Participation in collective economic and political decision-making
Context within NORA
Relationships to other Needs
Since we share access to the air and water, collective decision-making is needed so that all people have access to clean air and water. Likewise, collective decision-making is needed to ensure that all people have the ability to obtain the food, clothing, and shelter they need, to be mobile, to live in healthy conditions and have access to health care if they need it, and to be reasonably secure in the face of both human and natural threats.
Participation in decision-making at the place where one earns one’s living is critical to meaningful livelihoods (without that, they are likely to lose their meaning) and self-expression. One will usually also only feel at home in a place where one can contribute to shaping that place.
In order to participate in collective decision-making, people need to learn how to do this effectively and to inform themselves about the matters at hand. They also need to have the time for meetings.
People can only participate actively in decision-making if they have the necessary confidence – and that depends in part on supportive relationships.
People with a spiritual connection to themselves and the world are more likely to contribute to collective decision-making with an awareness of the needs of all participants, leading to better outcomes for everybody.
Relationships to Organizational Forms
Within a context of community solidarity, participation in decision-making needs to be ensured for all members of the community in order to make sure that individuals do not get subordinated to the “group,” meaning in practice influential people in that community or a set of conservative “community values.”
In order to be democratic, organizations of the individual sales cluster should at the least allow participation in decision-making by their employees, and in some cases by other relevant stakeholders as well. Organizations of the committed sales or services cluster should in most cases allow both employees and customers to be involved in decision-making. Shared governance is also crucial in organizational forms that involve the shared use of an asset.
In the case of natural resource management, all users of a defined resource, as well as the people who may be impacted by the use of a natural resource, should have the opportunity to share in the decision-making concerning that resource.
All participants in currencies and markets should have the opportunity to share in establishing the rules by which the currency circulates and by which markets are governed.
Organizations of the coercion/denial of choice cluster can easily undermine democratic decision-making, and must therefore be kept under close oversight and control by the community they are supposed to serve.
Relatively little collective decision-making is needed in the free knowledge cluster or in the more decentralized networks, but collective decision-making is needed to create the conditions for their existence.
Relationships to Resources
We all share in the use of the air and atmosphere, water, land, energy, minerals and living things – all of which humans have not created, and which we should pass on to future generations undiminished. Their sustainable use requires decision-making involving all stakeholders.
We also share in the inheritance and the use of many of the physical, human- made assets such as the public infrastructure and the urban built environment, and thus it behooves us to manage them through collective, democratic decision-making.
Many of the intangibles are also maintained by a community as a whole (e.g., knowledge and trust) and are undermined in the absence of collective and inclusive decision-making.
Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity
To ensure that their needs are met, it is essential that people can participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Every important decision involves weighing numerous aspects of an issue against each other, the advantages and disadvantages and the possible repercussions of an action. Dictators, even if they were benevolent, cannot be expected to make satisfactory decisions on such matter on behalf of others. Therefore, there is no substitute for decision-making by those groups of people who are most likely to be affected by a decision.
Collective decision-making is needed whenever a decision is likely to affect a group of people – at the lower limit, more than one person. Hence, for example, members of a household should be involved in the decision-making of that household, to the extent that they are able (i.e., infants cannot be expected to get involved in most household decisions). Members (employees, owners) of a business (as well as important outside stakeholders) should be involved in decisions made by a business. Citizens of a country should be involved in decisions that affect them (and arguably long-term residents should be as well). It does not matter whether an organization is labeled as “political” (e.g., a nation-state), “economic” (e.g., a business), “cultural” (e.g., an association organizing cultural events in a community), “professional” (e.g., a medical association) or anything else, the need of interested stakeholders to be involved in decision-making remains the same.
The need for economic democracy
Unfortunately, our culture has created a radical disjuncture between decision-making in economic affairs and all other realms. In politics and civic and professional associations, the importance of democratic governance is widely recognized (even if it is observed in the breach). However, in economic affairs, we do not seem to have advanced beyond the feudal or early modern age. Like a plantation owner in Jamaica in the sixteenth century who could make the decisions about his business, to take the products of the labor of his slaves, sell that produce and do as he wanted with the revenue, so also the owners of a present-day factory appropriate the products of the labor of their workers, sell those products, and do as they wish with the revenue (subject to legal constraints, but those existed for the plantation owner as well). The objections raised against collective decision-making in business are very similar to those that were once raised against political democracy: that ordinary people are too ignorant, that they are irresponsible, and that decision-making would take too long and be too cumbersome. These objections did not stop political democracy; they need not stop economic democracy either. All people can be educated, they can become responsible as they are given real responsibility, and collective decision-making processes can be improved.
As the study of political economy was ruptured into the separate disciplines of economics and political science, so also the institutions of politics (e.g., the legislature, the judiciary and the executive) and economics (businesses) were separated, but the two can hardly be kept apart. They come back together in corrupt ways, such that corporate elites obtain “the best democracy money can buy.” As a result, the “verdict of the people” at election times hardly affects decisions governing the economy: the political leaders follow the directives of major financial institutions or corporations, following almost identical economic policies no matter which party is elected into power. The only leeway exists where the economic elites themselves are divided. When elections merely have symbolic power, voters either become apathetic (why should they vote if it won’t make a difference anyway?) or turn to extremist parties (the only ones who might pursue a different policy). It is then that “politics” becomes a bad word, which it shouldn’t be – after all, it refers to the affairs of the polity, and those deserve to be run by people of integrity.
Political democracy can only be revitalized if it is accompanied by economic democracy. Economic elites will no longer be able to unduly influence the political process if they themselves are kept accountable. That will happen if businesses, non-profits, government agencies and all other major economic players are managed collectively by their relevant stakeholders, such as the employees and regular customers or suppliers (the actual array of “relevant stakeholders” varies between different types of businesses or organizations). These stakeholders can then work out how the work, the responsibilities, and the benefits are to be shared in a way they all consider to be fair. The same applies to the management of the natural commons, such as the air and atmosphere, water resources, shared land resources, mineral wealth, and many living resources (e.g., fisheries) – each such commons should be managed by the group of people who depend on it, with boundaries between management units to be worked out in each case.
In order for economic and political decision-making to be meaningful for ordinary people, it is important that it follow the principle of subsidiarity – i.e., that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. What the lowest possible level is depends on the issue; for example, it may be possible to successfully address the pollution of a small stream at the local level (if an appropriate context is established at higher levels of authority), but to substantially reduce plastic pollution of the Pacific Ocean requires coordination among countries comprising close to half the human population. Yet, if many problems are successfully addressed at more local levels by bringing all relevant stakeholders together, this reduces the problems that need to be addressed at higher levels.
Individual businesses are the most local level for many of the most important decisions affecting people in their daily lives – for example, what their wages are going to be. If all relevant stakeholders are brought together in these decisions (instead of the decisions being made unilaterally by employers), social stratification is likely to be reduced dramatically. Furthermore, if decisions involving the use or abuse of natural resources must involve all people potentially affected (e.g., the people who are likely to suffer from the pollution of a river and not just the polluters), then environmental impacts of industry are likely to be drastically reduced. Hence, if subsidiarity in decision-making were actually implemented at this most basic level, then the problems that require long and complex negotiations at international levels might not even arise.
Although political parties of the left and right often pursue economic policies that are hardly distinguishable from each other, political debate is often highly contentious and divisive. People of opposed political camps may see their own leaders as potential saviors of the country, while they see the leaders of the other party as extremely dangerous. While this tendency is especially pronounced in two-party systems such as that of the United States, it is still strong in multi-party parliamentary regimes, where parties with differing ideologies are often forced to join together in a coalition. What makes politics so contentious even if the real differences between parties are slight?
To answer this question, we have to look at the ways in which parties campaign for votes in elections, and at the parliamentary decision-making processes. In election campaigns, politicians have to do what they can to make themselves look better than their competitors, and the easiest way to do this is to make their opponents look evil. Election campaigns conducted largely through sound-bites on television reinforce this tendency. Once the representatives meet in the legislature, simple-majority voting means that getting a lot of people angry at you is not a problem as long as those people are less than half of the parliament! Requiring super-majorities (e.g., two thirds majorities), or the approval of two legislative chambers for certain decisions is supposed to ensure that there is a high degree of consensus about some key decisions (such as changing a constitution), but often this merely produces an inability to make any decision at all.
At more local levels, in companies and other organizations, attempts at democratic decision-making may be less contentious, but instead create a horror of attending more meetings. These meeting may involve interminable discussions, with some people liking to hear themselves talk, while others say nothing in order to get the meeting over with as soon as possible. Such meetings fail to come to decisions that are truly supported by everyone at the meeting, let alone by all stakeholders. Organizations run in this way may also face serious difficulties at generating a positive vision for change, or of making a pie-in-the-sky vision work in the daily ground reality.
Addressing such issues requires redesign of voting procedures and of decision-making processes. Many of the parliamentary procedures have hardly evolved since the nineteenth century, even while research on better decision-making and voting procedures has made great advances since that time. These include approaches such as systemic consensusing, sociocratic decision-making, liquid feedback, participatory budgeting, and participatory urban planning, featured among the approaches toward creating greater abundance. Numerous methods have also been developed to enable more visionary decision-making that gets everyone involved in generating new ideas of what is possible and how to make it happen in the real world. An example of such an approach is appreciative inquiry, which can be applied by businesses, governmental organizations, non-government organizations, and local communities.
Cooperatives and other organizations requiring collective decision-making (e.g., commons) have grappled with these issues for a long time, and some of them have developed innovative management models to ensure that decisions are made in a timely manner while taking the views of all interested stakeholders into account. Scholars studying collective decision-making have devised ways to analyze how institutions work, to pinpoint problems in how they work, and to suggest improvements; a prominent approach here is the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework developed by Vince and Elinor Ostrom and co-workers at Indiana University.
In situations of intense conflict, methods of mediation and conflict resolution are needed in order to achieve an outcome that everyone can live with (at least, to the point of not killing each other). These need to be organized skillfully in order to de-escalate conflict, establish some degree of trust, and direct the attention of the opposing parties to areas of potential compromise and resolution.
Goals and Indicators
Collective decision-making depends vitally on wise choices as to the goals that we set, and the indicators we use in order to determine whether we are approaching those goals. It is important that the goals must be ends in themselves, rather than means toward those ends. For example, money is merely a means to an end (such as happiness) and so never should be taken as a social goal in and of itself. If the accumulation of money becomes a goal, powerful people and institutions may restrict access to vital resources, enabling them to charge more from the people who depend on those resources – this raises money, but decreases well-being. Goals for society must therefore focus on human needs being met (such as the need for food, clean water, shelter, etc.), while maintaining the ecological conditions such that future generations of people can be at least as well off as we are, while an abundance of life forms which we share this planet can likewise continue to thrive. Such goals can be formulated anywhere from the household level to the global level. for example, at the global level, sustainable development goals (SDGs) are being formulated in consultations with the United Nations.
Indicators are measurable yardsticks which can be used to assess to what extent we are reaching goals. These have to be designed to measure what we really want. Thus, for example, an indicator of education that simply measures what percentage of people complete 12 years of schooling that ignores what students actually learn (in or out of school) could be fulfilled through forced consumption of substandard education. Various attempts are being made to develop specialized as well as general-purpose indicators of sustainable development; examples include the Sustainable Society Index and the Gross National Happiness indicator.
The need for inclusiveness
Finally, the point needs to be reiterated that decision-making at any level from the household to global affairs is only democratic if all people, regardless of gender, racial or ethnic category, religious or ideological belief, sexual orientation, marital status etc. can participate in decision-making equally. Hence, economic and political discrimination on the basis of any such categories is incompatible with ensuring everybody’s ability to participate in collective decision-making. The fight for civil rights must therefore go on.
Approaches to creating greater abundance
- Worker representation in companies
- Worker cooperatives
- Credit unions
- Cooperative management methods and models
- Cooperative currencies
- Natural resource commons
- Representative democracy
- Voting methods (first-past-the-post, representative, etc)
- Participatory budgeting
- Participatory democracy
- Public hearings
- Participatory urban planning
- Right to the city
- Political mobilization methods (demonstrations, petitions, online mobilizations etc.)
Decision-making processes; enabling more inclusive and visionary leadership
- Systemic consensusing
- Sociocratic decision-making
- Appreciative Inquiry
- Art of hosting
- Open Space conference methods
Institutional Analysis and Development Framework
Mediation and conflict resolution
- Sustainable Development Goals
- Gross National Happiness
- Sustainable Society Index
Human Rights and Rights of Nature
- Rights of future generations
- Rights of Nature
- More specific legislation
- Strategies of empowerment
Public Sphere Project: Civic Intelligence (patterns to help organizations learn to work more effectively toward the civic good)
Bürgerhaushalt (German site on participatory budgeting)
Institut für Systemisches Konsensieren (German website on systemic consensus principle; see also video by Schrotta below)
Lebensqualität durch Nähe – A German initiative, Quality of Life through Proximity, that helps local communities get together and find ways to improve their local life and economy
Participatory budgeting (US site)
Participatory Budgeting Partners (UK site)
Smart CSOs (offers labs for leaders of civil society organizations to become more effective change agents)
Schrotta, Siegfried, Video in English: Decision-Making Without Conflict.
Note that this is only a beginning! Once more detailed pages on specific approaches to greater abundance are written, some of these links may have to move to those more specific pages.
Commons Action for the United Nations: people in the commons movement participating in decision-making at the United Nations. Members on CAN: Lisinka Ulatowska (Founder), Kari Bye, Helene Finidori, Akiwa Gizzel, Jessie Henshaw, Myra Jackson, Paulo Magalhães, Rob Wheeler.
Agrawal, Arun. 2005. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Birchall, Johnston. 2014. The Governance of Large Co-operative Businesses. A research study for Co-operatives UK.
Blomley, Nicholas. 2004. Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of Property. New York and London: Routledge.
Calame, Pierre. 2009. Essay on Oeconomy (Original French: Essai sur l'oeconomie"). Paris: Editions Charles-Léopold Mayer.
Chambers, Robert. 1995. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. Prentice Hall.
____ 1997. Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
Christian, Diana Leafe. 2012. Systemic Consensus – Fast, Visual, and Hard to Argue With. Ecovillages Newsletter.
Cooperrider, David, Diana Whitney, and Jacqueline Stavros. 2008. Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: For Leaders of Change. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ostrom, Elinor. 2011. Background on the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework. The Policy Studies Journal 39 (1): 7-27.
Paulus, Georg, Siegfried Schrotta, and Erich Visotschnig. 2009. Systemisches Konsensieren: Der Schlüssel zum gemeinsamen Erfolg. (Systemic consensusing: key to shared success) Silberschnur Verlag.
Shiva, Vandana. 2012. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. South End Press.
Van de Kerk, Gerd, and Arthur Manuel. 2008. A Comprehensive Index for a Sustainable Society: The SSI – the sustainable Society Index. Ecological Economics (2008): 228-242.
Weston, Burns H., and David Bollier. 2013. Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
More to be added
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