Section Eleven: Participation


In Democracy in America [1835], Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on our habit of making and joining groups of all kinds – clubs, political parties, churches, etc.  But while Americans may over-do it, the fact is that we are a gregarious species.  In every society there are associations of many shapes and sizes and with many functions.  In short, we enjoy the fact that we are social animals.  Not least of all, we are participants by nature, and this is the background reality of a democratic society.

In a democratic society, equality is, in principle at least, attributed to persons as members of society and citizens of states.  We write by-laws, hold elections, and agree to purposes.  At the same time, there are informal power structures based on status, wealth, inheritance, etc.  Tradition works its will everywhere.  Often enough, there are tensions and sometimes, outright warfare between culture’s influence and society’s intention.

To be sure, there were proto-democratic communities like Athens and Rome in their classical periods and among some Native American tribes – the Iroquois Confederation [The Six Tribes] in New York for example, These democratic moments, however, were rare and limited in scope and membership.  Democracy, until the modern era, is a minority report in human history.  More typical are authoritarian societies – clans, monarchies, dictatorships, etc.  Sometimes, families are authoritarian, sometimes not.  Historically, authority has ruled from the top.  Participation meant obedience to the requirements of one’s station in life including, not least of all distinctions of gender as well as status.  Thus:  serf, priest, clerk, peer, prince, monarch; daughter, wife, mother, princess, queen, etc.  By way of example, Confucius introduces us to an elaborate and inclusive development of that pattern.

With the modern world, democratic societies emerge as a secular fact and a normative ideal.  A new idea appears in history: human beings are competent to rule themselves and to participate in ruling each other.  That was the radical idea of the Enlightenment and it remains the evolving agenda of radicalism to this day.  Participation, to be morally defensible, must be democratic participation.

And, the Humanist is a democrat.  As Manifesto II puts it,

Eight:  We are committed to an open and democratic society.  We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations…All persons should have a voice in developing the values and goals that determine their lives.  Institutions should be responsive to expressed desires and needs.

But once again, the philosopher has to ask, what does this mean?  All too often, especially these days, we pay attention to form and ignore content.  For example, we reduce democracy to elections even when we know better.  Authoritarian societies, responding to a global mood, also have their elections.  Or, given the Humanist’s love affair with words, we confuse democratic constitutions with democratic realities, another reductive mistake.  At the same time, we know that authoritarian societies can have democratic constitutions and horrifying governments.  The Stalinist regime in the USSR had a magnificently democratic constitution.  But context and content were mission, i.e. how are elections, constitutions, and laws arrived at, how are they implemented, in what kinds of communities and societies do they find themselves, and do these communities and societies sustain them?

Humanist speech calls for human rights, and for economic, political, and social organizations that are guided by values like freedom and respect.  Thus far, therefore, Humanism is on the road to democracy, calling attention to the fact that democracy is not simply a matter of votes and statutes.  Humanist politics aims to capture social spaces, i.e. institutions, for freedom.  Of course, good laws are necessary but not sufficient indices of democratic values.  Down the road, a consequence is the evolution of open societies, i.e. of democratic cultures.

Reflection: A rally cry in the 1960s was “participatory democracy.”  Much earlier, John Dewey used the phrase to criticize merely formal democracy.  Democracy, in other words, is a cultural and not just a social value.  Given this notion, how well do we measure up in the US, in other nations that are called “democracies?”

Previous PageNext Page