Next week, millions of American consumers will play citizen for the day, reluctant extras in the latest episode of “America’s Next Top Oligarch”. Meanwhile at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, thousands of Native American citizens are exercising the true meaning of democracy. Liam McLoughlin explains.
For the last presidential debate, 72 million Americans gathered around their television screens to watch a capable caretaker of American capitalism debate a billionaire narcissist about a wide range of policy issues; primarily bad hombres, nasty women and sore losing. This was said to be something to do with democracy, although nobody could explain exactly how.
At Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, there has been another kind of democratic gathering. For some months now, thousands of Native Americans from over 100 different tribes have converged to protest the construction of the US $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline. The planned 1,800km pipeline will connect oil-rich fields near the Canadian border to existing pipelines in Illinois, transporting 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day across the watersheds and wildlife habitats of four states to markets in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
Not only does the project pose a serious climate risk, but according to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the new mega-pipeline disturbs sacred sites, violates past treaty promises, ignores tribal sovereignty, and threatens their water supply.
On October 22, about 300 people conducted a peaceful march to honour the sacred sites already destroyed in construction. The protesters, or self-proclaimed ‘water protectors’, were faced with riot police armed with assault rifles. At least 127 protectors were arrested and many say they were pepper sprayed and thrown to the ground ‘without provocation’. The charges ranged from reckless endangerment to criminal trespass, assaulting a police officer, engaging in a riot and resisting arrest.
This was people power in action and the perpetrators were punished accordingly.
On October 27, another 141 people were arrested as over 100 heavily armed police forced protesters off the pipeline construction site using armoured personnel carriers, a sound cannon, tear gas, pepper spray, Tasers, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and concussion grenades.
All this comes only a matter of weeks after Democracy Now reported that the Dakota Access pipeline company had attacked Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray.
The story went viral, leading to comparisons with attacks on civil rights protesters in the 1960s.
Charges of criminal trespass and riot were laid against the journalist responsible for the report, Amy Goodman, but were later dismissed for lack of evidence. By contrast, evidence of the threat to press freedom was overwhelming.
On the one hand, it shows the corporate capture of the US political system. In his 2008 book Democracy Incorporated, Wolin wrote about the “union of state and corporation in an age of waning democracy and political illiteracy… demoting democracy from a formative principle to a largely rhetorical function within an increasingly corrupt political system.”
There is a more perfect union of state and corporation in America than ever before, as the militarised response to the Dakota pipeline protests attest. While the Texas oil giant responsible for the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), races towards pipeline completion by January 2017, the state pours ever more police resources into cracking down on growing protests. All the while Hillary Clinton punctuates her long silence only by a single meaningless statement, and climate activist Bill McKibben suggests a compelling reason:
“A recent analysis by the group Food and Water watch showed that many of the nation’s biggest financiers are backing the companies building the pipeline. J.P. Morgan. Goldman Sachs. The people who’ve built Clinton’s campaign war chest and her personal fortune are the same people who paid for the dogs that bit young native Americans last week.”
Donald Trump has an even closer relationship to the project, with up to US $1 million invested in ETP and receiving $100,000 in campaign contributions from the company’s CEO.
Against the immense power of corporate or inverted totalitarianism stand the forces of democracy.
In Democracy Inc, Wolin discussed the Athenian origins of the term: “’Democracy’ (demokratia = demos + kratia, or power) stood for rule or power of the people.”
However, in an earlier 1994 paper called “Fugitive Democracy” Wolin argued that democratic governments through history don’t have all that much to do with people power.
Recalling Marx’s observation that democracies pay lip service to the principle of commonality but don’t actually allow the people to rule, he goes on to argue,
“institutionalisation marks the attenuation of democracy; leaders begin to appear, hierarchies develop, experts of one kind or another cluster around the centres of decision; order, procedure and precedent displace a more spontaneous politics…Democracy thus seems destined to be a moment rather than a form.”
For Wolin, democracy is “informal, improvised and spontaneous”. It’s a fleeting or fugitive “project concerned with the political potentialities of ordinary citizens, that is with their possibilities of becoming political beings through the self-discovery of common concerns and of modes of action for realising them.”
In this light, the real democrats this election season are the thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the Americas who have flocked to Standing Rock to defend tribal sovereignty and water rights, and to fight for climate justice. Through marches, prayer, ceremony, legal action and acts of civil disobedience, they are bringing to life an intense democratic moment which throws into sharp relief the charade of democracy playing out on the national stage.
Where Standing Rock is about people power, November 8 is about people management.
Sheldon Wolin describes democracy as “a conversion of politics from a preserve of the privileged and powerful into a public domain”.
As global temperatures surge towards two degrees of warming and the privileged and powerful continue to preserve profits over people, outbursts of democracy like that at Standing Rock are a lifeline amidst the democratic wasteland of the 2016 US election.