A half-empty glass, and hallucinating for democracy

clear drinking glass filled with water

Where do we start?

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Does anyone know what we are doing on this planet? My very simple answer is … to love. The more complex answer is … we really need to think this through. The pandemic has exposed all of the known, hidden and forgotten frailties that have made us vulnerable, ill and pushed to the precipice. Do we really want to return to “normal,” when there was so much human and environmental suffering?

In this text, I wish to, first, develop some thoughts on how I see the global context affecting everything and everyone, the chaos as well as the utopian shards of light. I end with a few thoughts on democracy and the need for greater social solidarity, especially in light of the pandemic.

Context of a world in chaos

I present below some “facts” and some ideas about the “reality” and the perception of reality that I see.

Unprecedented wealth accumulation and concentration

The pandemic has witnessed the explosion of wealth accumulation in the hands of a few people. Government policies that uplift corporations and wealthy individuals, and, concurrently, underfund fundamental social programs, education and healthcare serve to further entrench inequalities.

Wars all over the place

The 20th century was a litany of murder and killing. The USA continues to spend trillions on futile military bases and ventures around the world. Suicides among soldiers and veterans is at epidemic levels. Despite the pandemic, 2021 was a record armaments year, putting people, especially vulnerable ones, at great risk.

Invading some countries but not others based on the same arguments

What would our world look like today, for example, if Iraq had not been invaded in 2003? Why is Saudi Arabia not invaded, but Yemen is? Why is regime change promoted for one country but not another? Who decides? Hypocrisy and hegemonic parlor games continue to rein over much of the international realpolitik.

Environmental degradation and catastrophe

We are now facing a plethora of critical environmental problems, including: eco-systems being contaminated and destabilized; pollution and bulging landfills; greenhouse gas emissions; hyper-consumption and massive food waste; climate change; deforestation; and rising water levels.

Declining range of living species caused by human avarice/neglect

Human actions are massively accelerating the decline and even distinction of a range of species. This rupturing of the world’s ecology is significantly impacting all facets of life.

Massive, world-wide sexism, misogyny and femicide

Violence toward women continues to plague humanity. Human trafficking, sexual exploitation, violence and hatred, female genital mutilation, sexual discrimination, and feminicide pock-mark societies around the world.

Indigenous peoples, cultures, languages, identities and territories under threat

Health, education, political sovereignty, land rights, well-being and survival of Indigenous peoples continue to frame socio-political relations. Losing Indigenous languages is a fundamental concern, and reconciliation is stifled by neoliberal, colonial, faux democratic manoeuvres.

Racism in every form possible

From the individual to the institutional to the systemic to ethnic cleansing to apartheid to slavery, racism, in all of its complex forms, continues to frame the human experience. The rise of formal political parties in many countries that carry the white supremacy message through policies, programs and practices should be a cause for concern.

Xenophobia, homophobia, religious strife and division continue unabated

The immigrant experience in North America and Europe has been thoroughly marinaded in xenophobia. Institutionalised violence has often been softened by cultural practices and informal dog-whistling that ingratiate extremism and violence toward the “other.”

Context of a world in solidarity

Thus, the good news is that there are endless acts, actions, gestures, feelings, movements and mobilizations that can, do and will inspire us. Humans are unbelievably equipped with the potential for creativity, love, solidarity and kindness, and below I enumerate a few of these themes.

People founding and developing organisations to address needs, concerns and problems

There are any number of organizations that have been founded by people of all sorts, many with the objective of seeking peace, assisting those who are disadvantaged, striving for intercultural solidarity, and myriad other causes. Of course, food banks should not replace government and collective action and responsibility. Similarly, we should never confuse charity and charitable giving and volunteerism with solidarity. Yet, there are many people engaged in so many important issues, causes and concerns aimed at building a better world.

Schools that cultivate learning, engagement, camaraderie, community participation

Although there are endless critiques and scholarship about the foibles and neoliberal orientations of public education, there are many moments, experiences, relationships and transformations that can take place in and through educational sites. These acts of kindness, humanity, generosity and solidarity may be taking place in spite of the obstacles and rigidities that make it a place of rejection and isolation for so many. The neoliberal filter makes it highly paradoxical but the struggle to make it more responsive to human needs is fundamental.

Cultural innovation, artistry, performance, sport and dissemination

Human creativity knows no limits. Is it possible to imagine the world, culture(s), the experience of living … without also splattering it with sport, art, poetry, literature, theatre, cinema, dance, music and all of the artistry that makes our lives so diverse and engaging? Many new, evolving and innovative art-forms, including graffiti, hip-hop, blogging, vlogging, flash-mobs and movements and manifestations of all sorts bear witness to the quest to (re-)define and populate our ways of being. All of these art forms help sustain, document, commemorate and ingratiate cultural life everywhere. Additionally, culture and sport have also, traditionally, been activities that cultivate and encourage cross-cultural peace and solidarity.

Political changes at the local, state, national and international levels

There have been many important laws, policies and programs cultivated and developed over time, notably in relation to women’s rights, and yet the machine moves slowly, is not always responsive, and myriad problems remain un- or under-addressed. But the process of striving for change, in formal, institutional terms, is noteworthy, and many grassroots movements aim, at some level, to make changes more widespread, permanent and transformative at diverse levels, including the formal level.

Scientific discovery that can provide hope

Technological, scientific, medical and other research, development and innovation have made a difference in quality of life, life expectancy and life experience. Of course, we need more solidarity, sharing and diversification of how these innovations can fully help all people, species and the environment, and much less focus on science for warfare.

Development, collaboration and partnerships based on inclusion, social justice

Well beyond the spot-light and fanfare of award and reality shows, there are untold numbers of people mobilizing efforts through dialogue, action, collaboration and diverse forms of artistry and culture to improve their lives and those in diverse communities. We cannot underestimate the importance and the impact of people being engaged, even if we don’t hear about them, see them or know them. I am heartened and privileged to have been able to see and experience many wonderful acts of solidarity in a range of countries.

Love, friendship and kindness … and solidarity …

Families, communities, groups of people sharing a common interest, cultural affection, spiritual synchronicity, the uplifting sensation of people working and pulling together on causes of great significance and endless other formulations that bring us together cannot be underestimated.

So what does democracy have to do with all of this?

Normative democracy – the one hinged on elections, the two predominant political parties, rigid participatory models, elite-based institutions … – is highly contested, weakly supported, and teetering on the edge. Are we really “better than this”? refers to the incessant chortling and yodelling from US political elites and politicians that any harm and wrong-doing perpetrated within domestic circles must be an aberration, something that is not endemic to American values and culture. After every major mass shooting, killing or terrorist act at home, there is a chorus of such diversionary thinking. Elsewhere, I wrote about the US being a “Pygmalion democracy,” in which aspirational politics supplants reality, especially in the Obama regime era.

Ingles outlines “Some of the newest tactics used by would-be authoritarians,” drawing a map of upheavals, coups, repression and resistance crisscrossing the world. Social movements are confronting autocratic governance, often explicitly and/or implicitly backed by hegemonic forces and supposed “neutral” parties in the Western world. She outlines ten signposts of the dynamic and wafer-thin normative democracy that is lunging toward authoritarianism, including: extend executive power; repressing dissent and citizen efforts to hold government accountable; appealing to populism and nationalism; controlling information and misinforming abroad; and employing covert election manipulation.

Thus, we are not living in an “advanced” democracy. Democracy is not an end-point but a process of engagement, of opportunity, of inclusion, of participation and of engagement. Voting is not democracy; normative democracy has largely failed to address our most pressing problems, yet it is difficult to confront it.

A few ideas to re-imagine democracy

Elsewhere, with Gina Thésée, we created a Framing Democracy Model, which included indicators and examples of measures that could be constructed by citizen groups to frame, cultivate, measure and undertake actions (laws), policies and programs to develop, build and sustain a meaningful, critically-engaged democracy. The central notion is that citizen-groups would define and create the democracy framework, and, subsequently, key decision-making processes related to fundamental pieces of the democracy puzzle would be developed in a (more) democratic way than the top-down, constitutional models that have a high tolerance for anti-democratic behavior.

My ideas, related to cultivating democracy, in the form of a simple (wish-)list here, are open to critique and engagement; I emphasize that the process of developing democracy requires many different, creative, engaging entry-points and proposals.

  • Develop vast, non-corporate media portals (accessible, free, engaged …)
  • Create community gardens and parks (accessible, free, engaged …)
  • Initiate accountability circles for all decisionmaking
  • Cultivate dialog groups to ensure inclusion, representation and social justice in how we organize societies
  • Support participatory budgeting
  • Reinforce cooperatives for work, for housing, for community development, etc.
  • Re-think elections, and break the shackles of the winner-take-all gambit that does not build democracy
  • Develop transformative education (no one graduates until we all graduate …)
  • Raise the minimum wage and guaranteed annual stipend and impose a maximum wage
  • Provide dignified community housing for everyone in need
  • Support coalition-building across boundaries/cultures
  • Enable citizen projects aimed at countering hegemony and ending warfare, poverty, racism and sexism
  • Ensure that “casino capitalism” is taxed exorbitantly until it is ended
  • Place social inequalities at the base of political decisions
  • Centre the environment as a cornerstone to economic decisions
  • Re-define democracy and allow citizens to develop the criteria, measures, indicators and evaluation frameworks so that it becomes meaningful (i.e., Framing Democracy Model)
  • Replace the Defence Department by a Peace Department
  • Stop everything until real and meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is achieved

But no one person has the last word, neither no one institution, nor no one government. The pandemic has, sadly, provided us with the opportunity to not go back to where we were.

Social solidarity is the only way out of this dilemma, if we want out. There is no trickle-down quick fix. We are not born racist, sexist, hate-ridden, holding a gun wishing to kill or obliged to accumulate untold amounts of wealth. We learn all of this. So how we see the world depends on us, what we want to see/do/change, what we can see/do/change, what we are able to see/do/change.

What are your thoughts, proposals and ways of being to change the world?

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Full Citation Information:
Carr, P. R. (2021). A half-empty glass, and hallucinating for democracy. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/a-half-empty-glass-and-hallucinating-for-democracy/

Paul R. Carr

Paul R. Carr is a Full Professor in the Department of Education at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Canada, and is also the Chair-holder of the UNESCO Chair in Democracy, Global Citizenship and Transformative Education (DCMÉT). His research focuses on political sociology, with specific threads related to democracy, global citizenship, the environment, intercultural relations, and transformative change in education.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash