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  • 21.out.2011

    Occupy Wall Street – Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and its discontents

    Da sessão Democracy in America da The Economist

    OCCUPY WALL STREET is not only a mass protest movement intended to draw attention to economic injustice and political corruption. It seeks to embody and thereby to demonstrate the feasibility of certain ideals of participatory democracy. This is, to my mind, what makes OWS so interesting, and so unlike a tea-party protest. OWS is not simply a group of like-minded people gathered together to make a point with a show of collective force, though it is that. The difference is that it has developed into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order. The complaint that OWS has failed to produce a coherent list of demands seems to me to miss much of the point of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. The demand is a society more like the little one OWS protestors have mocked up in the park. The mode of governance is the message.

    And what is the message of the “General Assembly”, the governing body of the original financial-district occupation? According its wbsite :

    New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.

    Got that? If this sounds a bit academic, that’s because it is. Whether you’re having trouble parsing this or not, this piece by Dan Berrett on the academic roots of OWS’s governing ideology is incredibly helpful.

    Mr Berrett focuses on the influence of David Graeber, “an ethnographer, anarchist, and reader in anthropology at the University of London’s Goldsmiths campus.” Mr Graeber was impressed by the people of Betafo, in Madagascar, who ruled themselves through a process of “consensus decision-making” demonstrating the left-anarchist ideal of “democracy without government”. Mr Graeber applied what he learned in his ethnographic work in some of the left-wing anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s, and has now brought his experience to bear on Wall Street, laying the groundwork for OWS’s experiment in participatory democracy. As Mr Berrett reports:

    Soon after the magazine Adbusters published an appeal to set up a “peaceful barricade” on Wall Street, Mr. Graeber spent six weeks in New York helping to plan the demonstrations before an initial march by protesters on September 17, which culminated in the occupation.

    Spontaneous order can take a bit of planning. But it seems Mr Graeber’s planning has born fruit:

    The defining aspect of Occupy Wall Street, its emphasis on direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, is most clearly embodied by its General Assembly, in which participants in the protest make group decisions both large and small, like adopting principles of solidarity and deciding how best to stay warm at night.

    This intensive and egalitarian process is important both procedurally and substantively, Mr. Graeber says. “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic,” he says. “You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can’t establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.”

    When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy, Mr. Graeber says. “It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected.” Or, as an editorial in the protest’s house publication, Occupied Wall Street Journal, put it, “This occupation is first about participation.”

    It is hard to deny the romance of this, and part of me would like to camp out in Zuccotti Park and pitch in. But I wouldn’t expect it to last. Not only is it hard to see how this worthwhile little experiment in leaderless, consensus-based decision-making is a realistic means to the end of a whole society governed by leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, it’s hard see why this is a desirable end.

    Because the participatory democracy of OWS is an ideological endeavour, it can avoid the hard problem of liberal society: the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus. Consensus-based communes composed of individuals who opt in specifically because they already agree with the commune’s founding values can work precisely because the people who would make consensus impossible—people with very different opinions and values—stay away. But not only does the OWS experiment skirt the problem of pluralism through self-selection, the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend toward extremism, as Cass Sunstein´s important work on deliberation and group polarisation shows. He writes: “When like-minded people are participating in ‘iterated polarization games’—when they meet regularly, without sustained exposure to competing views—extreme movements are all the more likely.”

    Even given a climate of ideological similarity, this mode of communal egalitarian living doesn’t tend to scale up well beyond a few hundred people, and requires intense and often invasive surveillance and monitoring to minimise free-riding, as well as heavy communal pressure to maintain the kind of conformity of belief necessary to maintain ongoing consensus. This is not, to my mind, a beautiful dream. Anyway, insofar as people are serious about it, egalitarian participatory democracy points in the direction of radical decentralisation and hyper-local control. The immense scope and diversity of the American territory and population, as well as the vast scale of the American state and the number and complexity of its activities, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of society now being performed by the romantics in Zuccotti Park.

    Moreover, direct deliberative democracy by its very nature puts effective power disproportionately in the hands of extroverted, energetic, and charismatic individuals with a knack for persuasion. The opinions of introverts and those of us who need a good deal of time to mull things over tend not to be fully included into the decision-making process. So these people (most of us, I think) must go along, their views systematically underrepresented until the rule of the pushy yammerers becomes too intolerable and they leave. Exit is more powerful than voice if voice is not your strong suit.

    There is a great deal wrong with American governance, and not only within government. I think that the concentrated management and diffuse ownership of public corporations has left a relatively small numbers of corporate managers with insufficiently checked control over trillions of other people’s property. And I think that the relatively unchecked power of government to make or break fortunes has made it more or less inevitable that corporations would in time end up writing their own regulations to their own advantage. Occupy Wall Street is a great boon to the extent that it helps draw attention and build effective opposition to the unjust mechanisms of upward redistribution and to the many flaws in our political economy responsible for the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and powerful over the rules that profoundly affect us all. However, insofar as OWS is meant to persuade Americans to adopt a wholly different and better way to live with one another, it is bound to fail. Even if consensus-based, leaderless participatory democracy could work on a grand scale, Americans aren’t interested. And face it: sooner or later, Brookfield Properties is going to get it’s park back. So for those deeply committed to realising a lasting community governed by the ideals of OWS, let me recommend a seastead.

    OCCUPY WALL STREET is not only a mass protest movement intended to draw attention to economic injustice and political corruption. It seeks to embody and thereby to demonstrate the feasibility of certain ideals of participatory democracy. This is, to my mind, what makes OWS so interesting, and so unlike a tea-party protest. OWS is not simply a group of like-minded people gathered together to make a point with a show of collective force, though it is that. The difference is that it has developed into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order. The complaint that OWS has failed to produce a coherent list of demands seems to me to miss much of the point of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. The demand is a society more like the little one OWS protestors have mocked up in the park. The mode of governance is the message.

    And what is the message of the “General Assembly”, the governing body of the original financial-district occupation? According its website:

    New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.

    Got that? If this sounds a bit academic, that’s because it is. Whether you’re having trouble parsing this or not, this piece by Dan Berrett on the academic roots of OWS’s governing ideology is incredibly helpful.

    Mr Berrett focuses on the influence of David Graeber, “an ethnographer, anarchist, and reader in anthropology at the University of London’s Goldsmiths campus.” Mr Graeber was impressed by the people of Betafo, in Madagascar, who ruled themselves through a process of “consensus decision-making” demonstrating the left-anarchist ideal of “democracy without government”. Mr Graeber applied what he learned in his ethnographic work in some of the left-wing anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s, and has now brought his experience to bear on Wall Street, laying the groundwork for OWS’s experiment in participatory democracy. As Mr Berrett reports:

    Soon after the magazine Adbusters published an appeal to set up a “peaceful barricade” on Wall Street, Mr. Graeber spent six weeks in New York helping to plan the demonstrations before an initial march by protesters on September 17, which culminated in the occupation.

    Spontaneous order can take a bit of planning. But it seems Mr Graeber’s planning has born fruit:

    The defining aspect of Occupy Wall Street, its emphasis on direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, is most clearly embodied by its General Assembly, in which participants in the protest make group decisions both large and small, like adopting principles of solidarity and deciding how best to stay warm at night.

    This intensive and egalitarian process is important both procedurally and substantively, Mr. Graeber says. “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic,” he says. “You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can’t establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.”

    When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy, Mr. Graeber says. “It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected.” Or, as an editorial in the protest’s house publication, Occupied Wall Street Journal, put it, “This occupation is first about participation.”

    It is hard to deny the romance of this, and part of me would like to camp out in Zuccotti Park and pitch in. But I wouldn’t expect it to last. Not only is it hard to see how this worthwhile little experiment in leaderless, consensus-based decision-making is a realistic means to the end of a whole society governed by leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, it’s hard see why this is a desirable end.

    Because the participatory democracy of OWS is an ideological endeavour, it can avoid the hard problem of liberal society: the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus. Consensus-based communes composed of individuals who opt in specifically because they already agree with the commune’s founding values can work precisely because the people who would make consensus impossible—people with very different opinions and values—stay away. But not only does the OWS experiment skirt the problem of pluralism through self-selection, the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend toward extremism, as Cass Sunstein’s important work on deliberation and group polarisation shows. He writes: “When like-minded people are participating in ‘iterated polarization games’—when they meet regularly, without sustained exposure to competing views—extreme movements are all the more likely.”

    Even given a climate of ideological similarity, this mode of communal egalitarian living doesn’t tend to scale up well beyond a few hundred people, and requires intense and often invasive surveillance and monitoring to minimise free-riding, as well as heavy communal pressure to maintain the kind of conformity of belief necessary to maintain ongoing consensus. This is not, to my mind, a beautiful dream. Anyway, insofar as people are serious about it, egalitarian participatory democracy points in the direction of radical decentralisation and hyper-local control. The immense scope and diversity of the American territory and population, as well as the vast scale of the American state and the number and complexity of its activities, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of society now being performed by the romantics in Zuccotti Park.

    Moreover, direct deliberative democracy by its very nature puts effective power disproportionately in the hands of extroverted, energetic, and charismatic individuals with a knack for persuasion. The opinions of introverts and those of us who need a good deal of time to mull things over tend not to be fully included into the decision-making process. So these people (most of us, I think) must go along, their views systematically underrepresented until the rule of the pushy yammerers becomes too intolerable and they leave. Exit is more powerful than voice if voice is not your strong suit.

    There is a great deal wrong with American governance, and not only within government. I think that the concentrated management and diffuse ownership of public corporations has left a relatively small numbers of corporate managers with insufficiently checked control over trillions of other people’s property. And I think that the relatively unchecked power of government to make or break fortunes has made it more or less inevitable that corporations would in time end up writing their own regulations to their own advantage. Occupy Wall Street is a great boon to the extent that it helps draw attention and build effective opposition to the unjust mechanisms of upward redistribution and to the many flaws in our political economy responsible for the disproportionate influence of the wealthy and powerful over the rules that profoundly affect us all. However, insofar as OWS is meant to persuade Americans to adopt a wholly different and better way to live with one another, it is bound to fail. Even if consensus-based, leaderless participatory democracy could work on a grand scale, Americans aren’t interested. And face it: sooner or later, Brookfield Properties is going to get it’s park back. So for those deeply committed to realising a lasting community governed by the ideals of OWS, let me recommend a seastead.

    Postado em 21 de outubro de 2011

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