Debate: Democracy and peer governance, part one: The Four Pillars of Democracy

We received a most interesting contribution by Erik Douglas, on the important issue of the interplay between autonomous and non-representational direct peer governance, and the institutions and practices of representative democracy. In this first contribution, Erik attempts a definition of the ‘pillars of democracy’. Text by Erik Douglas:

P2P x 4PoD = ? (or the 4 Pillars of a P2P Democracy?)

I. Introduction: Few terms or notions have been so abused as “democracy,” and its numerous inconsistent characterizations count in the hundreds. Yet, within the P2P paradigm, if there is any call for a state (and I believe there is), it is likely to be one or another species of democracy. Thus, it behoves us to consider in a general way what we mean by democracy (as well as such notions as state, law, etc.) generally, thereby to identify which of its commonly touted features are inconsistent, consistent and/or perhaps even resonant in some cases with the principles that underscore a P2P society. I begin briefly by introducing a meta-model or theory of democratic societies, institutions and governments that identifies twelve principled strands arranged in four braids or “pillars” that differentiate a large range of “democratic” structures. In the background of these braided pillars is a considerable body of political and historical analysis of democratic institutions and societies which I will largely forgo explicating in the interests of brevity (however, for those who are curious or suspicious, a more complete study of these ideas will be undertaken at, an everyman’s (every-person) democratic think tank currently taking form with a P2P x 4PoD integrity in mind – you are invited to participate! – the site should be up by the New Year and is intended as a natural complement to the P2P Foundation’s activities). In preparing the ground for a more directly politicized P2P, a list of operative assumptions follows which also play a dual role as counterpoints to similar assemblages and articles recently expounded by other members of this community. Thereafter, I will attempt to indicate something of the political direction I see open to the P2P community to explore, both theoretically in terms of the kinds of political models many of its participants might reasonably endorse as well as some of the more concrete pragmatic steps that can be undertaken to affect the polis. For example, much of my own political activism has been directed at implementing P2P x 4PoD type structures within the context of various green parties, and I will say a word about this in conclusion.

II. The Four Pillars of Democracy

The theoretical framework I adopt is certainly not the only one available, but I have developed it with the analytical function of evaluating the degree to which various organizations, societies and institutions are “democratic” – in as quantitative a manner as possible without doing great normative injustice to the plurality of “democracies” that abound. However, its abstract machinery should suffice as well for this more synthetic application. Underlying this schema are 12 dimensions or “strands” which fall into four natural “braids” or pillars, and I list them below without excessive explication:
Pillar A. Absolutism and the Law:

  • 1. Consistency of the Law (are the laws “democratic”?)

  • 2. Universality of the Law (is justice “blind”?)

  • 3. Fundamental Freedoms & Rights of Individuals

The first pillar addresses what lies at the heart of any political order, namely, its law: i.e., the symbolic construct reflecting the values, mores and codes of conduct appropriate for the individuals and collections of individuals (or “organizations”) of the society as well as the structural blueprint of its government and principle political entities. According to this theory, what distinguishes a “democratic” society in respect to its formal laws are the degree to which,

  •  1. The laws are consistent with these twelve principles;

  •  2. The universality of their applicability to individuals irrespective of the organizations, cliques, groups, etc. to which they belong; and

  • 3.  Whether they guarantee, respect and protect certain “inalienable” rights of the individual.

It is perhaps important to note here that the theory strongly distinguishes between the status ascribed to the individual as contrasted with the society’s other primary constituent, the “organization,” which is functionally defined and itself further constituted of individuals. In plain speak, a society which treats such entities as corporations, political parties, military brigades or noble families with the same or greater status reserved for individuals strongly tend away from the norms most conceptions of democracy endorse.
Pillar B. The Body Politic:

  • 4. Integrity of the Body Politic (real and consistent application of the law)

  • 5. Robustness of the Body Politic (the society’s “pain threshold” for crisis)

  • 6. Crisis and the Body Politic (the “temporary” cessation of the law)

The second pillar rather concerns the actual constitution of a putatively democratic society or body politic. The next three principles correspond in some respects to the first three “symbolic” maxims, but their focus falls rather on whether and how the laws are applied in practise. Thus, “Integrity” reflects the consistency of their application: e.g., are “ballot stuffers” actually removed from the voting booth? Are the laws really implemented generally? Is the society in fact “ruled by laws” or is it “ruled by men?” Similarly, while the law cannot in itself be washed away in a hurricane or destroyed by a bomb, the real efficacy of government and society is subject to the vicissitudes of history; robustness is a measure of its capacity to sustain “9/11” and “Katrina” type events, to say nothing of genuine wars, as well as its capacity to return to a state of normal democratic operations following one or more crises requiring a temporary cessation of the law. It may of course be asked whether such a cessation is ever needed, and I do not mean to imply the affirmative; the history of nations and movements suggests that they do, but a truly P2P democratic state or organization may not.

Pillar C. The ‘C’s of Cognizant Communities:

  • 7. Community Cognizance (i.e., real access to information)

  • 8. Communication & Congregation (e.g., the “market place of ideas”)

  • 9. Cultivation of Civics & Citizenship (e.g., education of children)

The third pillar addresses the epistemic status enjoyed by the principle participants of a democratic society, what I have termed the “individuals” (because unlike “organizations,” they are integral entities). Fundamentally, a society is only as democratic as its citizens are 7. informed of a society’s current events and its history; 8. able to congregate and communicate ideas with one another; and 9. educated in civics and so endowed with the necessary motivation and skills to be effective citizens. The quality and plurality of a nation’s media, for example, is measured against this category, as is a population’s level of education and literacy. The significance of this pillar was well recognized by Thomas Jefferson, who writes, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be. … When the press is free and every man can read, all is safe."

 Pillar D. The ‘D’s of Democratic Decision-making:

  • 10. Direct and Delegative (Participatory vs. Representational)

  • 11. Discursive and Deliberative (Consensus building vs. Majoritarian)

  • 12. Decentralized (Grassroots vs. Centralized)

Finally, the fourth pillar identifies those qualities which typically distinguish most models of democracy.
One of the underlying theses of this alternative theory is that the precise manner in which the individuals or constituents of a society are actually empowered to make decisions is only one of several relevant features (there are, in fact, four!). However, even insofar as “democracy” only means “rule by the demos,” we can identify at least three distinct dimensions for comparing democratic credentials:

  • 1. Are decisions undertaken vicariously through one or more layers of “representatives,” who may or may not remain faithful to the intentions of their original supporters? – or do the individuals retain a closer rein on their chosen “delegates” – or do they each and all decide every issue collectively and directly?

  • 2. Are disagreements decided through force of numbers – the infamous majoritarian “mob” – or are consensus building communicative processes (e.g., á la Habermas) incorporated into the decision making? – does ½ or ¾ constitute a majority? Similarly, are delegative (or representative) elections held employing a “first pass the post” plurality system, or are one or more alternative systems (such as, AV, IRV, STV, CV, etc.) employed?

  •  3. Finally, what is the relationship between a decision-maker and a decision-effect – do they correspond? Do we all decide which colour you may paint your home, or is this a decision which properly resides with you and your neighbours alone, i.e., those who are affected, as “grassroots” decentralized thinking recommends? Similarly, with respect to delegates and representatives, do we endorse a proportional (ergo more “centralized”) form of representation, or are definitions of “local” introduced through a delineation of spatial “districts” or bioregions and such?

It is naturally not the intent of this theory to tell us which is the “real” democracy, to say nothing of determining the sort of polis which we should find most desirable. These decisions must derive from our values in conjunction with our estimations about human nature (physical and spiritual) as contextualized with such further factors as our economic organization, cultural historicity, technological sophistication and ecological contraposition. I will say little more about these last (though they have seen much currency in this society), but instead attempt to identify some of the primary relevant values and salient assumptions which appear to principle P2P designs."

1 Comment Debate: Democracy and peer governance, part one: The Four Pillars of Democracy

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Erik: this is a great and clear text as far as I’m concerned. I have only one question you may want to elaborte on: is it not in certain cases advisable to give legal rights to non-individual entities? I’m thinking of letting NGO’s step in for the environment, animals, future generations etc… who otherwise would not have any representation.


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