Democracy promises rule by all rather than the few. Yet national electoral democracies limit decision-making to small groups of representatives and policy experts, and have always had a weakness for inequality. Those who believe in equality may ask how the poor and the Indigenous, migrants and minorities, women and the underemployed, the rural and the subaltern can all come to take charge of their lives through democratic governance. Where does democracy serve all of society rather than only the few?
Equality in practice is limited in electoral democracies to formal political equality, such as equal rights, like the right to vote, and other general principles. The failure to produce equality outcomes in other parts of life, such as economic equality and social or cultural equality, has often been hidden in the past half century by this emphasis on formal political equality.
By forcing voters to limit their participation to leverage over delegated representation, the modern electoral state weakens their ability to produce equality in their economic, social, cultural, and even political lives. By reducing their equal democratic practice to participation through abstract political rights and principles, modern electoral states prevent direct participation for those who wish to produce economic, social, and cultural equality. Equal outcomes may be electoral democracy’s weakest point.
These days, most national democracy tells us not about equality but about how we must accept inequality: how we must vote for those who can only talk inequality, must live in places where inequality seems normal and natural, must complain about inequality but not practice equality. Electoral democracies often reinforce or deepen the inequalities between political elites and ordinary citizens, rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, colonizers and the colonized, workers and employers, educated and uneducated, and other social divisions.
Yet many communities and organizations from all over the world practice forms of democracy that give equal power to all members in sites beyond the modern nation. Many have built egalitarian democratic structures to claim their power as equals to govern their own lives. Many of them use councils and assemblies as broad-based decision-making bodies, structures used widely in history and in the present. Multiple communities use consensus or other practices instead of voting for representatives. Both these practices reduce the centralization of power in the hands of the few.
They may do so as part of state governments, or as parallel to or even in competition with the state in small communities or in large territories and transnational networks. They do so not only in the past but also in the present. They do so in rural settings and the largest urban areas of the world, in families and towns, in farms and in everyday affairs. They often do so in difficult and even impossible conditions, yet they have succeeded for decades or centuries. Above all, they do so in order to govern their own affairs in ways that actively and carefully avoid reinforcing established inequalities in politics, economics, and other parts of daily life. These communities and organizations show that there are many avenues to democratic equality, that difference is central to democracy.
Over the next months and years more posts will introduce multiple sites for democratic practice beyond national electoral systems that are not found in the book. These sites ask us to reconsider the meaning of democracy. Democratic practices are commonplace in ordinary society, and the more they spread through social relations the weaker national monopoly claims on democracy will become.