Democracy is the Only Alternative

System change, not climate change

Do we need authoritarian and undemocratic measures in order to remedy climate change or can empowering citizens through radical participatory democracy be part of the solution? In what ways is it possible to empower ordinary citizens to make the ecological transition? What should be the strategies of the environmental movement?

These were some of the questions that were discussed by the opening panel at the Ecological Challenges conference organized by New Compass and the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo on September 26th 2014. Ingerid Straume, author and activist and one of the panel participants, argued that what is most needed to address climate change and the environmental problems is to create new forms of social and political organization and that the strategy of the environmental movement should be to seize or create democratic power in order to create serious, political alternatives. The following text is her speech.

I would like to say a few words on why we do not “need” authoritarian and undemocratic measures in response to the climate problems. My focus will be on the history of democracy itself. I will also comment briefly upon strategies for the environmental movement, and the role of academics.

It seems clear to me that the climate problems are not a result of too much democracy. Democracy literally means people’s self-government. If we take this definition seriously, it seems clear that we do not have a strong and viable democracy today. Important political decisions are not made by ordinary people, but rather by powerful agents of corporate capitalism and other, strong financial, religious or military interests.

In contrast, the first democracy, in ancient Greece, was a real democracy. This is illustrated by the fact that the word athenai, which refers to the city of Athens, also means the Athenians. In other words, the Athenians and Athens were conceived as one and the same phenomenon. Because Athens was a real democracy, the Athenians knew that the well-being of the city (polis) depended on their own efforts, their involvement and care for political, military and administrative matters – and even on their personal character, as they saw it. Democratic Athens was a very efficient polity that won many wars, established colonies abroad and created marvellous works of art as well as scholarship that still inspire us today.

In Athens, the political power was held by the Athenian citizens alone, which is hardly the case for citizens of today. But what does it mean to have political power? In modern polities, democratic power is often associated with the ability to vote in elections. However, in my view, the power connected to voting is not an important kind of political power, because the questions that are up for vote have already been through a long, political process, not least the decision of which issues should appear on the public agenda. The most important, real power is therefore held by those who set the political agenda prior to the voting process. In the so-called democracies of today, the agenda is set before ordinary people are invited to participate in hearings and to give their vote on available (“realistic”) alternatives.

If citizens did control the political agenda, as the Athenians did, I am quite certain that the question of climate change – and in this connection, the Norwegian oil industry – would have been up for discussion a long time ago. If we, the citizens, were put in the position where we had to decide whether our future should be based on the continued use of fossil energy or on renewable energy, it seems rather likely that the results would be very different from today (where, of course, this question has never been put on the agenda). Indeed, I feel quite convinced that very few citizens would risk the future of the coming generations for the sake of saving the profits of investors, speculators and other financial capitalists, or maintaining the good relationship between these oligarchs and elected politicians.

In my view, what we have today is not so much a democracy as a plutocracy whose real power structures are hidden from public scrutiny. But whenever this system is met with criticism, democracy gets the blame for its slowness etc. However, if we ask which type of political organization can “solve the crisis”, I think we are asking the wrong question. The crisis is already unfolding. In fact, in my view there is a crisis of the environment and a crisis of democracy that may be connected.

The key, I think, is responsibility for “that which depends on us.”[1] The Athenians knew that the well-being of the city depended directly on themselves and their efforts. Today, what is at stake is the well-being of the planet – but it is difficult to see how each and every one can make an important difference.

One of the questions we need to consider is how far we can rely on the good sense of ordinary people, should they be given the power to decide over our common future; the future of the planet. Importantly, we need to take a closer look at the conditions for socialization and education of citizens in contemporary, Western-type societies.

In what we call late modernity, there may be an overly developed tolerance for living with ambiguity and tensions – or cognitive and moral dissonance. For example, we may be able to hold one set of values in our private, moral life while in our work life we follow a different set of values. This means that even though many of us do not support – privately – the central orientations of our societies, such as consumerism, we may see ourselves as essentially different, and not really part of “the problem”. This means that citizens may have the right “attitudes”, yet we do not change “the system”. In other words, there is no direct link between attitudes and political action. In neoliberal societies, we are both private persons and consumers and citizens. But we rarely see ourselves as directly responsible for the state of the world.

What about academia? In my experience, rather few academics of today are interested in encouraging political changes. At least, this is true for my own discipline, education. Over the last years, I have been working on politics and the question of climate change in relation to educational theory. These analyses are often met with confusion and questions like: “Is it really the task of educators to educate for (political) change”? Educational researchers and theorists – the few that remain – do not see that their apolitical or uncritical attitude may support the status quo, where climate change is part of the scenario.

Until the late 1980s or early 90s, it was still common for academics to consider themselves as public intellectuals. But this kind of attitude has since fallen in disrepute, for various reasons. Today it is not cool to care “too much”. Personally, I strongly believe in politics and democracy, but I am uncertain how much can be done from an academic position. Still, we need to use the positions we have, as intellectuals and students, to be a pain in society’s ass, and even our colleagues’ asses – to be a gadfly, as Socrates would say – by drawing ecological analyses and politics into all domains of academia.

What is most needed today, I think, is to create new forms of social and political organization. Through the times, new social forms have emerged as the results of creative people who refuse to accept the dichotomies offered by the existing power structures, that is, between preset alternatives where we are forced to choose between either this or that: either authoritarianism or powerlessness, either ‘crisis’ or ‘solving the crisis’, which is of course a way of locking positions.

Personally, I do not accept the question of whether we need more authoritarian measures: this implies that democracy is not “working”, in other words that we already have enough democracy and that this is the reason we are in a mess, ecologically and socially. Moreover, there are no authoritarian measures on the environmental agenda. I also think we should be sceptical of participation without power. The strategy of the environmental movement should be to seize or create democratic power in order to create serious, political alternatives. The history of Athens tells us that democracy is a very efficient form of government that is able to change and renew itself. Democracy is also the only alternative that is able to attract broad, general support and involvement from everyone. This, too, is a reason why democracy is still our best way forward.

1. Castoriadis, Cornelius (2007): “What democracy?”, in Castoriadis, C. Figures of the thinkable. Stanford, Stanford University Press, pp. 118-150

You watch the entire panel discussion here.