May 25, 2017

Participating in democracy

Preface to The urban village: a charter for democracy and sustainable development in the city, by Alberto Magnaghi.

Published by Zed Books, September 2005.


The thesis of this important little book is a very radical one. Alberto Magnaghi, a highly respected town planner, is in effect calling for the reversal of present trends towards a totally globalized economy in which huge multinationals replace small family enterprises, in which rural people leave their villages and move to ever more monstrous cities, in which direct participatory democracy is systematically replaced by distant bureaucracies.

Unfortunately these trends have never proceeded faster. World population is expected to expand from the present six billion to something like 8 billion in the next 25 years, 90 percent of that increase occurring in the urban areas of the Third World. At that rate within the next few years at least twenty-three cities are expected to have more than 10 million inhabitants and several, including Mumbai, Lagos, Sao Paolo and Karachi, may be on the way to catching up with Tokyo with its 26 million inhabitants.

According to Herbert Girardet [1] within the next two decades over twelve million migrants from rural areas are likely to move to urban centres every year, which would require the building of another 400 new cities with populations averaging six hundred thousand people. Such migrants would mainly be small farmers, of which there are still four to five hundred million in India and nine hundred million in China, few of whom can afford to produce food cheap enough to compete with the highly subsidized mass-produced foods from Europe and America.

We must realize that already at least 50 percent of India’s urban population lives in such slums. Mumbai, with its population of 14 million people, as Manjeet Kripalani notes [2], has already become “an overwhelming conglomeration of dismal slums, congested roads, crowded public transportation, overtaxed businesses, and decaying residential and commercial buildings.”

It is important to realize that on current trends this can only get worse, for there is no way in which the Indian government can ever be able to afford the infrastructure required to accommodate its mass of new residents in anything like liveable conditions. Where, for instance, will the money come from to build the sewage and waste disposal systems in order to avert serious outbreaks of communicable disease? How can it provide work for the masses of immigrants from rural areas, most of whom totally lack the skills required in a modern urban economy? How can the natural world, which is already being degraded at an unprecedented rate, absorb the increased impact, especially as these same trends are now occurring throughout the world?

One must realize too that from the ecological point of view a modern conurbation is but a huge tumour which absorbs vast quantities of resources from the surrounding countryside, turning out in their stead vast quantities of increasingly more toxic waste products. As Abel Wolman points out

“A city is like some vast beast with a very specific metabolism. Every day it must take in some nine thousand tons of fossil fuels, two thousand tons of food, six and twenty-five thousand tons of water, thirty-one thousand five hundred tons of oxygen, plus unknown quantities of various minerals. It must also emit in the same period something like twenty-eight thousand five hundred tons of CO2, twelve thousand tons of H2O, one hundred and fifty tons of particles, five hundred thousand tons of sewage, together with vast quantities of refuse, sulphur, and nitrogen oxides, and various other heterogeneous materials.” [3]

Cities also seriously contribute to global warming. Satellite studies have shown that mega-cities create large zones of heat that encourage smog and give rise to thunderstorms. Worse still, according to a report from John Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA, they produce about 80 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions that are largely responsible for global warming, and in addition take up more and more of the land, that, as population increases, is urgently required for producing food.

Indeed, Lester Brown [4] points out that the three countries that have most ‘developed’ and hence urbanized the fastest in South-East Asia, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, have lost between 45 and 55 percent of their cereal-growing land, another trend that has clearly got to be reversed, as Alberto Magnaghi makes clear. His thesis is that society together with its economy must be decentralised. Ideally he sees a society made up of a network of villages, each with its own local traditions – co-operating as much as possible with each other.

These villages would form cohesive communities, which means above all that their members would be bound to each other by a set of reciprocal obligations, as was always the case in traditional societies. They cannot be made up of people who only seek their personal interests, as is the case in the atomised society in which most of us live in today. Magnaghi also sees democracy as participatory democracy.

Participatory government is only possible at the level of the community in which everybody can have a say, and in which decisions are taken by those who will be directly affected by them. Participatory democracy is a far cry from representative democracy as we know it today. According to Greider [5] business lobbies today view voters as little more than “a passive assembly of consumers – a mass audience of potential buyers”. The most sophisticated and expensive market research companies are employed to manipulate the voters in the most outrageous manner in order to satisfy the interests of multinational corporations.”

Under such conditions, democracy is a mere charade, people constantly vote against their own interests without knowing it. Persuading the American public for instance to accept the NAFTA Treaty, and GATT Uruguay Rounds, as David Korten [6] notes “was achieved through a massive marketing campaign, using the most sophisticated techniques yet developed by the masters of mass marketing and media manipulation”. What they have achieved is to persuade the public that free trade is “synonymous with democracy and political freedom”. which could not be further from the truth.

J. P. Narayan, [7] Mahatma Gandhi’s political heir, always stated that a responsible society is necessarily a participatory democracy. Tocqueville also noted that in a participatory municipal democracy “each person’s co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interest; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambitions and of his future exertions”. [8] Jefferson also insisted that face to face participation in municipal government and civic education enables citizens to overcome their self-centred interests and assure the public interest.

The localised participatory democracy, Magnaghi notes, must also be as self-sufficient as possible. Village self-sufficiency was also of key importance to Mahatma Gandhi. The emblem of the Gandhian philosophy, in particular, its economic philosophy, was the charka, or spinning wheel. Gandhi never tired of describing how the Indian villages before the British Raj – and there were some 500,000 of them – were very prosperous – indeed, little beehives of activity – a prosperity that was not only based on agriculture, but also on the artisanal production of hand-made textiles. This in each village there were spinners, carders, weavers, and dyers, producing beautiful high-quality cloths. Under the British Raj, huge taxes were imposed on Indian hand-made textiles in order to create a market for the mass-produced cloth from the textile mills of Lancashire.

For Gandhi it was this tax above all that led to the terrible impoverishment of the average Indian village. His concept of self-sufficiency was embodied in the principle of Swadeshi, in terms of which villagers should acquire whatever goods and services they required from their own village. For Roy Dassmann, of the University of Santa Cruz in California – a great environmentalist – the ideal was “ecosystem man” – that is to say a man who lives off his own ecosystem as opposed to “biosphere man” who acquires the goods he needs from distant places – i.e. from the biosphere as a whole.

Magnaghi says much the same thing. For him local trade gives rise to a local economy – it increases the diversity of different products available in the network of rural and urban communities. The supermarket and even more so the hypermarket, destroys this network together with the local economy, creates unemployment by killing off small local enterprises, and replaces them with bigger enterprises committed to the mass-production of lower quality goods.

For the local economy to flourish it must above all derive its sustenance from the land that it occupies, which Magnaghi sees as part of the community itself. This is also the view of that very remarkable man Wendell Berry – a farmer, philosopher and poet:

“If we speak of a healthy community we cannot be speaking of a community that is only human. We are talking about a neighbourhood of humans plus the place itself: its soil, its water, its air and all the families and tribes of the non-human creatures that belong to it . . . if this community is healthy, it is likely to be sustainable, largely self-sufficient and free of tyranny. This means that it is they and not the central government that must control the land, the forests, the rivers and the seas, from which specific communities derive their sustenance”. [9]

How can one argue with him? Indeed it cannot be left to a distant central government to decide whether huge factory ships equipped with the latest gadgetry annihilate fish populations on which fishing communities have traditionally depended, and which they managed prudently and sustainably for centuries. This can only lead, as it is doing throughout the Third World, to poverty and misery and further migration to the slums of the mushrooming urban centres.

In general the essence of Magnaghi’s message is very much that of John Cavanagh, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Washington DC and the new Director of the International Forum on Globalization in San Francisco.

“The key to genuine democracy in this decade will be the struggle by communities and citizen organizations to control their own destinies, to take control of their own lands and natural resources, to collectively make their decisions that will affect their futures. The free trade agreements that are currently on the table appropriate these decisions and toss them to the private sector.”

It may be worth noting that many of these conditions prevailed until very recently in Switzerland. In that country political power resided with the commune, often made up of a few villages situated in a particular valley. Originally the government of the commune was fully participatory and hence direct. The government was by the Landsgemeinde, the assembly of the elder males, who would assemble in a circle (Ring) in a public place to perform its religious ceremonies, and take the most important decisions regarding the government.

Today this is only done in a few mountain cantons, such as Glaris, Unterwald and Appenzell. Originally the communes sometimes joined together to form a loose association that was referred to in the Grisons as a “jurisdiction”. It was only with the Napoleonic conquest at the beginning of the 19th century that these loose alliances or Cantons were institutionalized. These larger groupings further linked together to form the Helvetic Confederation. In spite of this the communes retained much of their original power, the power of the Confederate government being very limited.

Among other things the composition of the Confederate government reflects that of the parliament, which means that it is composed of people from all sorts of different parties and has thereby little power to divert too radically from the status quo. In addition the President is elected for one year only, which again further limits his power. It is no coincidence that few people outside Switzerland are even capable of naming the President, or indeed any of the past Presidents of the Swiss Confederation. Most people have heard of Hitler, Stalin, even of Idi Amin of Uganda, but the Swiss political system has so far never produced such people.

Unfortunately this system of direct participatory government has difficulty in surviving economic development and industrialization. Local people no longer have the time to govern themselves at a local level. Many of them in any case have tended to migrate to the big cities, as is happening everywhere else in the world. Corporations also have become too powerful. Nevertheless Switzerland remains one of the most decentralized of European countries, and it would be invaluable to learn exactly how its direct participatory democracy really worked and how with certain modifications of course, it could provide us with a model of the sort of society that Alberto Magnaghi suggests we should be seeking to create.

Notes and References

1. Herbert Girardet, Cities People Planet. John Wiley, Chichester, UK, 2004.
2. Manjeet Kripalani in Business Week, 1 November 2004 .
3. Abel Wolmar “The Metabolism of Cities”, Scientific American, September 1965.
4. Lester Brown “Who will feed China: Wake-up call for a small planet”. The Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, September 1995
5. William Greider, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993.
6. David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. Kumarian Press, 1995.
7. J. P. Narayan, “Communitarian Society and Panchayati Raj”, Bimal Prasad. Chanakya Publications, India 1985.
8. Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America. Volume I, 1835; Volume II, 1840.
9. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Sierra Club Books, University of California Press, March 1996.
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