Bridging utopia and pragmatism to achieve direct economic democracy.

Author:Asimakopoulos, John


The birth of market fetishisation was recorded and discussed by classical theorists including Durkheim, Marx and Weber. This commodification of society was not complete simply because those with capital dominated society's institutions. Rather, market fetishisation of nineteenth-century capitalism extended to the bourgeoisie as a class. In contrast, tomes of labour history, including classic works of the aforementioned theorists, make clear that the average worker wanted as little to do with the forces of the free market as possible. There was a high level of class consciousness amongst workers, though it was not always articulated. As a result, the domination of culture by capital was resisted. The victory of market ideology was complete in the twenty-first century, having become the common point of reference for understanding social issues. While radical coalminers shot back at capitalists during the 1900s Coal Wars, working Americans now shout pro-capitalist slogans on the way to the food lines or Tea Party rallies.

Unfortunately, much blame for this reversal can be apportioned to the bankruptcy of left ideologies. On the pragmatic side, too many groups on the left spend time developing public policies that could barely be considered even reformist. For example, one of the most respectable left economic think tanks, the Economic Policy Institute, provides great analyses of economic data but its prescriptions for reform rarely extend beyond recommendations for tweaking the tax codes or reviewing levels of stimulus spending. On the theoretical side, the few remaining left critical theorists still often prefer to expend their energies in sectarian debates instead of developing workable models for change. Similarly, utopian theorists pour over things that are alien to the average person. Who in the general population has even heard of 'Really Really Free Markets'? The final problem is the left's ideological rigidity, often exhibiting a naivete about socioeconomic systems and how they change. Some left groups even think epochal transformation happens like the big bang: instantaneously through a 'great strike' or 'revolutionary moment'! Did feudalism appear in this way from antiquity? Did capitalism appear in its fully developed form in a fortnight? No. Any historian will tell you all this is a result of historical processes, often historically contingent. There is room for a different way of thinking about transformation. The changes we should be considering are the intelligent moves that will unfold historically in the direction of social equality, in this case direct economic democracy.

There are qualitatively different types of reform, those that keep the system intact e.g., anything coming out of congress or the White House and those that transform it as proposed here. This brings us to the core issue of what we mean by 'anarchy' and 'radical change'. Anarchy, to me, ultimately means egalitarianism coupled with social responsibility in contrast to right-wing libertarianism. And the pace of change is not central to the consideration of its radicalism. According to Dahrendorf (1959) societal change can be both revolutionary (sudden) and evolutionary (gradual) measured by the extent to which personnel in positions of domination are changed. He imagines a continuum ranging from total change of personnel to no change. In turn, what he calls radical change can range on a continuum from sudden to evolutionary. Thus 'revolutionary change' could refer to and is used interchangeably in the literature to describe both sudden and radical change--although it can be evolutionary and might be equally radical in its effects.

As mentioned, theoreticians often confuse radical and sudden change to be one and the same when they are not. Radical change is positively correlated with the intensity of class conflict. According to Dahrendorf, 'intensity refers to the energy expenditure and degree of involvement of conflicting parties. A particular conflict may be said to be of high intensity if the cost of victory or defeat is high for the parties concerned' (1959: 212). Sudden change is positively correlated with the level of violence. According to Dahrendorf:

The violence of conflict relates rather to its manifestations than to its causes; it is a matter of the weapons that are chosen by conflict groups to express their hostilities. Again, a continuum can be constructed ranging from peaceful discussions to militant struggles such as strikes and civil wars ... The scale of degree of violence, including discussion and debate, contest and competition, struggle and war, displays its own patterns and regularities. Violent class struggles, or class wars, are but one point on this scale. (Dahrendorf 1959: 212) Although sudden and radical change can occur together, as with high levels of violence and intensity, these concepts can be disentangled.

As well as helping to shed light on the nature of radical transformation, Dahrendorf's analysis also illustrates the space that exists for critical pedagogy in struggle. The intensity of conflict shows precisely where these pedagogies become indispensable as a means to build class consciousness (Freire 2000, McLaren 2006). The work of Antonio Gramsci (1971) on the importance of developing a counter hegemony and the role of organic intellectuals is also relevant here. (2)

As a starting point, my claim is that we cannot expect ordinary people to instantaneously adopt a fundamentally different socioeconomic system that is alien to them. Rather, as Gramsci argued, we need to develop alternative models of society while demonstrating why and how these would be preferable to the status quo, thus eroding its legitimacy. In addition, he argued that people would need time working within these new models, to appreciate their feasibility and gradually become accustomed to the new structures. Only then would they be willing to act toward transformational change.

Gramsci's point was that if a counter hegemony grows large enough, it is able to incorporate and replace the historic bloc into which it was born. (3) Gramscians use the terms 'war of position' and 'war of movement' to explain how this is possible. In a war of position a counter hegemonic movement attempts, through persuasion or propaganda, to increase the number of people who share its view on the hegemonic order. In a war of movement, once the counter hegemonic tendencies have grown large enough, it becomes possible to overthrow, violently or democratically, the current hegemony and establish itself as a new historic bloc.

It is in the context of Dahrendorf's and Gramsci's work that the proposal to fill the boards of directors of major corporations with randomly selected citizens and workers of the enterprise is made. In Dahrendorf's terms, totally replacing personnel in these positions of domination (corporate boards) would be a sudden, therefore, revolutionary change, more or less violent, leading to a radical end, although it may not seem as such, while avoiding the total destruction of existing institutional arrangements and the chaos that that would create in everyday life. Such a change inside corporate boardrooms would contribute to a wider process of evolutionary radical revolution.

Critics might ask: how radical is the change and is it any different from reformism? To be sure, the proposal looks different to theoretical anarchism found in academic literature. But this is an ideal type, as separate from reality as the theoretical ideal-type capitalism of classical economics. (4) My proposals are a form of what R.K. Merton termed theories of the middle range,5 which will bring us as close as possible to a functional state of egalitarianism as a definition of anarchy. Those espousing ideal theoretical models will be disappointed.


Outright expropriation of productive property is synonymous with political revolution assuring the state's violent reaction. There is however a pragmatic alternative that would be difficult to achieve yet attainable and as revolutionary in its consequences: demanding that half the board of directors of all major corporations are filled through statistically random selection e.g., by lottery from the demos, and half from the employees of the firm. In general, lottery schemes are not new. Ancient Greeks used lottery systems to fill certain public offices. In modern times various theorists have proposed random selection of decision makers on grounds of fairness and egalitarianism (Burnheim 2006, Carson and Martin 1999). Here I extend the concept to 'workplace democracy'.

The lottery challenges the principle of representative democracy, engrained in liberal systems, though it retains a representative aspect. Specifically, representative democracy is founded on the principle of a smaller number of elected people representing a larger group in decision making. In contrast, under direct democracy people decide and vote directly for themselves. In representative democracy, candidates promise the electorate that they will vote a certain way on issues and, if elected, are expected to represent that constituency, although in reality they may not and vote as they wish. Here the elected representatives claim to 'speak for' others. In terms of anarchism, even the most ardent proponents of direct democracy, from Bakunin and Proudhon to most modern writers, ultimately develop representative decision-making models. Delegates, elected directly from a smaller body, represent it at aggregate levels e.g., regional and federal. This happens for the simple reason that it is logistically impossible to get, for example, 300 million Americans to vote directly on all issues affecting the community on a daily basis.

In the lottery system, representation is opened up to all through random sampling. The language comes from statistics and surveys. A sample is a...

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