We can work towards a vision of a “wise” democracy just as we can work towards a vision of a “just” society. We may never arrive at absolute wisdom or total justice, but striving towards such inspiring visions helps us build progressively “wiser” democracies and “more just” societies.
This essay and its diagrams will introduce you to some major dynamics involved with that journey toward “a more perfect union” – as the U.S. Constitution puts it – in this case, a union between the three dimensions of democratic power, participation and wisdom…
One way to explore democracy is through the lenses of power, participation, and intelligence and wisdom.
I like to call these factors dimensions because, while they are distinct, each of them is always present in some form and to some extent. They are also intimately related to each other, like the dimensions of three-dimensional space – length, width and breadth.
So we can consider any political system – especially democracies – through any one, two, or all three of these dimensions.
And we can study how a political system could change to include all of them in more powerful, integrated ways. So I invite you to imagine what a richly three-dimensional democracy would be like….
TRACKING THE THREE DIMENSIONS
The POWER dimension has to do with influence and getting things done. Exploring political power means exploring who frames the issues and how, who makes the decisions and how, who implements the policies and how, and who controls the society’s resources and how. It also has to do with the effectiveness of whatever actions are taken; did they actually achieve their intended goals.
The PARTICIPATION dimension has to do with how many people and perspectives are involved in what happens in public life – and how, how deeply, and how often they are involved. It is the realm of public engagement and the political activities of citizens, communities, and stakeholders.
The INTELLIGENCE/WISDOM dimension of democracy has to do with how well all the above activities align with reality. Intelligence involves problem-solving, learning, and being able to relate successfully to changes and challenges in our environment. Collective intelligence involves collective problem-solving, learning, and relating to changes and challenges in our shared environment. We can examine how collectively smart we are as communities and whole societies. Are we in line with what’s really going on and what’s really needed? Wisdom is an expanded form of intelligence: it has to do with how broadly we apply our intelligence, individually or collectively. How much do we take into account – how many facts, factors, dynamics and needs; how much interconnectedness; how much of life over how long a time frame; and so on. The wiser we are, the more factors we take into account so we can successfully generate broad long-term benefit.
PUTTING THE THREE DIMENSIONS TOGETHER
We can illustrate these three factors with a Venn diagram – a set of overlapping circles or ovals. In this essay I offer a simplified version of such a diagram for exploration.
The relative size of the shapes depicted here suggests the relative role of each dimension in the level of democratic development the diagram represents. Their overlaps suggest the extent to which the three dimensions are becoming integrated into a truly wise democracy.
In most current self-proclaimed democracies, the power dimension (the pink circle in the diagram) dominates and is exercised primarily by elite powerholders in government, economics, media, etc. Participation in the power dimension by others (indicated by the small purple overlapping section) is limited to activities like voting, lobbying and activism targeted at the powerholders. In such a society, most democratic participation (the blue circle) carries on in activities outside of power politics, such as community volunteering (reflected in the larger non-overlapping blue area of participation). The intelligence and wisdom of any outcomes (the yellow oval) are largely separate from both democratic policy-making (power) and explicitly democratic engagement (participation). To the extent that collective intelligence and wisdom exist, they come largely from the semi-independent activities of individuals and groups in the so-called social sector (also known as “civil society”).
In our Venn diagram at this stage, we see few small overlaps and virtually no area where power, participation, and intelligence and wisdom all overlap into one synergistic phenomenon.
As we build a wiser democracy, we find ways to increase the participatory exercise of power and the intelligence and wisdom of the outcomes of such participatory democratic activity. The wisdom generated by public and stakeholder participation becomes more empowered and effective in the world. In our Venn diagram we see much larger areas of overlap between the three dimensions and the appearance of a significant realm of empowered public wisdom where all three dimensions overlap (the tan “inflated triangle” in the center).
In an imagined truly wise democracy, the three dimensions would be virtually congruent. Nearly all exercises of power would be participatory and would generate effective wisdom. There would be little difference between power, participation, and wisdom. We would have a lot of powerful public wisdom and wise participatory power at work in our public affairs.
Significantly, notice that in our idealized wise democracy all three dimensions in our Venn diagram – power, participation, and wisdom – have each increased in size. This is partly due to their increasing synergy and congruence and partly due to their becoming more inclusive – including more forms and sources of power, more people and perspectives participating, more factors that should be taken into account being considered, and broader, deeper benefits being produced for more of life over longer periods of time.
Now let’s take a moment to reflect back on the fragmented forms of democracy we currently live with and the consequences of that fragmentation:
- Power without wisdom is not only dangerous but also unsustainable, ultimately destroying itself along with much of life around it.
- Power without participation becomes increasingly corrupt, manipulative and domineering, and thus riddled with inefficiencies, counter-forces and internal contradictions.
- Participation without power is unsustainable, generating apathy and cynicism.
- Participation without wisdom risks mob rule and majoritarian oppression.
- Wisdom without power is useless, futile, frustrating, and obviously incomplete (or else it would have taken into account what was needed for it to be powerful!).
- Wisdom without participation will miss important realities and not be “bought into” by those involved, undermining implementation.
So we find ourselves challenged today to begin a dedicated journey together, a journey to transform, expand and integrate all three dimensions of democracy. On this journey we need to ask:
1. What would democracy look like if POWER were more wholesome, participatory and wise – and how might we move in that direction?
2. What would democracy look like if PARTICIPATION were more inclusive, wise and empowered – and how might we move in that direction?
3. What would democracy look like if its outcomes arose from collective WISDOM that was more comprehensive, participatory and effective – and how might we move in that direction?
There are hundreds of useful answers to all those questions, each one leading to more questions and more answers, forever. And that is the journey urgently before us.
THE DEEP TRUTH
The vision of wise democracy rests on some very fundamental realities seldom acknowledged in today’s world:
1. We who feel and seem powerless are, in fact, very powerful. Our oppression is only possible with our cooperation and participation in the systems that oppress us. When our cooperation and participation end, we cannot be held down. That was one of Gandhi’s most important messages to colonized Indians and others seeking to understand and use nonviolence. Furthermore, once we realize the potency of the little understood forms of power like power-with, power-from-among, and power-from-within – and integrate them sensibly with a light touch of power-over – we enter a realm where the power we use is natural and ubiquitous.
2. Participation is inevitable and intrinsic. We are all co-creating the conditions of our individual and collective lives in every moment, whether we know it or not or want to or not. The question is not whether we are participating, but whether our participation is conscious, whether we are acting from aware choice, and whether our choices are truly serving us, the rest of life, and the future of the world. It isn’t more participation we need, but more conscious, wise participation. And that starts with copping to our role in making things the way they are.
3. Wise outcomes will happen whether they include us or not. Disturbance attracts the energies needed to make things whole again. But that wholeness is bigger than us and does not need to include us. Our hope lies in the fact that we can become part of the vast intelligence of that wholeness-generating dynamic, applying it to our human realm to enable us all to thrive within the flourishing of all life.
So wise participatory power already exists. I call it co-intelligence. It plays out naturally over millennia of evolutionary time. It can play out with us in our time if we grow into conscious maturity with it, both individually and especially collectively, culturally and systemically.
Wise democracy is the political economy of co-intelligence. Wise democracy is the concentrated conscious human social manifestation of a 14 billion year evolutionary process flourishing in powerfully creative new ways in human affairs.
Co-creating it is part of it. Co-creating it is being it. Because, ultimately, we are how it shows up in this time and place as us.
I will be teaching an introductory course on the possibility of a wiser democracy to one or two dozen students in the coming months. In its current form (still being finalized), it will cost a few hundred dollars and require a serious 8-week commitment (weekly 2 hour online meetings, plus homework). If you are interested in participating, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with WD COURSE in the subject line.
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