Towards a postcolonial future for democracy

A story about my personal journey

by Maarten de Groot

In this blog post, I talk about my own journey in the field of democratic innovation, as someone working (primarily) in civil society, and as someone with many privileges. I share how and why I have become much more critical of the dominant approach to democratic innovation, and the potential I see for alternative approaches.

As a university-educated white man from the Netherlands, I was not focused on social justice questions for a long time. It’s not that I considered these questions unimportant, but I tacitly assumed that it was possible for me to contribute to advancing political justice (a.k.a. democracy) without fully delving into the histories – and herstories – of social injustice and resistance. Moreover, influenced by the academic work of people/fellow white men like Philip Pettit, I believed – or perhaps wanted to believe(?) – that questions of political justice have a certain priority over questions of social justice. With hindsight, I feel deceived. At present, I would argue that the very differentiation of social and political justice is part of a divide and rule strategy that only benefits the powers-that-be.

This fundamental change in my perspective is the result of a learning journey that was triggered by my personal experience of conflict and disillusionment as a member of a political movement – DiEM25 – that I once felt passionate about. To cut a long story short: during the last weeks and months of my DiEM25 membership in mid-2020, which coincided with the global surge of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, I realised how entangled we all are, in different ways, in the systems of oppression that we want to eradicate, and how crucial it is to be(come) aware of our own entanglement.

The book I read that summer, just after leaving DiEM25, was Sensuous knowledge: A black feminist approach for everyone” by Minna Salami. Salami starts the book by telling the “story of the ‘The Mountain’, where two explorers saw the mountain differently depending on their perspective” (p. 162). Reading that book, and this story in particular, confronted me with the ways in which my worldview was shaped by my life choices, and, in turn, how this was conditioned by my mostly privileged and care-free starting position in life. More importantly, I realised how limited my worldview was, and how limiting this is for someone wishing to contribute to fundamental change.

What I ‘saw’ then, I could not unsee. The transformation I felt I was going through could not be stopped, let alone reversed. Rather than reading more books about European democracy authored by white men, I started to read more Black Feminist work by BIPOC women. The following sentence from the Combahee River Collective Statement triggered a fundamental shift in my orientation: “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Since reading this statement, I’ve been asking myself what this may mean for me, both personally and professionally, considering the many privileges I have.

I’ve been working in the field of European democracy, and democratic innovation in particular, with a lot of passion. One may say that this topic has become part of my own identity. At the same time, the journey I’ve been on has left me feeling alienated from the dominant way of seeing, thinking and doing things in this field.

The field of democratic innovation is typically very solution- and future-oriented. While there is nothing wrong with the wish to shape a better future, I believe it becomes problematic when a focus on the future results in a disregard for fundamental present-day problems and inequalities, and their historical roots. Within the field of deliberative democracy, polarisation is frequently presented as the core problem facing our societies. What is missing from this analysis, in my view, is that polarisation is only a byproduct of the divide and rule politics of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy, serving the few, not the many.

This brings me to a closely connected second aspect of the dominant approach to democratic innovation I take issue with: organisations working in the field of democratic innovation, and in particular those implementing political participation projects, frequently present themselves as ‘policy-neutral’ or ‘impartial’ vis-a-vis ‘debates’ on social justice. As a result, you will not see many of these organisations actively presenting themselves as anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, let alone anti-capitalist. This idea of ‘neutrality’ or ‘impartiality’ is not only flawed and misleading, in my view, the act of distancing oneself from social justice activism actively contributes to the divide and rule strategy that prevents fundamental change from happening. As famously stated by Desmond Tutu, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. By contrast, if we follow Patricia Hill Collins in understanding participatory democracy “as a political project that aims to empower subordinated groups” – as I do – then it becomes obvious that we need an intersectional, antiracist, feminist (or Black feminist) approach to democratic innovation.

While the previous comments have hinted at ways in which a fundamentally different and better approach to democratic innovation can take shape (and is already taking shape, even if marginalised), I think that we can only achieve so much in this respect. As recently stated by Jairo I. Fúnez-Flores, “you can’t diversity, equity & inclusion your way out of coloniality and settler colonialism.” Therefore, I believe it is important not to ‘remain stuck’ in the field of democratic innovation, but to think about the actions we need to take, and the coalitions we need to build, in order to create the conditions for a truly postcolonial future for democracy. This explains in part why I recently, inspired by the work of Gurminder Bhambra, among others, have refocused some of my energy on changing my own and other people’s self-conception as Europeans, aiming for a shift in the dominant narrative about Europe and its role in the world: “a shift in focus from Habermasian ideas of Europe exemplifying an unfinished project of modernity to, following Nelson Maldonado-Torres, an understanding of Europe’s unfinished project of decolonization.”

Maarten de Groot (pronouns: he/him) was a participant in PDD’s workshop on Decolonizing Democratic Innovations. He works on a freelance basis for various organisations active in the field of democratic innovation and European Union politics.


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