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Wed Oct 1, 2014, 08:49 AM

Why not start direct democracy cities? [View all]

I was severely disappointed when Occupy just dissolved in the face of what were, historically, mild police assaults. While it's true they still exist in some rump form, doing things like cancelling relatively small amounts of student and mortgage debt, I thought they had completely missed and abandoned their true potential as a catalyzing force: Experimentation with practical direct democracy. And the most bizarre thing is that no one seems to talk about that aspect of it, as if there's some collective amnesia going on - or at least stunning lack of imagination.

But here's what occurs to me, that a bold, energetic, and lively society would attempt: Buy some land, incorporate some municipalities on various models, and charter them on the basis of various method of practical direct democracy - with the obvious shortcomings of that system counterbalanced with some thoughtful mechanisms. Just as a thought experiment the possibilities immediately extend far beyond what has been tried, so it seems like the only reason they haven't been tried is that our culture is so wretched with conservatism that even the radical progressives are afraid of new things.

Any objection you could make to the functioning of such cities could be planned against, if it's so obvious that it comes up in a conjectural conversation like this. And the problems that are non-obvious, finding those issues would be part of the benefit of the attempt - because they would represent new information, and give rise to new solutions. Moreover, the design of the mechanisms could be made flexible to deal with such unknowns. Finally, there would (hopefully) be several distinct communities operating in parallel and pursuing independent approaches, providing the diversity that is the fuel of evolution.

Now, I would stress one thing though: As experiments, they should be controlled - as in, the only thing that should be radically different in the initial conditions is the form of government. They should not otherwise be radical - i.e., not utopian communes that represent only a societal niche and deter average, non-ideological people from living there. This stipulation is the main difficulty, I think, since self-defeating insularity is the natural tendency of the boldest elements of the left. It truly hates associating with the wider culture and society, and that solipsism was often on display in the later days of the Occupy movement when the broad-based coalition started to unravel.

So that's a tendency that needs to be overcome, and especially the ludicrous ideology that rejects success and popularity as "selling out." Rather, we need a movement that wants to be emulated in society, wants the influence that comes with shallow political imitation. In this specific subject, we would need a set of town founders who would want to create models that other communities not activated by any kind of ideological zeal might want to emulate. In other words, the form of the direct democracy should be carefully maintained at a level of simplicity that remains accessible to novices, and doesn't degenerate (as it eventually did with Occupy) into an opaque set of shibboleths and insular practices that look alien, bizarre, and intimidating to outsiders. The forms of the wider culture should be diligently maintained while being rearranged into more democratic systems.

While respecting individuals, they should not be allowed to devolve into self-limiting counterculture cults that glory in multiplying the contrasts with the rest of society, since that would totally defeat the purpose of insinuating direct democracy. Basically it needs to be strictly a technocratic set of experiments with a maximally representative cross-section of the population, with obnoxious anti-everything ideological types discouraged without violating the democratic principle. The reason for this is that, whatever successes are discovered, would then be far easier to transmit to larger scales - counties, states, nations, regions, even globally over the longest term. But if the experiments devolve into counterculture caricatures, then other people would reflexively reject its lessons simply because of the form they've taken.

Needless to say, only people whose foremost priorities are humanity and democracy should be involved in the planning. Ideologues whose values are a chaotic laundry list of unrationalized niche issues should not, since they would produce exactly what I just mentioned should be avoided. Beyond that, I won't bother to conjecture exact policies and forms. I'll simply note, again, that if you can raise an objection in a theoretical conversation, then someone seriously planning such a community would probably also think of it and be able to plan for it. Basically, there's no reason not to do this.

There are challenges to doing it, certainly - most immediate simply being the money to buy the land, and attracting the non-ideological expertise to manage the completely technical aspects of planning, building, maintaining, and expanding the communities that are created. But it can be done: Many of the cities and states of this country were founded for a political or moral purpose, and only lately have we completely resigned the further colonization of our own country to development corporations. Boston (and Massachusetts in general) retains the highly literate and education-oriented character of its history, to cite one example. And on the other political side, Utah is still gruesomely Mormon. There's no reason why we have to simply abandon the future shaping of this country to the blind forces of real estate capitalism.

In fact, let's take this concept further: It isn't even strictly necessary to form a new town to pursue these experiments. Just get together with people in your neighborhood, call it the _____ Assembly, and vote on stuff. Doesn't matter if any authorities recognize your resolutions, because if you stick to it, eventually they'll have to at least pay respect to them to avoid alienating a chunk of active voters. With that respect, the reputation and influence of that Assembly would grow, as would its numbers, and you could then take whatever measures were needed to keep its functioning practical while maintaining its direct character. Slowly you could grow such a thing into such an influential force that you might eventually be able to have laws changed giving it some kind of de jure authority. Not likely sole authority, but at least some role in the structure of local government. From there, anything is possible.

The fact that Occupy didn't stick with direct democracy as its primary mission, and instead treated it like an afterthought to be abandoned to the impotent counterculture rather than expanded into the wider culture, is one of its most tragic failures and missed opportunities. But every day is a new opportunity, and the value and potential of this idea will never disappear.

In fact, it's the distilled lesson of all of history: That the single most explosively creative, artistically beautiful, philosophically prolific, and influential civilization in history was the handful of generations in a single city (Athens) living under direct democracy. The fact that it could do what it did in those few generations, in a people numbering little more than 20,000 voters, is just mind-boggling. Now, then again, it was not perfect: It self-destructed as the citizens became a greedy mob willing to endanger their entire society for the spoils of imperialistic wars. But the lesson to be drawn from that is how to tweak direct democracy to avoid those problems, not to simply avoid it altogether. The foundation from which you grow and evolve has to be democracy - it should not be an outgrowth of tolerant monarchy or permissive oligarchy.

We in this country have never had such a democratic foundation. We have always been a state constructed on a permissive oligarchy, and over time the oligarchy is reasserting its foundational privileges. That can, should, and must change - however slowly, it must. There's room enough in this country for thousands of different approaches to direct democracy, but all of them should be attempted, across as many diverse situations as possible.

Experiment with different "action thresholds" (the majority needed to produce a given type of resolution); experiment with different relationships between the Assembly and the courts, the Assembly and the bureaucracies, the Assembly and the Executive; experiment with Assembly sizes and thresholds for fissioning into separate bodies; experiment with methods of order, etc. etc. But for fuck's sake, experiment. Stop just doing things because they've been done before.

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Reply Why not start direct democracy cities? [View all]
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