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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


4 Responses to “Syndicalism, localism, atomism”

  1. Harald Korneliussen Says:

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that the question of what level an issue belongs to, has to be resolved by the higher level or government. We just don’t get away from the issue of keeping higher-level government accountable.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    Hello again, Harald. I, of course, agree.

  3. Daniel Owen Says:

    Okay, you want an example of a specific decision? Take a bridge. Government planners decide to build a bridge over a river far, far away. This bridge raises huge problems for the local community. It would be better for them to decide to build the bridge and then build it themselves. Specific. Or laws about drugs or anti-social crime or dealing with creating housing or banning chemicals, etc.

    I suggest you look at the federalism practiced in revolutionary Paris, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and currently in parts of South Africa and Argentina. The zapatistas are a good example. Here is an article published in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review by Andrew Flood of the Irish Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM):

    The zapatistas have local assemblies and recallable, mandated delegates and collectives that take care of local matters. Regional councils (on a federal level) make bigger decisions. This is as I described. A Mexican NGO described the zapatista system thusly:

    “The communities of an indigenous zone or area are the ones who decide, at an assembly of all their members, whether or not they will belong to the autonomous municipality … It is the communities who elect their representatives for the Autonomous Municipal Council, which is the authority for the municipality. Each representative is chosen for one area of administration within the autonomous municipality, and they may be removed if they do not fully comply with the communities’ mandates … Those who hold a position on the Municipal Council do not receive a salary for it, although their expenses should be paid by the same communities who request their presence, through co-operation among the members. In some cases, members of the Council are supported in their farm work, so they can dedicate themselves to their [Council] work, and not have to go the fields.”

    Best wishes,

  4. yoramgat Says:

    Let’s, for specificity, focus on your bridge example:

    First, your description of the current decision making process is not accurate:

    1. Most bridges – i.e., all those that are not part of the interstate highway systems – are not decided upon by “government planners far, far away”, but a place much closer (state or county government). How close would satisfy you? Do you really believe that the decision on building a bridge should be taken by a local assembly of fewer than 1000 people?

    2. As it is, residents of the community in which a bridge is to be built have a say (and sometimes too much of a say) in the decisions taken about the bridge.

    More importantly, purely local decisions about bridge building would not necessarily be optimal or fair:

    1. The decisions of when, where and how a bridge would be built affect many people who do not live next to the bridge. It seems only natural that the interests of those people would be represented in the decision making. Giving decision making power to non-local government is supposed to reflect those interests.

    2. Once a bridge is built, many non-community members would want to use it – it seems unreasonable that the local community could control its use unilaterally. Who would determine what are the rules of use of the bridge?

    3. If non-community members are going to have some control over the use of the bridge, then it seems fair that they should put in some of the effort of building the bridge. Who would determine how much effort each non-local community should put in?

    The conclusion is that you have not proposed a process that seems likely to be superior to the process that is currently in place. In fact, you have not proposed a complete process at all, since you have not dealt with how resources would be allocated to the bridge building project (these would in all probability be more than a lone local community can afford) and how the interests of impacted non-locals (such as potential non-local bridge users) would be represented.

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