Assignment: Using examples, explain 'grassroots democracy' and how 'grassroots' movements are organised.
Democracy has seen many forms, the Athenian democracy of popular assemblies and random selection through to the modern parliamentary and presidential styles. It has many proponents from all areas of the political spectrum, and few would actively claim to be against it.
This essay will attempt to explain what grassroots democracy is, the history behind the concept, why grassroots movements and organisations exist, and how they work & operate. What is not grassroots democracy will also briefly be explored.
Democracy, has a number of different meanings and is considered an essentially contested term.1 While the Greek from which the word is taken means 'rule by the people' (demos - the people, and kratein - to rule)2, this is not very descriptive considering the various meanings that are associated with it. The word "democratic" is used to describe a large array of political structures across the world. As such finding one definition to match all these structures would be hard. If we take the Greek literally, the word democracy means 'rule directly by the people'. Some claim that it is rule by the majority of the people,3 others, a system of government by the whole population4, and others a system where political power is ultimately in the hands of the population.
Grassroots tends to mean from the bottom. If something is grassroots, it is organised from the base of the group or community that is being talked about. As such you can have grassroots movements in society as a whole, in businesses, or other organisations. There are a variety of reasons behind a grassroots organisation, from the desire to change or keep something, to simply organising social gatherings or sporting events. Grassroots organisations can be small, kept to the local community, or large, encompassing different groups across a state or nation. Grassroots organisations include many different types, from sporting groups, to environmental groups to childcare groups. They all share the common feature that they are organised by individuals getting together and agreeing to do something.
Grassroots democracy is the political process being driven by ordinary citizens; rather then wealthy individuals or big organisations (such as unions or major political parties). It maybe that they are people who are affected by something, are concerned by something or simply want to make the world a better place. In many cases there are no other options, even if there is a local 'representative' they may not listen, or there may simply be no one else to ask. Often there is not an overtly political reason for a particular groups formation. And often political action may come after a group has formed and the political climate has changed.
There have been many examples of spontaneous uprisings in history. Peasants and workers revolts, anti-colonial liberation struggles, and slave insurrections. In Russia, during February 1917, there were mass popular uprisings, which helped lead to the downfall of the Tsar. Afterwards, the people organised in grassroots organisations. In many parts of Spain during and before the Spanish Civil War, people took control over their own lives, with limited interference from government. There were a number of experiments tried, including communism and collectivism.
Examples of grassroots movements include environmental and social movements. The anti Franklin Dam movement in Australia leading up to the 1983 federal election is a classic example of a movement that was grassroots. An attempt by the state government to dam the Gordon River below where the Franklin entered it, lead to a national outcry. The Wilderness Society started a nation wide campaign to stop the dam. Thousands of people turned up to rallies, wrote letters to the papers, and were arrested. After the election of a Labor government, helped in part by the ALP saying they would stop the dam, legislation was passed that prevented it from being built.5
Critical Mass is touted as an unorganised coincidence.6 Critical Mass is bicycle riders getting together and asserting their right to be on the road. Individuals may have other reasons to be there, anti-car, promoting sustainable transport, even having fun and celebrating bikes and bike riding. It is fundamentally a grassroots event. It is partly a political event, it promotes bikes and try's to get better conditions for bicycles, such as bicycle lanes, but it is not just a political event. It is grassroots, in that there is no peak body (such as Bicycle Tasmania) behind it; there are only individuals.
Across the world there are many movements that could be categorised as grassroots. They are in a variety of countries from South America to industrialised and post-industrialised Europe, and Australia. The causes are varied as well, environmental degradation in the Amazonian rainforest (and the Tasmanian forests as well), to anti-nuclear campaigns and anti-war campaigns. But there are also local reasons for grassroots movements, if a hospital is going to be closed for example, the local community will fight to stop it closing. The reason for these movements is often quite similar however. The government (local, state, or federal), is perceived as either, not doing the correct thing in relation to something or not representing the interests of a particular group.
There are two main types of grassroots groups. Those who are doing something because the local government (or organisation hierarchy) is not doing something for the members of the group (for example, disabled people or recreational fishers). And those who are doing something for some perceived 'greater good'. This second type includes environmental groups. Often the two types are combined, public health workers who call for lower working hours so that tired doctors and nurses are not looking after patients.
In the 'liberal democracies' of the 'west' (or 'north') grassroots movements exist because the choice during elections choice is limited (candidates, parties, programmes) and the start up cost of new parties are too high.7 After elections a 'representative' or the government may ignore or even work against what a group is trying to do. In non-'democratic' countries, grassroots movements exist for a similar reason. If the government is either ignoring an issue, or working actively against what a group thinks is the correct thing to do, and then there will be protest. In some cases the grassroots movement is trying to bring about what they think is guaranteed, but not implemented, for example the democracy movement in China.
Grassroots organisations have a variety of structures; depending on the type of organisation and what the members want. There can be non-structured and non-hierarchical organisations that are run by all members, or by whichever member wishes to do something. Or they can be run on the basis of there being one person who makes the majority of decisions. However, they majority are somewhere in between. There are regular meetings of the members, but otherwise there is an executive group that makes immediate decisions. Some organisations combine two or more of these approaches depending on what level they are being organised at, local or national. Decision making is linked to structure, but whenever there is more then one person that has to make the decision a method has to be used. Two common methods are consensus, and a simple vote.
Consensus is where decisions are made with a general agreement. While it is more likely to work with small groups, it can work with larger groups on non-controversial issues. A variant on full consensus is consensus minus one or minus two. If all agree but one (or two) it may be agreed that that person is noted as disagreeing with the decision, but the decision is still made. There are, problems with the consensus method of arriving at decisions. Pressure being applied to dissident members of a group so that a consensus can be reached is on example. Another example is that once a decision is made, even if it is shown to be the wrong one, another decision can be hard to make. The time taken to arrive a decision is also sometimes cited as a flaw, but proponents counter this by saying that it shows that people's opinions are being listened to.
Food not Bombs is a good example of a grassroots practical political organisation. Local groups collect food that would otherwise be thrown out and cooks it and then feeds it to hungry people. It is organised on a collective basis, which anyone is able to join. Groups are open and democratic, with decisions are made on a consensus basis.8
Using a simple vote (either needing 50%+1 or some greater percentage) decisions can often be made faster then with a consensus decision. This method of decision making is not often used in small groups using direct action, as the support of all members of a group is needed for an action to occur successfully. In larger groups it enables two or more lines of thought to be followed at one time, and if a majority decision is later shown to be flawed, the minority is still able to present a case.
The Internet, including email and the WWW, telephones and other forms of technology have proven very useful in the organisation of grassroots movements. They have provide cheap fast forms of communication enabling contact between people across the world, as well as across the town.9 The Internet also enables access to information, information provide by other communities, government organisations, as well as media from across the globe. Of course there are problems with relying on the Internet, with less then 15% of the world's population with access.10
The Independent Media Center (IndyMedia) is an excellent example of a grassroots organisation that utilises the Internet and other technology to both communicate and to provide what it is in existence for, independent news from an individual's perspective. This fulfils a political role, as people feel that they are getting independent coverage of protests etc. that focus on issues rather then on things like violence or similar.11
There are two other organisational types that may be confused with a grassroots movement or organisation. The first is an astroturfed campaign, which could include fake organisations. The second are groups that while their aims are widely supported, do not involve (expect perhaps in a very limited way) ordinary citizens.
An astroturfed campaign will be orchestrated by a company or organisation who wishes to make it appear that there is widespread support for something, when in actuality there is not. There are a variety of methods that are used, including setting up front organisations; writing fake letters to the editor and ringing up talk back radio. These campaigns are designed to appear to as if there is popular support for something, rather than being a spin-doctored campaign. They can be very effective if they convince the public and politicians that there is a spontaneous groundswell of support for something.12
An example of this is 'Timber Communities Australia'. They claim to be a "grass roots organisation" with members from "both city and rural communities".13 However, they are funded by the National Association of Forest Industries, who in 2002-2003 gave TCA 86% of its funding.14
Organisations that are not grassroots, but may appear so (for a variety of reasons), include environmental groups, unions, et cetera. Often these organisations simply collect money from individuals, but accept no input from them. Greenpeace is an example of this sort of organisation. Whilst many people support what Greenpeace does, they are not involved beyond monthly giving money to them. At the lowest levels of Greenpeace volunteers do have a say in how the organisation is run, and what the organisation does, but at the top, it is run by an elite.15 Some unions are organised similarly; decisions are made by an elite (though often elected), and the role of the members is simply to pay their dues and participate in strikes.
Grassroots organisations are not always obviously political. But even if the aims of the group are not political, the reason the group formed may be. Thus Critical Mass has the intention of having fun and promoting bikes, but will inevitably be political as it comes up against car culture. There are however, lots of grassroots organisations that are directly intended to be political. These are the grassroots democracy movements. They form because the member's feel that the alternatives, either do not work, are too resource consuming or just because they want to do something. They form to protect a park, or a wetland, to support prisoners and many other things.
1' Cliff duRand, Democracy and Struggles for Social Justice' http://ebowman.home.igc.org/AnotherWorld/papers/durand1.htm (accessed 7/10/2005)
2Terrence Ball & Richard Dagger, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal 5th ed. (USA: Pearson Longman, 2004) p20.
3See for example Iain McLean Democracy and New Technology (UK: Polity Press, 1989)
4'Democracy and Good Governance' http://www.fco.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1070037618836 (accessed 7-10-2005)
5 'History of the Franklin River Campaign 1976-83' http://www.wilderness.org.au/campaigns/wildrivers/franklin/franklin published 15/6/2001, (accessed 7/10/2005)
7W.L. Miller, 'Political Participation and Voting Behaviour', in Encyclopaedia of Government and Politics 2nd ed, eds. Mary Hawksworth and Maurice Kogan (New York:Routledge, 2004). p. 420
9Paul Routledge, 'Convergence space: process geographies of grassroots globalization networks', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Volume 28 Issue 3 (September 2003)
11'Indymedia's Frequently Asked Questions', http://docs.indymedia.org/view/Global/FrequentlyAskedQuestionEn published 29 Sep 2005 (accessed 3/10/2005)
12Dan Gillmor, 'Astroturf' PR campaign exposes Microsoft goals' http://www.computerworld.com/printthis/1998/0%2C4814%2C30565%2C00.html published APRIL 20, 1998, (accessed 4/10/2005)
14 See the copy of the Senate Hansard at http://www.bobbrown.org.au/files/speeches/TCA-speech.pdfp19796
15 See Greenpeace, 'How is Greenpeace structured', http://www.greenpeace.org/international/about/how-is-greenpeace-structured (accessed 7-10-2005)
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