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August 1982: Notes on the Idea of Direct Democracy Printer Friendly Version

[Prefatory Note, June 2007:   Section 4 below, on Direct Democracy and Anarchism, shows had badly I understood anarchism as late as 1982. Although I had thought that this section reflected my absorption of the Marxist prejudice against, and pejorative characterization of, anarchism, after rereading it just now I realize that it came even more from Robert Paul Wolff's In Defense of Anarchism, the first draft of which I had read in photocopied form in 1969 in the Philosophy Library at Columbia University. It was not until the mid 1980s when I met some real live anarchists, from Workers Solidarity Alliance, that I began to get a firmer grasp of social anarchism, and especially of anarcho-communism.  Section 7 below, on The Location of Councils, shows my continuing commitment to anarcho-syndicalism. I came to radical politics pretty much through council communism. Throughout the 1970s I rejected a focus on community organizing, and for good reason, because most of it was thoroughly  reformist. Nevertheless, my rejection of "a world of autonomous, anarchistic communities" in Section 8, was a mistake. Or rather, it was a position I abandoned, as will be evident to those who read Getting Free. Nevertheless, this essay takes a good stab at fleshing out the meaning of direct democracy. I wrote it in Independence, Missouri, and worked on it off and on that whole summer, right before moving to Boston.]

Notes on the Idea of Direct Democracy

James Herod
Summer 1982


  By direct democracy I mean that structure of power and that organization of human social life outlined in my Draft Constitution of November, 1970. It is perhaps difficult to visualize the proposed arrangement from the constitution itself. A brief description of the main institutions, found at the end of the introduction to that document, will help some. It is a system in which basic policy is set by everyone, through discussion and voting. Everyone is a member of a council where basic policy questions are considered and decided, and this task is defined as part of the work week. Votes are taken within councils but tallied across councils. It is a town meeting writ large. My purpose here however is not to recount details of that work, but to discuss it, answer objections, elaborate on it, air doubts, suggest revisions, consider how it might be achieved, ferret out some of the philosophy behind it, and so forth. It will be necessary therefore for you to study that document first before proceeding with the following notes, otherwise they won't make much sense. Some of the background to the document is explained in my letter to Perry Anderson, which might serve as a kind of introduction to the constitution. I wrote him because of his interest in focusing attention and debate on the ``articulated form'' of communism (see the postscript to his In the Tracks of Historical Materialism).

  I offer these notes only in hopes of stimulating discussion and debate. It would be nice if the idea of direct democracy could be considered along with other alternatives to the present insanity. But I make no pretense that mine is a fully worked out proposal. I only regret that in the years that have passed since I originally conceived the idea I have not managed to ground it more thoroughly. Perhaps there is still time. In any case, and fortunately, a lot of good work is now appearing on the goal of the revolution, being attempts to hammer out the concrete institutional structures of genuine socialism – a task that must be vigorously pursued if there is ever to be any hope of replacing capitalism with a more humane, sane, equal, free, and just society. (I review some of this literature is these notes.)

  I still have many misgivings about this proposal. It is very hard to imagine a single world-wide vote to settle a policy issue, which is the logical end point of the scheme. (And why stop at one planet, or one species, if the operating principle is that no one can be excluded from the vote, assuming that intelligent life will eventually be found elsewhere and that nonhuman sentient creatures on earth will eventually win their rights.) Also, I am still bothered a lot by the Bureau of Dirty Work idea, by majority rule itself, by the endless meetings involved, by the defense arrangements (since defense cannot really be separated from offense), and so forth. The only trouble is, I am even less happy with the other alternatives that are now being aired. Most of them do not add up to genuine democracy, do not fully overcome wage-slavery, or do not eradicate completely enough the dangers of bureaucracy and elitism. And so, for the time being, I will continue on the path I've been on since entering the anti-capitalist struggle.

1. Direct democracy and representative democracy

  Direct democracy is to be distinguished from representative democracy. Democracy means majority rule. Representative democracy is not rule by a majority of the people but only by a majority of the representatives. Democratic processes are thus at work among the representatives themselves but not between the representatives and the people who elected them. Even under the best of circumstances (i.e., even if things were not corrupted by the inequities of wealth), there is no way that a representative system can represent democracy. It is a contradiction in terms. In the act of electing representatives, and delegating authority to them, the population annuls its own authority and silences its own voice.

  The main problem here is not that the persons involved have given up their personal autonomy. Democracy is not a system of autonomous individuals because after all the will of the majority is imposed on the minority. Even representatives, in their parliaments, are not individually autonomous since there are majorities and minorities there as well, on virtually every vote. Everyone cannot be assured of getting their own way, only those who win.

  Rather, the main problem with electing representatives is that it removes those not elected from the discussion of the issues. It leaves them out of the debate and out of the vote to establish a collective will on matters of basic policy. This is what makes a representative system undemocratic, and inevitably so, no matter how elaborate the checks on delegated power or how speedy the recall. Being left out of the debate and out of the process of formulating the options, even the agenda (or especially the agenda), is a very serious thing, which has extensive consequences.

2. Direct democracy and socialism

  Direct democracy also needs to be distinguished from socialism, both in its Marxist-Leninist and in its Democratic Socialist versions (although not from the `true idea' of socialism). Marxism-Leninism, and the political and intellectual joke of `democratic centralism' has never had even a remote connection with democracy. This has been demonstrated so abundantly so many times that I will not waste words on it here. As for Democratic Socialism, its strategy of electing socialist representatives to congress in hopes of transforming the society is obviously irrelevant to direct democracy since direct democracy does away with representatives, at least as far as basic policy is concerned.

  Furthermore, and unfortunately, direct democracy must be distinguished, at least in concrete details, from Marx's own image of socialism. Although most of the philosophical underpinnings of genuine democracy and genuine freedom pervade Marx's work, he failed to deal concretely with the structure of power in a communist society, even backing away explicitly in places from any detailed discussion, saying that it was premature. This was most unfortunate. The struggle against wage-slavery would undoubtedly have been a lot more successful than it has been during the past century if Marx had established a firm, consistent position on the exercise of political power. As it is, you can read him at times as an authoritarian, at times as a bourgeois democrat (i.e., as favoring representatives – although hardly anyone did more to expose `bourgeois democracy' for the sham democracy it is), and at times, more rarely, and mostly in principle only, as a believer in direct democracy. Perhaps what it amounts to is that Marx did not see a contradiction between his view of communism as ``an association of free and equal producers'' and a representative system. He evidently felt that if you eliminated capital and wage-slavery and hence class and economic exploitation, that this would take care of the political problems because representatives then would not be oppressive tools of the ruling class but would be instruments of the people. In one of his essays on Bakunin he states that every little village in Russia has its representatives, just as does every association of workers, and he scoffs at the idea that freedom and communism have anything to fear from representatives once economic exploitation has been overthrown. Now, one hundred years later, it is possible to see that we have a lot to fear from representatives.

  I believe that direct democracy is the only organization of power that is truly compatible with socialism defined as ``an association of free and equal producers.'' Just about everything else has been tried, and we have learned all too painfully that wage-slavery rumbles on. Communism, as it is now practiced throughout the world, is merely capitalism all over again in a still worse version. And the Democratic Socialist parties which have come to power in several European countries have not abolished capitalism either. This cannot be explained by saying that these socialists are reformists. Their failure was inherent in the very strategy itself and in their conception of the goal. They could not have overthrown the system from the halls of parliament even if they had wanted to and had tried to, and of course they didn't, being limited in their vision by their very acceptance of the parliamentary set up. The strategy of nationalization after all is nothing but an economic version of the mistake of choosing representative democracy over direct democracy. It was felt that if the people, through their representatives, took these enterprises away from the capitalists and put them in public hands, then these productive forces would belong to the people. The strategy has failed, not because the representatives were bought off, nor because they failed to really wrest the state machinery thoroughly enough away from the capitalists and were thus subverted in their intentions. The strategy failed because there is no way, as long as representatives are making the decisions, that the ``producers,'' who make up this ``association,'' can be ``free and equal.'' They are not free and equal vis a vis the decision-makers and hence they have not actually achieved control over the means of production. I see no way, short of direct democracy, that an association of free and equal producers can ever be established, one that has real control over the means of production, and has thus expropriated the expropriators. If this is impossible then so is freedom and the abolition of slavery.

3. Direct democracy and syndicalism

  Direct democracy is not the same as syndicalism, although the council communists and those in the syndicalist movement in general have probably come closer to the kind of democracy being discussed here than those in any other branch of the anti-capitalist struggle. At least they believe in councils. Unfortunately, however, their councils are always federated, that is, linked together with representatives, into a hierarchical structure, with fewer and fewer people on each higher level, ending in that last small group of final decision-makers. Although this might be some improvement over a parliamentary system I think it encounters many of the same difficulties, and of course it is subject to the same decisive flaw of excluding those at the bottom from decision-making. The best those left out can do is pick someone, if there is anyone, whom they think might vote like they would. But of course they don't know how those chosen will vote after the issues are thoroughly aired, and that is precisely the point. (The electors themselves don't even know how they will vote after the issues are aired.)

  I don't think a genuinely syndicalist set-up has ever really been tried, at least not for very long or on a very large scale. Even so, there is a lot of concrete experience behind the strategy which has relevance to the struggle for direct democracy. The largest trials though, like the one in Yugoslavia, combined a council structure with a one-party system, which of course fundamentally compromised the whole experiment.

  Direct democracy, as pictured here, is a council system all right, but one that rejects federation. It is thus fundamentally different from syndicalism. Under direct democracy there are no higher or lower councils. Councils are all on the same level. They all discuss the issues and they all vote. Votes are tallied across all councils in the region or inter-region (or world, eventually), by mail if need be, or at least by telephone, or perhaps these days with satellite radio and computers. Direct democracy will be easier, technically, now that we have computers. But it would not have been impossible before.

4. Direct democracy and anarchism

  Direct democracy differs from anarchy in that it is based on coercion, on the force of majority will, whereas anarchy excludes coercion. Under anarchy individuals do only those things which they personally agree to do. It is a system of individual autonomy pushed to its logical conclusion. (I'm talking about theoretical anarchism, not classical, historical anarchism, which is a different thing entirely.) Under anarchy there is no such thing as being outvoted, or finding yourself in the minority. In so far as votes are taken at all and collective policy flows from those votes, joint action can only happen in those rare cases where total consensus, that is, unanimity, prevails. But of course how would we ever know that we had total consensus without councils, discussion, and voting. But since anarchists reject the force of majority will what is the point of going through the long, difficult, and expensive process of discussion and voting if the outcome of the vote is going to be ignored by those who lose.

  Nevertheless, there are many attractive things about the idea of anarchism. A good argument can be made perhaps that if it is impossible to reach a consensus on a question then it might be best after all to do nothing, and have no collective policy on that issue, rather than force the minority to go along against its will. (But I don't really believe this, certainly not as a general rule, but maybe in special cases.) Being able to decide which issues should be handled by consensus and which by majority rule presupposes direct democracy of course. If we had direct democracy this would be one of the options – to increase the areas governed by unanimity and decrease those governed by minority rule or majority rule. But in the absence of direct democracy there is no way to resolve the dispute between the consensus faction and the majority rule faction. (There is actually no way, no democratic way, to resolve any dispute.)

  There is also, under anarchy, the possibility of collective action through negotiation, which is a kind of consensus. Several strong statements of the anarchist position in recent years, especially Colin Ward's, point to numerous examples in various areas of human activity where joint policies are hammered out through negotiation among equals, where majority rule never enters the picture, and where no one has the power to impose an arrangement without the consent of the others involved.

  Even so, in spite of some attractive features, I have never been able to convince myself that anarchy would actually work. (I have enough trouble picturing direct democracy as a functioning system.) Anarchy might be a model for use in a lot more situations than it is used at present, but could it ever work as the final, overall structure of power for an entire region and eventually for the entire world? How could anything ever get done if every last person involved had to agree on the policy, and if negotiations were continued until everyone did agree. Humans are notorious for their squabbling. I just don't see how it could ever work.

  There is in addition the serious objection that individual autonomy ought not to be elevated to a supreme value like it is under anarchy. Human beings are not autonomous creatures. They are social creatures, dependent and interdependent. Anarchy is not a social philosophy at all but an individualistic one. Direct democracy, resting as it does on majority rule, where everyone has a voice in shaping basic policy, is the proper answer to the individual/society dichotomy. And besides, a state of anarchy would have to be enforced, just like any other social order, otherwise it would quickly succumb to aggressive people willing to use force to impose their own policies. So perhaps anarchy, as an image of a society based on cooperation and consensus, rather than coercion, is after all only an illusion.

5. Direct democracy and polling

  Direct democracy is definitely not the same as polling. Ever since the advent of satellite communications and cable television, one sees the term `direct democracy' being used with increasing frequency to describe the practice of polling isolated television viewers about their preferences. This shows how badly decayed our ideas about democracy have become in this culture. It is just incredible that polling tv viewers could be seen as having anything to do with democracy. But it does reflect the extremely atomized condition to which we have been reduced. In democracy people get together to discuss and argue, face to face, and then take a vote to see whose proposals will become policy. The face to face discussion is the central, indispensable part of the whole process. This is missing in polling. There is in addition no chance, in polling, for those polled to set the agenda or determine the questions to be asked. Even if tv polling becomes real two-way communication (as opposed to mere yes or no signals), so that the viewers can interact (and it could only be a limited interaction) with the pollsters, the social dimension, that is, true discussion, face to face, would still be missing. It is a grotesque caricature of democracy – isolated individuals with their own two-way hook-up to the center. The set-up resembles more that of isolated prisoners, each in a separate cell, with a two-way intercom link with the administration. (And of course the potential for surveillance is great for those who control the system, something that has already been pointed out repeatedly with regard to television polling.) Unlike many, or even most, inventions made under capitalist imperatives, the new communications technology could be used to strengthen democracy, to facilitate the functioning of a social order without a center. Instead, it is being used to strengthen the control of the ruling class, and television polling, pawned off as direct democracy, is just the latest con job.

6. Free and equal access to knowledge and the means of communication
  (On Articles 14, 55, and 62)

  A totally new archival arrangement (for books, magazines, films, newspapers, documents, tapes, videos, etc.), and a totally new structure of communications has always been central to my image of the functioning of the network of councils. This was embodied especially in Article 14, but also in Articles 55 and 62. As I have imagined it, each council, or certainly each local aggregation of councils, will have its own resource center. If it is for the time being technically and financially impossible to put a world archive in each council, or at least each town, then each council must have totally unrestricted access to such world archives as are established. Article 14 presupposes (as does everything else in the constitution) that ruling class control has been broken, in this case its control of knowledge and information. Even using the already obsolete microfiche technology it would be possible to put the total written output of the human race to date into a moderate sized building. With the new laser/disk technology it could go into a much smaller space. It is not technology that is preventing the democratization of knowledge, but ruling class power. Direct democracy could never work unless each member of each council had access to all the information needed to make an informed judgment. Sophisticated computer and communications hook-ups would in addition be needed simply to count the votes and to enable council-to-council interaction.

  I can still remember how excited I was upon reading, sometime in the early or mid sixties, in Horizon magazine, a proposal for a desktop library, using the then new micro dot system for putting books onto film. It must have been one of the first proposals of its kind. I thought it probably would be done in the near future. That was before I learned what was really going on, when I still naively believed in progress. Nothing of the sort has happened of course. On the contrary, even our public library system is disintegrating before our very eyes due to corporate machinations and lack of funding (and public indifference?). Knowledge and information is being commodified, packaged, and sold for a profit as never before. Access to university libraries grows harder and harder for nonfaculty and nonstudents, what with I.D. cards, security guards, and hefty user fees.

  The system of archives and communications that I imagine as being necessary for the proper functioning of a network of councils united on the basis of direct democracy would require an enormous social investment and take years to construct, years of peace. This is one good reason why I do not believe that direct democracy could be established in the course of a class war, or spontaneously during a crisis. It is not something that can be thrown up overnight, but can only come about through planning, and sustained effort, investment, and dedication over a period of years. Needless to say, this greatly complicates the strategy problem.

7. The location of councils

  There is a long standing dispute over whether councils should be located in neighborhoods or at workplaces. I have always been against neighborhood councils and still am. They shift the focus of attention away from control of the means of production, over to control of consumption only. This is especially dangerous now while we are still immersed in a thriving capitalism. It would continue to be dangerous even after capitalism had been officially defeated, for decades perhaps, until the cultural spin-offs of the profit motive had been thoroughly eradicated.

  Also, neighborhood councils feed the illusion of community control, and are part of a basically anarchistic strategy. It is a radically decentralized image, the vision of a world made up only of autonomous local communities. The neighborhood council approach by-passes the crucial question of the overall structure of power in larger territorial units and ignores as well relevant realities, severe realities, that have to be dealt with, especially the existing worldwide division of labor that has evolved under capitalism.

  I concede that there may be a need for neighborhood organizations or assemblies to deal with problems peculiar to a particular locality (like neighborhood crime, traffic, noise), especially given the current extreme disjunction for the vast majority between place of work and place of residence (an insanity that will hopefully be drastically reduced after the monstrosity of capitalism has passed from the scene). There will of course be neighborhood organizations to foster the arts and crafts, and local culture in general. But neighborhood organizations should not be the main decision-making bodies. After all, every community will have a standing aggregation of councils, permanently in session, capable of discussing any issue of policy at any time, as well as the lower level local assembly (subordinate to the councils in every way), so why should these institutions be duplicated in neighborhood councils?

  In my scheme, decision making and policy formation are defined as part of work. It is reasonable, it seems to me, that this work be done at the place of work along with ones other work (production or reproduction). If we also expand the definition of work to include schoolwork, housework, nurturing, and prison work, then everyone will belong to a council anyway, except the sick, the retired, and young children (below the ninth grade, say; high school students should probably be in a council). Young children obviously do not belong in councils. If someone is sick they can't work anyway, and if someone is retired they retire from council work along with production/reproduction (although this should not be obligatory, except in special cases; see Article 30). It goes without saying, I hope, that schools, houses, and prisons, and hence schoolwork, housework, and prison work will not continue to exist in their present forms in the new society.

8. Direct democracy and decentralization

  Direct democracy, conceived as a network of councils, is not a decentralized system. But then, neither is it a centralized system. It has no center, no top, no bottom. It is not hierarchical. There would be no capital city, no national legislature, no president, no supreme court. It is flat, a network, a network composed of equal units.

  Still, it is not decentralized either, and thus stands in marked contrast to one of the most popular images of the kind of world society that ought to replace capitalism – a world made up of autonomous local communities. As attractive as that image is I don't believe it is viable in fact. For one thing, it does not explicitly eliminate capitalism (the accumulation of capital for the sake of accumulating more capital.) These communities would undoubtedly have to trade, and would therefore need a market. This might possibly give rise to capitalism all over again. Furthermore, even if such a world of autonomous, anarchistic communities could be established, what would prevent one of these communities from gaining more and more wealth and power and subduing the others, and thus recapitulating the original rise of states out of hunting and gathering tribes?

  It is probably true that ``power can be had only at the world level.'' (Wallerstein) There must be some structure of power worldwide. If we don't want a hierarchical world government, complete with bureaucrats, leaders, experts, police, spies, and lies, we had better be thinking of some alternative. I am suggesting that direct democracy, through a network of councils, might possibly be that alternative.

9. Some objections to direct democracy, with rebuttals

  (1) It is impossible because of size. Many people dismiss direct democracy in a large territory as being impossible because of size. In this view, the New England Town Meeting represents the upper limit for direct democracy, with meetings running to several thousand participants. But of course I'm not talking about everyone getting together for one huge meeting. Actually, several thousand is already way too big for democratic face to face discussion. In my scheme, the upper limit for any one council is 50 or 60 people.

  What I mean by direct democracy is a network of such small face to face discussions. It is direct because it is based on these face to face discussions and because there are no representatives. Everyone participates and everyone votes on the issues. So the question then is whether it is technically feasible to tally the votes across councils fast enough (assuming a way can be found to set the agenda in the first place and coordinate discussion across councils so that all councils are deciding the same issues at roughly the same time – see objection 2 below). It seems to me entirely feasible, with contemporary communications and computer equipment, to tally the votes, even in a large territory like North America. There would probably be no more than 4 or 5 million councils reporting votes. A similar procedure (precincts reporting votes) is gone through every presidential election at present, and this is a much less automated and more cumbersome process than could be devised for tallying votes across councils. It seems to me that those who insist on representatives for large territories, as the only feasible form of democracy, simply haven't considered the alternative of a network of councils.

  (2) How could the first agenda ever get established? This is a more serious problem. It would be especially serious if the network were created in the process of a massive takeover of workplaces. In this case, in the process of the various councils establishing contact with one another and creating the means for inter-council communication, some procedure for establishing the agenda would have to be negotiated. Assuming, however, that this is an unlikely event, and that the first network will probably only come about as the result of a carefully planned experiment during peacetime, the procedure for establishing and amending the agenda will be worked out ahead of time by those launching the experiment. The network of councils could of course change this procedure and adopt any agenda rules they wanted to once they were functioning.

  An even more serious problem, perhaps the most serious objection to the proposal, even given an initially functioning system, is how the various motions to be voted on in order to resolve any specific issue could ever be negotiated among four million separate councils. We all know that a change of one or two words can often completely change the meaning of a proposal. Simply getting the wording for a motion that all councils accept and agree to vote on might prove to be a very cumbersome and frustrating task. I am hoping that it looks harder than it will prove to be in practice simply because we have never tried it. And perhaps our images are all wrong. Maybe this is the main work of the councils, rather than merely preliminary, with the final vote being anticlimactic. Also, maybe there won't be all that many issues to decide. We are probably confused by having watched for so long the frantic gyrations of legislatures in ruling class societies. Procedures could be worked out, I feel sure, and safeguards could be established. For example, there could be a built-in option, on every vote, to reject the motion as worded, so that if the negotiating process had failed to produce an acceptable proposal, the majority could refuse to act on it.

  (3) It is not efficient. This has been one of the most frequent objections to my proposal. The idea of all those millions of people deliberating in councils day after day, when the job could be done by a few hundred legislators in Washington, has seemed preposterous to some. My first reply is that the prime value is not efficiency, but freedom. If we want to be free, run our own lives, and get the ruling class off our backs, and if this means we have to spend a lot of time in meetings, then so be it. There is no other way. However, and this is my second reply, I think the expected inefficiency of the system may have been greatly exaggerated by opponents of the idea. I know this is true with regard to production per se because it has already been demonstrated many times that democratically run work groups can out produce hierarchically organized groups. This may also be true with regard to legislation. It has to be remembered that the endless work of national legislatures stems largely from the endless struggles among capitalists themselves, as well as from class conflict and the need the ruling class has to contain it. We do not really know how much legislative work there would be in a society at peace with itself, more especially with regard to the work of setting basic policy. It certainly would be a horrendous task right at the start. But once basic policy had been written into law how often would it have to be revised? I think that after the first few years the time spent legislating basic policy by the entire population could be drastically reduced. (It goes without saying that the production part of the work week would already have been drastically reduced as one of the first acts of the revolution.) So we would not only be free politically, but free in time as well. .... (unfinished)