In Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity (1979), [Gregory Bateson] argues that human learning and biological evolution are processes of the same basic kind: “stochastic” processes, in which a non-random selective element combines with randomly generated variation, a kind of filtered “trial-and-error” approach.
This post is not a random walk. Please bear with me.
Our modern concept of democracy is hard to define, and experts openly agree that the boundaries of the term are vague. Simple observation tells you that, really, there are only two conditions to be met. A country is democratic in the modern sense if it allies with the western nations, led by the United States of America, (the first and greatest modern democratic state), and also if there is some voting. What makes modern democracy hard to define is that experts seek less overt ways to frame that first condition.
What is great about this website you are now reading is that it has a strong functional definition of Democracy in the original and ancient sense of the word, that is: Rule by the People. You don’t see that much, even on the wild web.
Of course, I want you to read all the website chapters, but here’s a quickie synopsis. There are these three models: argument is a word model of a problem and its solution, voting is a model of war, and the Assembly is a model of the democratic community. A Democracy, a community ruled by its own people, uses these three models habitually and exclusively, to build the consensus to get things done. The better the models, the more people like and commit to the repeatable process. Ancient Athenians first used the word Democracy to describe the new kind of governance they invented, and that incorporated those three models.
We modern folk, we don’t understand any of the three models very well; they don’t apply in our modern lives the way they did for the ancient democrats. For us, arguing is when we’re angry and have to shout at someone. For us, voting pretty much is democracy, and, when we are on the loosing side in a vote, then we grumble that voting is ‘the dictatorship of the majority’. But the third model, the Assembly, that’s even more of a puzzler.
The trick of a democratic (in the original sense) Assembly is to use a small group of people, a subset of the wider democratic community, and correctly instruct and motivate them so they respond to various community challenges, as those challenges arise, in the same way as would the wider democratic community. So, the Assembly comes up with the same solutions as would be arrived at if, instead, the community had held a fair referendum after thorough public discussions on the matter at hand. (This ability is called channeling in the essays.) In the ancient democracy of Athens, the Assembly was a random sample selection from all the free men of the city, maybe as many as one in six, maybe as few as one in thirty. The ratio was high enough that the Athenian assembly could, with reasonable expectation, consistently channel the whole democratic community. And so, the People Ruled.
But that was then and this is now. In terms of the number of people who called it home, ancient Athens was comparable to present day Saint Albert. Today there are about 36 million Canadians. We can’t easily round up a half million or so people for this jury duty. We cannot follow Athen’s blueprint for a democratic assembly.
Our current Canadian solution to this challenge is at once both pleasingly organic and intellectually frustrating. First, we use today the colonial institutions that were given us by the 19th century British Empire, institutions established by the Empire with the intent of maintaining control of their restive, hard-to-defend colony. Then, over the generations, as that Empire faded, we made ad hoc tweaks to our institutions, as the political expedience of the moment demanded. And finally, we have bundled it all with patriotic myths.
By far the most useful myth is that we practice ‘Democracy’, cashing in on its old connotation of ‘rule by the people’, while we have revised the definition of Democracy to now mean ‘whatever we do’. Et voilà: it is now hard to even realize that there is a problem to be solved!
And, so armed with ignorance, we muddle into the 21st century.
From my point of view, what we have is sub-optimal. In part, this website is an effort to explain why the description above is a realistic view of our Canadian way of governance. And if it is realistic, then, if we instead want to practice democracy, in that older rule-by-the-people sense, then we must bring those three models into our culture.
The first two are probably not really beyond our grasp. Sure, we like to yell at each other, but most people know at some level that problems can be solved through discussion. And most of us can get the analogy that the vote is like the fight without the bloodshed. But the third, that the Assembly channels the wider community, that is a strange, even spooky, analogy. But really, it is just a poetic way to frame a technical problem.
Now this is the money quote coming up. If we decide to practice democracy, in that older rule-by-the-people sense, we need to come up with a technical way to make a Canadian Assembly that channels the wider Canadian community.
Those ancient Greeks solved that technical problem for their situation, so we can hope a solution is possible for us. I took a stab at a technical solution to the Channeling Assembly for Canada problem in chapter 7 of this website. I think it’s pretty good as a rough draft, but if you have a better idea, by all means roll it out and we will have a look!
I am trying to rigorously frame our 21st century challenge. In that light, I see the 3E Senate proposal as a try at a technical solution. Currently, Fair Vote Canada advocates electoral reform and that also is a proposed technical solution. In this website I provided a technical explanation why these two proposals do not give a Channeling Assembly, in the technical meaning of that poetic term, and so do not advance the cause of Democracy in its original context.
I am not criticizing those advocates for coming up with proposals. On a personal level, I admire the enthusiasm and drive with which both campaigns have been run, and the genuine hope and joy both these campaigns have generated in the hearts of their respective supporters. Those proposed solutions aren’t wrong for lack of passion. The proposals are wrong because they don’t satisfy the technical requirements for democracy, if by democracy we mean rule by the people; sadly, all that hope is misplaced.
And, even further, I am not even criticizing those advocates for putting forth plainly faulty models. Our crummy modern definition of modern democracy is useless for gauging the efficacy of any proposal. If we don’t really know where we are going, we can’t really judge if we are getting there or not. Stochastic processes generally suck at efficiency. But sometimes they deliver.
Which brings me back to The Unbroken Machine by author Dale Smith. I have been mulling over this book for a few months now. There are parts quite contrary to my way of thinking; the whole chapter about the Maple Crown I found quite difficult to process, as I noted in my earlier post. And, as might be expected, nowhere in the book is a definition of democracy offered. Nor is it explicitly stated that our common definition of democracy is too vague to be of use. But Dale Smith is concerned with something he has called ‘civic illiteracy’, and that is an issue related to the careless use of words like ‘democracy’. And, unexpectedly, while defending partisanship, at every turn Dale Smith champions more independence for MP’s. In this we are in agreement, but he is motivated by the cause of Accountability, not ancient Democracy. And Accountability is a principle that is addressed nowhere in my website of Canadian governance, because, when I was writing my site, I was a civic illiterate about Accountability.
I was pretty excited when I first read about Accountability. I think that, somehow, this principle, still new to me, maybe can be harnessed to develop the channeling Assembly we need for Canadian democracy, as in rule-by-the-people democracy. I want to explore this theme in my next word model, or rather, post.
Welcome to 2018!