What Does Democratize Mean And How To Build A Democratic Lifestyle?

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Democracy is more than just a political participation. We must reimagine democracy and make it part of our regular lifestyle.

Quick Summary

Democracy is about empowering individuals and communities without harming others.
Democratization is a process without an end goal. It adapts to the technological and socio-economic changes as we advance.
We need more democracy in our schools and businesses. This is where we spend much of our waking lives.

Action Steps

To jump straight to some of the actionables, please click the link here.

Every Democracy Looks Different, But Each Shares A Commitment To Empowering People

Today, more than half of the countries in the world are considered to be democratic.1DeSilver, Drew. “Despite Global Concerns about Democracy, More than Half of Countries Are Democratic.” Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/14/more-than-half-of-countries-are-democratic/. These democracies all look very different in their cultures, civil liberties, and electoral processes, yet countries such as Sweden, Israel, the United, States, and Japan can all be sewn together through their common professed commitment to a democratic form of government which places power in the hands of the people. 

Their differences can be compared through measures such as the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, an annual report which ranks each countries’ changing levels of political participation, tolerance, and more. The clear fluctuations in democratic practices beg the question, if democracy is the end-goal of these countries, have any achieved a truly democratic state?

Although that question could be the focus of an entire semester in a comparative politics class, that is not the focus of this blog post. Rather than getting caught up in viewing democracy as a static, final stop in the political development of a country, we must see democracy is a process by which countries continually seek to empower their citizens and communities. 

Democratization Is A Steady Process

Democratization is the process by which countries develop and grow in their social, economical, political, educational and other societal processes through introducing democratic principles and institutions in the daily lives of their citizens. However, historically this process has mostly been associated with the political developments in democracy. 

This process occurred notably throughout the 20th century as countries adopted democratic political systems across Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa.2“The Spread of Democracy in the 20th Century.” Encyclopædia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/democracy/The-spread-of-democracy-in-the-20th-century. Many countries made structural and constitutional changes rooted in ideals of equality and self-determination. Some were more successful than others, but the process of democratization has no end point.

As a world, we have yet to recognize or achieve what a true democracy looks like, because democratization itself is an experiment unique to each society in which citizens continuously find opportunities for empowerment and participation. However, there are some universal values, experiences and lessons learned from across the world that can benefit each community.

In the same way that countries can democratize as they embrace ideals of cooperation, self-determination, and representation, so too can individuals and communities. Democratizing our lifestyles involves making structural changes to the way that we work, learn, and live as individual citizens and as members of our communities.

We Must Infuse Democracy Into Our Everyday Lives

When it comes to personal democratization, we must make changes to our lifestyles.

The concept of “lifestyle” was first introduced by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) in 1929. He used the term to mean the pattern of behavior that is characteristic of an individual. It is believed that Adler’s usage of the word derived from the German phrase lebensstil, a compound of leben, meaning life, and stil, meaning style. Since 1961, however, the usage of the word has expanded to mean the general “way or style of living.”3O’Connor, Patricia and Stewart Kellerman. “The Life of ‘Lifestyle’.” Grammarphobia, 5 May 2018, www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2018/05/lifestyle.html.

This “way” of living encompasses a person’s beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes which dictate the day-to-day existence. 

Although the term lifestyle refers to the daily pattern of behavior of an individual, there is also a collective component. Individuals living in the same society or country interact daily with the same institutions, norms, and business models; therefore, our individual behavior and attitudes are formed and impacted by those interactions in a similar way. Although there are distinctions and variations between each individual – such as our religion, fitness, or consumer habits – many of us follow some general lifestyle framework. 

This similar lifestyle structure is reflected most clearly in the similarities between how we spend our time on a daily basis. Each day, we spend roughly 8 hours sleeping and 8 hours working. The remaining third of our days are taken up through equally habitual activities, such as commuting to and from work, making dinner, or watching television.

For most of our adult lives, we spend the prime hours of our day, one-third of our time, at work. Even before we enter the workforce, we spend these prime hours in school receiving an education. In fact, the average person spends about half of his or her waking hours between work and school.

If this is how most of us spend our time on a daily basis, then how much do we really practice democracy? Rather, a better question to ask is:

How much can we really practice democracy, given that most of us spend our prime waking hours at work or at school?

How can we make our schools and workplaces more democratic?

When we are in a work or school environment, how much power do we have in making key decisions? How much do our voices matter in decision-making or does authority rest entirely with a small group of administrators or managers?

Truthfully, most of us are more powerless in these situations than we realize. We have normalized this hierarchical structure and cemented it into our model of educational, business, and organizational systems. If we are not able to exert power in environments where we spend the most valuable, waking hours, then where are we empowered?

We hold democratic ideals to be sacred in our societies and propagate the idea that every person is equal and has a right to be heard. In theory, these ideals are embraced, but we regularly and willingly give away our power as we enter our schools and businesses and subscribe to a hierarchical model that diminishes the student and the worker.

This does not mean that hierarchy is “bad” or that hierarchies are incompatible with democracies. Even in democracy there is some hierarchy and delegated responsibilities. However, we need to question our commitment to democracy and recognize where it is absent. We need to understand to what extent are these hierarchical structures and delegated responsibilities enabling or limiting us to have our voices heard effectively.

Most students and workers are learning and working in organizations that are hierarchical and autocratic.

If our commitment is to democracy, then we need to learn from examples of democratic schools and workplaces.

They do exist today, and some have been successfully operating and applying democratic principles regularly for decades!

We Can Develop Alternatives To The Models We Have Become Accustomed To

Our lives do not have to function such that we have no power in the places we spend most of our time. When we democratize our lifestyle, we embrace cooperation and equality. A democratic lifestyle is one in which individuals feel empowered in their daily tasks and do not have to give that up when they enter their school, workplace, organization, or home. 

There is no one correct way to democratize, because the focus is on the process and not the result. Democratization can happen in a variety of ways, and individuals and organizations have been experimenting and developing strategies to democratize various sectors for decades.

Democratic Schools Place Power In The Hands Of Students

The infusion of democratic principles into our education system is one way that people have sought to democratize our society. Our traditional education system operates such that teachers determine the curriculum with input from state and local governments. There is a heavy emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests and higher education.

Students and their interests have a little impact on what they learn. This leads to disengagement among students, as often, the curriculum does not match what students will need in life.

In a TED Talk on the subject titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, Sir Ken Robinson noted that across the world, every education system has a hierarchy of subjects which prioritize math, science, and languages, while stigmatizing art, music, and the humanities.

As a result, our education systems are “educating people out of their creative capacities.” We must, therefore, rethink the fundamentals of education and consider the potential that exists when children are empowered in their creativity.4Robinson, Ken. “Do schools kill creativity?” Youtube, uploaded by TED, 6 January 2007, https://youtu.be/iG9CE55wbtY

Many schools challenge the students’ systemic lack of agency and have altered their approach to education or discarded the traditional model altogether (see the inspiration about starting this blog and learning about Nuestra Escuela, a democratic school in Puerto Rico).

A democratic education system places the interests and voices of students first by involving them in decision-making processes. Schools can begin democratizing through giving more power to their student government, opting to include more student-chosen projects, or connecting students with local internship opportunities as an alternative to the traditional classroom experience. Democratizing schools means making students more active participants in their education.5Bennis, Dana. “What Is Democratic Education?” Institute for Democratic Education in America, democraticeducation.org/index.php/features/what-is-democratic-education/.

Many schools go beyond these steps and allow students to craft their own educational experiences. For instance, Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts is a democratic school founded in 1968 with a structure that has since been replicated by many other schools.6“Democratic Schools.” Alternatives to School, 13 Feb. 2015, alternativestoschool.com/articles/democratic-schools/.

Students at Sudbury have no classes, except in those subjects which they request instruction on, and no grades. They vote every decision in weekly meetings where every student and staffer have one vote. Sudbury’s egalitarian approach lets students individually decide how and what they wish to study.

This democratic approach leads them to emphasize not just outcomes, such as whether a student goes to college or earns a high score on a standardized test, but lifelong skills and ideals, such as accountability, creativity, and contribution to the community.7Marano, Hara Estroff. “Class Dismissed.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 6 May 2006, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/articles/200605/class-dismissed. These students also learn how a democracy works. When they turn 18, legal age to vote, they will be more informed about the processes because they have practiced democracy at school. Most adults, have not had a single day of practice in democracy and are expected to be responsible citizens?

Classrooms have changed little in design since the Industrial Revolution. They resemble the hierarchical work structures where they are told what and how to do things, leaving little room for creative thinking. Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay
Schools have a similar design to factories. The picture is of textile workers in Bangladesh. Photo by Mona Mijthab, July 2011.

There is great variance in democratic schools, but their common mission is to empower students as they reconsider what education looks like. Since most of the focus is on traditional education, there is little research available on the effects of democratic schools training responsible citizens. However, from personal experience, I can vouch for the transformative effects of Nuestra Escuela on its students in Puerto Rico.

Many of these tactics may seem unorthodox, but they offer a unique model for ways to democratize schools for parents and children who believe that students can and should determine the focus, structure, and path of their education.

Workers Are Empowered Through Shared Ownership

We can similarly implement democratic values in the workplace to create a more participatory and empowering environment. With this goal in mind, some European countries have implemented codetermination policies which require large businesses to involve workers in management decisions. The practice is meant to empower workers and ensure the representation of their interests. 

For example, German law dictates the creation of supervisory boards to oversee decisions made by executives: in companies with over 500 employees, ⅓ of the members on the supervisory board are elected by workers, and in companies with over 2,000 employees, ½ of the members are elected by workers.8Gowan, Peter. “Models For Worker Codetermination In Europe.” People’s Policy Project, 8 Sept. 2017, www.peoplespolicyproject.org/2017/09/08/models-for-worker-codetermination-in-europe/.

Studies of German codetermination reveal mixed results, but also show the tenstion between the diverging interests of the few and the many. The inclusion of workers in management decisions can create tension with executives as the interests and voices of workers are empowered. Codetermination has been shown to shift the focus of a business towards long-term stability and growth, over short-term profit.9Hendricks, Scotty. “Codetermination: A Way to Rebalance the Economy?” Big Think, Big Think, 12 Sept. 2019, bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/what-is-codetermination?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2.

The effect found on overall firm performance varies, but this framework seems to positively benefit workers in their ability to resist lay-offs, improve information flow, and exercise power over the direction of their organization.10Berger, Bennet, and Elena Vaccarino. “Codetermination in Germany – a Role Model for the UK and the US?” Bruegel, 13 Oct. 2016, www.bruegel.org/2016/10/codetermination-in-germany-a-role-model-for-the-uk-and-the-us/.

Worker cooperatives similarly empower workers by giving them complete ownership and control of their enterprise. Worker cooperatives are business enterprises where each person has one vote. This is in contrast with the approach in traditional companies, that of “shareholder democracy.” Each share counts as one vote. What if in our political democracies we had “shareholder democracy”? What if each person’s vote counted based on the depth of his or her pockets? For more on that topic, you can read more in our article.

The structure of worker cooperatives and their egalitarian approach, in which every member has one vote in decision-making processes, stands in stark contrast to the traditional business model which follows a rigid hierarchy regarding how decisions are made and benefits are distributed. 

The worker cooperative Sí Se Puede (We Can Do It!) Women’s Cooperative was created by a group of immigrant house cleaners back in 2016. They turned towards a more democratic business structure based around cooperation and support after individually struggling with the lack of power they had when dealing with clients. Previously, they were working as contractors for minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The cooperative, now numbers over 100 women and they generate about $23 per hour.11“A Co-Op State of Mind.” In These Times, https://inthesetimes.com/article/a-co-op-state-of-mind. Accessed 30 Jan. 2021.

Sí Se Puede allowed the women to support one another and participate in a 12-week training program on finance and entrepreneurship; they gained valuable skills and experience in managing the enterprise through their involvement, thus demonstrating that even women of modest means and “low educational attainment” can learn how to manage a business successfully.12Novick, Ilana. “Cleaning Workers Are Fighting For Better Pay and Benefits.” VICE, 8 Aug. 2018, www.vice.com/en/article/ev8m8k/house-cleaners-cooperatives-worker-owners.

The Focus Of Democratization Is On The Process Of Experimentation

Every organization or group that seeks to democratize does so in a different way, yet at its core, every democratization process is about empowering participants and giving them a stake in the success of their group endeavor.

The students at Sudbury Valley School do more than chart their own educational journey: they contribute to the development of the whole democratic community through voting in weekly meetings on the rules that govern their school and engaging with others in their shared learning process. They practice democracy daily.

Similarly, through their democratic approach to organizing a business, the women of Sí Se Puede did more than just earn a living, also showed how to advocate for themselves as entrepreneurs and co-owners of an organization. Democratization serves to further their goals as individuals, while creating a powerful collective mission.

Our Shared Vision Of Democracy And Intent Matter

Building a democracy involves infusing democratic principles into all aspects of our life, not just the political.

Engaging in this process may mean drastically restructuring the management and ownership of our schools and businesses. It could involve creating greater opportunities for the voices of students or workers to be heard.

The emphasis of these suggestions is on engaging and wrestling with the idea of creating a more democratic lifestyle through being empowered and empowering others. 

Action Steps

Cannot wait to take some action? Here are some ideas how to democratize life at work and business (do not expect a revolution over night):

LEARN more about democratic schools and their alternative approach to education;
IDENTIFY cooperatives you can join or support in your local community;
LOCATE and JOIN a credit union and become an active member in the organizational meetings and board elections;
SUPPORT news and knowledge organizations such as Lifestyle Democracy to spread the word about individuals and communities that are successfully democratizing their organizations and communities on a daily basis;
START a local credit union, co-op or a civil society organization that will support democratization efforts in your community.
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Hi! I am Stefan Ivanovski, founder of Lifestyle Democracy, a knowledge platform that empowers individuals and communities through sharing and teaching how to apply actionable democratic principles and practices, one day at a time.

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