Rethinking democracy

By Thane on Fri 23 March 2012

Nearly everyone I know seems to think that democracy is flawed, but the problem is that we don't have a viable, practical alternative. What would it take though to develop a practical alternative to democracy? I'm not completely sure, but I'm quite positive about there being potential to find such alternatives. This essay was inspired by a talk by Bret Victor.


I think that the reason we haven't found such a viable alternative is because the underlying paradigm from which we're viewing the challenge of our co- existence is limiting. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

A paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that ... can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent, these are the only problems that the community will ... encourage its members to undertake. Other problems ... are rejected as metaphysical ... or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time. A paradigm can, for that matter, even insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to the [familiar] puzzle form because they cannot be stated in terms of the conceptual and instrumental tools which the paradigm provides.

My Paradigm Shift

My most significant personal paradigm shift (built on top of many other paradigm shifts over the past few years) came after reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and its sequel Lila, by Robert Pirsig. Unless you have been exposed to Pirsig's philosophy previously (the "Metaphysics of Quality") you will most likely struggle to understand the remainder of this article. That is the nature of paradigm shifts - your paradigm is the set of "mental pegs" onto which you pin information as you attempt to make sense of the world. When attempting to make sense of a particular phenomenon, should there be information missing from one or more of those pegs, your attention shifts to find things that could possibly fit onto those pegs. If you don't have the pegs, as Kuhn pointed out, you won't look for information to pin to them, and changing those pegs or adding new ones can often be rather painful because it suddenly calls into question all of the other neat little collections we've pinned to our old pegs.

To provide an incredibly brief summary of the Metaphysics of Quality: the source of everything, absolutely everything in the universe, according to Pirsig, is Quality. Quality is not an objective or a subjective phenomenon - it is the source of subjects and objects, and exists at their interface. Pirsig then divides Quality into static patterns of quality and Dynamic Quality, where Dynamic Quality is the leading edge of experience: the here-and-now. Dynamic Quality is all that there is, actually, but it can never be grasped intellectually because, by the time we think about the here-and-now, the here-and-now has already moved on. Pirsig has an amazing description of how we see reality: we sit, with our backs to the future, watching the past unfold before us. All we see is relatively stable or static patterns in Dynamic Quality, referred to as "static patterns of quality". Pirsig divides static quality into four levels: inorganic, biological, social and intellectual. The Metaphysics of Quality could be outlined as in the following picture.

Figure 1. Outline of the Metaphysics of Quality

As mentioned in this article, biological patterning (e.g. cells) cannot exist without inorganic patterning (i.e. atoms, molecules); social patterning (see this article) cannot exist without biological patterning; intellectual patterning cannot exist without social patterning (see this article for details on how intellectual patterning arises from social patterning). This movement towards wholes that are in some way greater than a sum of their parts is also referred to as Holism. Pirsig considers higher levels prevailing over lower levels (the biological over inorganic, social over biological, intellectual over social) as moral, and Dynamic Quality prevailing over static quality as moral.

If you've made it this far into the article and you haven't given up yet, I have to congratulate you and also recommend that you read Pirsig's books for a thorough treatment of how he got to this understanding. It's definitely worth the effort.

Fresh Perspectives, New Research Avenues

I believe that we can come up with new ways of co-existing by looking at the world from Pirsig's perspective, and one of the key components of that is an understanding of power and social influence. I think that power, or social influence, is one of the major dynamics governing social patterning, and we've been overlooking it for many years now in favour of studying inorganic patterning (physics, chemistry, etc.), biological patterning (biology), and intellectual patterning (philosophy, and most of psychology it seems to me).

Surely, to understand how to best co-exist, we need to understand social patterning?

What the Heck are "Equal Opportunity" and "Freedom"?

In much talk related to democracy, there's this concept of "equal opportunity" that keeps popping up. What exactly do we mean when we talk about "equal opportunity"? Some people seem to claim that it means that we must have the freedom to become whoever and whatever we want. What exactly is freedom though? A number of authors have pointed out that it is an essentially negative concept, defined in opposition to something else. Opposition to what? If no other people existed in the world apart from you, you would be free to do almost anything you allowed yourself to do, right? (Except, of course, defy physical laws). So freedom is defined in terms of other people and internally in relation to yourself.

Thus, you are free if other people allow you to be free, and if you allow yourself to be free. Who is it that allows you to be free? Those who are powerful over you, of course. People can coerce you into allowing them power over you by way of violence or the threat of violence and intimidation, or perhaps you identify with certain people you consider to be influential, or perhaps you allow someone to influence you by way of rational argument.

What I think we really mean by "equal opportunity", which we haven't been able to express until Pirsig gave us this new paradigm, is that we want the ability to challenge existing power/influence structures without the threat of violence.

To add some insight to the last part of that statement, I think that law is nothing but the threat of violence from existing authorities. What is the ultimate consequence of not obeying a particular law and blatantly defying the authorities? It is violence: the death penalty, people forcing you to submit to them by way of physical violence or otherwise eliminating you.

Not only this, but democracy seems to me to be an institutionalisation of the process of regularly allowing those who are not powerful to challenge those who are powerful. The powerful people allow those without power the opportunity to challenge their power without the threat of violence, as democracy is inherently legal in such systems. Democracy is therefore definitely an instance of the principle about which I am talking in this essay (having the ability to challenge existing power/influence structures without the threat of violence), but is it the only one? What obvious shortcomings does it have that will need to be remedied in the next "version" of our co- existence strategy?

The Fear of Freedom: the Fatal Flaw in Democracy

Taken at face value, the principles enshrined in our current idea of democracy seem desirable, but there is an inherent flaw in its implementation and execution. Erich Fromm wrote a book quite some time ago entitled The Fear of Freedom, in which he described our innate fear of being truly free. As people grew in an understanding of their individuality, they started to fear the loneliness that accompanied it, and so they would generally rather give up that freedom to another in order not to be alone. If enough people give up their freedom to one single person, that person becomes an incredibly powerful, influential individual. Several examples of this are available from history, with the rise of Hitler, of course, being the most prominent. People simply gave up their own freedom to avoid the isolation (in not belonging to the group) which accompanies holding onto their freedom, and eventually had to give up their freedom to avoid violence.

Fromm's solution to this problem is to forge on in the development of one's individuality until one has the capacity to relate to the world through the spontaneity of love and productive work. How practical is such a state of existence for the average man on the street, whose isolation grows every day in an increasingly disconnected, complex society such as ours? I think it's a pipe dream. What alternatives are available to us though?

The Market Economy Model

The great thing about the principle of being able to challenge established authorities without the threat of violence is that, being a principle, it can be used as a lens in a variety of contexts. Think of it in relation to the market economy: those companies that perform the best are the ones that deliver what their customers want (money, as a friend of mine once stated, is one type of portable representation of power). If we discover that they are not acting in our best interests, we remove power from them by way of not purchasing their products, or selling our shares in their companies, effectively reducing or eliminating their power.

Is there perhaps a lesson in the example of the market economy that can be extended to governing a country? Perhaps, but we have to acknowledge the dangers in such a situation. Once again, most people suffer from groupthink, and are all to eager to give up their freedom (read: power, influence, money) in exchange for being part of a group. What happens when too many people give too much power to one individual or small group of individuals, crossing that invisible threshold? Two words: Animal Farm.

Challenging Authority

So let's think about the mechanisms by which people challenge authority, and the common path followed by these people. One of the small-scale mechanisms of removing power from individuals is gossip (see this article). Gossip acts on reputation, and reputation is probably the fundamental "currency" or "backbone" of social patterning. Unfortunately it only exists in people's heads, and is very difficult to quantify into something portable like money. It takes much time to be built up, and can be destroyed very quickly by careless chatter (hence the old adage: "if you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all" - a static intellectual pattern showing that we've learned, as a society, about the long- term impacts of carelessness in social patterning). Although, gossip can be useful in dealing with corrupt, yet influential individuals: newspapers publish stories on such corruption, and then people natter about it over dinner with friends, at the office with colleagues, etc. This is a key mechanism to our survival as a species. Without it, we would not be able to identify, track and then root out the unsustainable, harmful elements in our midst.

But what happens on a larger scale when it comes to removing power from individuals or groups of individuals? I think of it as in the somewhat- archetypal diagram below.

Figure 2. Establishment of new authorities

This is blatantly evident in the political scene in certain emerging economies and throughout history in the tales of kings and kingdoms, but it is also evident in business. Microsoft establishes itself as an authority, and Google arises to challenge it, to a certain extent overcoming it, and becoming the new authority. Facebook then emerges to challenge Google, overcomes it to a certain extent, and establishes itself as a new authority. Round and round we go, and where are we ultimately heading? According to Pirsig, we are heading towards Quality.

Efficient, Effective Allocation of Power

As I mentioned before, I don't personally have a model yet for how we should conduct ourselves, but I feel that this line of thinking could be fruitful in developing such a model. What I do know, because we will never rid ourselves of power/social influence dynamics, and people, on average, will probably take many decades to come to accept their individuality, is that the model will have characteristics that lay out a framework for co-existence that allows for the efficient, effective allocation of power towards the sustainability of the human race.

Such a model will need to be re-evaluated regularly to ensure its relevance.

Living Close to Dynamic Quality

The whole point of such a principle, as outlined in Bret Victor's talk, is to allow one to live as close to Dynamic Quality as possible, as I believe that the whole cycle in Figure 2 is only necessary because the establishment of an authority represents the establishment of a set of static patterns, and then the re-establishment of new static patterns more in line with changing circumstances. The more static patterns in which one gets trapped, the greater the chances of potentially veering away from Dynamic Quality and thus towards inevitable destruction. It is inherently moral, however, to live closer to Dynamic Quality.

To live close to Dynamic Quality, one must be willing to continually re- evaluate and interrogate one's static patterning - especially intellectual patterning such as a new framework to replace democracy (this is where I find the postmodern/poststructural movement so valuable). It seems to me that, the simpler the principle, the less often it needs to be updated to keep in line with Dynamic Quality. The new framework must thus allow for the framework itself to be challenged, just as the Metaphysics of Quality itself is open to being challenged.

[The ultimate principle, I believe, is simply "love", in the Agape sense: "seek that which is best for yourself and others." "Best" here implies a movement with and towards Dynamic Quality. It is quite difficult to operationalise such a principle, and it seems to me as though each generation needs their own operationalisation principle derived from the "love" principle. My aim in writing this essay is to stimulate thought towards the development of an operationalisation principle for our current generation, because I believe that the principles that are currently in place are too complex and are tainted by too many individuals' immoral agendas.]

Developing Individuality

Fromm's proposal of relating to each other and the world through the spontaneity of love and productive work is certainly practical, and forces one to live in very close proximity to Dynamic Quality, but only once one has reached a certain level of development of one's self to be able to cope with such proximity and the loneliness through which one must first pass (almost as a rite of passage). It is this that we should be focusing on in our education system - not just teaching children static intellectual patterns, but actually facilitating the development of their individuality. People need to be encouraged in as many ways as possible to think for themselves (allow themselves the freedom to think their own thoughts). This, I believe, is already taking shape in the postmodern/poststructural movement, and needs to be encouraged.


To recap: my own paradigm shift came about after reading Pirsig's philosophies, allowing me to place more emphasis on social phenomena such as power and social influence than has previously been emphasised. In thinking about new ways of co-existing (rather than "new systems of government"), I believe that Pirsig's perspective is not only practical, but necessary for the long-term sustainability of humanity.

We have moved past the point where a single individual or small group of individuals should be able to unjustifiably hold on to power for extended periods of time, and many people have been growing in their own individuality and confronting the lonely path associated with that growth. We are currently entering a period of tremendous uncertainty, given the complexity of globalisation and increasing interdependence amongst different groups of people.

I dare say we are entering a period of human history where Humanity will take on a mind and character of its own, if it has not already, and the individual, like a cell in a body, will not be capable of understanding the mind and character of that superorganism - let alone controlling it. Any attempts at centralised control will result in tremendous destruction and suffering. All that is left for the individual, therefore, is to do that which is best for him/herself and those with whom he/she interacts (relating to the world through the spontaneity of love and productive work), and allow Dynamic Quality, with which the vast majority of people are already practically acquainted, to guide Humanity toward Itself.