Reading Bob Black’s reply to Bookchin’s municipalism, Anarchy After Leftism, I hit a part in Black’s “On Organization” that struck a nerve:
The first is that the vast majority of the Athenian citizen minority abtained from participation in direct democracy, just as the majority of American citizens abstain from our representative democracy. Up to 40,000 Athenian men enjoyed the privilege of citizenship, less than half of whom resided in the city itself (Walzer 1970: 17). “All the policy decisions of the polis, ” according to Bookchin, “are formu lated directly by a popular assembly, or Ecc/esia, which every male citizen from the city and its environs (Attica) is expected to attend” (1974: 24). In reality, the facility provid ed for the assembly accommodated only a fraction of them (Dahl 1990: 53-54), so most must have been expected not to attend, and didn’t. Attendance probably never exceeded 6,000, and was usually below 3,000. The only known tally of the total vote on the measure is 3,461 (Zimmern 1931: 169). And this despite the fact that many citizens were slaveowners who were thereby relieved, in whole or in part, of the need to work (Bookchin 1990: 8). And despite the fact that the prevalent ideology, which even Socrates subscribed to, “emphatically prioritized the social over the individual,” as the Dean approvingly asserts that Bakunin did (5): “as a matter of course,” the Athenians “put the city first and the individual nowhere” (Zimmern 1931: 169-170 n. 1). Even most Athenians with the time to spare for public affairs avoided political involvement.
In this respect they resembled the remnants of direct democracy in America, the New England town meetings. These originated in the Massachusetts Bay colony when the dispersal of settlements made a unitary central government impractical. At first informally, but soon formally, towns exercised substantial powers of self-government. The original form of self-government was the town meeting of all freemen, which took place anywhere from weekly to monthly. This system still prevails, formally, in some New England towns, including those in Bookchin’s adopted state Vermont-but as a form without content. In Vermont the town meeting takes place only one day a year (special meetings are possible, but rare). Attendance is low, and declining: “In recent years there has been a steady decline in participation until in some towns there are scarcely more persons present than the officials who are required to be there” (Nuquist 1964: 4-5). The Dean has thrown a lot of fairy-dust on present-day Vermont town meetings (1987: 268- 270; 1989: 181) without ever claiming that they play any real role in governance. Indeed, Bookchin hails the town meeting’s “control” (so-called) precisely because “it does not carry the ponderous weight of law” (1987: 269): in other words, it’s just a populist ritual. By failing to either “carry the ponderous weight of law” or jettison it-tasks equally beyond its illusory authority-the town meeting legitimates those who do carry, willingly, the ponderous weight of law, the practitioners of what the Dean calls statecraft.
In modern Vermont as in ancient Athens, most people think they have better things to do than attend political meetings, because most people are not political militants like the Dean. Several sorts of, so to speak, special people flock to these get-toget:hers. These occasions tend to attract a person (typically a man) who is an ideological fanatic, a control freak, an acting-out victim of mental illness, or somebody who just doesn’t have a life, and often someone favored by some combination of the foregoing civic virtues.
Face-to-face democracy is in-your-face democracy. To the extent that the tireless typicals turn up, they discourage those not so afflicted from participating actively or returning the next time. The Dean, for instance, speaks glowingly of “having attended many town meetings over the last fifteen years” (1987: 269)-they aren’t even held where he lives, Burlington-who but a political pervo-voyeur could possibly get off on these solemn ceremonies? Some people like to watch autopsies too. The same types who’d get themselves elected in a representative democracy tend to dominate, by their bigmouthed bullying, a direct democracy too (Dahl 1990: 54). Normal non-obsessive people will often rather appease the obsessives or even kick them upstairs than prolong an unpleasant interaction with them. If face-to-face democracy means having to face democrats like Bookchin, most people would rather execute an about-face. And so the minority of political obsessives, given an institutional oppor tunity, tend to have their way. That was how it was in Athens, where direction came from what we might call militants, what they called demagogues: “demagogues-I use the word in a neutral sense-were a structural element in the Athenian political system [which] could not function without them” (Finley 1985: 69).
Indeed councils of an entire politiy or even an entire class generally have low turnout and are dominated by the more intangible elements such as charisma or back room dealing. Incentivizing council participation is hard and defending them harder: the amount of defense of the workers and soldier’s councils has never been enough to fight a state apparatus, such as the crushing of the schools in Germany in 1918, or not be subsumed by a state apparatus, the incorporation and effective dismantling of the councils in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. Attempts to use councils solely at the work place level, such as advocated by syndicalists, are now only to re-direct the focus of value, but still must expliot labor and accumulate the raw rources for capital like any capitalist enterprise. There could easily be a decrease in labor alienation, but essentially collectivizing the management of such alienation would not effectively in it.
Michael Albert and Robin Handel’s Parecon model is not significantly different than Bookchin’s municipalism on these matters except that incentivizes participation by making ones yearly allotment for ones labor a political affair. This, however, has obvious problems as both capitalists and people like Black would point out: it would constantly need to be reconsidered for external contingencies and would have no easy way to correct for such without constant ad hoc reconvening. The “mission drift” of such an enterprise would essentially incentivize the kind of demagoguery and clientalism that direct democracy is suppose to fight.
Often it is proposed that automation can replace slavery or imperialism as the modus operandi of the state, but if this were the happen before a proletariat was collectively running a state, such automation would both accelerate the decline in rates of profit (although the increased flow could make incomes seem very large indeed) as well as remove workers from the focus of production: their ability to stop work being their primary source of power, this would actually decrease the part of organized labor as a possible political force. It seems to be me, while there is no one-to-one relationship between automation and rendering elements of the workforce into surplus population, there is an element there that cannot be denied. While theoreticaly this actually increases the power of an individual proletariat to slow production and thus increases their bargaining power, the complication comes from the expanding surplus population being competition for any meaningful work serves as a counter-incentive to ever attempting to use such power or even bargain for a better place within such a system.
We can, however, ignore that critique on automation as a productive force that would enable councilism in current and assume that is only developed after worker control or at least a leftist form of political dominace. Sure, we can assume that. Both anarchists, technocrats, and council communists have made such arguments. Black actually points out, in his normally sardonic way, that this would not decrease the amount of political investment necessary;
For even if technology reduced the hours of work, it would not reduce the hours in a day. There would still be 24 of them. Let’s make-believe we could automate all production work away. Even if we did, technics couldn’t possibly do more than shave a few minutes off the long hours which deliberative, direct democracy would necessitate, the “often prosaic, even tedious but most important forms of self- management that required patience, commitment to demo cratic procedures, lengthy debates, and a decent respect for the opinions of others within one’s community” (Bookchin 1996: 20; cf. Dahl 1990: 32-36, 52). (I pass over as beneath comment Bookchin’s avowal of “a decent respect for the opinions of others.”) Having to race from meeting to meeting to try to keep the militants from taking over would be even worse than working, but without the pay.
If we do not have such a time consumption deliberation, merely voting through a logistic mechanism such as something akin to a massive Project Cybersyn would naturally limit us to objects set up those who set up the parameters of system. How is that different between the artificial choice of two parties which limit outside involvement? With such deliberation, no logistics or automation technology could possibility remove the antagonistics of vision.
As almost EVERYONE I know who took part in the consensus councils and committees of Occupy admitted how structures involved enabled certain catories to dominate and others to endlessly derail. Perhaps Robert’s Rule of Orders and other formal structures could take eliminate some of this kind of mucking of the rails, but I doubt it.
This debate, however, has not just be had between post-left and left anarchists on this form. Left communists, both sides condemned by Lenin in his infantile disorder polemic, had this debate among themselves. A good summary of the debate as it existed between Bordiga and Pannekoek can be found here:
Bordiga and Pannekoek theorised the highest points of the proletarian movements in Italy and Germany respectively. Bordiga’s tactical failings, (e.g. on the question of unions), like his strengths (such as the critique of democracy), are a product of the proletarian movement. The incompleteness of the Italian Left’s critique, and its need for modification by the theses of the Dutch German Left, are a consequence of the national basis of its experience, and of the particular form that the class struggle took in Italy. Similarly, the texts of Pannekoek who analysed the movement in Germany, and was a major theorist of the KAPD, should not be treated as the ideas of an individual but as an expression of the movement of the German and Dutch working class. For all the ICP’s internationalism, they did not go through the same class struggles as those of the German movement, and so did not generate the same theorisation, especially in respect of unions. These tactical inadequacies in fact verifies elements of Bordiga’s theory of the party. The party needs to group proletarians from all sections of the class and synthesise all radical tendencies in the class. The national basis of the ICP, and of the KAPD, is the cause of the particularity of their theory, including the limitations.
An examination of these two tendencies, amongst the most radical of the twentieth century, points beyond their respective limitations. Communism is neither “the power of the workers’ councils” nor the dictatorship of the vanguard party, nor is it reliant on any other predetermined organisational form. Communism is neither the “self-activity of the workers” nor the “programme”, but specifically a proletarian self-activity that re-appropriates or recreates the communist programme. What is important is not the form of organisation, but what exactly is being organised; the essential is communisation, humanity’s collective re-appropriation and transformation of the whole of life now alienated through capital
However, the explanation of how a party, particularly party both of and above a class, does not impose limits on the will or thought of the members of the class it synthesizes. Form does matter as the form of a thought can limit the content of a thought even if it does not determine that content in its totality. The critique of programmism given here itself offers a larger programme, and assumes the ability to impose that programme through self-activity. It is important to realize that these problems cannot be done away with the prestidigitation of abstract language such as making communism a verb to enact while claiming that such a pattern itself does not constitute a programme.
I suspect this is why these strains of Left-Communism actually produced the thinkers who would be among the primary 20th century inspirations for post-left anarchism. Jacque Camatte’s rewiliding as an answer to such problems by essentially arguing it was time to give up and abandoned the capitalist civilization. The Situationists took up councilism skeptically as a necessary beginning, but not without critique.
Bob Black, however, mirrors Bordiga’s and even Gilles Duave’s critique, but also do not have faith in a party apparatus or even a process of communization. His recent writings on democracy mirror my own thoughts on the subject, and while perhaps less hopeful of a way out than say Duave and while also still more hopeful about autonomy than Dauve, he does have the distinct advantage of being readable.
2 thoughts on “Hell is Other People In Committees and Councils”
You should have Bob Black on a podcast. I am sure he would be willing.
I should. I have found reading his work from almost exactly 20 years ago now to be oddly relevant.