Saturday, February 19, 2011

When the people speak …

First Tunisia and Egypt, now Bharain and Yemen and… the Catholic Church.

No there have not yet been hundreds of thousands of altar boys in St. Peter's Square demanding that the Pope be replaced by a popularly elected leader. But as Tunisia and Egypt tried to organize elections and a government more responsive to popular opinions and demands, the Vatican has ordered several dioceses in Massachusetts to reopen churches which the local hierarchy had closed. The parishioners had occupied these churches or otherwise protested their closing for several years. And – will wonders never cease – the Vatican responded to popular demands.

It appears that we are entering once again a period where those in power need to listen to the opinions of the populace.

At the same time, what happens in Tunisia and Egypt and in the Catholic Church illustrates the limitations of this kind of responsiveness to popular opinion. Egyptian democracy is being organized by the military. It is not being organized by the people themselves. The same is true in Tunisia. Nor has the Catholic Church become any less hierarchical and top-down. The God of the Catholics still only speaks to the Pope not to ordinary parishioners. 
However welcome this new responsiveness to popular turmoil is, it is not yet popular democracy when the people do not just protest against a given government, but organize themselves to run their own affairs.

The protests show the formidable organizing power of ordinary people. Not only were massive protests organized in different cities, but everywhere institutions sprang up as needed. In Tahrir Square in Cairo, the protesters put together a first aid post that provided emergency medical care for protesters hurt by police or Mubarak's thugs. In Bahrain, the protesters set up a number of services including one to take care of lost children and finding their caretakers.

People are able to organize what they need. But the heritage of thirty or more years of authoritarian government that ruthlessly persecuted any attempt at popular self-organization is a scarcity of popular organizations and political networks. It will take considerable time to reconstitute those if the military and its new government will allow it.

In the mean time, the army and the powerful in Egypt are rebuilding the government of, for and by the people with money and power. It remains to be seen how much of a peoples' democracy will emerge.

Politics are not all that different in the US. To be sure, it is a rare day when popular organizing efforts are stopped by the police and the members hauled off to jail to be tortured and, perhaps, killed. Instead we have made political access into a commodity. In American politics you have to pay if you want to play. In order to influence government decision makers you need the service of lobbyists --who are very expensive.

Yes, ordinary people in North America can organize themselves. But they have difficulties making themselves heard because they don't have the millions of dollars lobbyists charge to make those opinions heard in the halls of Congress or in the offices of the government bureaucracy.

There is not much room for popular democracy in the US. In that way it is not that different from Egypt.