Democratic Structures, Undemocratic Culture

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

If an organization formally allows dissent, but the culture is so hostile to dissent that nobody feels comfortable doing it, then it’s not actually democratic.

Signs You Might Be a Party Hack

  • You get immediately defensive about your group when it’s not even clear a criticism was being made.
  • When someone makes a balanced assessment of your group giving both compliments and criticisms, you immediately start arguing with the criticisms.
  • You start arguing with people before actually really knowing what their position is.
  • You wait to hear what the leadership says before forming an opinion.  Or after hearing theirs, you bury the reasons for your original opinion.
  • You don’t really think about your own opinion anymore, and you act as a conduit for either other people’s opinions, or the list of group stances.

An Unwritten “Correct” Position on Everything

In many organizations it becomes difficult to have a say because there are unwritten rules and an unwritten party line.  Supposedly the group follows a list of a few stances that is clearly written somewhere for everyone to see.  In reality most groups have a stance on almost everything.  The stance-taking can become so absurdly specific that it becomes literally impossible to have the type of conversations the organization hosts internally with anyone outside the group.  It is so esoteric that you would not even think to bring it up to someone on the sidewalk or at your dinner table.  This makes newcomers showing up at meetings very awkward indeed.  The members and ordinary people might as well be speaking two different languages.

Arguments outside the hyper-specific realm of commonality of the group are typically treated with dismissal or even a horribly awkward non-acknowledgment/non-response made possible by the super-formal style of moderating conversation.  It’s like any attempt at a new conversation simply doesn’t happen, and gets absorbed into the black hole of the party regulars who aren’t even interested in discussing things outside their ideology (ie their comfort zone).  I am sure that many socialists have some kind of super-nuanced reason for rejecting the Zeitgeist series – but how many have actually watched it?  I admit that I have not, either.

There are reasons why socialists turn into rabid dogs this way.  It can sometimes feel like Us vs. the World, because of the wide dismissal of socialism, and the constant stupid sectarian criticisms within the Left.  So it’s easy to get defensive, and to judge an argument before even really hearing it, because you’ve probably heard it before.  But what if you haven’t, and you just shot it down anyway?

Inability to Think New Thoughts Outside the Ideology

People get so invested in their ideology that their entire minds are consumed with unfolding that ideology into every facet of every possible issue, and assuming the theory into the details.  Sometimes this makes sense – everything is interconnected.  What this can also mean is that people become incapable of even having new thoughts.  The mental grooves become very strong.  By embracing an ideology which required an open mind to begin with, it is very easy to become only a different type of dogmatist without realizing it.

But what turf are we defending?  A few hundred people?  We have to stop living this way.  What someone is saying to me may at any time be the new revelation that totally blows my whole model of reality, and I have to be willing to drop everything and readjust my whole life accordingly.  It takes courage.  The truth is not something I have anymore.  It is something beyond me I am always re-encountering in unexpected ways that are strange, but exciting.  There are no final authorities; there is continual discovery.  We have to live as though our minds could be blown at any time.

We must remember that many people in the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs’ time were racist, so it’s possible for socialists to be extremely wrong and completely miss a critical point.  We must be always on the lookout for new truths.

What if it’s not so much that we are doing things wrong, but that we could find an improvement which allows us to do even better than we already are?  Let’s be creative and experiment.  Let’s be open-minded.

One thought on “Democratic Structures, Undemocratic Culture

  1. This is a little one-sided. There is a clear danger of treating theory as a closed book which has already pronounced on all aspects of life. We have all met sectarian activists who only wish to have a “conversation” 100% on their terms. On the other hand is the problem which I don’t think Saturn mentions here which is the presentation of ideas in very abstruse academic language which maquerades as “‘new thinking.” There are foundational elements of Marxist theory which need to be adhered to if socialists are to avoid falling for the latest intellectual fashions.

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