This piece is #10 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.
The crisis of liberal democracy is an opportunity to imagine alternative futures built by shared knowledge and experiences, rather than by digging into the same minds, philosophies and perspectives. Opening and challenging the boundaries of our current systems can make room for a wealth of life stories and information all of which can in turn enrich our understandings, and ways of thinking and being. If we want a vibrant democracy where public participation is not just a buzzword but a reality with tangible effects, we have to look beyond what we have tried and known, and be open to learning.
As a modern European invention, liberal democracy was adopted by much of the world during the decolonisation period of the 20th century. It is a system and ideology that many have fought for, believed in and often wished it were better in practice.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and magnified pre-existing political trends which already encouraged the curbing of democratic norms and civil liberties. So it’s unsurprising that in 2021 for the fifth consecutive year the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction exceeded the number of countries becoming more democratic. As dissatisfaction with the state of politics, and by consequence democracy, worldwide grows, the future and legitimacy of democracy as we know it is under threat
The idea of institutionalising the rights of nature could also support the drastic transitions that will have to take place in the coming decades.
Despite these trends, I believe that the questioning of liberal democracy can have positive consequences if we learn how to look beyond Western interpretations of democratic practises. Liberalism is, indeed, just one of many different outlooks on democracy. So what could we learn from each other? What would decolonising democratic innovations look like in the next 15 years? How could we improve our practises through afrofuturism? Is it time for alternative ways of ‘doing democracy’ as discussed by The Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group?
Sumak Kawsay, or Buen Vivir in Spanish and “good living” in English, refers to a way of doing things differently with community at its centre while being culturally-sensitive and in balance with nature. Rooted in indigenous knowledge, early formulations of the term in Latin America emerged as decolonial reactions to neoliberal development approaches, though there is no single definition for it. Rather, there are different interpretations of it which are fluid and sometimes converge.
Ecuador and Bolivia are two countries that have been trying to reconcile with their past of violences against indigenous communities. In so doing, the governments adopted the Sumak Kawsay philosophy and tried to institutionalise it in their respective nations. The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution contained an entire chapter dedicated to the rights of nature which are a key feature of the movement. Similarly, the 2009 Bolivian Constitution shared the orientation laid out by Buen Vivir.
Imagination and the will to dare to imagine are key aspects of the Afrofuturist movement.
Though the aftermath of this policy turn has been complex, Sumak Kawasay itself is an ideology that could help the crisis of liberal democracy by counteracting individualism and refocusing on the wellbeing of the individual as part of a community in a specific cultural and natural context. This could prove especially crucial for the climate emergency that we are all fighting and will continue to fight, albeit in different environments. The idea of institutionalising the rights of nature could also support the drastic transitions that will have to take place in the coming decades. With community at its core, the concept behind this paradigm is also the perfect framework to explain the importance of, for instance, citizens’ assemblies.
Afrofuturism has been used as a theory to identify and critique racism while focusing on reimagining the future and redefining what liberation looks like. Imagination and the will to dare to imagine are key aspects of the Afrofuturist movement. These can offer a pathway for recovery while shaping more just realities and empowering Black people to go beyond the current systems of oppression and discrimination. For this reason this philosophy makes great use of aesthetics such as art, music, film and storytelling to produce knowledge of the present and configurations of an equitable future for Black people.
As Dayo Esenu explains and argues, Afrofuturism acknowledges and centres Black people’s subjectivities in a way that reduces the risk of reinforcing current systems of exploitation and injustice in the production of knowledge which is a fundamental aspect of policymaking, including in deliberative democracy settings. Afrofuturism legitimises the experiences of Black people as a marginalised community in countries like the UK, but also leaves space for nuance and heterogeneity in their lived experiences as empirical evidence and various imagined possibilities would be introduced in policymaking spaces.
He suggests thinking about other possibilities of democratic and civic engagement that do not fit traditional understandings of what democracy is.
By appreciating this difference (in this case race, but similarly it could have been gender, sexuality, religion, class, etc.) Black experiential knowledge is valued and used to improve policy rather than being sidelined and treated as an afterthought. What does this mean in practice? The data produced through this approach would be used to challenge how futures are imagined at policy tables, be it Parliament or a citizens' assembly, which adds affect and futurity to what many would want to label ‘objective’ analysis or evidence. In this way, alternative futures are reimagined and accounted for outside of the marginalised community, namely where power is.
Colonialism and decolonisation indicate specific social, historical and geopolitical episodes that characterised the world from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Coloniality and decoloniality, on the other hand, refer to the logic and theories of knowledge left behind by these historical processes. From this perspective decolonisation becomes a process of unlearning how we know and understand the world by considering how various social influences such as the law, our families and public opinion, have informed our perceptions, and ways of thinking and being.
If we want this political system to survive the turmoils of the 21st century, it is crucial for liberal democracies to open up to change and innovation from a variety of perspectives.
In an online public event, Bonny Ibhawoh from Participedia explored what decolonising democratic innovations would look like in practice as the field, like many others, has struggled to confront the history of colonialism and its impact on this work. He suggests thinking about other possibilities of democratic and civic engagement that do not fit traditional understandings of what democracy is. This might include accepting and legitimising different language and ways of talking about public participation as well as expanding and/or challenging our definition of ‘innovation’. The concept of innovation itself usually lies on the assumption that the only way forward is still liberal democracy as we know it - but what if we focused more on building on differences through lived experiences and ways to share knowledge?
Discussions around strengthening democratic institutions in the face of the current crisis of liberal democracy have been mainly led by Western scholars who have had limited engagement with issues of structural oppression like racism and disability among many others. Under this traditional framework, differences are somehow softened and included in the project of liberal democracy which remains unquestioned. Decolonisation challenges this by decentering the concept of ‘democracy’ altogether to acknowledge that there are many ways of doing democracy. With this logic differences become sites for democratic alternatives and new futures as Sumak Kawasay and Afrofuturism have shown.
Democracy in 15 years’ time?
I do not have the (full) answers to what democracy will look like in 15 years’ time. We always want to have the answers to important questions, but sometimes we just don’t - still, there is worth in what you find on the quest to these. If we want this political system to survive the turmoils of the 21st century, it is crucial for liberal democracies to open up to change and innovation from a variety of perspectives.
So my hope is that we can learn from and be curious about the various interpretations of democracy because this is what the future is about: for everyone to be able and willing to imagine beyond the confines of what is known, familiar and ultimately comfortable.