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.

June 29, 2019

Defend Democracy: National States of Emergency, Part 2


States of Emergency have been used widely to undermine and overthrow democratic electoral governments, and also to attack political opponents of unpopular autocrats. But they also may indicate that popular movements and established government bodies outside of the executive office are making headway in opposing autocratic or oligarchic, anti-democratic leadership. The effects of a declaration of a state of emergency depend on those political agents that are involved in the struggle for democracy, and how they respond to such declarations.

 Declarations of a national emergency have a long history, and have been used widely around the world for political gain by narrow interests. The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben has discussed such efforts of the head of state to rule outside the law, what he calls the state of exception. A brief overview of the use of declarations of a national state of emergency in the twenty-first century will help us get some sense of how political bodies committed to democracy can respond to this threat.

In the past decade or two, national states of emergency have been declared by autocrats and oligarchs, generals and military councils in order to remove elected governments, as seen in Bangladesh in 2007, Myanmar in 2012, and Thailand in 2014.  In these cases, the declaration is deployed as part of the arsenal of weapons to destroy electoral systems and replace them with autocracy.

Before the recent declaration by President Trump of a national state of emergency in the United States,  legal commentators were already concerned that the American President was not willing to submit to the established rule of law.  With the declaration of a state of emergency, Trump has greatly expanded the considerable range of powers that he is granted by the laws that make such a declaration legal, as discussed in last month’s post. As Trump’s poll numbers remain low and the 2020 election approaches, we will see whether Trump uses those special powers to promote his own election or even attempts to remain in office by other means.

With Trump’s declaration, the U.S. joins the small number of G20 countries that have used such declarations for political purposes: Argentina and Turkey. Among OECD countries, only Turkey has a history of using such declarations to pursue unpopular policies and consolidate political power. 

States of emergency also have a history of being used by autocratic, unelected governments to oppose popular movements pressuring them to change policies or attempting to remove them from political power, as in Argentina in 2001, Paraguay in 2002, Nepal in 2005, and Ecuador in 2006. In several of these cases, popular opposition proved to be strong enough to withstand the impact of the national state of emergency, and leaders were forced from power within a year or two after the declaration.

In recent years the national emergency has been a weapon used by elected leaders to attack opposition political movements, court decisions opposing elected leaders, and even opposition parties, as in Pakistan in 2007, Kyrgystan in 2010, and Turkey in 2016.  In some cases (as in Turkey), the declaration has successfully marginalized opposing organizations. However, in others (as in Kyrgystan) the state of emergency was not effective in weakening opposition to autocracy, and the leader fell from power.

In the United States there was some objection to Trump’s declaration of a state of emergency by a few commentators, but almost zero public opposition by social movements or political parties. Perhaps the citizens of the United States are so accustomed to electoral democracy, with its many compromises of popular will, that they did not feel moved to object to the establishment of another beachhead of autocratic governance. Since there is little public education in the United States about the high stakes of such a clear threat to electoral practices, perhaps it is understandable that there was so little popular opposition.

These historical uses of the declaration of states of emergency show why many supporters of democracy find these declarations problematic. But they also show that even when a political leader wields the cudgel of an emergency declaration, they still may be forced from office if popular opposition remains vocal and strong through the process.