Localizing Direct Democracy: A Matter of Survival?

A little over a year ago, I found myself sitting in a newly-opened kitchen-café space in the Petralona area of Athens, sharing reflections on Occupy Wall Street with Greeks from the neighborhood’s Popular Assembly. Popular Assemblies sprang up all across the city during the 2008 uprising sparked by the police murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. As the country’s economy spiraled, with international financial institutions pouring gas on the proverbial fire (a fact to which said institutions have owned up in recent weeks), the Assemblies took on functions in almost direct competition with the State, serving as a sort community self-organized triage. Social needs were administered, barter economies established, local electricians dispatched to restore power to homes that had gone dark after tax increases pegged to electricity bills made utilities unaffordable. Today, these assemblies operate medical and eye clinics, youth arts programs, low-scale agriculture, and popular education.

In recent days, people taking to the streets in various parts of Turkey have issued reports, photos, and videos of democratic assemblies staged in parks, city centers, and the like. It’s indicative of a somewhat intuitive and utterly timely shift. Protests across the country have badly damaged the State’s credibility, and by all accounts tanked the country’s financial markets, capturing the global imagination in the process. Experiments in direct democracy come, not merely as a rejection of the neoliberal democracy embodied by Erdogan, but as a prefigurative gesture; the uprising’s expansion from oppositional modes of conducting politics (protests, occupations, street clashes with arms of the State), to the construction of new modes of social organization and administration – crucibles for the cultivation of new people, even.

As many have rightly pointed out, the texture of these experiments ties them indelibly to forms popularized by Indignados in Spain, occupations in Greece, and the General Assemblies that served as the face of the Occupy movement in the US. Processes, hand-signals, and other features that trace all the way back to the alter-globalization movement of the late 1990s can and have migrated across these instances, rather tellingly. Arguably, the emergence of Popular Assemblies in Greece draws on the centrality of such structures to the 2001 uprising in Buenos Aires on the heels of Argentina’s debt default and financial collapse.

ROAR Magazine ran a worthwhile piece tracing this history, with regard to recent events in Turkey on June 19th. Present in it, however, is a conspicuous omission or perhaps oversight – one that plagued the Occupy movement, and potentially functioned as its Achilles heel: Direct democracy’s geography problem. ROAR’s piece quotes left politician, Manilos Glezos, a supporter of popular struggles, contesting the notion that these forms are “real democracy.” “It’s a lesson in democracy,” he says. “If this movement wants to survive, its direct democratic models will need to spread to the neighborhoods and to the working places.”

ROAR’s piece then dials in on worker self-management as the critical fulcrum on which lessons in democracy expand to fully-flared iterations of authentic democracy, curiously neglecting entirely Glezos’ reference to neighborhoods. While workplace democracy is, no doubt, a necessary and critical component of genuinely democratic transformation, this glossing-over leaves intact a gaping vulnerability in the lessons we might draw from assembly-style democracy. In short, as one anarchist and Popular Assembly participant put to me rather bluntly over coffee in Athens last year, “Direct democracy cannot be anonymous. This General Assembly thing you’re doing in the States? How do you prevent people from simply being tourists to that? This is unacceptable.”

Put another way, to whom are assembly participants accountable? In what ways? When direct democracy is anchored to place, to a neighborhood for example, participants must live with each other and face each other outside of and beyond the decision-making process. How they conduct themselves and accommodate each other in that process have direct consequences for their lives, beyond the mechanics of debate and decision-making. Under a General Assembly model, no such accountability retains; it is a model dependent entirely on affinities that can be dissolved or abandoned rather swiftly; a model just as swiftly undermined by participants who never held such affinities to begin with – as even a cursory study of 2011 NYC General Assembly transcripts will illustrate. Accounting for merely the most cynical of possibilities, this leaves experiments in direct democracy utterly vulnerable to police infiltration and surreptitious corrosion at the hands of various State entities.

Well, beyond this strategic consideration, the localization of direct democracy yields starkly existential consequences. NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg has been producing absolutely fascinating data attributing statistically-significant improved outcomes in severe weather events to the intensity of community self-organization. Writing in the New Yorker earlier this year, he referred to adaptive strategies cities and even the federal government in the US are exploring, given the seeming inevitability of climate-driven weather extremes. “Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech,” he argues. “Some are low- or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them.”

As we lean into a third year of increasingly inter-connected and militant global upheavals, and as we expand their scope into the prefigurative – constructing new, autonomous means of effectively and meaningfully administering our own lives, we might do well to assess their functionality. Specifically, we might do well to examine how earnest, but generalized catch-all forms of direct democracy have served us, and what localizing and federating that process might yield – not merely for the survival of these experiments, but potentially our survival as a species.