I pledge allegiance to no flag and to no country but, as a citizen of the world, to common humanity and to the liberty which is the right and heritage of all.
If I were to make a pledge, then it would be something like the words above. But having made it once, I could not repeat it every day. If I did, it would have become a creed and an institution, I would be shackled to it in the dead letter, I would cease to live in the spirit of it – and I want to live in the spirit of it.
The smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit current in the world is the nation-state. Forget the States of the USA, the Cantons of Switzerland, the Départements of France, the Local Authorities of Great Britain; disregard all the districts, oblasts, townships, “communes”, wards, and parishes worldwide – like it or not, the nation-state is the entity below which political powers will not divide themselves. National power is the ambition of democratic political parties and autocrats alike. Even separatists who campaign for independence for their ethnic or cultural enclave have an eye to making it into a nation-state and to “taking their place” with other nations. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, each former member declared itself a sovereign state, and the race for internal power was furious. When Yugoslavia began to tear itself apart, each constituent "republic" declared itself an ethnocentric nation-state. When the IRA waged a terrorist campaign against the United Kingdom it was with a view to including Ulster in the nation-state of the Republic of Ireland. The only solution proposed in the middle east, short of one side annihilating the other, is in terms of recognising national status for each side. Nation-states may be as small as Monaco or Liechtenstein, or as populous as the People’s Republic of China, or as vast as Russia, but the principle does not seem to vary – the nation-state is the lowest unit of ambition to the professional political class.
Notwithstanding devolution, notwithstanding the supposed “checks and balances” and States’ rights of the US system, the national assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, to give two examples, the drive to dominate a nation-state is there in every political organization.
Neither is there any coherent drive towards effective international federacy, co-operation, or super-statism. The looseness of the United Nations, with the power of veto given to the handful of nation-states with the most perceived status (or sometimes muscle), means that many other nation-states routinely defy it. Israel does continuously, without serious opposition; Ba’athist Iraq did so, mainly as a sheer but unsuccessful bluff, until invaded by the armies of other nation-states acting with only dubious and contentious reference to the UN’s rulings; other nation-states – usually little ones with no oil and no strategic importance – have done so without any significant disturbance. The lawgiving centralism of the European Community constantly brings it into conflict with the national interest and sovereignty of constituent nation-states. The Commonwealth is now of little significance beyond sporting ties.
The nation-state is possessive, fearful, bellicose, jealous, vainglorious, selfish, and assured of its supposed superiority over its neighbours. It embodies character traits that one would discourage in one’s child or one’s sister. The nation-state sends it young men and women to war, and does so behind its national icons and idols, against the young men and women of another nation-state.
The nation-state often claims to be the protector of the individual rights and freedoms of its citizens. In fact the nation-state subsumes those rights and freedoms, demands allegiance, demands quiescence, fosters a level of national sentiment (or rather national sentimentality). Even in nation-states pretending democracy the sum of the citizen’s participation is to sign his or her autonomy away by marking an X on a piece of paper once every four or five years, and gifting all decision-making to the professional political class.
H L Menken
“But surely,” says the political class (the same political class that routinely praises the intelligence of the electorate in being able to make up its minds who to vote for!), “the average person in the street does not have the necessary skills to govern himself? Let us take on the awful burden of making decisions for him, thereby liberating him from care.” And in so saying, and so doing, the political class goes on to prove the cynical quip of H L Menken – “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” It is the theory that there is a majority of wise men over fools, or rather the pretence, because it is in the interests of the political class that the rest of us can be fooled into voting for them and into perpetuating the system where they can not only aspire to political power but can achieve and maintain it. When Abraham Lincoln said, “You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time”, he neglected the fact that all a politician has to do is to fool enough of the people enough of the time. At least within bourgeois democracy that is enough!
But I would say that even the most foolish citizen has some recognisable and reliable level of knowledge about what concerns him or her most closely. The more remote the decision-making has to be by dint of the smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit’s being the nation-state, then the more that the citizen can be excluded by the political class from the process of decision-making. It is so easy for that citizen to become convinced by the argument that he or she hasn’t the necessary skills to govern himself or herself, so easy to persuade each citizen simply to be quiescent, to watch the pretty images on TV and drink the cheap lager from the supermarket, so easy to become complacent and apathetic. Panem et circenses!
So what to put in the place of the nation-state, and who has the right to change things? It seems to me that asking the ordinary citizen to become more directly involved in grass-roots, ground-up, non-party-dominated politics is a way of educating the ordinary citizen towards the skills which the political class insists we don’t have. So let us look for the smallest communal unit that we can find, whether it be a village, a factory, or whatever – what it is will depend on circumstances – and make that our smallest functioning, autonomous, political unit, without need for any larger unit. Let those units exist not to compete, but to co-operate with each other1, to obey the evolutionary principle of mutual aid, recognizing as they do that that mutuality can’t be limited by the traditional borders of nation-states, that pressures and priorities may be exactly the same in Coldstream and Cornhill-on-Tweed, or in Les Moëres and Houtem, or in Coutts and Sweetgrass. The answer is go small! The right to do this rests with the ordinary citizen, whom the political class has effectively disenfranchised whilst leaving the illusion that his or her X actually means something more than the perpetuation of that class’s hold on political power.
In Britain today we have a situation where electoral participation in general election voting is still 20% lower than its post-WW2 peak, and at 65% is not a great deal higher than its trough of 60% in 2001. Also notwithstanding the unpopularity of the immediately previous administration (New Labour), the most readily-electable alternative (the Conservative Party) failed to gain an overall majority and had to form a coalition with the third-place party (Liberal Democrat). This coalition has embarked on a programme of cuts to state spending coupled with consumer tax rises (VAT will rise from 17.5% to 20% in the New Year), meanwhile favouring big business with a cut in Corporation Tax to a record low level2. There is a lot of public disquiet and dissent both low key and more recently high key with street protests by students about probable rises in the cost of university education. Now my purpose here is not to argue the rights and wrongs of the various actions of the parties of the political class, nor the rights or wrongs of any particular street protests.
The ideal is to break the hold of this system. It cannot be done by asking the perpetuators of the system to reform it. They will never reform it because they will never reform themselves, will never cut away from themselves the very thing that enables them to maintain power. They as a class are not afraid of the people they govern. It can only be done from down here, by exercising democracy at the smallest practicable level. I can suggest two things. The first is to get involved in any existing, democratically-run (or potentially democratically-run) body outside of government. For example a trade union. You may have to take on the power-structure within that body, but you can do so by working to increase grass-roots participation in that body. The second is to abstain from the voting process for the national parliament or congress. Now, it has been put to me that withholding one’s vote in a national election merely hands political power to one or the other of a couple of parties. Whilst I can see that argument, I would say that there is a level of electoral participation below which even a “victorious” party has to acknowledge that the nation is ungovernable under their system.
Combining these two actions ought, I feel, to bring about a new way of doing things out of necessity. A participatory democracy working from the ground up, similar to the late Murray Bookchin’s “Libertarian Municipalism”, ought to evolve.
There is a big caveat. It would be necessary to move on from using existing organizations and bodies to forming new communities to run things. There will be no legal framework for doing so, it would be a direct challenge to the power structure that already exists. Those who clung on to power would declare it to be illegal and would fight it. As Emma Goldman said, “Every great idea is against the law.” This is where the hard work would come in, and to quote Thomas Jefferson, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed”. This is the point where dissent finds itself transformed to revolution (in all senses of the word) and in the face of reaction from the powers-that-be has three choices: surrender, passive resistance, or active resistance. Dissenters would have to choose, and it would be a difficult choice.
Let us suppose that it did become possible to have local, communitarian, ground-upward democracy; how would the autonomous communities interact? Of necessity and for the survival of all, it would have to be with mutuality and cooperation, each community helping its immediate neighbours. Also to an overwhelming extent it would have to be with disregard for pre-existing “national” boundaries, as the next-door-neighbour cooperation formed a network. Any decisions affecting more than one community would have to be the subject of specific conventions. These conventions would be set up for a specific purpose, would last as long as the issue was live, and would then be disbanded. They would not be set up to govern the communities but to serve their interests.
I know this sounds over-simple, but I am a blogger and this is only a blog. I would write a book, but for the fact that I am sure that what I am summarizing here has been already stated at length by others. You will be able to find something of this in many works by secular and religious communitarians, by revolutionary and pacifist anarchists, by political philosophers such as Bookchin and Alex Knight; there are hints and more than hints of it in the writings of such diverse people as Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson, and even in the original concepts of the constitutions which formed the basis of (yes!) some nation-states. Read Kropotkin if you will, read Alexander Berkman if you will.
Instantly to your mind might questions about how important aspects of infrastructure might be handled. How would the railways run? How would the mail be delivered? How would hospitals function? How would justice be administered? Certainly having gone through the birth pangs of constructing a new society its citizens would have their work cut out for them – there would be no need to encourage democratic participation, because it would be an absolute necessity, a continuing experiment! It would be hard work from the word go. I certainly don’t have all the answers to hand, so for now let’s leave these questions to one side…
To be continued.
1 The familiar (and to my mind unthinking) objection from the Right will be that this simply isn’t in “human nature”, that we are by that nature competitive and not cooperative, according to the “survival of the fittest” rule in Darwinism. That is a view of almost unbelievable narrowness and naivety which comes from a misinterpretation of 19c philosopher Herbert Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” to mean that only the toughest, fastest, strongest survive, taking “fit” to mean nothing more than a bodily condition. But if dog eats dog to survive, then the last two dogs will fight each other to the extinction of the canine race. The word “fittest” means “most suited”, and this can mean, and in fact should mean more often than it means the most ruggedly individualistic, the most communal, the most cooperative. Humankind is a societal species, a species that has often, in its neglected and unwritten histories (those which do not only record “Great Men”), has relied on mutual aid for its survival. It will need to rely on this again, and soon, and will need to muzzle the dog-eating dogs in its midst. I can recommend a book into which I have only dipped in the past. If you can find an English translation, then read Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin from the introduction to which I quote:
“Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find -- although I was eagerly looking for it -- that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution…
Wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest -- in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.
And finally, I saw among the semi-wild cattle and horses in Transbaikalia, among the wild ruminants everywhere, the squirrels, and so on, that when animals have to struggle against scarcity of food, in consequence of one of the above-mentioned causes, the whole of that portion of the species which is affected by the calamity, comes out of the ordeal so much impoverished in vigour and health, that no progressive evolution of the species can be based upon such periods of keen competition.”
Consequently, when my attention was drawn, later on, to the relations between Darwinism and Sociology, I could agree with none of the works and pamphlets that had been written upon this important subject. They all endeavoured to prove that Man, owing to his higher intelligence and knowledge, may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was ‘a law of Nature’. This view, however, I could not accept, because I was persuaded that to admit a pitiless inner war for life within each species, and to see in that war a condition of progress, was to admit something which not only had not yet been proved, but also lacked confirmation from direct observation.”
Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin
2 To be fair, the lowest rate of 20% will be applied to the smallest limited companies.