Social Investment and Deep Democracy

Its generally put to anarchists that without the state, the necessary social investment in health, education and other needs would wither away. Thus we need coercive taxation to maintain the benefits of modern society. Now, the issues of the knowledge problem and inherent state inefficiencies that plague these areas has already been done excellently by many anarchist thinkers. However, the regulations and inefficiencies of these services aren’t going away anytime soon. Political parties and state bureaucracies rely on them to provide funding and justify existence respectively. What does exist instead are elements of a resurgent, libertarian-esque left who have come to see the state for what it truly is, an organisation inherent to and in hoc with capitalism. Socialist parties and groups are recognising that the state is more interested in cutting such services, destroying social investment and eliminating real democracy. In their place, there is an increasing belief in decentralism and the production of deep democracy.

Within this short piece, I will focus on a few current examples of decentralist thinking as well as some theoretical ideas of how to reform existing institutions so as to decentralise and democratise them. While the overall focus is on European examples and ideas, I intend to briefly analyse other examples from outside these locations.

Freed markets and the social economy are beliefs that unite many anarchists, yet the reality is markets are fundamentally controlled by the state. Vested interests and rent seeking dominate modern economies from the national to international levels. The mixing of corporate and state bureaucracies is the norm. This framework of the economy has led toward the modern crises, and with it the arguments for austerity that impoverish the social investment that underpins the economy. Thus freeing markets, while a desirable outcome, is not really on the horizon just yet, while social investment is in the popular conscience and there is availability for funding and development. What is needed is an alternative to such rhetoric. Fortunately, with the resurgence of a left-wing alternative, we are seeing this being formulated.

The main focus on this alternative seems to be a belief in both decentralism toward the local and neighbourhood level and with it deep democracy and the continuation of social investment. Areas around the world already run and function on such systems. The Slum Dwellers Association in India shows the capability of self-governance and federation for the provision of housing and planning for slums[1]. The villages of India also show success with another form of self-governance, that of decentralised planning for the provision of services and public goods. Similarly, Porto Alegre in Brazil has introduced participatory budgeting which has refocused investment on the poorer areas of the city, and higher levels of political participation[2].

These international examples seem to be being replicated in austerity-hit Europe now. In Greece, a country destroyed by pointless austerity measures, they have begun developing alternative economic and political institutions. Doctors cooperatives and the TEM have replaced destroyed healthcare and monetary services. In Spain, the town of Marinaleda shows the capability of a local economy that plans its own housing and is resilient to the movements of an abstract international economy. There is also the Mondragon Cooperative network which shows the possibilities of networked production and surplus distribution. Elements of the anti-austerity movement in the UK have also proposed similar ideals. The development of needs budgets and the protection of services against state-led cuts present a revitalisation of local democracy. The People’s Assembly and forms of adhoc democracy help further this cause, temporalising modern capitalism in the reality of modern existence and struggles. They’ve shown the stupidity of cuts when local councils have high reserves[3] and when government subsidises large corporations yet won’t engage in social investment. These examples show a way toward decentralism, yet they all rely on the coercive mechanisms of state taxation.

In areas of land and service provision in the UK we see the instituting of community land trusts and communally owned kitchens and entertainment centres. These remove housing, value creation and skill production from the dictates of rigged markets.

However, these mechanisms are not a necessity. In looking at theoretical ideas, one could be the push by local democratic outfits for the decentralising of taxation and the capability for local communities to fund investments from voluntarily chosen and implemented taxation. Things like a land value tax, or the introduction of travel tolls on companies’ distribution chains/movements of goods on large-scale transport on road and rail, would allow for the accrual of economic rent away from states and corporations and toward the community. Equally, the development and maintenance of anchor institutions like the NHS or universities would also allow for local economies to flourish and for the preservation of social investment. Universities governed by students, teachers and local democratic bodies can hold the education and investment in the local area. With the NHS, decentralising the obligations of planning and investment into the hands doctors and patients allows for better directed funding and connecting up with local governance, allowing for prevention as well as treatment.

In other areas, such as food production and employment, we can see the development of local political institutions. In farming and food production, the wide scale development of allotments and urban farming can be connected with food cooperatives, decommodifying food and creating a food commons that gives basic provision. The old system of the guilds regulated employment on the social level, providing protection for workers and recreating the skills and education of crafts over generations. These two fundamentals of life need not be dictated by economic power, embedding these in local economies and a free association of producers instead.

The idea that the state can be the only institution of social investment is a nonsense. States are inherently directed by an elite. While ideas of reforming through decentralism or federation may well maintain governance, to call this a state would be a mistake. The brief examples I’ve sketched out show that such examples of decentralisation do not equate a state, but rather the development of an empowered civil society over statist-economic power. There are many other examples that prove this point in the realm of markets and other institutional forms. What these taken as a whole show is that the power of people and communities can change the values and directions of society. In combination with freed markets and freed economies, deep democracy will help with the withering away of the state.

“It is vital to reclaim democracy from its institutional grounding. So long as democracy equals voting equals parliament, democracy is vulnerable to toxic proto-fascists and technocrats who aim to throw out both self-governance and parliament. Anarchic self-governance, with communities shaping and enacting their own political will, provide a path from this mess”[4].

[1] Church, W. http://anarchistalternative.com/2016/02/01/reclaiming-democracy-from-parliment-overcoming-information-and-democratic-deficits/

[2] Olin Wright, E. Envisioning Real Utopias, P. 111

[3] Reserves held by the Coventry City Council have doubled since the implementation of supposedly necessary cuts.

[4] Church, W. http://anarchistalternative.com/2016/02/01/reclaiming-democracy-from-parliment-overcoming-information-and-democratic-deficits/

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