Democracy within social justice movements

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Democracy within social justice movements”

  1. What gives legitimacy to a movement? Is it the ideology, the number of people behind it, the knowledge base, expertise, money, the seriousness of the issue, leadership or a combination? What makes such a movement succeed is even more complicated. I think that it has to impact the people in power directly and painfully. It will not happen if only the poor and powerless are at risk.

  2. Direct democracy is just representative democracy on a smaller scale. It inevitably recreates the specialization, centralization, and exclusion we associate with existing democracies. Within four days, once the crowds exceeded 5000, the experiment in direct democracy was already rife with false and manipulated consensus, silenced minorities, increasing abstention from voting, and domination by specialists and internal politicians.

  3. I have thought some more about this.

    I think one of the biggest failures of Occupy and related movements was their assumption that they did somehow represent “the 99%”. How can this be squared with the fact that almost everyone in the population at least passively supports the status quo? That politicians promising massive redistribution have not gained a great deal of popular support? The preference most people have for stability – even when there are elements of the status quo which they dislike – is important to bear in mind.

    Climate change is also a special sort of problem in many ways. Tackling it means forcing people to give up many things they value: the energy-intensive conveniences and recreations that we all expect now, the absence or invisibility of renewable or nuclear power generation, etc. It’s not a problem that gets solved automatically when people get other things they want. In fact, to a large degree it involves changing expectations about what life can be like. It’s very hard to see how any kind of anarchist approach – focused on people pursuing their individual preferences and objectives – could ever produce the collective self-sacrifice that avoiding climate catastrophe requires. “Destroying” centralized power inevitably seems like a recipe for every scattered decision-making unit that remains to keep using and selling as much fossil fuel as it can.

    Toronto350 hasn’t been an ever-growing organization with an increasing set of ‘wins’ to its name. Rather, we have gone through periods of growth and shrinking and the great majority of people who have been involved have since moved on. While we have undertaken a lot of activity, we have no clear wins to point to. It’s difficult to work out how this relates to our efforts to be democratic. Certainly, a lot of people respond negatively to democratic process and leave as a result. Still, we need to consider the alternative. If the group was a collection of volunteers assembled to advance plans formulated by one person or a small group without their involvement, it may never have emerged or endured.

    A key feature of climate change is that it is unlike any problem that has come before. While we can learn a lot from history, we can never say in advance what approach will or will not be successful (or whether success is even possible). I think we do need to find ways of limiting the disruption that our efforts to be democratic have sometimes sustained, and we need to find ways to develop plausible strategies and see through their implementation.

    It’s not at all clear to me how we should proceed at this point, or how to capture the virtues of democracy (engaging people, avoiding bad decisions that come from one person’s blinkered perspective) without getting bogged down by its flaws (tedium, inability to develop and pursue a coherent strategy).

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