Indignant, fumbling, drawing lots

The WSWS has a critical report about the “indignants” movement in Greece:

Greece: The Syntagma Square movement—no real democracy

It is not easy to report on the “Indignants”, the protesters in Athens’ Syntagma Square. We spent almost an hour trying to find someone responsible who could tell us about the goals and character of the movement, without success.

[…]

There was no one willing to provide information about the objectives and purpose of the movement, and take responsibility for this. This game of hide and seek is not a coincidence. It is justified by reference to the principle of “genuine” or “direct” democracy, according to which the people take decisions directly, without the mediation of political representatives or parties. In fact, it serves to hide the real political objectives of the Indignants.

The so-called “Popular Assembly”, which takes place every evening at nine on Syntagma Square, proves to be a farce on closer inspection. What some of the pseudo-lefts celebrate as the reincarnation of the Russian Soviets in fact rather resembles Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park. There is an indescribable din. The audience comes and goes. The speakers are drawn by lot. They are given just 30 seconds, and may not identify themselves as representatives of political tendencies.

Under these circumstances, a serious debate over political perspectives is just as impossible as taking a truly representative vote. Such things are unwanted. […]

The content of the discussions and votes revolves around organizational issues, such as the form and timing of the next protest action. Alternative models for the settlement of Greece’s state debt or proposals for a new constitution can also be discussed. However, a thought-out political strategy, like politics altogether, is taboo.

[…]

All sorts of semi-anarchic ideas and democratic illusions are to found amongst the rank-and-file activists assembled at Syntagma Square.

Nikos, an unemployed mathematician, told us the basic problem was not the economy and the government, but first and foremost “the responsibility of every individual to change himself.” Although he regarded “corrupt politicians” as the main culprits for the debt crisis, many ordinary people had also taken on ​​debt and bore some responsibility. As a model for the “direct democracy” which is the goal of the Indignants, Nikos pointed to Switzerland, a country that serves as the stronghold for international financial capital.

[…]

As can be expected from an article on the World Socialist Web Site, it expresses frustration about the inability of the protest activity to become a political force with a socialist agenda. The more fundamental point is that the the current activity – as long as it remains true to its anti-organization form – is unable to become a political force at all. Despite its valid criticism, however, the WSWS does not offer a way out of the perennial question of how to form the apparently oxymoronic democratic organization. The reporter rightly notes the contradictions in the solutions offered by the protesters and rightly points to the risk that their ineffectiveness will discredit their ideology of political equality, but does not offer a solution that will address their legitimate suspicion of organization. By doing so, the WSWS continues a long standing tradition in Left-wing parties, a tradition that has very effectively discredited their own ideology.

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14 Responses

  1. “The speakers are drawn by lot. . . . There are neither elected representatives nor mandated delegates. This offers plenty of opportunities for infiltration and manipulation.”

    I was surprised to find myself in agreement with the World Socialist Web Site, but their reporter is right to point out that direct democracy is potentially liable to manipulation by covert infiltration and other sinister forces. In this case the strings were being pulled by “seasoned politicians” of “pseudo-left organisations”, but it could have been lobbyists of any persuasion. In the same way that “you can take the girl out of the Bronx, but not the Bronx out of the girl”, abolishing partisan institutional structures will not just fail to abolish the partisan forces that they embody, it will leave the new non-partisan arrangements uniquely open to corruption. This would be true of an allotted assembly or any other non-partisan body and is why I argue (ad nauseam) that a non-partisan representative body cannot possibly have an agenda-setting role.

    To adopt another analogy, in his History of the Criminal Law James Fitzjames Stephen argued that the origin of criminal law was not as a reforming, improving or progressive instrument but as a clumsy though necessary corrective to brutal instincts (for revenge). “The sentence of the law is to the moral sentiments of the public in relation to any offence what a seal is to hot wax. It converts into a permanent final judgment what might otherwise be a transient sentiment… Infliction of punishment by law gives definite expression and solemn ratification and justification to the hatred which is excited by the commission of the offence … The forms in which deliberate anger and righteous disapprobation are expressed in the execution of criminal justice stand to the one set of passions in the same relation in which marriage stands to the sexual passions.”

    Claiming that non-partisan assemblies would abolish partisanship is similar to arguing that abolishing the criminal law would end the passions that gave rise to it in the first place. If Clausewitz is right that war is politics by other means, then the converse is also true — abolishing (partisan) politics is more likely to lead to war than peace. The expression that parliamentary representatives should “toe the line” derives from the fact that the parties in the House of Commons were separated by two red lines painted on the floor, intended to separate the two warring armies [the Whigs and the Tories were descended from the two sides of the Civil War] by the length of two swords. Partisan institutions do not create partisan sentiments, they constrain them, and are abolished at our peril.

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  2. Keith, Wouldn’t an allotted chamber ‘automatically’ develop its own partisan lines? Most likely more than only two but with some discipline developing, by necessity, within those ‘parties’ (proto- or otherwise)?
    The example of the Syntagma Square Movement isn’t germane since it has no place for deliberation. Agreed?

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  3. Partisanship would certainly develop if the chamber had an active rather than a judgment role, that’s why I’m disposed to a strict separation of advocacy and judgment and (ideally) silent deliberation. If no proper domain is reserved for partisan behaviour then interests will just go underground, leading to corruption and (paradoxically) an even greater role for the rich and powerful. Prohibition didn’t stop people drinking, it just turned it into a covert activity. The Syntagma Square Movement is a good illustration of this principle.

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  4. The solution lies in the mass institutional model of the pre-war SPD and inter-war USPD. The Trotskyist denunciation of pre-war German Social Democracy leaves them to their sects, much like Rosa Luxemburg’s own skepticism towards organization left her and her gang to the SDKPiL sect in Poland-Lithuania.

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  5. And this is extended to pretty much every single left tendency that makes fetishes of councilism, even that of the ultra-liberal Arendt. Councils are only fine and dandy as *internal* party organizations, going hand in hand with party *bureaus* for administration.

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  6. > mass institutional model of the pre-war SPD and inter-war USPD

    I assume these didn’t use sortition. Didn’t these parties have a stable powerful political elite?

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  7. They didn’t use sortition, but nonetheless institutionalization is one key component for a worker-class movement to succeed in the long run.

    As I’ve stated before, I’m for a system that combines random selection, key measures of the Paris Commune, alternative culture and multi-tendency politicization (pre-war SPD and inter-war USPD), nomenclatures and job slots (CPSU), and in the case of taking power, constitutional entrenchment of one party (CPSU).

    [Moshe Lewin wrote of the “no party state.” I write of a genuine one-party system.]

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  8. > They didn’t use sortition, but nonetheless institutionalization is one key component for a worker-class movement to succeed in the long run.

    Institutionalization is a necessary condition for any political movement to succeed. But the suspicions of the Indignants are completely justified: unless the institutionalization of a movement is democratic there is very little hope of achieving democratic objectives. In my mind the crucial component here is sortition. Of course, it is not a magic bullet – getting the details right and other components are also important.

    Regarding “key measures of the Paris Commune”: what are these? In “State and Revolution” Lenin fixates on delegate recall and “workman wages”. These, I think, are very weak medicine. He also suggests that you could have the state controlled directly by the “armed workers”, which is either naive or disingenuous.

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  9. The key measures of the Paris Commune were discussed in Marx’s The Civil War in France, Kautsky’s Republic and Social Democracy in France, and of course Lenin’s The State and Revolution. By stating those two specific measures, you just remembered what Engels himself thought were *the* two key measures of the Paris Commune.

    I wrote in the work I sent you about expanding the recallability concept and the principle behind “average skilled workers wage.” Check it out (the chapter titled “The Democracy Question”).

    I don’t think they’re weak medicine at all, because random sortition without sufficient avenues of recall cannot immediately eliminate those who somehow sneak in and abuse power from the get-go, and the latter principle is all about tying the standards of living for those holding political power with the standards of living for everyone else.

    Re. “armed workers,” Lenin was trying to tackle the standing army question. I don’t agree with his assessment; elected or randomly selected commanding officers are fine and dandy, but let’s not turn our nukes, cruisers, submarines, air superiority fighters, etc. into plowshares!

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  10. > By stating those two specific measures, you just remembered what Engels himself thought were *the* two key measures of the Paris Commune.

    I guess these were the ones emphasized by Lenin (following Engels).

    > Check it out (the chapter titled “The Democracy Question”).

    I just had a very brief look. I was not aware of Karatani or his endorsement of sortition. Are there are other well known Marxist theorists who advocated similar positions?

    > random sortition without sufficient avenues of recall cannot immediately eliminate those who somehow sneak in and abuse power from the get-go

    Recall is a mass-political activity and as such is worse than useless. It would allow the rich and powerful to target their opponents in parliament by mounting recall campaigns. An examination for corrupt dealings of parliament members (past and present) by a randomly-selected board (defined in a narrow material sense) does make sense (this is the Athenian euthyna), but mass-recall based on general displeasure is anti-democratic.

    > [workman’s wages] is all about tying the standards of living for those holding political power with the standards of living for everyone else

    This principle is sound, but by itself it is very weak. The rich and their henchmen don’t need to be paid for doing government work – they would do it for free. Their real reward is the policy that serves them.

    By the way, you could easily find yourself under-paying the delegates as well and having them unmotivated to do good work. We had discussions about before: 1, 2.

    > Re. “armed workers,” Lenin was trying to tackle the standing army question.

    That’s not the impression that I got. My understanding is that he was proposing that people can spontaneously mete out summary judgement – so they would replace the police, not the military:

    We are not utopians, and do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, or the need to stop such excesses. In the first place, however, no special machine, no special apparatus of suppression, is needed for this: this will be done by the armed people themselves, as simply and as readily as any crowd of civilized people, even in modern society, interferes to put a stop to a scuffle or to prevent a woman from being assaulted.

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  11. […] recently linked to a WSWS story about the Indignants in Syntagma Square. The Kathimerini newspaper has a story as well. As can be […]

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  12. “I just had a very brief look. I was not aware of Karatani or his endorsement of sortition. Are there are other well known Marxist theorists who advocated similar positions?”

    Karatani isn’t a Marxist. He’s sort of a neo-Proudhonist. Cockshott, Cottrell, Zachariah, etc. are the only thinkers I know of who support sortition.

    “Recall is a mass-political activity and as such is worse than useless. It would allow the rich and powerful to target their opponents in parliament by mounting recall campaigns. An examination for corrupt dealings of parliament members (past and present) by a randomly-selected board (defined in a narrow material sense) does make sense (this is the Athenian euthyna), but mass-recall based on general displeasure is anti-democratic.”

    I mentioned parallelism re. recall:

    1) Popular recall (which you just objected to)
    2) Sovereign commoner juries (your euthyna)
    3) Political parties

    4) Council/soviet pyramid?

    [The possibility that demarchy may be compatible with a council/soviet pyramid, with higher organs filled by sortition from among members of lower organs, so this means some local organ can recall an official in a regional organ, or some regional organ can recall an official in a provincial organ, and so on.]

    “The rich and their henchmen don’t need to be paid for doing government work – they would do it for free. Their real reward is the policy that serves them. By the way, you could easily find yourself under-paying the delegates as well and having them unmotivated to do good work.”

    That’s why I suggest tying it to *median* (not mean) standards of living for *skilled* workers. As I already wrote, it would be insanity to call for non-payment of politicians, the exact opposite of what German Social Democracy called for during its formative years. Re. underpayment: there’s slight underpayment and there’s blatant underpayment. I’m for the median as the cap and slight underpayment as the floor.

    The lack of motivation can also be addressed by what I wrote: “A combination of appropriate pay levels and expense allowances, mandated loss of other occupations (since these offices should be full-time positions), employment transition programs for occupants leaving office, and other measures can fulfill this demand.” Most sloganeering for “average skilled workers wage” tends to be quite unaware of employment transition programs, in particular.

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  13. > Cockshott, Cottrell, Zachariah, etc. are the only thinkers I know of who support sortition.

    The Karatani passage you quote sounds like an endorsement of sortition. Looking at the context, however, I see that he is proposing something much less useful – sortition among the top three vote winners. Quite disappointing.

    Who are Cottrell and Zachariah? Do they have interesting essays on the subject of sortition?

    > I mentioned parallelism re. recall:

    I am not sure what you mean by “parallelism”, but, again, popular recall is a mass activity and therefore is a high-resource, low-rationality activity. Even if that was not an issue, eliminating delegates simply because they espouse minority opinions is anti-democratic.

    > That’s why I suggest tying it to *median* (not mean) standards of living for *skilled* workers. […]

    I don’t think I agree, but why don’t you write a post which explains your thoughts on this matter and then we can a better starting point for this discussion?

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  14. “Looking at the context, however, I see that he is proposing something much less useful – sortition among the top three vote winners. Quite disappointing.”

    It’s not even a fully applied form of random balloting (the proper term to describe this). Moshe Machover is a Marxist who supports random balloting.

    Cottrell and Zachariah are Cockshott’s colleagues.

    “Parallelism” means multiple legitimate avenues existing at the same time. That’s why I listed alternatives to popular recall. There would be popular recall, but other avenues would be there and would be just as legitimate.

    Nowhere in my work did I support delegation. I’m for the best form of representation (i.e., statistical). My call for recallability says “especially in cases of abuse of office.”

    I’ll come back to standards of living at another time.

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