of democracy, institutions and citizenship (part deux)

So, following on from yesterday, about the character and behaviour of your citizens. How do you even raise citizens?(Michael Gove still wants to know)

Actually, I mean, how do you raise smart citizens who can intelligently engage with the issues of their day within the institutions and systems they have, and just maybe adjust them for the better when necessary. Also, can you do it without raising a clone army? We want to allow for discussion, disagreement and dissent in this citizen body. This answer will not fit on a postcard.

I started thinking about this during the BBC’s ‘Is Africa Reinventing Democracy?’ panel partially because I was thinking about how it’s important if institutions are to function well within their states and partially because one particular part of the conversation about how these ‘strong institutions make a strong democracy’ got me thinking about what citizens are supposed to gain or want from their democracies - and thus want institutions are supposed to help them secure.

Jason Njoko, the Nigerian businessman on the panel said a couple of things that highlighted his basic assumptions about what you might call the benefits of living in a democracy, or ‘ends’ or rights that a democracy might be supposed to secure for its citizens.

Firstly, in answering a question about why larger numbers of younger Nigerian ex-pats have been returning to Nigeria and how they are received, he cited rapid growth (if you start a business) and the ability to ‘make your own reality’ as reasons why people return.

Secondly, he talked a lot about Rwanda (his company has an office in Kigali, having chosen it over Nairobi and Kampala), its stability, which he connected to the willingnes of President Paul Kagame to think long-term and its strong institutions (which, in turn, he attributed to Kagame’s early wisdom in the way he and his government built them) - but he refused to be drawn on the autocratic tendencies of Paul Kagame, and whether they marked a failure of democracy. Which I understand - run your business out of Kigali, and it’s probably best not to critique Kagame’s presidency live on the BBC. And yet.

The assumptions that lie underneath these two statements are that democracy is for / as citizens we want seem to be:

  1. Economic Growth
  2. Individual happiness based on the ability to order the world around you to your liking
  3. Stability: political, economic, and, I suspect, social.

I don’t for a moment think that he is the only person in the world with those basic assumption, or even that he was the only person in the room with them - though I do wonder if he or the imaginary-they would accept that these are their basic assumptions.  Are these really the things we want, above everything else? Is this what we want to expend our citizen rights on, and what are we willing to give up for them? [And w/r/t that last, in the context of the subject of the panel I was attending, and the specific example of Rwanda, at what point do we stop being citizens in a democracy as opposed to citizens in a different kind of state?]

Maybe these things are what we want. But (a) I’m not sure that they are. They’re not what I would put top of my list. And (b) I don’t think we, en masse, have thought about what they are worth to us and how much we’re willing to ‘pay’ for them. The issue of Kagame and  dissent is relevant here, as is the economic inequality we see rising in many democratic states that are pursuing growth and the individual happiness of (some of) their citizens. Might we, perhaps, want to trade some of that stability and forward thinking (something, in Britain, we complain our politicians don’t do enough of because of election cycles) to ensure or maintain more genuinely open elections?

Whatever the answers to those questions its up to us, as citizens, to start coming up with answers and start living like they are our answers - and demanding that our political representatives and leaders acknowledge that, especially if the majority of us do turn out to want something different.  Institutions won't do that for us, and unless citizens pull on their end of the rope, any institution will go tumbling backwards in the direction of those pulling on theirs (government, entrenched elites, international corporations, etc etc) in some great metaphorical tug-of-war.

In some ways, I care less about what decide we want than about the fact that we should actually think about what we want and start trying to make it happen (to be clear, I don’t not care - I think there are better and worse ‘ends’ we might aim for, but I’m a grown-up now and I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will be no time when everyone will agree with me on those ends, even though I might sarcastically huff about it). That’s why when asking at the start how we might raise citizens I say I don’t want to raise a clone army.

I’ve been reading a book called Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood this week, which, frankly, will leave you very depressed about the possibility of this, because not only are we not making critical thinking about things like politics a feature of the education of our children, we barely seem to know how to do it ourselves. Why is this? Who screwed us over? (Us being everyone over the age of about 30 but not yet pensionable).

I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the basic assumptions about what democracy is for and what citizens want (see above) benefit a good number of people who therefore have no interest in challenging the dominant narrative that’s taught them these assumptions. That’s not necessarily a manipulative move - most of us, I would hazard - are just trying to muddle through so that we can keep clinging on to these benefits that we don’t have the energy to do a lot more.

But here are two questions to attempt to think about:

  1. Are these things what we want - if not, what would we prefer?
  2. What bigger story would make people gravitate towards them over our current baselines?

(and also, can you make this happen without staging a coup d’etat and becoming a dictator?)

An Open Letter to Vera Brittain

of democracy, institutions and citizenship (part one)