Thursday, 03 March 2016 21:14

On Democracy, Rights, Community and the role of the EOS

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Social sustainability, the basics

The Earth Organization for Sustainability is formed around the aspiration for ecological, economic and social sustainability. These are not buzzwords deprived of meaning and context, but are aimed to delineate objectives which achieve concrete, tangible results in the sphere of reality. Our three criteria are defining, in the broadest possible manner of wording, how we intend to achieve global sustainability which covers these three areas.

 

The third criterion establishes that all human beings have the right to life. This means not only guaranteeing housing, healthcare, education and access to resources, but goes deeper. In order so that human beings can thrive, it is not enough that they are being fed, clothed, educated, or that they possess material wealth. What we must discuss is freedom.

Granted, there are several different types of freedom, and at least since the days of John Locke, there has been a concerted effort to define what freedom is. For the sake of simplicity and historicity, let us say that within the modern sphere of western philosophy, there have been two dominant schools of definitions of freedom (or liberty) as it is alternately known.

  • Liberalism: There are negative and positive rights. Negative rights mean the right from unprovoked interference, that no citizen might be subjected to abuse, theft, deprivation of mobility or other actions imposed on said citizen against their will. Positive rights of course mean that the citizen also has rights to things, such as voting rights and access to a public welfare system encompassing education and – depending on what country you live in – education, retirement and minimum labour hours. Conservatives, neoliberals and economic libertarians tend to de-emphasise or outright deny the existence of positive rights.
  • Socialism: There are social rights, which are defined as the right to housing, education, clothing and partaking in the political process. In terms of negative rights, socialists tend to emphasise discrimination based on class, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, rather than individual rights. Social democrats (of the classical variety) tend to combine this with the liberal negative freedoms, whereas marxists tend to dismiss the heritage of liberalism wholly or partially.

We can immediately see that both Liberalism and Socialism engages the subject of freedom through the concept of human rights, though they have divergent definitions of what constitute human rights.

Oh, Rights?

What constitute rights in the most basic aspect, is that they are not given to human beings, rather human beings are seen as being endowed with them (now we are talking about the currently hegemonic liberalist interpretation). Thus, they should not be held subject to political bargain, or granted arbitrarily to specific individuals or groups, or be tied to the kindness or political calculations of a particular political regime. 

The problem is that just because we agree that we all are endowed with human rights (no matter what these human rights constitute), that does not make impossible the violation of human rights. Conversely, if human rights violations were impossible (if we say that we for example had extremely strong biological inhibitors against violating human life), there wouldn’t even be the need of such a concept.

Some of the first states which enshrined what they called “rights” in their constitutions were the “enlightened despotisms” of 18th century Russia, Prussia and Austria – all three absolute monarchies relying on centralised bureaucracies and professional standing armies on a permanent war footing. The idea of human rights was very popular during the latter half of the enlightenment age, and was basically utilised as a fad amongst despots. The “rights” they guaranteed can most aptly be described as “privileges”, reliant on the interests of the state in the best case and in the worst case on the whims of a single individual.

Another example is how Stalinist states have continuously abused the language, defining themselves as “multi-party democracies” which enshrine “social rights” – rights which are entirely conditioned by whether the state has defined you as an ideological loyalist or not. 

Even in western democracies, human rights are continuously being violated, either because of the relative weakness of certain individuals or groups, cases of corruption or the existence of “deep states” – authoritarian institutions operating partially outside of the constitutional and cultural framework (one example is the IB affair in Sweden).

In summary, in order to guarantee freedom for human beings, we must establish and uphold human rights. The problem of course is that the monopoly of force can choose to ignore these established rights, rendering them into privileges. Some Marxists are on the basis of that arguing that human rights are merely a façade and that ultimately everything boils down to class oppression and the monopoly of force. The solution in that context is to replace the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (which de-facto most often has led to authoritarian or totalitarian one-party regimes). Not so few militiamen, survivalists and conservatives in the United States argue similarly, but instead see the solution in arming the entire citizenry to the teeth. Experience however shows that there are both relatively well-functioning democracies and authoritarian dictatorships where automatic rifles are readily available for the general population. 

The case for Democracy: Human autonomy and agency

When I was taught civics in the fifth grade, the teacher told us that in democracies, people vote for their leaders, that democracies do not have death penalty or torture and that democracies are making “nice laws”, unlike dictatorships, which are making “mean laws”. I am still unsure whether this very simplified definition of democratic governance served us well.

My argument for Democracy is related to the concept of establishing and defending human rights – a concept which, like democracy, solidarity and equality, very much has become a “buzzword”. In order for rights to be substantial and thus credible, there must be institutions established to safeguard these rights. However, institutions which are limited in scope and are only actively involving a minority of the people, will gradually alienate themselves from the majority and become tools for power.

Even if rights could theoretically be guaranteed by a “perfect despot” (a Venus Project A.I or a Culture Mind for example), there would still be the issue of participation and autonomy, and the rights in questions would de-facto be mere privileges, and the population would have no say in the future of their own fate. In fact, “the perfect utopian dictatorship” would be even more depriving of human autonomy than the glorified role-playing game that is “government by man”. To not mention the real and practical implications of computer viruses attacking the AI ruler (a good foundation for a dystopian sci-fi novel would be Salafi hackers hijacking the central grid of a Venus city).

Human autonomy is meaning not only that human beings are endowed with human rights, but that they have a substantial part of the power over the context in which these human rights are operating. Democracy, in the form of voting rights, is to a large extent guaranteeing influence over the issues pertaining human rights and human dignity to all adult human beings.

The right to the democratic vote is one of the absolutely essential rights for people, no matter how imperfect society otherwise is (corruption, political machines, cheating). The observation that the voting process in the real world often is abused, that legislators often ignore the promises to their constituents, and that the process is often influenced by lobbyists, banks, corporations and corrupt unions, is not a repudiation of electoral practices in themselves. Neither is the fact that voters are often undereducated, misinformed and voting based on preferences for certain policies or (worse!) certain individuals an argument against democracy, because even the most misinformed, undereducated and disinterested voter have the right to be an agent for their own interests. It should be noted that voters who are having these characteristics are most often those who are found in the lower income percentile of any given society, and often suffer from decaying housing, worse health and more uncertainty, abuse and crime. They are precisely the people who need agency, even if they rarely use it and often even vote against their own interests.

If a village suffers from contaminated water, the thing that should be done is to find a way to decontaminate the wells, not ending the need of drinking water.

A critique of contemporary Democracies

Firstly, I would want to object to the idea that a state can be defined as simply a “democracy”. A typical western state is governed through the mixture of an assembly of elected officials, a bureaucracy and the input of powerful interests. Only the first aspect is partially democratic, and regards what parties and persons should be representing the electorate. This arrangement is however troublesome, since the elected officials can renege on their promises, parties are often holding strong opinions over a multitude of issues where almost no voter upon closer study can agree with all of these positions and new contested issues can arise between election cycles which the parties have not addressed prior to the previous election.

In short, democratic voting in the context of parliamentary or semi-parliamentary systems is basically a delegation of democratic power to a small number of individuals who during a fixed term – usually three to six years – have total liberty in how they manage the interests of their constituents.

If there is a culture of strong civic service throughout society, as well as a high level of political participation amongst the general public, then the imperfect parliamentarian system can approach the democratic ideals of the enlightenment. I would argue that the Nordic countries had largely achieved such a society during the 1960’s, with a high degree of political participation and mobilisation within the populace. Political participation, as well as the institutional culture within the elected bodies, later on deteriorated for reasons that I perhaps will explore in a future article.

Ultimately, it would be more democratic if the constituents – rather than electing representatives – were continuously granted more rights to vote on policies, in short a gradual transformation from representative to direct and participatory democracy.There is also a quantitative problem with contemporary democracies, namely that the larger the population is, the less a single vote is worth and conversely the power exerted by the individual citizen shrinks. A third problem is the relationship – within the context of liberalism – between democratic rights and property rights. Originally, the 17th century embryo which later turned into liberalism, was formed in order to protect wealthy land-owners against politically-based property confiscations on behalf of the state. The problem which herein lies is the fact that the rights of corporations – which often reside in either the capitol region of their respective countries or even on the other side of the planet – often infringe upon the autonomy of local communities, by virtue of control of their natural resources and their infrastructure, meaning that they hold control over the factors that affect human livelihood without being affected by their own decisions equally much.

The EOS position on Democracy

The EOS position is that Democracy is an integral aspect of social sustainability, and that all human beings have the right to agency and representation. We must work to continuously strengthen and defend democratic rights, as a core aspect of human rights and as an extension of the Ideology of the Third Millennium.

This is what we should strive for:

 

  • Strengthening the participation of communities in existing democratic processes with a special focus on communities that are weak, through establishing contact networks, arranging courses and strengthen the self-confidence of citizens.
  • Supporting the human rights and the legal rights of citizens to agency, representation and human rights.
  • Strengthening communities by making them more self-reliant in terms of food, energy, infrastructure, water, recycling and production, thus increasing the participation of the local citizenry.
  • Advocating the integration of new social and cybernetic technologies into the democratic process in order to transcend parliamentarianism and move towards direct and participatory democracy.
  • Advocating de-centralisation and subsidiarity, that decisions should be made as close to those affected by them as possible, and if possible by those affected 
  • Strengthening the local communities by educating the electorate in understanding the scientific method, logic, deductive reasoning, human rights, intersectional theories and to be able to identify and combat logical fallacies. 
  • From these foundations, we will be able to object against actions aimed at depriving people from their democratic agency, as well as supporting initiatives aimed at strengthening democracy.

TL;DR

The EOS views Democracy as a positive concept because it helps provide people with agency to protect their rights, but we are noting that there are problems in which how it is implemented, regarding that people are seldom empowered to vote for issues directly, instead relying on elected representatives, that decisions are often made far from the people affected by them, that voters are misinformed or uninformed and that big economic actors often are able to reduce the autonomy and agency of communities.

We should as a movement strive to strengthen democracy and help to transcend towards more direct democratic and localised systems while making the intellectual and organisational tools available in order to strengthen the civic culture of the people.

Read 4308 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 March 2016 00:44