Democracy, aristocracy, plutocracy, meritocracy, and bratty students

I started the day today [note: as with “And when the numbers go against what you have always said….” this was written around a week ago] with my dictionary. I was trying to remember more precise definitions of things like democracy, aristocracy, plutocracy, and meritocracy because our topic of discussion for the day was “deepening grassroots democracy”.

Honestly, I had no idea where to start with this, and by the end of the day, I was still rather confused. This was the first time I heard the expression “grassroots democracy” and part of me was afraid that we were just using it because of the word “grassroots.” Representative democracy? Sure. I remember that from my political science course. The same goes for direct democracy. (I must say, though, that I was not too impressed with the liberal cut-and-paste from Wikipedia for the first couple of pages of the reading materials that were distributed. When I’m constantly battling with my students over getting them to properly cite information, it’s pretty frustrating when a colleague models bad behavior.)

The discussions today were difficult. Many of the “leads” for discussion really didn’t apply to most of the people in the sub-group I was in because we are a little bit more removed from direct field action. So, given the opportunity, I thought it would be good to try and clarify some of the concepts.

Here’s what I can understand. Grassroots democracy is still “unit” based but decisions are made at the level of the smallest unit (but not at the individual). Translate that to DHAN structures, and it would mean that the smallest unit is the self-help group. What is not clear to me, though, is how that is different from simply saying representative democracy at the group level. Perhaps the only real difference that I can see is that representative democracy does not have to be a “proxy” system where each voter is represented while grassroots democracy strives to make decisions based on consensus.

Which brings up another point: it seemed like many people I spoke to throughout the day misunderstood consensus. In particular, they seemed to confuse consensus with unanimous. I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember reading someone’s definition of consensus as “I guess that’s fine with me” rather than a convincing affirmative response. In other words, not all respondents would necessarily agree that the decision being made is the best decision, but they also wouldn’t have any problem or major complaint if that was the decision taken.

When trying to explain these concepts to others, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the start of Term 1 for PDM 10 students. One of the first things we do is select different committee members. The process is supposed to be a consensus democratic system–no elections allowed. For the PDM 10 students, when it came to selecting the class representative, one “candidate” (can you even have candidates if you’re not having an election?) essentially said “I want to be the class representative. I’m very stubborn, and you’re not going to be able to change my mind.”

Eventually “consensus” was achieved, but I think that, at that point, most people just didn’t want to get confrontational. In a way, it was the opposite of the “tyranny of the majority” that you hear when people are discussing direct democracy.

What I think is interesting about that event is that it really highlighted one of the “propositions” for grassroots democracy outlined in our reading materials: building social capital for promoting grassroots democracy. In the description of that proposition, values such as trust, mutuality, and solidarity were presented. To me, a nice summary of that proposition could be “people need to be ready for a democratic system.”

With my students, it is clear that they were not ready for a democratic system. Trust, mutuality, and solidarity were definitely not the words you’d use to describe them at that point because they barely knew each other. Whether or not they would end up with the same class representative today is irrelevant. What is more important for reflection is that we were supposed to be promoting a democratic process, but ultimately succumbed to a form of “tyranny” (of the individual who commanded the most “leadership” [or brattiness, depending on your perspective] among the group). I was actually more impressed with the grace with which the opponent backed down; to me, that was a good example of not just maturity, but also of what consensus means. (By the way, despite my disappointment with the democratic process for selecting the class representative, I think the class representative is doing a very good job.)

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