Thursday, December 13, 2012

Myths of Power-With: # 2 - The Either/Or of Decision-Making

by Miki Kashtan

Recently, I was at Rainbow Grocery, a local worker-owned coop where I do a lot of my shopping. Rainbow has been around since the 1970s, and is one of not so many such places that have survived the test of time and are still thriving. As I was looking for a particular bulk spice (for those who care, their bulk section is what I most go all the way to San Francisco for), I overheard a worker explain to a customer an oddity in the way that the spices were organized. I heard weariness in her voice, so I turned to her afterwards and said something to the effect that this oddity could be fixed. She looked at me with what I saw as an odd mixture of commitment and resignation, and said: “Change is very slow when you run a democracy.”

To me this sentence sums up the crux of the issue I am exploring today. This response assumes something I myself question: why would change have to be slow in a democracy? I know the answer, because I think I know what she and others mean by a democracy. I think they mean a certain version of participatory democracy in which everyone participates in all decisions. I used to share the belief that this was the only possible path. In this understanding, we either compromise on the possibility of making things happen, or we compromise on the ideal of power-with, the value at the heart of this version of democracy: no one has anything imposed on them in any way, shape, or form.

Although this dilemma overlaps with the issue I named in Myth#1, I see a significant distinction between the two. When writing about the first myth, that everyone can be included, I was focusing more on the complexity of membership, which is about who gets to be part of a group or organization in the first place. Membership, then, involves a host of privileges and responsibilities, of which decision making is only one. Here, in this post, I am focusing on the process of decision-making within a group or organization whose membership is already clear.