Syndicalism, localism, atomism
April 20, 2008
Daniel Owen, a syndicalist, responded to my comments on the lack of a convincing syndicalist blueprint for the coordination of a large scale society. We then proceeded to discuss the matter on his blog, starting with his post, and continuing in the comments to the post.
Owen granted the need for some society-wide decision making body made of delegates from the small scale bodies – the local assemblies. His view is that the current version of such a body, i.e., the national legislature and courts, have encroached on what should be the powers of local, or intermediate level, bodies. Owen believes that once most of the business of government is handled at the appropriate, lower, level of aggregation (the local assemblies or aggregations of few local assemblies), the society-wide decision making body would handle only “[b]road ‘constitutional’ policy and foreign relations.”
I found Owen’s arguments unconvincing for several reasons:
- Despite repeated queries by me, Owen gave no specific examples of decisions that are currently taken at too high a level of aggregation – i.e., decisions that could be taken at lower levels and can be expected to produce better public policy if taken at such lower levels.
- There are many government activities that seem to be best handled at the top aggregation level, and are far from being broad constitutional policy or foreign relations. Examples are decisions as to what drugs are considered safe and effective, and standards for the use of pesticides.
- Even if more decisions are push lower in the aggregation hierarchy, many of them could not be pushed all the way down to the local assemblies. Why would decision making at intermediate aggregation levels be significantly better than decision making at the top? Is decision making by the city council or provincial government better than the decision making by the national government? I note that when dealing with local matters, I do see decision making at the local level – i.e., at a level which allows for the UAV model of democracy to work – as superior to decision making by delegates. The problem lies in the fact that decision making by delegated government is, by construction, taken on those issues that, at least for some people, seem like non-local matters.
- If we were to ignore the objections above and grant that the top-level decision making body tends to encroach on decisions that would reasonably and profitably be taken at lower levels of aggregation, Owen still does not offer a workable remedy, since he fails to offer a mechanism for reversing this encroachment. The existence of a reasonable mechanism for doing so seems unlikely since it is exactly the purpose of the top level body to identify and handle such matters that do need handling at the top-level of aggregation.
Of course, the difficulties mentioned above are not restricted to the top-level vs. non-top levels. The same problems that syndicalists face with respect to determining the functions and authority of the top-level body are encountered along all the levels of the aggregation hierarchy.
Syndicalism (or socialist libertarianism) relies on a localist (or group atomist) view of the world – the idea that all important decision making could be done at the local (or, really, intimate) level, where decisions can be made on a direct, deliberative, non-delegated basis, and that decisions at higher levels would then emerge naturally through some kind of automatic, collaborative modes of interaction.
Interestingly, this localist view is quite similar to, and only slightly less fantastic than, the atomist view of right-wing or individualist libertarianism. According to that view, all important decision making is done by the individual and inter-individual interaction is carried out naturally automatically and objectively through the “free market” mechanism.
In reality inter-personal relationships, as well as inter-group relationships, are a very complex system which is constantly evolving. Conflicts of interest between people and groups keep popping up, each dispute with its unique characteristics, and with both sides thinking that they are in the right. No automatic or semi-automatic mechanism can resolve those conflicts. Authorities for regulating interactions and resolving disputes are needed. Those authorities – i.e., the government – carry immense political power and wield a powerful enforcement mechanism so that it is the structure of those authorities that determines the character of the society. Government needs to be designed so that this character is a desirable one. Pretending that government is not necessary is not a credible solution.