Monday, December 20, 2010

Republic or democracy?

Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
(RCP Publications, Print, October 2010, $8 from Revolution Books)

Republic or democracy?

Probably the biggest overall criticism I have of the draft Constitution is that at least at first glance it appears to set up a republic instead of a democracy. I used to think the distinction was right-wing bullshit, until I heard Aaron Sorkin put the line in the mouth of fictional President Jed Bartlett: "In a democracy, the people rule; in a republic the people choose their rulers." Regardless of the terminology, I think the ideas are sufficiently well-defined and distinct; I'll use these terms henceforth.

In general, I consider the republican form of government to be one of the quintessential bourgeois institutions. It seems difficult — if not impossible — to prevent those who have a lot of economic power to dominate any republican electoral process. Indeed the framers of the US Constitution more-or-less explicitly choose a republican form of government because it would allow the existing land-owning, slave-owning and capitalist classes to dominate the electoral process and the government. (Indeed Bob Avakian makes a very similar point in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy.) Whether this was the right choice under the specific historical circumstances is a much larger question than I care to address now, but the historical circumstances in 1787 were very different than they are today or immediately after a successful revolution.

I would very much prefer a form of government modeled — at least in spirit — more closely and explicitly on the Paris Commune. The people must, I believe, be brought directly and intimately into the process of government right from the start. There will, perhaps, be some need of an interim "scaffolding" while the people develop the habits and attitudes necessary to govern a large, industrially, scientifically and economically complex nation, but I think at least the form of a true democracy needs to be present from day one. Lenin's slogan was, "All power to the soviets!" Again, whether this slogan was practical or feasible in 1917, I think it is at least more superficially plausible in 21st century North America.

Keep in mind: I have only just skimmed the draft proposal: You and I, gentle readers, are more-or-less working together on a more detailed and deep reading. It may well be that the Constitution, when read carefully, adequately addresses my objections, either by making the transition to a true democracy compelling or arguing more directly for the benefits of a republican government. And too, I invite commentary, at this point focused on a more philosophical analysis (I'll get to the substantive analysis of the Constitution itself chapter by chapter): If you think the republican form of government has compelling advantages over the democratic.

The most obvious objection to democracy is scale; whether or not it was their original intention, the republican government established in 1789* has scaled from a nation of a few million to a nation of a few hundred million with only one truly catastrophic political failure (which was probably unavoidable by any system of government). So I think it's incumbent on me to offer some ideas as to how a state of many tens of millions (probably the smallest revolutionary state) or possibly many hundreds of millions (especially if Canada and Mexico were to be included) could be governed democratically.

I describe my hypothetical system as "democratic syndicalism". Essentially, it consists of a pyramiding election of delegates (distinct from representatives) from the smallest local level of neighborhoods through cities, states, regions and finally the national government. A neighborhood consists of a couple thousand people in a compact geographical area; each neighborhood elects a delegate to the city (or borough, for very large cities such as New York or Los Angeles) government. If we arbitrarily set the maximum size of a city government at about 100 delegates, then we get the smallest operating local government representing about 200,000 people. Each local government would elect a delegate to a regional government (of at most about 10-20,000,000) and those to a national government of some hundreds of millions.

The members of government would be delegates rather than representatives: they would be immediately recallable, rather than serving for a fixed term. A delegate would have no official power of her own; she must at all times — if she wishes to keep her position — exercise her power on behalf of her constituency. I would add that delegates receive a fixed pay while they serve, at the local level of the median income of their constituency, and at the national level no more than the 1st quartile of income. We might also have to create asset restrictions (which I'll talk about in another post when we get to economic organization).

These local and regional governments would have legislative, executive and administrative power over government services (more on this later) provided exclusively or principally in their their defined geographic areas. These powers — especially executive and administrative — would have to be indivisible: the governments could delegate the work to specific members (e.g. an "executive council"), but they could not delegate official power; the body acts only as a whole. They would have to operate openly: no act could have official or legal standing unless published openly.

This explicitly democratic organization is highly unstable by design. Thus we need to create a countervailing institution to promote stability. I recommend a semi-privileged civil service, which would be constitutionally mandated to carry out the policies of the democratic governments. This civil service would have objective criteria for entry, internal control over promotion, and — absent criminal malfeasance or insubordination to the actual government — a guarantee of lifetime employment. Thus by "executive and administrative" authority above, the local, regional and national governments would in effect constitute the head of the civil service for their respective areas. Rather than trying to fine-tune a single institution with the right balance of stability and change, this separation creates an explicit dialectic between institutions of stability and change, which will (with all good luck) evolve to meet changing circumstances and conditions.

One additional advantage of this model is that it gives an obvious role for the revolutionary party that does not have the kind of pressure to evolve into a permanent and privileged ruling class: The revolutionary party can form the core of the civil service. At first, as the people are unused to self-governance, the civil service can exercise considerable de facto power. But by having at least in name a subordinate position to the people, the people can grow to exercise their own power more directly in a natural, unforced way.


  1. "But by having at least in name a subordinate position to the people[...]"

    But isn't this what our current civil servants were already setup to be?

  2. But isn't this what our current civil servants were already setup to be?

    Yes they are. The civil service, however, does not presently have any specifically constitutional mandate. Strengthening and codifying one institution (the civil service) that has a pretty good track record over the last several millennia allows us to safely democratize another institution (the government) that has a rather poorer historical record.


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