Home > #OWS > How recently have you experienced democracy? #OWS

How recently have you experienced democracy? #OWS

April 16, 2014

A few weeks ago Omar Freilla came to talk to my Occupy group. Omar is a founder of the Green Worker Cooperatives and shared his experience as an organizer.

He is a well-spoken guy and talked passionately about forming community cooperatives, where workers “have a direct role in decision-making and a share of all profits, build community wealth and help make a democratic economy real.”

At one point in his presentation, Omar asked us was how recently we’d “experienced democracy.”

On the face of it I didn’t think it was a fair question, especially when he compared it to experiencing anger or happiness. After all, democracy isn’t an emotion and I can’t experience democracy, say, by myself in a room, but of course I can conjure up emotions by myself in a room, especially if I have a laptop, wifi, and Netflix to help me.

But since his visit, I have to admit I have dwelled on that question and it’s become more and more reasonable in my mind, although I made two decisions on how to interpret it.

First of all, I chose to interpret it not as a formal gesture of democracy, like asking how recently have you voted in a formal election. Instead, it’s a local decision-making process question: how recently has your vote mattered in a local decision that affects a group?

Second, it’s not really about me. It’s about looking around and deciding who around me gets to participate in democratic decisions and who doesn’t.

For example, it might be at work. Although I personally get to make a lot of decisions at work, that fact clearly separates me from tons of people who simply get told what to do by some kind of authority. And there is an important distinction between people who have a manager but get to make decisions internal to their projects and people who have every decision laid out for them.

And that latter workplace anti-democratic situation is, I imagine, maximally soul-crushing, and is the audience that Omar is worried about and is reaching out to. And that’s why his question turns out to be a really good question after all.

I also consider democracy inside my own family. Since I’m the mom of the family, I tend to make more decisions that affect my little group than other people, but now I’m more sensitive to sharing that power there when I can. Turns out my kids love making decisions, it makes them gleeful in fact, even if it’s just what to eat for dinner. And they make good decisions too, which I’m consistently proud of.

My final example is Occupy, which is by construction a direct democracy, and I know how good participating and experiencing democracy actually feels there, and it’s a big part of why it works.

What about you? How recently have you experienced democracy?

Categories: #OWS
  1. Guest2
    April 16, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Mass society leaves little of importance for individual discretion. In fact, the robustness of bureaucratic management mechanisms is that no one individual can muck it up — that person is simply replaced. Good luck trying to find the last time the individual mattered for collective outcomes.


    • Guest2
      April 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      No one has ever addressed the scaling-gap between the constitutional democracy that the colonial father put in place for a yeoman nation, based on small groups and short-term outcomes that were clearly observable — and the bureaucratically administered state, with outcomes that may not be observable for generations (eg., social security).

      The colonial design is not meant to accommodate the massive scale of modern society, and the participation of the individual has been correspondingly eroded.


  2. Josh
    April 16, 2014 at 9:20 am

    The system (governmental, corporate and more broadly) is often set up to discourage participation. But that doesn’t mean we have to succumb.

    As you and Omar point out there are many levels democracy can be practiced and we can each do what we can at all of those levels.

    One you don’t mention but I hope we all do more of is going out on the street to protest.

    Most of us may have little autonomy at work but if you have any managerial authority at all, you can use that latitude to improve things.

    Government often actively discourages involvement and your vote almost never “matters” in the sense that is decides an election but it does matter in other ways. If more people expressed their disgust with the current system by voting for third-parties, it might actually encourage a third-party movement. (It actually does make a significant difference in NY State if a party polls more or less than 5%).

    Occupy the SEC, and others, have shown there are other ways we can engage the government beyond voting.

    And, there is protest as a form of “experiencing democracy”. Protests call for climate change to be addressed have had depressingly little impact, so far. But should we conclude that the situation is hopeless or that we need more actions with wider participation?

    Things will not improve unless the people demand it.


  3. mathematrucker
    April 16, 2014 at 10:58 am

    The little devil’s and little angel’s votes differed, so I stepped in to decide. Or, I asked someone out on a date and they stood me up (mutual consent is democracy). Or, I was born. (I didn’t get to vote on it, but thankfully it was at least a democratically-chosen event.)

    Martin Gardner came up with an unintuitive explanation for his migraines’ disappearance during his wartime service in the Navy, by whittling life without a vote down to its agenda-reducing facet. I would think there must have been more to it than just not having to decide what tie to wear, etc., but here’s what he said:

    “I’ve had migraine headaches all my life that were fairly severe when I was in high school. When I enlisted in the Navy, I did not list my migraines because I was afraid they wouldn’t take me. I feared that I might develop migraine headaches during battle situations. We were part of a so-called “killer group” of six destroyers looking for German submarines. During my four years in the Navy, I never had a migraine headache. I’m convinced that they’re associated with periods of anxiety. When you’re in the Navy, you don’t worry about what you’re going to do tomorrow, what tie to put on, etc. You just follow orders. In a way, you have a big sense of freedom. Otherwise, I have no other explanation.”


  4. April 16, 2014 at 11:29 am

    “Experiencing democracy” should include not only the moments where you were on the winning side, but also when you were in the minority but went along peacefully because you respected the process. Democracy (at its best) is a process that all sides respect above their own interests. Of course, an implementation worthy of that respect is hardly easy to achieve.


  5. cat
    April 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

    I guess I don’t get the question. I experience democracy constantly. When I drive on the roads paid for by other peoples taxes, When the ABS on my car help me stop in bad weather. I’m experiencing it now using “teh internets” developed by people using part of my taxes. I even have experienced democracy when I don’t have to bribe the police officer who pulled me over for a traffic violation.

    I also am not getting why exerting your will is being equated with “experiencing democracy”. I thought the whole point of democracy is a single person doesn’t make any decisions?


    • Guest2
      April 16, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      None of this relates to deliberative democracy — you simply take advantage of available choices already decided. This is Mary Douglas’ point, that all the important decisions are already made, by our institutions. Perhaps the only way to make individuals relevant again is to dis-establish those institutions (Ivan Illich’s point) that make virtually all of our decisions for us.

      Colonial design for constitutional democracy does utilize “majorities” for decision making (another theoretical mess), but also requires individual participation in relation to immediately observable outcomes.


    • Min
      April 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm

      How do you know you are not experiencing oligarchy or plutocracy? You don’t have to bribe the police officer, but neither does Daddy Warbucks, who gets an apology and a pass. 😉


      • cat
        April 16, 2014 at 5:08 pm

        I hate to reduce this to absurdity, but if you are going to say I have to participate in all the important decisions in order for me to live in a democratic society you are radically under estimating the number of decisions that have an impact on your life.

        When I move to a different state, county, or town do I get to reopen the debate and vote on things everyone else decided before me? The next generation of voters, do they get to revote on things like Social Security or the Fed existence let alone how they are run?


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