Utopian colonies and the deep roots of Occupy

2:32 am in Uncategorized by danps


Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last year I worked on a series of posts1 with a loose collection of bloggers, mostly from Corrente. The general theme was arguing against the “diversity of tactics” approach being introduced at numerous Occupy encampments, Occupy Oakland in particular. During this process one of our co-authors – jaspergregory – referenced “The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America” by Richard J. Ellis as providing a good examination of authoritarian impulses among progressives since roughly the 1830s.

I put the book in my queue and am just now getting to it (I work slowly, what can I say). Having gone about a third of the way through I’d say it’s a good read but not a must read. On the plus side, I think liberals benefit from taking an unflinching look at the intolerance that has sometimes come from their own side. This does not mean paying attention to manufactured outrage on the right, incidentally.

On the other hand, Ellis seems to have started from a contrarian impulse. In his introduction he describes his reaction on reading a liberal author’s book on right wing authoritarianism. In Ellis’ view such a book needed to be balanced by a similar one, by and for the left. As his book proceeds he sometimes shoehorns his history into his thesis, and sometimes the poor fit shows.

For instance, Ellis’ examples show exactly the kind of false equivalence liberals point out in MSM “both sides do it” narratives. Right wing authoritarians have at times in American history prospered greatly. When the environment is friendly, and it has been friendly numerous times, there seems to be no limit to how far a right wing authoritarian can go.

The same is not true for liberals. Left wing authoritarians either marginalize themselves or are marginalized by political leadership. They do not ascend to power the way right wing authoritarians can. On the right you can point to Senator Joe McCarthy. On the left is George Pickett, who is not even the most famous George Pickett. See the difference?

Another weakness in Ellis’ argument is his rather expansive definition of words like authoritarian. In writing about Walt Whitman and his spiritual descendants, he repeatedly uses authoritarian terms to describe their longing for a charismaic leader to help bring the world they envision. That doesn’t strike me as authoritarian though. It seems more messianic or prophetic, a way for a nonreligious movement to articulate a sort of mystical or transcendent vision. That doesn’t seem especially authoritarian though, and Ellis’ book is least persuasive to me when he reaches like that.

What is really fascinating (and surprisingly relevant) is Ellis’ coverage of utiopian communities that began to form in the late nineteenth century. Inspired in part by proto-science fiction like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, these communities withdrew from the larger society in an effort to construct the one they envisioned. While the only separatist type impulses these days seem to be on the right, their governance had striking similarities to Occupy – including its weaknesses. (I will include short clips here and longer excerpts in footnotes):2

These colonies were typically hyperdemocratic: “democracy with the lid off,” in the words of one colony leader. Unlike in religious colonies where the leader could single-handedly expel dissenters, expulsion in these secular egalitarian colonies often required a near-unanimous vote of the general assembly. Within the general assembly, moreover, any man in the colony could speak for any amount of time on whatever issue.

The near-unanimous vote of the general assembly resembles the consensus model used by Occupy. As our group noted last year, a consensus model eventually works to the advantage of those with the most time. Getting 90% approval might represent the overwhelming view of the majority, but it might also might represent 90% of the handful left after an extended and frustrating filibuster.

When a tiny minority can block change like that, popular ideas and general sentiment cannot be codified; something like a formal commitment to nonviolence remains ever out of reach even if the vast majority approve. When substantive action is ruled out, it becomes all about personalities:3

For instance, an attempt to write a constitution that would remedy some of the evident weaknesses in the colony’s political structure foundered after getting bogged down in interminable arguments over details. The untempered egalitarianism of the General Assembly not only made collective decision making difficult, but it also tended to inflame personal jealousies and factional rivalries.

In California’s Llano del Rio Colony this led to an extreme enforcement of loyalty under the charismatic leader George Pickett:4

Pickett responded to this challenge to his authority by having the organizers of the opposition movement expelled from the colony. He justified his actions by arguing that “there should be NO MINORITY in such an organization or enterprise as the colony, for the reason that IT ITSELF IS THE MINORITY” within the capitalist system. The threat posed by the external enemy required a “solid phalanx” and the “utmost loyalty” within the colony. Disloyalty in such critical times could not be tolerated; indeed it was treasonable since it threatened the future existence of the colony.

Which seems quite similar to the “comrade” language that was especially popular at Occupy Oakland. This line between voluntary solidarity and enforced unanimity is something both Occupy and the utopian colonies struggled with. Ellis writes this about the demise of Llano, but it too has more contemporary echoes:5

Embedded in the ideal of a perfect unity is an invitation for one person to speak for all without considering their opinions or preferences. Recognizing that interests and values inevitably and legitimately clash is necessary to protect against the charismatic or authoritarian leader. Cooperation and harmonious relations are always nice, but they are worth precious little if they come at the expense of democracy and dissent.

Finally, a more general note. Idealism can be dangerous when it causes people to compare the world they wish to come with the current one. Frustration, impatience and even despair over the difference can cause a jaded outlook and corrosive cynicism to creep in; abstract celebrations of the working class sour into denunciations of the crass and vulgar people who actually comprise it; the striving to create alternate political models makes it tempting to write off and boycott existing political structures as hopelessly corrupt. Perhaps most importantly of all, an overly ideological outlook makes it easy to demonize others:6

The often rancorous character of debate in the Llano General Assembly must be put down in part to a worldview that made no allowance for legitimate conflict. Since Llano had eliminated conflict between rival interests, disagreements must reflect bad faith, sinister intent, or plain ignorance. Civility and respect become difficult when one construes opponents in terms of betrayal or benightedness. Put positively, recognition that different groups and individuals have interests can be a profoundly democratic and even egalitarian idea. In following the elusive grail of natural harmony and innate goodness, colonists subverted their own egalitarian and democratic ends.

Simply maintaining a belief in the existence of legitimate conflict, and making allowance for it even in the midst of a heated debate, is a very liberal sensibility. It’s worth claiming as our own and holding onto, even (especially) when it is most tempting to discard it.

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