In one of the most famous speeches in modern history, Abraham Lincoln alluded to democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." It's a wonderful ideal articulated by a man worth admiring, but let's look at the statement more carefully, shall we? I find it interesting about Lincoln's phrasing that:
- government comes first, but
- it's qualified by the type of government it should be: of/by/for the people.
Leaving open the possibility that government that's not by the people is still a legitimate government, i.e., it's possible to cancel the people but not the government. What if we inverted the relationship between the people and the government so that instead of people being a modifier of the government (government by the people rather than government by the king), it's the government that's one of many possible modifiers of the people. Sometimes people come together to elect a government but on other occasions they will come together to create a public park in their neighborhood or deliver emergency supplies to migrant laborers.
The primary political relationship is between people and people, not people and the state.
There's an obvious danger to this formulation: that authoritarianism takes charge in order to fulfill the "will of the people" and sidesteps all institutional checks and balances, including those of the state. Every tinpot fascist in the world claims to have a direct relationship with the people and who needs democracy when you have a direct bond? This danger is real: authoritarians are in power over the majority of the world's population today and they have come to power by using the very peer to peer tools (social media & messaging) that people use to self-organize.
Our self-organization can be gamed and the only way to avoid that fate is to invest in our own learning as citizens.
The Skillful Citizen
Buddhism has this idea of skillful means (upaya in Skt), where an agent adopts a way of acting and responding suitable to the context – and training in the Buddhist path cultivates – or at least claims to do so – that capacity to respond skillfully.
Let's get back to our 'people,' replacing the transcendental concerns of Buddhism with the secular concerns of collective existence. We have many occasions to exercise skillful citizenship; voting is only one of them. Question: how can we be skillful in the way we approach public problems and what tools and principles might help us be so?
Who is a skillful citizen and what goes into cultivating skillful citizenship?
I see public problem solving as both a) the training for and b) the outcome of skillful citizenship. Citizens should be able to self-organize themselves to solve problems at every scale: from a hyper local need to a national emergency.
The COVID19 crisis is throwing up many new opportunities from the skillful use of media to organizing food drops on the fly. A little thought shows that civil society needs to organize itself along (at least) four different lines:
- Delivery Systems. Millions of our fellow citizens are in need of the basic necessities of existence: food, clothing, medicine, shelter. How should citizens come together to address these existential needs reliably. And at scale? Caveat: isn't this the state's responsibility? Yes, but we should at least be prepared to substitute the state where its weak and assist it where it's not.
- Planning Systems. Even after the disease subsides, we don't know how or if the virus will come back later this year or on another occasion. We don't know how the economy is going to react to the ending of the lockdown. We don't know how the food system is going to cope with the loss of demand. We need systems backed by good data that help us plan for emerging scenarios.
- Care Systems. Many people have fallen sick. Many more are gripped by anxiety and fear. Frontline workers are overwhelmed. Further, social distancing and the lockdown have a negative impact on trust and it's hard to run a society without trust. How can we create systems that care for our citizens during and after the lockdown?
- Speculative systems. The fate of daily wage earners and migrants during the lockdown, the (sometimes) brutish response by the state to enforce it and the deliberate attempt to communalise the crisis show that the pandemic might well accentuate existing injustices. When the crisis ends and the economy has to be restarted, everyone from big business to migrant labourers will demand a piece of the stimulus. On the plus side, the lack of industrial and transportation activity has cleaned our air and our rivers as nothing else has. In short, the COVID19 crisis is an opportunity to highlight alternate models of living and a better world for everyone. We need new imaginations of our collective future.
These four core capacities are illustrated in the COVID Kolam below:
Much of this kolam is common to all systemic problems. As nations (and as a planet) we are entering a period of deep uncertainty both because of internal challenges and changes in the rest of the world, including the non-human environment. Apart from the various questions about the aftermath of the COVID19 crisis, we also have:
- How will climate change impact our nation?
- Will communalism tear the nation apart?
- Will we have enough water to drink and grow food?
And so on.
A successful response to these challenges will need (and lead to) a deep transformation of our societies. The question is who is going to lead the transformation – the state or citizens. In my view, the state doesn't have the independent capacity to lead us to this promised land. At the same time, scale can't be achieved without active engagement with the state. Therefore, we are far more likely to create a flourishing society if skillful citizens have a platform that helps them self-organize in response to emerging challenges and they engage the state as the platform grows.
The COVID19 crisis offers an opportunity to imagine, design and demand systemic transformation; what was a matter of speculation has now become the lived reality of most people. Conversely, the legitimacy of any effort to offer a 'new system' depends on whether we can offer a systemic response to this crisis.