One of the problems that the coronavirus pandemic is exposing in the U.S. is a decades-long erosion of trust in civil society. The effect is like a loss of the civic antibodies that keep self-governance healthy. In the political vacuum, the work of containing the outbreak falls nearly 100 percent on elected leaders and corporations with minimal popular credibility. As journalist David M. Shribman notes, “[T]he cost to capitalism shrinks in comparison to the cost in social capital.”
Elections alone are not producing just outcomes that address citizens’ needs, as witnessed, for example, by more than a year of weekly street protests by anti-austerity activists in France against their elected government, or neoliberal economic policies implemented by an elected president in Chile.
U.S. elections have devolved into $10 billion spectacles funded by banks, corporations and a small cadre of wealthy donors representing less than 1 percent of the adult population. They account for nearly 70 percent of all campaign funding. Eitan Hersh of Tufts University describes the resultant mutation of citizenship as “political hobbyism,” in which everyone is a spectator, an armchair quarterback, a partisan fan picking a favorite candidate-product.
As long as U.S. politics are dominated by a top-down consumerist version of representative democracy in lieu of citizen-driven civil society, the nation will stay focused on maintaining a permanent $1.25 trillion warfare state built on extreme social and economic inequality, and political dysfunction will continue to deepen.
The irony of this devolution of democracy is that there has never been a time of greater opportunity for creative problem solving and citizen empowerment.
Citizens’ Initiatives in Spain
Since 2016, I have been traveling in Europe and the Americas studying citizen-driven innovation. While my findings are not scientific in any formal sense, this field investigation and bricolage on a global scale have consistently revealed potentially transformative models of citizen self-organization and small-bore government activism that embody a more hopeful politics of direct democracy.
In Spain, for example, a project called Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas (VIC), or “Nursery of Citizens Initiatives,” was launched 16 years ago to honor the civic lives of victims of the terrorist bombing of Atocha Train Station. With help from Spain’s innovative Medialab Prado, VIC has produced a creative commons project called CIVICS that interactively maps citizens’ initiatives in the non-monetary social economy.
The initiatives being mapped — whether focused on helping elderly shut-ins, advocating for alternative transportation or increased public art — come and go as the economy rises and falls, but their numbers increase over time. They are too small and informal to show up as nongovernmental organizations, yet their aggregate impact is considerable.
For the first time, CIVICS open-source mapping gives engaged citizens visibility of initiatives similar to their own and the ability to connect, add information and broaden their collective impact.
Through a partnership of regional and local initiatives in Madrid called Los Madriles, both printed and interactive versions of CIVICS-style maps showing neighborhood initiatives are available throughout the city, including educational children’s maps.
As the website states, the overarching goal of this collaborative effort is to “value the power of a critical and active citizenship,” and to create “new spaces of possibility through self-management and participation.”
The Madriles project is also changing tourism by empowering visitors from other countries to connect with like-minded neighborhood activists in Spain.
Loving Your Neighborhood in South America
In Chile, in spite of their recent political turmoil, an initiative called Quiero mi Barrio (QMB), or “I Love My Neighborhood,” started in 2006 under former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and has spread through communities across the Andes with a low-cost, high-impact focus on simply empowering people to express their love for their neighborhoods.
Even in the poorest barrios, civic pride of place exists. QMB encourages this pride and increases citizen engagement through personal attention, training, public visibility, facilitating partnerships, and self-organization to raise community morale and increase activism.
These kinds of projects exist everywhere that I have traveled since 2016. They range from farmers’ seed exchanges aimed at preserving genetic diversity of seed stocks and building local community in Mexico, Central and South America, to open-source architectural cooperatives practicing urban acupuncture, and computer hacker networks promoting political accountability and civic innovation.
With the ability of citizens to connect anywhere in the world, such initiatives offer alternative civic models that can be duplicated, modified and scaled across borders. There has never been a better time for citizens to shift their focus away from political spectacle to building a new kind of democratic self-governance predicated on direct citizen engagement and collaboration.
Government by the Many
As the failure of representative democracy has become too clear to ignore, alternative models for organizing a modern democratic society built around diverse citizens’ initiatives have also emerged.
Yale Professor Hélène Landemore’s pioneering work on empowering “the rule of the many” in lieu of rule by a self-interested professional class of elected representatives is one of the more promising frameworks for enabling citizen-driven change.
Landemore starts with what political theorists call “the fact of disagreement,” then seeks to clarify its meaning and propose novel ways of dealing with it.
Rather than ignoring or downplaying “the reality that people in free societies are committed to different and conflicting … beliefs, values, conceptions of social justice,” Landemore’s nascent solutions hinge on the idea of obligatory citizenship similar to a draft or lottery. When everyone serves, it is not possible to outsource either responsibility or blame.
Although there are no quick solutions, there is ample raw material to begin constructing viable forms of alternative citizen-centered democratic politics and governance. All that is needed is the courage to start.