Monday, March 07, 2005

Toward More Democratic Institution Building

Nancy Skougor's kindly encouraging words in response to my critique of the Madrid Summit process raise interesting points of their own about what it means to create democratic institutional space within the internet or any other institution, including that of the Club de Madrid. And especially so in relation to institutions of democratic policymaking like that which the Madrid Summit is attempting to embody --

As participants in the Summit discuss these issues, however, I would caution all not to assume that there is anything inherently "democratic" about Internet-enabled space or those who engage in politics primarily through internet rather than more traditional space. --Just as I would NOT assume that the individuals participating in the Madrid Summit working groups were any less democratic than those participating in the on-line Forums simply because the working groups were fairly closed in their structure.

Institutional Structures are the core problem we need to be addressing, since undemocratic, closed structures limit the ability of all of us to practice democracy as a way of life, no matter how much we might wish to do so. Too much discussion of democracy as an ideal in the United States and elsewhere today goes on as if people think creating "democracy" only requires good hearts and the military or political power to impose it on a country or the world. This vague thinking is possible only by skipping over the entire problem of what it means to engage in the hard work of democratic institution building.

If the Bush administration planners for the invasion of Iraq had thought clearly about building democracy as a process of institution-building, instead of simply as an ideological project of men with good hearts and powerful guns, they would not have allowed all of the core institutions of Iraqi society to be looted and reduced to rubble as the starting point for "building democracy" in Iraq. Building real democracy is as much about the work of structuring democratic access to institutions of economic life and policymaking as it is about voting.

Internet space can after all be as anti-democratic as any other institutional space. This is the underlying point of what I hope will be understood as my constructive, appreciative, and friendly "critique" of the Forum. And I'm afraid that those who conduct most of their politics online, under the assumption that by doing so they are more democratic than those who take their politics off-line, can be just as self-deluded as more traditional political folks.

As with all technologies, the internet enables some good things (access to global communication networks) as well as some bad things (new forms of exclusion and hierarchy). The only way to be sure the internet (or any institution) works as a democratic site is to do the hard work of figuring out how to structure it in ways that invite and nurture democratic participation. There is never any easy answer for how to do this, which is why it takes democratic collaborative work to build democratic institutions. Democratic institutions cannot be built from the top-down, by the few, whether on-line or off. It is not any easier to do this kind of institutional structuring work with the internet than with any other institution, which is why we still have a long way to go in thinking through these issues in deeper ways. Any truly democratic "third force" network tied together by the internet will have to tackle these tough problems front and center.

Because any effective third force/civil society network will need to engage and involve both state and private sector actors in productive and creative new ways, the surest way to limit the effectiveness of such a network would be to give more traditional state actors the impression that they are viewed as inherently less democratic than internet-savvy actors. I'm sure, after all, that many of the expert insiders in the working groups are themselves quite internet savvy. So I don't think the problem is one of bringing state-oriented actors or dignitaries into the new "life form" of the internet (which would suggest that somehow the technology of the internet carries with it an inherently democratic "life form"). Rather, I think the technology of the internet, like any technology, offers us a resource we need to learn to use most effectively to challenge ourselves and others (whether in spheres of business, state, or civil society) to live up to our greatest democratic potential.

Those of us working from the sphere of civil society need the democratic state-oriented members of the working groups to help us to live up to our democratic potential as much as they need democratic civil society folk to help them live up to their potential. Which is why strong and effective democratic networks for "human security" can only be built through what public health scholar Larry Gostin has termed "intersectoral" partnerships (linkages between business, nonprofit, and state actors).

As far as creating the new "life form" of Open Democracy is concerned, we are all in the same boat--and therefore we all need each other to challenge each other to live up to our collective best.

And again, this is why even the limitations of the present safe.democracy Forum can provide a fine basis for beginning the institutional work of thinking about what we can do better in the next summit to structure this kind of internet space to enable more deeply engaged democratic collaborations in policymaking.... so we're not continually stuck in institutional space that allows us only to "voice" our opinions "about" democracy, but instead can begin to build a truly democratic institutional space through the way we conduct ourselves with each other in practice....

--If you're interested in engaging the collaborative work of thinking through these issues in practice, whether you're in the spheres of business, government, or civil society, please join us in this work by joining the discussion here, or by emailing us at:


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