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.

March 19, 2018

Other Democracies: Indigenous Women, Leadership, and Democracy in Northern Argentina

In this series of posts on “Other Democracies,” non-state form of democratic spaces are examined that help strengthen an understanding of how democratic practices beyond the state can do well in the twenty-first century. Many innovative forms of democratic practice emerged from the electoral and financial crises of 2001 in Argentina. Today we will take a look at an organization from the northern province of Argentina of Jujuy that successfully practiced assembly decision-making, women’s leadership, and other hallmarks of democratic self-governance for over a decade. 

The organization is known as Organización Barrial Tupac Amaru (OBTA), and was characterized by a large percentage of their membership of Indigenous women, migrant women, and women of color, and also by a strong leadership role by lesbians and other women. The province of Jujuy is widely known as a part of Argentina with large segments of the population lacking health care, quality housing, and other basic necessities. Beginning in 2003, the organization successfully campaigned for health care, decent housing, and access to economic resources after an initial success at building low-income housing. By 2015, the organization had successfully gained over 70,000 members both female and male, and employed many local residents in several factories and over 250 cooperatives.

Even though Argentina as a nation and Jujuy as a province practice electoral democracy, many poor, indigenous people, and migrants from Bolivia that live in the area had experienced significant difficulties obtaining access to basic needs. While many think of elections as non-violent approaches to governance, elections are also places where nation-states make decisions about policies that at times have lethal consequences. For example, when a government is elected to carry out economic policies that are known to impoverish many people in the nation, then the electoral process is carrying out those forms of violence that poverty causes: death from lack of food or shelter; injury from insufficient health care; and other violence.

In the case of Argentina, the violence of elections were demonstrated recently in a more direct fashion in the campaign leading up to recent, high-stakes midterm elections. The 2017 midterm elections were widely seen as a referendum on the policies of the center-right ruling coalition of the President, Mauricio Macri. Shortly before the elections were held in October, 2017, an indigenous rights activist, Santiago Maldonado, was found dead in a river in the Patagonia region. The ruling party had been quick to defend the security forces that had evicted him and other activists from an indigenous rights protest on the day that he was last seen. Maldonado’s activism had been a thorn in the side of the ruling party up until his disappearance some two months before the election. By having Maldonado killed, the security forces were able to remove a prominent opponent of Macri’s government, and the Macri government was successful in the midterm elections. This violence also lowered the visibility of indigenous criticisms of the elected government, reducing their ability not only to have a say in national affairs but also in governing their own affairs as they are shaped by electoral government policies.

OBTA is important for considering democracy because of its successes over a decade in gaining access to basic needs for many people in Jujuy, and for the methods that they used to do so. These methods include the use of member assemblies to make important organizational decisions, a practice that we have seen in many other locations is central to effective practice of self-governance.

These member assemblies are mechanisms that many communities and social movements deploy to prevent narrow interests from taking control of the process of governing their affairs, their democratic practices. In the province of Jujuy, for example, electoral democracy had come in the post-war period to serve primarily the interests of the white, male social elites that were repeatedly successful at running for electoral office in the province.

Yet in addition to their deployment of assembly decision-making, OBTA also took as their leader and spokesperson the charismatic Indigenous woman, Milagro Sala. Sala’s leadership style disrupted business-as-usual in the state of Jujuy, allowing her to become a tough advocate for the poor, for women of color, and for immigrants in a state previously known for its conservative electoral politics. By not conforming to traditional feminist gender roles that often legitimate women’s political participation in this region, Sala came to be labelled a “transvestite” and “un macho en pinta” or a macho look-alike by her political opponents. This created a social space that made possible the social acceptance and political effectiveness of not only lesbians and other non-heterosexual social roles, but also queer activists and others who do not wish to reproduce established gender and sexual norms.

Sala was quite successful in confronting several powerful opponents of OBTA, included leading figures in the union movement in Jujuy, which had supported past white, male conservative governments in the province. The traditional unions were opposed by the unemployed movement that successfully mobilized Indigenous people and women of color, the movement out of which OBTA emerged.

The attention that Sala’s leadership style gained also became part of a campaign by her opponents to attack her after the 2015 national election of the conservative government of President Macri and the 2015 election of a conservative provincial governor, Gerardo Morales. The election of Governor Morales meant the end of some fifteen years of progressive party leadership in Jujuy, and the return of the conservative party that had ruled Jujuy for thirty years up until 2003. After the 2015 elections the successful tactics of OBTA, such as setting up tent encampments in town squares, were attacked by legal changes and by decrees from Governor Morales, and Sala herself found herself under arrest. An initial arrest in January, 2016 was compounded when further charges were added to the initial charges, previous legal cases were re-opened, and earlier charges were replaced with more serious charges. More than a dozen other leaders of the organization also found themselves charged with various legal offenses. Ultimately, many of the benefits gained by the Indigenous and poor of Jujuy from the OBTA successes have been lost as a result of this concerted campaign against the OBTA leadership.

The political and legal campaign of the conservative elected government against OBTA shows that reliance on an individual, such as Milagro Sala, or a small group of leaders, leaves a movement vulnerable to attack and even destruction by its opponents. Many democratic movements have avoided this vulnerability by training all of their members in leadership skills, and by carefully controlling the public representation of the organization to prevent focus on any single individual or small group.

One risk that democratic movements run is opposition by those serving in elected governments that claim democracy, yet that have also proven over decades that they serve only narrow interests. The conservative government under Governor Morales’ leadership is one such elected government. By being unresponsive to social movements advocating for the poor, as they were up until 2003, electoral democratic practices failed in Jujuy to serve the general interest.

Yet for those movements like OBTA, who sometimes have been successful at advocating for the interests of those who often do not benefit under electoral governments, caution must be taken when developing leadership. If leadership is highly centralized, as it often is in social movements and many communities, the centralized structure can make it easier for a movement’s opponents to successfully block further success and even to destroy the movement. Decentralized organizational structures can be much more effective at responding to attacks from political opponents, and more successful over the long term in advocating for member interests.