August 11, 2022

Democracy and Colonialism: Misnaming Democracy


            If democracy requires social equality, than nations that participate in the clearly unequal social structures of colonialism may only make false claims to democracy. This problem plagues not only earlier forces of global empire, but also nations in the present who retain colonial territories.  Nations in the present who successfully invade other nations only to leave them in ruins after an extended occupation, like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, effectively also practice new forms of colonialism.

           Colonial practices enforce their inequalities through brutal means, including killings, torture, displacement, and destruction of the social and cultural institutions of the colonized. Equality is impossible, since the colonized are not allowed to govern themselves, denied both sovereignty and autonomy by the colonizer.

Yet colonialism also degrades the colonizer’s society. As Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950, “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to …violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that …each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact…a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, …at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged…a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds towards savagery.” (p35-6) Degraded, violent, racist, infected, violating agreements, and poisoned does not make for a healthy society of equals.

How can France, England, and the United States be seen as model democracies when they still practice colonialism?  France retains colonial territories in thirteen territories, including French Polynesia and French Guiana, while England fought a recent war to retain the Falkland Islands and continues to rule Northern Ireland.

The United States practice of settler colonialism means not only that Guam, American Samoa, and the Hawaiian Islands are colonies in the classical sense, but so is its mainland territory. As Audra Simpson has argued, the “gift of democracy” to Indigenous peoples criminalized Indigenous life as it lays claim to Indigenous peoples as citizens of the United States. Robert Nichols has documented how forcing citizenship onto Indigenous communities in Canada resulted in unequal relations violating Rousseau’s social contract.

Even the classical Greek forms of democracy to which many European theorists looked for democratic models also practiced slavery and contributed to the spread of Greek empire in the Mediterranean.  Pericles, the king who supported the Athenian assembly’s power and weakened the aristocratic wealthy, also embarked on imperial conquests that denied freedom to all. And if later Greek philosophers supported democracy, Aristotle was also advisor to Alexander the Great, conqueror of Athens and the Achaemenid Empire, who Aristotle advised to “be a despot to the barbarians.”  How can a democratic body also support slavery and despotism?

Colonialism and imperialism also erode the effectiveness of democracy in the colonies of European democracies even after liberation, as in India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico. Assumptions that democracy is a European invention that successfully installed equality hide the multiple modes of unequal social relations under electoral governments North and South. These social inequalities are seen not only in continuing wealth inequalities, a sign that capitalism is not an engine of equality but a system of wealth hierarchies closely tied to modern national governance systems.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, non-European societies who adopt European electoral democracy as their governance model must address the unequal historical conditions that colonialism left them before they can expect to enact democracy.  This suggests that the failure of as India, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil to transform the unequal relations of power and authority in their territories left by their colonizers makes democracy impossible for them (p20).  The colonial bourgeoisie that replace the colonizers after liberation protected their own advantages and access to power rather than practice egalitarianism.

The failure of electoral democracies to live up to their promises of equality is not only true of European governments and their settler colonies, but also true of nations of the global south.  The long-standing inequalities of the electoral government of India, often lauded as the “world’s largest democracy,” means the government has never succeeded in becoming a democracy. The assumption that democracy requires equality is only true in abstract principal. Unequal power relations cannot be ignored. 

These abstractions and erasures come from assumptions that European political systems, such as the modern nation-state, are good for all.  That is why many nations in the global south retained parliamentary systems, court systems and legal codes, and other aspects of their colonizer’s political regimes. That retention can only be a form of Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that repeats the racism and ethnocentrism of colonialism and imperialism.  

Ultimately, the alternative social systems that electoral democracies have attacked are an important resource for finding ways to practice equality.  In order to carry out democratic transformations of social relations of power, communities and regions can put democratic practices beyond those of the state to work.

July 6, 2022

Resistance from within the Trump Administration: Defend Democracy


               Elected legislators in the United States have now charged former President Donald Trump with an attempted coup.  As Congressional investigations of the events of January 6, 2021 continue, public hearings have made known a number of specific strategies from Trump and his supporters, as well as counterstrategies carried out that succeeded in blocking the coup attempt. The events before and after the November, 2020 election that Trump lost to the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, show how important it is that opponents on all sides of the political spectrum work together to defend democracy.

               Military forces often play a role in protecting or attacking national electoral democracies.  A recently published book shows that the U.S. chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Trump administration, General Mark Milley, the top U.S. military official, decided to fight Trump’s efforts to destroy democracy in the U.S.  General Milley realized that President Trump was more interested in his own personal political gains and embraced tyranny and dictatorship in 2020.  After considering resigning, he instead determined he wished to fight against Trump while remaining the top military official, and collaborated on a daily phone call with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s own chief of staff Mark Meadows to do so.  After soliciting advice on how to proceed from Robert Gates, a former CIA director and former defense department cabinet secretary, General Milley also secured the Joint Chiefs vice chair and the other military branch chiefs to join him if needed in his opposition to the President. These military and government officials did what was needed to defend democracy.

               Public Congressional hearings that began June 9, 2022 have demonstrated how important insiders within the Trump administration were to blocking President Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.  Jeffrey Rosen worked with the White House counsel Pat Cipollone to fend off efforts by Trump to install a supporter as head of the Department of Justice.  Justice Department officials agreed with lawyers from the White House to resign as a group if Trump replaced Jeffrey Rosen, the Attorney General who was opposing Trump’s demands that he bring fraudulent lawsuits, with Jeffrey Clark, a senior Justice Department lawyer who supported Trump’s demands.  They notified President Trump in a meeting on January 3, 2021 that the entire leadership of he Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office would resign if Trump acted to remove Rosen and install Clark as head of the Justice Department. That group of lawyers from multiple Trump administration executive branches did what is needed to defend democracy.  

A variety of defenses of the electoral process took place both within the Trump executive branch and from officials in other areas of the government.  Other senior White House lawyers, like Erich Herschmann and even at one key point Rudy Giuliani, along with the Department of Homeland Security acting deputy secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli II, opposed efforts to persuade President Trump to use the U.S. military to seize voting machines and rerun the election.  The highest ranking Republican has become the best known to oppose Trump’s efforts to remain in office, Vice President Mike Pence, rebuffing repeated attempts of President Trump to pressure him to support the illegal efforts. The fight within the Trump administration was so serious that Vice President Trump’s chief of staff even notified the security service that there might be security risks to the Vice President. Evidence that President Trump agreed with those who wanted the Vice President to be killed supports that estimation. These Republican officials did what is needed to defend democracy.

               Some of the more revealing testimony occurred only recently, when a key aide to Trump Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows publicly claimed that Trump ordered the removal of metal detectors outside the Capitol building even though he knew the protestors were armed with weapons. Cassidy Hutchinson, Meadow’s aide, also recounted how the security detail charged with President Trump’s safety also forced the President to return his offices at the White House. Multiple officials and the White House legal counsel Pat Cipollone and others knew that the President was considering accompanying the protestors to the Capitol, and Cipollone advised Trump’s closest staff advisors to ensure that did not happen.  After President Trump declared during his speech to the January 6 protestors that he would go with them to the Capitol building, his driver and Bobby Engle, a security official in the vehicle, instead took Trump to the White House over strenuous objections and against orders to take him to the Capitol.  While there are conflicting versions regarding whether President Trump tried to take the wheel of the vehicle himself and whether he physically attacked the security agent who refused his orders, it is now clear that the driver and other members of Trump’s security detail physically prevented the President from going to the Capitol. Cipollone and Engle and the President’s January 6 driver did what is needed to defend democracy on January 6 despite the risks to their careers and to their persons. 

The defensive maneuvers seen in the United States defending the election results do not mean that the United States is currently a successful democracy.  Trump had been emboldened by the success of previous efforts to elect a president in the United States when the candidate did not win the national election.  The Republican party candidates for president in 2000 and 2016, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, took office despite losing the popular vote. George Bush did so through the workings of the electoral college and after a dispute in the U.S. court system and the U.S. Supreme Court. The conflicts in 2019 around electoral officials and the recount process resulted in part from the awareness in both Democrat and Republican parties of the way that paid attack teams besieged the Florida recount process in 2000, the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot.

Multiple aspects of the United States government made successes by candidates who lost the popular vote possible.  First is the electoral college. Second is the role of the increasingly politicized Supreme Court.  Third is the filibuster, a convention that empowers “a minority of white conservatives to override our democratic system,” in the words of a recent analysis. These three mechanisms are a short list of a much longer set of problematic ways that the rule of the few is guaranteed in the United States.

                Debates over the effectiveness of entering into government service at defending democracy continue.  The recent U.S. Congressional hearings show that insiders within multiple sectors of the Republican administration took important actions to stop President Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. Yet faith in government and the courts continues to decline in the United States, and social divisions have only worsened.  

               Some may see continuing support for Trump in the United States as part of Republican Party politics. But the successes at preventing Trump’s coup attempt of Republican administration employees demonstrate that small “d” democracy is not a partisan issue.  While elections are a weak democratic mechanism easily overwhelmed by various strategies, in the Trump administration Republican officials stepped up to protect the integrity of the 2020 election results.

               Working within a political system founded in violence in many ways, such as the electoral democracy of the United States, means that democracy is only possible when we practice vigilance to keep watch over the violence. Such vigilance is required when working in social relations, rejecting those few who would claim the general interest in order to serve their narrow interests. That is the work that makes democracy possible, even when taking significant risks in confronting those who would do what it takes to claim government for their own personal gain.

July 12, 2021

Emerging Abolition Spaces: Other Democracies


Social movements to reduce police killings of unarmed people and to abolish prisons has succeeded in capturing global attention in the past few years.  These movements are also building collective organizations and structures to replace the state bodies responsible for the police killings and unequal incarceration of Black and other community members.  

A broad transformation of both policy and everyday lived social relations is the goal of The Black Lives Matter movement, like the older abolition movement to abolish prisons in the United States.  So these movements are not limited to defunding the police and abolishing prisons in the United States and other countries.   

Transforming social relations in this approach is tied to the ethical challenge of justice, as in the term “transformative justice” preferred by some in these movements. And this transformative work is widespread. Groups like Sister to Sister (173-8) in Brooklyn, New York and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective have been doing the work for many years, while the explosion of mutual aid organizations and other grassroots efforts in 2020 have expanded exponentially the range of these organizations.

The goals of these movements may also be summarized by the phrase, “Transform Harm.”  They work to reduce not only the harm of state organizations, like the police and  the courts, but also individual harm (such as domestic violence) and broad systemic harms (like those of colonialism and white supremacy).

What does this look like in practice? 

Collective organizing is used to direct attention away from the privatized individualism that is typical of many European-derived modern movements (capitalism; electoral democracy; human rights; etc.). This also allows the movements to emphasize the importance of building new social structures and systems rather than focusing on the individual harms that come about through policing and prisons.

By working in decentralized networks (83ff, 93-7, 230), the abolition movement accomplishes several goals. This horizontal structure avoids the inequality of such centralized, hierarchically organized institutions as the nation-state, the corporation, and the modern school.  Spreading decision making powers among all participants through consensus and other practices (230-36), rather than centralizing them in leadership, also forces the collective group to work with group participants who have diverse experiences and perspectives, broadening the range of wisdom and knowledge contributing to the group’s direction. And decentralized networks are also well-known for the difficulties they present to those who would destroy them through attacks by the state or other opposition organizations.

The work takes concentrated, sustained efforts to identify and redirect those parts of our lives that make us complicit with the pervasive violent modes  (139-47) of social relations in modern societies, including not only acts of interpersonal violence but also everyday forms of violence (82-101).

It also requires a retooling of the imagination to begin to live outside the limits of what modern societies teach as possible, training ourselves to practice social relations that center care for the other rather than preservation of the self. Through these practices democracy can come to represent all, including the most marginal and those the nation-state would rather lock away or destroy.