It’s a big question and one that I’m afraid I can’t answer in the affirmative. Not yet, probably never. I’m not sure democracy can ever be saved, at least not in an ultimate sense. It’s in the nature of democracy to be more about process, ongoing negotiations, exchanges, corrections and conflicts – tedious, messy and anxiety-inducing as these may seem.

Perhaps we should view democracy more like Alan Watts thought of life:

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey with a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end the thing was to get to that end success or whatever it is or maybe heaven after you’re there. But we missed the point the whole way along it was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”


So what if even the best we can ever do, despite gargantuan efforts, will always fall short of “saving” democracy, if we can only hope to keep it alive, or, better yet, to make it come alive? And what if that is exactly what play brings to the table – life? As my friend, the late Bernie DeKoven kept saying: “playfulness will lead us back to life itself”.

Isn’t that worth working hard for, worth fighting for?

I, for one, think so, and that feeling grows stronger by the day.

While I have long been interested in play, participation, power and similar topics, I have only recently developed a more direct and explicit connection to democracy itself. I must admit that for a long time, I took democracy for granted. We know that relationships between people suffer when they take each other for granted, and any love that was there eventually withers away. The same is true for democracy, and taking it for granted, assuming it would always be there, was a big mistake, if a common one. Growing up as a white, middle class male with a decent (free!) education in a fairly solid (social) democratic welfare state like Denmark, sheer privilege didn’t allow me to see how deep trouble we’re actually in.

As David Runciman writes in “How Democracy Ends”:

“Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories”.

Most democracies, all over the world, are in a state of crisis, and it seems deeper and more severe than many of us had assumed. The outlook is bleak:

“The question for the twenty-first century is how long we can persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they have ceased to work. () A hollowed-out version of democracy risks lulling us into a false sense of security. We might continue to trust in it and to look to it for rescue, even as we seethe with irritation at its inability to answer the call. Democracy could fail while remaining intact.” – David Runciman

Even so, at this tense moment, it’s not too late to act (or so I have to believe), but things have to change and radically so. Once upon a time, democracy gave people hope of a better future, of more equal societies, of shared decision making, and while the future looks less bright, there’s hope still:

“Despite democracy’s many failures, it remains a stirring dream, a fantasy, an ideal that has taken various institutional forms over time and generated hopes for creating equitable social, economic, and political arrangements now and in the future.” – Temma Kaplan

In the face of neoliberalism’s “politics of necessity”, I am becoming radicalised, insisting instead on the possibility of a different world. Democracy is not supposed to be a dull, bureaucratic process, it’s a matter of life, joy, hope and dreams, and maybe “it is not so hard to turn the struggles for greater participatory democracy into sites of collective exhilaration, given the creativity, strength and agency we can gain from one another along the way” (Lynne Segal)?

I have begun, slowly and without any clear destination, to chart these waters, exploring the many connections between play and democracy. It is an attempt to weave together different strands of knowledge, finding vantage points from where to survey the land, to gain numerous, diverse perspectives on both play and democracy. This thing I’m making is a patchwork, a messy one that probably won’t be much to look at, but what if we’re wrong to obsess with the aesthetics of democracy? I can’t do “polished”, but that’s a misguided goal anyway. Does it really matter how it looks, if it has the potential to transform society for the better?

I’m not a proper researcher and this is not a proper research project, rather it is my hope that it will sit somewhere between research and practice, between the theoretical and the empirical. That is, to the best of my knowledge, the space where the most interesting and (sometimes) surprising things happen, when mind and body, ideas and experiences, collide, merge and enrich each other.

Where do an exploration of play and democracy even begin?

I will probably be travelling along many avenues at once, and then examine the intersections between these: looking into the empirical experiences of “play as democracy”, designing practical experiments (like CounterPlay), talking about it wit lots of different people/groups, while also reading up on the (massive) field of theory and research.

I believe that we must be equally ambitious with both phenomena, taking them both very, very seriously on their own terms. Play is not some shallow concept we all understand because we were once (or have since had) children. On the contrary, it’s complex, ambiguous, diverse and always moving just outside the reach of our grasp. It calls for passionate, serious study and it demands hard work. The same is true for democracy. We can’t begin this journey by assuming we know what democracy is because the state we live is called a democracy, and we’d be thoroughly mistaken if we reduce it to winning a majority at election night.

There has to be more to it, as Donatella della Porta argues in “Can Democracy be Saved?”:

“The quality of decisions could be expected to decline with the decline in participation, as the habit of delegating tends to make citizens not only more apathetic, but also more cynical and selfish. Participation is instead praised as a school of democracy: capable of constructing good citizens through interaction and empowerment”

I’m driven by instinct, a gut feeling and an assumption that there is something special about play when it comes to (democratic) participation. On top of that, I have seen with my own eyes what play can do, I have created arenas for this to happen, I have talked to people far more knowledgeable than me and I have read (some of) their works.

For democracy to thrive, it must be something we *live*, an approach to life and the world, driven by a sense of agency and capacity to act in and change societies through everyday negotiations. Just like play, democracy proper is unruly, encourages participation and diversity, and keeps evolving to adapt to the needs of the people involved:

“I argue that play is that social laboratory. When we play with others, we create and administer a publicly acknowledged reality () When people agree on the terms of their engagement with one another and collectively bring those little worlds into being, they effectively create models for living.” – Thomas S. Henricks

What I’m hinting at is not some form of pseudo democracy or simulated democracy. It’s not about role-playing democracy (however important and meaningful that can also be!). I don’t see play as not real; “play is not detached from the world; it lives and thrives in the world” (Miguel Sicart). To me, play is democracy and to play is to act democratically.

Following the Hero’s journey, this is the call to adventure and I hope you’ll join me. I have no idea where we’ll end up, but we can only make it together (in a very literal sense).

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.

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