions…are essentially determined by the need to preserve capitalist relations of production (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich, 1979: 12).
This quotation can be roughly translated as follows. The Professional-Managerial Class supports as part of its beliefs and day to day work the growth and development of “capitalist relations.”
Capitalism corresponds to a system that is based on several core principles (Melman, 1975; Melman, 2001). The capitalist system built on the extension of a bureaucratic decision making process in which there are layers of decisions makers arranged in a hierarchy where some decide and others follow and there is little room for cooperation and reciprocity (where I follow you on some things and you follow me on others) can be seriously constrained. In this system there is a separation of decision making from responsibility. Often, work groups are created in which some decide and others follow. Workers can often be put in the situation where they are responsible for some function (be it writing a report, delivering a pizza, or designing an engine) but they can lack ultimate control over the resources or power to fully do their job. One reason is that top decision makers control key resources such as: the power to hire and fire, and budgets for repairing the pizza deliverer’s truck or the engineer’s equipment to design an engine.
Within the capitalist system there is a drive to accumulate capital (linked to technological innovation, productive use of labor, increasing control over markets and growth in profits) and power (or control over more and more people as well as the ability to make decisions with respect to various areas) (Melman, 2001; Mills, 1963; Russell, 2004). Corporations seek to accumulate both capital and power and bureaucracies usually seek capital in the form of budgets and power in the form of the number of persons controlled. Even in the cases of corporate and bureaucratic outsourcing, downsizing and de-evolution (breaking a large unit into smaller units) the aim is power and control: with each the power of the worker is usually decreased vis-à-vis the top manager.
While professionals seek autonomy, or the power to make decisions in a bureaucracy, they often promote hierarchy vis-à-vis less powerful groups. The professor has to answer to university administrators more powerful than herself or himself, but has more power over students. The journalist has a certain hierarchical power over her or his readers but has to answer to more powerful editors. The architect has power to design buildings (and projects power vis-à-vis those who live in them), but is less powerful than their bosses (for example in the City Planning Office). Hierarchy grows within the system because of the principle of “managerialism,” i.e. top managers seek to control more and more persons and exercise their decision making power over them. This extension in decision making power corresponds to the growth of bureaucracy, administrative overheads, and all kinds of rules and regulations which erode professional autonomy but reward waste and inefficiency.
In simplistic terms, the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) is “caught in the middle,” answering to top decision makers who control budgets and hiring decisions but often having much more power over clients, customers, audiences and others who pay for their services. This contradictory position helps explains some of the limits of political parties as change organizations. In the early years of the Socialist Party within the United States, although a large part of the membership were from the working class, “most of the top leadership and a vastly disproportionate part of the membership were engaged in PMC (and old middle class) occupations (or had been so engaged before assuming full-time party duties).” The consequence of this class bias (or heavy influence or power by PMC party members) was that “socialism, as articulated by the pre-World War I Socialist Party, was frequently not far from the PMC’s technocratic vision.” Socialism was defined as government “ownership of the means of production (which would still be administered by experts) and expansion of government social services (which would still be supplied by professionals—or ‘intellectual proletarians,’ as [Party leader Morris] Hillquit called them” (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich, 1979: 24-25).
In the Soviet system, the political party gained control over the means of production and the economy and political appointees ran the society for their own benefit, creating an elite. This elite can be traced in part to Stalin. When he became the Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, the party “became an organization predominantly of bureaucrats” or Nomenklatura. The party proclaimed a vision of an alternative society freed from capitalist control. Instead, the party became the instrument for imposing a different kind of capitalism regulated by politically appointees: “While the composition of the controlling party changed, the claim that this organization represented the workers and was the legitimate trustee of the workers as a class, acting for their welfare rather than on behalf of the power and the privilege of this new ruling class, did not correspond with reality” (Melman, 2001: 26).
To what extent, then, do current parties resemble competing teams of the professional managerial strata who want to administer the State (or national government) and control the planning process? At various times in history, intellectuals (or members of the PMC) and parties have been voices of reform and change. One line of argument is that: “…intellectuals are more than functionaries of power held by others; they are, in all circumstances, the core of the movement. They propose a new conception of citizenship tied, not to universal conceptions of the human community, but to the nation-state. Their utopias form the political imaginary of social transformation, their organizational and literary skills provide the sinews of administration without which revolutionary wars and states founder or die” (Aronowitz, 1992: 138).
One way to summarize the above statement is simply to say that intellectuals can be leaders who promote a vision for change and have the capabilities for making changes. The strategic question for those who are not members of the PMC therefore becomes how to exploit or gain access to these capabilities without becoming dominated by the class or decision makers represented by the PMC which by definition is based on hierarchy and whose existence is often the other side of un-democratic social relations.
Towards an Alternative Vision: Strategies for Change
Strategies to Enhance the Power of Non-Dominant Groups Marginalized from PMC Power
There are several strategies for providing non-PMC members with the knowledge, power and other advantages held by PMC members. The first strategy is to build bridges between expert and non-expert knowledge in public forums in which the demands of non-experts are used to inform one set of parameters used by the non-experts. This can take place at public meetings between expert professionals and the public at large. The problem is that non-experts may have limited power to influence designs or knowledge about how to propose alternatives. One approach is the “town meeting,” a term traced to the New England region of the United States. The problem that emerged there, however, was that in “New England town meetings of the revolutionary period,…questions concerning participation in decisions ranging from town policy to relations with [administration and government] were hotly contested along class lines” (Aronowitz, 1992: 133). Like town meetings, scenario workshops provide a similar platform for broadening participation. The scenario workshop may have an advantage by assuming conflicts and helping conflicting parties explore areas of mutual cooperation.
A second strategy is to build systems formal decision making in which excluded groups gain greater access to decision making. The problem, however, is that sometimes leaders have greater knowledge and expertise, technical knowledge which is necessary for designing a house, writing a law, conducting a business, etc. In technocracy, however, claims to having specialist knowledge are used to exclude all forms of participation.
A third strategy is to build alliances between professionals sympathetic to the situation or needs of potentially disadvantaged groups and non-professionals. When non-specialists hire or control experts sympathetic to their interests, then they can challenge the technocratic norms (or claims to have expertise to make a decision that excludes others) of some groups by relying on those “technocrats” loyal to them. The problem with this approach, however, is that: a) many professionals are disinterested in the situation of less disadvantaged groups or may not feel that they have the time to help them; b) many professionals lack civil courage, the courage to challenge the status quo and speak out against it (a significant problem when one group has a political monopoly and can punish those who disagree with its decisions); c) professionals seeking to help non-professionals may end up dominating or controlling them because of their own claims to expertise.
Problem c) relates to especially complex trade offs. On the one hand, sometimes intellectual leadership or a hierarchy of values and knowledge is necessary, e.g. without such a hierarchy you could not have a university system or expert knowledge itself. On the other hand, the unconscious code of many intellectuals is intrinsically tied to lying and deceit, it is based on not challenging centers of power in order to move up within the system (being diplomatic with one’s superiors and emotionally passive in the face of the arbitrary rule). These tradeoffs explain why many working class persons are rightly suspicious of intellectuals and why intellectuals who come from the working class (or whose parents come from the working class) are often suspicious of other intellectuals. These matters are hard to verify and often simply buried as part of the unwritten code of intellectuals. These problems correspond to the suspicions that some immigrants have of non-immigrants, a sense of how insiders will never understand the feelings and thoughts of outsiders.
A fourth strategy is to educate non-experts to themselves become experts. Alliances between experts and non-experts could, for example, correspond to study circles in democracy which makes available the skills and insights of professionals but seeks to extend these to others who might not be professionals. One related approach seeks to build the capacities of leaders who in turn educate and build more leaders. More generally, access to the university system and educational tracks leading into it, can create a pathway for the disenfranchised to gain access to expertise and power associated with the PMC. The potential disadvantage is that sometimes immigrants themselves can be part of what some call “the colonial administration” of non-immigrants. Another problem is that when working class immigrants gain university training, credentials and contacts, they may still lack the resources of top managers who ultimately decide outcomes. Some intellectuals from “disadvantaged groups” simply become part of the “colonial administration.”
The limitation to the fourth problem suggests that ultimately a combination of strategies may be needed. Moreover, knowledge is insufficient and also must be supplemented by two other qualities: power (or control over resources) and ethics (or a way to order knowledge and power so it serves the public good or at least the good of the disadvantaged). By power, I mean explicit resources and organizational forms that organize influence in the economy, polity, public sphere and media. Some concrete forms that “bank power” are banks, schools, television stations, and social movements. By ethics I mean a particular kind. One foundation is “reciprocity” in which the groups offer mutual support and engage in understanding one another, treating each other as they would like themselves to be treated. This does not exist in a society which continually “uses” people in hierarchical relations, i.e. relations in which there is no learning or giving, just taking. Ethics can embody “the politics of commitment” as evidenced in the life of Jean-Paul Sartre and radical intellectuals who are said to have committed “class suicide,” by renouncing the privileges of class and siding with the dispossessed. August Strindberg was this kind of “ethical” individual. Another dimension of ethics relates to a concept of solidarity or respecting differences with those different from one’s self. Again, there are limits to this definition of ethics. Persons who are weak can be wrong and non-immigrants can be right about a particular choice or view. The point, however, is to give the powerless an equal chance to be right or wrong and an equal ability to learn from mistakes and learn by doing. Persons excluded from power by definition are less responsible. Yet, the ability to accept responsibility comes from experiences—corresponding to the ability to exercise decision making power.
Unequal Exchange in the Political, Media and Economic Spheres
The strategies elaborated above (and elsewhere in this essay) can be compared with the quality of social relations that exist when non-PMC members from lower status positions: (a) vote for PMC members; (b) attend public meetings (or media events) organized by an agenda established by PMC members; (c) work in companies organized by PMC members. In each case there is an often inequality in the social exchange relationships between the two groups as to what each group gets out of participating and the investment in effort and time. There is an “unequal exchange” between inputs and outputs. Voting can produce a form of domination, concentrating power in the hands of leaders over the lead. Participation in meetings can provide legitimacy for the leaders but not necessarily meet the objectives of those led. When those who have a lower status work in firms established by those in higher status, they often get less money for their time, have less control over their work, and have less ability to accumulate knowledge marketable in the workplace, e.g. building cleaners and security guards get less from their work time than engineers and researchers working in the buildings cleaned and guarded.
As suggested, these unequal exchange relationships can be rationalized by inequalities in skill, knowledge, and the logic of specialization. The politician knows more about policy problems and not everyone can run the government. The planning office and local governmental authorities know more about building codes, environmental regulations and budgetary resources and so should have the final say about where and how buildings are planned. Not everyone can be a leader of a television discussion show or have the journalist’s skills in running one. These arguments are certainly true up to a point. The problem, however, is that when the interests of the dominant group running the government, media and companies differ from those in the non-dominant group the power exercised by the former is associated with a considerable “opportunity cost.” The cost can be traced back to all the problems in unemployment, low waged jobs, neighborhoods that function like people warehouses and alienated social relations that define the “immigrant problem.” The resolution to this trade off between skill, knowledge and specialization held by the dominant group and the needs of the less dominant group can be addressed in part by the strategies which put knowledge and power into the hands of less dominant groups. Social exclusion also blocks groups from gaining expertise.
One could also present another challenge to the above argument and say that not all politicians (or parties), journalists, bureaucrats, and bosses are alike. Some may be more supportive of non-dominant groups than others. Non-dominant groups may even be able to use their power in voting, unions, and citizens to produce some degree of change. The counter-argument, however, is that the scale or degree to which this change is brought about is presently insufficient and can be enhanced by new approaches. The fundamental reason why is that control over the government, media and organization of work is presently arranged so that the end result is a series of failed policies in each sphere. As described earlier, “accountability structures” which made dominant groups in the government, corporations and the PMC more accountable to non-dominant groups have weakened.
By “accountability” we mean a system in which one group has to be more responsive to the needs of another. In the past, working class groups made the government accountable by electing those responsive to working peoples’ needs to office and gaining control over government power, organizing study circles to be informed about current discussions, and relying on working class newspapers to promote a workers’ agenda. To varying degrees these systems to promote accountability (in parties, trade unions, and the media) have deteriorated.
This suggests that the most useful strategies will be those that provide enhanced political, media and economic power. One does not even have to take over the government but one can create mechanisms to enhance power over decision makers, e.g. through different forms of political and media mobilizations. The accumulation of political, media and economic capital can take place in different ways. These include: the creation of coalitions, participation in social movements, accessing systems of “extension,” building a democratic community development process, and developing “organizational innovations” that act as foundations of power accumulation.
Building Coalitions: Accountability Structures and Power Accumulation Tools
There are three ways in which the coalitions can be forged within the presence of a system of political and economic inequality. First, one can rely on government programs that attempt to promote equality, but place more demands on existing programs so that they deliver more resources as political mobilization in the poorest communities allows such groups to “take full advantage of their legal rights” (Wallerstein, 2002: 255). The limit to this approach, however, is that in an era of fiscal scarcity (budgetary cutbacks) such demands may come up against a wall. One strategy therefore is to develop coalitions that fight for budgetary shifts, e.g. reduce wasteful government programs and advance more useful programs. The limit to this approach is that political fights around the budget can amount to a “zero sum game,” with more powerful groups the winners and less powerful groups (like immigrant background groups) the losers. This constraint, however, can be limited by: a) raising rhetorical issues that substantively strengthen immigrants’ standing, such as following Martin Luther King’s argument that the government should cut funding for military budgets and invest in solving employment problems; b) support innovation and growth policies that are linked to social inclusion systems; and c) convert military operations linked to manufacturing and bases such that these former tax absorbers become tax generators by entering new civilian or commercial markets.
Second, weaker groups can organize with one foot inside and one foot outside coalitions with more established groups. This is the strategy used by creating a political caucus comprised of persons with immigrant backgrounds. The limit to this approach is that such a coalition in and of itself does not immediately generate much political power but provides a way to “negotiate” with existing power arrangements.
Third, weaker groups can engage in entrepreneurial programs (like immigrant or ethnic entrepreneurship) and thereby gain economic power. The limit to this approach depends on how such enterprises are organized. Many ethnic businesses are marginal operations. One idea would be to federate ethnic service businesses into franchises such that these had greater economies of scale. Another idea is to promote the political strategies that promoted integration of immigrants into science and engineering programs, creating a potential foundation for high technology ethnic businesses. Not helpful was the approach of one Swedish agency which ignored the questions pertaining to ethnic entrepreneurs running high technology firms.
Fourth, as just noted, one can use innovation and technology—or qualitatively different growth coalitions—to link the interests of stronger non-immigrant and weaker immigrant groups. A general premise is that equality and growth can be integrated: “the first hope of the democrat, according to democratic experimentalism, is to find the area of overlap between the conditions of practical progress and the requirements of individual emancipation” (Unger, 1998: 5). One element contributing to this integration is that “certain innovations and inventions have begun to erase knowledge and status barriers between specialists and layperson” (Raskin, 2004: 55).
While coalitions often promote “the lowest common denominator” and not a comprehensive program, there are two potential ways to overcome this. By lowest common denominator I mean a political platform that is watered down and does not fundamental challenge existing power arrangements or the status quo. One way is to build transnational coalitions of like minded individuals who seek fundamental change. Another way is to gain control over economic, media and political resources and use their control to extend ideas in a way that promotes the comprehensive message. If one controls the message, one can make sure that it is not diluted. The problem is that if too few control the message, democracy is constrained. If too many control the message, the message may be meaningless and inconsequential. This trade off can be resolved by combining educational and participatory formats tied to a wide variety of strategies. Participation in a vacuum, without comprehensive ideas for reorganizing society, can easily become a meaningless endeavor. This is apparent in our discussion about the limits to voting (see Section 5).
The Tradeoff Between Large and Small Scale Goals
Concrete change requires alternative plans and models for how to reconstruct society. It requires an understanding of the “contingencies” or choices which exist for reorganizing society. This means an alternative to apathy (the idea that things can’t change so why bother to do anything) and “voluntarism” (the belief that any change we want we can get). The problem of “aiming too low,” trying to get too little, is that the most comprehensive changes allow groups to start accumulating capital as opposed to being objects of capital accumulation, e.g. it is better to run your own radio station than be someone else’s guest on their program in the long run. The problem of “aiming too high,” trying to get too much, is that coalitions often require alliances with those having many resources. Those who have significant resources usually enter into coalitions without giving up their relationship to power accumulation or control systems (systems that allow for various hierarchies to continue). Also, groups with few resources may find it difficult to gain any political victories by pursuing very comprehensive strategies (like starting their own bank, radio station or mass political movement).
There are several ways to resolve this potential tradeoff between thinking “too small” and thinking “too big.” First, organizations of the disenfranchised can lobby those with more power for comprehensive programs. One example may to lobbying trade unions, integration authorities or parliament members. The limit to this approach is that established actors may be satisfied with the status quo, being dependent upon political parties or governments that don’t want changes.
A second approach is to critique the waste of resources that could better be spent for power accumulation programs (equitable economic development). The strategy of critiquing established power relations could involve fighting for alternative national budget priorities. This approach risks alienating powerful actors, but does have the advantage is deflating arguments that there are no resources to promote more comprehensive solutions. The argument used by governments and corporations alike that much can’t be done because of “scarcity” (limited budgets or constraints of profitability) is a powerful weapon used by established interests.
A third approach would be to develop a political organizing strategy which maintained a comprehensive vision but built up the organizational resources of actors within established networks. A variety of approaches could be used:
- The creation of a network between professionals seeking political change and networks of immigrant groups. The professionals support study circles and provide technical assistance.
- The creation of an organizing campaign, funded by a series of fundraising events, in which posters, handing out information at events, and canvassing door-to-door in immigrant dense neighborhoods built up a mass membership base. As the group built up resources, it would organize study circles, public meetings, and public protests to promote its agenda. An internet site in different languages could also be used to promote the group’s agenda through radio links, chat rooms, etc.
- Networking of stand alone, separate businesses, into a cooperative franchises (see Feldman and Nembhard, 2002). A bank is approached to fund a franchise with common logos, training systems and advertising linking diverse businesses in similar lines of work. The network of businesses lobbies government, universities, foundations and authorities for supports that allowed for greater technical support and systems for modernization (access to information and communications technology, time and space in various related learning and development spaces from cooking schools to music studios etc.).
The limits of alliances between different kinds of groups, like peace and immigrant groups, are that the former is dominated by members of the PMC and persons who very often are economically established in the system. As noted above, the discussion among different social change groups is fragmented into single issues that are often treated as separate problems (Melman, 1987). Some peace activists don’t make an issue of the size of the domestic military budget, but simply oppose wars. Likewise, many environmentalists are interested in opposing particular energy projects but may not want to build new platforms for democratic participation. On the other hand, there are persons with immigrant backgrounds and those having radical views in the peace movement. In every social movement persons can be found who support a common agenda. The largest problem is the “intellectual” one, i.e. the ways in which common problems have been fragmented by journalists, professors, authorities, foundations, political leaders, etc.
Systems of Growth and Extension in Social Movements
There are several potential foundations that provide a basis for dynamic and rapid accumulation of power. These refer to the ways in which a small group of persons (initially isolated) can multiply their influence in a way that builds power on a larger and larger scale. The idea is that power can be extended from a local group to larger networks of groups. Extension builds on various multiplier effects tied to the more efficient use of resources (through for example workplace democracy or Internet networks that reach millions of decentralized citizens), economies of scale and the creation of focal points for discussion. While social change movements constantly complain that they lack resources, this lack of resources are partly based on an inability to access systems that systematically accumulate power (Feldman, 2000).
One key consideration is that younger generations are sometimes more open to new ideas (having been exposed less to “control systems” in their education), although they themselves may be cut off from fundamental traditions associated with a comprehensive vision of the world. At the very least, there is a large group of young persons in Swedish society who have not been connected to or who have been left confused by the intellectual crisis that allows powerless people to remain so.
In the economic sphere of work organization, several studies show that worker participation and control leads to increased productivity and growth. These enterprises can be more competitive than non-participatory ones, particularly if they gain the right kind of technical and financial support (Feldman and Nembhard, 2002; Melman, 1958; Melman, 1975; Melman, 2001). These supports can come from social mobilization, which itself depends on organizations or movements that promote participation and control.
In the sphere of consumption and design, user participation can lead to improvements upon designs and the way things are used (Feldman, 2001). Often it is only approaches “from below,” from users and not designers, that identify how products and services can be based on optimal design solutions. The user sometimes has knowledge of needs and criteria for how a product is actually used that the designer does not understand. User-based knowledge can lead to products, services and programs that work as opposed to those that fail. The designer often lacks knowledge about the user. As a result, democratic initiatives can actually be more efficient, likely to grow and succeed, than non-democratic ones.
In the sphere of politics, a well motivated, organized and informed public creates a constituency or market for political entrepreneurs. Isolated, unmotivated and politically unconscious citizens and voters can be more easily ignored. As a result, strategies that motivate, organize and inform citizens can create leverage with respect to decision makers. The benefit of a mass meeting is that it creates an audience, such audiences attract politicians. The space opened up between the meeting and the politicians can produce leverage or power. Multiple mass meetings, held simultaneously, and linked to electronic broadcasts act as a powerful magnet to attract politicians. These create audiences for politicians, i.e. consumers of politicians’ political goods (Feldman, 2000).
In the sphere of the media, channels of communication also build audiences (Feldman, 2000). If social change groups can organize a permanent space of control in the media (radio, TV or internet, etc.), then they can continually build a chain of audiences and gain leverage with respect to key decision makers.
The growth of worker controlled workplaces, audiences, entrepreneurial networks and persons knowledgeable about how designs function can produce mutually supporting processes that accumulate power. This is one basis for the capitalist system and its success. It uses economic control over the workplace and the sale of products to promote political objectives. It uses control over design processes and production of commodities and services to gain sales. It uses media power in advertising to build markets. It integrates media, economic and political spaces to its advantage. Political movements rarely do this. That is one reason why they are often relatively powerless.
The economic dependency of non-profit organizations and social movements on the State, renders them captives of the state and its agenda. It is not a recipe for a comprehensive democracy. In every election cycle, we have discussions about the limits of the market and the problems caused by cutting social benefits or the limits of the government and its inefficient bureaucracies. Each argument has its strengths and weaknesses as there can be failure in both the state and market. One problem is that those who criticize the government fail to explain the need for regulation and the impact of cutbacks on the most vulnerable. The other problem is that those who support entrepreneurship and innovation fail to explain who benefits most from such developments. Not all government bureaucracies and firms are alike. Some are more responsible, effective, and democratic (less hierarchical and more participatory) than others. Political leaders should explain how to redesign institutions. Instead, they use elections to celebrate the achievements of the welfare state or the market. They mislead the people. If society had more companies that were efficient, democratic, networked and socially responsible, there would be less need for government intervention. Market advocates don’t care much about this, but neither do big government advocates. With outsourcing and casualization as a growing threat to jobs, the reorganization of workplace systems is critical. This is a process that the government can support, but ultimately requires economic democracy.
Four Questions Related to Community Development and Democracy
A starting point for developing a strategy for equitable community development raises many questions that can form the basis for our discussions. First, how do we define our community, what are its borders? Are they confined to the neighborhood, the city, or the nation we live in? Some argue that we live in a “global village,” a term which refers to the international connections between different kinds of communities. Jobs move from Sweden to Poland and China, but communities in these countries buy Swedish products as well. Yet, the elimination of jobs through “outsourcing” and relocation of business overseas can limit the budgetary resources of the government and the income possibilities of Swedish residents. Yet, even if we ignore “globalization” —the name attached to such problems—some communities have better options than others because of problems originating at the local level (like the way social inclusion or exclusion proceeds in the education system).
Second, what problems does our community have? Do many residents lack jobs or well qualified, high paying ones? Who gets such jobs in the local economy and who does not? Do local businesses have enough customers to expand properly, or do other communities in the city attract more business? If they do, why do they? What public or governmental resources are put in our local community and who has access to them? Do certain groups benefit rather than others? How can we develop our local businesses so that they are more effective and distribute their resources more equitably? Do we like the way local, regional or national governments decide upon problems and solve them? Do we agree about national budgetary priorities or even have a good idea about what they are? Do schools teach students what they need to know or have the resources they need to solve problems of adjustment and integration? If immigrants face language barriers, are resources expended to properly teach Swedish in well designed language classes?
Third, what kind of community would we like to have? The answer could explore the jobs we work at, the way decisions are made in the local workplace or government, the media or cultural resources available to us, the ways in which we relate to our neighbors, the buildings we live in, the landscape that surrounds these buildings and many other questions.
Fourth, how can we realize our vision for the community we would want? Where should we act and what should be our priorities? Can we solve local problems if we can’t control decisions made by national governments or global corporations? Can we act on a global or even national level without organizing locally? How do we get political power to realize or promote our vision for an alternative society? What tools and resources do we need to implement an alternative vision?
In some cases these questions can be addressed in formal “scenario workshops,” described below, that bring together different kinds of actors who can address problems and solutions related to democratic community development.
Why and How are Alternative Visions Opposed? Powerlessness for Some is Power for Others
Very few people these days seem to be able to solve important problems related to citizen powerlessness, unemployment, inequality, and discrimination. There is a lot of talk in the media and universities about these topics, political rhetoric, academic studies, and governmental reports. One could ask who is responsible for acting on these and why this knowledge does not lead to action. It may be that those satisfied with the status quo have the knowledge or resources to act, and those that don’t have either knowledge or power are dissatisfied with present arrangements.
Without alternative models of how society could be organized or the choices that exist for designing society, the default mode is for most people to accept as given what incumbent decision makers have chosen. In philosophy a basic question is the extent to which people are free to act in circumstances that are given. As argued, a central question is the extent to which people have choices about the way society is organized. Yet, most discussions in the media, universities, parliament, trade unions, and other spheres take for granted the basic distribution of society and the design of its institutions. Most political leaders, academics, journalists, architects and others in the professional-managerial class take for granted the current design or configuration of society. One reason is that these professionals benefit from the status quo because as professionals they exercise some degree of power in the system, e.g. shaping budgets, students, media content, buildings, etc. Moreover, these professionals often share interests associated with their world view that makes them disinterested in altering the status quo. For the many of these groups the status quo is acceptable because many don’t have to live with its worse consequences: aesthetically marginalized neighborhoods, unemployment (or menial and insecure jobs), and feelings of powerlessness.
The Professional-Managerial Class and its allied political and economic elites have several strategies they use to limit the ability of dissidents, or those unhappy with the system, to gain influence in it. The strategies used to limit the power of dissidents include:
A) The rules of the game are defined such that it is hard to voice criticisms of the system. One example occurs when architects are forced to obey politicians who seek power, but are not necessarily housing that meets peoples’ needs. The politicians focus on building the quantity of housing (hoping for votes), but are less concerned about its quality. Universities employ professors who do positivistic studies but less rarely conceive of alternative ways of designing society because such alternatives can not be empirically studied. The argument given is that a better society does not exist anywhere or an alternative way of doing something does not exist, therefore we can not make improvements. The bureaucrats making these arguments would accept the logic of slaveholders that slavery is a fact we have to live with. Ideas from foreigners are treated as naïve, irrelevant, or simple minded. Journalists are supposed to be “neutral” and give equal treatment to the views of persons without power and those with power.
B) Opponents are marginalized and treated as “non-cooperative” or “psychologically maladjusted.” Those who speak out are criticized not for the substance of what they say, but how they say it. Sometimes the problem is that critics are “angry” or “hostile.” The logic here is similar to the one that suggests that slaves should be psychologically “well adjusted” or perhaps see a psychologist. In Soviet Russia, dissidents were sent to medical institutions and locked up. Radicals are viewed as impartial, psychologically unbalanced, or using “too harsh” language.
C) Resources are monopolized by the dominant actors in the system and potential sources of “countervailing power”—like trade unions, global justice networks, or peace groups—either lack resources, are co-opted or presented with their “doubles” in the form of bureaucratic authorities. In the former case, we can compare the budgets of Sweden’s peace organizations on the one hand and those of the Defense Ministry, Saab Aerospace and government defense minded think tanks on the other. In the latter case, co-optation, dissidents are bought off with tokenistic or small scale forms of participation that look authentic, but are meaningless. Tokenistic approaches include inviting dissident leaders to meetings but then doing very little to satisfy their demands. One means of co-optation is to employ dissidents, put them in offices and give them jobs with very few budgetary resources. Another form of cooptation is to create authorities that have one mission, but actually have hidden missions. The defense ministry may have less to do with security against a terrorist attack than to keep Swedish military industries going. These hidden missions sometimes take the form of creating government bureaucracies identified with a problem but the authorities are ill equipped to do much of anything about the problem. The integration authority may have less to do with integration than to keep the integration industry going. These “doubles” show that something is being done about a problem and can be used to show social movements that their functions are redundant. Sometimes the government gives a social movement miniscule amounts of money to show that they support their goals (fighting arms exports). These amounts can be unfavorably compared to military budgets.
D) Symbols are created that appear to solve problems but basically do nothing. I have just described the problem of creating “doubles.” In some cases, large scale investigations, programs or authorities are created that are ostensibly designed to solve a problem, like immigrant powerlessness or unemployment, but do nothing. The main reason why they do nothing is that they often reproduce the mantra that immigrants are powerlessness and lack resources. Or, they propose ad hoc, small scale, interventions that do not lead immigrant groups to be on a path to accumulate power. Or, they fund initiatives that help perhaps twelve, twenty or two hundred immigrants, but do nothing to help tens of thousands more. These initiatives do not investigate how immigrants can accumulate economic, political and media power. They are interested in small, slow moving initiatives that do nothing. They produce a few fish when what is required is a fishing pole. They produce a few pizza shops, when what is required is dozens of engineers (or a franchise network of pizza owners). They put a few immigrant leaders on the TV, when what is required is a multi-ethnic television program committed to democracy and power accumulation. The produce “ethnic studies” research when what is required is “democracy and power accumulation” studies. They describe how immigrants are kept out of low paying jobs, when what is also required is an investigation of how to gain good paying jobs.
E) Opponents are repressed or crushed. Ultimately, if the above ways to marginalize opponents fail, a standard recourse is to simply repress and crush opponents. Dissidents are fired from their jobs, put in prison, or—in the worse cases—shot at. This doesn’t happen very often, but then again strong forms of dissent don’t often happen either. Most people “obey the rules” because doing otherwise will limit one’s ability to be hired, get financial support, be heard in the mass media, or gain the attention of politicians. In the short run, these systems of control are very effective. In the long run, the creation of alternative forms of power forces those creating these systems to listen.
A Criteria for Democratic Power Accumulation and Equitable Economic Development
A fundamental principle in economic democracy is that property rights and individual economic competition among working people constrains opportunities and promotes inequalities. Centralized government control over the economy can create dangers, however, as public bureaucratic interests can limit citizen inputs just as much as private, corporate interests can: “What was known in the Soviet Union as the Nomenklatura seemed to emerge in some form in every state in which a movement took control—that is, a privileged caste of higher officials with more power and more real wealth than the rest of the population” (Wallerstein, 2002: 263). So the problem is not simply that private interests decide and private property exists. Rather, the problem is how decisions are organized such that greater numbers of people are engaged in formulating the decisions that are made. This occurs, for example, when working people seek to reduce their alienation in decision making systems, i.e. the system by which they have little power to make decisions and control outcomes. In the “structure of workers’ decisions…the executor of the decision is also its formulator” (Cohen, 1976: 525). Democracy is therefore based upon instances when workers can make decisions in which one is both the designer, conceiver or “formulator,” and the person who carries out or executes the decision. One core problem in most capitalist decision making is that decision making power and responsibility are divorced from one another (Melman, 1975). In sum, a system of economic democracy depends on broadening the number and kinds of persons who are decision makers.
Democracy, therefore, refers to a system and set of actions that enables various groups to have increasingly greater decision making power over various aspects of their lives. Just as decision making can be broadened “from below” by involving workers and letting them act as designers, so too can planning processes be decided from below: “it is better if city planning is done by competitive projects, exhibited, explained, and submitted to a popular referendum, rather than handed down by official agencies.” Even if people were to make bad choices, “they would be educated in the process, and in the fairly short run there would be better planning” (Goodman, 1962: 21-22).
The creation of systems that broaden the ability of immigrants to gain employment in increasingly better forms of work and create communities that allow individuals to develop themselves or to achieve higher levels of economic development is a central part of any democratic program. A low level of development corresponds to joblessness, lower paid work, or living areas which residents perceive as being “undesirable” or lacking certain aspects that meet needs they have, e.g. a balance of green space and living space. Some argue that immigrant dense neighborhoods are given a negative “stigma” or unfair reputation as places of poverty, ugly spaces, crime and unemployment. Others, argue that such neighborhoods are interesting places to live which could do even better if their residents had more power to shape their economic, political and physical environment. Resisting the stigma, won’t produce jobs but communities burdened by stigmas find it more difficult to gain resources or power to achieve their goals.
Democratic community development is a process by which local residents as citizens, workers, local residents and consumers act collectively to realize their goals. Such development requires defining problems and posing solutions but also building various kinds of networks (or organizations) to solve different kinds of problems.
This essay has used the idea of democracy to explore various processes by which various communities are excluded from achieving their vision of what a “good” or well developed community is. This requires a discussion first of what we do not like in the community including the various problems people living in it have. It also requires a discussion about what a desirable community would look like in all its forms: political, economic, architectural, etc. The gap between these two visions is often a democratic problem because some groups have more power or ability to realize (or come closer to) their desired community than others.
Linking Visions to Action
There are different ways to initiate and organize a democratic community development process that links our vision for the future to actions for achieving the kind of society we want.
Stage 1: Defining Core Values
One core value associated with democracy is equality. One dimension of equality relates to power. A key question is “the balance of power” among different groups. Some groups have more power than others and thus do not have equal opportunities or abilities to make claims on resources. One can speak of an equality in power relations among groups. The attempt to decrease inequalities in the distribution of power and the pursuit of democracy are linked because if one group has more power than another than that group can subvert democratic decision making.
As a result, in order to overcome these problems—or at least limit them—it is necessary to develop several organizational innovations. These include first the creation of “accountability systems” that make elected leaders responsive to citizen interests and desires after they are elected. For various reasons, the established public and private media, cannot always play this role. Second, citizens must gain the benefit of some kind of system that acts as a bridge to expert knowledge. These bridges can take a variety of forms that are part of fulfilling a democratic vision.
Expert opinion should not be a foundation for organizing democracy because “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests as to become a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is not knowledge at all.” One example is that “the man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied” (Dewey, 1954: 207). Furthermore, disagreements among experts and the limited knowledge that even politicians have access to suggests that elites may be as divorced from certain kinds of expertise as the mass of citizens. As a result, one problem within democracy is how a given set of ideas is produced (or reproduced) and used to inform decisions at the exclusion of other sets of ideas. For example, journalists, planning agencies, research boards, foundations and university departments may promote some ideas and not others. As a result, one part of democratic explorations could be to explore the history of different ideas and who originated them (as well as whose interests were served and not served by them).
Many on the Left and Right do not care about ethical considerations. They do not care about whether democratic processes are used in organizing themselves. They don’t know how to sustain or build up accountability structures. The exchange of political favors among unions, corporations, government and universities constrains democracy and an ethical ordering of the world.
Economic Equality and Solidarity
Sometimes divisions exist among working people, students, or voters because of the way in which the economy or political programs are organized to help some groups more than others. One key problem is younger people, older people, women and persons with immigrant backgrounds can lack access to employment or the higher status, better paying and more qualified jobs in the economy. The different occupational interests of groups (defined by their narrow economic interests) can influence political differences as to whether to support programs to help poorer citizens, e.g. through taxation levels or allocations within the budget. This does not mean that high taxes necessarily produce good programs (see discussion below), but it could mean that defense engineers might support military research and development programs but be less interested in initiatives to promote science and engineering education among more disadvantaged groups.
Differences between men and women, older and younger persons, immigrant and non-immigrant, persons higher and lower in the occupational hierarchy can each shape the ways in which political and economic decisions are made or the way in which individuals act towards one another. These differences can break down the solidaristic coalitions which unite people on common interests. In some cases, however, differences between these interests prevent the formation of such coalitions. One problem emerges when racism creates divides in a coalition (Cruse, 1970). These differences can sometimes be exaggerated and overcome with common projects like cooperatives or universal benefits, something ignored by separatist rhetoric that says coalitions between different ethnic groups are impossible (cf, Lasch, 1968; Rothstein, 1998b).
There are also ethical considerations or values that can take precedence over such differences of interest. One key ethical consideration is that all persons in a society should have the equal ability to gain qualified, well paid, and stable jobs. Another key principle is that citizens of all kinds should cooperate to redistribute the wealth of society to promote a process that supports this goal. The strategies for achieving this goal are not always clear and involve a debate about economic development policy.
Efficiency, Productivity and the Value of User and Worker Participation
One key question in such a debate is whether or not to raise or lower taxes. In Sweden, a country of relatively high taxation, the problem may be less the level of taxes than the ways in which certain higher income groups gain tax exemptions or the ways in which tax monies are spent and redistributed. A fundamental problem in many cases is that taxation revenues are redistributed in the form of bureaucratic organizations, staffed by relatively unqualified persons, which have enough revenues to employ administrators but insufficient revenues to actually get very far in their goals. In the case of universities, corporations or government agencies the problem might less be that they lack resources than the way they spend the resources they actually have. The way organizations spend resources in turn depends on the values of those leading the organizations, so part of the problem may simply be one of values, e.g. making profits is more important than supporting diversity, supporting rhetoric about diversity is more important than equality, or supporting equality is more important than supporting competence. The linkage of competence and equality is important because having “diverse” organizations that are not competent simply enforces the opinions of those antagonistic to diversity. Moreover, competence, sometimes linked to knowledge or efficiency, is an important goal in and of itself.
A systematic problem in any democracy or economy is the distribution of scarce resources. Key problems exist as to whether or not there are sufficient resources for training programs, jobs, budgets for neighborhood improvements and the like. Yet, while formal programs or organizations exist to take care of these problems, they often fail. One key reason for organizational failure, whether in designing products, services, policies or organizations, is the gap between those who design and use. This gap corresponds to the power of product or policy designers on the one hand and those “consumers” or users of products or policies on the other. Therefore, the participation of citizens, workers, users (or consumers) and residents (or tenants) can jointly promote the goals of democracy and efficiency (or productivity).
Efficiency and productivity are important goals because without them established figures in government and corporations can diminish or abolish the redistribution of resources to citizens or workers. For example, governments can claim that they lack the financial resources to pay for a training program. Or, governments can design housing that they argue is cheaper. In some cases, as noted, programs that don’t perform well will be cancelled. The so-called “neo-liberal” and laissez-faire argument is that the government rarely performs well. In contrast, the failures of the market or the way corporations are run also leads to problems, e.g. pollution, unemployment, badly designed products, failed reinvestment to sustain competitiveness, etc. Companies can always claim that work related to manufacturing and services can be done more cheaply overseas. There are several ways to respond to such arguments but one key way is to raise the competence and efficiency of work done within a country. There are other values besides efficiency and productivity that need to be considered such as equality, environmental sustainability, and democracy. Sometimes these goals are in conflict but other times they are not. In some cases, cooperative experiments in housing and manufacturing combine productivity and efficiency in ways rarely appreciated by most established politicians.
If bureaucratic organizations often fail because of the divide between designers (or program administrators) and users (or program recipients), a key value is to support initiatives that diminish this divide. The divide is usually based on the greater power and lesser knowledge or designers and the lesser power and greater knowledge of users. Therefore, one solution is to give users greater knowledge and power, through “platforms” that promote this goal.
Stage 2: Gaining Knowledge
The second stage of democratic community development would be to develop a common exploration for what an alternative society, community or even development program would look like. This process can involve the creation of study groups, such as a class about democracy, and be supported by more public events like lectures, or links to experts and professionals inside or outside the university system. In any planning process we need to have a good idea about choice or alternatives. One way to gain knowledge about choices is to think about models or examples of alternatives and how such models compare to current needs and the local situation facing a community. The academic world discusses these examples as “case studies,” sometimes presenting examples of how different organizations or policies function. The reason why professionals are important is that they often have specialized knowledge which is unevenly distributed in the population. When the media, public or politicians discuss making changes in policies, often experts make claims about problems being within their “jurisdiction” and argue that non-experts will make bad choices. The problem is that often the experts are wrong. Examples of experts who got it wrong can be seen when training programs fail, badly designed public housing is destroyed or deteriorates, and organizations go out of business or loose government support.
One way to promote democratic community development is to study why societies, communities, organizations and programs fail or succeed. This study can help in the design of initiatives to advance alternatives. The goal is to explore alternative models of societies, communities, organizations and programs. The ability to apply the lessons of such knowledge depends on gaining the necessary resources and power to act on this knowledge. Ultimately, however, the lessons about why a particular program or organization fails in one place at a given time with one leadership may not be applicable to another place, time and leadership. Sometimes scholars argue that a given democratic organization or network developed because of the unique culture or solidaristic links among the community supporting this organization. At other times, however, the heterogeneity or differences in time, place, leadership and culture can be exaggerated because this exaggeration helps maintain the status quo.
One way to resolve whether or not a model is applicable is through study, discussion and experimentation to test out what elements of an alternative work (or might work) and which don’t (or wouldn’t) work. The ability to conduct such experiments often depends on resources that allow demonstrations or models of alternatives. Therefore, one needs the power (or resources) to cultivate alternative designs (for communities, organizations and programs) based on knowledge or specifications for successful programs. Politicians, bureaucrats or corporate leaders can simply argue that they know best and things have to be done the way they have been. In contrast, if one can promote alternative designs (or experiments) that are successful, then these arguments will have less ability to influence the public. In any case, one of the biggest barriers to the promotion and extension of alternative models is that those advocating them are usually a small minority with very little power to influence outcomes. Therefore, the accumulation of power (linked to knowledge and key ethical principles elaborated earlier) is a central part of democratic community development.
Stage 3: Linking Power and Knowledge
The Problem of Consciousness and Individualization
If power is necessary to develop and implement an alternative model, then the next central question to explore the different kinds of power which exist and how power can be defined. One way to define power is two compare two groups or sets of actors and explore whether one group (group A) can influence the other, (group B) to do things that it would not otherwise want to do. A related idea is that power relates to who decides priorities and whose priorities define decisions that are made. The limit behind such ideas is that sometimes we are not fully aware (or conscious) of the extent to which we are influenced in making our decisions. Our values or choices can be influenced by other actors in ways that we do not fully understand. This means that sometimes A gets B to do things that A wants without B ever having been forced into anything it didn’t want to do. Desires and preferences can be channeled and controlled. In the 1960s, feminists discussed the ways in which they did things that were in men’s interests but not necessarily their own. This was called, “consciousness raising.” Today, there is very little such activity carried out in a formal basis as to who has power and influence and who does not. Sometimes the lack of power is understood, but people believe that little can be done about it. The advantage of raising consciousness is that when a great many people discuss their lack of power they can begin to appreciate that their problems are not individualistic, limited to themselves alone, but are shared by others. When individuals share this awareness in a group, they begin to feel and think in a less atomized way, i.e. they begin to think about their individual problem as a collective one, shared by others. They don’t think of the other person as someone who has problems that are not their own, they think of “the other” person as someone who might have the very same problems.
This idea of atomization, the experience of social or collective problems as individual ones, is a systemic part of our society. The process often starts in the education system in which students relate to each other in competitive environments, striving for grades or reward systems that are individualized. In the workplace, the same individualized norms or measuring systems exist where the worker or professional is assessed by what they achieve as individuals rather than what they contribute to the larger society around them. In some cultures, education and work is organized in a more collective fashion with collective rewards to groups of individuals rather than to specific individuals. Yet, the pattern of individualized rewards and thinking in education and work is rather pervasive. This process of atomization (or individualization) continues in the mass media systems used to organize culture, where the audience is largely a passive spectator that consumes newspapers, radio, television, and cinema broadcasts. A related point is that these broadcasts may not reflect the interests and needs of the spectator, i.e. they are alien to these needs.
Decentralized political groups, study circles, consciousness raising groups, and scenario workshops are different kinds of arenas than the individualized one. In such groups, there may be a greater likelihood that the way in which questions are “framed” (or specified) will respond to the needs or interests of a given individual. The factors that promote this likelihood depends on whether or not these individuals set the agenda or play a role in setting the agenda relate to the content of what takes place, i.e. is not set by a newspaper reporter, radio journalist, television producer, or Hollywood production company. These actors can function as “intermediaries” who filter reality into experiences that can be alien or different from the ways in which we experience reality. This can take concrete form when, for example, immigrants are discussed simply as perpetuators of crimes or terrorist acts rather than as groups with a lack of political and economic power.
Electronic and print journalism can be organized in ways which better relate to citizen experiences. Study circles, scenario workshops and local political groups can have their own “intermediaries” who dominant the questions that are framed. In the past this has proven a problem, for example, when groups mobilizing around one problem reproduce another. Sometimes majorities can have “false consciousness” about their interests, a false awareness that they may share with the mass media. As a result, we need to think clearly about the kinds of arenas for learning and exchanging information and how they are designed. The problems of “false consciousness” are considerably diminished by study and experimentation because these can contribute towards revealing dogma (an accepted set of ideas—usually from the past—repeated without critical reflection) and opinions by authorities that are arbitrary and don’t necessarily reflect needs or the realities of what can work.
Conclusions: Developing Organizational Innovations
The limits of diversity and anti-discrimination policies suggests that a more comprehensive alternative might be to design new kinds of initiatives that create a basis for reconfiguring the design of society. This reconfiguration requires the development of new planning strategies, networks and tasks for existing organizations. The social critic, Paul Goodman, advocated a strategy of “utopian planning,” which built on both the potential possibilities created by technology and the pragmatic tradition of thinkers like John Dewey. The former creates “alternative choices of power, raw materials, location, tooling, and a surplus for transition and retooling.” It creates the potential for decentralization instead of centralization, “with probably equivalent efficiency” (Goodman, 1962: 4-5). The latter, pragmatic tradition, encourages experimentation and treating the political process as one in which potential solutions must continually be tested out. That means that “the experimenter must risk confusion and conflict, and try out untested expedients” (Goodman, 1962: 19).
One example would be to change existing programs in the schools of journalism, business and architecture or opened up public broadcasting to excluded voices. Alternatives could emerged if new programs were developed that gave excluded groups the ability to access the laboratories, studios and workshops found in corporations and businesses so they could establish their own entrepreneurial platforms for accumulating diverse forms of capital and power. These could include architectural workshops to build the kinds of housing people want (or at least prototypes of alternatives). They could include documentaries that documented local neighborhood problems or economic inequality. They could include the design of CDs that examined the limits of hierarchical and bureaucratic workplaces. These alternative designs could generate prototypes and demonstration models that highlighted alternatives. A necessary correlate of this agenda would be to expand the intellectual horizons of what is taught at the secondary school level and to provide programs and supports that promote interest in these topics at a much earlier level.
The passivity of youth is partly based on the ways in which educational programs are often divorced from questions that immediately pertain to how people work and live. At the very least, classical questions of democracy, technology and science could better be related to these questions so as to increase the motivation, interest and performance of students. One example of the problem at hand was identified by Paul Goodman:
In our educational system, too much is spent for plant and not enough for teachers. Why not try, as a pilot project, doing without the school building altogether for a few hundred kids for most of the day? Conceive of a teacher in charge of a band of ten, using the city itself as the material for the curriculum and the background for the teaching. Since we are teaching for life, try to get a little closer to it. My guess is that one could considerably diminish the use of present classrooms and so not have to increase their number (Goodman, 1962: 13).
An equivalent experiment might be to introduce students to visit alternative models for organizing schools, companies, and democratic processes, providing direct connections to living laboratories. These participatory experiments could then be linked to classical writings on these topics. While such experiments may be expensive, they might be worth the investment if they produced both a more creative and democratic society, i.e. there would be economic and political dividends.
The problem then would be to generate financing to produce these models and make the public aware of them. One way to do this would be to organize individuals into new networks linking the Internet, mass media, and publicly responsive banking organizations. These new networks of media and financial power could promote alternative models and prototypes. A key role could be played by museums, galleries, and other public “display spaces” that highlighted these alternatives in the larger culture.
The resources necessary to design and build such alternative networks approach the scale of political parties and certainly the kinds of resources jointly held by trade unions, universities, museums, and movie producers. The scale of such resources are equivalent to many different governmental programs including new military jet fighters or dysfunctional training programs.