On Wednesday, to Housman’s bookshop in King’s Cross, a place I am making a habit of, to hear Jeff Laster talk about the Weathermen, the radical 60s student underground movement in America of which he had been part as a teenager (though there’s underground and underground – “I wasn’t in the proper Underground, I wasn’t considered radical enough.”) The session started, as many good things do, with a song to which I knew all the words, and turned into a propah seminar.
I couldn’t stay for the whole evening owing to personal flim-flammery, which was a great shame as he was a highly engaging speaker, reflecting usefully on the differences between British and American radicalism, then and now. Short version: Europe has a tradition of full-on Communist-stylee radicalism, America doesn’t and didn’t, and the Weathermen were (this is my take on the basis of what he said, not his) in their early days much closer to what I would consider a modern social liberal democratic tradition than to balls-out left-wing radicalism. Laster started the discussion by reflecting on participatory democracy, an idea which the Weathermen avowed in their early days and only jettisoned later on in favour of strict hierarchy as their movement grew, and as external events (the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam) sharpened minds and raised stakes. “I took orders,” Laster drawled, and it was at this point, when he was getting with marked enthusiasm into a description of the kind of free love-related orders he had taken, that I had to leave.
My sole contribution to the unfolding discussion was to answer his first question to the audience (yes, I was that child at school), which was along the lines of “Can any political movement have genuine participatory democracy?” I said that if any movement was successful and started to grow, decision-making processes would become unwieldy. He ran with the idea and talked about the different perspectives that started to emerge in the Weathermen movement, and the arguments they had about what kind of causes they should fight for – should it be the working class as a whole, civil rights, the draft?
In the event it was civil rights and the draft, and not the working class as a whole. It is difficult to talk about the working class as a homogenous body in 1960s America because of the profound racial divides. But it is also, conveniently, true that civil rights and the draft were naturally close to the hearts of the mostly middle class college kids who formed the heart of the movement. Laster was refreshingly – or appallingly, depending on your viewpoint, and at least one member of the audience did seem fairly appalled – honest about his take on the working class. The relatives he knew who belonged in that category were to his ears racist, retrograde, right-wing in their opinions, and he decided he wanted nothing to do with them. It is the kind of thing you suspect many British Labour politicians over the years have thought but not (unless accidentally captured on a still-recording mike) said.
But what I had in mind when I mentioned the unwieldiness of burgeoning political movements was not so much a multiplication of views as a multiplication of people, and I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing. A classic anthropology article which made a great impression on me when I was studying archaeology is Gregory Johnson’s 1983 meta-study of the operation of consensual decision-making and heirarchy among pastoral nomadic groups. He concluded that “information processing overload” imposes natural constraints on the size of communities that can get by with genuinely consensual day-by-day decision-making, and scaling up beyond a certain size invariably entails some kind of reorganisation into some sort of hierarchy, even if this is broadly what we would call a democratic one. The classic upper limit on a human group operating on pure consensus is, apparently, six. Six people. That’s not very many, is it?
This number can scale, such that six groups of six can come to a decision that usefully furthers the interests of the group as a whole, and so can six tribes each composed of six groups of six people, and so on. But already we are a long way from direct participatory democracy, and into representative democracy, the system with which we all have to live, for better or worse, as “enlightened” modern nation states, and latterly international blocs. And in representative democracy, as we know, things fall down the back of the sofa; certain groups’ voices are not heard, because there is a degree of summarising, of neatening round the edges of the message that each sub-group takes to its superior group in the course of the decision-making process. It needn’t be the case that radically different views are involved. Johnson’s point is simply that not all views can be assimilated in any sort of complex society, even if they are on the whole quite similar, because the human brain simply cannot take it. And even this imperfect system presupposes a perfect Russian doll style set of nesting groups of six, which is a shockingly long way from what we have in the UK parliament. No wonder people feel disenfranchised, I suppose.
On the plus side, it strikes me that, excepting Antarctica, there are six continents in the world, politically speaking. So if that alien war Hollywood is waiting for ever does come along, as a race we are sitting pretty. Just don’t be surprised if the fall-out conducted notionally in your name is Not, in fact, In Your Name.