The Political Architecture of Democratic Libertarian Socialism, Part 3

In this third part of my series on the political architecture of democratic libertarian socialism, I hope to articulate and resolve some practical questions. It would be impossible to nail down every question or even all the important theoretical and pragmatic questions in this short work, but addressing a few should provide enough of a sketch that my readers should glimpse an image of the final portrait.


So far I have argued that a libertarian socialist democracy would require organizing its populations into small deliberative bodies of a hundred or fewer people. These political communities would form the basic democratic units, be responsible for the legislative decision-making at all scales of politics, elect representatives to govern and report the activity of government back to them, and finally demarcate particular zones of enforcement of laws at different scales in the form of jurisdictions.

This is all well and good in theory, but how does it work in reality. Obviously, there is no way to inductively determine the best procedures on all counts. However, we may abductively suggest some procedures that would keep with our libertarian socialist ideals. The first question we must address would be, who counts? We have already determined that individuals do not count by themselves as political units and that the smallest democratic unit is the community. But the community is made up of a certain number of individuals. So, who counts as an individual? It might be tempting to say everyone, but this is misleading. Do we mean newborn children? Invalids? The insane? Criminals? “Everyone” may be an unwise policy. I think, what we want are humans of a certain age, who have not demonstrated a tendency to abuse others, and are in reasonably good mental health. But what age? What kind of abuse? What good mental health?

The concern with children is two-fold. First, at what point have they become wise enough to direct their own affairs and partially the affairs of others, and second, this being a voluntary political architecture, how do they affirm the rules they live under. As children have the prevailing tendency to become adults, so do they have the tendency to go from not counting to counting or to put it another way, from being mere persons in a jurisdiction to citizens of a community in that jurisdiction. Whatever the education process a community chooses, political education must be mandatory for the health of a democratic society. Children should be involved at every level of the deliberative process, even if they are denied a voice and a vote until a mature age. Their participation should evolve in stages. Perhaps, say, at ten they watch the younger children, and at fifteen they begin to be allowed to speak to their communities about what they think on certain matters. At age twenty, I imagine, they would become full members with all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

The hegemonic aspect of any dominate political architecture would seem to overcome the voluntary nature of individual affirmation. We can’t restart the whole system every year for the sake of children’s voluntary affirmation. However, we might incorporate a revolutionary element in the laws themselves, which would allow them to require periodic reaffirmation, say once every five, ten, twenty-five, or one hundred years. Laws that are basically universally accepted would only need a reaffirmation vote every hundred years, and the vote total could be lower for affirmations. Were as lower order laws may need to be affirmed more frequently. If a law is ever not affirmed it would be considered repealed.


Criminals offer a different challenge. Having forsaken the laws of the society they are proven untrustworthy in politics. Yet they too deserve a voice. The question of how to treat criminals is also two-fold: first, punitive and second, rehabilitative. To be stripped of your voice and your vote in a truly democratic society is to be stripped of your right to self-government, and so your autonomy. You become a pawn at the whims of others, and is a strong, although not an extreme, form of punishment. It seems a fitting and sufficient punishment that lawbreakers lose their power to be lawmakers. On the other hand, the punishment must not be permanent or even long-lasting, for, without recourse to restoration, criminals would quickly become a permanent underclass of non-political citizens; such people are easily exploited and if the interests serve the majority, criminals can be easily created. This punishment is the only punishment criminals should receive. The prohibition on voting must be finite for every crime and last no longer than the rehabilitative element. Also, it should be noted that the vote of the criminal is neither cast nor counted. It would be unfair to let their community count them as though they voted.

What remains of criminal elements should be handled in a rehabilitative and restorative manner. The goal of the former is to prevent repeat offense while the goal of the latter is to restore to the victim what can be restored. Obviously, there are limits on both of these, but the goal of a criminal justice system must be the bringing back of both the criminal and the victim. This prevents turning the criminal justice system into a defacto slave system for society justified by the fact that these people are lawbreakers. Therefore the state has a vested interest in not allowing convicted criminals to work for any reason. The guaranteed income established by the principles of libertarian socialism would suffice to meet their needs, but no labor can be extracted from them voluntarily while they are under the authority of the justice system and any labor arrangement entered into involuntarily amounts to a form of slavery.


Finally, the sick and invalid present us with dangerous political waters to navigate. Be sure here, I do not mean removing voting rights from disabled persons. What I have in mind here is more or less permanently incapacitated. Anyone who can communicate in any manner is capable of casting a vote and so ought to be allowed. Surely those who cannot speak out for themselves simply won’t, but should their votes still count? Does a community have the right to count citizens who for health reasons cannot represent their own interests? I think not. The greater danger here is that of exploitation of the “votes” of the invalid would give a minority undue legislative power. Now, how a vote is counted can be determined by the community, a nod or a thumbs up or a spoken word or even blinking twice might all count. This would hopefully clamp down on the desire to have people removed from the rolls as invalids while keeping their political power for the community.

Mental health may represent the greatest hazard. The other question is what about those who are so mentally gone that they cannot think rationally. I’m disinclined to restrict their vote unless they are incapable of joining a community. This community standard, the ability to interact with others is crucial to a free and democratic society. Those who are a danger to themselves and others or simply incapable of communicating intelligibly, must not count politically. At any point, if they can join a community then obviously their vote would count the same as any other person.


After knowing who counts, we need to establish the process whereby votes determine laws in this political architecture. The basic unit of democracy is the community and not the individual. Thus, laws should be elected by the number of communities that approve them in a given jurisdiction, but we need to also understand how votes are counted. One problem our distinction between individuals who are not democratic units and communities that are is that we must determine if individual voices are being silenced by the political architecture itself. I do not mean here that voices are being silenced by other individuals in the community, but that the method of counting votes is somehow unfair, e.g. gerrymandering in current election systems.

Let us take the following example as illustrative of the potential problems that would need to be addressed: Image three communities, where community A has 100 members, community B has 50 members and community C has 40 members. Further, imagine that the municipality has split on an issue. These three communities are the deciding vote. Let’s say that A rejects the motion but B and C favor it. If we count votes by the smallest democratic unit, then the motion passes, in this case, two to one. But if we count by individuals we can see that the motion doesn’t pass, 100 to 90. How we decide to count votes then will determine the outcome in this case.

The problem with counting votes per community, as we see above, is that communities vary in size, and it would be disenfranchising to the number of individuals inside a larger community to have their votes equaled to those in a smaller community. This is similar to the problem with the electoral college in the contemporary United States. The easy solution would be to count community votes as either for or against but give them the relative strength of the total membership of the community’s individuals. In the above example, the motion would not have passed because there would have been 100 votes against but only 90 for. Inside each community, the total votes of the community would be up for grabs. If community A voted 49 for and 51 against, while community B voted 49 for and 1 against and community C voted 39 for and 1 against, the result would be 100 against and 90 for, and this despite the individual votes being 53 against and 137 for. This is because communities are the basic unit of democracy, and so they speak univocally. However, the communities strength is relative to their numbers. 

But what of those who don’t want to participate? We have incentivized them, yes, but should we force them? Well, one more addition to the political architecture will ensure their participation whether or not they are actually there: every vote of the membership is counted, whether or not you cast your vote or not. For example, let’s say a community of seventy members votes 38 for to 22 against on a measure. The measure will get seventy votes for it, even though only sixty actual votes were cast. The community has spoken and that “community” speaks with the voice of seventy people.

Requiring communities to speak with one voice will occasionally cause doubtless disenfranchising to some voters. However, this disenfranchisement does something positive for society as a whole by avoiding a particularly thorny “prisoner’s dilemma”. How do you encourage participation among everyone, which is vital to the supposedly voluntary nature of this political architecture? Those who show up to communities where the votes are determined univocally, make decisions for all in the community, but only those in the arena of community politics will get to decide for others. This action level is anarchistic. Those who choose not to participate by not attending or abstaining from voting are in reality allowing the other members of their community to cast their vote for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as an individual understands that that is what they are doing, and it establishes the universal affirmation of legislation required by libertarian principles.

This creates an interest in people to participate if they want their actual opinions heard. Showing up allows for the exchange of information, fosters discussion and debate, encourages seeing other perspectives, and a host of other deliberative goods. Were votes to be counted individually, as in a pure democracy, then there would be no need to deliberate with one’s political peers, and one could make all political decisions in isolation, forming idiosyncratic opinions, bereft of relationship knowledge. In short, it would be to make individuals the basic unit of democracy, which I have already argued is not possible. This point is worth hammering on. The individual is incapable of rendering a judgment about the society outside the context of their group. They simply can’t understand their own needs or the responsibilities of others, and so could not make good judgments about political issues. The community helps to spread those subjective prejudices out, force them into open dialogue, and then and only then allows a univocal decision. The univocal decision is necessary to put the individual in a place to participate. Democracies work best, indeed, they only work at all, when the overwhelming majority of the citizens participate.


That said, the disenfranchisement is a problem, however, it can be slightly mitigated in two ways. The first mitigating circumstance has already been established for other reasons previously: our political architecture does not require a mere majority vote to carry the day, it requires a supermajority significant enough to overcome most objections to ensure victory. In the above example, 55% approval would be required to pass the law, so that if the numbers were reversed and community A was for the measure while B and C were against it (assuming these three communities made up the total municipality) the measure would not pass. This is the conservative aspect of government, preserving freedom and ensuring a great deal of voluntary support at high scales.

A second mitigating circumstance is possible if we set a minimum on the number of members a community could have. I have previously suggested that the number of members in a community be capped at one hundred, but perhaps I should make a few modifications. First, let me ask if a minimum number is necessary? The real reason for the discord between the three communities in the above example is their relative sizes. This example was chosen precisely to bring out this peculiarity. The feeling that one’s vote doesn’t count comes as a reflection of the scale of the arena, so that difference between the highest and lowest possible membership reflects the number of voters whose voice can be discounted. For example, were the minimum members in a community two and the maximum one hundred, then it would be possible for a form of democratic gerrymandering where groups split to form separate communities in order to have their way. In general, there is nothing wrong with this, but its effect must be limited by creating relative equality between all communities, in other words, we need to set a minimum and maximum that are relatively close together. This should help to minimize the damage in communities, the only place where such division between univocal decisions and numeric strength is allowed. Pragmatically, I would recommend a minimum of fifty members and then change our maximum from one hundred down to ninety-nine, so that upon the addition of a hundredth member, the group splits into two separate communities of fifty. With these numbers, the largest number of individuals that could be disenfranchised at the most actionable level would be forty-nine.

Now scaling up, the only thing that changes is the required percentage of the population to pass the measure and the number of communities participating in the vote. We might ask what if no one in the whole community votes, then that community has simply abstained. Communities themselves can, of course, set quorums if they wish to abstain, so that if less than half of the community members vote, the result is abstinence. This is their right as the basic democratic unit. And there are of course other hurdles to overcome; most notably, how do we get from here to there. Whatever transition we might take, it will be chaotic and anxiety-provoking. I’m not sure there is a right answer here. But I have faith that such a thing may be managed by the numerous talented persons who make up this world.


In the next part of this series, I will go beyond the legislative and explore some of the issues of practical governance this political architecture must deal with.

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.

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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. 

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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

Introduction

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).

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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.

Reflections on Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto

Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, did a Q&A last night in Philadelphia’s Westside to promote his new book, The Socialist Manifesto. It was hosted by the Philly chapter of the DSA. I was in attendance with about a hundred other, mostly young, mostly hopeful, progressives and socialists and at least one stodgy old Marxist. The “action” came at the very beginning when Sunkara was attacked, (had a yogurt-like substance thrown on him and was briefly accosted) by one of two black bloc anarchists, apparently over a beef they had with one of his tweets. Personally, the emphasis on anonymity and malicious behavior that characterizes black bloc tactics betrays a kind of conservatism more often found among internet trolls than radical activists, but I digress.

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Bhaskar Sunkara

After a quick change, Sunkara masterfully presented his work. The book, which I was fortunate enough to read in the twenty-four hours before his talk, is somewhat mislabelled. Sunkara explained his original title, “Socialism in Our Times” was rejected by the publisher’s marketers, who retitled it, with his permission, “The Socialist Manifesto”. The book, however, is not really a manifesto. Most of its 288 pages are devoted to a quasi-scholarly history of socialism from the era of Karl Marx to the 2018 American midterm election. In its selections and interpretation, Sunkara quietly gestures to his larger objective, invigorating a long-dormant socialist organization that is capable of challenging capitalism’s domination of the political-economic world.  

By his own admission, of which I am in complete agreement, the best part of Sunkara’s book is its first chapter, where he jovially lays out a vision of a socialist world not too different from ours. What is different is important, making small changes with big implications. It is the most theoretical part of his book. The vision he lays out is ideologically socialist and ruptures from capitalism, but it also deviates from the traditional socialist programs. It is more libertarian, less communist, emphasizing bottom-up socialism over top-down. I have very few quarrels with it and in general, find it a hopeful take on the modern socialist theory.

The main issue I had with the book is that there is no defense of the vision. It is presented and then merely assumed. From the second chapter onward, the book embarks on a long narrative history, not so much of socialism’s varied theoretical debates but on its practical efforts to build, organize, and maintain itself as well as challenge capitalist forces and survive antagonist forces allied against it from both within and without. The book’s final chapter provides a list of socialist commandments, drawn from the lessons of the history Sunkara elaborates.

I am not averse to books of practical socialist politics, but the title of Sunkara’s book had me excited that we were finally going to be moving towards a new kind of socialist theory. One that takes a decisive step away from Marx. I understand that it was not Sunkara’s choice for the title, so I don’t blame him for baiting and switching. I fear that without a new theory of socialism, the best socialist can hope to do is “occupy the state” as Sunkara said of Léon Blum. We are still waiting on a vision.

 

Socialism, What’s the Difference?

Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Vladimir Lenin walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?” Lenin immediately climbs up on a stool and loudly proclaims, “We, the intellectual vanguard of the people, shall seize the means of production in the name of the people!” Bernie Sanders gently replies, “No, my dear Lenin. It is the freely elected government of the people who must seize them.” To which, Noam Chomsky quickly retorts, “Not at all, it’s the individual people themselves, who must seize them.” The bartender picks up the phone, “Officer, I got a trio of thieves at my place. Come arrest ’em.”

In the eyes of the doctrinaire capitalist, all sorts of socialism are the same, they are all theft. Internally, there is a good deal of division. The media has what I’ll call the short-division understanding of political economy. Remember learning short-division? Where five divided by four was one, remainder one. It’s like that, but with economics. This elementary-school version of political economy has capitalism on one end of a short spectrum and socialism/communism at the other. Essentially, it boils decades of diverse economic and political theory into capitalism and others. Obliterated are the intricate nuance and subtle variety that separates even pro-capitalist thought into over a dozen distinct theories. There are a few, ill-defined buzzwords that get carelessly banded around the information superhighway like drunks on the freeway. Terms like “neoliberal”, “neoclassical”, and “democratic socialism” take on a loose association with a political side like “neoclassical” = right-wing and “democratic socialism” = left-wing, or falls helplessly in between them confusing most people who hear them like “neoliberal” and “libertarian” and “libtard”. Are those that left-wing or right or good or bad? How should I feel about them? The point here is that the names don’t matter, but the theoretical positions do. So I want to take the next five minutes of your life and give you the gift of understanding the difference between “libertarian socialism”, “democratic socialism”, and Soviet-style communism.

Soviet Russia is indisputably the icon of socialism the world over. It’s not the original socialist theory and you’d probably be surprised to learn that it is a dubious successor to Marx’s theory. The Bolsheviks claimed descendancy from Marx and Engels, but Leninism grossly over-emphasizes economics, twisting Marxism into something ideologically self-defeating in order to make it negotiable under the labyrinthine socio-political climate of Czarist Russia. Leninism agrees with Marx that the bourgeoisie illicitly own the means of production and that it would only be through revolution that they can be used for the betterment of all rather than for the eternal enrichment of a few. And that’s where the important similarities stop because Lenin had to invent a practical scheme to bring about what Marx said would occur naturally. There is little dispute that the first Russian revolution, the February revolution was a spontaneous occurrence, revolting from tyrannical Czarist and oppressive aristocratic rule. The October revolution was not so spontaneous, in fact, it wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a coup d’etat. The freely elected government of Russia was seized by the Bolshevik party and democratic rule was supplanted for autocratic rule of the communist party. This, according to Lenin, was necessary because the people, having labored so long under the false-consciousness of bourgeoisie propaganda–what today would be called “fake-news”–could not be trusted to follow their real interests. His evidence for this was the fact that his party failed to win a majority in the general election. Lenin determined that socialism would need to be guided from above, structured by a cabal of intellectual elites who were not deceived by false consciousness. This vanguard would centrally-plan and command the economy for the people without any input from those people.

It seems obvious, now, when I put it this way, that Lenin traded economic freedom for political enslavement. He would enslave the people to free the people and then, maybe, someday, when they proved themselves ready, return them their freedom. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. We needn’t trouble ourselves with why not, because the next alternative cannot work the same way at all on principle. Democratic socialism is an alternative to the Soviet-style communism in that it believes it is the people who ought to decide on what uses the means of production are put to. In this version, the state still controls the means of production, but the state is necessarily a democratically controlled one. Myriad questions ensue, such as at what level will they be determined: nationally, communally, etc.? Or will the particulars be determined the people directly or through representatives or the appointees of representatives? Or how will the workers be paid, by the state on a fixed scale, by production rates, or by contract negotiation? How will prices be set or will products be doled out on some scheme? But these questions don’t really affect us here. The point is that democratic socialism hopes to overcome the difficulties of Soviet-style communism by bringing in the voice of the people, that is allowing them to weigh in on how socially controlled economic mechanisms are run.

Is such a system possible? Of course, it is. Take central planning, one could “centrally plan” an economy democratically by taking orders from every individual and making products to correspond with the orders. Technically-speaking that’s not a market, it’s a centrally planned economy with a single producer. Would it be efficient? Hmmm, that depends on what you mean by “efficient”. Would we overproduce, no, it would never produce anything for which there was not already an order (at least not in theory)? But it would be terribly inefficient having to wait for your order to be made and difficult to anticipate your needs well in advance. Plus, fairly limiting how much each consumer could order at a time. Still, it could all be worked out. The real question is, “is it more desirable?” I’m not so sure. Such a market would be like letting Amazon take over everything and then nationalizing Amazon. Monopolies are unquestionably efficient but they are also condensers of power. By reducing options to one, they eliminate choice to everyone except the one who decides on what to produce. Maybe we could all decide, but how? It’s unfeasible to think we’re all going to vote every time there is a decision at “National Amazon” and even if we did, how should we count the votes? Majority rules hardly seems fair. The logistical encumbrances quickly swamp the advantages the democratic socialist system provides.

A point should be made here about the so-called Nordic socialist countries. To be clear, they’re not really socialist at all. These countries share a strong devotion to welfare-state policies. We might add a fourth type of socialism in here, “welfare-state socialism” but this would be more confusing than illuminating. Capitalism, as I have argued elsewhere, should be defined by the legal determination that the owners of an enterprise or an estate be the owners of the capital in that enterprise or estate. These countries economic systems fit this description and therefore are best classified as capitalist. They simply use these myriad social programs to buttress capitalism and hedge in its worst tendencies the way the United States used to under Keynesian economic policies from the nineteen forties to the nineteen seventies. The best term for these countries then would be “welfare-state capitalist” and not socialist at all. It has been a rhetorical deception of laissez-faire theorists to classify such systems as “socialist”.  

Returning to our main discourse, we’re not stuck choosing between democratic socialism and unfettered capitalism; we might choose libertarian socialism. This oxymoronic sounding theory is unlike the others in that it disagrees that market mechanisms and private property in the hands of the bourgeoisie are the root cause of the problems with capitalism. Libertarian socialism holds that the problem of capitalism has to do with the organization of private property and not the existence of it. In this case, we can imagine a principled order that allows for private property, market exchanges, and most of the other staples of capitalism, but removes the exploitative rules regarding rent, interest, and capitalist profit as contradictory with private property ownership itself. With these exploitative elements eliminated, many attributes of capitalism change form, e.g. the overwhelming and incessant need to accumulate more wealth. This desire is capped by the concept that you cannot make money from money without rent, interest, and profit, so there is a finite amount of labor you’re willing to do beyond what you need to meet your needs. The desire to come to dominate all other businesses, the desire for monopoly, the desire for ruthless business practices, all have their teeth pulled. Included also is a guaranteed income which is required to prevent anyone in a society from forcing anyone else into a life of servitude in order to attain one of unearned leisure; in order to remove the one, the other must be dispensed with as well.

Libertarian socialism differs from other forms of socialism in that it emphasizes the freedom of individuals to make individual choices. It differs from libertarianism by arguing that societies have rights and privileges that individuals do not. The basis of this argument rests on the needs of groups to foster a sense of unity, without which there can only be lawlessness. The preservation of unity is a responsibility of societies which cannot be reduced to the individual members who make them up. This disagrees with libertarianism which assumes that all rights and responsibilities of groups can and do reduce to individual rights and responsibilities. There is a thing called society from which we are each individuated. Another way to imagine it is that the rules cannot be set with any particular individual or association in mind and be just, in the same way, that a baseball league cannot create rules favoring any particular club, either explicitly or implicitly without those rules being unfair. Libertarianism, which is a close cousin to anarchism, asserts that such a league would be unnecessary except as guarantor of the rules the clubs themselves agreed to. There is the possibility of fairness here, as long as we can assume that each club was equally well off when the bargain was struck, which is a pretty remote possibility. Libertarianism is simply unlikely to turn out to be fair.

Libertarian socialism offers us our greatest chance at a sustainable, just, and fair economic system. It is the most likely to produce the massive economic requirements of our modern large-scale societies and do so in a manner that is sustainable and harmonious with our natural environment and is at the same time compatible with human dignity and our political sense of fair play or justice. Libertarian socialism is the most feasible economic system, requires the least amount of change from capitalism, and could be produced without a bloody revolution. It is quite simply our last, best hope for a better world.

The Genius & Folly of Karl Marx

In this paper, I invite my reader to assume a particular view of Karl Marx and his theories.  In this view, we see Marx as a physician, treating an ailing society.  Through our examination of his work, we will conclude that his diagnosis is keen; in fact keener than any before or since.  However, his actual understanding of the disease is very limited, and his methods of treatment, where they exist, sadly misguided.  I don’t want to condemn him for efforts, but nevertheless, his theoretical faults are real and dire.

We will proceed by summarizing Marx’s general position on the exploitation of labor by capital and his explanation of it by means of his positive economic theory.  Our analysis will then focus precisely on the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, in which Marx attempts to render utility or use-value as a purely qualitative function of economic exchange.  I hope to show that Marx’s positive economic analysis is doomed because utility is not merely qualitative but quantifiable; in fact, it is quantifiable in units of labor-time.  With a reintroduction of use-value into the determination of an exchange-value, private property and markets for exchange become a necessary economic reality.  Finally, the paper will conclude that despite this error in Marx’s thinking, that capitalism is, in fact, exploitative of labor.   Thus, I will find that Marx’s conclusions ultimately prove correct, but not at all for the reasons he believed.


Part One

It is not clear, to me anyway, whether Marx’s theory of exploitation came as a result of his positive economic theorizing or whether his positive economic theory was devised to explain his theory of exploitation.  What is clear is that Marx ultimately links the two in such a way that future scholars, both opponents and followers of Marx, have acted as though the theory of exploitation is contingent on Marx’s positive economics.  The need to sever the causal relationship here is paramount.  To begin then I’d like to describe both of these theories independently, that is without the implicit assumption that they are causally linked.

Marx’s theory of exploitation involves only the question of who has the right to the value of the fruit of human effort?  For Marx, the answer is the same as it was for John Locke, the laborers and the laborers alone have a right to the value of the fruit of their labor.  For Locke, this meant the ownership of the concrete object itself, but for Marx, it was abstracted to value the object represents.  Marx saw that value, in this abstract form could be siphoned off through legal economic practices and in this Marx recognized exploitation.  If the value of the manufactured object was solely produced by the laborer, then the laborer who was not being paid the full measure of value was being cheated.

How this value was created and how it was extracted needed to be explained and, if possible, proved.  This was the work of Marx’s positive economic theory.  His theory center’s around the labor theory of value.  Marx’s labor theory of value–like that of Ricardo’s–finds its roots in Locke, who wrote,

For ‘tis not [merely] the Plough-man’s Pains, the Reaper’s and Thresher’s Toil, and the Bakers Sweat, is to be counted into the Bread we eat; the Labour of those who broke the Oxen, who digged and wrought the Iron and Stones, who felled and framed the Timber imployed [sic] about the Plough, Mill, Oven, or any other Utensils, which are vast Number, requisite to this Corn, from its being seed to be sown to its being made Bread, must all be charged on the account of Labour, and received as an effect of that: Nature and the Earth furnished only the almost worthless Materials, as in themselves.

This idea of value as an account of labor, a tally of each hour spent in every pursuit minimally necessary for the creation of each useful thing produced by human industry is taken virtually unquestioned from Locke through to Marx.  For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call this labor accounted for in the creation of a thing or commodity the labor of acquisition, which I define as labor necessary to bring about a commodity and deliver it into the hands of those who would use it.  For Marx, the labor of acquisition is a sufficient cause for and the sole determinant of the full value of every commodity.  Marx is alone in this.  Locke, Ricardo, and other economists all believe that there is more to the determination of value than the labor of acquisition.  

The advantage of Marx’s theory is that value can be objectively and empirically calculated, prior to markets of distribution.  It is obvious that, if the value of any given thing was exactly equal to the minimum number of human labor hours necessary to bring about its possession then we can objectively measure the value of every particular thing by simply counting up all the hours.  But there has always been a disadvantage associated with Marx’s cut and dry labor theory and that is use-value.

Political economists have–since Adam Smith at least–separated the value associated with the utility of an object, e.g. driving nails for a hammer or digging for a shovel, from the value it is said to exchange for with another object.  The former being the object’s use-value and the latter its exchange-value.  Smith and others suspected a relationship must exist between the two; however, by the time Marx was writing no one had yet to successfully formulate a theory showing how the two values related.  If use-value is a factor in determining exchange-value, as was suspected, then the labor of acquisition is not sufficient to determine value.  In other words, the central component of Marx’s positive economic theory, i.e. his labor theory of value, would be necessarily false.  Where Marx to simply include use-values, he would have to reintroduce markets and establish private property as necessary economic conditions.  Rather than do that, Marx opted to find a way to show that use-values were not a factor in value determinations.  


Part Two

Marx begins the first volume of Capital with a discussion of the commodity-form–that is a useful thing made for the purpose of exchanging it–which he considered the basic unit of capitalism.  At the very beginning of his investigation into the political economy of capitalism, Marx writes that the usefulness or use-value of a commodity is “independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities,” and a few sentences later, “use-values are only realized in use or in consumption.”  Now Marx realized, commodities, in order to exchange for each other at all, must have some common property, but Marx meant to prove that the value we associate with use, plays no part in determinations of appropriation of a thing (which recall is measured in labor), aside from the fact that it must have some use to even be considered worthy of appropriation.  Thus, utility or use is not the common property of all commodities, according to him.  

Marx then draws a bright line between subjective use-values and labor, dismissing the former as the valueless “material bearers” of exchange-value.  Like Locke in the quotation above, Marx has determined the material part to be worthless except that it is necessary as a value-bearer.  This role as value-bearer is unquantifiable, and so plays no part in the tallying of exchange-value.  Marx holds that use-values “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be”.  By this he means that use-value is merely qualitative and has no value measurable in units, be they labor or anything else; it is–in Marx’s estimation–a function of the socially-determined, material form of the object.  He expresses it again this way, “As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can only differ in quantity, and therefore do not contain an atom of use-value”.  He means that when we are evaluating commodities for the purpose of trade, their usefulness is not a factor in determining their value to us.  Hence, Marx suggests use-values can and should be dismissed:

If then we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of labour.  But even the product of labour has already been transformed in our hands.  If we make abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value.  It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing.  All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished.  Nor is it any longer the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason or the spinner, or of any other particular kind of productive labour.  With the disappearance of the useful character of the products of labour, the useful character of the kinds of labour embodied in them also disappears; this in turn entails the disappearance of the different concrete forms of labour.  They can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract.

No one–as far as I know–questions Marx on this point.  Marx’s brilliance in finding a way to reduce value to the labor of acquisition, which is objectively and empirically accountable (at least in theory) is undermined by his inadvertently eliminating labor as a concept distinct from mere physical activity from his labor theory of value.  

To “disregard the use-value of commodities” is to assume that any random and purposeless physical action is labor.  Labor, however, is purposeful activity aimed at the creation of some particular object for which a use is intended.  Marx has abstracted use to being a property of a material thing, and in so doing he has missed use’s necessary relationship to laboring itself.  To be able to disregard use, Marx must claim that material things can have a use-value, without necessarily having a particular end (viz. use) associated with them by any human being.  That is to say that commodities may possess an abstract use, which requires no intention of any usage at all.  But such a thing is self-contradictory because it asserts that uses exist which do not require a user.  In other words, Marx is assuming here that although no human being has a use for a commodity, it may nevertheless possess an abstract utility (not a hypothetical one) which renders it a bearer of value as the product of labor.

Marx is entirely correct that use or use-value and the labor of acquisition are entirely distinct from each other, and that the latter is the concern of the producer while the former is the concern of the consumer.  He is also right to claim that in order to exchange at all, objects must share a common substance.  As we just saw Marx assumes that use has nothing to do with labor.  But it is consumption and thus use that drives the intention behind labor.  Without use, labor is indistinguishable from random physical activity.  It is through labor that we can see use’s relationship to value beginning to emerge.  Labor indeed is the common substance between all commodities, as Marx suspected, but labor itself is necessarily linked to use and so the use-value of commodities cannot be summarily disregarded without also disregarding labor from our theory of value.

To make this more concrete we might employ a simple reductio ad absurdum.  According to Marx’s theory, all value is equal only to the labor of acquisition.  Suppose now that you are tasked with digging a drainage ditch in your yard to protect your house from flooding.  Now rather than dig up the yard with your bare hands you seek a tool to assist in the excavation.  Now suppose that you find two digging objects that have the same labor that went into bringing them to you.  One is a large stainless steel cooking spoon and the other a steel-headed wooden-handled shovel.  Both of these commodities would be useful in digging up the yard, i.e. they would be better than using your hands, and both have the same labor of acquisition and so the same price at market.  According to Marx’s theory then they both have a use and so can bear value and the value to you the consumer should be perfectly equal.  Thus, since use-value is not a factor in determining value you should be just as likely to buy the spoon as to buy the shovel for digging the drainage ditch.  This obviously absurd.  The shovel is the better tool.  But to even say the better tool some quantitative measure of use must be employed.  If use can be quantitatively rendered, then use-values are not merely qualitative and simply the material form.  And if this is the case then use-values may, and probably do constitute a factor in determining value.


Part Three  

What is useful about an object is precisely that it saves labor toward some intended end and how much.  Marx’s divorce of the value of things–including things as commodities–from their material uses misses the obvious fact that to use a thing is synonymous with laboring with that thing and that laboring always has a use in mind.  Thus, labor can be found in both directions from one’s situational relationship to a particular commodity.  Just like every act of selling is an act of buying, so also is every act of valuing an act of appraisal of usage.  The use-value differs from the labor of acquisition in that it is future-oriented and evaluates upcoming labor expenditures in which the object might be some measure of assistance.  The labor of acquisition, as we well know, is past-oriented and evaluates the labor required to legally lay claim to the object that it may be used.  These two labor evaluations are both necessary to sufficiently yield a final value determination or exchange-value.  Value is recognized only in the combination of use-value and the labor of acquisition relative to the particular seller, buyer and the buyer’s task at hand.  

Locke showed that human beings need to come to possess a thing in order to use it (i.e. acquisition through labor), but they also require a reason to come to possess it in the first place (i.e. they need an intention to use that thing).  Also instructive here is Smith’s notion that labor itself carries both a utility and a disutility.  While I grant Marx that use is only possible when there are possession and possession requires a certain amount of labor expended to obtain an object, that labor is not the only labor with which we associate the value of a commodity.  The other labor involves the object’s deployment, i.e. it uses.  How many hours will it take you to dig the ditch with your bare hands?  How much less with the spoon?  How much less with the shovel?  If the shovel has less than the spoon and your hands it has a higher use-value.  This use-value is then set against the cost of the labor of acquisition.  If the shovel is so expensive, that it would require more hours of labor at another job for you to acquire it than it would take for you to dig the ditch with your bare hands, your interests would be best served by digging the ditch barehanded.  

The problem Marx hoped to solve with socialized abstract labor is that different physical labors are qualitatively different from each other, so that–for example–tailoring is different from weaving.  By abstraction, labor can be divested of its qualitative aspects leaving only its quantity, measured in labor hours.  Physical labor is different from the general pool of hours available to all human beings of the same relative abilities.  These temporal hours are all abstractly alike and so can be rendered merely quantitative, i.e. an hour of anyone’s labor-time is equal to an hour of everyone’s labor-time. 

And this is true as far as the labor of acquisition is concerned; for when the the buyer is confronted by the commodity, the particular skills, tools, and substances of its creation are all equalized in an abstract averaging.  There are exceptions, but those exceptions tend to fall on the side of use-value as opposed to the labor of acquisition.  Note however that this averaging is only true from the perspective of the buyer.  The seller rather sees the labor of acquisition as the lowest starting point of the object’s value, the minimum for which the commodity may be released; to the labor of acquisition, the seller always wishes to add the use-value of his would-be customer.  

Socialized abstract labor is an average in the mind of the buyer, and as such, it cannot be individuated although it is individually generated.  The effect is that socialized abstract labor appears as “one homogeneous mass of human labour-power”.  This mass can be divided among the “world of commodities”–supposedly providing their exchange-values–but it is not individuated because it has been averaged.  For example, if three workers produce use-values in x, y, and z quantities of physical labor-time, then their abstract labor would be the mean of x, y, and z.  It would be a statistical error to then reassert that each worker produced one-third of that average.  What can be asserted is that the commodities produced by the workers have a total labor of acquisition (from the point of view of the buyer) equal to the mean of x, y, and z.  

To understand the problem with this averaging, we need only return the fact that when divorced of the link to use and use-values, all of the “productive expenditures of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.” are not in fact labor.  What is deceptive in this quotation is Marx’s inclusion of the word “productive”, which attempts to sneak “use” back in where it was supposedly being disregarded.  To be productive is to produce something, and by the expenditure of human power.  With that broad definition, every action could be an act of socialized abstract human labor, including sleep which produces rest, or television-viewing which produces leisure.  This interpretation of “productive expenditures” renders every hour indistinguishable from every other hour of every person.  The only measure of socially necessary labor time, i.e. socialized abstract labor, would be the total amount of available hours for every conceivable human pursuit (viz. twenty-four a day) multiplied by the total number of human beings currently in existence.  Another absurdity! 

Surely Marx did not intend to reduce the meaning of “labor”–by socializing and abstracting it–to mere physical activity, any physical activity; instead, I imagine that he had some subset of physical activity that is purposeful.  To be purposeful is to have an end in mind, and that is the same as saying that there is some use to the activity in that it brings about some end.  Further, because this end is socialized, it cannot be just any end, but one that is socially defined (to be laborious).  Thus, not all “productive expenditures” that take human hours constitute labor; labor is only the hours of “productive expenditure” devoted to completing a socially-defined work task.  The “task” is necessary to distinguish labor from mere physical activity, which is to say that the qualitative aspect is what identifies the activity as labor.  When Marx abstracts it away, we can no longer tell what is and is not labor.  The “homogeneous mass of human labour-power” must include leisure hours as well as work hours.  Clearly if leisure can be considered labor then the capitalists are contributing their fair share of socialized abstract labor to society, by handling all of its socially necessary leisure time.  

Marx is sneaky with his words; the “socialized” in socialized abstract labor is meant to sneak “use” back in, for what could be socialized except the tasks labor is set to accomplish?  This is not to condemn abstract labor, but merely to show that such abstractions can only be quantified at the subjective, individual perspective.  To put it another way, I can count the number of hours it would take me to perform any kind of labor, because I–and I alone–know my relative abilities to complete a task.  My estimation would need to include my skills, my knowledges, and my relative physical situation, along with any and all tools at my disposal.  My present situation is vital.  Consider that an apple on the tree five miles from you takes longer to gather than one growing right in front of you.  The situation changes the labor of acquisition as well as use-value.  Thus, only I can estimate the abstract labor-time necessary to complete a task and that estimation applies only to myself.  These kinds of abstractions cannot be generalized, and so it is an error to socialize abstract labor as Marx has done.  A subjective labor theory it stands to reason does not commit this error.   

Before explaining the real problem, we should get a false problem out of the way.  The fact that the market value is not fully derived from labor-input, i.e. there is a subjective component of value appraised by the consumer, does not defeat Marx’s complaint of exploitation.  The value appropriated by the capitalist is merely the exchange-value already paid by the consumer; the use-value component of the consumer is not a factor between the laborer and the capitalist.  The exchange-value cannot be realized until the price is already attained, in this sense the price is merely the actualization of the mutually agreed upon exchange-value of the buyer and seller.  In order to keep the surplus-value the capitalist must be said to own the product before it is sold, i.e. the capitalist must also be the sole owner and seller of the product, and in order to ensure that there is a surplus-value the capitalist must ensure that the wages of the workers are below the price the commodity will fetch, whatever it will fetch.  What exploitation occurs then, happens prior to the commodity every reaching the market, and is equal exactly to the extent of surplus-value, as Marx claimed.  The subjective aspect of value-determination does not save the capitalist from a Marxist accusation of exploitation.     

The real problem with Marx’s theory is that his explanation is not sufficient to prove the exploitation of the laborers.  This is a result of the subjective component, for Marx’s argument is only sufficient if socialized abstract labor is solely responsible for the total value of a commodity.  Now, I have no doubt that if the laborers are being exploited by capital, the mechanism Marx describes is the one by which it is taking place.  But describing how workers could be exploited is a different thing from proving that they are being exploited.  In order to prove that workers are being exploited–assuming a subjective labor theory in necessary as I have claimed–one would have to show that the individual laborers are fully entitled to the product of their labor; that is that laborers are the sole owners and sellers of the commodities they produce.  

The difficulties this presents are more formidable than Marx understood.  The socialized production system–the form of socialism or communism that Marx recommends–would not necessarily entitle the laborers to the full measure of the exchange-value of their product any more than capitalism would.  If the products are common property or State property, Marx may have merely exchanged potential exploitation by capitalists for potential exploitation by demagogues and bureaucrats.  Socialism and Communism, as Marx understands them, do nothing to protect the laborers–their labor being only an abstract part of the whole–every individual laborer is just as alienated and just as vulnerable.  Without a theory proving that the individual laborers are solely entitled to the full value of their individual or collective productive input, Marx has yet to prove exploitation or provide a bulwark against it for workers.


Part Four  

Marx’s sense of the labor-process is incomplete without his understanding of the role of capital.  To understand capital’s role we need to examine the “self-valorization” appearance of capital.  “[C]apital is money, capital is commodities”, Marx said.  Commodities must possess a useful aspect to have a value, and the use of capital–according to Marx–is Kapitalverwertung or self-valorization.  Self-valorization is the appearance through the process of labor-production and exchange in which capital seems to conjure from itself a profit.  Seen from a particular view-point a certain investment of capital yields a certain amount of return, which is above and beyond the value of the investment itself which is retained or reclaimed.  In concrete terms, the use of capital qua capital is to yield a profit.  To yield a “profit”, the value of the capital invested must itself be maintained.  This is obvious, for if the investment depreciated correspondingly with the return–as David Ricardo believed–the loss of capital would equal the return.  We might benefit by thinking of this as simply selling to the laborers, there would be no return beyond the price of the capital sold to (rather than invested in) the firm.  The process by which capital self-valorizes is mysterious and still heavily debated today by economists.  Marx’s theory reveals self-valorization to be a subterfuge from where the exploitation of labor results in profit, through the ownership of the means of production.

To elucidate this process, we may simply build on Marx’s basic model of exploitation given above.  As the owner’s of the means of production, the capitalists’ lay claim to the products of labor.  The product is sold for more than it cost the capitalist to produce creating a profit.  This profit is appropriated by the capitalists thus valorizing their capital.  Marx maintained that the market value was fixed at the socially minimal amount of labor necessary to produce the product and thus the only way the capitalist could extract a profit would be to pay the laborer’s less than the full amount of value their labor produced.  Economic logic would prove that the more capital investment the more profit, and so the capitalist is likely to invest at least a portion of this profit into more capital.  Thus perpetuating the cycle of capital reinvestment.

Marx recognized that the material use of capital is its ability to save labor, and by so doing increase the productivity of labor and cheapen commodities.  The inherent conflict comes from the tendency–also noted by Ricardo–for wages to drop as a result.  The laborers experience the increase of productivity as a reduction of the value of their labor, while the capitalist experiences the same as an increase in their profits, at least for a time.  The conflicting interests of laborers and capitalists Marx details forms the basis for his belief in class warfare, which is inherent to the capitalist mode of production.

As a condemnation of capitalism, this argument is sufficient; but in order to correct the problem capitalism merely represents, we need to better understand the role of capital in production.  Towards this end, we might assert that the value capital adds to a commodity (or a service or end of any kind) is in the labor it saves through its usage.  This saved labor is necessarily different from the labor involved in the production of the capital itself.  To put this in Marxian terms, we might argue that just as there is a difference between labor and labor power, capital, also, has differing costs and productive value capacities.  A labor cost (the exchange-value of the capital) and a use-value (measurable in labor-saved) work much like labor and labor power; so while the average healthy laborer’s ability to produce value typically exceeds the cost of sustenance necessary to reproduce the laborer’s efforts, well-deployed capital has the ability to produce more labor-savings than the labor costs to produce and maintain it.  History bears this out, since the whole productive increase of the industrial revolution is a testament to this fact.

The value of capital is equal to the reduction of the necessary labor required to meet some end, e.g. produce some thing or benefit from some service–its use-value–minus the labor cost of producing the capital–its exchange-value.  Since, as Marx said, “capital is commodities”, all commodities are also capital; and thus, all commodities share this determination of value.  This definition of value is a serious problem for the rest of Marx’s theories, but a major insight for us: use-values are quantifiable in units of labor-saved and are also necessary factors in the determination of a commodity’s value to a consumer, who must be the ultimate source of all economic evaluations in this theory.  Keep in mind that this determination is necessarily subjective, although it can be plural, it is never communal or social.

Marx’s labor theory, which supposes that the value of a thing consists wholly in the labor that went into its construction, provided a technique for objectively calculating the absolute value of a thing without the need for markets.  If his labor theory were correct, then it would follow that markets could be dispensed with, which is tantamount to saying exchange-value could be independently determined, as long as the quantity of (absolute) use-values, i.e. the material object themselves themselves, comprising the total social need could be determined.  Without any need for market determination, money in such a system loses its function and may also go extinct, taking with it the irrational desire for endless accumulation, or what Marx’s perceived as avarice.  Privatizing property for consumption becomes reducible to what we find useful as a society and nothing more, this would effectively restore natural checks and balances to the economic system while keeping modern production methods in place.  This–I believe–is what Marx had in mind by “scientific socialism”.  From where Marx sat, a society of modestly intelligent people, living and laboring in a particularly communal political arrangement should be able to assess and meet their own needs–as use-values–quite easily; thus the only thing holding back a just and equitable society of such individuals must be the oppressive historical development of capitalist greed; held in place by the tyrannical political force of the monopolists of the means of production, viz. the bourgeoisie.

Scientific utopia, then, wholly depends on just one thing: the ability to derive absolute value from the calculation of socialized abstract labor in a commodity, which I have just shown is not actually possible.  Without it, scientific socialism is an impossibility because we can never determine the true value of things merely by accounting for their production labor.  We need to incorporate use-values, which means, consumers fulfill the role of ultimately deciding for themselves how much a commodity is worth.  Thus, markets and money will prove to be indispensable.

But all is not lost here.  The upshot of capital having a use-value in saving labor is that the labor savings could potentially be made beneficial to the society at large, contingent on a restructuring of the economic order.  Scientific socialism may be dead, but some flavor of socialism may yet prove triumphant.  But to prove it, the real culprit behind economic oppression must first be identified.

To summarize then, Marx’s genius was to identify the mutual exclusivity of interests between capitalists and laborers and to recognize the exploitation of the laborers by the capitalists.  His folly, on the other hand, was to develop a theory of value based entirely on labor that failed to recognized the necessary factor of use-value in total value determinations.  I have attempted to show that use-value is a factor determining the exchange-value of all commodities at market and thus it is not the labor of production alone that determines value and price.  I have also shown how the labor of production or what I call the labor of acquisition reduces the general value of a commodity on the market and so the lower the labor of acquisition, the more valuable the commodity.  Use-values, contra Marx, are in fact quantifiable and serve as the positive value that allows consumers to spend more on a commodity than the labor of acquisition.  Without the labor of acquisition as the sole determinate of value, most of Marx’s subsequent socio-political and economic theories fall apart.  Nevertheless, I insist that capitalism is still exploitative and that the theory that proves it is yet to be addressed.


Afterword      

I believe that profit, rent, and interest are the real agents of economic oppression in the capitalist system.  As a family of economic behaviors we might call these acts by the collective name of rent.  Essentially, neither private property nor bourgeois greed, but rent that is the source of class conflict and exploitation in capitalism.  Without going into the details, I want to briefly outline the structure of a non-Marxist theory of labor exploitation.  While Marx’s theory based exploitation on positive economic theory, this theory bases it on the political right and social necessity of private property.  In other words, the same theory that provides private property rights to the members of a society condemns rent as a practice just as surely as it condemns thievery.

The justification for a right to private property–according to John Locke–is based on the labor of acquisition and relies on the necessity of individual use and/or consumption.  In other words, without the need to individually consume the property, the labor of acquisition is insufficient to bestow private property legitimation.  The right of the landlord against the tenant farmer to the ownership of the farm land falls on the side of the tenant farmer who actually needs the land.  Those who both need the land and do the work of acquiring it have a rightful claim.  It follows from this that when the need to individually consume is dispensed with, the prior justification for ownership goes with it.  One might only own private property when one both legitimately labored to earn it, and retains some need for its exclusive private usage.

So it is that rent, in any form, fails to justify ownership for the renter.  The problem is obvious: when I lease out my object for money I give up my claim to a personal need to exclusively use that object.  My claim then rests only on my legitimate possession of the object through some labor of acquisition.  However, we just saw that this is inadequate.  Further troubling the matter is the claim of the rentee, who does possess the back-ground need necessary to justify exclusive ownership.  But the two aspects cannot be spread across two people, as exclusive rights must in fact be exclusive.  If the property rights are shared between the renter and rentee, then the property in question is by definition common property, and neither party has an exclusive claim to it.  This is all well and good, until a superfluous charge is made by the renter upon the rentee, i.e. the rent itself.  In order to charge this rent, the renter would have to hold exclusive property rights upon the object being lent.  But the act of lending itself simultaneously dissolves these rights.  The actual ownership of the lent object is shared or common and no charge may be made to property the rentee has a fully justified claim too, i.e. the rentee “owns”.

The “use” of renting is not a legitimate use because it is self-defeating.  To lend is to share property rights with another, to charge rent on shared property cannot be legitimated.  And this is where capitalism is exploitative.  Capitalism allows for rent in all its sundry forms.  The most serious problem with capitalism has never been private property or greed or markets or money, but only the family of illegitimate economic procedures we call rent.  Rent allows those with a claim of prior ownership to extort value from the value-generating labor efforts of those who use that capital.  This extortion cannot be legitimated despite the fact that capitalism allows it.  Here then is the source of economic inequality and oppression we find inherent in capitalist countries.