Democracy must involve its citizens


World view:'I'll teach you differences" was considered by Wittgenstein to be a good summary of his later philosophical work. He adapted the phrase from Shakespeare's King Lear, in his dialogue with the Fool. Its purpose is to help distinguish between different categories of thought and experience, so that their confusion is minimised or avoided, writes  Paul Gillespie

Wittgenstein's advice was recalled by a philosopher participating in a British-Irish Encounter conference discussion last weekend on volunteering and whether it matters. He was worried that the subject was being over-extended, ranging from altruism to self-interest. He reminded us that volunteering is not all a good thing; it has its dark side, as in Nazi anti-Semitism or the racism of the Ku Klux Klan.

This is an increasingly topical subject. The publication on Wednesday of the report from the Taskforce on Active Citizenship bears out the trend. It makes the point that active citizenship is more than community volunteering. It is "about how people engage in the political and decision-making process at various levels; how well they are informed or enabled to be active and how various groups can be effectively excluded".

The taskforce's recommendations are presented under five headings: participation in the democratic process; the public service and citizens; community engagement and promoting a sense of community; education for citizenship; ethnic and cultural diversity and the challenge of engaging newcomers.

Conceptually the subject is rooted in recent theorising of civic republicanism. This seeks to transcend the polarities between liberal approaches maximising individual rights, formal legal equality and self interest, and communitarian ones emphasising the socially embedded nature of individual political identity. Volunteerism has to do with natural social reciprocity rather than willed altruism by selfish individuals. Civic republicanism stresses collective self-government and the individual's sense of social concern as a member of a political community, together with the virtues of participation, democracy and social solidarity.

A background paper accompanying the taskforce's report defines active citizenship as "the voluntary capacity of citizens and communities working directly together, or through elected representatives, to exercise economic, social and political power in pursuit of shared goals". This goes beyond formal institutions and allows room for political disagreement and contestation.

Associated ideas of social capital and community development are usefully disentangled from the notion of active citizenship. And we are reminded, in the words of the UCD civic republican theorist, Iseult Honohan, that we should be wary of exhortations to be more active or public spirited, "unless ordinary citizens are given a larger voice in decision-making, opportunities for meaningful participation, and the material conditions necessary for active citizenship".

That is the criterion by which this exercise should be judged - and debated in the general election campaign, as it deserves to be. Civic republicanism has much to offer in this discussion. To what extent do existing policies encourage or undermine participation? Over-centralised government and taxation, growing inequality, separatist housing, educational and health services, imbalanced transport policy, and inadequate multicultural and intercultural policies diminish active citizenship. How best should it be encouraged?

The taskforce report encourages such a debate, if there is the will to have one. In an accompanying background paper on statistics, it distinguishes between disempowerment of citizens by contemporary trends in the distribution of decision-making and political power, and a supposed crisis in volunteering and community involvement.

In fact, there is no decline in Irish volunteering, membership of community organisations or action groups, nor of interpersonal trust. But these democratic virtues are distributed unequally. For every adult involved in the community, two others are not.

As the background report says: "These differences may also be associated with unequal access to power, decision-making and the democratic process in general."

Indeed, "it may be that we are focusing too much on some measurable aspect of social capital such as volunteering, membership and trust among persons, and not enough on more subtle issues around people's sense of empowerment, participation in decision-making" distributed by age, gender, class and migrant status. The higher the socio-economic status and educational attainment, the greater the community participation.

In the great period of state and nation-building over the last century in Ireland and Europe, political parties were central institutions of mass participation, political representation - and active citizenship and volunteering. However, their role in Ireland is now marginal compared to other sources of civic participation, such as sports, religious, welfare or caring associations.

Only 2-3 per cent of the population were actively involved in political parties last year. Party membership in Ireland is estimated to have declined from 5 to 3 per cent from 1980-1998 and is presumably lower now. Trends in election turnout are similarly down, but voter volatility measured by changing party preferences is up.

The widespread sense of social and civic disempowerment which inspires debates on active citizenship may have as much to do with such trends, which are mirrored internationally, as with ordinary social and community life.

Political parties are now seen more as agents for governing than as vehicles for mass representation. Audience democracy is supplanting more direct participation. In these circumstances there is a pressing need to reinvent democracy by actively encouraging greater citizen involvement.