Democracy from Below vs Official Democracy

The Democratic Imagination by James Cairns and Alan Sears provides insight into the development of democracy, situating it as a debate between “official democracy” and “democracy from below” and presenting material in a refreshing and digestible manner. Rather than play the role of the “teacher” — telling the reader what answers are right and wrong — Cairns and Sears encourage us to figure it out ourselves; this makes the book an exercise in learning about the complex and contested nature of democracy.

Structured in this way, this book raises more questions than it provides answers. Deliberately open ended and reflexive, this approach is designed to challenge common sense notions and to draw on the everyday knowledge and experiences of people, making the book itself an act of democracy from below.

Cairns and Sears define democracy from below as “processes of self-government that are based on the establishment of popular power in all areas of life.” This recognition of the interplay of democracy and power in all areas of life is what directly contrasts democracy from below with the official version of democracy — the one taught in schools and government agencies — which assumes that democracy is “primarily about a system of government whose authority is based on the majority of the population’s consent to being governed.”

For too long, institutions have pigeon-holed any discussion about democracy within this “official” and static framework, training people to become good citizens rather than active and engaged participants. Cairns and Sears here re-open the debate about how we define democracy, problematizing existing concepts and broadening our imagination.

Cairns and Sears trace the development of liberal democracy and notions of citizenship. Central to their discussion is the active role played by the people in shaping history and the many acts of resistance that have helped broaden democratic citizenship. We are reminded of the militant struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s and the roles they played in igniting the democratic imagination and in extending citizenship rights to new segments of the population. This history shows that that how we come to define democracy is never as something static but a “series of relationships that are made and remade through social struggles.”

Nonetheless, we are also reminded of the limitations of human freedom within representative democracy, as well as how already-constrained rights and freedoms are being eroded in an era of neoliberalism. In this age of “lean citizenship,” Cairns and Sears highlight the increasingly consumerist relationship between citizens and governments, and the latter’s obsession with slashing essential programs such as health and education, which are seen as obstacles to the functioning of the capitalist market economy. These cuts have further weakened the ability of unions and community organizations to organize on behalf of working-class people, and have led to some feeling like political power has slipped out of their hands and into the realm of transnational corporations.

However, even though “resistance from below has been beaten down to historically low levels, it has not been annihilated.” Cairns and Sears remind us of the resurgence of popular movements in the 21st century that are fighting for social change and pushing the democratic imagination to new levels.

In the face of deeper cuts and the global slump that began in 2008, we have witnessed the growth of student protests in Chile and Quebec, the strikes in Wisconsin and Greece, and the sudden emergence of the global Occupy movement that took place in over 82 different countries. These are all hopeful signs that the spirit of democracy from below, of real people power, still burns bright. 

Yet given the development of these movements, important questions still remain. Cairns and Sears suggest we should think of democracy as a never-ending process, made and remade through struggle and capable of dealing with inequities as they arise. Broadening our democratic imagination in this way helps build movements that are capable of overcoming the inequities existing within them, as well as avoiding some of the post-war compromises that stopped short of the imagination. To paraphrase Robin DG Kelley: unless we have the space to imagine and a vision of what it means to realize our humanity, all the protests in the world won’t bring about our liberation.

The Democratic Imagination helps set us down that path to broadening our vision of what another world could look like. In these times when the official definition of democracy is narrowed even further, and when elected representatives seem to provide no real alternative, this book is more important than ever.

Salmaan Khan is a Toronto-based writer and activist.