Category Archives: Solidarity

The Christmas Truce

By December of 1914, the First World War had been destroying European civilization for six months. An absurd chain of events had followed from the murder of a member of the decaying Hapsburg dynasty to the unprecedented deaths of millions. When Christmas came, the troops of all the warring nations had realized that the war was pointless; like all wars, they are born from the fitful, ideological nightmares of the ruling class. So, on the dark morning of December 25th, one German proposed a truce, and an Irish soldier (under the British flag) accepted. The benevolent virus spread throughout the trenches, becoming the Christmas Truce.

The Christmas Truce is amazing because, for a short time, the social illusions that drove the war were lifted. The illusions of borders and nations and fear were banished, and the soldiers saw themselves as the single species that they were. Only the true social distinction of human society remained: that of ruling and ruled. The generals were horrified that human beings weren’t killing one another and forbid fraternization between opposing forces. As much as the common soldier had been dedicated to the unity of humanity, the ruling classes of all nations were united in its destruction.

It was some years before soldiers began to turn their guns against their real enemy.

…Merry Christmas from Democracy in Principle!

Abolish the Police!

Ferguson, MO
Ferguson, MO

BREAKING: The grand jury investigating Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson has decided not to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed teenager. Wilson claimed that his response was justified because he was in fear for his life. This is the common response in the case of police shootings, and such shootings rarely go to trial. In the aftermath, Ferguson police have fired upon protesters. Protests have erupted all over the nation.

It is the position of Democracy in Principle that the criminal justice system, especially the police, in the United States is utterly broken and requires root and branch reform.

While grand juries almost always indict on the recommendation of the prosecution, they almost never indict police officers. Jurors tend to defer to authority, and prosecutors, who work closely with police, don’t want to try police officers anyway. Prosecutors have complete control of the evidence gathered, including witnesses called. There is no opposing party in a grand jury investigation that can act as a critical voice. The grand jury system needs to be reformed to act as an effective, impartial, and informed check on prosecutors. In England, and in most states, grand juries have been abolished. However, juries in general could be once again a powerful democratic tool for criminal justice.

The police in the United States have become a significant danger to the lives of its citizens. As Radley Balko has abundantly reported, SWAT teams have become an overused instrument, used to serve code violations as well as in cases of actual danger, and often murdering innocents in their homes. The deadly results of SWAT teams include the complete disfigurement of a 19-month-old baby in Cornelia, Georgia. No SWAT officer was indicted for this barbarism. Besides the human victims of SWAT teams, dogs are also the frequent victims of SWAT violence.

Yet SWAT teams are not the only source of police violence, as Americans can no longer deny. Ordinary police patrols are threats to the lives of Americans, especially of young African-Americans. Police officers have cited every possible source of harm as a threat to their life: dogs large and small, unarmed men, and children with toy guns. In Utah, police officers are the 2nd most common cause of homicides, killing more people than gang members, drug dealers, or child abusers. Police use of force has increased, despite the crime rate being lower than ever and police being safer than ever. Whether the cause of this is police cowardice or misinformation is irrelevant. What is clear is that the police themselves are now a threat to public safety.

Tweaks and cameras and reforms are not going to solve the problem of out-of-control police. We need to abolish the police as we know them. To this end, we need to:

  • Disarm, not just demilitarize, police forces, as is the case in the United Kingdom;
  • Purge police forces of its Darren Wilsons, and those “who stand with Darren Wilson”;
  • Abolish the legal protections and immunities that the police enjoy for legal deception, the use of force, and other legal protections;
  • Raise the standards for the education of criminal investigators, as better educated police officers are less likely to be racist and more likely to be professional;
  • Begin establishing the alternative public safety service, employing persuasion and scientific community-oriented crime prevention policies instead of panic-fueled violence;
  • The general decriminalization of non-violent offenses.

The police are an historically recent invention whose main effects have been to enforce public order crimes instead of actually protect people from violence. People generally refrain from violence because it is costly to hurt others. People obey the law because they believe the law is legitimate. If these facts were not true, no number of police officers would ensure our safety. We do not need to fear one another. But abolishing the police does not mean abolishing public safety patrols, or crime prevention, or public servants to help us when we need them. Abolishing the police means an end to armed men with no oversight or control, roving our neighborhoods and killing innocent citizens.

Update: edited to say that “police use of force has increased”, where before it had said that it had decreased.

Interstellar Politics: Impartiality and Partiality

SPOILER ALARM! for those who have not seen Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has been taking it hard in the press. Some people want to fault the science, but with the extensive assistance of physicist Kip Thorne, that seems implausible. Most reviewers accurately identify the screenplay as the problem: the uneven pacing, the unnatural dialogue, and the problematic plotting. I thought it was pretty implausible that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers the secret NASA installation and then becomes their last-best-hope pilot. In movies, you’re only allowed one coincidence in the plot. That’s too many coincidences. Overall, Christopher Nolan is a far better director than he is a writer, and it shows in the contrast between the beautiful shots of space and alien worlds on the one hand and the weird way the characters spoke on the other.

Also under the microscope are Christopher Nolan’s politics. It’s a perfectly understandable impulse to criticize Chris Nolan for his politics. The Dark Knight Rises was a distressingly fascist parable, where Occupy Wall Street are supervillain terrorists and Gotham City needs a billionaire dictator dressed in a bat costume to save it. In the case of Interstellar, however, I think the political implications are more ambiguous.

Sady Doyle at In These Times writes that “Christopher Nolan Disease” involves stories of sad men whose wives are dead (that seems accurate) whose “sadness… fuels his life’s grandest endeavor: The blowing up of cool shit.” Nolan isn’t known for his explosions, I would think. She also claims, like many reviewers, that Nolan does not how to write for women. That’s not fair – he doesn’t know how to write for anyone. Doyle, in particular, claims that women in Interstellar serve no purpose other than to motivate men. Murph Cooper (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain) only exists to motivate Cooper to save the world. Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is only there to fall down and “derail a mission so she can visit her boyfriend”. These sentiments surprise me because the women in the film seem like the heroes of the tale.

Emotional decision-making is the core of Interstellar. Cooper succeeds not because he is motivated to save humanity, but because he is motivated to save his family. Likewise, Amelia Brand’s emotional decision to want to see her lover, Dr. Edmund, is, as we find out, the correct decision. Cooper pushes her to visit the world scouted by Dr. Mann, which is the rational, but incorrect, choice. Indeed, that’s the role of Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) in the film. When our heroes find Dr. Mann on his world, he has been driven insane by his isolation and lied about the suitability of his world for colonization. His dedication to humanity in the abstract is intended to be a sign of his insanity. He shares the outlook of Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Amelia’s father, that the survival of the species is all that matters. Brand has even “sacrificed his humanity” by lying to his daughter on the prospects of saving Earth’s population.

So on the one hand, we have our heroes Cooper, Amelia, and Murph, who are driven by their deep, emotional connections to their loved ones. When they make decisions based on those connections, they make the best decisions. On the other hand, we have Mann and Professor Brand, who make decisions based on an impartial devotion to humanity in the abstract. Brand is ultimately wrong, and Mann is crazy. The heroes succeed because they trust in their connections. The women, along with Cooper, are heroic for the their emotional decisions, because “love crosses dimensions” (barf). In the end, Murph, whom Doyle presents as having daddy issues, is the savior of humanity because she has the rational mind to unify quantum mechanics and gravtiy, while retaining faith in her long-lost father.

The distinction reminds me of Equality and Partiality, by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. As Nagel says, justice demands equality, or impartiality between persons. No one is more important than another. But of course we are also partial to some over another. Some people will always be more important to us than others. Nagel concludes that this tension will remain in human society.

Interstellar comes down for partiality – our emotional connections to others will be the salvation of humanity. Damon’s Mann represents impartiality as an insanity, as he self-righteously pontificates about saving the species while trying to kill his fellow astronauts. Is this a sign of Nolan’s “crypto-conservativism” that she sees in The Dark Knight Rises (calling it “conservative” seems a bit gentle)?

The film is less ambiguous about its technological optimism, which is about as loony as you can get. In one of McConaughey’s monologues, he says human beings are “explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.” The reason for the interstellar journey is the collapse of agriculture on Earth, due to some implausible blight killing crops. Curing the plants seems like a far cheaper and easier task than colonizing a planet in another galaxy. It would probably cost a fraction of what secret-NASA is spending on sending astronauts to die on another planet.

For some reason, the film sets up some division between “exploration” and “caretaking”. In the real world of a changing climate, we won’t be able to explore and colonize the universe if we don’t take care of where we live. It’s far easier to solve climate change than develop the ability to live in space. But that requires civic engagement, trusting our fellow citizens, and putting ourselves out there politically. Somehow, that’s become harder than colonizing space. As George Monbiot writes of the movie, the technological optimism of such science fiction reflects a lack of political imagination and will. “Just as it is easier to pray for life after death than it is to confront oppression,” he writes, “this fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life of Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics”.

The incredible challenges to humanity that we face cannot be solved by being motivated only by our personal connections. We have to yoke our reason to a more universal social motivation to solve climate change, end war, and abolish poverty and slavery. (If real life were like a Nolan movie, I would blow up in an airlock before I could end this sentence.)

Friday Links: Why People Don’t Vote

  • The Washington Post breaks down the reasons that people didn’t vote (via Pew). The main reasons were scheduling conflicts and being “too busy, out of town, sick, etc” (35% and 34% respectively). In other words, people couldn’t get off of work to vote. This bolsters the view that Election Day should be a weekend, or a holiday. Oddly, Pew labels the “too busy/out of town” group as not voting for “personal reasons”. This would seem to me to be as much a “structural problem” as not being able to get off work, as the election system should provide a means for being out of town or sick at home. Online voting would help here.

 

 

  • I covered Scotland’s independence back in September. Now, Catalonia, a part of Spain with its own distinct language and culture, has held a referendum on independence. The Catalan referendum differs from the Scottish referendum in two important ways. First, the Catalans supported independence, with 80% voting “yes”. Second, it’s not technically legal. The Spanish government (containing who knows how many fascists from the Franco era, and other ad hominem) has filed with the Constitutional Court to prevent the Catalan government from holding any future referendums. I’m sure that will put an end to the matter. Catalonia has good reason to want to leave: the Spanish government has done little to resolve the incredible unemployment in the peninsula. Spain has an unemployment rate of 25%; Catalonia itself has an unemployment rate of 22%. By contrast, Scotland, where independence failed, has an unemployment rate of 5.9%, barely outperforming the rest of the UK’s 6%.

 

  • I also briefly discussed the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last month. It looks like the protest is coming to an end. The leaders have announced that they intend to turn themselves into the authorities. Beijing has announced its intention to clear the protests out. Of course, just because the leaders go to the police, that doesn’t mean the protesters will. Could this be a repeat of Tiananmen Square? I don’t know!

 

  • RVANews advocates participatory budgeting for my very own Richmond! As my readers know, participatory budgeting is a process in which popular assemblies identify their needs and craft public projects for solving those needs. The model that participatory budgeting provides has the potential to transform our understanding democracy. Seeing it in my city of residence would be awesome!

Weekend Links: the Problems of American Democracy

  • Comparing the United States with Canada: first, CityLabs sees what would happen if the United States had single-payer healthcare, like Canada. Not only would we save over a trillion dollars, we would save 56,000 human beings and 5400 babies.
  • Speaking of openDemocracy, they also had a piece on sortition, or the selection of public officials by lottery instead of election.

The Problems of Salon’s Constitution

In America, we treat the Constitution like holy scripture. No other country even approaches the US Constitution’s 231 years. The average of constitutions is 18 years. This is because constitutions are not holy scripture, but human instruments for the organization of their society and applying principles of justice. Our constitution does not do that very well. The citizenry has enormous difficulty getting what it wants from its national government (unless the ruling class wants it as well). The Founders designed the constitution to be undemocratic, yet we continue with the illusion that we live in “the greatest democracy on earth”. The government itself has lifted that illusion in recent years. A drone-murdering president, police riots in Ferguson, waterless Detroit, torture, the prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers, et cetera, show us that existing state institutions provide no way for the people to have what they want. We need a new constitution. Historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg have offered their ideas for a new constitution at Salon. This is a conversation that needs to begin. Fortunately, Burstein and Isenberg aren’t cowed by the apathy and nihilism of the critics of this pursuit. Unfortunately, they do more to reveal the limitations of the centrist-liberal imagination than they do to offer a constitution for a democratic republic.

Burstein and Isenberg present plenty of good ideas for reforming the current structure of government. They want to remove private money from campaigning and preventing legislators from seeking jobs in the businesses they benefit while in Congress. They want to limit the term of Supreme Court Justices to ten years instead of a life term. The two historians want electoral redistricting by algorithm to remove human bias.

What I found most surprising was that two clearly liberal people would also advocate congressional term limits. I had thought that Republican demand for term limits in the 1990s meant that liberals could not want them as well.

Burstein and Isenberg also recognize the need for reversing the enormous economic inequality in the United States. They advocate distributive taxation to do so. However, they are also under the impression that education is a solution to inequality. Others have more than adequately dealt with this myth. Moreover, Burstein and Isenberg embrace the goal of “social mobility”, or transferring from one class to another, usually “up”. They say they want to increase social mobility while also wanting to end the myth of the American Dream. Somewhere in that muddle, there is a contradiction. Upward social mobility through hard work was the American Dream. But it is just a dream. We should focus on the more human desire to live purposeful lives, to free people from low-wage drudgery and economic insecurity.

Burstein and Isenberg’s two-part article has several problems. First, it is more of a centrist-liberal policy wish list than a genuine constitutional manifesto. In fact, the whole “new constitution” angle seems more like a framing device for a list of liberal grievances. They write extensively on gun nuts and the Second Amendment. They focus on upward social mobility and economic opportunity. Their political fixes are about removing private money from elections, with nothing about the many undemocratic features of our government.

Second, they spend a long time discussing what the Founding Fathers intended, in a positive light. This is odd for an article about a new constitution. First, the Founding Fathers lived in an entirely different, slave-plantation-and-small-artisan society. Who cares what they think anymore? Why are we still talking about them? Madison was the keenest mind among them, but his political philosophy still wasn’t very good.

Finally, all of these recommendations are the most tepid and lukewarm ideas possible. Burstein and Isenberg think that appropriate penance for polluters is to make them “pay for TV ads that aggressively promote a clean-energy economy”. Granted, they also demand government regulate for a clean environment, but it’s already supposed to be doing that. What about other antiquated vestiges: the Senate, judicial review, the executive veto? All intact!

Achieving a new constitution for the United States means a lot of work. It means convincing political organizations to form coalitions, extensive community organizing, strategic alliances with elites, and persevering over a long-term national campaign. Liberal pundits always write like the ruling class will see reason and adopt a good proposal. But the ruling class is bound together by their common interests in the existing structure of society, and will not give that up without conflict.

Changing the constitution, or adopting a new one, will be a long struggle. The benefits of change must always be greater than the costs of forcing the change. To pick up Frederick Douglass’ metaphor, the crops must be worth the plowing. The minor tweaks proposed by Burstein and Isenberg aren’t worth photocopying petitions, much less working over the course of a decade.

Here are just a few political innovations enshrined in the constitutions of other nations:

  • Abolition of the military (Costa Rica);
  • Limits on military spending (Japan);
  • Participatory democracy, including at the at the national level (Brazil and Venezuela);
  • Recognition for the ‘rights of nature’ (Ecuador);
  • Social directives that mandate goals for the state to meet (India).

Also, most constitutions have provisions for popular referenda and initiatives, protection of the rights of women, of labor, of ethnic and linguistic minorities, and of the disadvantaged. Nations across the globe march into the future, while America waddles towards the Weimar republic.

“This is not a call to revolution…,” they write.

Well, I will call for revolution! Throw out the tepid tongue of “constitutional conventions” and images of bewigged and august white men. We demand a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for a democratic republic! The people are sovereign, and the state is their prerogative!

Hong Kong: Radical Means, Limited Goals

I visited Hong Kong in my youth, in 1994. In three years, the British would return this jewel in their bloodstained crown to the People’s Republic of China. My memory of Hong Kong is of draped and drying laundry strung between publicly owned apartments, a channel choked with bobbing junks, the Kowloon street filled with bamboo birdcages. I was struck by the omnipresence of the cell phone, years before this became commonplace in the United States. I learned my first lesson in imperialism – only the British could own corporations; Chinese need not apply. But the people of Hong Kong valued, and continue to value, the civil liberties and limited democracy inherited from the British Empire. Beijing claimed, in an agreement with Britain in 1984, that it would continue to respect the government it left behind. But now the Chinese government is reneging on that agreement, and the people of Hong Kong are not having it. An immense sit-in followed Beijing’s threat to interfere in the elections of Hong Kong’s executive, followed by clashes with the police. Chinese military intervention looms. So far though, the means the protestors use are more radical than their demands.

What are the protests about? Hong Kong is supposed to be its own “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic. Based on an agreement with the British in 1984, this means maintaining its capitalist system, civil liberties, and government for at least 50 years after the transfer in 1997. However, China is easing the people of Hong Kong into full democracy. The elections for the executive and legislative branches become more democratic in stages. The People’s Republic promised universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s elections by 2017. But Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, has some giant loopholes.

After the transfer, the Chinese stipulated in the Basic Law that:

The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. (No. 26, Chapter IV, Section 1, Article 45, 1990)

The articles for the election of the Legislative Council have similar qualifications (No. 26, Ch. IV, Sec. 3, Art. 68). Beijing decides what is “necessary” for “gradual and orderly progress” to universal suffrage.

The current method of electing the Chief Executive and Legislative Council is complex. An Election Committee elects the Chief Executive, much in the same way our Electoral College is supposed to elect the President. Hong Kong’s Election Committee actually does elect their Executive though. The Election Committee is composed of 1200 representatives from four sectors of society. These sectors include commercial, social, and professional sectors. For example, accountants have 30 representatives on the Committee. Catering has 17 representatives. It’s about time somebody reversed the oppression of catering businesses! The National People’s Congress in China has 36 representatives. The Legislative Council, almost as an afterthought, has 60 representatives. Likewise, the Legislative Council is only partially elected from geographic constituencies, as in the United States. More popularly elected legislators are added every year, but the representatives of the other sectors increase as well.

The democratic legitimacy of Hong Kong’s government is already suspect, at least by traditional Western standards of electoral representation. Now China has announced its intention to nominate candidates for future elections. Thus, student demonstrators occupied the space around government buildings to force Beijing and its current quisling Chief Executive in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, to fulfill its promises.

Occupy Central with Peace and Love is an exceptional protest for its size, diversity, organization, and perseverance in the face of massive police repression. Americans, for whom persistent political organization seems difficult, could learn a lot from the willingness of the Hong Kong protestors to commit to a broad-based popular organization and employ radical tactics. Much like their American cousins on Wall Street, the protestors have occupied a public place as a show of popular power. However, they also have specific goals and a willingness to disrupt the functioning of the dominant institutions. Occupy Central has not only occupied and sat-in, but organized boycotts and are preparing for a citywide general strike. The difference with Occupy Wall Street is that Occupy Central has the social connections to mobilize across Hong Kong society.

Yet, Occupy Central is able to have such specific goals, including a concrete proposal for change, because its goals are so limited. Occupy Central has a narrow focus on achieving traditional political democracy through electoral reform. Occupy Wall Street had wide-ranging, nebulous concerns with no clear purpose, but those concerns challenged our dominant institutions to their core. I cannot suggest that Occupy Central is wrong for the pursuit of its limited goals. The people of Hong Kong know their situation better than I do. What I can say is that the world needs to combine the radical, institution-disrupting means of Occupy Central with the radical, institution-challenging goals of Occupy Wall Street.

References

The Basic Law of Hong Kong

The Alliance for True Democracy

Saturday in the Park: The Participatory Budgeting International Conference

May 4th, 2013

I knew it would be a rough day when I dropped my pants at the airport.  Well, my pants fell down, at the security checkpoint.  The young TSA agent yelled, “I’ve never seen that before!”  I found that surprising, because the TSA forces people to remove their shoes and belts when they pass through the checkpoint.  Then you hold your hands up to have a weird naked picture taken.  I guess the TSA gets used to half-naked, shoeless people scrambling for their belongings tumbling out of a conveyor belt.  A pantsless guy must be a novelty almost as fun as giving a cavity search.  I was early for my flight, but I needn’t have bothered: the flight was delayed for four hours.  My fellow passengers and I finally crammed ourselves into our winged shoebox in the early afternoon and headed off for Chicago!

Chicago is the home to the United States’ first experiments in participatory budgeting, and this past May 3rd through 5th was host to the Participatory Budgeting International Conference.  Regular readers will know about my enthusiasm for participatory budgeting, and similar democratic projects, as the hope of recovering the original idea of democracy.  Participatory budgeting is a process in which local assemblies of citizens suggest projects and elect delegates to negotiate the feasibility of these projects with city administration.  The assemblies vote for a slate of final projects, and a citizen council oversees the implementation of the winning projects.  The participatory cycle begins the next year.  Participatory budgeting has spread across the world, and has an impact on various socio-economic indicators, including reducing infant mortality and including more marginalized communities. read more »