The value of democracy is one of the central articles of faith of our society. Yet in complex societies like ours, the power to determine our own fate may often seem beyond our grasp – except when we go to the ballot box, and even then we find ourselves asking whether the choice we have in front of us is a real one. But is the voting station the right place to look for democracy? Over 250 years ago, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote of the English parliamentary system that

The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it. (‘The Social Contract’, 1762, III, chapter 15)

For Rousseau, true democracy was an expression of the true object of political debate – the general will, or public interest. The general will was something which could only be arrived at through political debate. The unique character of political debate lay in how it forced individuals to frame their particular interests in a form adequate to express the general interest (imagine a merchant arguing that free trade is the best way to ensure everyone gets what they need). This, for Rousseau, was a process that was difficult within complex societies.

As long as several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body, they have only one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being […] When we see among the happiest people in the world bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree, and always acting wisely, can we help feeling a certain contempt for the refinements of other nations, which employ so much skill and effort to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched? (ibid, I, chapter 1)

In our society, a representative democracy of the kind Rousseau derided, the formation of the general will is complicated by the separation of powers into legislature (lawmakers, Parliament) the executive (the government, police and civil service – but also regulatory agencies and, since the privatisation of public utilities in the 1980s, private companies with statutory public duties), and the judiciary. In all these areas, particular interests

English: A portrait engraved for a posthumous ...
A portrait engraved for a posthumous edition of Rousseau's works, after an original by Angelique Briceau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

emerge. Political parties want to hang on to power, privatised utilities serve shareholders as well as the public, and so on. Creating laws and public policy is always open to the influence of particular interests which mask themselves with talk of the general interest. We rely on the media to expose these particular interests and hold them to account. Yet the media too contains its own particular interests, associated with editors, advertisers and media moguls. Our direct influence often seems restricted to the votes cast on polling day.

In Wales, with its devolved administration in Cardiff Bay, the picture is more complex still. The Assembly government has certain policy-making powers, but others remain reserved to Westminster. With all these considerations in mind, is the kind of democracy imagined by Rousseau beyond us? And if it is, does that matter?

In last night’s Cafe, our three speakers offered talks on the presence of democracy in contemporary society, on the perhaps unexpected places where democratic influence can still be exerted, and on the changing role of the media in serving democratic debate. Cardiff-based artist Sara Rees described her ‘Democracy’ artwork, which took place as part of the Made in Roath festival in October 2012, and which explored attitudes to, and awareness of, the idea of democracy via metaphors of branding and consumerism: ‘are you happy with your current democracy provider?’. By opening up a ‘democracy shop’ in Cardiff’s Queen’s Arcade shopping centre, Sara and her team brought the kind of conversations absent from dwindling public space into a privatised space, and invited people to consider whether democracy was ‘closing down’. Her hope was that the conversations in which participants engaged were taken by them back into their everyday lives.

Dr Richard Cowell from the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University argued that part of the executive portion of the state – the planning system – actually represented one of the ‘unsung heroes’ of democracy. What happens to the physical spaces in which we live and the landscapes we inhabit shapes our communities and affects our lives profoundly. The capacity to shape these spaces is therefore a crucial part of any real power of self-determination. Around 100 years ago, Richard noted, the idea of spatial planning was the central focus of a radical social movement, involving such figures as Patrick Geddes, which sought to free people from antiquated, unsafe and insanitary living conditions. This transformative impulse is preserved in the participatory arenas through which citizens can influence planning processes. Further,  it links people with their environments (opening up public debates about what we value in nature) and to future generations (through the built legacy of planning decisions). It renders tangible the relationship between particular interests and the general will.

At the same time, Richard noted, this element of democratic participation is as fragile as Sara found awareness of democracy in general to be. Both New Labour and the Coalition government have sought to ‘streamline’ planning, especially for large-scale infrastructure projects, from ports to roads to power stations, using National Planning Statements to define the ‘general will’ with respect to the need for these kinds of installations and thus to take them, to some extent, out of public debate. The executive role of private companies with public duties within the state rests on these companies’ particular interests: their need to raise private finance for infrastructure upkeep and development means that they are keen to ‘de-risk’ planning – and so streamlining the planning system is very much in their own particular interest.

Prof. Karin Wahl-Jorgenson (Journalism, Culture and Media Studies, Cardiff University) offered some thoughts on the media as a replacement for the loss of public spaces witnessed by Sara’s project. As well as providing surveillance of the various elements of the state, and helping to set public policy agendas, the media has an important extra responsibility in relation to devolution, with large swathes of Wales being under-informed about the activities of the Assembly and Welsh government. At the same time, this context also creates new difficulties – in addition to the ongoing difficulties for traditional forms of media created by the financial crisis and the growth of online media. Newspapers like the Western Mail and regional broadcast media like BBC Wales and S4C have traditionally been crucial to democracy in Wales, but the financial crisis has led to reduced staffing levels and the rise of ‘churnalism’ as a replacement for more investigative journalism, issues that are also more widely felt. Hyperlocal online media, linked to blogging and social media like Twitter, may in some cases fill gaps left by traditional media, but whether – suffering from a lack of resources and often a lack of credibility – they can provide people with sufficient information about the complex society they inhabit is doubtful.

Discussion began by drawing attention to the urgency of some choices which need to be made about our common future. Should the sustainability of society on a finite planet, for example, be treated as more important than democracy? Should we aim to recreate the public arena that we need to decide on the ‘general will’, even if there is a possibility that the choices the people eventually make may go against sustainability, the spread of decentralised renewable energy production, or any of the other needs recent Future for Wales Cafe speakers have drawn our attention to? Some thought that democracy was, in these circumstances, a subsidiary priority. What was needed, instead, was a form of decision making based on technical expertise and the scientific method in order to identify the natural limits within which we will be able to continue to live. It was objected, however, that scientific expertise has its own limits, particularly where the ability of experts to predict the future is concerned. Perhaps democratic participation can serve as a counterweight to these limits, alerting experts to the ethical values which need to guide decision making in the face of uncertainty. Representative democracy however,

“The labour force is too exhausted to live up to better ideals to remake external conditions.”
“Transparency should be local, not mediated via screen.”
“Should voting be compulsory?”
“The main problem is we live in a corporatocracy.”

From the audience…

Educating people about the responsibility to participate that comes with living in a democratic society was seen as vital (perhaps going alongside other measures such as making voting mandatory), reflecting the frequent lack of awareness of even the meaning of the word ‘democracy’ that Sara and her colleagues encountered out and about in Cardiff. Yet in the face of inequalities in time to participate among different groups, and particularly inequalities of power, it is difficult to imagine education alone being a panacea for the fragility of democracy.

Many were interested in examining further the reasons for these inequalities. In essence, the forces which create inequality and stifle debate are ones that reduce the public sphere to a combat of contending particular interests, each cloaking itself in the mantle of universality, but nonetheless only advancing its own agenda. And these particular interests typically undermine the kinds of re-connection with the natural world, distant others and future generations that Richard saw democratic participation as making possible. For example, political parties have their eye on the short term, seeking to protect their particular interest in getting re-elected to power. Journalists have an interest in increasing paper sales by covering sensational topics, or creating controversy (particularly prevalent now in online media, where page views are important to garner advertising revenue).

If a revival of the kind of participatory democracy Rousseau saw as the only true democracy is to be possible, then questions have to be asked regarding who will drive it, and how it will be organised. Do we require a new way of linking local and national governance? Does devolution, as in Wales, point towards an increasingly decentralised, even federal future for the UK? And what are the forces which might impede any such movement?

What do you think? If you’re tweeting about this topic, the hashtag is #cpcdemo

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