News & Politics

Democracy and Its Roots of Grass

Francesca Polletta's "Freedom Is an Endless Meeting" is a deep portrayal of the ways in which activists in the '60s tried to achieve participatory democracy, while "Making a Place for Community" argues for its use in the making of public policy.
In 1962, I was one of the several dozen people in their teens and early 20s who assembled at Port Huron, Mich., to spend several days debating and reworking a draft manifesto written by former California state senator Tom Hayden for the Students for a Democratic Society, the new left organization that sparked the mass antiwar protests of the 1960s. Our chutzpah was palpable: We thought, despite -- or because of -- our youth, that we could correct decades of left-wing failure and invent a fresh vision to inspire social action. And, indeed, the Port Huron Statement continues to merit attention today, if for no other reason than that it introduced a new phrase into the political lexicon: "participatory democracy."

Coined by Arnold Kaufman, Hayden's philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, the term distilled the vision of Kaufman's hero, John Dewey, of a never-ending political and social mission to extend the opportunity for human beings to have a voice in the "decisions that affect their lives." Such a mission strives to replace top-down control with democratic deliberation in every institutional structure from the nation-state to the family. New Leftists saw participatory democracy as a synthesis of the best elements of older radical ideological streams -- pacifism, anarchism, socialism, populism -- that expressed the common core of these: a quest for a social order in which human beings are increasingly able to determine their common fate rather than live at the mercy of dominating elites or impersonal forces.

Participatory democracy was a lens for looking at society at large; for many '60s activists it was also a frame for scrutinizing their own internal practices and relationships. Sixties social movements consciously tried to see if participatory democracy could, in fact, be practiced in their own organizations and communities. The books "Freedom Is an Endless Meeting" and "Making a Place for Community" describe such experiments, appearing 40 years after the Port Huron Statement.

Francesca Polletta's "Freedom Is an Endless Meeting" focuses on three '60s groups and their methods: Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the network of black and white youths founded in 1960, created by those who had sparked the sit-ins and freedom rides and became the prime organizers of the Mississippi freedom struggle; Students for a Democratic Society, which tried in the mid-'60s to emulate SNCC's organizing approach in several Northern cities and, after launching protests against the Vietnam War, became a membership organization of tens of thousands; and the women's liberation movement as expressed by a variety of local collectives and consciousness-raising groups.

Polletta's interviews with scores of veteran activists lead to a deep portrayal of the ways in which activists tried to fuse moral principle and strategy. This portrayal challenges the common assumption that morality and strategy are incompatible, that those who aim at winning must compromise principle while those who insist on morality are destined to be ineffective.

Decision-making in these groups, Polletta shows, borrowed from the Quakers and other pacifist groups and emphasized consensus. She explains that the adoption of consensus was not only a matter of principle, it also ensured that their high-risk organizing and protesting derived from the genuine commitment of all. Rather than forge group discipline on command, as armies or revolutionary undergrounds do, these groups sought solidarity through deliberation and open communication. It may have led to the frustrations of "endless meetings" but also made members take ownership of group decisions.

SNCC worked in the poorest black communities of the Deep South, trying to mobilize people who lacked formal schooling and were unaccustomed to public talk or action. Yet rather than lead in the usual sense, SNCC organizers taught and listened, enabling the "indigenous" people to take leadership. SDS' organizing efforts in poor Northern neighborhoods emulated this principle of participatory democracy: to train voiceless people to speak in their own interest rather than be spoken for.

Such '60s efforts to use the democratic meeting as a space for democratic tutelage, Polletta suggests, had roots in earlier important but now obscure projects in labor education -- projects that helped develop large numbers of leaders with working-class roots. Similarly, one can trace much of the post-1960s black leadership in the South to the training effects of the civil rights movement.

A key characteristic of '60s movements was their decentralization: They were far more alive and real in their local bases than in their national offices, and members often rebelled when national leadership tried to actually lead. The radical feminism of the late '60s even dispensed with national organization altogether, opting to be entirely made up of local, autonomous groupings, which can also be attributed to the women's liberation groups of the later 1960s and early 1970s.

Conventional wisdom has it that the New Left failed. The reasons usually given for that failure emphasize the very practices just listed. An organization's political success is usually measured by its longevity and growth and by the increasing influence of its leaders. By such measures, the 1960s organizations that Polletta describes certainly failed; they fragmented, lost direction and disappeared. But Polletta argues that the decline of these groups was not due to their democratic practices but to the whirling chaos of the time and their members' inexperience.

Rather than dwell on trying to explain the decline of the '60s movements, Polletta shows how participatory democracy has become the guiding framework for many of today's activists. Indeed, new movements, drawing on the lessons of the past, are able to practice democracy more effectively than their earlier counterparts. The anti-globalization mobilizations of recent years show how decentralized networks can bring together large, diverse numbers, releasing surprising energy and creativity. Current antiwar protests are happening with very little evident structure or stable leadership; the Internet is a useful tool for decentralized dissemination of ideas and action plans. As Polletta suggests, democratic possibilities lie not so much in formal civic organizations but in the practices and demands of grass-roots movements.

"Making a Place for Community," however, argues that participatory democracy can form the basis of public policy as well as movement practice. Gar Alperovitz was an important mentor to young activists in the 1960s, and ever since, he has been trying to work out a strategic framework for participatory democratic reform of the economy. With David Imbroscio and Thad Williamson, he traces the ways in which local community in the U.S. is undermined by free-trade regimes, by urban sprawl and by the competition among cities and states for corporate investment. Each of these forces is facilitated by government policies favoring the rights and prerogatives of large corporations over the economic stability and social viability of communities. The result? A decline of local democracy and the "throwing away" of neighborhoods, towns and regions.

Conventional wisdom assumes that local decline and urban sprawl are inevitable consequences of the free market -- to be lived with and adapted to. But "Making a Place for Community" challenges such assumptions. Hardly inevitable, such decline, it forcefully argues, is fostered to a high degree by government policies -- subsidies, tax structures and programs. But the book aims not simply to critique but also to inventory alternative policies that could work in favor of community stability, local sustainability and democratic revival.

One of the ironies of the way we now live is the extent to which we are trashing the very thing that founders such as Thomas Jefferson believed was the source of our national promise: the local community. The authors want to restore that Jeffersonian vision, but, ironically, they argue that this requires alternatives to private ownership and control of capital. Communities must create, support and even own local businesses; workers should be able to take over when private owners abandon a firm; community control of land is essential if environmental and agricultural needs are to be protected.

Every reform advocated here is in practice somewhere in the U.S.: There is, in short, more participatory democracy in our society than anyone recognizes. Embedded in the social landscape are a host of employee-owned firms, community development corporations, land trusts, co-ops, community banks and other forms of non-private enterprise. Many of the authors' reform proposals can, accordingly, be tested by seeing how they are already working. Final irony: The Democratic Party could construct a potentially popular program for economic revitalization by proposing effective decentralization of power to the grass-roots. Such a program would challenge the established Republican design to concentrate power in corporate rather than public hands, while transforming traditional Democratic conceptions of the role of the federal government.

The ideas in "Making a Place for Community" reflect the vision glimpsed at Port Huron 40 years ago, and, like Polletta's "Freedom Is an Endless Meeting," the book presents ideas that flow logically from the demands and experiences of grass-roots activists in the years since. For these last 40 years, a new politics, in which people take control of their communities, has been fermenting. These books help us see the social promise in that.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Richard Flacks is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara and the author of "Making History: The American Left and the American Mind."

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