There's been a lot of discussion about how our democracy can overcome the power of corporations and the pro-corporate, top-down political parties. Most ideas are limited to opinions about whether an effective third party is a viable option, whether it makes sense to work within a party to make it more responsive, or whether anything can be effectively done at all. I believe a key solution to overcoming the systematic dominance of the powerful few is being overlooked.
We've got to organize!
My experience with the importance of organizing people for effective combined action comes out of my work in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, from membership and organizing in several unions, and I suppose from being a lowly non-com in the military, where a surprising amount of decision-making is done by consensus and solidarity in the ranks. And it's all been problematic.
I take it as self-evident that a progressive organization is democratic. And according to common wisdom, direct democracy is practical on a scale of as many as tens of thousands (the model being ancient Athens). But as a member of a small local of the boilermakers union I watched the power of a few maintain effective control despite the democratic structure. Even with a democracy of only about 800 members, the majority was so passive, so fragmented and disorganized, that we could not break the power of a tiny minority. Raucous monthly meetings and elections every four years were the only collective experiences, and they were dominated by manipulation, favoritism and coercion. Most individuals felt impotent and apathetic about the union and its direction -- and for good reason: An organization of 800 individuals is too large for most people to feel and be significant and empowered. That's not just because 800 is too many for a basic unit of an effective democracy, it's also because the U.S. in particular is a culture of asocial individuals, and most of us are seriously challenged in our ability to work together, challenged even in our appreciation of the potential benefits of belonging.
My experience with a national political organization comprised of local chapters (the Vietnam Veterans Against the War) impressed me with an additional problem for democratic organization and action: Some people find taking a coordinating or leadership role difficult, and some find it irresistible. Even a small chapter can be reduced to a polarity of more-or-less hyperactive leaders and more-or-less impotent followers. It's not a question of size; even a group of 3 can be a dysfunctional democracy if the development of each member's involvement isn't made a priority.
Given the inherent difficulties, I believe a democratic organization can only be effectively democratic if it's based on units with 12-or-so members or delegates, with rotating leadership or coordinating responsibilities. A group of people that's not too large and not too small can be self-energizing and elevating. If my union local had been comprised of groups of about 12, each of which elected a delegate to a representative council, with an emphasis on the frequent rotation of delegation, it could have been a very different, vibrant, and effectively democratic organization. If a shop that's trying to organize a union would form in small groups, each electing a delegate to an organizing committee, instead of having a simple polarity of leaders and followers, the effort could be greatly enhanced. The same principle holds for just about any kind of group: More than a dozen-or-so members and the individual tends to get lost, and to the extent that individuals feel lost or overwhelmed, individuals lose initiative and commitment.
I posted an article on OEN a couple years ago (click here) on the idea of building a comprehensive democratic structure outside the established political institutions, based on "circles" of 12-or-so adults which would elect a delegate to a larger structure of 12-or-so circles, which would elect a delegate to a still larger structure, and so on up to the national level. The idea was/is that democracy only works well within small groups of people who know each other on a personal level and elect delegates from among themselves. The idea hasn't gotten any traction. But then neither has an organized and effective popular movement.
How realistic is it to build a movement organized in a structure of small groups? One person writing letters to the local newspaper is a movement, though a very small one. Two friends sharing political ideas and energizing each other to do practical things to improve their community, their environment, their country, are already a movement, twice as large as a very small one. Take turns electing each other to coordinate your activities and you've got an organized movement -- and it can be expected to be somewhat more effective than in proportion to its size.
Is building an organized movement outside and parallel to political structures and autonomous issue-based groups unrealistic? We can all criticize, complain, ridicule, and sometimes hibernate. That's okay. (We humans are naturally tribal animals, but 21st Century Americans are somewhat over-civilized!) We can form autonomous issue-based organizations that consist of an inner cadre and an outer base of supporters. That's good. And we could form "circles" of friends, colleagues, co-workers, and begin to link up with other such circles. A self-developing democratic organization could realistically emerge and multiply from that simple beginning: When a circle grows to more than a dozen adults, split in two along geographical lines. Elect a delegate from each circle to a larger organization of individuals on a regular basis, and call it a national council. Communicate. Exchange ideas. Share strength and support. Build organizational skills the way the Toastmasters builds public speaking skills. Do things as a group or organization, whatever comes up -- political action, community support. Play together, celebrate regularly. Gain experience in group dynamics. Experience the feeling of belonging. Identify with your group, your team. Rotate the delegates to the larger organizations so everyone gets fully involved. Develop leadership skills, a sense of responsibility. Endorse or support politicians, oppose politicians. When there are 5 or more sub-organizations of a council, have the delegates elect a smaller executive committee of at least 3. Experience the role of an executive. Feel the energy, feel the power. When there are more than 12-or-so circles, split into two regions. Connect with other nascent circles and organizations of circles. Consolidate. Elect a delegate from among the councils of each region to a new national council of regions. Multiply experience, effectiveness, visibility, membership. Develop a network against the contingencies of natural or political disaster. Build nation-wide phone and email trees. Set up blogs and newsletters at each level to emphasize the local as well as the national. Form discussion groups, interest groups, debate teams, sports teams.
The corporations are highly organized and powerful, though only top-down. The political parties are highly organized and powerful, though predominantly top-down. Our national, state, and local governments, the military and intelligence agencies, the churches (especially the mega-money-churches) are all highly organized and powerful. Isolated individuals and autonomous issue-based organizations are -- what? Not in the same league. And that's the problem. But how would the effectiveness of the old top-down organizations compare with a new organization that integrates top-down with bottom-up?
Does just getting started with organizing ourselves sound objectionable and unrealistic? What's objectionable about building grassroots memberships, regardless of how soon or how far they might be actualized and large-scale? What's objectionable about building a sense of community participation and shared responsibility? Are we to try instead to counter the established political and economic structures as individual members of a loose-knit 3rd party, or as individual insurgents within one of the exiting national parties? How well has that worked so far?
We've got to organize!