Democracy is more than clicks online

Submitted by Matthew on 10 November, 2016 - 12:26 Author: Gerry Bates

There’s an argument about decision-making procedures going on in the Labour left group Momentum. What is it about?

Whether decisions, on policy or on who gets on committees, should be taken by votes in meetings, following discussion — or online.

What does Solidarity prefer?

Votes in meetings, following discussion.

What’s the advantage of that?

As the American historian Howard Zinn put it: “Democracy is not just a counting up of votes, it is a counting up of actions. Without those on the bottom acting out their desires for justice, as the government acts out its needs, and those with power and privilege act out theirs, the scales of democracy will be off”.

When democracy is reduced to counting the votes of a passive electorate, it becomes largely a tool for those already at the top to manipulate consent. They decide what is voted on, in what terms, when, with what information, and how the voters’ verdict on a crude yes-no question is translated into detailed policy.

Trotsky condemned the Stalinist regime, not for abolishing votes, but for elevating “plebiscitary” voting above democracy.

“As history testifies, Bonapartism [rule by a dictator standing above institutions] gets along admirably with a universal, and even a secret, ballot. The democratic ritual of Bonapartism is the plebiscite. From time to time, the question is presented to the citizens: for or against the leader?”

And the French Trotskyist Daniel Bensaid explained how party democracy, based on a structured system of meetings and debates, is an antidote: “party democracy (as opposed to the media-driven, plebiscitary democracy of so-called ‘public opinion’) would be, if not an absolute remedy, at least one of the antidotes to the professionalisation of power and the ‘democracy of the market’.”

These arguments apply at the smaller level of a movement like Momentum, as well as at the grand level of the running of society. No-one in Momentum is Stalin! But a “plebiscitary” democracy in Momentum will mean initiative being monopolised by those who are already in office, those who control the email lists, those who get bourgeois media coverage, and the day-to-day activists being marginalised.

The advocates of online voting describe it as “one member, one vote”. That has to be good, no? You’re for everyone getting a vote, surely?

Democracy is not just a counting-up of votes, but it includes counting-up of votes. Everyone should indeed get a vote. But it matters how. It matters whether your casting of a vote is integrated into a structure allowing informed discussion, debate, and collective opinion-forming, or whether it is atomised.

Parliamentary elections in a country like Britain are made democratic, to the extent that they are democratic, not just or even mainly by formal voting rights, but by such facts as:
• the freedom to operate of rival political parties, large and well-resourced enough to reach almost all voters with their leaflets, their canvassing, and so on; • the existence of a varied media, to which all voters have access, and which, at least with a careful reading, enables each voter to know what each party says.
They fall short of democracy, mostly, not by denying people votes (though in Britain about seven million people entitled to vote are off the electoral registers because of one bureaucratic obstacle or another). They fall short because:
• the established parties are bureaucratic. They fudge and trim their messages to voters, and act in office differently from what they promise at election-time. In the Blair-Brown era, the completeness of the takeover of the Labour Party by a caste of careerists, wonks, spin-doctors, and think-tankers greatly dimmed not just Labour democracy but parliamentary democracy in Britain.
• the political system makes it hard for new parties to break through, unless they are funded by rich people (like Ukip).
• the media are biased.
• working-class people are often exhausted at the end of a day of wage-work plus housework, have often been intimidated by the exam-stressed educational system, and face bigger obstacles to political participation than the well-off.

How is that relevant to Momentum?

A structured system of decision-making by elected and accountable committees and by delegate conferences would make the movement democratic in the sense of giving it channels for the formation (and constant re-formation, adjustment, correction, amendment) of a collective majority view. The advantages of those already at the “top” would fade unless they were able to persuade and carry their views in debate.

Decision-making by online voting would mean that such discussion and debate as could still continue would be submerged by an online process between the Momentum office staff and an atomised mass of members uninvolved in debate, and mostly uninvolved in activity too.

The advocates of online voting do not suggest that there should be no committees, no office staff, no public spokespersons. They don’t suggest an online plebiscite each week about what Momentum should do that week. With an online voting system, the day-to-day texture of how Momentum responds to events, where it directs energy and where it lets things slide, how the necessarily crude yes-no outcomes of the online votes are converted into living detail, will be decided by the office staff, without the detailed accountability and adjustment which a structured meeting-based democracy affords.

What’s the experience?

The historian E P Thompson writes of the early days of the English labour movement that then it seemed that a “half-dozen workers could not sit down together without appointing a Chairman, raising a point-of-order, and Moving the Previous Question”. Structured meeting-based democracy has been integral to the labour movement throughout its history. At least in theory, everyone agrees that the annual conference should be the Labour Party’s sovereign body.

The best form of democracy known to date, that of the workers’ councils in Russia in 1905 and in 1917 and the years after, or of the similar workers’ councils which have emerged in many other countries in revolutionary times from then until now, is one based on meetings, debates, election and recall of delegates, and the continuous formation and revision of collective opinion.

Isn’t there a danger with “tiered” delegate structures?

In movements or in times with a low level of activism, delegate posts can become monopolised by incumbents who can deflect challenges from not-very-pushy grass roots. You can see that syndrome, to one degree or another, in trade unions. No-one argues, however, that unions should replace their shop stewards’ committees, branches, delegate conferences and so on by a system of their office staff doing online plebiscites of union members, only that the structures should be opened up more.

General all-members’ votes should be used as a check and balance, for example when committee votes to start or end a strike should be subject to validation or invalidation by general all-members’ votes. There may be a case for that sort of check and balance in Momentum. It would be very different from an all-covering online-plebiscitary system.

Isn’t online one-member-one-vote what enabled Jeremy Corbyn to win Labour leader?

The Labour right were not wrong in their broad view when, from 1993, they systematically pressed to extend the domain of online or postal voting, at the expense of structured decision-making. But they overreached themselves.

They underestimated the anger among Labour members against the Blair regime, and the extent to which Labour-left hold-outs like Corbyn had gained credit from their resistance to that regime.

Plebiscites don’t produce the result that the “top” wants always. Just usually. But for Corbyn’s victories to have lasting effect requires structured democratic decision-making by meetings and delegates in the Labour Party.

At present, and until we get that, Corbyn as leader is hemmed in by the right-wing MPs and the right-wing Labour Party officials. They cannot be replaced just by clicktivism.

What about new experiences with online-democratic systems?

The transformation of the Workers’ Party in Brazil from a democratic and activist revolutionary-socialist organisation into a hollow run-from-the-top-down left-neoliberal electoral machine was facilitated, according to its historian Wendy Hunter, by decision-making through meetings, committees, and delegates being replaced within it by plebiscitary “one member, one vote”.

Or take the movement 38 Degrees. Founded in 2009, it promotes itself as an exemplar of democracy and “people power”. It started with funds from trusts and foundations, which enabled it to set up a large and well-resourced office, by the standards of left-ish campaigns: it spends over a million pounds a year on paying its 35 full-time office staff. (Comparison: Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty operates with two full-time staff, paid much less than the 38 Degrees people, and four part-timers who also do outside paid jobs or university courses).

38 Degrees has a Board of worthies, which, it says, “meets a few times a year” “to make sure that the organisation is... accountable to its members”. But neither the Board nor the office staff are elected.

38 Degrees has a sufficient web presence now that it can get £3 million a year in donations, mostly online. It claims three million members, and says its members decide its campaigns. To become a member means online signing one of its online petitions. From time to time the office staff poll “members” online about campaign priorities (but they don’t publish the poll results, and what they do publish suggests very few “members” vote in these polls). The details of campaigning are decided entirely by the office staff.

We had an instructive and comic experience a few years ago. We were building a campaign against the Tories’ NHS plans. We knew that 38 Degrees had been active on the NHS, and its network had provided many useful contacts for some local NHS campaign groups. So one of us went to the 38 Degrees office to ask if they would cooperate.

The 38 Degrees staff were shocked at the fact of an actual person, rather than an email, coming to their office! Talk? Discuss? No way. 38 Degrees mostly just promotes online petitions. 38 Degrees sometimes provides a useful channel of communication for real-life protests on the streets. But it doesn’t organise any. It certainly doesn’t organise in workplaces, or within organisations such as trade unions and the Labour Party. It is clicktivism plus a well-funded office staff.

If Momentum is to be effective, it has to be active daily and weekly on the streets, in the Labour Parties, in the unions, in the workplaces. And that requires a continuous, structured, decision-making process by which the activists form an evolving collective majority view on what to do each day, each week, each month — not from-time-to-time online plebiscites of the members with the results interpreted by the office staff. The 38 Degrees structure is not suited to an activist organisation.

Taking decisions at meetings discriminates against those who can’t attend meetings. Online voting is better.

Online voting discriminates against those with poorer internet access. And most of all it discriminates against those with new or unorthodox ideas who need access to discussion to develop those ideas and to convince others. It discriminates in favour of ideas already well-boosted by the media.

New technologies can help people with physical limitations on their participation in meetings, for example by giving them input via video links, or enabling them to read immediate transcripts of what they can’t hear. Thus it enables them to take part in the collective formation and revision of a majority opinion.

Being able to click “yes” or “no” to the options an office gives them is a much poorer thing.

You can accompany online voting with online discussion.

The internet makes it easier to keep members of a movement well-informed. Minutes of meetings, details of decisions, voting records can be circulated fast to everyone.

In Momentum, those most in favour of online voting are generally also the most resistant to circulating that information online. Online debate and discussion sometimes works well as a supplement to face-to-face discussion.

In mathematics, for example, the Polymath Projects, since 2009, have enabled fast progress on research problems through mathematicians across the world batting ideas back and forward online. In that case, there are solidly-agreed, collectively-evolved criteria for evaluating ideas, and the participants are all also and simultaneously engaged in face-to-face discussions, in their universities and in conferences.

None of those preconditions applies with the idea of running a political movement through online voting. There is no way of ensuring, or even making it likely, that the online voters also participate in the online discussion. Nor is there really a way of getting a single online discussion. Online political discussion is notoriously fragmented into rival networks of Facebook friends and so on. When it stretches across networks, it is frequently abusive.

Sadly but in fact, the internet has revolutionised sectarianism more than any other strand in politics. In the old days, to be a sectarian you had to attend at least some meetings. Now you can be a famed sectarian just by ranting online each night after an evening of solitary drinking, and without feeling any pressure to respond in a human way to the arguments of opponents. A reliance on online voting is likely to depress activism, to minimise constructive discussion and debate, and to boost destructive sectarianism.

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