Public Comment

The Structure of Our Political Disconnect

Steve Martinot
Friday January 15, 2016 - 11:34:00 AM

Institutions vs. constituencies

A structural disconnect has made itself evident between the Berkeley City Council and the people of the city. Three major crises face the people of the city – a crisis in housing (dislocation), a crisis of homelessness (criminalization of poverty), and a crisis of policing (racial profiling and militarization). In each, an institutionality has risen against constituencies (aka real people), and in each, council has sided in both comportment and policies with institutionality. Indeed, it is council’s focus on strengthening institutionality rather than in protecting the people affected by those institutions that has generated these crises.

Though council has not been unanimous in this, it evinces a disturbing consistency – the same six voting for institutionality and three voting for constituency. As a constant element, it indicates a disturbing ethical corruption among the six (aka machine behavior). But it also reflects a disturbing acquiescence (to council’s own institutionality) by the three – disturbing because any crisis requires extreme imagination and audacity as a response. Both the six and the three abandon constituency by hiding in their respective institutionalities. With many twists of logic in their discussions, they all pretend that there is a symbiosis between the two (institutions and constituencies). As a political crisis, it marks a profound disconnect of governance.

But the disconnect does not just emerge from ill-advised choices. It is produced by an underlying structure that is itself corrupt, and which imposes its own exigencies. To see the political crisis as conditioned by an underlying structure does not excuse the council. Instead, it highlights the council’s inability or refusal to resist that more profound structural corruption. And too often, that refusal expresses itself in a preference for disparagement, scorn, and procedural machinations against those facing these crises without protection and calling for justice and fairness.

Let us briefly outline these crises, and then examine their underlying structure.  

The crisis of policing, germinating for decades, erupted in massive malfeasance a year ago (December 2014) with injurious attacks on demonstrators calling for justice for police victims nationwide. Those injured remain uncompensated to this day, in part because the context in which their injuries occurred remains unaddressed. That context is the uniformity of police behavior found across the country in the form of racial profiling, routine harassment and brutality (mostly against people of color), a regimenting demand for obedience (police officer as “commanding officer”), and an impunity of operations. Tasers, as instruments of torture, now gain acceptance as a technology of obedience. Forty years after the civil rights movements threw out the racism of Jim Crow, cities are still struggling with police racial profiling. The fact of police contracts with federal fusion centers (e.g. NCRIC-Northern Cal. Research and Information Center) imposes federal authority and policy on matters internal to the city (not to mention surveillance). In other words, the police are only partially under local civilian control. They mark a reduction of local autonomy essential to self-governance. Yet those contracts are renewed by city council without question.  

Housing has become unaffordable because of the massive development proposed by Plan Bay Area. Its promised influx of high income residents has induced unconscionable rent increases by landlords opportuning on that promise. Since rent control is prohibited by the Costa-Hawkins Act, a crisis of dislocation and exile of families has been the result (in SF, and now beginning in the east bay). Only massive affordable housing (wherein rent is set at 30% of income by HUD) will stem this crisis, because market rate housing has become affordable only by the wealthy. The city promises affordable units in all new developments, but that is an empty promise since a mitigation fee allows developers to avoid such inclusion. Corporate developers favor buildings of uniformly market rate units because they are more profitable, and the absence of government regulation makes recapitalization easier. City council has kept the mitigation fees low (against recent Nexus Study recommendations), thus revealing a pro-gentrification orientation that ignores neighborhood protections.  

The economic distortion of the housing situation has exacerbated the problem of homelessness, which has become a humanitarian crisis throughout the state. Yet the council aggravates it for its own purposes. It has consistently refused to provide public toilets or showers, so that by proposing ordinances against using the streets, it succeeds in creating a social hostility to the homeless for their uncivil "behavior." It had already fostered such hostility when the police crushed a number of encampments under bridges and highways at the edge of town, driving the homeless toward the city center, where their presence would engender complaints. When the city then uses the police against the homeless, it appears as the protector of civil society. By cutting funding to local services and drop-in centers, it increases the desperation of the homeless, creating conflict in the low income neighborhoods, in which it can appear as arbiter, again with the police. It then uses its aura as protector to undermine neighborhood resistance to planned (market rate) housing development. 

The political crisis

This marks a profound political crisis whose underlying principle is the exclusion of people from governance. The homeless are never invited to discuss what could be done by the city to alleviate their situation (they are to be exiled). Indeed, when they set up an "intentional community" by which to organize and govern themselves in accordance with all laws, that too is crushed. Neighborhood associations are not given a seat at the planning tables with a vote, though what is planned will profoundly affect their destiny. And police impunity is protected, as a power that lies well beyond political or social accountability (cf. the so-called “patrolman’s bill of rights”). 

Though this crisis of governance appears as an ethical problem (which could ostensibly be resolved by elected "better" people), it is in reality a structural disconnect. To begin with, the structure of representation ideologically legitimizes the disconnect between representatives and the constituencies they represent. It enables policies to be produced in the name of constituencies that play no deciding role. It requires that the constituencies be held responsible not for making policies but for obeying them. In obeying those policies (as law), the constituencies end up representing what their alleged "representatives" have done. Thus, it both inverts representation and violates the most fundamental tenet of democracy, namely, that those who will be affected by a policy should be the ones who articulate and make that policy. In fostering housing policies that will sacrifice present residents for the benefit of future residents, councilmembers are doing something they were not elected to do. 

The Costa-Hawkins Act is another example. Though two-thirds of all urban residents are renters, they are barred from protecting themselves against "economic evictions" by that act. 

The impossibility of representation

We know intuitively that representation is difficult simply because constituent districts are diverse, with opposing class interests, ideological differences, racial hierarchies, and cultural distinctions, etc. No single delegate can represent all these at once – especially not in the case of hierarchies (class and race). The interests of dominant and subordinate remain irresolvable. 

This inability to represent all marks the first degree of separation. The second degree is the fact that a representative has nothing concrete to represent. No district meetings have occurred in which people make political decisions on issues for a representative to carry to a council or assembly. Thus, delegates only represent a demographic. They then have to invent a political coherence for their district, upon which to make policy. Their political decisions thus evince only a rhetorical foundation. 

In a democracy, people talk politics first, choosing issues and making decisions in local assemblies, after which there are elections of delegates charged with representing those decisions. In representationism, elections come first, and the representatives are the ones who then talk politics. The very concept of politics gets corrupted through this inversion. 

How the higher body becomes its own constituency

By whatever means, every district delegate must find a way to deal with this political disconnect. They can try to represent specific groups. They can invent a general interest for the district. Or they can succumb to the highest bidder. 

When powerful outside forces like corporate developers approach a city, acting under the authority of something like the Plan Bay Area, the third possibility becomes most prominent. Nevertheless, the first two exist. With no foundation to involve constituent communities in the political decision process, representatives tend to turn to their own assembly or council membership as their primary political environment. The assembly or council becomes the source, in the absence of an assembled constituency, of minimal cooperation and support. That is, representatives act through agreements with other representatives (“I’ll support your measure if you support mine”). Through such “horse-trading,” the assembly becomes the de facto constituency for each member. By default, the delegate’s district-oriented concerns get reduced to the question of reelection. 

Because opposed interests resist compromise at the district level, the “horse-trading” paradigm is unacceptable. In housing, for instance, corporate interests and community interests stand in contradiction. Corporations seek profitability and easy recapitalization possibilities. Communities need economic stability and the maintenance of diverse cultural traditions. To foster the interests of neighborhood communities against the destructiveness of economic dislocation will mean to collide with corporate power and the gentrification from which they benefit. To try to compromise community interests and corporate interests with inclusionary housing will only end in developers buying their way out by paying mitigation fees. 

The hearings

The paradigmatic corruption of the political disconnect finds its highest expression in the structure of hearings. "Hearings" pretend to be the arena of democratic participation in policy-making. But instead they function as representationism’s disguise, thwarting participation and disempowering people, too often humiliating them in the process. 

There are two kinds of people who come to hearings. There are those who come by invitation and report on matters the council has made an issue for itself. They give the council information it needs for the projects it chooses, presenting graphs and data, and discussing the benefits of the project. They get to sit at a special table, and enter into dialogue with the council. 

The other kind is those who come to council to present a problem, to ask for assistance with a problem, or to contest a policy under discussion insofar as it promises to be a problem. When people come from the neighborhoods, or from the homeless, or from the many victimized by police racial profiling, they come to get justice and surcease from the social forces or discriminatory practices that oppress them. They do not get a table, nor a dialogue. They stand in line, are given a minute or two to tell their story, express their desire for justice, or argue for a solution to the problem, and then sit down. When a group of constituents approaches council with a common problem, neither cohesion nor coherence is possible. Their various orations on the issue get fragmented by the sequentiality of the line, and lose cohesion. Similarly, coherence gets drowned out by the shift from one speaker to another. Each person who approaches the dais must begin again, while remaining unfinished when time runs out. The public hearing is only a way of "toying" with participation. 

In sum, constituents are reduced to monologic space, while invitees are granted a dialogic space. In monologic space, there is no give and take, no exchange of ideas, no ability to resolve issues (all the things that constitute "politics"). And those to whom one speaks have no necessity to answer. Though for the invited – business people or social experts – the hearing becomes a place of warmth, conversation, and the resolution of issues, for the rest, the structure of monologue grants speech but not voice, and exclusion from decisions that will affect them. 

The democratic spirit would mandate that if large numbers of people felt strongly enough to take time to come to council, the issue should be considered serious, and more time given to each speaker – or create a setting of dialogue. But only the opposite, restricted time and reduction to monologue, occurs. 

Thus, the representationist structure corrupts the meaning of “government by the people.” It irrefutably reveals the non-representational character of representationism. 

The effect of the hearing paradigm is to create a political class distinction between people. There are the "participants" and there are the "constituents." The first receive honor and influence in the context of dialogue, and the others are reduced to commentary in monologue. 

Most often, this political "class" difference represents a difference in wealth or power. But pragmatically, it takes the form of institutional credentials, a political recognition associated with institutional positions – such as corporations, commissions, business associations, etc.). Credentials give one access to dialogue with policy-makers. Those without credentials get reduced to merely fulfilling procedural requirements. 

In conclusion

Representationism falls prey to three anti-democratic processes, the creation of political classes, the suppression of constituent political participation, and representationist control over political thought and decision-making. When representatives succumb to an elitism of thinking they know what is best for the city, they succumb to a form of corruption fostered by representationism itself, through its structural disconnect from the people. Different officials may resist this structural corruption in different ways, or use it, but however they act within it, it will corrupt them. 

This does not mean we must not hold elected officials accountable for their corruption. They must be held responsible for not resisting and thus not changing the structure that corrupts them. 

Our necessity, on the other hand, is to return the power of dialogue to the constituencies, to neighborhood assemblies in which to discuss and make policy, and through which to give elected officials something real to represent.