“Liberty will roll all the tyrants of the universe in the dust” reads one of the catchy slogans of the French Revolution. We, who are fortunate enough to breathe the air of freedom, can agree that trying to compress the general idea of freedom is an uphill battle. And yet, as we put on face masks to protect ourselves and others, we do so in confidence that one day these restrictions will pass and we’ll be able – among other things – to breathe freely again. But where do we take this confidence from? How come that most of us intuitively know that the government will eventually loosen the reins of power it now wields?
One possible way of explanation would be to list all the norms and institutions that currently underpin our democratic order. In other words, “the confidence in democracy stems from the existence of the constitution, the Supreme Court of Justice, the separation of powers, the free press, free elections…” and so on ad infinitum. Nevertheless, it is still possible to conceive of a society – both hypothetically and factually speaking – where none of these institutional conditions holds and yet the idea of liberty still flourishes.
And so it appears, that prior to any democratic institutional framework there has to be a set of societal conditions that allow for the democratic ideals to emerge in the first place – similar to a seedbed that is necessary for seeds to grow into blossoming flowers. As such, we can think of at least three other factors that could motivate democratic sentiments: 1) the general education of the citizenry; 2) their economic bargaining power; and importantly – 3) the physical infrastructure in place “in which the public organises itself as the bearer of public opinion” (see Habermas, 1962).
Think of 3) as all the physical (as well as virtual) places that foster the social life of a community; those might include operas, theatres, social media, meeting rooms, restaurants and even … coffee shops!
The reason why I am highlighting the importance of 3) is because it is often overlooked and underestimated in the grand scheme of things. Although the Arab Spring demonstrated that social media can topple an entire system of government, we don’t think the same way about other meeting spaces. And yet it seems intuitive that our customs, social rituals and ways of interacting determine the form of government we end up having. Therefore, allow me to demonstrate that something ordinary, like a coffee shop, can have a profound impact on our democratic way of life.
Coffee Shop – The Great Equaliser?
Accessible public spaces played an essential role in the early dawn of democracy. As it is well known, “nearly every city of ancient Greece had an agora – meaning a meeting place “, which most of the inhabitants of a polis would use for political, religious, informal as well as artistic purposes. Think of it as a large square, of the size of several football fields, occupied mostly by market stands, benches and stands for public oration. Among the frequent visitors of agoras were the ancient thinkers whose ideas still captivate us today. This is where Socrates discoursed about philosophy, where Aristotle discussed his major works, where both Hippocrates and Pythagoras publicly taught their pupils. Therefore, agoras were not just an equivalent of modern-day squares, rather they were at the very heart of social life.
However, it is important to note that not everyone could partake in the fruits of ancient democracy. For instance, the patriarchal system disallowed women from participating in public life; slavery was still a thing, and only the well-off citizens had the right to vote and run for office. So even though agoras allowed for the emergence of democratic discourse, they still could not blur the lines of inequity drawn by different modes of socio-economic oppression. In short: status determined who got to participate. This is important in light of the fact that up until the 17th century public squares remained the centre of social interaction. As a result, the introduction of coffee houses and restaurants into the public domain fundamentally reshaped the social norms.
Philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues that coffee houses and similar establishments allowed the middle-class to self-organise as the bearer of public opinion and thusly to gain decisive social power. Firstly, these establishments increased the degree of public communication by encouraging discussion and the exchange of private ideas. Secondly, the circulation of printed ‘weeklies’ in coffee houses improved the political awareness of the general public. Thirdly, coffee houses allowed people from different social strata to congregate under the same roof which, to a degree, blurred the lines of socio-economic inequality. In a sense, coffee shops overturned a centuries-old model of social interaction. So even though we take coffee shops to be just another regular part of our life, they are in point of fact integral to our democratic identity.
Nevertheless, there is an important cautionary tale in Habermas’s work. He notes that the coffee house culture was in its early beginnings only accessible to the well-to-do patrons – an issue that might well still persist today. After all, coffee shops are nowadays mostly accessible to the people who have time and money to spend (for instance, the average American spends $1100 on coffee per year). Although most of us probably enjoy going to coffee shops on weekly basis, there are still those who don’t have such an option and in that sense, the coffee shop culture remains exclusive.
One Cappuccino Please!
Coffee shops, being one of the variables of our democratic framework they are, often remind me of the wider decision-making process underlying democratic elections. To illustrate: when you come to a coffee shop, you spend some time deliberating on the long list of items on the menu – similar to a voting ballot containing the list of parties you can choose from. Some people know straight away what they want, some spend some time consulting their tastes, and some need the advice of their companion on what to choose. Once the order has been made, you have to wait for a certain amount of time before it is delivered to you. You have no guarantee whether you will like the result, but you have no other option than to put your trust into the hands of the establishment. However, you still keep the power to be the ultimate judge of the final product. If you like it – you can tip the waiter or come again next time; if you don’t, no one forces you to be loyal to the establishment and in some cases, you can demand your money back.
There is no question that this sort of decision process facilitates a peaceful exercise of public opinion in a democracy. The obvious downside to this is the prolonged waiting period before campaign promises are put into action. Also, such a system requires us to just sit back and hope that politicians are going to deliver. For instance, Boris Johnson famously remarked about Brexit that it means “having your cake and eating it”. But as the Brexit deadline looms, do we have a guarantee that there is going to be a cake and if so, are we gonna like it? This is not to criticise the current prime minister, but rather to underscore the degree of uncertainty that a certain democratic process may yield.
As such, this sort of “cafe democracy” brings along an element of laziness on the part of the patron. This becomes particularly risky in these turbulent times when we are facing the COVID-19 crisis and the severe impacts of climate change are just behind the corner. The more we wait and hope that our local politicians are going to act, the more our bill piles up. Our future costs are increasing due to the current lack of caution. Imagine sitting in a coffee shop where the price of your cappuccino increases proportionately to the number of minutes you spend waiting before it is served. Such is the price of our current inaction.
And so, although we might appreciate the time-passing in a coffee shop, for our democracy to work at the moment – the time is of the essence!