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.

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