Jun 02 2009

the conditions for radical change

by at 4:47 pm under Uncategorized

We can look at contemporary institutions all we like, but as Putnam points out, their adaptivity and other structural characteristics may not be immediately apparent to us. “Those concerned with democracy and development should … lift their sights beyond instant results.” Well, we are certainly concerned with development. The question is, how concerned are we with democracy itself?

True, democratic representation does provide for more frequent and open feedback, that critical factor for the adaptation of institutions themselves. Indeed, democracy pervades our collective imaginary to an astoundingly deep degree. It is, perhaps, our guiding structural value. Our leaders have equated democracy with freedom, security, and even life itself. How then can we conceive of deviation from this ideal? I would argue that our path-dependence on democratic values has affected the way we relate to one another so deeply that we are collectively unable, in “the West”, to seriously examine possibilities for either theory or for policy which contradict a democratic model.

This path dependence has led to some paradoxical consequences. How, for example, can we reconcile the most fundamental democratic assurance — the vox populi, the vote — with its results, when those elected do not support the other aspects of our social institutions that we so closely associate with democracy itself? Consider, especially, that Hitler was elected democratically. There are other examples, such as Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Someone once said, “Democracy is the freedom to elect our own dictators,” and while these elections may have been rigged, that objection only begs a deeper question. What, if anything, is a specifically democratic constraint against corruption in election processes?

there are electoral democracies, partially free countries, and those that are not free.

A map generated in 2008 by Freedom House, ranking the relative "freedom" of countries. The ranking is simplistic: there are electoral democracies, partially free countries, and those that are not free.

Our own voting in the United States has had myriad historical imbalances, as recent voting “scandals” in Florida, Michigan, and Minnesota all testify. The point is not whether or not democracy is inherently good or bad for the people who participate in it. The point is, simply, that we have found it incredibly difficult to adapt, at macro levels of policy and state apparatus, our reliance on democratic models as such.

This is surprising, and counter-intutitive. A networked view of our own processes of development in the West might indeed show correlations between democratic governance and economic performance. However, as we know, change at the institutional level is at least constrained, and in some cases is radically affected, by activity at small-group levels. Thus, Narayan advocates for strengthening social bonds, rather than institutional bonds. I agree with this direction for policy-making, since the ability to transform institutions is severely weakened when those institutions are deeply embedded in their connections to other large groups, and are organized to maintain or exacerbate the status quo.

The conditions for radical change, at the institutional level, rely on a complementarily radical break between those institutions and their social contexts. Forming those conditions for change is a long and incremental process across all the cross-cutting ties of social networks. It leads in the long run, however, to a compelling social force, grounded in collective desires. These desires, in turn, can accumulate, as social capital becomes fixed in organizations. It is these organizations that move structural changes in both developmental models and socioeconomic practices into larger frameworks.

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