Monday, June 24, 2013

Four Levels of Democracy

Jacques Ellul identified these four levels of democracy in his book entitled The Political Illusion. First published in French and English editions in the 1960s, the book remains a powerful cure for illusions still plaguing us today.

1. Political. This first level of democracy is the one we are most familiar with. Primarily it’s the level of candidates, issues, and voting.

2. Social. This is the second level of democracy. For political democracy to work well, social democracy must be reasonably well established. In a healthy social democracy, wealth is distributed between citizens in a relatively equitable way.

If wealth is not justly distributed, then wealthy people are able to increasingly control the selection of candidates and the debate on issues. They then increasingly control the people holding public office, the policies they follow, the laws they pass, and the regulations they impose. Our governments then end up serving the few at the expense of the many. Whatever else that is, it isn't democracy.

3. Economic. For wealth to be equitably distributed, there must be economic or workplace democracy. If every person in an economic organization has a meaningful say in how the income earned by that organization gets distributed, then that income will get distributed more equitably. If only top executives decide how much each person gets paid, they pay themselves way too much and do so at the expense of everyone else.

If a few people get paid way too much and most people barely earn enough or get laid off, this weakens our practice of both social and political democracy.

4. Personal. This is the most important level of all. All the other levels depend on how well we as citizens do this one.

Being a knowledgeable and skilled citizen is actually very demanding and takes lots of time and practice.

As responsible democratic citizens, we need to read lots of books across a wide range of subjects. Sadly, watching TV, listening to the radio, reading daily newspapers, let alone playing video games or surfing the internet, isn’t enough. We need to develop an adequately broad and deep understanding of society, culture, human nature, our ecological context, and how these have interacted through the years.

We need to develop our use of reason. This also is hard to do and takes years of practice. Our thinking is generally emotionally satisfying but logically inconsistent. Our use of reason has real limitations, but emotional intensity isn’t an adequate replacement for it.

Speaking of emotional intensity, we need to learn how to control it. Developing an adequate understanding of what’s best for society, culture, and individuals is very difficult. It requires tremendous patience, a willingness to consider alternative points of view, and uncommon courtesy. Indulging anger, feeding fear, and encouraging hatred diminish our ability to respond creatively, together, to the challenges we face.

Our personal practice of democracy, then, requires an adequately broad and deep understanding, an ability to think critically, and a mastery of our own emotional intensity.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.