Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Pitfalls of Antidemocratic Radicalism

Democracy, such as it exists, has given us some pretty lousy outcomes over the past few years: Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US (though, to be fair, he lost the popular vote) and the decisive victory of fascist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It's not surprising, then, that a discussion about the merits and drawbacks of democracy itself should emerge; for some, though, skepticism of democracy goes deeper than any reaction against current events. As someone who spends a lot of time immersed in Left/Anarchist Twitter, I've noticed a certain contingent of radicals--all of them anarchists, in my experience--have a pretty deep ideological opposition to democracy that no doubt predates, in many cases, the disheartening events of 2016. Take, for example, William Gillis, an anarchist writer who has contributed articles to the website of the Center for a Stateless Society (a self-described "left market anarchist think tank & media center"):
Antidemocratic sentiment is certainly nothing new among anarchists (though I don't want to paint all anarchists with the same brush; some are strongly in favor of democracy). Take the ultra-individualist philosopher Max Stirner, an influence on many anarchists, who huffed, "Liberty of the people is not my liberty!" Democracy, likewise, had little place in the thought of market anarchists like Benjamin Tucker, who envisioned a society where the radically free and unregulated exchange of goods and services would replace any form of government. Even the anarcho-communist Oscar Wilde, in his mostly very insightful essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," describes democracy as "simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people."

Market anarchist Benjamin Tucker
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The rationale is plain enough. Anarchists oppose all enforced authority, so the idea that a majority of voters should be able to impose their will on everyone else is inherently offensive to many of them. While they may find it preferable to rule by a monarch or an oligarchy, rule by the people is still rule, which is the problem.

Anarchists, of course, let alone this specific specific subset thereof, do not exactly constitute a formidable political force in the US or many other places. But as someone who's decidedly on the far left of the political spectrum, I feel a certain obligation to respond to arguments like these when they come from my fellow radicals and anticapitalists. And in times like these, it seems worryingly possible that antidemocratic sentiment could spread beyond the usual suspects.

Let me first lay out my areas of agreement with these antidemocrats: first of all, as virtually everyone will agree, there are certain individual rights and personal liberties that democracy should not restrict. Policies like censorship, racial segregation, oppression of minorities, etc. are not legitimate just because they are enacted democratically. The fact that a rule or policy has been approved by a majority of voters or legislators certainly doesn't make it good or even morally binding; civil disobedience against laws that enjoy even overwhelming popular support can still be entirely justified.

Secondly, there is certainly ample reason to be concerned about what decisions voters may make in a democratic system. The examples I mentioned earlier are a good illustration of what I mean. In many parts of the world, prejudice against LGBTQ+ people, religious and ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups runs rampant. Certainly, there's no reason to think that the people will always (or even nearly always) make good or just decisions if you give them power.

But, while far from guaranteed to always produce positive outcomes, democracy ultimately remains the best option. To see why, it helps to delve into specifics. Take market anarchism, for example. Essentially, a market anarchist society would be organized on the basis of one Great Commandment: Thou shalt not commit aggression against another person or their property. This is the only rule, and as long as you respect it you're free to do as you wish. Enforcement of this one and only rule shall be entrusted to private security companies that will replace police forces, private courts that will replace government courts, and perhaps private prisons that will replace government-owned prisons (or government-funded private prisons, as the case may be).

By this point, most people will have already written all of this off as totally ridiculous and unfeasible, perhaps unfairly so. But let's examine the problems. The rules are meaningless if we don't look at who enforces them. Being private companies, the security forces, courts and prisons will be looking to make as much money as possible, so naturally they will enforce the rules in whatever way makes them the most money--even if this means not actually enforcing the rules at all, or enforcing rules that don't actually exist.

Let's take a concrete example. Say I have a dispute with a big company. In fairness, left-wing market anarchists argue that by getting rid of state-enforced privileges for businesses (corporate personhood, subsidies, etc.) their system will ensure companies tend to be worker-owned and -managed, rather than the cold-hearted corporate behemoths we currently have. But nonetheless, this is a company that makes a lot of money. The company and I take our dispute to a court to which we both voluntarily pay a monthly subscription fee. The judge at this court realizes that if I lose, I might decide to stop paying my fee to the court, meaning they lose a small amount of money. However, if he rules against the company I'm suing, all of the employees of that company might stop paying their fees, costing the court a lot more money. Even if I sue and win, who will enforce the court's decision? The same conflict of interest will exist for whoever's job it is. In short, whoever has the money has the power. Granted, wealth may be distributed more equally than it currently is, but inequalities will exist. Things may be a lot more complicated than in my example, but the general principle still stands. Since the courts and security forces have no democratic accountability, they have no need to worry about pissing off the majority of the population by faithfully serving the interests of the richer people in the community. So essentially we have minority rule. This is, granted, a worse-case scenario, but not a totally unrealistic one.

But the problems aren't confined to market anarchism. Let's shift in the other direction entirely, to anarcho-communism, which generally imagines voluntary communities run on the principle "to each according to their ability, from each according to their needs." Obviously, conflicts may emerge in deciding who needs what; perhaps a workers' cooperative finds it convenient to dump waste in a nearby lake that other members of the community would prefer to use for fishing, swimming, drinking water, etc. Some anarcho-communists (and other social anarchists) would advocate problems like these be solved by consensus, rather than by majority vote; but libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin makes (in my view) a compelling counterargument, based on personal experience:
In order for [a] clique to create full consensus on a decision, minority dissenters were often subtly urged or psychologically coerced to decline to vote on a troubling issue, inasmuch as their dissent would essentially amount to a one-person veto. This practice, called "standing aside" in American consensus processes, all too often involved intimidation of the dissenters, to the point that they completely withdrew from the decision-making process, rather than make an honorable and continuing expression of their dissent by voting, even as a minority, in accordance with their views. Having withdrawn, they ceased to be political beings -- so that a "decision" could be made. More than one "decision" in the Clamshell Alliance [a consensus-based anti-nuclear group] was made by pressuring dissenters into silence and, through a chain of such intimidations, "consensus" was ultimately achieved only after dissenting members nullified themselves as participants in the process.
Even if this doesn't happen, suppose a consensus can't be reached; how is a conundrum like the one I mentioned above to be resolved? Which is the "default" option that should take effect if no other agreement can be made? Similar problems emerge if we consider conflicts (such as land disputes) that occur between two or more communities. Of course, there may be rules in place for this very purpose; perhaps disputes of this sort, where consensus can't be reached, will be decided by the flip of a coin, or by a randomly selected jury. But if the result of such arbitration processes is an outcome that, say, 80% of the people affected disapprove of, is that really preferable to simply putting the question up for a referendum?

The point here is that these antidemocratic variants of anarchism do not live up to their pretensions of eschewing majority rule in favor of abolishing rule altogether; rather, rule still effectively exists, and--worse--in many cases it may be the minority that that sees its will imposed on the majority, not vice versa.

Furthermore, while I've been staying strictly in the economic realm for my examples, pressing questions arise if we go outside the realm of economics. Of course, most anarchists are in favor of a great deal more personal liberty than currently exists, supporting the removal of prohibitions on drug possession, polygamy and other victimless crimes (I generally agree with them on this issue). However, it does seem that there should be some restrictions on personal behavior. For instance, prohibitions on child abuse, animal cruelty, etc. seem desirable to me--but how will these prohibitions come about under non-democratic anarchism? Young children and animals can't exactly participate in any sort of court or arbitration system, after all. One response is that these restrictions won't exist, and shouldn't; Benjamin Tucker believed that mothers should own their children as property until the child comes of age, and that if a mother, for instance, wanted to throw her baby into the fire, that would be entirely her right. I don't think most anarchists--let alone many non-anarchists--would agree with this approach.

So, then, it seems there should be some restrictions on private behavior; but who will decide what is and isn't permissible? Are we to leave that question to the courts (or whatever replaces courts)? If they're not selected through a democratic process, then once again we have minority rule. If they are, then we just have more awkward, roundabout version of democracy.

While we're at it, we might as well address proposed forms of government that are both non-democratic and non-anarchist. Monarchies and dictatorships don't have much widespread appeal, at least among those in countries that are already liberal democracies, but proposals like "technocracy"--the idea that that government should be made up of various experts, each managing affairs in their particular field of expertise--may inspire some interest (I personally used to be very interested in it, myself). But a very persuasive argument against technocracy comes from, interestingly enough, anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:
Suppose a learned academy, composed of the most illustrious representatives of science; suppose this academy charged with legislation for and the organization of society, and that, inspired only by the purest love of truth, it frames none but laws in absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science. Well, I maintain, for my part, that such legislation and such organization would be a monstrosity, and that for two reasons: first, that human science is always and necessarily imperfect, and that, comparing what it has discovered with what remains to be discovered, we may say that it is still in its cradle. So that were we to try to force the practical life of men, collective as well as individual, into strict and exclusive conformity with the latest data of science, we should condemn society as well as individuals to suffer martyrdom on a bed of Procrustes, which would soon end by dislocating and stifling them, life ever remaining an infinitely greater thing than science.
The second reason is this: a society which should obey legislation emanating from a scientific academy, not because it understood itself the rational character of this legislation (in which case the existence of the academy would become useless), but because this legislation, emanating from the academy, was imposed in the name of a science which it venerated without comprehending - such a society would be a society, not of men, but of brutes. It would be a second edition of those missions in Paraguay which submitted so long to the government of the Jesuits. It would surely and rapidly descend to the lowest stage of idiocy.
We also have to wonder what incentive the technocrats have to care about the well-being of people they're ruling over. That's the genius of democracy: the average person may not always know what's best for them, but they at least care. That's a far better place to start than putting people in power who do know, but have no reason to care.

The same holds true of the idea of "epistocracy," which has recently been pushed by Georgetown professor Jason Brennan. While I can't say I've read his book "Against Democracy," I have read his own summaries of his proposals, and they're irredeemable enough that it's safe to say no book can save them. For instance:
An epistocracy might give everyone one vote, then grant extra votes to citizens who pass a test of basic political knowledge (such as the citizenship exam). Or it might grant the right to vote only to citizens who pass such a test.  Or it might instead hold an "enfranchisement lottery": Immediately before an election, choose 10,000 citizens at random, and then those citizens, and only those, are permitted to vote, but only if they first complete a competence-building exercise.
Or, an epistocracy might govern through what I call a "simulated oracle." In this system, every citizen may vote and express his or her policy preferences through public polls. Citizens would not only be asked which candidates they support, but also which policies they support. When citizens vote, we would require them to take a test of basic political knowledge (such as which party controls Congress or what the unemployment rate is) and disclose their demographic information.
Having collected this information — who citizens are, what they want and what they know — any statistician then could calculate the public's "enlightened preferences," that is, what a demographically identical voting population would support if only it were better informed. An epistocracy might then instantiate the public's enlightened preferences rather than their actual, unenlightened preferences.
 Again, while knowing basic facts about politics, economy, etc., is important for governing well, it's in no way sufficient. The least informed, most ignorant voters may be that way because they have the least formal education and the least opportunity to learn about politics (for instance, if they're working three jobs to pay their bills). Disenfranchising the poor seems like a bad way to make society a better place.

But it's only fair that, having pointed out all the flaws I perceive in non-democratic systems of social organization, I address the problems with democracy. After all, voters have their own prejudices, and many of them may be ignorant or simply unconcerned with the problems other people face in society. Isn't majoritarian democracy a threat to the rights of marginalized groups that make up only a minority of voters? In a mostly white country like the US, can't it simply be used to enforce white supremacy on racial minorities (as it certainly has been and continues to be)? Given that most people in the world are straight and cisgender, doesn't that mean democracy can be (and often is) a disaster for LGBTQ+ people?

Well, yes. But democracy (if it's true democracy) does at least offer the most vulnerable groups the ability to participate in the political process and to have their votes count as much as the members of the dominant, privileged groups in society. And, ultimately, I think the best way to deal with problems like bigotry or ignorance isn't to disenfranchise the ignorant or bigoted, but to try to change their minds. Over the last few decades in the US, we've seen a major shift in attitudes towards gay people and gay rights. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s managed to get landmark civil rights legislation passed democratically. Popular movements can have a profound impact on public attitudes and are the essence of democracy, rather than a threat to it.

Additionally, we have to keep in mind that some of the worst decisions voters have made recently--Trump, Bolsonaro, Brexit--might have a lot to do with how disempowered many of those voters may feel. When you feel like the political system is rigged against you (not without reason), it can be tempting to just throw a monkey wrench in the system by voting for someone or something that promises to throw it all into chaos. In a truly, radically democratic society, those feelings of resentment would presumably fade as people become more empowered and involved in politics--and when you can be sure your vote really matters, you have more of an incentive to take the time and learn about the issues. Making it so the media isn't dominated by corporations who have little interest in actually educating the public might also help a little bit.

This post is already pretty long, but I do want to briefly note for the sake of thoroughness that I'm also pretty skeptical of the limits on democracy that exist in the US and other liberal democracies, judicial review being an obvious one. Given that the Supreme Court recently gave us the enormously unpopular and detrimental Citizen United decision (eliminating limits on corporate spending in political campaigns) and that two out of the nine justices on the court are now men who have been plausibly accused of sexual misconduct, I'm not sure I really want it to have the power to override the will of the people. I realize you can point to positive, landmark decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and Obergefell v. Hodges, but polling done after Brown found that most Americans supported the decision (55% to 40%) and a clear majority of Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage before the Obergefell decision was even handed down. Maybe putting issues like these up for a national referendum could be a more democratic (and overall better) alternative?

Judicial review, however, is actually a much more modest limit on democracy than the system of "representative democracy" itself is, since it puts power in the hands of "elected representatives" rather than the people themselves. The idea that those representatives will govern more wisely or justly than their constituents would is belied by the fact that policies like Medicare-for-All and free college enjoy widespread popular support but have as much chance of getting through congress as a resolution honoring the memory of Pol Pot. Obviously, a country of over 300 million can't function as an Athenian-style direct democracy--but we could make it so the members of the legislature can be recalled and that laws can be passed or repealed through initiative and referendum.

So what we need to demand in  light of all that's happened recently is not less democracy, but more. Certainly, like every other system of government, democracy isn't perfect and does not guarantee perfect results. There will be unjust and even downright stupid policies and rules adopted under a democratic system, but restrictions on democracy--including the ones we take for granted--have a dubious record at best. Radicalism and reform movements should at least start by learning from the mistakes of the past; any movements that don't set out with the goal to expand democracy have failed to do that and only serve as dead-ends in a time where real reform is desperately needed.

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