Building Democratic Institutions for Our Communities
IMAGE: Workers count votes in public during an election of village committee at Fengxing Village on March 18, 2005 in Fanchang County of Anhui Province, eastern China (source)
This hypothetical person is a hitherto unique form of politician in Australia. He or she are not party-based, though she does have an organisation to not only formulate policy but to mobilise for her election. Neither is she independent, though she is certainly independent of the party system.
She is a delegate of the people, crucial figure in democratic theory who is absent from our political system.
For the politically romantic, our Assembly is the opportunity to nominate and elect to office that impossible creature - the leader who has no ambition to lead, but who is willing to accept the responsibilities bestowed by her or his fellow-citizens.
Building Democratic Institutions for Our Communities
A paper by Hamish Alcorn
Hamish Alcorn is the website coordinator for two websites, YourDemocracy.net and Margo Kingston's Webdiary. Hamish, who also happens to be Margo Kingston's brother, wrote the paper below for the 2004 Brisbane Social Forum. He's a staunch believer in democracy bottoms-up, and he calls himself a community activist.
I must begin by pressing some activist buttons. Those of you who know me will not be shocked, but it is fair warning all the same. So I ask you to keep your critical faculties at high alert whilst maintaining enough of an open mind to at least comprehend all that I am trying to say, reserving final judgement for the end.
It is my observation that activism is at an impasse and has been for thirty years. It is not that there have not been great successes, and I feel privileged to have participated in one in the late 80s, when the North East Forest Alliance took on the entrenched and untouchable New South Wales Forestry Commission and changed their world forever. Successes are exciting and real, but it is impossible not to notice the tide-like cultural and political regression that is occurring nevertheless, and there is no sign, in this most climactic and critical of times, of any breakout of actual democracy. This is not meant to bring anyone down, or to reprimand their efforts. It is simply an attempt to face our political environment and situation soberly. We are marginal, if not always in our ideas, then certainly in our activity, and there is no sure sign of us becoming less so. It should be a given that any political strategy on the part of activists for democracy must endeavour to break clear of our subcultural barriers and become part of the currency of mainstream activity and debate.
There are ways in which our ideologically defined organisations - and I don't care which ideology or strategy they pursue - actually defy democracy, even whilst they engage in constant struggle with the contradiction of strongly believing in it.
Our organisations properly make every attempt not to exclude people on the basis of gender, race, age or even class, but by definition they exclude people on the basis of creed, to some extent or another. Some organisations aim to be as inclusive as possible, in membership and decision making rights, and others, usually for sound enough strategic or workability reasons, maintain very tight definition in their members' beliefs. But even the most democratically passionate of our organisations are obliged to find a compromise and maintain a way to exclude people on ideological grounds. The problem is, democracy only has real meaning where there is a full spectrum of difference involved, where there is an Everyone, and where society's conflicts are in bare relief.
Does this mean our organisations have no purpose? No - it just means that we should not pretend, in our organisation's meetings, that we are experimenting with democracy, lest it distract us from the fuller meaning of the word - I believe it does - and recognise that we are participating in a cabinet meeting for an ideology, not an inclusive democracy. The Social Forum idea is a breath of fresh air in inclusiveness's face, but it is easy to observe that ideological definition has been blurred rather than removed. It is still not a democracy in the full sense of the word because not everyone is really welcome - only those of us who believe that "another world is possible", with our many meanings of that clause. The wonderful thing the social forum does for us, especially with the open space format, is that it begs the question: What if it actually was an Everyone, and Everyone set the agenda?
It is possible that some activists, when really faced with it, would fear democracy as much as would Genghis Khan. For people loyal to a political organisation, what is the strategic benefit in creating an institution in which they will likely be marginal? Quite naturally organisations develop agendas and pursue them, and have greater loyalty and dedication to those things which they have control over. Struggles for control over issues and protests occur regularly and can be demoralising. The common anarchist contention that "vanguardism" contains the seeds of civil war and dictatorship has some truth for every ideologically defined organisation, including the anarchist. We need an organisation which contains the seeds of democracy.
The contradictions are not merely internal. Joining a political organisation, investing in it, struggling across various behavioural and ideological hurdles, and finally leaving or being excluded from the organisation is not actually a personally liberating or edifying experience for the vast majority of people. All of us know people who have done this and will rarely protest again. Also all of us know people who agree with us on issues but who have never participated. We tend to blame the punters for this - apathy is the problem. We are rarely inclined to place any blame on our own political behaviour for keeping people away from our protests, actions and community initiatives, though we do regularly hear such blame from those very people. I'm not talking about poster design or how to write a good media release. I'm talking about an entrenched culture of subculture which is related in some ways I think to cult-culture, and is not easy for many people to penetrate. It is sometimes like we unconsciously insist on being marginal and I daresay part of the number at a given protest are people for whom being marginal is an important part of identity. At worst I fear many activists have very little sense of a "we" that actually includes all people in their society - not a savage indictment by the way as it is merely what is true for everyone. But it is also related, I am contending, to the broad strategic commitment to ideologically defined organisations as our vehicle for furthering social change.
If I noted these perceived shortcomings of activist organisations and did not have an alternative, or at least an alternative way to pursue democracy alongside our organisational work, I would be being incredibly rude in wasting your time and potentially grieving you to boot. My comments are generalised but I think sober. I think they are all things that many of us have considered and possibly even attempted to do something about. But if I was saying either that we didn't need to organise or that we just had to stop worrying about democracy so much then I would rightly be accused of being an unconstructive, intellectual bore. Organisations are exactly what we require and democracy is exactly what we should insist of them. What's more I am about to argue that this is our central political task.
This is a plan for people to begin to take political control of their lives. Although principles may be useful anywhere and its implications are much broader, it is specifically a plan for the people of Brisbane to take control of City Hall, and for the powers of local government to simultaneously be radically expanded.
Enrol to vote, and encourage people to do the same. There's a little piece of paper the Electoral Commission sends you to confirm your enrolment. Keep this and encourage people to do the same. If like normal people you have not kept yours, get around to changing your address with the AEC after all these years and they'll send you a new one. It will become the basis for the right to vote and participate fully in the institution you are creating, hereafter just called, 'the Assembly'.
Form cells according to your electoral ward. These cells are ad hoc organisations of people who wish to promote directly democratic institutions. They do not have to agree on policy and may come from a large range of political positions.
The only common commitment these cells require is a belief in democracy (according to commonly recognised convention or, if you like, Robert's Rules of Order). Importantly this must include a willingness for respective beliefs on policy to be in the minority, and hence ultimately overruled, so long as the process is democratic. If you are not comfortable with participating in a democratic institution as a minority then do not proceed. I have every expectation that this aspect of the plan will be a challenge for many committed activists, who may have invested enormous energy into their organisations and visions, and may easily harbour, unconsciously or not, a resistance to the idea of being a mere vote and voice amongst the community who unfortunately are mostly strangers.
The most important core features of democracy must be:
All of us have ideas on how procedural democracy might be improved. (I must emphasise, just in case I need to, that I am not speaking of representative systems but actual democracy between people in face-to-face deliberation.) Similarly it would be easy to demonstrate that the boundaries of the wards could be more rational and better reflect Brisbane's socio-regions. In short these are reforms that could be pursued. But it is important in this initial phase to keep all of this as simple as possible. First you need a system of deliberation in which you can be reformers, so to begin you should use the most familiar and easily recognisable procedures available. But I would also argue that if the conventions of democracy are examined closely, as articulated in the various versions of Robert's Rules of Order and broadly understood from P&C's to Bridge Clubs, they are not too bad, and their difficulties are common to any inclusive process of decision making. All such processes rely for success as much on the culture of participation - how good we are at it, if you like - as on administrative procedure.
The need to nurture a maturing of political culture - of active citizenship - alongside the institutions which this culture can inhabit, is the fundamental problematic of any attempt to democratise a city. The hurdle is that one cannot properly develop without the other, which is why campaigning for personal and cultural change is over the years a process of treading water and simultaneously why campaigning institutionally - whether through unions, syndicates, coops - is inevitably a struggle with our values, behaviours and expectations. This philosophical quandary lies at the heart of the project. If we are really to look forward to a democratic society, then the people need practice before they could really threaten oligarchic power by being effective and competent at managing their society. If we set up the institutions tomorrow and people were miraculously given power I believe it would be a humiliation for democracy. First we have to set them up, however little formal power they would have. If examples in history are anything to go by, such a small step can lead to, or at least provide the institutional basis for, huge social transformation, as the body of people inexorably and in response to events, discovers its collective intelligence and musculature. If this occurred in a generation then it would be, by historical standards, very fast, but in the current political climate, with its basis in information and what I see as a latent hunger for democracy and a deep cultural understanding of the same, I'm not certain that tensions and changes could not unfold quite rapidly. But just providing communities with real, institutionalised self-identity is a crucial first step, which can be taken now.
It is not necessary for these cells to formally constitute themselves, as their role is specific and limited. That is, they have a shelf-life. If for some reason, like banking, a formal constitution is deemed necessary then perhaps it should clearly state the limited objectives of the organisation and specify the dissolution of the organisation upon the achievement of these objectives with any spare funds to be transferred to the new-born Assembly. If we need a metaphor the cells might be seen as seeds which provide a genetic template (a constitution, in the full - not just literary - sense of the word) for something fundamentally different - the Assembly - and whose husks fall away and die upon the birth of their purpose. It's not that I foresee these cells doing any harm if they survived and developed new objectives, but as they are conceived here there is nothing they have to do once the following has been achieved, except be absorbed into the assemblies as thinking people with a voice and a vote. One reason why I speculate in this future is that it might be important at the beginning for people in the cells to mutually recognise that none of their philosophical or policy disagreements need matter except a commitment to the basic institutional objective. So foreseeing dissolution into individual citizens of the larger and more properly democratic body might be important for ensuring a stable commitment to the project.
The task of these cells - each a committed handful - is specific and limited. Clearly steps 3, 4 and 5 can occur simultaneously or in any order.
Raise money for a working fund. You will need to cover hire of the hall for the first meeting along with a minimum amount of publishing and advertising. For experienced activists this is not an enormous fundraising task.
Agree upon a draft constitution for a resident's assembly. A draft of such a document is below.
A lot more procedure could be built into the constitution, but almost regardless of how much we include there are conventions of democracy which are taken for granted. For example, we don't have to articulate necessarily that a proposal requires a proposer, a seconder, opportunity for debate, with contingent procedure for proposed amendments or provisos, before being brought to the vote. These procedures are broadly understood in our society and are used in all sorts of organisations. But none which make social policy or elect representatives.
Of critics of democracy, or advocates of other systems of participatory decision making, I merely ask that you ensure first that you have examined democratic theory carefully, and have not disregarded it too reflexively, perhaps as a response to the West's alleged 'democracy'. And when you point out the difficulties and possible dysfunctions of democratic procedure - and they are numerous - please make absolutely sure that these are not common to any participatory decision making; that they are not the growing pains of participatory political culture rather than of a particular procedural arrangement. For if I am right, and democracy is about the best model available for a group as diverse and complex as a community, then its pre-existence in people's heads and in so much of their cultural environment, along with the glaring fact that it never permeates their political life, is very powerful for you.
Build a web page (say, duttonparkassembly.org), develop posters and advertisement graphics and produce documents explaining the intent of the first meeting. Write articles for local papers and press releases describing the project. The release of all of these should occur strategically, in a coordinated manner and at a professional quality. The launch of the campaign for the first meeting should occur about three months before the meeting.
The web page is important. All political discussion, exchange of information and policy creation cannot possibly occur in the confines of the Assembly meetings. Important to democratic theory is the idea of a less formal space - generally the market, but really all public space in a participatory culture - where citizens informally exchange views, debate, and caucus, saving the Assembly as much as possible for the procedures of actual decision making. One of the things that would look different about a democracy is that discussions and arguments about affairs that are actually adjacent to people's lives would be more common in pubs, cafes and market places. The technology of the internet provides us with an excellent adjunct to this idea, whereby all information can be simultaneously available to all citizens, agendas and minutes can be posted, and proposals can be mooted. A good moderator will be necessary.
This is as good a place as any for me to insist that the internet is not a place where the actual Assembly can happen, at least not in densely populated urban areas where face to face meetings are conspicuously practicable. An important feature of this project is that it is direct action against alienation, arguably the underlying disease of our society. The idea of internet democracy horrifies me because it could - would, I believe - entrench alienation and people's ignorance of one another, along with their capacity to be manipulated by distant powers.
The cell should bring its political and creative skills to bear to sell the Assembly to people as something that belongs to the same, something which will benefit their community and perhaps even satiate some desire to stick it up the powers that be. The people who are attracted to the meetings will be so for a wide variety of reasons, naturally enough, and there's no reason not to tactically exploit every one of them, with the proviso that all we can guarantee anyone is democracy.
Call a meeting of the citizens of the local ward. For this to occur in the three inner-city wards of Central, Dutton Park and East Brisbane simultaneously would be ideal. The timing should pre-empt as much as possible a local election campaign. 2008 may be a good workable goal.
A strong local issue might also provide a good launching pad, but not at the expense of the project as a whole. If an issue is used, then the Assembly should be launched explicitly as an institution which can consider and take action on this and any other issue that might arise in the future. Further, if a well formulated policy is proposed and passed at the first meeting, which embraced the local issue (say an insensitive local development) whilst also being general policy (say, on town-planning guidelines), then this could also further the identity of the organisation and help ensure that it did not eventually die the natural and proper death of an issue-based mobilisation.
A crucial feature of the constitution is that membership is not by a form and a fee but is automatic for all those enrolled to vote in the ward, so advertising and targeting should reflect this. Here is the first link to the existing municipal structure and is a key to the success of the institution. Here are some reasons.
One goal here in any case is to make multiple early links between the new institution and City Hall, mentally and institutionally.
Make available as much information as possible, including the draft constitution. The earlier interested people can comprehend the constitution, have any debates and make any amendments necessary, and approve of it by vote, the better, so publish it with the first launch. It is also a powerful indication to people of what they are being invited to attend.
But call the meeting, hire a hall, advertise widely, put hell energy into mobilising residents. They need to be in the hundreds for the first meeting, which is an achievable goal. Blow your money. The cell is not an organisation that has to worry about future financial stability.
The First Meeting
Needless to say the success of the first meeting is essential. From your number you will need to provide it with a damned good chairperson, who will need to make an inspiring opening address about the Assembly and how it might benefit the community.
The only real purpose of this meeting is to allow people to thoroughly moot the idea, expressing their own reasons for attending the meeting, why they feel their representatives have failed them, and what they feel an assembled community might be able to achieve. It's quite possible, and ideal, that your selves will not have to add much and that this first meeting will be buoyant and enthusiastic. The key thing you need to do is facilitate the formalisation of the citizen body. Initiate discussion on the constitution and if it appears that broad agreement is going to take some time (and it is normal for constitutional votes to require much more than 50%+1 of the vote), propose that a minimalist and orthodox constitution be passed quickly and provisionally whilst a working group be formed to develop an agreeable document. Foreshadow this as the agenda of the second meeting along with the (provisional, if necessary) election of an executive. Encourage people to nominate people they trust.
Between the First and Second Meeting
The advertising and media campaign needs to be maintained after the first meeting, hopefully (due to your irresponsible budgeting previously) funded by donations collected at the same. Minutes of the first meeting must be made available, along with the agenda for the second meeting. 'Advertising' at this point should become a fairly standardised system of public-notice, utilising regular notice-boards, the internet and newspaper advertisements.
At this point you are acting as an executive that is self-appointed with no democratic procedure whatsoever. It is crucial that the temporary nature of this situation is explicit and real. Your entire task now is to ensure that a democratic procedure replaces, as quickly and fluidly as possible, yourselves. Personally I'd consider very carefully even whether nominating for executive positions would be politically wise the first time, as the Assembly should be seen, even from afar, to leave your hands.
Organise the second meeting.
The Second Meeting
In the constitution I have drafted there are two General Meetings a year, with provision for Special Meetings, the latter requiring three weeks notice. The second meeting must certainly be a Special Meeting, and three weeks after the first meeting might be about right. People need some time to digest material, discuss the whole thing amongst themselves, and decide what they want. But leaving it for too long would be risking losing the momentum of the first meeting.
Many of us may have witnessed resident's meetings like this, generally very informal, work once, twice, or for a while. Important goals of the second meeting are to:
By this act the original cells are being absorbed into the bigger scene. The original organisers, though perhaps still quite influential, especially if they have conducted themselves honourably, have each become a voice and a vote.
Also by this act we have provided the Assembly with some backbone to survive the possibly lean meetings which might follow the initial enthusiasm where, whilst details are impossible to foresee, there will doubtless be difficulties.
Avoid the temptation in this time, even if you have the numbers on the floor, to push too-radical an agenda. It is the community as a whole which has to radicalise, by the device of face-to-face engagement, so maintaining and expanding participation is initially more important than any particular agenda. On the other hand, broad community agreement about environmental and social constraints to development is very likely, and it is as good a starting point for people's radicalisation as any.
Foresee that this is no caucus meeting. Assuming some success in attracting a representation of the community, this meeting will include people with utterly divergent and antagonistic viewpoints. People, it should be added, who to date are utterly ignorant about each other. The mob, you will quite likely be reminded at times, is indeed incapable of rule. Therefore you need to become more than a mob. Institutionally that can be done, but culturally it will take time and patience. It will be new personal territory for every one of us. For this reason the fact that the Assembly has no power to begin with is fortuitous. With more power than workability the Assembly would be an ass. But with political maturity, which I am suggesting (not self-righteously) must become recognisable currency, the Assembly in the long run can take as much power as it wants.
Without formalisation the Assembly will fade away or become the forum of a faction with little of the Assembly's original intent. By formalising the institution you are guaranteeing, in a legally enforceable way, that the entire voting community is welcome to attend and participate. To be able to face off much criticism of the Assembly with the retort, "it's yours; attend and argue your position", will be a powerful rhetorical weapon. By formalising the Assembly you have in effect invented an entire new layer of social governance, neatly - for now - fitting into the existing legal and political institutions of our world. It doesn't matter that it doesn't have any political power, though it probably does already have a bit of lobbying kick. It matters that it exists; a participatory, direct, inclusive, democratic layer of society which, in the end, is going to have to become less democratic, get out or, if we can build in enough resistance to these possibilities, take City Hall.
Start developing policy on whatever people are interested in - development issues, childcare, whatever. Demand that your local politicians no longer call "consultation meetings" but rather just ask the institutionalised community to tell them what it wants. That is, we will be demanding the opportunity to tell them our policies and hence the policies that, were we a democracy, they would properly be representing.
The tension we would be aggravating, incidentally (for the dialecticians) is not based on class, gender or ecological limits, and I hope people don't construe this as to mean I don't think these things are crucially important and timely historical forces which will continue to play an enormous role in the dialogue . Rather the tension is centrally based on the contradiction that our society is an oligarchy which vehemently and militantly declares itself democratic. I think this is a very real tension, one that is growing, and one that is pregnant with potential for those of us who would, if we could, have society progress.
Note that as citizens of the Assembly you have as much right as any to exercise your intellectual and political skills in policy development, and can propose, with notice, developed policy on any issue, and lobby for its acceptance. So the end of the cell is by no means the end of your participation in your community and it would be irresponsible if anything to organise the institution and not play an active role in its functioning. What's more, this is the only way Step 11 can be attempted: as a citizen making a proposal and attempting to get the votes for it to be passed.
Elect a delegate to run for your seat in Local Government. In a sense, the entire assembly is running for election. This person is a delegate in the true sense. Her policies are mandated from the beginning, she is recallable, at least from election to election, and can any time lose the legitimacy of her mandate by the assembly electing a counter-representative.
This hypothetical person is a hitherto unique form of politician in Australia. They are not party-based, though they do have an organisation to not only formulate policy but to mobilise for their election. Neither are they independent, though they are certainly independent of the party system. They are delegates of the people, crucial figures in democratic theory who are absent from our political system. For the politically romantic, our Assembly is the opportunity to nominate and elect to office that impossible creature - the leader who has no ambition to lead, but who is willing to accept the responsibilities bestowed by her or his fellow-citizens.
So far I have attempted to stick to and explain a thread of activity from the formation of an ad hoc cell to electing a people's representative in City Hall. Clearly a lot of other things can happen once the Assembly has institutional existence. I have also avoided too much explanation of why I think this plan might work, or why I think it might be effective beyond City Hall. These are the topics of this section of the paper.
I have also avoided history, and will continue to do so, but I do wish to tell one tale: that of the emergence of democratic institutions in Athens 2500 years ago. I don't think we learn much from history as a rule, but analogy is an important tool for understanding possibilities, and history is the ultimate analogic smorgasbord. I think the story is illustrative of the logic of the plan.
The City of Athens was in social crisis, verging on class war. People were selling themselves and their families into slavery to pay debts. Tensions were high. For some reason people trusted an aristocrat called Solon to come up with some reforms to sort it out, without upsetting the status quo too much. He was not a democrat but he saw the reality of the situation. He outlawed debt-slavery, had a lot of debt cancelled, and actually had the city buy back many Athenians from their owners. He also reinstituted an old institution, whose nature in previous antiquity we can only guess at, called the ekklesia, or assembly. He gave it virtually no power, but obviously recognised the need for the poor classes to have some voice, to placate their anger. He did some other stuff to.
The political control of Athens remained in the hands of various aristocratic clans who were, when not worried about class war, struggling between themselves for power. The ekklesia became a battleground for these struggles, and meanwhile was being used as a jury for all but murder trials, so they were getting real experience in collective decision making - i.e. in citizenship - and were being exposed to the workings of governance.
Kleisthenes, an aristocrat, was not a democrat either, but in a glorious bid to 'enlist the people into his faction' he proposed a plan to virtually give the ekklesia power. His opponents called in Athens' arch-nemesis Sparta to occupy Athens and install an aristocracy. But by this time, over a generation after Solon created a minimum of equity and the ekklesia, the latter was not going to stand for it. There was a revolution. This occurred while Kleisthenes and his family were in exile so the ekklesia had found its own, unrecorded, leadership. As the playwright Aristophanes put it (the King is one of the two kings of Sparta, who was leading the occupation):
We slept before the gates;
And so the ekklesia assumed political control of the city, with virtually no blood, and the rest is the sordid history of Classical Athens. But whatever else might be said of that pioneering and highly imperfect democracy, it did govern, arguably more effectively and equitably (whilst with impossible creativity) than any other Greek city, which were variously tyrannies, aristocracies, oligarchies and Sparta, a weird sort of monarchy. All it teaches us is that something is possible. The mob can govern, and circumstances can manipulate power into its hands. Our mob is going to include women without any major controversy, and thankfully there are no slaves for us to exclude. The franchise itself is pretty good these days.
§ 1. A definition of democracy
Written in 1996 for West End Neighbourhood News (adapted).
Democracy lives today only in the visionary imagination of humanity.
Democracy means that all policy is exposed to open discussion and debate in a public political space of all citizens before being put to a transparent, accountable vote. It also means that people of minority positions are entitled to continue to develop and lobby for their alternate position. Rather than being alienated, the minority is considered invaluable as an ongoing source of critical scrutiny as well as another option, should the majority agreed way lose its appeal to collective reason.
Democracy means that any administrative or coordinative positions in the community are appointed either by lot or by a general vote of the assembly. What's more such officeholders are never paid, have strictly mandated terms of reference and are recallable at any time. People accept such positions not through ambition or want of reward but through a mature sense of civic responsibility.
Where regional and universal decision making bodies are required they are comprised of similarly mandated delegates along confederal lines, meaning that power is not turned over to the central organisational tier, as with federalism, but is retained at the assembly level, and is merely negotiated and administered at the regional level.
Democracy presupposes the existence of the self-consciously well-rounded, competent, morally mature and socially active citizen. In turn Democracy cultivates such citizens.
Democracy has been touched upon throughout history - in many tribal societies, in ancient Greek poleis, in the medieval communes of Europe, in the more recent revolutionary moments throughout the world, as well as in innumerable community based non-government organisations today. But in its fullness of promise, it remains in our imaginations, for the future.
§ 2. A draft constitution for an Assembly
The Rules of the [Name of Ward] Citizens Assembly