You could prove the laws of chemistry wrong by experimenting with dirty test tubes. Kenneth Binmore

Rule Without Rulers

Democracy will be reborn. Instead of tying power to entrenched institutions and established rulers, a culture of participation will flourish a century from today. The future belongs to those who are willing to experiment.

I imagine 100 years from now a democratic society governed not through representative structures but through schemes of open, horizontal, and universal participation. I want a world in which we are collectively able to rule ourselves without masters, from the most local and everyday interactions to the most global level. And I recognize the grounds for that imagination and that desire in the democratic experiments of the contemporary social movements. Utopian projections, of course, are never as much about the future as they are about the present. They recognize existing political imaginations and desires, sometimes as yet only expressed in latent form, and in order to validate and cultivate them.

The desire for democracy was powerfully thrust to center stage by the 2011 Spring revolts that spread through North Africa and the Middle East. Encampments and occupations that sprang up throughout the year took up their challenge, but it was clear to them already that the representative and electoral systems, which we are told define democracy, are not the answer. In fact, one of the most significant political developments to emerge in recent decades, grasped and intensified by the movements of 2011, is the affirmation of democracy against representation, a more absolute democracy characterized by the active and equal participation of all.

“You don’t represent us”

The slogans of the 2011 encampments articulate their critique of political representation in its various forms. “You don’t represent us,” for instance, was a common expression in the 15 May encampments in Madrid and Barcelona, aimed at not only one corrupt politician or party, but the entire representative system. Throughout the Occupy movements, furthermore, was expressed a general – and often extreme – rejection of not only the politics as usual of party and state electoral schemes but also any effort of individuals or small groups to be raised up as leaders or to speak in their name. They not only protest the many ways in which representation has been corrupted by money, power, and the media – itself an important task – but also express a more radical critique of representation itself.

Dominant political thought in an earlier era considered representation to be the essential element of democracy, the link that connects the actions of the rulers to the will of the multitude. James Madison, for instance, when advocating for the passage of the U.S. Constitution, maintains that representation is what separates republicanism from tyranny. The structures of representation, however, also always separate the rulers from the ruled, establish limited bases of decision-making, and block or restrict the participation of the many. Representation in all of its forms – from centralized party and parliamentary structures to the elevation of leaders – is in this sense an obstacle to the free and equal participation of all in decision-making, the government truly for and by the people.

Those unsympathetic to these movements may view their refusal of representation as a profoundly undemocratic position that can only lead either to a mystified new tyranny or a completely unstructured, anarchic social formation, with the added suspicion that those two really amount to the same thing. The movements, however, in addition to criticizing current political structures, prefigure a new politics. The encampments and occupations that began in 2011 constantly create, often on very small scales, participatory, democratic social relationships and political practices. The general assemblies and working groups that sprung up from Tahrir Square to Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park are experiments in open and horizontal structures of deliberation and decision-making. Participation, of course, does not imply that everyone will agree. On the contrary, these experimental structures are aimed at facilitating and working through the disagreement and even antagonism among participants. That is part of the essence of the democratic governance they prefigure.

Is democracy scalable?

Such experiments in democracy, however, immediately pose the question of scale. The movements have proven relatively effective at organizing an occupied square or park for a few weeks or months, but how can the same participatory structures and democratic relationships serve to create an alternative society in a lasting way? Technological solutions are often invoked when faced with such questions of scale. Indeed many of the encampments experimented with social media such as Facebook and Twitter as polling mechanisms in the attempt to include hundreds and even thousands of participants in decision-making. But such electronic communication mechanisms, at least as they are currently configured, are poor substitutes for the kinds of face-to-face deliberation and engagement with differences required for collective self-governance. New communications technologies and new uses of existing ones will undoubtedly be part creating a future democracy, but they will not be determinant.

Key instead will be to invent new political and social relationships, and, perhaps most importantly, to create subjects who desire democracy. How thoroughly have the electoral systems trained us to find boring and unrewarding even the most minimal political participation! What a great service these movements do by increasing our appetite for politics and desire for democracy! A strong appetite for politics is essential for any truly democratic self-governance.

Humanity sets itself only such tasks, we could say modifying Marx’s words, for which it already desires and imagines the solution. Desire and imagination are part of the material conditions necessary to constitute a new reality. We can’t simply wish away climate change, of course; merely imagining world peace will not put an end to war; and just repeatedly expressing our deepest hopes, like the incantations of would-be magicians, will not make them real. But the more of us imagine and desire politically, and the more intensely we do so, the more power we have to create a new world because in that desire and imagination are born collective political action.

A sequence that emerges from the current social movements and points toward a new democratic future: experimentation opens imagination and desire that have the potential through political action to make a new reality. Perhaps a century from now they will look back and see in our era the time when that political desire took root.

Read more in this debate: Ben Scott, Tomáš Sedláček, George Friedman.


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