August 31, 2018

Misnaming Democracy: Collective Freedom

The assumption that democracy is driven and even founded by social movements is widespread. Some initial enthusiasm for the developments of the Arab Spring, for example, was grounded in the hope that social movements can overthrow autocratic governments and even those that masqueraded as electoral democracies in Tunisia and Egypt. Social movements are often the engine for large structural changes in democratic societies.
Yet many associate democracy not with social movements but with political parties. How do social movements diverge from political parties in democracies? When do social movements become democratic? When are they anti-democratic and even attacked as illegal and dangerous? When do social movements practice collective freedom?
Social movements are widely recognized as important actors in democratic nation-states, but their enactment of collective freedom is not. Individual freedom is paramount in much modern political thinking. Yet collective freedom as exercised in social movements is more important when looking at how structural change historically takes place. Democratic freedom may be best located not in individual elected leaders and their decisions, the topics of constant commentary by pundits and historians, but in collective groups beyond political parties.
An important area where social movements impact democracy is when groups marginalized by electoral politics reshape electoral systems. Large-scale changes in the franchise are important examples in many democracies of these impacts, such as women winning the vote. Legislation and other changes from race-based social movements in South Africa and the U.S. are others, such as the end of apartheid, the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even the U.S. Civil War itself. Certainly some political parties responded to the pressure of these social movements, but each movement that produced major social change early on was not accepted widely by electoral leaders and other policy experts.
All of these changes are the outcomes of social movements and none were initiated by political parties, unless outlawed political parties like the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are somehow considered full participants. Indeed, these movements all found themselves under surveillance and attack by government bodies, as is well-known. These attacks at times involved the killing of participants and even war itself.
Moments when social movements are attacked by governments are important events when tracking the effectiveness of democratic practice. Whether looking at the ANC being outlawed or the jailing of suffragettes, we can see that electoral parties and governments often attack those movements advocating for structural changes and for solutions to major social problems.
Guarantees of collective freedom may be found in some democratic constitutions, such as the right to assembly, but limits on those freedoms are commonplace. With tactics ranging from attacks on Communist Party members in the Cold War to anti-socialist slurs today in the U.S. and recent arrests in India of opposition party supporters, and including the surveillance and infiltration in many countries of anarchist or immigrant or Muslim community organizations, governments and citizens worldwide are often quick to limit collective freedoms.
Some who have grown impatient with electoral leaders and policy experts who often fail to produce equality have even established collective mechanisms parallel to electoral systems. Some of these parallel mechanisms decentralize decision-making beyond elected officials to include those impacted by the decisions, such as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil and many cities in other countries. The city of Jackson, Mississippi has recently been experimenting with a People’s Assembly to provide the community a formal mechanism beyond letters to the editor to critique and inform their elected officials. Much like the early town hall meetings in New England, collective decision-making in people’s assemblies is just one among many powerful ways to have a collective voice and govern affairs.
Sometimes major legal changes are needed for social movements to even be recognized as actors in political systems. When local indigenous communities attempted to reclaim their governance systems from corporate actors in Cochabamba, Peru in the years 2000-2001, they had to change the laws to reclaim and exercise political sovereignty in their historical territory. When political scientists call for changes in the U.S. constitution to make it more democratic, will political parties respond to their demands?
The failure of political parties to hold governments accountable to all citizens and to significantly transform democratic systems are major problems for democracy. One of the keystones of democracy is its ability to make major changes and improvements in its own governance system in response to major shortcomings. These changes are what might be called collective freedom: the freedom to transform structurally and respond to major weaknesses, to increase accountability to the general good, and to problem- solve in the general interest.
Social movements and not political parties have often been the major engines for significant transformations and improved accountability in democracy governance systems. Yet not all social movements are the same. Some social movements represent the interests of powerful social sectors: anti-immigrant organizations advocate in the interests of those with citizenship; Hindu nationalism in India and the Tea Party in the U.S. advocate for religious values of the majority religion; Nazi and neo-Nazi movements strengthen white, Christian, and often homophobic interest groups.
Strengthening democracy takes the courage to stand up for collective freedoms that are not practiced already. This often means advocating for social sectors and interests that are being ignored or attacked by powerful social groups. That is why grassroots organizations and movements often bring attention to areas where electoral parties are not representing general interests. These areas betray weaknesses in the accountability not to narrow interests but to all of democratic systems.
Grassroots organizations often are not actively regulated by governments, and frequently have more freedom to pursue interests that national governments may not readily recognize as legitimate. At the level of transnational advocacy, narrow corporate and national interests often dominate what look like global initiatives, so grassroots organizations must take the lead in developing social movements that address desires deriving from other social sectors. Grassroots organizations respond much more readily to local concerns and to criticisms from marginalized groups, unlike large organizations in what is sometimes called civil society, like non-profit organizations (like Amnesty International or OXFAM) or U.N. bodies (like United Nations Human Rights delegations) and movements coming from U.N. special meetings (like those who carry out the Beijing Platform for Action). In this sense we can say that grassroots social movements may achieve collective freedom in a manner not possible for civil society organizations funded and implicitly controlled by wealthy donors, large corporations, or national governments.
Collective freedom then can break out of already established historical practices and rhetoric. As Gayatri Spivak has argued, freedom takes place at the complex meeting place of established reason and the ways that reason is insufficient to meet moral obligations. In this way freedom is obliged to produce the unrecognizable, a supplement to what is already reasonable and knowable. (21-22) Freedom is another name for the encounter with the radical other of known efforts for social justice, that which is outside of histories of democratic institutions and which meets the desires of those who democracy has failed to recognize. (327-331)
Given its need to depart from established practices, training for democracy is needed to strengthen collective practices that remain open to new directions and unimagined possible futures. As one observer noted, activists on the radical right have worked to “weaponize the word ‘freedom’ so that people think the only way they have freedom is to do something alone, that the solidarity and unity of doing something together…is not ‘freedom.’” How can collective freedom replace freedom alone?
The modern fetish of individualism has been an important factor in fragmenting collective identities, so that many modern societies have come to be characterized more by television viewing and online shopping than by collective events and meetings.
Training for collective freedom has been done in the past. The civil rights movement put in place a little-known “major training program” that instructed participants in citizenship rights, black history, economic strategies, and even the organization of credit unions. Many social movements routinely train participants in meeting facilitation skills and counter strategies to respond to difficult behaviors. Some movements have even built their own schools to strengthen their community members skills at collective work or at building women’s leadership rather than endorse the individualism instilled in young people by many government- and private-run schools. These forms of community education affirm collective work and collective freedom in ways that competitive scrabbling for individual victory and wealth or individual votes in a private election booth do not.
Collective freedoms as put into action through grassroots social movements are critical if democracies want to remain responsive to needed changes. Collective freedom requires both hard work and a willingness to leave established pathways to morality, to gendered practices, and to political accountability. Collective freedom is often found in ground-breaking collective action that builds new pathways to democracy and social justice.

July 15, 2018

Misnaming Democracy: Responsibility to Others

In modern political practice, democracy has frequently degenerated into self-interested political parties aggressively pursuing narrow benefits against competing parties and social groups. Party democratic practice is determined by interest groups aligned along political divisions often shaped by class and race. This is not a new problem. It is also not a local problem. As one British commentator has pointed out, “No constitutional system should allow a partisan group to hijack the interests of the whole.” Individual interests drive party divisions. Party interests become poison.

Narrow interests fighting over the levers of democratic practice can only cause problems. In just one recent week this month, July, 2018, a blizzard of reports of serious and even foundational problems for party democracies found their way into news reports: courts are increasingly polarized politically in Poland and the U.S.,  the legislature is threatening multi-party systems in Romania, and elected leaders aligning themselves with autocrats across multiple nations.
Those who can conceive of democracy only in the terms of party politics are misnaming democracy, since electoral party democracy is not its only form. Partisan monopoly claims on democracy attacks a broad-based conception of “the people” that founds democracy. By dividing “the people” among different interests, liberal European democracy and its many global cognate forms is prevented from benefitting society at large.
Once again governance turns out to benefit a small sector of society, just as aristocracy and monarchy once did. In different ages and sites, democratic government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries tilted towards different groups. In the last 50 years across the globe democracy has most benefited the wealthy.
Yet democracy can serve the interests of all. Gayatri Spivak has urged readers to adopt a notion of democracy that benefits the planet. In naming “planetarity” as a goal for democracy, she plays with the undecidability of the term, which may mean either all people of the globe, nor limited by party affiliation or wealth or race, or it may mean the globe of lands and seas beyond the human, or it may refer to both simultaneously.
                For Spivak, democracy becomes a form of responsibility to our others, those against whom we define ourselves as individuals, in identitarian groups of gender or race or class or reproductive heteronormativity, or as nations. Persistent interruptions of these normalized frames for understanding democracy requires re-imagining our citizen selves as we might be seen by those for whom full democratic participation is not even a dream, those who have learned from centuries of abuse under electoral democracy to not even dare hope for full participation. When these figures, found in every democracy under the sun, come to haunt our day-to-day democratic practice, then an ethics of responsibility to democracy’s others becomes possible.
These possibilities may be unimaginable within the limits of the entrenched norms and power inequities of party politics misnamed as democracy. But they are still possible means of building relationship with the others of the middle-class citizenry, of reframing democracy in terms that serve “the people.” Such a responsible practice takes democracy beyond benevolence and the savior complex, and beyond helping those we see in our self-interest as less than ourselves, to carry out politics for all.
In giving attention to specific others often blocked from full democratic participation, Spivak draws on aboriginal, pre-capitalist approaches to planetary care of the other as a supplement to Reason (344). The emphasis in these democratic practices on care for all produces strategies to control corporate-dominated globalization by interrupting its logics and (lack of) ethics. Rather than allowing democracy to fix interests in narrow terms defined by established interest groups, responsibility to others disrupts capitalist and identity obsessions with private gain as a type of training.
Rather than taking the modern nation-state as an unquestioned reality, Spivak also suggests that we see it as a deceptive cipher hiding the work of the nation-state against redistributive social justice. Once we recognize this problem, then we can begin recoding democracy into something other than allegiance to those who would demand we agree to elected leaders giving away national wealth to global corporations. (281)
Some have suggested that the current troubles of democratic practice in the U.S. are not new developments, but it may reflect outcomes of particular histories of compromise and contingency as narrow interests worked to bend the interests of “the people” in their favor. Depending on their particular perspective, different critics have defined democracy’s troubles in various ways. For those who feel that electoral democracies have been hijacked by the economic interests of large industries, the problems with democracy have their origins in the last century. Other critics have argued that democracy was profoundly compromised since the founding of the United States, since its practices were characterized by eighteenth century’s limits of the vote and other unequal practices, one saying the U.S. was flying “the false flag of democracy.”  
Moving away from party politics as the only measure of democracy can take place on many fronts and different scales. Individuals can keep their responsibility to others in mind when practicing democracy in organizations and neighborhoods and many other sites in addition to the ballot box. Because of the well-known risks of narrow partisanship, many electoral governments have installed safeguards and counterweights. Some of which invite or even require responsibility to others, such as safety nets and welfare policies, referendums and term limits, town hall meetings and consensus.
Each of us must determine our ethics through day-to-day democratic practices, and responsibility to Others is one way to make ethics central to politics. By keeping our others in mind, even those others who we do not yet know, we may keep the future open for new possibilities, and even for the impossible, that which is outside of our horizons and is limited only by our imaginations.

April 29, 2018

Misnaming Democracy: Testing Democracy through Equality

Democracy is as slippery as the fish that got away, the unfulfilled campaign promise, and the check that is always in the mail.  When will democracy deliver equality as promised? When will the always-postponed payoff for those eternally patient democratic citizens become real? If democracy displaces the king or queen, the emperor or empress, and the autocrat and the oligarchs, then when will democracy produce power sharing and equal benefits for all?

Taking equality as the center of democracy shows that many modern political practices don’t carry out democracy. Before assuming that European and other modern electoral systems have captured democracy and perfected it, we may test that assumption by asking about equality.

            Those who are consistently blocked from full participation in democracy often already know that many who claim democracy do so at the expense of those at the bottom of the heap, on the sidelines of the game, at the margins of the electorate, and without a seat at the decision-making table: immigrants, the colonized, the uneducated, refugees and expatriates, the trafficked and the exiled, the imprisoned and the dead, the unemployed, and the unwelcome.

Those who never quite make it to the decision-making table are the Others of democracy as we know it, a specific form of democracy characterized by elections, constitutions, and modern forms of inequality. Rethinking this specific form of democracy as a misnaming allows us to reframe what democracy means and to open the question of equality as a measure of the “real.” What is “real” democracy is a question for investigation and debate, not assumption and complacency.

“Real” democracy is a political system where power is shared by all, not handed over to experts and elites pursuing narrow interests. “Real” democracy is a society where benefits from the productive forces of the day are shared by all, not the monopoly of the one percent. What is “real democracy” is a question for us to pursue in practice, not in abstract forms like equal rights that do not produce equal lived relations.

Calling anti-democratic practices and systems “democratic” is a misnaming. Only when we know how to recognize “real” democracy after careful thought and respectful debate will we know when we are confronted by misnaming that pretends to be democratic.

“Equality” is another question for investigation and discussion, not assumption and complicity. Do equal rights in a constitution guarantee equality in social relations? Does equality at the ballot box produce equal power in practice? What is “real” equality? The problem of the “real” is a ghost that I hope haunts your lives as it will haunt this blog.

Many who talk about democracy emphasize freedom and neglect equality. What does it take to avoid eclipsing equality when practicing freedom? How can these two honorable values be put into practice together?

If democracy is always in the future, forever postponed, then how might we determine whose democracy will be our democracy, whose democracy deserves to benefit from our efforts at producing equality? Many of those who claim democracy do so to benefit their own interests, and the narrow interests of those they serve. Many of our most trusted democratic leaders, even the founding fathers of major electoral democracies, did not believe that democracy was meant for all.

Over the coming months and years this series of posts will explore ways that those who call themselves democratic may be telling tall tales. Despite the persistent claims of many states to democratic practice, we can give careful attention to various slippages, postponements, oversights, exclusions, exceptions, appropriations, colonizations, invasions, persecutions, violent relations, and other verifiable events to see whether the egalitarian promise of democracy has been fulfilled.

There are ways to take democracy seriously as a practice that produces equality in the present. Attention to difference in democratic practice, rather than a homogenizing assumptions about equality, ironically may be one way to produce real-world equal outcomes. There are many ways to carry out democratic practice to produce equality. By testing claims to democracy, and critically examining their “real” outcomes by asking about equality, we will find many successful efforts at delivering equality.