THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE

14 05 2017

The word “Resistance,” with a capital “R” and a hashtag, has become rather fashionable in America these days. Thousands of people are marching in the streets, turning out for town meetings, and generally letting it be known they are not pleased with our new administration’s presumption that its narrow technical victory in last November’s election constitutes a mandate for sweeping changes in the way our government is run and in the every-day lives of millions of people.

I’d like to take this opportunity to look at some popular movements around the world that have, to one degree or another, challenged the professional political class and returned government to the people, and examine how they were able to succeed, as well as ways in which they have failed. By learning from other peoples’ experiences, we can do a better job here in America.

My main examples will be Korea, Taiwan, Spain, Greece, and, to bring it down to the local level, the city of Montreal, in Quebec. That provides a spectrum. The Korean movement is just now in the process of achieving its initial aim. In Taiwan, the citizen’s movement has won its initial objectives and established mechanisms that, it hopes, will keep things from slipping backwards. In Spain, the “Podemos” movement is rising into power. Greece’s Syriza Party has won elections, but run smack into forces it cannot change, and is learning how to keep focused on its long-term goals while encountering short-term failures.  In Montreal, the political wing of the movement seems to have been absorbed into the mainstream, but has left significant changes in its wake.

As I write this, Koreans are celebrating the impeachment of President Park Geyun-he, who roused the ire of lawmakers and citizens alike by being too cozy with the country’s financial elite and by going along with US policies that have escalated tensions with North Korea. Her replacement, Moon Jae-in, the son of a North Korean refugee, was a student radical in the 70’s, and was jailed for his role in protesting the dictatorship of Ms. Park’s father. He went on to become a prominent human rights lawyer. On the basis of that, he was hired as Chief of Staff by the Korean Democratic Party’s previous elected President,  Roh Moo-hyun. He was the KDP’s candidate for President in 2012, when he narrowly lost to Ms. Park.

This is what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like!

So, how did the Koreans do it? Massive street demonstrations were a major contributor. Some demonstrations turned out nearly two million people on the same day. Korea’s population is fifty million, so the equivalent in the US would be about thirteen million people all demonstrating against the government at the same time. The real key, though, was that Ms. Park’s party did not have a majority in the legislature (in which four political parties are represented, along with some independent members). Mr. Moon’s party had a plurality, but not a majority, and as the country became ungovernable due to the force of protest against Ms. Park, it was not that difficult to round up a majority to support impeaching her for her very real crimes. The Korean constitution calls for new elections when a President is impeached, and that created an opening for change.

Here in the US, that’s not how the rules work. If Mr. Trump were removed, Vice-President Pence is first in line to succeed him, followed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate President Pro-tem Orrin Hatch, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That’s a rogue’s gallery, not relief. While it’s hard to say what effect thirteen million people in the streets would have, it seems our current government is determined to do what it wants for as long as it/they can get away with it, no matter what millions of common people think. Absent Congress flipping to Democratic majorities in 2018, which is highly unlikely, and simultaneous impeachment of Mike Pence, what happened in Korea can’t happen here.

On to Taiwan. When, in 2014, the government of Taiwan moved to ratify a secret deal that would start the country down the road to reincorporation with China, students responded by occupying the legislature for three weeks.  Half a million people took to the streets to support them, the equivalent of around seven million at the US scale. The protestors ended their  occupation of the legislature voluntarily–after several expulsion attempts that were blocked by sympathetic legislators–because they felt they had made substantial progress in getting their demands met. An election later that year thrust the ruling Kuomintang Party from power in favor of the Democratic Progressives, who were the source of the legislators who had kept the police from evicting the protestors. Would the US Democratic Party have the nerve to do that? After all, when the Occupy movement proliferated here in America, it was the Democrats who moved to suppress it.

This is what occupying the government looks like!

The result of the student uprising and change in government has been to put the brakes on greater unification with mainland China.

But wait, there’s more.  The computer-savvy protestors “hacked” their government, and published reams of government documents that had been kept either completely out of public view, or posted in obscure, difficult-to-access websites. The official Taiwanese government web site is “gov.tw.” The students established a website that substituted a zero for the o in “gov” and put all their findings there, and also created easy pathways for citizen feedback to the government. They actually began this process a couple of years before their “Sunflower Revolution,” as the occupation was called. Here’s the way they tell the story:

… g0v.tw (is) a civic movement by informed netizens toward participatory self-government. Born out of frustration at the government’s blithe lack of transparency at the end of 2012, in one year we have made these ongoing contributions:

By establishing participatory media channels such as News Helper and Congress Matters, we work with traditional media on a level footing
By crowd-producing definitive works such as dictionaries, welfare directories, and contemporary history, we transform ourselves from passive consumers into effective agents.
By organizing regular hackathons and offering logistic support to social movements, we create a shared cultural space that blends online and offline activism.
By constructing sites of social production modeled after open-source principles, we shape civic projects into communal grounds for learning and hacking alike.
By designing outreach programs on social issues such as labor rights, we form ongoing dialogues with established activists, promoting social awareness and online consensus-building.

So far, the website has been busy, and Taiwanese politics are benefiting from the open access it creates. Something similar is beginning to happen in the US. As our new government takes down or radically alters some government websites that don’t conform with its version of reality, much of the data has been reposted elsewhere, and sites such as Alternative National Parks offer an honest, non-sanitized version of what’s going on. Perhaps this movement will spread, creating a sane virtual alternative government here in the US that will be capable of supplanting the non-virtual, crazy one that currently festers on the Potomac. Yeah, that’s a lot to ask. Let’s get climate-change data back on public display and go from there.

Other countries besides Taiwan have seen citizen-created online information initiatives. One example is Open State Holland, which describes its mission thus:

The call for open data is an attempt to confront a closed system from the outside. Open data raises questions about public institutions, how they work, how they deal with information and their public tasks. It raises questions about what data is being collected, used, maintained, managed and released. From outside the government, it is difficult to know what information the government holds. Often, public officials first want to know what you will do with the data and exactly what the economic or societal benefits you will create for them. Some governments have invested in research to help them decide what data to open. Others have organized speed dating sessions between the private sector and some government data holders. However, access to government information is a right, not a privilege for the included few.

The English group mySociety has been active for over twenty years, and says of itself

mySociety is a not-for-profit social enterprise, based in the UK and working internationally.

We build online technologies that give people the power to get things changed, and we share these technologies so that they can be used anywhere.

In New Zealand, some Occupy activists, both inspired and frustrated by the group’s open-meeting method of decision-making, created a software program called “Loomio” that enables “meetings” to take place on line, and, while it helps empower more people to give input, it also features ways to help groups focus on actually making decisions.  In accord with their philosophy, the business is organized as a worker-owned co-op. They describe their product thus:

Loomio is a decision-making tool for groups who want to collaborate democratically. It enables more transparency and inclusion, with fewer meetings and emails. Unlike a survey or poll, it facilitates a process of constructive deliberation, synthesising solutions from diverse viewpoints.

We created Loomio to solve a problem we ourselves were having, and then found a lot of other people need this tool, too. It can be very difficult to get everyone together for a meeting, and even then you often only hear from certain voices or you run out of time. Meanwhile, trying to make clear, well-documented decisions using mass reply-all emails or open-ended social media messaging is a mess.

With Loomio, it’s easy to include all the stakeholders, and converge on clear outcomes you can act on together.

 

the new face of political power in Spain–Pablo Iglesias, head of Podemos

Those are some “virtual tools” that people are finding very useful here in the real world. One group that has used Loomio to great effect is the new Spanish political party Podemos, which has become the third largest political party in the country, receiving almost as many votes as the long-established, and now middle-of-the-road, Socialist Party.

Podemos‘ effort started nine years ago, when Pablo Iglesias, then a political science lecturer at Complutense University in Madrid, got together with friends to work on challenging power, and on challenging the traditional ways in which protestors have traditionally, and all too often unsuccessfully, challenged power. And yes, they took their name, which means “we can,” from the Obama campaign, but they were much more serious about their populism. They started discussion groups, then started producing a cable TV show that aired on, of all places, Iranian state television’s Spanish-language channel–Lee Camp and all “Redacted Tonight” fans, take note! They also received inspiration and help from South American left-wing populists like Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Interestingly, when I researched those connections, I found no English-language reporting on the subject. By 2015, Iglesias had gone from meeting with a roomful of university students to addressing a crowd of 150,000 supporters on a public square in Madrid. To translate that into American, Spain is a country of just under fifty million people, so an equivalent American gathering would be about a million. Have a million people ever gathered to hear Bernie Sanders speak? Nope. Bernie’s crowds have topped out around twenty-eight thousand. Translated into Spanish proportions, that’s the equivalent of a mere 2100 people. Eat your hearts out, Sanderistas!

music: The Pointer Sisters, “Yes We Can

There’s another wing of the new politics movement on the rise in Spain. Not surprisingly, it radiates out of Barcelona, the heartland of Spanish Anarchism in the last century. Barcelona has been getting gentrified and deluged with tourists, and many long-time residents lost their homes in the 2008 crash. Out of the city’s citizens’ response to these shocks arose Barcelona En Comu, a co-operative, internet-based political party whose lead organizer, Ada Colau, won Barcelona’s mayoral election in 2015 on an anti-eviction, anti-tourist, anti-corruption, pro-local control, pro-social spending, and pro-locally-owned business platform.

Speaking of platforms, BEC uses two different software programs to enable its membership to communicate and collectively decide policy. One is Democracy OS, created by Argentine political activist Pia Mancini,  which enables members of online communities to make proposals, debate them, and vote on them. The other is Agora, which is a secure online voting system. Ms. Colau and her party are now putting these technologies to the test as they navigate the tricky waters of actually governing the city of Barcelona, a process that requires patience, compromise, and keeping one’s attention balanced between long-term goals and  taking care of business in the real world. With Podemos providing a national support framework, and similar movements coming to power in other cities in Spain, there is at least some chance that Ms. Colau and her compatriots will meet with success in their endeavor to change the substance of Barcelonan politics. It’s important to note that Podemos, too, is having to adjust to the difference between rhetoric and really having a say in things.18

“Nevertheless, she persisted”…and Ms. Colau is now the boss of the police force that arrested her at this bank protest.

Podemos and Barcelona En Comu have succeeded, not just by dint of their online efforts, or their attractiveness to disgruntled voters, but because Spanish electoral laws and government structure are designed to accommodate more than two political parties, an openness we so-called free Americans do not enjoy. Our political system has been carefully tuned by its two major participants to exclude alternatives. Now, with the Democratic Party all but dead in the water, the Republicans gone completely mad, and big money calling the shots, “we the people” are the hostages, not the directors, of our political system.

Speaking of being hostages, let’s look at Syriza in Greece, where a bold movement was elected to power but ran into a brick wall and has been bloodied, but is not yet beaten. First, let’s look at the background of Greece’s “debt crisis.” Where did these debts come from? The country was run by its generals, who took over at gunpoint, for many years, and after that came several decades of neoliberal governments. Both the military and civilian arms of this one-two punch were business-friendly. Some of what that meant in practice was that, instead of taxing the wealthy to pay for the expenses of running the country, they borrowed money from the wealthy, and from foreign banks, so that the government and people of Greece would be obligated to pay these loans back, with interest, for many decades to come. The technical name for this practice is “kicking the can down the road.” We should note here that the Greek people actually benefited very little from these loans, most of which went to build the power of the military and the already-wealthy.

By 2009, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the can had been kicked as far down the road as it could be kicked. The buck, or in this case the Euro, could no longer be passed. The foreign and domestic bankers wanted their money back, and nevermind how. This meant that the people of Greece, who, as I said, were not the beneficiaries of those loans, were the ones called upon to pay them back. This was done under the rubric of “austerity.” That means “privatization”– selling income-producing state assets like airports, sea ports, railroads, water and electrical services, and real estate to private investors, creating short-term income, but forfeiting long-term income, and more importantly, public control. It means serious cutbacks in social services such as day care, medical care, pensions, and a host of other support systems–as well as job terminations and pay cuts, without a concurrent drop in the tax rate. In fact,  taxes have gone up. The technical term for this, or at least the polite version of it, is “putting people’s wiggly bits in a vise.” It was not popular, in Greece or any of the many other countries, from Argentina to Cambodia, that have been victimized by this form of what we have to call economic warfare.

Greece’s Syriza Party was swept into power on a promise to combat the banks’ insistence on austerity for the poor to provide more wealth for the wealthy. They floated the idea of leaving the EU as one way out. Once elected, full of confidence and the faith of their citizens, they went to Brussels to talk sense to the European Central Bank. How did that turn out? Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put it this way:

“There was a point blank refusal [by the euro-group] to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re faced with blank stares. . . . You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem—you’d have got the same reply.”

Varoufakis has gone on to recount that, while Christine Lagare and other bureaucrats were personally “sympathetic,” understanding at least conceptually that they were causing a lot of pain and suffering, but they, and Greece’s own banking class, were completely unwilling to let Greece “get away” with getting out from under these debts. There were plenty of other countries, including Spain and Italy, that were in nearly the same shape, and letting Greece off easy would set a bad example. “They wanted to prove to all of Europe that there was no alternative at the ballot box to austerity,” Varoufakis tells us. Ain’t Western liberal democracy wunnerful?

For now, Syriza is stuck in the position of being the implementer of, rather than the revolt against, austerity. But compliance with the EU’s dictates is not making life in Greece any better, and the possibility of a damn-the-torpedoes exit from the European Union, for all its potentially disastrous consequences, remains. Syriza and Greece’s sad plight remind us that there is a difference between dreaming big and actually implementing our dreams in a world where everything is connected. In closing, it’s worth noting that Syriza, unlike the other movements I have been talking about, does not appear to avail itself of any online organizing tools.

For our last example, let’s look just across our border, to the city of Montreal, Quebec. Our story starts in the 1970’s, when a group of real estate developers (who, amusingly enough, were disenchanted former Communists) bought up a six-square block area in a working-class neighborhood known as Milton Park and announced that they were going to evict all the residents and build “the city of the future,” which would feature much higher rents for much smaller living spaces. This is where this story gets personal for me. In the late 1960’s, I briefly lived in Montreal, no, not to dodge the draft, but, after bouncing around a bit, my most stable home in the city was a hippie house on Rue Jeanne-Mance, smack in the middle of Milton Park. How did that get to be fifty years ago? But, I digress…

Milton Park, after the revolution….

The residents responded angrily to this bald-faced gentrification. With help from members of Montreal’s “new left,” there were sit-ins, blockades, marches on city hall, appeals to the zoning commission, and arrested protesters. In the end, the neighbors won. The city bought the area from the defeated developers and sold it back to the residents, not as individuals, but to a network of neighborhood organizations. In effect, the neighborhood became an urban land trust dedicated to preserving the affordability of housing and the neighborly quality of life. Their political efforts turned into the Montreal Citizens’ Movement, which was a city-level left-wing political party that, by the early 1980’s, took power, winning the mayoral election and holding a majority of city council seats. But power corrupts, and they lost favor in Montreal when they began to endorse the same kind of big-money development projects they had started by opposing. The more radical members of the movement formed other political parties, one of which, Vision Montreal, supplanted the MCM as Montreal’s leading political party, introducing many ecologically friendly and local control measures. One of its initiatives was the municipal unification of the Island of Montreal, which led to its electoral downfall–Vision Montreal won the election in the old city of Montreal, but lost it overall due to the votes of the newly-included suburbs, who replaced the Citizens’ Movement candidate with Gerard Tremblay, who had at one time been associated with the Montreal Citizens’ Movement. Tremblay, however, resigned as Mayor in 2012 due to well-substantiated accusations of bribery and kickbacks. His replacement is a former Liberal Party MP who has shown no strong affinity for democratizing the city’s government. The Milton Park community land trust is still intact, however, and has spawned dozens of similar projects throughout Canada. “The revolution will not be televised,” Gil Scott-Heron sang, and perhaps, to a large extent, the revolution will not be elected, either.

What happened in Montreal is a common story: young, inspired people grew into older, tired people who, without a way to stay connected with their original, radical vision, slowly became the establishment they had once challenged. We see that in this country, too–think of young, scruffy John Kerry turning into a pale, stuffy devolution of his countercultural self. There are ways to stay in touch with our highest ideals, but they require individual responsibility and daily practice. We have to realize that it’s not enough to think about our highest ideals and aspirations–we have to find a way to feel them, deeply, on a regular basis. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” Rumi reminds us, and only we ourselves can know the one, or ones, that work best for us. If we do not pay attention to continually deconditioning ourselves, the mainstream culture will condition us into its clutches. It’s kind of like remembering to brush your spiritual teeth every day. The good news is, we can keep doing that regardless of what failures or successes we have at advocacy and elections.

It seems as if all the options that have worked, even partially, for democracy movements in other countries are closed to us here in the cradle of democracy. The Democrats are incapable of saving us from the Republicans, and, even if they somehow unseated the GOP, we would then need saving from the Democrats. Increasingly, the relative handful of Greens and other independent thinkers in America look like the coterie of honest people in Sodom and Gomorrah, whose numbers were insufficient to save their cities.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” John F. Kennedy warned us–a quote I thought must have come from Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, but noo…. What will it be, Republicans and Democrats? What will it be, my fed-up fellow citizens? The short-term future in America promises an interesting, and quite possibly, a bumpy ride. Don’t forget to brush your teeth. Let’s close with a prayer from Leonard Cohen, a meditation with Afro-Celt Sound System, and a recessional from Alan Toussaint

Leonard Cohen “Democracy

Afro-Celt Sound System “Further in Time

Alan Toussaint “Yes We Can

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