Like Henry Milner I have spent the better part of the last two decades studying and thinking about democracy. Unlike Milner, I believe the new generation rising up under the banners of the Quebec student strike and Occupy Wall Street are creating innovations that will profoundly deepen and broaden democracy.
Perhaps it is our different starting points. My bar for what deepens democracy is not our current form of representative democracy but rather the ideas Thomas Paine expressed in Rights of Man:
It appears to general observation that revolutions create genius and talents but those events do no more than bring them forward ... the construction of government ought to be able as such to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions. I am sure Milner will agree that our current form of representative democracy, or indeed any form of representative democracy, has thus far failed that test.
What Milner contemptuously calls "social media politics" has little to do with social media themselves but rather with the interactive technologies, including social media, that permit individual political agency, horizontal organizing and decision-making on an unprecedented scale. However, the democratic innovations of the Quebec student strike and Occupy Wall Street have little to do with social media and everything to do with the general assemblies that they used to make decisions.
Gabriel Nadeau Dubois, the brilliant spokesperson of CLASSE throughout the student strike, has explained to English Canadian audiences that the students managed to continue their mobilizations day after day and then night after night only because of general assemblies where every student participated in making all the important decisions. As he said in a talk in Ottawa on September 13,
It is not the leaders that make the major strategic decisions, whether to continue the strike, how to respond to the government, whether to compromise. It is the general assembly with the participation of every student ... They are willing to take big risks and put their bodies on the line because they know that they will be part of making these decisions. Milner claims that the students couldn't compromise because of the way they practised democracy. They of course claim they were willing to compromise on several occasions when the government was more interested in trying to divide and rule. Whatever the truth of those stories, the general assembly proved itself even in Milner's terms during the election. The CLASSE leadership wanted to continue the strike but most students voted in general assemblies to suspend the strike until the results of the election were known. And the results were that the Parti Quebecois won and indicated immediately that it would strike down the undemocratic Bill 78 and freeze tuition fees, giving the student movement a total victory. No need to continue the strike now.
Occupy Wall Street also uses general assemblies as the base unit of its democratic process. This is not the direct democracy of referendums, which is the only alternative to representative democracy that Milner seems to see, but rather the more significant participatory democracy that enables a dialogue among individuals leading to decisions that, ideally at least, include the ideas of everyone.
There are also people working to make the process of the general assemblies possible across distance. One of them is John Richardson, founder of the Pivot Society, which provides legal representation and advocacy for the poor on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. He founded what he calls Party X in March 2011 to use the Internet to...