Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Questioning Direct Democracy

Discussion on the MEA listserv turned to the topic of direct democracy recently, with suggestions that the Occupy Wall Street movement is a reflection of the desire for direct democracy, borne out of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs within our system of representative democracy.  I responded by acknowledging that direct democracy sounds like a positive development--it might even be deemed utopian--but that the idea also raises some questions for me, and I thought I would share with you here as well. 

1.  Direct democracy is a more concrete form of democracy than representative democracy.  Direct democracy is literally government by the people (or at least those considered citizens).  Representative democracy is democracy once removed, democracy higher up in levels of abstraction, as we abstract out from each locality a single representative to stand for (in a sense, symbolize and communicate for) the entire group.  It is arguable whether the ancient Greeks who invented democracy would recognize our system of elected representatives as democracy at all.  And it is certainly more difficult for individuals with a relatively concrete mindset (which Walter Ong associates with oral culture) to understand our system as democratic, as compared to individuals with a relatively abstract mindset (which Ong associates with literate culture).  So, does the desire to shift from representative democracy to direct democracy have anything to do with a resistance to abstract thinking, a return to more of a concrete mindset, which has been associated with the triumph of the image over the word (as discussed in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Jacques Ellul's Humiliation of the Word)?  In the long run, can a postliterate culture support and sustain a system of representative democracy, or is its erosion and dissolution all but inevitable?

2.  The concept of democracy is closely associated with the concept (or ideology) of individualism.  While we take it for granted that people ought to be regarded as unique and autonomous individuals, and that individuals ought to be valued more highly than any group that they are a part of, this view is a relatively recent historical development, mostly emerging out of the literate culture of the Renaissance and the print culture of early modern Europe, but first appearing in the literate cultures of the ancient world, in Israel, Greece, and Rome.  Individualism replaced the group-centered, tribal mentality associated with oral culture, a view that comes naturally to human beings, whereas individualism is an artificial invention, and therefore hard to implement and hard to maintain, as natural as it may seem to us.  Individualism supports democracy because, as individuals, we are expected to behave rationally within the free marketplace of ideas, make up our own minds, and vote accordingly.  If the same electronic media that make direct democracy possible are also undermining the individualism associated with literate culture (and I believe they are), can democracy still work in the absence of individualism, with a mentality characterized by post-individualism, neotribalism, etc.?

3.  The concept of democracy is associated with literacy also because literacy provides access to information, and participation in government requires an informed citizenry.  This is perhaps less of an issue for the local scale of ancient Athenian democracy, but on the scale of the modern nation (or kingdom), some means of widespread dissemination of information is required, and it is the printing press that answers that need.  As print media have expanded, and new forms, notably the newspaper, were introduced, access to political information increased, the capacity for self-governance expanded, and the desire for democracy spread.  Now, in our contemporary environment, that the electronic media provide more access to information than ever before is clear, but in doing so, do they provide so much access as to bring on information overload, and thereby short circuit the deliberations by which information is evaluated, plans of action are formulated, and decisions are made?  Gatekeeping is a two-way function, opening the gates enough to keep citizens informed, but not so much as to make them overwhelmed.  In the absence of gatekeeping, does access become excess, and information become noise?

4.  Perhaps most importantly of all, democracy, in being based on access to information, is based on the assumption that access to information is sufficient to make our human environment comprehensible, so that with sufficient understanding of our world we can make informed decisions.  But is that really possible given the vast scale of the world that we deal with, global affairs most certainly, and large nations like the United States as well (maybe in a place like Finland they can get a better handle on their society)?  And it's not just population, of course, but the complexity of our way of life, the complexity of our technological environment.  Is it possible that access to information coupled with extreme complexity is what leads to information overload, the search for simplistic ways of understanding the world, and irrational behavior?  Is Ellul right that, given the complexity of technological societies, the only alternative is to cede control to technical experts, including those expert in manipulating public opinion to support the decisions of the technical experts, and thereby provide the illusion of democracy?

5.  I wonder if the advocates of direct democracy somehow assume that the citizens who would participate in that new order are the citizens who were shaped by print culture, rather than the "digital natives" who will exhibit markedly different orientations towards politics?  And I wonder if the only way that democracy can truly exist is on a small scale and local level?  Wasn't that what Marx was really on about, the withering away of the state and the return to the commune, or if you prefer, the tribe or the village?  

These are just a few questions, but of course, as any good media ecologist can tell you, the questions we ask are more important than the answers we get, and have much to do with the kinds of answers that they result in.

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