Saturday, March 10, 2012

Democracy Only Works At A Door-To-Door Level

Last week I walked home the two and two-thirds of a mile from work, because it was a nice day. It was getting dark as I turned the corner onto my street and I saw a man with a clipboard standing in the sidewalk several houses down. I thought he might be selling something, or taking a survey.

I turned out he was my alderman. There is an election April third, and when such elections occur without being coupled with the media's hyped-up high-drama of the presidential election, voter turnout is low, so getting out the vote is crucial. Anyway, there he was, on my fairly nondescript block going door-to-door, no entourage, just him. He introduced himself, and gave me his pitch, which is about all the new development, and how the neighborhood has been "cleaned up", which is to say the seedier businesses have shut down and much nicer ones have moved in. Fortunately, this has happened without too much gentrification, which is fairly good. Whether he's to credit for this is debatable; politicians always take credit for what happens while they're in office. Anyway, since he raised the topic of one of the developments - a coffee shop built at a prominent corner where a local bank once stood- I thought I might as well give him my opinon of it - I said it's a nice building, but it's too bad we're tearing down good buildings while the main street is so full of lousy, unkempt buildings and empty lots. We should be filling those in first. Whether my comments had any impact, I don't know. But at least it was an opportunity to meet a government representative face-to-face and throw in my two cents.

I gave him one specific example of an ugly empty lot, and he told me about some of the attempts he had made to get it developed over the years (it's owned by the neighboring bank). He also mentioned some other developments, including a beautiful old movie palace that has sitting abandoned for years that is hopefully going to open. Working with business owners to get business to move to the neighborhood is his big thing, and I have to admit, he's done a pretty good job. He also told me about upcoming meetings concerning some of the developments in the neighborhood, writing down the dates on his campaign literature. We chatted for about ten minutes and I let him move on. I had to turn down his request to put a sign in my yard, though, as my landlord already has a sign for his opponent. However today I see his yard signs up and down the streets in the neighborhood, meaning that his pounding the pavement must have yielded some positive results. I mentioned previously that my landlord is friends with one of the people running for country supervisor (in that case, against the incumbent).

I bring this encounter up for two reasons. One was this article I read entitled Democracies Always Fail, which discusses an article I commented on several weeks ago about some research showing how bad large groups are at determining the competence of candidates:
Many Americans believe they live in a democracy. They don't. Yes, there are names on the ballot, campaigns are waged, votes are cast, and the winners serve their terms in Washington. But some votes count more than others. Way more. Those who vote with their checkbooks have far more sway than those who do nothing but push buttons or pull levers in a voting booth. The further you move away from the "one person, one vote" principle, the less of a democracy you have. Here in America we've moved a vast distance away from this ideal principle. That is especially evident this year now that we live in the Age of the Superpacs after the Citizens United decision.

[...]

As I pointed out above, the real problem is that ideal democracies do not exist. Clueless voters are a secondary issue. In fact, I would go much further. I would say that ideal or close-to-ideal democracies are inherently unstable and therefore must fail. They are unsustainable. The reason for this is simple: ideal democracies are incompatible with Human Nature, i.e. power corrupts, governing inherently requires humans to wield power, and thus the democratic process must become subverted at some point or other.

American democracy failed decades ago—we could argue about exactly when that occurred—but we are seeing that process at work in Europe today. Greece and Italy are now run by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels who, along with the ECB and big private banks, will increasingly call the shots in other countries on Europe's southern rim. Great power is being wielded and corruption is part & parcel of that. The governing process in EU member states is becoming more and more undemocratic every day. If you doubt this, just ask a Greek or an Italian. Next year you can ask the Portuguese or the Spanish.

So my view is that democracies always fail sooner or later. Although the United States never had a pure democracy, it is remarkable how long the old Republic was sustained. But when America became a great global power after World War II, the jig was up. It was only a matter of time until the U.S. became as undemocratic as it is today. What's ironic about this is that the less we live in a democracy, the more those looking to maintain the status quo trumpet the idea of America-as-a-democracy and the importance of voting. Frankly, that's ridiculous, and provides us with yet another example of how crazy life in the United States has become.
The other was the passing of the following law: The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. Here's John Robb on this law:
In feudal times, you could be put to death if you didn't kneel when the carriages of the nobility passed by. This is a step in that direction (although very few people care) ...

Essentially, it makes it a federal offense to be anywhere near, from being in the area or in the same building, somebody [sic] protected by the secret service. That's from the President to candidates for political office (Romney or Santorum) to senior government officials to foreign dignitaries (G20). In other words, lots and lots of people.

While being sold as a way to close a loophole in the current law regarding White House security, it is actually much more than that. It changed one word that made a world of difference. What's the difference?

To be arrested and imprisoned, all you need to do is be the same building or area around a person that has secret service protection. You don't even need to know you are breaking the law to be arrested and imprisoned. If you are merely walking in an area "secured" for a person being protected, you can be legally jailed for up to one year. If you are carrying something that can be seen as a weapon (legally or not), that imprisonment can be extended to ten years.

In short, if you are within the same building or neighborhood being secured to protect a political or foreign personage without their expressed permission, you can be imprisoned.
The World Socialist Web Site comments:
Under the ancien regime in France, steps were taken to ensure that the “unwashed masses” were kept out of sight whenever a carriage containing an important aristocrat or church official was passing through. Similarly, the laws expanded by H.R. 347 help create for the US president and other top officials a protest-free bubble or “no-free-speech zone” that follows them wherever they go, making sure the discontented multitude is kept out of the picture.

The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act is plainly in violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which was passed in 1791 in the aftermath of the American Revolution. The First Amendment provides: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (The arrogance of the Democratic and Republican politicians is staggering—what part of “Congress shall make no law” do they not understand?)

H.R. 347 comes on the heels of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law by President Obama on December 31, 2011. The NDAA gives the president the power to order the incarceration of any person—including a US citizen—anywhere in the world without charge or trial.

The passage of H.R. 347 has been the subject of a virtual blackout in the media. In light of the nature of the bill, which constitutes a significant attack on the First Amendment, this blackout cannot be innocent. The media silence represents a conscious effort to keep the American population in the dark as to the government’s efforts to eviscerate the Bill of Rights.

The timing of the bill is significant. H.R. 347 was reported to the Senate floor by the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17, 2011, amidst a massive nationwide crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street protests – and just two days after hundreds of New York City police conducted the infamous military-style raid on the demonstrators’ encampment in Zucotti Park, driving out the protesters and erecting barricades.
This is only the latest and most egregious attempt to isolate the rulers from the masses that they supposedly "serve" . In theoretical underpinnings of Enlightenment democracy, these rulers derive their power form the "consent of the governed'" even though the governed seem to want something totally different than what the leaders have in mind for them. It's hard to believe that the governed are longing for "austerity" or wanted their tax money converted into bankers' bonuses.  To keep this illusion going, of course, we need to have staged elections with pre-approved candidates fought in the media from time to time, much like professional wrestling matches. Are you excited about Obama versus Romney too?

So I can spend ten minutes chatting face-to-face with my alderman who's walking around on my block one evening by himself, but I even attempt to go near someone with "Secret Service" protection (Secret Service sure sounds sinister all of the sudden, eh?), alone or in a group, I can be rounded up and thrown in jail up to year for a felony (effectively ending your economic life). This drove me to the following conclusion:

Democracy only works at the door-to-door level. Beyond that. it's a sham.

Last year I pointed out that the reason Iceland was able to do what no other European country has managed to do - get their politicians to put the needs of ordinary citizens ahead of those of the bankers - was because it's population of 350,000 or so was such that politicians could not isolate themselves from their constituents the way they can in Greece, Italy Ireland or Portugal (among others). Iceland is the type of place where democracy can truly work (indeed, its Allthing is in fact the oldest continually extant democratic institution). Everywhere else, it seems like kind of a joke. It all had to do with bigness - compare the ratio of elected representatives with the people they represent, and the larger the ratio, the worse and more corrupt those politicians get by-and-large. In part this is because the only way you can campaign for such a large group of people is through the media, and whoever can buy the most or best amount of media is almost assured of victory, ceteris paribus. The odds of anyone besides a CEO or lobbyist meeting with "my" governor, Scott Walker outside of a "staged" event is practically nil. The same goes Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Scott Walker famously refused to even acknowledge thousands of angry citizen protestors outside his door at the capitol building in Madison, but he gleefully picked up the phone and chatted with David H. Koch (who turned out to be fake, of course, but I'm sure they've chatted before and since). Whose consent do the rulers really derive their power from?

I thought I had come upon something profound, but really it was kind of obvious (is it?). A short time latter I ran across the point made much more elegantly than I did by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language:
Individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5000-10,000 persons.

People can only have a genuine effect on local government when the units of local government are autonomous, self-governing, self-budgeting communities, which are small enough to create the possibility of an immediate link between the man in the street and his local officials and elected representatives.

This is an old idea. It was the model for Athenian democracy in the third and fourth centuries B.C.; it was Jefferson's plan for American democracy; it was the tack Confucius took in his book on government, The Great Digest.

Today the distance between people and the centers of power that govern them is vast--both psychologically and geographically...

1. The size of the political community. It is obvious that the larger the community the greater the distance between the average citizen and the heads of government. Paul Goodman has proposed a rule of thumb, based on cities like Athens in their prime, that no citizen be more than two friends away from the highest member of the local unit. Assume that everyone knows about 12 people from his local community. Using this notion and Goodman's rule we can see that an optimum size for a political community would be about 12^3 or 1728 households or 5500 persons. This figure corresponds to an old Chicago school estimate of 5000. And it is the same order of magnitude as the size of ECCO, the neighborhood corporation in Columbus, Ohio, of 6000 to 7000...

The editors of the Ecologist have a similar intuition about the proper size for units of local government. And Terence Lee, in his study, "Urban neighborhood as a socio-spatial schema," Ekistics 177, August 1970, gives evidence for the importance of the spatial community. Lee gives 75 acres as a natural size for a community. At 25 persons per acre, such a community would accommodate some 2000 persons; at 60 persons per acre, some 4500.

2. The visible location of local government. Even when local branches of government are decentralized in function, they are often still centralized in space, hidden in vast municipal city-country buildings out of the realm of everyday life. These places are intimidating and alienating. What is needed is for every person to feel at home in the place of his local government with his ideas and complaints. A person must feel that it is a forum, that is his directly, that he can talk to the person in charge of such and such, and see him personally within a day or two.

Therefore:

Decentralize city governments in a way that gives local control of 5,000 to 10,00 persons. As nearly as possible, use natural geographic and historical boundaries to mark these communities. Give each community the power to initiate, decide, and execute the affairs that concern it closely: land use, housing, maintenance, streets, parks, police, schooling, welfare, neighborhood services.
Alexander, et. al: A Pattern Language, pp. 71-74 (abridged)

This raises an uncomfortable question : If democracy is ineffective for groups over 10,000, than what form of government should there be for numbers greater than this? And this, in turn, raises an even more uncomfortable question: can such agglomerations of people even exist without becoming unstable or failing, as the article above implies?

Of course "real" democracy is a threat to the undemocratic economic and financial institutions that are the true governing power of our planet, that is why real democracy is the last thing they want. The central organizing principle of our society is capitalism, not democracy - the two are not the same, which is why I coined the term Authoritarian Capitalism (okay, I didn't exactly coin it, but I do use it to refer to what is now the dominant governments of the major capitalist economies). In capitalism, those who have the capital rule. Period. It's a simple as that. they decide where the capital goes, and they, not the politicians, set the goals and direction of society.

So is the fault in Democracy per se, or is it the size of our political and economic organizations? We are not hardwired to have such large organizations. Our brains, following the savanna principle, are designed to only be able to truly evaluate people face-to-face. Media can pretty much make us believe anything, especially with the highly polished and sophisticated propaganda advertising techniques that have been developed over the years. Our cerebral cortex is only capable of forming close relationships with about 150 people (Dunbar's number, also the size of hunter-gatherer bands), and for the vast majority of our species' existence we lived in groups of no more than a few thousand (the size of most ancient villages, cities, and even Native American tribes). Does it make sense that a government style that developed in ancient Greek city-states of a few thousand people should be applied to nation-states of millions? These massive agglomerations we call "nation-states" and "corporations"are a very new phenomenon. Instead of trying to reform them, maybe we need to ask, is it even possible for them to work? If democracies greater than 10,000 fail, what hope is there for such institutions? Corporations are run as top-down pyramidal dictatorships, so is it surprising that large governments naturally evolve into much the same? This falls in line with Daniel Quinn's criticism, who says we should reorganize ourselves on tribal levels, because that is the only meaningful level of human organization that we are equipped to deal with:
The tribal life and no other is the gift of natural selection to humanity. It is to humanity what pack life is to wolves, pod life is to whales, and hive life is to bees. After three or four million years of human evolution, it alone emerged as the social organization that works for people. People like the tribal organization because it works equally well for all members.

Wherever civilization emerges, tribalism withers and is replaced by hierarchicalism. Hierarchicalism works very well for the rules but much less well for the rules, who make up the mass of the society. For this reason, the few at the top like it very well and the masses at the bottom like it very much less well.

With one exception, the experience of history is that people who make a trial of the hierarchical life ultimately abandon it as unsatisfactory. Some trials were still in progress when we destroyed them, so we can't know how they might have ended otherwise. We're the one exception. We're driven to cling to our hierarchical society by a complex of memes that tell us that what we have is unimprovable no matter how much we dislike it, no matter if it devastates the world and results in our own extinction. these memes tell us that what we have is the life humans were meant to have from the beginning and cannot be bettered by any other.
Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 82

But how can this occur? Is the nation state doomed? Will corporations become more diffuse and less top-down. Is power to become decentralized as in Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution idea? Can this be planned, or does it just happen? How will Peak Oil affect this? What will happen to cities? Why do we keep scaling up our enterprises? Why does our economic system favor bigness? How do we stop consolidation? What do we do in complex industrial economies of millions of people? Do we all become mini-Icelands? City states with a depopulated countryside like Dark Ages Italy?

I've gone on long enough. So many questions. But I think one thing is certain: We no longer live in a democracy.

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