30 May 2014

Why only politics when we think of democracy?

Conversations about democracy tend to revolve overwhelmingly about politics and government. These topics are rightly at the centre of democratic dialogue as they are the overarching institutions of our society. But if we are to have a thoroughly democratic society, we cannot limit ourselves to democratic government. We need to consider all our institutions.

The workplace, for example, is to many Canadians the most important place of all, more important than politics, yet it seems to hardly enter the conversation. If government is democratic but the workplace remains autocratic, our liberty is incomplete. We are free men and women evenings and weekends, servants during the week.

The only democracy present in the workplace in this country, other than worker-owned businesses, is the labour union, and even unions are now under attack. In some countries, workplace democracy is taken seriously. Germany, for example, enshrines "codetermination" in law.

Codetermination in Germany operates at three levels. At the job level, employees, in addition to the right to be informed about their responsibilities and job procedures, have a right to make suggestions and to inspect certain company documents. At the operational level, employees elect works councils which are involved in the organization of the business, job arrangements, personnel planning, guidelines for hiring, social services, time registration and performance assessments. At the corporate level, employees elect representatives to boards of directors, one-third to one-half of the board depending on the size of the company. Considering that Germany has become the economic powerhouse of Europe, and perhaps the most successful manufacturing economy in the world, this extensive workplace democracy does not seem to have hampered its competitiveness.

As with the workplace, all of our institutions could be democratized. The mass media, for example, a critical component of social and political life, is owned and controlled by oligarchs and corporations. The only democratic medium—indeed the only independent medium—is the CBC. A national daily newspaper along the lines of the CBC would be a good start toward a democratic press.

Education, too, could not only become more democratic but could be much more effective as a springboard for democratic citizens. Our youth could be so immersed in not only the theory but the practice of democracy that upon graduation they could expect to find democracy wherever they find themselves and be capable of creating it where it is absent.

Perhaps only through such an education could we create a vigorous conversation on self-governance in this country. But then I assume Canadians might want such a conversation, that they are in fact interested in a thoroughly democratic society. Perhaps I am wrong.

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