Sunday, March 18, 2012

Democratic Decisions

We have no popular model of genuinely collective decision making in our society. Our social theory and practice are dominated by two models of social decision making: one in which a paternalistic authority makes decisions for all of us, and one in which each individual makes “private” decisions on his/her own behalf.

We impose a vague sense of democratic accountability on the authoritarian decision making model, but it is ill-fitting. In the first case, it is imposed on models actually developed in top-down, monarchal or aristocratic societies. In the second case, we elect a small group of people and give them a very broad charge. When it comes down to any individual decision on any given point, there is no reason to expect that the views, desires or opinions of any particular voter are in any way represented. Also, in practice, the small group of elected appoint a larger group, who appoint still more, etc., until we reach the people who actually make and implement decisions. By the time we get down to the person actually deciding, the trail of accountability back to “the people” may be highly attenuated.

A “good” paternalistic decision maker will make decisions in “the people’s interest.” But it is his/her own judgment that is involved – the people are not directly represented. We may introduce a further “democratic” element by requiring public hearings – but the hearings are advisory only, not authoritative. (One is reminded of the role of the Duma or Parliament as first introduced under absolute monarchs.) Similarly, in individual choice (the other model), we may choose to consult with or listen to others, but it is our choice.

What is missing is some form of truly participatory social decision making, where the people get together, debate and discuss fully in direct, unmediated conversation (with no imposition of anyone’s editorial judgment), and then collectively make – whether by consensus or majority rule – binding decisions which affect all. (Before I get corrected, let me acknowledge that it is not true that there is NO application of decision making that approaches this model. Small, New England town meetings, and some meetings of some voluntary organizations, for instance. But it is not a model that has a significant role in our hegemonic social theory and practice.)

It is exactly this space that the Occupy movement, with General Assemblies and other horizontal democratic structures, is trying to fill. It is not surprising that it sometimes works badly – we have no experience with it! (But this is something that can be corrected with practice, and willingness to learn from experience and adapt.) And it is not surprising that many both within and without the Occupy movement are uncomfortable with it – it doesn’t fit our customary conceptual arrangements. But the people of the Occupy movement are making an earnest and heartful effort to provide an alternative model of decision making that our putative democracies sorely need and lack.