At last the revolution is here. Now the people rule. And what does that look like? It looks like a radical extension of democracy, in the world of both politics and economics. The people no longer let others call the shots. They are calling the shots.
First, in politics, Parliament is no longer an assembly of elected representatives. Representatives were elected to rule on the people’s behalf. They would have been unwise to have disregarded the people’s collective preferences altogether but they had the last word. They did not have to share their decision making power with the people. The people could throw their representatives out at the next election, if they were displeased. But, while their representatives were in post, they eschewed any right to dilute their representatives power to decide. Barring gross misdemeanours, their representatives could enjoy immunity from recall and be assured that they could serve out a fixed term.
A Parliament of delegates are not the people’s representatives but their executive agents. The people’s delegates do not enjoy the prerogatives representatives did. They cannot take any decisions without the endorsement of the people. They must consult exhaustively before they make any decision. Decisions they take must be a true reflection of what the people want and not what the delegate thinks they want. If they dare defy the will of the people, and take a decision without having obtained the people’s consent, or by failing to consult widely enough, they can be recalled or dismissed. Delegates have no extended, secure tenure. Delegates terms are short, and prevented from standing more than a handful of times, to prevent the formation of an incumbent, professional political class.
In economics, the workplace looks very different. The old workplace was even less democratic than the old representative system. The people could vote out representatives they did not like but not their bosses at work, whom they did not even vote for in the first place. That meant having to work under people you did not respect and to whom you could not talk back. Unlike politicians, whom you could criticise or ridicule, even to their faces, bosses were protected by an aura of authority. Mocking or criticising your boss could land you in hot water. Bosses decision making power was backed up by workplace cultural norms like deference. That meant that bosses could make bad decisions with bad consequences because the workforce, like the three monkeys, pretended to hear and see nothing, and hence said nothing.
How different this is from the rough and tumble of democratic politics. Nye Bevan once said that you should not go into politics or public life unless you have a thick skin. That is why democratic politicians can endure phenomenal amounts of criticism, much of it personal and abusive, which they have to put with up with just to get elected and carry on putting up with it, after they get elected. Indeed, the higher up the political ladder they go, the worse it gets.
Bosses, by contrast, can be prickly and thin-skinned, and sensitive to criticism, because they are not used to it. They were not elected, and do not expect their ‘right to manage’ to be subjected to public scrutiny and criticism by their workforce. When the boss of a US manufacturing firm announced insouciantly to his workforce that their jobs were going to Mexico, he told distraught workers to ‘quiet down’ so he could finish talking. An elected politician would never dare talk to their constituents like that, for fear of provoking a riot.
This is to digress. Now that the revolution is here, the bosses have been kicked out and are sweeping the streets and cleaning latrines. Workplace democracy reigns, similar to the Parliamentary delegate model. The workers rule. They elect the people who manage the organisation in which they work. The people they elect are not bosses. They are accountable to the workers who have elected them. The delegate-managers, as we shall call them, cannot take any decision around pay, reorganisation without consulting widely beforehand. This consultation has to be more than tick-box exercises management used to run in the bad old days. It has to be a genuine opportunity for the workers to influence the decisions the delegate-managers are going to make, so that these decisions can be said to be the workers’ will. Like Parliamentary delegates, delegate-managers can be recalled and have no security of tenure. There is no professional management class. Unlike today’s managers, they have no ‘right to manage’ and their credentials have to be presented to worker scrutiny before they get elected.
One feature of the old representative system will be retained. Unrelenting scrutiny and criticism will be par for the course for the new Parliamentary delegates and delegate-managers alike. How can it not be? These are features of any democratic system, however defined. Those going into this new sort of politics will have to be thick-skinned types.
This very simple model of politics and economics is not the only conceivable scenario. Perhaps Parliament will abolished and replaced with a plethora of local assemblies. Perhaps large capitalist firms will be broken up altogether. Who knows? There are lots of different ways of conceiving a future that ha s not happened yet. Regardless, I suspect that all these models will share one essential description: no longer can it be said that the people are just being given the opportunity to pull levers every 4 or 5 years or so. They can pull them whenever they like.
The moral basis of this new order will seek to meet Noam Chomsky’s demand to those in power to justify their authority: “[T]hat the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.”
For Chomsky, and many radicals, authority is a function of hierarchy and hierarchy is an expression of domination. There is no space here to discuss if this linkage is fair and accurate. Nor is there space to consider the practical question about how anything is ever supposed to get done were Chomsky’s demand to be made in all instances – when cabin crew tells you to fasten seat belts before take off, do they have to justify their reasons?.Here, it will suffice to note that a radical democratic system cannot avoid Chomsky’s demand being made of itself. If the people are to rule, then they must have authority to claim this right. On what basis do they justify this?
The old party-dictatorships, who claimed to be ‘people’s democracies’, denied this question could arise. The people are indivisible and the people are good and wise. Therefore, they will always do the right thing and for their own good. They cannot oppress themselves. This, we know, is nonsense. People are divided and given to quarrel. Against this inevitable reality, decisions have to be made. The discussion about the right decision to take can only go on for so long. At some point, the decision has to be taken and discussion must end.
The larger and more complex a society is, the less likely that decisions can be unanimous. Some will have won the argument and others will have lost. The winners can insist that the decision has to be respected but the losers can claim a right to dissent. Both sides can claim principled authorities for their stances and both sides can demand the other side justify their authority, using Chomsky’s criteria. Even the most democratic of decisions rest on the assumption that dissenters can be coerced, at least in some circumstances. The question is, when is it right to exercise authority and do that?
After the revolution, these dilemmas will not disappear. Indeed, a radical participatory democracy would exacerbate them. We have already touched on one of them – the inevitability of disagreement. Human nature is prone to dissension and schism, because humans have conflicting definitions of what things like freedom and justice mean, and how best to accomplish the good things we all say we want.
Subsequent posts will discuss other problems which bedevil a representative system but would be no less acute under the new, participatory alternative. The new system will still have to deal with a crowded agenda of conflicting demands, against the background of limited information and time. Messy compromises will still need to be made.
There will still be an inequality of talents, which will persist, even when all social inequalities have been eliminated. At the end of it all, there will still be leaders and the led, winners and losers. There will still be hierarchy and times when people are going to have to do things that they want to do. There will be boring jobs to do and there will be unexpected technological and social changes to deal with. To manage these realities, a participatory system will end up resorting to the same props as the representative one.
There is room for argument about how best to cope with these realities, and whether existing representative systems are up to the job. For my mind, they do cope quite well. But that is not what the point of this discussion is. It is show that a radical reform of institutions will not abolish human nature, moral conflict, social and technological change and other enduring facts of human society. To deny otherwise is a dangerous conceit.