By James Cairns
In the days since Minneapolis police publicly lynched George Floyd in broad daylight, the Movement for Black Lives has blown the lid off democracy-as-usual. Hundreds of thousands of people are in streets across Turtle Island and around the world, protesting against the anti-Black policing and systemic racism that upholds capitalism. Demonstrators have smashed symbols of racist violence, reclaimed property, and demanded fundamental policy change. Black-led multiracial campaigns to defund the police and invest in public services are growing in every major North American city. As Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says, “‘crisis’ does not even begin to describe the political maelstrom that has been unleashed.”
Defenders of democracy-as-usual are terrified. Police have been rioting for weeks: gassing, bludgeoning, and driving into protestors with trucks. Trump sent the military to attack demonstrators while the president himself hid in a White House bunker. Mayors across the US imposed strict curfews to try to stop political gatherings. Corporate bosses and university presidents, whose institutions have long reproduced white supremacy, trip over each other to issue hollow statements saying Black Lives Matter. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is currently an attorney for President Trump, says the uprisings are not expressions of democracy but of “mob rule.” Political and economic elites know their authority is slipping.
The interlocking social, economic, and health crises of 2020 certainly threaten democracy. However, the most serious threats to popular power aren’t the ones featured in mainstream media. In fact, the very way that democracy typically gets framed distracts from the most pressing political threats, and narrows our sense of what it could look like to defend and radically expand rule by the people.
Governments, mainstream political parties, and NGOs are doing everything they can to defuse the growing Black-led, multiracial, international coalitions fighting to overturn systems of racial and economic injustice. The ruling class effort to disorganize and dissolve the uprisings involves a range of tactics, from blunt force to cooptation. Newly politicizing layers of society are running into the limits of official democracy.
Organized socialists can offer a unique viewpoint not only to observe the problems of formal democratic institutions that serve the boss class, but also to develop stronger strategies for pursuing our democracy: mass democracy-from-below. Developing a democracy-from-below perspective is vital to supporting campaigns to defund and abolish police and prisons, end white supremacy and settler-colonialism, and reorganize the economy on the basis of meeting human and ecological needs. Socialists can help new movements fight ideological battles against dominant conceptions of democracy as we build genuine democracy through struggle in the streets, our workplaces, schools, communities, and in our own political organizations.
The term democracy means “rule by the people.” Yet for many people, democracy feels distant. They might vote (or not) every few years. The rest of the time, democracy is something done by politicians in grand buildings in distant cities, often behind closed doors. Most people don’t have any real say over decisions made at their jobs or in their local communities.
This experience of democracy is typical in a system based on periodic elections to a representative legislature, a centralized government, a sprawling bureaucracy, and a suite of individual protections centered around property rights. Most economic decisions (about what gets produced, how, and who has access to goods and services) are made by private corporations and major investors motivated by profit. The policies of mainstream parties hardly differ when it comes to fundamental issues such as colonialism, corporate taxes, foreign policy, the role of police, worker rights, racism, and the environment. The United States and Canada were founded through colonial violence and theft, and depend on the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land and lives. Because this system is official state policy, we can call it “official democracy.”
Under official democracy, Indigenous people, racialized people, poor and undocumented people face massive barriers to full political and economic participation, and are systematically harmed by politics-as-usual. Sandy Hudson, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter – Toronto, writes that Black communities are “experts in the ways that police can brutalize and inflict violence upon us.” In the words of Black feminist writer, activist, and educator Robyn Maynard: “Whether you’re looking at provincial jails, federal prisons, the child welfare or education system, you’ll see that Black communities have continued to face heightened rates of discipline, surveillance, punishment, of extreme and egregious violence.”
Mainstream political commentators condemn protests against racist policing for being “violent” – as though any moment of violence in the demonstrations places them outside the democratic norm. In fact, official democracy systematically terrorizes specific populations. Despite providing formal equality under the law, Western democracies are structured around deep inequalities. For poor people and workers excluded from real power, for communities brutalized by legacies of slavery and colonial dispossession, official democracy has long been in crisis.
There’s a different democratic tradition, however, that, as socialists, we can celebrate, learn from, and fight for, notwithstanding our frustrations with the limits of institutional politics. This is the tradition of democracy-from-below, which aims to end all forms of oppression, and achieve collective self-government in all areas of life. Democracy-from-below is best understood not as a model of government that either exists or doesn’t but as an ongoing project for collective self-emancipation.
Democracy-from-below looks like the Quebec student strike of 2012: students in their hundreds of thousands, making decisions in mass assemblies, filling campuses and streets, halting a 75% tuition hike. It looks like the Black Panther Party providing free breakfast to kids in Oakland in the 1960s and 70s, and organizing neighbourhood patrols to protect against white supremacist violence. It looks like civil society coalitions organizing mass boycotts against apartheid in South Africa and Israel, often in defiance of gag laws in Western democracies designed to stifle international solidarity. It looks like workers at a GM plant in Massachusetts in April, collectively halting production to make bosses retool their factory to make ventilators rather than jet engines amid the coronavirus pandemic. It looks like Tahrir Square in Cairo at the height of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution: millions of poor workers and peasants toppling the dictator Mubarak while running day schools, food distribution centres, clinics, and political debates in an open-air festival of workers’ autonomous self-rule.
These examples differ from each other in countless ways. What all of them show us are real movements for rule by the people very different from the narrow definition upheld by official democracy. This is not the democracy in which authorities make us wait for them to decide what to do about statues glorifying slavery. This is the democracy in which people organize collectively to tear down white supremacist monuments with their own hands. Our ultimate aim is not persuading elites that social justice is in their interests. Ruling class power depends on systematic exploitation and oppression of working-class people. There will be no persuading elites to rule in our interests, no matter our superior ethical position or how many ballots we cast. Our aim is to overthrow their democracy by radically democratizing the economy and society.
When democracy-from-below rises to the point of mass uprisings, as is currently happening through the Movement for Black Lives, it clarifies the political struggle so often hidden by the institutions of official democracy. As people take control back from elites, in streets, in workplaces, in schools, they help all of us see more clearly the fault-lines dividing opposing sides in an ongoing battle. Are you with the cops and the capitalist system they brutally defend for their political-corporate masters; or are you with the Black Lives Matter movement fighting for freedom and justice for all? Are you for their democracy or our democracy? Look at polls showing surging support for Black Lives Matter since the beginning of last month’s uprising. Democracy-from-below has the power to change minds.
Fighting for our democracy
It’s not that the institutions of official democracy are irrelevant to socialists, nor are they simply distractions from “real” politics. The activist and historian Howard Zinn reminds us that whatever democracy and freedom we have did not come from generous or enlightened leaders at the top, but instead “from the bottom.… The mutinous soldiers, the angry women, the rebellious Native Americans, the working people, the agitators, the antiwar protestors, the socialists and anarchists and dissenters of all kinds.” Rioters, rebels, and political troublemakers are who we have to thank for the democratic gains that defend and feed working-class lives.
No doubt these gains are incomplete. No struggle for democracy-from-below has ever been won once and for all. Rather, through mass struggles against elites and the top-down system of official democracy, relationships of power have been reframed, temporarily settled, reset, and, in moments like the one we’re currently living through, relationships of power can be suddenly blown wide open.
Even in its narrow capitalist form, democracy was never the first choice of elites when it came to establishing systems of rule. For centuries, ruling classes have fought against every democratic advance, from expanding the electoral franchise, to recognizing union rights, to protecting the environment and meeting some demands of queer communities.
Democracy-from-below, then, while oriented toward fundamental social transformation, recognizes that the terrain of official democracy is one key area of struggle. It’s important for communities to demand accountability from elected representatives. Parliament can offer a relevant forum for public debate in periods of crisis. And whether radicals engage in mainstream politics or not, public policy has real material consequences in our daily lives, both in the benefits and protections won by the working class, and in the business-friendly, cop-loving policies of privatization and pipeline expansion. Current campaigns to defund the police are driven by democracy-from-below, and their success will mean the expansion of popular power; yet they are calling for change to institutional politics, which means engaging with official democracy.
The interaction and overlap between these two versions of rule by the people can make it seem pointless to draw distinctions between them. Yet, distinguishing between their democracy and ours can help guide our activism by sharpening our analysis of ways to extend working-class power, which inevitably involves engaging mainstream institutions. In the coming struggles over crises of racism, public health, economic inequality, and climate change, we must reject crisis resolutions that naturalize the limits of official democracy, while not surrendering the struggle for democracy altogether. When we look through the lens of democracy-from-below, we can better envision true rule by the people, and strategize about how to get there.
Breathing life into the democratic imagination
In recent months, many commentators on the Left have argued that the pandemic and economic crash have created a “crisis of legitimacy” for official democracy. No doubt today’s interlocking crises shine harsh light on the cruelty and unfairness of Western societies. But this is not news to millions of working-class, poor, racialized, and undocumented people. The problem for radicals in recent years hasn’t been mass attachment to business-as-usual. Rather, the challenge is overcoming people’s cynicism that a truly democratic, socially, and environmentally just alternative is not only possible, but achievable through our own shared, self-organized activity.
Socialists should think of this as our democratic crisis: that the radical Left lacks organizations and networks large and widespread enough to most effectively learn from, coordinate, scale up, and sustain campaigns rooted in collective self-government. How do we nourish and grow what activist and sociologist Alan Sears calls the “infrastructures of dissent” that focus and sustain democracy-from-below in long-term struggles for popular power? At the same time as we’re learning from the explosions of resistance all around, organized socialists can help emerging movement leaders build capacity, meet challenges, and open new horizons of political possibility.
Today we feel history on the move. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says the uprisings against anti-Black police violence are “a class rebellion with racism and racial terrorism at the center of it.” In conditions of widespread fear, anger, uncertainty, and hope, people are being “pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten or easily discarded.” We see it in growing campaigns for defunding the police across Turtle Island. We see it in health care professionals using the 7pm nightly cheer for medical workers to stand in New York’s Times Square and cheer Black Lives Matter demonstrators. We see it in art and solidarity marches with US protests from Seoul to Halifax to Dublin to Palestine. Major US unions are launching monthly strikes for racial justice, at the same time as they’re facing rank-and-file pressure to kick cops out of organizations of worker control. Popular power is expanding, breathing new life into the democratic imagination.
Taylor argues that to beat back capitalism and the racism that serves it, “We have to build organizations that are democratic, multiracial, and militant, with a foundation in solidarity. […] We need struggle, but we also need politics, because we must contend with a political establishment that wants to lower our expectations, to believe that this existing society is the best that we can expect from humanity.” In her words, such organizations clear the path to socialism.
The crisis of official democracy is not ours to fix; though, nor should we ignore it. Let us use the crisis of official democracy to build our democracy as part of the emerging Black-led, multiracial, international working-class movement fighting for freedom and collective self-government in all areas of life.
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