OWS and Democracy

Let’s talk for a bit about democracy. Democracy is defined in the dictionary as “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

The history books tell us that a long time ago, places like ancient Athens attempted democracy without elected representatives, so that every citizen who showed up could have a say in how laws were made. But Athens was a relatively small place, and only a minority of residents qualified as citizens.

More recently, democracies have gone the elected representative route. This system works pretty well under the right conditions. The right conditions include an informed citizenry that gives enough of a damn to show up and vote in elections. It also assumes that factual and honest information about what’s going on is available to citizens, and that elections are mostly honest.

Of course, democracies can be corrupted all kinds of ways, but so can any other human institution. There may be incorruptible individuals, but no collection of people ever born could not be corrupted or co-opted, in whole or in part, sooner or later.

When democracies function well, they do a pretty good job of enabling people to direct their government to serve the public good. People often disagree, and sometimes mistakes are make. But on the whole, if not overwhelmed by corruption, democracies do have a proven track record of being able to hold nations together in a reasonably stable way, so that the people living in those nations can make the best of their lives. I think most of us would say we much prefer to live in a democracy than in a monarchy or a dictatorship.

Put another way, when working properly democracy provides a stable framework within which people and communities can live and grow and innovate, with optimum personal freedom.

There are some kind of human endeavors that don’t lend themselves to a democratic model. I am thinking of the community chorus I sing with. To be in a chorus means that you agree to sing the way the director tells you to sing. The chorus does not vote on whether a passage should be sung allegro or adagio, and it’s certainly not left up to individuals to follow their own bliss.

You can say the same thing about the military, although letting the troops vote on whether they will attack the enemy or just go home might (or might not) have shortened a lot of wars. The same thing goes for workplaces. Even employee-owned businesses have leadership hierarchies.

My point is that when a group of individuals are directed to complete some kind of task or otherwise work to a particular purpose, the democracy model probably won’t work. And that’s OK, because democracy is a principle of government, and a group working together to complete a task is a very different thing from a group of people living within a government.

From its beginning, I’ve been impatient with Occupy Wall Street’s fixation on “horizontal democracy” and “radically decentralized structure.” I remember feeling dismay when I read this interview in which a woman goes on and on about building horizontalism and working groups and such.

The way in which we’re organizing is part of our politics. If you’re placing demands on an institution or the state, you’re creating a kind of dialogue, rather than creating an open space for democratic discussion within the plaza.

One, we’ve already been creating a new kind of dialogue here in the blogosphere for the past ten years or so, and it’s a hell of a lot more effective, and open to participation, than OWS could ever be. Further, in U.S. history there have been all kinds of social and communal movements that experimented with new kinds of societies and organizational structures. If you want to do likewise, throw your money into a pot and buy some land in Nebraska, and then go there and form working groups on the prairie to your hearts’ content.

But if you want to be a movement that actually accomplishes something, you have to be willing to submit to a less than democratic organizational structure. There’s no getting around that. Deal with it.

The Nation has an article on “The Fracturing of Occupy Wall Street” that describes the original Manhattan crew as divided between “activists” and “occupiers.” The activists have found office space on Broadway and are planning actions such as Occupy Our Homes. The occupiers are at loose ends:

In the month since the New York Police Department violently forced the occupiers out of Zuccotti, the people whose residence was Liberty Plaza Park have nowhere to go. Some of them had previously been homeless. Others left their homes to join the movement. But deprived of the food station, the medical tent, the things that once fulfilled their needs for basic survival, they have rapidly lost faith in Occupy Wall Street’s much-vaunted democratic process to provide the supportive community that once existed here.

The activists have found shelter for some of the occupiers, but some among the occupiers seem determined to disrupt any attempt to re-organize.

… every meeting I’ve recently attended—and from what I gather, every recent meeting I have not—has been brought to a grinding halt, the basic ability to debate and consent to proposals crippled by a determined few who will not to let things proceed until their issues are addressed. This is the reason for the backed-up business. The people shouting about their needs over the debate.

A small number have taken to obstructing everything for reasons that are not entirely clear. But my impression is that the occupiers just plain need help. For a little while they felt they had a purpose, and something important to do, and that got yanked away from them, and they are angry about that. And the occupiers with resources and education and organizational skills now are in the Broadway office with the activists, leaving the rest to mostly fend for themselves.

So you’ve got some who want to challenge the capitalist establishment; and some who seem to want another go at the old Oneida Movement; and some who want food, shelter, and purpose. Those are all valid things, but this is the work of three different organizations. And at least two of those three are not going to be functional as a “horizontal democracy.”

7 thoughts on “OWS and Democracy

  1. I live in a New England town of 1,000. Like most NE towns, we meet once per year and argue about damn near everything the town did last year and wants to do next and how much it costs. It is very, very direct democracy. It works quite well, actually, even though it can be very tiresome.

    But the town meeting usually has only about 60 attendees. For comparison, a general election gets 600+ voters, an off year 300 or so and totally local questions get 150 or so.

    (This is all just a data point in the discussion of direct democracy. And I doubt it would work as well elsewhere, because there’s a long long tradition here of getting along with your neighbors, even if you can’t stand them.)

  2. The original “occupy” idea of “Occupy Wall Street” was a unique and great idea.

    Unfortunately, Wall Street is in NY City which can have some nasty, brutal winters. Even with Global ‘Weirding.’

    When you stray from your fundamental idea, you’d better have a terrific reason. Closing down ports ain’t exactly a really good idea. It’s AN idea – just not one consistent with OWS’s original philosophy.

    If I were OWS, I’d take a break for the winter, and regroup in the spring. If there are a few hardy hold-outs who want to brave the winter winds of NY, Chicago, etc., more power to them!

    Let the other couple of groups split off to do what they want to do – they’re not part of the original premise. Let them make their own points. It’s not like they don’t need to be made – just maybe NOT in the context of OWS’s umbrella.

    OWS needs to remain true to its cause – occupying the space near where the rich Galt’s do what they do to increase the difference between them and the remaining 99% of the world.

    They are a movement that’s more symbolic, than active.
    Let it stay that way.
    Sometimes, symbolism is enough.

  3. I read an eye opening book during the Bush years, America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, by Davidson Loehr, a UU pastor in Texas. A nice, thin, readable volume that imparts a lot.

    One of the points he made is that societies vary in the way they way they are led, from a very open arrangement where everyone has input, to those that are run from the top by iron willed leaders, who don’t care if they’re loved or not. Most importantly, he makes the point that there are times where each style is appropriate. During normal times, the more open, democratic arrangement, which consumes a lot of time, and which he characterizes as feminine, is appropriate for working through all concerns, and moving the organization slowly forward. During crisis times, requiring intense focus and push, societies organize around a strong leader, and democracy be damned. Loehr argues that the more democratic, feminine, open form is probably appropriate – works best – about 90% of the time; it’s only during exceptional crises that that the strong man form is appropriate.

    I agree that most focused efforts in a competitive environment, be it in business or politics requires a leadership that can lead. I remember being a Green party member years ago, and the meetings were very consensual and relatively leaderless, which was probably OK given the kinds of decisions that were made – but these meetings took forever to work through – you had to have more dedication than I had to what to me were petty issues, to stay with this process. And there were a few individuals who made the meetings all about them and their pet concerns – it was not a small challenge to keep them from taking over. Managing assholes is a significant energy-drain in the open, democratic style of organization, and I would argue is one of the first skillset a leader must acquire in order to step out in front and be a leader.

    Eventually OWS will grow up, and probably splinter along the lines you suggest.

  4. Occupy has done some really good things. The first and foremost of the good things they have done is scare Frank Luntz half to death. I look at Occupy as a movement of the youth because all the people I have seen as spokespersons are quite a bit younger than I. I think this is good because it is they who will inherit “the earth”–so to speak. Up until Occupy came about, I wondered what the young were going to do as it appeared us old DFH’s were still doing everything; and I am very tired. So, that is why I tip my hat to them and hope for success. I have little to offer to them because these are different times needed slightly different solutions coming from the youth of this country. In the sixties, it was the youth who started all the changes; and, that is the way it needs to be again.

  5. OWS has done some things well – and some things badly. The movement is part of Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ awarded to protesters. The decentralized nature of OWS prevents it from becoming ‘a movement that actually accomplishes something’. I agree. OWS can never replicate the revolutions that Ghandi or MLK. They don’t have a leader of the stature of those icons.

    Suppose, lacking a mercurial leader they elevate someone to be the ‘great leader’. Conservatives are handicapped now because they can’t readily shift the argument to an attack on a person. But give them a target with any flaw (or none) and the debate shifts to the person, rather than the issue.

    Case in point – How many articles have you seen which discredit global warming through an attack on Al Gore? The reality of climate change has NOTHING to do with an individual, but the noise machine relies on destroying an issue by destroying the person they associate with the issue.

    OWS has given their adversary the mask. To a great degree, the MSN, has reported the issue of inequality. The conservative narrative has been thrown off track. The price that OWS pays for anonymity is cohesion. Maybe they don’t need a hierarchical structure to be the thorn that conservatives must respond to. If so, the question is how voters will respond to the attitude of the GOP/TP. Overreach and overreaction are quite possible if the right buttons are pushed.

    • Democracy is something different from a representative republic, or a constitutional republic.

      Sigh. Crash course in political science:

      “Democracy” is derived from a Greek word meaning “rule of the people.” The standard definition of democracy is “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” A democratic government, then, is one in which the ultimate authority to govern rests with the people themselves.

      “Republic” these days usually refers to any government in which the heads of state are elected. (In the 19th century it was used to mean any government that is not a monarchy.) A republic can be a democracy, but not necessarily. Communist countries have tended to call themselves “republics” and hold elections, but the ultimate authority to govern tends to rest with the Communist Party and not with the people.

      So, “democracy” and “republic” are not antonyms. The United States is both a representative or constitutional republic and a democracy. It is not incorrect to call it either a “democracy” or a “republic.” The People’s Republic of China is a republic in the narrow sense of the word, but it is not a democracy except in its own propaganda.

      In some parts of the Federalist Papers, the authors spoke against democracy, but in context they were talking about the kind of “direct” or “pure” democracy of ancient Athens. The Athenians did not elect representatives. Laws were agreed upon by an assembly of whatever citizens assembled. It is workable on a small scale, but kind of cumbersome for a big country.

      The Founders were mostly 18th century aristocrats, remember, and were kind of leery about a government that might allow common people to rule nobility. So they tended to shy away from trumpeting the virtues of democracy, and use of the “d” word, even though that’s what they established.

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