Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

Ordinary democratic organizations

We all have at least a rough understanding of how democratic politics works. And this understanding does not depend on any particular doctrinal commitment or advanced theory: concepts like legislature, executive, backbench rebellion, or marginal constituency are part of general culture, available to anyone with even a mild interest in politics. The same is true of the ideas and categories that are used to compare one set of democratic arrangements with another: proportional representation, presidential system, etc. There may be subtleties that some of us miss; but, on the whole, we probably feel we know what we are talking about. The trouble is that this is only true when we are talking about democracy in the formal institutions of the state. As soon as we try to say something intelligible about any other kind of democratic organization—a political party, a trade union, a single-issue campaign,—we find that the familiar concepts are simply inapplicable. No trade union divides its decision-making into legislative and executive. No political party keeps its conference in session for most of the year, like a parliament, to hold the leadership to account. It is not likely to elect the conference on the basis of proportional representation for the party’s various factions—but neither will it use anything resembling single-member parliamentary constituencies. The dynamics of these organizations are different; the terms we habitually use to discuss parliamentary affairs do not easily capture them. As a result, whatever overall understanding we may have of parliamentary democracy is not matched by any comparable knowledge of ordinary democratic organizations.

I call them ordinary organizations not because the phrase is especially eloquent, but just because they are ordinary and ubiquitous. They are what democratic organizations look like usually: it is the kind of democracy we find in the state that is the exception. Parliaments and cabinets do not arise spontaneously outside the state. Branches, committees, conferences, AGMs, and affiliates do.

Let us say a few dozen people come together to campaign on an issue that concerns them. It is possible that some of them will have existing ideas about how best to organize themselves; but let us assume they don’t. At the outset the group will presumably be flat and egalitarian, with decisions taken by majority vote or—much more probably—by consensus and then carried out by anyone who happens to be willing. Over time, however, it will become clear that some members have more energy or more free time than others; some have particular skills, whether purely technical (proofreading, driving, web design) or less so (drafting a snappy leaflet, giving a convincing interview to the local radio); some enjoy speaking in public, while others are uncomfortable with it; some gain a reputation within the group for their hard work, their amiable manner, and their good ideas, and others do not. Formally or informally, a division of labour will establish itself; formally or informally, we shall find a steering committee or officers’ group taking shape. Inevitably, or nearly inevitably, the small routine decisions arising between meetings will come to be taken by the committee (whether or not it yet calls itself that). Urgent decisions too. The meetings will get into the habit of resolving something in principle and leaving the committee to work out the details. Eventually, the committee’s informal position will come to be regularized by some kind of election—and a newly-hatched ordinary democratic organization will look out upon the world. It is rudimentary as yet: it only has one big, infrequent general meeting and one standing committee handling things in between. But it can grow and ramify from here. It may discover other similar groups in other areas, and federate itself with them into a national organization—in which case it will find itself sending delegates to a (big, infrequent, general) conference and helping to elect some kind of committee (to handle things in between). Or perhaps it will pull in enough members that it can set up sub-branches in localities, workplaces, or universities, or for particular groups or sections of the membership—each of which will soon enough acquire its own infrequent general meeting and its own committee, while the original group meeting develops into an even less frequent AGM or possibly into a district conference. And if neither of these processes happens, there is still room for some involution: perhaps the committee is still not quite small enough and frequent enough, and an inner executive will emerge or be elected from within it; perhaps it is not too representative of the membership as a whole, in which case it can be suitably enlarged (and an inner executive will then unquestionably emerge).

Any useful account of an ordinary democratic organization, or of such organizations in general, must give serious attention to the relationship between the big, infrequent meeting and the small committee—a relationship that is reproduced naturally at every level and on which the organization’s democratic or undemocratic character largely depends. (This has almost nothing in common with the relationship between legislature and executive in a parliamentary system.) It should also consider the mechanics of the delegate conference, which is the form that the big infrequent meeting takes everywhere except at the grassroots base. Unlike a parliament, this conference is invariably federal: delegates represent organizations (branches, sections, affiliates), not arbitrary constituencies that exist only for electoral purposes. Approximately equal representation is achieved by allowing larger organizations to elect more than one delegate, or sometimes by giving their delegate more than one vote. These and related questions will be discussed throughout The Modern Discorsi.

On this basis it may become possible to sketch out a rough typology of ordinary democratic organizations and a description of how they usually operate, comparable to what we already know about parliamentary systems. We shall also be able to consider how their democratic nature can be defended and enhanced. Aside from any intrinsic interest the exercise may possess, it is of vital importance if we want to think about how a radically participatory democracy might work—because it is difficult to imagine a participatory system that would not rely to a very great extent on organizations of more or less the ordinary democratic type.

It is possible, of course, to think that participatory democracy is not desirable. Certainly there are some for whom it is unnecessary. There are people who are sufficiently rich or eminent or well-connected that if, say, they wanted an invitation to tea with a junior minister, they could get it. They have no need for participatory democracy. And there are probably others who, without belonging to that group themselves, are nevertheless confident that its members’ wishes and interests will almost always coincide with what is best for society as a whole. In that case, allowing the rest of the public any kind of participation beyond casting an occasional vote in an election or referendum is probably unwise.

It is a possible opinion; socialists have not tended to share it, and I do not. Many socialists, in fact, have looked ahead to a state in which the parliamentary type of democracy would be replaced altogether by something much more like ordinary democratic organizations: soviets, communes, councils, federations of cooperatives, etc., etc. But even if (or even while) parliaments continue to exist, most people will only be able to participate meaningfully in politics through democratic organizations they can join. In practice, these are very likely to be ordinary democratic organizations. It would be good, then, to understand these organizations better than we currently do.

Thursday, 18 July 2019