Participatory Citizenship

The COVID crisis is a layer on top of a turn towards authoritarianism coming out of the 2008 economic crisis. At the same time, new opportunities for national and global solidarity are emerging. What might those solidarities look like?
In my profession a lot of people ask me where I am coming from. If I have time I explain them that I come originally from that place we call Spain, but that I don’t feel Spanish, I just feel a citizen of the world, a person, a human being… that I don’t see nationalities, I see people, and that the people that are trying to do “good” in this world they are my brothers, no matter where they are coming from. We are just a humanity, and any other category is limiting for starting to think about commonwealth and peace.  Ying yang, the unity.
Photographer: Aarón Blanco Tejedor | Source: Unsplash

A World in Crisis

The COVID19 crisis is already causing massive changes in our economy and society. For example, Gazal Kalra, Co-Founder of trucking-logistics unicorn Rivigo, states that because of the lockdown, 70-80 % of truck drivers are not on the job now. Given that trucking employs about 8 million drivers and 12 million helpers, we are talking about tens of millions of people being away from their jobs.

We have the opportunity to reshape a linchpin of the fossil fuel capture of the economy – can we think of a just carbon-free transportation system?

Similarly, migrant labourers now have a systemic incentive to stay home and not go back to cities, which will have huge implications for construction and other urban industries and for the harvest in states that attract migrants. At the other end of the spectrum, we don’t know how the geopolitics of this crisis is going to play out, e.g., what’s going to happen to the rest of the world’s relationship with China remaining a big unknown.

The COVID crisis is a layer on top of a turn towards authoritarianism coming out of the 2008 economic crisis. Liberal democracies have struggled to find an appropriate response to the authoritarian turn and this second shock could easily make it worse. At the same time, new opportunities for national and global solidarity are emerging. What might those solidarities look like?

The Absence of Direct Democracy

While there companies and cooperatives run by consensus, every political entity larger than a town is ruled via representative democracy. That’s when there’s representation – many cities are ruled by technocrats and of course many nations don’t have representative democracy.

Representative democracy is better than monarchy, but it leaves much to be desired. It’s biggest problem is elite capture: only the rich have a reliable shot at getting elected and only the richer have a reliable shot at dictating what their representatives do after getting elected. Sandwiched between the rich and the richer are technocrats and other experts who offer ‘objective’ advice on how to run the machine.

Direct democracy says: why hand over power to representatives? Why not run the machine yourselves? Why do you need a centralized state (with layer and layers of centralization, from village councils to national cabinets) when citizens can self-organize and become public problem solvers?

The counter-argument is that people have neither the skills nor the attention span to address their own problems.

But that’s because voting every few years is the only genuinely public act we perform as citizens, which leads to a thin experience of citizenship. A thicker form of citizenship would us posing and solving public problems on an ongoing basis, giving us the experience and the solidarity to be skillful citizens.

Pottery wheel
Photographer: Quino Al | Source: Unsplash

Participatory Citizenship

In the usual definition, “citizen” is a noun, a person with attributes recognized by a constitution and protected by the state. Dictionary.com defines the term as:

a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien).

At least in theory.

In practice citizens aren’t treated uniformly; they are a hierarchically organized field with some making decisions and others subjects of those decisions. That hierarchy of power is in full display during the COVID19 crisis – even if you set aside the obvious fault lines of race, religion, caste and gender, citizenship is being marked with extreme inequality.

Those who are making policies, say, about the extent of the lockdown, the distribution of services during the lockdown and the long recovery that will follow all suffer from moral hazard: they are removed from those bearing the brunt of those decisions. Even when services are provided, they are rendered in a paternalistic mode.

It’s no surprise that migrant labourers (for example) are demanding they not be seen as recipients of charity but as full human beings. As we think of alternatives that treat citizens with dignity, we should consider citizenship as being demonstrated in practice, as a verb rather than as a noun. In this changed conception, citizenship is what’s mutually reinforced by what I do with other citizens, whether that’s a cash transfer to fellow citizens in need or having citizen representatives sitting in judgment on expert decisions.

Citizenship in this view is enacted in dialogical action

I have been working with a few friends and colleagues towards creating a platform for participatory citizenship that spans the gamut from proving relief to those who need it – but doing so in a spirit of solidarity rather than charity – to hosting public hearings (Jan Sunwai in Hindi) on the policies enacted during the lockdown and beyond. The platform is in the very earliest stages, but we are making rapid progress and will likely have something to share in the next few weeks.

Creating a Platform

These are easy problems to understand:

  • X needs money to tide over the crisis and Y has the money to give. Can we make that transfer painless and seamless?
  • X is a migrant laborer and Y is a public health expert. Y should be able to justify the restrictions on X’s mobility.

It’s deceptively simple. For example, we don’t want the money to be given in charity, but as a gesture of solidarity and long term support. Similarly, we don’t want the expert talking down to their audience. They are the ones on trial, not the migrant laborer. Even more importantly, these initial projects should lead to a longer term capacity for public problem solving. We want to create a platform in which each experiment and project builds upon others and creates value for others.

Citizens should come together and create a platform for the long-term, a platform for participatory citizenship and public problem solving designed to cultivate resilience, dignity and agility in responding to our mutual needs. We already have one project under way: a citizen to citizen cash transfer that provides medium to long term support for distressed families. We want to make sure that

  1. The dignity of the beneficiaries is maintained in the process of extending support. Support can move from cash to other forms as time goes by.
  2. The long term goal should be to create a ‘community of dignity,’ of mutual recognition rather than charity.

Another idea that’s in the very early stages is to host a “Jan Sunwai,” a space in which experts present their COVID and post-COVID policies to an audience of representatives of various people’s groups. Our goal would be to work with a media outlet to broadcast this hearing to the nation.

These are initial thoughts – the underlying idea is that while we have been talking about the need for a deep transformation of Indian (and global) society in response to climate change and other systemic challenges, we are already in the midst of an unforeseen and massive shift. This shift has both moral and material implications that are being revealed every day. Working together, we have the opportunity to create a just framework that navigates an uncertain future.

How can we create a participatory framework for responding to these wicked problems?

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