Posts Tagged ‘Peter Stone’

A critical look at Two Cheers for Anarchism

July 30, 2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six East Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott;
Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2012. 169pp.
ISBN 9780691155296

Reviewed by Peter Stone

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, political scientist/anthropologist James Scott makes the case for the ‘anarchist squint,’ which is less a theory and more a way of looking at the world. ‘What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle’ (xii). I make no claims to being a master anarchist squinter, but I cannot deny that since I first picked up Scott’s book, everyday life has provided me with many examples illustrating the strengths—and weaknesses—of Scott’s book.

twocheersA few months ago, for example, I encountered a news story about a Dublin grandfather who gave his grandson a voucher from the entertainment store HMV as a Christmas gift.  When grandfather and grandson went to redeem the voucher, the company (which was in the midst of financial collapse) refused to honor it.  The outraged grandfather took three computer games off the store’s shelf—roughly equivalent in value to the voucher—and walked out of the store with them.  Store security followed him, but no arrest was made (arresting the grandfather would hardly have improved the company’s already-tarnished public image), and HMV subsequently decided to honor such vouchers again  (‘Irish Grandfather Defies HMV Voucher Policy,’

This incident seems to bear out well a disturbing and yet undeniable point made by Scott.  Liberal political institutions were supposed to generate channels for correcting injustices and enabling positive social change.  Those institutions were meant to ensure that if ordinary people had grievances, they could find a way ‘within the rules’ to get them addressed.  But things haven’t quite turned out that way, even in more-or-less well-functioning democracies.

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice.  Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompanied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreaking, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war.  Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about (16-17).

‘We are obliged,’ Scott concludes, ‘to confront the paradox of the contribution of lawbreaking and disruption to democratic political change’ (Scott’s emphasis; 17). Sometimes, this involves social movements or large-scale rioting, but quite often it requires ‘what was once called “Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people’ (14).  Without the Irish granddads of the world, and the brand of ‘democracy’ they practice, liberal democracies would not function nearly as well as they do.


Government by randomocracy

January 26, 2011

The United States democratic process is dysfunctional.  Big money dominates the electoral and legislative processes.  Gerrymandering protects legislative and congressional incumbents.  A two-party consensus deprives voters of meaningful choice on many issues. Many Americans feel government does not represent them.

A sociologist named Erik Olin Wright has a possible solution.  In his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), he proposes supplementing democracy with randomocracy – government by people selected at random, like juries.

This would solve a number of problems.  It would solve the problem of control of the electoral process by monied interests.  Philosophers through the ages have said that the person most trustworthy to hold power is the person who doesn’t seek power; random selection would be better than voting for this purpose.  Many groups don’t feel represented in our present process.  Randomocracy would give members of every group equal opportunity to share power.

Raandom selection would not produce leaders of superior wisdom and virtue, but does anybody think our existing system does?  Maybe average wisdom and virtue would be an improvement.

Wright cited a randomly-selected Citizens Assembly created by the provincial government of British Colombia in 2003 to formulate a referendum proposal for a new electoral system for the provincial parliament.  The idea was that members of the existing parliament had too much of a personal stake in the decision to make an impartial decision, or to select decision-makers, and, if you elected a panel, that would recreate the same problem.

The Citizens Assembly consisted of one man and one woman from each of the province’s electoral districts, plus two “First Nations” representatives – 160 in all.  They met in Vancouver every other weekend during the spring of 2004 for lectures, seminars and discussions about alternative systems.  They received $150 for each weekend’s expenses.  Then they participated in a serious of town hall meeting around the province throughout the summer.

In the fall, they met again in Vancouver and formulated a proposal – a complicated system called Single Transferable Voting.  The proposal was submitted on referendum, and was defeated.  It got more than 57 percent of the vote, but 60 percent was necessary to pass.  Nevertheless Wright thinks the British Colombia Citizens Assembly was successful as a process, and could be applied to many different kinds of issues.

Where a state, provincial or national government has two legislative houses, one could be selected by a random process, Wright said.  This would require (1) a process that assured representation by all significant demographic groups, (2) compensation sufficient that most citizens would agree to participate and (3) a strong professional and technical staff to provide enough information for an informed decision.