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.

May 27, 2021

Defend Democracy: Fighting Democratic Erosion


Democracy must be actively maintained to remain strong. Yet few nations train their citizens in the skills needed to keep democratic practices and public accountability strong. This failure benefits interest groups who work to erode democratic responsiveness to the needs of the public, and instead fight for narrow interests. 

Much attention has been centered on coup attempts and other dramatic events when anti-democratic groups, individuals, or even political parties attempt to end democratic systems. Yet the successes (as in Myanmar) or failures (as in the United States) to overthrown electoral systems are shaped by long-term struggles to erode or defend democracies.

While academic scholars of democratic governance have not given the gradual erosion of democratic practices much attention, there is a sizeable amount of analysis of the toxic practices that eat away at democracies. Just in the past ten years historians and political scientists Anne Applebaum, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, William Dobson, and others have written about the U.S. context, while Richard Taylor, Gene Sharp, Bruce Jenkins, and Stephen Zunes have complete books in English about the same problems globally; many others have contributed work in other languages on the ways that democracies are eroded.

The problems that the U.S. now faces are not new. And they do not start or end with President Trump.

There is much that supporters of democracy can do to fight forces that erode democratic accountability and get it back on its feet.

When a political party turns against electoral equality, as the Democratic Party did after 1877 and as the Republican party in the United States has in 2021, then the nation can defend against internal threats to the democratic process.  A 2013 Supreme Court decision in the United States weakened the land mark 1965 Voting Rights Act that attempted to respond to decades of Jim Crow voter disenfranchisement.  More recently Republican legislators in the United States have made over 300 proposals in nearly every state just in the past few months to limit access to voting, penalize those who try to support voters, and weaken the voices of voters.  

When the Alternative for Germany party took clear anti-immigrant and anti-Islam positions that rejected rights to vote for those groups, for example, the German government began to consider exercising its “defensive democracy” constitutional provisions. These provisions were added to the German constitution after World War II to make it possible to investigate and ban political parties that threaten the democratic order, as Hitler’s political party did before the war began.

Not all nations have established ways to defend against internal threats to democracy like those in Germany’s constitution. Yet democratic systems are notoriously vulnerable to capture by narrow interests, by anti-democratic forces.

Policy makers in the U.S. have responded in 2020 with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would correct some of the weaknesses introduced before Trump became President, and in 2021 after the January 6 attempted coup with the For the People Act.    Yet the likelihood of either of these bills being passed by both houses, where the Republicans still remain strong, is very low.

Direct attacks on electoral democracy have eroded democratic accountability of elected leaders to voters in the United States. Yet these problems persist not only in the United States and Myanmar, but in many other major democracies: India, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and others.  One major analysis of the varieties of democracy has even developed a category of electoral democracy which function as autocracies, the “electoral autocracy,” and recently downgraded India to this category.  

As voters lose faith in their governments, they sometimes turn to practice other types of democracies.  Long-established assembly forms of governance have also proven very durable under decades and even centuries of pressure by hostile, anti-democratic forces.  Practiced by long-standing Indigenous communities, such as the Haudesaunee or Iroquois, successful social movements, such as the Zapatistas and the Landless Workers Movement, and such global organizations as Via Campesina, these democratic structures use consensus rather than voting to decentralize decision-making power.

Democracy is healthy when its governing mechanisms are responsive to the will of the people. The United States and many other nations have a long way to go to achieve that goal.  As adrienne maree brown argues, “we--Americans—don’t know how to do democracy. We don’t know how to make decisions together, how to create generative compromises, how to advance policies that center justice.” Brown’s point is that most social movements only know how to “advance false solutions, things we can get corporate or governmental agreement on, which don’t actually get us where we need to be.” (52)

For Brown democracy must come to mean more than what elected leaders want, since the electoral system has been captured by the financial interests that fund electoral campaigns.  In her vision for democracy, democratic compromise is not limited by that which seems possible in the world as we now know it but must respond imaginatively to a need for justice beyond the possible. (17-19, 31)  

The central place of the imagination and of love in these democratic practices require new visions and different skills. They also result in a politics that is unrecognizable to those who can only conceive of democracy as an electoral system practiced first in Europe and the U.S. and then globally. As more liberal democracies erode into electoral autocracies, time will tell how the people will reclaim their rightful central role in the decision-making that shapes their lives.

November 24, 2020

Defend Democracy: Fighting Elected Leaders Who Won’t Leave Office


When an elected leader takes office through democratic means but won’t leave office when they lose an election or due to term limits, democracy is in trouble. This presence of anti-democratic forces active in electoral democratic systems is a major weakness, as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Ranciére have both argued. Yet the problem is very common, as any quick historical review shows: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.

So when a U.S. president recently declared he would not leave office if he loses the vote, and repeatedly invites his followers to elect him for “12 more years” or “for life,” this problem seems to have arrived through the front door of one nation that some identify with democracy. So how does a democratic nation respond?

The past few months have seen an outpouring in the United States of organizing to prevent a sitting president who loses the election from refusing to leave office. This organizing was fully in gear before President Trump was declared the loser of the presidential election on November 7, four days after the Tuesday election.

Since many citizens in the United States are ignorant of the global history of elected leaders not leaving office and the common experience of coups by elected officials, one group even developed a dashboard website to gauge “Is This a Coup?” Because ignorance, confusion, and chaos are common techniques used by autocrats, clarity on what constitutes authoritarian activities and coups is important to the process.        

The organizations working to prevent full-blow autocracy in the United States have a wide range of different approaches. There are a number of organizations committed to nonviolent civil action, such as ChooseDemocracy.US, Frontline Election Defenders, which is a collaborative effort of Movement for Black Lives and the Working Families Party, and a group who wrote the “Hold the Line Guide.” They have used long-established non-violent civil action training practices and English-language scholarship in their trainings, such as the work of Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institute, George Lakey, Stephen Zunes, and others.

These organizations have attempted to appeal to a wide range of citizens by emphasizing the integrity of the electoral process, and even sending “Election Defenders” to polling places to provide accompaniment and de-escalation for voters who had been threatened with harassment and even gun-carrying thugs at some polling places. These groups have been careful to maintain non-partisan political positions, even though in the post-election period their work clearly supports Biden’s efforts to take office after winning the popular vote. Because of the gap between the popular vote and the electoral college vote in two recent U.S. elections, 2000 and 2016, where the president was not determined by who won the popular vote, the official state electoral college declarations at this point remain in play. During the interim period between the election and the state electoral college declarations, there will continue to be efforts to change the electoral college process in favor of the sitting president, and these organizations continue to mobilize their participants to ensure that the electoral college reflects the popular vote.

Other groups have been more expansive in their fight against a possible coup, working with organizations that have often supported particular political parties, such as labor unions, and even with groups with declared party affiliations. One such impressive large coalition of organizations,, includes as its partner organizations SEIU, a prominent labor union, and Republicans for the Rule of Law, as well as the Black Lives Matter PAC.

Because violence often gives autocrats reason to crack down and use police, paramilitary, and military force, most of these organizations have carefully avoided advocating violent modes of resistance. Some movements have emerged from long But the debates over the use of violence in radical organizing continue to surface in the resistance to a possible coup attempt in the United States. 

It is also clear that provocations by individuals affiliated with white nationalism and white supremacy resulted in violence at some protests this summer, however. President Trump’s efforts to paint the Black Lives Matter protests as violent has also served his election campaign goals while provoking widespread fear and even increasing gun ownership in the United States.

Other social sectors in the United States are not convinced that elections will bring the social equality that is democracy’s main selling point. Long histories of unregulated domestic violence against women, state violence against black, Indigenous, and other racial groups, and the rapidly expanding wealth gap in the United State remain reason for some to focus their work in areas besides elections.

Some democratic organizing requires work not around elections but towards self-subsistent, autonomous governance. These approaches include mutual aid organizing in Black, Trans, and other communities; Zapatista and other forms of autonomy; food justice and other subsistence oriented community building. For these organizations the election process is only a sideshow to their attempts to produce equality within organizations and local spaces.

President Trump does have at his disposal not only all the power of the executive branch, such as the power to replace military leadership and send the Attorney General to do his bidding, he also has the expansive powers of a declared domestic state of National Emergency, which he declared in February, 2019. So his attempts to remain in office will not be concluded until the January inauguration, and the impacts of his erosion of electoral processes will have long-term effects.

Only time will tell whether the efforts to oppose a coup by a sitting president will be successful in the United States. Similar efforts have been successful in other countries, such as in 1978 in Bolivia and 1961 in France and in 2004 in the Ukraine. But sitting presidents have also been successful at changing popular vote tallies and outcomes in order to remain in office, as seen in Mexico in 1988, Belarus in 2019, and on many other occasions. Whatever happens in the present U.S. electoral cycle, there is little promise that it will bring the equality that democracy promises.

August 31, 2020

Defend Democracy: Building Social Groups to Strengthen Democratic Power

                The warnings about a surge towards autocracy in the United States, Europe, Turkey, and the Philipines have turned from a steady stream to a flood in the past year. But there is much we can do to build stronger centers for democratic power.

Democracy comes from the people, not from governments. So organized communities can hold governments accountable and pressure them to become more democratic Popular movements successfully pressing for democratic practices and freedoms fill the past half century of Latin America’s recent history in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, and beyond.  Protestors in Belarus this summer have shown how popular protest can pressure elected leaders who put their personal interests above those of the country. Successful popular movements have overthrown presidents in Burma, Argentina, and Egypt and changed policies in many other nations.

               The study of weaknesses in autocracy by Gene Sharp, who explored resistance movements in India, Panama, Poland, Chile, and Thailand, found multiple centers for democratic power. These centers of power include not only government bodies but also many non-governmental groups and institutions. While many are familiar with major non-governmental institutions that claim to promote democracy, such as mass media, political parties, watchdog organizations, unions, churches, and economic bodies, not all recognize the importance for democracy of less formal social groups.

Increased involvement in such informal social groups is an important way that we can strengthen the structural base for a free democratic society. Neighborhood councils, sports clubs, student groups, cultural associations, musical groups, or other common interest groups: any group that knits people together in ways that can be activated when democracy needs to be defended. Such groups might form in urban (reading groups; community garden groups), suburban (sewing groups; youth groups; permaculture groups), or rural settings (small farmer associations; cooking clubs).

Many such groups have formed during the pandemic as communities develop mutual aid resources for meeting needs that governments won't address. The Movement for Black Lives and other supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement actively bring people together in new ways to practice joyful ways of being together.

Getting to know others in these group settings resists autocracy because it brings people together. Authoritarians must divide to conquer. So building relationships with those unlike yourself weakens authoritarian attempts to divide.

Participating in informal groups is also an important tactic for keeping democracies healthy, in the view of the historian Tim Snyder who has studied Nazi groups in Europe.  Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people is one of his twenty points for protecting democracy. Another one is “stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.” Building trust with people you do not customarily befriend is an important part of defending democracy.

Protecting institutions that counterbalance executive power or bring hidden activities to light is also important in protecting democracy.  Supporting an independent judiciary, investigative journalism, and other pillars of democratic governance will strengthen democracy.

When democracy suddenly seems at risk these organizations will emerge as needed, or they can be formed before needed to defend democracy. When Pakistan tried to force courts to support the government, lawyers came out in force  in 2007 to keep the courts independent. When economic experts in Argentina tried to close the banks so that the World Bank could be paid its debts, a massive explosion of neighborhood councils and street organizations emerged (complete with homemade musical accompaniment) in late 2001. Many of these organizations remain at work to exert pressure on their government to remain democratic to this day.

When subjects do not obey, rulers have no power. While activists in some thirty countries have used this approach to resist dictators and overthrow oligarchs, theorists such as Michel Foucault have found that power is not monopolized by those who seem to have it. Jacques Derrida argued that centralized institutions like governments depend on a sleight of hand to trick people into giving up their own agency.

If autocrats do take power, Gene Sharp and others will still be around to help those of us who want democracy back. There is even a phone app on Sharp’s work! And there are many other ways to advocate for democracy when an elected national leader goes rogue and tries to turn an electoral government into a single-party autocracy.

Social division is an autocrat’s best friend. So joining groups with new friends and building trust knits society across divisions. Gayatri Spivak invites us to practice democracy by listening effectively to those with whom we do not identify, so we can build trust with subalterns over the long term.

Friendships and organizations can reach across national borders. So “Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad” in the words again of Tim Snyder. Reaching out internationally builds bridges from the local to the global, work that may provide resources if needed.

These actions will hinder the one-party state, which often emerge from two-party or multi-party electoral systems. Remember that many dictators were once brought to power by elections: Duvalier in HaitI; Ahmed Sèkou Tourè in Guinea; Mussolini in Italy; Hitler in Germany.

History will show whether elected leaders active today will prove to be autocrats in the making: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, and Trump in the United States. But the time to act is now.

The future is ours to make. Make it with friends new and old, in organizations large and small, networked locally and globally.