From the bottom up

In Democracy

As suggested in the previous item, sortition by itself is not enough; it needs to be part of a governance structure. Given the challenges of global heating, resource limitation, and, now, Covid-19, that structure must be resilient. Top-down, centralised government is not going to cut it and we need to look at ways of decentralising the whole thing.

And if we decentralise the whole thing we have created an anarchy.

Is this a good thing? Is it possible?

I'm obviously aware of the Diggers, an English group that arose in 1649 who wanted to redress the inequalities of land ownership by creating their own comunities. It didn't last, of course, and they provide an early example of the difficulties that such independent and, heavens above, uncontrollable, groups face. While the Digggers were deadly serious, Peter Kropotkin1, on the other hand was a writer with a marvellously cheerful and optimistic view of what anarchy might look like. His view of a basically agrarian society (this is in 1880 or so) opeating as independent small holders is a joy to read, but lacks any real thought on the practicalities.

Michael Taylor2 brings us down to earth with a series of questions that seem to boil down to: how does an anarchic state stop itself from dissolving onto tribal warefare? In effect, Taylor argues that anarchy only works within a group that can see itself as, and act as, a community. The community provides a common basis for mutal understanding, together with commonly understood rules of behaviour and sanctions. We shouldn't be surprised to find that Elinor Ostrom's3 work in modelling the use of common resources reinforces much of what Taylor says and takes it further in offering conditions for the success of any attempt at anarchic operation (although specifically aimed at the management of Common Pool Resources).

John Burnheim4, writing after Taylor, but before Ostrom, proposes a structure almost entirely built of networks of stakeholder groups. Business would be overseen by stakeholders, including customers and, perhaps, local citizens who might be affected by the business activities. Health provision would be overseen by groups encompassing perhaps the local provision of GP services, hospitals, care homes and so on. Local government as such might be split into separate organisations, each with a stakeholder group, parks and recreation, planning, education, social services, where the groups/organisations do not necessarily cover the same geographical area as each other. In fact, the strength of the proposal lies in the overlap between groups. There is no clearly defined geographical or structural area that might emerge as a focus of self interest.

Burnheim is aware of two social control type problems. One is that a business or service provider may still operate in unacceptable ways, despite the oversight of the stakeholder group. The product or service may be of consistent poor quality, funds may be wasted, extraction practices may be unacceptable, and so on. The other is that the stakeholder group may be biased (in some way unrepresentative) or simply incompetent. The second problem is handled by the regular turnover of membership. Sometimes things will go wrong, but for the most part things will work. For the other case Burnheim suggests an independent audit process. Public reporting of problem areas is, he believes, enough to have the problem corrected. This seems unlikely in the case of local monopolies, such as water or education, but perhaps we can imagine that there might, for example, be ways of perhaps breaking up and restructuring an organisation that persists in default.

On the whole Burnheim's suggestion paints a picture of a network of overlapping and interconnected elements that form a robust system, capable of restructuring, and hence surviving, as the world around it changes. These ideas crop up in various disguises in other places. Decentralisation and networks are key ideas in most resilience thinking. Companies running as cooperatives is seen as a good thing. A sense of place is also key. And stakeholder groups can be chosen by sortition. These ideas are usually presented within the context of a state, but Burnheim's work is aimed at removing the state altogether. He does recognise that there are some things which have to be dealt with at a higher level, labour, land use and money in particular, and proposes stakeholder based authorities to handle this. The challenge, of course, is that all (most?56) current states are, well, states. With a state structure that centralises many of these functions. Large scale, state level, structures al la Burnheim would take a long time to form under these conditions; if they ever could.


  1. Peter Kropotkin, (1899) 1979, Fields, factories and workshops tomorrow, George, Allen and Unwin, ISBN 0-04-321018-x. 

  2. Michael Taylor, 1982, Community, anarchy and liberty, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-27014-6. 

  3. Elinor Ostrom, 2010, Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of comples economic systems, American Economic Review 100 (June 2010): 1-33 

  4. John Burnheim, 1985, Is Democracy Possible?, Polity Press, ISBN 0-7456-0429-3 

  5. The Zapatistas are a community with a degree of autonomy (according to the 1996 peace agreement with Mexico). They continue to operate as a state within a state, though with a very un-state like structure. See aslo David Graeber, 2013, The Democracy Project, Penguin Books, ISBN978-0-718-19504-5. 

  6. Zomia, in the highlands of southeast asia, is, perhaps was, a stateless state within a state. See James C. Scott, 2009, The art of not being governed, Yale Universiyy, ISBN 978-0-300-16917-1.