December 13, 2003
Top Down Grass Roots

Kellan says, decisively:

Will the 527s (MoveOn, Americans Coming Together, etc.) turn into yet another clutch of big-money funded, unaccountable interest groups? - Probably the most important question facing liberal/progressive organizers right now.
A sentiment worth amplifying through my now-read-by-maybe-three-people weblog. Most things that start from scratch, with grassroots support, Mean Well and even Get Good Work Done. But if they're centralized in their decisionmaking and not accountable to the people supporting them, these kinds of organizations tend to take on their own internal logic, gradually stretching and severing their connection to the urgent reality that inspired their creation in the first place.

Careerists take over, and institute ways to recognize each other and, feel good about themselves, and "have more power" (to do more good, of course). Having more power ends up being an illusion, though. A tarbaby.

These days, I see three basic ways of dealing with this problem:

  1. Set up democratic structures and practices that keep everyone anchored to reality, and the real concerns of the day.

  2. Provide the means for controlled revolutions, while maintaining the useful institutional structure and amassed resources and networks.

  3. As soon as an institution stops being responsive, wipe it out and start something new.
I think these are all important parts of the same solution. As choices for how to act today, these options correspond to how bad things have gotten. As parameters within which to plan for the future, they correspond to politics, and probably temperament.

I tend to favour #3, as I'm something of an idealist and not usually keen on compromising a radical understanding for short term comfort. At the end of the "Basic Plan" for the Dominion, I wrote that the final success of such a project would be to

Surpass Globe and Mail and Toronto Star in circulation. Quit, start a new national paper.
I simply am convinced that by the time any kind of major breakthrough had been reached, the paper would have acquired it's own internal logic, it's own unaccountable reason for existing, and there would be a need for something to rise anew from the margins.

But that's a personal decision. When it comes to mass movements, things are more tricky. By deciding to quit and start over, one risks losing momentum or making major concessions to political opponents. These decisions can have major consequences.

My only useful thought in this context is micropolitical: there is a need to cultivate democratic practices at the level of everyday existence. By consistently devolving and redistributing power as widely as possible, one keeps the possibilty of responsiveness (or less profoundly, accountability) open. It might even inspire others... while taking on its own unintended, unpredicted evolution.

Making things more democratic on the local level ought to be priority #1 for all progressives... regardless of how successful or unsuccessful organizations like MoveOn are.

All this makes me want to find out more about Cuba. From the evidence presented by Isaac Saney in Cuba: a revolution in motion, it seems that when (with the collapse of the USSR) the country lost over half of its trade, it responded by becoming more democratic. As a result, many grassroots solutions to major problems (like a total lack of chemicals and equipment for agriculture, for example) were developed.

This seems counter to the tendencies of most modern democracies, which seem willing to defer to "leadership" at the first sign of a crisis. That is, of course, exactly wrong--though understandable in a society raised on the presumption of scarcity and the glorification of greed.

In any case, if there's anything to the Cuba example, it ought to be better understood.

posted by dru in politicsoftech