Sunday, September 23, 2007

Protesting Democrats: The Radical Option

There has been a continuing tension on the Democratic side of the political divide over the efficacy of mass protest. Many have expressed the view that such activities are a waste of time and resources, even counter productive. Recent events in Jena, LA have led some to reconsider this position. Some now, rather grudgingly, admit that national mobilizations may make sense in certain cases but only as a media tool rather than as part of an overall political strategy. I believe this revised view shares with its predecessor a fundamentally flawed political perception at odds with democratic values.

Frankly, I think the attitude that one takes toward mass protest is a significant dividing line between progressive political activists and those who imagine themselves to be such but who are actually a variety of political technocrat.

You can see this in the thrust of their complaints. Mass protest are indicted because they can't be shown to have an immediate impact on policy. They are scorned because their results cannot be tabulated and quantified. They are events that take place outside of the formal political structures and serve no institutional purpose. Indeed, mass protests are by nature anti-institutional.

Of course such criticism can only be definitive if one takes the position that institutional means are complete and sufficient in themselves to effect necessary political change. An effective progressive political activism cannot be limited to such a narrow field of activity. At least not if such "progressivism" embraces a democratic character.

Democratic politics, like democracy itself, cannot be reduced to electoral activity alone. Elections do not define democracy nor do institutions define a democratic society. Rather, elections and political institutions are defined by the democratic character of the society that produces them. Those who imagine that one can have a Democratic society without the inconvenience of an aroused and mobilized citizenry, willing to operate outside of existing structures, don't grasp the essential principles of democracy: the empowering of the otherwise powerless and the negation of accumulated privilege and power in the hands of a favored few.

Mass protest is at least as much about its effect on those who participate as it is about the impact on institutions or elected officials. Perhaps moreso. When such protests are broad and inclusive, they have an energizing and emancipatory effect on those participating, if for no other reason than that they break through the sense of isolation and irrelevance inculcated by the dominant institutional narratives.

Such a sense of empowerment, where present, is infectious. It is carried by participants back into their communities and transmitted to their friends and neighbors. In short, mass protest is a necessary building block toward the creation of a mass movement.

It's worth recalling that there has never been a fundamental reordering of political or social relations in US history that was not accompanied by such a movement. Nor did such movements evaporate with the election of candidates nominally committed to their goals. They remained active and watchful to insure that such commitment amounted to more than electoral rhetoric.

It's also worthwhile to recognize that longstanding institutions, whatever their presumed democratic impulse, are always biased towards maintaining the status quo. Institutions always favor established modes, forms and relationships of power. This being the case, they cannot, by themselves, be effective tools for challenging the ruling narrative or consensus.

This brings us to the grittier side of mass protest. The implicit threat of mass defection by the citizenry from the cramped norms of established politics. The repudiation of the legitimacy such norms and the resort to a politics at war with established institutions of power both political and social.

No doubt stating the possibility of such a radicalization so baldly will upset and discomfit a significant number of people. However, the radical possibility is intrinsic to any meaningful notion of democracy. Even today, there is nothing more radical than the notion that individuals, lacking wealth, privilege or influence, nevertheless have a right to a say in the political, social and economic decisions that govern their lives. Particularly so when we consider that in the United States today, there are those occupying the public pulpits who argue openly and without apology that the wealthy should have the dominant voice in our affairs while the non-wealthy should have little or none.

There is a reason that the right to public protest was written into our Constitution and it wasn't because the framers thought that such protest should substitute for elections or would serve an institutional purpose. To the contrary. The right to protest was so enshrined specifically because it stood separate from and was antagonistic to institutional power.

The framers weren't starry eyed idealists when it came to political institutions anymore than they were on social and economic questions. They understood that even the best designed of such institutions were prone to ossification and decay. They were equally aware of the dangers posed by the accumulation of concentrated power and privilege within such structures. The only effective counterbalance they saw to these dynamics was an active citizenry capable of mobilizing itself independent from the established political order. Neither were they ignorant of the threat to the established order implicit in such activism. While they may not have been eager to embrace such an overturn, they certainly didn't shrink from it.

<>When the few succeed in dominating the many by reducing democratic processes to sterile exercises in Kabuki or empty ceremony, it is time to raise the prospect of re-writing the social contract. This cannot be done without a mass movement engaged in mass action. To reject this is to condemn oneself to the role of sycophant or bit player on the political stage.


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