This documentary argues for shifting major political power away from countries to cities, in part due to the current paralysis national governments face in enacting legislation and in part to the greater likelihood of bottom-up democratic participation in decisions that are made locally.
The filmmakers interview various political scientists who argue for a return to the system of city-state governance that was prevalent prior to the era of colonization.
They give three recent examples in which cities have collaborated with grassroots citizens movements to enact reforms which went on to have major national and global influence:
1. Seattle (Washington) – which in 2014 voted to enact a mandatory $15/hr living wage.
2. Eindhoven (Netherlands) – where citizens collaborated with business leaders and elected officials to create a high tech hub to replace 36,000 jobs that were lost overseas.
3. Hamburg (Germany) – which has retained its pre-1871 city-state governance structure as a federal state within the German federation. As such, it takes on numerous functions normally performed by a national or state government – such as collecting taxes and running schools and universities. It allows its citizens to enact legislation by binding referendum, and in 2014 they voted to buy back the energy grid from a private Swedish company (to hasten its transformation to renewable energy).
This Al Jazeera documentary examines the undemocratic nature of the European Union and it’s role in allowing banks and multinational corporations to colonize Europe. It begins by focusing on the EU Parliament, which meets in secret and bans public observation of its proceedings. Elected members of the EU Parliament lack the authority to initiate legislation. They can only rubber stamp laws proposed by the non-elected European Commission.
Croatian philosopher Srecko Horbat examines the right and left wing movements that have arisen in reaction in response to the massive economic dislocation (job loss, low wages, high housing costs) people have experienced following the creation of the EU.
The far right tends to campaign against the massive influx of migrants, which they blame for their declining standard of living. The left, in contrast, is more focused on rebuilding European democracy from the ground up.
For me, the most interesting part of the film was its examination of various European experiments in direct democracy. Examples include
The grassroots movements in Hamburg and 170 other German cities and towns that have bought back electric power companies from private companies to hasten their transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Ada Colau, the radical mayor of Barcelona,* who is working to transform squats into cooperatives and forcing banks to make vacant buildings available for social housing.
Greece’s parallel economy, which operatives massive “no middlemen” food markets in reaction to price gouging by corporate supermarket chains.
*The capitol of Catalonia, which is organizing a popular referendum to declare independence from Spain – see Showdown in Spain
The Social Conquest of Earth is a book dedicated to an examination of human nature. Through an extensive review of scientific, anthropological, psychological and sociological research, it attempts to determine whether “human nature” is mainly genetically or culturally (ie environmentally) determined. The answer Wilson comes up with is surprising. He concludes that the social traits that make us human are mainly culturally based with only a minor genetic contribution.
In my view, these findings have profound implications regarding our ability to do away with capitalism and the state and govern ourselves.
The book’s primary focus is the “eusocial” nature of human behavior. By definition, a euosocial species is one that forms groups consisting of multiple generations in which members are prone to altruistic acts (eg acts in which they sacrifice themselves for the good of the group). Wilson uses his own extensive research into the genetic evolution of eusocial insects (eg ants, bees, wasps and termites) to inform his conclusions about the limited genetic role in “human nature.” I personally find his arguments quite convincing.
My favorite part of the book is where he demolishes Noam Chomsky’s theory of all language having a universal, genetically based grammar (see Sticking it to Chomsky).
I was also intrigued by the extensive research suggesting that our color perception is culturally rather than genetically based. Anthropological research suggests that human ability to recognize different colors depends on whether your native language has specific words differentiating them. Some indigenous groups have no words for different colors and can only identify them as “black” or “white.”
Research findings are consistent across a broad range of linguistic groups. Wilson cites a study by Berlin and Kay showing that the 2-11 colors identified in various societies are consistent across linguistic groups:
Cultures with only 2 color terms identify black and white.
Cultures with only 3 color terms identify black, white and red.
Cultures with only 4 color terms identify black, white, red and either green or yellow.
Cultures with only 5 color terms identify black, white, red, green and yellow.
Cultures with only 6 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow and blue.
Cultures with only 7 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue and brown.
Cultures with 11 color terms (such as English) identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and gray.
Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas
Directed by Silvia Leindecker and Michael Fox
Beyond Elections is about the global participatory democracy (aka direct or deliberative democracy) movement – the grassroots effort to replace so-called representative democracy (aka polyarchy*) with a process in which citizens participate directly in policy decisions that affect their lives. Historically participatory democracy began in ancient Athens, where people governed directly through large public assemblies (unfortunately assemblies were limited to free born men, who comprised only one-fifth of the population).
According to the filmmakers, participatory democracy died out until 1989, when the Brazilian Workers Party resurrected it in Porto Allegre Brazil by creating participatory budget assemblies. In my view, this isn’t strictly correct, as the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who the Marxists expelled from the First International** , advocated for a system of participatory democracy called “collective anarchism.” Workers used participatory democracy to run the 1871 Paris Commune, as did numerous Spanish cities during the Spanish Civil War.
The Spread of Participatory Democracy
The documentary explores how this new style of local government spread throughout Brazil and to other Latin American countries, as well as to Europe, Africa and even parts of Canada (Guelph Ontario and parts of Montreal). A few US activists are campaigning for more American communities to adopt participatory democracy (several are described in the 2012 book Slow Democracy), but most Americans have never heard of it. The only aspect of participatory democracy widely adopted in the US are workers cooperatives.
Beyond Elections presents numerous examples of participatory democracies in the various Latin American countries that have implemented it. Under representative democracy, local councils are nearly always controlled by local business interests, and elected officials typically enact budgets that benefit these interests. When ordinary people control the budgeting processes through popular assemblies, they spend the money on programs benefiting the entire community, eg on clean safe housing, health centers and basic sanitation.
The Venezuelan Example
Following Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the Venezuelan government called a constitutional assembly to write a new constitution. The latter enabled Venezuelans to directly govern their communities through communal councils, as well as water committees, workers committees (to set up and run workers cooperatives), health committees and land committees (to implement land reform and set up farmers cooperatives).
The projects carried out by the communal councils and various committee were funded by grants from the central government. Despite endemic corruption in the Venezuelan bureaucracy, these new grassroots-run structures succeeded in bringing health care, decent housing and basic sanitation to Venezuelan slums for the very first time.
The film also examines the adoption of participatory democracy in Bolivia, Ecuador and parts of Mexico controlled by the Zapatistas.
The film is in 16 parts of roughly 5 minutes. Each successive segment starts automatically as the preceding segment finishes.
*In a polyarchy, power is closely guarded by a wealthy elite and the population remains passive except for periodic “free elections” in which they vote for the elites of their choice. When a tiny minority controls nearly all the wealth, “free elections” are only possible if the majority is systematically controlled with psychological propaganda. See Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery
**The First International Working Man’s Association was an international organization which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist and anarchist political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle.
In Engines of Domination, filmmaker Justin Jezewski and author Mark Corske lay out a historical and philosophical argument for anarchism – a stateless society people run themselves via direct democracy.
They begin by comparing class society to sheep herding. The latter began around 10,000 BC. Class society began around 5,000 BC when institutions of power (initially kings and priests and later nations and corporations) began domesticating people as well as plants and animals. The goal of this kind of domestication is to capture the energy of an entire community. Initially chattel slavery was the primary mechanism employed to domesticate human beings.
Since no one agrees voluntarily to being treated this way, this has to be done through a combination of force and deception. The methods employed were developed over centuries through a process of trial and error. “Engines of domination” are the historical institutions that make this domination possible and which keep it in place.
The process begins with the confiscation of communal land by force (this happened to Europeans via the Enclosure Acts between 1500 and 1850), forcing the inhabitants to work for the ruling elite by depriving them of the ability to feed themselves. In Corske’s view, this denial of life support is a fundamental act of violence.
Maintaining control of confiscated land requires a command structure, i.e. a monarchy or its equivalent, the rule of law and weapons. Without weapons, domination over other human beings is impossible. Finally the ruling elite creates upper and ruling classes and provides them a range of privileges for keeping the working class in line.
Deception and Thought Control
This is the true structure of modern society. However it has to be concealed via deception and thought control. The working class vastly outnumbers the elite, and human beings would never submit to forced labor voluntarily. Prior to 200 years ago, this thought control was disseminated via state religion (it still is in Israel and Muslim countries). In so-called western democracies, it’s disseminated via compulsory public education and the mass media.
Replacing the Engines of Domination with the Engines of Liberation
At present, the very biosphere that supports human life is being destroyed by a ruling elite whose sole focus is to amass more wealth. The only way to halt this ecological destruction, according to Corske , is to abolish political power, central authority and the institutions that support it. The engines of domination must be replaced by engines of liberation. This may seem like an impossible task, but this is because we are all conditioned to accept our captivity, much like domesticated animals who stay in the cage or pasture even when the door or gate is opened.
Corske believes we must employ the same trial and error process to walk back the layers of institutional domination that enslave us. Although the ruling elite is intensively organized, we have both superior numbers and human nature on our side. Contrary to contemporary mythology, human beings are basically freedom loving and incline towards cooperation rather than violence towards our fellow human beings.
Building a mass movement to take advantage of our superior numbers is essential. Corske feels the best way to do this is to organize for specific reforms with the ultimate goal of abolishing central authority.
This short documentary is based on Mark Corske’s book Engines of Domination, published in 2013.
Taksim Commune: Gezi Park and the Uprising in Turkey
Global Uprisings 2013
This short documentary tells the story of the occupation of Gezi Park and Taksim Square between May and July 2013. The occupation began as a protest against replacement of a popular park with high rise buildings.
Prime Minister Erdogan responded to the peaceful protest with unrestrained violence and brutality. This, in turn, awakened a broad cross section of Turkey to their underlying anger with Erdogan’s authoritarian regime. Young Turks are especially unhappy with massive youth unemployment related to the 2008 downturn and subsequent austerity cuts.
The occupation would eventually draw in unions, sports stars and fans, Muslims, Christians, atheists, ethnic minorities (e.g. Kurds) and even gay activists.
Like many of the Occupy encampments, the Taksim Commune came to provide food, medical care, market stalls and books for people involved in the protests. The film emphasizes the peoples’ assemblies that ran the Taksim Commune via consensus decision making.
This political unrest quickly spread across Turkey. In the intervening year, the grassroots movement against Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has continued to grow and exert its influence over Turkish society.
As the 2008 downturn and subsequent austerity cuts push more and more families into unrelenting misery, there is growing sentiment that capitalism and our current political system (which is best described as corporatism or fascism*) cannot be reformed and need to be dismantled.
If capitalism is dismantled and/or collapses, it will need to be replaced. This is a major stumbling block for many activists. There seems to be wide general support for a system in which people govern themselves through direct democracy. However most of us feel a little vague as to how the mechanics will operate. How do you ensure everyone has an equal voice while simultaneously meeting their needs for food, shelter and protection from arbitrary violence?
The 2011 Occupy movement is the best known experiment in direct democracy, though some Occupy encampments were more “democratic” than others. People in several cities complained about hierarchical decision-making that excluded women and activists with less formal education.
Grasp the Nettle documents two similar occupations that predated Occupy London by a year. Both were started by antiwar activists. One, situated in a vacant lot, was designated an Ecovillage and focused on food production. The other, located in Parliament Square, was called Democracy Camp and focused on pressuring government to recall British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the Occupy movement, both attracted a substantial number of people who had lost their jobs due to austerity cuts. Unlike Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Square, which made the decision to exclude homeless people from meals and decision making, Ecovillage and Democracy Camp embraced the homeless people who joined them as full members.
Grasp the Nettle is an important sociological study of direct democracy in action. Owing to deepening austerity cuts, the industrial world has created a permanent unemployed underclass that comprises 20-30 percent of the population. With the growing exclusion of young people and the disadvantaged from the formal economy, similar experiments with direct democracy are occurring throughout the developed and developing world.
*Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” Benito Mussolini