Scaling Up: Ideas about Participatory Democracy

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A common objection against participatory democracy is that, yes, it is a beautiful idea, but it can only work at the local level, like the neighborhood, the small town or the village. Our modern world is too complex, too global and interconnected – and we are simply too many people – to be able to rule our lives by means of some directly democratic institutions.

It is not only in everyday talk one hears this objection. Academics from the German sociologist Max Weber to the political philosopher Robert Dahl have maintained a similar argumentation. Consult almost any political science textbook and it will tell you the same: Participatory democracy on a big scale? That’s impossible!

Advocates of participatory democracy, however, maintain that not only is it possible to organize this form of democracy on a large scale, but it is basically no point of being able to participate in politics if you cannot involve yourself with the big issues – and not only where to put up a lamppost or which street to pave. In this text I will give an overview of the ideas of three thinkers who argue that participatory democracy can be scaled up to encompass thousands and even millions of people.

The Municipal Confederalism of Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) regards the objection that participatory democracy is impossible in a modern, big city and global world as a capitulation to the established economic and political order. “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist,” he writes in The Meaning of Confederalism, “is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.”

Bookchin both questions the necessity of people living in mega-cities with centralized administrative institutions, and that the extreme international division of labor is indispensable to satisfy human needs. Rhetorically he asks: “Are we to ignore the ecological consequences of plundering the Third World of its resources, insanely interlocking modern economic life with petroleum-rich areas whose ultimate products include air pollutants and petroleum-derived carcinogens? To ignore the fact that our ‘global economy’ is the result of burgeoning industrial bureaucracies and a competitive grow-or-die market economy is incredibly myopic.”

In Bookchin’s participatory democratic alternative, popular assemblies at the municipal level (or sub-municipal level in larger cities) should play the central political role. Bookchin is very well-aware of the dangers of the parochialism of small, autonomous communities, and emphasizes that communities will be highly dependent on each other if they are to obtain a certain decent living-standard. At the same time he maintains that any larger scale apparatus built on top of democratic assemblies should be devised in such a way that power flow from the bottom-up and not the other way around.

Bookchin finds such a devise in confederalism. In his view, confederalism is “a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities”. According to Bookchin, a confederation is “a medium for interaction, collaboration, and mutual aid among its municipal components” and is the only realistic “alternative to the powerful nation-state on the one hand and the parochial town or city on the other.”

Image: Murray Bookchin refers to historical confederations like the one that was established in the Comuneros revolt in Spain 1520-21. This work by Manuel Picolo López depicts the Battle of Villalar where three important rebel leaders were captured and later executed.

In order to prevent confederations from becoming conventional states based on a top-down power structure, they have to follow certain principles. The first is that delegates elected to confederal councils have to be strictly mandated, recallable and responsible to the assemblies that choose them. Second, a division between policy-making and administration has to be applied. For Bookchin, “policy making is exclusively the right of popular community assemblies based on the practices of participatory democracy. Administration and coordination are the responsibility of confederal councils.” Bookchin exemplifies this distinction with the difference in between constructing a road (administration) and to decide whether a road should be built or not (policy-making):

“For a community to decide in a participatory manner what specific course of action it should take in dealing with a technical problem does not oblige all its citizens to execute that policy. The decision to build a road, for example, does not mean that everyone must know how to design and construct one. That is a job for engineers, who can offer alternative designs — a very important political function of experts, to be sure, but one whose soundness the people in an assembly can be free to decide. To design and construct a road is strictly an administrative responsibility, albeit one that is always open to public scrutiny. If the distinction between policy making and administration is kept clearly in mind, the role of popular assemblies and the people who administer their decisions easily distinguishes logistical problems from political ones.” (from The Meaning of Confederalism)

It is worth noting that Bookchin does not talk about changing only one aspect of the political system – like making elected representatives more accountable to ordinary citizens – but a whole package of alternatives which cannot be seen as isolated from each other. Bookchin believes, for example, that confederalism cannot work without placing farms, factories and other needed enterprises in municipal and confederal hands. In other words, it is true that participatory democracy cannot work on a large scale in today’s ‘modern world,’ but for Bookchin, this means that we have to change in a more community-oriented, deliberative, egalitarian and ecological direction in order to realize a bottom-up democracy.

Bookchin writes within the anarchist tradition and partly takes his ideas from thinkers such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. However, he diverges from the anarchist version of confederalism on several points.

He rejects the idea that democratic municipalities should be able freely associate and disassociate with each other, and say that such a liberty would cause major problems for a confederated political system: “A unilateral choice to leave the federation, after all, would undermine the entire federation itself. We no longer live in an artisanal and craft world. Imagine if the electrical complex in upstate New York ‘autonomously’ decided to pull out of a confederation with the Vermont electrical complex because it was piqued by Vermont’s behavior.”

Another point of difference is that Bookchin, unlike the anarchists, thinks that a confederation has to be a stable system of government with constitutions, laws and regulations that specifies the rights and duties of its members.

Still, what he maintains from anarchism is the notion of mandated delegation – the notion that elected delegates should not be representatives of people’s views and preferences (as in representative parliaments), but that they should be instructed on how to vote and act by the ones who elected them. This has been criticized from many sides. In 1872 Friedrich Engels sarcastically remarked that “if all electors gave their delegates imperative mandates concerning all points on the agenda, meetings and debates of the delegates would be superfluous. It would be sufficient to send the mandates to a central counting office which would count up the votes and announce the results. This would be much cheaper.” 

In today’s world the function intended for mandated delegates could be easily solved on the internet. Even though Bookchin seems to intend only executive functions for elected delegates, the notion of mandated delegation or the strict distinction between policy-making and administration does not solve one of the essential problems of representation: how to discuss and make decisions that concerns millions of people without involving everyone in endless discussions of every aspect of those decisions.

Read more articles by Murray Bookchin on the New Compass website: The Communalist Project, Toward a Communalist Approach, Anarchism, Power and Government and more.

The Strong Democracy of Benjamin Barber

Town Meeting is a type of directly democratic municipal governance that can be found in various parts of the U.S., and especially in the area called New England. Benjamin Barber (1939- ) is one of many who have found inspiration in town meetings for their model of participatory democracy. In his book on Strong Democracy, Barber argues for the introduction of a national system of neighborhood assemblies in every rural, suburban and urban district in America.

In the beginning, such assemblies will be used as discussion forums, but in time they should become repositories for real decision-making over local, regional and national issues:

Initially, “citizens could examine different legislative positions in detail, assess the local impact of regional and national bills, explore ideological stances in the absence of pressures from special-interest groups, and introduce new questions of interest to the neighborhood that are not on any local or regional agendas. Finally, the neighborhood assembly would offer an accessible forum for the venting of grievances, the airing of local disputes, and the defense of neighborhood interests. It could this serve as a kind of institutional ombudsman for the individual and the community. […] In their second phase of development, neighborhood assemblies would become voting constituencies for regional and national referenda and possibly act as community units in systems of civic telecommunications [this was written before the internet!]. They might also come to act — town-meeting style — as local legislative assemblies for those neighborhood statutes over which the locality had jurisdictional competence.” (Strong Democracy, p. 271)

Like Bookchin, Barber faces the challenge on how to scale up the direct democracy of these local assemblies, and like Bookchin he challenges the assumption that scale necessarily implies the impossibility of mass popular participation. Rather than absolute, Barber sees scale as something elastic that is susceptible to technological and institutional melioration. Since scale basically is about the ability to communicate across distances, it becomes a “tractable challenge rather than an insuperable barrier.” At the time of the publication of Strong Democracy, Barber saw interactive television as a potential technological solution to the scale challenge. Today the internet is a much more powerful tool to facilitate interactive communication and decision-making involving vast numbers of people.

There are also institutional remedies to the scale challenge, and here Barber most closely approximates a confederal outlook on democracy: “A half-million souls whose commonality is defined only by a single vertical tie to a central organization will probably feel more estranged by scale than would several million whose commonality is filtered through several levels of organization where ties are lateral and where participation is initially ‘local.’ Decentralization, federalism, and other cellular social constructions […] treat community as a collection of communities” (Strong Democracy, p. 248).

Image: Benjamin Barber believes that a town meeting democracy has to lay at the foundation of a large-scale democracy. This work entitled 'Freedom of Speech' by Norman Rockwell depicts a scene of a local town meeting where a lone dissenter expresses his opinions.

According to Barber, solving the scale challenge involves making representation more democratic. One way to do this is to ensure that neighborhood assemblies is the central place for holding political representatives accountable:  “[This] would shift some of this responsibility directly to the citizenry, permitting individuals to question their representatives on a regular basis in their own home territory and according to their own rules of procedure. A regular 'question period' like that of the British Parliament would tie elected officials more closely to their constituents and act as a force of civic education for the community at large” (from Strong Democracy, p. 270).

A second device that Barber introduces is election by lot – meaning that political representatives are picked randomly from the population through a lottery. Barber believes that this would neutralize the skewing effect of wealth on public service, spread public responsibilities more equitably across the entire population, and engage a great many more citizens in making and administering policy as office-holders than generally have that opportunity in a representative system. Since nurturing of political judgment does not require that every citizen be involved in all decisions, the lot is a way of maximizing meaningful engagement in large-scale societies.” (Strong Democracy, p. 291)

It is important for Barber that the principle of lot is coupled with the principle of rotation: “In order that as many citizens as possible could experience holding office, individual citizens would be limited to one period of tenure in one office for a limited time and would then be removed from the pool until some specified percentage of their fellow citizens had been able to serve” (Strong Democracy, pp. 292-293).

Video: Benjamin Barber has recently argued for a world confederation of cities through a global mayors’ parliament. In this short lecture he explains why he thinks that cities, and not states, should rule the world.

It is worth noting that Barber does not advocate a ‘pure’ participatory democracy like Bookchin or Stephen Shalom (see below), but rather a marriage of strong and liberal democracy – a mixed participatory democracy, to put it differently, where state and local institutions are balanced against each other. His solution to the scale problem is therefore only partial, even though he does not concede that state federal institutions are necessary or unavoidable. It seems more like a question of strategy, that he prefers reform and detests the idea of revolution.

Nevertheless, this marriage leaves some important questions unanswered.  What prevents, for example, federal or state institutions from encroaching on powers of local assemblies? Should national representatives be chosen by lot or does this only concern local and regional deputies? What kind of power should be endowed different levels, and how does one avoid the power of local or regional levels of being insignificant in comparison to federal levels? These are conflicts that are bound to arise in the mixed democracy Barber envisions.

Read more about Town Meetings and election by lot on the New Compass website.

The Nested Councils of Stephen Shalom

Stephen Shalom (1948- ) comes from a slightly different tradition than Bookchin and Barber – a libertarian council tradition on the Left that encompasses theorists like Anton Pannekoek and Hannah Arendt. Also, he places himself within the Participatory Economics framework (often referred to as Parecon) developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel.  Shalom basically starts from the premise that capitalism has been abolished and replaced by participatory democracy in the economic sphere. He asks what kind of system we ideally should have to solve political issues that inevitably will arise in a good society, such as  animal rights, pornography, nature conservation, drug legalization, children’s rights, allocation of expensive or scarce medical resources, cloning or euthanasia.

Like the previous thinkers, Shalom favors a participatory form of government, but he is keen to find solutions that can work as we move to larger scales. One of these is time, and the claim by supporters of representative democracy that it would take too much time for everyone to decide everything. Even though Shalom thinks that “this point is often exaggerated — people’s tolerance for meetings, for example, cannot be judged by their reaction to meaningless meetings today where they have no real power — nevertheless, it is true that not everyone has, or ever will have, the same enthusiasm for politics as do political activists. We don’t want a political system that requires everyone to value political participation as much as full-time politicos do today.” 

Another problem is the opportunity for deliberation, which is seriously diminished if ‘everyone’ is to participate:  “[Representative] legislatures are deliberative bodies that debate and negotiate complex resolutions that fairly capture the essence of an issue, whereas the citizenry as a whole would be incapable of such fine tuning. They have to vote a ballot question up or down; they can’t reword or amend, even though we know that the precise wording of a ballot question can often skew the results.”

Image: Stephen Shalom comes from a council tradition on the Left. This had its heyday after the Russian revolution in 1917. In Germany, even architects, painters, sculptors and art writers established their own council – the Arbeitsrat für Kunst – as a response to the workers and soldiers’ councils from the same time period.

Shalom calls his own alternative nested councils. These follow a three-fold logic: 1) Everyone gets to participate in a council that is small enough for face-to-face decision making and deliberation. 2) Decisions should be taken at the level where it only or overwhelmingly affects its members. That means that many decisions can be taken at in the primary councils. 3) Since many decisions affects more people than those of a single council, decision-making have to be coordinated. This means that councils will send delegates to higher councils, which will send delegates to even higher councils and so on. 

Representation is also a central concern of Shalom. However, he is a very critical of the concept of mandated delegation as suggested by Bookchin: “We don’t want to have delegates mandated by their sending councils, for then the higher level councils will not be deliberative bodies. As noted previously, there would be no point to anyone speaking or trying to persuade others, or passionately explaining one’s special concerns, because all the delegates would have zero leeway — they have to vote the way their sending council told them to. This means that no one from council A gets to hear the perspective of people from council B, and there is no possibility of coming to a better position than either A or B alone proposed.”

Rather, Shalom advocates a different form of representation. First there should be an organic connection in between council members and the delegates they elect. The council members know personally the delegates they elect. Delegates have participated in a deliberative process with the council members and understand their sentiments and concerns. They also frequently return to the electing council. In addition, there will have to be installed a series of mechanisms to prevent abuse of power. The most significant of these is that a given number of people or primary councils can demand that an issue is returned to the primary level councils (of which every citizen is a member) for a vote. Higher level councils can also decide to send an issue to the primary level for a renewed discussion. Other mechanism includes the opportunity to immediately recall delegates, rotation, and public records of deliberations and decisions of higher level councils.

Video: In this video Stephen Shalom gives a comprehensive description of his idea of nested councils in a simple language.

But even with these mechanisms installed there are several dangers with a system based on a long series of indirect elections – there could be as many as four to five elected levels of government in between the primary and the highest council. Shalom himself list several such dangers. One is that the opinions and preferences of the population can be distorted when it is filtered through many levels of deliberation. Another is that elected delegates most probably will have a different profile (they will be better skilled, have a higher education, more outgoing etc.) from the regular council members, and that this difference might increase with each level.

Still, I think that Shalom underestimates the seriousness of these problems and overestimates the mechanisms he has proposed. Members of primary councils will have virtually no control over who are elected to the highest council, and there will be no direct means of holding them accountable. This might show to be an insurmountable democratic hurdle. 

Read more about councils in the Kurdish controlled areas of Syria and in Venezuela on the New Compass website.