Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Democracy comes in many forms. This is the worst.

A lot of people seem to think that "consensus democracy" is the only genuine form of democracy, because it is -- in theory -- inclusive. To the contrary: It is the most exclusive, most elitist form of democracy ever invented.

I'll prove it.

The argument I'm about to make does not pertain only to the current Occupy Wall Street movement, although that's a good place to start. Among the many excellent stories about the movement published recently is this Mother Jones piece on the early days. Heretofore, most of us have been under the impression that OWS was the brainchild of the editors of Adbusters magazine; in fact, the machinery got going earlier.

Turns out that much of the early impetus came from a couple known as Begonia and Luis -- the full names remain unrevealed -- who had witnessed earlier protests in their native Spain. There, the protesters are known as the 15-M Movement. From Wikipedia's account:
What has emerged from the movement's rejection of representative democracy (denounced in DRY's manifesto as having klepto-plutarchratic tendencies) appears to be a form of grassroots participatory democracy based on people's assemblies and consensus decision making.
According to the Mother Jones piece, Begonia and Luis returned to America and asked: "Why not here?"
Why not bring the general assembly to Manhattan, Begonia and Luis suggested. Some said general assemblies were too time-consuming and tedious, but in the end, the idea took hold.
And how did it work in practice? This quote is key, so I'll boldface it.
The NYCGA met on Saturdays in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village at 5:30 p.m. and lasted as long as 5 1/2 hours. Afterward, people would regroup at Odessa, Sitrin recalls, a popular diner among the activist set where, over pierogis and potato pancakes, the talk of politics and economics carried on deep into the night.
Five and a half freakin' hours. And then the talk-talk-talking went on (and on and on) from there.

I've had nights like that, back in the '70s and early '80s -- and yes, they can be stimulating and fun. We oldsters cannot deny the right of these young people to experience the same exhilaration of intellectual battle that we once knew. Those bull sessions over pierogis will be the stuff of great memories in later decades.


Imagine you work for a living. Imagine you work two or three jobs. Imagine that you're also trying to raise a kid.

(Some of you won't have to imagine.)

Or imagine that you are, like me, an old fart -- well, let's say "no longer a young fart" -- and you've already done your share of those night-long political gab-fests. Maybe you just don't want to do that kind of thing anymore. In my case, politics is all about the eyes and the fingers, not the mouth. Words come in through the eyes; words go out through the fingers. If you met me and hoped to engage in political dialogue, you would be disappointed. These days, I despise talking about politics -- in fact, I'm fairly taciturn in general.

A cynic once said that only kids with rich parents could take part in the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Similarly, the only people who can take part in the "pirogi nights" described above are young and free of responsibilities. I know the type. Mommy and Daddy probably provide free lodging, and may even pay the credit card bills.

So how much does a pirogi and potato pancake meal cost at Odessa? About eleven bucks -- which, by NYC standards, is pretty damned reasonable. But I can't afford a meal like that these days (except on very rare occasions) and I bet a lot of you are similarly forced to choose from the dollar menu when you have the luxury of a night out.

In a previous post, I introduced you to my formerly leftist former friend Colin, who tried to get a Green Party off the ground in Los Angeles circa 1982. A big believer in consensus democracy, Colin was. You know why? Because he had all the time in the world. His rich Mommy paid his bills; when asked his line of work, he would reply: "I suck the teat." Moreover, he could outlast anyone else during those hours-long gab sessions, because that man lived to argue. I'm not saying that his views were correct -- they rarely were -- but he would wear you down and wear you down until you said: "All right, fine, whatever." Anything to get the creep to shut up.

The chimera of consensus democracy gives a huge advantage to guys like that.

If you are young, relatively affluent, well-educated and willing to talk talk talk, you can bludgeon everyone else in the room into agreement. Consensus democracy is therefore much more elitist, much more exclusionary than is representative democracy. Whenever a lefty egomaniac demands consensus, he or she is really saying "We don't value the views of working people. We speak for them; they don't tell us what to do."

In the days of Marxism, that sort of thing used to be justified by muttering some bullshit about the "vanguard of the proletariat" -- a phrase which always had a greasily elitist sound, if you ask me.

Now let's talk about leaders. The OWS-ers consider it terribly important to avoid leaders. (There presumably are leaders, behind the scenes, but there are no talking heads for the Fox Newsers to demonize.)

Question: Have leaderless movements compiled an attractive track record? Let's do a little comparison.

Look at the record: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothea Dix, Petra Kelly, Aung San Soo Kui, Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, RFK, Cesar Chavez, Medgar Evers, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Sanger, Robert Owen, Emma Goldman...well, one could go on and on and on. I think it is fair to say that these people all did things. They weren't perfect -- some were deeply flawed -- but they made things happen.

By contrast, have leaderless movements accomplished anything?

The M-15 movement has been around for a while now; you may read the history here. Basically, these people have done nothing except defend their right to assemble. They pose no real threat to power. Like most lefties everywhere, they view the exercise of power as a form of bad taste -- and for that reason, the elites in Spain need lose no sleep over them. In fact, the M-15 movement helps those elites by giving people opportunity to vent.

The OWSers like to point to the example of Egypt, which proves that they are guilty of a spectacular misreading of recent history.

In Egypt, a large portion of the military (which owns pretty much anything of real value in that country) had already turned against the Mubarak regime: The old man was ailing and no-one could tolerate his awful son, who was poised to inherit what we might as well call the throne. So the "street heat" in Tahrir square ended up giving populist cover to what was, in essence, a military coup. Right now, the country is run by a military council which has oppressed journalists, tried civilians in secret "security" courts, and maintained Mubarak's emergency decrees. Meanwhile, the fundamentalists (with covert aid from the militarists) have gained new muscles and are oppressing religious minorities.

That outcome was all quite predictable -- and avoidable. If Egyptian revolution had allowed leaders to rise, if Egypt had a Martin Luther King, the country would now have a chance at real progress. As things stand, I doubt that the country will become a true liberal democracy any time soon.

Nevertheless, the OWS-ers want to replicate the Egyptian "miracle" in the United States. Are they crazy? Do they really want this country to be run by an unholy alliance of Pentagon brass and Dominionist theologians?

Fuck theory. Look at history.

The leaderless revolution is a proven loser. Consensus democracy is a proven loser. Don't follow those models.
Mexico had a leaderless revolution. So did France.

In a power vacuum the most ruthless and best organized will seize power.
I bet you're no fan of caucuses.
The French Revolution was not leaderless. One name stands out in my mind because he ended up under the guillotine, Robespierre. Movements without good leaders or lead by committees, like the French Revolution, can be chaotic or disastrous. As of right now, the Egyptian Spring is a partial success. Yes, Mubarak was deposed, it accomplished that, but another demand, a democratic government is still unmet. People need to coalesce most of all around a demand to fix their grievance(s), and it helps if there's a leader to avoid chaos. I repeat, OWS is not a movement, but a crowd.
Jeezus, Joe, do you really think squishy hippie liberalism is the WORST of democracy?!

Imagine you went to a meeting where a woman wouldn't shut up about East Timor. You couldn't care less about East Timor. But does passionate advocacy about something you consider a fringe issue make this woman Satan? How many Satans are there? Are Obots, vegans and smelly hippies as Satanic as bankers? For the greater good, can you conference with people whose priorities are different from your own?

For more than a week you've been carping about the vagueness of OWS--while blogging in Baltimore and refusing to participate. Smelly Hippie is not the problem. Snide, middle-aged Joes (that's me and you, brother) are a bigger problem. Those kids are walking the walk. Where are you? As the energetic a-holes used to say: Lead, follow or get out of the way.

In Zuccati Park, they're not reading Cannonfire. They are waiting to meet you in person.
I can see some purely psychological reasons why the occupiers are eschewing a leader.

One is that, in this day and age, any non-conservative leader of any kind will become the target of endless character assassination. They have already started labeling the occupation anti-Semitic. Once the right and the corporate powers latch on to a leader, it will be very hard on that person.

Another is that the occupiers are fresh from under Obama's bus. Their desire for a progressive leader blew up in their face, so they are understandably down on the whole concept.

A third reason, ironically, is the prohibition on bullhorns and PA systems for the occupiers, forcing them to have everyone repeat what each speaker is saying. This is a cool response to the situation, but it destroys much of the chemistry of grassroots leadership. A forceful speaker with a microphone is often how leaders are created. But it's not allowed here.
TJ, if I had enough money to go to NY, I"d use it to revive my dead hard drive. Don't think I don't think about that every day. Right now, I haven't the four dollars for round trip bus fare downtown.

But even if I had the bucks, they would probably never meet me in that park. I can admire the protesters in the abstract. But I don't like people in general, and I certainly don't like to talk politics. And talking politics with YOUNG people -- with young people who think they know what they are doing -- would probably be the most supremely annoying thing of all.

At any rate, my post is not about OWS or hippies or anything else. It's about approaches to democracy.

I note that no-one has even tried to counter my argument on its own terms. No-one has tried to contradict my statement that "consensus" democracy is actually exclusionary and elitist, because it gives the greatest voice to those who have the time, youth and energy for endless discussion -- in other words, to rich kids and middle class kids.
Joseph, you are probably right. But I wouldnt worry too much about it. There is an entire cast of ne'r-do-wells here to play with each other. Finance capitalists will chew up the Consensus monkeys you despise. The Consensus monkeys are harmless and helpless - they wont stop the Congressional pigs munching away at the trough while the country gets poorer. So for me, it really is just "a phase" that public disent is going through. Take a look at Greece to see what happens when real austerity finally comes to play.

Dont worry - the joy of mass unemployment is that loads of people will have loads of time on their hands. It will be economic zombies vs finance capitalists before this is over. The big conflict will take place at the gates of the country club, or gated community. This is just a bit a fun as a warm up.

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Harry, one of the analyses I've seen lately said that the stories told on those tumblr pics indicate that this is a classic peasant's rebellion. The unemployed want bread. That's why they are so ill-served by those spouting non-economic agendas.

I've heard it said that revolutions don't happen when the masses live for generations in grinding poverty but when people who once had a taste of a decent life get tossed back into the lower working class or worse. I guess the best, or worst, example of that phenomenon would be Germany in the Depression, when the austerity measures imposed by what would now call a libertarian government only made things worse.

Horrifying thought, that.
Quite so Joseph. Quite so. My optimism has been evaporating for sometime now. The problem is ignorance. Things are bad but manageable. However the choices that these candidates espouse will lead us to disaster and beyond. I truly think America is ripe for fascism. But I still applaud the kids for showing a bit of bravery. Even if they are so stupid they dont have any idea who the enemy is and how to fight him.

A third reason, ironically, is the prohibition on bullhorns and PA systems for the occupiers, forcing them to have everyone repeat what each speaker is saying.

How come they still use that method in places where they are allowed bullhorns?
Let's not forget that Tahrir Square, which OWS repeatedly says it wants to emulate, is the place where Lara Logan was RAPED. And that Egypt, never friendly to women in modern days, is now even more hostile. I read an article the other day where one of these military-supported political leaders said that women running for office had to remain veiled and could not speak in public. You can't win like that. So much for inclusivity.
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