Diploma in Local Democracy Collaborative Essay 2015

What is local democracy? When we first began the class we saw it for its failures. We weren’t quite sure what local democracy was but we knew what it was not and where it did not exist. As the class progressed this changed. We learned from each other’s experiences to better recognize democracy when it was present. It became more about looking for the light that does shine, the democracy that does exist, than the darkness that seeks to overwhelm the light. As we come to the end of this year’s class we risk a definition of what local democracy is, to summarize where this pilgrimage of a class has taken us.

We first learned that Local Democracy is rooted in specific places. As a class we recognize that different places are, to hazard redundancy, different. This means there can be no universally applicable handbook for local democracy – the very phrase made us laugh. We didn’t know there was one way to do local democracy![1]  Local Democracy means the particular people in a particular place responding to their particular needs. We asked questions like: How does local context impact reality? How large is this place? How are people geo-spatially arranged? What is the political and cultural reality of the space and what emerges from this? Place offers a connecting point but does not guarantee common interest. Local Democracy is not an abstract set of ideas but a concrete, lived reality rooted in a place. Change will only happen if people in localities take control and develop their own ways of doing things. There are no one-size-fits-all democratic institutions for local places; rather institutions such as city governments need to respond to the needs on the ground.

We then discovered that the importance of place is found, in major part, in the relationships between people who share the space. The importance of these relationships became a major generative theme in our discussions. Relationships spring to provide security for us in insecure situations. We are individuals in relationship from the moment we were born. Individuals within a community are shaped by it more than they shape it. As we talked about in our first classes democratic relationships in everyday life form the roots of larger democracies. Here we meet as equals. In local democracy these relationships are immediate and central to our understanding of ourselves. These relationships exist even when it goes against individual interest. Any conversation about democracy that does not attend to place and these essential relationships will, in the long run, not engender anything democratic.

In our places we are going to be beside each other for a long time so we need to abide with each other, not just now but for the long run. This means that local democracy needs strong ethical traditions, moral sentiments, even virtue. Our third discovery was that Local Democracy is about the question:  how then are we to live? We answered this question by emphasizing living with compassion, building trust, loving each other, developing virtue as ethical skill and extending radical hospitality and embracing difference. We learned that embracing the other is one of the most important ethical habits of relationship that allows for the flourishing of Local Democracy. How else can we learn to abide with each other over the long-term, the kind of abiding which is the keystone of democratic tradition? For local democracy to flourish we must learn to get along. We must cooperate. We cannot be fickle. Goodwill is the path towards sustainability -- democratically and ecologically. Every day, every single day, we must navigate the tensions that come out of trying to get along.

Through this discussion on ethics and relationships we came to a startling conclusion: democracy is a matter of personal responsibility exercised in community. Insuring democracy is not just the role of the government or the courts. Our fourth learning was that we, as individuals and communities, share in this responsibility.  If someone is not being heard it is our obligation to listen. If someone is being marginalized it is our duty to speak up on their behalf. Everyone must play their part in the process of ensuring the sustainability of local community. This requires ongoing voluntary engagement and sustained effort – regular maintenance. To use a mechanistic metaphor,  one has to change their oil regularly unless you want to pay the price later. To use a more organic metaphor kindness sows a flourishing garden. Each member of the community has a responsibility to ensure that their thoughts, feelings and actions promote the flourishing of the community, now and into the future. Because we recognize that people have different capacities, and we want to include people and whatever gifts they can bring to the community.

We called this matrix of place, relationship, ethics and responsibility the life-world of democracy. We recognized this as distinct from the system-world and thought critically about at what level, what size and what scale participative democracy becomes impossible. Our fifth learning was that, when it comes to democracy, size matters. Size matters because when something is too big it can become too complicated and when something gets too complicated people lose their centrality. When people are no longer central the word democracy no longer applies. At what point is there a radical discontinuity, a rupture, between something of democratic size and something that’s too big? Our answer is where there is breakdown of face-to-face relationships and the breakdown of the ability to participate in the decisions that affect one’s life. Local democracy is intimate and familiar. This requires frequent interaction. We saw this in thinkers as diverse as Leopold Kohr, Thomas Jefferson and the ancient Athenians. Small is not only beautiful, it is also key to our survival.

We asked ourselves how are local democracies to relate to each other? Our sixth learning is that there are two ways of relating: networks of communities and system-world. In a network of communities the principles of subsidiarity apply as the higher levels are at the disposal of the lower levels in society, which themselves are at the disposal of the particular people of a particular place. The local is primary and needs to take responsibility, but there are also shared needs between various locales in the network of communities. In the systems world the lower levels become at the disposal of the higher levels as responsibilities are up-delegated. When  the system-world assumes responsibility for our job and becomes so bloated and big that it is impossible for it to be democratic in any meaningful sense. Be forewarned against recreating local structures on the model of larger scale institutions and entrenching the up-delegation of services and functions that would be more appropriately performed at the local level. Systems that we may have initiated to lift the burden of care from individuals’ shoulders, become oppressive – become the burden – when we lose the werewithal to care for ourselves and others.

Our seventh learning was that a thriving local democracy both requires and facilitates a thriving local economy. The kind of local economy we aim for is one marked by conviviality. Ivan Illich defined conviviality as the “joyous freedom to produce for ourselves in relation to others in order to be free of manufactured needs.”[2] A local economy that lacks this convivial freedom will negatively impact local democracy. There are these necessary, intrinsic connections between economy and democracy that are dangerous to ignore. Instead we should honour them. A strong local democracy needs a strong local economy and a strong local economy needs a strong local democracy. This ideally is the case, the standard we aspire to even while recognizing the reality might be very different.

We conclude by reflecting on the question: what is the goal of local democracy? What’s the point? After much reflection on the richness of the idea we found the centre of local democracy to be to provide immediate responses to community needs.  In this we recognize that we are part of a bigger picture: just as individuals are part of a community, so local communities are part of a wider humanity. We need to honour these wider connections while staying focused on what’s in front of us. And what’s in front of us, the many needs and challenges of our community, is best answered by us – locally and face-to-face. In our class we spent much time talking about the needs that have and will come up. These seem endless, and our community’s capacity too often limited. In light of this we concluded that the greatest of our needs, and the one local democracy best meets, is our need for community.


[1] See IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance): Democracy at the Local Level. Online guide.

[2] Isaiah Ritzmann, Ivan Illich Easy Essays, Winter 2015.


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