Occupy Wall Street’s “Leaderless, Consensus-based Participatory Democracy”

I love The Economist. Though slightly dated (Oct 2011), this article “Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and it’s discontents” brings up an interesting point. The article is about the political organization of Occupy Wall Street, and it commends OWS for practicing what it preaches. It advocates for democratic reform, and it exemplifies the system for which it advocates. This type of democracy sounds like the direct democracy experienced in the Greek polis. It is ideal because it offers perhaps the purest manifestation of total enfranchisement. This is, at a glance, a very meaningful “subtype” of democracy. The adjectives (“leaderless, consensus-based, participatory”) in no way undermine a democratic system. Yet the author of this article explains that this system could only work in a small political community of like-minded individuals, and the criticisms of this type of democracy are as follows:

– this type of democracy cannot deal with “the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus.” The author explains that communes that rely on complete participation and consensus operate because those who have beliefs contrary to that of the commune stay away. Furthermore…

– “the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend towards extremism.” This is based on research that shows that when like-minded people interact continuously without much exposure to competing views, extremism is much more likely.

– “communal egalitarian living” often results in “heavy communal pressure to maintain the conformity of belief”, and thus this system can “point in the direction of radical decentralization and hyper-local control.”

It’s not news to me (nor would it be to any other poly sci student) that participatory democracy doesn’t work in a large, diverse, political entity. That’s okay. A democracy that only works in small communities of like-minded people is, technically, still a democracy. I think the question here, is how democratic is a system that fosters heavy pressure to maintain a certain ideology? Is this any different than liberal democracy – a system in which liberal values are firmly entrenched and marketed as absolute and morally necessary?

This article explains that though “leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy” sounds like an ideal, it is nothing more than another dream with a corresponding, imperfect reality. However, maybe the truth is that this is the face of true democracy – “leaderless, consensus-based, and participatory” are certainly three adjectives I would use to describe the democratic ideal. In this case, maybe “true democracy” can only function in small, homogenous communes. This article’s criticisms of this participatory system reflects the Western sentiment that true democracy does not exist alongside extremism. Could it be that it only exists alongside extremism?



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