Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and its discontents  

Posted by Big Gav in

By and large I don't see the Occupy Wall Street crowd are likely to have much success (not unless the US economy really collapses anyway) but its intersting to see how activism is evolving - and they may manage to avoid get co-opted for longer than the tea party crowd did. The Economist has some thoughts on what is going on - Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and its discontents.

OCCUPY WALL STREET is not only a mass protest movement intended to draw attention to economic injustice and political corruption. It seeks to embody and thereby to demonstrate the feasibility of certain ideals of participatory democracy. This is, to my mind, what makes OWS so interesting, and so unlike a tea-party protest.

OWS is not simply a group of like-minded people gathered together to make a point with a show of collective force, though it is that. The difference is that it has developed into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order. The complaint that OWS has failed to produce a coherent list of demands seems to me to miss much of the point of the encampment in Zuccotti Park. The demand is a society more like the little one OWS protestors have mocked up in the park. The mode of governance is the message.

... It is hard to deny the romance of this, and part of me would like to camp out in Zuccotti Park and pitch in. But I wouldn't expect it to last. Not only is it hard to see how this worthwhile little experiment in leaderless, consensus-based decision-making is a realistic means to the end of a whole society governed by leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, it's hard see why this is a desirable end.

Because the participatory democracy of OWS is an ideological endeavour, it can avoid the hard problem of liberal society: the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus. Consensus-based communes composed of individuals who opt in specifically because they already agree with the commune's founding values can work precisely because the people who would make consensus impossible—people with very different opinions and values—stay away. But not only does the OWS experiment skirt the problem of pluralism through self-selection, the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend toward extremism

Matt Taibii at Rolling Stone has some advice for the protestors - My Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters.
I've been down to "Occupy Wall Street" twice now, and I love it. The protests building at Liberty Square and spreading over Lower Manhattan are a great thing, the logical answer to the Tea Party and a long-overdue middle finger to the financial elite. The protesters picked the right target and, through their refusal to disband after just one day, the right tactic, showing the public at large that the movement against Wall Street has stamina, resolve and growing popular appeal.

But... there's a but. And for me this is a deeply personal thing, because this issue of how to combat Wall Street corruption has consumed my life for years now, and it's hard for me not to see where Occupy Wall Street could be better and more dangerous. I'm guessing, for instance, that the banks were secretly thrilled in the early going of the protests, sure they'd won round one of the messaging war.

Why? Because after a decade of unparalleled thievery and corruption, with tens of millions entering the ranks of the hungry thanks to artificially inflated commodity prices, and millions more displaced from their homes by corruption in the mortgage markets, the headline from the first week of protests against the financial-services sector was an old cop macing a quartet of college girls.

That, to me, speaks volumes about the primary challenge of opposing the 50-headed hydra of Wall Street corruption, which is that it's extremely difficult to explain the crimes of the modern financial elite in a simple visual. The essence of this particular sort of oligarchic power is its complexity and day-to-day invisibility: Its worst crimes, from bribery and insider trading and market manipulation, to backroom dominance of government and the usurping of the regulatory structure from within, simply can't be seen by the public or put on TV. There just isn't going to be an iconic "Running Girl" photo with Goldman Sachs, Citigroup or Bank of America – just 62 million Americans with zero or negative net worth, scratching their heads and wondering where the hell all their money went and why their votes seem to count less and less each and every year.

No matter what, I'll be supporting Occupy Wall Street. And I think the movement's basic strategy – to build numbers and stay in the fight, rather than tying itself to any particular set of principles – makes a lot of sense early on. But the time is rapidly approaching when the movement is going to have to offer concrete solutions to the problems posed by Wall Street. To do that, it will need a short but powerful list of demands. There are thousands one could make, but I'd suggest focusing on five:

1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called "Too Big to Fail" financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term "Systemically Dangerous Institutions" – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled; a good start would be to repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and mandate the separation of insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks.

2. Pay for your own bailouts. A tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01 percent tax on all trades of derivatives would generate enough revenue to pay us back for the bailouts, and still have plenty left over to fight the deficits the banks claim to be so worried about. It would also deter the endless chase for instant profits through computerized insider-trading schemes like High Frequency Trading, and force Wall Street to go back to the job it's supposed to be doing, i.e., making sober investments in job-creating businesses and watching them grow.

3. No public money for private lobbying. A company that receives a public bailout should not be allowed to use the taxpayer's own money to lobby against him. You can either suck on the public teat or influence the next presidential race, but you can't do both. Butt out for once and let the people choose the next president and Congress.

4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. For starters, we need an immediate repeal of the preposterous and indefensible carried-interest tax break, which allows hedge-fund titans like Stevie Cohen and John Paulson to pay taxes of only 15 percent on their billions in gambling income, while ordinary Americans pay twice that for teaching kids and putting out fires. I defy any politician to stand up and defend that loophole during an election year.

5. Change the way bankers get paid. We need new laws preventing Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up in all of our faces later. It should be: You make a deal today, you get company stock you can redeem two or three years from now. That forces everyone to be invested in his own company's long-term health – no more Joe Cassanos pocketing multimillion-dollar bonuses for destroying the AIGs of the world.

Crikey's Guy Rundle has a look at the London equivalent - Occupy’s big no was a big yes to something else.
Down on the steps of St Paul’s, they’re preparing for a third night of the occupation. The tents are up, the perimeter secured, the food bank and free library established. The canon of St Paul’s has given the movement his blessing. There was a violent gang hanging around, but he persuaded them to leave, and they took their horses and batons with them. In New York’s Zuccotti Park it continues. In Italy more than 150,000 turned out. In Madrid, in Canada, in dozens of other cities around the globe, they are occupying, and hunkering down where they can.

After the longish lead to the Wall Street occupation, the process of expansion was instantaneous, travelling at the speed of the global social network, currently branded and enclosed under various names — Facebook, Twitter, etc — mimicking a process that occurred over months and years during the period of the global anti-capitalist movement around the turn of the millennium. Indeed the process has speeded up within the “Occupy” movement.

OWS took a week or so to morph from a continuous process into an occupation, replete with infrastructure; at OccupyLSX (the London stock exchange), it has happened in three days. The movement, which began with relatively small cores of activists, has built to larger numbers. In places such as Italy, also engaged in specific national crises, it joins to existing local movements. Movements of resistance will, and should, take on the form of what is oppressing them — after all, the oppressors must be doing something right — and turn it around, whether that repression be military, industrial or whatever.

Thus in this era, the occupy movement has taken on that ultimate reality of our time — the franchise, the brand, the chain, in order to extend and energise itself across vastly different situations. The whole point of a franchise is to crush locality, down to zero; that of the occupy movement is to fuse with it, and create something universal and local.

That has, as they say, its costs and benefits. The global anti-capitalist movement was criticised for being a catch-all for various causes, but in terms of explicit program and credo, it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses compared to “Occupy”. In the late ’90s, when the neoliberal order had been consolidated via the WTO and GATT, the abolition of Glass-Steagall in the US, and the like, the demands were clear — a global trade order that did not blackmail societies into surrendering all local autonomy to larger groups, a development ideal based on a genuinely sustainable plan, and a set of social rights and protections established within those.

The obvious contradictions could be contained within that. The adversary defined the movement, not merely because it was so clear, but because it was so exultant in its triumph. Those who criticised the movement for its purely oppositional nature misunderstood. The big “no” was an enormous “yes” to something else.

Now, as the protests and meetings spring up at the end of a wire, or around each hot spot, the thing they’re opposing is not characterised by certainty but by quivering doubt. There has been no recovery, either under the tepid pump priming of the US, or the bracing semi-austerity of Britain. No major economy is willing to try either a full Keynesian reboot, or a genuine austerity package, and the only country that has done so — Greece — has become a cautionary tale, contracting to a point where the choices appear to be either paralysis or upheaval. The banks are awash with money coming in the bank, and refuse to lend it out, the degree zero of socialising losses and privatising profits. The result in Britain is an inflation rate that is officially 5%, but is 10% on staples, and the latest scheme to restart growth — credit easing — will simply entrench stasis and more inflation.

The EU-eurozone cannot float a stabilisation fund of any power, because 17 nations must agree to it, and their publics don’t. Meanwhile at the global level, it has finally been admitted that world trade integration, a la the Doha Round, is dead and has been for some time. Margaret Thatcher made famous the notion of TINA — There is No Alternative, to her plan, to which the first reply was simply refutation. Now the state of affairs is TINP — There Is No Plan. With the eurozone lurching towards a Greek default, the world is bracing for a fresh “correction”.

Because the movements that might have suggested a positive alternative — Marxism, radical social democracy — with a concrete program, are long since dead in any mass form, the “Occupy” movement has thus faced the dilemma, very early on, of having nothing to rally people around. What has bounced around the world is a program, of 5-15 points, of the most extreme generality. Here’s excerpts from the London one:

1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, s-xualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
3. We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis …
7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
8. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.

To point out this generality is not a criticism of the participants, and there are often specific demands attached to specific local campaigns. There is nothing else that could occur at this stage. But in normal circumstances, such a program would leave it open to the most withering criticisms of the Right, and the Liberal centre. Yet by far the most interesting part of this whole process is the degree to which that hasn’t occurred. There’s plenty of wilful incomprehension if you want to find it — from the (quite funny) baiting of Mark Steyn on National Review to the New Republic’s tremulous response that what is required is not an anti-capitalist movement, but the mild Frank-Dodd banking regulations bill.

But you’ll also find a lot more circumspect commentary from the mainstream too, many going out of their way to concede the basic justice of the “Occupy” movement’s arguments about inequality, failed strategies, etc, etc.

Why is that? It’s not out of any regard for the individual participants, among whom the TV networks can always find the most dreadlocked and Texta-graffitied members, with an, erm, unfocused verbal style. It is simply because there is now very little to say back to them.

Many on the Right have spent so much time and energy denigrating banks — the Tea Party in particular — and corporations, in the name of a fantasy virtuous capitalism, that there is nothing to say back to those who also refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis. The corporate world now has no confidence that the political Right will impose state spending cuts; more importantly, there is no great confidence that this would actually have a desired effect, of lowering wages without crippling demand.

In the US, the fantasy nature of the politics has had the inevitable effect. Love objects of the Right last no more than a fortnight, Palin falling to Bachmann, to Perry, and now to Herman Cain, with his 9-9-9 back-of-the-envelope tax plan. Furthermore, despite the “get a job” rhetoric, the Right realise that there is an increasing degree of worker and public support for such movements — from the canon of St Paul’s, to the New York transport workers who let attendees ride free. The “Occupy” movement is many things, but in the first instance, it is a challenge to Right-wing populism, since it echoes many of their anti-corporate, anti-systemic themes, but is not tied down with the masochistic Randian worship of “success” that the Tea Party tries to impose on its followers.

That challenge may become a crisis, should a new and sudden global economic reversal occur. For then the simple message of the “Occupy” movement will become compelling, in a way that Right populism no longer is. Should that occur, the movement’s separate occupations will serve as nuclei for something that may grow as fast as the movement itself spread across the world.

Without that system crisis, it may collapse or die down, or change form. But should conditions prove right, that lack of specificity will prove the movement’s supreme virtue and advantage.

Dan Denning at The Daily Reckoning wonders if history might repeat itself at some point and the OWS folk will achieve the opposite of what they are intending - Man Vs Universe.
--The fact that the universe, like the economy, is a changing, dynamic, evolving thing is bound to deeply unsettle some people. Some people prefer eternal truths, unchangeable laws, and the certainty of a highly regulated order in life. These people are usually scared of the future, highly controlling, and naturally gravitate toward politics. Their natural instinct will be to fight back...against the universe.

--So get ready for the war to preserve the cosmos...or the war to preserve the old order. In one camp IS the old order, the oligarchs and plutocrats of Europe and America who want the next 100 years to be like the last 100 years. And on the other side is...everyone else.

--The situation is evolving and unstable. Only psychopaths and criminals like a revolution. They will be agitating for one. But our guess is that the Occupy Wall Street movement will be pushed, from the margin, into an act of violence that terrifies what's left of the middle class. They will crave for order and demand that someone bring it to them.

--By the way, has anyone seen David Petraeus lately?

Cryptogon points to another area where US banks are making themselves no friends - Banks Demolishing and Trying to Give Wrecked, Looted Homes Away.
Cleveland — The sight of excavators tearing down vacant buildings has become common in this foreclosure-ravaged city, where the housing crisis hit early and hard. But the story behind the recent wave of demolitions is novel — and cities around the country are taking notice.

A handful of the nation’s largest banks have begun giving away scores of properties that are abandoned or otherwise at risk of languishing indefinitely and further dragging down already depressed neighborhoods.

The banks have even been footing the bill for the demolitions — as much as $7,500 a pop. Four years into the housing crisis, the ongoing expense of upkeep and taxes, along with costly code violations and the price of marketing the properties, has saddled banks with a heavy burden. It often has become cheaper to knock down decaying homes no one wants.

The demolitions in some cases have paved the way for community gardens, church additions and parking lots. Even when the result is an empty lot, it can be one less pockmark. While some widespread demolitions could risk hollowing out the urban core of struggling cities such as Cleveland, advocates say that the homes being targeted are already unsalvageable and that the bulldozers are merely “burying the dead.”


The levelling off appears to be US oil peak and Oil Shock 1, and then Oil Shock 2.

Another name for this graph could be The Red Queen of Productivity

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