Like Henry Milner I have spent the better part of the last two decades studying and thinking about democracy. Unlike Milner, I believe the new generation rising up under the banners of the Quebec student strike and Occupy Wall Street are creating innovations that will profoundly deepen and broaden democracy.

Perhaps it is our different starting points. My bar for what deepens democracy is not our current form of representative democracy but rather the ideas Thomas Paine expressed in Rights of Man:

It appears to general observation that revolutions create genius and talents but those events do no more than bring them forward … the construction of government ought to be able as such to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.

I am sure Milner will agree that our current form of representative democracy, or indeed any form of representative democracy, has thus far failed that test.

What Milner contemptuously calls “social media politics” has little to do with social media themselves but rather with the interactive technologies, including social media, that permit individual political agency, horizontal organizing and decision-making on an unprecedented scale. However, the democratic innovations of the Quebec student strike and Occupy Wall Street have little to do with social media and everything to do with the general assemblies that they used to make decisions.


Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, the brilliant spokesperson of CLASSE throughout the student strike, has explained to English Canadian audiences that the students managed to continue their mobilizations day after day and then night after night only because of general assemblies where every student participated in making all the important decisions. As he said in a talk in Ottawa on September 13,

It is not the leaders that make the major strategic decisions, whether to continue the strike, how to respond to the government, whether to compromise. It is the general assembly with the participation of every student … They are willing to take big risks and put their bodies on the line because they know that they will be part of making these decisions.

Milner claims that the students couldn’t compromise because of the way they practised democracy. They of course claim they were willing to compromise on several occasions when the government was more interested in trying to divide and rule. Whatever the truth of those stories, the general assembly proved itself even in Milner’s terms during the election. The CLASSE leadership wanted to continue the strike but most students voted in general assemblies to suspend the strike until the results of the election were known. And the results were that the Parti Québécois won and indicated immediately that it would strike down the undemocratic Bill 78 and freeze tuition fees, giving the student movement a total victory. No need to continue the strike now.

Occupy Wall Street also uses general assemblies as the base unit of its democratic process. This is not the direct democracy of referendums, which is the only alternative to representative democracy that Milner seems to see, but rather the more significant participatory democracy that enables a dialogue among individuals leading to decisions that, ideally at least, include the ideas of everyone.

There are also people working to make the process of the general assemblies possible across distance. One of them is John Richardson, founder of the Pivot Society, which provides legal representation and advocacy for the poor on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He founded what he calls Party X in March 2011 to use the Internet to expand democracy. His latest app, called PublicForums, takes the principles of consensus and makes them scalable through online voting. Using PublicForums people can vote on different aspects of a proposal, and use social networks to incorporate the influences of other people they trust. The best decision is not the majority decision but rather the decision that receives the most agreement and the least disagreement. So, for example, if 70 per cent are strongly in agreement and 30 per cent strongly in disagreement, it is not as good a decision as if 80 per cent are in moderate agreement and few disagree strongly.

“PublicForums is based on a voting algorithm that instead of choosing outcomes by a majority vote chooses them by what outcomes will maximize satisfaction across all the parties and minimize inequality,” Richardson explained to me in an interview for my e-book Occupy This! “This process allows the retention of minority influence as well. If you have a minority group that represents 23 per cent of the population, they will have 23 per cent influence in the selection of the outcome, unlike majority voting in which they would have none.” I am persuaded that more and more innovations to include citizens in decision-making at every level will be one of the major outcomes of this new generation of activists.

The other significant difference in the ideas about democracy suggested by the Occupy movement and made explicit by the Quebec student strike is that the political democracy of government is not the only place in society where democracy should be practised. In the workplace, in the education system, in the community, in civil society, we need greater participation in decision-making by all participants instead of the top-down structure that exists in most organizations today. These ideas were indeed first imagined by anarchists and Marxists of a previous generation but they are being reinvented today by the Internet generation. Called horizontality by some and direct or participatory democracy by others, these ideas are central to the new movements emerging all around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Maple Spring.

If the Quebec student movement has less faith than previous generations in the current system of representative democracy, it has less to do with how much more radical they are than SDS and everything to do with the degree to which representative democracy has stopped working for the majority of people not only in the United States but around the Western world. Milner does not mention what in my view is the central element in the deterioration of liberal representative democracy: the hegemony of neoliberalism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inability of social democratic parties to present a coherent alternative to neoliberal policies, tax cuts, privatization and market über alles have dominated political discourse and almost all political parties across Europe and North America.

Also, the youth radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s was much less, not more, democratic than the current generation. By 1968, SDS in the United States had split into factions, one of which, the Weather Underground, not only rejected representative democracy but adopted violent revolution as its modus operandi. Quebec too had its anti–representative democracy radicals: in addition to the FLQ, more than 5,000 young people joined Maoist groups with a revolutionary agenda. In English Canada, while the Waffle was the electoral wing of the New Left, many others – myself included – completely rejected electoral democracy as a path to change.

Milner’s view that the power of the 1 per cent is less institutionalized outside the United States is also incorrect. It is true that there are parties that call themselves socialist in Europe, but they too have been captured by neoliberal ideology. In most cases, the grassroots movements in France, Spain and Greece have little use for the mainstream social democratic parties. Only in Greece has a mass radical left-wing party that rejects neoliberal solutions been able to compete electorally. In fact, most of the ideas and practices of Occupy Wall Street come directly from the 15M movement in Spain. The difference between the United States and other countries is not the fact of the institutionalization of the 1 per cent in the political system but the degree, especially in the corporate media.

In Quebec, the Parti Québécois, which was founded on social democratic as well as sovereigntist principles, has become less and less a social democratic alternative. The formation of Québec Solidaire is an important sign that the PQ is losing its credibility among at least part of the left in Quebec. The NDP has also moved significantly to right in the last decade, especially with political operatives making more of its policy decisions than the membership, let alone social organizations.

The 75 per cent turnout in this last Quebec election, close to a 20 per cent increase from the previous election, demonstrates clearly that whether or not CLASSE supports representative democracy, the movement itself stimulated significant citizen participation in the vote.

In my view Milner sets up a straw man called “social media politics” and then attributes to it a rejection of representative democracy. The reason that most young people, including activists, reject electoral politics is that they think it has nothing to do with their lives and there has been less and less choice among parties. Youth voter participation declined long before social media. The ideas of participatory democracy also developed before social media. What social media and other interactive technologies have done is allow a much broader group of people to get involved in and practise participatory democracy.

I founded in 2001. We decided that we had to include some form of what we then called a discussion board because young people we consulted across the country told us, “If it’s not interactive, we are not interested.” From the beginning, the majority of rabble readers came in through Babble, an early interactive discussion space. I didn’t really understand what people liked about it as I found it too disorganized to be very useful as a site of discussion. Almost every self-described babbler I spoke with said the same thing: “It helps me to decide what I think about things by knowing what others like me think.” Of course Facebook and Twitter have amplified this process by leaps and bounds but the basic desire of young people to listen to others like themselves before forming their opinions rather than to experts, politicians or columnists told me something new was happening with this younger generation – something profoundly democratic.

Part of the problem with “the literature” Milner cites in arguing that social media are marginal to the attempts of political parties to link up with voters is that the academic literature is always behind the times. The new benchmark for political organizing is the 2008 Obama campaign, which made massive and successful use of the Internet and social media of all kinds. The campaign used a much more democratic organizing style, giving tools to local emerging leaders and telling them to organize in their communities the way they thought best. This empowerment of local leadership goes directly against the command-and-control style of campaign employed by most political parties. Most old-style organizations, whether political parties, unions or social organizations, find the new methods of participatory organizing very challenging. Change is difficult, but they are trying to change.

Of course, the Obama administration did not continue with its grassroots organizing and participatory process once Obama got elected. The pressure of the system forced it into the same old style of politics, which profoundly alienated his youthful supporters in particular. I argue in Occupy This! that the failure of Obama’s administration to even partially meet the promise of his campaign was a major reason for the emergence of the Occupy movement.

I am frankly perplexed by Milner’s arguments about the problems with this kind of participatory democracy. The example he gives is the rumour of a student death. What about the rumour that Iraq had weapons of mass destructions, a deliberate falsehood perpetrated by the Bush administration and spread by compliant mainstream media? The rumour of the student death was corrected a lot faster than the weapons of mass destruction. How is this an argument against this type of democracy?

But the argument that is stunning to me is this one: “Political activities based on social media do not – cannot – set out the political-economic context in which the demands fit. To the growing extent that members of the Internet generation depend on social media, they lessen their capacity to operate effectively in representative democracy.”

Is Milner actually suggesting that the one-way consumption of news through corporate media that increasingly purvey infotainment rather than hard news and are dominated by a few huge corporations informs more fully than the smorgasbord of information available from international and alternative as well as mainstream media on the Web? Perhaps he should read Don Tapscott’s study of the Internet generation, Grown Up Digital.1 This extensive study of the same generation that Milner is discussing finds that young people want to make media, not passively consume them. They interact with the information they read or watch. I assume Dr. Milner, as a teacher, will agree that students who interact with the knowledge they are learning are much more likely to absorb and understand it.

Political activists of our generation have always seen power as being located in the state and in the corporations. The way to change the world was to get state power and make changes to state and economic structures. Then the women’s movement, antiracist groups and the environmental movement introduced the idea that we must also change our personal behaviour if we want to change the world. These movements, and other similar ones, broadened the idea of politics to the realm of personal relationships among people and the relationship between humans and the environment. Power was understood as something each of us exercises in our lives as part of a dominant group, including our human dominance over nature and its creatures. These ideas about power were influential in organizations and in community, but somehow didn’t alter our ideas of how political change could be achieved.

Today we are seeing the beginnings of that kind of change in notions of transformative power. British feminist Hilary Wainright, who has been analyzing the need for more democracy and inclusion on the left for decades, points out in her saucy magazine Red Pepper,

These new understandings of knowledge point towards an emphasis on the horizontal sharing and exchange of knowledge and collaborative attempts to build connected alternatives and shared memories. They stress the gaining of knowledge as a process of discovery and therefore see political action … as itself a source of knowledge, revealing unpredicted problems or opportunities implying debate driven not so much by the struggle for positions of power as by a search for truth about the complexity of social change.2

This is precisely what Gabriel Nadeau Dubois is talking about when he explains the centrality of the general assembly to the success of the student movement. Finding ways for citizens to fully participate in the decisions that have an impact on their lives is central to ideas of deepening democracy. I believe that the Quebec student movement and Occupy have expanded our understanding of how this might happen. I don’t have space here to expand on the subject of participatory democracy, but I have written three books that explore the topic.3

Finally, I would like respond to the somewhat contemptuous notion of “social media politics.” The suggestion that social media campaigns have no influence on public policy is not only unproven but misleading. No single petition, demonstration, meeting with a minister or occupation has a direct influence on public policy. The impact comes from the combination of tactics. Organizing through Facebook, precisely because it connects you to thousands of people with common interests, is one of the most effective means of organizing that this old activist has ever used. Have we already forgotten the Facebook campaign that mobilized tens of thousands of people in 60 cities to protest Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament? True, it didn’t stop Harper, but it made the prorogation and the Prime Minister’s weak attachment to democratic institutions a major issue.

There is little question that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Livestream, cell phones, smart phones, and whatever the next interactive technologies to come onstream will be have been enormously helpful organizing tools, permitting activists even under totalitarian regimes to communicate with one another and a broader public. In and of itself, this is a boon to democracy, but there is more. The new forms of networking, the challenges to intellectual property rights, people’s globalization, the democratization of media and the increased agency that young people feel as part of the Internet generation are transforming and deepening democracy around the world in ways we are just beginning to see.

Continue reading “A generation that is deepening democracy”