Do you live in a democracy? That depends as much on your definition of the word as your place of residence. Plenty of countries are designated democracies: Freedom House counted 118 electoral democracies (out of 195 countries) in 2012, so unless you’re Chinese there’s a good chance you live in one of them. The citizens of many of those electoral democracies enjoy wide-ranging freedoms, and that is something to celebrate. But freedom is not democracy.
In its purest form, democracy is government by the people, as practised in ancient Athens (other than by slaves and women, of course). Such direct democracy is impractical for large populations, so we settle instead for representative democracy, electing MPs, congressmen, deputies and senators to make policy decisions on our behalf. In theory if we don’t like those decisions we have the option of replacing them at the next election. A handful of political systems even allow disgruntled voters to recall and replace their representatives before their term is complete.
But do you have any practical opportunity to contribute to the formation of national public policy? That’s what real democracy should entail.
For most British voters, the reality of our political power is this: we can cast a vote every few years, but it makes no difference because the incumbent in our constituency has a substantial majority; in any case the choice of candidates is limited, and none is likely to reflect closely our particular combination of views on different issues; our elected government has limited freedom to act on our behalf, given international market forces and the growing power of the EU; we have no power of recall; we can make representations or protest, but only within a highly managed system, and even when we get thousands onto the street we are unlikely to change policy; very occasionally we may be given a vote on a specific issue in a referendum. Can we really claim we live in a democracy?
Which is not to say that a truly democratic society would be better. Rule by the majority can be a frightening thing: ill-informed, self-interested, prejudiced, unfair. As Benjamin Franklin may have said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” Even with rights of veto to protect ethical principles and minorities, as Occupy’s recent attempts at consensus-based decision-making showed, it can be chaotic, inefficient and ineffective.
Does it matter that the truth of our electoral democracy must be balanced against the competing truth of our political powerlessness? In our daily lives it is probably not politicians’ decisions that most concern us. Far more important on a day-to-day basis for the billions of employees around the world are the decisions made by their employers. And very few employing organisations, whether large or small, public or private, commercial or non-profit, are democracies. Typically a Chief Executive is in charge; his or her decisions may be guided to some extent by a small board or a few powerful shareholders, but they will certainly not be beholden to the wishes of the employees. And at every level of the organisation an appointed individual gets to command the next rung down; they may be benevolent, they may even show an interest in the views of their direct reports, but they hold the power. Your boss can potentially dictate what you say, what you wear, what you eat, even when you go to the toilet. That’s totalitarianism, not democracy.
This is a very real truth for many millions of employees in numerous electoral democracies: they have little freedom and even less say in the forces that shape their lives. But although employees rarely get to set the political agenda of the organisation in which they spend most of their waking hours, they are not entirely powerless. They have the option to resign, a last resort not available to citizens of a truly totalitarian regime. In most countries they have employment rights that must be respected, and often unions to fight their corner. And in many jobs they have the more subtle weapon of discretionary effort: as an employee, you have the power to do your job well or merely adequately, to make an effort or to coast, to care about the customer/patient/passenger or to tick boxes, to devote yourself wholeheartedly to the corporate mission or to spend your time updating Facebook. Collectively, employees have the power to determine whether an organisation succeeds or fails — particularly in competitive markets — and employers are increasingly waking up to the need to engage their staff through consultation and increased involvement in decision-making. It’s still not democracy, but it’s getting there. Add to that labour market forces that might one day favour the employee and a much more democratic mood could eventually develop in the workplace.
Would that be a good thing? Corporations and other employing organisations are entities designed to deliver something, be it shareholder value or public services or a ballet. Democracy may not be the most effective way of achieving that goal. Armies don’t seek consensus amongst the ranks. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to show that employees are more effective in their work if they enjoy a degree of autonomy. Like freedom, autonomy is not democracy, but it may sow a few seeds. And every management consultant will tell you that employees often have a better understanding than their leaders of the failings of an organisation as well as the opportunities for growth and improvement. More freedom and more democracy in the workplace may be good for everyone. Just ask John Lewis.
This is an interesting list of democratic workplaces.
There is another way to view the extent of our democratic power with respect to such mighty organisations. As consumers, we have increasing influence over the behaviour and values of the corporations and non-profit organisations with which we interact. Where you spend your money, or indeed bank it, is a form of voting. Which charities you back, which hospital you trust, which websites you visit, which TV shows you watch — all votes. And unlike in politics there are no safe seats when it comes to consumer choices. Every vote counts. In fact given the ratio of profit to turnover in industries with large fixed costs, your vote can be highly leveraged: losing a few thousand customers may mean the difference between black and red ink for even the biggest of companies. Best of all, in this age of social media, we can let those organisations (and other potential consumers) know exactly why we are dissatisfied with their products, service or behaviour.
So it’s true that many of us live in a democracy, and it’s true that we don’t really live in a democracy. It’s true that many of us are subject to highly undemocratic forces at work, but it’s also true that employees may be able to make a very democratic contribution to their organisations. And while it’s arguably true that powerful organisations severely limit democracy in most societies, it’s certainly true that they themselves are subject to a consumer democracy that offers us all at least some say in how things are.