Friday, March 20, 2015

"Two Cheers for [Participatory] Democracy!" (29 April 2014)

"The trouble with Socialism is that it takes [up] too many evenings."
—Usually attributed to Oscar Wilde,
sometimes given as "The trouble with democracy."

"Two Cheers for Democracy" —  essay by E. M Foster (1938)

           I worked off and on with a young writer on his script titled Home Owners' Association and fairly seriously joked with him that he should move the story more toward Horror.

            Part of "The horror! The horror!" of late has been some neighbors attending HOA Executive Board meetings. These are good people, with an agenda I support, but a handful are full adults, indeed, "senior citizens," and native-born Americans, but unfamiliar with how meetings run and organizations are organized.

            They were audience members at a meeting of the Board, with the right to speak briefly at the beginning of the meeting but after that, in theory, auditors: people who listen, as an audience, not officers having a Board meeting.

            HOA's are pretty democratic, but they aren't democracies, and some of my quite nice and ordinarily courteous neighbors wanted — demanded! —participatory democracy. This got me thinking about participatory democracy and to what extent it is always and necessarily A Good Thing.

            It isn't. Not always and necessarily good.

            If in a sense all we mortals have is time, limited time, and if taking our time is imposing on us; if the essence of slavery is other people's appropriating one's labor — then any system that appropriates one's time and labor for every goddamn little decision and mickey-mouse project is at least problematic. Hence, there is much to be said for systems that allow representative government and for the control-freak twerps who enjoy making every little decision and doing mickey-mouse shit-work to do it
            Now the twerps do tend to take over political parties and unions and countries and all, in what Robert Michels called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy," but until they do, most of us most of the time would just as soon let them run things.

            Though sometimes we (or at least some of my neighbors) want to yell at them, and every now and then you need a revolution and participatory democracy … until a new group of twerps arises to run things.
            Still, some systems can go a long time with reasonable, limited democracy and avoid cycles of mob rule, tyranny, oligarchy, aristocracy, bureaucracy, and other unpleasantness.

            New England town meetings seem to work, at least for New England small towns, and we had a pretty good system in my college fraternity chapter.

            Technically, and formally, the Illinois Alpha Kappa Chapter of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity was an elective constitutional monarchy, with sovereignty (such as it was) shared between the initiated brothers in the chapter and our elected President — significantly called "Rex," the Latin word for king — and to some extent the other officers. That is, powers not specifically reserved to the Chapter, or specifically assigned, were "Rex's prerogative," as in "royal prerogative." The Chapter, however, controlled the constitution and by-laws, and the Chapter president had to obey the rules as well as enforce them.

            I was serious about "elective constitutional monarchy."

            The practical problem, actually, was to keep the brothers involved: I think "buy in" was the management jargon later applied to such processes. In my fraternity, I took the job I usually wanted, which was vice president. As Oedipus's brother-in-law/uncle Creon explains to Oedipus, being close to a king is better than being king: you get clout without the responsibility (around line 710). Anyway, I was the VP, the Archon, and much of my job was being hatchet-man/consigliore/"Bad Cop" for the President, but part as well was — more directly than the President and even against the President — enforcing the constitution and by-laws. And also, to ensure some "buying in," coming up with ways to get the Sovereign Brothers involved in tweaking the rules. Or making significant changes: for "buying in" it's the process that's crucial and the product somewhat secondary.

            Anyway, we were democratic in debating rule-changes and over-all policy, and somewhat to my surprise, looking back, the system worked well: most of the decisions the Chapter made were sensible if hardly profound, and if I had disagreed, I had to admit, looking back, that the group was right as often as I was, or maybe more often.

            This is intriguing because a fair number of the brothers were, individually, screw-ups I'd barely trust to decide on a lunch menu.

            The Chapter successfully operated as a deliberative body most of the time, and not a small herd, or whatever you call a gathering of folklore lemmings — or like the current Legislative Branch of the government of the United States.

            Our debates would move around a circle of the brothers (not just in circles), and everyone would get a chance to speak, going from the young man highest in seniority to the new-initiate punk who was "LMIS" — low man in seniority — in his pledge class.

            "Da younger guys" would hear "da old farts" talk first, but those lowest in seniority got the last word, which is the privileged position in a debate of endurable length.

            With a deliberative body, it can be true that "All of us are smarter than any one of us."

            There are, though, limitations, starting with when a deliberative body degenerates into "group think," and there are also the standard questions/objections about just who the demos is and are in a democracy.

            The brethren were male, of age (if not always adults), free — if you want to see pledges as our slave caste — mostly White, and almost all native-born US citizens. (It was a heavily Jewish fraternity, so for those for whom race matters more than is healthy, most of us weren't really white. On the other hand, our few goyishe[r] brothers were incandescent White, and the one guy whose first language was Spanish was of old Spanish stock, from a family that looked Old Money and circulating figurative blood of deepest blue.)

            Still, the formula from the technical hero — I played the role; it's a bit part — in Aristophanes's The Congresswomen is "I'm Athenian, male, of age, and free," and that was what was required to be part of the demos in the democracy of ancient Athens; so my fraternity was doing better than the near-archetypal democracy of Athens. We were also a whole lot more democratic than the University of Illinois: pledges generally became active brothers and "citizens" after a semester and four days (for a truncated Hell Week); Athenian slaves took a whole lot more time to become free, if ever, and students were graduated and pushed out of the community and never received even the limited powers of members of the faculty.

            So two cheers for participatory democracy, and the full three cheers for participatory democracy during the brief flowering of a legitimate, popular, low-body-count revolution, before the crazies, fanatics, and/or bureaucrats take over. Still, most of the time you need something else.

            Representative governance is good, when it works. Something like my fraternity chapter was just fine: for a group of some fifty pretty homogeneous guys, all high school graduates, all who went through a semester of indoctrination and entered a mini-institutions, with very young traditions, but traditions and a written constitution and by-laws.

            We met regularly at the ol' frat-lodge, but usually fairly briefly, and not all that often: democracy didn't take up a lot of evenings. The rest the time, those who liked to run things ran them, and there wasn't all that much to run.

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