While work-place democracy is unquestioningly a pre-requisite for socialist administration, it seems many have never taken the issue to its logical end. The real democratic safeguard is when no-one can deprive another of the means for life – food, health and shelter – through sectional ownership of them, regardless of how internally democratic their enterprise might be. This was the World Socialist Movement’s argument against syndicalism, industrial unionism and co-operatives.
Since socialism is based on the social ownership (= ownership by society as a whole, common ownership) of the means of production, the trade union ownership proposed by the syndicalists (the mines for the miners, railways for the railmen) was not socialism at all but a modified form of sectional ownership. A society run by syndicates/industrial unions would be a society which would perpetuate the occupational divisions which capitalism imposed on workers. Such a form of organisation would divide the workers on the basis of the industries in which they were engaged, with the inevitable consequence that the industrial interest must triumph over the social interest which socialism so fundamentally demands. In addition, the relations between the separate union-run industries, it has been argued, would have to be regulated either by some central administration, which would amount to a government and so give rise to a new ruling class or by some form of commercial exchange transaction (even if conducted in labour-time vouchers rather than money as many syndicalists proposed.) In other words, a syndicalist society would be a sort of capitalism run by the unions. Socialism aims not to establish “workers power” but the abolition of all classes including the working class. It is thus misleading to speak of socialism as workers ownership and control of production. In socialist society there would simply be people, free and equal men and women forming a classless community. So it would be more accurate to define socialism/communism in terms of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interest of the whole people. “Workers council” would have been a misnomer since socialism, being a classless society, involves the disappearance of the working class just as much as of the capitalist class. “Democratic councils” would have been a more appropriate term. A society where the means of production belong to everybody and run by democratic councils, that’s socialism.
The threat of the bureaucracy assuming a new class in socialism cannot arise. Free access to goods and services denies to any group or individuals the political leverage with which to dominate others, a feature intrinsic to all private-property or class based systems through control and rationing of the means of life. The notion of status and hierarchy based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services.This will work to ensure that a socialist society is run on the basis of democratic consensus. This will work to ensure that a socialist society is run on the basis of democratic consensus. Decisions will be made at different levels of organisation: global, regional and local with the bulk of decision-making being made at the local level. A socialist economy would be free access to the common treasury with no monopoly of ownership, and not even the actual producers who in the past have called for ownership of their own product, as promoted by mutualism and syndicalism, can deprive individuals in society to the common ownership of the means of production and distribution. A socialist society will be one in which all people will be free to participate fully in the process of making and implementing policy. Whether decisions about constructing a new playground, the need to improve fish stocks in the North Sea, or if we should use robots to improve our lives, everyone everywhere will be able to voice their opinion and cast their vote. However, the practical ramifications of this democratic principle could be enormous. If people feel obliged to opine and vote on every matter of policy they would have little time to do anything else. The traditional image of huge crowds with their hands up in council meetings, or queues of people lining up to put a piece of paper in a box, is obviously becoming old-fashioned, even in capitalism. On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected executive groups or councils could be seen as going against the principle of fully participatory democracy. If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making which does not put big decisions in the hands of small groups but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required, and it seems that capitalism may have produced one in the form of ‘collaborative filtering’ (CF) software. This technology is currently used on the internet where a crisis of choice already exists. Faced with a superabundance of products and services, CF helps consumers choose what to buy and navigate the huge numbers of options. It starts off by collecting data on an individual’s preferences, extrapolates patterns from this and then produces recommendations based on that person’s likes and dislikes.With suitable modification, this technology could be of use to socialism – not to help people decide what to consume, but which matters of policy to get involved in. A person’s tastes, interests, skills, and academic achievements, rather than their shopping traits, could be put through the CF process and matched to appropriate areas of policy in the resulting list of recommendations. A farmer, for example, may be recommended to vote upon matters which affect him/her, and members of the local community, directly, or of which s/he is likely to have some knowledge, such as increasing yields of a particular crop, the use of GM technology, or the responsible use of land by ramblers. The technology would also put them in touch with other people of similar interests so that issues can be thrashed out more fully, and may even inform them that “People who voted on this issue also voted on…” The question is, would a person be free to ignore the recommendations and vote on matters s/he has little knowledge of, or indeed not vote at all? Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but any system, computer software or not, which helps reduce the potential burden of decision making to manageable levels would. How could too much voting be bad for you.
As time and technology have moved on,a decentralised form of socialist global organisation looks more and more feasible, while the 19th-century centralised model we have looks comparatively dated and inefficient.
Consider the merits of a distributed peer-to-peer network over those of a hierarchy – a democratic hierarchy but a hierarchy nonetheless.
– In a network, information can flow from anywhere to anywhere, taking any route, regardless of breakdowns or blockages. In a hierarchy, a blockage at just one or two key points can paralyse the whole structure.
– In a network, information comes direct from the original source. In a hierarchy, it has to travel through multiple filters, risking data loss or corruption, so that the ‘top’ doesn’t necessarily have a clear overall picture.
– In a network, information travels fast through electronic media, in a hierarchy it is slow because it travels through people.
– In a network, people’s views and votes can be directly recorded, in a hierarchy they must be aggregated and to some extent unrepresentative.
– In a network, any part can change independently if necessary, without involving the entire structure. In a hierarchy, a large part if not the entire structure has to be involved.
– In a network, individual nodes contain comparatively low information content which means people can switch nodes with high adaptability. In a hierarchy, the higher up you go, the heavier the information load, and the less interchangeability, so people would tend to occupy positions for longer, creating the potential for factionalism, fiefdoms and structural sclerosis.
– In a network, where previously it was hard for the right hand to know what the left hand was doing, now with blockchain technology, parts of a network can operate without the risk of resources being allocated (or the same vote being taken) twice in different places, a key advantage that only a centralised hierarchy could formerly boast.
Politically, a peer-to-peer network looks more like leader-free socialism, whereas a hierarchy still looks like a lot like class society except avowedly democratic, and with the question Quis Custodes Custodiat [Who Watches the Watchmen?] left somewhat moot.
Our de facto democratic model harks back to a historical period where communication was slow and limited by geography, it was impossible to disseminate information widely and efficiently, and no means existed to process mass decision-making except by reducing the number of decision-makers to a tiny minority who would attempt to fairly represent the majority.
Today, the only limiting factor in mass decision-making is the practical question of who should vote on what. The reolution is the implementing of a rule of three: impact, information and interest.
If it impacts on you, AND you are informed about it, AND you are interested enough to be involved, you should vote. If you can only claim two out of three, you can observe (and perhaps be a student or a consultant) but you should not vote. The decision rests solely with you, as is appropriate for a world based on the satisfaction of self-defined needs. But just as you are expected to show responsibility in other areas of your life, like not wasting resources, or not imposing on the liberty of others, you would be expected to uphold this democratic principle and would be the subject of social disapproval if you failed to do so.
Essentially this is a self-selection or opt-in model for democracy, and it has implications for how all structures could be formed and maintained, including everything from temporary and local social tasks to large and permanent institutions like health, emergency and other services.
It would be interesting to explore this model, and indeed other models of how socialism might work in practice. There’s no need to adopt any particular model as the definitive party principle, since it’s not our decision to make, but we ought to be open to different possibilities, and certainly not fall back on easy assumptions based on century-old thinking.