NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 33rd episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 20 October 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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François and I started this episode with a little laugh at ourselves. “Our topic today is democracy,” I told him, “and that kind of cracks me up. You and I were just talking about how this is our 33rd episode, almost three years of podcasts. We talk about cultural democracy all the time and we’ve done a lot of chatting about culture. Suddenly, we both had this thought: we haven’t taken the second part of cultural democracy and looked at it with the intensity and interest and curiosity that we have for many of the cultural topics.”
We shared a bit of definition from Raymond Williams’ wonderful Keywords, which goes into democracy at length. I discovered that before the 19th century, “democracy” was mostly pejorative, like mob rule, but that changed in the last 200 years. Williams wrote that “It is only since the late 19th and early 20th century that a majority of political parties and tendencies have united in declaring their belief in it.” He goes on to contrast the socialist tradition, in which democracy has always meant popular power—a state in which the majority of the people controlled the people’s interests and they were paramount. But in liberal tradition, it’s kind of shrunk into representative government where you talk about how people are elected, and how issues are debated at the highest levels of government, and there’s not much of a role except pulling that voting lever every four years. It was surprising how often the conversation about democracy has turned on voting mechanisms rather than political power. What Williams had to say about the diminution of democracy in this 1976 volume is sadly just as fresh and applicable today.
That was our starting point. We are believers in democracy as a frame for political power. As François said,
“It’s the only system that, in principle, says that all citizens—or I would prefer to say all human beings—have an equal value, that there is no reason to give one person more value than another person. That idea of equality has shaped my whole thinking about community arts: the only way in which I want to work with people is on a basis of genuine equality. That’s an ideal, of course, there are all kinds of distortions and inequalities that operate in the world, even starting from our own physical capabilities, as some of us are stronger and more able than others. So then what becomes interesting is how does democracy find ways to rebalance the inequalities that exist? Part of the difficulty that we have is that, during the 20th century, when you and I were growing up and having our ideas shaped, and then becoming active as adults in our work, democracy came to be seen almost as a faith, partly because our Western governments were opposing it to communism.
“I have spent most of my life living in Britain. And I have never voted for anybody who’s got elected. I look at the state of British democracy and I think, actually, it’s really not democratic at all. I have very little influence over what happens. So one of the things that I think we need to do, if we do believe in that fundamental ideal that all citizens or all people have equal value, then we have to ask, what prevents that from being real? One of the reasons that community arts has always mattered to me is because it’s a way to help people express themselves in a democratic space when many of their other ways of doing that have been closed off.”
We agreed that even if you take the narrowest definition of democracy as elections, there have been an appalling number of actions in both the US and the UK to limit voting. I told him about the Georgia prohibition against giving water to people on line waiting to vote; he told me how the British government had recently required photo i.d., even though many people don’t possess them.
In the foreground was the lack of vision and creativity in the practice of a democracy more meaningful than casting a vote. I remembered when I first learned the word:
“Something that seems entirely lacking in the United States is the opportunity to really engage with questions of systems of practical democracy. What are the institutions? What are the methods? What are the ways of being that can actually underpin that kind of dialogue and deliberation that leads to good decisions? I remember when I was a kid in school, each little class elected their president. It was who was cute or funny, or who everybody liked. I don’t remember a single time in school being taught that simple majority rule, to appoint someone to rule over you, had an alternative as a way of deciding how you want to structure your society. A core idea for me is that that process of engagement in democratic dialogue is in itself healthy for our society, healthy for the individual members of the society, makes the world better because we’re talking to each other. We’re treating each other as you said in the opening as equals in the sight of the of the state and of each other. It’s practice for everything that we have to do in our life that involves not just us, but other people. I really worry that when we don’t get that practice, it hurts us all the way up.”
One thing that stood out for us was how the people who’ve been on the podcast, all committed to cultural democracy, attempt to practice it. They’re all involved somehow in cocreating dialogue about things that matter to people, whether in words, a form of theater, imagery, any art practice. “There are a lot of us on the margins,” I said, “trying to make up for what’s not in the center.”
“That’s the heart of why I believe in cultural democracy,” François said, why I’ve invested my life’s work in that. Pointing out the problems with the democratic system, it’s quite easy to do. And in the end, it’s not very productive. Quite a long time ago, I developed this phrase, the Parliament of Dreams, which I named one of my websites and wrote an essay on it. What I meant by that was that in democracies, there is a parliament. It enacts laws, and often it fails and doesn’t represent people. For me, the metaphor of the Parliament of Dreams was our cultural life. It’s the place where we negotiate our values, where we talk about our beliefs, we say ‘this matters to me, this is what I care about, this story or this experience is wrong or it’s right, or it’s complicated, or I don’t understand it.’ Through all of our cultural production, our creative production, we are working out who we are as a community, as a society, as a species. And that is affecting how we then act.
“Now the problem has always seemed to me to be that some people have had much better access to that Parliament of Dreams than others. The point of community arts was always about trying to provide new doorways into that Parliament, into that kind of lived democratic life where you are expressing your views and values and sharing them in a public space with others, to provide new doorways into that public life for people who are excluded from it in a whole variety of ways. That is why I think community art contributes to democratic life and to social justice.”
Well, that’s a taste of where we began. We went on to cite many examples of democracy in action, to have a pretty meaty discussion of the meanings of “cultural democracy,” which seem always to be contested, and to state a few eternal truths, such as that love, beauty, democracy, and most of the things we care about are never complete, always becoming.
Leonard Cohen, “Democracy.”