A Different Democracy: The 99% & Boulder (CO) Remembered

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2012

In last week’s post I spent time with Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond contemplating anarchism. I also visited Walden Two, the BF Skinner utopia book and commune, which, to these eyes, is more dystopic than utopic.
Well, today from Thoreau’s Walden I have shot, boots and all, into the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement***.
You may recall last year, after only a few weeks of protest, many heralded OWS as a new and preferable way of governing, a “(l)eaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy!” That’s what the Economist insinuated in an October 19th, 2011 article.
The article points to the economist David Graeber as the “Anti-Leader” daddy of OWS. Mr. Graeber did anthropological work with the people of a mysterious 10,000-person Madagascar commune, Betafo, who rule themselves through "consensus decision-making.” Business Week summarized Mr. Graeber’s version of Betafo: “an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused's parents!” (Emphasis added.)
Less than two weeks later, the Christian Science Monitor enthused about OWS:
“Is this the era of leaderlessness? Their politics may be diametrically opposed, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the tea party activists have one thing in common: a deep distrust of leaders. Are they onto something?”
The article continues: “(OWS) has developed
into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order!” Again, emphasis added!

Caption: Unhappy campers?
A year later.
On September 17, 2012, APs Meghan Barr tolled: “Occupy movement in disarray ….”
What happened?
Ms. Barr describes the turmoil: “(OWS) began to disintegrate in rapid fashion last winter, when the weekly meetings in New York City devolved into a spectacle of fistfights and vicious arguments. Punches were thrown and objects were hurled at moderators' heads.”
I unearthed a couple of online accounts corroborating an imminent demise of OWS. These suggest to me that the “disarray” may have been caused by OWS veering from its sole purpose of protesting the very rich into a hundred and fifty other directions.
My previous posts about democratic ideas may be of interest when we think about the OWS democracy and how it might have had better success.
The humble honeybee offers up advice about collective decision-making.
Collaborating Bees have: No dominating leader; A strong incentive to make a good decision (survival); One problem to solve; An agreed upon process; and, Agreement among all. Which of these must-have elements were present or missing in OWS deliberations?
And, as another model, there is the highly democratic New England town meeting.
An early critic of the town meeting, James Madison, groused: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
It does appear, given Ms. Barr’s report, that the OWS “Assembly” devolved into a “Mob” and that passion wrested the scepter from reason. To stay ruly and on track, The New England town meetings use the very available Robert’s Rules of Order. These Rules of Order, (deemed too hierarchical by OWS) when fairly applied by a neutral moderator, might be more efficacious than up or down “twinkles”.

Caption: Mr. Stephen Gaskin
*** The OWS camper images of dancing, drumming, doping, communing, and protesting take me back to late summer of 1970 when I landed in Boulder, Colorado at a new job. This was the Woodstock-Berkeley-Timothy Leary-era of “drop out, tune in, and turn on” and peace and love.
An estimated 5000 “flower children” populated the town’s student zone, The Hill. Boulder welcomed/accepted/ignored/despised the hippies and pretty much left them alone. However, there were numerous angry business owners who refused street people the use of their toilets. (Instead they came to CUs Norlin Library, where I was in charge of public services, to bathe and toilet.)
I do not recall a leader or parliament or general assembly of this rag-tag, ever-fluctuating, group of 5000. Once, the followers of the prophet “Stephen” did come to town in 50 rainbow school busses. These hippies were organized and had a cause presumably as set forth by their leader, Stephen Gaskin.
Nowadays, Mr. Gaskin (born 1935) is a founder of the The Farm, a community and enterprise in Tennessee. He lists his politics as “Beatnik” and his religion as “Hippy”. His multi-page resume confirms my Boulder memories: (I was) “Convenor of the Caravan, a speaking tour of the United States with engagements in 42 states with a Caravan of 50 School buses and forty or so other vehicles and up to 400 hippys. We were the largest hippy community in the US before we parked in Tennessee…." The price of gas back then was .36 cents per gallon!
Mr. Gaskin offers insights on how The Farm is organized: “The way we work has always involved a lot of talking and arguing through many forms (forums?) and committees. We currently have a seven-person board that is elected for three-year terms. I am not now and have never been a member of this board.“

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