Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy"

Neera Singh

I would like to begin by thanking Ashish Kothari for this essay and for laying out what he aptly puts as "the concept and practice" of radical ecological democracy. These ideas provide important inputs to conversations about the "great work" of our times, which comprises of rethinking and reworking human ways of relating to nature and to each other. The framework of radical ecological democracy envisages democratic interactions at the core of all public and private interactions that constitute the realms of governance (political, economic, and socio-cultural). This form of democracy is participatory, deliberative, and communicative, and it acknowledges and honors non-human actors as part of the "human" assembly. It is important to clarify this vision of democracy in the essay and how it differs from liberal democracy, and from the aggregative or interest-based model of democracy.

My suggestions and comments mainly pertain to strengthening, clarifying, and uplifting this vision of democracy in radical ecological democracy. These comments can be seen as an invitation to make explicit what are currently implicit assumptions in this framework to enhance its robustness and contribute to its wider appeal.

The difference between the ideals of democracy that radical ecological democracy holds and forms of governance that exist is not only about the levels or the scale at which decisions are taken (although that is important), but about the process through which decisions are taken. Emphasizing this difference and a clearer articulation of the vision of democracy, democratic principles, and governance will make the ideas of radical ecological democracy more robust. It will help resolve the tension in the essay between the ideas of direct democracy and participatory democracy at local levels and their interface with representative democracy at other scales. It is important to highlight that principles and practices of democratic inclusion need to suffuse and inform governance at all scales.

In contrast to the decision-making process in the aggregative or interest-based model of democracy, participants in deliberative democracy arrive at a decision not based on what preferences have greatest numerical support, but by determining which proposals the collective agrees are supported by the best reasons. In this form of decision-making, participants not only express and register preferences, but are able to transform their preferences and the beliefs that inform these preferences through deliberation. According to the theorists of strong democracy, it is this process of transformation of preferences and beliefs that helps in transforming citizens from self-interest-driven to other-regarding actors. Acknowledging the importance of this process of transformation and formation of new values—and then fostering it—is key to the societal transition that we wish to see. It is hence pivotal to articulate the principles of democracy and democratic processes that RED envisages.

In the absence of attention to these principles, even direct democracy or community-level decision-making can become exclusionary and undemocratic. While issues of exclusion are addressed under the realm of the socio-cultural "pillar," these democratic principles have to suffuse all realms of public and private interactions—as ideals and visions of democratization of all aspects of life.

It is also important to recognize that in most functioning democracies, a combination of interest-based aggregative democracy and deliberative democratic decision-making mechanisms exist. Instead of thinking of representation and participation as either/or, it is important to think of them as complementary and focus on expanding spaces for deliberation and communicative democracy within representative democracy.

In this context, emphasis within communicative democracy on other means of communication—beyond the limitations of rationalist argument-based deliberations (dispassionate, orderly, or articulate) to incorporate various other means of communication through which different marginalized sections, including women, might choose to make their voices heard (more embodied, rhetorical, and emotion-laden)—is important, as Iris Young's ideas around communicative democracy teach us. This links to Ashish Kothari’s emphasis on how we need to draw upon our ethical and affective resources to drive the transition to radical ecological democracy. It is absolutely important to destabilize and unsettle the hierarchy of rationalist arguments and forms of argumentation as being more legitimate and valuable than the emotional rhetoric used by marginalized people (who are marginalized on this count as well).

Focus on the principles of deepening democracy, such as democratic inclusion and political equality, with emphasis not just on all people being involved, but on the ones most affected by a decision (especially those who happen to be the most marginalized and vulnerable) being included on equal terms in an environment free of domination, is important. As we know, not all voices are equally heard, so creating environments that enable reasonable and respectful process of discussion and formation of publics respectful of difference and plurality of voices and experiences becomes critical. These principles need to be made explicit and need to guide all interactions and governance.

Along such lines, the essay would benefit from articulating a clearer definition of governance. I really like the powerful quote from both Indian and Venezuelan communities, who assert that, "we don’t want to be a government, we want to govern." This provides a great opening to develop a working definition of governance and what local visions of governance might mean and how these visions contrast with the practices of what counts as governance–and how this vision contrasts also with life being divided into separate realms of political, economic, socio-cultural.

My second main comment relates to the vision of "ecology" in radical ecological democracy. Instead of dealing with ecology as a separate sphere (even if done as an analytical tool), it is important to emphasize what thinking ecologically and in relational terms means. From a relational ontological perspective (i.e., privileging becoming over being and relations over entities), to "ecologize," as Bruno Latour argues in his book The Politics of Nature, would imply going beyond speaking on behalf of non-human actors, treating them as political constituency, or bestowing them with political entitlements and instead treating non-human actors as an intimate part of we wrongly call as the "human" assembly. Given the inseparability and the entanglements of the humans and non-humans, as per this theoretical orientation and as per worldviews and practices in many cultures, this would imply a more fundamental shift in how sustainability is viewed, and how it is inseparable from human well-being.

I would also like to suggest a clearer articulation of principles for economic democratization and the rethinking of economic interactions. Here, too, instead of a focus on scale alone—local vs. global—greater attention to the principles and logics that drive economic interactions becomes key. In the absence of a clearer, crisper understanding of and attention to these principles, community-based enterprises can come to embody the same principles of profit-maximization and alienation of labor as capitalist enterprises. Attention to meeting local needs, share and care, and abundance instead of scarcity are some of the principles that can be highlighted as important. I think better theorizing and focus on distilling principles, based on theory and as well as practices of alternate ways of being and (of becoming), will make the framework more robust.

Finally, to make a minor point, can we pay attention to the processes of democratization and democratic practice as a verb rather than as an arrangement, a fully-formed entity, a noun? In other words, focus on sites of engagement, opportunities to practice democracy, and the supporting institutions and arrangements as work in process that requires untiring labor and human creativity to bring to life, nurture, and sustain. Similarly, new ways of thinking—ecologically, non-linearly—also require new vocabulary, away from machine-based metaphors such as fulcrums and pillars.

Neera Singh
Neera Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto, and founder of Vasundhara, a non-profit organization based in Bhubaneswar, India.

Cite as Neera Singh, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Radical Ecological Democracy," Great Transition Initiative (July 2014)

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