Building democracy from below

The oppressed don’t need to be told they are dominated. They know. To gain democratic rights, they need to expand their power base through organisation.

Why don’t people who are dominated by others rebel to claim their rights? We are told it is because they think there is nothing wrong with being oppressed. But in reality, most people don’t accept being dominated – rather, they believe they do not have the power to change their world.

Understanding this is crucial if we want to build democratic societies in which every adult person has an equal say over the decisions that affect them.

If we believe that dominated people agree they should not have an equal say, the answer is to educate them. This is the solution favoured by many left-wingers and by those who promote democracy, believing it is their job to teach others about the importance of being a citizen.

But dominated people know what is wrong. They just lack the power to change it, so the answer is to ensure they gain power. This argument is central to my recently published book, Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Action, which explains the importance of democracy and how we can build stronger democracies.

Teaching people to be free

How to prevent people being dominated is an issue in all societies, including those in which everyone has a vote and the rights that go with it. Political democracy does not do away with the power the rich hold over the poor or that men hold over women or that local power holders hold over people who live under their control.

Because democracy is a system in which everyone enjoys a right to a say in all decisions, a society is not fully democratic unless everyone who experiences this domination has a say. To work out how this could come about, we need to understand why people who enjoy democratic rights but are nonetheless dominated don’t use their rights to change this.

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Some on the left have answered this question with the theory of false consciousness, which tried to explain why the poor do not rise up against the economically powerful. The answer was that the rich also controlled the education system, the media, and all other sources of ideas and information, which they use to convince the downtrodden to accept their oppression as natural. While in reality the dominated were enslaved, they were convinced, falsely, that they lived in a just society.

The solution was political education by an elite in a revolutionary party who understood the way the society really worked and could explain it to the oppressed. This gave the party and its members huge power if they were able to persuade the dominated to follow them: only they would know what workers and the poor ought to think and do.

In societies where the revolutionary party became the government, it had no need to allow the dominated a say because it alone knew what they needed.

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In an interesting twist, a version of this theory has taken hold in what was until recently the Western mainstream – the democracy promoters in the United States and Western Europe who try to encourage societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America to become democracies (or, more accurately, clones of Western democracies).

Many of their programmes assume democracy works in the West because its citizens know how it works – so it doesn’t work in Africa and Asia because the people who live there do not. The solution is to teach them – and so democracy or voter education became an important part of democracy promotion programmes.

This strengthened the idea that Westerners were superior to other people. It also created the false impression that Africans and Asians should embrace the ideas and the values of the Western democracy promoters if they wanted to live in democratic societies.

It was seen, with justification, by many as a new form of colonisation – ironically, since the aim was supposedly to show people how to take control of their countries. It played a role in convincing more than a few doubters that democracy was a Western plot designed to enslave others, even though the system’s goal is to ensure that everyone has an equal say.

Weapons of the weak

In two books based on a study in a Malaysian village, academic James Scott shattered the idea that the dominated were fooled into believing in the justice of their domination. Peasants in the village routinely publicly expressed their deep respect for the local power holders who were clearly exploiting them. This seemed an obvious example of false consciousness and it was assumed that local culture persuaded peasants that the people who lorded over them were better than they were.

But Scott could speak the local language, and he soon discovered that the flattering comments about their overlords were only what the peasants said in public, when they knew their masters were listening. Out of earshot, the language changed to insult, mocking the habits and behaviour of those who ruled them. So the peasants were not suffering from false consciousness – they knew the local power holders were immoral.

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Why, then, did they flatter them? Because, Scott showed, they feared their power. They believed that if they challenged them, they would be punished. The risks were too great, so they preferred to mock the powerful behind their backs rather than taking them on.

But this was not all that people who believed themselves to be powerless did. They wanted to get back at the power holders but did not want to pay a high price, so they used what Scott called “the weapons of the weak” – absenteeism, petty theft and pretending to be ignorant. These misdemeanours were taken as signs of stupidity or lack of culture. They escaped serious punishment. These tactics confirm their problem was not a lack of understanding but a lack of power.

Fearing the holders of power

Scott’s argument has been backed by other studies. One examined voting patterns among black Americans who, in the former slave states in particular, voted in much fewer numbers than whites. The standard explanation was that they were apathetic or ignorant. The study showed the real reason was fear: many black voters were convinced, not unreasonably given the history of their area, that voting would antagonise white power holders and make their lives more difficult. Since whites were in the majority in these places, voting would not have done much good anyway. Black voters knew votes were a source of power for others – they also knew voting could force them to pay a price.

Celestin Monga, a Cameroonian scholar, produced similar evidence in African states ruled by dictators. On the surface, the people loved their leaders, turning up in numbers to official ceremonies or rallies to chant adoring slogans. But the slogans they shouted were parodies – they would subtly change the words of party songs to insult the higher-ups they seemed to be praising. And, like the Malaysian peasants, what they said about their rulers when the powerful were not listening made it clear they knew they were being exploited but feared the costs of challenging their exploiters.

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South Africans who understand how society works should recognise the strength of the argument that dominated people undermine the system that dominates them rather than challenging it, relying on the fact that they are considered inferior to escape real punishment. Particularly under apartheid, but also now in some circumstances, workers may arrive late or “accidentally” damage machines or pretend not to understand instructions to undermine rather than challenge those who dominate them.

One way this may work was demonstrated a while back on a radio programme when a white man, known for his colonial attitudes, complained that South Africa would never reach its tourism potential because when he asked black people in the Eastern Cape for directions, “they don’t even know the way to their own village”. The possibility escaped him that they knew perfectly well but were not willing to tell someone whose manner betrayed deep contempt for them.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, poor and marginalised people do not need to be taught they are being treated badly – they know it. Where they avoid acting to change it, they do so not because they are ignorant but because they fear the power of their dominator.

Organise rather than educate

If we want South Africa to become a country in which the millions who are silenced between elections begin to speak, the answer does not lie in the education projects of the left and the cultural colonisers.

Dominated people do not need the instruction of people on the left convinced they know what the masses want better than they do. Nor do they need another round of voter and democracy education projects that open up Western donor money but are more about trying to get dominated people to think in the same way as those who run the programmes than about enabling them to take control over their lives. What is needed is a different power balance achieved not through education but organisation.

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Many of the strategies that enabled the South African trade union movement to grow in difficult conditions cannot be directly transplanted to the realities of people facing domination outside the workplace. But by working together to win limited changes – a pay raise or shorter hours – workers realised they were more powerful than they thought. They no longer relied on undermining their employer while pretending to obey. They began to demand a full say in their working lives, and so they built a movement that gave working people far greater control over their world than ever before. They also became a vital part of the movement that freed their members and most South Africans from political domination by the racial minority.

The key to change is not telling dominated people what they already know. It is enabling them to work with others to seek the power to which their status as citizens entitles them but realities in society and the economy deny them.

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