The Feasta Review, number 2



feasta website

Dr John Barry is Deputy Director and Reader in Politics at the Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research, Queen's University, Belfast.

PDF version of book reviews


Introducing a new model of democracy

Gaian Democracies - Redefining Globalisation and People-power

Roy Madron and John Jopling
Schumacher Briefing no. 9
Green Books for the Schumacher Society, 2003
ISBN 1 90399 828 X £8.00

review by John Barry

Feasta members have written four Schumacher Briefings. This one, by John Jopling, one of Feasta's founders, and Roy Madron, an expert in systems improvement and participatory planning, investigates the kind of democracy required to enable human societies to make the many changes needed to achieve social justice and sustainability.

Imagine a democratic world as complex, adaptive and flexible as the ecosystems with which it interacts. It is made up of millions of engaged, active citizens connected together in a global network of democracies that transcend the nation-state, all organised around the twin goals of sustainability and global/social justice. Imagine further that the internal principles of the network are decentralisation, maximum diversity and 'people-power', which together operate as the organising principles of society characterised as a form of 'social learning'.

A pipe dream? Another form of 'green utopianism' or 'greenprints' for a future that will not happen? Well, think again. Gaian Democracies is a bold, innovative book that argues that in these times of increasing global economic and ecological disaster, the desirable is now the necessary.

The book embeds democracy in the complex natural and human systems in which the economy and polity are based. It not only takes on the forces organising 'globalisation' and shows their underlying principles and all-too-evident flaws, but, more importantly, it offers an alternative. Taking its lead and inspiration from the anti-globalisation slogan, 'another world is possible', Roy Madron and John Jopling offer a positive political agenda for an earth-based and human-scale democratic political project of renewal and systemic change. As they put it, "the Gaian democracy paradigm reflects our still growing understanding of concepts such as organisational dialogue and learning, softsystems, cybernetics...complexity and chaos theory, symbiosis, inter-dependency and diversity and, of course, Gaia" (p.132).

Their explicit adoption of a 'systems methodological approach' to analysing the political, economic and environmental problems of contemporary global societies is innovative and a welcome addition to the emerging literature on the alternatives to globalised and globalising capitalism. This book demonstrates the utility and insights to be gained from seeing human societies, polities and economies from a 'soft systems' perspective.

Analytically, it adds an important distinction between 'wicked' and 'tame' problems. According to the authors, 'tame' problems are those that arise from linear systems, have definable outcomes and can be conclusively 'solved'. Examples of tame problems include getting rid of a computer virus, or putting a man on the moon - you know what to do and know when you've done it (pp.40-41). 'Hard systems' thinking and approaches - those drawing on engineering, technology and mechanics - are suited to such problems.

'Wicked' problems are of a different order and kind altogether. They are non-linear, have no definitive 'solution', or 'right' answer, are dynamic and change over time and as a result of intervention. They cannot be defined clearly and "The problem-solving process ends when you run out of time, money, energy or some other resources - not when some perfect solution emerges" (p.42). The vast majority of the problems we face in the 21st century are 'wicked' problems which require 'soft' rather than 'hard' systems solutions and methodologies.

Now, a number of important conclusions follow from this (on the face of it) simple four-fold model - soft/hard systems thinking and wicked/tame problems. The first is that applying hard systems thinking to wicked problems will not only not work (and therefore be a waste of resources and time), but will in all likelihood only serve to exacerbate the existing problem and/or create new wicked problems. In short, applying a technocratic 'solution' to a 'wicked' or non-technocratic problem, or indeed approaching a complex, wicked problem using a 'problem-solving' (as opposed to a 'problem coping' approach or mentality) will fail.

In relation to the natural world, the authors rightly point out that, "Natural systems cannot be controlled with hard systems thinking" (p.57). Yet this is the dominant approach we find in (western) societies and its institutions in science, economics and politics. Examples of this vary from 'technocratic' approaches to 'crime' - such as the installation of CCTV cameras or issuing of identity cards, to increasingly medical and pharmaceutical approaches to health (including, worryingly, mental health). What is even more disconcerting is that the dominant paradigm prescribes that the solution to the problems caused by technocratic and 'hard systems' thinking is...more hard-systems thinking and technocratic approaches! Like the fabled lance of the Greek mythical hero Achilles, technology and hard-systems thinking are held to be able to 'heal' the wounds they themselves have caused.

The dominant 'worldview' or 'paradigm' for dealing with problems in modern societies seeks clear, definite 'solutions' rather than seeing a lot of the problems we face (especially ecological ones) as problems we cannot 'solve' or get rid of (due to their intrinsic complexity, interrelatedness and 'fuzzy' boundaries), but as ones for which we need to develop 'coping mechanisms'. That is, we need soft-systems methodologies to cope and learn to live with 'wicked' problems and minimise their negative impact on human interests and well-being.

This raises a second important point - 'hard' systems thinking is closely associated with an elite, top-down, 'expert' based form of thinking and acting, It is generally non-democratic, whereas a soft-systems approach is implicitly democratic, amenable to bottom-up and participatory involvement of all those with an interest in the problem, not just those who have 'expert' knowledge. Wicked problems do not typically require 'expert' knowledge, but rather require knowledge gained from experience, an ability to learn from and with others and to be open to new ideas. And since knowledge is power (especially in our increasingly knowledge-based society), if the knowledge, wisdom and experience we need to deal with wicked problems is not the preserve of an élite, expert minority (which is not the say we do not need such hard-systems experts), then it follows that 'people knowledge' (or vernacular learning and knowing) is what we most need to deal with the vast majority of the problems we face. Democratic systems rather than non-democratic ones are more likely to be successful in dealing with the problems we face. This is where 'Gaian democracies' come in. As the authors rightly suggest, "the global-scale issues now facing the whole of humanity are all 'wicked' problems, calling for governments to tackle them through soft-systems approaches" (p.52).

In relation to the democratic project the authors outline, one of the many interesting issues they discuss is the vital importance of 'liberatory leadership', as an oft-missing piece of democratic theory and practice. While they rightly seek to reconfigure democracy as a form of self-organisation (rather than control) (p.35), they are also to be commended for explicitly recognising the centrality of leadership to any viable alternative democratic political project to 'globalisation'. Too often, radical democratic thinkers and activists have shied away from the issue of leadership, wrongly associating it by definition with hierarchical, non-democratic or repressive/authoritarian principles or potentials. Yet, it is clear that effective democratic projects, whether one looks at it historically or in terms of the examples around the world today of successful democratic experiments, require effective leaders.

The authors cite some examples of liberatory leadership in the contemporary world, from the 'participatory budget' process in Porto Alegre in Brazil, under the leadership of the Workers Party (pp.21-22) to examples from the business world - Visa International (pp.17-18) and the Semco Corporation (pp.18-19). Liberatory leadership is characterised by aiming to release and utilise 'people power' based on forms of dialogue, participation and learning between leaders and led. Indeed, it struck me how a lot might be learnt from the various innovative, 'soft-systems' (and therefore 'democratic') thinking and acting going on in the business world - not the first place I, and many others, I suspect, would think of looking for inspiration!

These democratic models see decision-making as a form of collective and institutional learning based on self-reflexive/recursive modes of organisation. They are thus in keeping with the innovative democratic and social scientific thinking associated with Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck, with developments within 'deliberative democracy' and with work on the theory and practice of 'greening' democracy and active citizenship.

Don't run away with the idea that the book simply seeks to develop attractive but utopian models. The authors discuss in great detail the origins, dynamics, principles and institutions/actors of 'The Global Monetocracy' (Chapter 3) which they see as the main obstacle to the creation a global network of Gaian democracies. Taking a systems approach rather than a conspiracy one, they offer a forensic analysis of this purposeful, elite-dominated network which controls the current neo-liberal project of destructive globalisation. The book argues that the debt-based money system not only gives financial institutions (such as the World Bank, the IMF and private multinational banks and other financial corporations) great power, but also acts to drive the global economic system as a whole towards ever-destructive economic growth. As they put it, "In systems-thinking terms, the growth imperative imposed by the debt-money system is a positive feedback mechanism - a vicious spiral" (p.71).We need negative feedback mechanisms (democratic political ones rather than financial economic ones) to change this.

However, it is not simply the global debt-based money system (and the dominance of the US dollar in the global economy) that needs to be tackled. From a 'Gaian democratic' perspective, we also need to change the 'nation-state' system and the notion and practices based upon the foundational idea of 'national sovereignty'. The reasons for this are many, but principal among them is the claim that "The principle of national sovereignty is inherently conflictual and competitive...under the cloak of national sovereignty, the nation-state provides the executive and legislative support required for the monetisation and corporate ownership of the entire human and natural worlds" (p.79). The continued existence of nation-states and 'international non-society' ensure that there is no democracy at the global level - which suits the global monetocracy perfectly.

Central to the continued existence of the corporate-state rule is the manufacturing of consent together, I would suggest, with the deliberate lowering of expectations by governments, something that is best exemplified by the Blair administration in the United Kingdom. As the authors put it, "Opinion-moulding has become the prime skill of both partners in the big business-government coalition" (p. 96). Equally, the active manufacturing of consent can be measured not just by active affirmation of state rule (through such mechanisms as elections - in which less and less citizens participate), but also by passive acceptance, and silence as opposed to 'voice'. In the modern representative democratic world, sullen silence or even alienation from the political system is perversely counted as consent or even more perversely as happiness.

If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent 'primer for democratic thinking and acting' it is the issue of agency and strategy. Simply put, I would suggest that the authors need to write another book outlining how they think their ideas could be put into action to help fulfil the promise that 'another world is possible'. While they are of course extremely positive about the democratic resistance, energy and innovation that characterises the World Social Forum and what they call the civil society movement (CSM), as offering real hope in challenging the global monetocracy, they caution that "the evidence shows that the CSM is not, and will never be, capable of making another world possible" (p.102). However, they do not, in my view, really offer a convincing or sustained argument to back up this statement, due perhaps to the fact that the chapter dealing with this issue is the shortest in the book (pp.99-106).

For example, I found it odd that while the authors have rightly criticised the failures of representative democracy as a systemic part of the problem, they then proceed to criticise the civil society movement (anti-globalisation/global justice movement) for failing to participate in liberal/representative democracy. They criticise the movement on the grounds that, "There is no discussion of even the possibility of founding powerful new political parties, fighting elections, winning office and forming governments with a mandate for fundamental economic and social change " (p.106). This would be to work within the existing political system, a reformist approach that they have elsewhere dismissed as inadequate to the task. Yet perhaps the authors are working with a too-narrow concept of the 'political' here, and fail to see the synergies possible between direct action politics outside the existing liberal democratic framework, and innovative, challenging methods of working with, in and through the institutions and practices of liberal democracy. Politics, especially democratic politics, as the authors will only be too aware, cannot be associated simply with elections, political parties and parliaments.

Another criticism I had was in relation to the connection between the democratic project they so eloquently articulate and the question of global/social justice. Perhaps this was more a failure of communication rather than principle (or perhaps in my own reading), but I did feel that a more nuanced approach was perhaps needed in relation to the issue of distributive injustice. For example, the authors state that, "If 'everyone' is responsible for the problems generated by the system, then 'everyone' is also responsible, somehow, for helping to find ways of tackling them - a profoundly democratic implication" (p.38). However, this of course fails to note the 'injustice' at the heart of the global economic system - namely that it is clearly not the responsibility of 'everyone' for either the maintaining of the system itself or the social, economy and environmental problems caused by the system. The issue here is that of power, and the realisation that responsibility is in proportion to power. This means that the powerful, those with the money, political influence and cultural power bear the most responsibility, in terms of being the 'cause' of the problem. So while it may be that we all have our part to play in finding democratic solutions to 'non-democratic' problems, this is not the same as saying everyone is responsible for the problems of the system they are part of.

However, such quibbles should not deflect in any way from this excellent and important book. Indeed, since it is written in a spirit of dialogue and communication my comments should be read in a similar spirit, as someone who was both informed and more importantly inspired to continue the task of learning new ways of thinking and acting to cope with the global and local problems we face in the crucial decades ahead.

Continue to David Youell's review of Free To Be Human, by David Edwards

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
Green Books banner 1

Search Sitemap feasta website FEASTA REVIEW volume 2