Abbie Archer makes the case for a radical decentralisation of decision-making to stimulate popular participation
Every couple of years, people gather in a variety of places to vote for who will represent them in government. This is, for the vast majority of people, their closest interaction with the public decision-making bodies that rule their lives. Even in the case of activism, barring referenda called at the will of the authorities, the average person has little influence in the policy and decision-making processes that govern their lives. This disconnect of a top-down authority from the electorate produces a collection of reactions. One is apathy – ‘My vote doesn’t matter’ – which only results in giving increased power to those who do vote. Another is populism – ‘Candidate X will fix everything’- which results either in disappointment or power being centralised in one person for their own gain. Finally, there is anger – ‘The Clowncil are idiots’ – which only produces angry internet comments.
What then is the alternative? I believe that the alternative is more democracy in a decentralized and direct form. To explain this, I will concentrate on Scotland and the municipality, but the ideas laid out herein could be applied, and have been applied, to other contexts and situations. Following the ideas and writings of Murray Bookchin, I will focus on the municipality because no other level of government seems to elicit as much disdain and no other level affects the everyday lives of its citizens as much.
First, there are some popular myths to be addressed about direct democracy. Direct democracy’s image in the popular imagination is rather strawman-ish, producing images of Athenian Democracy, an exaggerated version of the Swiss Landsgemeinde or an insecure electronic vote. These are not what I have in mind when I think of direct democracy. Athenian democracy was heavily exclusionary, a Landsgemeinde on the scale of a city like Edinburgh would be highly impractical, and electronic voting is very open to manipulation.
One of the most common arguments against direct democracy is that people aren’t interested, can’t handle politics, or can’t take politics seriously. This is untrue. Even the ‘apolitical’ get impassioned from time to time about matters as wide ranging as potholes and foreign wars. In the media, there is a clear passion for politics that does not merely well up during polls. It can even drive people to violence. People are already political, so let’s give them an arena to express these views and opinions in – and one that leads to active participation not sullen by-standing.
What I propose is a bottom-up system of decision making based around human scaled direct democracy which encourages active participation in the policy and decision making of one’s community. But first, let’s define the community. The term ‘community’ can be applied to a wide range of things. However, here I’d like to concentrate on the spatial dimension, namely, geography. Ones community in this sense includes where people live with their families and neighbours, work, play, and acquire the things needed for their lives. It’s their neighbourhood and the people therein. This has few clear boundaries. The smallest political unit under the current system is the council ward, which for me includes parts that I would describe as ‘my area’ as well as parts that I would not. The best definition I can give to a ‘community’ therefore, is the place where one lives alongside their neighbours, where they live their daily lives. It is here that one interacts with matters the most, the point where their soles touch the ground.
This is smaller than the ward and is not limited to the city. It can include a town or part of a town, a village, or a collection of small villages and hamlets. I wish to label this the ‘baile’ (Bahl-leh). I give it this name not merely because of its Gaelic cultural association but because of what is implied in the meaning, this is your village, and it is here that the baile assembly shall be held.
The balie assembly will be an assembly of the people who live in the balie. There, issues can be raised, debates and votes held, and decisions made. The balie assembly should be open to all residents who wish to attend and should be as accessible as possible. It should not be made difficult for anyone to attend regardless of who they are. If people are discriminated against by means of access, it skews the assembly and its decisions. As long as one lives in the balie, and is of voting age, one has the right to attend. A suitable venue should be decided on to allow for as many people to attend as possible, as long as it is accessible to all of the community. If it is not fully accessible, it is neither radical nor revolutionary.
The reason I believe the assembly should be, as much as it can be, done in person is simple: it is to allow for debate, for all cases to be made amongst the concerned populace, and also to humanise the fellow members of the balie assembly in the eyes of the its citizen voters. When you see and hear the people that your vote is affecting, it is much harder to vote against your fellow citizens. Therefore, to hold an assembly in person, as much as possible, is important simply for the fact that it is important to de-anonymise the community and remind the citizens that they are voting for the greater good of the community.
Assembly attendance shouldn’t be mandatory. Instead, the agenda for the week’s meeting should be publicly and accessibly published for anyone to judge if they wish to attend and residents of the balie can attend if they wish to raise issues regarding the balie or the municipality.
Once a decision is made, the decision will be noted and given to a delegate. The role of the delegate is not to represent their opinion or positions as that of the community, but instead strictly to represent the position and decisions of their assembly. They will be elected from people within the assembly. That delegate will be sent to an assembly of the municipality’s other balie delegates to represent the views and decisions made by the assembly and what goes on within the municipal assembly will be made a matter of accessible public record. If the delegate has been shown not to have represented the view of the assembly accurately, then they can be recalled by matter of public vote. I would recommend that a vote on whether to recall a delegate be done as a matter of process at the beginning of an assembly. On ‘yes’ or ‘no’ matters, a delegate might not even be needed, and instead the decision of the balie assembly need only be noted. The balie assembly would also give the balie some autonomy on things that affect them directly like libraries, parks and schools. I believe decisions should be made at the lowest possible level.
All this may seem a breeding ground for parochialism. I do not believe that it would breed parochialism for the simple fact that like ‘no man is an island’, no community is either. A balie cannot exist and operate on its own and requires the cooperation and help of other balies to function not merely on its own but as a municipality. The balie would give power to people within the municipality, not allow it to operate on its own. Individual balies should be encouraged to work together if matters concern other balies. I would not want to see one balie have the only say on a service or resource that another balie uses. If a balie assembly breaks municipal agreements, I believe it is well within the right of the other balies in the municipality to put a stop to it, as they have broken a collective agreement that they agreed to as balies.
It is here, then, we move up to the municipality. The municipality would be a confederation of assemblies, with the decisions on the issues at hand being made by the balies and represented by their delegates. The municipality would be responsible for what is today dealt by councils. The municipality will be there, primarily, to facilitate cooperation between the balies in matters of running and operating a city and its services. It would not be like we have now, a chamber of top-down rulers, but rather where the delegates of the balie assembly represent and operate decisions made for the municipality. Votes and discussions regarding the decisions made by the ballies would be made here, and this would be the place where inter-balie cooperation would take place. The decisions and opinions voiced within the municipal assembly would be made a matter of public record so that each balie assembly can judge if their delegate had represented the decisions and consensuses made accurately.
It may also be prudent for municipalities to work with other municipalities in regard to shared services. The nature of municipalities means that no one municipality is exclusively alone with commuters perhaps living in one municipality and travelling to another. Municipalities should be encouraged to work together either as whole blocks of municipalities or as individual balies over municipal lines. This interplay could provide the means for the running of a nation as a confederation of municipalities.
The things I have laid out here are not meant to be prescriptive, nor do I make any illusions to perfection, instead I have laid out a system that is intended to be bottom-up rather than top-down and directly democratic, encouraging active participation in the decision and policy making process of our communities. Nor do I make any illusions to it being easy. What I have laid out requires a constantly informed and active citizenry. It will be a learning curve too. All of this can only be done actively, but I believe that is better than a top-down political system where at best the citizen is a mere bystander within the state. What I have laid out here also may seem radical, which is not always a bad thing. The term, radical, merely means something that is largely different from the status quo. Most ideas were once radical. The key feature of radical is that it suggests a fundamental examination of the root causes and processes.
I do not make illusions that this system will be easy to implement. It proposes taking power from centralised forms of government and redistributing it amongst the people. This is never easy. People with great power rarely give it up willingly. If the ideas I have laid out are to be implemented, I expect there to be pushback. However, I do believe power is best distributed in a decentralised, bottom-up manner, rather than a centralised matter, that people have the capacity, and will to make their own decisions as a community and run their communities as a whole. I believe that democracy is best placed in the hands of the people and that true meaning should be given to the word ‘democracy’.
• Among Murray Bookchin’s freely available publications are ‘Libertarian Municipalism: an overview’ (1991, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-an-overview and The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy (2015, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-ursula-k-le-guin-the-next-revolution)
Abbie Archer runs a Youtube channel on aspects of Edinburgh History called ‘Historia Lothiana’
(https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChEGY_PMWq9ctJazlwHv9sA) and is a graduate in history from the Open University.