Iroquois democracy

The following quotation is from a statement presented before a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing  (on Senate Resolution S. Con. 76) in 1987 to recognize the Iroquois origin of the U.S. Constitution, spoken by the Honorable Oren Lyons, speaker for the Onondaga Nation. Found in, “Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control!” Edited by Christopher Plant & Judith Plant. New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, Pa and Gabriola Island, BC. 1992. (70-73)

Early history, prior to the coming of the white man to this continent, receives little attention in the history books. But it was in these early times that the development of democratic processes came about on this land.

Upon the continent of North America, prior to the landfall of the white man, a great league of peace was formed, the inspiration of a prophet called the Peacemaker. He was a spiritual being, fulfilling the mission of organizing warring nations into a confederation under the Great Law of Peace. The principles of the law are peace, equity, justice, and the power of the good minds.

With the help and support of a like-minded man called Aionwatha, whom some people now call Hiawatha, an Onondaga by birth and a Mohawk by adoption, he set about the great work of establishing a union of peace under the immutable natural laws of the universe. He came to our Iroquois lands in our darkest hour, when the good message of how to live had been cast aside and naked power ruled, fueled by vengeance and blood lust. A great war of attrition engulfed the lands, and women and children cowered in fear of their own men. The leaders were fierce and merciless. They were fighting in a blind rage. Nations, homes, and families were destroyed, and the people were scattered. It was a dismal world of dark disasters where there seemed to be no hope. It was raging proof of what inhumanity man is capable of when the laws and principles of life are thrown away.

The peacemaker came to our lands, bringing the message of peace, supported by Aionwatha. He began the great work of healing the twisted minds of men. This is a long history, too long to recount here. Suffice it to say it is a great epic that culminated on the shores of the lake called Onondaga where, after many years of hard work –some say perhaps even 100 years –he gathered the leaders, who had now become transformed into rational beings, into a Grand Council, and he began the instructions of how the Great Law of Peace would work.

The Peacemaker set up the families into clans, and then he set up the leaders of the clans. He established that the League of Peace would be matriarchal and that each clan would have a clanmother. Thus, he established in law the equal rights of women.

He raised the leaders of each clan –two men, one the principal leader and the second his partner. They worked together for the good of the people. He called these two men royane, or the good minds, the peacemakers, and they were to represent the clans in council. Thus, he established the principles of representation of people in government.

Henceforth, he said, these men will be chosen by the clan mother, freely using her insight and wisdom. Her choice must first be ratified by the consensus of the clan. If they agree, then her choice must be ratified by full consensus of the Chiefs’ Council of their nation. Then her choice must be ratified and given to over to the Council of Chiefs who then call the Grand Council of the Great League of Peace, and they will gather at the nation that is raising the leader, and they would work together in ceremony.

He made two houses in each nation. One he called the Long House and the other he called the Mud House. They would work together in ceremony and council establishing the inner source of vitality and dynamics necessary for community.

He made two houses in the Grand Council, one called the Younger Brothers, consisting of the Oneida and the Cayuga Nations and later enlarging to include the Tuscarora. The other was the Elder Brothers, consisting of the Mohawks with the title Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Onondaga, whom he made the Firekeepers, and the Senecas, who were the Keepers of the Western Door. Now, he made the house, and the rafters of the house were the laws that he laid down, and he called us the Haudenosaunee: the people of the Longhouse.

Now, the candidate for the clan title is brought before the Grand Council and will be judged on his merits, and they have the right to veto. If they agree, then he may take his place in the Grand Council. But before that, he is turned back to the people, and they are asked if they know a reason why this man should not be a leader and hold title. Thus, the process is full circle back to the people.

Thus, the peacemaker established the process of raising leaders for governance, and, by this process, a leader cannot be self-proclaimed. He is given his title and his duties, and his authority is derived from the people, and the people have the right to remove him for malfeasance of office.

He established the power of recall in the clanmother, and it is her duty to speak to him if she is receiving complaints from the people concerning his conduct. The clanmother shall speak to him three times, giving sufficient time between warnings for him to change his ways. She shall have a witness each time. The first will be her niece, in other words, a woman. The second shall be the partner of the chief in council or the principal leader, as the case may be. And the third and final warning comes with a man who holds no title, and he is coming for the chief’s wampum and for the chief’s emblem of authority, the antlers of a deer. Thus he established the power of recall vested in the people.

The leader must be free from any crime against a woman or a child. He cannot have killed anybody and cannot have blood on his hands. He must believe in the ways of the Longhouse. His heart must have great compassion for his people. He must withstand the accusations, slander, and insults of the people as he goes about his duties for the people. He has no authority but what the people give him in respect. He has no force of arms to demand the people obey his orders. He shall lead by example, and his family shall not influence his judgement. He carries his title for life or until he is relieved of it by bad conduct or ill health. He now belongs to the people.

At the first council, there were 50 original leaders, and their names became offices to be filled by each succeeding generation. So, it continues up to this very day. The Great Peacemaker had established a government of absolute democracy, the constitution of the great law intertwined with the spiritual law.

We then became a nation of laws. The People came of their own free will to participate in the decision-making of the national council and the Grand Council. Thus, the Peacemaker instilled in the nations the inherent rights of the individual with the process to protect and exercise these rights.

If for no other reason, this has relevance for re-interpreting history so as to include buried narratives.

Transcending gender.

In this short video Judith Butler explains what it means for gender to be performative and how that relates to how gender identities are forced onto people through hetronormative reactions by people who observe others interacting with the world around them.

In the following video the good folks at the PBS idea channel further extrapolate on the performative phenomena of gender.

Next, a blogger going by the name queersocialistdave expresses the need to rebel against hetronormativity.

Androgyny or genderqueerness is about the liberation of the body and mind from the constraints of heteronormative patriarchal capitalist society. It is a way of rebelling against the norms laid down by this oppressive social order and refusing to live one’s life in conformity with them. It is about being a more balanced, whole person, able to draw upon all aspects of one’s character, whether these be labeled masculine, feminine or otherwise. It is about not limiting oneself to an artificially fixed role. It is about not living in a role that is a socially constructed straight-jacket. It is about fulfilling one’s potential as a sexual being. Patriarchy oppresses both women and men in different ways, heternormativity oppresses both “straights” and queers in different ways, and capitalism oppresses the vast majority of us on every level. We all should feel free to dare to break out of this bourgeois-hegemonistic view of gender and sexuality that controls us, just as we should all dare to break free of every aspect of the hegemony imposed upon us by the ruling class. As well as class warriors, we should dare to be gender rebels, transgressors, subversives – in short, revolutionaries. When we dare to do this we will see there isn’t one among of us who isn’t a little bit queer.  queersocialistdave, from the post, Androgyny and Gender Performativity in Queer Identity Politics

I will add to all this that the responsibility to rebel against patriarchal order lies not just with those who identify as queer, bisexual, transgender or any other norm-diverging gender, but with everyone who cares about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, with everyone who wants to be free of the illusion-creating matrix of systematic oppression. Being free of patriarchal conceptions of gender is key to spiritual liberty as well. What gender is detachment? What gender is Buddha-nature? In Transmission of Light, Keizan (1268-1325) wrote, “If you are not detached from appearances of maleness and femaleness, whatever you do is mundane activity, not buddha work.”

In an interview with Liz Kotz, Judith Butler states, “I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” This image of gender and race as vectors of power visualizes the mechanics for a matrix visualization of systematic oppression. These vectors of power function through groups and individuals projecting identity stereo-types onto other groups and individuals and in the process pushing people into positions of having to counter stereo-types with their own version of their sense of identity. This process divides people, fracturing all sense of unity, and puts people unwittingly in collaboration with systems of oppression. Perhaps  steps towards de-powering the vectors of power which reinforce systematic oppression are to not identify with patriarchal conceptions of gender or race and to view gender as variable, multiple, and as unique as each human.

Beuys and Böll’s free school manifesto.

For this entry I am quoting in full the “Manifesto on the foundation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Inter disciplinary Research” written by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in 1973.  This is a particular sort of initiative which I am interested in reviving.

Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art.  Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression.  To recognize, explore and develop this potential is the task of the school.

 Creation—whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel, involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

 Conversely, when we consider the ability to organize material that is expected of a worker, a housewife, a farmer, doctor, philosopher, judge or works manager, we find that their work by no means exhausts the full range of their creative abilities.

 Whereas the specialist’s insulated point of view places the arts and other kinds of work in sharp opposition, it is in fact crucial that the structural, formal and thematic problems of the various work processes should be constantly compared with one another.

 The school does not discount the specialist, nor does it adopt an anti-technological stance.  It does, however reject the idea of experts and technicians being the sole arbiters in their respective fields.  In a spirit of democratic creativity, without regressing to merely mechanical defensive or aggressive clichés, we shall discover the inherent reason in things.

 In a new definition of creativity the terms professional and dilettante are surpassed, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.

 The founders of the school look for creative stimulation from foreigners working here.  This is not to say that it is a prerequisite that we learn from them or that they learn from us.  Their cultural traditions and way of life call forth an exchange of creativity that must go beyond preoccupation with varying art forms to a comparison of the structures, formulations and verbal expressions of the material pillars of social life:  law, economics, science, religion, and then move on to the investigation or exploration of the “creativity of the democratic.”

 The creativity of the democratic is increasingly discouraged by the progress of bureaucracy, coupled with the aggressive proliferation of an international mass culture.  Political creativity is being reduced to the mere delegation of decision and power.  The imposition of an international cultural and economic dictatorship by the constantly expanding combines leads to a loss of articulation, learning and the quality of verbal expression.

 In the consumer society, creativity, imagination and intelligence, not articulated, their expression prevented, become defective, harmful and damaging—in contrast to a democratic society—and find outlets in corrupted criminal creativity.  Criminality can arise from boredom, from inarticulated creativity.   To be reduced to consumer values, to see democratic potential reduced to the occasional election, this can also be regarded as a rejection or a dismissal of democratic creativity.

 Environmental pollution advances parallel with a pollution of the world within us.  Hope is denounced as utopian or as illusionary, and discarded hope breeds violence.  In the school we shall research into the numerous forms of violence, which are by no means confined to those of weapons or physical force.

 As a forum for the confrontation of political or social opponents, the school can set up a permanent seminar on social behavior and its articulate expression.

 The founders of the school proceed from the knowledge that since 1945, along with the brutality of the reconstruction period, the gross privileges afforded by monetary reforms, the crude accumulation of possessions and an upbringing resulting in an expense account mentality, many insights and initiatives have been prematurely shattered.  The realistic attitude of those who do survive, the idea that living might be the purpose of existence, has been denounced as a romantic fallacy.  The Nazis’ blood and soil doctrine, which ravaged the land and spilled the blood, has disturbed our relation to tradition and environment.  Now, however, it is no longer regarded as romantic but exceedingly realistic to fight for every tree, every plot of undeveloped land, every stream as yet unpoisoned, every old town center, and against every thoughtless reconstruction scheme.  And it is no longer considered romantic to speak of nature.  In the permanent trade competition and performance of the two German political systems which have successfully exerted themselves for world recognition, the values of life have been lost.  Since the school’s concern is with the values of life we shall stress the consciousness of solidarity.  The school is based on the principle of interaction, whereby no institutional distinction is drawn between the teachers and the taught.  The school’s activity will be accessible to the public, and it will conduct its work in the public eye.  Its open and international character will be constantly reinforced by exhibitions and events in keeping with the concept of creativity.

 “Non-artists” could initially be encouraged to discover or explore their creativity by artists attempting to communicate and to explain—in an undidactic manner—the elements and the coordination of their creativity.  At the same time we would seek to find out why laws and disciplines in the arts invariably stant in creative opposition to established law and order.

 It is not the aim of the school to develop political and cultural directions, or to form styles, or to provide industrial and commercial prototypes.  Its chief goal is the encouragement, discovery and furtherance of democratic potential, and the expression of this.  In a world increasingly manipulated by publicity, political propaganda, the culture business and the press, it is not to the named—but the nameless—that it will offer a forum.

Reprinted in Energy Plan for the Western Man:  Joseph Beuys in America, Writings by and Interviews with the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni.  New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990.


Africville Relocation Report and the sale of St. Pat’s

The #9 bus picks up passengers in the part of Halifax formerly known as Richmond, near what once was Africville, and drives along Barrington Street towards downtown. On the way it passes the Irving Shipyards and a navy base. Across the harbour, on the Dartmouth waterfront there are three huge red and white striped smoke stacks of a gas burning power plant and near the harbour’s mouth sits the borg-like maze of pipes which is an oil-refinery. Each morning when I take that bus to work downtown I’m conscious that everything which is wrong with the world is present right here in little old Halifax.

The military-industrial complex occupies the majority of Halifax’s waterfront. Side by side they sit: the navy who, under Stephan Harper’s command, have awarded a huge contract to their neighbour Irving Shipyard to build fleets of warships. It was largely through the growth of these industries that the black community which had been established here two hundred years ago was forced to move into ghetto housing while their homes were torn down and paved over.

Recently I stumbled on “The Africville Relocation Report” by Donald H. Clairmont and Dennis W. Mcgill in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library and spent a couple afternoons reading it, learning a lot about how the decision was made to appropriate that land. The situation looked like this: the north end of Halifax near the Bedford Basin had been set aside for everything which the ‘fathers of Halifax’ did not want in their neighborhoods: a garbage dump, a prison, and a hospital for infectious diseases. Though a black community had been there almost since the time when British soldiers had built a fort here in 1749 and gradually extended a city around this military outpost, city council had done nothing to provide services for them from that time till 1962 –when council began to seriously debate what to do about ‘the slums by the dump,’ as a Halifax counsellor referred to what former residents emphatically remember as a thriving and loving community.  In the late fifties there had been talk of needing to appropriate more land along the harbour and basin for industrial purposes –building warships and another shipping port.

Though the Africville Relocation Report makes it clear that council already had eyes on Africville to open the land to industrial usage, connect roads, and extend the city’s urban plan, much of the debate in council between 1962-64 was framed altruistically as being concerned for what was best for the residents of Africville. Members of council argued that since most of the houses were in poor condition; since there was no sewage, running water, or electricity; since there was a network of paths between houses rather than a grid of streets; and since many of the claims of property ownership were unclear and problematic, that it would be best for the residents to be moved to a new location instead of providing basic services to those citizens in their chosen homes. Africville residents themselves surely did not want to move. They just wanted warm homes, clean water, to be able to sing in their own church and swim at their own beach.

Now, two hundred years after the British promised American slaves that they could be free on their own land if they fought in the War of 1812 –which was when many of the ancestors of Nova Scotian black people settled here, Halifax’s black community is again being slighted by Halifax Regional Council. A school which was built to educate the uprooted children of Africville near the ghetto they were forced into has been closed and sold to a developer –after three community groups, the North End Community Health Clinic, the Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, appealed the sale saying that it was in violation of one of council’s own policy which says that community groups should be given opportunity to propose a use for abandoned schools before they are offered up for sale. In an article published this morning, Tim Bousquet clearly outlined the situation. It is unbelievable to me that council would rather change their own rules, which they voted to do two days ago, rather than listen to the people they claim to represent. This is not what democracy looks like.

If it is alright for city council to whimsically change their rules, why can’t Haligonians get them to change more about the way the local political system functions so that citizens can play a part in deciding what is to happen, or at least so that council is accountable for breaches of their own policies?

A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.

Democratic traits?

Last week I bought a book which was first published in 2009 as Democratie, dans quel etat? The English translation has just been published this year.  It is a collection of essays examining what is meant by the word ‘democracy’. The first essay, “The Democratic Emblem” by Alain Badiou, is what I am focusing on in this post.

Alain Badiou offers a rather cynical view of democracy. He first criticizes the Western tendency to suppose that the “democratic world” is superior to the rest of the world. Fair enough. Then he harks back to Plato, specifically book 8 of The Republic, in which “Plato applies the term demokratia to a way of organizing the business of the polis, a certain type of constitution.” (8) After a few words about how both Lenin and Plato saw democracy as no more than a particular form of state, he says, “The capacity of the democratic emblem to do harm lies in the subjective type it molds; and, not to mince words, the crucial traits of the democratic type are egoism and desire for petty enjoyments.” (8)

Here I have to take issue with what Badiou takes for granted. In the shadows of the words, “the subjective type it molds” many debates of twentieth century French philosophy lurk. Specifically, Louis Althusser seems to have influenced professor Badiou’s perspectives. Badiou was a student of Althusser and has built his intellectual career on Althusser’s peculiar slant on Marxism. Althusser’s cryptic remarks on ideology and how it molds the subjectivities of individuals haunted my university studies as well. It was pivotal to the raising of my political consciousness to puzzle through what it means for mental and physical habits, hopes, preferences, styles of reactions, all that constitutes subjectivity, to be shaped by the various ideologies that exist in the societies we are immersed in. Althusser at times in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses seems to think of “ideology” as a mysteriously united force in the universe –sort of like the Nothing in The Never ending Story –which threatens to swallow everything that is not it. Badiou appears to be thinking along similar lines when he accuses democracy of molding a subjective type with the traits of egoism and desire for petty enjoyments. He makes no attempt to distinguish the subjective type that the democratic emblem molds from what any other ideology molds, such as capitalism, protestantism, science, or the communism which he endorses. He seems to just see contemporary society as egoistic and desirous of petty enjoyments and blames that on democracy. What is it about democracy that could create such traits? It is much more complicated than Badiou’s sweeping statement implies.

Continuing on with Alain Badiou’s article, he goes on to accuse democracy of being stuck in a perpetual youthfulness void of the wisdom of age.  This, again, he claims is based on Plato. Badiou says, “Plato’s thesis is that sooner or later this manner of existence, grounded in the indiscipline of time, and its correlative form of State, representative democracy, will bring about a visible manifestation of their despotic essence. Because that is what it comes down to: the real content of all that youth and beauty is the despotism of the death wish.” (13). Badiou implies that “death wish” is a Platonic term –though it is a Freudian generalization –when, immediately after the last quoted sentence he says, “That is why, for Plato, the trajectory that begins with the delights of democracy ends with the nightmare of tyranny. ” (13)

If democracy is to end in tyranny, it seems to me that it is because it has never really been separated from the economic tyranny of the aristocracy, not because of the youthful lustiness which those old Greeks saw everywhere they looked. If democracy is to become the organizational principle of empowering communities to thrive and encourage positive traits it will be through becoming conscious of what non-democratic traits are woven into our institutions and minds, rooting those out and envisaging new ways to organize our communities and free our minds.

Howard Zinn’s vision


From the chapter, “The coming revolt of the guards,” in Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States.

Let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic again it is not that “realism” so useful to the Establishment in its discouragement of action, that “realism” anchored to a certain kind of history empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.

The society’s levers of powers would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state –giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need –by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country –to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most. We would start on our neighborhoods, our cities, our workplaces. Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force –children, old people, “handicapped” people. Society could use the enormous energy now idle, the skills and talents now unused. Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available –free –to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods –a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

People in time, in friendly communities, might create a new, diversified, nonviolent culture, in which all forms of personal and group expression would be impossible. Men and women, black and white, old and young, could then cherish their differences as positive attributes, not as reasons for domination. New values of cooperation and freedom might then show up in the relations of people, the upbringing of children.

To do all that, in the complex conditions of control in the United States, would require combining the energy of all previous movements in American history –of labor insurgents, black rebels, Native Americans, women, young people –along with the new energy of an angry middle class. People would need to begin to transform their immediate environments –the workplace, the family, the school, the community –by a series of struggles against absentee authority, to give control of these places to the people who live and work there.

These struggles would involve all the tactics used at various times in the past by people’s movements: demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direst action to redistribute wealth, to reconstruct institutions, to revamp relationships; creating –in music, literature, drama, all the arts, and all the areas of work and play in everyday life –a new culture of sharing, of respect, a new joy in the collaboration of people to help themselves and one another.

There would be many defeats. But when such a movement took hold in hundreds of thousands of people all over the country it would be impossible to suppress, because the very guards the system depends on to crush such a movement would be among the rebels. It would be a new kind of revolution, the only kind that could happen, I believe, in a country like the United States. It would take enormous energy, sacrifice, commitment, patience. But because it would be a process over time, starting without delay, there would be the immediate satisfactions that people have always found in the affectionate ties of groups striving together for a common goal.  (638-640)

What would Howard Zinn have to say about new possibilities for global revolution now that the world has changed so much since Zinn’s death about a year ago? I think he would expand on the vision articulated above, applying it to global networks of local communities, pointing to the joy and community spirit felt in Tahrir and other squares where people stood together in solidarity as examples of how new kinds of struggles can lead to new mentalities of cooperation.