Friday, June 29, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part III

Social change is, borrowing from James Joyce, a chaosmos, a tenuous order hinged on the contingency of flux. We can predict and prepare for it, we can leaven society to precipitate it, but ultimately social change belongs to the indeterminate future. For this reason, activists like those in the Occupy movement must be skilled readers of the unveiled signs of the time.

Like knowing when to pluck ripe fruit gifted by the tree. And so social change requires an urgent energy but also a wild sort of patience, which implies committed time in a place, which implies community. Associations should come and go, but communities are meant to last.

Engineer and activist Randy Schutt declares that we need a clear vision of a good society toward which we are moving (pp. 67-68). Because of this, activists need supportive community in order to live simply, animate social change for the long haul (ibid, pp. 72-3), and imagine what the alternative future looks like right now. At this point, Schutt is betraying (unacknowledged) anarchist values of revolution and organizing, such as ending oppression rather than individual oppressors, direct nonviolence, the commensurability of ends and means, and alternative institutions (ibid, pp. 64-68). Of course, alternative institutions should not be content to carve out enclaves within the current order, but should also challenge it because the top-level Metonyms don’t voluntarily modify. Nevertheless, regime change usually chops the head off the Hydra monster only so another biting head can grow in its place. Instead, the point of anarchism is direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old. And this is what movements like Occupy are trying to do.

But let’s be clear: these movements are not the answer to our problems. They are not the beatific vision of democracy or community. In an essay called “In Distrust of Movements,” farmer and writer Wendell Berry complains that such movements are often insincere because they presume that other people cause all the problems and so require only policies, not behaviors, to be changed (2004, p. 45). He proposes three conditions for his participation in the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing, or the MTEWIID, a name which he hopes will be too clunky to be bumper-sticker trendy. Firstly, we must give up the belief in totalizing solutions (ibid, p. 49), which are often predicated on regime change (Graeber, 2011, p. 27). Secondly, we should acknowledge our complicity in the economic system, because in order to expose it we must understand how we participate in it, especially if we are going to build a good economy (Berry, 2004, pp. 49-50). Finally, we must be satisfied to be poor and so find cheap solutions within the reach of everybody, which will never happen if we have lots of money: “We want a movement that is a movement because it is advanced by all its members in their daily lives” (ibid, p. 50).

In my experience and reading, many Occupy hubs are wrestling with these conditions. For instance, Occupy Harrisonburg in Virginia asserts that they are the articulation, not the solution, of the problem and that their mission is to: celebrate what works; acknowledge what is broken; take responsibility; create action; and repeat.

David Graeber argues that mass direct action organized as direct democracy is very effective, but the main problem with such movements is that they are shocked by quick successes and then thrown into confusion and infighting (2011, p. 12). Perhaps Berry’s conditions provide one way to avoid these perennial pitfalls, especially if we also come to terms with and repent of the dark American history of racism, militarism, and classism.

Peacebuilders and activists stumble upon other related pitfalls, such as wanting to address root causes but not wanting to put down any roots. Transience breeds abstraction, around which the danger of global thinking revolves. Those with grand abstract schemes to “save the world” don’t always think that differently from those with grand abstract schemes to “take over the world.” Both operate on reductionist assumptions and the myth of the White Man’s Burden. Indeed, the most successful global thinkers have been imperial governments and multinational corporations (Berry, 1993, p. 19). I’m not proposing isolation, because justice necessitates imaginative respect for the plurality of the world’s places (ibid, p. 50). No place is wholly free while another is enslaved, no place wholly healed while another is diseased.

However, I doubt whether global solutions will be any less destructive than the problems which they seek to solve. Contrary to popular belief, I think size does matter. The bigger they are the harder they will fall. This is not only a practical consideration, but an ethical one as well: who will suffer the consequences of bad decisions if, or when, the mighty walls come tumbling down? Unfortunately, scale and limits are not popular topics in industrial Western countries. The question of democratic scale transports us back to the Constitution’s drafting, where Federalists and republicans disagreed on proper scale but both used the wide western frontier to their advantage.

Kirkpatrick Sale maintains that scale is “the single most critical and decisive determinant of all human constructs” (p. 54) because people are not usually persuaded by forceful moral argument but can be moved to right behavior when they see the problem before them and their connection to it, and this can only be done at a limited scale (ibid, p. 53). For something to be democratic, it seems to me that people at least need the option to interact with one another, to cross paths at least once in a while. Sale notes that humans evolved in villages mostly ranging from 500 to 1,000 people, with broader tribal associations rarely exceeding 10,000 (ibid, p. 64). Clearly network organizing across regions is necessary, much as the Iroquois Confederacy did or perhaps as 21st century town meetings are attempting to do now (Lukensmeyer & Brigham, 2005). However, these should supplement, not replace, actual town meetings.

Deliberative democracy builds on and links more direct, scaled democracies. In a deliberative process, everyone affected by or interested in a decision should be invited to participate in the decision-making process (Evanoff, p. 24), which doesn’t mean everyone would convene at larger levels to discuss regional cooperation. Representative forms of democracy may be more efficient, or at least faster, but they tend to exclude those without access to power centers and, ever so slowly, representation becomes separation. But this doesn’t imply some bland uniformity. Sale argues that while alpha males and coercion are present in the nonhuman world, there is no institutionalized system of domination that could be called hierarchy (Sale, p. 98). However, we do see hetrarchy, or “distinction without rank,” that entails complementary roles (ibid, p. 98). After all, as Wendell Berry points out, a superficial egalitarianism is a free market society in which we won’t listen to those who may know more or we won’t help those whose conditions are worse (1993, p. 173). Equality without equity, compassion, or mutuality endorses power and wealth (ibid, p. 172). Berry insists that a deep pluralism demands, not an indiscriminate egalitarianism or shallow tolerance, but knowledge and respect of differences, which implies imagination, or “the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.” (ibid, p. 173).

A democratic confederal model, like bioregionalism, moves toward this knowledgeable respect and imagination, asserting that convergence is necessary for cultures to address shared problems, but divergence is also needed to ensure cultural diversity and evolution (Evanoff, p. 1). This decentralized network, like ecological trophic levels or nutrient cycles, is one way to prevent insularity. While parochialism is an undoubted risk, it is also a regular red herring in discussions of communities and local democracies, no more endemic to them than to urban centers and nation-states, evidenced by the rampant anti-immigration rhetoric in the U.S.


Berry, W. (2004). Citizenship papers. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard.
(1993). Sex, economy, freedom, and community: Eight essays. New York City:
Pantheon Books.

Evanoff, R. (2011). Bioregionalism and global ethics: A transactional approach to achieving ecological sustainability, social justice, and human well-being. New York: Routledge.

Graeber, D. (2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Lukensmeyer, C. J. & Brigham, S. (2005). Taking democracy to scale: Large scale interventions—for citizens. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41, 47-60.

Sale, K. (2000). Dwellers in the land: The bioregional vision. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Schutt, R. (2001). Inciting democracy: A practical proposal for creating a good society. Cleveland: Spring Forward Press.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part II

In any case, defining democracy as voting—a fairly recent historical classification—smells like Eurocentrism. The United States is a majoritarian democracy, a military institution descended from ancient Greece (Graeber, 2004, p. 87). This democratic structure is only possible when a society believes people should have an equal say in decision-making and when a coercive legal apparatus is able to enforce those decisions (ibid, p. 89). Consensus decision-making was the necessary norm in many societies without a coercive apparatus, but many Western scholars don’t designate an indigenous village council as democratic because they don’t vote (ibid, p. 88). It does seem relevant that the U.S. democracy-as-voting system originated in ancient Greece, which was one of history’s most competitive societies in which public decision-making was a form of contest within a populace at arms (ibid, p. 90), an idea we see expressed in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. As we should recall, democracy etymologically refers to the force or violence of the people—kratos, not archos—because the political elites that devised the word did not see a huge difference between democracy and mob rule (ibid, p. 91).

Even so, democracy is a strange spectrum and a word in reclamation. Many progressives involved with Occupy declare that this new movement is about reclaiming our bought democracy, perhaps agreeing with Cornel West that citizen disillusionment is due to free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism (pp. 3-6). Occupiers are not the only ones noting the challenge of reclaiming democracy. Some believe that we must rebuild the nation’s moral foundation because an emphasis on individual rights has made us self-absorbed (Wharton, p. 3). Others argue that reinventing citizenship necessitates a web of connections because democracy is the habit of working together (ibid, p. 5) . And still others bemoan that citizens have lost control of a government that is supposedly of, by, and for the people (ibid, p. 7). Our work is indeed cut out for us because this trend may trace back to the defeat of the agrarian Populist movement in the 1896 presidential campaign. William McKinley’s victory marks the first time in which big money and mass communication became central ingredients in American politics (Kemmis, p. 29). Daniel Kemmis, Montana lawyer and former mayor of Missoula, probably agrees with each of the above challenges to varying degrees, especially since the embodied habit of working together implies certain moral values, but he suggests that democratic deterioration might go back even further than McKinley. In fact, it may go back to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

The Founding Fathers famously debated balancing the interests of slave and free states and small and large states, but they also disputed whether citizens could solve problems together or if elaborate government machinery was necessary to resolve conflict without direct democratic engagement (ibid, p. 11). The republican tradition, championed by Thomas Jefferson, depended on people working together to pursue a common good (barring, of course, everyone except white land-owning men). The Federalists, such as James Madison, opposed this with two alternatives: checks and balances in a procedural republic and the extensive western frontier (ibid, pp. 12-13). The Federalist argument rejected the possibility of citizens working together because individuals could only pursue their own private interests, so the effective role of government would be to channel vices toward some emergent higher good (ibid, pp. 14-15), which replaces direct encounters between conflicting parties (ibid, p. 56). The procedural republic’s checks and balances functioned much like the invisible hand of the market, which may explain why capitalism has followed democracy everywhere like a dog chasing its tail. Kemmis argues that this is no accident since the Federalists were also interested “in creating optimal conditions for an expanding commercial and industrial economy”: Adam Smith introduced the invisible hand into economics and James Madison introduced it into politics (ibid, p. 15).

Because of this, the Federalists advocated a much larger political scale than traditional republican teaching, which needed governance small enough that proximate citizens could actually know and repeatedly engage with the ‘public thing’ (ibid, p. 16), something which Alexis de Tocqueville did in fact witness. This outsider also witnessed something rotten in the state of America: a despotic cocktail of racism, empire, and democracy that could undermine what he saw as good (West, p. 45). But Madison saw expanding the western frontier as a hedge against the tyranny of a majority finding a common motive (Kemmis, p. 17) which could foment the aforementioned mob rule; the frontier then became a way of keeping citizens apart (Footnote), even as Jefferson naively believed colonization would preserve republican values through the promise of continual fertile land (ibid, p. 19). As the frontier inevitably closed, two new escape valves saved citizens from finally facing one another: extra-continental imperialism and the regulatory bureaucracy (ibid, p. 32). Since then, these two escape valves have been consistent features of American political life.

Maybe Timothy Zick is right that the Occupy movement aims to redeem rather than achieve democracy, but this would depend entirely on how we want to define democracy and how we interpret our past. Either way, the intended outcome may be a democracy quite different than the one envisioned by the U.S. founding fathers, and we should allow for the possibility that whatever comes may not even be called democracy. And we must always be ready to challenge whatever comes. As biologist Mary Clark says, “In the United States, the centralized, ‘weak’ democracy that the Federalists put in place – with the professed intention of discouraging ordinary people from serious political engagement – needs to be turned into highly participatory, ‘strong,’ community democracies that give people back a sense of control over their own lives” (p. 395). The Occupy movement is attempting to redeem or achieve this democratic public through general assemblies in neighborhoods parks and city squares, operating on the assumption that citizenship is not allegiance to an abstract state but is the repeated practice of communal decision-making, and this requires some common place in which to share experiences (Wharton, p. 5).

One challenge of democracy is that associations, though they still exist in the United States, often relinquish their connection to creation, education, mutual aid, and health to the market and the state (Cavanaugh, p. 258). Kemmis compares contemporary public life to a Big Mac, which can exist in the same form anywhere as a placeless abstraction that diminishes the possibility for culture (p. 7). Or perhaps public life is now like Taco Bell commercials, which market products by fabricating contexts like a small Hispanic neighborhood, in order to have some semblance of cultural identity. For Kemmis, public life simply isn’t possible unless people are trying to inhabit a place together through practiced embodied patterns like work and play, celebration and mourning (ibid, pp. 79-80).

Kemmis drives this argument home by comparing the preambles of the U.S. and Montana constitutions. At first glance, they are similar, beginning with “We the people” and ending in the intention to “ordain and establish.” But Montanans took a lengthy pause between these phrases to thank God for the beauty and majesty of the mountains and valleys, dedicating themselves to preserving this heritage for themselves and future generations (ibid, p. 4). This is not rhetorical flourish, Kemmis contends, but instead signifies a different orientation to governance than the U.S. Constitution: the authors’ relation to the place helped inform what they meant by “we the people,” because people “in their separated individuality never become public. They only do that by a deliberate act of constituting themselves as ‘the people’” (ibid, p. 4). The tangibility of the place delivers the potential for this common effort.

Perhaps the Occupy movement is recognizing this. In fact, journalist Arun Gupta believes that this very concreteness troubles the capitalist system, which congregates “workers in a common space – the factory – where they become aware of their common interests, as well as their potential power to stop the machinery of capital,” just as educational space for student movements and black churches during the civil rights movement provided the same locus. Transforming Zuccotti Park on Wall Street into political space manifests this insight. Diverse people felt drawn to a reimagined commons in which a multitude exchanged food, music, ideas, shelter, skills, and much more. Because of this, longtime organizers were surprised by deep conversations between ideological opponents. Gupta visited approximately forty different U.S. occupations and met many Republicans, and a few Tea Partiers, who self-identified as the 99%. The ability to reconfigure space through acts of reinhabitation is crucial to the Occupy movement’s success, because inhabiting a place means dwelling there in an intentionally practiced way (Kemmis, p. 79). Unfortunately, many Americans have lost the ability to relate to their neighbors, especially ones with contrasting ideas and lifestyles (ibid, p. 79), because some surveys report that 75% of Americans don’t know their next-door neighbors (McKibben, p. 117). American transience through work, housing, finance, and virtual spaces hides the insight that “taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below."

Footnote: “Every colonial and autocratic regime rises to power by turning citizens against each other” (Block, p. 71).


Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Clark, M. E. (2002). In search of human nature. New York: Routledge.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kemmis, D. (1990). Community and the politics of place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York City: Henry Holt and Company.

West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.

Wharton, T. (2006). Democracy’s challenge: Reclaiming the public’s role. Dayton: National Issues Forums Institute.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Proximity Matters: The Place of Democracy Part I

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
-Wendell Berry, “Watershed and Commonwealth” (2004, p. 135)

In a recent Al Jazeera article, law professor Timothy Zick makes a sharp distinction between the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The former, he claims, is about achieving democracy while the latter attempts to redeem an existing democratic system. Zick argues that street protests can be effective, but the Occupy movement must eventually grow out of direct action and darken the doorways of legitimate institutions to make actual lasting change. The Occupy movement’s challenge will be to maintain its democratic principles while at the same time entering the bloodstream of governmental agencies because, Zick claims, public protest is needed but systemic change demands traditional forums as the primary modus operandi.

Zick’s statist optimism is also apparent when he implies that other notable democratic movements emerged because they were within established democracies. I wonder how he then explains Indian independence under the British empire, People Power in the Philippines, nonviolent Latin American movements such as the Chilean effort to oust Pinochet, and of course Denmark’s resistance to Nazi occupation. The U.S. civil rights movement did occur in a country claiming democratic values, but those values were certainly not favoring the protesters.

Zick’s argument seems fairly standard amongst American liberals who may support democratic protests but ultimately believe that real democracy is instantiated in formal legal structures. Policy professor Peter Dreier agrees, asking aloud if Obama’s election was simply a liberal interim period or if it signals a major progressive shift in U.S. politics. Dreier sees Obama’s electoral campaign as a grassroots social movement that reconnected the people to the power, indirectly comparing this campaign to abolitionism and Populist farmers, housing and health reformers, suffragists and labor unionists, civil rights and environmental activism. Obama did hire hundreds of grassroots organizations and the statistics of support among minorities, students, and labor unions are extremely impressive (ibid, p. 5). Dreier attributes much of the campaign’s success to such grassroots organizing on Obama’s behalf, and his optimism for this “new era” is very evident.

Dreier emphasizes that shrewd elected officials will know that they depend on radical protesters to ripen the political landscape, leveraging such situations so that officials will appear moderate when building bridges. Practical protesters should also recognize that while legislation is usually a compromise, it could lead to progressive reform. The upcoming presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is portrayed as a cataclysmic turning point in U.S. history that requires Dreier’s pragmatism. Democrats accuse more radical activists of playing into the plutocracy’s hands by refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils. For liberals, the only thing worse than voting in partisan politics is not voting in them.

Obama’s rhetoric and certain policies are indeed better, but Glenn Greenwald contends that liberals now support policies they claimed to abhor under Bush, such as maintaining Guantanamo Bay, targeting citizens without due process, and extensive drone attacks. In fact, 77% of liberal Democrats support Obama’s use of drones, representing what Greenwald calls repulsive progressive hypocrisy. Not to mention that Obama extensively fundraised from Wall Street corporations (and later bailed them out), intensified the war in Afghanistan, and recently teamed up with agribusiness giants to sow GMOs throughout Africa, even though the Regional Consultation of Civil Society for Africa responded that this current plan will not support family farms constituting actual “African food security and sovereignty” (Footnote). Greenwald’s article exposes Dreier’s comparison of Obama’s campaign with American liberation movements: once Obama entered the Oval Office, on the waves of grassroots organizing, he was in control of a vast military empire centralized in D.C., far away from the dissipating associations that formed around his inspiring speeches. In a recent conversation with a classmate, I criticized Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he suggested that King and Gandhi’s nonviolence was not naïve . . . but it was of course a little naïve. My classmate defended Obama because he has different job requirements than King or Gandhi. But excusing the president based simply on his job description doesn’t make me ignore his actions. It makes me question the job itself.

Perhaps subversive voting could be a tactic for radicals among a wider strategy of constructive programs. Policies surely require change now in order to limit damage, and we cannot escape constant collaboration and points of intersection, even as we guard against overwhelming centripetal force. But voting is often viewed as the heart of liberal state democracy, which has become the West’s greatest assembly-lined export. Anthropologist David Graeber quips that the West certainly didn’t invent democracy, but they did spend “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out” (2004, p. 93). As Cornel West reminds us, slavery and expulsion of indigenous people are historical preconditions to American democracy, and in fact there “could be no such thing as an experiment in American democracy without these racist and imperial foundations” (p. 45).

And yet for some reason, state democracy is still presented as a social contract that prevents widespread violence. However, many historians now claim that state-making has served, not to protect people from violence as Thomas Hobbes supposed, but to organize for the purpose of war (Cavanaugh, p. 250). Rather than paving the way for the world community, nation-states disintegrated communities through their absorption (ibid, p. 249). European peasants staged major popular rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history, during the infancy of the nation-state when royal leaders consolidated power through uniform language, currency, and taxes over huge territories (ibid, pp. 248-249). In a way, the Occupy movement is resisting similar trends within liberal democracy, which bifurcates the political and economic systems in which the supposed equality of the former actually supports structural inequality in the latter (Myers, p. 294). Many Americans, even poor Americans, seem to accept this division and so forfeit economic or political transformation because Horatio Algers’ bootstrap tales are still pervasive.

Design consultant Peter Block argues that defining democratic engagement by voting effectively reduces citizens to consumers giving their power away (p. 64). In this case, national elections can actually prohibit democracy. For instance, voter registration and civil disobedience among African Americans rose dramatically during the 1960s, during which time Congress approved numerous legislation in favor of black communities. Voter registration continued to increase in the next decade, but civil disobedience diminished. The U.S. government then decelerated ratifying new laws favorable to African Americans, and, of course, Nixon’s War on Drugs also began during this period. Furthermore, congressmen and senators wanted the voting age lowered to 18 in order to draw students away from direct action during the Vietnam War; Senator Jacob Javits believed that anti-war organizers would be ineffective if young people had a role in the political process, which could channel student energy in carrot-and-stick fashion. Perhaps more disturbingly, David Graeber thinks such diversion is not atypical when it comes to democratic movements. Because the U.S. military is always mobilized for war, the government can instigate violence overseas which immediately distracts domestic social movements (2011, p. 15). Graeber speculates that it might not be a coincidence that the civil rights movement led to new legislation and acceleration of the Vietnam War; or that the anti-nuclear movement led to forsaking nuclear power and intensification of the Cold War, as well as incursions into Afghanistan and Central America; or that the global justice movement led to the collapse of the Washington consensus on neoliberalism and the War on Terror (ibid, pp. 15-16). At the risk of sounding like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, I wonder aloud if the Occupy movement will be sidetracked by further threats of war with Iran.

Footnote: This consultation included “small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, consumers, women, young people, NGOs, human rights movements, trade unions, academics, artisans, [and] indigenous peoples”; in short, the people who Obama, Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont, and others claim to be helping.


Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler
Publishers, Inc.

Cavanaugh, W. (2004). Killing for the telephone company: Why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Modern Theology, 20, 243-274.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
(2011). Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and the imagination. New York: Autonomedia.

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world
. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.