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 weâ€™re organizing is part of our politics. If youâ€™re placing demands on an institution or the state, youâ€™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 Streetâ€™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 Iâ€™ve recently attendedâ€”and from what I gather, every recent meeting I have notâ€”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.”