After watching months of media coverage, you go to the polls for a few minutes and cast a vote for someone to represent you . . . and then it’s over. This is what “democracy” means today.
To be sure, winning even this limited form of electoral democracy was an important working-class victory. And access to the polls remains an important issue. Conservatives continue their efforts to roll back voting rights for people of color in the United States. Other populations, such as felons, non-citizen residents, and teenagers under eighteen, are outside the franchise entirely.
The question remains, however, whether these are anything more than tactical battles, ways to win advantage in the struggle against capital. In a better world, isn’t there more to democracy than this? What kind of political organization is suited to a socialist society?
Direct democracy isn’t enough. We’ll still need representative institutions.
Historically, socialists have argued that democracy should be extended into one of the least democratic parts of capitalist society: the economy and the workplace. We already have institutions like unions that do that in a limited way. But how could we democratize the economy as a whole?
Some advocate direct democracy, in which people develop and vote on initiatives themselves, rather than choosing representatives based on general platforms and granting them the right to make policy.
One of the most influential recent arguments for postcapitalist direct democracy is Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s book Parecon. In it they conceive of a world in which every possible task is rated in terms of its level of empowerment so that the burden of work is distributed evenly. Moreover, everyone orders their consumption and working-time preferences in order to ensure they receive an optimal allocation of time and goods.
But as many critics have pointed out, this system entails an absurd amount of effort and time to implement. The job allocation system would require nonstop meetings, committees, and analyses, while the goods allocation system imposes immense bureaucratic requirements on individuals. Direct democracy may be ideal for, say, a small cooperative, but it doesn’t make sense as a way to run a whole society.
Some kind of representative system is necessary, both in organizations and whatever state exists after capitalism. However, it should be as small and simple as possible. Modern governments, with their constant elections for all manner of minor functionaries and local officials, are in their way just as cumbersome and impractical for people to participate in as Parecon. They are only superficially democratic.
Hopefully one day we’ll live in a future of limitless energy and automated production, and so the many aspects of our governments that are dedicated to either protecting or redistributing wealth will be unnecessary. But there will still be big questions that arise. Do we build that high-speed train? Do we try to salvage Earth or do we go to Mars?
In that case it may be useful to have representative institutions in some highly attenuated form, which can organize and focus opinions about huge and complicated issues, concentrating them into ideological platforms and parties that are more democratic and participatory than most of those we have today.
But we’re not quite done yet. Even in capitalism, there is another system, neither representative nor direct democracy, which is sometimes offered as an alternative to both.
In a socialist society, markets could help democracy.
Right-wing libertarians often argue for the market as a superior form of democracy. Representative democracy, they claim, is flawed because it allows majorities to impose their will on minorities, and because it allows uninformed voters to support “irrational” policies.
In contrast, these libertarians regard the market as a perfect democratic mechanism. “Vote with your dollars,” and the invisible hand will do the rest, ensuring optimal outcomes for all.
Given its provenance, many leftists are quick to dismiss anything having to do with the market as necessarily antithetical to democracy. But rather than rush to this judgment, we should stop to consider just what makes the libertarian form of market democracy so unpalatable.
The problem does not come primarily from the act of market exchange — that is, using money as a medium for buying and selling. Rather, it’s the unequal endowments that precede that exchange. We oppose the fact that a tiny few command huge amounts of money — and thus huge power on the market — while a vast many have little money, and few ways to obtain it other than selling their own labor-power.
This problem isn’t restricted to private market exchanges. In a capitalist society, it also affects representative democracy itself. While that system is formally based on the principle of “one person one vote,” the rich invariably find ways to corrupt the process in their favor.
The result, in every capitalist democracy, is somewhere in between pure “one person one vote” and the oligarchical-libertarian ideal of “one dollar one vote.” Campaign finance reform may move things away from dollar-democracy and toward person-democracy, but the only way to completely overcome the power of the rich is to remove their control over social wealth.
But if we were able to do that — expropriate the ruling class and overcome capitalism — where does that leave the market? If the inequality of initial resources is erased, the market can in fact serve as a mechanism of democratic coordination. Your dollars can be your votes.
The problem of resource conservation provides a way to think about this. Suppose we live in a democratic socialist society in which work has been mostly abolished, and everyone has equal resources. The only catch is that we still live in a world with severe resource limits, and so we have to find an equitable way to keep people from using too much stuff.
In some cases, some kind of centralized regulation or planning may be necessary. But we don’t want to have to spell out in detail just how much of every consumer good each person is entitled to — that way lies the Parecon dystopia of endless meetings.
So instead, imagine assigning everyone an equal number of credits to spend, on goods whose prices are tied to their ecological impact. In the simplest case, this could be carbon cost, but it could include many materials and resources. This way, if I don’t have the credits to get both a new computer and a transatlantic flight, I can choose which one I want, without attending any meetings or applying through a government office, and the “price” of particular scarce resources will adjust based on society-wide demand for them.
This is a vast oversimplification, of course. But the overall point is that in any conceivable future society, we will need a variety of different methods of coordinating our common life — in other words, different forms of democracy.