cj#836-2/2> gri.c5 — re: achieving functional democracy

1998-09-26

Richard Moore

[continued...]

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Functional democracy -- is it a utopian vision?
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
So far this chapter has been an investigation into functional democracy, an
attempt to identify why Western systems fail to be democratic, and an
attempt to identify the processes necessary for functional democracy. In
this investigation, perhaps ironically, models from sound corporate
management practices have proven to be particularly useful.

In this investigation, I have not simply invented models -- my goal is not
to be a creative designer of societal systems. What I have tried to do is to
look closely at the problems to be solved, based on the requirements of
functional democracy, and to seek to identify how similar problems are
routinely solved in today's societies. I have tried to follow a scientific
approach: analysis followed by synthesis, with each step carefully argued
and substantiated by due consideration of all relevant issues.

An interesting question at this point can be asked regarding the uniqueness
of the solutions that have been articulated. Are there other systems which
would be equally promising or more promising, in the achievement of
functional democracy? In some sense this question is difficult to answer --
who can guarantee, in any situation, that better approaches might not come
along? But in another sense, I don't think there is that much room for
fundamental variation in solutions to the problem of achieving functional
democracy.

Our citizens' test is a very strong requirement, and certain basic
characteristics must be present in a society for that requirement to be
satisfied:

     Necessary characteristics of a functional democracy
     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
     If a general sense of participation is to be assured to the
     members of society, then local communities must, as communities,
     have a similar sense of control over their own destiny. In order
     for communities to develop such a sense, the people must work
     together as a community in addressing the problems they face as a
     community. In order that the wider society include the needs of
     all in its problem solving, localities must work out their agendas
     regarding society-wide issues and those agendas must be
     represented at society-wide (central) collaborative sessions.

It is difficult to see how functional democracy could be reliably achieved
without at least the above fundamental characteristics being present in the
solution. If any one of these characteristics is not in some way satisfied,
there is a clear feedback problem: the information necessary to achieve
functional democracy either won't be generated, or it won't be reliably
delivered to where it is needed, or it won't be appropriately incorporated
into societal problem solving.

If indeed we have succeeded in identifying the essential and necessary
characteristics of a functional democracy, several questions naturally
arise. There is the question that heads this chapter: Is functional
democracy itself, along with the characteristics that have been identified,
utopian? Or can such systems be realistically implemented, and will they
function as intended? These kinds of questions can only be answered
empirically -- by testing in the real world.

Fortunately, there are real-world examples we can look at, and even better,
the examples are current ones. There are societies today in which the
fundamental elements that have been identified above have in fact been
implemented, and where very promising results have been achieved in terms of
functional democracy and certification by the citizens' test.

The first example is one most readers have probably never heard of, and the
second example is one that most readers have heard about frequently in the
mass media, but most of what they've heard has been untrue. The first
example is a participatory budgeting project ("PB-POA") that has been going
on since 1989 in Porto Alegre, capital city of Rio Grande do Sul, the
southernmost state of Brazil. The second example is the political system of
Cuba.

These examples will be presented in the two following sections. Both are
based on local citizen collaboration in problem solving, both have achieved
remarkable results in terms of sound societal operation, and in both cases
general citizen satisfaction with the system is very high. These examples
demonstrate that the principles of functional democracy developed in this
investigation are neither utopian nor limited to theory: the principles can
be implemented, they can perform as intended, and they can achieve
functional democratic governance.

The claim being made in this chapter is a rather strong one: There are
certain principles of democratic governance, enumerated above, that are both
necessary and sufficient to achieve functional democracy, provided that the
principles are appropriately implemented, and that surrounding conditions
permit them to operate effectively. In other words: functional democracy is
achievable, its implementation must incorporate certain essential
characteristics, and those characteristics have been identified.

If this claim is a valid one, then these characteristics can be of
considerable value in informing a movement to overcome elite domination and
move toward livable, sustainable societies. The characteristics can guide
the operation of the movement itself, making it both democratic and
effective at solving movement problems. And an understanding of the
requirements of democracy and of sustainability informs the political agenda
of the movement, so that it can focus its efforts on achieving systemic
societal transformation, and avoid the pursuit of reforms which may be
superficially appealing, but which do not lead to functional democracy, and
hence can never overcome elite domination nor achieve sustainable societies.


PB-POA -- local democracy in Brazil
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Following the adoption of a new Federal Constitution in 1988, and spurred by
the inability of the central government to provide adequate services, Brazil
has experienced an unprecedented period of decentralization during the
nineties. There has been a strengthening of civil society and a good deal of
innovation in the development of local, participatory, democratic systems.
[footnote to be provided to a paper by Zander Navarro]

Of particular interest to this investigation are the experiences of the
Participatory Budgeting project (PB) in Porto Alegre. In this project,
community associations and other organized social sectors were mobilized to
solve the problem of how to best utilize municipal funds. The project has
been a considerable success in several different ways.

First, the mobilization itself was successful. The level of participation
has been high enough that the entire city feels itself involved in the
process. Second, the problem-solving process used is collaborative and
inclusive, rather than factional. Mechanisms have been developed so that
city-wide policies can be harmonized from the requirements determined by the
various constituencies. Third, the results for the city were outstanding.
Porto Alegra has a solid record of healthy financial management, and
municipal services are indeed carried out according to the democratically
determined priorities.

In this example, the functional democratic process occurs outside of the
electoral political system. The various community organizations, and the
overall PB organizing structure, have no official governmental mandate. They
are institutions of the civil society, and the validity of the budget they
develop arises solely from the fact that everyone knows that it expresses
the will of the people generally. The elected city officials routinely
accept the PB-developed budget; any other course would make little political
sense.

Porto Alegra is an example of what we have been calling a locality within
the larger Brazilian society. Within its borders, and within the domain of
budgeting, it seems fair to say that Porto Alegra has achieved a functional
democracy, and one that has the essential characteristics previously
identified. The system in Porto Alegra is multi-level, so it even
demonstrates, in microcosm, that it is possible to harmonize problem-solving
among several smaller localities by appropriate use of delegates. If Brazil
as a whole employed a similar system. Porto Alegra would be well-prepared to
make its contribution to problem solving in the larger society by sending a
representative delegation.

Some readers may be skeptical at this point, asking themselves if there is a
dark side to this Brazilian story, if there are failures in this PB system.
There may be some failures, but that misses the point. No system is perfect,
but a system that has the basic formula right is capable of being improved
over time. A system that has the basic formula wrong, as do Western
democracies, can never be made right, although there are infinite
opportunities for would-be reformers to expend their energy in pointless
attempts.


Cuba -- functional democracy on a national scale
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
I must assume that many readers, when they see the name Cuba, immediately
think "dictatorship" and "refugees". To such readers it must seem absurd to
cite Cuba as an exemplary democratic system. I can only say that Cuba has
been the subject of decades-long disinformation campaign, particularly in
the US media. The successes of socialist Cuba show the lie of capitalist
rhetoric, and a defamatory media campaign has been the chosen rebuttal,
along with embargoes and all other manner of harassment by the US.

From sources outside the mass media one gets a quite different picture of
Cuba, one that can by no means be characterized as a dictatorship. One
particular observer, Charles McKelvey, has investigated Cuba's political
system and discovered remarkably effective democratic processes at work. He
is a Professor of Sociology at Presbyterian College, in Clinton, South
Carolina, and has been to Cuba several times. He describes his experience as
follows:

    "I have been to Cuba four times since 1993. Last summer, I was
     there for ten weeks, and my activities included in-depth
     interviews of university professors and leaders in the Popular
     Councils concerning the political process in Cuba. In addition, I
     talked to many different people that I met informally, sometimes
     through families with which I was connected and other times with
     people I met as I traveled about Havana by myself. I do not
     consider myself an expert on Cuba. I would describe myself as
     someone who is knowledgeable about Third World national liberation
     movements and is in the process of learning about the Cuban case.
     My general impression is that the revolutionary government enjoys
     a high degree of legitimacy among the people. Occasionally, I came
     across someone who was alienated from the system. There
     disaffection was not rooted in the political system but in the
     economic hardships that have emerged during the "special period."
     The great majority seemed to support the system and seemed very
     well informed about the structures of the world economy and the
     challenges that Cuba faces. Many defended the system with great
     enthusiasm and strong conviction. I had expected none of this
     prior to my first trip, recalling my visit to Tanzania in 1982, by
     which time many had come to view "ujamaa socialism" as a faded
     dream, at least according to my impressions during my brief visit.
     But to my surprise, I found much support for the revolutionary
     project in Cuba. I could not help but contrast this to the United
     States, where there is widespread cynicism in regard to political
     and other institutions.

    "The Cuban political system is based on a foundation of local
     elections. Each urban neighborhood and rural village and area is
     organized into a "circumscription," consisting generally of 1000
     to 1500 voters. The circumscription meets regularly to discuss
     neighborhood or village problems. Each three years, the
     circumscription conducts elections, in which from two to eight
     candidates compete. The nominees are not nominated by the
     Communist Party or any other organizations. The nominations are
     made by anyone in attendance at the meetings, which generally have
     a participation rate of 85% to 95%. Those nominated are candidates
     for office without party affiliation. They do not conduct
     campaigns as such. A one page biography of all the candidates is
     widely-distributed. The nominees are generally known by the
     voters, since the circumscription is generally not larger than
     1500 voters. If no candidate receives 50% of the votes, a run-off
     election is held. Those elected serve as delegates to the Popular
     Councils, which are intermediary structures between the
     circumscription and the Municipal Assembly. Those elected also
     serve simultaneously as delegates to the Municipal Assembly. The
     delegates serve in the Popular Councils and the Municipal
     Assemblies on a voluntary basis without pay, above and beyond
     their regular employment. " [source document to be noted]

For those who remain skeptical regarding Cuba, I can suggest looking at some
of the material in the bibliography. Especially notable are the achievements
of Cuba in the areas of human rights, health care, and education. My own
conclusion after reviewing material from many sources, is that McKelvey's
report above can be essentially accepted at face value. On that basis, it
appear that Cuba has achieved a general functional democracy at a national
scale. It passes the citizens' test, and it has each of our essential
characteristics: local problem solving, delegation to central bodies of
agendas instead of personalities, and a collaborative, harmonizing approach
to solving societal problems.


Functional democracy -- how can it be achieved in the West?
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
For Western nations, the situation is comparable to Brazil: there are
pre-existing electoral structures around which a functional democratic
process would have to be created. In the West, then, the path to functional
democracy is the path of a strong civil society. As in Brazil, local
organizations need to be mobilized and frameworks need to be created so that
these constituencies can collaborate in addressing local and societal
issues. These structures then need to be repeated at various levels, right
up to the national level.

The output of this process is the development of a comprehensive policy
agenda for every level of governmental policy, an agenda which has the
overwhelming support of the society generally, and which includes variation
in solutions depending on local needs and preferences.

The role of Western elected officials, given a strong and universally
supported civil society, would simply be to implement the articulated
agenda, in the same way that the officials in Porto Alegre implement PB's
budget. The role of an elected official becomes that of a civil servant,
with a job to do; the game of power-brokering disappears and with it the
professional politician. Candidates would presumably be active and
recognized participants in their local civil societies, and their loyalties
would be firmly in line with the consensus that had arisen from the
collaborative process.

The problem of achieving functional democracy in the West is not a technical
one. As described above, and as exemplified in Brazil, there is no inherent
reason why a strong civil society cannot be developed and operate
harmoniously within existing constitutions and electoral systems. And as
exemplified in Cuba, the processes of functional democracy can work
effectively even when there are several intermediate levels of government
involved. The problem in the West is not technical, it is motivational and
organizational.

Before people in the West can achieve functional democracy, they must be
motivated, they must feel an urgent need to change the existing system. (It
is noteworthy that both of our examples were developed only under great
pressure -- the poverty of Brazil and the US enmity which confronted Cuba.)
If a sense of general urgency does develop in the West, then the creation of
the civil society structures will be a formidable organizing task. These
observations suggest directions for the efforts of those citizens,
activists, leaders, and writers who are already motivated to achieve
democracy, and who would like to bring about the conditions necessary for
the creation of strong civil societies.

In order to generate societal motivation for change, the problem is one of
public education. People need to be made aware that global capitalism is
destroying our societies and that economic and social conditions are only
going to get worse. They need to understand that national sovereignty is
being transferred to corporate-dominated bureaucracies, and that police
state laws and infrastructures are being systematically developed to control
populations. They need to see that the little democracy we have in the West
is being rapidly taken away, and that only a brief window of opportunity
remains in which to rise up and make our democracies work. Most of all, they
need to realize their own empowerment, to become aware that they have a much
bigger role to play in running society than to mark a ballot every once in a
while. All their lives they've been told they are a free people; it is time
for them to believe it.

Organizing the civil society is a task that can begin immediately, and what
it amounts to is primarily a shift in perspective on the part of those
activists and organizers who are already involved in the hundreds of
reformist movements and citizens organizations currently in existence. Their
perspective needs to be strategically informed: there can be no small
victories over the capitalist system; there can only be a general victory.
Activist energy must be directed toward the development of collaboration
between different organizations, and the creation of the infrastructures of
a civil society.

Education and organizing contribute synergistically to one another. As more
people become motivated, their participation strengthens existing
organizations, and as organizations begin to collaborate with one another,
the growing movement begins to take on the characteristics of a strong civil
society. Presumably a point of critical mass will occur, a turning point,
where the wider society becomes generally aware of the budding civil
society. After that, the movement could be expected to grow very rapidly,
and the quality and integrity of the infrastructures developed would be put
to the test.

In Chapter 7, the problems of movement building and public education will be
investigated in more detail. For now I would like to summarize the results
of this chapter's investigation:

     Functional democracy is achievable, and it must be based on the
     principles of localism, collaborative problem solving, and
     inclusive harmonization of all societal interests. In Western
     societies, the process of functional democracy can be achieved
     through a well-organized civil society, working within the
     constraints of existing constitutions and electoral systems. In
     order to move toward the achievement of functional democracies,
     people in the West need to be educated as to the dire threats
     posed by capitalism and globalization, and activists and
     organizers need to focus their attention on building the
     infrastructures for a democratic civil society.


[end Chapter 5]
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