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.

November 26, 2019

Other Democracies: Listening as a Democratic Practice


Voice metaphors dominate discussions of democracy, but have not proven very effective in political practice. One of the weaknesses of representative democracies is that elected leaders often do not heed what the people they represent tell them they want. Once the leverage of “the people” over their representatives is reduced to elections, time and again we have seen that “the people” do not get what they want.
Those who assume that identity politics in electoral politics produces direct access to constituent desires may be disappointed. Many women have found that not all women elected leaders will advocate for strong protections against domestic violence. Black voters do not find that black representatives necessarily serve their interests.
When citizens become passive and rely on representatives to do the work of democracy, then democracy tends to become vulnerable to what political scientists and economists call “capture” by wealthy or powerful interest groups. This makes it impossible for governments to serve the public interest.
            One way to strengthen democratic accountability is to transform passive citizens into active agents. Rather than relying on elected leaders to tell others what you want, you speak directly for your own views and participate directly in decision-making, sometimes called direct democracy or participatory democracy or horizontalism.
These democratic practices tend to reduce centralization of power in organizations, making exploitation and abuse of power more difficult. History shows that decentralized democracy is a more egalitarian way to institutionalize democracy.
            If the assembly is one of the constituent features of a working democracy, then speaking at the assembly is a fundamental democratic act. In established political theory, speaking in a formal forum like a legislative chamber appears to guarantee effective democratic process. Concerns about back room deals outside of public forums are one reason for laws prohibiting closed meetings by public officials, so called sunshine laws, but these laws only rarely are enforced by legal action.
Yet speaking does not always mean influencing decisions, and can even prove to be hazardous. Whether labor activists attempting to protect their interests, or elected officials speaking up for policies unpopular with autocratic officials, those who speak may find themselves in trouble or dead. This risk is not new, but those who traffic in voice metaphors act as if the weaknesses of democracy are unknown or these risks have been forgotten.
             Argentina in the post-2001 rejection of electoral leaders found ways to practice democratic decision-making while ensuring that representatives would listen to their constituents. After the December, 2001 collapse of trust in electoral democracy, many neighborhoods and workplaces and schools began to govern their own affairs. Because they had found representative governments did not listen to what the voters wanted, they were suspicious of representative systems. Yet they needed to network and organize at scales larger than any single mass meeting could handle.
One practice that many neighborhood associations adopted in the first decade of the twenty-first century was to send two listeners with any representative. If the representative attended a meeting and spoke about what the group they represented wanted, then both listeners would come along and quietly observe what the representative said. Then when the representative returned to meet those whose views they had been chosen to represent, the representative kept quiet while the two listeners described what had been said and done. This system made the representative accountable to the group they claimed to represent by forcing them to report back to their constituents.
            In late 1990s Ethiopia young women learned that their voices can be heard in assemblies, when they are able to talk to anyone in their community, even elders. Yet speaking was effective because Ethiopian women had already learned how to make changes in their communities that benefitted them, like fixing bridges, digging wells, and planting trees to use for firewood. Demonstrating how powerful they were at meeting their own goals meant that when they spoke in community conversations, men and elders would respect what they could do.
            Most importantly, the Ethiopian young women operated collectively as part of an organization known as Kembatti Mentti-Gezimma-Tope, a phrase in one of the oral languages of Ethiopia that reflects the power women generate when working together. By working in groups they increased their collective power and strengthened their positions as agents of change.
             KMG Ethiopia also adopted a process of community conversations that practiced consensus, so that group decisions were made with all participating rather than majority-rules unequal power relations found in electoral practices. In this practice decision-making is held hostage by marginal groups through consensus, rather than experts and elites holding power hostage as in many national elected governments.
            Table metaphors also don’t do much to pressure entrenched interests into taking constituent goals seriously. By using consensus to pressure those at the table to listen to all present, democracy can come to represent the general interest rather than only the interests of the powerful and the wealthy. 
            The linking of speaking in assemblies to multiple leverage points for the Ethiopian young women or other often marginalized groups is one way to demonstrate their agency and willingness to act in their own interests. This serves not only this particular interest group in the Ethiopian setting, a specific interest group, but also pressures community elders and other powerful groups into serving the general interest.
            Listening will only be effective when elected leaders and people in other positions of authority are made accountable to their constituents. Police officers and others who should serve the public will do so only when accountability structures are both in place and operating effectively. When there is no accountability oversight mechanism in place and being used regularly, then democracy becomes nothing more than an excuse for abuse of power.
            In lands where Indigenous communities are ignored or violated by governments, listening to Indigenous group members can shift power relations. If Indigenous historical narratives and other knowledge systems are to have traction in governments that claim to be democratcies, then listening to their perspectives will be important. This is particularly important in settler colonies(like the U.S. and Australia) or postcolonial nation-states in Africa or Latin America where Indigenous groups large and small govern together.


Governance mechanisms  that do not have effective guarantees that leaders will listen to “the people” are vulnerable to domination by powerful groups. Yet there are communities where listening has been effectively linked to force relations as part of democratic systems.
            Assemblies where all participate and speak equally, sharing time with all and not privileging the wealthy and powerful, are one way to end the reign of democracy as a politics of abuse. The use of consensus in community meetings, as KMG Ethiopia practices, produces leverage for marginalized group members, since they can use community need for consensus to pressure narrow interest groups into serving the general interest.
Democracy then can come to mean more than voice and table metaphors. Democracy can come to mean government by all for the general interest. A difficult task, certainly, but for many a task worth the delays and trouble of informing all equally and listening to all.

October 30, 2019

Embodying Equality: Realizing the Democratic Imaginary


When does democracy fulfill its promise of equality? For some communities, democracy means putting up with unequal economic policies, with elections that don’t represent all, with barriers for some to social power, with police brutality targeting certain social groups, and more. So how can democracy come to something other than reinforcing entrenched inequalities?
Danielle Allen argues in her reading of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that equality has been overrun with other goals. Elected officials and powerful corporate officials frequently argue that freedom must trump ethics and other values, often in ways that serve their own narrow interests rather than the interests of the entire political body.  
The U.S. Constitution was one reason why equality has never been realized in the United States, and may never be realized.  Even when a democratic nation goes to war with itself in an attempt to produce equality, as in the U.S. Civil War or the Mexican Revolution, equality is often the first casualty when the conflict ends. The outcome of the promise of equality in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War is well-known, and some have argued that the Jim Crow South has spread to infect the entire nation in the present day. The wealth gap that has characterized Mexican society since the Revolution is one type of physical evidence that electoral promises of land reform and the uplifting of the poor were not fulfilled. As Fanon warned, even wars of national liberation have not succeeded at producing equality of social elites and the general populace.
Why do many U.S. citizens continue to see their home as a place of equality? The African American artist Sonya Clark deployed her own woman’s body to interrupt business as usual this summer, mopping the floor of a Philadelphia museum by hand where the U.S. Declaration of Independence is inscribed. Embodying the long history of domestic work as the most that African American women could hope for in the United States, Clark’s performance piece reminds us that employment in the United States not only never was equal but may never be equal across racial differences.
Since wages for the same work still differ based on gender and race, since domestic violence against women continues without abating, since sexual violence against women continues to pervade nearly all societies, since police violence against women of color continues without reserve, embodying equality is no easy task.
Many experts would agree with Sonya Clark when it comes to economic inequality. A major recent study of the history of tax payments has documented how tax policies over the past half century in the United States have unequally benefitted the wealthy. For the authors, both academic economists, that means that even a nation that claims to be at the forefront of world democracies can be practicing policies that produce injustice.
The economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated that capitalism produces inequality in his well-known critique, Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013. His new book on capitalism includes many specific policy solutions to economic inequality that would force the superwealthy to share the wealth society produces. Capitalism and the spread of neoliberal poison have spelled the near-death of the ethics of sharing, if we focus not on individual virtuosity but on social attitudes and policies.
What would it take to embody equality? How can we do that as individuals? How can entire societies and nations put such abstract ideas into practice? Giving attention to the concrete evidence of women’s bodies is one way to interrupt pie-in-the sky abstractions like “equality,” according to Gayatri Spivak.
So when Sonya Clark works with the gendered and racialized working body to interrupt business as usual, it becomes possible to interrogate democracy as we know it. Clark’s clearing away of the dust of unequal history also allows her audience to imagine the new forms that democracy must take if equality will ever become anything more than the seductive work of flim flam artists, of elected leaders, and of others unable to pursue the general interest.

August 30, 2019

Other Democracies: Hong Kong Lessons in Democracy


               While there has been much debate about the Yellow Vest movement’s decentralized strategy of operating without a clearly defined leadership across France, similar developments are now emerging in Hong Kong.  While France may proudly claim its historical importance for global democracy, that is not the case in the People’s Republic of China.  So what do the recent struggle in Hong Kong between many citizens and the PRC government have to say about democracy?
               The Umbrella Movement, as it was called in Hong Kong during its earlier phase, has grown in intensity and publicity over the past two years. Like the Yellow Vest Movement, it operates consciously on the principle of refusing to establish a clearly defined leadership. While this strategy has its costs, many of which have been emphasized by mainstream commentators and news reports. But it also has clear advantages tactically, since it has proven durable and effective at avoiding the attempts of the mainland Chinese government to shut it down.  
               One implication of this year’s Hong Kong protest movement for democracy is that it demonstrates participatory decision-making by large groups acting under pressure. Unlike electoral democracies that claim to be efficient and nimble at responding to threats, many see direct participation as unable to respond quickly in times of crisis. Yet in our weekly news reports of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement we are watching mass participation in decision-making, as recent participants have remarked. Even Hong Kong elected leaders have found themselves displaced from leadership roles on the front lines in protests, and some elected leaders have left office in order to participate as part of large-group actions without the taint of elected office.
Another way that leaderless movements have something to say about democracy is their effectiveness at large scale. While this may not be obvious in the recent Hong Kong protests,  it is clearly the case in the Yellow Vest movement in France. That movement has demonstrated repeatedly that is can organize large actions in multiple sites across the entire nation. Once again the common criticism of direct participation movements as unable to work at large scale does not hold water.
In France, a notable character of the Yellow Vest movement in France has been the participation of many who were alienated from electoral politics. As inequality has continued to grow in France under President Macron’s policies, the Yellow Vest movement has become an important force in standing up to austerity policies. This long-lasting movement has caught many mainstream commentators by surprise, and the development has shown it can bring economic wealth gap to the attention of elected leaders. This carries important implications for electoral democracies that give into the demands of wealthy elites to maintain (or even worsen) high levels of wealth inequality. Rather than taking democracy as a reason to pursue the narrow interests of the wealthy, the Yellow Vest movement demands that elected leaders respond to those who do not benefit from austerity policies and the resulting wealth inequalities.
Holding elected leaders accountable to all is one of the most significant challenges to democracy. While the election may seem to hold electoral candidates accountable to the views of voting citizens, after election their accountability is notably weakened. This is why electoral campaign promises are so rarely fulfilled as advertised.  In the Hong Kong protests, the Hong Kong community members are demanding that the mainland government honor their promises to treat Hong Kong differently than the rest of mainland China. Only time will tell if they will be successful in holding the PRC accountable to its promises.
When electoral systems reduce participants in democratic decision making to small elites, electoral systems risk the loss of their claim to be democratic. This weakness of accountability to voters after elections is not a small problem. Since democracy promises a voice to all in decision making processes, the loss of that decision making power is a critical event.  As Gayatri Spivak has argued in her essay, “Foucault and Najibullah,” the removal from citizens of decision-making power means the end of the democratic freedoms and autonomy that democracy advertises as its main advantages.  As Spivak argues, democracy claims to be a method of autonomous self-management, where management is defined not in terms of capitalist efficiency but in terms of autonomous decision-making for the good of all.
               Participating in decision-making is an important type of what Spivak calls the intuition of democracy: the habit of justice for everyone, rather than just self-interest.” (101) When citizens lose their ability to participate in decisions, democracy dies. Or it revives in Hong Kong and France, unwilling to allow elected leaders to claim they know what the people want. And when it comes back to life in the form of leaderless movements, then democracy has said no to elite leadership. This has its costs, but also keeps democracy kicking.