Friday, September 30, 2011

Participatory Democracy is Hard

Apart from sartorial and piercing issues, the biggest problem the so-called "left" seems to have with the Occupation movement that's spreading from New York is its apparent lack of focus, lack of clearly stated demands, and lack of singular purpose.

"It's too much like the SDS."

In other words, it's a participatory, direct democracy, perhaps the most unwieldy and difficult form of political organization there is.

Not only is participatory democracy difficult in operation, it is frustrating, aggravating, and it is often filled with dissension and conflict while attempting to reach consensus.

Why would these people choose the participatory model of organization and development when an authoritarian model is so much easier and more efficient?

Ideally, the question answers itself.

But somehow, for many members of the so-called "left," the organizational model is the fundamental issue that must be resolved at the outset in favor of ease and efficiency -- and media convenience; in other words, the only model of protest and direct action that "works" is the authoritarian top-down model we see in the media, the current major political parties, many unions, and in corporate operations.

The Wisconsin effort earlier this year is sometimes held up as a nearly textbook example of the "correct" model of protest and direct action, as it was ultimately a matter of public employee union and Democratic Party political organization that kept it going.

The only problem is that it was an objective failure. I'd go farther: it was an objective rout. The Wisconsin protest, despite its size and duration, achieved... nothing... that it set out to. None of the union demands were met, all of the Democratic legislator's efforts came to naught, and control of the Wisconsin State Senate was not flipped. Russell Feingold refused to get involved with the protests, wouldn't even show up until after the end of the occupation of the Capitol, and he refused to challenge Scott Walker in next year's planned recall election of the governor. That pretty much took the air out of what was left of the Wisconsin protest movement. There may or may not even be a recall of Scott Walker next year.

In retrospect, it seems obvious what went wrong, though at the time it wasn't so clear, and nothing I have to say about it is intended to denigrate the efforts of those involved. They did what they could in the way they knew how, and it failed. All right, learn from it.

The initial factor in what went wrong with the Wisconsin protests was the fact that there were protests at all; there were protests because there was a Republican sweep of state offices and the legislature, and the Republicans took this as a mandate to completely overhaul the relationship between public employee unions and the state. There was a Republican sweep in the 2010 elections in large part because Democrats and Independents stayed home, they did not go to the polls, and thereby, let the Republicans win.

Democrats and Independents stayed home in large measure because they were either disappointed or disgusted with the continuing failure of the Democratic President and Democratic majorities elected all over the country in 2008 to appropriately deal with the human fall out from the ongoing recession, and to appropriately act on behalf of the public interest.

Once the protests in Wisconsin were under way, the single issue of maintaining collective bargaining rights for unionized public employees seemed... well, weak. Union leadership had already conceded pay and benefit cuts. So that, supposedly, wasn't an issue. Yet it is the key issue in a recession that is as characterized as this one is by such high and enduring unemployment, such high levels of household debt, and such price inflation of necessities like food and fuel.

Instead of focusing on the weak issue of collective bargaining rights, the public focus of the protests was on how corrupt and "evil" the Republicans in office were. Well. Yes? And? How they broke the rules. Yes? And? How they manipulated the system for their own benefit. Yes. True. So? This became a round of taunts and accusations, legal challenges, huge marches, a truly wonderful video (which I have posted several times)... and, ultimately, failure.

The focus on holding on to something (collective bargaining) and on electoral issues -- on the Republicans, for example, and their evility -- and eventually on recall elections was to my way of looking at it what led to the failure of the protests. The issues Wisconsinites and Americans in general face go far beyond the parochial and partisan issues of elections. The protests in effect were trying to relitigate the election just past, but even a "win" would not have substantively changed the situation for most Wisconsinites. That was the fundamental problem that the Wisconsin protests could not and would not address since they were completely captive of the public employee unions and the Democratic Party organization -- which had already conceded the key issues.

In other words, the top down authoritarian model of protest practiced in Wisconsin brought out a lot of people, made a lot of noise, caused a big ruckus, but it did not achieve its stated objectives. It did not achieve any of them.

Nevertheless, some on the so-called "left" -- mostly union and Democratic Party apparatchiks -- insist that Wisconsin was a "success" because it has led to a re-invigoration of the Democratic Party and of unions and it has left a much stronger political organization in its wake. Yes. Well. So?

One thing it didn't get was significant media coverage and respect. In fact, such coverage as there was of the Wisconsin protests were used as a vehicle for union-bashing on a level I really hadn't seen since the early Reagan years. It was an opening salvo in an ongoing effort to pit unionized public employees against everyone else, on the basis of "unfairness". Public employees enjoy pay and benefits much better than most people do, and gosh-darn it, it's just "unfair." The only answer we ever hear is to disable their unions, cut their numbers, cut their pay and cut their benefits so that their compensation and working conditions more closely match those of ordinary Americans. It's a nationwide campaign, and it is succeeding.

The unions, so far, have not been able to effectively counter it, and public employees are taking a severe economic and public relations beating everywhere, so much so that they are generally conceding to pay and benefit cuts, retirement cuts and layoffs -- basically anything that's asked of them -- so as to (hopefully) maintain any presence in the public sector at all. The exception right now is New York where the public employee unions refused to agree to the cuts demanded by the Democratic governor, and there will no doubt be conflict.

Comes now the Occupation action which is taking a very different tack, not even -- at this point -- declaring themselves to be "protesting." No, instead, they are building A Movement for a Better Future, using as their models the successful (or at least ongoing) Occupation actions in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. They are adopting the successful "leaderless opposition, participatory democracy" model that has been utilized over and over again and is still being used in Europe and North Africa and the Middle East to achieve much broader objectives than simply holding on to the status quo.

As Ian Welsh puts it, this is an existential threat to the hidebound "leftist" union and party elites because it doesn't even involve them. It has nothing to do with them. It goes around them completely. They can't fundraise off it, they can't fearmonger off it, and they can't control it. Unions and union members are now becoming involved in the Occupation movement (to their credit), but they are joining something that's already under way, and there is no sign at all, at least at this point, that they will be able to take it over, or even that they want to take it over. Right now, it looks like they want to be part of it, and that's a good thing.

Last night's General Assembly and its aftermath got somewhat tense in Liberty Plaza because of what the participants were dealing with: A Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. It's not easy. But this is what they came up with (I'm copying the whole thing, but please go to the link for the considerable discussion):

Declaration of the Occupation of New York City
Posted on September 30, 2011 by NYCGA

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

  • They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
  • They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
  • They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
  • They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.
  • They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
  • They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
  • They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
  • They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
  • They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
  • They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
  • They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
  • They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
  • They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
  • They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.
  • They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
  • They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.
  • They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
  • They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
  • They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
  • They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
  • They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts. *

    To the people of the world,

    We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

    Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

    To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

    Join us and make your voices heard!

    *These grievances are not all-inclusive.

  • Furthermore, the group has produced and thoroughly discussed their Principles of Solidarity:

    PRINCIPLES OF SOLIDARITY – working draft
    Posted on September 24, 2011 by NYCGA

    What follows is a living document that will be revised
    through democratic process of General Assembly

    On September 17, 2011, people from all across the United States of America and the world came to protest the blatant injustices of our times perpetuated by the economic and political elites. On the 17th we as individuals rose up against political disenfranchisement and social and economic injustice. We spoke out, resisted, and successfully occupied Wall Street. Today, we proudly remain in Liberty Square constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love. It is from these reclaimed grounds that we say to all Americans and to the world, Enough! How many crises does it take? We are the 99% and we have moved to reclaim our mortgaged future.

    Through a direct democratic process, we have come together as individuals and crafted these principles of solidarity, which are points of unity that include but are not limited to:

  • Engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;
  • Exercising personal and collective responsibility;
  • Recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions;
  • Empowering one another against all forms of oppression;
  • Redefining how labor is valued;
  • The sanctity of individual privacy;
  • The belief that education is human right; and
  • Endeavoring to practice and support wide application of open source.

  • We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality. We are consolidating the other proposed principles of solidarity, after which demands will follow.
    1 The Working Group on Principles of Consolidation continues to work through the other proposed principles to be incorporated as soon as possible into this living document.
    This is an official document crafted by the Working Group on Principles of Consolidation. The New York City General Assembly came to consensus on September 23rd to accept this working draft and post it online for public consumption

    And a growing list of demands is being formulated.

    In addition, the Plaza where the Occupation activists are camped out is (according to those who have been there) very well organized and maintained, the people who participate are well taken care of despite the difficulties of the situation (such as weather, for example), and the issue of police misconduct, which got the media interested in what was going on, is not the highest priority of most of the participants.

    After all:

    And everyone knows it.

    There are at present almost 100 Occupation actions being self-organized all over the country and abroad in solidarity with the OccupyWallStreet action. I'm planning to attend one tomorrow.

    Find one near you. Go. See. Participate.

    It may fail -- "too much like the SDS" -- and participatory democracy is hard. Yep.

    Is it worse than being laughed at by these people?

    You decide.

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