The New Democracy and the Stories Objects Tell Us

For many, democracy only means to vote once every couple of years. The process is more or less the same around the world. People go to polls, every three or four years, to elect public officials. Durıng the remaining time, it is the public officials who make decisions about every aspect of the citizen’s life. Of course, this is far from ideal; however, it is the best we could come up with, to allow millions to live together, under the same government, and have an equal share in the decision making process. The ideal system would be one where citizens are as much involved as possible in every single decision made that concern them. Again, with millions of people, participation of everyone in every decision would paralyze the system. Therefore, citizens of democratic countries all around the world accept the fact that they have to have confidence in people they elect, and hope that the elected officials will represent their will in the best way possible.

But, is it really impossible to have a system where every decision is made not by elected officials, but the collective will of the masses? We all accept that a system, which forces voters to push all their beliefs and ideals into one of the two boxes provided by the two dominant political parties is not the ideal democratic system. Nevertheless, we are unsure as to what the ideal system is and I will not attempt to propose one here.

What I will do is to claim that we already have something that resembles an ideal democratic system. This system is based on people’s freedom to buy whatever they want and it exists in every country, where there is a free market economy. With every product we buy, we empower someone. At this point a product is not a product anymore. A product represents a world perspective. It tells a story. This story involves how and where it was produced, who put labor into producing it, which natural resources were used, how it affected the lives of people who played a role in its production, marketing and transportation, and finally its overall environmental effects. With every product we buy, we are faced with a situation in which we need to make a choice among many options, each option telling a different story. This is very similar to what we do in elections. There are different options and each option tells a different story to us. We pick up the one that is closest to our vision of how the world should be. The difference is while we vote every three or four years, we buy things every day.

Trends like fair trade food, target people who care about the stories behind products. Fair trade does not only refer to the quality of the food, but also how it affected the lives of people who were involved in the process that brought the product to the shelves in the market. Nevertheless, we tend to see fair trade labels on a limited selection of products; most notably in coffee and chocolate. Organic food is a more prevalent trend. Although organic signifies positive attributes about the quality of the food, it does not necessarily indicate a moral standard in the treatment of involved parties. Yet still, lack of use of pesticides, hormones etc. still tells us a “good” story.

Overall the idea I propose is that if we define democracy as every individual’s participation in the decision making process, then I think “buying” is a powerful tool for democracy. It gives individuals the chance to empower other people in small bits, which makes the democratic process a daily, continuous process, unlike representative democracies. When we buy something we empower another individual, or cooperation, which eventually allows them to affect legislative processes, through lobbyists, campaigns and media. In addition, by buying a product we signify that we support not only the product itself but also the procedures and ways of production that created that product. Demand in a product increases production of it. Increased production means increased social, economical and environmental effects. For example, the choice between acrylic and cashmere, when you buy a sweater, may either contribute to a chemical industry producing what is necessary for acrylic or support a farmer raising Cashmere goats. This choice has environmental, social and economic consequences, in addition to consequences for your health. I don’t think either Democrats or Republicans have a policy on which material to use for clothing, although the choice between the two is actually a political one, which has serious accumulative effects. In this sense, through consumption we continuously express our political opinion. This is the new democracy. It is the most participatory democracy history has ever seen!

Firat Soylu is a PhD candidate pursuing a dual major degree in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.