Globally, democracy is under attack and in retreat. Economic crisis, global pandemic, climate disaster raise questions about the efficacy of democracy and democratic values as guide for political and economic life.
There are increasing global disparities of wealth between rich and poor in democratic and nominally democratic states and a growing lack of social mobility. The catastrophic effects of the global covid pandemic on health, economy, and social solidarity are another global fact of life. The worsening effects of climate change driven floods, drought, crop failure raise questions about value of democracy.
Recently, I was asked by a friend in China what is my concept of an ideal democracy? She had read my March 1, 2021 article The Future of American Democracy in the Wall Street International Magazine.
That question led to three more:
- first, is there a path for democracy in the 21st century that can deal with the economic, social and ecological challenges we face globally?
- second, can democracy thrive globally without political parties, the dreaded factions that endanger democracy governance as discussed by Madison in the Federalist Papers, and instead have the demos once again rule in much more direct and less mediated fashion?
- third, how can democracy transcend 18th and early 19th century political economy and successfully guide ecological and just global markets in the 21st century and beyond?
The January 6 Capitol insurrection attempting to keep Donald Trump in power was a once unthinkable outrage become for many Republicans an expression of patriotic duty.
India, the world’s largest democracy under Narendra Modi has increasingly embraced Hiduvata, an uncompromising expression of Hindu cultural nationalism, a singular Indic absolutism challenging India’s stability as an ethnically and religiously diverse democracy.
Putin’s Russia has become a model for kleptocracy with demonstration elections with severe and sometimes fatal government interference. Right-wing nationalist and populist parties are on the rise in Europe, generally animated by anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia.
These parties are often significant political players. European populist ruling parties now include Victor Orban’s Fidesz-Christin Democratic People’s Party in Hungry, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the Swiss People’s Party. This does not mean populist government leads automatically to an end of democracy, for example, the 2020 defeat of Vmro-Dpmne populists in North Macedonia by the Social Democratic SDSM.
And, of course, the recent bloody military coup in Myanmar follows the familiar model of sudden assertion of self-interested military rule to dispense with democracy.
First, as Darwin pointed out, social cooperation is an evolutionarily selected survival trait. Richerson and Boyd hypothesize that increasing global temperature swings during the mid-Pleistocene, a million years ago, drove and selected the ability of early hominins to learn from one another. This was humanity’s path toward global species dominance as stone artifacts began appearing 700,000 years ago. “Cultural adaptation is much more rapid than genetic adaptation,” they note.
In terms of game theory, democracy encourages the pursuit of maximum collective benefit through intelligent compromise. The deeper the democracy, the greater cooperation and expression of the altruism that Kropotkin found to be superior to social Darwinism’s doctrine of war of all against all.
Second, mature democracies have a long record of never going to war against one another and resolving sometimes difficult political and economic disputes by negotiation and compromise. A democratic world will be a peaceful world, able like Costa Rica to dispense with armies and rely on national police and international peacekeeping. The economic and social benefits are enormous. Money spent on weapons can become money invested in education, public health, stopping climate change.
Third, democracy gives us the opportunity to pursue self-management, based on one person one vote, as opposed to one dollar one vote. Democracy can balance and mediate the ongoing needs for both freedom and community, expressed as a balance between rights and responsibilities. Without community, freedom becomes destructive license. Without freedom, community becomes dictatorship. Democracy is the ongoing method of equilibration. Democracy, by its nature, is participatory and acts as an exercise in self-management and responsibility, a balance or rights and responsibilities. At its core democracy represents the self-conscious participation of humanity in the fundamental co-evolutionary process of sustainability manifest in a healing response to ecological excess.
Fourth, democracy gives us the ability to address directly local issues, and in larger groups adopt representational forums. This permits and empowers the principle of subsidiarity giving the most power to those most directly affected within the context of overarching principles. For example, a national mandate may be to plant a billion trees. How this is done is left largely to the local democratic decision-makers. Democracy can open the door to creativity and social entrepreneurship and ecological economic growth.
A 21st century model for shaping global democracy
We face common and unavoidable global challenges. These are toxic brew driven by worsening climate change that will lead not just to natural disasters but to crop failure, epidemics, mass migration of the desperate, failed states, and resources wars. This is combined with deepening inequality as the rich get ever richer. This is a central feature of 21st century capitalism where labor is systematically devalued in the world of high technology production and trading in information.
Traditional social democratic measures may work well in Scandinavia, but even there they are challenged by the underlying global social, economic, and ecological imperative giving rise to anti-democratic and anti-immigrant populism. The challenge is to find ways to share the social product fairly and justly among all in a political economy with a multitude increasingly of casual and insecure workers ruled by a handful of billionaire owners. This is a global challenge not simply for wealthy social democracies. The challenge to Democracy is global and must entail global convergence on sustainable ecological and just norms for all.
The world cannot meet the primary ecological challenge in a world half sustainable and half polluted and impoverished. For us to survive and prosper, an ecological civilization must be global and rooted in social and ecological justice for all. The rich cannot succeed in creating a sustainable future in the midst of global misery. As Lincoln wrote: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."
A step-by-step transition to revitalizing democracy globally is not a one size fits all menu. It is meant to apply variously to older and emerging democracies as well as to states like China that scorns the liberal democratic multiparty model. China’s official policy is to build an ecological civilization. Can democracy play an important and necessary role in the pursuit of the China Dream under the leadership of the Communist Party?
Globally, democracy in the 21st century needs to stand upon a firm foundation addressing a number of fundamental problems and challenges as the basis for any durable democratic constitutional order.
First, is the principle that all economic activity, for-profit and non-for-profit, must result in ecological improvement in the living world, the restoration of natural capital, not ecological damage. And such activity must be conducted within the context of the pursuit of ecological and social justice.
This is the essential principle or constitutional mandate for a 21st century democracy. Global civilization can not survive if we continue to damage and destroy the living world, pump ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and oceans, destroy habit, drain aquifers, impoverish and poison soil, water, atmosphere. This is scientific reality as well as a philosophical and spiritual imperative. This is applicable to both market and planned social systems.
Implementation is not through a master post office manual book of rules. Rather, there needs to be in all market systems a legal redefinition of fiduciary responsibility. This will bind all fiduciaries to pursue making economic growth mean ecological improvement within the context of ecological and social justice. A paradigmatic example is replacing globally fossil fuels and nukes with renewable energy resources and to do so guided by the support of fairness and justice. This means measures to meaningfully make all energy users energy owners while retraining the fossil fuel and nuke workers for the renewable energy economy.
A corollary to the sustainable fiduciary rule is adopting new market rules, regulation and law that makes the markets send clear price signals for sustainability. This makes sustainable goods and services cheaper, gain market share, and become more profitable. Clear economic signals drive investment, production and consumption. A global market system can be a vital part of ecological democracy.
Available tools to make the price system work ecologically are, for example, taxes on all energy resources at production with higher taxes on polluting forms, and low to no taxes on renewable energy. A broader tool is an ecological VAT phased in and imposing higher taxes on unsustainable goods and services. The long-term outcome of such a practice will be a likely convergence on sustainable goods with a flat tax rate since overtime higher taxes on the unsustainable would allow investors, consumers and producers to choose the sustainable path.
A further and a crucial corollary is something new--to value in the market ecological improvement as the new gold, the real basis for all wealth. An example is the concept of Sustainability Credits (SCs) based on the value of displacing one metric ton of Carbon dioxide by renewable generation. This has been valued at $100 per metric ton by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
SCs will be monetized on the books of banks from investment banks to credit unions, to community development financial authorities (CDFIs) as paid in capital and as cash. Financial institutions must use this money as loans to help finance more renewable energy. And since banks can loan ten dollars for every dollar on their books, $1 million dollars in SCs can become $10 million in more renewable energy loans.
Globally there are currently about 33 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon dioxide emissions. This potential of $330 billion means $3.3 trillion a year in SCs to become $33 trillion a year in productive loans.
The reality of SCs program can mean that the $50 trillion investment for global renewable transformation and beyond can be substantially financed through SC investment based on yearly SC creation. This is real wealth, the funds managed as part of the currency by the Federal Reserve and other central banks using normal tools to control the money supply to control inflation.
The ecological wealth produced by SCs increases exponentially as SC funds are invested in building more carbon dioxide displacing renewables. And SCs of course can be applied to efficiency and natural carbon sequestration through soil and biomass on land and sea. An ecological civilization can be built and financed through the creation of trillions of real ecological wealth and health.
Valuing and monetizing ecology on books of banks and corporations where trillions of dollars in investment means economic growth becomes the instrument for both profit and ecological improvement and social justice. Productive investment in rebuilding an ecological economy in all its aspects is non-inflationary and job-creating, a central tool for stability and wealth of a global 21st century democratic order. This is the basis for transformative and global democratic action.
Subsidiarity, democracy and justice
Subsidiarity is a basic feature for vital democracy in the 21st century. Subsidiarity means that those closest and with most at stake from decisions have important input within the context of broad democratic, ecological, fair and just principles.
This means, for example, that a mandate for community plans reducing carbon emissions to a sustainable 3 tons per person per year (current U.S. emissions are around 16 tons per person) developed by local decisions in the context of available resources with local, state, national, and international support. This is a participatory and democratic community model based on ecological goals.
Strong democracy in the 21st century must pursue broad local participation and ownership in a wide range of community institutions building a significant economic sector based on cooperatives, associations, mutual ownership. This means not just business, but schools, housing, banks, farms.
Local groups can partner on a community and regional level for mutual cooperation and support. The Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Region of Spain is the leading example for the success of entrepreneurial high technology industrial cooperatives, with their own cooperative bank, the Caja Laboral Popular, and cooperative housing, research and education from pre-school to university.
Mondragon has a long history of surviving periodic downturns and limiting job loss, and avoiding investment in speculative and self-destructive financial instruments.
Associative democracy means building strong, vital, and adaptive communities rooted in direct democracy, fairness and justice.
Adapting ecological democracy to different systems
The self-governing associative institutions and local governments can function on the basis of one person one vote without the growth of political parties. Disputes on a local level can be resolved by discussion, mediation, and finally, binding arbitration with recourse to courts only to enforce binding arbitration in the context of ecological and justice imperative.
For democracies with political parties national and state or provincial elections can proceed as normal. For nations like China without political parties, the Communist Party can continue to operate within the central ecological and justice precepts with democratic participation from below with representatives for the National Peoples Congress (NPC) chosen by democratic vote from below who would then choose members of the Politburo.
Democracy in the 21st century must succeed in the pursuit of sustainability and ecological democracy. Success means a global system based on peace, justice and fairness. This clearly is a hybrid system of 21st century global democracy based on markets embracing ecological limits through new market rules, regulation and law functioning to make economic growth mean improvement in the context of social and ecological justice.
Such a democracy be called a radical reform in the terms of Andre Gorz. But it is also consistent with the entrepreneurial ideas of Josef Schumpeter for creative destruction, employed for ecological and social ends mediated by social and ecological justice.
Failure to build a democratic ecological future is likely to be catastrophic not just for democracy but to our civilization and the ecosphere.
We live in interesting times. Crucial is taking aggressive steps toward building an ecological democracy that will shape the nature of a just and sustainable future.
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, (August 1, 1858?), p. 532.
Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, 2009. Culture and the evolution of human cooperation, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci.2009 Nov 12; 364(1533): 3281–3288.
G. Philip Rightmire, 2009. “Middle and later Pleistocene hominins in Africa and Southwest Asia.” PNAS, September 22, 2009 106 (38) 16046-16050.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871, p. 155.
Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,1902.
Roy Morrison, Climate change and inequality A new market solution. Wall Street International Magazine. Nov. 1, 2020.