Charles M. Rupert is a philosopher, scholar, and parent. He writes on systemic change, political economy, political theory, and metaphysics. He is the first-prize winner of The Next System Project's 2017 International essay competition for how to build a better world. He teaches philosophy in the greater Philadelphia area.
The book The Origins of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood provides a compelling history of capitalist analysis. The story, in a nutshell, says that nearly all accounts, both for and against capitalism, have failed to really understand the generation process of capitalism, and because of that historical misunderstanding they misapprehend what capitalism is. In this concise review, I will try to summarize the main thread of Wood’s argument, specifically with an eye toward an analysis of capitalism rather than as an evaluation of historical accuracy. Towards that end, I will not challenge any assumptions of the author but accept her account of capitalism, what it means, and how it acts. Finally, I will attempt to locate this account within my own work.
Wood spends a good deal of time elaborating the competing views she hopes to overcome, all of which can be boiled down to some version of Adam Smith’s origin story with its emphasis on “man’s propensity to truck, barter, and trade.” This story reveals capitalism to be something of a natural evolution of human instinct, being gradually unfettered by political and religious control and exploitation. Once these fetters were finally dispensed with, the economy became liberated, and human beings were finally free to do what they really wanted to do all along, become capitalists. In this sense, capitalism is simply an extension of the innate desire for human beings to employ the things they own to their own advantage.
She makes several good arguments for why this explanation is erroneous, which I will not bother to recount here. Instead, I want to focus on her alternative account that finds capitalism as developing in English agriculture. In my interpretation, it is a misread to claim that Wood is arguing that capitalism is born out of English agrarian society. Rather, I believe she is arguing that when a proto-capitalist model of property relations came to be applied to the necessities of life as occurred during the supplantation of traditional agrarian society during feudalism, the only means of living were altered for everyone and a new system with its own logic and imperatives took over. This was against the resistance of the people who would come to adopt it, namely peasants.
Rather than the traditional tail of fetters being removed, the story Wood tells shows how the powers of economic exploitation simply were shifted from direct control by lords to seize profits from the relatively independent peasant producers to one where the exploitation was formalized in the property relations with the lords established as “owners” and the peasants as “tenants” or “farmers”. The only remaining role then for the state in such a system is to enforce the property relations as a whole, making economic relations quasi-independent of political activity. This separation masks the coercion, making it feel more “natural” or “free”, rather than the obvious and direct political oppression involved in feudal systems. Such a system, Wood suggests, changes the mode of exploitation from extra-economic means to purely economic ones, and at the same time changes the incentives for lords from one of squeezing peasants to maximizing the productivity of farmers and employees. This effect accounts for both the success of capitalism in replacing nearly all other forms of economic relations and for capitalism’s intense classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and so forth. Without its political element, it is not clear who may be exploited and so the exploitation is filtered through some or several forms of identity politics.
In general, I think Wood’s reading is accurate although I don’t claim to know the intricacies of the agrarian argument she bases it on. What I take from Wood’s analysis is simply the fact that the defining characteristic of capitalism is its ability to separate exploitation from the political sphere. This fits with the very nature of oppression, which, roughly defined, is characterized by apparent freedom and opportunity with the subtle reality being one of limited options and forced choices. With this understanding in play, capitalism is not established by private property or markets for its exchange. Those elements may be associated with a great many economic systems. Capitalism is then a particular way of preserving classism without recourse to draconian political force.
On the upside, assuming Wood is correct here, capitalism offers humanity the first glimpse of economic freedom from direct political control. This is indeed the achievement that capitalist apologists have long used to justify the system. The failing of capitalism lies not in its divorce from political oversight, but in its continued adherence to the principles of classism and exploitation. The goal of any socialist regime worthy of the name would be to devise a way to surgically eliminate that element while preserving the freedom for self-determination and individuality that comes with economic independence.
In my own work, that goal is met by the abolition of the form of rent. The form of rent is the particular facet of capitalism that allows one to make money from ownership without relinquishing the rights of ownership. It is, in my opinion, the “Pandora’s box” of capitalism, through which all the evils enter. Without the form of rent, especially manifest in profit, interest, and rent, capitalism ceases to be exploitative, and without its exploitative element, capitalism isn’t capitalism at all. In Wood’s understanding capitalism is the exploitation of labor without direct political means; so, no exploitation, no capitalism. No matter whatever elements of capitalism remain, including private property and markets, without the form of rent it ceases to be capitalist and becomes, for lack of a better term, libertarian socialism.
I rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 the other night, after seeing the sequel. My thoughts had been hovering on a PoliceLivesMatter bumper sticker I saw slapped to the back of a stop sign that day when I sat down to watch superheroes. This got me to thinking about superheroes and real heroes and what heroes are, philosophy. What the hell is a hero anyway? I know I’m not the first philosopher to ask the question. That was probably Aristotle while examining the ethics of bravery. But my thoughts went to Peter A. French, a contemporary expert in the realm of moral philosophy and responsibility.
In the eleventh chapter of his book Responsibility Matters, French examines the role heroism plays in moral action. Who is the moral hero? What does it take to be a moral hero? French draws the archetype of the modern hero as the comic book superhero, but he is quick to denounce this iconography. The superhero is superhuman, and thus a terrible model for the moral hero. Like the Nietzschean Übermensch that they descend from, the superhero’s abilities place them outside the moral rules for mere mortals, placing them beyond good and evil. The morality of the superhero is simpler, easier, more straight-forward, black and white, and immediately obvious. Worse, it lacks all nuance. It does not require thinking or compassion or sacrifice. It is authoritarian and comes down upon mortals from above. Like gods before them, the superheroes simply know right from wrong. When they deal out death, their vaulted place above mortals makes their decisions right, in the sense that might always makes right, since to question it is to bring unstoppable violence upon one’s self. One is entirely vulnerable in the presence of the demi-god or superhero.
Police officers, it should noted, are not demi-gods. Unlike most superheroes, the men and women of law-enforcement suffer from the pangs of mortality: they are ignorant, fearful, prejudiced, and self-interested.
French names four conditions he feels are necessary for heroism. The first is that the hero defining actions must intend a “morally desirable end” (113). For example, winning the Super Bowl is not morally relevant, and thus those players that struggle long and hard to achieve that end, even when successful, are not heroes. The second is that a heroic action must involve risk to the hero and the hero must be aware of that risk (114). Superman is not a hero for charging into a room full of armed bank robbers because their weapons cannot hurt him. The third is that the risk to life or limb or property or others is not being undertaken in the spirit of sport, that is the hero doesn’t gamble for fun (114). The hero’s motives must be fixed on the “morally desirable end” and not a risk for risk’s sake. The fourth and final condition is that “the hero’s intention to help others must be proportional to his or her sacrifice” (115). It may be a moral good to save someone some money at the cash register, but risking one’s life to do so is not heroic; it’s foolish.
Heroism, French explains, is not a duty, it is exceptional (116-119). Nor would we want it otherwise. French identifies a tension between society and its heroes that makes heroes both necessary and a threat to the common good (120). This tension tips sometimes this way and sometimes that. But French claims and I agree, that for the last several decades the tension in the US has shifted away from heroes. “We teach rules, not lives”, he writes; “[t]he turn towards litigation in the last thirty years has produced cowardly rule followers who maintain only minimum standards of moral behavior” (121). Heroism has been overshadowed by celebrity and “Courage has lost ground to security” (121). French concludes this chapter by arguing that “Ideals must be exemplified, principles made incarnate… In the end, it does not matter whether the heroes we try to replicate are real or fictional. What matters is that the heroes held before our collective consciousness are emulatable personifications of the virtues on which the flourishing of a good society depends” (121).
But what about the superheroes of Guardians Vol. 1. In that movie, none of the Guardians start as moral heroes. Star-Lord is a thief and roguish womanizer. Gamora is a ruthless assassin. Groot and Rocket are petty bounty-hunters. And Drax the Destroyer is in prison for mass murder. Not exactly the stuff moral heroes are made of. After forming a loose confederacy to sell a stolen orb for inordinate money, things go downhill quick for these non-heroes–morally and physically. After the story arc reaches its nadir, each of the characters comes to have a singular moment. In this moment the individual character finds him or her or it-self in a decisive situation. It is an opportunity both for self-sacrifice and towards a “morally desirable end”, a giving over of your one’s self to something greater and better. After Gamora realizes that the “orb” contains a planet-devastating weapon, she decides not to sell it and even to fight the powerful forces that seek to have it, in order to protect the lives of strangers. Nevertheless, the orb is taken and Gamora left for dead. Star-Lord then risks his life and gives up his freedom to Yondu (who wants to kill him at this point) in order to save Gamora from death. Drax–after summoning his enemy and endangering everyone in an ultimately doomed revenge attempt–comes to admit his weaknesses and place trust and value in his friends. Groot denies Rocket, demanding that they attempt to save Star-Lord and Gamora from Yondu despite the fact that there is no profit in it for them. Many of these transformations are done to comic effect, but nevertheless, the heroism feels pretty real.
Each self-sacrifice makes the next self-sacrifice easier. The transformative value of self-sacrifice that turns mortals into heroes culminates in the greatest moment of decision, when the group decides to attempt to stop the villain Ronin–now in possession of the ultimate weapon–despite the fact that this likely means death. All agree to the suicide mission. The last hold-out, Rocket, eventually finds his place as a hero as he leads the defense of the planet from the kamikaze attacks of Ronin’s forces. So that at the end of the movie, when Star-Lord has taken hold of the infinity stone (from the orb), which no mortal may touch, the group does not hesitate. They reach out to him, standing with him, sacrificing their individual selves to strengthen the group, because doing so is what is right. Each act of self-sacrifice has made each character–little by little–into a moral hero. Their acts do not go unrecognized. The heroes are not “rewarded” for their heroism; they are appreciated for it. They become the realization of the best of us, the ideal made flesh.
The Guardians are heroes because the challenges they faced were life-threatening, aimed at a moral good, but most importantly, they chose to self-sacrifice in full knowledge of these facts. They are instructive because we can see how anyone, even the worst criminals, can become moral heroes. However, an act of heroism is just that, a single instant. To be a hero, this moral action must become sustained. It is not enough to do a good deed in a life of bad ones. Heroism must be more than blip. The Guardians will surely go on, but they can never return to who they were when they started, or if they do, renounce their status as heroes.
So what about the real-life heroes? Does this moral logic apply to them? At first blush, we can imagine that the police are heroes because putting on the shield is understood to entail risking one’s life for the good of society. Police risk something in order to achieve a better world. But French, following Kant, argues that heroism is not a moral duty. And merely being a police officer is not a moral duty: a role one inhabits that may carry risk. The job itself is honorable and noble coextensively with its purpose being bent toward justice, but the job is not heroic. Police do not “put their lives on the line for us every day” as the bumper-sticker argument assures. Most days the lives of police officers are in no more jeopardy than an average citizen. And, as it turns out, in far less jeopardy than many vulnerable populations. Thus French’s second condition of heroism is not being met most of the time by most of the officers. In fact, police departments have been very complicit in giving up ground from courage to security. Officer training procedures emphasize the value of officer’s lives at the price of justice. Equipment, from police cruisers to bullet-proof vests to riot gear to arming police with everything up-to and including deadly weapons are under the pretense of protecting officers’ lives. The heroism of self-sacrifice is becoming less and less a part of the job. Shooting first and finding out if it’s justified later is increasingly the rule.
Police use guns to protect themselves not anyone else. If to be a hero is to brave death in order to see that justice prevails then some acts of self-protection violate this moral status. Again these opportunities are relatively rare, even for police. But when they occur, officers always have a choice: protect themselves first or uphold justice first. Kant held the first solution to be a moral duty, thus it is not heroic to protect oneself. Everyone should protect themselves all the time, but self-sacrifice in the name of justice demands we abandon our moral duty for something higher than ourselves. And it must become a habit. Justice must come first in every action of a police officer for us to call that or any officer a hero. Bravery does not come from self-protection, it comes from risk so that justice is carried out.
If this were all that was going on, then we could say that we live in a world where law-enforcement is simply made-up of a great deal of decent folk, a splotch of rotten apples, with maybe a small sprinkling of heroes. Fair-enough! But this is not all that is going on. Police are routinely killing citizens, many of whom aren’t much of threat or any at all. This turns the tables completely around. If self-sacrifice in the name of justice makes one a hero, this sort of over-blown self-protection that sacrifices justice should be condemned as cowardice. And it goes without saying that cowardice is no defense against murder. Anyone who kills because they believed they were under threat although they weren’t, or they were angry, or they had their pride wounded, or they were insulted, or were meant to deal with harsh words, in other words, those who cannot exercise restraint when restraint is what is due are disgraces to the uniform.
Officer Wilson’s execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO was an act of cowardice, if not of crime. He did his job, just the way he was trained. He violated no laws, and yet he acted with injustice. This is the heart of the complaint that BlackLivesMatter represents. Not Wilson or any other individual, but that police departments nationwide put little to no value on justice.
Please, do not misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting it’s a problem for the police to protect themselves. By all means, police have a right to self-defense. And it will be tested by them more than others. It’s part of the job, and as long as it is in keeping with the name of justice it is acceptable. What is not acceptable is the fact that cowardice seems to be an instillation in the modern police culture. Officers are trained to be cowards, not heroes. Trained to react on prejudices and fears, rather than staying cool. The police can take a (white) mass-murdering gunman alive. Someone known to be armed, someone who has shot at police, and maybe killed one. If that is a possibility, it is a possibility for every single incident police have to face. How embarrassingly cowardly then does it appear to shoot an unarmed (black) boy?
And it’s so pervasive it’s fueling a rebellion. Putting on the shield doesn’t automatically make you a hero, but following your police training, following the rules, certainly seems to be making police cowards. Saying black lives matter is not saying that police lives don’t, but police are expected to uphold justice, even at the cost of their lives.
It is allegiance to justice above life, above liberty, above all else that makes the police something more than a violent gang pursuing their self-interests. I believe the job of police deserves respect; the task we charge them with is not easy, but respect for individuals is earned. This systemic cowardice should not be tolerated by the police and the cowards should be drummed out of the force. No union should defend them, and I say that as a socialist. The union should have a clear cut line on this issue of brutality, negligence, and conduct. Individuals who cross it are on their own. Neither should the courts grant immunity to any of these acts. Immunity, after all, is meant to guard civil servants from frivolous legal actions, and accusations of homicide and police brutality are never frivolous.
Like being a hero, it is little moments, little decisions, that over and over again make the next one a little easier. To be worthy of respect police must put themselves second to justice in every decision. In order to do that, they must know what justice is. What it looks like. How it feels. It is not the law. Even where the law and justice are in perfect harmony, it is not the law. Justice is above the law. The law aspires towards it. I don’t know if police training teaches cops to consider what justice is so that they can put it above themselves and by so doing earn the respect of heroes. Police have the monopoly on violence, the discretion to hurt and kill, and when enacting justice is not the primary concern of police, they fail in their responsibility to everyone.
Finally, I want to end this by circling around again to where we began: with superheroes. There is one, interestingly mortal, who ought to serve as the example for all police: the Batman. Perhaps because Batman is mortal, with no extraordinary powers, he is one of the few superheroes to live by a strict code of conduct. His code does not permit him to deliver death to anyone, and neither does he deal with guilt or innocence. He is the moral opposite of the Punisher, a terrible, if frequent, role-model for police to emulate. Batman very simply and very shrewdly tries to minimize harm for everyone, including himself lastly. He does not kill, he does not hurt, in fact, he risks his own life to protect the lives of the dastardly supervillains he tries to apprehend, putting them before himself. To a coward, this would be foolish, to a hero it is perfection. The Punisher is not a hero, but Batman is, and is precisely because he puts justice above all else.
In this third part of my series on the political architecture of democratic libertarian socialism, I hope to articulate and resolve some practical questions. It would be impossible to nail down every question or even all the important theoretical and pragmatic questions in this short work, but addressing a few should provide enough of a sketch that my readers should glimpse an image of the final portrait.
So far I have argued that a libertarian socialist democracy would require organizing its populations into small deliberative bodies of a hundred or fewer people. These political communities would form the basic democratic units, be responsible for the legislative decision-making at all scales of politics, elect representatives to govern and report the activity of government back to them, and finally demarcate particular zones of enforcement of laws at different scales in the form of jurisdictions.
This is all well and good in theory, but how does it work in reality. Obviously, there is no way to inductively determine the best procedures on all counts. However, we may abductively suggest some procedures that would keep with our libertarian socialist ideals. The first question we must address would be, who counts? We have already determined that individuals do not count by themselves as political units and that the smallest democratic unit is the community. But the community is made up of a certain number of individuals. So, who counts as an individual? It might be tempting to say everyone, but this is misleading. Do we mean newborn children? Invalids? The insane? Criminals? “Everyone” may be an unwise policy. I think, what we want are humans of a certain age, who have not demonstrated a tendency to abuse others, and are in reasonably good mental health. But what age? What kind of abuse? What good mental health?
The concern with children is two-fold. First, at what point have they become wise enough to direct their own affairs and partially the affairs of others, and second, this being a voluntary political architecture, how do they affirm the rules they live under.As children have the prevailing tendency to become adults, so do they have the tendency to go from not counting to counting or to put it another way, from being mere persons in a jurisdiction to citizens of a community in that jurisdiction. Whatever the education process a community chooses, political education must be mandatory for the health of a democratic society. Children should be involved at every level of the deliberative process, even if they are denied a voice and a vote until a mature age. Their participation should evolve in stages. Perhaps, say, at ten they watch the younger children, and at fifteen they begin to be allowed to speak to their communities about what they think on certain matters. At age twenty, I imagine, they would become full members with all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.
The hegemonic aspect of any dominate political architecture would seem to overcome the voluntary nature of individual affirmation. We can’t restart the whole system every year for the sake of children’s voluntary affirmation. However, we might incorporate a revolutionary element in the laws themselves, which would allow them to require periodic reaffirmation, say once every five, ten, twenty-five, or one hundred years. Laws that are basically universally accepted would only need a reaffirmation vote every hundred years, and the vote total could be lower for affirmations. Were as lower order laws may need to be affirmed more frequently. If a law is ever not affirmed it would be considered repealed.
Criminals offer a different challenge. Having forsaken the laws of the society they are proven untrustworthy in politics. Yet they too deserve a voice. The question of how to treat criminals is also two-fold: first, punitive and second, rehabilitative. To be stripped of your voice and your vote in a truly democratic society is to be stripped of your right to self-government, and so your autonomy. You become a pawn at the whims of others, and is a strong, although not an extreme, form of punishment. It seems a fitting and sufficient punishment that lawbreakers lose their power to be lawmakers. On the other hand, the punishment must not be permanent or even long-lasting, for, without recourse to restoration, criminals would quickly become a permanent underclass of non-political citizens; such people are easily exploited and if the interests serve the majority, criminals can be easily created. This punishment is the only punishment criminals should receive. The prohibition on voting must be finite for every crime and last no longer than the rehabilitative element. Also, it should be noted that the vote of the criminal is neither cast nor counted. It would be unfair to let their community count them as though they voted.
What remains of criminal elements should be handled in a rehabilitative and restorative manner. The goal of the former is to prevent repeat offense while the goal of the latter is to restore to the victim what can be restored. Obviously, there are limits on both of these, but the goal of a criminal justice system must be the bringing back of both the criminal and the victim. This prevents turning the criminal justice system into a defacto slave system for society justified by the fact that these people are lawbreakers. Therefore the state has a vested interest in not allowing convicted criminals to work for any reason. The guaranteed income established by the principles of libertarian socialism would suffice to meet their needs, but no labor can be extracted from them voluntarily while they are under the authority of the justice system and any labor arrangement entered into involuntarily amounts to a form of slavery.
Finally, the sick and invalid present us with dangerous political waters to navigate. Be sure here, I do not mean removing voting rights from disabled persons. What I have in mind here is more or less permanently incapacitated. Anyone who can communicate in any manner is capable of casting a vote and so ought to be allowed. Surely those who cannot speak out for themselves simply won’t, but should their votes still count? Does a community have the right to count citizens who for health reasons cannot represent their own interests? I think not. The greater danger here is that of exploitation of the “votes” of the invalid would give a minority undue legislative power. Now, how a vote is counted can be determined by the community, a nod or a thumbs up or a spoken word or even blinking twice might all count. This would hopefully clamp down on the desire to have people removed from the rolls as invalids while keeping their political power for the community.
Mental health may represent the greatest hazard. The other question is what about those who are so mentally gone that they cannot think rationally. I’m disinclined to restrict their vote unless they are incapable of joining a community. This community standard, the ability to interact with others is crucial to a free and democratic society. Those who are a danger to themselves and others or simply incapable of communicating intelligibly, must not count politically. At any point, if they can join a community then obviously their vote would count the same as any other person.
After knowing who counts, we need to establish the process whereby votes determine laws in this political architecture. The basic unit of democracy is the community and not the individual. Thus, laws should be elected by the number of communities that approve them in a given jurisdiction, but we need to also understand how votes are counted. One problem our distinction between individuals who are not democratic units and communities that are is that we must determine if individual voices are being silenced by the political architecture itself. I do not mean here that voices are being silenced by other individuals in the community, but that the method of counting votes is somehow unfair, e.g. gerrymandering in current election systems.
Let us take the following example as illustrative of the potential problems that would need to be addressed: Image three communities, where community A has 100 members, community B has 50 members and community C has 40 members. Further, imagine that the municipality has split on an issue. These three communities are the deciding vote. Let’s say that A rejects the motion but B and C favor it. If we count votes by the smallest democratic unit, then the motion passes, in this case, two to one. But if we count by individuals we can see that the motion doesn’t pass, 100 to 90. How we decide to count votes then will determine the outcome in this case.
The problem with counting votes per community, as we see above, is that communities vary in size, and it would be disenfranchising to the number of individuals inside a larger community to have their votes equaled to those in a smaller community. This is similar to the problem with the electoral college in the contemporary United States. The easy solution would be to count community votes as either for or against but give them the relative strength of the total membership of the community’s individuals. In the above example, the motion would not have passed because there would have been 100 votes against but only 90 for. Inside each community, the total votes of the community would be up for grabs. If community A voted 49 for and 51 against, while community B voted 49 for and 1 against and community C voted 39 for and 1 against, the result would be 100 against and 90 for, and this despite the individual votes being 53 against and 137 for. This is because communities are the basic unit of democracy, and so they speak univocally. However, the communities strength is relative to their numbers.
But what of those who don’t want to participate? We have incentivized them, yes, but should we force them? Well, one more addition to the political architecture will ensure their participation whether or not they are actually there: every vote of the membership is counted, whether or not you cast your vote or not. For example, let’s say a community of seventy members votes 38 for to 22 against on a measure. The measure will get seventy votes for it, even though only sixty actual votes were cast. The community has spoken and that “community” speaks with the voice of seventy people.
Requiring communities to speak with one voice will occasionally cause doubtless disenfranchising to some voters. However, this disenfranchisement does something positive for society as a whole by avoiding a particularly thorny “prisoner’s dilemma”. How do you encourage participation among everyone, which is vital to the supposedly voluntary nature of this political architecture? Those who show up to communities where the votes are determined univocally, make decisions for all in the community, but only those in the arena of community politics will get to decide for others. This action level is anarchistic. Those who choose not to participate by not attending or abstaining from voting are in reality allowing the other members of their community to cast their vote for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as an individual understands that that is what they are doing, and it establishes the universal affirmation of legislation required by libertarian principles.
This creates an interest in people to participate if they want their actual opinions heard. Showing up allows for the exchange of information, fosters discussion and debate, encourages seeing other perspectives, and a host of other deliberative goods. Were votes to be counted individually, as in a pure democracy, then there would be no need to deliberate with one’s political peers, and one could make all political decisions in isolation, forming idiosyncratic opinions, bereft of relationship knowledge. In short, it would be to make individuals the basic unit of democracy, which I have already argued is not possible. This point is worth hammering on. The individual is incapable of rendering a judgment about the society outside the context of their group. They simply can’t understand their own needs or the responsibilities of others, and so could not make good judgments about political issues. The community helps to spread those subjective prejudices out, force them into open dialogue, and then and only then allows a univocal decision. The univocal decision is necessary to put the individual in a place to participate. Democracies work best, indeed, they only work at all, when the overwhelming majority of the citizens participate.
That said, the disenfranchisement is a problem, however, it can be slightly mitigated in two ways. The first mitigating circumstance has already been established for other reasons previously: our political architecture does not require a mere majority vote to carry the day, it requires a supermajority significant enough to overcome most objections to ensure victory. In the above example, 55% approval would be required to pass the law, so that if the numbers were reversed and community A was for the measure while B and C were against it (assuming these three communities made up the total municipality) the measure would not pass. This is the conservative aspect of government, preserving freedom and ensuring a great deal of voluntary support at high scales.
A second mitigating circumstance is possible if we set a minimum on the number of members a community could have. I have previously suggested that the number of members in a community be capped at one hundred, but perhaps I should make a few modifications. First, let me ask if a minimum number is necessary? The real reason for the discord between the three communities in the above example is their relative sizes. This example was chosen precisely to bring out this peculiarity. The feeling that one’s vote doesn’t count comes as a reflection of the scale of the arena, so that difference between the highest and lowest possible membership reflects the number of voters whose voice can be discounted. For example, were the minimum members in a community two and the maximum one hundred, then it would be possible for a form of democratic gerrymandering where groups split to form separate communities in order to have their way. In general, there is nothing wrong with this, but its effect must be limited by creating relative equality between all communities, in other words, we need to set a minimum and maximum that are relatively close together. This should help to minimize the damage in communities, the only place where such division between univocal decisions and numeric strength is allowed. Pragmatically, I would recommend a minimum of fifty members and then change our maximum from one hundred down to ninety-nine, so that upon the addition of a hundredth member, the group splits into two separate communities of fifty. With these numbers, the largest number of individuals that could be disenfranchised at the most actionable level would be forty-nine.
Now scaling up, the only thing that changes is the required percentage of the population to pass the measure and the number of communities participating in the vote. We might ask what if no one in the whole community votes, then that community has simply abstained. Communities themselves can, of course, set quorums if they wish to abstain, so that if less than half of the community members vote, the result is abstinence. This is their right as the basic democratic unit. And there are of course other hurdles to overcome; most notably, how do we get from here to there. Whatever transition we might take, it will be chaotic and anxiety-provoking. I’m not sure there is a right answer here. But I have faith that such a thing may be managed by the numerous talented persons who make up this world.
In the next part of this series, I will go beyond the legislative and explore some of the issues of practical governance this political architecture must deal with.
In the first part of this series, I developed the idea that a democratic libertarian socialist political architecture would be necessarily voluntary, deliberative, consist of political units of fewer than one hundred individuals, and would require representatives to scale up. At the end of part 1, I listed some potential problems with this scaling process. I break these problems into two main types: the jurisdiction problem and the representation problem. In this second part of the series, I will address these two problems.
The Jurisdiction Problem
The question of jurisdiction centers on the freedom of individuals to conduct their lives as they see fit. If all individuals have the right to live as they like and any two individuals disagree, by what process can a decision between them be made? This being a democratic libertarian socialist state, as opposed to an anarchist one, the right to retain private property is still a viable option for settling disputes, as long as the conditions of use and labor that justify exclusion are met. Private property then successfully solves the problem and given the two conditions of use and guaranteed income we avoid exploitation through it. The decision goes to the owner on principle, in fact, that is what it means to be an owner, you get to decide how and when a thing is used.
The problem persists in joint property and in public property, however. We must ask how people set rules about, for example, littering on a public street, without violating the rights of the individuals who did not explicitly agree not to litter on that street? Voluntary society seems highly susceptible to collapse into petty sovereignties. A principle of jurisdiction could solve this problem, but this must include some amount of tyranny. It is my hope that we can devise a jurisdictional principle that would mitigate the tyrannical effect to the greatest extent possible so that people would voluntarily agree to subject themselves to the rule of others out of respect for the autonomy of those others and so preserve their own autonomy in their own sphere.
Jurisdiction, as it is generally construed, concerns what relationships count as politically relevant enough that people have the right to create rules in their sphere of action with the effect of restricting the freedoms of those who enter it. At base, we need to know what makes an association of people a body politic empowered to self-govern. Is a relationship between enemies politically relevant? What about business partners? Or geographically distant close friends? The answer is that they all could be, but none necessarily are. Such categories of identity and relationships are too subjective to be useful here and should be replaced with spheres of action. As the individual must be in touch with their own interests they must be in touch with the interests of those who make up their basic democratic unit as well. Their decisions will impact that unit more than any other units. Therefore, those who have the greatest chance for proximal interaction have the greatest concern with each other’s behaviors. Alternative forms of interaction are all less effective. Interactions through media, for example, are always shaped by the media itself and thus constitute a less direct, less effective, and so less politically relevant form of relationship. Political relationships need to be local enough to present direct physical interaction, but not necessarily externally defined. A geographic feature, such as a river or a mountain range, might well divide one political area from another, but this should be because the feature genuinely affects the locality of the individuals who inhabit the body. The building of a bridge or a tunnel could effectively change the political jurisdiction. So, while it may be possible for a community to straddle opposite sides of the globe, it’s very, very unlikely; and even if it is the case, it is more unlikely still that so greatly separated peoples should remain a small scale political unity for long.
Whether a person inhabits a place or is merely visiting is an important question. Those who set down roots seem entitled to a say in that sphere of action, precisely because it is theirs, but those who are just there for a weekend, don’t. Caution must be exercised at this point in any government claiming to be a voluntary association, as a rule affects all (persons), not just those who decided upon it (citizens). If the citizens of a given area enact a biased rule that favors themselves over minorities and non-citizens, this is the worst tyranny and is easily accomplished despite a principle of equality before the law. This tyranny is simply unacceptable and must be mitigated in the name of a just society. James Madison dealt with this problem of faction by allowing larger spheres of action to supersede lower ones. We see this in the United States when the constitution makes lower laws void. A city cannot, for example, enact slavery statues because it is illegal at a larger sphere of action. Madison’s solution, however, suffers the major drawback that each sphere is governed by representatives and it becomes all too easy for wealthy and powerful factions to capture the higher spheres for themselves. Something that Madison thought would be highly improbable.
Although locality makes up an important part of the basis for determining jurisdiction, it is also not limited to a specific externally marked domain. Political boundaries at the scale of the community are nearly fluid and correspond neatly to the areas directly inhabited by their members. This is the most voluntary form of government. It is at the municipal level that the need for defined jurisdiction covering spaces not privately owned enters the political architecture. These public and quasi-public spaces cover areas frequented by the members of several communities but not necessarily wholly bound inside their combined private property. In other words, the laws of a community apply only to the members of the community themselves, they have no jurisdiction beyond the community members and their property. The community is purely voluntary and as close to completely anarchist (at least for adults) as possible. Municipalities, on the other hand, govern several communities at once. The bounds of the municipality must somehow designate which communities are a part of the municipality for terms of voting and where the laws set down by these collective communities are applied. This is the first scale at which laws must be written down and publicly posted and where the law applies beyond the citizens of the jurisdiction. The municipality is the smallest unit of government and law and most likely sphere for tyranny. It is also the most flexible, allowing for the greatest diversity of relationships and laws, biases, and individuality. As with Madison, every scale above the municipality works similarly and each one’s laws would bind the ones below it so that a county that forbids a thing binds all municipalities in that county to forbid it as well.
Here is precisely were democratic libertarian socialist values clash with anarchist ones. For this is where voluntary agreement first begins to drift off. To see this, let’s ask the question: must all who enter a municipality be bound by the laws of the municipality, whether or not they are members of it? Let us say that the members of a municipality unanimously decide to forbid the spitting of chewing gum on the sidewalk. Let us further say that you are a visitor to this municipality who did not and would not have the opportunity to vote on this particular issue. Must you follow the rules of the municipality and not spit your gum on the sidewalk despite having never agreed to this rule? This example highlights a clash of values in libertarianism itself. Does one group, when imposing its rules on its sphere of action, have the right to impose those rules on non-members of the group in their territory? Libertarianism places a value on the voluntary agreement to rules in order to be legitimate but at the same time allows people the freedom to set their own rules. The solution to this apparent paradox is recognizing that all visitors have agreed to the rules establishing how laws get passed in each place and that inherent in that agreement is the agreement to respect the laws set down by others in their own jurisdictions. In other words, like Madison’s solution, there is an agreement at a higher scale which supersedes the lower disagreement. The problem with this solution, as with Madison’s, is that of capture which allows political tyranny.
To prevent capture, I offer a two-part solution. First, individuals must have both a jurisdiction of their own and at the same time alternatives jurisdictions to enter should they wholly disagree with the rules they are subject to. If one is a visitor, one is free to simply not visit. However, for citizens, relocation offers less of a solution. As a citizen, one has a voice in a given jurisdiction, and could simply try to prevent laws. One might not always be able to escape the biases of a group through the vote though, and if one resides in the area, getting up and leaving, while an option, is not always economically advantageous or feasible. Fleeing a jurisdiction is easily accomplished at the community scale where it most likely would not even involve a move. But higher scales bring increasingly greater difficulties to this method of preserving one’s liberty.
This is the reason we need a second part to this solution: higher percentages of popular support must be required to establish a law at larger scales. Rather than force people to relocate to communities that are ideologically homogeneous, we could instead raise the bar for passing laws in correlation with the scale of the jurisdiction it would affect. The goal would be to equally allow groups to create laws governing conduct in their spheres of action and at the same time protect dissent. As stated above, a biased community rule is easily escapable by simply changing communities if you so strongly disagree. A higher order law, however, is more difficult and so should require greater assent to pass. And so on, with each scale up requiring more affirmation. The ability of the large jurisdictions to supersede the lower ones would still have the desired effect as Madison envisioned. However, the ability to capture the larger spheres of action would become increasingly difficult, since the percentage required to secure a decision would change in inverse proportion to the scale of its effect.
Practically, we might imagine that at the smallest level, the community, a simple majority is all that is required to pass a rule. At the highest level, universally, we might require something extreme, like the assent of 95% of the population, to pass this entirely inescapable legislation. The scales between would be higher or lower accordingly. A municipality could require only 55% of its population to affirm a law before it passes, whereas a county may require 60%, a territory 65%, a district 70%, a nation 75%, and hemisphere of the globe 80%. This architecture will result in the majority of laws existing at the smallest scales of government and thus applying only to a few people; at the bottom, only those who voted for them. Only overwhelmingly agreed upon laws would exist at the greatest scales. This is the best that can be done for dissident without allowing minority dictatorship over the majority population.
This solution, however, presents a further challenge. What happens to a person who dissents from the social order? What happens to the minority vote? And while we’re at it, how does one become a community member? These questions are all related to the idea of who counts, which I’ll deal with later, but for right now, let me focus on what recourse persons have in a system they disagree with. The problem is more concrete if we take any social norm that is rather one-sided as an example. Genocide might be an easy one. What would happen if you lived in a community who condoned genocide even though you reject it? Well, first you could leave the community. All individuals are political beings, and so all individuals must belong to a community. But you are free to choose your community to some extent. If you choose to leave a community, it would be necessary for you to be accepted by another. However, it can never be acceptable for a community to eject one of its members. Members may leave voluntarily or die, but they must not be removed. The ability to leave allows members who do not wish to live under certain laws the freedom to take refuge elsewhere. At the municipal level and above, this may involve physical relocation. The costs of which will have to be weighed against the strength of the individual’s beliefs. But we can very quickly see that the greater the scale, the more implausible this “freedom” becomes, and it is indubitably the case that without the actual opportunity for leaving no freedom exists.
It seems clear that any democratic libertarian socialist political architecture must be directly democratic at some point. The above assumes a directly democratic legislature, although not a directly democratic executive or judicial government. Dissent is healthy and should not be immediately suppressed, but at the same time, a large majority has a right to live how they choose and not under the anarchist tyranny of the minority veto. This compromise between our respective interests seems to offer us the best of these mutually exclusive positions.
Before we move on, I want to say a word on what a community can do to discipline its members for non-compliance. There will always be those who are disruptive and whose disruptions are either apolitical or simply criminal. For example, one may remain in a community and break the law merely to do so. Given that other avenues for dissent are available this member of the community is simply breaking the rules to break the rules. This is no less tyranny than usurping a political system to disenfranchising others or seizing power. The obvious manner for stopping such activity is to expressly forbid it by law and treat offenders in the customary manner, whatever form that takes. But if the behavior does not quite constitute a violation of the law, for example, something both disrespectful and disruptive but still within the bounds of political speech, the community must take care not to ostracize the member(s). However, they do not have to listen. A de facto excommunication may be acceptable whereas de jure excommunication is not. As long as the member is still allowed to speak and still allowed to vote and have their vote counted, a community is free to ignore them.
The Representation Problem
I want to return now to the issue of representation. In the first part of this series, I showed how the mere inclusion of representatives endangers the entire political architecture of democracy making it a de facto oligarchy or monarchy. What we need to prevent this is to devise an architecture that would not allow unauthorized power to slide into the representative’s hands. The first thing we have to do is understand exactly what the role of representatives is in a truly democratic government. So, let’s begin by recalling that the need for representatives doesn’t enter the picture until the scale of the municipality. As I said, communities are basic democratic units, anarchist in nature, and so do not require an internal representative. Thus, we only need representation to organized political bodies beyond our communities, viz. municipalities, counties, territories, districts, nations and universal. Representatives then are charged with carrying out the community’s bidding in its relations to other communities and relating the desires of other communities to the represented community.
We still face the problem of where the community may not be able to determine their own “bidding” explicitly or charge in a direct and personal manner their representative with the task of carrying it out. At the same time, the “representative” may just carry out their own bidding in the name of the community they represent. Ensuring the link between the will of the group and its representative is our task. To do this will require more–not less–political architecture. It would be instructive to revisit the separation of powers theory, represented by the branches of government, viz. the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. I argued above that it is the communities themselves, as the basic units of democracy, that should legislate directly. Let me add here that the communities should act as legislators at all scales of politics. This is important for representation because it takes away the power of the representative to volunteer their constituency’s voice or sell their vote without consent.
This locus of the legislative action in the community is essential to democracy. Legislative power cannot be delegated without changing the political architecture from democracy to something else. The representative’s role in wielding legislative power should be limited to functionary duties, e.g. preparing language, conducting votes, entering decisions, codifying laws, etc. Perhaps representatives may decide which laws to vote on and at what time, but such legislative authority should mark the utmost extreme end of their power to influence legislation.This is all that can be done to satisfy Edmund Burke’s admonition that representatives exercise their individual conscience rather than mindlessly following the uninformed opinions of their constituents. It is the legislative branch of government that belongs to the people and must remain directly with the people if the polity is to be considered democratic.
However, this is not true of executive and judicial power. These important roles can be delegated with particular structuring, so that a small minority may perform the function of governing, but do so without ruling. The role of representatives in government should then be largely limited to overseeing executive and judicial functions, such as the hiring and firing of administrators and judges and making of policy respecting the administration of law, but never, under any circumstances, the enactment or repeal of law itself.
Another duty of representatives is maintaining the flow of information. It is perhaps the most vital role of representatives to act as the eyes and ears of a community so that it may confront the issues of the day from an informed position. Obviously, information may come from other sources, but representatives, as they act in higher and higher scales, have access to the most direct information available. In other words, it is not just the role of the representative to serve as the voice of the represented, but as the voice of the government to the represented, empowering them with the information they need to make good decisions. They are an important pivot point between a community and all the greater scales of politics. The worst representatives will hide information from their constituents in an attempt to manipulate the situation how they think it ought to be handled. Trustworthiness will, therefore, be the most vital characteristic to consider in the election of a community’s representative. To guard against manipulation, a democratic architecture should require that all government activities be public.
How should representatives be selected at each scale? There are various schools of thought on this, but I favor election at the smallest scales. Each community should elect, with a simple majority vote, it’s representative to a municipal council. Each municipal councilor should elect, at the determination of the community they represent, their representatives to the county council. Beyond the county level, it’s hard to know who to trust. All candidates desire power as no one runs for offices who do not. However, a solution is available if we simply remove elections at this point. The territorial council and beyond could all be appointed by the drawing of lots from the pool of current county councilors in good standing.
Why introduce a chance here? Precisely because it checks overwhelming political ambition. We can still ensure that we are getting good people into office by additionally requiring that only those who have been elected to a county council more than one time are eligible for higher offices. We can also restrict the term of office to a single six-year period; along with the prohibition on being selected for more than one term at any particular appointed scale. Those representatives who are elected should be reelected frequently, say every two years, but could, of course, serve many terms up to some reasonable limit; say, a maximum of six terms. This will assure us that even if some rather bad apples get into positions of power, they needn’t be suffered indefinitely. Additionally, a list of impeachable offenses should be made into law that would allow the recall of anyone who abused their position. And any representative, even an appointed one should be recallable by their represented lower scale. Appointments would have a voluntary component, no one would be forced to serve and may resign at any time. And the vacancies could easily be filled by another round of elections or selections.
In its most abstract terms, the representatives of the communities serve as their surrogate in the daily administration of self-government.
In part three, I will attempt to flesh out the bare bones of this political architecture by exploring some of the more pragmatic considerations democratic libertarian socialism must confront.
In this series of posts, I will discuss aspects of political architecture consistent with democratic libertarian socialism. My purpose is to attempt to rationally plan a functioning democracy in relation to libertarian socialist ideals. This is counter to most libertarian socialism which is generally understood to be anarchist. What I will not be doing in this series is arguing why democratic libertarian socialism is superior to anarchist libertarian socialism. Neither will I be making the argument for libertarian socialism as a socio-economic system which I have done numerously elsewhere in different ways on this blog; e.g. here, here, here, and here. Also, see my prize-winning essayon the subject.
To keep with libertarian ideology, the structure I plan will be a limited state, voluntarily justified in the places it is coercive, and run on principle and law. The goal is to protect each other from the abuse of power that comes with a community by structuring the power, through principles, in such a manner that it cannot be overwhelmingly coopted. See my post on the different kinds of political discourse in philosophy for a more about the goal of political architectures.
The point of this post is not to decide on a method of political activity, nor to find a method of resolving political disputes, but merely to ask how do we best organize ourselves into political structures as to maintain relative economic equality and liberty. I want to ignore the battle between monarchy and democracy, loosely defined, as over and done with; democracy I hold to be the clear favorite. However, democracy by its very nature comes in a multitude of configurations; from indirect republics, plutocracies, and aristocracies to more direct tribal democracy, congregations, contractual alliances and–at the bottom–simple friendships between individuals. The division I just drew stands in need of explanation, for the former represent larger forms of democracy, scaled all the way up as it were; while the latter tend to represent the smaller forms scaled down to the deliberative decision-making of individuals. Both scales have their positives and negatives. The large scale allows for mass action that generates truly miraculous feats, irrespective of whether those feats are right or wrong. The problem is that it is very hard to get decisiveness out of such a large body of people, that is to say, the greater the capacity for mass action, the lower the possibility for univocal agreement. The opposite is just the case with the smaller democratic forms. Here we see that mass action is limited by the smaller populations, but at the same time, a greater possibility for explicitly-voluntary concord among the members is still achievable. This is the nature of the dilemma for a political architecture of democracy. How best to organize a political population so that the best of both scales is preserved?
First, we must ask, is it even possible? No doubt there must be some form that maximizes the best of both scales even if it doesn’t completely resolve the issue. Every form of state even paying lip-service to the idea of democracy, like fascism, observes the rule that power is legitimated by the people. What is questionable about there highly authoritarian forms of democracy is whether or not the structure is in fact legitimated by the people. The test for the level of democratic influence is well known to political science: are the laws and decisions of the government in step with the opinions of the people at large, some larger association within the populace, or with an elite minority? On this scale, few if any real democracies exist in the world. Most republics can be defined by which association they serve. For example, the United State is plutocratic because the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of the government are more likely to enact policy following the desires of the wealthy than the general public, see the study here. My goal is to find a form that would be genuinely democratic. That is, where the policies of government closely represented the desires of the general public.
I will generally skip over a history of political forms and assume you have a working knowledge of past regimes. However, I feel compelled to speak briefly of the form known as a “republic”. This form is interesting because, in my opinion, it is a hybrid between monarchy and democracy. Republics attempt to solve the same stability problem we are. The republican solution is to preserve attributes of a monarchy inside a democracy. One way it does this is by limiting who “counts” in the population generally and the citizenry specifically. By reducing the number of decision-makers, either by explicitly forbidding certain populations access to public affairs or by diminishing the effect of their influence or by structuring certain domains of political discourse to a select group or single “head” or some combination of all these, republics reduce the instability of a mass of decision-makers. Limiting the decision-making capacity for the majority, (to voting for representatives, for example), or relegating it to minor and insignificant decisions (e.g. voting on the occasional ballot measure) are the most common method of republics. They work by paying homage to democracy while giving the real decision-making powers to an elite few or one. Over time, the need to pay homage to the people wanes and there is a tendency for this type of government to go from a de facto monarchy or oligarchy to an explicit monarchy. Think of the Roman Republic and its civil strife that lead to the formation of an autocratic Emporer. For our purposes then, a republic of any form is not a genuinely democratic option. I seek a stable form of democracy, not a tacit form of monarchy.
To form a democracy it is necessary that a forum for the full expression of every individual’s political concerns exists and that every individual has a turn to speak and be heard by their political peers. This I will call the short definition of deliberative democracy. Deliberative in this respect meaning simply a democracy where people come to talk to work out their respective political issues. Deliberation is essential for democracy for two reasons: (1) it is by definition voluntary and (2) it forces a recognition of the actual political issues confronting individuals and communities. Bounding the deliberative aspect of democracy effectively eliminates participation by its citizenry. This makes any action the state takes involuntary action on the part of those who either could not participate or were limited in their ability to participate. Similarly, no individual can rationally decide matters they have not had a chance to hear argued, neither could they empower a representative to do so on their behalf. Representation, even plenipotentiary representation, is possible in a democracy. However, it is not something someone can simply empower another to do without a specific outcome in mind. How could you represent my interests, if I don’t know what is going on or what would be best for me? I don’t want to digress too far down this path, except to say that representation is a necessity to large scale democracy, but without the opportunity for all individuals to confront the issues of the day, in both a direct and personal way, representation is illegitimate.
What often happens in republics is elected “representatives” are empowered with the entire decision-making capacity of their constituents, i.e. they do not represent the people so much as they replace them as though they were the only citizens of a democracy. This is oligarchy and the first step on the inevitable road back to monarchy; once the relationship between the representative and the represented has been usurped, so that the representative no longer needs any input from the represented to make decisions, then all “representation” has ceased, and the so-called representative has become an independent lord of their constituency (a member of the house of lords) and a patrician among plebians (senator of the Republic).
Let’s consider the notion of scale more closely. Here we should ask, what is the smallest unit of a political entity? Prima facie, the obvious answer would be the individual, but a little reflection reveals that the answer is flawed. The problem with the individual is that decisiveness and action collapse and become one and the same. Individuals, barring mental disease, are considered the master of themselves precisely because there is nothing political about them. In fact, the appeal of monarchy resides in its utilization this natural apoliticality to make decisions for everyone, which are then applied through authority or force over them. We see again on the individual level that the problem of political architecture is decision versus action. How are things to be decided (e.g. by whom?) and how much action is going to be brought to bear (i.e. how many individuals will be involved)? The greater the action; the greater the power, but the decision is how that power will be utilized and towards what. Monarchy is appealing precisely because so much power can be brought to bear so single-mindedly! This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the monarch that utilizes the full power of the population for their own self-aggrandizement is what we call a tyrant.
The individual’s apolitical nature means that a single individual cannot be the smallest unit of a polity. I would argue then that the smallest unit must be the individual as he or she stands in relation to others. The pair may be the smallest political unit then. A pair of friends, of lovers, parents, or children; even of bitter enemies are all examples of the smallest political unit. There is an effect of the pair that we can see continuing in larger and larger scales, up to a point. This effect is a need to work together toward some end. Even among enemies, there is a shared desire to eliminate the rivalry, albeit mostly following the strategy of eliminating the rival. Nevertheless, the end of the rivalry would bring about the end of the relationship as enemies and at the same time the end of the political unit. Thus, we could say that all political units are relationships between two or more individuals. We can see these relationships do not change as we scale them up, at first anyway. There is hardly a difference between two rivals and three or a team of six and a team of seven. But this direct relationship doesn’t scale up like that forever, and this is again owning to natural conditions. There are important differences between a company of seventeen and a company of seventeen million. In the latter, the “company” will hardly be able to recognize each other, and it is unlikely that a direct and personal relationship will exist between all the members as it would for the company of seventeen.
So here we have our first two architectural principles: political units begin with relationships and so require at least two individuals and these relationships cannot scale up beyond a certain point. I leave it to science to determine that point, and I highly suspect that it would vary with the individuals and cultures. A group of people with excellent memories, for example, might be able to maintain a direct and personal relationship with everyone else at a higher population than a group of people with faulty memories. That said, I feel we should put some rough number to this point that is generally manageable for an average human being. For the sake of mathematical ease, I’m going to say one hundred is the threshold of direct and personal political relationships for the sake of the scaling problem. Essentially, I’m suggesting that under a hundred individuals most groups could manage their own affairs through direct democracy, without the need for written laws, procedures, representation, or much political architecture at all. This is the threshold of anarchism. Talking and relying on each other would be all that it would take to resolve nearly all of the group’s problems. So, let us call this anarchist unit of one hundred or fewer, the basic unit of democracy. My goal is to introduce political architecture so that these units can combine and scale upwards with similar stability, all the way up to the incorporation of humanity as a whole.
The Scaling Problem
My guess would be that each democratic unit would require a representative in the next scale up. So, let’s call this basic democratic unit a “community”, we might imagine a municipality that consisted of representatives from each community of one hundred or fewer individuals. But again, we encounter the same scaling problem. Fifty community representatives could all know each other and function as a community of representatives, but fifty thousand would just lead us back to the same instability we saw before. The obvious solution then is to repeat the same process again and limit “municipalities” to groups of one hundred community representatives. And so forth, we might see this same scale repeat so that a “county” consists of the representatives of a hundred municipalities, a “territory” of a hundred counties, a “district” of a hundred territories, a “nation” of a hundred districts, and “world” of a hundred nations. But there is a problem with this model, several in fact.
One problem is that each scale up removes the representative from those they officially represent. Another problem is who elects these representatives or who are these representatives ultimately accountable to? How does information flow in both directions in this system? And there is the problem of jurisdiction, how are laws geographically applied? What if I want to be part of a “community” made up of individuals spread across the globe? We may not even have the same political concerns. Another problem involves the politicization of other forms of human distinction, such as race, class, gender, age, etc. Doesn’t a demographic identity, say black males aged twenty to thirty in the southern United States, have shared political needs that form a kind of quasi-relationship even if no direct and personal relationship exists between them? All these problems point to the fact that our political architecture requires more than simply scaling representation up at the threshold of direct relationships. It’s not enough to have direct democracy at all scales and that each scale is likely to require its own unique design.
In the next part, I will address these problems as I paint a picture of how representation may be managed on a rising scale.
The nature of truth can be confusing, and rarely is it more confusing than in the metaphysical distinction of groups and members. Is a chorus nothing more than the individual tones? Or a symphony nothing more than the individual notes? On some level, we must answer how could it be anything more? And yet the relationships between tones and notes seem to play a relevant role, and relationships do not exist when considering everything individually. What I take from this and will examine in this brief post is that sometimes a general truth means something entirely different from the particular truths from which it is abstracted. For example, it is true to say all living humans require food to remain alive, but it is not necessarily true to say they need apples or oranges or grapes or meat or cheese or bread or pizza or pork belly and sauerkraut sandwiches, etc. Thus, there is no particular food that humans need to eat. But it does not follow from this that human beings do not need to eat any food. Food is still required.
I have often encountered arguments of this type, particularly in political economic debates. They go in both directions. One variety says, the needs of the group cannot be determined and so individual needs are indeterminable. The other variety says, the contributions of individuals cannot be calculated and so the value of their combined inputs are indeterminable. Arguments of these types are often invoked both in support and condemnation of markets. But both of them are in fact heap fallacies, which turn on a conceptualization problem. Heap fallacies exploit ambiguity and are all too common in philosophy, politics, and economics.
The heap fallacy is related to the “sorites paradox” and is sometimes called the “continuum fallacy”. The fallacy works by rejecting a claim based on the vagueness of the terms used in the claim. For example, imagine I lay a single straw on the ground. This surely does not constitute a “heap” of straw. Now let me lay another on top of it. Still, we would not call it a heap of straw. And if I were to lay a third, still no. The fallacy would be then to conclude that since no single straw could be responsible for the change from a non-heap to a “heap” of straw, there is no heap of straw. The problem in this example is the term “heap” itself, which is arbitrary. However, in this case, its arbitrary nature is not logically relevant. We can draw the line anywhere, and so we can refine our definition of “heap” to anything. Perhaps three straws are a heap, or three-hundred, or three thousand… the point is the fact that we can draw a line anywhere does not mean that the line does not constitute a real distinction.
This type of argument which holds that if specifics are not given then a thing must be false is rarely recognized as fallacious. Generalities are not necessarily vague as this fallacy contends. As in the example above, to require that food be required is not the same as to say that this or that particular kind of food is required. Still, “food” as a generality is required for life despite our apparent inability to specify particularly which food-stuffs. It is all too easy to play with this distinction between the general and the specific. One can accuse any generality of being abstract, metaphysical nonsense. And to make matters worse, sometimes generalities can be just that! A group of strangers could be assembled in any made-up category, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it has any greater significance.
At the same time, one can accuse those who focus narrowly on the specifics of missing the “big picture”. As with the food example. Again, this is not always the case, some times a generality is simply arbitrarily applied. More interesting still are the cases in which something entirely arbitrary, that is a made up category, comes to take the properties of a real distinction. For example, consider human “races”. On the one hand, it seems like “race” is an arbitrary and made-up distinction in which no clear line could be drawn. In this situation, “race” is merely a fantasy of Immanuel Kant’s devising, denoting no real distinctions. On the other hand, that would render “racism” a fictitious action. No one could be racist if “race” itself was not a real thing. And what would it mean to say things like, “sickle-cell anemia affects black populations almost exclusively”? The statement seems to convey some medical information, but if “black populations” is not a real category then it is an empty statement. Based on the heap fallacy, it would seem race is a real thing, but an arbitrary one.
Our only recourse to avoid the heap fallacy is to be aware of the poverty of such rhetoric and guard against its use. We are condemned to constant vigilance. It is all too easy to treat all arbitrary categories as though they were not real, but this is a mistake. Arbitrariness is not an indication of a lack of realness. Some very real things are arbitrary.
“‘Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
I have already made the argument that Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde share a particularly libertarian vision of socialism. I have also already speculated what Wilde’s socialism would have to look like. In this final part, I want to explore the view of individualism under socialism that makes it libertarian, particularly in the words of Wilde and Marx. Let’s begin with the question Wilde asks:
But it may be asked how individualism, which is now more or less dependent on the existence of private property for its development, will benefit by the abolition of such private property?
Under [socialism], individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now… For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses.
Wilde’s answer reveals an existentialist’s view of socialism. For Wilde, individualism is self-making, rather than self-acceptance as is the individualism of Ayn Rand. That left-wing libertarianism is existentialist comes as no shock to anyone familiar with the neo-Marxist work of the nineteen sixties and their near obsession with young Marx. It is young Marx, the humanist, who celebrates the individual to come under socialism. The individual under capitalism is reduced to the base animal functions since the wages of a worker are reduced to subsistence, only these animal functions may be expressed. The norm then for the worker is to be a brute, an animal, for those are the only pleasures allowed for them. Marx writes,
[M]an (the worker) feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions–eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment–while in his human functions, he is reduced to an animal. (99)
Individuality is not a given, it must be cultivated and requires resources to develop it. The goal of socialism, as we saw in part one, is to provide the resources that will satisfy the animal requirements and allow for the human individuality to emerge. The argument presented against this is that a fully realized individual, e.g. a Lord Byron, must have wealth to be fully realized and there is not enough wealth for everyone to be fully realized. Some people will have to content themselves with pushing the dirt around. Wilde argues against this that socialism is not interested in taking away opportunity as it is in extending it to everybody.
The question then becomes how? Right-wing advocates of capitalism argue that this is simply wishful thinking. It cannot be done. Not everyone can be a poet and philosopher. However, this argument is made on a particular set of unfortunate assumptions about the nature of humankind that amount to an anti-existentialism. The most important of these for our purposes surrounds the confusion between being and having, that is confusing self-realization for the possession of private property. Wilde writes,
[Under capitalism, humankind thinks] that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false.
This division between possession and essence is best described by the existentialists a half-century later. Using them to understand Wilde, we can conclude that individualism is living an authentic life, where possessions are merely possessions, things to be used in the pursuit of your life’s goals, not necessities that are merely useful. One must have a personality in order to decide what is useful, it cannot be defined for you by an outside agency, capitalist, socialist, or anything else. Individuality is authenticity and socialism is the necessary condition for it.
[Jesus] said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot… And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.
Individualism is the call to be authentic, to author your own life, to care little for the direction others would have over your life. Contra religion, Wilde emphasizes that there is no set path to authenticity, no prescribable way to live your life.
Father Damien was Christlike when he went out to live with the lepers, because in such service he realised fully what was best in him. But he was not more Christlike than Wagner when he realised his soul in music; or than Shelley, when he realised his soul in song. There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.
Individualism is what you make of yourself when you no longer have to labor for mere survival. The rich and the middle classes have to think about money all the time, it is how they make it, keep it, and spend it. When you have to think about money all the time you are unable to develop yourself, to become an individual. You are, in effect, reduced to making yourself whatever is easiest, most convenient, and most attractive to those upon whom your happiness depends. And under capitalism, this class includes everybody.
There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor. What Jesus does say is that man reaches his perfection, not through what he has, not even through what he does, but entirely through what he is.
This notion of individualism echos Marx’s idea of freedom from alienated labor. As Erich Fromm said of Marx, “Socialism… was never as such the fulfillment of life, but the condition for such fulfillment… Marx says quite clearly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, ‘communism as such is not the aim of human development.’ What, then, is the aim? Quite clearly the aim of socialism is man,” (60). Alienated labor is the particularly capitalist organization of labor which isolates rather than individuates human beings. It breaks people up into specializations, but it also breaks them down into parts, making laborers out of people, or, in a few cases, capitalists. No one is free to be who they want, everyone is compelled by a system designed from without. As Marx said, “alienated labor… alienates man from himself, from his own active function and from other men,” (101). Subjected to our alienated needs human beings become “mentally and physically dehumanized… the self-conscious and self-acting commodity.” In other words, we come to see ourselves and each other as things.
What makes capitalism dangerous is precisely the fact that owning capital seems to fully compensate for the loss. Possessions can be lost, but capital, self-replicating possessions, appear to be just as permanent as authentic being itself. Capitalism, like the Christian ideology it came from, emphasizes an asceticism that forbids individuality because this allows you to replace an authentic existence for a treasure trove of self-creating wealth. Of course, this only works if everyone is made, by incentive or force, to bow to their role in the system. Marx writes,
[The political economy of capitalism] is… [also] the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser and the ascetic but productive slave…. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc. the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt–your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being. Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth. (144)
For Marx, the aim of socialism then is liberation from this system. He writes in the manifesto,
All that we want to do away with is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and allowed to live only so far as the interest to the ruling class requires it.
Under socialism, one must not err into thinking that capital is somehow a substitute for individuality, but at the same time, one must not confuse individualism with selfishness. Long before Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of selfishness, Wilde argued that “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.” Selfishness for Wilde is what altruism is for Ayn Rand. I have already shown that Wilde would have agreed that altruism is bad, but he would have disagreed that selfishness was any different. He condemns egoism, saying,
For the egotist is he who makes claims upon others, and the Individualist will not desire to do that. It will not give him pleasure.
This is because:
Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.
And therein lies the great difficulty with individualism, for the freedom to be oneself, is all too often accompanied by the desire to restrict the freedom of others. It was in the name of freedom that slave-holders denounced the abolitionists. “What right have they to take away my freedom to own slaves?” Or as Marx put it, “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it opponents realize it… No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others.” Freedom requires the rights of all to freedom. It is not up to the capitalist to decide what a worker’s needs should be, and yet that is exactly what happens. For the capitalists require workers, as much as possible, to resemble the “self-acting commodities” they need them to be. Wilde writes,
[A] man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realisation of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live… Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognises infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of ones neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses. Under Individualism people will be quite natural and absolutely unselfish, and will know the meanings of the words, and realise them in their free, beautiful lives.
“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
In the first part of this series, I showed that both Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx respected individual freedom so much that they saw it as the essence of socialism. Each man envisioned a future that enabled the fullest expression of individuality. Far from the authoritarian socialism of the Bolshevik model; Wilde had libertarian socialism in mind. Neither man was particularly explicit about what socialism would look like, each preferring to paint in broad strokes his vision of the future. In all likelihood, neither probably knew what socialism would look like so much as they knew what was wrong with capitalism. There is thus no way to compare blueprints. We may, however, see socialism in a negative, that is by knowing what they said socialism is not, and how each believed we get from capitalism to socialism.
It may seem surprising that not even Marx advanced a state-ownership of private property model; one that placed society above individuality and authoritarianism over liberty. State-ownership of the means of production was capitalism for Marx, who thought of the state as the keeper of bourgeois interests. Neither did he think that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be anything other than universal, democratic, and brief. A democratic dictatorship is an anarchic phase that all revolutions necessarily go through. Think of the American Revolution before the constitution, when the Contential Congress claimed self-sovereignty and began issuing dubious laws. The dictatorship of the proletariat under the Bolsheviks came to mean “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors…”, as Lenin put it. No longer would the people rule themselves, they would be ruled by the vanguard of intellectual elites acting as saviors for a whole class of people who revolted quite sufficiently without them. This was socialism in name more than in substance.
Real socialism is supposed to differ from capitalism. Capitalism cultivates economic dependence, suppresses actual political decision-making for indirect democracy, and through these methods stifles individuality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of poverty under capitalism. From the perspective of capitalism, poor people are “superfluous”, to use Thomas Malthus’ term, or “redundant”, to use Margret Thatcher’s. They are not needed by the economic system and therefore the system is unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to support their continued existence. Capitalist logic dictates that it is the duty of the poor to die, even in the midst of great plenty, if their labor is unnecessary to capitalists. This ruthlessness of capitalism has been defended by Malthus et. al. but generally it is deplored by mainstream society, including a great many wealthy capitalists themselves. Poverty for most people is a social problem that requires a social solution. Wilde writes,
Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.
Poverty is so destructive that those who are in it fail to recognize the social mechanisms that produce their deplorable state; rather like how a drowning person loses sight of everything but keeping their head above water, the poverty-afflicted can only struggle desperately from moment to moment. Disobedience and rebellion, those mechanisms of human progress, require the intervention of others who can help them discover their plight. Wilde writes,
What is said by [capitalists] against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.
This is the role Marx set for himself. Just as the chains of slavery were not, and could not be taken off by the slaves themselves, abolitionists became necessary. Socialist agitators awaken the proletariat–who at that time, may well have been fully employed and yet completely destitute–from false consciousness, or the conviction that this was the best that they could hope for in life or all they were worth or that the iron law of wages meant there just wasn’t enough for them even if they doubled production.
But it is not only the poor who suffer under capitalism. Another problem is the threat of poverty, which leaves even the richest insecure. Wilde again,
An enormously wealthy merchant may be—often is—at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself. Nothing should be able to rob a man at all.
The threat of poverty drives the rich the way a jockey drives a horse. No one, no matter how wealthy, is immune to the threat. Poverty must be done away with, must it not?
Socialism obviously offers a solution, but capitalism provides its own. Charity and altruism are the bulwarks of capitalism. Wilde saw this as a fraud. Like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilde realized that the exercise of mercy is just another form of power and control, a way to make others live for you. Altruism is anti-socialist! Charity hurts the poor. It strings them along without the hope of liberation. Wilde writes,
[People] try to solve the problem of poverty… by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing [them]… The proper aim [of socialism] is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible… Charity degrades and demoralises.
For Wilde, this was cruel self-aggrandizement on the part of the wealthy. Charity makes the rich feel better and that is all it does. The Malthusians among us will no doubt object that it is by the generosity of the capitalist that any poor exist at all. The neoliberal will add that, actually, it is by the self-interest of the capitalist that the working poor, those paupers, have even the meager means to survive. But for Wilde, as for Marx, this is telling the slaves, those who sow the seeds, raise the crops, harvest the food, and prepare and serve the meals, that they should be grateful for the master’s benevolence in providing them sustenance. Wilde writes,
We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.
The poverty-ridden people unable to recognize who or what is making them poor, have but two options for survival: to steal or submit to capitalism’s picture of humanity. Wilde suggests the choice is between living as a human being and as a pet, writing,
It is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg… As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage.
To the Randian libertarian, who locates the fatal flaw in the idea of altruism itself, a break with capitalism is not necessitated. To these anti-socialist libertarians, one must boot-strap oneself out of poverty, either by accepting their worth as whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table or by asceticism. Against this position, Wilde writes,
Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.
The problem for this libertine brand of capitalism is the loss of human dignity that it entails. One may not need to be “grateful” because one lives by one’s own lights but without socialism, that life must be debased. What is the point of living by one’s own labors if one cannot earn a respectable living with nearly super-human effort? What is the point of individualism when it reduces individuality to mere animal subsistence? Indeed, it is not finer to take than to beg?
Rejecting capitalism’s cold comforts and Bolshevik authoritarianism, we are left only with a particularly libertarian form of socialism. The socialism of Wilde approaches something like the minimal state of Robert Nozick, but unlike Nozick’s, a state incompatible with exploitation.
Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result, the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures.
Wilde was very nearly an anarchist, however, the state remains as a
…voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.
How exactly the state and individual efforts are to be arranged, Wilde leaves us to speculate. Which to his credit he acknowledges:
Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
Still glimmers of what Wilde envisions come through. Wilde, like Marx, sees the unlimited potential of mechanization to free human beings, but only under socialism where its benefits are shared by all. Mechanization eliminates manual labor and frees human beings from toil.
There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities…. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine… Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.
How close is Wilde to Marx’s vision of socialism? In the third volume of Capital, near the end, Marx argues that “the realm of freedom” his ideal society of free individuals, cannot begin until freedom from want and thus compulsion is achieved.
Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants… so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all the forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Fromm, 60)
Marx paints a picture of socialism where humans produce rationally rather than in an alienated way. That is, they produce for themselves what they want, not necessarily what the capitalist would profit by the most. They produce associatively, which may or may not be competitive, but without the ruthless competition of capitalism. This clearly rules out the possibility of a state-run, bureaucratic socialism. The individual must be the central agent and the goal of socialism. Socialism then is merely meant to alleviate human beings from the struggle with nature, and so allow us to create ourselves for ourselves. Socialism will be known when economics serves the needs of society the same way it serves the needs of capitalists under capitalism. For Marx and Wilde, socialism is a machine for serving the basest of human needs, our animal needs. It is not here to tell us how to satisfy them, only to ensure that they get satisfied.
“The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.”
Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”
Socialism is not the first thing I associate with Oscar Wilde. In fact, it’s not the fifth thing. The man in my mind is first a playwright, then a poet, novelist, artist, dandy, homosexual, Irishman, celebrity, and finally–with mild dubiousness–a social critic. Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde is exactly the socialist thinker we need today. His essay on socialism, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, offers a particular analysis of capitalism written with Wilde’s usual jaunty wit. While less theoretically precise than the work of, say, Peter Kropotkin, who presents anarcho-communism in a dense manner that was–consistently–a heavy influence on Wilde, the spirit of Man Under Socialism is more moving and more profound than the writer of TheConquest of Bread. Wilde’s picture of socialism is, perhaps, a trifle less anarchistic than Kropotkin, but still heavily emphasizes individual liberty and autonomy.
I think Oscar Wilde best fits the model of a libertarian socialist. The term may be apocryphally applied, but as is clear from his writings on socialism, individual freedom is an essential part of his socialist idyll. Wilde’s position, briefly summed, is that individuality is not to be taken as a given, as many right-wing libertarians would, but instead, individuality can only develop under a system that promotes general fairness and relative equality, viz. socialism. Wilde’s fascination with individual expression led him away from authoritarian socialists, like those that would only a few decades later come to power in Russia. It is dubious that Marxism leads only to the Bolshevik model of socialism, in fact, I would go farther and argue that Wilde’s brand of libertarian socialism is more consistent with Marx’s ideas than Bolshevik theory.
The Bolshevik’s denounced individuality because of its relationship to private property. They felt that it was an example of false consciousness, rather than a valid perspective. Wilde on the other said that socialism is valuable “simply because it will lead to individualism.” Like Marx, Wilde saw that individualism is the goal of socialism and that capitalism, for all its talk of individuality, really makes the vast majority of people live for the betterment of a few. For Wilde, the poor under capitalism are degraded by their relative poverty and so cannot be fully individuated, they must live for others (viz. the capitalists) or perish altogether.
Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and ensure the material well-being of each member of the community.
This is not unlike Karl Marx’s vision in the Communist Manifesto:
In place of the bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, shall we have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
But looking after the well-being of each member requires that each member be treated individually and not as a mere member of the community. Wilde writes,
What is needed is individualism. If socialism is authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have industrial tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.
Wilde is taking aim here at what Dr. Richard Wolff will later call “state capitalism”. It is a form of capitalism that retains the aspect of private property ownership but resolves to make the state the sole owner of all property. In effect, this is “concentrated capitalism”, and it is far worse than private capitalism. This concentrated form of capitalism–monopoly capitalism–is no better off when the monopoly is the state. And its failures are replete in the twentieth century.
It is clear, then, that no authoritarian socialism will do. For while, under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.
Wilde introduces a need for freedom into the idea of socialism. Authoritarian socialism, while good for the defense of the socialist state from the teeth of capitalist rivals, is ultimately self-defeating. Despite this, the attempt to force socialism without liberty was as popular in Wilde’s time as it was in the twentieth century.
But I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question… It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.
But still, the abolition of private property remained central:
With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
Compare this to Marx, writing nearly half a century earlier:
A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the favor of another considers himself a dependent being. (138)
Marx, especially early on, was greatly concerned for the life of the individual. Socialism and communism were meant to liberate the individual, rather than dictate to individuals their duties and needs. Marx writes,
Alienation is apparent not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desires are the unattainable possession of someone else, but that everything is something different from itself, that my activity is something else, and finally (and this is also the case for the capitalist) that an inhuman power rules over everything. [Emphasis his] (151)
It does not matter to Marx if our life belongs to a private master or a public one, to live in the service of a lord, a landlord, or a capitalist is no worse than to live in the service of a state, a society, or a community. If it is wrong for one person to steal what is yours (your surplus value) it is just as wrong for ten-thousand people to steal it. And this is just as true when society is “free” as when it is controlled and directed by a governing body.
The “inhuman power” in Marx’s quote above is his name for the action of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. The action governs the behavior of both capitalist and laborer so that neither is truly free. Wilde, like Marx and Smith, emphasizes this freedom for individual expression as necessary for a good life. Marx is a staunch individualist and his socialism is designed to bring about more, not less, individual expression. It is the same for the wealthy capitalist as it is for the working poor according to both Marx and Wilde. Although Marx merely mentions this fact as an aside in the parenthetical (above), Wilde puts it much more cheekily,
If [private] property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich, we must get rid of it.
The real antagonist to individual expression is, according to Marx, the political economist, who reduces people to base functions in an economic system:
First, by reducing the needs of the worker to the miserable necessities required for the maintenance of his physical existence, and by reducing his activity to the most abstract mechanical movements, the economist asserts that man has no needs for activity or enjoyment…; and yet he declares that this kind of life is a human way of life. Secondly, by reckoning as the general standard of life… the most impoverished life conceivable, he turns the worker into a being who has neither senses nor needs, just as he turns his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. Thus all working class luxury seems to him blameworthy, and everything which goes beyond the most abstract need (whether it be a passive enjoyment or a manifestation of personal activity) is regarded as a luxury.
Property creates roles, duties, and even the ideas of idleness and luxury. “What does a worker need ‘free time’ or ‘income beyond necessity’ for? Nothing as far as we can see?” But workers never feel the things they want are “luxuries”, they are simply the things necessary for a good life. Private property, for both men, was entangled with a notion of social rank from which it must be freed before it can be fair. Wilde writes,
In a community… where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things… man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of… considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One’s regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him—in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.
Rich or poor, your life under capitalism is not free to develop its own character. You inevitably live for others. You are forced into a set of classes, which according to Marx, narrow to a set of two: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While I doubt we will ever come to see ourselves merely as class interests, as Marx predicted, there is no doubt that we do come to live in the “groove in which [we] cannot freely develop”. Wilde defines “class” as a social script, the deviation from which is difficult at best and deadly at worst. Anyone in contemporary America who is not white, straight, healthy, wealthy, and male knows what I am speaking of all too well. The point here is that it is capitalism which establishes what “success” looks like, and to succeed without fitting the model becomes increasingly improbable as capitalism becomes the hegemonic economic system.
In the third part of this series, I will look into this idea further, examining what it means to be an individual and how capitalism interferes with that process according to Wilde and Marx. For now, suffice it to say that Wilde, unlike the Bolsheviks, shared Marx’s underscoring of individuality and his disdain for life under the authority of another, be it the bourgeoisie or the state. The need for individual freedom, for both men, sprouts under any political economy but it flowers only in the soil of equality. In the next part, I will examine the pragmatics of socialism as Wilde and Marx saw it.
As I write, access to abortion is facing its greatest threat in more than forty years. Attacks, some absurd and incoherent, have passed state legislatures in more than eight states and most have been signed into law. With legal challenges pending, the goal of these new bills is to attack the precedent established in Roe v. Wade. In this post, I want to take a long hard look at abortion rights, and the conversations surrounding this topic. Mostly, I want to resolve a media distortion that magnifies the divide and separates people on the issue when they are, in fact, not so far apart. The conclusion I will draw is that we are all pro-choice, only some of us want to choose for others, the rest want to choose for themselves.
From the point of view of someone entrenched in the media, abortion seems to be the most divisive issue facing America today. But the reality is very different. Consider the following timeline:
On the left-most antipode is conception, the moment when a sperm fertilizes an egg and a single-celled life is formed. On the right is birth, when a human child would naturally evacuate its mother’s body. In between are a host of different “milestones” that have historically been associated with the abortion line. The abortion line is the point where a baby’s right to life supersedes a mother’s right to bodily autonomy. Make no mistake, every single one of us, no matter how “pro-life” or how “pro-choice”, believes in an abortion line. No “pro-choice” advocate believes in post-birth abortion (despite the current President’s hate-mongering rhetoric), just as no “pro-life” advocate believes in forced insemination in order not to waste potential babies by not creating them. These notions sound absurd to our ears precisely because we by and large agree about the abortion line, and even generally where it should fall: somewhere in the 37-week period between conception and birth.
This narrow band in the process of human beings coming into and out of existence is but a speck, and yet even the most extreme among us tend to agree that it is in this range that the abortion line must be drawn. It is our media coverage, with its over-developed sense of drama, that zooms-in, distorting the reality until these rather close theories appear extremely divided. This microscoping effect leads to hostility and even violence as near-agreement becomes vast disagreement. Its effect is so strong that as you are reading this today, you’ll probably feel the need to argue that there is no “near-agreement”.
So let me defend that position a bit. Assuming you accept the medical timeline above and my stipulative-definition of an abortion line, we might ask ourselves if it is ever acceptable to draw it before birth? I have never met a pro-life advocate who was so strongly pro-life that they believed in the forced conception of girls and women in order to prevent the loss of children who would have existed. Now, what is the reason for this? If you are “pro-life”, consistency would dictate that you must force pregnancy on “selfish” women who would allow an opportunity to reproduce simply go by through abstinence. But almost no “pro-life” people maintain this position. This is not because they are inconsistent with their beliefs or because they are really anti-sex or misogynists. It is because they draw the abortion line. Before conception, these “pro-life” advocates assume a women’s right to autonomy takes precedence over a potential life. So, for them, the conception–or slightly later–is the right place to draw the abortion line, switching the mother’s right to body autonomy under the single-celled organism’s chance to develop into a fully-developed human being.
On the other side, we can ask if it is ever acceptable to draw the abortion line after birth? I have never met a “pro-choice” advocate who was so strongly “pro-choice” that they believed in the killing of a toddler in order to free the mother from her attached responsibilities to the child. If you are “pro-choice”, consistency would dictate that a woman retain the right to abort her child indefinitely. But as before, no “pro-choice” advocates maintain this position. This is not because they are inconsistent or because they are deep-down “pro-life”. It is because they too draw the abortion line. After birth, these “pro-choice” advocates assume children’s right to life takes precedence over a woman’s right to autonomy. So, taking these arguments together we can see that both rights are emphasized by both positions and the only real question becomes where specifically to draw the abortion line.
This is consistent with the Roe v. Wade decision which held that the state had an obligation to protect both essential rights. However, the decision also punted the question of where to draw the line back to the individual states. States have varied but most land somewhere before the third trimester. The decision elaborates a history of abortion looking for guidance from antiquity on where to draw the line. It notes that most ancients, including the Greeks and Romans, were ok with abortion, even very late. Early Christians, following an Aristotelian emphasis on form and a spiritual sense of ensouling matter, settled on the “quickening” (around 18 weeks). For them, the quickening symbolized the moment when a fetus first became “human” and was granted a soul by God, recognizable by its independent movement and human appearance. The decision also notes that even where abortion was illegal, it was not considered the same thing as murder, and often was treated by law as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
When it comes down to it then, Roe v. Wade reflects our values quite well. It shows that both sides of the debate do respect both women’s autonomy and children’s right to life. Even meager honest reflection will reveal just how true this is. No “pro-life” advocate wants to have their or their mothers’, wives’, or daughters’ medical decision made for them by others. They believe that people should make their own medical decisions based on their own interests for themselves, perhaps with the counsel of a medical professional, but without the interference of the state. They just make an exception for unwanted pregnancies. At the same time, “pro-choice” women are hardly murderers. They do not advocate for abortions, only for women’s right to make the choice for themselves. They would not demand the right of parents who want to have a baby to abort. The argument then is really about whether or not society should be allowed to draw the line on medical intervention for individuals. On this point, I’m ardently libertarian. I don’t think society could make medical decisions for me, so it definitely shouldn’t. Arguably then, either you are for the state making your medical decisions for you (somewhere “death panels” still echos in the distance), or not. On that point, I think we are nearly universally agreed. “Pro-life” advocates then need to demonstrate why abortion is an exception to the rule, and the best grounds they have for it is a child’s right to life.
Of course, there are many other issues surrounding abortion. For example, whether outlawing it prevents abortions or just makes the abortions less safe. But where to draw the line returns again and again as the central problem. Most conservatives want to draw the line at conception, thus tying responsibility directly to sexual intercourse. This argument is often presented as assumed or scientific. “Life begins at conception” so the argument begins. However, conception is just as arbitrary a place to draw the line like any other; life may well begin when the sperm and egg are produced in the respective parents, or when the respective parents are themselves born, or on the other hand, when the fetus first begins to have the “form” of a human being, or when the independent multi-celled organism first attaches itself to the mother, forming not only what will become the baby but also the extra-bits of organic matter, like the placenta. In this final case, the blastocyte was no more the development of a future baby than it was the development of a future placenta.
Many feminists want to draw the line around the third trimester, with a few as late as pre-birth. Again these limits are not saying where we should actually draw the line, they are demarcating the arena in which an individual should be free to choose. Taken as a whole, these “pro-life” and “pro-choice” arguments are both markedly pro-choice. But what is more revealing is that they also both jointly create the window for abortion. Before conception, all of us agree that preventing the life process (as prevention or abstinence) is acceptable. After birth, all of us agree that aborting the life process is unacceptable. Thus, the political debate is one about setting boundaries, not drawing the actual line itself.
As I said, where we draw the actual line is ultimately arbitrary, which is why it is impossible to agree on it politically. What we usually argue over, but shouldn’t, is everything else that gets stirred-up in the mix. Questions of responsibility, sexual punishment, oppression, and much, much more are important questions, but not really as connected to the abortion debate as most of us would like to believe. We would all be infinitely better off if we could admit that we are very close on this issue, politically, a mere 24 weeks apart, and inside that window is where the abortion line should be drawn, with particular exceptions granted, such as in the case of medical emergencies, rape, and incest.
That would leave us free to deal with the real issue: whether society should draw the line for every woman or leave the window open for each individual woman to decide for herself. The former position is not “pro-life”. It is anti-choice. It is not about protecting life but rather about controlling it. The latter is “pro-choice”, but not pro-abortion, in the sense that it leaves women free to not abort, that is to choose life. This is why I am pro-choice. I believe that within the structures that we (nearly) universally find acceptable and where the particular choice is rather arbitrary, free choice ought to exist. So, while it is acceptable that society (both men and women) may determine the window in which the abortion line can be drawn, the actual choice of where to draw the line itself, within that window, must belong to the individual woman for herself.