Sunday, February 02, 2020


Colonialism functions by dividing the colonized into factions. The old “divide and rule” tactic. The traditional system of governance based on consensus was an obstacle to colonial rule. For one thing, a unified opposition made it more difficult for the colonizers to seize land and plunder resources. The traditional system had nothing in common with both the monarchical and elective systems of European governance. The band council and chief system was IMPOSED upon the Indigenous peoples.

While a village council is not a state, it has an embryonic aspect of a state, and as we have seen these societies were stateless. If the people do not obey the regulations made by the village council, forces of repression (police and army) can be called upon to make them concede. The population is also divided into winners and losers in the electoral game, and this too is something at odds with the traditional system. If we look at electoral politics generally in our system, and not just band councils, the people who run in elections may also be people of respect, the natural leaders, but as often they are not. “Respect” may be purchased with promises and media hype and this same media is used to denigrate opponents. Once again, methods foreign to traditional ways.

This does not mean First Nations people should be criticized when using the council system to further their struggle, or that we settlers should demand restoration of the traditional system of governance. These decisions are not up to us, but the purview of Indigenous people themselves. To act otherwise, would simply replicate the colonial mentality, ie, “We know what's good for them.”

The band councils have jurisdiction only over the “reserves” - those areas set aside for Indigenous people by the colonizers. The traditional – and in the case of more than 90% of British Columbia, unceded territories, are still within the jurisdiction of the traditional clan chiefs, something that even the Federal government has conceded. So what we have is two systems of governance, one traditional, and one imposed, on two sets of territory. Someone not knowing this could be forgiven for not understanding the Wet'suwet'an struggle.

So are the band councils “democratic” and the clan chiefs “autocratic”, as some claim? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand what we mean by democracy and further explore the notion of consensus.

Our contemporary system of government was the result of an evolution out of the oligarchic system of elected representatives power-sharing with the monarch. At the beginning of the 19th Century, maybe 5% of the population had the vote. During this period democracy was an anathema, sort of like “communism” in the 20th. Democracy was seen, as it had been since the Athenian polis, as DIRECT democracy, that is, the populace directly passed legislation in assemblies and selected delegates to carry out this legislation. This system, also practiced in Switzerland and the New England town meeting, was quite rightly seen as a threat to oligarchic power.

Great pressure arose from the bourgeoisie and the working classes to extend the franchise. Fearing both the democratic impulses of the people and a possible French-type revolution, the oligarchs conceded, gradually extending the franchise until 1919, when all adults finally had the right to vote. By the late 19th Century democracy was no longer a swear word, but the pride of Anglo Saxon society. However, the notion of democracy had changed. In an old trick, the goal posts were moved. Direct democracy was replaced by party rule and REPRESENTATIVE democracy.

The people were not to rule directly, but though representatives, who contradictorally, prided themselves on their independence from the voters. Parties, at first loose collections of the similar-minded, became disciplined parties with power concentrated at the top.(And as a nod to the “English disease”, this discipline was called “whipping.) Governments, in turn, began to concentrate power at the Cabinet level. Voters and party rank and file had little input into the reality of government. To make matters worse, the “winner-take-all” First Past The Post electoral system was used throughout the Anglosphere. This meant that in a multi-party system, few if any governments were actually majority governments – as little as 36% of the vote could create a “majority” government. Using the power of the state apparatus, the minority could, and did, bully the majority into obedience. This is not a democracy, but an “elective dictatorship.” But this was the source of the system imposed upon Indigenous people, as being somehow more democratic than the traditional one.

Is consensus undemocratic? A little background. The Society of Friends (Quakers) most likely picked up the idea of consensus from the Indigenous people they encountered when settling in Pennsylvania. Anarchists, beginning with Proudhon, criticized majority rule as simply a new form of authoritarianism, but it was not until the 1950s that consensus became part of the social movements. Today, most mass movements share a “horizontalist” approach, which involves consensus-oriented assemblies.

Time for another thought experiment. Let's think about what our present society would be like if it had a consensus-type of governance. But before we do that, a qualification must be made. Consensus may work for small groups, but how can you run an entire country? Of course, you can't, if every aspect of governance at all levels had to be decided that way, all we would ever do is attend meetings. However, there are a host of issues that are neither controversial, nor an imposition upon some group, that could be resolved by simple majority democracy. You could, instead, have a “modified consensus” - a consensus would only be needed if proposed legislation in some measure harmed or threatened to harm a significant minority of the population. Essentially, all the stakeholders in a particular situation would have to agree to any changes that might negatively impact certain of those stakeholders. (And I do mean harm. Raising taxes on billionaires is not harm, even if three-quarters of their income went in taxes, they would still be fabulously wealthy. However, a working class person would genuinely suffer if the government made affordable housing difficult to obtain.)

What might the results be if we project a modified consensus on say, the last 50 years? First off, there would be very few wars, and any that did occur would be truly defensive in nature. Since Trans Mountain and other pipelines and CO2 producing mega projects simply could not exist, we would be much further ahead in green energy. Cannabis would have been decriminalized 50 years ago, and much suffering averted. There would be no cut-backs in health care and public education and the privatization and partial privatization of public services and the resulting deterioration of these services and rising costs, would never have happened. The mentally ill and the homeless now wandering the streets would be institutionalized or housed. This would be the case, since in all the issues listed, significant minorities, (sometimes even majorities) opposed war, cutbacks etc. With the “elected dictatorship” they were simply ignored. This would not be the case with modified consensus.

Our “democratic” system is rocked by protests, strikes and riots. This happens because governments ignore/abuse significant minorities, and indeed as we see in France and Chile, even the majority is being bullied by the state. With a more consensus-oriented approach, these revolts would not exist. As a matter of course, the problems raised would be rectified.

So which is autocratic and which is democratic? I would suggest that our so-called democracy is quite autocratic and we could all do with a good dose of consensus to make it more truly democratic. To call the traditionalists “undemocratic,” is the pot calling the kettle black and a misunderstanding of a consensus-based system of governance.


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