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.

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