Harbinger Vol. 2 No. 1 — Prefigurative Politics in the Pro-Democracy Movement




Amoshaun Toft

As we were unwillingly ushering in a new presidential administration on January 20th of this year, thousands of people gathered in Washington DC to voice their opposition to the corruption, racism and corporate influence that play such a role in our national government. They held banners, chanted slogans and through the tear gas and pepper spray, attempted to create a space for themselves in the city of the political elite. They raised their voices and their fists for a day of protest, seeking actions and tactics that would create a sense of communal empowerment in the face of tremendous disempowerment.

It comes as no surprise that in a country that prides itself on being the world’s greatest democracy, people expect democracy. But from the first television campaign ad to the last NPR commentary, this entire electoral process has been an excellent example of the lie that currently poses for democracy in the “developed” world. When we take a closer look at this facade, what we find is a bureaucratic system of backroom deals and campaign fundraisers that is structured around the central tenet of removing political power from the people of this country, and redefining what we accept as democracy.

The word democracy comes from a golden era in ancient Greece in which the demos (which translates as the people) were directly involved in the fundamental running of the government. Although it was plagued by slavery and gender oppression, 30% of the population was involved in the democracy and they valued their political life above all else. One can find numerous writings on the superiority of democracy over monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that speak of a fulfillment of the self that is not found in these more repressive forms of government. I would argue that it is this ability to stand alongside others in your community, town or city and experience the miraculous ability of dialog, coupled with the weight of autonomous authority, that speaks to the inherent desire for freedom and cooperation in society that we all posses.

The United States, and the form of republicanism that it has spread around the world, functions on a very different set of guiding principles. First, this country was founded on the exploitation of others. It has been driven by the development of capital and a market economy that places profit above all other social values. It is based on the accumulation of power over others, through war, genocide, and military oppression. And finally, governance is a task that is reserved for the economic elite. Just as Capitalism is based on the investment of capital to accumulate more capital, the acquisition of power in a republican state is reliant on the acquisition of power to acquire more power, concentrating political and military control into the hands of a privileged elite.

And so we take to the streets, the only forum available for our voices, and create spaces that reflect the values and institutions that we want to create. We make our decisions by consensus in spokes councils and affinity groups in the planning of our actions. We create temporary political institutions that govern our movement in the here-and-now. But where do these institutions go when our moment of freedom and political expression passes? After the last paddy wagon has left the streets the political space that we have temporarily wrestled from the hands of the state returns to a busy commercial district, gentrified neighborhood, or industrial park. Proof of our accomplishments in the streets lives only as long as the memories and photographs that we take home to others.

So how then can we create a more lasting political space? How then can we institutionalize those methods of participatory direct democracy in a more permanent and lasting way? If we are ever to move beyond the brick wall that we are hitting our heads against every time we are forced to take to the streets, we must begin to create lasting institutions that can serve as both the organizing body for the protest of today, and the community assembly for the society of tomorrow.

It is here where we need to draw on the cumulative history of struggle — from the numerous and seemingly disparate movements toward liberation and freedom that mark our past. It is our task today, to derive from those liberatory moments that which we find furthers the ideals of freedom and cooperation and create visionary institutions of direct democracy that create a space for everyone’s concerns and dreams to find a place for public expression. These momentary glimpses of freedom that we work so hard to create can have lasting effects, but only if we begin to entrust our commitment to work together in a revolutionary network of grassroots direct democracy.

It is not enough to ask, or even demand, that politicians or CEOs reform the facade of a fundamentally corrupt political and economic system, a system in which we have no direct political power. We need to start looking to each other to create the models for a new tomorrow that exists without hierarchy and domination. And this starts in the heart of a town or city — in the creation of community meetings. These community meetings can and should form the locus of the new society, because it is here that we can all have a say, regardless of race, class, gender or sexual orientation, in the governing of our lives, and the preservation of the planet.

The seeds of this democracy have been spread throughout history in the liberatory institutions that we have chosen to create. From the Greek Polis to the New England Town Meeting, from the Spanish Anarchists to the Paris Communes, from the Seabrook anti-nuclear movement to the Enquentro’s of the Zapatista rebels, history is filled with examples of democracy at work. By bringing these examples into a contemporary context — recognizing the tremendous victories we have won against oppression, and transcending previous prejudice and bias into an understanding of the importance of the unique individual into a collaborative whole — we can create lasting institutions that are truly participatory and democratic.

We can find examples of this in the new protest movement. Most strikingly, the Spokes Council of direct action groups, media collectives, legal collectives and medical teams that has provided the organizing body for all of the major anti-globalization actions since the WTO ministerial in Seattle, in the fall of 1999. The Spokes council has attempted, and largely succeeded, in creating a safe space for participation by the wide array of groups that have come together under the banner of anti-globalization. It has also reflected the strong pro-democracy undertone of these actions, contrasting the institutions of corruption and non-democracy that we appose with a concrete example of a model for participatory direct democracy at work.

But as inspiring as these spokes councils have been, they have largely died out with the passing of the political moment. They have not succeeded in bridging the gap between the transient action and the long standing community based struggles that continue after the mass arrests have ended. Herein lies the opportunity to redefine the language of resistance in pro-active terms. By creating lasting and open public forums for discussion and organizing we can begin to train ourselves in the practice of democracy. We can move past the frustration of oppositional organizing into interdependent, solution-based organizing. Community level people’s assemblies can create simultaneous dual power relationships with the institutions of coercion and control that we spend so much of our time fighting. If there is a low-income housing shortage, we can hold construction weekends to fix up abandoned buildings, work with community land trusts to purchase sufficient housing, and expand existing housing to accommodate the needs of our community. In the area of food degradation and the monopolization of our agriculture, we can come together to create networks of organic and ecological growers both inside our community and in surrounding areas, even engaging in commodity exchanges across continents and oceans.

Most importantly, community assemblies can serve to elevate the concerns of the disenfranchised into a position of moral, if not social authority in the eyes of the town or city at large. We can further expand this authority by cooperating with other community assemblies around the country and around the world to meet our immediate needs as well as standing in solidarity with the various struggles for economic, social and political freedom around the world.

Given the global scope of our struggle it is absolutely necessary that we create global networks of resistance. The key here is in creating these networks as both oppositional vehicles for mass mobilization and as visionary constructive elements that can begin to be the solutions that we envision. By rooting a global struggle in local democratic forums, we are necessarily building a democratic movement. The means we use define the destination we reach. What we are fighting for is a global network of directly democratic communities, where freedom and autonomy are guiding principals and where the absence of hierarchy and domination allows each individual to explore her or his full potential as a positive agent in the evolutionary process. Just as evolution is a developmental process, with no end and no beginning, in which each step leads to the next, the creation of a truly liberatory and ecological society requires that we treat each step as if we were practicing for the next, always learning how to better organize ourselves and our movement, and recognizing the value in the individual act and the role it plays in bringing us into a better world.

I believe that it is this commitment to democracy from the bottom up, that can bring the people of the world together in opposition to the drastic ills of society. It is exactly this commitment to direct democracy that has the potential to resolve those ills.

The history of democracy is a cumulative one. It is our legacy, just as the history of wars and conquest is our legacy. We need to recognize this, build on it, and work through democratic process to create the world we want to live in, in the here and now.