Dr. Jean-Paul Gagnon’s Democracy’s Linguistic Artefacts: The Future Science
You talk a lot about democracy in your work. How do you define democracy? What systems around the world do you consider closest to being truly democratic?
Ten years ago I would have answered your question with a confident definition of just what democracy was. But of course that would have either been my own semi-arbitrary preference or a mere repetition of a definition that happened to be popular among my academic enclave or perhaps among those authors who were dominating the conventional study of democracy at the time.
How things have changed over years of trying to answer the “what is democracy?” question.
I don’t, now, have a definition for democracy except to say that it is (and has always meant) many things. But not all in that great big category of “the many” qualify as being democratic, or having sufficient “democraticity” to them (that’s one of Hélène Landemore’s terms), as some meanings are, upon even the most cursory analysis, really just non-democracies in democratic clothing. So I qualify the definition by saying there are ideas and practices in the world that fall into the “democracy box” if, and only if, they cannot be defined as a non-democracy of some sort like monarchy, tyranny, or oligarchy.
Standing on that footing does two things for us. The first is that it lets us understand the instantiations of democracy in the world as being many and of a great variety. The second is less obvious as it requires us, you and me, to study the democracies to get there. But when we do study them we quickly see that democracy is not exclusively tied to governments, states, and their institutions. It also happens in workplaces, clubs, schools, families, and even inside our own selves. Just read Hubert Herman’s 2020 book Inner Democracy to come to terms with that last one of being democratic on the inside.
Turning to the second question — “what systems do I consider closest to being truly democratic?” — I’m really not sure. And that’s not completely out of ignorance but rather due to my understanding of democracy in the first place. Let me explain.
For a polity, defined as a territory with people residing within it, to be “truly democratic” it would need to do all of its governance exclusively through the democracies: through democratic techniques and the technologies, habits, customs, mores and cultures that potentiate them. That of course applies to governments and state institutions but, and here I think more importantly, to those aspects of life that we spend the vast majority of our lives in: workplaces, families, schools, and, of course, ourselves.
If we had an index (here’s one option) that could measure the number of the democracies practised in a polity of your choosing and tell us the quality of those practices, and that index is telling us with great confidence that the polity of Los Angeles, for example, governs itself without tyrant husbands in its families, without autocratic bosses in its workplaces, without gerontocratic command and control teachers in its schools, without the despotic rule of some violent strangers in this or that neighbourhood or street, and so forth, then I would say it’s a true democracy.
And yes, that means I think it’s wrong for Pew, or The Economist, or whatever other index of democracy you prefer to say that there are “full democracies” in the world. That’s simply not true as those indices are only measuring governments in polities, usually only at the national level (ignoring all other governments and social associations elsewhere in the polity), and are typically only measuring one type of democracy — the electoral kind. The exception to this is the Varieties of Democracy Index which is now measuring over 5 types of democracy but that’s just 5 out of thousands of types and, again, they’re focusing mainly on the national level and concerning themselves only with government.
I’m wagering that most of our readers would prefer for the focus of democratization to land on those areas of life that they spend most of their time in and therefore have cause to care more about like their families, schools and workplaces. Who in your life do you think would care, as in really truly caring by thinking about it at night or daydreaming about it on a walk or talking about it with their friends and family if a government at the top of a polity, like the US Congress, increasingly distant from us as they are, who the research are telling us are becoming perceived as increasingly untrustworthy and which people know next to little about, is perfectly practising a variant of electoral democracy? Now ask yourself the same question if co-operative democracy was coming to your workplace or if you and your partner decided it was time to practice family democracy or if you and, say, your therapist or rabbi or coach or mother had a chat and decided to try some of this inner democracy for yourselves? Which do you think those in your life would care about?
So diluting power relations through democratic practices is one of the best ways, if not the best way, that I know of to protect children from abuse, to throw out bastard bosses, to make education by children, of children and for children, to give more people an experience, a sensation, a taste of the democracies and their promises. It’s gutting to think that most of us have had so little democracy in our lives, myself included (the irony is not lost on me!).
What do you think about the role of money in politics? Clearly some people have a greater capacity than others to buy media advertising to sway votes and to hire lobbyists to meet with lawmakers. How can we make a more level playing field?
I follow many political scientists and political economists, both in their work and socially, and agree with their conclusions from the last twenty years in particular: we live in an age of inequality that has, in terms of money concentration, likely never been experienced before. There exists a “super-plutocracy” of hundred millionaires and billionaires, individuals with vast fortunes, who can pay the very best in financial and legal professionals to not only protect their fortunes but also grow them.
Money, as so many have shown, does equal power — especially in countries where elections are increasingly costly to run. We know that the price of running a campaign has skyrocketed for political parties over the years, to pay for advertising, to cover ground, to hire the army of people needed to help their army of volunteers (this last point is not so bad as at least it is providing some folks with income and valuable life experiences), be seen with the right people and on the list of expenses grows.
We also know that donors exist. That corporations spend on lobbyists. That peak bodies for various industries and private interests (both corporate and non) create legislation which they try to get politicians to adopt for, of course, their own or their industry’s benefit. We know that the time, maybe not the attention, of politicians can be bought (sometimes by the plate) at fundraisers. We know that money prices people like you and me and the vast majority of our readers out of the system. Who out of us is, after all, going to spend five or ten thousand dollars just to sit next to the Treasurer as has happened in Australia when that right should be freely given, perhaps through lottery and need instead of price?
The question of leveling the playing field is a tough one. As far as I know, the latest in conservative recommendations is to require every donation (in money or in kind) to be declared and listed in a public registry with caps in place so that no one person or proxy can give too much in any given year, for instance.
That may sound good on paper but it’s actually a toothless tiger as we’re coming to discover. Hélène Landemore, a Yale political theorist and democratic innovator, said something very interesting in her latest book Open Democracy (2020, Princeton) which is that “open government” succeeded mainly in publishing vast amounts of information on the internet which proved too daunting for most people, even those who cared, to go through. It was death by detail, a transparency tsunami, that — and here now leaving Open Democracy behind — didn’t offer people much in the end.
Let’s challenge that assertion by saying that transparency is better than no transparency. Agreed. 100%. And yes, look at what happens when good, brave, muckraking investigative journalism gets stuck into it as has happened with the Panama Papers: corruption gets uncovered, people are brought to justice, and then … then what? We seem to forget about it in terms of prosecuting the villainy behind the villains: we’re talking changes to law, changes to policy and regulation, changes to culture — to the impressions of what’s no longer acceptable to us in real, biting terms, not just in continued sentiment.
So transparency is the starting place, not the end place, of dealing with the money problem in politics. The next step is telling political parties that campaigns need to be run with less money, of reeling back advertising and financed marketing, and structuring new ways of reaching out to prospective voters. There is, too, much to be said about reforming the electoral system in use from first past the post, which is used nationally and in almost all states in the US, and is a relic of the 18th century, to a contemporary form of mixed member proportional representation as this would weaken both the Republicans and Democrats which can only be a good thing — it really is time to end the duopoly, to make the United States a functioning multiparty state.
Do you feel that the Internet and social media are democratizing societies around the world, or is that effect diluted by the vast amount of money and power consolidated in Silicon Valley?
“Democratize information”: it was the promise of the internet just as Gutenberg sought to democratize reading with the press. And I think it could still very much be. I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading essays and listening to various excellent radio programs and podcasts on just this topic — I’m supposing most people have. Topically, with Trumpism and the identity of “sceptic” on the rise (of tying your identity to conspiracy theories), it’s all the rage.
From the gaze of certain economists: the problem is market concentration in Facebook and Twitter but also, outside of just social media, Amazon, Apple, Intel, IBM, Samsung, Microsoft and so on. If we could just get more competition in this market there would be less power concentrated in the few.
From the gaze of certain political scientists and communications theorists: the problem is that the internet is still something of a “Wild West”. People haven’t yet established the rules of civility, they have not yet established the acceptable or at least justifiable ways of morally communicating with one another, regulation, laws, policing, etc., are still rather young compared to how we govern matters in the offline world, and so we find that we’re stuck in this land of extremes between those who want anything and everything — even the most heinous and criminal — to be publishable on the internet to those who think anything that goes “digital” should be filtered by police. The answer may very well be somewhere in between.
I still believe in the promise of the internet, of more and more of us having at least the possibility of sharing with one another because of all the good that’s come of that. Yes social media has been used to bully people but it has also been used to record crimes against humanity. Yes Twitter was an effective mouthpiece for that horrible and heinous Donald Trump (or at least impressionably so from all accounts I’ve received, I’ve never met the person) but it has also been the mouthpiece for millions, myself included (@jeanpaulrgagnon, following is naturally compulsory!). As with any person, or conceivably any thing, it can be used for bad or for good. So maybe we need to stop trying to solve the “big bad” with “big fixes” and rather focus on the personal, the specific, and do so in a manner that does not constrain the liberty of those many who are not causing harm to others on or through the internet.
In one of your published articles, you mention that democracy is not necessarily a human invention, that other organisms live according to democratic principles. Could you say more about that?
Of course. In 2008/9, around when I started conceiving my first book — Evolutionary Basic Democracy (<- it’s Introduction, open access) — I was reading research papers from biologists and physicists. That’s admittedly an unusual thing for a then PhD student in political science, focusing on this thing called “democracy”, to be doing. I should thank my supervisors, actually, for letting me go off doxa (convention) like that so late into the thesis (which began in early 2007).
Anyway, it turns out biologists were using the word “democracy” in relation to the way many different types of life reached decisions — baboons, chimpanzees, buffalo, red deer, Canada geese, jellyfish, honeybees, Streptococcus mutans (lives in your mouth), slime moulds, even our brain cells. Most use various forms of simple majority rule but others, like the honeybees, use quorums.
The way I’ve put it just then makes it sound rather boring but it’s far from it. Because when you bring this idea down to the ground level, to observing the ways in which those decisions are reached by the individuals in the group out there in the wild or in a zoo, for instance, it really is mind blowing.
I think what gets people excited is knowing that other forms of life, non-human life, are using democratic techniques not because they have to, not because some power is forcing them to do it, or because it’s the “right thing”, but because it works: it offers a better chance at survival, health, reproduction, contentment even, than listening to an autocratic individual will.
Take a look at European bison or Bison bonasus for example. Amandine Ramos and colleagues published a study in the journal Animal Behaviour a few years ago which revealed that any member of the herd (no matter their age or sex) could initiate a movement of the herd (although older females are more prone to choosing where to move for grazing, water, avoiding predators and the like). In horses (the kind of horses are unspecified in the study I’m referring to) these movements are done by “nervous mares or by the boldest individuals in a group”. Curiously big, mass, movements of bison are actually initiated by a few individuals which then triggers a “following” action by other sub-groups (as the herd doesn’t really move as one, it’s all sub-groups that more or less go along together, but not always) and that this leader-follower dynamic tends to be more cohesive when times are good: when there’s plenty of food and water and environmental stresses aren’t too bad.
We know this happens too among our closer cousins the Bonobos: they tend to be more hippy lovey and settle their differences through sex, hugs, grooming, but the hippy times can sour to potentially even violent conflict if resources are scarce and living conditions have turned hard. What a reminder to us, eh?
Importantly, Ramos and colleagues end their paper with the claim that “studying how animal species reach common and optimal decisions could allow us to better understand how humans organize themselves and make decisions in their own society.” That last line is essentially the aim of non-human democracy: we can draw inspiration, lessons and analogies from the ways that non-humans organize themselves democratically for use in our own, all-too-human, lives.
What would you say is the unique contribution of your work, in the landscape of other intellectual thought surrounding democracy?
Five years ago I would have said it’s non-human democracy. And that’s really a work that I love and am deeply passionate about principally because it’s another reason for conserving, rehabilitating, and expanding habitats that should be off limits to people — at least for most of the year and then accessible only by suitably trained tourists chosen through lottery (so the rich can’t price other folks out). I really can’t wait to get back into the field.
Today I do think the uniqueness comes from a curious claim made in two books, foundational to the field of democracy studies (as a professional academic discipline), that were written in the 1950s. In fact, the book I’m currently writing — Democracy’s Linguistic Artefacts: The Future Science — is all about this.
My book explains how I pick up a labour that was abandoned at democracy’s natal moment as a field of academic inquiry in the 50s. Both Henry B. Mayo and Robert Dahl, key figures in the field’s establishment, wrote that they did not “present and analyse” (Mayo’s words) or “survey all or most” (Dahl’s words) of democracy’s theories when they first sought to introduce us to the subject. Those are pretty odd admissions to be making.
As Giovanni Sartori, another towering figure in the study of democracy, came to explain in the late 1980s, this abandonment led to the triumph of argumentation about democracy “constructed with much passion but little knowing.” Consequently, Sartori tells us that studies in democracy from the 1950s onward led to a field whose “enrichment is largely single-issue minded” that “leaves us with splendid fragments in splendid isolation”.
This means that we have not been working, as other fields do, with an evidence-backed foundation of democracy’s “total texture” (Isaiah Berlin’s term). Our reliance on such fragments in isolation has, therefore, kept us in an “age of confusion” (Sartori’s words) about democracy. This has had profoundly negative implications for the way we understand and practice democratic politics as it denies a specific, and heretofore untried, way of theorising about democracy which I enshrine in the figure of the “fourth theorist” at the end of the book.
Democracy’s Linguistic Artefacts is, as a result, hinged on the question of what happens if we do first “present and analyse” or “survey all or most” of democracy’s theories (broadened in the book to linguistic artefacts) before making our arguments about it?
The answer is nothing short of ground-breaking. Performing the abandoned labour puts us in touch with fresh empirical terrain, and it is here, by virtue of this grounding in evidence which sets us on the path to approximating democracy’s “total texture”, that we can engage with what Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess once called a “future science” for the democracies.
As far as I know I’m the first person to pick up this labour since it was left behind by Dahl and Mayo. I’d wager that’s pretty unique. There’s certainly no other book like it.