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 essay on 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.