Socialism: The Polity

 [This is the sixteenth essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

In a series of essays relating to the recent upsurge of support for socialism, is it enough to discuss economy beyond markets and without classes? In the past, some have thought that attaining desirable economics was sufficient for attaining desirable society. They were wrong. 

First, doing so would be horribly insufficient. Attaining desirable economics would certainly be very nice, but on-going authoritarian polity, sexist kinship, and racist culture, would remain grotesque.

Second, doing so would be unstable. Persistently oppressive political, kinship, and cultural relations would exert pressures subverting desirable economic gains and eventually even reversing them. 

One might accept those two insights and still say, okay, that’s true enough if we ignore the extra-economic. But all will be well if we do economics, the foundation, and then recommit and do the rest based on that initial achievement. But, the thing is…

Third, that is not possible. Movements and projects for change won’t attain desirable economics if they are not simultaneously achieving desirable polity, kinship, and culture. They will lack sufficient support. They will lack sufficient internal mutuality and solidarity. They will fail to sustain good values and aims in their focused area if they ignore violations of those values and aims in other areas. It turns out that economics is  not a foundation under the rest of society. Instead, we have four load bearing pillars holding up not only all the rest of society, but also each other. The four pillars intersect, reinforce, and complement each other to compose one whole. Fundamentally changing any one pillar entails fundamentally changing them all. Our society has one four dimensional foundation.

Fifty years ago these insights were  incredibly controversial and vehemently resisted. Now, they are generalized and ratified among activists. Regarding economics we need economic vision to sustain hope, generate a mutualism mindset, and inform what we now seek so that it leads toward the classlessness we desire for later. But likewise, we also need political, kinship, and cultural vision to sustain hope, generate positive mutuality, and inform what we now seek so that it leads toward what we desire regarding political policy, relations among genders and bearing on sexuality, and relations among races, nationalities, religions, and other cultural communities.

So far vision for polity, kinship, and community is not as developed as economic vision, but, nonetheless, it would be grossly remiss to address economy and set the rest aside without comment. Our survey of a worthy economic vision is not enough. We need more.

Every day teaches that contemporary political structures are decrepit. Even if huge concentrations of corporate wealth and power didn’t dominate political outcomes, even if media didn’t distort political preferences, even if the two parties weren’t two wings of a single corporate party, even if we didn’t have idiotic and at best anachronistic structures like the electoral college, even if elections weren’t easily hijacked by voter suppression and outright fraud, and even if elections weren’t winner take all affairs in which those elected have no accountably, clearly modern electoral and parliamentary democracy would still diverge greatly from a system that maximally facilitates participation, creatively elicits informed opinion, and justly resolves serious disputes.

So, what do we want instead of current political systems? When activists take to the streets in the Mideast, Africa, Asia, Europe, and America protesting governments that range from limited democracies to vile dictatorships, what, beyond indignation, fuels their tenacity? What do they want? What do we want?

Polity encompasses legislation of shared rules or laws, implementation of shared programs and pursuits, and adjudication of contested claims including violation of rules and laws. We must propose a set of institutions able to actualize our values for the political sphere of life.

Positive political vision has not yet been as fully spelled out, explored, and challenged as positive economic vision. However, the U.S.-based activist and political scientist Stephen Shalom, among others, has provided a preliminary presentation of what he has called participatory politics, or parpolity, a name perfectly suited for part of a participatory society, or, if you prefer, for part of participatory socialism.

The Need for Political Vision

One thug with a club can disrupt even the most humane gathering. And thugs with clubs, aroused by liquor, jealousy, arrogance, greed, pathology, or some other antisocial attribute, won’t disappear from a good society.

Likewise, an intractable dispute will often escalate, even in the best environment, into a struggle that transcends the scope of its causes, whether the escalating dispute occurs between the Hatfields and McCoys, northern and south states, rural and urban areas, France and Germany, or Pakistan and India.

What prevents social degradation due to thugs? What prevents escalating disputes? More generally, if we lack the continuity of agreed social norms, we will have to repeatedly re-start social projects from scratch. We won’t benefit from preserved previously agreed responsibilities and practices. We will have to repeatedly negotiate to the point of barely ever implementing.

In a good polity will we have known responsibilities that we cannot violate, or will everything we do be up for grabs with each new day? In the former case, we might attain civilized existence. In the later case, we would have only chaos. To have social success, in other words, we need political structures. Roles certainly eliminate some options, but they also fantastically facilitate others. When options that are precluded are all harshly harmful and options that we gain are all sincerely desirable, the limitations and the facilitations of institutional roles will only benefit us.

Put differently, it is true that even the most desirable mutually agreed roles and responsibilities will, to some degree, limit our range of options. Laws restrict what we are permitted to do. So do conventions, norms, and agreements. In fact, for any role, role violating behavior largely disappears. In return, desirable mutually agreed roles make the range of all options available to us vastly larger and more attainable by facilitating their accomplishment. Having red and green lights at intersections constrains our driving options since we must stop at red and go at green, but it also keeps us alive to do all else we might choose. More generally, having diverse collectively established rules that we all abide permits us each to operate far more effectively and diversely than if we had no such rules, even as having rules also narrows our choices in some contexts. If our political institutions limit options agreeably, and if they facilitate options desirably, and of course if they are designed to change with changing times and understanding, then the coherence and ease of interactive activity that institutional norms bring will more than outweigh any limitations they impose.

If I violate my previously agreed roles and responsibilities, it will likely disturb and perhaps completely disrupt other people’s expectations, actions, and options. We don’t want everyone to be free to kill. We don’t want everyone to be free to drive through red lights. Nor do we want to arrive at new rules every day. We want to establish rules. We want the kind and level of freedom whose exercise facilitates further freedom and the means to enjoy it. We do not want the kind and level of freedom whose exercise curtails additional freedom and the means to enjoy it. We want to escape needless restrictions but we want to do this only consistent with others having the same freedoms we have while also preserving previously agreed role responsibilities.

The anarchist desire for freedom from constraint imposed on the populace by a state operating separate from and above the populace is wise and warranted. However when this desire sometimes morphs into a claim that any effort to accomplish political functions is doomed to be oppressive, it goes too far. Accomplishing legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation by way of lasting institutions is not, itself, a problem. The problem is doing it in ways divorced from the will and needs of the populace. If we are to attain our values must not have states existing above people. However, we must nonetheless collectively accomplish needed political functions. Thus, we confront the same type of problem as we addressed talking about economics. What institutions can fulfill the functions of polity, while also fulfilling our overall social values?

Failed Political Visions

One failed answer resides in the label “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Even when sought for worthy reasons, this aim translates virtually seamlessly into the dictatorship of the party, the politburo, and in the worst case even the beneficent, or worse, the megalomaniacal dictator. That this trajectory could ever have been equated with a desirable form of political life will always be a horrible blemish on the political history of “the Left.” Outlawing all but a single “vanguard” party ruled by “democratic centralism” subverts even democracy, much less self management.

Democratic centralism systematically impedes participatory impulses, promotes popular passivity, nurtures fear, and breeds authoritarianism, even against the far better aspirations of many of its advocates. To routinely outlaw external opposition and suppress internal dissent by transferring critical members between branches does not engender democracy.

Western-style electoral democracy is another answer to the political vision question, but is still a far cry from participatory democracy. Highly unequal distributions of wealth stack the deck before the political card game even begins. Citizens choose from pre-selected candidates screened for compatibility by society’s corporate elites. And even if we remove private ownership of productive assets to overcome money-related problems within a Western style democracy, participatory democracy requires more than infrequently voting for a representative to carry out political activity that is largely alienated from popular will and contrary to popular interests.

A third flawed answer to the political vision question comes from the incorrect claim that the lesson of oppressive government is that polity per se is oppressive, so that anything goes should be the watchword. This ignores the need for accepted roles since political functions can’t be usefully and sustainably carried out without them. A different, correct claim, is that a polity which exists above the populace, imposing on the populace, and not reflecting the informed will of the populace, is oppressive. But what structures can allow and sustain a polity of, not above, the populace?

While electing representatives is, for certain situations, a plausible and perhaps even an essential part of a true participatory democracy that promotes deliberation and exploration, surely frequent and regular referenda on important political propositions and policies at every level of political organization plus a full airing of competing views would at least positively augment voting for candidates. Can we conceive mechanisms that would permit and promote engagement, deliberation, and participatory decision making, preserve essential rights, serve justice, and give all citizens appropriate say, either directly or when desirable through recallable representatives?

Participatory Polity

The first important thing to realize is that political life will not disappear in a desirable society. This might seem obvious, but some who approach the problem of envisioning a better future miss this key point.

Participatory politics will no longer have privileged groups who dominate oppressed constituencies, but to assume that implies or requires universal agreement fosters an ugly delusion. Homogenized minds is not an apt aim upon which to build liberated circumstances. More, favoring social diversity dictates that competing ideas should be implemented in parallel whenever possible, but nonetheless many times we will have to implement one program at the expense of others. Even more, since a desirable society will promote our participatory impulses, in a good society debate will sometimes heat up rather than cool down, whether about pornography, prostitution, deep ecology, drug legalization, multilingualism, children’s rights, allocation of expensive or scarce medical resources like heart transplants or cloning, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, single-sex schools, or religious freedom when the religions violate other important societal values like gender equity. 

As Stephen Shalom summarizes, “In short, even in a society that had solves the problem of economic exploitation and eliminates hierarchies of race, class, and gender, many controversies–many deep controversies–will still remain. Hence, any good society will have to address issues of politics and will need some sort of political system, a polity.”

Broadest goals are well understood and enunciated. A truly democratic community will insure that the general public has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the formation of social policy. A society that excludes large areas of crucial decision-making from public control, or a system that merely grants the general public the opportunity to ratify decisions taken by elite groups hardly merits the term democracy. But what institutional vehicles can guarantee the public truly democratic opportunities?

One condition of real democracy is that groups with competing opinions can effectively communicate their views. Democratization of political life must include democratization of the flow of information and commentary.

Participatory democracy requires not only democratic access to a transformed media and the possibility for people to form and utilize single-issue political organizations to make their views known, but also, at least in all likelihood, a pluralism of political parties with different social agendas. There is no reason to think, in other words, that having a desirable society means that people won’t disagree about major matters in ideological ways. An absence of class, gender, and racial hierarchy doesn’t imply an absence of all difference and dispute. What can we offer by way of political vision beyond general intimations of the possible achievements of a desirable polity? 


Surely a desirable participatory polity should produce solidarity and generate diversity. These two values presented earlier in this series transfer easily into politics. The former means political actors should each advance via the advance of all. The latter means that political institutions should protect and celebrate dissent as much as possible –  not seeking one right mind or one right path.

For polity, the analogue of economic equity is justice, which addresses the distribution of rights and responsibilities, including the need to redress violations of social agreements. This does not mean vengeance, nor retribution. Justice is about fairness of outcomes over time, including redress of past imbalances and preventing future imbalances.

Finally, self management is arguably even more a political value than an economic one, both in its origins and its logic. Politics should facilitate actors having influence on decisions in proportion as those decisions impact their lives.

So for politics we have as guiding values solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management. And unsurprisingly, accomplishing these values implies accomplishing other more familiar political values including liberty and tolerance, without which both diversity and solidarity are violated, and particularly participation which is a prerequisite to all four aims.


A desirable polity must accomplish legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation. For legislation, Shalom’s parpolity vision advocates “nested councils” where “the primary-level councils will include every adult in the society” and where Shalom suggests, “the number of members in these primary-level councils might plausibly be somewhere between 25-50.”

Everyone in society is in one of these basic political units. Some folks are elected to higher level councils since “each primary-level council will choose a delegate to a second-level council” where “each second-level council would again be composed of 25-50 delegates.” And this would proceed for another layer, and another, “until there is one single top-level council for the entire society.” The delegates to each higher council “would be charged with trying to reflect the actual views of the council they came from.” On the other hand, “they would not be told ‘this is how you must vote,’ for if they were, then the higher council they were attending would not be a deliberative body.”

Shalom suggests that “the number of members on each council should be determined on the basis of a society-wide decision, and perhaps revised on the basis of experience, so as to meet the following criteria: small enough to guarantee that people can be involved in deliberative bodies, where all can participate in face-to-face discussions; but yet big enough so that (1) there is adequate diversity of opinion included; and (2) the number of layers of councils needed to accommodate the entire society is workable.”

Surprisingly it turns out that “a council size of 25, with 5 layers, assuming half the population consists of adults, can accommodate a society of 19 million people; a council size of 40, again would need 5 layers to accommodate 200 million people; a 50-person council could accommodate 625 million people by the fifth level. With a sixth level, even a 25-person council could accommodate a society of about half a billion people.”

What happens in these proposed political councils?

Legislation is enacted, which is to say voting on norms and collective agendas takes place. The councils are deliberative and public. The idea is to utilize them to approximate as much as possible within a sensible time frame and in accord with the importance of particular issues, self managed decision making. Sometimes higher level councils vote and directly decide. Sometimes they deliberate and report back to lower level councils which vote and decide. The exact combination of voting at the base versus voting in higher level councils, and of procedures for presenting, debating, and tallying viewpoints, and of how council members are chosen are all, among many other features, degrees of political detail we don’t have to address in an overview discussion like this, or perhaps in any discussion at all, until experimentation and experience provide information to guide choices.

Suppose we are choosing between one person one vote majority rule and consensus for decisions on some set of issues. Or we are deciding the mandates of representatives and their responsibilities. Or we are settling on the procedures of debate and evaluation, or on the means of voting, tallying, and then reconsidering. How do we arrive at a preference for one approach compared to another at particular levels and for particular types of decisions? The answer is that we try to simultaneously achieve self management, facilitate arriving at wise calculations, protect and pursue diversity, maintain solidaritous feelings and practices, and get things done without serious delays.

To what extent do we build in diversity by protecting it in spirit and in practice. The former, of course, we do without limit. But regarding practice – sometimes policies must be undertaken pretty much by all affected in the same manner. For example, you can’t do allocation by markets for some folks and by participatory planning for others – each would fail to make any sense unless done for all. Similarly, you can’t decide a dispute or arrive at a law using different procedures for some folks than for others where all are involved in the same situation. Yet, even in such cases, it is often possible to at least keep alive attention to alternative methods that claim to be better than those predominantly preferred. And a participatory polity would by mandate, and presumably by structures, do just that.

But what if some desirable choices and gains tend to compromise, if fully pursued, the pursuit of other equally desirable choices? Well, that is the conundrum of politics and values generally. And it is when reasonable people can disagree not only due to seeing facts differently, or due to some people calculating wrong while others calculate accurately, but simply due to having different priorities or intuitions about complex implications. The trick of legislative structure, executive and judicial methods, and of all of politics is to have a system that allows self-managed choices in which everyone agrees that the choices are reached in ways fair for all, and in which the choices are flexibly subject to review even while alternative choices, as much as there remains interest in them, are still explored. This is what the nested council system – guided by a commitment to self management, solidarity, justice, and diversity – seeks to achieve.

What about shared executive functions?

Having a participatory economy takes care of a lot of what we typically know as executive functions in contemporary politics and, in doing so, helps pinpoint the remaining political elements. Think of delivering the mail, investigating and trying to limit outbreaks of disease, or providing environmental protection. All of these executive functions involve a production and allocation aspect handled by balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory self managed decision making. The workers council delivering mail would in these respects not be particularly different from the workers council producing bicycles, nor would the center for disease control workers’ council be very different in these economic aspects from a typical hospital, and likewise for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the Post Office, CDC, and EPA operate with the sanction of the polity and carry out tasks that the polity mandates. Particularly in the case of the CDC and EPA, these agencies act with political authority that permits them to investigate, constrain, and sanction others where typical economic units would have no such rights and responsibilities.

It follows that the executive branch would be largely concerned with establishing specifically politically mandated functions and responsibilities which would then be carried out according to the norms of the participatory economy insofar as they involve workplaces with inputs and outputs but with their political aspect defining their agendas and perhaps conveying special powers. This overlap between polity and economy is more or less analogous to the overlap between culture and economy visible when churches function in the economy for their inputs and perhaps some of their outputs, but with a cultural/religious definition. The economic change to a participatory economy instead of capitalism is part of what makes a polity or culture or family or other aspect of society new in a new society, but the heart of their alteration is the change in their intrinsic logic.

Presumably the means for an executive branch to politically mandate its agendas and establish lasting mechanisms to oversee them would be through the deliberation and votes of a legislative branch, on the one hand, and participatory economic planning on the other hand, including establishing empowered entities with their own rules of operation like the CDC and other politically empowered agencies.

What then, would be the role of a judiciary in a participatory polity?

As Shalom asserts, “Judicial systems often address three kinds of concerns: judicial review (are the laws just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated the laws?), and civil adjudication (how are disputes between individuals resolved?).”

For the first, Shalom offers a court system that would operate more or less like the Supreme Court does now, with hierarchical levels adjudicating disputes arising over council choices. Is this the best approach we can imagine, and can it be refined or transformed to further enhance self management? I don’t know. It certainly merits close consideration.

For criminal matters and civil adjudication, Shalom proposes a court system modestly different from what we have now, plus a police force that would, of course, have balanced job complexes and enjoy remuneration for effort and sacrifice.

Regarding having a police function and associated work force in a desirable society, I agree with Shalom and don’t really see any alternative or any intractable problems. There will be crimes in a good society, sometimes violent and sometimes even horribly evil, and the investigation and capture of perpetrators will be serious matters requiring special skills. It seems obvious that some people will do that kind of work, with special rules to ensure that they do it well and also consistently with social values – just as some people will spend some of their work time flying airplanes or treating patients or doing other difficult jobs that require special skills and have special rules to ensure that they are done well and consistently with social values.

The contrary idea that policing would be unnecessary in a humane system is, at best, not realistic. Sure, in a good society many reasons for crime would be eliminated and criminal acts would be far fewer, but that doesn’t mean there will be no crime at all. And the idea that policing can be done on an entirely voluntary basis makes no more sense than saying flying planes or doing brain surgery can be done entirely on a voluntary basis. It fails to realize that policing, and especially desirable policing, like flying planes or doing surgery, involves special skills and knowledge. It fails to recognize the need for training and likely also for disciplined attention to special rules to avoid misuse of police (or transport or medical) prerogatives. That said, the concerns typically raised relating to police roles being open to abuses of power are legitimate and must be taken into account.  So, beyond the powerful implications of participatory workplace structure and decision making for police motivations and for preventing police or any other workers from accruing undue benefits, might there be a special limited duration for police work due to its particular pressures and requirements? Might there be empowered community review mechanisms to oversee specific rules of police operations and evaluation? Sure. And such things might exist, as well, for various other jobs, too. Will the different approaches of a good society in determining guilt or innocence and administering punishment and rehabilitation impact police functions differently than the old approaches they replace? The answers better be yes, of course.

Why does the above formulation inspire outrage in some very sincere leftists who desire a better society? The usual answer is in our current experience police very often act in ways that hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. That being so, some  argue, in a new desirable society we must do away with police. If this formulation said, we must do away with police as we now know them, it would be fine. But it doesn’t say that. It says and it means, we must do away with institutional solutions for all police functions. This reflects a more general problem. Going from rejecting what is vile to rejecting underlying functions  which are not vile but in fact essential to viable and worthy social life is not desirable, but suicidal.

Consider some similar arguments. Many anarchists say government now often acts in ways that hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. So it follows, they argue, that we must get rid of all political/governmental functions. This has the same logic. Or an ecological activist might say workplaces often spew pollution and in doing so hurt rather than help all but a few elites. Get rid of all workplaces. Or someone might argue that families, schools, and cultures  all impose on people horribly restrictive and destructive habits and beliefs, so we ought to get rid of any institutional structures for addressing nurturance, socialization, education, celebration, and communication.

The problem in all these examples is they leap from a rightful rejection of contemporary means of accomplishing some function to rejecting any institutional means of addressing even refined versions of the function. The person who reasons this way is actually, ironically, agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “There Is No Alternative.” Thatcher, of course, never meant by TINA that you literally couldn’t do things any other way than how they were currently being done. She only meant all other ways were worse. And the person rejecting institutional means of dealing with social functions is, in fact, also saying that the only way to accomplish these functions is our current ways, or even worse ways, so we have to reject structurally addressing these functions at all. The only difference with Thatcher is that she took for granted that no one would seriously argue the efficacy of doing away with all institutions – due to not realizing, I guess, how far one can be driven by righteous hatred of what exists.

Returning to the judiciary, the advocate model in which lawyers work on behalf of clients – regardless of guilt or innocence – makes considerable sense. We don’t want people having to defend themselves so that those who are good at it have a tremendous advantage over those who are not good at it. We therefore need well-trained lawyers and prosecutors available to all disputants.

We also want these advocates to try hard, of course. But the injunction that prosecutors and defense attorneys should seek to win favorable verdicts – regardless of their knowledge of the true guilt or innocence of the accused and by any means that they can muster – because that approach will yield the greatest probability of truthful results strikes me as about as believable, in certain respects, as the injunction that everyone in an economy should seek selfish private gain as the best means of benefiting society as a whole and engendering sociality. Of course the ills of the competitive legal methodology are incredibly aggravated by role structures in which benefits and losses are a function of gaining sought verdicts, regardless of justice. Yet, even when those involved in jurisprudence receive only equitable incomes, still, the pursuit of worthy justice will entail many alterations from current practices. However, as to how to adapt or replace the combination of courts, judges, juries, and aggressive advocacy with different mechanisms (other than concerning matters of new norms of remuneration and job definition that economic innovations indicate and that would certainly be highly beneficial in curbing anti social motivations and outcomes) I have no good ideas.

The state of shared political vision on the left, whether for legislative, executive, or adjudicative functions, is still modest and incomplete, and needs to be developed further to justify powerful and committed advocacy, perhaps largely by experiment, but perhaps also by careful analysis of options based on current experiences. But, that the effort to attain a desirable society needs shared political vision just as it needs shared economic vision is clear. 

So for us the label good society, or participatory society, or, when used to refer to a whole society and not just its economy, participatory socialism, should at least tentatively include the aim of a participatory polity, to be improved and enlarged in light of new insights and experiences, both to provide hope and positivity and to inform program for the present so our actions seek legislative, electoral, executive, and judicial reforms in ways, by means, and with organizational advances furthering prospects of seeking still more when immediate gains are won, unto winning a whole new participatory polity.

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