Political theory interlude

Manuel suggested I read Norberto Bobbio, an Italian socialist writer on democracy. So I picked up his “Which Socialism?” In it, Bobbio argues that there’s no necessary connection between democracy and socialism. Contrary to what socialists would like to believe, democracy doesn’t automatically happen in a socialist economy. And also, democracies don’t automatically evolve towards socialism. He thinks that socialists should pay as much attention to democratic theory and practice as liberals. He thinks the socialist dismissal of liberal democratic theory as simply ‘bourgeois’ is too summary. And worst of all, it can lead to a certain contempt of democracy on the part of socialists. And why hasn’t socialist theory included more theorizing about the state and democratic arrangements? Probably because in socialist theory, the state is supposed to wither away, so why spend a lot of effort figuring out how something is supposed to work when it’s supposed to wither away anyway?

“Which Socialism?” had a few other interesting ideas, especially Bobbio’s 4 paradoxes of democracy. These are 1) that direct democracy is difficult in small organizations, but almost impossible in large ones. Pg.69 has this very interesting quote:

“Direct, or ‘Athenian’, democracy, which was revived by the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has almost always been deceptive: it consists, on the one hand, of an assembly whose function is limited, limited more severely in some respects than that of the worst parliaments, to ratifying (often by acclamation) the decisions of the executive as expressed in motions; on the other hand, of an executive, the basis of whose power is charismatic (in the technical sense of the word according to which ‘charismatic is contrasted with ‘democratic’), and whose power is far more immovable and irresistible than that of any executive of a representative body.”

The second paradox 2) is that a more comprehensive democracy requires a more comprehensive administration. “To extend democracy means extending bureaucracy” (pg. 70-71).

The third paradox 3) is the conflict between a technological society where decision-making power is based on expert knowledge and a democracy. This one has been troubling me a lot recently. Pg. 71: “Technocracy is the government of experts, i.e. government by people who are only competent in one area, but know this area well, or at least are supposed to. Democracy is government by everyone, i.e. by people who are meant to make decisions, not on the basis of technical expertise, but in the light of their own experience. The protagonist of industrial society is the scientist, the specialist. The protagonist of democratic society is the ordinary citizen, the man or woman in the street.”

I thought about this problem a lot as I read a book by a business writer named Douglas Hubbard called “How to Measure Anything”. In it, Hubbard argues that everything should be measured. He proposes that if it matters, it’s observable, if observable, it can be measured. Hubbard argues that decisions need to be made based on quantitative information – based on measurements. To those who have the objection to measurement that measurement is arbitrary and can be used to prove anything, Hubbard replies “what they really mean is numbers can be used to confuse people, especially the gullible ones lacking basic skills with numbers” (pg. 35). Answering Stephen Jay Gould (the famous biologist who wrote an amazing book about IQ testing called “The Mismeasure of Man”), Hubbard argues that IQ is measurable, and that since mercury poisoning reduces IQ, that its measurement, and public health decisions based on it, are important. Hubbard’s book is the ultimate example of Bobbio’s third paradox of democracy. If decisions are to be made based on solid numbers and measurements, where is the room for democracy? What decisions should not be made based on numbers and measurements, especially if everything that matters can be measured? No answer for now – I move to Bobbio’s 4th paradox.

The fourth paradox of democracy is 4) that mass society and democracy are in conflict. Pg 72: “The indoctrination characteristic of mass societies tends to repress and suppress the individual’s sense of personal responsibility which is the corner-stone of a democratic society. A highly efficient media machine aims to reduce to a minimum the area reserved for personal and rational choices, for convictions which do not rely on instant emotional reactions or the passive imitation of others.”

Bobbio asserts that any socialist society would have to deal with these paradoxes just like the liberal ones do, and possibly other paradoxes too.

I had a fun diversion reading Slavoj Zizek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce”. I find Zizek a lot of fun, especially to watch in talks and debates. His argument in this little book, from what I can tell, is that it would be better if there was a left, and it’s too bad that there isn’t one. I agree. It kind of puts Bobbio’s ideas in perspective to remember that.

Speaking of which, I also read Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. It’s laid out in a very similar way to “Empire of Illusion” which I also read (and liked). “Death” is pretty pessimistic, but also makes the point that things would be better if there was a left. Hedges takes it way back to the 1930s and before, arguing that the liberal class did its best work when there was an actual left. Then the liberal class made a deal with the corporate state to destroy the left, which kind of made it superfluous as well. He cited a couple of interesting books that I looked up: Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia” and Ellen Schrecker’s “Many are the Crimes”. Schrecker’s book is about the destruction of the US left, specifically by McCarthyism, and the shambles that it left behind. Jacoby’s book is a real motivation for the kind of ParEcon ideas that you can find on ZNet – he argues that the left has given up on the idea that a better world is possible. Interestingly, he argues that multiculturalism is a sign of this giving up – the celebration of diversity is at least in part a failure to be prescriptive, as in ‘we don’t have any ideas in particular, so we celebrate all of them’. Meanwhile, I think of Bobbio’s book as motivation for the ParPolity project done by Stephen Shalom, Brian Dominick, and others – who have spent lots of time trying to think of political arrangements for a good society.

Since everything dirty and clean that goes on in the world happens in the name of democracy, it’s worth thinking about what it means and why it’s so hard to really do.

I will leave with a random thought: Bobbio’s thoughts about direct democracy reminded me that I had a dream of some kind of ParEcon game, where you could see what kinds of proposals came back from people by putting in your own. Direct democracy games where people formulated and voted on anything and everything in a game world would also be interesting practice (these kinds of things were what appealed to me about Daniel Suarez’s fiction books Daemon and FreedomTM). It seems like doing one of these in Second Life or through Facebook or a custom platform would be technologically feasible, possibly fun, and very interesting to study, if a lot of people were to get interested in them.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

4 thoughts on “Political theory interlude”

  1. Interesting stuff
    Does it not depend on what exactly you have in mind by ‘socialism’? If what you mean is something like in/direct parliamentary control of the economy, that means something very different from direct ownership and control by workers over their own workplaces, for example.

    I would think that the latter form actually would have a pretty direct connection with democracy. Of course there still needs to be a focus on democratic process, and I share the concern about many socialists’ contempt for democracy, though again, it depends what ‘democracy’ is understood to mean.

    I’ve seen Michael Albert and others take a stab at solving paradox 3 by saying the experts should be there to explain to people the meaning and consequences of potential decisions, but that decisions should always be made democratically (whether by all the people or those most directly affected), which seems like a pretty compelling solution to me. The other paradoxes raised here seem to me also not as intractable as they first appear, though certainly they’re real problems; nothing to be taken lightly.

    It may just be the context here in Winnipeg, but I have to admit I’m less and less receptive to complaints about the lack of a left. It’s not that I disagree, but I think it’s fairly obvious and that endlessly repeating it only adds to the sense of pointlessness that’s always close at hand when dealing with seemingly eternal systemic violence. Why not instead work on building a dynamic left worth being part of? Not that I’m saying Zizek doesn’t do this, and possibly Hedges, too, though I haven’t made myself familiar with his work.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughts, Justin.


    1. The lack of a left
      Hi Macho. I totally agree that it’s useless to lament the lack of a left. I do agree with you that Zizek mostly gets on with trying to do it. Hedges too, I think, although he is very pessimistic, especially at the end of the Death of the Liberal Class. I had an interesting conversation with a liberal friend of mine yesterday, where I was feeling somewhat disillusioned with right-wing voters. I started ranting, and then I ended up convincing myself of the opposite of what I’d set out to. I said: “Look, if there was a movement that was out there making the case for radical solutions in clear language, over and over and in lots of different forums, without the academic baggage, would anyone even care…” and then I realized “oh, wait, no one’s doing that.” So it remains a hypothesis, and it’s got to be tested – and until it is, I can’t really complain.

  2. How to Measure Anything doesn’t say measure everything
    My book, How to Measure Anything, does not actually argue that everything should be measured. In fact, there is an entire chapter on how to determine what should be measured. I argue that there is often a legitimate economic reason not to measure in that the expected benefits of reducing uncertainty from a measurement do not exceed the costs. When we compute information values, we often find that only a few variables in a decision should be measured. Most will not have enough effect on the risk of the decision to justify the cost of the measurement. But if a given variable in a decision does have a significant information value, it should be measured and, of course, there is no reason to believe it can’t be measured.

    Just to clarify your use of the term “hard numbers” (a phrase I don’t believe I use), the point of measurement is uncertainty reduction. In other words, after a measurement you may still have significant uncertainty about a quantity (the uncertainty itself is, in fact, quantifiable). What makes it a measurement is that the uncertainty is less than the uncertainty prior to the measurement. I also show that the elimination of uncertainty through continued attempts at more refined measurements is almost never economically justified. At some point the increase in the Expected Value of Information (EVI) no longer exceeds the increase in the Expected Cost of Information (ECI).

    Thanks for your mention of my book.
    Douglas Hubbard

    1. Uncertainty reduction… and IQ
      Hi Douglas. Thanks for commenting here. I am actually reading (and liking) your “Failure of Risk Management” right now, and will probably mention it here when I’m done. I have been thinking a lot about the ideas in your book in a lot of contexts, because of the kinds of political implications that I mentioned in the blog. I especially have been thinking about your response to Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”, which had a very strong influence on me. I think you and Gould have a lot in common in your distrust of pseudoscience, and I am working on a fuller response to your critique of him – which I think has to do with the social aspects of what IQ is actually measuring. I am thinking of the studies on “stereotype threat”, as well as the kinds of (rigorous) data that are presented in the book “The Spirit Level” that measures the effects of inequality. But I think if there’s one thing that I learned from your books it’s that if I am going to take issue with some measure, it cannot be on some generic anti-measuring grounds. Thanks again…

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