Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: a theory of the state

The standard theory of the state — in Weber's definition the institution(s) that exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of violent coercion — has been that the state shapes its citizens. Even when the state is legitimized by more-or-less popular means (as in nominally "democratic" republics), the citizens legitimize the state to coercively shape the citizenry. We want the state to create good citizens. Democratic republics don't change this fundamental role of the state; they merely change how and to whom this fundamental role is given.

"Anarchism" (with scare quotes, very loosely defined, leaning far more towards Rothbard than Bakunin) takes almost completely the opposite view: no one should use coercion to shape anyone; the only legitimate use of coercion is in self-defense. However, coercion is not so easily dismissed, and "self-defense" (not to mention "coercion") is not so easily defined. It a depressingly obvious trope that so-called Libertarians just define whatever coercion they like (or coercion in the service of what they like) as "self-defense". Fundamentally, the only kinds of "anarchists" I've seen are those hopelessly naive, confused, deluded, or actively mendacious about their own political philosophy, or those who just label whatever kind of society they like as "anarchistic".

What is curious, though, is that there are situations where I personally want to be coerced, at least hypothetically, a notion that seems wildly counter-intuitive: if I want something, why should I want to be coerced into doing it? Why can't I just do it because I want to? The answer is signalling. I know what I want, but you cannot know directly, by observation, what I want, what's in my mind. (And, of course, vice versa.) The best you can do is draw conclusions about what is in my mind based on the evidence of my actions. But talk is cheap: even the most vicious serial killer can talk about the sanctity of life. If I want to convince you of my good intentions, I need to send you an expensive signal, one that convinces you that if I had bad intentions, the expense of the signal outweighs the satisfaction of my bad intentions. But expensive signals are expensive: what I'd like to do is send a signal that is cheap if I have good intentions, but expensive if I have bad intentions. Coercion works nicely: if I have good intentions, I do as I please, cheaply; if I fulfill bad intentions, I am subject to expensive penalties: fines, prison, ostracism, disgrace, etc.

As Hal Draper persuasively describes in Marx's Theory of Revolution*, Marx and Engels developed a theory of the state. In their theory, the conflict between individual interests and communitarian interests is the fundamental contradiction that eventually gives rise to the bourgeois state. All societies, even those before the invention and hegemony of the bourgeois state, use coercion to promulgate social norms, norms that encourage cooperation and discourage destructive kinds of competition and individual or small-group conflict. In pre-state societies, the coercion is diffused throughout the community, and largely internalized, because the benefits of cooperation in a subsistence economy are readily apparent. However, with the division of labor and increased economic productivity, the coercion necessary to maintain a more complex, interdependent society becomes concentrated in an identifiable organization, the "state", rather than being diffused through society.

*I'm about halfway through volume 1 of 3; expect more insights as I continue to read. My interpretation of Marx and Engels' theory is largely from Draper; where I mention Marx and Engels below, I am relying heavily on Draper's interpretation.

As the coercive apparatus necessary to maintain social cooperation becomes concentrated, the concentrated institution, like any other institution, naturally and inevitably develops its own interests, and uses coercion both materially and ideologically to promotes it's own interests, rather than the general interest of society. Furthermore, as the division of labor creates class differentiation, the economic ruling class, the bourgeoisie, captures considerable control over the formal state apparatus, and the bourgeoisie uses that power to maintain its rule, and maintain its domination over the working class.

It's important to note that Marx and Engels do not consider the development of the state or its capture by the bourgeoisie as some sort of conspiracy, and especially not an alien power imposed from outside society. The state in general (which precedes capitalism) and the bourgeoisie's capture of the state are the resolution of contradictions from within society, and are the result of real human beings trying to solve real problems, and keep a complex society from collapsing.

Economically, capitalism depends on diverting as much labor as practically possible to the accumulation of capital, which necessarily entails that capitalism must divert labor from consumption; given the size of the working class, even a small increase in per capita working class consumption entails a relatively large decrease in capital accumulation, it should be unsurprising that the focus of bourgeois ideological production entails (contradictorily, but ideological contradiction is much easier to swallow than material contradiction) both the valorization of work and the condemnation of poverty. Workers are good because they work, but they are bad because they are poor, and thus deserve poverty. And, furthermore, society must be organized in compliance with law, i.e. an ideal concept of justice, rather than organized by interest: the interest of the working class is fundamentally hostile to capitalism.

Except perhaps as a counter-apologetic, whether this historical course of events was good or bad (it was bad) is really immaterial. It is what happened. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we start to think about the role of coercion emerging from the concept of the bourgeois state?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A capitalist in socialist's clothing

The problem, I think, is that Miya Tokumitsu does everything she can to avoid criticizing capitalism (a charge I think the author would vehemently deny). Capitalism makes all virtues, however we loosely define "virtue", about profit (and if it can't make a virtue profitable, it makes it a vice). "Do what you love" (DWYL) is no exception. Instead of a criticism of how capitalism has corrupted what is arguably the defining virtue of humanity, the emotional and social power of labor, Tokumitsu sees DWYL as the defining characteristic of capitalism, and therefore not a human construct. Her interview, Why ‘Do What You Love’ Is Pernicious Advice, carries on this theme.

The fundamental point of the interview comes near the end: "[O]ne of the things I want to do is celebrate the job that just pays the rent." But just paying the rent, not DWYL, is the fundamental capitalist virtue. It is the essence of alienated labor, a concept Marx writes quite a bit about. When you work just to pay the rent (and notice "rent", paying the parasitic landlord class), your labor is literally alienated, cut off, detached, made external. Working just to pay the rent reduces our work to the "cash nexus". I see nothing at all wrong with Marx's goal, to make labor "not only a means of life but life's prime want." All of us should be doing what we love; the fact that we cannot is a failure of capitalism; it is not that doing what we love is itself disreputable.

Of course, capitalism does try to digest every virtue and make it about cash, and DWYL is no exception. Tokumitsu talks about how capitalism tries to corrupt DWYL: the corporate PR fakery, standards that employees should always look like they're happy, the want-ad insistence that candidates be "passionate" about janitorial work, the idea that if you're doing what you love, you should not expect to be paid in actual money. But Tokumitsu draws the wrong conclusion from these attempts: capitalism is trying to assimilate, corrupt, and ultimately destroy the fundamental virtue of socialism. Socialists can certainly resist the corruption of this virtue, and critics can certainly argue that corrupting the virtue of DWYL produces more, not fewer, contradictions, but arguing that we should do away with the virtue entirely, and accept absolutely alienated labor as the ultimate standard of good would do nothing but hand capitalism an unearned victory.

Socialist theoreticians should, of course, valorize the proletariat, whose labor is absolutely alienated. But we should valorize the proletariat and the alienation of their labor not because alienated labor is the best form of labor. Instead, we should valorize the proletariat because the absolute alienation of their labor is, as Marx argues, the fundamental contradiction the resolution (sublation, aufheben) of which produces revolutionary consciousness.

See also: In defense of "Do What You Love"

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The politics of democratic communism: the people and their delegates

The basic unit of popular democracy under democratic communism is the block*, comprising between 100-500 people, including adults and children, all of whom vote. (Those medically unable to vote, e.g. infants, toddlers, and those with sufficiently severe cognitive disabilities, will have a guardian exercise their vote.) A neighborhood comprises a compact region of blocks with a total of 10,000 people. A district comprises 100 neighborhoods, with a total of 1,000,000 people. Finally, a nation comprises all of the districts; the United States, for example, would have about 350 districts.

*I will use terminology appropriate to an urban context. The rough numbers matter; the actual physical arrangement will vary from hyper-dense (very large apartment buildings) to hyper-sparse (rural areas).

District Assemblies

The blocks in a neighborhood elect the neighborhood's delegate to the district. Each block "speaks as a whole"; the delegate the block chooses receives the votes of everyone in the block. The neighborhood's delegate must receive a majority (not a plurality) of the votes; neighborhoods must use Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) or other forms of vote tranferability to choose a delegate with a majority. Blocks also meet periodically (e.g. monthly) for its neighborhood delegate to report on the business of the districts, and for the blocks to give advice to the delegate.

It is possible for a neighborhood to have "delegate churn," where two (or more) candidates are nearly equally matched, and individual blocks changing their votes may swing the majority back and forth between the candidates. However, because of transparency (I'll write on this later), churn should not have an enormous effect on the the business of the district.

Unlike republican systems, blocks may change their vote for a delegate at any time; if the formerly elected delegate loses her majority, she is replaced by a new delegate with the majority. Essentially, delegate voting is essentially continuous, rather than periodic. Furthermore, any vote made by the delegate in the affairs of the district may be reversed by a majority vote of the people in the blocks. Two-thirds of the people in the blocks may directly compel its delegate to introduce and endorse action at the district level. Finally, dependent on the policy of the district, neighborhoods may directly elect judges with original jurisdiction.

Delegates are paid 40 SVU per week. Once a person has served as a delegate for more than a certain period (e.g. two years), the delegate receives a pension, determined by years of service, and even if she later leaves the government, her total annual income (including the pension) may not exceed 2000 SVU. Finally, a delegate who serves less than the minimum may be sanctioned with the same (or more severe) income restriction for corruption, subject to due process.

Each delegate has three roles. First, a delegate is the head of the civil service in her neighborhood, with direct managerial responsibility over services provided at the neighborhood level. (Churn would more seriously hamper this management; but internal civil-service management structures can compensate.)

Second, the assembled delegates in the district conduct the business of the district by majority vote. First, they allocate the budget provided by the national government; the district can also borrow money by selling bonds. Since districts cannot create money, district-level bonds have default risk, and a district may choose to default on its bonds.

The district assembly also enacts legislation to determine how the judiciary is to resolve disputes between individuals and private organizations within the district. The district assembly also appoints appellate judges with district scope, and to appoint original-jurisdiction judges (unless the district has opted to have the people directly elect original-jurisdiction judges by neighborhood). The district assembly directly regulates areas of the district used preponderantly for commerce and industry. The district assembly also acts collectively as the head of the civil service for services provided at the district level.

Third, the assembled delegates elect delegates to the national assembly, again with the same requirement of IRV-enabled majoritarianism. As with neighborhoods, the assembled delegates of the district may replace their national delegate at any time, may reverse her vote by majority vote, and may, by two-thirds vote, compel the delegate to introduce and support action at the national level.

National Assembly

The national assembly has all of the corresponding duties of the district assemblies, applied to the nation as a whole: appointment and direction of delegates to international bodies, managing the affairs of the nation as a whole, acting collectively as the head of the civil service at the national level, and appointing judges with original and appellate jurisdiction for conflicts between districts.

The national government has the exclusive ability to create money, either directly or by delegating this authority to a central bank. The national government can also borrow money, but is forbidden from defaulting on any financial obligation denominated in the national currency: the national government must create money to satisfy its national-currency financial obligations. (How to implement this mandate is a challenging legal problem.) The national government may default on financial obligations denominated in anything other than its own national currency.

Note that unlike the US federal government, the national government may legislate in general (not just tax and spend) for the general welfare: the national assembly has, in bourgeois terminology, "police powers."

Other Assemblies

Districts may be subdivided into cities and towns. Districts can be aggregated into metropolitan areas (e.g. the San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes about 7.44 million people), regions (e.g. states), transportation areas (e.g. the New England passenger rail structure), natural resource areas (e.g. the Colorado river), and other ad hoc aggregates, created around infrastructure and natural resources. As with districts, neighborhoods included in the subdivision or aggregate elect delegates to these assemblies.


The default jurisdiction is the district. Districts may delegate business to cities and towns contained in the district; any money allocated to cities and towns must be allocated on an equal per-capita basis. Larger regions may assume superior jurisdiction if there is a reasonable basis for doing so, or if directed to assume superior jurisdiction by the appropriate court to protect the individual rights of citizens of an inferior jurisdiction. (For example, if it is found that a district is discriminating in elementary/secondary education against black people, a court could order a larger assembly, the metro area, region, or national government, to take over direct control of the district's school system.

Sorting Everything Out

It looks at first glance like we have a hodgepodge of overlapping responsibilities. However, the situation is not very different from what we currently have. Although I will later propose a unitary civil service, individual offices should have well-defined management chains. For example, regulation of an individual school will have a clear chain of responsibility from the neighborhood to the district to the region to the national government; it would not, be under the direction of a transportation or natural resource district.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sexual assault and the legal system

In sexual assault accusations and the left, Fredrik deBoer cautions that we should not eliminate nor relax legal standards regarding the burden of proof and presumption of innocence in the prosecution of allegations of sexual abuse. deBoer notes that even with these standards, abuses of the legal process can, as in the satanic ritual abuse hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s, result in verdicts that would be comical if not for their profound, tragic human toll. deBoer claims that some on the left are ignoring the value of these skeptical standards with regard to rape and sexual abuse allegations. While it's true that a certain degree of skepticism is always necessary, deBoer is mostly full of shit. All of the sources he actually cites: Late British Prime Minister Edward Heath Accused of Raping 12-Year-Old, Zerlina Maxwell's No matter what Jackie said, we should generally believe rape claims, and Jessica Valenti's Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen, have nothing to do with the legal system. deBoer writes that "the conventional progressive wisdom has become that anything other thank [sic] blanket presumption of guilt is actively offensive and misogynist. You can read arguments from people like Zerlina Maxwell and Jessica Valenti if you think that’s an exaggeration." But, as noted above, none of the issues above have anything to do with legal standards. Indeed, Zerlina Maxwell explicitly states, "This is not a legal argument about what standards we should use in the courts; it’s a moral one, about what happens outside the legal system." To make his argument at all compelling, deBoer really needs to address this disclaimer, showing evidence it is disingenuous, or that the legal system's evidentiary standards really should prevail in general discourse. He does not do so, nor does he really show that the real miscarriages of justice he cites at the beginning really were due to abandonment of legal standards of burden of proof and presumption of innocence.

But I'm not really here to criticize deBoer's piece. deBoer is brilliant when he's right, a complete prick when he's wrong, and you just have to deal with that if you're going to read him. And I think he's worth reading: even when he's being a willfully obtuse prick, he's always interesting, and unlike a lot of writers, even his atrocious arguments are worth refuting.

Instead, I want to talk about what the legal system is and is not, and argue that it's a terrible idea to adopt legal thinking at any level about sexual assault and misogyny.

The capitalist legal system, consisting of legislatures, police, courts, jails, and prisons, exists to reproduce capitalism. The legal system's primary function is to create and maintain the criminal class that, apparently, capitalism desperately needs. (Why capitalism needs a criminal class is beyond the scope of this post, but if capitalism did not need a criminal class, we would not spend so much time and effort creating one.) The legal system both creates individual criminals, and forms those individuals into a social/economic class in the Marxist sense.

If we want to create and maintain a class of people who are criminal sex offenders, then yes, absolutely, that's what the legal system is for.

To a certain extent, yes, we want to "create" sex offenders, i.e. we want people who are treating women in a particular way that is presently considered normal and acceptable to become criminals. But that's not the kind of criminals the legal system creates. The legal system exists to take people who have done nothing morally wrong (besides being poor or black) and transform them from honest citizens to career criminals. I don't think that anyone (aside from a few lunatics) wants to turn honest men who want to treat women with respect into sex offenders.

The way that capitalism destroys something is not by making it illegal and putting people in jail. They way capitalism destroys something is by making it unprofitable. The issue is not whether Bill Cosby, for example, should or should not go to jail. The real issue is that Bill Cosby's career, enormously profitable to himself and many hangers-on, should absolutely have been nuked from orbit the minute we had reasonable suspicion — not legal proof — that he was a serial rapist.

We don't need to make sexual assault more criminal. We need to make not only sexual assault but mere misogyny unprofitable, even economically ruinous.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The political structure of democratic communism: Three branches

Under democratic communism (DC), the government is, like many bourgeois democratic republics (BDR), divided into three branches. However, under DC, the branches are not "competing", and I reject the BDR division of legislature (congress or parliament), executive (president/prime minister), and judicial. A better, division, I think, is between policy creation and execution (the people and their delegates), policy implementation (the civil service), and policy monitoring (the judiciary).

Before the specific structures, DC has constitutional supremacy, rather than parliamentary supremacy. There is a written constitution, which in addition to specifying the formal structure of the government, also establishes individual rights, which may not be compromised by ordinary majorities of either the people or any body of delegates.

Under democratic communism, policy creation and execution is held by the people and their delegates. I will talk about delegated as opposed to trustee democracy in more detail later, but the basic concept of delegated democracy is to get as close as possible to direct democracy in a society with the practical problems of tens or hundreds of millions of people.

Unlike legislatures in BDRs, the people and their delegates do not just pass legislation and thereby grant some other branch of government the power and duty (i.e. the authority) to implement it: delegated democracy under DC is not, like most BDRs, a "fire and forget" system. The people are in charge not only of creating policy, but supervising at the executive level the day to day implementation of that policy.

The actual implementation of public policy as determined by the people is in the hands of the civil service. Like most civil services in BDRs, the civil service under DC is organized along hierarchical bureaucratic lines, using the director-supervisor-employee organizational model, and where individuals are primarily charged with following specified procedures, regardless of outcome. However, unlike BDRs, the civil service is not directly responsible to a separate electoral body (e.g. a President or parliamentary ministers); the civil service is directly responsible to the people and their delegates. The people give direct orders to the civil service, and civil servants must — if they want to keep their jobs — follow those orders. The only legitimate objection a civil servant may have to the people is that some instruction is physically impossible to perform. (Civil servants may, of course, advise the people on the undesirability of some instruction, or consequences of an instruction that the people may be unaware of, but the judgment of the people prevails.)

By allocating the implementation of policy to the civil service, the government retains its technical knowledge, "how to turn the lights on." The civil service maintains its independence of the people by means of tenure: an established civil servant may not be fired or demoted except for insubordination, failure to follow procedure, or "corruption" (acting for personal gain contrary to the policy of the people).

Under DC, the independent judiciary is most like the judiciary under BDRs. We have independent judges deciding cases arising from disputes between individuals. Unlike BDRs, however, "the people" are never a party with standing on their own merit. In other words, contrary to the doctrine under BDRs, crimes under DC are never against "the people"; crimes and other injuries are only against other individuals. (The people may represent victims of crimes who cannot represent themselves, e.g. murder victims or those who have been endangered but not actually injured by risky behavior, but the people as a whole are ever themselves "victims" of a crime, because even the supposed criminal is part of the people as a whole. The difference is subtle, but, I think, important.)

Finally, there are special branches of the civil service: the military, the police, the press, primary/secondary education, post-secondary education, emergency public services (e.g. ambulances and firefighters), medicine, and the legal profession. More detailed analyses of these special institutions will follow.