Civil democracy is powerful, it is a solution which brings problems into a solution-oriented setting involving as many individuals as possible, and its complexities can be handled.
Civil democracy is however a systemic solution that demands a large number of different actors to align to a new concept of interaction. No actor alone can start it.
With this feature, Civil democracy shares the challenge of every social change, albeit on a level that is a bit higher than in other cases: Social change always includes challenging conventions in which actors are, in a way, mutually trapped. Conventions always entail coordination gains, and any actor willing to endorse social change as to let go these coordination gains for some time.
As all social changes, it hence requires a social movement. This term describes the process in which individuals who share a common view on a social problem unite and find internal institutions that allow them to implement new social facts that always have a conventional aspect. At the same time, the term social movement is used to describe the collective of these individuals.
Starting a social movement is never trivial. Doctors and even government agencies concerned with the social cost of smoking pressed for almost 50 years until the non-smoking movement finally gained momentum to ban smoking from the public. And although loving a person of the same gender is a deeply personal decision that can be done without the consent of the very person one loves, same-sex activism went a long and painful way since its very beginnings in 1920s’ Berlin.
Starting a social movement, and making it successful, requires a clear view on the obstacles on the way and how they can be removed. The movement that managed to eliminate smoking from the public sphere was able to see as main obstacle the general perception to see smoking as a free choice of self damage. As much truth as this perspective contained, smoke at the same time harmed others, and not only the general public, but individual relatives and especially children. The movement that managed to very broadly free the right to possess weapons in the USA from its restrictions was able to see as a main obstacle the view on weapon-based violence. As much truth as this perspective contained, weapons at the same time are powerful means for people who feel threatened to re-gain a sense of control over their lives. And the movement that successfully managed to make same-sex relationships in most Western countries largely equal to heterosexual relationships in legal recognition was able to see as a main obstacle the heterosexual view of having their own concept questioned. This imaginary perspective could be countered with the perspective on same-sex relations as a form of personal responsibility to live ones’ lives as chosen.
For a Civil democracy movement, such a reframing is necessary as well: While the current perspective on digital participation is shaped through for-profit actors using data in intransparent ways, we need a focus on Civil democracy as a community-owned and community-steared enterprise that allows for efficient and quick and at the same time broadly-based participative collective decisions. While the current perspective on civil society organisations, as well as their self-perception, is shaped by just informing and at most protesting and proposing, we need a focus on their ability to support individuals in making well-informed political decisions. While the current perspective on global governance is shaped by UN conference with NGOs protesting at their doors, we need to see that individual citizens globally, with the help of their NGOs, need a voice and representation to negotiate with the representatives of national governments on eye level.
The interrelated main obstacles for Civil democracy however are different. The lack of imagination and experience, the systemic interrelation of necessary actors, and the confusing breadth of its applicability, occur as challenges even before framing questions become relevant.
The lack of imagination and experience is an obstacle that neither nonsmokers nor weapon activists faced, and even same-sex actvists only to a much smaller extent. Even in the smoky halls of the 1970s boheme, everyone knew how fresh air feeled. Even on peaceful Rhode Island where the relation between population to registered weapons is 1:226, Americans are generally able to imagine, and gun owners are willing to assert, the feeling of power a gun can give. And while it took some time (and in some societies it still takes some time) to replace false fantasies of same-sex relations with more realistic images that include as much responsibility as any other intimate relation, imagining same-sex partners interacting very close to how heterosexual partners do is not that complicated either, and experiences of such relations, despite of suppression, go back centuries.
On these two, imagination is just a matter of personal willingness and investment. One can describe the practice of Civil democracy, and if they use enough images and recurs to enough past experiences, any other can arrive at a likewise imagination.
Experience however needs to be created. At the time of writing, Civil democracy is only imagined, derived in its necessity and form from theoretical considerations, but noone has ever experienced its working, and the creation of this experience stands out. Such a creation needs the interaction of different actors, and this is the second challenge that is greater than the challenges the above-mentioned movements faced. Gun-owners and queers need only themselves, and the non-smoking movement that indeed needed to bring together researchers and parents was started by individuals who in most cases were both in person. A Civil democracy movement however needs actors in at least three categories to start: It needs individual voters, it needs political actors willing to serve as open actors (OAs), and it needs “makers” who offer the Civil democracy platform on which the two can match – not to speak of the different subcategories of the “maker” type which at least requires coders, designers, and initial funders.
The breadth of the applicability of Civil democracy is however a third challenge that has do be discussed before coming to this triangle of voters, political actors, and makers however. It is a concept and procedure that can be applied from small communities with 300 members up to the global level, with all kinds of membership-based organisations, local communities, state, nation-state, or supra-national levels in between. Where do we start here? Common-sense intuition says that one should start small – in small contexts, you can make experiences and correct them in other instances before going to the next context and possibly to a next and larger level.
Reality however defies this common-sense intuition. In 2017 to 2019, together with colleagues I have led a number of talks with representatives of small and not-so-small organisations about introducing Civil democracy within their organisation. All these talks followed about the same pattern: We described Civil democracy, and the representatives were interested, up to the point when they asked “And, where is your pilot study?” In every single case, we had to reply that their organisation would be the pilot study, and they all waved off – “Come back when you have a pilot study!” No wonder they did – as representatives of their organisations, they felt the responsibility for their organisations. And existing decision-making structures are at the very heart of an organisation – if organisation members become used to new decision-making structures and these structures turn out to be unsustainable, the organisation as a whole can break down in the worst case. Additionally, in most cases the individual fate of these representants hinges on the specific decision-making structures. Another argument is that pilot studies always provide information as a public good, bearing cost for which they are not directly compensated, and a third is that in today’s media society it is not easy to direct one’s members to concentrating their imagination to a new concept within one’s organisation.
These four arguments, however, already pave the way to an obvious alternative solution – but be prepared to take a deep breath when you read it. The awareness argument: Which is the application to which media societies and their civil society organisations are already directed? The argument of innovation as a public good: Which application can be mandated to provide the public good of developing a new concept? The argument of avoiding conflict: In which application are the individual fates of high representants relatively unimpressed when new structures emerge? The innovation acceptance argument: Where are current decision making structures already so much under discussion that even the very people that work in their core admit the need to have improvement?
The answer: It is the global level. Here, the four stated conditions are valid: Thousands of organisations already aim to influence global decisions, and media and the public are used to take global governance processes in view. The global level is the level on which noone can shy away from the provision of public goods. UN structures are so deeply interrelated with national governments that representants can see the development of new structures in a relaxed mood, and their own feeling for the suboptimality of their structures is so high that ideas for UN reform are abundant. This is why Civil democracy starts with a Global Sustainability Council (GSC) that serves as a concentrated voice of global civil society. The core of Civil democracy are decisions with meta-decision freedom, so the GSC’s role is more an adminstrative one to prepare decisions and to communicate and negotiate them vis-à-vis nation state based UN structures. Nevertheless, its symbolic power will be great, and the decisions preparing and accompanying its constitution will be the first Civil-democratic decisions to be made. With the existing UN institutions in place, the GSC allows to create the necessary experiences on how Civil democracy works and will attract participating voters and open actors worldwide who can, based on these experiences on the global level, start to consider the application of Civil democracy in their specific contexts.
Now we can come back to the triangle of voters, political actors addressing global issues, and makers: Where is the right point to start in this field? The necessary heuristic here is a closer look on the mutual dependencies between the three groups of actors: Does indeed every one of them need all both others? The first differentiation that can be applied here is the one between the makers on one and the other two on the other side. On both sides, the dependence is not complete. It will become much easier to convince programmers, designers and funders if they see how voters and OAs demand it, but it is possible that some foundation will develop the imagination necessary to become willing to support Civil democracy, and give the money needed to pay coders and designers for the first pilot study platform. But this depends on chance – all visible foundations have to define specific programes to prevent to be overburdened by applications, and these programs do seldom include global innovations. On the other side, however, the lack of imagination and experience is put into perspective by the sheer situational strain – the more individuals and organisations are affected by the global stagnancy in tackling climate change, the more they will be open to imagine new ways. Another and even more important argument for starting with the voter/OA side of the triangle is that on this side a movement building are possible: Actors who are not fully convinced but find Civil democracy a good idea can relate to others, ask for their impression, and positively influence each other.
On this voter/OA side, we indeed need both. Voters willing to use Civil democracy without civil society organisations serving as OAs are thrown back to grassroots decision making with all his problems, overstretch and instability. Civil society organisations ranking decision options without voters supporting them have no measure that allows for quantitative tieing and are thrown back to the current situation of NGO conferences with all their likeable inefficiency. Even with voters willing to use Civil democracy, their organisations need a jump start to overcome the fears of excessive demands and being too top-down. It is impossible to drop either of the sides to come to a unique starting point. It is however possible to unite them.
The good news is that organisations and voters have an intersection: the local suborganisations of larger, well-organised and visible civil society organisations. These suborganisations are mostly driven by local activists who are very still very close to a voters’ perspective. They accept ambiguity, they are oriented towards ends and not yet committed to specific means as developed in the organisations’ history, but they nevertheless are able to provide a profile in which other members and finally a reluctant organisation top can recognise themselves.
These local suborganisations can start by finding a overall organisation position by using Civil democracy. They can start ranking options and aiming for voter support, and the organisation’s preliminary option ranking will be calculated as average of their rankings weighted by the voter support they have gathered. As many organisations have in their statutes implicit weight calculations giving more relative weight to smaller suborganisations, such a correction mechanism has to be made possible for this process, as well – the effort to win an additional supporter is lower when you already have a lot of them.
One alteration has to be included: The normal Civil democracy procedure uses the assumption that open actors are able to rank all available alternatives. In such a distributed opinion formation over local suborganisations, it is necessary to allow for suborganisations limiting themselves in the assessment of decision options without wanting to disqualify all unconsidered options. Think of the very first decision coming up, about searching for possible GSC candidates to ask if they are willing to run. The field of global activists is huge (the list of persons labelled as activists in Wikipedia contains almost 1500 entries and is clearly incomplete), and single local suborganisations will be overwhelmed with this. Thirty or even fifteen suborganisations within an organisation can savely split the complete list into chunks that are manageable for any single suborganisation. The counting procedure used builds on the normal Civil democracy counting procedure, since in this case all suborgs trust each other and use the other’s evaluations as indirect evaluations of their own.
One last question remains.
Which the suborganisations of which organisations shall be addressed first? The aforementioned has narrowed the field to medium to large well-organised civil society organisations with global perspective. The willingness to embrace institutional innovation adds a certain degree of progressiveness, but we have to be cautious: Progressiveness with regards to being able to imagine new institutional settings is not necessarily the same as (although somehow correlated to) that on the left-right scale. And the breadth of perspective needs to be with regards to the perspective on change, as well: Organisations with a very narrow focus on environmental questions may lament climate destruction and nevertheless be too anxious to give an innovation as wide-ranging as Civil democracy a chance. On the other hand, we need organisations willing to accept modernity’s demands: Organisations that still dream of an eco dictatorship as the quicker way to save the world will still waste time with trying to find the powers to establish such a dictatorship instead of accepting that it is time to convince people worldwide of sustainable solutions. With these considerations, we have the complete description of where Civil democracy starts: At the local grassroots sub-organisations of well-organised progressive civil society organisations with a broad, global and democratic perspective. This definition does still include some variety of organisations, and we will dive more into this diversity in a later post. But a focus is set.