The Political Architecture of Democratic Libertarian Socialism, Part 2

In the first part of this series, I developed the idea that a democratic libertarian socialist political architecture would be necessarily voluntary, deliberative, consist of political units of fewer than one hundred individuals, and would require representatives to scale up. At the end of part 1, I listed some potential problems with this scaling process. I break these problems into two main types: the jurisdiction problem and the representation problem. In this second part of the series, I will address these two problems.

The Jurisdiction Problem

The question of jurisdiction centers on the freedom of individuals to conduct their lives as they see fit. If all individuals have the right to live as they like and any two individuals disagree, by what process can a decision between them be made? This being a democratic libertarian socialist state, as opposed to an anarchist one, the right to retain private property is still a viable option for settling disputes, as long as the conditions of use and labor that justify exclusion are met. Private property then successfully solves the problem and given the two conditions of use and guaranteed income we avoid exploitation through it. The decision goes to the owner on principle, in fact, that is what it means to be an owner, you get to decide how and when a thing is used.

The problem persists in joint property and in public property, however. We must ask how people set rules about, for example, littering on a public street, without violating the rights of the individuals who did not explicitly agree not to litter on that street? Voluntary society seems highly susceptible to collapse into petty sovereignties. A principle of jurisdiction could solve this problem, but this must include some amount of tyranny. It is my hope that we can devise a jurisdictional principle that would mitigate the tyrannical effect to the greatest extent possible so that people would voluntarily agree to subject themselves to the rule of others out of respect for the autonomy of those others and so preserve their own autonomy in their own sphere.

Jurisdiction, as it is generally construed, concerns what relationships count as politically relevant enough that people have the right to create rules in their sphere of action with the effect of restricting the freedoms of those who enter it. At base, we need to know what makes an association of people a body politic empowered to self-govern. Is a relationship between enemies politically relevant? What about business partners? Or geographically distant close friends? The answer is that they all could be, but none necessarily are. Such categories of identity and relationships are too subjective to be useful here and should be replaced with spheres of action. As the individual must be in touch with their own interests they must be in touch with the interests of those who make up their basic democratic unit as well. Their decisions will impact that unit more than any other units. Therefore, those who have the greatest chance for proximal interaction have the greatest concern with each other’s behaviors. Alternative forms of interaction are all less effective. Interactions through media, for example, are always shaped by the media itself and thus constitute a less direct, less effective, and so less politically relevant form of relationship. Political relationships need to be local enough to present direct physical interaction, but not necessarily externally defined. A geographic feature, such as a river or a mountain range, might well divide one political area from another, but this should be because the feature genuinely affects the locality of the individuals who inhabit the body. The building of a bridge or a tunnel could effectively change the political jurisdiction. So, while it may be possible for a community to straddle opposite sides of the globe, it’s very, very unlikely; and even if it is the case, it is more unlikely still that so greatly separated peoples should remain a small scale political unity for long.

Whether a person inhabits a place or is merely visiting is an important question. Those who set down roots seem entitled to a say in that sphere of action, precisely because it is theirs, but those who are just there for a weekend, don’t. Caution must be exercised at this point in any government claiming to be a voluntary association, as a rule affects all (persons), not just those who decided upon it (citizens). If the citizens of a given area enact a biased rule that favors themselves over minorities and non-citizens, this is the worst tyranny and is easily accomplished despite a principle of equality before the law. This tyranny is simply unacceptable and must be mitigated in the name of a just society. James Madison dealt with this problem of faction by allowing larger spheres of action to supersede lower ones. We see this in the United States when the constitution makes lower laws void. A city cannot, for example, enact slavery statues because it is illegal at a larger sphere of action. Madison’s solution, however, suffers the major drawback that each sphere is governed by representatives and it becomes all too easy for wealthy and powerful factions to capture the higher spheres for themselves. Something that Madison thought would be highly improbable.


Although locality makes up an important part of the basis for determining jurisdiction, it is also not limited to a specific externally marked domain. Political boundaries at the scale of the community are nearly fluid and correspond neatly to the areas directly inhabited by their members. This is the most voluntary form of government. It is at the municipal level that the need for defined jurisdiction covering spaces not privately owned enters the political architecture. These public and quasi-public spaces cover areas frequented by the members of several communities but not necessarily wholly bound inside their combined private property. In other words, the laws of a community apply only to the members of the community themselves, they have no jurisdiction beyond the community members and their property. The community is purely voluntary and as close to completely anarchist (at least for adults) as possible. Municipalities, on the other hand, govern several communities at once. The bounds of the municipality must somehow designate which communities are a part of the municipality for terms of voting and where the laws set down by these collective communities are applied. This is the first scale at which laws must be written down and publicly posted and where the law applies beyond the citizens of the jurisdiction. The municipality is the smallest unit of government and law and most likely sphere for tyranny. It is also the most flexible, allowing for the greatest diversity of relationships and laws, biases, and individuality. As with Madison, every scale above the municipality works similarly and each one’s laws would bind the ones below it so that a county that forbids a thing binds all municipalities in that county to forbid it as well.

Here is precisely were democratic libertarian socialist values clash with anarchist ones. For this is where voluntary agreement first begins to drift off. To see this, let’s ask the question: must all who enter a municipality be bound by the laws of the municipality, whether or not they are members of it? Let us say that the members of a municipality unanimously decide to forbid the spitting of chewing gum on the sidewalk. Let us further say that you are a visitor to this municipality who did not and would not have the opportunity to vote on this particular issue. Must you follow the rules of the municipality and not spit your gum on the sidewalk despite having never agreed to this rule? This example highlights a clash of values in libertarianism itself. Does one group, when imposing its rules on its sphere of action, have the right to impose those rules on non-members of the group in their territory? Libertarianism places a value on the voluntary agreement to rules in order to be legitimate but at the same time allows people the freedom to set their own rules. The solution to this apparent paradox is recognizing that all visitors have agreed to the rules establishing how laws get passed in each place and that inherent in that agreement is the agreement to respect the laws set down by others in their own jurisdictions. In other words, like Madison’s solution, there is an agreement at a higher scale which supersedes the lower disagreement. The problem with this solution, as with Madison’s, is that of capture which allows political tyranny. 

To prevent capture, I offer a two-part solution. First, individuals must have both a jurisdiction of their own and at the same time alternatives jurisdictions to enter should they wholly disagree with the rules they are subject to. If one is a visitor, one is free to simply not visit. However, for citizens, relocation offers less of a solution. As a citizen, one has a voice in a given jurisdiction, and could simply try to prevent laws. One might not always be able to escape the biases of a group through the vote though, and if one resides in the area, getting up and leaving, while an option, is not always economically advantageous or feasible. Fleeing a jurisdiction is easily accomplished at the community scale where it most likely would not even involve a move. But higher scales bring increasingly greater difficulties to this method of preserving one’s liberty.

This is the reason we need a second part to this solution: higher percentages of popular support must be required to establish a law at larger scales. Rather than force people to relocate to communities that are ideologically homogeneous, we could instead raise the bar for passing laws in correlation with the scale of the jurisdiction it would affect. The goal would be to equally allow groups to create laws governing conduct in their spheres of action and at the same time protect dissent. As stated above, a biased community rule is easily escapable by simply changing communities if you so strongly disagree. A higher order law, however, is more difficult and so should require greater assent to pass. And so on, with each scale up requiring more affirmation. The ability of the large jurisdictions to supersede the lower ones would still have the desired effect as Madison envisioned. However, the ability to capture the larger spheres of action would become increasingly difficult, since the percentage required to secure a decision would change in inverse proportion to the scale of its effect. 

Practically, we might imagine that at the smallest level, the community, a simple majority is all that is required to pass a rule. At the highest level, universally, we might require something extreme, like the assent of 95% of the population, to pass this entirely inescapable legislation. The scales between would be higher or lower accordingly. A municipality could require only 55% of its population to affirm a law before it passes, whereas a county may require 60%, a territory 65%, a district 70%, a nation 75%, and hemisphere of the globe 80%. This architecture will result in the majority of laws existing at the smallest scales of government and thus applying only to a few people; at the bottom, only those who voted for them. Only overwhelmingly agreed upon laws would exist at the greatest scales. This is the best that can be done for dissident without allowing minority dictatorship over the majority population.

This solution, however, presents a further challenge. What happens to a person who dissents from the social order? What happens to the minority vote? And while we’re at it, how does one become a community member? These questions are all related to the idea of who counts, which I’ll deal with later, but for right now, let me focus on what recourse persons have in a system they disagree with. The problem is more concrete if we take any social norm that is rather one-sided as an example. Genocide might be an easy one.  What would happen if you lived in a community who condoned genocide even though you reject it? Well, first you could leave the community. All individuals are political beings, and so all individuals must belong to a community. But you are free to choose your community to some extent. If you choose to leave a community, it would be necessary for you to be accepted by another. However, it can never be acceptable for a community to eject one of its members. Members may leave voluntarily or die, but they must not be removed. The ability to leave allows members who do not wish to live under certain laws the freedom to take refuge elsewhere. At the municipal level and above, this may involve physical relocation. The costs of which will have to be weighed against the strength of the individual’s beliefs. But we can very quickly see that the greater the scale, the more implausible this “freedom” becomes, and it is indubitably the case that without the actual opportunity for leaving no freedom exists.

It seems clear that any democratic libertarian socialist political architecture must be directly democratic at some point. The above assumes a directly democratic legislature, although not a directly democratic executive or judicial government. Dissent is healthy and should not be immediately suppressed, but at the same time, a large majority has a right to live how they choose and not under the anarchist tyranny of the minority veto. This compromise between our respective interests seems to offer us the best of these mutually exclusive positions.

Before we move on, I want to say a word on what a community can do to discipline its members for non-compliance. There will always be those who are disruptive and whose disruptions are either apolitical or simply criminal. For example, one may remain in a community and break the law merely to do so. Given that other avenues for dissent are available this member of the community is simply breaking the rules to break the rules. This is no less tyranny than usurping a political system to disenfranchising others or seizing power. The obvious manner for stopping such activity is to expressly forbid it by law and treat offenders in the customary manner, whatever form that takes. But if the behavior does not quite constitute a violation of the law, for example, something both disrespectful and disruptive but still within the bounds of political speech, the community must take care not to ostracize the member(s). However, they do not have to listen. A de facto excommunication may be acceptable whereas de jure excommunication is not. As long as the member is still allowed to speak and still allowed to vote and have their vote counted, a community is free to ignore them.

The Representation Problem

I want to return now to the issue of representation. In the first part of this series, I showed how the mere inclusion of representatives endangers the entire political architecture of democracy making it a de facto oligarchy or monarchy. What we need to prevent this is to devise an architecture that would not allow unauthorized power to slide into the representative’s hands. The first thing we have to do is understand exactly what the role of representatives is in a truly democratic government. So, let’s begin by recalling that the need for representatives doesn’t enter the picture until the scale of the municipality. As I said, communities are basic democratic units, anarchist in nature, and so do not require an internal representative. Thus, we only need representation to organized political bodies beyond our communities, viz. municipalities, counties, territories, districts, nations and universal. Representatives then are charged with carrying out the community’s bidding in its relations to other communities and relating the desires of other communities to the represented community.

We still face the problem of where the community may not be able to determine their own “bidding” explicitly or charge in a direct and personal manner their representative with the task of carrying it out. At the same time, the “representative” may just carry out their own bidding in the name of the community they represent. Ensuring the link between the will of the group and its representative is our task. To do this will require more–not less–political architecture. It would be instructive to revisit the separation of powers theory, represented by the branches of government, viz. the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. I argued above that it is the communities themselves, as the basic units of democracy, that should legislate directly. Let me add here that the communities should act as legislators at all scales of politics. This is important for representation because it takes away the power of the representative to volunteer their constituency’s voice or sell their vote without consent.

This locus of the legislative action in the community is essential to democracy. Legislative power cannot be delegated without changing the political architecture from democracy to something else. The representative’s role in wielding legislative power should be limited to functionary duties, e.g. preparing language, conducting votes, entering decisions, codifying laws, etc. Perhaps representatives may decide which laws to vote on and at what time, but such legislative authority should mark the utmost extreme end of their power to influence legislation. This is all that can be done to satisfy Edmund Burke’s admonition that representatives exercise their individual conscience rather than mindlessly following the uninformed opinions of their constituents. It is the legislative branch of government that belongs to the people and must remain directly with the people if the polity is to be considered democratic. 

Edmund Burke

However, this is not true of executive and judicial power. These important roles can be delegated with particular structuring, so that a small minority may perform the function of governing, but do so without ruling. The role of representatives in government should then be largely limited to overseeing executive and judicial functions, such as the hiring and firing of administrators and judges and making of policy respecting the administration of law, but never, under any circumstances, the enactment or repeal of law itself.

Another duty of representatives is maintaining the flow of information. It is perhaps the most vital role of representatives to act as the eyes and ears of a community so that it may confront the issues of the day from an informed position. Obviously, information may come from other sources, but representatives, as they act in higher and higher scales, have access to the most direct information available. In other words, it is not just the role of the representative to serve as the voice of the represented, but as the voice of the government to the represented, empowering them with the information they need to make good decisions. They are an important pivot point between a community and all the greater scales of politics. The worst representatives will hide information from their constituents in an attempt to manipulate the situation how they think it ought to be handled. Trustworthiness will, therefore, be the most vital characteristic to consider in the election of a community’s representative. To guard against manipulation, a democratic architecture should require that all government activities be public.

How should representatives be selected at each scale? There are various schools of thought on this, but I favor election at the smallest scales. Each community should elect, with a simple majority vote, it’s representative to a municipal council. Each municipal councilor should elect, at the determination of the community they represent, their representatives to the county council. Beyond the county level, it’s hard to know who to trust. All candidates desire power as no one runs for offices who do not. However, a solution is available if we simply remove elections at this point. The territorial council and beyond could all be appointed by the drawing of lots from the pool of current county councilors in good standing.

Why introduce a chance here? Precisely because it checks overwhelming political ambition. We can still ensure that we are getting good people into office by additionally requiring that only those who have been elected to a county council more than one time are eligible for higher offices. We can also restrict the term of office to a single six-year period; along with the prohibition on being selected for more than one term at any particular appointed scale. Those representatives who are elected should be reelected frequently, say every two years, but could, of course, serve many terms up to some reasonable limit; say, a maximum of six terms. This will assure us that even if some rather bad apples get into positions of power, they needn’t be suffered indefinitely. Additionally, a list of impeachable offenses should be made into law that would allow the recall of anyone who abused their position. And any representative, even an appointed one should be recallable by their represented lower scale. Appointments would have a voluntary component, no one would be forced to serve and may resign at any time. And the vacancies could easily be filled by another round of elections or selections.

In its most abstract terms, the representatives of the communities serve as their surrogate in the daily administration of self-government.

In part three, I will attempt to flesh out the bare bones of this political architecture by exploring some of the more pragmatic considerations democratic libertarian socialism must confront.

The Political Architecture of Democratic Libertarian Socialism, Part 1


In this series of posts, I will discuss aspects of political architecture consistent with democratic libertarian socialism. My purpose is to attempt to rationally plan a functioning democracy in relation to libertarian socialist ideals. This is counter to most libertarian socialism which is generally understood to be anarchist. What I will not be doing in this series is arguing why democratic libertarian socialism is superior to anarchist libertarian socialism. Neither will I be making the argument for libertarian socialism as a socio-economic system which I have done numerously elsewhere in different ways on this blog; e.g. here, here, here, and here. Also, see my prize-winning essay on the subject.

To keep with libertarian ideology, the structure I plan will be a limited state, voluntarily justified in the places it is coercive, and run on principle and law. The goal is to protect each other from the abuse of power that comes with a community by structuring the power, through principles, in such a manner that it cannot be overwhelmingly coopted. See my post on the different kinds of political discourse in philosophy for a more about the goal of political architectures.

The point of this post is not to decide on a method of political activity, nor to find a method of resolving political disputes, but merely to ask how do we best organize ourselves into political structures as to maintain relative economic equality and liberty. I want to ignore the battle between monarchy and democracy, loosely defined, as over and done with; democracy I hold to be the clear favorite. However, democracy by its very nature comes in a multitude of configurations; from indirect republics, plutocracies, and aristocracies to more direct tribal democracy, congregations, contractual alliances and–at the bottom–simple friendships between individuals. The division I just drew stands in need of explanation, for the former represent larger forms of democracy, scaled all the way up as it were; while the latter tend to represent the smaller forms scaled down to the deliberative decision-making of individuals. Both scales have their positives and negatives. The large scale allows for mass action that generates truly miraculous feats, irrespective of whether those feats are right or wrong. The problem is that it is very hard to get decisiveness out of such a large body of people, that is to say, the greater the capacity for mass action, the lower the possibility for univocal agreement. The opposite is just the case with the smaller democratic forms. Here we see that mass action is limited by the smaller populations, but at the same time, a greater possibility for explicitly-voluntary concord among the members is still achievable. This is the nature of the dilemma for a political architecture of democracy. How best to organize a political population so that the best of both scales is preserved?

First, we must ask, is it even possible? No doubt there must be some form that maximizes the best of both scales even if it doesn’t completely resolve the issue. Every form of state even paying lip-service to the idea of democracy, like fascism, observes the rule that power is legitimated by the people. What is questionable about there highly authoritarian forms of democracy is whether or not the structure is in fact legitimated by the people. The test for the level of democratic influence is well known to political science: are the laws and decisions of the government in step with the opinions of the people at large, some larger association within the populace, or with an elite minority? On this scale, few if any real democracies exist in the world. Most republics can be defined by which association they serve. For example, the United State is plutocratic because the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of the government are more likely to enact policy following the desires of the wealthy than the general public, see the study here. My goal is to find a form that would be genuinely democratic. That is, where the policies of government closely represented the desires of the general public.

I will generally skip over a history of political forms and assume you have a working knowledge of past regimes. However, I feel compelled to speak briefly of the form known as a “republic”. This form is interesting because, in my opinion, it is a hybrid between monarchy and democracy.  Republics attempt to solve the same stability problem we are. The republican solution is to preserve attributes of a monarchy inside a democracy. One way it does this is by limiting who “counts” in the population generally and the citizenry specifically. By reducing the number of decision-makers, either by explicitly forbidding certain populations access to public affairs or by diminishing the effect of their influence or by structuring certain domains of political discourse to a select group or single “head” or some combination of all these, republics reduce the instability of a mass of decision-makers. Limiting the decision-making capacity for the majority, (to voting for representatives, for example), or relegating it to minor and insignificant decisions (e.g. voting on the occasional ballot measure) are the most common method of republics. They work by paying homage to democracy while giving the real decision-making powers to an elite few or one. Over time, the need to pay homage to the people wanes and there is a tendency for this type of government to go from a de facto monarchy or oligarchy to an explicit monarchy. Think of the Roman Republic and its civil strife that lead to the formation of an autocratic Emporer. For our purposes then, a republic of any form is not a genuinely democratic option. I seek a stable form of democracy, not a tacit form of monarchy.

Deliberative Democracy

To form a democracy it is necessary that a forum for the full expression of every individual’s political concerns exists and that every individual has a turn to speak and be heard by their political peers. This I will call the short definition of deliberative democracy. Deliberative in this respect meaning simply a democracy where people come to talk to work out their respective political issues. Deliberation is essential for democracy for two reasons: (1) it is by definition voluntary and (2) it forces a recognition of the actual political issues confronting individuals and communities. Bounding the deliberative aspect of democracy effectively eliminates participation by its citizenry. This makes any action the state takes involuntary action on the part of those who either could not participate or were limited in their ability to participate. Similarly, no individual can rationally decide matters they have not had a chance to hear argued, neither could they empower a representative to do so on their behalf. Representation, even plenipotentiary representation, is possible in a democracy. However, it is not something someone can simply empower another to do without a specific outcome in mind. How could you represent my interests, if I don’t know what is going on or what would be best for me? I don’t want to digress too far down this path, except to say that representation is a necessity to large scale democracy, but without the opportunity for all individuals to confront the issues of the day, in both a direct and personal way, representation is illegitimate.

What often happens in republics is elected “representatives” are empowered with the entire decision-making capacity of their constituents, i.e. they do not represent the people so much as they replace them as though they were the only citizens of a democracy. This is oligarchy and the first step on the inevitable road back to monarchy; once the relationship between the representative and the represented has been usurped, so that the representative no longer needs any input from the represented to make decisions, then all “representation” has ceased, and the so-called representative has become an independent lord of their constituency (a member of the house of lords) and a patrician among plebians (senator of the Republic).


Let’s consider the notion of scale more closely.  Here we should ask, what is the smallest unit of a political entity? Prima facie, the obvious answer would be the individual, but a little reflection reveals that the answer is flawed. The problem with the individual is that decisiveness and action collapse and become one and the same. Individuals, barring mental disease, are considered the master of themselves precisely because there is nothing political about them. In fact, the appeal of monarchy resides in its utilization this natural apoliticality to make decisions for everyone, which are then applied through authority or force over them. We see again on the individual level that the problem of political architecture is decision versus action. How are things to be decided (e.g. by whom?) and how much action is going to be brought to bear (i.e. how many individuals will be involved)? The greater the action; the greater the power, but the decision is how that power will be utilized and towards what. Monarchy is appealing precisely because so much power can be brought to bear so single-mindedly! This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the monarch that utilizes the full power of the population for their own self-aggrandizement is what we call a tyrant.

The individual’s apolitical nature means that a single individual cannot be the smallest unit of a polity. I would argue then that the smallest unit must be the individual as he or she stands in relation to others. The pair may be the smallest political unit then. A pair of friends, of lovers, parents, or children; even of bitter enemies are all examples of the smallest political unit. There is an effect of the pair that we can see continuing in larger and larger scales, up to a point. This effect is a need to work together toward some end.  Even among enemies, there is a shared desire to eliminate the rivalry, albeit mostly following the strategy of eliminating the rival. Nevertheless, the end of the rivalry would bring about the end of the relationship as enemies and at the same time the end of the political unit. Thus, we could say that all political units are relationships between two or more individuals. We can see these relationships do not change as we scale them up, at first anyway. There is hardly a difference between two rivals and three or a team of six and a team of seven. But this direct relationship doesn’t scale up like that forever, and this is again owning to natural conditions. There are important differences between a company of seventeen and a company of seventeen million. In the latter, the “company” will hardly be able to recognize each other, and it is unlikely that a direct and personal relationship will exist between all the members as it would for the company of seventeen.

So here we have our first two architectural principles: political units begin with relationships and so require at least two individuals and these relationships cannot scale up beyond a certain point. I leave it to science to determine that point, and I highly suspect that it would vary with the individuals and cultures. A group of people with excellent memories, for example, might be able to maintain a direct and personal relationship with everyone else at a higher population than a group of people with faulty memories. That said, I feel we should put some rough number to this point that is generally manageable for an average human being. For the sake of mathematical ease, I’m going to say one hundred is the threshold of direct and personal political relationships for the sake of the scaling problem. Essentially, I’m suggesting that under a hundred individuals most groups could manage their own affairs through direct democracy, without the need for written laws, procedures, representation, or much political architecture at all. This is the threshold of anarchism. Talking and relying on each other would be all that it would take to resolve nearly all of the group’s problems. So, let us call this anarchist unit of one hundred or fewer, the basic unit of democracy. My goal is to introduce political architecture so that these units can combine and scale upwards with similar stability, all the way up to the incorporation of humanity as a whole.

The Scaling Problem

My guess would be that each democratic unit would require a representative in the next scale up. So, let’s call this basic democratic unit a “community”, we might imagine a municipality that consisted of representatives from each community of one hundred or fewer individuals. But again, we encounter the same scaling problem. Fifty community representatives could all know each other and function as a community of representatives, but fifty thousand would just lead us back to the same instability we saw before. The obvious solution then is to repeat the same process again and limit “municipalities” to groups of one hundred community representatives. And so forth, we might see this same scale repeat so that a “county” consists of the representatives of a hundred municipalities, a “territory” of a hundred counties, a “district” of a hundred territories, a “nation” of a hundred districts, and “world” of a hundred nations. But there is a problem with this model, several in fact.

One problem is that each scale up removes the representative from those they officially represent. Another problem is who elects these representatives or who are these representatives ultimately accountable to? How does information flow in both directions in this system?  And there is the problem of jurisdiction, how are laws geographically applied? What if I want to be part of a “community” made up of individuals spread across the globe? We may not even have the same political concerns. Another problem involves the politicization of other forms of human distinction, such as race, class, gender, age, etc.  Doesn’t a demographic identity, say black males aged twenty to thirty in the southern United States, have shared political needs that form a kind of quasi-relationship even if no direct and personal relationship exists between them? All these problems point to the fact that our political architecture requires more than simply scaling representation up at the threshold of direct relationships. It’s not enough to have direct democracy at all scales and that each scale is likely to require its own unique design.

In the next part, I will address these problems as I paint a picture of how representation may be managed on a rising scale.

Oscar Wilde was a Better Marxist than the Bolsheviks, Part 2

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.  It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”

In the first part of this series, I showed that both Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx respected individual freedom so much that they saw it as the essence of socialism. Each man envisioned a future that enabled the fullest expression of individuality. Far from the authoritarian socialism of the Bolshevik model; Wilde had libertarian socialism in mind. Neither man was particularly explicit about what socialism would look like, each preferring to paint in broad strokes his vision of the future. In all likelihood, neither probably knew what socialism would look like so much as they knew what was wrong with capitalism. There is thus no way to compare blueprints. We may, however, see socialism in a negative, that is by knowing what they said socialism is not, and how each believed we get from capitalism to socialism.

It may seem surprising that not even Marx advanced a state-ownership of private property model; one that placed society above individuality and authoritarianism over liberty. State-ownership of the means of production was capitalism for Marx, who thought of the state as the keeper of bourgeois interests. Neither did he think that the dictatorship of the proletariat could be anything other than universal, democratic, and brief. A democratic dictatorship is an anarchic phase that all revolutions necessarily go through. Think of the American Revolution before the constitution, when the Contential Congress claimed self-sovereignty and began issuing dubious laws. The dictatorship of the proletariat under the Bolsheviks came to mean “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors…”, as Lenin put it. No longer would the people rule themselves, they would be ruled by the vanguard of intellectual elites acting as saviors for a whole class of people who revolted quite sufficiently without them. This was socialism in name more than in substance.

Real socialism is supposed to differ from capitalism. Capitalism cultivates economic dependence, suppresses actual political decision-making for indirect democracy, and through these methods stifles individuality. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of poverty under capitalism. From the perspective of capitalism, poor people are “superfluous”, to use Thomas Malthus’ term, or “redundant”, to use Margret Thatcher’s. They are not needed by the economic system and therefore the system is unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to support their continued existence. Capitalist logic dictates that it is the duty of the poor to die, even in the midst of great plenty, if their labor is unnecessary to capitalists. This ruthlessness of capitalism has been defended by Malthus et. al. but generally it is deplored by mainstream society, including a great many wealthy capitalists themselves. Poverty for most people is a social problem that requires a social solution. Wilde writes,

Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralysing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them.

Poverty is so destructive that those who are in it fail to recognize the social mechanisms that produce their deplorable state; rather like how a drowning person loses sight of everything but keeping their head above water, the poverty-afflicted can only struggle desperately from moment to moment. Disobedience and rebellion, those mechanisms of human progress, require the intervention of others who can help them discover their plight. Wilde writes,

What is said by [capitalists] against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary.  Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation.

This is the role Marx set for himself. Just as the chains of slavery were not, and could not be taken off by the slaves themselves, abolitionists became necessary. Socialist agitators awaken the proletariat–who at that time, may well have been fully employed and yet completely destitute–from false consciousness, or the conviction that this was the best that they could hope for in life or all they were worth or that the iron law of wages meant there just wasn’t enough for them even if they doubled production.

But it is not only the poor who suffer under capitalism. Another problem is the threat of poverty, which leaves even the richest insecure. Wilde again,

An enormously wealthy merchant may be—often is—at every moment of his life at the mercy of things that are not under his control. If the wind blows an extra point or so, or the weather suddenly changes, or some trivial thing happens, his ship may go down, his speculations may go wrong, and he finds himself a poor man, with his social position quite gone. Now, nothing should be able to harm a man except himself.  Nothing should be able to rob a man at all.

The threat of poverty drives the rich the way a jockey drives a horse. No one, no matter how wealthy, is immune to the threat. Poverty must be done away with, must it not?

Socialism obviously offers a solution, but capitalism provides its own. Charity and altruism are the bulwarks of capitalism. Wilde saw this as a fraud. Like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilde realized that the exercise of mercy is just another form of power and control, a way to make others live for you. Altruism is anti-socialist! Charity hurts the poor. It strings them along without the hope of liberation. Wilde writes,

[People] try to solve the problem of poverty… by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing [them]… The proper aim [of socialism] is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible… Charity degrades and demoralises.

For Wilde, this was cruel self-aggrandizement on the part of the wealthy. Charity makes the rich feel better and that is all it does. The Malthusians among us will no doubt object that it is by the generosity of the capitalist that any poor exist at all. The neoliberal will add that, actually, it is by the self-interest of the capitalist that the working poor, those paupers, have even the meager means to survive. But for Wilde, as for Marx, this is telling the slaves, those who sow the seeds, raise the crops, harvest the food, and prepare and serve the meals, that they should be grateful for the master’s benevolence in providing them sustenance. Wilde writes,

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so… Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.

The poverty-ridden people unable to recognize who or what is making them poor, have but two options for survival: to steal or submit to capitalism’s picture of humanity. Wilde suggests the choice is between living as a human being and as a pet, writing,

It is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg… As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage.

To the Randian libertarian, who locates the fatal flaw in the idea of altruism itself, a break with capitalism is not necessitated. To these anti-socialist libertarians, one must boot-strap oneself out of poverty, either by accepting their worth as whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table or by asceticism. Against this position, Wilde writes,

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

The problem for this libertine brand of capitalism is the loss of human dignity that it entails. One may not need to be “grateful” because one lives by one’s own lights but without socialism, that life must be debased. What is the point of living by one’s own labors if one cannot earn a respectable living with nearly super-human effort? What is the point of individualism when it reduces individuality to mere animal subsistence?  Indeed, it is not finer to take than to beg?

Rejecting capitalism’s cold comforts and Bolshevik authoritarianism, we are left only with a particularly libertarian form of socialism. The socialism of Wilde approaches something like the minimal state of Robert Nozick, but unlike Nozick’s, a state incompatible with exploitation.

Individualism, then, is what through Socialism we are to attain to. As a natural result, the State must give up all idea of government. It must give it up because, as a wise man once said many centuries before Christ, there is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures.

Wilde was very nearly an anarchist, however, the state remains as a

…voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful.

How exactly the state and individual efforts are to be arranged, Wilde leaves us to speculate. Which to his credit he acknowledges:

Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Still glimmers of what Wilde envisions come through. Wilde, like Marx, sees the unlimited potential of mechanization to free human beings, but only under socialism where its benefits are shared by all. Mechanization eliminates manual labor and frees human beings from toil.

There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities…. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours, on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine… Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

How close is Wilde to Marx’s vision of socialism? In the third volume of Capital, near the end, Marx argues that “the realm of freedom” his ideal society of free individuals, cannot begin until freedom from want and thus compulsion is achieved.

Just as the savage must wrestle with nature, in order to satisfy his wants… so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all the forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development the realm of natural necessity expands because his wants increase; but at the same time the forces of production increase, by which these wants are satisfied. The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Fromm, 60)

Marx paints a picture of socialism where humans produce rationally rather than in an alienated way. That is, they produce for themselves what they want, not necessarily what the capitalist would profit by the most. They produce associatively, which may or may not be competitive, but without the ruthless competition of capitalism. This clearly rules out the possibility of a state-run, bureaucratic socialism. The individual must be the central agent and the goal of socialism. Socialism then is merely meant to alleviate human beings from the struggle with nature, and so allow us to create ourselves for ourselves. Socialism will be known when economics serves the needs of society the same way it serves the needs of capitalists under capitalism. For Marx and Wilde, socialism is a machine for serving the basest of human needs, our animal needs. It is not here to tell us how to satisfy them, only to ensure that they get satisfied.