Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Occupy Movement: A Failure of Democracy

Mass protests imply that democracy has failed. In a genuine democracy, if one seeks a change in policy, one contacts one's representative, and if that agent is not responsive and does not represent the consent of the people, then the voters replace the bum in the next election.

Mass protests arose in the Arab world because they had dictatorships which refused to respond favorably to grievances. The regimes responded with force, because the chiefs sought to preserve their privileged power. But in a democracy, the government is supposed to represent the people and respond to popular desires.

The most powerful weapon of protest is civil disobedience, the refusal to obey unjust laws. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the protestors went beyond calling attention to their demand for equal rights. With the refusal to obey segregationist laws, the movement put pressure on the authorities. Mass arrests placed a cost on the authorities and generated sympathy for the cause.

The occupy movements have practiced civil disobedience by putting up tents for a continuous presence in the occupied territory. The police have responded by taking down tents, destroying property, and arresting the demonstrators. This brute-force police reaction will not succeed, because the protestors have a passion for justice on their side, and the political machines have not been responsive. For the most part, the occupy movement has been ignored, dismissed, or disparaged by the political establishment. When democracy fails, the alternative is mass protest.

Mass protests seek to educate the public in addition to putting pressure on authorities. During the War in Vietnam, for example, the protestors made speeches and published literature on why the war was wrong. The majority at first did support the war, and later, both due to the protests and due to the continuing cost in lives and treasure, the public turned against the war.

The problem today is that those seeking change have to convince the majority of the mass of voters, and this persuasion is difficult and costly. But the core of the problem lies in democracy itself. We are used to democracy being our system of mass voting and representation, but there is an alternative democracy, a radical decentralization of power and voting.

Suppose that the political body is divided into tiny cells of a few hundred people. People would only vote for a local neighborhood council. Those councils would vote for the level-2 council, and so on to the top level of Congress or Parliament. If the country was engaged in a war you wanted to stop, the first place to engage in would be your local level-one council. If you could convince your neighbors that the war is unnecessary and unjust, then that council would send representatives to level-two to oppose the war.

The anti-war movement would take place in many neighborhoods, all seeking anti-war majorities in the level-one councils. Thus level-two would also be opposed to the war, and send anti-war representatives to level 3, and so on up to the Congress, which would end the war.

Thus with a cellular democracy, protests might take place to call attention to a cause and to help educate the people, but the push to change the policy would take place within the multi-level system of voting. With just a few hundred people in the level-one neighborhood, one could hold meetings, distribute literature, and just talk to people about the issues. The council would have to be responsive to the majority, otherwise it gets replaced.

If one could not persuade the majority, then so be it. One could just keep trying. If truth is on your side, eventually logic may well prevail. Prejudices may be difficult to dislodge, but most people think they believe in justice and liberty, so pointing out the contradictions in their thinking could well eventually erode their bias. For example, racism was deeply entrenched in western civilization for centuries, yet there was a quick turn in the culture, so that today it would be shocking to hear anyone exclaim racist ideas in American civil discourse.

The failure of democracy illuminated by the occupy movement is not a failure of the concept of democracy but of the misapplication into mass voting. The problems of mass voting are well known in the theories of political science and the branch of economics called "public choice." Everybody knows the perverse influence of the moneyed special interests, and that is one of the themes of the Occupy Movement.

Members of that movement have created an alternative democracy of general assemblies within the protest neighborhoods. If the local assemblies would then send representatives to regional assemblies, which then send members to a national assembly, they would create a parallel democracy. They might then realize that this bottom-up structure should replace some or all the structures of mass democracy. For example, one of the two legislative houses in the states could be elected by cellular democracy.

Mass democracy has failed to sustain prosperity, justice, and liberty. The Occupy Movement is a symptom of mass-democracy failure. Small-group bottom-up cellular democracy would provide a great enough voice to people so that they would no longer feel the need to live in tents and march down the street.


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