Beyond state visions of democracy: envisioning family and workplace as democratic spheres

LLM candidate Alexander Agnello and PhD student Matthew Palynchuk emphasize the importance of broadening the scope of democracy to include other spheres, including the family unit and the workplace. In particular, democratic values of equal status, mutual respect and empowerment are highlighted as key factors that buttress participatory democracy.

The 2020 US presidential election was an impressive display of democratic participation in at least one narrow sense. It saw a record voter turnout and record-breaking cash from small donors, in no small part due to the American public’s high engagement in canvassing and campaigning to match the high stakes involved. But participatory democracy isn’t only about participating in state elections. It’s also about broadening the scope of democracy to include other spheres of life.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic also drew increased attention to the objectionable working conditions of many low-wage and gig economy workers across North America. Moreover, given the new realities of working from home and homeschooling, increased burdens in domestic life have also caused a very different distribution of time, labor, and leisure for members of the family, particularly for women. Greater attention paid to working conditions and the inner life of the home has shed light on how these spheres have a pervasive impact on the distribution of opportunities that are key to personal development and well-being.

Scrutinizing the pervasive impact of the workplace and home emphasizes the political nature of these spheres. And yet, despite their political nature, there still exists a disconnect concerning the importance of democracy within them. Instead, we often associate democracy with the state apparatus and its various iterations (e.g., local, state, or federal government). Indeed, we might go so far as to applaud the 2020 US presidential election as a model example of participation in democracy.

However, we often fail to recognize indecent working conditions or the unfair distribution of labor and leisure within the family as also being violations of democratic values.

Participatory democracy in the family and workplace: a question of democratic values, not processes

Our contribution to this discussion is a call for extending the list of institutions that should embody democratic values to include non-state spheres such as the family and the workplace. Our position contrasts with the view that participatory democracy merely requires a greater voter turnout, a more representative voting system, or a more engaged voter. Though these factors may well be vital for a healthy democracy, our belief is that democracy needs to be alive in the home and workplace as well.

This doesn’t mean that we should simply transpose the democratic procedures of the state to the home and workplace. Doing so might make family relationships more distant and formalistic. Meanwhile, “overdoing” procedural democracy in the workplace may run the risk of it being perceived as a similar kind of burden as state elections and may encourage a similar apathy toward them. We focus instead on the importance of the integration and promotion of democratic values, not technocratic procedures.

Values that emanate from democracy – equal status, mutual respect, and empowerment – should animate these spheres for intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. It’s important in itself that these values are actively present in the family and workplace because these spheres greatly influence the development and actualization of our self-respect, opportunities, and talents. It’s also important that these values are active in these spheres to help mitigate the abuse and domination of certain groups within them.

Equal status, from a State-centric standpoint of democracy, is often expressed through the “one-person, one-vote” principle: one person’s vote ought to be equivalent to another person’s. This principle responds to the shared or universally valuable features of citizens: their basic equality or equal status. In the workplace, equal status denaturalizes the view that the interests of those who rank higher matter, whereas the interests of those who rank lower matter less or simply not at all. In the family, equal status proposes, for example, that we treat spouses and, importantly, children – the latter almost always characterized by dependency and vulnerability, lacking a real “voice” – as participants in decisions that have a significant impact on them, based on their inherent capacities. As such, equal status can be regarded as the flipside of subordination and inferiority.

Mutual respect, from a state perspective, is generally understood as the proper regard for the basic dignity or worth of a person, even when, or indeed because, we find ourselves viscerally at odds with them. In the legislature, mutual respect is captured by the duty of recognizing another (e.g., a fellow legislator, a member of civil society) as worthy of (or due) a justification, and this makes meaningful conversation and dialogue in politics possible. Moreover, while cabinet members hold the highest rank in law-making, they are not of higher worth.

The value of mutual respect embedded in democratic accountability requires that even high-ranking officials provide justifications to the public for their decisions and actions. In the workplace, mutual respect proposes that bosses give reasons for, and genuinely consider employee input on, decisions that importantly affect them. Put differently, mutual respect is providing reasons to respond, and giving others a genuine opportunity to respond. This is in clear contrast to a situation where a boss’s incalculable whims simply dominate and are routinely the deciding factor on matters that deeply affect their employees. In the family, mutual respect may require parents to respect the basis of their child’s own decisions, in line with their maturity, as treading one’s path is an important part of developing one’s valuable capacities on their terms.

Empowerment, in the democratic context, is the power to contribute to or influence an outcome or government decision. It’s not that every member of some circumscribed group has, by themselves, the power to bring about this outcome. We don’t think that casting a vote entails that our personal preference is directly reflected in policies or legislation. Rather, empowerment in the democratic context is a distribution of power such that all members contribute towards a given outcome and yet not one person has the final and unquestionable say on that outcome. This helps make sense of how power should be widely, but not necessarily equally, distributed in a family or workplace.

We should see empowerment as placing power in the hands of all members of a family or workplace to determine or influence the outcomes of decisions made in these spheres, instead of centralizing that power in the hands of a patriarch or boss. It’s important, for example, that all family members at least do have power and that power is reflective of having equal status. Unequal distribution of power need not reflect inferior status in the case of a child, but it likely would in the case of a spouse. Moreover, empowerment can counteract power asymmetries that exist in the workplace by involving non-management employees in management decision-making. In both the family and workplace, empowerment is a kind of added valence on mutual respect, whereby individuals know that their reasons are not only respected but are also part of influencing a desired change.

Highlighting less emphasized spheres, not replacing the dominant ones

What we set out to establish above is a general framework of principles for deepening participatory democracy in the family and workplace. We don’t offer a concrete proposal on incorporating these values because that would impose a blanket model on a range of diverse settings – we don’t want to over-formalize something that is valuable specifically because it is context- and consensus-based.

Moreover, we’re not suggesting swapping out the state sphere of democracy for others. Rather, we’re highlighting less emphasized spheres. If we reduce participatory democracy to voting, donating, and canvassing every four years, we fail to address the ways that democratic values can mitigate subordination, domination, and powerlessness in some of life’s most pervasive spheres.

About the authors

Alexander Agnello Alexander Agnello (BCL/JD’19) is an LLM candidate at McGill’s Faculty of Law. He’s previously worked for the OECD, the Asian Development Bank, and the Ombudsperson of British Columbia.

Matthew PalynchukMatthew Palynchuk (MA’20) is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar.

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