Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of the things I've been seeing in quotes from and about the "occupy Wall Street" protesters is that they are creating a form of "true democracy".  As someone who has spent decades actively engaged in trying to understand and manifest in some sort of concrete fashion what "true democracy" could be, I thought I'd write a post about it.  Oddly enough, in thinking about the subject I've found my path leads back to the Dao, even though I originally saw it as just a side line.

I was involved in building Canada's fourth major party, the Greens.  My finger prints were at one time all over both the constitution of the Green Party of Canada and Ontario.  I've also been told that decision-making structures that I designed have also been adopted by other groups.  So this is one of those tiny little niches where I actually am a bit of a "world-class expert".  This knowledge has not been acquired easily, however, as each and every lesson learned involved agonizing work with some of the most mulish, idiotic people I have had the bad luck to meet.

One of the first things I learned was that "democracy" means a wide variety of different things to different people.  Unfortunately, for a surprising number of people it simply means that they always get their own way.   Luckily, I've found that the majority of people believe instead, that "democracy" means letting people have their say and then going along with what the majority believe.

This held true for the Green Party membership as well, but unfortunately, there was a subtle subtext to the self-selected group of people who had a Green membership.  That is, the overwhelming majority of them would not take action to "shut up" or "marginalize" people who disagreed with the majority.  This is probably one of the core Green beliefs and something that separates them from the vast majority of people.

This ideal makes sense if you consider that these members usually represent an extremely marginalized minority within their own home community.  For example, Greens believed in an end to economic growth long, long, long before you could even write about the subject on an Op Ed page in a newspaper.  The only suggestion by "mainstream" voices was the old Club of Rome report Limits to Growth that came out in 1972.  And when it came out, it initiated such a firestorm of opposition that whole industries of bullshit were designed in order to lessen it's impact on the imagination.  Most notably, this included the concept "sustainable development" and the "Brundtland Commission".

(Primarily, this was a remarkably successful campaign by a coalition of business and politicians of all stripes to create "plastic words" that would suck out all of the clear and startling meaning from "Limits to Growth" and replace it with a phrase that seems to mean the same thing, but in actual fact means whatever you want it to.   "Sustainable Development" purports to be about economic activity that will allow for the sustaining of the environment, but most people really use it to mean a system of environmental regulation that will allow economic growth to continue just as it always has.)

If someone comes from a community where they are used to being totally marginalized as the local "eco-freak" or "tree-hugger", they usually have an extreme sensitivity towards ostracizing someone else for having an unpopular belief.  As a result, Greens not only had enormous tolerance towards other people, they were willing to follow a form of decision-making that they called "Formal Consensus" in order to accommodate all points of view.

There are a great many different ways in which formal consensus can be done, but the system that Greens rather unconsciously stumbled into using is what is usually called the "Polish Parliament" system.   In effect, the Green Party in Canada for many years believed that the only way it could make decisions was if not one single person objected to a specific proposal, or, every single person present at any meeting had an absolute veto.

This would be bad enough, but in addition, the Green Parties of Canada did not have any sort of delegate system.   This meant that all anyone had to do to participate in any meeting (and wield a veto) was to show up.  And I mean anyone, because there was never any attempt to even force people to prove that they had a membership or were not cards-carrying members of some other political party.  Indeed, there were people who showed up for years and created all sorts of chaos who steadfastly refused to buy a membership because they didn't believe in the value of political parties, per ce.  (When I asked one of these guys why he continued to show up, he said "I just wanted to share my experience and wisdom with the Greens.")

As you might imagine, this system pretty much destroyed any chance that the Greens would ever be able to accomplish much of anything.  Not only did it hamstring the party, it ensured that it was almost impossible to build the membership.  I was very successful in building up the membership in my home riding, for example, but every time I brought people to a convention they would be so appalled by the chaos that they their interest in the group would drop off to nothing immediately afterwards.  As a result, I stopped encouraging new members to get involved outside of the riding.

Eventually, after ten years the Green Parties' membership had dwindled to the point where even the most obstinately "nice" members believed that there was no way that we could continue this way.  What happened was I able to convince the party in a plenary session to suspend the Polish Parliament system and have a simple majority vote on changing to a new system.   While my proposed alternative allowed a small number of individuals to delay passage of a resolution until their concerns had had ample time to be listened to and maybe accommodated, it did not give either an individual or very small minority the right to thwart the majority.  This passed by an overwhelming margin and we had a new system.  (This was my invention, but it has been called the "Bonser Method" because a fellow named Greg Bonser was the moderator---and a piss poor one too---at the GPO convention where I managed to get it passed.  As Ronald Reagan once famously said "You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit.")

You would think that once we had something like a functional system for collective decision-making in the Green Party things would improve.  Well, they did but structural dysfunction ultimately proved to be like the Hydra that Heracles was forced to battle.   Every time people were able to solve one problem, it seemed like two more would spring up to take their place.  For example, the membership wrote a constitution where elected individuals were supposed to be personally responsible for doing specific jobs.  What this meant was that the Board that governed the party found itself unwilling/incapable of setting priorities or creating long-term plans because each individual member of the board felt that they had their own personal mandate to do their specific "task" as they saw fit.

In one example, the person who was elected as the Board Secretary decided that the only sort of minutes that he would submit to the party were actual, complete transcripts of the meeting that he had done himself.  And since he was a very poor typist, it would take months for those transcripts to come out and reading them was a very tedious job.  Yet when I got a volunteer to write up a set of "unofficial minutes" and had them out to the membership the day after the meeting, I ended up being censured by the Chairman for overstepping my authority.    As you could see, keeping the elected secretary happy was more important to the Chair (and the other Board members) than actually letting the membership know what was going on.

 The fundamental problem that I had run up against was that there really is no such thing as a system of governance or decision-making that can force people to be fair and open about things if the average official doesn't really want to be fair and open, or, can't understand the problem.  Similarly, if the odd official really does want to "do the right thing", there is no way that they can prosper in the system and do good unless a lot of the rank-and-file members are willing to support her.  If most people are too busy or indifferent to get involved, or even pay attention, then various players for a variety of reasons will figure out ways to either consciously or unconsciously "fiddle" the system.

The overwhelming majority of Green Party members not only didn't know anything about the internal politics of the party, they had absolutely zero interest in learning anything about it.  I thought long and hard about this and came to the conclusion that while the majority of people in all parties know little about how their party actually works, the Greens know even less simply because people who join the Greens tend overwhelmingly not to be "people people", but are instead "ideas people".  That is, Greens are up in arms about the environment simply because they have spent a lot of time reading books about climate science and such.  In the same way that most mainstream politicians know absolutely nothing about science and ecology, most people who are either small "g" and large "G" greens know absolutely nothing about human society and how large institutions work.

And I'm not saying that the people who fought long and hard against coming up with anything like a functional Green Party were evil Machiavellis out to create an empire.  Instead, they were like children blundering around in the control room of a space ship and totally unaware of the enormous damage they were doing by playing with the switches.

I might also add that I too was one of those children.  I am someone who has spent most of his working life by myself (riding in a tractor seat, swinging a mop, walking a beat, etc) and as a result, know precious little about what makes other people "tick".  In addition, my PTSD has resulted in a volcanic temper based with the underlying assumption that when someone is mulish or obtuse that they really do know what they are doing and that they are trying to "fuck things up" on purpose.  Someone with greater insight into human nature either would have been a lot more diplomatic and as such accomplished more, or, (more likely) have understood the odds against me and never bothered trying in the first place.

Towards the end of my tenure in the Green Party I spent most of my time telling people that they had better "smarten up" and come up with something like a functional system or else someone from outside would come in and take over the party.  This, indeed, is exactly what happened.  In the case of the Green Party of Canada, what happened was a famous environmentalist by the name of Elizabeth May decided to join the party and run for the leadership.   At that point, the Green Party pretty much became the "Elizabeth May Party" and ceased to be much of anything else but a vehicle for promoting her particular view of environmentalism.  And getting her elected into Parliament (which it eventually did.)

Please note, I am not suggesting that Ms. May is any sort of a Machiavellian.  She is just an extremely hard-working woman who has devoted her life to pursuing a long list of important causes.  But she had never been a member of the Green Party before she decided to run and had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the party's internal issues or  history.  Moreover, she brought in a huge number of members who's only interest was in seeing her elected---because she is famous----and who's understanding of the complex issues behind the Green crisis are extremely limited.  The result is that the Green Party no longer has anything like a fundamental critique of either mainstream society or our political system.  It really is just another political party now.

To bring this back to the Wall Street protesters.

Looking at the protests, I could not help but think that they were all going down a similar blind alley that the Green Party traveled when I thought that it might be able to accomplish something.  Their statements about creating a "new form of democracy" through some sort of consensus structure is doomed to fail for the same reasons it did in the Green Party.  (And it also failed before in the women's movement for the same reasons, see the great essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.)

But I was listening to a professor  on the CBC talking about the Wall Street protests this morning and she made a very important point that I had missed.  She said that it didn't matter if anything practical comes from these protests.  What is important about protests is a change of consciousness.  And the protests against Wall Street for one reason or another have made it possible for people in the media and government to talk about redistributing wealth and increasing taxes again.  In the same way, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay rights, etc, movements didn't "accomplish" anything except change how people thought about some issues.  And when enough people had changed their opinions, then governments were able to take concrete legislative steps to actually change society in accordance with these new ideas.  And once society had changed enough, it eventually became increasingly hard for people to "get away" with the sort of casual sexism, racism, homophobia, etc, that were simply "the way things are" when I was young.

In the same way, the Green Party was able to raise issues about things like the need to end economic growth and live in a sustainable manner even though it eventually morphed into not much more than "Liberals in a hurry".

Those protesters out on the streets who think that they are creating a whole new world and a new way of doing things are right.  But not in the way that they think that they are.  The radical experiments in formal consensus and citizen assemblies are simply too poorly thought-out to be able to work.  And the movement that they are creating is simply too weak and fragile to avoid almost instant co-optation.  But the ideas that they are throwing out into the world will spread like dandelion seeds and take root in some of the most unlikely places.

I might also add that their analysis of the crisis we are facing as a society is flawed because it doesn't goes much deeper than identifying the greed of the bankers and other big business people.   Instead, I would argue that the economy has hit the limits to growth that the Club of Rome recognized so long ago.  Both climate change and Peak Oil are absolute limits that are ending the idea of economic growth that our entire society and culture is built around.  If you asked the people protesting on Wall Street who is "at fault" most of them would suggest that it is "the one percent" that they identify.  But the real problem, IMHO, is that our entire society is based on endless growth and we are hitting its limit.  The "one percent"r's are simply the specific individuals who find themselves in that slot and the political system that they have corrupted is just the inevitable result of the whole idea of progress.  And if you asked most of the protesters, (and certainly the people who think that they are doing something good), you'd learn pretty quickly that the only problem with the "system" is that it failed to deliver the goods they wanted, not that the whole idea that it can do so indefinitely is impossible on a finite planet.

There is one point I would take from the decades that I put into struggling in the Green movement that I would like to share with my readers, though.   I pointed out a while back in one of the Vow of Sustainability Environmental Vow chapters  that freedom is not really about having "choice" between one option or another.  Instead, I suggested that a more sophisticated definition comes from Cicero :   "Freedom is participation in power".   In other words, the freedom that a citizen has in a free and democratic society doesn't come from voting, but instead from participation in the actual process of government----through things like joining the Green Party or protesting on Wall Street.

I would add to Cicero's insight one of my own.  The only way we can "participate" in power is if we understand that we cannot accomplish anything of worth while through brute force but only insofar as we are moving in harmony with the times.  To be a free citizen in a democratic society it is necessary to participate in society instead of being a passive by-stander.  But to be a spiritually self-consciously free citizen, it is necessary to have some sort of personal distance from the great events of our times and understand how much we are all like leaves floating down the stream of the Dao.

So as a Daoist I can support the protests on Wall Street and suggest that they will probably do some good.  But I also have to understand that much as I would like these people to understand the deeper issues involved, I realize that they are not ready to understand that no matter what government does we simply cannot go back to the "good old days" and must, instead, learn to accommodate ourselves to a new way of doing things.  They will learn, but not through some sort of rational process but rather because they simply will have no other option.

That's the way the Dao is------.


baroness radon said...


Every time I think about "true democracy", I go to one of my condo board association meetings, which seems to be a breeding ground for fascists, or I just think of the well-meaning but naive Tiananmen protesters of 1989.

"As Ronald Reagan once famously said "You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit." I didn't realize he said this; I say it all the time myself, with slight variation: "There's no limit to the good you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, I had friends who were adamant about the need for "grassroots democracy" until they had to endure endless meetings at their housing co-op. At that point, private enterprise seemed preferable.

And given the enormous problems that any ruler in China faces, it is hard to believe that the Tiananmen protesters would have done anything like a better job than the Communists. (I can't even speculate what a "better" Chinese government would look like----.)

There is a significant caveat that needs to be understood about Reagan's point, however. In politics you amass power by gaining the support from lots and lots of people. If you don't "take credit" for your past actions, you won't amass any political power by doing so. This dramatically limits your ability to do good in the future. Successful politicians need to constantly "blow their own horn".

The Rambling Taoist said...

I was involved in the Green Party in Oregon & Washington for nearly a decade, almost all of them in a leadership position (treasurer/fundraising coordinator). I share a lot of your frustrations as well as some similar personal limitations. I still consider myself a Green (socialist), but I no longer participate within the formal party structure.