The mass party is dying, and it won't be missed

Representative democracy was a considerable improvement on feudalism, and political parties a part of that shift. But is that any reason to continue to champion either in an age of participatory networks?

Liam Barrington-Bush
16 May 2014


A Zimbabwean activist once explained to me his community’s view on representative democracy. “When we hear the word representation,” he said, “we ask ‘who is not there?’”

Or as my mate James described it:

“Voting in a representative democracy (with no recall power) is like having a car but giving the keys to a white guy in a suit and locking yourself in the trunk.

You have no idea where you’ll end up, you’ll have no idea how you got there, all you remember is what the person looked like [and] said before you gave them the keys.”

Rather than seeing representation as an improvement on feudal executive decree, some of us see it as a step backward from far greater involvement in decision making processes; a limitation on the role one can play in shaping the world around them.

Representative democracy surely improved on feudalism in innumerable ways, yet it is looking woefully unfit to move us towards a version of democracy that ups our personal and social commitment beyond the chance to check a box every four or five years, and maybe deliver a few flyers in between, if we’re really keen. Political parties, meanwhile, emulate the wider representative structures of the system they are a part of, further subsuming individual and minority voices in the name of ‘the greater good.’ If we want to find a more participatory way of organising our collective affairs in the 21st century, political parties are an extra impediment to doing so.

In a nutshell, the crisis facing political parties is a more acute facet of the wider crisis of representation, or more positively, the explosion of participation. For many beyond the Westminster Bubble, parties are simply an extra layer of elitist hierarchy and bureaucracy that keep us from getting involved in the decisions that affect us. One more set of hoops to jump through before being able to play a meaningful role in our own governance. In brief, they largely serve to make politics less accessible to those it affects.

Meanwhile, my generation – in some part via social technologies – has been able to engage directly with people and perspectives all over the world, and achieve amazing things, in spite of both elected and unelected leaders. The political party continues to act as a gatekeeper of who is deemed qualified to become the voice of their constituency, while many of us are finding more direct, less cumbersome ways of affecting the issues that we care about.

But again, the crisis is deeper than the party; whether we are being represented by a party or a government, the impacts parallel one another; loss of agency and ownership over our own lives and politics. Someone else is acting on our behalf. To be unified by any institution we have to give up parts of ourselves. That is what I believe the decline in political parties is really about: the sacrifices we have to make in order to take part in our own governance – the sacrifice of our own autonomy and ability to represent ourselves, with all of the individual nuances that makes us human.

Parties – like trade unions and other membership organisations – require too much compromise, for too little return. One of the key shifts of the twenty first century is that we aren’t willing to sacrifice as much of our autonomy as we have done in the past in exchange for being part of a collective. While traditionalists have attributed this to a rise of uncaring individualism, I would argue that we are starting to realise more spaces where we can bring our voices together when appropriate, without permanent affiliation subsuming them in a broader institutional apparatus. Autonomy and collectivism need not be viewed as antithetical to one another. As such, ‘membership’ is becoming a much more fluid concept than it once was and social movements are beginning to highlight some of the alternatives that already exist or which are beginning to come into focus.

Three things that parties should, but won’t learn from social movements

  • - Leaders are more likely to be a problem than a solution

Separating ego from political leadership is like trying to separate water from an ocean; it may be theoretically possible, but it can be hard to practically imagine what the latter would look like without the former. The Tony Benns of the world exist, but don’t seem to come up more than a few times in a generation and thus are hardly a sound model on which to build our political systems in the hope of finding more.

In a world that places so much emphasis on individual status, positions which offer it cannot be seen as independent from the egos of the types of individuals who gravitate towards them. In other words, while there are exceptions, most of the people who tend to like the idea of leading a constituency, a party, or a country, don’t do so exclusively – or even necessarily primarily – for altruistic reasons. Thus the perpetual gripe that I’ve heard from people involved in parties of all stripes – most of the leaders in those parties are assholes and the level of in-fighting and back-stabbing is sky-high, as players jostle for key positions to boost their own assent within the party apparatus. It is also the root of the old idiom, ‘the desire to run for office should mean immediate disqualification from doing so.’

These issues have been recognised by social movements in recent years and very conscious efforts have been made to keep movements from simply becoming vehicles for the individual names and faces that might want to take their reins. From Occupy to the Spanish Indignados, very few traditional leaders have risen to the top of these movements, while countless thousands have become far more than the ‘followers’ or even ‘members’ of most political parties. This suggests that when people are inspired by a basic shared belief, rather than individual charisma, their involvement is likely to be deeper than those who have simply given their faith, their donation, or their vote, to someone else to act on their behalf. Practically speaking, organising in a way that prioritises participation over representation creates greater participation in its wake. Which is surely a hint of the kind of society most of us want to create, isn’t it?

This approach is embedded in many aspects of ‘horizontal’ social movement organising, from Climate Camp, to Occupy; the Arab Spring, to UKuncut. As Dr. Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and activist at Ryerson University in Toronto, active within the Idle No More movement, said, “This movement is unique because ... [t]here is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”

In these kinds of settings, each organising subset acts autonomously. The movement’s direction emerges through its shared expression of common values, but without specific goals pre-set by leaders. When any form of representation is required to liaise between different groups, representatives are constantly rotated to avoid too much power being concentrated with particular individuals. In doing so, more resilient networks are grown directly between countless participants, both within in-person working groups, camps, and affinity groups, as well as between those who are geographically separated but still aligned by their involvement in the movement. The lack of leaders or even long-term representatives opens the space for these value-driven networks to grow and thrive, in strong contrast to the top-down hierarchies and information bottle-necks of political party systems. Leadership in recent social movements is increasingly understood as a collective rather than individual trait, in which everyone has the space to lead or otherwise participate, depending on their experience, their interests and the specifics of the situation.

  • - Why diversity and divergence are more important than unity and loyalty

Following closely from the notion of collective leadership, the emerging forms of participation found in recent movements build their muscle from diversity of perspectives, approaches and tactics, rather than the unity of an imposed party line. Political parties have generally seen themselves as being weakened by those not willing to follow marching orders, yet it is precisely in their internal divergences that movements gain strength.

This emerging alternative represents a sea change in strategy from most traditional forms of progressive membership. Rather than forming one political entity with a singular plan of attack, movements swarm from many angles, converging and dispersing without those involved losing their connections with one another. In a movement we aren’t told what to do, but instead find our own best ways of moving forward on an issue with which we share only a very basic sense of purpose with the others involved.

Diversity of people means we have connections into more groups and communities whose issues and concerns may overlap with our own. Diversity of perspectives means we have learning amongst our networks that shapes our work from a less-limited pool of knowledge, experiences and ideas. Diversity of tactics means we become harder to stop with a top-down counter-strategy.

This opens doors to wider involvement – your significance to a movement is much wider than the boxes a political party confines your actions to. What you’ve got to offer is valuable, even if you don’t want to just make phone calls or knock on doors (while of course these organising bedrocks are still part of the wider mix). Party hierarchies seem unable to handle the vast array of actions, perspectives and people that have helped movements to thrive, yet it is precisely in this diversity that these parties could be saved from their own growing insignificance in wider social contexts.

  • - Why death isn’t always a bad thing

The third key learning point is about movements and death. Movements die. And this is not necessarily a problem. They are born of existing networks; they appear in the public consciousness for a time and expand immensely; then they become invisible again. But the networks remain.

While pundits were declaring the Occupy movement dead, long before the camps were even forcibly evicted, the projects which emerged from Occupy were just kicking into gear. Below is a tiny sample of the ongoing projects that emerged from the initial camps:

  • Occupy Our Homes: A direct action campaign in which communities and activists come together to physically prevent bailiffs from evicting families from their foreclosed homes.
  • Rolling Jubilee: An effort to exploit a financial mechanism which had allowed banks to buy large quantities of ‘toxic debt’ at pennies on the dollar. Activists are using the same mechanism to buy family household debt for tiny amounts, and forgive it. They have forgiven $15 million in debt, keeping countless families in their homes through small donations.
  • Loomio: An online collective consensus decision making platform which has been used by institutions across all sectors and around the world. Recently crowd-funded over $115,000 NZD from current users and supporters to expand and improve the platform.
  • Occupy Money Cooperative: A member-run bank which offers low-interest financial services to Americans too poor to qualify for a traditional bank account, who are traditionally the victims of high-interest loan sharks.
  • Move to Amend: A collective legal campaign to amend the US law which established corporate personhood.
  • Occupy the Hood: An initiative led by Black and Latino activists to bridge the wider anti-capitalist critique of the Occupy movement with the specific struggles faced in predominantly non-white communities.
  • Occupy Sandy: Widely hailed as the most effective disaster response effort during Hurricane Sandy. Mobilised tens of thousands of New Yorkers within 24 hours of the storm hitting the city, and continue their work via long term community organising projects.

Beyond these and other named projects, countless themed working groups which emerged from the thousand-plus camps stayed together, working on a range of social and environmental issues, long after the camps had dispersed.

Similarly, while the Idle No More movement in Canada in the winter of 2012-13 was only seen to last a few months, those involved in indigenous struggles in Canada described a new sense of strength amongst members of their own communities after the initial spike in public activity. Crystal Lameman, an anti-tar sands organiser from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta told me, “Even our own people that work within [the] industry that didn’t want to speak out before, [now] openly and publicly talk about the [human and environmental] atrocities, the violations. This is something that didn’t happen before [Idle No More].”

So the death of a movement shouldn’t be seen as a tragedy, so long as it has succeeded in seeding new activity and action which progresses the general cause that brought the movement into being. What should be seen as a tragedy is an institution that is meant to harness collective energy towards social aims, which doesn’t die, but instead becomes a zombie – a shell of what it once was, trapping people and resources within its walls, long after any collective passion is gone.

If the Occupy camps or the Idle No More round dances had continued indefinitely, they may well have ended up doing what political parties do – trying to push people down a particular path, killing the energy that gave rise to the movements in the first place. Obviously the methods of campaigning and organising will have to be adapted to suit a wider array of needs, but we have plenty of good examples to work from, beyond the worlds of political parties and representational politics, if we allow ourselves to see their potential.

...So let the parties die – I’ll organise the funeral! There are too many good people stuck in the collective coffins these institutions have built, who could be doing so much more to create a better world. As for those for whom a better world is less of an interest, they will have a much harder time finding a greasy pole to climb in a more distributed, network driven, temporal kind of political organising space.

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This article is one of a series entitled After the party? produced as a collaboration between the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, Birkbeck, and OurKingdom, openDemocracy.

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