Democracies and Co-operatives

Posted on June 27, 2009 by


Liberal democracies have always been considered a form of state by both their advocates and their detractors.  This has been one of the most persistent and fundamental errors in political theory from across the spectrum.

I think the main reason is  an ambiguity in the term that even now confuses us.  On the one hand the ‘state’ is the formal monopolization of the exercise of legitimate violence within a territory.  This says too much and too little.  An anarcho-capitalist paradise will have states by this definition: veery landed property owner will be king of his or her domain.

On the other hand, once a revolution breaks out in a traditional state, such as Iran, and people no longer consider the ‘state’ legitimate, what does it become?  Is it still a state if it crushes its opposition?
If we look at the history of ‘states’ what we see is the rise and elaboration of institutions whereby one group of people dominates another because they control the means of violence. kings, priesthoods, oligarchs, aristocrats, slaveholders, and so on.  Power is mostly top down in form, and the state’s institutions seek to perpetuate and perfect this power to dominate.  States are hierarchies of power existing to benefit those on top, who ever they might be.
Until democracies arose.  At that point the top hierarchies and any intermediate could be replaced through elections where the votes of those on the bottom made the final determination. Many of the basic institutions remained, but the system of relationships in which they existed shifted from an hierarchical organization to an emergent process.  Rule by specific interests became subordinated to procedural rules open to many mutually exclusive interests.  The internal dynamics changed fundamentally – most importantly with the arising of the democratic pece- democracies do not war on one another.

Equating democracies with states as organizations has led to lots of confusion on all sides, from managerial Progressive ideas that through them scientifically trained administrators could manage the public’s resources insulated from private greed to libertarian beliefs that the growth of democratic government led inevitably to tyranny, or even itself constituted tyranny.

I suggest we ditch the state model for democratic government except for those rare events when there is such national agreement a to the hierarchy of tasks that need doing that the government, for a while, can be understood as a hierarchy dedicated to accomplishing a task, or hierarchy of tasks.  War is the most common example, but a national disaster could accomplish the same.  What is significant here is that when there is such agreement as to the priority of tasks, democraticprocedures get subordinated to the tasks at hand.  I think this demonstrates the incompatibility of the dynamics of a genuine state with the requirements of a viable democracy.

Instead we would do better to equate democracies with cooperatives, specifically residential cooperatives ultimately governed by their residents.  Even more than cooperatives, democracies have severe principle agent problems: those chosen to do the public’s business subordinating it to their own purposes.

I think this model would spare us many of the intractable confusions that arose from the democracy-as state-model.  It is also very harmonious with appreciating the strengths of emergent order analysis in politics.

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