The Green Party and the neighborhood assembly: You govern the way you win

by Jehu

Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary 16th century Japanese swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings wrote, “You can only fight the way you practice”. This aphorism has been adopted by the United States Army in the following form:

“Remember, you will fight as you train!”

The Musashi statement is both a reminder and a warning for the radical Left: You will govern a city exactly the same way you win the election to govern it.

I was reminded of it when I read this criticism of one of my posts by a redditor with the rather odd nickname, “BecomingTesla”. In answer to my observation that the Harris campaign says nothing about the Green Party’s bold promise to replace the existing government with neighborhood assemblies, the redditor writes:

“This is central problem that I see with what Rockers called “political socialism”, rather than a constructive socialist program: Not Harris, nor another other politician, can just “replace the existing government with an assembly” because the assembly, as a participatory body, is made of the people themselves. The people have to want to form the assembly, the people have to sustain the assembly, and the people have to have the power to enforce their own legislation/social contract formed through the assembly. Without that active participation and enforcement from the community, any “general assembly” created by the Greens is going to be just another bureaucratic administrative board.

I think the platform that the Greens have constructed, while incoherent in the ways mentioned in the article, is a very radical and solid program for Workers to build on. But that work has to come from us, inside our own communities. It sure as fuck isn’t coming from any political party that participates with the current State.”

I completely agree with this criticism. Radical Leftists cannot run a conventional election campaign to gain control of city government and then institute an assembly. The type of campaign radicals run to win a municipal election determines how they will govern the city in the final analysis. If the Greens want a government of popular assemblies organized from the neighborhood level on up, they have to build this organization. The campaign to win an election is the training radicals go through that will later be expressed in how they govern. If you want the city to be governed by a popular assembly, the popular assembly itself has to conduct the campaign.

SYRIZA and the marignalization of the so-called social movements

This is very similar to the problem SYRIZA ran into in terms of drawing the so-called social movements into actually governing Greece. According to Michalis Spourdalakis, SYRIZA was unique in that,

“The first and basic element [of its push for power] was its involvement in the social sphere, embedded as its activists were in the multifaceted social movements without engaging in vanguardist practices”.

However, despite this claimed unique approach to winning power, when SYRIZA actually formed its government, these social movements fell to the side; the center of gravity became the existing state machine and SYRIZA spent all of its time trying to prevent this machine from collapsing.

I would argue SYRIZA never saw in the social movements anything more than a political advantage over its adversaries; which is to say, although SYRIZA made use of the social movements, the party never accepted that the social movements would govern society. The fact that SYRIZA lost touch with the social movements suggests that, from the first, SYRIZA always assumed the party, not the social movements, would govern after the elections. And this is indeed what Spourdalakis suggests took place already in the months prior to the elections:

“On the one hand, its rhetoric to the contrary, the Syriza leadership now seemed to limit its conception of political change to governmental change (for example, no immediate plan for transforming the media, at best a formalization of its support for the social movements, a kind of polite, neutral, and slowly emerging response to the bureaucracy’s undermining of government policies).

On the other hand, key figures in the government felt it was necessary to appease the old establishment and the bourgeoisie. To this end, the so-called technocrats or experts who clearly have close relations with the old corrupt personnel and networks were recruited by the Syriza government into the state.

But behind this naïve and instrumentalist orientation to taking state power, one can detect similar problems in Syriza’s party program. Although the detailed program was the product of enormous political and even scientific energy, it was never concretized to become a real operational plan. This was in some sense the side effect of the expectation that the change of government would be smooth and that the administration of the state by the radical left would not require any particular caution, let alone preparation.”

If Spourdalakis is correct here, the marginalization of the social movements from the political scene in the ensuing months after the election in Greece was no accident; rather, SYRIZA’s approach to winning an election and governing dramatically changed in the months leading to the election.

You govern the same way you win

In its current platform, the Green Party has stated its intention to see society governed by popular assemblies:

“Community Assemblies: Ground political representation in a foundation of participatory, direct democracy: a Community Assembly in every neighborhood, open to all of its residents, acting as a grassroots legislative body, with its own budget for local administration, and the power (in concert with other Citizens Assemblies who share a representative) to monitor, instruct, and recall representatives elected to municipal, state, and federal office.”

This, I would argue, isn’t just a blueprint for a future society or something to be realized after an election, but imposes real and necessary constraint on how the Green Party hopes to win elections in the first place. The assembly cannot be introduced from the top down by some future Green Party city, state or federal government; it must itself be the form that actually takes power in the first place.

If this is true, a serious Green Party election campaign can look nothing like its campaigns do today. Gaining power in a form that is consistent with the Green Party’s platform requires an already existing assembly that has begun to undertake a social transformation of the existing society prior to gaining power. Which means efforts must already be under way in every neighborhood to put in place the bodies that will one day come to manage society.

To put this another way, the assemblies that the Green Party proposes to manage society are no different than a labor union which must be in place prior to a declaration that it alone will represent the workers in a conflict with management over wages and conditions of labor. In another sense, however, it goes well beyond what we might today (wrongly) think is a proper union role, in that it not only seeks to represent the people of the community against the current management — the city government — but to replace that management with direct popular administration of the city.

If you really aspire to radical social change, a government of the type the Greens proposed is like the organization of a union prior to a strike: the union (i.e., the neighborhood assemblies) should be mostly in place before the strike is declared.