Why We Should Democratize Everything
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
I. What is Democracy?
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘democracy’? Many immediately think of the process of voting - waiting in line for 10 minutes (or more, especially if you’re non-white) and then casting a ballot for a candidate you’ve heard about in ads that have flooded your mailboxes and email inboxes and appeared on TV and every corner of the internet.
This idea of democracy as simply limited to the electoral sphere, although common, is flawed for many reasons. Democracy is best defined as control of a group by its members. Due to the influence of money in politics, intense political corruption in the United States, voter suppression, and the undemocratic nature of the electoral college, the government of the United States is far from a democracy. The interests of the people of the United States are not followed in the halls of power in Washington, DC - the people of the United States do not control the United States government in any meaningful way. A simple way to prove this is to look at the beliefs of the populace of the United States and compare them to the movement of politics in Washington. For instance, a 2018 Reuters poll shows that a full 70% of people support Universal Healthcare (despite elite attempts through the media to dissuade people from supporting it), but Universal Healthcare is currently far from a reality in the United States. A common solution to this issue is to remove money from politics. Although this would be a step in the right direction, the removal of money from politics in a narrow sense would not make our society democratic. Many European nations have stricter campaign finance laws than ours and are not so much the better for it. Representative democracy vests power in the hands of a few to make decisions for the many, which will always result in the will of the rulers, and not the will of the people, being enacted. To solve this, we have to think beyond the traditional limits of political thought.
II. Democracy Everywhere!
The best way to ensure that the will of the people is followed - in all places, not just in places usually dubbed ‘political’ - is to expand democracy past its limited form at the ballot box to every institution. Democracy must be spread into workplaces, into schools, into communities and neighborhoods, and all throughout the world. This is the only way to ensure that the will of the people is enacted. Workplaces should be democratized in the form of workers’ co-ops, housing in the form of tenants’ unions and cooperative housing, energy in the form of energy co-ops, communities in people’s assemblies, and more.
Although models vary, this would fundamentally mean that all of these facets of society – workplaces, housing, etc. – would be controlled not by people who ‘own’ them, or by people selected from these groups, but by all of the people within these groups, directly. Decisions would be decided either by consensus - unanimous decision – or by majority or supermajority vote. This places power solely in the hands of those affected by the use of that power, whether they are workers in a workplace, people living in an area, citizens in a town, etc.
III. Expand Democracy for Freedom
Placing decision-making power in the hands of those affected by said decisions gives people the freedom to choose their own destiny. In traditional workplaces, shareholders and the board of directors are at the top of the workplace hierarchy along with a CEO, who often impose a managerial class to determine the decisions of the business. In democratized workplaces, workers collectively determine what occurs and how they spend their own time and utilize their company’s resources. Workplace democracy transforms workplaces from abusive dictatorships to liberated areas where people determine the use of their bodies. People will no longer be subject to decisions they have no say in, forced to contribute to ecological catastrophe and damage their bodies to survive. People will be able to join workplaces that they wish to be a part of, determine for themselves what to produce and how to produce it, and determine the division of the fruits of their labor.
IV. Expand Democracy for Justice
There is a strong intersection between democracy and justice. There are many communities that have little say in the use of their resources and the use of their labor, such as indigenous communities whose land has been repeatedly seized and used for resource extraction, or low-income communities of color throughout the world that work for poverty wages while the profits gained from their labor is exported to wealthier, whiter communities. The people of these communities have been subject to tremendous injustices, such as the exploitation of their resources, the pollution of their homelands, and rampant untreated poverty, illness, and addiction.
Land must be controlled democratically by its residents and power must be returned to the hands of indigenous communities to end these injustices. Restructuring society so that land development and use is determined democratically by communities and not by corporations is a necessity. Cooperation Jackson’s work in the state of Mississippi, a state with a deep history of racism, to empower the Black community through democratization is a powerful example of the work needed to do this.
V. Expand Democracy Because it Just Makes Sense
Democratizing everything is not only freeing and just - it also makes sense. Managers and owners are divorced from the reality of working, and often do not know the most effective way to run things. For instance, many teachers are forced by managers - most who have never taught a day in their lives - to teach to a restricting and unhelpful guideline. This is true not only in workplaces, but in every other system - mayors, for instance, cannot possibly run towns as well as the residents of towns, who deal with the issues and inequities of their situation daily, and thus know how best to deal with them. There are often people in power who mean well, and wish to do well for their communities, but are so divorced from the realities of those they serve that they do not know what to prioritize. Spreading power to all affected ensures that their real needs will be seen to, and not perceived needs, or the needs of the ruling class. The efficacy of the worker cooperative model is shown by statistics about worker cooperatives, which survive at better rates than traditional businesses despite not having the same ideological and capital support as traditional businesses.
Democratizing everything would resolve several issues in our current society. Often in labor, but also in other sectors of society, hierarchical and undemocratic bodies must be regulated by more democratic bodies, usually local, state, or national governments. This occurs when state governments intervene on the behalf of the working class (albeit due to intense pressure from popular movements), either to mandate better working conditions, higher wages, less pollution, or other benefits. Another example of this is the increasing scrutiny and regulation of police forces, whose undemocratic and separate-from-society nature (among other issues) causes harm. Democratizing everything will ensure that decisions made in workplaces and communities will be democratic and just from the beginning, necessitating no intervention from higher bodies of power. The error will not exist from the start, and therefore will not need correcting.
Ensuring that everyone has an equal vote and an equal say – “one person, one vote” – within all sectors of society will keep power-hungry individuals from amassing influence and power, and reducing democracy within institutions, governmental and otherwise. There are countless instances throughout history of democratically-elected (that is, ‘democratically’ within a massively undemocratic economic system) leaders destroying democratic inputs and bringing various governmental bodies under their (mostly his) control. An example of this is the increasingly totalitarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, culminating in the massive government purges that took place in 2016 after an attempted coup. This is not limited to federal governments, of course. Within the United States, the seizure of power in North Carolina by the Republican government in 2016 through gerrymandering and other power-grabs to the point that it has been called “no longer a democracy” is another example. These issues come from the problem of hierarchy within representative governments. Any leader given outsized control of a body (governmental or otherwise) has the opportunity to seize power and enact their political goals regardless of the wishes of lower governing bodies or the populace. This can turn representative democracies into totalitarian states. Ensuring that everyone is at an equal level of power at the start gives no one person the opportunity to seize power and enact their will over everyone else’s.
In our current political state, individual people and image often matter more in politics than policies, parties, or platforms. This is shown in the prospective nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seen by many (apparently) as a supporting uncle figure, despite his past segregationist views, support of Dixiecrat segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond, opposition to bussing, sexual assault allegations, and general should-not-be-president nature. This inextricably links the leaders or those with more power in organizations to the organizations themselves. A personal failure on the part of a leader of an organization, a revelation of a leader’s flawed personal past (sexual assault allegations or racist tweets, perhaps) can bring down or at least damage entire organizations. This is an issue of democracy – if one person has inordinate power or say in an organization, their fate is tied too tightly to the fate of said organization. If they go down, they may bring down the organization they lead with them. In a directly democratic organization, one person’s failures are much less likely to damage the organization, as the decisions of the organization reflect all of the members and not one member more than others. Their behavior can simply be dealt with an appropriate manner, and the organization can continue business as usual.
VI. A Democratic Society Makes Democratic Citizens
Involving citizens more closely with their work and their communities by giving them an equal say and greater participation in decision-making leads to profound changes in individuals and society. In our current state, many of us are very divorced from the political realities of our communities, our regions, and often even our federal governments (in a more sane political reality, it would be more commonplace for citizens to know the political workings of their communities than that of a regional or inter-regional government). Watch a video of some talk show host interviewing people on the street to get what I mean – most Americans, and citizens throughout the world, know little of the decision-making and politics that affect them. A lack of political participation is often mentioned by pundits as a great issue in our democracy, but the nature of our government’s organization perpetuates this. This is a deep-seated issue in Republican governance. Republican governance, born of the enlightenment, is tied to hierarchical notions of humanity, with elected leaders being the betters of citizens, the great leaders and bastions of their society, while the common folk mind their own business. The leaders are thought of as intelligent men who know what they are doing, while those who elected them should leave those political matters to them. The nature of Republican governance – giving elected representatives the power to make decisions supposedly on behalf of those who elected them – creates a populace that is divorced from the political realities of their communities and nation. Many take this ancient Republican attitude to heart and do not mind politics, thinking of it as not involving them or not worth their time. This creates a leadership that does what it wants irrespective of the wishes of the populace and a populace disconnected from the decision-making that so powerfully affects its lives.
Spreading democracy everywhere, into town councils and workplaces and beyond, will create a populace intricately linked with the decision-making that affects it. Citizens of this society will be given the opportunity to participate in the important decision-making that fuels progress, but unlike traditional city council meetings, these citizens will have equal say, and therefore be more incentivized to show up and participate. Our current population is largely divorced from how things work – from our governmental organization to how food systems and water systems work to the decisions and partnerships between local governments and local businesses. This gives the leaders of these aforementioned areas the power to act in their own benefit and not in that of the populace, and creates a citizenship that is not very knowledgeable or critical. Giving citizens absolute control over the decisions that affect them creates a populace more interconnected with its communities, more involved (and therefore more happy), more empowered, more knowledgeable, and more prepared to think critically.
Democratic participation encourages people to work together to solve their issues and resolve conflict. In a democratic organization, there is no other way to resolve conflict than working things out together. People will have to make compromises and work together to get what they want. Cooperation will be the method of operation for society, making a people that is more interconnected and cooperative. A cooperative culture will be more nurturing and supportive of everyone, a stark contrast to our bitterly competitive capitalist culture.
The ability to have a say in the decisions that affect your life in your community, in your workplace, and beyond is empowering and returns meaning to people’s lives. Many people often feel disconnected from their work, divorced from the products and profit of their labor. They may be working in factories to produce products sold all across the world, or advertising for a company they couldn’t care less about. The decisions affecting their work are not up to them, and so they are left disconnected and alienated. Giving workers the power to decide how their labor is used and where the fruits of their labor go connects workers to their jobs and gives them greater meaning and purpose. Work is where much of our time is spent, and yet many people feel disconnected from their work. In fact, a Gallup survey reported that 70% of American workers feel “emotionally disconnected” from their work.
This issue does not exist just at work – many feel alienated from the decisions of their local governments and federal governments, and disconnected from politics in general. Expanding democracy beyond our traditional limited sense of the word would solve this issue.
VII. The Tyranny of the Majority
Democracy is often maligned as ‘mob rule’ or leading to ‘the tyranny of the majority.’ In a democratic society, these people argue, those in the majority will be able to crush minorities they dislike for whatever reason. 51% of people could vote to take the other 49% of people’s land and resources for their own use.
This is a worrisome argument, and it is important to consider when designing any democratic space. However, there are some unconsidered factors in this argument, and several flaws.
First of all, this argument presupposes that ‘the tyranny of the majority’, whatever that entails, would be worse than our current situation. Our current situation is tyranny of the minority, where a capitalist elite controls – either directly or indirectly – media bodies, political bodies, and other levers of power. This power is used to squander resources in the furtherance of the pleasure of the elite, to uproot indigenous communities from their lands to steal their resources, to crush the will of people throughout the world, to police black communities to powerlessness, to create rampant ecological destruction in pursuit of profit, and many other atrocities. Any tyranny of the majority would surely be preferable to our current tyranny of the minority.
This argument also envisions a selfish and ill-meaning populace which would willingly take from others and damage them. A more democratic society would lead to more democratic citizens, which would be less likely to wish to harm others for their own goals. This does not mean that we should not attempt to safeguard against harm by one group of another, but that the outcome in this parable may not be as likely as those who tell it assume.
Historically, situations which a supporter of this theory might bring up – Socrates’ sentence to death, for instance - are very different from current visions of more democratic societies. In these societies used as examples, there was often only some form of representative democracy (usually segregated by gender and/or class), but there still existed a media and economy largely controlled by the elite which could push for its own goals. Although there was little resistance to Nazi goals in Nazi Germany from the non-Jewish population, the anti-Semitic fervor in Nazi Germany was created by a state-controlled media and a highly undemocratic state – far from a society in which workplaces and communities are democratically controlled.
Notwithstanding the oversights in this argument, there are several ways to safeguard against ‘tyranny of the majority’ or ‘mob rule’ situations. Decentralized governance, in which communities will have the first say in all decisions about them, and will only delegate power to higher organizational levels, will go a long way to resolving these concerns. In small communities, oppression will be less likely or even impossible, especially when economic democracy exists – when there are no class divisions. In democratic communities where everyone lives and works together, it is not as likely that one group would decide to exploit another. Keeping power local ensures that those from other areas cannot oppress certain groups of people – for instance, since power would exist primarily at the local level, an urban majority could not oppress the will of a rural minority within a state. Higher levels of organization would exist largely for organization and not for decision-making, and people would be delegated from communities to make decisions at these higher levels. In this instance, this means that these delegates would make a decision with other delegates, then return to their communities, which would either accept or reject the decision reached – the power remains in the local communities. This model is supported by the anarchist author Peter Kropotkin in his classic novel The Conquest of Bread, in which he uses train companies in Europe as an example.
These arguments about ‘mob rule’ often assume that democratic governance would be strictly majority vote, so that a 51% majority could override a 49% minority consistently. This is rarely the case in libertarian socialists’ views of a future society. Many people are proponents of consensus decision-making – only fit for smaller groups – in which all members must agree to a decision for it to move on. Others set the needed percentage for a vote to pass at much higher than 50, say 75 or even 90. Assuming that a democratized society would function solely with simple majority vote overlooks the vast amount of other models which protect against the outcomes outlined in the ‘tyranny of the majority’ argument.
VIII. Expertise and Democracy
Another common counter-argument against democracy (whether in ‘politics as usual’ or at work) is the idea that democracy would put less capable people in charge. Shouldn’t those who are most capable or knowledgeable in a field make decisions for it? Why would some Oreo packager get to have a decision in how local water transportation systems are managed?
First of all, this argument lacks an understanding of the organization of democratic communities. In workplaces or guilds, those in the workplace would have control over the logistical organization of the body. Community councils will not determine the details of road construction. This ensures that those who work in certain areas have the most say in those areas – for instance, so that farmers have the most control over what they produce and how they produce it. However, of course those who receive food or use water should have a say in how that is done – they are deeply affected by those decisions. A democratic society would require a more knowledgeable and more involved population, but it would not require that everyone know everything. Those with more knowledge and more interest will naturally step up to lead discussions and work in those regions, and generally, the decision-making around niche areas will be left to the small groups who enact them.
This argument also often supposes that those in power in our current society are the most capable in their fields. This is far from the truth, and if you want proof, just watch Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s questioning by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.). In our current capitalist society, those with power were often born with money that helped them reach their position (i.e. Donald Trump), have the charisma and ruthlessness necessary for success, and/or were lucky and/or white enough to fall upward into power. Whether or not a democratic society would wholly resolve the issue of expertise and power, it will certainly be better than our current capitalist system, in which owners and managers who have little knowledge of the work that occurs at the ground levels make most of the important decisions for the workers.
There are also reasons that, in some instances, we would not want the most capable in power. Regardless of their capability, those in power tend to see to their own interests and do what they will to maintain their power, not what is best for those they serve or represent. In a democratic socialist society, we would hope that civil engineers would be those involved in designing and renovating roadways, but we wouldn’t want one extremely capable civil engineer to have absolute control over the construction and renovation of roadways.
VIII. Get Involved!
So, now that I’ve convinced you that democratizing everything is the solution to all that ails our society, you may be wondering how you can get involved. Luckily, there are many existing organizations which are doing the good work of spreading democracy into workplaces, towns, cities, etc. throughout the United States and the world. Symbiosis (www.symbiosis-revolution.org) is a great example of this. Symbiosis is “a confederation of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up”. Getting involved with Symbiosis will put you at the front lines of building democracy in the United States.
Besides involving yourself with existing organizations, you could always organize within your own community! You could work to organize your workplace, create a worker’s cooperative, or create a town assembly – there are plenty of resources across the internet to help you with those tasks. Best of luck, and fight the good fight!
This has nothing to do with the libertarian right (right-libertarians or, as we like to call them, propertarians). The word ‘libertarian’ in a political context originates from French anarchism in the late 19th century, while the word ‘libertarian’ in the American right-wing sense originates from Murray Rothbard in the 1960’s (near one hundred years later). (Wikipedia.)