The following is an interview between Stephen Shalom and Matt Grinder of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective.
In the 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Stephen Shalom presented a "rough draft" essay entitled "ParPolity: Political Vision for a Good Society." The essay spells out a vision for a democratic, participatory political system complementing participatory economics. Participatory Economics is an alternative economic system developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Its defining features are democratic planning, worker and consumer councils, and balanced job complexes. It is an alternative to both Capitalism and Central Planning and is very different and probably much more just than our economic system of today. Until Stephen's essay, however, there had been no detailed proposal for a complementary political system where citizens can fully participate in political matters as well as economic. Stephen is a professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He is the author of numerous books, most recently "Which Side are You On?: An Introduction to Politics." Matt Grinder of the Vancouver Parecon Collective spoke with Stephen Shalom about his political vision.
Grinder: Could you begin by explaining why you developed this political vision?
Shalom: I think it's very important for those of us interested in social change not just to talk about what's wrong with the current system, not just to talk about what we need to do tomorrow to achieve this or that short term goal, but to also have some sense of a long range vision of where we want to go.
If you want to change things, you need to have some final destination in mind so you can tell if you're on the right track. Then you can choose tactics and strategy to make sure that it's leading where you want to go.
In addition, I think another reason why you have to have some kind of political vision and a vision more generally, is that for many people that we come across in our day-to-day political work, they say to us, "there's no alternative, so I'm just going to accept the status quo." What we've got to be able to show them is that there's a reason for them to make the commitment and sacrifices necessary to challenge that status quo. That reason only makes sense if there is some alternative that can actually work and can actually inspire us. So I think Parecon -- Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel's economic vision -- does some of that, showing people that there is an alternative, but that's only for the economic aspect of society and I was interested to see, can we develop as well the political institutions of a good society?
Grinder: What are the values that you want to include in this political vision?
Shalom: Well, we want any good society to have freedom, meaning we want people to be able to do what they by their own lights, want to do. Obviously you've got to put some limitation on freedom, namely that it cannot interfere with other people's freedom. So that's one value we want to implement, in any political system: freedom.
A second value is self-management: that is, we want people to be able to control their own lives. We don't want a political system where others do things for you, and give you what you need. We believe that participation in the decisions that affect your life makes you more human, that's part of what makes you who you are. Now, this can be overdone; there are some people who say that because I am a political activist and because I spend 24 hours, seven days a week doing politics, everyone should want to do that. I think that's unrealistic. If we're trying to develop a political vision for a whole society, not just for those few political fanatics, it's got to be something that encourages and values participation but without requiring that everyone have the same obsessive love of politics as activists might have. So participation but not to the extent that society falls apart if people fail to be fanatic about it.
We also want justice. We want a society that's fair and treats everybody equally.
Solidarity: we want a political system that allows and encourages us to take account of our common interests with others, that promotes co-operation, that helps us to see how our lives and interests intertwine with those of one another.
Tolerance: what I mean by that is, different people have different views on what the good life is. So a good political system ought to promote diversity, allowing people to have as many different visions of a good life as possible so long as they don't deny that same tolerance to others.
Grinder: What sort of institutions and political procedures would you have for this Parpolity?
Shalom: It's got to be a system that is based on, and allows people to participate, as much as possible in a face to face manner. The kind of system you've got in current day capitalist democracies is where 300,000 or a half a million or a million or 50 million voters choose somebody and then send them to go off and represent us. That level of political control just isn't sufficient. We have very little connection between ourselves and our so called representatives. They don't know what we are thinking, we don't have much way of checking them if they do things we don't like, and we tend to become very apolitical as a result of the process -- because it's a process that doesn't involve us. In the United States, once every two years you go and elect your representative to congress, and that's about it. A few people will then write letters or a smaller number will actually make an appointment to see their representative when he or she comes to the district, but by and large there is no day to day connection between the representatives and those they are supposed to be representing.
So the system that I think makes sense is a system of nested councils, where you've got a primary level council which will include somewhere between, I don't know, 25-50 people and the whole society will be broken up into these kinds of councils. These councils will be small enough so that you can talk to people, you can speak with the people in your council and your views and concerns get heard. But these councils alone aren't sufficient, for there are lots of things that can't be decided on a drastically local level. These councils will require more co-operation and co-ordination, and therefore each of these councils will choose delegates who will go to a second level council and those second level councils will be about the same size, somewhere between 25 and 50 delegates. These councils will in turn choose delegates to the next level councils. As there'd be as many levels as you need so that ultimately there is one highest level council. What this means is that at every point the delegates on any level council are responsible to the councils just below them that sent them. They can be recalled by those councils if they no longer represent the will and the wishes of that council. So there's a very close connection between councils, the people, and their delegates in a way that there isn't in current representative democracy.
Let me just mention a couple of other features: these delegates are not mandated, as is sometimes suggested. That is, one way to handle the relationship between councils would be to say OK, my primary level council takes a position, we send our delegate and tell her or him, you must vote this way, this is your position that you must carry to the next level council. Well, the problem with doing that is, that once that delegate gets to that next level council there's no purpose for having any conversation. Because everyone that appears at that council is forced to vote the way they've been mandated to vote. So in a sense, higher level councils are just mechanical vote tabulating mechanisms, rather than actual deliberative bodies. One of the things I think is very important for any kind of decent political system is that politics not be viewed simply as a matter of adding up and totalling up votes. It should be a deliberative process. That is, I guess I have a faith that people who sit and try to work things out and talk things out are more likely to come to some kind of, not ideal, but better solution than if they were simply say, OK, 51% here, 49% here, that's it. Now I'm not saying that one never has to have votes. Rather my position is: we should strive for consensus decision making wherever possible and use majority rule whenever not possible.
The problem with saying, let's just use pure consensus decision making, and that we should respect the honest opinion of an individual who dissents, is that sometimes you're in the situation where you've got the honest opinion of a single person who dissents against the honest opinions of many other people who don't dissent. To allow that single individual to block action is to not give adequate respect to the opinions of the much larger group, while giving respect to the dissenter.
Let's take an issue that's not likely to be susceptible to easy compromise. Let's take an issue like abortion or animal rights or something of that sort. People have very strong opinions on these questions. So let's imagine someone proposes: let's establish an abortion clinic in such and such a neighbourhood. The voters are 95-5 in favour of doing this, but 5 people are very strongly opposed to it. The five believe passionately and sincerely in their position, but we shouldn't give them veto power. For if we do then what we're saying is that the while the views of the 5% are entitled to our respect, the views of 95% of the people -- who also feel very passionately about their position -- are not entitled to that same respect.
So I want deliberation, I want people to talk things out, I want people to find compromise, I want people to try different ways to accommodate as many views as possible. But I recognize that, in the real world, there will be issues that are not compromisable or resolvable and in that case we've got to choose some decision making method, and it seems to me majority rule will often be best. It would still be true that in that case we could say "What's so sacred about 51%?" Nothing, but anything that's less than 51% is even less sacred, has even less value.
Grinder: So you've got these high level councils that you describe, that presumably make decisions for a large segment of the population. What are the checks and balances against these people just accruing more power and making all the decisions?
Shalom: There are two kinds of checks we care about. One kind of check is that we want to make sure that these higher level councils don't become tyrannical in some way. The second check we care about is: even if those higher level councils are very democratic and represent the majority, there is always the question of the danger of the tyranny of the majority. Might the majority choose to do things it shouldn't want to do?
Let me talk about these two things in turn. There are various checks on the first danger -- on the higher level councils getting out of touch with the popular will. The first check is that each one of the members on any higher level councils comes from a lower level council and goes back to those lower level councils on a regular basis. So there is much more of that kind of organic connection between these delegates and the constituencies from which they've come. The second check is found in, the way the higher level councils make decisions: sometimes they'll make consensus decisions; sometimes when it's clearly a position that has a strong support, they'll vote on it; but whenever the issue is contentious and likely to be close, what they'll do is they'll discuss it, they'll come up with alternative positions and then send them back down to the lower levels where the voting will actually take place. For example, an issue might filter up from the bottom where it's first discussed, it comes to a higher level council where the issue is debated and it is found that there's clearly a lot of difference of opinion here, so clear positions are formulated as a result of deliberation, and then the issue goes back down to the lower level councils where people again talk about and debate the issue and deliberate and try to come up with a position. So there is a much more organic process in this system than there is in current representative capitalist democracies, where we vote and wait four years, or two years or whatever and see what they've done in our name.
The question of the tyranny of the majority is a serious problem. What that means is: while yes, there are certain things the majority ought to be able to decide, there are other things that majorities should not be permitted to decide. For example, no group of people, no matter how big a majority, should tell me what religion I should hold, or what I should believe, or whom I can marry, or things of that sort. There are a whole lot of things that we say are not the proper responsibility of or under the authority of the majorities but are things that should be decided by individuals.
Now in countries like the United States and Canada, we have a Supreme Court that is supposed to look at either a constitution or a bill of rights or charter of rights and say, "that charter of rights, that bill of rights, puts certain limits on what the majority can do. We are going to interpret whether they have overstepped their bounds or not." So this is one way to check the danger of majority tyranny. The problem with it is that because the Supreme Court in the United States is not an elected body, it's a non-democratic check on the population For example, let's take the 1930's in the United States. The American people made it very clear through their voting that they were interested in having a new deal. They elected a president who called for a new deal and overwhelmingly elected a congress with that same point of view. Congress passed and the president signed legislation that changed the role of the government in the economy, that is the government was now going to take certain steps to take care of people when capitalism harmed them. The Supreme Court struck these laws down, saying we're protecting the minority, namely the minority of business owners, the capitalists. Here was a case where the court, an unelected body, selected by previous presidents who no longer had popular support, making decisions regarding the constitution. But the constitution didn't say anything explicitly about whether there could be a minimum wage law. The constitution basically left all these kinds of things up for interpretation -- for interpretation by an undemocratic, non-responsive court.
On the other hand, if you have a direct election for judges as they do in some jurisdictions in the United States, you often find the judges are pandering to the basest emotions: "elect me judge and I'll fry more people" -- that kind of thing. If these judges are really responsible to the majority, then why will we expect them to protect the minority from majority tyranny? To take an example, let's say you had a very racist society. The legislature passed a law to punish or in some way discriminate against some minority group. Well then it goes to the court. But the court was elected by the majority and has run an election campaign saying "elect us and we'll keep that minority down." So that wouldn't be much of a protection for the minority. Therefore, what you want is to avoid an unresponsive judiciary, one that's not in any way responsive to the democratic will. But you also don't want one that is carried away by particular prejudices of the moment. Now this is a problem for any kind of political system. The thought is that maybe in the United States give them life terms so they won't be that subject to public pressure. Sometimes this has given us very good judges who were pretty lousy when they were first appointed, but who became respected voices when they were no longer subject to day-to-day electioneering. On the other hand, many others turned out even worse than they were beforehand.
My suggestion is that we want some sort of check on the tyranny of the majority in a council by having a body that is at once democratic, and responsible to the public, but not the council itself. I call this body a high council court. This would be a court on the same level as the highest of the nested councils. It would consist of perhaps 41 citizens chosen by lot, with staggered two year terms. They would be a check on unjust laws. (The number 41 is arbitrary. It's got to be large enough so that by the laws of probability it's broadly representative of the population, but small enough so that real deliberation can take place.) You might say, well, if there are prejudices among the population why won't this body be just as prejudiced as any other random group of people? A political scientist named Fishkin did a very interesting study with a bunch of average citizens. He did some polling and asked them what their opinions were on various questions. They had standard views on a lot of things. Then he had them seriously discuss for awhile, and he found that the views they came up with after deliberation were rather different from the off-the-cuff views that they had when they were just asked their opinion.
What he suggests and what I think is an interesting result, is that people are capable of more than we give them credit for. If you just ask people - somebody knocks at your door and says "What's your view on capital punishment?"- people give quick, often prejudiced answers to those kinds of questions. If you simply let people sit and talk and think about these issues, if they actually deliberate, they can come to much smarter decisions. So the equivalent of the high court in the system I'm proposing is not an appointed body, it's randomly selected; much like the jury system in the United States, a cross section of citizens, who are put in a situation where they are going to deliberate and decide if this particular law passed by one of the councils violates in some respects rights that shouldn't be violated.
Grinder: Just to note though, these high level councils, and maybe the high council court as well, these people might start claiming their jobs are really complicated, and they need to stay on quite a long time. Do you think there is any reason to be concerned about this sort of thing happening ,where the high level council people will think "we have to stay in office a long time" and maybe everyone will let them and they will just accrue more and more power?
Shalom: I think this political system I am talking about is supposed to go along with Parecon, the economic system that you mentioned at the top of the conversation. One of the important characteristics of that economic system is "balanced job complexes." That reflects the understanding that it's not just that certain people have money and certain people don't that is the essence of inequality in modern capitalism. That's part of it, that's a very big part of it, but another difference is that certain people have jobs that are empowering, that cause them, as they perform the jobs, to become more skilled and more competent and more powerful, while other people have jobs that are disempowering, that make them more and more mindless. So if your job is an assembly line worker where your full responsibility is to turn a screw every 4 seconds, the result of that job on you is that it's going to make you a moron, because you're not using your brain, you're not using your capacity. In the economic system that Albert and Hahnel have proposed everybody has a balanced job complex. That is, you are doing a number of types of activities, some of which are empowering, some of which are disempowering, so that everybody's average level of empowerment is the same. It doesn't mean that everybody's doing the same work - if you're a nuclear physicist, you might be doing nuclear physics part of the time, but you'd also be doing other stuff that is rote or menial. People who are working in factories would also be doing stuff that involves planning or thinking or using their brains.
So in the same way, all these people who are on councils - everyone is in a lower level, primary council -- but for all the other councils, your participation in those councils is part of your balanced job complex. So no one is going to be a full time political, or politician or official. Every person, no matter their role in society, will have these balanced job complexes. So having rough economic equality guarantees you won't have capitalist and proletarian classes, while balanced job complexes will eliminate this disjunction that we now have in all existing societies between people who do co-ordinating tasks, people who do the thinking, and those who are the followers. That artificial division is done away with.
So that's probably the main check you're going to have on these high level bodies becoming tyrannical, long lasting bodies. The other thing is that rotation will be built into them, that is the high council court will have a term, say two years, and you can't be reappointed. You're chosen randomly from the population, your chance of being chosen again is low and we can make sure it's zero, which means you can't be chosen a second time. If you're a delegate from your council to the next, or the highest council, that would be rotated, you couldn't do that on a permanent basis.
Grinder: Just to be clear about this, how would a law be made in this political system?
Shalom: Councils would pass laws. But which level council? In any society laws apply to a particular geographic level. In Canada, for example, you can have a provincial law, you can have a federal law, you can have a law within a particular municipality. The question is: sometimes the laws between one level and another might conflict, and you've got to figure out what the appropriate level is for making this decision. Where possible, you want decisions to be made at low levels and leave them at low levels and not have them come from the top because the higher up they're made, the less diversity there is. If one town wants to do things one way and another town wants to do things another way, that should be permitted. But sometimes you can't permit that. You can't permit it sometimes when co-ordination is needed, if you're building the road between two towns you can't let each town build half their road in a different place. Sometimes you don't want each town to do their own thing if you think it's a matter of basic rights, for example. One of the most perplexing issues in political theory is: how do you decide where decisions get made?
In the United States, the constitution says various things about at what level decisions should be made. Ultimately, though, it comes down to the Supreme Court making a decision on where that line gets drawn. Ultimately the federal government can pass amendments to the constitution and therefore can pass, really, any law they want. That is if the federal government wanted to they could amend the constitution and repeal the amendment that gave women the right to vote. If the Supreme Court says "Hey, you can't do that." you can still amend the constitution, and then the Supreme Court can't rule it unconstitutional.
In part what you need is -- beyond any institution -- a participatory and tolerant political culture. Let me take a step back here a minute. That is to say, institutions are important, but they're not determinative. You can take a country that has a pretty awful structure on paper and find that it's actually a more reasonable, humane political system than one that has a very nice set of documents on paper.
So Britain for example has always had a relatively high level of civil liberties even though they didn't have a bill of rights. They didn't have anything from preventing parliament from passing a law tomorrow saying only Buddhists can vote, only women between the ages of 17-22 can vote, or whatever. Any one of those things - because of absolute parliamentary supremacy- could have happened. But it didn't happen, and the reason it didn't happen is there was a kind of political culture in Britain that took certain kinds of capitalist democratic principals as given.
The question is, in parpolity, in this kind of political system, what will the political culture be? Now I don't want to say that everything's going to be perfect and that everyone is going to be brilliant and always make the right decisions and so on and so forth. However, if you have a political system that is built on equality, that emphasizes solidarity, and thinking about others and talking through your differences rather than trying to railroad things through, I suspect that the political culture will tend to be much more concerned about not taking advantage of others, much more concerned about the impact on minorities and dissenters and those who don't get their way. In that kind of political system, I think we'll find much less danger, no matter what kind of institutions you build in. If your society tends to develop a certain kind of culture that will serve you in good stead. Under capitalism, the whole culture is built on competition and screwing the next guy. Therefore it's no surprise that that's the way politics gets done too.
Grinder: Speaking of a constitution or a bill of rights, what would be the role of a constitution or a bill of rights in this society? Would we have one like we have today or would it be quite different?
Shalom: Constitutions are essentially sets of rules that include limits on society, on the majority. When you say this group of people has this right, what you're really saying is that society does not have the right to do something that interferes with that right. Saying I have the right of free speech is the same as saying -as it's worded in the U.S. constitution -- that Congress may make no law abridging your freedom of speech.
A constitution spells out ground rules. The problem with constitutions is, you don't want a constitution to be something that can't grow and change with time and therefore any constitution worth its salt has got to be one that can be amended. Once a constitution can be amended, then the question is, well, how do you amend it? Might not the amenders remove some important rights? So usually when you put in an amendment procedure, you want to make it more difficult than a simple majority vote. You want to say "changing this is something that should be done with great care." And therefore you don't want to amend the constitution because today we finally got a slight majority in favour of such and such.
One probably ought to have a constitution that spells out basic principles and basic procedures. You want to have some kind of mechanisms for changing that constitution, and you want to make sure the method for changing it wasn't too easy, but again not impossible. Again, here is where that high council court might come in. On some kinds of issues the high council court might say this is a really important kind of change and really implicates people's rights in a lot of fundamental ways. That kind of change should only be done with the greatest caution, and therefore you'll need some kind of supermajority other than simply 50%+1. On another issue, however, the high council court might say, this is properly decided by such and such a council and 50% + 1 would be adequate. These kinds of decisions regarding which level council is appropriate, who makes the decisions, what kinds of things are entrenched and can't be changed without great difficulty, these are spelled out originally in the constitution but are subject to the interpretation of the council court.
Grinder: On the subject of law enforcement, your essay says we would still need police, a claim that might be controversial with some activists today. Why do you think we would need them?
Shalom: In spelling out this vision, I wanted to be careful not to be utopian. A lot of people will already think this is remarkably utopian - but what I mean by this is that I didn't want it to be a system that only applied to perfect people. I wanted it to apply to a large group of people, which means it's going to include some rotten people, some selfish people, some deranged people. That is, in any large group of people, this will be the case. Now, will it be true in the far distant future? Is it possible that eventually nastiness will be barely a statistical footnote? One hopes so, but who knows? In any event you need to have a political system work pretty much from the time you set it up - not having to wait 200 years until we've finally got all the nastiness out of human beings. So you've got a society, many of the usual motives for crime are gone -- there's no longer inequality, there's no longer great poverty and need, that kind of thing, there's no longer discrimination. On the other hand, even though that ought to eliminate large chunks of crime, I don't want to assume that that will eliminate all crime.
So, if there is some crime, how do we deal with it? Now you might say [we] should just form popular committees like posses and that will be the way that we will deal with the few crimes that take place, because there isn't very much, and it will be something that's manageable. The problem with that, I think, is that police work is a skilled task. It requires training. I don't know that I want random groups of people talking the hostage taker down from the top of the ledge where he's holding someone hostage. I don't know that I want random people examining a crime scene for forensic evidence, and so on and so forth. There's a lot of skilled stuff involved in police work. Just as everybody else will have a combination of empowering and disempowering jobs, police work will be a job that will be mixed with other tasks as well - a balanced job complex. Police work will not be something as it is now -- now police are viewed as people that occasionally do something useful but, by and large, are charged with preserving the status quo and protecting an unjust system. This won't be the job of police in a good society, rather the job of police in a good society would be to protect people. To protect people from occasional harm from those who do not obey the laws. So I think, yes when you think of police in current society, you say "get rid of them." They serve no useful purpose, because we know they are not primarily charged with protecting people, but protecting an unjust system. But in a just society, people need protection there too.
Grinder: What about the judicial system then? What changes would you make to our current judicial system to maybe make it better?
Shalom: This is something where my thoughts I think are sketchier than they were with the legislative system. I'll give you some comments here, but this - all of this - is I think up for discussion and refinement. I certainly have no expectations that this vision will be implemented as I'm proposing it; it's just something I'm throwing out there for discussion as a way to advance our thinking about where we're heading. In the judicial area I'm even sketchier than in the legislative area.
A judicial system has three different functions to perform. One is to assess laws and in some sense to make sure the laws are constitutional and proper, and we've talked about that. Two other functions are (1) To decide whether people -- as individuals -- have broken laws and if so what should be done to them. (2) To resolve disputes between individuals. That's the distinction between criminal law and civil law in current society.
I think if we're going to have police because we think there might be some individuals who break laws and commit crimes, then we're going to need some kind of criminal justice system to decide if they are indeed guilty. Now, capitalist theorists generally say that capitalism works because people compete and, as a result, competition is good for everybody. Those theorists are wrong. Competition in the capitalist system doesn't end up benefiting everyone, it doesn't end up producing what people need; rather it ends up producing what those with money want. But, in the legal system, I think there is something to be said for having an adversarial system. An adversarial system says you've got two sides in this courtroom, one of whom is trying to prove guilt and one of whom is trying to prove innocence. I'm uncomfortable with that; that is, it seems a little odd, shouldn't all sides be trying to look for the truth? But here's what led me to conclude that an adversarial system makes sense.
I think if someone is charged with a crime, they ought to have a right to defend themselves. I don't want a system where those who are good speakers, eloquent, or clever logicians, get off when they commit crimes, and those who are inept speakers and are not very good at logic and argumentation, get convicted. Therefore you've got to allow people to hire people to help them defend themselves. So this basic belief that people have a right to defend themselves and shouldn't have to depend upon their own wits alone to do that defending, leads me to believe we need an adversarial system: where those who think the defendants committed a crime will try to prove to a jury that they did, and the defendants have the right to defend themselves through the use of a lawyer.
But there would still be some important differences with the current system: First, the current system is designed for punishment. Therefore what happens in courtrooms is that one side is saying "here's why this person deserves 20 years in jail," and the other side is saying "here's why this person should go free." Now if instead of a punishment-based system you had a rehabilitation-based system, one that said that society needs protection from wrongdoing from people that might harm them, but the way to do this is by rehabilitating people who commit wrongs, not by a system of locking them up and throwing away the key, and certainly not by capital punishment and things like that. If you've got that different kind of goal, then the nature of the adversarial conversation might be rather different. It might be that what would be best for both sides would be some kind of treatment. Say this guy is a drug addict, and under the influence of this drug he was abusive and beat up his spouse. Obviously, we don't want this to recur. Well, in a standard American courtroom, the debate is: is he innocent and should go scott free, or is he guilty and should go to jail for some period of time? But in a more humane system both sides would probably have agreed that what this person needs is drug treatment. But drug treatment is generally not on the agenda in the United States because we've got this punitive model. With a rehabilitation model instead of a punitive model there is likely to be a difference.
In addition, in parpolity lawyers don't get paid based on - and their income doesn't depend on -- how wealthy their clients are or something like that. Rather lawyers -- in a sense every lawyer is a public defender or a public prosecutor -- they take cases based on their merits and they argue them based on their merits. That's just a sketch.
Grinder: Just to switch topics again, how would international relations work? Who would represent the Parpolity country to other countries? Any thoughts on how this might happen?
Shalom: What makes international relations complicated is that everything I've been talking about so far has been within a system of Parpolity, that is where everybody is a part of and responsible to the same kind of Parpolity values. In international relations you're now dealing with - I'm assuming the whole world is not organized on Parpolity lines - the question of how a Parpolity society can deal with non-Parpolity systems on the outside.
On one level, there will be a job called "diplomat." Just as there are diplomats now, it's a skilled job and it will be part of a balanced job complex. Diplomats don't make policy, they're supposed to represent the policy of their government. That's true for the United States and Canada today, and it will be true under any kind of system. That is, the diplomats are not the policy makers, rather they are the ones that are told what their government's policy is and they then carry it out. Here those policies would have to come from the highest level council. You couldn't have a local neighbourhood council giving instructions to diplomats. Of course a diplomat would have to be speaking for the entire society. The only body that can do that is the highest level council. Though remember, sometimes there will be laws and positions of the government that will come not from a vote of the highest level council, but on issues that the highest level council has sent back down to the primary level councils for debate and decisions. Whether the decisions are made at the top or at the bottom for the whole society, these would be society wide decisions -- foreign policy decisions would have to be society wide, they couldn't be local. Diplomats would be skilled workers, their job would be to transmit the positions of their society, and receive information and positions from the countries to which they are assigned on behalf of their society.
Grinder: Since you've written this essay and presented it, what response have you received on it?
Shalom: Well, there have been many different responses. When I presented it in Porto Alegre, Brazil, there were some people who argued that it was elitist and arrogant to present a vision and expect other people to automatically follow it. I think that criticism missed the point; I'm certainly not trying to impose this vision on anyone. Rather what I'm trying to do is start a conversation -- a conversation about where we want to go - which is something that the left hasn't done enough and needs to do much more. A way to get it started is to say "Here's a vision, here's how it might work" which shows it can be possible. Then people will poke holes in it, it will be revised, revised more, and it will get that conversation going. It's certainly not an attempt to impose something on people from on high.
A different kind of criticism that was made is that it's very unclear what the role of political parties might be in such a system. If you think about how political parties might impinge on a primary level council it actually gets a little complicated. I'm not sure how that ought to work out, that's something I am still thinking about. The question is this: One of the things you want in a primary level council is real debate and discussion, that is, deliberation. But what if half the people in the primary level council come in and say: we're a member of this political party and this is our position. The other half come in and say we're a member of this political party and this is our position, and neither group can be willing to change their position because they're bound by the discipline of their party from outside. Then you're not going to have a real deliberation, you're not going to have a conversation. It will be one of these phony conversations where people are speaking to hear themselves speak, but when it's all said and done you know exactly how it's all going to turn out because none of them can allow themselves to be influenced by anybody else. So I'd like to think more about how we can allow political parties - because you can't very well not allow them - how you can incorporate political parties into the system without removing the important deliberative nature of the system -- which is one of the things which I think gives it it's real strength.
Grinder: What do you see as a way forward to implementing this system?
Shalom: I don't think you can implement it in the short run, obviously. What you can do is to make small changes that are not a realization of this system, but which use some of the insights and some of the ideas from this system. Even in local organizations today, it would be good to make sure you've got opportunities for deliberation. It would be good to try to implement the notion of let's try to have consensus where possible and resort to majority rule voting only when that consensus is not possible. I know there are some political groups that use consensus all the time, and if it's a small group and if people have basic agreements on all kinds of fundamental principles, that might work. If you've got a local activist group where you've already come together on the basis of shared principles and politics, consensus might be fine and advisable. But things are different if we're talking about a workplace - I'm a member of an academic department and there are 12 of us and we meet and make all kinds of decisions as a department. We didn't come together on the basis of political agreement, we just happen to be co-workers, and so on some things we agree and some things we can't agree. So we can't use consensus, because if we did we would simply be totally thwarted when we came to some of those issues where we just fundamentally disagree.
We can't implement Parpolity today or tomorrow or even next year. What we can do though is try to think of ways to incorporate the values of Parpolity, that is try to incorporate participation, solidarity, tolerance, justice and so on into our daily lives and into our organizations.
Grinder: Excellent, thank you very much for talking with us, Stephen.
Shalom: Thank you.
Grinder: Stephen is a professor of political science in William Patterson University in New Jersey. You can find his essay on political vision at http://www.zmag.org/shalompol.htm. Matt Grinder is a member with the Vancouver Parecon Collective http://vanparecon.resist.ca.