My friend Stu sent me a long article about the functioning of social justice movements of the Occupy / Arab Spring variety, discussing how their efforts at being internally democratic work.
Much of it is of interest, but this passage made me think of the climate movement especially:
When the anarchist participation prevented the Trotskyists, Real Democracy activists, and other grassroots politicians from producing the sort of unitary demands and manifestos that the general assembly had earlier vetoed, the Commission was broken up into a dozen sub-commissions. Every single day, in multiple sub-commissions, the grassroots politicians made the same proposals that had been defeated the day before, until one meeting when none of their opponents were present. The demands were passed through the commission and subsequently ratified by the general assembly, which ratified nearly every proposal passed before it.
Social movements suffer from extreme forms of some of the problems of traditional representational democracy. Participants lack training, time to do research, and support from experts. Procedures designed to (a) make good decisions (b) through participatory means are imperfect and often feel tedious and frustrating to participants. There is no ideal way to deal with situations where a plurality of people have reached general consensus, but smaller groups have principled and fundamental objections to the most favoured popular course.
“Grass on the other side is greener” thinking about democracy makes me wonder about alternatives like an agenda-setting vanguard or movements governed principally by a charismatic leader. As I have argued before, the virtue of democracy is more in mandating restraint than in necessarily making good decisions.
That might be as good as we can do when it comes to governing nation states. Whether popular movements pursuing environmental or social justice objectives can do better is an open question.