Finding time for democracy

Electronic communications have opened up the possibility of realizing direct, participatory democracy, in contrast with the indirect, representative variety, in large, urbanized societies. Because these technologies record and recall information so readily and permit active interchanges, they allow us to form communities on the basis of shared concerns rather than shared space.

But time as well as space is a dimension of political life, and shortage of time is currently the major obstacle to direct, participatory democracy. Overcoming this invisible obstacle will require not so much technological invention as more complex and difficult social invention.

Historically, direct democracy has been associated not only with small communities but also with the existence in those communities of a political class with sufficient leisure to consider, discuss, and negotiate. In ancient Greek city-states the labor of slaves and women provided free time for voting citizens, and powerful social traditions dictated that that time be used for a public purpose - the pursuit of civic glory.

In colonial New England, that public purpose was defined somewhat differently , as the pursuit of civic piety; but the social traditions that encouraged citizens to participate in church and town affairs were just as powerful. The colonial citizen was in turn compensated for the time he contributed to the community. Thanks to well-established customs of mutual aid, he could count on help from his neighbors if he needed to raise a house or barn, to bring in a harvest quickly, or to care for a sick person or newborn child.

In our culture, however, social pressures push us to devote our time to private rather than to public affairs. As consumers, we are begged and cajoled by advertising empires to define our needs in terms of privately owned commodities rather than in terms of goods obtainable only through cooperative efforts: backyard grills and swimming pools rather than parks, automobiles rather than trains, drugs rather than health maintenance organizations. Leisure time is a void to be filled with television sets and sports equipment.

The system is justified by a widely accepted social ethic that proclaims that the pursuit of private interests automatically leads to public well-being. By working hard, we are productive citizens; by consuming well, we get others to produce. This social ethic reduces citizenship to the role of a hungry workhorse - one that eats a lot and faithfully turns the crank. This caricature is as unrealistic as it is insulting.

We need, first of all, to establish the very concept of public time - time devoted to organization and decisionmaking in the public interest. This concept goes far beyond that of ''volunteer'' activities, which are in fact smiled upon under the prevailing social ethic. That is because ''volunteer' work is generally understood as charitable, religious, and cultural activities to one side of the mainstream, ''real'' work.

Public time means time spent deciding how the predominant institutions of our society will function, not just picking up the human wreckage their present functioning leaves. The appropriate model, perhaps, is not ''volunteer'' work as it is presently understood, but jury duty. That is, we need to build into our social system mechanisms that allow us to devote time to the public good. Far from entailing penalties, this time should be accepted and indeed honored as a basic requirement of citizenship.

Establishing the need for public time is only the first step. How do we find the time itself? How do we redirect our society so that it is time-creating rather than time-consuming?

So far we have relied mainly on the proliferation of ''time-saving'' devices, in hopes that mechanical slaves would provide for us the same degree of leisure that ancient Greek citizens enjoyed with human slaves. But the futility of this approach demonstrates what happens when corporate bureaucracies set the social agenda. Mechanical aids may fatten some company profits, but any housewife frantically busy in a home full of modern appliances can attest to the truth of the remark attributed to Aristotle that one slave is worth a hundred gadgets.

A more promising way to create public time is to follow the example of colonial New England towns. There citizens donated time to the community knowing that the community would in turn help them with private needs. In other words, public time was provided by an implicit social contract. By giving time to public affairs, individuals should expect that in some way, however distantly and indirectly, the quality of their personal lives will be improved commensurately.

In trying to reestablish such a social contract, however, we have to confront the very complicated relationship between social values and social institutions. Present institutional arrangements that offer no material rewards for public efforts, no provisions for them, faithfully reflect a value system that prizes individual achievement and liberty over collective achievement and liberty. But the institutional arrangements do then in an independent way further discourage the development of a social ethic that would in a more balanced and realistic fashion stress the interdependence of individual and community. Therefore, in order to cultivate such a social ethic among the general population, changes in institutional arrangements are crucial.

But the dominant institutions of our country have little incentive to make such changes. Direct democracy can only threaten the powers, prerogatives, and efficiency of bureaucracies. Thus institutional changes will come about only through intense political pressures - generated by farsighted, dedicated citizens who without incentives, without provisions, without any immediate expectation of rewards or success, decide that this cause is worth their public time.

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