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What the F**K is wrong with Democracy?

I read a post last night by mutualist theorist Kevin Carson at C4SS (“Democracy (TM) — Coming to a Corporate Welfare State Near You”) — whom I respect as a solid thinker — in which he made this comment:

Democracy is great, when people genuinely participate in making decisions about things that affect them.  But it seldom works out that way.  Once a formally democratic entity gets large enough to require government by representatives and a permanent administrative apparatus, it ceases to be “democratic” in anything but that formal sense.  This results from what Robert Michels, in his analysis of the European social democratic parties a century ago, called the Iron Law of Oligarchy:  “the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.”

Carson’s post was weirdly synchronous for me, because just about the same time as Kevin was posting these words, I was finishing Hal Draper’s “The Death of the State in Marx and Engels”, in which Draper examines Marx’s differences with Anarchism over the idea of a “worker’s state”. Draper makes this comment on a point raised by Marx;

Perhaps most unexpected is Marx’s response to Bakunin’s loaded question: can 40 million people all be “members of the government” “Certainly!” says Marx (in English, by the way). Just before this, he had already pointed out that not every member of a body can or need be on its executive committee, that is, a member of its administrative organism. He is making the point that the “40 million” participate in the “government” (or governance) of the community in the sense that they participate in the “self-government of the Commune” which lies at the bottom, at the beginning, of the new structure of society. The “final structure” begins with control from below as its governance, having transcended government from the top down.

Clearly, Carson and Marx appear to differ on this question of a society whose state rests on democracy, but this apparent difference actually conceals a more fundamental agreement.

Notice, in Carson’s argument, that he puts forward no objection to democracy — defined, in this instance, as genuine participation in making decisions about things that affect the community as a whole. His actual argument is directed at conditions under which this democracy “ceases to be ‘democratic’ in anything but that formal sense.” Which is to say, where the existing political relations give rise to, “the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.”

In his argument, Carson attributes this malady to the size of the community itself: beyond a certain size a community require some definite limited number of individuals to represent the interests of the larger community (perhaps, it is just more efficient to organize affairs this way — Carson does not say) and a certain degree of technical expertise to administer to the common affairs.

And, for Carson, the size of the community sufficient to express this tendency toward oligarchy is surprisingly small: he gives two examples of towns, Fayetteville, Arkansas, with a population of 73,580, and his own community of Springdale, Arkansas, with an even tinier population of 69,797, where the accumulation of oligarchical power clearly appears to be a fact of the community life.

He concludes:

In the real world, governments are simply beyond genuine democratic control. No matter how “progressive” candidates are, how much they talk about “hope” and “change,” once elected they’ll find they have more in common with the oligarchy than with you, and their primary interest will be continuance in office.

The size is so surprising to me, because both of these communities, taken together, essentially would have been a single neighborhood in the Paris of the Commune in 1872 — which, at the time, had a population of 1.85 million people. Indeed, the left bank alone had a population of some 265,530 people — nearly twice the size of both the communities named in Carson’s examples put together.

I am not arguing against Carson’s observations on this question. Indeed, I can confirm the same trend in my own small community of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, which has the even tinier population of a mere 25,185, and which recently scrapped its centuries old direct democracy of the town meeting, with the political equivalent of a Rube Goldberg contraption. There is no doubt in my mind this destruction of Bridgewater’s direct democracy was driven by the two completely unnecessary bonds issued to build a new police station and high school. Having hocked the town’s resources to feed Wall Street, efforts are now being made to strip the citizens of their taxable income.

But, what is driving the process? Is it, as Carson argues, the scale of the community concerned? Or, is it the existence of oligarchical interests in society as a whole imposing themselves on the democratic organization of the community?

Carson himself hints it is the latter:

The local governing institutions of northwest Arkansas, supposedly so close to the people, comprise an interlocking directorate. They include the city councils; the boards of directors at Tyson, Wal-Mart, Lindsey Real Estate, J.B Hunt, the University, and the Walton Arts Center; and the Northwest Arkansas Council (a quasi-private shadow government — er, public service organization — made up of corporate welfare queens).  And the same handful of people keep shuffling back and forth among them.

Marx concluded, after examining the experience of the Paris Commune, very much the same thing as Carson: the newly formed democratic power of the “workers’ state” could not simply lay hold of the existing state; it had to break it. Moreover, as explained by Anitra Nelson in her book, “Marx’s Concept of Money”, it was not enough to establish the democratic control over the state, this formed no more than a prelude to the reorganization of civil society itself:

Marx suggests too that the state is dominated by financial powers established in civil society. He concludes that emancipation cannot only involve universal suffrage, but rather a self-conscious reappropriation and reorganisation of people’s material and social life, of the economic forces outside the state’s control.

Simply stated, the community could not stand by and accept the continued existence of oligarchic power. It faced a choice: either this oligarchic power would continue to impose its will on the community, in whatever form political relations allowed, or the community must abolish the oligarchic power. Taking control over the state was only the beginning of the social revolution, not its culmination.

And, Kevin’s observations confirm this truth.

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  1. August 20, 2011 at 10:21 am

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