Democratic Unrest

The case for protest, from Cicero to Occupy

It is hard not to feel sorry about the state of our democratic life. Our democratic institutions and processes have evolved in a way that makes rational public debates unlikely. When I look at the Ottawa and Quebec City governments, I see parties seasoned in wedge politics and strategic manoeuvring. Yes, Kevin Spacey is irresistible and Robin Wright magnetic, but that is not the only reason why House of Cards is the flavour of the week for TV drama aficionados. The series magnifies the cynical perception of political reality that many have. And yes, I have heard about Rob Ford. The ongoing display of Fordian stupour has distracted me, a Montrealer, from the corruption, collusion and complacency disclosed day after day in the hearings of the Charbonneau Commission on the awarding and management of public contracts in the construction industry.

It is no surprise that several books on grassroots activism and political militancy have appeared in recent months. Many of them, such as Joel D. Harden’s Quiet No More: New Political Activism in Canada and Around the Globe and Henry A. Giroux’s Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, start from the premise that political action outside party politics and parliamentary institutions is the most promising, if not the only, route to meaningful social progress. As the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos once wrote, grassroots activists “are not those who, foolishly, hope that from above will come the justice that can only come from below, the freedom that can only be won with all, the democracy which is struggled for at all levels and all the time.” In the wake of the Arab spring and the Occupy movement, Time named “The Protester” as the 2011 person of the year. Social activist Naomi Klein and the University of Victoria’s accomplished political philosopher James Tully place more hope in grassroots activism than in institutional reform.

Promoters of social activism who write books about grassroots democracy are almost always on the left of the ideological spectrum. But militants can also protest in front of abortion clinics or against the legalization of same-sex marriage. Grassroots activism can be used by religious fundamentalist groups who want to crack apart the wall of separation between political power and religion. Protest groups include masculinists and neo-Nazis. In a pluralist society, political and legal institutions are necessary to arbitrate the competing claims made by citizens and groups. Grassroots politics needs the formal institutions of representative democracy if the goal is to make our society more just and democratic, and citizens need to know that the coercive power of the state will be used to control illegitimate militant action.

That said, there is little doubt that militancy and protest are essential ingredients of a healthy democracy. Political regimes can be radically unfair, and reasonably just states are often slow to respond to the legitimate claims and grievances of citizens. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi all had to engage with power outside formal institutions to advance their claims. In Canada, aboriginal activists, more than 30 years after the ancestral rights of their nations were recognized in the 1982 constitution, still have to block roads and defy authorities in multiple ways to assert their rights. It took the Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike to force Canadian media and political elites to refocus their attention on the ongoing struggles for dignity and political autonomy of indigenous nations across the country.

A third recent book on the subject is Stephen D’Arcy’s Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest Is Good for Democracy. Although I found it useful and persuasive, I can only disagree with his version of what he calls the “liberal objection” to militant protest. Liberals believe, according to D’Arcy, that “by resorting to forceful pressure, rather than consensus-building and reason-guided public discussion, the militant protester in effect reverts to force, rather than dialogue, and in this way breaks with the democratic ideal.” Hence, “liberals” think that “militancy is not a civic virtue, but a vice.” This is a surprising claim. In my view, very few liberal democrats doubt the value of contestatory politics in civil society. Or, if some doubt it, they are plainly wrong.

Militant protest is necessary to put pressure on elected officials, and to force citizens to think about neglected issues and examine their own positions. As Alexis de Tocqueville perspicuously saw it, civic complacency and apathy can lead to soft despotism even under democratic institutions. Liberals usually revere the great social activists of the past who were instrumental in overthrowing unjust institutions and policies, people like Rosa Parks. Very few liberal democrats appreciate vandalism, looting and hooliganism during peaceful demonstrations, but this need not lead to the total dismissal of protest politics. For instance, it is hard to deny that the 1999 Seattle and 2001 Quebec City protests against free trade agreements negotiated behind closed doors were instrumental in bringing more transparency and democratic oversight to the negotiations. Moreover, as D’Arcy himself reminds us, pre-eminent liberal political philosophers from John Locke to John Rawls believed that civil disobedience could be morally acceptable and politically responsible under appropriate circumstances.

 

One of the facts that is often neglected by those who have defected from formal politics and put all their eggs in the basket of grassroots mobilization is that public norms and decisions create the space wherein contestatory politics can take place. At the very least, civil society movements need freedom of expression and freedom to assemble peacefully and to demonstrate in order to organize and voice their positions. They need to know that their legal rights are protected so they will not be illegally arrested and that they will have a fair trial if they are prosecuted. As Giroux and D’Arcy note, it is true that the rights of political activists are regularly curtailed by police forces, but it is because such rights exist in the first place that practices such as unlawful arrests or detention can be criticized and challenged before the courts. Protestors’ rights are often infringed upon, but only the most determined and courageous would organize and protest in the absence of the rule of law.

Activists cannot logically be political nihilists; they need to support, at least minimally, the public norms, policies and institutions that allow for grassroots actions. Militants need citizens who are civically literate and who can support them or be moved by their arguments. In addition, social activists cannot do otherwise than ground their militancy in a more or less explicit conception of social justice. If you militate for gay rights, you have to prefer a country wherein same-sex couples can marry to one where they cannot. Institutions and policies matter. I must say that I am baffled by those who extol the virtue of civil society activism but ridicule political action within formal institutions in the same breath. The American essayist Chris Hedges, for instance, opined a couple of years ago that Barack Obama was the “poster child of the hypocrisy of the liberal class” and that engaging with formal politics was now pointless. We should all retreat, he said, into small self-governing and self-sustaining communities. Yes, American political institutions are defective and the Obama administration has fallen short many times, but should we not recognize, as progressives, that the United States is better off with Obama than with Mitt Romney in the White House? Obamacare had a rough start, but is it not better that millions more Americans now have access to health insurance, or to a better plan than the one they had before?

Although Harden asserts that activists are “thinkers who see beyond the assumptions of mainstream politics and the limited horizons of progressive groups and thinkers,” I am inclined to think that activists suffer from a parallel, if different, brand of political myopia than the one afflicting citizens who take formal politics seriously. All egalitarians are indebted to the protestors of the Occupy and Indignados movement for putting the issue of wealth distribution back on the political agenda, but this also entails that we need to support social reforms such as making child care affordable so single mothers can decide that it makes sense to go back to work or as making our taxation scheme more progressive.

 

D’Arcy’s Languages of the Unheard has a rare quality among the books on political activism: it fully accepts that this genre of politics needs to be justified and that criteria for distinguishing “sound from unsound militancy” are required. He does not equate democracy with politics outside official institutions. D’Arcy is both an academic political philosopher and a long-time social activist; he believes that democracy requires “the self–governance of people through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion.” Citizens and groups should favour rational and good faith public discussion and be disposed to make reasonable compromises, but be realistic enough to realize that elites or institutions often act in ways that hinder genuine public deliberation and collective decision making. Political action outside the official channels is often necessary to put reason-guided public discussion back on track. Riots, general strikes, defying the police or disrupting a business are the kind of “insistent and unruly civic engagement” that weaken “the capacity of elites and institutions to thwart reason-guided public discussion from dictating the terms of social co-operation.” Militancy is, for D’Arcy, a civic virtue, but a “remedial” one: “it proceeds only when nonmilitant tactics have proven fruitless.”

Militant actions are democratically legitimate, according to D’Arcy, when they 1) create new opportunities for resolving pressing grievances, 2) encourage the most affected people to take the lead and have political voice, 3) favour wise tactics that do not have the undesirable effect of enhancing the capacities of the social movement’s adversaries, and 4) are defended publicly and plausibly as promoting common decency and the common good. The exemplar of virtuous militant action, for D’Arcy, is the resistance of Kanehsatà:ke Mohawks in 1990. In his depiction of the events, the Mohawks, who were opposing the expansion of a golf course on a parcel of land that had long been set aside for them, had a legitimate claim that they justified publicly, and maintained a disposition to negotiate in good faith throughout the crisis. The Mohawks broke the law by setting up a road blockade when construction machines were preparing to proceed, and launched an armed, albeit defensive, resistance. A police officer tragically died in a brief exchange of fire. The standoff lasted more than two months, until the Mohawks decided to end the blockade and the federal government purchased the land. The land claim was not resolved, but the golf course was not expanded.

 

One of the greatest current challenges for political thought and action is how to connect grassroots action in the civil society with the politics of our formal democratic institutions. D’Arcy’s essay is a useful contribution, as it first sets out a broad democratic ideal that should orient both formal and grassroots political action. He forcefully shows that militant protest is an indispensable aspect of democratic politics, without succumbing to the illusion that we can do without formal political and legal institutions.

What is also needed is a reflection on how the institutions of a constitutional democracy should be reformed in a way that would make them more legitimate and responsive. Philip Pettit’s On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy is a remarkable contribution to this complementary strand of the project of revitalizing democracy in the 21st century. Pettit is a leading political philosopher based at Princeton University and known for, among other things, his plea for a renewed republican political philosophy and model of government.

Unlike many academics, Pettit has actually seen his ideas put into play. The Spanish socialist politician José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was prime minister of Spain from 2004 to 2011, embraced Pettit’s form of republicanism and used it to install a number of national initiatives dealing with the vulnerabilities of women, homosexuals, illegal migrants, disabled citizens and workers on temporary contracts, as well as removing some state subsidies to the Roman Catholic church. Pettit reflected later, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, that the whole experiment had “made Spain into a model for how an advanced democracy can perform.”

Pettit understands that a robust and active civil society is a necessary but insufficient condition of a just and vibrant democratic regime. A republican theory of democracy stipulates that “a state will be legitimate just insofar as it gives each citizen an equal share in a system of popular control over government.” Citizens should ideally all have the same capacity to influence the collective decisions that will have an impact on their life. Republican democratic institutions will also be designed in such a way that citizens will be protected against the evil of “domination.” Freedom as “non-domination,” for Pettit, is the “freedom that goes with not having to live under the potentially harmful power of another.” If we do not have the same capacity to orient political decisions, we are likely to be dependant upon the will of others.

While that might sound like the more radical strains of American libertarianism, in fact it is not. Pettit wants to revive what he calls “Italian–Atlantic republicanism,” a tradition that goes back to Ancient Rome (Polybius, Cicero, Livy) and that includes Machiavelli, the 17th-century English republicans (Harrington, Milton, Sidney) and some of the founders of the independent American republic. This is a different tradition from the later but very influential “continental” strand of republican thought, often associated with Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The most significant points of divergence between the two traditions are their respective stances on what Pettit calls the “mixed constitution” and the “contestatory citizen.” Whereas Rousseau thought, to simplify, that nothing should stand between the citizen and the “general will” and that the general will was infallible, Pettit’s republicanism is of the view that individual freedom and democratic equality require a complex institutional design made of checks and balances as well as an active civil society that invigilates the duly elected government. Pettit—and I strongly concur—believes that democracy requires a “dual process”: citizens need to have influence over who represents them and over how decisions are made, via both formal institutions and political contestation in the civic sphere.

The two traditions, however, both value the civic participation of all and believe that citizens should develop the capacity to switch from the perspective of their self-interest to the perspective of the common good when they deliberate with their fellow citizens. For republicans of all stripes, individuals should take their identity as citizens seriously and care about the common good.

In addition to the revitalization of republican philosophy, Pettit devotes several chapters of his book to the institutions through which citizens can influence and control political power. His key notion, as we saw, is the mixed constitution. Unlike Plato and Aristotle who used that notion to designate the constitutions that incorporated aspects of different kinds of political regimes (essentially monarchy, aristocracy and democracy), Pettit champions the democratic mixed constitution. The people are sovereign. A democratic constitution is mixed when powers are separated and shared in a way “that would deny control over the law to any one individual or body.” A mixed constitution requires the coordination between mutually checking centres of power.

Given the farce that the Canadian Senate has become, the spirit of the mixed constitution incites us to look closely at the possibility of refurbishing it so that it would be truly capable of fulfilling its role as a high chamber where bills drafted in the lower chamber can be studied and discussed in a dispassionate way. Perhaps the Senate is in such a bad state that we should abolish it, as the NDP wants, but one can argue, as the Conservatives and the Liberals do, that we should rather try to reform it. A competent and efficient second chamber could be democratically useful given the highly partisan nature of the debates in the House of Commons.

Although Pettit’s theory is what academic philosophers call a normative theory of democracy—he sets out an ideal view of what a democratic regime should look like—his goal is to advocate for reasonably realistic and feasible institutional reforms. He therefore rules out the idea of a “plenary assembly” in which all the citizens would deliberate and legislate. Direct democracy is not on the table. He instead settles for what he calls the “responsive assembly” made of elected representatives. The responsive assembly is a legislative assembly just like the ones that we are used to but that would go through a series of reforms and nudges in order to be more responsive to the claims of citizens. Many of the fixes, too wonkish to describe here, would make our institutions and representatives more transparent, accountable and attuned to the will of the people. In Canada, for example, adding a touch of proportional representation to our first-past-the-post electoral system would be a major step in the right direction.

As I mentioned above, the contestatory citizen is the necessary complement to the “mixed constitution,” the institutional re-engineering proposed by Pettit. Without politicized and vigilant citizens, a truly republican mode of government is not possible. In the end, democratic legitimacy demands “a rich array of popular controls on government,” including militant protest and grassroots activism.

 

I do not think that there is any plausible way to significantly improve our democratic life that does not involve a mix of institutional fixes and heightened civic mobilization. Unless one is ready to wait for the complete overhaul of our democratic system, we will still need to think hard about institutions and policies and we will still need scratchy militants who bring neglected issues or claims to public attention.

From August 2013 to the April 2014 provincial election in Quebec, I was involved in the “secularism charter” debate forced upon us by the Parti Québécois minority government. We can be thankful that we have a mixed constitution and a contestatory citizenry in my province that allowed formal institutions and civil society organizations to go toe to toe with the government and its supporters. The PQ decided to make freedom of religion for minorities a wedge issue and to harness the rampant fear or anxiety regarding Islam for partisan purposes. Although the Liberal Party official opposition was off its game, the existence of autonomous public bodies such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission, universities and public broadcasters, the parliamentary hearings on the charter at the legislative assembly, and the mobilization of non-governmental organizations and public intellectuals made the contestatory politics championed by D’Arcy and Pettit possible. As both suggest, grassroots activism and institutionalized politics stand in relationship of complementarity and mutual dependence. This needs to be recognized by the political animals on both sides of the fence. In this case, the opposition was able to weaken and neutralize what was supposed to be the PQ’s main asset in the election, which helped the Liberal Party win a landslide victory.

There are good reasons to feel discouraged by the state of our democratic life. But one can be critical without opting out of formal politics, as the activists of an anarchist bent claim we should do. Not everything is equal. Egypt is in a constitutional quagmire, but Tunisia now has a democratic constitution that affirms gender equality and freedom of worship. Canadian parliamentary democracy has a very poor track record in terms, for instance, of establishing fair relationships with the hundreds of aboriginal nations spread across Canada, partly because control over land and resources is involved. But sound ethical principles and political courage gave us the “Peace of the Braves” in 2002 between the James Bay Crees and the government of Quebec. Parliamentary democracy also gave us the “dying with dignity” draft bill that emerged out of an itinerant and a parliamentary commission as well as from respectful dialogue between the two main parties in Quebec. It is expected that the bill will be passed in the next parliamentary session. Parliamentary democracy gave us fair pay for women. There are enough political victories that have real impact on flesh-and-blood human beings out there to carry on the fight for better democratic institutions.