Fumbling for Change

If politics is “the art of the possible” then 2011 has left us, as artists, with suddenly a much larger canvas and a new palate of colours to choose from. This broadened scope requires of us a new capacity for imagination.

“If there was hope, it lay in the proles, because only there could the force to destroy the Party ever be generated…If only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength.”

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

Heading into 2012, we find ourselves debating new questions. One of these is the question of demands. This question, however, is not as difficult or urgent as it may at first seem.  Inherent in the methodology of the protests are at least two demands. One is economic. By reclaiming physical space from both the market and the state, protesters are asserting the need for a return of the commons to our lives.

The other is political. By refusing to ask for permission, or to conform with the proscribed means of protesting (show up for a few hours, make your speeches, then go home and hope those in charge decide to listen), protesters are demanding a new relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In this sense, no simple change in policy – increased bank regulations, better social welfare, whatever – will be sufficient.

Here an analogy best illustrates my point. Recently, my cat won a minor victory, in that I now let him out of the apartment. This however did not change the basic nature of our arrangement: he is still the pet, I am still the master. This is not the kind of change we seek.

This leads to a more serious and interesting question; whether, how and to what extent we should be working to transform these explosive street protests into enduring and structured organisations, which can then articulate our demands with some specificity, and engage the elites we have set out to challenge. The argument so far can be roughly summarized as follows.

Thesis:

The protests are the change they want to see. They embody an egalitarian, democratic, horizontally organised community, with an intensity of fellow feeling and camaraderie absent from our current societies. They must be allowed to grow in the same manner that they were born. Their very continued existence will pose a threat to the status quo, and an example of how to do things better. As Hesham Sallamwrote on Jadaliyya “reverting back to a more ‘normalized’ and orderly form of politics… locks in an unfavorable political reality that pushes the struggle for transformative change from Tahrir Square (back) to ‘Square 1.’”

Antithesis:

That’s lovely, but if you think simply camping out in a square and tweeting about it is going to change the world, you are kidding yourselves. We are facing a crisis on several fronts, and only states have the resources and authority to deal with it. We must therefore engage with it, and bend its actions towards our goals. That means organising. As David Atkins wrote on Hullabaloo,  “in electoral democracy, those who are best organized are the ones who usually win, no matter how inspiring the revolutionary movement may be.”

The aim of this essay is to complete the Hegelian cycle and articulate a synthesis; that we must indeed organise ourselves into something more enduring than drum circles, tents and chants, but that we must not do so by falling back on the old methods of political organisation. We must conceive new methods of permanent mobilisation and collective decision making, inspired by the revelatory experiences the squares have offered, and informed by their strengths.

It is worth looking at where this movement came from. Particularly interesting are, rather than the push factors – such as the economic collapse, the four decade rightward drift of economic policy that preceded it, and the inability of existing political elites to face up to it – the pull factors that called people onwards, and gave them hope in the possibility of something better.

For protest movements in the west, however loathe many of their members would be to admit it, the election of President Obama is an important feature of the political backdrop to current events. This is not because protesters feel they have a president who is on their side – indeed it was only after Obama’s failure to deliver on his promises of change was obvious that the reanimation of American street politics began. What is significant is that a black man running on a platform of change was elected to the presidency. It was an undeniable demonstration of the capacity of societies to change – of our capacity to change them.

As Noam Chomsky articulated beautifully in the days following Obama’s election:

It was a historic election. To have a black family in the White House is a momentous achievement. In fact, it’s historic in a broader sense. The two Democratic candidates were an African American and a woman, both remarkable achievements. If we go back, say, forty years, it would have been unthinkable.

So something’s happened to the country in forty years. And what’s happened to the country, which we’re not supposed to mention, is that there was extensive and very constructive activism in the 1960s, which had an aftermath, so the feminist movement, mostly developed in the ’70s, the solidarity movements in the ’80s, and on ’til today. And the activism did civilize the country. It’s an important achievement. The country is a lot more civilized than it was forty years ago, and the historic achievements illustrate it.

And that’s also a lesson for what’s next. What’s next will depend on whether the same thing happens. Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below. And it’s up to — the answer to what’s next depends on people like you. Nobody else can answer it. It’s not predictable….

… Obama did organize a great large number of people and many enthusiastic people, what’s called in the press “Obama’s Army.” But the army is supposed to take instructions, not to implement, to introduce, develop programs and call on its own candidate to implement them. That’s critical. If the army keeps to that condition, nothing much will change. If it, on the other hand, goes the way activists did in the ’60s, a lot could change.

What Chomsky pointed out, is that Obama’s election was an effect of change, much more than a cause.  As people are beginning to remember, real change does not come from a re-arrangement within the political elite, but from grass roots popular struggle.

The next big game changer was Wiki-Leaks. Suddenly the revolutionary power of the internet seemed to be turning on. The most powerful state in history stood naked in the eyes of the world. Almost immediately in the wake of the un-precedented website’s launch, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt began, also facilitated (partially at-least) through the internet. Seemingly immovable dictators were swept away by the irresistible force of populations we had long ago written off as broken, weak and apathetic. The virus of unrest spread quickly throughout the Arab countries and onward to the larger world.

At the time of Chomsky’s address, the idea that a new wave of activism, comparable to that of the sixties, could break out seemed incredibly optimistic. Today such a comparison seems inadequate, with many seeing the beginnings of something more akin to the Progressive Era of American politics.

On the cusp 

While the conditions are ripe for a severe and thoroughgoing renewal of politics, the possibility remains that the moment will pass, and that this will be a flash of false hope preceding a long and steep decline. We cannot surrender to the euphoria of the moment and fall back on the truism that whatever people are doing in the square is working.

Returning to the comparison with the sixties, I am reminded of a passage in the novel Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era – the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened…

…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Simply heating up the iron is not enough, you have to strike it too. While the largely leaderless wave of activism has proven its capacity to carry out the former, it remains unclear how it can be expected to deliver on the latter. Tens of millions of Egyptians still live in grinding poverty and all but a tiny few in fear of an oppressive and unaccountable state. The elections (should they be respected by the military), promise to deliver the levers of state power not to the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square but to the more organised and better funded Islamic groups, prompting calls by some for those throwing their weight behind street protests to hurry up and start engaging in formal politics.

There is much to be said for this position. Apart from the Egyptian example it is worth pointing out that the Occupy movement, which seems to have passed its peak, at least regarding the number and size of physical occupations, is yet to claim a major policy victory. Its momentum may pass without this occurring. The unrest in Greece has not been able to stop the European and global elites from imposing their visions of austerity.

The problem with this position, however, is that traditional formal politics has also failed, and has been failing for decades.

The case of Greece in particular highlights a great intellectual difficulty of the moment, which has so far been largely glossed over: as the Arab world struggles for democracy, the current models of democratic government practiced in the west – even in the birthplace of democracy – are proving themselves incapable of confronting other powers in society, in particular the power of global capital. This problem is compounded when one considers the central role of economic concerns in motivating the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

While, it is not at all clear yet that the mass mobilisations from below will do any better, there are reasons to hope they might. Here it is worth considering, rather than the resonances with the social movements of the sixties, the distinct departures.

Here is a section I omitted from the above Fear and Loathing passage:

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights – or very early mornings – when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket…  booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

That is the spirit of a relatively prosperous generation, intent on pushing the limits of personal freedom – though not always in the hedonistic ways described by Thompson (whose freedoms, being a heterosexual white man, were fairly expansive to begin with). It is not the spirit that pushes along the current wave of protests.

Rather than freedom, today responsibility seems to be the guiding principle.

Veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk has said that dictators infantalise their subjects, imagining them as incapable of deciding for themselves what’s best.  What’s more they think deep down that the people want to hand over responsibility to someone, someone stronger and wiser, someone like them. What I think Mr. Fisk may have missed, is to what extent an identical mentality has gripped western elites, and to what considerable extent thus far western populations have played along.

No longer.

Rather than the sexual unaccountability and ‘free love’, associated with the sixties, occupy sites have inspired at least one wedding, reminiscent of those that occurred in Tahrir Square. When I interviewed Manal Hassan, wife of detained Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, she told us that for nine years the couple had been married, but only decided to have children after the January uprising made a new Egypt that they would help in building, seem imminent.

This, like much else associated with the current moment, implies a sense of maturity and adulthood – exactly the qualities the generations in question have been accused for so long of shirking.  In reality, this is not something we have been avoiding. It is something that has been withheld from us by a system that insisted that the important decisions were beyond us, and best left to the experts. The abject failure of these experts in managing our affairs for us has been the true wake up call.

The occupiers and their ilk may be ready to hear the advice offered by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek not to fall in love with themselves, but rather to “fall in love with hard and patient work”.

The necessity of work, however, does not imply the necessity of a boss, and we should not underestimate the anarchic qualities of the movement, or the advantages these qualities bring with them.

If you take a line from the pharaohs, draw it through Tahrir and keep going, you end up at something very much like the anarchist’s utopia, a society organised by free association and initiative, both individual and collective, unhindered by the clunky mechanisms of rules and hierarchy. At the very least you are left with the distinct suggestion of a shift, in terms of political power, away from vertical organisations and towards horizontal ones. This process is clearly in part driven by new communications technologies, which unlike their traditional counterparts, are not built around a central hub (a printing press or a broadcast tower) from which the information flows outwards, but rather facilitate a rhizome structure in which information flows in every direction at once.

There are clear practical advantages to this. As well as strength, leaders bring weakness. Leaders can be bullied, bought, or (as in the case of Dr Martin Luther King who, with his ‘poor peoples marches’ etcetera, may have been the man to turn the focus of the sixties’ activism away from personal liberation and towards collective empowerment), they can be killed. Indeed it seems that a lack of clear organisational structure, in particular a lack of key leadership figures, is one reason the revolution in Egypt has survived and succeeded where traditional political opposition groups were co-opted or crushed.

If what is meant by “organisation” is the selection of a leader, or group of leaders, to whom we transfer our new-found responsibility and agency, then organisation is the opposite of what we need. However, the movement cannot be allowed to sprawl endlessly, encompassing everything from calls for the re-reinstatement of the Glass-Steagal act to a public inquiry into the causes and effects of chem-trails.  Nor can it remain so tied to the idea of comprehensive consensus that it produces nothing more complex or specific than the “99% good, 1% bad” credo. What’s more, while digital technology has no doubt broken open the choke-points in information flows, it is still impossible for everyone to talk to everyone about everything.

We are faced with a collective version of the balancing act that Carl Sagan expressed as an individual challenge: “keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

What we need is a method of decision making that can not only focus and sustain the movement, but also embody its goals by offering a working example of a new kind of democracy, one that means more than choosing from an increasingly similar menu of leaders, and suffering their corruption and incompetence for years at a time in the vain hope that next time round the choice will be more meaningful.

Real time democracy 

Real time democracy is a system based around transforming the vote from a single use ticket issued once every four years, to a permanent possession of the voter – something that is lent (in part or full) to a representative the voter trusts to defend their interests and their vision of society (while they focus on their daily lives) and which can be withdrawn without notice.

The system is most easily conceived as an online voting system in which each voter would have a personal homepage. The most important feature on this page would be the voters “pot”. Upon the first log in, this pot would contain their entire vote. They would then be able to break this vote into portions of whatever size they liked, called tokens, and proceed to distribute them to representatives.  A voter could, for example, give a third of their vote to a candidate who shared their economic views, another third to one with a position on the environment they shared, a sixth to a candidate advocating for a persecuted minority, and the final sixth to a candidate advocating for their local community.

This last option is significant, as while such a system would be, by its nature, inimical to district based voting, it would allow for local representation where it was desired – something very difficult in current models of proportional representation where people have one vote, once every four years, which they can dedicate to local or national issues: but not both. Indeed one can imagine a community that felt it had been abandoned by the broader political class quickly pooling a substantial chunk of its votes behind a candidate standing for the sole purpose of advocating on its behalf.

The representatives’ voting power would increase and decrease in proportion with their share of active vote tokens. A representative with a total of 10% of active vote tokens would cast a vote that counts for twice that of her colleague with 5% of active tokens, and half of that of a representative with 20%. Percentages of active tokens would also be important in allocating speaking time, and the number of opportunities a representative would have to introduce a motion.

Importantly, representatives would be required to announce their position on upcoming motions in advance, giving the voter a chance to withdraw their token before it is used against their wishes.

There would be strong arguments for a maximum for the amount of voting power a single representative could wield, (somewhere around 40 percent for example). Also, while it seems necessary that any voter would be able to stand as a representative instantly and at will, it may be decided that a minimum threshold for support must be reached before voting or speaking rights are granted (and certainly before a salary is paid to allow the representative to dedicate themselves to politics full time). Alternatively the system could allow for micro-representatives, people charged with care of the votes of their friends and neighbors, or of fellow followers of a niche political position. Voters who had the time and inclination could also decide to keep all their tokens and vote directly. Alternatively (or as well) this body could not be paired, in a bicameral system with a direct popular referendum on each motion passed, thereby allowing for a body of professionals who could dedicate themselves to detailed public debate of issues, without handing over power to them completely.

Also, for simplicity’s sake, rather than being infinitely flexible the vote could be permanently broken into a set number of tokens (ten, a hundred, whatever), which the voter would allocate in the same manner – though my inclination is to give people as much control as possible.  Such details however, are probably best worked out through practice.

Every day election day 

The most obvious advantage of such a system is increased accountability. In a sense this is a model of democracy without elections, in another sense it is a model where every day is election day. This would bind representatives far more closely to their constituents, and I believe, force them to take more consistent long term positions, rather than promising one thing before the election, and doing another for the duration of their term.

It would also mean an end to package deal politics, where voters are forced to choose between platforms despite the fact that they are unlikely to comprehensively agree with any of them.

At present, if you agree with one (or five) out of ten of Party (or candidate) X’s policies, but none out of ten of Party Y’s you have the choice of withdrawing your support for the policy you do endorse, or granting it to the policies you don’t. The existence of a Party Z (leaving aside the biases against third parties in our current system) actually does little to moderate this effect, as the chances of them agreeing with their voters about every conceivable issue is no more likely.

This problem is compounded by the fact that in reality, the issues that will come before a voting body are not known in advance, and that politicians can simply abandon or change sections of their platforms once the votes are cast – meaning your vote can be used to advance the nine policies you disagreed with (and three new ones), and not at all for the issues which motivated you to cast it. Under real time democracy, the voter would be able to pick and choose what issues their voting power was used for, and in which direction it was cast.

Another advantage of this system is an end to political party hacks – those rewarded with safe seats for their obedience to (and ability to fundraise for) the party machine. These people are essentially granted leadership roles because of their ability to follow. They bring nothing to the debate.

In the system I am proposing only a candidate who had fresh ideas and a direct appeal to voters would be of any use to political parties. It is likely in such a system that any parties that did exist would only field one or a few candidates, of exceptional merit, in any particular assembly. The purpose of the parties would be to push for co-ordinated approaches in various bodies (i.e. local, state and federal governments).

Belief in democracy 

One of the main objections raised to this model is that it expects too much of ordinary people, who are thought of as either too lazy or too stupid to be involved in an ongoing way in politics. To the argument that they are too lazy, I answer that the current level of participation, both in street and online politics – despite the fact that neither of these realms is invested with any formal power – tells a different story. People get engaged when they see that issues affect their lives. To those who fear that people are not intelligent enough to be engaged at this level, I ask, do you really believe in democracy at all?

Furthermore, I think this system would improve the level of public debate. Currently, many ordinary people consider a detailed discussion of politics to be a waste of their time. They are not entirely wrong. Under the current arrangement, short of serious political activism, which most people have neither the time nor inclination to engage in except in exceptional circumstances, their political power is limited to a four-yearly choice from a very limited selection of platforms, over which they have no detailed say – a problem which is even more serious for marginalized groups. Indeed, considering the fundamental flaws of the current system (not to mention it’s corruption by powerful special interests), what is remarkable is not that many people do not bother to participate, but that so many still do. This is a sign of people’s deep and inherent urge to have a say in the collective decisions that face society.

Essentially, this is a system whose time has come. Just as the printing press and other mass media made universal suffrage possible and meaningful, digital communication allows for its transformation.

Of course this is not the only improvement required to make our democracy real – increased transparency, and an end to the practice of legalised bribery in the form of political donations stand out as other important goals. What is different about this system is that, as well as an end in itself, it can also be a means.

While originally conceived as a methodology of government, its application as a collective decision-making process for large-scale social and political movements, unions, charities and the like could have a transformationally empowering effect, both on the organisations themselves, and on their members. In the case of the generalised uprising currently manifest in the Occupy Movement for example, it would allow for complex decisions, about tactics, demands and the management of resources, to be made – and for a high level of co-ordination between geographically disparate participants – without the movement’s essential character being lost. Something of this nature is essential if the current wave of protest is to fulfill its promise.

A scaled down, simplified version can also be imagined for the protest sites themselves, with those unable to be present at a general assembly leaving some kind of physical totem with a someone to indicate a right of proxy.

In this process, the new methodology would be developed, strengthened and legitimised, and made more ready to be applied to the process of making law and directing the actions of a state.

I am not an anarchist – are you? 

These words may seem jarring, given the extent to which I have praised the leaderless creative chaos of the uprisings so far, but at the end of the day, despite seeing great value in their critique of the state, I am not an anarchist. I still believe in a role for the state, enforcing law, and also building and running schools hospitals, roads and railways, and otherwise ensuring the welfare of its citizens.

I am in a sense what I expect some anarchists hate most, one who would take the ideas and insights of anarchism and incorporate them into the structure of the state. It would seem I may have allies, for as anarchic as the protest movements have been in their means, many of their ends are geared towards not smashing the state, but protecting it from looting elites, and ultimately expanding its role in ensuring some degree of equality.

This proposal aims to help bridge the gap between these ends and means.

[This article is also available at openDemocracy]

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About Austin G. Mackell

I am a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of corporate and community outlets from my hometown of Sydney and from the Middle East, including from Lebanon during Israels 2006 invasion and from Iran during the tumultuous presidential elections there in 2009. I have recently moved to Cairo to watch the revolutions in Arab world unfold.
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