Brian Holmes on Thu, 1 Nov 2001 19:54:13 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Re: the myth of democracy

I wonder how Ian Andrews feels, now that Kermit Snelson has "sided" with
him in his critique of nik's original post on "the myth of democracy."
Sometimes these discussions bring you uncomfortable acquaintances. The kind
that cover up all the substantive arguments.

Among the painfully reactionary bits of Snelson's post is this:

"Most of the issues that have been raised on the streets over the past two
years are technical and will require considerable scientific expertise to
solve. Global warming? Sustainable agriculture in the developing world?
Debt relief? Drug patents? ... Waving signs, chanting slogans and throwing
a rock won't do a thing. Those who really care about these issues should
pick one, develop real knowledge about it and become valuable to one of the
many organizations that are actually working on it."

Snelson doesn't seem to recognize that the huge international effort to
begin doing something about global warming has been blocked by the
democratic government of the United States. He affects not to realize that
expert citizens' groups such as the Confédération paysanne, Greenpeace,
Attac, the Council for Canadians, Jubilee 2000, Focus on the Global South,
and hundreds of others large and small are in the streets precisely because
their efforts to influence national governments and international bodies
through typical citizens' tactics, moving from counter-expertise to
petitions and lobbying, have been unsuccesful. He apparently has not read
the interview with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stieglitz, posted
here on nettime - if he had, he would know that the former World Bank chief
economist himself is in the streets when the Bank and the IMF meet, because
he was unable, as an expert, to get them to change their policies. Snelson
also doesn't realize that the groups I've cited, along with the hundreds of
other citizens-and-experts that have merged into the "movement of
movements," pretty much all switched over to the tactics of global
convergence demonstrations involving direct action, after Reclaim the
Streets and the Seattle DAN network, in particular, led the way. The
citizens groups and the dissenting experts followed because those tactics
appeared to do what electoral politics didn't, namely get some results or
at least put the issues on the map.

Nik quotes Negri and Hardt to say: "It is perhaps an exaggeration to
characterize elections as an opportunity to choose which member of the
ruling class will misrepresent the people for the next two, four, or six
years, but there is certainly some truth in it too and low voter turnout is
undoubtedly a symptom of the crisis of popular representation through
electoral institutions." He could have quoted the economist Schumpeter,
writing in the 40s, who established basically the same theory of electoral
democracy as a means for the continuing reproduction of elite power. He
could also have quoted Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, head of the Quebec National
Assembly and founder of the Parlementary Conference of the Americas, who
pointed out that the FTAA treaty being negotiated last April had never even
been shown to the parliamentary representatives to whom the finer points of
democratic representation are supposedly confided. There are real problems
with what Charbonneau calls "executive democracy."

That said, I don't just side with Nik. I think protest movements are all
about productive disagreements. It is obvious to me that efforts to
establish and improve democratic process have accompanied capitalism since
its inception, resulting in the twentieth century in the creation of
substantive systemic improvements like health and welfare systems, mass
education systems, guaranteed vacations, minimum wage provisions, public
cultural sectors, whatever environmental legislation there is, and so
forth. Capitalism and democracy are both mutually supporting and
antagonistic, that's the fundamental political paradox of modern times.
That we are in a period where capitalism has got the upper hand is no
reason not to continue working toward democratic ideals. In fact, I think
the "counter-globalization movements" (Nik's excellent phrase) owe the
beginnings of their success to the increased emphasis given to democracy
after 1989, as the legitimating framework that was supposed to accompany
capitalist globalization. Protest movements play on the critical gap
between democratic ideals and capitalist reality. Precisely the gap that
people like Snelson want to erase when they get rhetorical about "our
enemies" who are "deploying 767s and anthrax against our families." The
point of the us and them business is to urge "us" to "get real", i.e. quit
protesting and support the status quo. No thanks Kermit. Given that "our
enemies" may also turn out to be the American far right, I think I prefer
to continue working with the democratic idealists and radical autonomists
who pragmatically take to the streets.

All the arguments I've dealt with so far just act to cover up the extremely
interesting questions in Ian Andrews's post. Rather than condemning every
facet of the recent protest movements without distinction, Andrews asks
questions. He doesn't affirm that democracy only works in the frame of the
nation-state; instead he takes the care to asks whether democracy is
imaginable anywhere else. The point is to raise the question of democratic
process. In the face of a declining commitment to social welfare on the
part of neoliberal governments, he asks, "Who will take responsibility for
the dispossessed, the economically discarded, the environment, world
health, etc."? And then he says "we need some mechanism to do this." His
complaint with the autonomists is that they are offering no universalizable
mechanisms. And yet at the same time, his own arguments point to all the
flaws in the currently available universals. He appeals to Marx as a
philosopher who submitted his own thought to a process of constant
critique, and he offers the idea that "universal suffrage, like the liberal
democratic state, should not be regarded as an absolute ideal, the end of
history, or the ultimate high point of civilization, but rather as part of
the political toolkit we have at our disposal." No appeal to a clash of
civilizations here.

What it comes down to is that the supposedly democratic countries are in
great need of fresh experiments with democratic process. The spread of mass
education and the access to powerful communications systems have made
obvious the democratic deficit of systems based on electoral
representation. Andrews makes the point when he says that the needed
mechanism for the assumption of social responsibilities "involves a number
of strategies, including a rethinking of the concept of the state that
radically distances it from paternalism, and that incorporates... the idea
(from the liberal democratic state) of the separation of powers, and a
multiplicity of channels (perhaps involving autonomous social actors)."

The "perhaps" opens up the interesting part for the discussion at hand. The
fact is that the autonomous movements are today among those who are
experimenting with new forms of collective decision-making, i.e. new forms
of democracy. Like Andrews, I get impatient with their denial of the need
for universalizing mechanisms sedimented in enduring institutions - i.e.,
their denial of any form of state. But at the same time, I appreciate very
much the way their tactical practice is calculated to produce democratic
innovation by upsetting the immobilizing forces of the state bureaucracies
and the exploitative powers of capitalist corporations. An important step
forward could be made, at this point, if the autonomist groups could get
their heads around the idea that their "anti-state idealism" is actually
part of a radical democratic idealism. Democracy is very much about
freedom, and very much about the autonomy of diverse social groups. In a
period of experimentation with democratic process it is imaginable that
spaces for the kinds of collective freedom that autonomist groups seek
could be significantly enlarged.

At the same time, only the other major ideal of democracy - equality - can
ensure that freedom is not simply the privilege of the powerful, as it has
been for the neoliberals. The difference between the neoliberals and the
post-communist autonomists is sometimes hard to see, when you focus on the
libertarian strand of thinking that they effectively share. But the
differences in their practice are obvious. The autonomous groups seek an
extension of egalitarian freedoms, or egaliberty, as Etienne Balibar says.
And that isn't a myth. It's a social struggle that's been going on for a
long, long time.

Brian Holmes

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