Recently we held a WorldChanging Canada retreat and, among other things, hosted several speakers from Canada and the US. Jason Diceman gave a fascinating presentation on democracy in Venezuela, and introduced us all to the idea of dotmocracy.
A glance at Jason's website tells you everything you need to know about what dotmocracy is. His presentation--and more, his story of travels in Venezuela and of trials of the system where the rubber meets the road--was eye-opening in that it showed me, at least, what this simple idea can do. Jason talked about visiting the tiny village collectives in the Venezuelan countryside (a place where even lower-middle-class homes are surrounded by tall fences with razor wire on top--to discourage kidnapping); he was warmly welcomed by a people who are eager for and accepting of transformative change. Some of the pictures he showed us are here and they convey the enthusiasm and excitement with which local people are embracing tools that allow them to take charge of their own lives.
Venezuela has deeply rooted problems; Jason talked of hearing gunshots regularly and even saw someone pull a gun in public and fire it (missing his intended target, apparently). The reaction of the locals to such events is to duck and cover, then shrug. There are also huge disparities between rich and poor, unimaginably extreme from our point of view, and it's into this climate of violence and oppression that Hugo Chavez has stepped.
Chavez rules by decree; the villagers Jason spoke to had a profound mistrust of all levels of government except the very top. If they have a problem, they want to take it directly to the president--and they do. This works for now, but no one wanted to discuss what will happen when Chavez is no longer there to keep the system running.
On the local level, there's hope that the people will at least have pulled themselves out of complete poverty by then. Chavez is supposed to be providing them with radical new tools for controlling their personal circumstances--including a working universal health care system. Local projects are decided upon in municipal councils that are voted into power locally, and these councils are directly answerable to the constituents. This is the theory--in fact, as Jason discovered, local meetings are often dominated by two or three strong-willed elders (always men) who monopolize the discussion; there's rampant nepotism and graft; and a two-hour meeting can consist of sixteen people repeating the same points over and over again, with the result that only one or two issues get decided.
Enter dotmocracy. Jason's simple, paper-based system lets issues be generated and voted on (with relative, though not complete, anonymity) in one smooth process that can take as little as half an hour. When the dotmocracy sheets are handed out everybody gets a voice, and the most popular ideas are voted in immediately. The results of one of the Venezuelan experiments and numerous other case-studies are available on the dotmocracy site.
After Jason's talk, we tried a little dotmocracy experiment of our own, simply trying to come up with an idea or question that we could build further discussion on. One thing that became immediately clear is that dotmocracy is a polling system but not a voting system: two of our proposals were tied for first place. The dotmocracy process doesn't deal with how you decide between such alternatives. Then again, it's not supposed to. What it does do is generate consensus on values, directions, and ambitions. At a local level, in such a place as Venezuela, this can have a magical effect.