We are beginning a new year, yet the 2020 election is still raising questions about the future of democracy in the United States. Professor Camila Vergara is a postdoctoral research scholar and lecturer at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia Law School. She has written an important book, Systemic Corruption: Constitutional Ideas for an Anti-Oligarchic Republic, and says the U.S. is an “oligarchic democracy,” a system designed to serve some but not all. In this interview, Dr. Vergara discusses how we can implement real democracy, beginning at the local level.
Tom Bauer: Why does Joe Biden say U.S. democracy is the best system in the world?
Camila Vergara: The representative system that we call democracy was established for social hierarchies to be preserved and for elites who govern to be insulated from popular pressures. The founders had money and resources, and they wanted “the people” kept far away from power so they were not forced to redistribute. This was explicit in the design. The object of the liberal state was the preservation of private property. The working classes are always going to try and elect someone that will redistribute property. They needed a political system which would filter popular demands. They were afraid of the “tyranny of majority” when the real threat was the power of the wealthy. It was rotten from the beginning.
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So, this is how the system is rigged.
Yes. Systemic corruption is a constitutional issue. I measure it by what the system is producing. The constitution organizes power, and power is paired with wealth. We can think of the level of inequality in a society as the degree of corruption that society has. If a big chunk of the GDP is being appropriated by the 1 percent, and the majority of the people are being relatively dispossessed, then the system is not working for the majority, but for the 1 percent.
Does democracy work at all?
We are not a democracy, we are an oligarchic democracy, a system with free and fair elections, and free speech [within certain limits], but run by the powerful few for the benefit of the powerful few. This is not done in a direct manner. They might say they are preserving a system or fail to change the system to benefit the majority. They receive money from corporations to not do anything because the best way to preserve the system is to leave everything as it is. Corruption is not just an action; it is also negligence.
By negligence, do you mean the signs of systemic corruption are revealed by what isn’t done? By societal neglect like letting people die and environmental racism? And not protecting people from police violence? Not changing the laws?
Laws are never neutral. A law never benefits everyone the same. Here in the United States, police kill Black people in the streets on a daily basis. But I don’t feel fear, even if I’m not American, because I’m white. The right to life or to live free from fear is not equally distributed. Moreover, the idea that our legislators are these neutral people who will make the best law is just absurd. It doesn’t happen. There is always an agenda. We need to think about corruption more broadly, not merely as when a public official receives money in exchange for benefits, as it is currently understood. Corruption is built into the structure. It is how the system works. It is false that we are in a democracy and that the system works for the majority. The framers of the Constitution sold us an ideal that has never materialized. The ideal of formal equality is an illusion. We’re not equal in society, only on paper. We need to re-politicize inequality because inequality is not natural but a by-product of our constitutional frameworks.
The law serves the elites, in a system which was designed to serve elites, and this is why the system maintains inequality. So, are we going to be able to do anything about things like systemic racism and climate change before we solve this problem of systemic corruption?
I don’t think so. Think about the problem of the environment. It needs to be solved, people are all on board, but the governments are not doing enough, and they’re never going to do enough. In an oligarchic democracy, the oligarchs have the grip on power. The congress and the laws that are made, the judges and how they apply the law — everything works for the benefit of the few. Not because individual judges are bought, not only because special interests buy individual lawmakers; it’s because the laws are made and applied in an unequal manner. They come predetermined. It’s not about the specific judge being a racist, it’s because the law allows for inequality and discrimination. So, without solving the problem of how to make laws able to foster equality and control the power of oligarchs, who benefit from the current state of things, it will be difficult to achieve radical change.
If you want to tackle climate change, and you want to tackle it in a manner that is going to avert destruction, you need the people themselves making the judgement. The government cannot be trusted because the government is oligarchic. It is in the grip of oligarchy. It doesn’t matter who you elect because they are not independent. You would have to change the elite in all the institutions, and that is more difficult than organizing popular power.
By popular power, you mean local assemblies, right? Can you explain a bit more about those?
Local assemblies in which people meet and make decisions. They’re autonomous and can connect to other local assemblies. You had town hall meetings in the United States. These were instances in which the people met and made decisions, engaging in self-government. Thomas Jefferson lamented that the Constitution didn’t institutionalize the town halls as it did with the other state powers. Jefferson is influenced by the tradition of popular government in the Roman Republic in which the common people had their own assembly. Today, we are talking about huge states. You cannot have one assembly of the people. You need to have assemblies in every district, connected in a network that works like a plant.
You mean like an organic plant, something that grows?
Yes. Government is hierarchical. It works like our own animal structure. It has a brain that commands, and it has the extremities that “do.” Plants have brains in each root and in each leaf, and they can communicate with other trees and plants. For example, if you have a plague or disease, trees produce a chemical reaction through the roots and the leaves that communicate to others to protect themselves by creating a kind of immunity response to that pest that is coming. So, there is solidarity in plants, and they go off in all directions. Basically, there’s no central command in the tree. The roots go wherever they want, and if they find water they communicate to the others, so they can turn around in that direction. I think a network of local assemblies should mimic this decentralized structure.
Have you read Moral Tribes, by Joshua Greene? His solution to answering moral questions when you’re not part of the same team may be similar to what you just described. One root has the skill that says the water’s that way, but wait a minute, they’re Republican. So, in this decision we’re going to follow the Republicans; in the next decision we might follow the Democrats. It sounded like he was saying the ideal would be a bit more on a case-by-case basis, and the moral decision would be based on meeting the practical demands of the decision at the time to maximize benefit for all.
It is similar to what I propose. There should be no central command, and if there are assemblies that believe in something, there’s no authority to make the others conform. If you’re going to respect creativity and spontaneity, you need to allow for issues to arise organically, from the ground up. Take the case of Canada or Chile, where there is a minority of Indigenous people. If you ask citizens in Canada or Chile what are the 10 most important issues that need to be discussed, the majority would not put Indigenous issues because there are other things more important to them. Maybe health care or environmental things would be first. Maybe Indigenous issues, if they make the cut, would be way in the bottom. But if you have a decentralized network, it is likely that a resolution that has to do with Indigenous peoples will come from an Indigenous assembly. And even if your white, middle-class assembly would not actively sponsor Indigenous issues, it could vote in favor of that because it makes sense. But if you centralize decision making then the majority, who are not Indigenous, will have their issues bumped up, basically, and the others will never be discussed, or will be discussed in the margins without much consequence. However, if you are presented with an issue that makes sense to you, even if it doesn’t benefit you directly, you are likely to support it. Then social change could come from one assembly that is marginal in proportion to the population.
So, what I propose is not a government of the majority, in which only the majority’s interests are primal, but a government in which the majority’s judgement and common sense rule. There is a kind of plant-like solidarity, in which we could support issues for the benefit of others. The same as the tree that is dying with a pest produces chemicals to alert others and save them, people organized in local assemblies could approve motions in solidarity with others. I think solidarity is part of human nature. Of course, greed is also part of human nature, but while greed is fostered by our current system, solidarity is not enabled because it doesn’t have a space or an institution through which people could engage in it.
It sounds amazing. But how are we supposed to do this?
The only way to fight against systemic corruption — which I define as the progressive oligarchization of power in society — is to set up a counterpower, like the one in the Roman Republic in which the plebeian people — those who were not aristocrats, like the majority of us today, who do not have privilege and live paycheck to paycheck — had their own institution and their own representatives, the tribunes, who had the power to veto anything coming from the government as well as to initiate legislation. Today, we don’t have that. Niccolò Machiavelli said that for a republic to be really free, it needs to empower the plebeian people, those who are today de facto second-class citizens. A republic that does not give institutions to the common people to resist oppression ends up decaying into an oligarchy, a government of the few for the benefit of the few. Therefore, the constitution of liberty is a constitution based on institutional conflict, on dissent and struggle. Imagine if we had the power, as citizens, to veto laws that we believe are oppressive, or push for reform when elites are acting as gatekeepers of the status quo?
How do we get that power?
The power of assemblies comes from people acting together politically; we don’t need permission to assemble, deliberate and decide. Historically, popular power has been the power of numbers, the power of being in the street, or in assemblies. If we could have local assemblies, even if they don’t have any legal power, they could pressure government to comply. If, for example, a motion for repealing a law is voted and aggregated, and the majority of assemblies in a country agree to this repeal, I would say the government and the system need to respond to that. If you’re the government and do not comply, you’re going to lose in the next election. So even if local assemblies don’t have legal power, the people by their number, their presence, exert pressure on elites. But ideally local assemblies need to have their power incorporated into the Constitution.
So, it sounds like there’s going to be all these votes from all these different assemblies. How does it all shake out? Again, who decides?
When you vote as an individual, you’re voting within the system, and within the logic of the system. You’re part of the system. When you are together and you can deliberate, and have arguments and testimony and experiences that are shared with people that you trust and people that you respect in your neighborhood that you already know, or that you start knowing, then something new can happen. Thinking with others, common sense arises, a common sense that is not constrained by the individualist system. Hannah Arendt says coming together, political action, can trigger a new beginning.
But how would this change the system? Can you walk us through the process a bit of how this might happen?
From any local assembly, a great idea could come out, and if that assembly approved a resolution, it could also be discussed in neighboring assemblies and then aggregated into a popular demand that could force government to comply. But the only way to do this is to do it through politics of presence: to be with others in the same space and reason together and not be mere passive receptors of the media. The media are selling you crap all the time, and the majority of the people buy it and end up voting to legitimize bad decisions. It’s very easy to manipulate individuals to vote and legitimize a terrible policy if you are not in concert with others and sharing information. The only way to actually have a power that is going to be a counterpower that is going to rectify the bad things government does, is to have a network of primary assemblies from where common people can push back collectively.
But, ideally, power for assemblies will come from the Constitution?
Ideally. And, ideally, people would be paid. The only time ancient Athens was really a democracy was when Pericles established payment for going to the assembly. Everybody had the right to go to the assembly and vote and do government, but only the nobles had the time to go to the assembly to spend a day deliberating. If you were a farmer, which was the majority of the people, you needed to be farming. You couldn’t spend a day going to the city to be deliberating. Pericles understood that the only way for the working classes to be able to attend the assembly — for this to really be a democracy of the demos, the people — was to pay them a salary. I pair this with the universal basic income (UBI) initiative.
I’ve heard this before, the idea of making the people do something in exchange for UBI, like some kind of public service. Since UBI is about giving everyone a base income, is this like some kind of jury duty thing? Anyone and everyone could be called to attend public assembly as a trade-off for getting UBI?
Yes. If you’re going to pay people, pay people for being political, and not just for being consumers. UBI is just receiving money and spending it, so you are reinforcing the system in being a private consumer. If you made the payment conditional to going to the assembly, there’s an extra incentive to go and do politics. It’s also a fiscal stimulus. This is also the only way for the poor to vote. The poor tend to abstain from voting. If you’re going to have the poor engage in politics, you need to pay them. You need to give them food. You need to give them child care. They will go if you do this because they are deprived of this.
They are deprived because they are living in a corrupt system, which means they will have a lot to say about it. And free food is always a draw.
It’s a great incentive. For the upper-middle classes, maybe not, because they have nannies and receive a good paycheck. So why would they waste their Saturday going to the assembly? But if you don’t have any of those things, and you are going to have free food, even if just coffee and cookies, you probably will go. It’s like the ark of Noah. If you build it, they will come. I hope that if we built the appropriate infrastructure to engage in politics at the local level, it will happen, and people will be engaged. And you don’t need constitutional change for that. You can have a mayor from a city doing this, because it doesn’t need to be by law.
The mayor of my city, Montreal, is Valérie Plante. What could she do to make this happen?
Have neighborhood assemblies. For that you need spaces where people can gather. Of course, COVID is difficult and winter is coming. But in summer, you can do it outside.
Can you Zoom assemblies?
Yes, you can have a Zoom assembly. And actually, Zoom can accommodate more than a hundred people. So you can have an assembly. The mayor would need to yield power.
This is the point. It’s difficult. Mayors don’t like to be told what to do. But you’re not going to waste your time going to a Zoom assembly if you know your vote doesn’t mean anything. Why are you going to waste your time if you have no power? In order to have assemblies work, they need to have power. A mayor would have to say, “Okay, let’s organize these neighborhood assemblies, and whatever is decided in these assemblies, I will do within my scope of power.”
Insofar as she is able.
After all, she needs wiggle room to deal with oligarchs, right?
Yes. When you have progressive leaders, they are generally trapped and powerless. If they want to push for something radical, they need to deal with the opposition of oligarchs. But if you have assemblies behind you, then you can say to the oligarchs: “Look, the assemblies decided X and therefore I need to implement X, and if you go against them, it is probable you will mobilize them further.”
Sounds a lot like what Bernie Sanders is trying to do.
If Bernie Sanders would have come to power and he wanted to put a wealth tax or whatever he wanted to do, how would he manage? Congress is completely deadlocked and you need super-majorities to do anything. So even if he would have been elected, he would not have been able to do much without the support of mobilization and assemblies. Having an organized popular power is a complement to our democracy, and having this new actor would really materialize democracy.
By “new actor,” you mean a new people’s institution of constitutionally mandated assemblies?
Yes. Democracy is the rule of the people, but the people today do not rule. We pay six figures to mayors, the president and legislators to do their jobs, but if they’re not doing their jobs, we don’t have any mechanism to control them. That’s why we need a new popular institution to be a counterpower to resist the oligarchic tendencies of the system.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.