May 16, 2003

New Modes and Orders

Arnold Kling reads my rant against the false claim that representative democracy is inferior to "participatory democracy":

Brad DeLong: Democracy is not to be found in the streets. What we find in the streets are vanguard parties, the dictatorships they bring, and politics understood not as collective self-government but as expressive theatrical performances.

And seems to anticipate with glee the prospect of a televised caged death match :-) between me and Howard Rheingold of "smart mobs."

Let me hasten to add that I see big differences between Howard Rheingold and the person I was criticizing, Naomi Klein. We today know, broadly speaking, three ways to accomplish the social engineering task of structuring collective action: multi-party representative democracy, bureaucracies that set up formally-rational procedures to achieve previously agreed-upon goals, and hierarchical business organizations constrained by market competition. All three have big flaws, but also many virtues.

Naomi Klein makes familiar fascist critiques of representative democracy ("...corruption of democracy itself... turned voting into a hollow ritual...real power... outsourced" to powerful financial interests aligned with foreigners) and in its place exalts participatory democracy: "Argentinians poured into the streets banging pots and pans... told... politicians... 'Everyone must go'... starting a democratic revolution... the first national revolt against neo-liberalism... the verge of answering the most persistent question posed to critics of... feeble representative democracies: 'What is your alternative?'... back to democracy's first principles... hundreds of popular assemblies... democratic cooperatives.... national constituent assemblies, participatory budgets, elections to renew every post... broad appeal... 'a way forward, a new way of governing'").

But we all know what usually happens--and what has happened in Argentina over the past year and a half--to those who expect to find true democracy in the streets. We do, after all, have a lot of history to teach us: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, the history of nineteenth-century anarchism, the "autonomists" of Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War, the interaction of disciplined ideological parties and mass pickup "popular front" meetings in the American left.

Pickup assemblies that claim to represent "the people" are very vulnerable to takeover by disciplined vanguards with their own ideologies, hierarchical organizations, and ability to dispatch lots of people to outsit all others. This has been a common pattern since the days of the Jacobin Club. When legitimacy is conferred not by popular election but by the fact of spontaneous participation, those with the ideological and organizational tools organize the largest number of "spontaneous" participants take over. Thus it is indeed the case that what we find in the streets are vanguard parties, the dictatorships they bring, and politics understood not as collective self-government but as expressive theatrical performances.

Howard Rheingold, however, is following a different track. He is not naively starry-eyed about the consequences of a model in which authority is conferred by one's enthusiasm for participating in meetings and demonstrations. He is interested, instead, in the consequences of new communications and information technologies that promise to make having your say in a lot of different forums a lot easier.

The problems of social engineering for collective action are, after all, primarily problems of organization, communication, and information. Could our current technological revolution actually give us the capability to construct effective new modes and orders besides representative democracy, bureaucracy, and firms-in-markets?

My answer is "maybe." My views on this are unfocused and vagued. My gurus are people like Michael Froomkin (whose writings on this I follow closely) and Steve Weber.

Posted by DeLong at May 16, 2003 11:57 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Dear Brad

Though I do love you, I suggest you think apart from being a comfortable white male. Think to the days of Martin Luther King. Think to Nelson Mandela. Think to Zackie Achmat, and learn a bit more of what democracy is and how is is brought about....


http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/10/international/africa/10FPRO.html

May 10, 2003

In Grip of AIDS, South African Cries for Equity
By GINGER THOMPSON _ NTimes

MUIZENBERG, South Africa -- It's not unusual to sense urgency in a dying man. For Abdurrazack Achmat, every emotion rage, fear, pride feels magnified by a factor of five million.

That is the estimated number of people in South Africa infected with the virus that causes AIDS, one of the largest H.I.V.-positive populations in the world. But although they are mighty in number, Mr. Achmat said, these masses have been rendered "nameless and faceless" by a government that perpetuates confusion about the origins and magnitude of their disease, while refusing to follow the example of other African countries and make life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs publicly available as treatment.

With a death toll of at least 600 people a day, the struggle by AIDS patients' for recognition and public medical care is widely held to be as pivotal to the future of this new democracy as the fight against apartheid was under the white-minority government that fell out of power nearly a decade ago.

To these millions, Abdurrazack Achmat, 41, known as Zackie, is their Nelson Mandela. Like this country's revered freedom fighter, Mr. Achmat has made clear that he is willing to die for his cause. Even though he can afford the drugs, known as ARV's, Mr. Achmat vowed five years ago not to take the medicines until the government made them available to everyone infected with H.I.V. ...

Posted by: anne on May 16, 2003 12:26 PM

Dear Dear Brad

Here is what it may well take to build a democaracy....


"The truth is, this is a very difficult position for me," Zackie Achmat said. "I desire to take my medicines. Of course I do."

Then the five million people crashed in on his conscience. He recalled all the hugs he had received from people sick with AIDS during a recent demonstration. One of them, Mr. Achmat said, was a teacher who was sick the previous week with an infection and high fever. "She told me her body got strength from my fight," Mr. Achmat said. "If I take medicines, how could I look her in the face? Lots of people are hanging on because I hang on."

It is a stand that has some of Mr. Achmat's friends worrying about a misguided martyr's complex. Meanwhile, Mr. Achmat has won recognition around the world. Nelson Mandela praised him as a role model. This month, he was named as one of Time magazine's 35 world heroes. In the coming days he will be named one of the winners of the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, presented by the Global Health Council.

"When Mahatma Gandhi went on his hunger strikes, a lot of people thought he was killing himself for no good reason," said Dr. Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council. "But he has made a moral judgment that by taking this position he can have greater impact. That is what I call moral courage." ...

Posted by: anne on May 16, 2003 12:33 PM

Well, I generally don't think much of anything called democracy in a place with more than about 15,000 people, or populated by persons who are more or less of the same social and ethnic background. Just doesn't work. Any state where at least 40% of the people are ticked off with the decisions being made is going to have problems at some point.

Best bet is probably a seriously loose federal system where individual states are made up of more or less homogenous groups of people, and where movement is free between states. Federal power for self-defense only, and for mediation between inter-state disputes.

Smart mobs are an old concept. Bruce Sterling wrote "Distraction" some time ago, and the concept was featured prominently.

I'm not sure if it was a unique concept for Sterling, either.

Posted by: J.Goodwin on May 16, 2003 01:05 PM

The Problem With "Representative Democracy" in the United States

Is that it is, in effect, nothing more than a duopolistic machine, "representative" of nothing (save for the interests of a tiny hand full of big contributors) and NO ONE--except the "will to power" of a few professional insiders of two "grand-fathered" political parties, both of them utterly corrupt: One shamelessly so, the other aimlessly so.

It ALL goes back to the pernicious effects of The Electoral College (and Electoral College Politics). But that's a long story...

And anyway, BOTH "entrenched" parties are more interested in their OWN interests (and their own partisans) than they are in the national interest. So, he asked rhetorically, why should anybody bother telling it here? The "mob" WILL, eventually, sort it all out FOR them.

And Brad, You can take THAT to the bank.

Posted by: Mjke on May 16, 2003 01:47 PM

"Best bet is probably a seriously loose federal system where individual states are made up of more or less homogenous groups of people, and where movement is free between states. Federal power for self-defense only, and for mediation between inter-state disputes."

Why, that's basically what our Constitution says! :-) (Except for the unfortunate bit with the Postal Service. And except for the fact that our states are probably a little "less" homogenous, than "more.")

Posted by: Mark Bahner on May 16, 2003 02:29 PM

Ok, do you and your friends need a time out?

Posted by: Rook on May 16, 2003 02:50 PM

There is, of course, a continuum between meetings taken over by the vanguard and voting every two or four years. Pitting one against the other seems like an indefensible strawman to me. For example, participatory budgeting (such as being done in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian municipalitites) is neither pure representation nor street theater, and has apparently been successful in dealing with some of the problems with patronage and corruption that exist in many municipalities.

Posted by: Peter MacLeod on May 16, 2003 03:45 PM

There is, of course, a continuum between meetings taken over by the vanguard and voting every two or four years. Pitting one against the other seems like an indefensible strawman to me. For example, participatory budgeting (such as being done in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian municipalitites) is neither pure representation nor street theater, and has apparently been successful in dealing with some of the problems with patronage and corruption that exist in many municipalities.

Posted by: Peter MacLeod on May 16, 2003 03:48 PM

As J. Goodwin says, modern states are simply too big to be called democracies. Democracies have constant participation of the people in their decisions: Athens, for instance. We are I guess a representative democracy, which is either a real variant of a democracy or a convenient fiction, political philosphers disagree. I don't know if we have any choice in this, though, and Athenian democracy had its drawbacks - for instance, everyone was forced to participate.
Any representative democracy which does not allow for people in the streets protesting does not deserve the name, and I'll refer you to Jefferson on that. You're sounding a bit DLC here, Brad. I prefer Jefferson.

Posted by: John Isbell on May 16, 2003 05:27 PM

No one is proposing a "democracy which does not allow for people in the streets protesting". What Brad is wisely arguing against is a democracy which *consists of* people in the street protesting.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on May 16, 2003 09:42 PM

Brad writes: "Thus it is indeed the case that what we find in the streets are vanguard parties, the dictatorships they bring, and politics understood not as collective self-government but as expressive theatrical performances."

The American street is the airwaves on television and radio. Shout TV and Shout Radio dominate our national dialog. The same forces have taken over the GOP and brought us "not collective self-government but expressive theatrical performances." Where is the self-government concerning the war in Iraq? What happened to debate and public input? Instead we get managed press conferences and photo ops on aircraft carriers. Is this theatrical performance or self-government? Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Posted by: bakho on May 16, 2003 11:01 PM

Brad
surely the disappointment felt by the Argentinians, who had been comprehensively let down by their government and others, was real and understandable and indeed the kind of thing that a functioning democracy is there to prevent.

Just becase fascists make a criticism, doesn't mean it's wrong. The bait in a bait and switch is still bait.

Ms. Klein explicitly mentions the dangers of cooption so it seems a little harsh to imply that she is being what , recklessly romantic?

I tend to agree that there is something missing in her analysis, but to paint her or the spontaneously created organisations she admires as the villains of the piece seems risibly perverse. I also fail to see that an article that requires an extensive scholarly if not scholastic discussion to reveal its short comings deserves the epithet "strange".

Posted by: Jack on May 17, 2003 08:32 AM

'...my rant against the false claim that representative democracy is inferior to "participatory democracy"...'

O yes it is, in certain respects. You see, democracy is an incomplete system in three main respects, and being representative aggravates one of the areas, makes it prone to happening.

The three areas are:-

- It doesn't define morality, merely expresses it.

- It relies on an external definition of "we, the people" to avoid circularity.

- It is subject to manufacture by selective editing and agenda control.

In a representative system these can get worse in practice, especially that last one. Once a system is captured, not so much consciously by a group as unconsciously by a way of thought ("groupthink"), it locks itself in. With direct democracy you have more of the practical difficulty of "who are we?", but you don't get constantly told "yes, you chose this" whether you did or not.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on May 18, 2003 04:59 PM

There is a difference between what is euphemistically known as "participatory democracy" ie: mob rule, and representative democracy, the principle of which was outlined by Pericles in Athens.

The Periclean style is summed up by "Though few may design a policy, everyone can judge it". It certainly has problems, but not as many as posed by getting masses of people to design policy.

Just remember: democracy is very little use in itself. It is, as Winston Churchill remarked, the worst form of government, apart from all the others". Its chief benefit is that the government can be changed without violence. And that's about it!

Posted by: Daniel Barnes on May 19, 2003 04:44 PM
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