Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | July 5, 2011

What Is Deep Democracy?

Now that everyone has finished their 4th-0f-July steroid-burgers, perhaps it might be useful to consider the word–democracy–so often used to praise the United States and justify its foreign policy. I am adapting the phrase “Deep Democracy” from the term “Deep Ecology”, to which I was first exposed by Joanna Macy, referring to the philosophy that recognizes the inherent worth of life on the planet as a whole and asks deep and complex questions of our place in the web of life.  Deep Ecology calls upon us to not merely approach ecology in a utilitarian manner—“we must preserve life on the planet because it is in the interest of human beings”—but through a felt sense of our connection to our ecosystem and the planet.

Rio, 2003

Because democracy is widely (and unquestioningly) regarded as the favored form of government on the planet, I am proposing that this moment in human history requires a new form of democracy—not a rejection of it, but the recognition that democracy, as we commonly think of it, is failing us.

In Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, I propose that “cosmosophical” political action is radical[1]—i.e., it seeks to get to the root of our political problems, completely re-imagining our political structures in accordance with the emergent worldview that I suggest is at hand.  Deep Democracy, therefore, is a way to think of political action in the context of a new worldview, one that sees us as part of an organic, interconnected web rather than individual components of a machine-like world. While an emphasis on individual rights is not bad, it does require us to ask the question of what it means to be an individual in this world.  The answer to that question–not whether a government is merely “democratic” or not–can determine the fate of a people, a nation, a planet.

If democracy is a form of government in which the each individual plays a role in governing and is guaranteed certain rights, I would propose that, while there have been many benefits to the rise of democracy, the weaknesses of its application are close to rendering the word meaningless.  The reasons for this are three-fold:

  1. The rise of corporations has led to a neo-feudal situation in which their capacity to buy votes en masse has rendered the individual citizen’s vote nearly meaningless.  Rather than one-person-one-vote, we essentially have a one-dollar-one-vote system in which the corporations have all the power. A corporation can foul our air and poison our water with impunity; it can pressure a government into war; it can determine spending and virtually write its own laws.
  2. The focus of democracy on the rights of the individual has neglected the ecological reality of our world.  The expansion of voting rights beyond white men has been laudable, of course, but we must go further.  One-person-one-vote, even if it were realized, has its limits.  For example, as I have noted elsewhere,[2] as the population grows in the arid southwest at the expense of the industrial Great Lakes region, there will be a push to remove water from the Great Lakes for the unsustainable lifestyle of air-conditioning-based cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. While water can surely be moved around to some degree, green lawns in the desert is not a good reason to do so–but democratically elected governments will do it.
  3. The failure of our educational system to create citizens with the critical consciousness to truly hold our leaders accountable has led to a complete collapse of the political discourse.  Voting without an educated populace is almost completely meaningless.

In response, I am not proposing a return to monarchy or theocracy.  (This is the error of the Iranian revolution and the American Religious Right when they correctly perceive the failings of Western democracy but can only propose a return to “the way things used to be” in response.)  I am proposing that, while retaining the individual rights we have in democracy, we can find a deeper form of democracy through the following:

  • As the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci suggests, democracy requires each person to be a philosopher, regardless of social class, in order to govern those who govern us. For this, we need an educational revolution (See Chicago Wisdom Project). This also speaks to the importance of diversity of ideas (see my previous post, The Ecology of Interfaith). Deep Democracy cannot exist if the information upon which people base their vote is controlled by a small group of corporations as in the corporate media.
  • Direct engagement—e.g., protesting, petitioning, filming the police, etc.—is not “activism”, a term which places it at the periphery, but an essential element of Deep Democracy. In fact, without it, we cannot have democracy, for such actions protect us all.
  • Rights for all living beings as in Ecuador and Bolivia (Read the Earth Charter)
  • Contextualizing all individual rights in the framework of the whole.  This means that rights are granted not based on personhood, but on existence (see Thomas Berry).  Just as the individual has rights, so to does an ecosystem, a waterfall, an indigenous group.  While individual rights would remain the same, the rights of, say, an elephant would be different from a butterfly. Each would be free, however, to realize the full expression of its “Elephant-ness” or “Butterfly-ness”. Similarly, indigenous groups should have rights that go beyond the individual—to limit them to individual rights represents not only an imposition of Western values but guarantees, due to their small population, their inability to express themselves in their traditional way.
  • The return of the commons.  This means both ecologically (as in the traditional sense) and in terms of spaces for the exchange of ideas. The destruction of small-town America and the suburbanization of our metropolitan areas have left us with a paucity of spaces for the face-to-face exchange of ideas, another central element of Deep Democracy.
  • Repudiation of corporate personhood.
  • A true-cost economy in which the economy is seen as a subset of ecology.

These are only some initial thoughts, an attempt to begin a conversation.  Please share with me any other ideas.


[1] Theodore Richards, Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth (Danvers, MA: Hiraeth Press, 2011), p. 281.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

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Responses

  1. A great post, Theodore! You cover quite a range of diverse ideas how to improve the current half-democracies we see implemented in the western world!.

    For those that are interested in further pieces of a future deep democracy, I like to call attention to the work of German contemporary philosopher and semiotician Johannes Heinrichs. He proposes a fundamentally revised version of the structures democracies are built on calling it fourfolding of democracy. Unfortunately, his work hasn’t been translated yet into English. However, there are two, albeit not in perfect English prose, short essays of the aforementioned author regarding the possible structure of a future fourfolded democracy. They can be found here:

    http://www.netz-vier.de/four-way-path-model.pdf

    http://www.netz-vier.de/Value-Based-Democracy.pdf

  2. A great post, Theodore! You cover quite a range of diverse ideas how to improve the current half-democracies we see implemented in the western world.

    For those that are interested in further pieces of a future deep democracy, I like to call attention to the work of German contemporary philosopher and semiotician Johannes Heinrichs. He proposes a fundamentally revised version of the structures democracies are built on calling it fourfolding of democracy. Unfortunately, his work hasn’t been translated yet into English. However, there are two, albeit not in perfect English prose, short essays of the aforementioned author regarding the possible structure of a future democracy. They can be found here:

    http://www.netz-vier.de/four-way-path-model.pdf

    http://www.netz-vier.de/Value-Based-Democracy.pdf

  3. […] with which they buy the politicians. (For more of my ideas about our political situation, see Deep Democracy). It is a vicious circle that only can be addressed through direct action, not within the political […]


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