Ecotopian Democracy

A few years ago I had the chance to sit down with Ernest Callenbach and discuss solutionary governance ideas. I posted this after the interview. Any reference to state referendum bills and their numbered titels are dated and obsolete.

UAS Development Team member, Kevin Bayuk, recently had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Ernest Callenbach the author, probably best known for, perhaps the most visionary novels of a sustainable, thriving future yet imagined, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging [highly recommended reading for Allies!]. Illuminating the lonely imaginary fields of a truly sustainable food, energy and transportation system, built environment, even the economy, Callenbach shines a bright light on an easily possible future waiting for us to embrace that is neither Luddite nor naïve Viridian. Little acknowledged is Callenbach’s exploration of democracy and its functioning in a sustainable society. Kevin endeavored to probe deeper into Callenbach’s contemporary views on the subject to retrieve some essential insights and inspiration for the Bay Area Sustainability Movement. For without an inspired vision, how can we unite?

UAS: What is the state of our current democracy?

EC: Unfortunately the institutional factors are almost all pointing in negative directions because we have cleverly built up industrial consumerism as a kind of a self -consuming or self-destroying machine. Most of the major institutions in our society, not only the corporate ones and the WTO and international and national governments, but also some of the forces that formerly supported working-class people such as labor unions and so on are now so implicated in carrying on business as usual that society like a pile of rocks – you know how rocks sort of wedge themselves in with each other and you can’t move anything. And you think the only thing that will dislodge this is some kind of a flood that will have enough force to really loosen things up. And the Iraq war has been a very major force, you know clearly it has been loosening up a lot of things – mostly for the worse, but things like that take a long time to be digested by a body politic and we won’t see the end of it for probably a lifetime.

You know, Marx said a lot of good things. I’ll tell you two good things that Marx said. One was that “capital has no country.” In the era before globalization we really did not know what this means, now we face it in all its full horror. What it essentially means is a race to the bottom – which the American working class is now caught up in as well as the working classes of every other country.

The other one is, “The cash nexus (by which he meant the market) is a corrosive that will dissolve all other bonds between human beings except buying and selling.” In a consumer society such as ours you begin to see what this means. This brings us back to your theme of democracy — almost all the connections between people that form a social polity are under severe attack. Whether we will be able to reverse this thing is in my mind is a very key element of our possible future.

The one political measure I am really paying attention to lately is CA Proposition 89. Because I share the view that without reform of our legislative institutions there is almost nothing worthwhile that can be done. You can do cosmetic things – and the California legislature, for an unusual example, has done some pretty amazing things over this last year, but there is a sharp limit on it, because if you are sitting there as a representative, you know that any bill of real importance is going to hurt some of the people who have given money to you. And you are not free to vote against their interests if you hope to continue your career in politics. So there is a kind of a built in self-limitation on the representative process on how we built it up.

Michael Phillips and I wrote a book a long time ago called A Citizen Legislature, which in that time and now is thought to be a very crazy book. But I think in the long run it may be the one thing that Michael and I are really remembered for. We thought that far ahead, past the paralysis of our democratic institutions that we are now living through, there must be some kind of other side where something fundamentally new and different and not authoritarian might be devised.

UAS: That brings up a question. To further abstract from our current system — that book [A Citizen Legislature] is an exponent for another kind of representation selection – by lottery – but it proceeds from a more fundamental question, is representation necessary?

EC: I think representation is necessary in any society above the tribal size. In human history, tribelets or hunter-gatherer tribes, or as I would rather call them gatherer-hunter bands (since it was the women did most of the gathering and provided most of the food), these were small enough that they could govern themselves by sort of an automatic interpersonal process that did not require institutions in any formal sense. But once you get beyond village size (and I would guess that this size would be around 200-300 people) you begin to have so many bodies around that they couldn’t possible decide everything all together.

I think that the Athenian populace, allegedly, would gather together once or twice a year in a plaza for deliberation. But a mob of maybe 50,000 people (because they excluded the women, the children and all the slaves) — is not going to be capable to decide anything sensibly. You have to have some kind of deliberative process. And the same thing goes for people who talk about television democracy, or some kind of electronic system where you everybody would look at the screen and say “yea” or “nay.” Well, what people forget is that there is always a mechanism, always an institution that is presupposing the questions on the screen as well as counting the responses and managing the whole process.

You need deliberation so that people can, first of all, compromise with each other, second so that they can watch each other, and third so that they can prevent the whole system from being taken over by a determined minority. Or at least you hope they do that. This has clearly failed in Washington at present, but that is the idea.

UAS: When we look at the Survivalist Party (from Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging) we see their structure as highly decentralized and democratic – one individual, one vote. You wrote of this as applying to both the workplace and the popular government. When we talk about decentralized in today’s context, what might it look like? How decentralized?

EC: It would probably mean something like what Portland, Oregon has been trying where they have city districts; they call them neighborhoods grouped into coalitions, where you have a couple of thousand people living in a particular spot with, probably, particular problems, particular perspectives, maybe even a sub-culture, who have, to some degree, political power themselves. In Portland’s case this has been devolved onto them by the city council. In my opinion, as far as I know, Portland is probably the best governed city in the country. They do a lot of really incredible things up there.

And this means that a lot of the ordinary business of the city can be carried on in the immediate proximity of the people that are going to be affected by it. And that clearly is one of the underlying principles – that those who are going to be firstly, paying for it and secondly, subject to its effects are the ones who, as far as possible, should be able to decide it.

Now political money is a hydraulic system, it’s like water, it goes for the holes. Campaign reform of the traditional kinds; which Loni Hancock was trying to bring about when she worked for a foundation here in San Francisco before she became mayor of Berkeley and before she was in the state legislature proposing Prop. 89 and so on – these things, historically, never work, like the McCain/Feingold Bill and its predecessors. These measures are inherently flawed because they don’t address the structure; they only address how big the pipes are going to be and the like – that is not the point. The point is to break the link between money and representative power and I think it can be done, maybe not in our lifetime …well we’ll see what the electorate decides in California.

If 89 should go through, it would be the most revolutionary thing in California politics for all the years that I’ve been living here — it would be sensational. And since Maine and Arizona and now Connecticut is installing it, we already have three very different states elsewhere doing it, adding California to this mix would give a tremendous surge of impetus to it happening all around the country. [Prop. 89 was soundly defeated in the November 2006 election.]

As far as I can tell it works very well in these states, it has not been a panacea for everything wrong with government clearly, but it has made possible some things that would not have been possible under previous systems.

UAS: Can you provide any stand-out examples of these possibilities?

EC: Maine, for example, has a virtually universal health coverage system now.

In Arizona, you have an amazing woman governor, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who ran clean and won against a very rich and well-backed Republican. I don’t know about Maine, but in Arizona, free elections were installed after a particularly hideous scandal. I believe the previous governor was imprisoned for embezzlement. This created such a wave of revulsion with business as usual in the capital that even citizens that were not notably radical were like, “Hey, we got to clean this up.” It also, in Arizona, withstood some constitutional challenges that were brought against it by moneyed interests.

One effect it undoubtedly has is to bring a lot of new candidates (this is true in New York city too where something similar is done) who would not otherwise be there because even if they have wonderful ideas they have not had the funds to galvanize a significant number of backers.

One problem with our democracy is our lack of the ability to bring new ideas into the political discourse. I think this is a much more important than it may seem at first sight. There are a lot of other things that ought to be done with our electoral system. Instant run-offs is one. Proportional representation is another one. But we won’t see any of these things until we get clean elections.

UAS: What about the functioning of democracy and technology? In Ecotopia we saw people communicating with the TV network with cameras mounted on the televisions. Now, of course, we have the internet (though not as widely distributed as TV). What are your thoughts now with a functional bi-directional democratic communication system of that nature?

EC: Well, I think it was a pretty good idea, but it’s never been really tried unless some of these community channels have tried it and I have not heard about it. The idea is, and this connects with the random selection of A Citizen Legislature, that the process of the input has to be determined, not by some producer’s idea of whether you fit the show or whether you’re photogenic, but simply by whether you are representative, which can only be determined by random processes. We have to learn to love randomness. This is very hard for Americans to do, but if you had a political show in which the callers were in fact selected randomly you would get an accurate picture of what people out there are actually thinking, not just the articulate or the photogenic, but a wide range. And if the number is fairly large you get this good sense for what people care about.

UAS: That brings up a question in terms of what types of rules or structures to effect civil communication might be appropriate. And what models historically have been effective or which ones could we look towards to reinvent and elaborate on?

EC: I would like to see actual groups attempting to use random choice of leaders. There have been some in the past — feminist groups I heard of and small-scale groups where essentially people are kind of anti-leader and nobody wants to be a leader, but I would like to see some groups a little bigger than that where there would probably people that would like to be leaders and try rotating leadership on some kind of random basis among them and see how it would work.

In our A Citizen Legislature scheme we were thinking of the House of Representatives, renamed the Representative House. One third of its members would be replaced every year. So it would kind of be in principle like the US Senate is now, with overlapping changes of membership, so that you would always have a continuity of people who had been there for a while who would know what was going on and capable of orienting and training new members. And if you had an organization that had a couple of hundred members and wanted to try something like this, I think that’s the way it should be tried.

That’s the way it often it happens informally anyway. There will be some kind of board of directors or council and people will serve on it for a couple of years and other things call to them and they drop off and other people are put on, but if that were formalized and especially with organizations that had some actual power it would be very interesting to study it and see how it worked.

I think the Portland neighborhoods have quite a budget actually and they are able to decide on their priorities – are they going to put in parks, are they going to repair streets, are they going to get rid of streets. They have control of what they are actually going to do. But we have lived so long in such a centralizing and authoritarian system that we’re not even to the baby steps stage yet. We are still barely crawling.

But I think history moves by a jerky pendulum motion and I think maybe we’ve gone to the right about as far as we’re going to go unless we slip over into outright fascism. So, I would imagine in the next five years to ten years (whatever the period you want to think in terms of) we will probably become more open to innovation again and I hope some of these innovations concern the actual structures by which we try to govern each other and ourselves.

UAS: Seems to me there is deep irony here when we refer to the history that is brought out in Ecotopia Emerging where we read that America’s founders drew inspiration from the native peoples of this land – in particular the Iroquois Federation – a successful governance mechanism. Is there something to be learned or something you could say about what happened from a beginning that seemed so well intentioned, innovative and integrative?

EC: A lot of it was scale. I don’t know if you’ve been following the Vermont secession movement, but it is pretty active. One of the things that you have in Vermont is genuinely viable village structures still, which we have very rarely in California, if any at all. I don’t really know of any that I would make a very strong defense of.

Governance follows social institutions. I think you could say that countries get the kind of formal institutions that their underlying social institutions make possible and sort of want. The reason Switzerland has a decentralized federalist government in which the cantons (states, or departments or whatever one calls them) have real power and are very jealous in fact to maintain their powers with respect to each other, is that the country was separated into regions by the severe mountainous terrain of the country as well as by some cultural divides – language blocks and so on. And what we have going in North America is on such a vast, vast scale compared to that, that it is almost like another universe.

Revolutionary developments don’t happen, at least if you believe a sociologist named Seymour Lipset, at the worst times in a social cycle. They start when things have been at the worst and they are starting to get a little bit better and people are thinking, “With a little more push we can really go somewhere here.” It may be we will enter such a phase again, as we did in the 60s when a lot of stuff had come unglued and it seemed that maybe it was possible to change a lot of stuff, and some things genuinely did get changed in the aftermath of the 60s.

In terms of what people can do practically, I think in any organization or any civic structure or anything that you are involved with, see whether there are ways to make the structure more democratic, to get new kinds of people elected or at least participating.

Vera Allwen in Ecotopia Emerging once said, “It isn’t important for everybody to do everything, it is just important that everybody does something.” I think this is really the way we need to go. Oh, by the way, another thing about Ecotopia Emerging…after Ecotopia itself came out, people would ask me questions about how Ecotopians do this and that, and one of the things they were curious about was how the Survivalists would run their political meetings. That is why I described, in some detail, that very strange meeting that begins with breathing exercises because, in the Survivalist perspective, politics is about the whole body, not just the head and the pocket book. It is about the whole body, the whole organism, and until you get people into that place they are not going to behave very well when it comes to doing specifically political things.

That is another thing we can do. Whenever I give a lecture I try to get people to breathe beforehand and get people to stand up and stretch in between. It is just very important to help each other be healthy animals. This is what politics is supposed to be all about after all.

UAS: Another theme described in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging is the potential for democracy in labor; it is described a “great unknown and unexplored social force” – the idea that workers would prefer to have ownership of the workplace. What about democracy as it relates to the workplace?

EC: I don’t remember what year this was done exactly, probably in the middle or late 80s, somebody on a poll for some reason or another asked the question, “Do you think people, working people, in a company should control the company?” Or something like that. A huge majority said, “Yeah!”

This is really amazing, because we think of ourselves as a rather sheep-like country where people are glad to have bosses pushing them around, and most people would never have heard of worker ownership. This is a very minority idea right now, let’s face it. It is a tiny, tiny blip on the consciousness of political people much less everybody else and yet here was this huge majority of ordinary Americans saying, “Yeah, I think I would like that.” To my knowledge nobody has quite figured this out. There are some organizations like one in Oakland called the Center for Employee Ownership that is helping people do employee ownership schemes – which are a lot more numerous than most people recognize.

I came at it all from a background as a political radical in my college days. I had been a left-wing anti-communist socialist. So I knew that capitalism had been tried and had a lot to answer for. Socialism had been tried in very, very imperfect deformed ways, and didn’t have too many attractions when it was what we called, as practiced in the Soviet Union, bureaucratic state capitalism. The question was whether there was another way, a third way, in which changes could be made to relationships to the means of production.

Another good thing that Marx said was “The overall nature of a society is determined by relations to the means of production” and we’d have to add means of distribution, in our case. And I took that very seriously and I began to think…well, is there any way in which the deformities of capitalism and the deformities of state capitalism a.k.a. “socialism” could be avoided? Is there any other way to organize relationships to the means of production other than having a capitalist class own them or having a state bureaucracy class own them? And of course there is: you can have the people who do the work own the companies.

So, I decided to adopt that as the basic Ecotopian system. And it seemed to make a certain kind of ecological sense because things in nature happen very piecemeal and locally. You can have a tree here and a tree there and sooner or later you have a forest that becomes an organism or an ecosystem of its own sort, but things in natural systems are really local, really intimate. And, so the question arises how you can do that in an economy? Well, the only way you can do it is to keep things relatively small. How small exactly is always a problem, because if organizations get too small they don’t have the capacity to do very many interesting things — or at least not that often.

On the other hand of the scale, if you get beyond a couple of hundred people, things tend to get bureaucratized and they no longer happen on the basis of informal context and you begin to spend all your time having meetings and devising rulings and things get very stiff. But it is in that interesting range between too small to be really competent and too large to be competent that the really innovative and lively and special things about human beings happen.

And these are the things that characteristically happen in cities. They don’t usually happen in small towns where you typically don’t have the critical mass of bright or interesting people, and they don’t happen in huge bureaucracies as in Washington where things are so impossibly ingrown and congested that there is almost nothing new that can be done.

UAS: Is there anything you would want to say about democracy as it relates to the concept of the commons?

EC: Well, commons, as I understand them at least, mostly existed in small societies. Their fundamental locus was the village and the associated lands around the village, some of which were forested, some of which were grasslands, pasturage. And the allocations of these resources was done on some kind of democratic basis that I don’t think is very well understood. Certainly there was not a lord who did it. There was probably some kind of village council, probably of elder males, as usually has happened in human history, who sat around and, in a way, defensively prevented anyone from monopolizing this resource.

I do know one example of modern day times, in Bali. I was lucky enough to get to Bali one time for a couple weeks and I discovered that the way the irrigation districts are managed in Bali is as a commons. The water runs down off of a mountain onto this agricultural area and there is a council of water managers – and there is one individual, in the southwest they call him the “major domo” — the manager. The interesting thing is that the individuals that are chosen for this always have their land at the bottom of the hill. So their interest is to make sure that the water gets through everybody else’s property and down to them. And other people can count on them to do that because if they don’t get the water, they starve. This system has worked for at least 3,000-4,000 years now and it gives you some kind of inkling of what the commons must have been like elsewhere.

It probably was not quite equalitarian. There were likely influential people in the village the way there usually are. On the other hand the degree to which these people could run roughshod over each other was probably very limited.

Another commons that is alive and well is the lobster fishery in Maine. If you happen to be a lobster fisherman you probably inherited from your father or uncle a certain amount of lobster pots that you have the right to put out there. Now, if some new person comes along and buys a boat, sets some traps and lays them out there, lo and behold, his traps disappear and his boat might be stove in and he is driven out of the business. You might say in a way this is a tyranny of local established interests. On the other hand you might also be forced to say that this lobster fishery has endured for about 300 years without overcatching lobsters, so it can’t be all bad.

I suspect that something like that is at the heart of all commons: that there is a shared, and you would have to call it democracy, there is a shared feeling that we are all in this boat together and we had better figure out ways to take care of each other and not endanger anybody, so that people have sort of an equal stake. Not a precisely equal stake but an equal enough stake.

In a way this may have been a model for how democracy first came to be — in Scandinavian societies for example. My colleague Michael Phillips argues that our kind of democracy is really a Nordic tradition. It came from Nordic country and went to England and from there to here, and so forth. And it may have originated in small fishing communities where people had to defend everybody’s right to a livelihood so that it was easy to imagine that people had rights…that they had inalienable rights to exist and have a fair share and out of this grew the formal structures that we now think of as democratic.

The enclosure of the commons that used to be merely a matter a sheep and forest land has now encroached on human bodies and genes and possibly organs and time and so on — a very sinister development. And you have to ask yourself if all these machinations of international corporations have reached such a pitch of sophistication in exploitative-ness and controlling-ness and so on, that at some point people will rise up and say, “Screw you, we’re not going to take this anymore,” and throw the whole thing out — as Indian peasants, threatened with the loss of their seeds, in fact did. You get a few hundred-thousand Indian peasants amassing in the streets saying they are not going to allow them to take their seeds…well, it moves political obstacles. The Indian governmen had to renege on a seed-patenting treaty which they had gone along with.

UAS: How do we get to Ecotopia from here?

EC: As they say, every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We need to identify those single steps. What I would say, politically, Prop. 89 is a good step. It might pass. It will be a miracle if it does because a lot of money will be spent against it. That would be good and of course community building.

My wife and I spend a lot of time in our neighborhood. Neighborhoods create opportunities for a special form of organizing. You can think about preparedness for natural disasters as a way to connect with neighbors and find out who would need help, who probably has food stored up, how you might get water and so forth. It’s a way of people helping each other – a way that builds up camaraderie. People don’t give it enough priority to get to know their neighbors.

UAS: What about the visioning piece? How do we continue where Ecotopia left off?

EC: People need vision. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” When people begin to get the inkling that there are other ways to think about the future they get curious, they almost can’t believe it. They begin to look into it some more…