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August 31, 2020

Defend Democracy: Building Social Groups to Strengthen Democratic Power

                The warnings about a surge towards autocracy in the United States, Europe, Turkey, and the Philipines have turned from a steady stream to a flood in the past year. But there is much we can do to build stronger centers for democratic power.

Democracy comes from the people, not from governments. So organized communities can hold governments accountable and pressure them to become more democratic Popular movements successfully pressing for democratic practices and freedoms fill the past half century of Latin America’s recent history in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, and beyond.  Protestors in Belarus this summer have shown how popular protest can pressure elected leaders who put their personal interests above those of the country. Successful popular movements have overthrown presidents in Burma, Argentina, and Egypt and changed policies in many other nations.

               The study of weaknesses in autocracy by Gene Sharp, who explored resistance movements in India, Panama, Poland, Chile, and Thailand, found multiple centers for democratic power. These centers of power include not only government bodies but also many non-governmental groups and institutions. While many are familiar with major non-governmental institutions that claim to promote democracy, such as mass media, political parties, watchdog organizations, unions, churches, and economic bodies, not all recognize the importance for democracy of less formal social groups.

Increased involvement in such informal social groups is an important way that we can strengthen the structural base for a free democratic society. Neighborhood councils, sports clubs, student groups, cultural associations, musical groups, or other common interest groups: any group that knits people together in ways that can be activated when democracy needs to be defended. Such groups might form in urban (reading groups; community garden groups), suburban (sewing groups; youth groups; permaculture groups), or rural settings (small farmer associations; cooking clubs).

Many such groups have formed during the pandemic as communities develop mutual aid resources for meeting needs that governments won't address. The Movement for Black Lives and other supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement actively bring people together in new ways to practice joyful ways of being together.

Getting to know others in these group settings resists autocracy because it brings people together. Authoritarians must divide to conquer. So building relationships with those unlike yourself weakens authoritarian attempts to divide.

Participating in informal groups is also an important tactic for keeping democracies healthy, in the view of the historian Tim Snyder who has studied Nazi groups in Europe.  Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people is one of his twenty points for protecting democracy. Another one is “stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.” Building trust with people you do not customarily befriend is an important part of defending democracy.

Protecting institutions that counterbalance executive power or bring hidden activities to light is also important in protecting democracy.  Supporting an independent judiciary, investigative journalism, and other pillars of democratic governance will strengthen democracy.

When democracy suddenly seems at risk these organizations will emerge as needed, or they can be formed before needed to defend democracy. When Pakistan tried to force courts to support the government, lawyers came out in force  in 2007 to keep the courts independent. When economic experts in Argentina tried to close the banks so that the World Bank could be paid its debts, a massive explosion of neighborhood councils and street organizations emerged (complete with homemade musical accompaniment) in late 2001. Many of these organizations remain at work to exert pressure on their government to remain democratic to this day.

When subjects do not obey, rulers have no power. While activists in some thirty countries have used this approach to resist dictators and overthrow oligarchs, theorists such as Michel Foucault have found that power is not monopolized by those who seem to have it. Jacques Derrida argued that centralized institutions like governments depend on a sleight of hand to trick people into giving up their own agency.

If autocrats do take power, Gene Sharp and others will still be around to help those of us who want democracy back. There is even a phone app on Sharp’s work! And there are many other ways to advocate for democracy when an elected national leader goes rogue and tries to turn an electoral government into a single-party autocracy.

Social division is an autocrat’s best friend. So joining groups with new friends and building trust knits society across divisions. Gayatri Spivak invites us to practice democracy by listening effectively to those with whom we do not identify, so we can build trust with subalterns over the long term.

Friendships and organizations can reach across national borders. So “Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad” in the words again of Tim Snyder. Reaching out internationally builds bridges from the local to the global, work that may provide resources if needed.

These actions will hinder the one-party state, which often emerge from two-party or multi-party electoral systems. Remember that many dictators were once brought to power by elections: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.

History will show whether elected leaders active today will prove to be autocrats in the making: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, and Trump in the United States. But the time to act is now.

The future is ours to make. Make it with friends new and old, in organizations large and small, networked locally and globally.

June 30, 2020

Racial Inequality and Democracy


Democracy promises equality in the abstract, but often does not deliver. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring this inequality to wide attention. Our present day has plunged into just such a crisis in at least two ways.
Since members of some social sectors continually confront the violent impacts of what passes for democracy in most nation-states, they already know that inequality is a major weakness for democracy. But among those belonging to privileged groups generally protected from democracy’s destructive daily impacts, crises like the COVID19 pandemic and the police shootings of innocents are what it takes to wake them up to the problem.
During the Corona virus pandemic inequality in health care and job markets became more obvious to those in more protected groups. News media began reporting on higher rates of unemployment, infection rates, and deaths among African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. context, and similar impacts were found in Britain and other countries.  
Increased awareness and outrage at the unequal impacts of police violence has emerged from recent successes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., and this outrage has found resonance from London and Paris to Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, South Africa. As U.S. resistance to state violence increases, some Black parents of young people killed by the police have even asked for an intervention from the United Nations.
Racism also has violent effects in more subtle ways. Communities of color often enforce racist preferences for light skin tones internally, a problem that is found in the Caribbean, Latin America, India, and England and is not limited to the United States and Canada.  While these self-inflicted modes of racism can have significant economic and social impacts, they also impact the sense of self worth and value that may make healing internalized oppression an important part of anti-racist work.
Equality itself is a value that derives from a time when slavery and colonialism were widely practiced, the eighteenth century. The recent decision by British corporations such as Lloyds of London founded in that era to acknowledge their complicity with slavery and pay reparations.
As Emmanuel Eze has shown, race was a central theme in the production of the “universal” subjects who may have appeared to be equal to white Europeans, but who were actively being enslaved and colonized during the Enlightenment. Gayatri Spivak has shown how such major European thinkers as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel privileged European populations in their thinking about the ideals and practices of “modern” practices like the nation-state and democracy.
As anti-racists reconsider the effectiveness of courts, electoral systems, and other institutions that have their origins in a period of European history known for its white supremacy, they may also come to reconsider whether equality itself is an effective belief in fighting racism and white supremacy. The persistence of police and other state violence despite reforms suggests the problem will require solutions that go well beyond simple policy changes.
               The decline of trust in the police, courts, and governments as a result has pressured those who still believe in equality to widen the horizons of needed solutions. Wresting decision-making from the “experts” who have made democracies into austerity zones protecting oligarchies who hate democracy will take more than street protests. Our historical moment will surely test us to see if it is really democracy we want.

April 28, 2020

Defend Democracy: Literacy and Citizenship


               What basic conditions does democracy require? If democracy requires elections, then reading might be one fundamental condition.  Reading makes it possible to review candidate statements, follow news reports about the impacts of candidate policies, write letters or emails to let their elected representatives know where they stand, and draft proposals for elected leaders to consider.
Yet literacy is not widely held to be a condition for democracy, and many democracies have surprisingly large numbers of illiterate citizens as voters. UNESCO estimates range from 800 million to one billion people globally are without the ability to read or count at a level that allows for full social participation as citizens.
Those who are without these skills often abandon the notion that they are full participants in their government, leaving the business of governing to educated classes and experts. Their normal lives do not include the assumption that they can participate in public discussion and in managing their own affairs, what some call subalternity
This abandonment of citizenship is a blow to democracy. Yet subalterns can transform their assumption that the governments of the territories where they live will never serve their interests.
Many citizens cannot read, including those in wealthy countries like the United States. Recent data shows that 19% of the U.S. adult population does not have basic reading skills, and 29% do not have basic number skills, a slight increase in illiteracy over the past quarter century. In countries widely accepted as democratic yet struggling with profound inequality, like Mexico and India, very large numbers of their citizens are not literate: over 4 million adults in Mexico and over 250 million adults in India. Other countries may hold elections but many doubt that democracy is possible when large social sectors remain unable to read, as in Egypt  where some 20 miillion are illiterate, and Brazil, where over 10 million are unable to read a ballot. Other countries claim to be democracies when large percentages of their population are not literate: including some of those least successful at democratizing wealth and social equity, like Bangladesh (25%) and Haiti (40%). 
Should citizens be able to read? The answer to that question is not settled in policy and judicial arenas. A landmark court decision was just issued by a Federal Court of Appeals in the United States stating the literacy is foundation for citizens, for example, but that decision may be appealed. The judge in the case noted that white people have repeatedly withheld education as a way to deny political power to African Americans and members of other groups. The United States Supreme Court has not been supportive of educational equality, so if the recent decision is appealed it may not have long-term traction. Even when court decisions force states to increase school funding, as in a California February, 2020  court decision, the courts may not mandate enough funding to correct the many problems causing poor school performance. The specific problems in Detroit included adequate physical facilities, qualified teachers consistently present in classrooms, and relevant textbooks (Detroit students were given biology textbooks for physics classes).
Work with subalterns can take literacy and other citizenship skills as its goal. This work would need to include the interruption of subaltern notions of their normal lives as cut off from public participation, what Gayatri Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of the desires” for subalterns. This work requires building an infrastructure that can recognize subaltern desires operating in terms that differ from those of European-derived education and liberal humanism, so that what subaltern communities are always already saying can be heard and recognized as political speech.
Rather than attempting to better the subaltern conditions along Eurocentric avenues of development, this infrastructural work will have to change what education means to begin to recognize subalterns and literate rural communities in the global south as agents of production.  This work may produce democratic mechanisms and forms of social justice that can accommodate rather than block subalterns from access to mobility and citizenship.
Rather than working for the narrow interests of the educated and wealthy, this infrastructural building project requires that we rethink the interests we serve and consider serving those with whom we have been taught to not identify, our Others.  
If those reading this blogpost are literate, then subalterns are you Others. If you have voted in an election, then your Others are those who never vote. If you have been served by your elected representatives, then subalterns are your Others.
This transformation of political work can become an entry into democracy for all, rather than for the few. It begins with illiteracy, with those who have long been shut out of democracy, the unrepresentable, the others of democracy.

March 31, 2020

Other Democracies: Mutual Aid and Benefit Organizations


               Protecting communities and aiding vulnerable members of communities becomes a high priority in times of conflict and disaster. Some even say that the duties of protection and aid for the vulnerable are the highest priorities for political bodies, such as governments, local neighborhoods, and grassroots organizations. Yet few elected democracies and organizations make this their highest priority.
Benefit organizations often make equality possible in practice that is impossible under electoral democracy and other political structures that promise equality but rarely deliver. In exchanging equal say in decisions, what some call horizontalism, for shared resources distributed according to need, benefit societies produce more equal social outcomes for those in need. They also educate their communities about how to put equality into practice. Easy to form when many people work together with shared interests and goals, mutual aid and mutual benefit organizations have a long history and an active presence today.
As modern governmentality has come to emphasize the surveillance and enforcement of behavioral norms over care for the population during the past several centuries, governments often lose sight of what many see as their primary purpose: protection and aid for citizens. As enclosure and industrialization forced people off the land where they could care for their own basic needs and displaced them into urban settings, people turned to each other when employers and governments did not ensure their safety and welfare. As governments come under the sway of the wealthy and of other narrow interests, then they put profits before people.
               These changes over past centuries have meant that many governments take their own self-preservation as a higher priority. As a result, some governments put protecting the leaders and administrators of nation-states before protecting the common person and before ensuring the care of vulnerable populations. This priority reversal can be seen when government leaders enter conflicts unnecessarily where many citizens die, especially conflicts without direct threats to the nation-state. It can also be seen when disaster strikes and the government does not care effectively for those affected or, worse, takes advantage of disasters to implement policies opposed by its citizens.
In times of disaster and conflict, those social sectors that have not found governments reliable turn to other means to protect and care for their community members. As governments fail to serve all members of their populations, communities may seek out other ways to manage their own affairs. Some of those other means include benefit organizations and mutual aid societies, organizations that practice a specific form of democratic self-governance known as democracy from below or direct democracy.
Benefit societies and mutual aid organizations are often seen as a type of communalism, long-established practices that experiment with attempts to find better ways to live while providing concrete benefits to participants. By sharing not only resources but also conviviality, these organizations provide an ethics that is missing from capitalism and electoral democracy. In educating their members and encouraging shared social norms, they may provide a sense of community that prioritizes sharing over private gain. By practicing reciprocity rather than charity, they provide important sources of belonging and mutual care that differs from the benevolence found in twentieth-century charities and twenty-first century non-profits and non-governmental organizations. While less functionally specific than cooperatives, communal movement have often been a resource for those who wished to escape oppressive conditions and find liberation.
What are today called “benefit organizations” are a very old type of organization, perhaps as old as government itself. They generally form when social networks take action to care for a population, whether an occupational group, an ethnic or religious group (often under attack from other social sectors), a town or regional community, or other social groups that determine it is time to act to care for their shared interests. In this sense, “benefit organization” or “mutual aid” are more general terms for self-government or for autonomy or even for what many refer to as “sovereignty” or “politics.”
While some associate mutual aid with European organizations, this type of collective care has a long history in other regions, such as Asia and Africa. While some schools of thought and economic practice, such as libertarianism, anarchism, and some schools of socialism, have tried to claim mutualism as their own, others find the practice of caring for the vulnerable in society to be broader than any specific sectarian interest. Organizations from communities using approaches as varied as Indigenous autonomy and cultural revitalization movements, landless workers, slum dwellers, and other urban subalterns have worked collectively to protect and care for their community members.
Benefit orders and mutual aid societies were commonplace in much of the world until the modern welfare state and for-profit corporations and nation-states began to compete for their members. Many of their features have been taken over by for-profit entities, such as insurance companies and health-care companies, and by non-profit organizations like credit unions and religious charities, so some modern benefit societies now take these forms. The penetration of the modern, centralized nation-state into local governmental affairs was another major competitor for benefit organizations, and their failure to effectively care for the basic needs of all may be seen in the flourishing of organizations like Reclaim Our Homes and Habitat for Humanity, two of the best-known benefit organizations in the United States. The transnational donor structures of civil society organizations and international non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent are a distorted form of benefit societies on a global scale, often transforming private resources into mechanisms that care for vulnerable populations based on a charity model rather than by building reciprocal relations. The continuing presence of mutual aid organizations is also seen strongly in Europe, where they still supplement health care for many.
Today these organizations go by many other names, many of which are familiar: labor or trade unions; credit unions; immigrant hometown societies; friendly societies and secret societies; self-help groups; coworking communities, and many others. Rural communities in the Global South and pre-capitalist guilds and neighborhoods have long put mutual benefit practices into place as a way to engage community members. In urban communities where the unemployed and others abandoned by the nation-state have come together to serve their own needs also practice mutual aid and benefit in such forms as social centers and unions of the unemployed.
Mutual aid community organizing often emerges in post-disaster circumstances, and the current corona virus pandemic has inspired many to suggest mutual aid as an important resource. These spontaneous organizations have emerged also in times of political struggle, as in resistance to slavery, the Tienanmen Square Protests of 1989, and the Los Angeles uprising of 1992. Already established benefit organizations, such as the Village Movement in the Untied States, have already begun to respond to the corona virus, for example. New mutual organizations have also emerged in response to the pandemic in the United States and other locations.
Benefit societies can also be formalized through charters, incorporation, and other modes of communal or governmental recognition. Many benefit societies currently active were established a century or more ago, and have incorporated to carry out their activities, including Woodmen of the World, the Knights of Columbus, and Teachers Life. While some of these groups have very long roots, they remain a significant force in the twenty-first century with some 9 million members and about $400 billion dollars (US) in assets in the United States alone.
               While the language of benefit societies and mutual aid may not be familiar to all in our day, that is because the nation-state and for-profit and non-profit organizations have eclipsed them in public awareness. When the European health-care industry and the American Association of Retired People and other mainstream organizations advocate joining or starting your own mutual aid group, however, then what might seem like an antiquated organizational model has clearly entered the mainstream.
               If you wish to practice equality, it is as easy as volunteering with the Village Movement or Habitat for Humanity, participating in a hometown organization, becoming a union or credit union member, or joining other mutual aid groups near you. When the inequality of centralized hierarchies like private corporations, non-profit organizations, or nation-states are recognized as generators of the inequality they disavow but cannot avoid, then perhaps more people will form benefit organizations to meet their basic needs and protect themselves and vulnerable groups. It would  be easier to find ways to practice equality when not impacted by major threats like natural disasters, wars, and pandemics, but times of stress and high risk for many is precisely when mutual aid organizing takes off.

January 27, 2020

Defending Democracy: Dying Democracies East and West


               The transition from a government of rotating elected officials subject to the will of voters to autocratic government is a slippery slope. Once government officials begin to allow narrow interests prevail over policies that benefit the general public, the slide downwards into oligarchy, demagoguery, and the death of democracy can be rapid. 
               President Putin’s decision to disband the Russian government and begin a transition to new political system earlier this month appears to be one such step in the direction of the end of democratic governance. While holding regular elections in the post-Soviet era, Russia may seem to be an electoral democracy.
Yet the presence of elections, even elections certified as valid by international bodies, is never enough to guarantee democracy. Indeed, the presence of elections often hide different problems with democracy.
               When electoral democracies allow oligarchs to monopolize political systems, they run the risk that the oligarchs will decide they don’t want to give up power. In Russia’s case this year, Putin seems to be pursuing a permanent political post for himself. Permanent office for political leaders mean the death of democracy.
               Those who believe in Western European governance models and capitalist economies may assume that this problem is limited to the recent history of Eastern European experience with centralized socialism under the sway of the Soviet Union. For them, the trouble begins and ends with one country, Russia, or even more narrowly with a single individual, Vladimir Putin.
But many political theorists find that all centralized governments east and west are hampered by a larger, more generalized problem. This problem is sometimes known as the state of exception, to use the language of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt argued that any government system where leaders can declare exceptions to the rule of law risked ceding its sovereignty to individuals. In Schmitt’s view this weakness made the modern liberal state vulnerable to capture by individuals who pursued their own individual interests. Schmitt’s turn towards nationalist socialism in Germany in response to this flaw in democracies led him to support Nazi German policies. Others have responded to Schmitt's analysis of weaknesses in centralized democracies by turning away from political practices with centralized authority structures.
As Giorgio Agamben argued, this weakness of democracy is pervasive, and not limited to conservative states or European states or autocracies. The state of exception weakness suggests that all liberal democracies are vulnerable. These weaknesses are important in the United States as well, since many senior officials in U.S. administrative positions studied Schmitt carefully. They have also impacted the United States through the view of one of Schmitt’s followers, Friedrich Hayek, an important architect of present-day highly centralized economic policies known as neoliberalism.
Some have found this weakness at work in the rapid assertion of executive authority under the Bush Administration in the United States after 9/11, and in the Trump administration more recently.  While some have argued that the U.S. government is now an oligarchy and longer a democracy, it does seem clear at this point that Trump clearly does not believe he is limited by the rule of law.
One important weapon wielded to ensure subjection of the head of state to the rule of law in a constitutional democracy is the impeachment process. By placing this weapon in the hands of the legislative branch, those democracies which practice impeachment give the people's elected representatives a counter weight to the individual sovereign, the executive branch. In general concept, impeachment means the people can rule, rather than the monarch or dictator.
Keeping the balance of power tilted in the direction of the people takes hard work in all democracies. As Hakim Jeffries, Representative from Brooklyn, pointed out when he made the analogy with Putin in Russia explicit in his opening remarks to the U.S. impeachment process, this problem is found not only in the United States but also in Russia and Turkey and other nation-states that claim to be democracies.
Yet impeachment is not without its perils. Sovereigns can use legal arguments to provide a cover for those elected officials who support oligarchy and autocracy. As one Representative, Tom Railsback of Illinois, argued during preparations for the 1974 impeachment of President Nixon argued, “If the Congress doesn’t get the material we think we need and then votes to exonerate, we’ll be regarded as a paper tiger.” The risk of the current circumstances in the United States is that President Trump’s allies in the U.S. Senate will acquit him of wrongdoing, strengthening his chances of remaining in office for four more years. Demanding that a sovereign submit to the rule of law and then failing to enforce the demand would be devastating to any democracy.
History reminds us that four more years on a slippery slope may be a long ride downhill, from the foothills of democracy into the valley of autocracy. President Trump’s ally in Russia, President Putin, may be in the middle of demonstrating how to take a large nation-state on a long ride into the darkness of leaders without elections, government without rule of law, and a social order that does not respond to the will of the people.
If impeachment does not remove President Trump, there are many other weapons useful in reclaiming democracy from oligarchs, autocrats, sovereigns, and dictators. How-to handbooks at carrying out mass movements successful at removing oligarchs and autocrats from power in the past year have been presented this year in Lebanon and Algeria, to name just two struggles. Other how-to guides might be seen in street battles that have fought major national governments to a draw in China and France.  
Democracy is never handed to the people. They must fight to claim their governments as their own, to claim rule by the demos, rule by all, not rule by the few, rule by experts.
However the ongoing battle turns out over democracy and the rule of law in the United States, centralized democracies will retain their weakness for exceptions to the rule of law. So those who might want to defend democracy will continue to have reason to fight for rule by all, meetings to go to, and work to do.