Anarchists have traditionally had important analyses of political systems. Their views on law and order have inspired radicals for more than a century now. Even Bakunin and Kropotkin routinely, though briefly, referenced new forms of organization. Undoubtedly there will always be political disputes, and a need to resolve them. What are some of the problems in our Representative Democracy model and what could be done about them?
I am sure many people are familiar with the problems of Representative Democracy even if they don’t know it. We all know that politicians will say one thing to get elected and then do another once in office. Personally, I find it distressing that congress has a 28% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate! Also, there is no way a Representative can meet with 600,000 constituents, and certainly there is no way for two Senators per state to know the interests of all of those they represent in the Senate! To make things worse, once a candidate has won they immediately begin fundraising for their next election. This means that if they want the big donors needed to win the increasingly costly elections their policies need to reflect the interests of their wealthy donors. This leaves the working class and the poor virtually unrepresented. A prime example is health care. For years the vast majority of Americans have supported a single-payer program but since insurance and pharmaceutical companies won’t finance the campaigns of politicians who want to put them out of business it is routinely pointed out that the reform doesn’t have political capital. The subtle admission that political power comes from the purse and not the voter is not that subtle.
The issue of how best to organize political systems so that people’s interests can be the cornerstone of policy and so that they can also participate in self-organized and self-managing ways is typically called Direct Democracy. A Political Science professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, Stephen Shalom, came up with what he has called Participatory Polity and the use of “nested councils” to explain how participatory self-management in the political sphere could be achieved.
Let’s start with City government. (I had originally – in my previous blog – started exploring this from the national level downward and though this approach would use less levels I think it would require a radical new mapping of existing cities. So assuming we prefer to keep cities bordered as they are this approach starts with the City and goes upward.)
I live in Arlington, Texas. Suppose there were 250,000 capable participants (those of age – I am going with 18+) to form local political councils. The city itself could consist of four levels of councils with each council having 50 members. It doesn’t have to be 50, but we do want a number low enough to allow for face-to-face interaction in a reasonable amount of time, but perhaps high enough so as not to create static with too many levels of councils. Keep in mind that a delegate at the top council would also be a member of each lower council that they were chosen from. There would be five thousand local community councils of fifty members where regular meetings could be held face-to-face to discuss legislative issues that affect them and that they design and put into place.
Say community A is affected by a proposal that comes from community B and also affects communities C and D but not others. These four councils could choose a delegate to represent them in decision making. The delegate from community A would go, express their communities’ interests, listen to the others and report back. Maybe our interests in community A will change when we learn of others.
Or say that all of the 5,000 councils are affected by a City-wide issue. Delegates from the bottom would go to the second level where a delegate for the second would be chosen for the third level and this would be repeated for the fourth level. The purpose of this is to facilitate Direct Democracy – to allow for face-to-face meetings on the broader level. Imagining 250,000 meeting face-to-face is absurd, but so is 5,000 and even 100 delegates! If a delegate from all 5,000 were chosen to represent the city-wide issue then the time factor would be too much. Breaking these 5,000 delegates into 100 councils would help in scenarios that extend beyond a community but not City-wide. Also, breaking these down into two councils of 50 delegates would help for not-quite-City-wide issues but would still be too big. A fourth and final council of fifty delegates would perhaps be more efficient and those delegates would still be beholden to the lower councils that they came from.
For county issues a delegate from each city could make a county-wide council. There are 254 counties in Texas which could be broken into five regional councils that could choose a delegate from each regional council to represent the state. The state council could then choose a delegate to represent the council on a national level.
This would be an authentic grass roots political organization nurturing participatory self-management. Decisions and authority would originate in communities and extend up to the national level – and even possibly the international level where even top level delegates would be beholden to the lower councils. To be a national delegate my local community council would have to approve of me, as well as the other levels of councils that make up my City, and those of my county, region and state. All in all, we are talking about seven levels of councils.
That this kind of polity would compliment a participatory economy is a given. Both uphold the same social and human values of solidarity, self-management, diversity, equity (or justice in the political sense), efficiency and so on.
Questions: Would top council delegates be a job unto itself? To guard against the specialization of political representation (if we find this undesirable) would it be better to place limits on terms and require each council person to be a delegate for a certain amount of time, unless recalled? How could we achieve such political reorganization? Could the increasing success of participatory budgeting be the foundation to spread participatory self-management outward into legislature? These questions and everything above deserves closer inspection, experimentation, and possibly broader implementation.