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We the People: Expanding the Idea of Democracy

 

Pranav Jeevan P

Part 1

pranav Most people believe that democracy means voting in an election every 5 years. Elections in a representative democracy is of course an essential part of the very idea of political democracy, but that doesn't mean that the very idea of democracy is limited to this right to vote. Moreover, every country takes pride in calling themselves a democracy, no matter how far away they are from it in reality, precisely because of the moral superiority and immunity that the idea of being democratic provides them.

The notion of democracy has evolved over time from direct democracy, in which the people directly deliberate and decide on legislation to representative democracy, where the people elect representatives to do that, such as in parliamentary or presidential democracy. Most decision making of democracies works on the principle of majority rule, though other decision-making approaches like supermajority and consensus have also been used to increase inclusiveness and broader legitimacy on sensitive issues and counterbalancing majoritarianism. In present liberal democracies, the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority through enforcement of individual rights. Democracy differs from other forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in autocratic systems like absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy. Democracy focuses on providing opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to remove them without the need for a revolution. The primary aspect of a representative democracy is the political right of universal adult franchise[1].

Having the right to elect a representative in a periodic election isn't the limit of political democracy. In a deeply hierarchical society where there is rampant inequality with respect to access to resources, social and cultural capital, expecting the representation to be fair and inclusive of the marginalized is deeply problematic. Affirmative action policies to ensure proper representation of marginalized and backward classes is one way to ensure justice in the democratic process. But even that constitutional right of proper representation isn't followed and the established hierarchies remain unopposed. Since elected representatives win elections based on economic, social and cultural capital and with corporate backing, they lack the incentive to create policies for welfare of the people who elected them in the first place. The assured term of 5 years after an election gives them ample impunity to create policies the way they want to, without proper consultations with the people. Since representative democracy functions by electoral victories, they just have to placate the dominant groups to keep their power, completely undermining the interests of the marginalized.

Legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics of a democracy. These principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes and judiciary. But when the society is deeply governed by social hierarchies of caste, class, gender and color, and most of the oppressed sections are underrepresented in these institutions of governance, democracy becomes a mere word on paper. The legal and political rights in a democracy can only be a reality when the hierarchies are abolished and every individual has equal access to justice. Any state institutions created in such a hierarchical society will recreate and protect those hierarchies as the people occupying the positions of power will almost always come from the dominant groups. They will use the state monopoly on violence to brutalize any assertions that challenges their privilege.

Is it democracy to feed people fake news and manipulated propaganda to reap political dividends and divert people's attention from failures of the ruling class and issues that actually affect people? How can it be a democracy when capitalist corporates have monopoly over every news, stories, movies, content and media that the public consumes and they also control the internet traffic and steal peoples' data for their own profit. These media are not democratic when we can only see representation of dominant caste/gender/race groups and we being bombarded with their historic and cultural narratives. Democracy is not people just sitting there having no say in what they consume, it is when each individual has equal power in creating and developing these narratives and stories and gets equal access at creating, publishing and propagating it. Democracy isn't when people are constantly fed false narratives so that they don't threaten the existing hierarchies. The increase in fake news and conspiracy theories and general mistrust of experts is due to this monopoly on knowledge and means of communication by limited groups. We can't blame people for believing in fake news because they are actively kept away from accessing and learning themselves. Then these 'experts' lament saying that people don't trust them anymore and are going behind fake propaganda. The only counter to fake news is to democratize all knowledge and make the process transparent rather than asking people to blindly trust a few experts. If the elected representatives of the people believe that people cannot be trusted with the truth, then the whole foundation of democracy is at risk. For a democracy to function properly, it is essential that the government respects the people and takes them seriously. Furthermore, in order to exercise their democratic rights properly, the government should be transparent to the people and provide all the information that people demand.

A democratic society should first democratize access to information for everyone. The control on the generation and flow of knowledge and information should not be allowed to be limited to few people or dominant groups. A true democracy makes sure that each individual has access to create new knowledge, have means of communicating that with others and also have access to every knowledge created by others before them and those around them. Invention of printing press and creation of internet are considered as two of the major events that made democratization of information possible. But even today, the research conducted by public money is inaccessible to general public and are monopolized by large publishing firms, who gatekeep scientific knowledge from being available to everyone. In such a world, websites like Libgen[2] and Scihub [3] which provide free access to millions of research papers and books, without regard to copyright, by bypassing publishers' paywalls are a step towards democratizing knowledge. This rapid opening up of research knowledge has allowed millions of people to expand their own understanding and use that knowledge to improve their lives. The advantage of providing open access to knowledge is visible from the technology boom in the internet era that allowed thousands of people to access, edit and create new technologies, software and applications more easily and at a faster pace. The common misconception of celebrating a few billionaires for technological advancements in the IT era is misguided. It was the collective effort of thousands of people who had access to free knowledge, made possible by internet which made this giant leap in terms of technological progress.

Massive open collaboration projects like Wikipedia show the power of people to create and distribute information and the ability of the modern technologies like internet to democratize knowledge. Scientific institutions should open up and provide all the knowledge in an open platform like arXiv server[4] so that everyone who is interested can access and use it. The open-source model allows people to participate directly in development of software, rather than just be consumers, through contributing opinions and modifications for free. Similarly, Arduino[5] and littleBits have made electronics more accessible to people of all educational backgrounds and ages. The development of 3D printers also has the potential to increasingly democratize production. This spread of knowledge of and ability to perform high-tech tasks has started to challenge previous conceptions of expertise which was believed to be a realm of the upper class/caste.The Internet has been recognized for its role in promoting increased citizen advocacy and government transparency. But for these technologies to be used in a democratic way, they need to be released from corporate patents and capitalist control.

Another aspect of a democratic society is that every individual has to be provided the ability and means to pursue the education he chooses for his own intellectual and creative desires. The quality of education obtained shouldn't depend on the race, class, caste, creed or color but just on the will to pursue it. A society that treats education as a business and pushes kids to child labour cannot be a democratic society. We have seen how the digital divide created by the COVID pandemic restricted access to education for millions of children, while the kids of dominant groups continued with paid online education businesses. The current system of education is only to ensure that elite groups have monopoly over knowledge production recreates the Brahminical system once again through exclusion of marginalized sections. Democratic education aims to remove the hierarchical power structure between teachers and students. It centers the ideal of democracy as both the goal and a method of instructionin teaching. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust with the students' voices being equal to the teachers[6]. Democratic governance of schools implies the active participation of the entire school community, including the students, in the collective decision-making processes that define the school like the curriculum, appointment and dismissal of teachers, creation or amendment of rules and general expenditure[7]. It also provides students the autonomy to manage their own learning process than be completely pushed under the authority of teachers. When teachers lose their coercive power over students, issues like sexual harassment and assault, torture and discrimination will be reduced as students don't have to worry about backlash for calling them out. Children should be taught about conflict resolution mechanisms in democratic decision making and should experience democratic participation so that they can become active participants in the control and organization of their community[8]. Studies on Democratic schools in UK, Israel, US and Australia indicate that democratic schooling produces greater motivation to learn, increased interest in science, higher self-esteem, increased success in higher education and more respect for students with disabilities among students[9][10][11][12].

When we actually understand what democracy means and how vastly it can and should be practiced, we come to the realization that the world we see around us is anything but democratic. Be it any social, economic, political or cultural interaction the individual participates in, there exist hierarchies of gender, caste, religion, color, class, creed, cuisine, language, culture and nationalities. There is always a dominant group which controls power in each of these hierarchies who exploit the underprivileged. We need to realise that existence of these hierarchies and our failure to identify and destroy them shows how far we are from being in a democratic society.

Who produces and who consumes creative and intellectual work depends a lot on the hierarchies present in the society. The visibility provided to intellectual and creative works done by different individuals from different social sections of the society are different due to the inherent hierarchies present. This is why knowledge produced by Bahujans or indigenous communities is considered inferior to the so called 'classical' and 'pure' works produced by Brahminical society. When there is a monopoly of a dominant caste in deciding the quality of work, the aesthetics of the marginalized won't be regarded as a great work of art by these art critics and savarna audience while any work that fits within their idea of art will be celebrated. This leads to a reinforced mechanism that systematically erases the creative outputs of the marginalized sections. A true democracy identifies the value of these diverse cultural expressions by making sure that all sections have access to enjoy and evaluate the work and the verdict is never decided by an exclusive dominant group.

Our social and personal life is full of taking away decision making power from others. Kids are taught to respect authority without questioning and trust the decisions taken for them by others. This culture is reinforced inside our patriarchal families where the male head of family does all the decision making for the women and children, in our schools where teachers unilaterally decide everything with no input from students, our academia where professors have complete control on the discourse and life of the students, our workplace where the boss has complete control over workers and decides everything, and our social and political institutions which decide on policies and laws without any deliberation with the people who will be impacted by them. Unless we instill the habit of democratic decision making where everyone gets to take part in decisions and policies that affect their own lives, people will always look for benevolent leaders to delegate that responsibility to. This search for a savior and leader builds the cult of hero worship which encourages a blind allegiance towards a leader even subverting their own self interests. Democracy cannot exist in a hierarchical society where accumulation of power is justified using Brahminical, patriarchal myths of superiority of a few over others. We should not support any system which concentrates power in the hands of a few and makes the decisions for us. A complete democratic society should be the ideal that we should aim for and constantly work towards moving closer to it. Only if we clearly prefigure the world we wish to live in, can we identify the issues that are currently prohibiting us from being a democracy. Once we identity the issues that are limiting us, we can work towards establishing a more democratic system step by step.

Please read Part 2 of this article here

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 References

[1] A. Tangian, "Analytical Theory of Democracy: History, Mathematics and Applications," Studies in Choice and Welfare, 2020.
[2] "Library Genesis," [Online]. Available: https://libgen.is/.
[3] Sci-hub. [Online]. Available: https://sci-hub.ren/.
[4] "arXiv.org," [Online]. Available: https://arxiv.org/.
[5] "Arduino," [Online]. Available: https://www.arduino.cc/.
[6] Y. Waghid, Pedagogy Out of Bounds: Untamed Variations of Democratic Education, 2014, p. 33.
[7] "Sociocracy in Schools Map," [Online]. Available: https://schoolcirclesfilm.com/sociocracy-in-schools/.
[8] G. D. Baker, R. M. W. Travers and M. V. Cassell, "Progressive Education Association (U.S.). Informal Committee on Evaluation of Newer Practices in Education," in New Methods Vs. Old in American Education: An Analysis and Summary of Recent Comparative Studies, 1941.
[9] D. Vedder‐Weiss and D. Fortus, "Adolescents' Declining Motivation to Learn Science: Inevitable or Not?," Journal of Research in Science Teaching, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 199-216, 2011.
[10] "Democratic Schools," Alternatives to School, [Online]. Available: https://alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/.
[11] P. Gelderloos, Anarchy Works, 2010.
[12] "The Hannam Report".

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Pranav Jeevan P is currently a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur.

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