Studying democratic multiplicity democratically

James Tully, Keith Cherry, David Owen and Pablo Ouziel explain how different conceptions of democracy can be grouped into 'families of democracies'. Here, they show how different families can 'join hands' and work together to establish an ecosocial succession that benefits everyone

Democratic multiplicity

In this series' inaugural blog piece on the lexicon of democracy, Jean-Paul Gagnon offers a criticism of current democracy literature. Gagnon accuses democracy scholars of restricting their study to a small sample that focuses on modern, representative democracies. Yet they treat these as if they are generalisable and, often, universal. By mapping the many diverse uses of the word democracy throughout the world, Gagnon's lexicon discloses a broader and diverse field of democracies.

The authors of Democratic Multiplicity agree. Our modest contribution is to disclose, explicate and compare five families of democracies and their ways of being democratic. We call these families of democracies because they exhibit similar and dissimilar features, like human families.

Democratic Multiplicity: Perceiving, Enacting and Integrating Democratic Diversity, was published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press

We strive to understand the complex usages of their democratic languages in the practices in which they are used, contested, defended, and changed. Next, comparatively, we seek to clarify similarities and dissimilarities among the meanings and practices of different families. We then seek to develop intermediate steps that enable members of families to come to understand each others meanings and practices by means of dialogues of reciprocal elucidation among all affected.

The everyday meanings of democracy of these five families intersect and overlap in complex ways, as do their democratic practices. These complexities are entangled with surrounding and often overpowering non-democratic and anti-democratic social systems. Furthermore, they are intertwined with the life-sustaining symbiotic life systems in which they are embedded. These are constitutive features of the phenomenological world of democratic multiplicity.

Perceiving, enacting, and integrating democratic diversity

On the basis of these difficult dialogues, we explore how members of different families can come together and critically examine the complex human and ecological relationships and systems they co-inhabit in shared practices of the democratic freedom of thinking and acting differently. This involves four types of engaged research.

First, it involves trust-generating dialogues of deparochialising and decolonising each others habitual ways of thinking and acting democratically. Thus, we begin to co-generate new, democratic relationships of cooperation locally and globally.

Second, as these networks grow, we can use them to call into question their customary ways of thinking and acting in the non-democratic and anti-democratic social relationships they also inhabit.

Third, critical enquiries extend to the sustainable and unsustainable relationships and effects these social relationships have on the life systems in which they are embedded.

Fourth, in laying down these democratic paths in enacting them, participants slowly bring to light the destructive social and ecological relationships behind the interconnected and unsustainable ecosocial crises that define our shared present.

'Ecosocial succession'

Participants also become aware of the direct and indirect roles they play in sustaining the crises in their everyday languages, relationships, and practices that render them acceptable. This co-generated, dual enlightenment discloses to participants the world of democracies in ways that enable them to think and act democratically, experimentally, and effectively with and for each other in response to the ecosocial crises by beginning to be the change here and now.

By perceiving, enacting and integrating democratic diversity, we can 'join hands' with human and other-than-human relatives

We call these four democratic practices joining hands with all affected: human and other-than-human relatives. These practices involve perceiving, enacting, and integrating democratic diversity. Since they entail working on the very relationships that cause and reproduce the ecosocial crises, we call this means of change ecosocial succession. It is similar to the regenerative ecological succession of damaged ecosystems. Indeed, when practiced carefully, it partakes in the ecological succession of the ecosystems humans are damaging.

Five families of democracies

1 Indigenous, community-based democracies

Indigenous community-based democracies on Turtle Island (North America) are among the oldest democracies. They have survived centuries of colonisation, destruction, genocide and assimilation. Indigenous peoples are regenerating their democracies and lifeways with Mother Earth in their own languages and laws. Simultaneously, they have become entangled in complex relationships with state-based democracies, economies, and international law. These relationships can be empowering and neo-colonising; often both at once.

2 State-based representative democracies

These representative governments have become the hegemonic family of democracies, and the dominant focus of research over the last century. We treat them as one among many families and subject them to the same engaged research. At the same time, we also focus on their hegemonic relations to other democracies.

3 Community-based, self-governing, co-operative and commoning, direct or participatory democracies

The third family includes the multiple forms of the above democracies and their global networks. Their members are both citizens and governors. They come together, discuss, and exercise powers of government (kratos), and, in so doing, become a people (demos). This is the Athenian meaning of democracy. There are no ruler/ruled relationships (arche). Participatory democracies also include democratic practices of nonviolent contestation and resolution aimed at transforming unjust relationships and systems (democratisation by democratic means).

Participatory democracies include democratic practices of nonviolent contestation and resolution aimed at transforming unjust relationships and systems

4 Beyond the state

The newest democratic family consists of practices of democratic engagement, contestation and change beyond the state in the maze of public and private international and transnational relations. It is creating its own distinctive languages and practices. With the networkisation of the technosphere, all other families have a presence in this complex, global sphere.

5 Gaia democracy

This consists of the life systems that symbiotically sustain life on earth. All human social systems are dependent on their mutual well-being. Humans, according to Aldo Leopold, are plain members and citizens of them. We've called it Gaia democracy, in reference to James Lovelocks Gaia hypothesis and the Greek Goddess of the animacy of the living earth (anima mundi).

Symbiotic Gaia life systems are democratic in the sense that interdependent members sustain themselves in virtuous ways that co-sustain the wellbeing of their interdependent members

Symbiotic Gaia life systems are democratic in the sense that the interdependent members sustain themselves in virtuous ways that co-sustain the wellbeing of their interdependent members. These members do the same in reciprocity (symbiosis and symbiogenesis). When they become vicious and destructive, they regenerate virtuous relationships by being the symbiotic change (ecological succession).

The four practices of joining hands democratically among democratic families re-integrates the members of these families into Gaia democracy. In doing so, it regenerates the ecosystems that humans are currently destroying (ecosocial succession). In this way, human beings become good democratic citizens of planetary democracy.

No.95 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the  to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of James Tully James Tully Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Law, University of Victoria More by this author
photograph of Keith Cherry Keith Cherry Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Alberta More by this author
photograph of David Owen David Owen Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, University of Southampton More by this author
photograph of Pablo Ouziel Pablo Ouziel Associate Fellow, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria More by this author

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