The Politics of a Good Society

by Stephen Shalom, Alex Doherty

Stephen R. Shalom is a professor of political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His books include Which Side Are You On?: An Introduction to Politics and Imperial Alibis: Rationalizing U.S. Intervention After the Cold War. He spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty about the political vision he has developed, known as Participatory Politics, or Parpolity.

1. Could you briefly outline for us what Parpolity is?

Parpolity is a proposed model for a political system of a good society. It is a type of direct democracy, using a system of nested councils. Everyone would be a member of a primary council, which would be small enough for face-to-face decision making and for real deliberation. Decisions that affected only or overwhelmingly the members of one of these councils, would be made in that council. Decisions that affected more than the people in a single council would be made in a higher-level council that would consist of delegates from several lower-level councils. There would then be additional council layers as needed to accommodate the entire society.

The higher-level councils would only vote on matters that were relatively non-controversial. Whenever a vote was close (or when enough lower councils so requested), the matter would be returned to the primary councils for a decision.

Why not send all issues back to the primary-level councils for a vote? There simply wouldn’t be the time or the interest to deal with every issue this way. By sending back only contentious issues, we have a check on abuse of power or mis-representation by the delegates to the higher-level councils. But to send everything back would simply be a waste of time.

There are other aspects of the Parpolity model—such as the High Council Court, a mechanism that attempts to protect the rights of minorities without (like the US Supreme Court) becoming an instrument of minority rule. For more details, you can check out my articles….

2. How did you develop Parpolity? What are its intellectual roots?

I had read and been impressed by the model of a participatory economic system—parecon—developed by my friends Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. It seemed to me that parecon persuasively addressed many of the significant weaknesses in other economic models I had encountered, but its political structures and institutions struck me as inadequately formulated. So I began thinking about what sort of political system would be compatible with and further the realization of the goals of parecon. (And thus the rather inelegant term “Parpolity” to be the political complement to parecon.) I wrote up and presented the model a bunch of times and received much useful feedback, leading to various refinements.

The Parpolity model draws on my many years experience working in social change movements and my reading of political history and political theory, as well as looking at contemporary political experiments. It’s hard to sort out where any particular idea came from, but I have been influenced by the work of left anarchists (Murray Bookchin, Daniel Guerin, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman), anarchosyndicalists (Rudolf Rocker), libertarian Marxists (Cornelius Castoriadis, Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekeok, the early Marx), New Left theorists (Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Benello and Roussopoulos), advocates of deliberative democracy (Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson), analysts of some current initiatives, such as cooperatives in Kerala (Richard Franke) or participatory budgeting in Puerto Alegre, and other writers, some of whose politics I may not share but all of whom have grappled with the questions of political vision, workers’ control, and democracy (Jane Mansbridge, Carole Pateman, Robert Dahl, Armatya Sen, Ken Coates, Paul Goodman, Andre Gorz).

3. Why do we need a vision of a better polity?

This is really two questions in one: first, why do we need vision at all, and, second, why do we need a political vision?

I think the main reason we need vision generally is that the most persuasive argument for the current social order is that there is no alternative. While vulgar capitalist ideologues might try to sing the praises of the status quo, more sophisticated defenders of the existing system simply argue that there’s nothing better. So if we want to convince people to join us in struggling for a better world, we need to be able to make the case that a better world is indeed possible.

Now of course people are rightly fearful of grand plans of social engineering as carried out by Stalin or Pol Pot; but trying to think about future possibilities does not inevitably lead to the Gulag. To be sure, it would be elitist and downright dictatorial for a few to impose their vision on others. But thinking and discussing is not imposing anything on anyone. It’s starting a conversation, the exact opposite of dictatorial imposition.

Why political vision? There have been various approaches on the left regarding how to envision politics “after the revolution.” Many of these approaches, in my view, have been seriously flawed. Let me briefly summarize these, of course acknowledging that I am simplifying complex intellectual traditions.

For moderate social democrats, there was no need to think about a future politics because the current political system was deemed to be just fine; all that was needed was some better decisions on social welfare programs and the like to give us a good society.

For Leninists the goal was to create a society that served the objective interests of the working class, not its perceived interests, not what the working class with its false consciousness believed to be its interests. So the vanguard—with their true revolutionary consciousness—often had to impose their will on the ignorant population. This led to dictatorial practices and, not surprisingly, to a disinterest in thinking about political vision.

For many crude Marxists, for whom the economy was the base determining everything, and all else was superstructure, addressing the question of political institutions after the revolution was irrelevant, because if the economy changed, the polity would perforce change correspondingly.

Some anarchists interpret the goal of abolishing the state as meaning that in a good society there cannot be collective decisions, for these will necessarily impose the will of the majority upon free individuals. For those who take this view, politics—and hence political vision—is irrelevant.

To my mind, current political institutions need to be transcended (not dismissed as “bourgeois civil liberties”, but nor treated as having achieved a state of perfection). A good political system must allow people control over their own lives—so subordination to a Leninist vanguard must be rejected. It can’t be assumed that once class conflict is abolished, all political issues disappear. Sexism, racism, and heterosexism are not simply functions of class relations; and it would foolish to assume that issues such as abortion, compensatory justice, animal rights, and the rights of future generations will no longer vex us after the revolution. And while individual liberty is a strong value, it cannot totally trump concern for others and for bonds of social solidarity.

4. What is wrong with representative democracy?

Representative democracy has several serious defects.

First, it treats politics as strictly instrumental—that is, as a means to an end, instead of a value in its own right. Now of course politics is in part a means—it’s a way to achieve certain goals. But it’s also the case that political participation is intrinsically worthwhile: it gives people the experience of controlling their own lives. The more that the task of thinking about how we can collectively manage our lives is delegated to others, the less knowledgeable we become regarding our society and the weaker our ties of solidarity to our fellow citizens.

A second problem with representative democracy is that representatives for many reasons don’t in fact represent their constituents. Representatives say one thing to get elected and then change their positions once in office. They have no real connection to the hundreds of thousands of people they represent. Their different life circumstances lead them to develop different interests from those of their constituents.

Now it’s true that we could mandate representatives to keep their campaign promises. But what happens when circumstances change? Do we want representatives to be required to carry out policies that new developments have made inappropriate or even harmful? Alternatively, we could mandate all representatives to follow the evolving wishes of their constituents as reflected in public opinion polls. But if we do this, then the representatives are rendered technically irrelevant. There is no need for representatives to study or debate the issues because it doesn’t matter what they think. All that matters is that they vote according to their constituents’ stated wishes. In short, mandated representatives could simply be replaced by a computer that compiles the opinions of the people and then votes accordingly. But this is really nothing more than a system of direct (referendum) democracy, which has problems of its own. So if representatives are mandated, they are irrelevant, and if they are not mandated then they will often not be truly representative of their constituents.

Advocates of representative democracy do make some legitimate arguments, however. They claim that it would take too much time for everyone to decide everything. This point is often exaggerated—people’s tolerance for meetings, for example, cannot be judged by their reaction to meaningless meetings today where most individuals 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. But though we’ll want a lesser degree of participation than that favored by political fanatics, this is not an argument against institutionalizing substantially more political participation than is experienced by most citizens of capitalist democracies.

A second argument on behalf of representative democracy is that 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. This is a valid point, one which any alternative to representative democracy needs to take into account.

5. It is commonly claimed that human nature militates against running society in a democratic cooperative manner - what is your view?

Human nature is a controversial concept. Some argue that there’s no such thing: people are simply and totally the products of their environments. Some leftists are drawn to this view (for it’s an argument to change the social conditions that promote inequality), and certainly it’s true that much of the horrible behavior we see in the world is not a reflection of human nature, but of the deprived circumstances within which people are forced to live. But it’s a mistake, I think, to conclude that people are wholly the products of their environments. If they were, then we would have no basis for criticizing a society that molded people to adapt to and approve of horrible inequality and authoritarianism. What would be wrong with Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are created in test tubes to fill different slots in a rigidly hierarchical world and conditioned from birth to be happy in their assigned role. But we are repulsed by Brave New World because we believe that there is something uniquely human—some spirit, some creativity—that has been stamped out in Huxley’s depiction. What this means is that there are some characteristics that we all recognize as making us human, independent of environmental conditioning.

What are these characteristics? People care about other human beings. They want to control their own destinies. They want to express themselves through their work.

To say that people care about one another is not to claim that we are all selfless individuals, ready to sacrifice our lives for those of strangers. What it does mean is that most of us—even though we have been raised in societies that encourage selfishness—are not indifferent to the suffering of others. It pains us to see the pain of other people. It pleases us to see that pain relieved. Some point to the “survival of the fittest” in the animal kingdom as proof that our evolutionary heritage consigns us to lives of ruthless competition. But more than 80 years ago the anarchist philosopher Petr Kropotkin described the existence of cooperation in nature. And in recent years, natural scientists and social scientists have shown the inadequacy of theories based solely on self-interest and how cooperation emerges naturally in many different sorts of situations.

The socialist claim that people might enjoy work might seem preposterous, given that most people we know spend the bulk of their time looking for ways to get out of work or at least to go on vacation. But what people are avoiding is alienated labor, not work. Alienated labor is labor done for someone else, where you have no say over what you do or the pace at which you do it, and no opportunity to take pride in your work or express your creativity. Capitalism is predicated on the notion that money is what motivates people to work. But such a view is inconsistent with actual human psychology. More than 60 percent of U.S. respondents said they would keep working if they won $1 million in the lottery; eight out of ten said they’d still work if they inherited enough money to live comfortably.

If we had social arrangements where our interests more or less coincided, rather than being counterposed to one another as they are under capitalism, it would be shocking if there were many people so anti-social that they would refuse to cooperate with others when doing so would harm themselves.

6. What has been the impact of Parpolity? How has it been received by the left?

The Parpolity model has been available online for several years now, and I’ve presented it in various venues (the World Social Forum in Puerto Alegre in 2003; the Life After Capitalism conference in New York in 2004; the Z Media Institute, several times; the Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 2005; and the Left Forum in New York in 2007, among others).

The reception has been mixed. Some on the left have objected to any attempt to envision a future society as inherently authoritarian. Among those who agree that thinking about vision is an appropriate undertaking, some have felt I gave an inadequate role for representative institutions. Others took issue with my support for voting by majority rule, believing that all decisions should be made by consensus. (I think that consensus should be the aim, but believe that there will be times when consensus is impossible and just as the conscientious views of a minority must be given due consideration, so too must the conscientious view of the majority. To require a consensus decision, in my view, is to give too much power to the minority.) Others have endorsed the model.

But the impact of a proposal is not whether it is adopted by everyone, but whether it informs discussions, whether people revise it, whether people absorb aspects of it into their own models. More simply, a proposal has an impact if it gets people to spend a little more time thinking about our vision of what kind of future we want.

7. Have any movements incorporated Parpolity into their programmes? Is there a “Parpolity movement”?

There are two ways that a movement could incorporate Parpolity into its programme. First, the programme could include a general vision of the future, the political component of which is Parpolity. Second, the movement could use some aspects of the Parpolity model in its current structure.

No movement has done the former, but Parpolity is one of the major proposals that is part of the Reimagining Society Project sponsored by Z Communications, and, as such, has a considerable number of supporters.

Regarding the latter, to my knowledge, no organization uses the Parpolity structure, and, indeed, it might be difficult to do so without a fundamental social transformation. In general I believe that we should try to prefigure today as many of our future values and institutions as we can, but it is not always possible.

There are many organizations that have chapters, each of which sends a delegate to a larger body where decisions are made. These organizations may assume that this nested council structure means they are following the Parpolity model, but they typically don’t incorporate the other aspects of the model and thus are actually setting up a system of indirect elections—which has serious defects from the point of view of democracy—rather than Parpolity. Indirect elections attenuate democracy and popular control (which is why the US Constitution originally provided for the indirect election of Senators—to prevent too much popular control). Parpolity has various mechanisms to ensure that the will of the people actually emerges, the most important of which is that a petition signed by a given number of people or primary councils can always assure that an issue is returned to the primary level councils (of which every citizen is a member) for a vote. (The petitions, of course, would be electronic, and the number of signatures needed relatively small.) Additionally, a higher level council will send an issue to the primary level for decision whenever the issue is contentious and at all close. (For more details on this, see my article, “Parpolity and Indirect Elections,” ZNet, July 16, 2009, http://www.zcommunications.org/parpolity-and-indirect-elections-by-stephen1-shalom) Alth.ough in principle this model could be realized today, there may be many obstacles that make it hard to achieve in practice under existing conditions.

Of course, even if one can’t embody the full Parpolity model in organizations under current conditions, any decent movement for social change will give the highest priority to democracy and transparency.

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First published: 31 March, 2010

Category: Vision/Strategy

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