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.

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