Democracy, Neoliberalism, and Participation

In my latest book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada, I argue that our representative democratic form of government is failing us. Elites, particularly wealthy corporate elites, have captured the political system to promote their own interests.

Not only does government favour corporate development and profits, in the belief that this will increase the country’s wealth and employment, but we have a tax system that benefits the wealthy. The off-shoring of wealth to avoid taxation has become a serious problem. An economic and political system has been developed that benefits the 1%, while the rest of us languish.

All of this inequality, and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, is justified by the ideology of neoliberalism. This is a self-serving theory that promotes rapacious capitalism, inequality, low pay for workers, poor working conditions, and attacks the welfare state as unnecessary and unaffordable. Neoliberalism goes so far as to argue that competition is the natural state of the human condition. It is good for the country and economy because it leads to efficiencies and innovation.

It is a theory that has been adopted by the corporate and political elite in virtually all of the developed countries. Today Donald Trump is the leading advocate, but Canada suffered from the ideology for almost ten years with the Stephen Harper government. Justin Trudeau is leading a government that is pushing back neoliberalism, but the conservative assault on minor tax reform measures shows just how ingrained this ideology has become.

To challenge this ideology in Canada, we have to begin by developing a different ideology, one that stresses co-operation and participation. Competition is not the natural state of the human condition. It was co-operation that led to the development of our civilizations, and working together in a co-operative way is the way we interact at work, politics, public institutions, and private corporations. Humans have a remarkable ability to work together to achieve collective goals.

We have to challenge the neoliberal ideology of selfishness and greed by promoting a participatory culture. I see it emerging everywhere I go: environmental groups, trade unions, co-ops, community groups, clubs, and sporting associations. Democratic organizations are everywhere in our society. They are run democratically, and they provide the way that people can participate. (Last weekend I attended a public meeting about Toronto’s Waterfront called “Waterfront for All.” Well over 300 people were there to talk about the new neighbourhood that is emerging in the city. It was inspiring to see how citizens want to participate in the task of rebuilding our city.)

We need to reform our parliaments and create a workable system of proportional representation, but above all we have to challenge neoliberalism and advocate that we need co-operation, engagement, and participation in all aspects of our lives. That is the only way that we will develop a caring, egalitarian society where everyone has the chance to develop to their own potential.

Participation and Democracy Rising

When I set off to write a non-fiction book, like Democracy Rising, I try to explore the subject as comprehensively as possible, but after the book is written, edited, printed, and in the book stores inevitably I come across material that I wish that I had included.

Sign and white blaze on a tree marking the Bruce Trail

Democracy Rising is a good example. The thesis, or major idea, of the book is that if we are to have a vibrant democracy the people must be engaged, and the most effective way for us to do that is through grassroots organizations that encourage the participation of its members.

The book starts off by describing the limitations of representative democracy and to show how elites have been able to dominate our political institutions for their own benefit. But the important material in the book is the discussion of how ordinary people have transformed our country through organizations such as the progressive movement, trade unions, co-operatives, the environmental movement, and community groups.

It is the participation of citizens in grassroots organizations that has strengthened our democratic practices and the book concludes by showing how we can make them more effective. We will never have an effective democracy until we have a truly participatory democracy.

This was an interesting book to write. I have been a community activist all of my adult life and Democracy Rising gave me the opportunity to write about those experiences and the organizations I have been involved with. Those who have read it have liked it, but the reality is that I did miss some opportunities. Here are some examples I could have included.

  • The Bruce Train is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. It was a group of keen hikers who came up with the idea of a walking trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment. They mapped out the trail, got permission from private landowners to cross their land, wrote brochures and articles describing the trail, set up a governing councils in different regions to look after the trail and advocated protection of the trail with the Ontario Government. It was a massive effort and it was all done by volunteers. Today the Niagara Escarpment is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan. It is a remarkable story of how the participation of people can make a difference and change our political practices.
  • Another example is the growth of land trusts. Community land trusts are private non-profit organizations that acquire and hold land for the benefit of the community. In rural areas often land trusts are set up to protect land from development and hold it in a natural state indefinitely. In cities land trusts are usually set up to make land available for affordable housing. This is a growing movement that is having an impact on many communities across Canada. Again, it is all being done by volunteers.

Those are two dramatic examples of people participating in their communities, but think of the scores of different organizations that exist in Canada. These are some that I am familiar with: Jane’s Walks, food banks, athletic associations, volunteer social service agencies, and so on and so on.

Participation, engagement, the development of grassroots organizations, these are all things that contribute to our democracy because they encourage public participation in meaningful ways on issues of public importance. Social media is a very effective way to develop and promote organizations like that and engage in the discussion of issues.

But before we dismiss books in favour of social media as the tool for organizing and grassroots politics, let me give a last appeal. Writing a non-fiction book is a way to explore a subject or an issue in a comprehensive way. That’s what I tried to do in Democracy Rising. I did miss some things, but then that is inevitable. It is the ideas in the book that will stand the test of time.