The Future of Democracy: Growing participation and engagement to shift thinking

By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett
The University of The Bahamas

This week, a team from the University of The Bahamas schools of Communications and Creative Arts, English and Social Sciences partnered with members of organisations for Responsible Governance, Hands for Hunger, and the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) to put on “The Future of Democracy” Conference that focused on Participatory Democracy or the importance of people being active and engaged in their democratic process. The idea behind the conference was to explore the interstitial space between people participation, cultural engagement and design for resilience.  So, really underscoring the need for people to participate in the design of their lives and living spaces, otherwise, their homes become spaces where they are no longer culturally, economically or politically welcome. 

History tells the reader that the democratic process in The Bahamas is stacked against mass participation.  Numerous and multiple layers and mechanism are used to discourage people’s participation through voting to understanding that they have a voice in the active engagement in cultural determination and the building of society.   

Firstly, we have to appreciate that involvement and inclusion of the “Out Islands” is essential because these are all parts of The Bahamas. One presenter demonstrated how ‘local’ government fought tooth and nail with the colonial office to prevent majority from actively being engaged in their democracy.  So, we see an already existent historical reality that bars, inhibits, frustrates and retards people’s participation in the shaping of their homes.  This reality is played out in interesting ways when it comes to design thinking and how we (re)design our homes to meet the new demands of climate change, sea level rise and increasing spatial displacement through coastal erosion, natural and otherwise. 

So, the work presented by the collectives Plastico Fantastico and Expo 2020 in the seventh Double Dutch “Hot Water” presented at the NAGB begins the conversation that really grapples with concepts as worked on by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and then how those are brought into the frame of the camera, metaphorically and literally, by Gayatri Spivak in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea” (2010).  This was interestingly troubled by the historical context of colonial representation colliding with post-colonial disempowering that uses the same tools, same language and same mechanisms to affect the same or similar results.  The historical background argues that the landed interest refuses to acquiesce to greater inclusion for fear of what will become of the place.  The colony will be overrun with unsavoury characters.  Meanwhile, the voice of some speaks out to implore people into participation. 

As the Women’s Suffrage movement members argue, people need to be educated on how to be democratic citizens.  A democracy, then, does not function with uneducated voters, but rather depends on an informed and activated group of readers and doers. The role of the National University is clear here.  This is not a University whose budget is cut annually by the government that claims to be focused on the youth and education.  The latest eight percent cut cripples those same ideals.  We see then from this that while the vernacular presents one picture of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, as hinted at in Marion Bethel’s Womanish Ways, the reductive process of patriarchal power undermines and undervalues the work the group was really doing. 

The messages from the collective vision of the vernacular art and writing of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that sees the focus on expressionism and liberation are often not seen by the population today that have ultimately reduced these vanguard leaders to being concerned with women’s issues, issues that are ‘easily dismissed’ by serious matters of state.  Yet, these were serious and weighty matters of state from enfranchisement and inclusion to the understanding that the colony needed to create literate, informed and engaged citizens in order for workings to improve.  They were about the work of decolonization, a serious problem in the colonies not because they were so much controlled by a colonial power, but because, much like India, they were controlled by an economic interest that placed emphasis on profits over people. 

So, the tensions on the ground were between, to reduce to simple terms, the interest in profits—stasis—and the fight for voice, which was always fraught with road blocks and hurdles often imposed by key figures in the liberation fight.  The art of legislation and legal writing, the constitution of 1964 and the manifestos of the political parties today reveal how utterly static the discourse has become.  So, we have returned to the displacement of local voices through global powers that determine the outcome for local communities.  The fight is often between the neighbourhood potcake and the well-bred, class A alsatian who has come in to ensure the integrity of the system.  So the companies that work to control laws, legislation and governance/government are players in the economy who stop small business from becoming big business and then offer assistance to small business in ways that destroy them.  Perhaps the homily from the conference could be the need to read beyond the words on the page to being able to read the context of the work.  The words do not reveal the message.  It is only in reading the sentence and then the paragraph and understanding how these all play together, much like the importance of cultural retention and spatial justice to national economic empowerment.    

The conference brought together theory and praxis to show possible models for redesigning the future of democratic inclusion and participation.  The work to redesign sustainable communities with their inclusion and participation is a national, regional, international, multinational and global process that cannot work without those who reside here or inhabit the space.  It goes beyond the polemics of two flying for free to an island that does not have airlift to people being agents in their own stories, histories, economies and futures.  The race is not always for the large, stealthy green project of multinational specificity, but the local players who own and occupy the land as home, not simply as a job-based economy where bodies are served and other bodies are consumed.

Public in attendance at the recently held “The Future of Democracy” conference which took place at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas on September 24th and 25th, 2018.