Thus, the “real work” will start, where we will try to apply everything we have learned so far and aim to build a virtual platform to foster civic engagement at the municipal level. From here in twelve months… we will see how we much progress we achieve.
Before setting off sail, I wanted to talk one last time about Lórien. This time, by reproducing the “Epilogue” of our monograph “Leo’s wings. 20th century citizen participation”, which critically analyzed the evolution of citizen participation until nowadays.
EPILOGUE – Leo’s wings
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,
then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest.
Now I realise I am fighting for humanity”
(Chico Mendes, 1988, some months before being murdered)
About 23 centuries ago Aristotle said that the speed of falling bodies depended on their weight; he did it, no doubt, after having analyzed the phenomenon extensively with lighter items, whose fall tends to slow down because of the friction with the air. But he was wrong. And it would have sufficed that any of us had carefully observed the fall of an apple and of a watermelon from a certain height to invalidate his theory. But, for all we know, for no less than 1900 years nobody bothered enough as to carry out the experiment. Scholars and sages who lived throught those centuries accepted as valid the opinion given by “the Philosopher”, until one day the irreverence of Galileo Galilei led him to refute Aristotle’s theory.
This brief anecdote reminds us that, sometimes, it takes humanity much longer than needed to notice even the most obvious things. Happily for us, this is a phenomenon that also occurs in the opposite direction: from time to time brilliant and visionary individuals are born who are able to perceive with clarity those “possible realities” that, for their fellow humans, are extremely difficult to grasp; exceptional people who “can see the flight in each sleeping bird” (Galeano 1984).
This is the case of a compatriot of Galileo, a certain Leonardo, from which it is told that, as a baby, was stroked in the face by the feathers of hawk’s tail, which flew down to his crib. Leonardo grew, and with him also grew his genius and his love and fascination for birds, extraordinary animals that are able to dive right into the sky and thus belittle, down below, the heavy and lugubrious human world.
Probably, it is his love for birds what best explains why Leonardo did not eat any meat, or his habit to buy caged birds in the market, which he then set free. Something is certain: his fascination with their ability to fly led Da Vinci to be, for all we know, the first Westerner who designed something similar to a plane, and something like a helicopter, and also something like a parachute. On January 3, 1496, Leonardo tried to fly one of his machines, but his attempt was unsuccessful. Apparently, the world he lived in was not yet prepared for the development of the kind of commercial aviation that currently covers every corner of the planet. But even if Leonardo failed to fly on his own, he certainly managed to infect his dream to many other people which in the following centuries gave their best to turn that dream into reality. Then in 1903, a little over a century ago, it was the Wright brothers who finally howled with unrestricted joy as they manage to fly, ten feet above the ground, on the first self-propelled aircraft.
It could well be that in a not too distant future a simmilar story will be told about citizen participation as it was known during the twentieth century. It is possible that, as described throughout the previous chapter, such participation is not really working as of today, because it is not able to rise above the weight of its own contradictions. But it is for sure able to keep us dreaming of it, while we wait for better and more participatory times.
Just nine decades had passed since the Archbishop Fénelon (1699) reunited them for the first in a paragraph of his Adventures of Telemachus, when those three ideals of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” set human history into fire and became the most famous slogan in revolutionary Paris. It is true that the three terms are partly contradictory, as it is also true that the rebels added, immediately afterwards, a grim and foreboding “… or Death!”. But that did not stop the triad to become known as the set of ideals “par excellence” which could “humanize” those human societies where then, as now, people treated each other like ferocious animals.
It is not by coincidence that, so far, our government systems, our democracies, have not really been able to develop such principles, barely managing to timidly nurture the first two of them. If we examine carefully the revolutionary triad it is easy to link them with the democratic decision-making mechanisms that were discussed previuosly: freedom and negotiative mechanisms are concerned primarily with the “me, as an individual” who pursues his own interests as much as possible; equality and aggregative mechanisms, meanwhile, indicate the “me in relation to others”, which equates the needs and interests of all citizens and attributes the same value to their votes; fraternity and deliberation finally refer to “me WITH the others” and through dialogue and teamwork allows us to address the “wicked problems” we face, developing solutions that are both good for the majority and considered toward the minorities.
In his description of the imaginary land of “Bethica” Fénelon (1699) mentioned many other traits and values that characterized its virtuous inhabitants. Ideals which, unfortunately, were disregarded by the Parisian pamphleteers. Most of these values, however, are somewhat derived from the main three we just mentioned. But in the twenty-first century it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to re-read the archbishop to turn the French triad into a tetrad that incorporates a fundamental notion not contained in the other three, namely: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and… Sustainability”. A sustainability that would refer, according to the model outlined above, to “me, for the environment and the future generations”.
Scientists increasingly warn us that the human species has become a kind of macro-virus which is sickening the planetary organism. Our actions and industry are altering the many delicate balances which over the last 3,500 million years allowed the gradual development of life on Earth as we know it, 2 million years ago gave also rise to our genus, the Homo, and just 200,000 years created mankind. This is the reason why, increasingly, in all our human endeavors we need to consider the issue of sustainability as a fundamental one. We need to replace the “predatory” patterns that currently characterize our conduct –both in relation to our human fellows and in relation to that “Mother Earth” that sustains us and we are part of– by more sustainable, symbiotic and collaborative behaviors (Earth Charter Commission 2000).
Sustainability is also a vital aspect of citizen participation. The existence of a “political and administrative monopoly of participation” reflects how difficult it is to develop autonomous participation whih is truly self-sustaining. Our previous analysis of Participatory Budgeting experiences has shown, additionally, that even in the most mature experiences of administrative participation the municipal managers fail to promote a real and genuine empowerment of autonomous participation. Rather the opposite is true: trapped in their network of political and electoral interests, municipal officials end up promoting a kind of citizen participation with an instrumental, subordinate and harmless character.
In our future analysis of “citizen participation of the XXI century” we will see how there is one very important effect of applying ICT to participation, precisely its effect on the “precarious sustainability” of autonomous participation. The application of ICT to reinforce participation will make obsolete most of our current knowledge about what is possible to achieve by means of a sustained mobilization of citizens. For better and for worse, this technological change will create a changed institutional setting where all strategic stakeholder face new threats and opportunities, as well as mutated preferences, incentives and relative costs. This will also favour the emergence of new influential actors that will have to be taken into account, as for example an increasingly conscious citizenry, self-organized around legitimate demands. As we saw at the beginning of the monograph, such a change will eventually lead to profound changes in our institutions and our social and political systems.
It is therefore worth to meditate about this:
May it perhaps be that we are slowly arriving to Lórien, that mythical land where democracy becomes demoneirocracia, the true “government by the people’s dreams”?
May it be that, finally, the time of fraternity is coming to be, where our species will go beyond that stage of its evolution to which future historians will refer to as the “Pre-Human Era”?
May it be?
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
main. If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
(John Donne, Devotions upon emergent occasions, 1624)