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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Democratic Disengagement, Occupy and Social Evolution

- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel
The Occupy and Tea Party movements share one thing in common - they both think our current system of social organization is broken.  Both agree that the voice of individuals is being lost in the functioning of our model of the democratic process.  From that point, though, the two movements diverge; while the Tea Party folk embrace an Ayn Rand view that disavows society and focuses instead on individual agency, Occupy is committed to finding ways to raise individual concerns up to the level of societal awareness.
The Tea Party enjoys great popularity, but only among a segment of the population.  Their organizers tend to appear angry, aggressive and close-minded in how they present themselves.  While they have been successful in stirring the pot and generating attention, it's questionable how much chance they have of nurturing actual change.  The radicals among their ranks turn off moderate conservatives while those politicians who tack their way lose the opportunity to build broader coalitions of support among their populaces.  This doesn't have to matter - as Stephen Harper has proven, you can completely write off whole provinces in your political calculations and still win.  But what does this do to democracy?  Voter turnout is dwindling for a reason - people are feeling less and less represented by their Representatives and tuning out.
It's difficult to figure out just what Occupy stands for.  Certainly, it has no defined leader, no bureaucratic system of information gathering and policy formation; a key rule adopted by Occupiers was decision by consensus.  This has proven difficult, not just because of differences of opinions, but sheer logistics.  I remember visiting the Occupy Bay Street camp in Toronto and witnessing the challenges of information sharing in its most basic form.  If you've ever been to a Q&A with one microphone, a long line of questioners, a poor sound system and limited time, picture all of that happening out of doors, without the audio.  Without question, however, Occupy has changed politics - politicians have noticed the broad social representation to be found among the ranks of Occupy and its supporters and have begun to throw some recognition there way.  The 47% fits perfectly into that narrative.
So, on the one hand, we have the Tea Party crowd being dismissive of viewpoints that differ from their own and on the other, Occupy trying to raise the voices of those who feel they have been dismissed.  It may be the anthropologist in me, but I think the two perspectives boil down to this - the  Objectivist Tea Party unconsciously wants to recreate a Band-type of social organization, described by Jared Diamond as one "where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quarrels."  Occupy wants to infuse the State model with a Band-level of voice afforded to all members of society, especially those who with less influence due to lineage or circumstance.
Both of these movements face a basic problem of numbers.  A Tea Party Objectivist model only works in smaller groups, where there is less variety of opinion (and ethnicity, religion and social stratification as a result).  The same holds true for Occupy - you cannot have a Circle of discussion that gives voices to thousands of individuals located in pockets across thousands of kilometers of geography.  Similarly, Stephen Harper is finding his quasi-Objectivist perspective at odds with a growing number of stakeholders demanding centralized coordination for far-reaching programs like healthcare.
More broadly, there's a growing recognition that our representative democracy isn't all that representative; disaffected voters feel like they don't know the issues, their concerns aren't being listened to and that it doesn't matter who gets elected, their voice doesn't resonate.  Of course, it has always been thus, with the divide becoming sharper the larger and more diverse society gets.  The only reason this trend is getting more attention today is due to the rise of social media, allowing for groups like Samara to spread their findings more widely and for media to pick up on countless, specific voices of disaffection through mediums like Twitter.
I disagree with Don Tapscott when he suggests that our social system is broken - rather, I think that society has simply grown beyond it, just as we have the Band or the Tribe.  While we still have sub-units of organization; the family, the kin circle, the class, the province, the state - society has grown so large and integrated that we need to add another tier to the top of the organizational pyramid, facilitating greater connectivity and coordination for all.
At the same time, there is demand for greater specialization within society itself.  Specialization is the history of civilization; the division of labour has separated food producers from tool producers from bureaucrats, always building the base of the pyramid outwards.  This applies to institutions as much as it does to individuals; Head Men were separated into Kings and their courts, then Kings and Churches, then Heads of State, Churches and Governments, etc.
The global integration of people, labour and the trade of goods has brought us to a point where societal needs are too complex; our modern systems of governance and representation aren't up to the job.  Change is inevitable.  What that change will eventually look like, I don't know.  It's worth noting, however, another line from Guns, Germs and Steel: "societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts."
I'm not sure if I agree with the words "monopolize force" - I think that's too limited, and also neglects some powerful historical examples of unifying causes that didn't rely on force.  The initial spread of Christianity and Islam were due to the power of the vision and charisma of their leaders - the sword only came later.  For Buddhism, it's always been the message that has brought people together, allowing them to coordinate efforts and resources towards common goals.  Politics works a lot like this, too, at its best - Trudeaumania was a phenomenon because people bought into Trudeau and the concept of the Just Society, rather than being forced or coerced into believing.   
To me, it seems the major challenges that society faces today are:
- the disparity that is inevitable in a massive populace with minimal internal coordination and the resulting social disconnect
- the sheer challenge of engaging all citizenry through a representative system that allows for a majority of voices to be heard and opinions to be represented through policy
- a dearth of strong, common visions and strong, engaging leaders that broader segments of the populace can rally behind
Unlike those trumpeting the end of civilization and the demise of innovation, however, I think that we're going to expand upwards and outwards, overcoming this hurdle as we have all others in the history of society.  I think that we'll be seeing a re-emergence of rock-star leaders with powerful visions that people can see themselves reflected in and feel inspired by.  These trailblazers will be buffeted by communities of engaged individuals using social media as a key tool to lift up their leaders.  Invariably, the brands these leaders engender will be bigger than the leaders themselves, leading to the risk of burying the men and women beneath the hype (as happened to Barack Obama).
A solution to this challenge will be for the Leaders - the Head Men and Women - to share the spotlight a little with their teams, spreading the wealth and responsibility, putting less burden on the shoulders of one.  You can see that happening already with Justin Trudeau's rockstar campaign launch and the visibility of his young, likable and capable campaign team.  In short, we're going to be turning the person at the top into a community, trickling responsibility further down the chain and leading to yet further social specialization.  With such a strong degree of specialization, there's increased demand for more bodies to develop greater, nuanced skills, which results in more stuff, more demand, more production, greater prosperity and less poverty.
But you don't have to take it from me.  Family, Band, Tribe, State - the trend lines are the history of social evolution.


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