The Tithe as an Element of Economic Democracy: Decentralizing Collectivization
This is a lead essay in the C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: "Decentralization and Economic Coordination." The related readings and list of all other articles can be found in the introduction here. Illustration by a friend of C4SS.

Introduction: Towards a Combined Anarchist and Communist Approach to the Question of Central Economic Planning

This essay deals with the question of central economic planning, or minimum viable economic planning (MVEP) from both anarchist and communist perspectives. The central operative terms will be collectivization, or the process of pooling resources to be shared at the collective or communal but not “national” level, and economic democracy, or the democratic control over collective resources. To put my cards on the table, I am a communist-leaning anarcho-communist who believes in decentralization of forms of governance and economic structures for the sake of maximizing the autonomy of collectives within the broader society to come to their own conclusions about how to plan and distribute resources. I don’t necessarily believe that either an anarchist- or a communist-style scale and form of distribution are the only necessary organizations of post-revolutionary or post-capitalist society. In other words, I don’t assert that an anarcho-communist arrangement of economic resources and systems of governance (whether formal or informal) is the ideal scale to organize collective resources. On the contrary, I uphold the necessity of an ecology of societies post-capitalism, some of which are communist in nature while others necessarily are not, that work together through mechanisms of trade and aid (T&A) in order to overcome concrete and logistical problems of resource allocation and scarcity. 

Anarchism without communism, and communism without anarchism, are two possibilities that form a mutually reinforcing and intolerable aporia (site of critical doubt). One cannot, I argue, valorize communism over anarchism in the heightened form of the distinction of communism without anarchism or anarchism without communism, or vice versa. This aporia exists because heightening the decision to non-overlapping fields of possibility — the possibility of a communist future absent the critique of the state, or the possibility of an anarchist future without a critique of class power1 — creates the central tension that renders all possibilities, and therefore the debate itself, futile and meaningless. There is no ideal outcome of post-capitalist society that is predicated upon the exclusion of either communist or anarchist principles. We need both at some scale and implementation, as I aim to show, and we would be better off imagining the co-existence of these principles rather than their mutual exclusion, or the impossible ideality of a global society that operates on one set of principles to the exclusion of the other. The revolution will never happen this way. 

Council vs. Direct vs. Representative Democracy 

One way to parse out the question of MVEP and T&A agreements between respectively communism-based societies and anarchism-based societies in a post-revolutionary ecology of various levels of centralization and planning (or lack thereof), is to look at the question of democracy. I don’t purport to prescribe the form of democratic participation most adequate to address the needs of societies not even in existence yet; however, I do want to parse out the merits and drawbacks of individualist arrangements versus councils versus representative democracy. 

Let’s start with representative democracy, which is what we have today in the US (or some bastardization of it, anyway). Representative democracy is inefficient because it relies on votes-by-proxy by representative members of political parties in order to represent the basic needs of those represented by these figures. There is an information gap between the individual voter and the representative of that voter and many others like her. The representative knows that they have been selected based on the voter’s preferences, but does not know what these preferences are in any holistic way. Of course, you can write to your representative and inform them in detail of your preferences, but this requires extra effort not built into the democratic system of voting. And that is just one perspective among many; in short, the representative has a partial and incomplete view of why they were selected to represent voters in the first place, and does not always have their own voters’ best interests in mind.

Now, in participatory democracy this information gap is largely closed by direct participation in the decision-making process. Each policy or action proposal gets voted on by all members of a society on an individual basis, meaning that everyone gets a say in how things are determined to go. The problem with this system, despite the large number of problems it solves inherently, is in situations in which majority rule is unfair, such as determining the rights of and appropriate actions towards a minority. 

To this end, council democracy incorporates aspects of direct democracy along with “representation” albeit of a very different kind. In council democracy, “councils” are made up of stakeholders on a particular issue, identity, working sector, commitment, or various other “natural” forms of affiliation. There is no predetermined size of these councils, but the council as a whole comes to a consensus/majority rule (for either consensus or majority rule however defined, or even another process could be used within the particular council) that reflects most accurately2 the needs of their constituents. The advantage of this system is that there is no need for a predetermined way for the council to function — Quakers, for example, build consensus-based approaches to social change while unions tend to be majority rule. What matters is that some sort of process is established to determine the needs of the members of the council, which can then be raised to a larger body as the concerns and needs of the council and all its members. In this framework, there would be various scales to council organization. Just as in faith collectives there is the local parish, synagogue, temple, or mosque, and then there is the larger organizing body that locality is affiliated with, so also with councils there are more local and broader channels for decision-making processes. A council may vote on distributing resources for itself, but it may also petition larger and more resource-laden councils for support in the form of trade and aid (T&A) agreements. 

A council can form around any affiliation and need not be called a “council” to function as one. Churches and synagogues and the broader movements they are affiliated with are good examples of how religious institutions can function as this kind of council system. As a practicing Jew, I consider the synagogue to be a great example of this form of democracy. Synagogues are typically represented by a board of elected officials, who make budgetary and logistical decisions about how the resources of the synagogue will be spent (such as which Rabbi to hire–note here that unlike, say, Catholicism where a priest is appointed to work in a certain community, the synagogue itself or more precisely its board decides which Rabbi to hire for the service of the community). Then they distribute decision-making power however they want, often ceding liturgical authority to the Rabbi, while letting the synagogue as a whole participate in community programming and decisions regarding resources. This form of collective decision-making is indeed a council, as it is a way of internally working out the needs of the community in the form of a council of actors with vested interests in their own community. This latter part is essential: whereas in representative democracy the representative may not have a vested interest in the communities they represent, in council democracy all members of a council (unless brought in in an external advisory capacity) are stakeholders in the decisions being made. 

Now, when certain decisions or needs are brought to a larger body (an individual shop may have a union, but be affiliated with a larger coalition of union politics and bodies; the Philadelphia Socialists are an affiliate of the Marxist Center, churches belong to denominations and movements, etc.), they are represented as the central concern of a smaller body in which the individual has already had a chance to meaningfully participate and debate. So, yes, there remains an information gap in that the concerns brought to the larger body may not reflect every individual concern of the membership of the smaller body. But it is significantly mitigated by the fact that an individual has not only the opportunity to vote on the smaller council, but also to deliberate, argue, make their case, gain supporters, mobilize dissent, and all manner of real, authentic civic engagement that is lacking in both direct and representative democracy. A vote is not the extent of civic engagement, and having a council of one’s affiliate peers who share goals, resources, and process with you is a much more robust form of participation than simply voting, even in the case of political defeat (when your particular perspective does not sufficiently influence your council to a particular course of action). 

Economic democracy would describe either individual democratic or council democratic control over economic resources, and the processes of decision-making that would guide such control. Collectivization is a correlate term, which describes the pooling and mutual utilization of resources for prosocial and communal needs. 

All of this discussion of democratic forms of participation is to say that I think the drawbacks of a representative system are obvious, while the merits and potentially ameliorating function of direct or council democratic system are equally obvious. This brings them into consideration as to how democratic decision-making should work. It should be apparent from my opening remarks that I think a combination of direct and council democracy is the most efficient system or eco-system. One of the central perspectives of this essay is that, in fact, the “ideal” solution is not out there (yet), and that it is only in encounters with particular problems that ideal solutions will manifest themselves. In other words, I simply don’t know what is best; in the meantime, I’m arguing for an ecology of solutions and arrangements to better manage the uncertainty of the problem. While many other heroic efforts in this Symposium propose concrete economic arrangements to solve particular problems of distribution and production, I offer no such solutions, and instead encourage individuals and groups to think about the possibility that not everyone will want to or will engage with your “ideal” solutions under the best of circumstances, and we aren’t likely to face best circumstances for many decades out. Whatever emerges will be a difficult and piecemeal solution to problems on-the-ground; scarcity and shortages will exist; attempts at equitable distribution may indeed make such problems worse; doing nothing would be equally disastrous. There are in fact no one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems, and I am not an economist! What I offer, however, is the barest-bones suggestion about how we might think about these problems moving forward.

The Tithe as an Alternative to Taxation

One aspect of the problem of MVEP is the problem of taxes, and just what amount of taxes is necessary to ensure the functioning of society, to what extent taxes imply a state, and to what extent taxes need to be scaled in order to be effective. Don’t worry, I intend to sidestep most of these problems by offering an alternative to taxation! But in the meantime, it is perhaps a good idea to discuss one argument against taxation that is revealed by a consideration of real economic choices, or the problem of revealed versus stated preference.

A group of, say, US Democrats, may indeed vote for politicians who promise to raise their taxes, on the basis of their stated preference for a large social-support network and government assistance to the poor. Or simply because they believe in things like public libraries and parks. However, their revealed preference is seen in the real, actual economic choices they make. Certainly most if not all of them would not choose to give to charity at the same rates they ask the government to tax them. The same percentage of their income they apply to taxation would not be allocated for charitable donations or direct help to the poor or even mutual aid societies. In fact, we can expect the actual number of charitable allocations to be much smaller than the percentage of income taxed by the government even in the absence of such taxation. This may be different in a society in which mutual aid and other institutions of the like are properly supported and culturally valued. However, putting culture aside for the moment, economically speaking it doesn’t make a good case for taxes being the thing that people really want. 

An alternative to this framework of taxation vs. charity is seen in the form of the tithe. The tithe is a religious form of charity (in Hebrew, tzedakah, related to tzedek or “justice”) that was and is practiced by many societies over the centuries. The intention of the tithe is to distribute wealth and income more evenly and fairly over the civil body, with an eye to aiding especially the poor and downtrodden, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. The tithe in Judaism is set at 10% of one’s income; in Islam the zakat or alms-giving is set at 2.5% of net worth. Depending on the situation, a smaller percentage of net worth may mean significantly more wealth than a larger percentage of one’s income. These mechanisms help ensure that the poor always have assistance and the rich participate in the aid of society to combat inequality. Other measures in, for example, the Hebrew Bible are designed to accomplish the same. Hebraite society was one of the first to mitigate against permanent slavery, with servants and slaves being released during the Jubilee year (every 50 years) and ancestral land returned to the families that owned it originally. In this way families that could not afford their land are returned these goods in time. Price gouging, additionally, is forbidden. Finally, there are many precepts such as the practice of gleaning, leaving the corners of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may gather or glean their fill from the farmland, suggesting that a permanent institution to assist with the poors’ food needs is necessary for a just society. I am not suggesting taking on any of these practices literally or applying them in a contemporary context willy nilly; indeed, the notion that slaves ought to be freed every 50 years flies in the face of a more contemporary perspective that refuses slavery wholesale on moral grounds. 

Nonetheless, I believe there is merit and virtue in practices that are agreed upon and enforced by social norms rather than laws or government. The tithe is a practice that is agreed to by a community and enacted through mechanisms of good-will and, on the other side, shame for not participating to the extent of one’s means. Tithes are understood to be adjustable based on one’s income and net worth, and even in terms of absolute percentages people with less are understood to give less, while people with more are understood and expected to give more. Tithe contributions are voluntary while being enforced by a broader social and cultural framework that acts as a check on feelings of self-interest or greed. Social stigma of those who contribute below their means would help enforce the tithe without the threat of imprisonment or legal litigation, or the necessity of a state. Social norms and cultural expectations exist outside of government bodies, and can be a way to solve the financial responsibility problem of how to support those with less, without necessitating the intervention of a potentially armed political body to enforce them. The tithe is a great example of a system of economic democracy enacted through social norms that forms institutions for the benefit of society as whole. Thus the humanizing trajectory of the tithe. 

What interests me about the tithe is the possibility of an experiment in revealed preference that sees what people’s actual economic choices are when checked by a broader social norm that encourages mutualistic economic practices and altruism while discouraging hoarding of economic resources and selfishness. This combination of revealed preference with mutually enforcing social norms is necessary for a free and autonomous society to flourish. People ought to be free to make economic decisions based upon the information they (and only they) have about their situation, but should not be free from the social consequences of failing to contribute their fair share. The tithe as a social norm would accomplish both tasks, being both voluntary and socially coercive at the same time. This latter aspect of social coercion might be unsavory to many, but it is certainly preferable to forms of government coercion that I see as the alternative. 

Tithes may be set at any rate and utilized for any purpose. The point is for the councils at the local scale to set the tithe at a rate they believe to be efficacious and necessary for the support of their scale of organization. So, the council determines the tithe, with the contribution and consideration of the needs of its members, and determines how to allocate the resources gained by the tithe to whatever ends they determine most prudent and necessary. While a tithe may be used to alleviate the burden of the poor, it may be used for any purpose. A tithe for reparations, a tithe for trade for essential goods and services, a tithe for the poor, a tithe for emergencies, a tithe for famine or public health or wildfires. Temporary tithes, permanent tithes, modified tithes, tithes subject to change and development with changing economic conditions. Let a thousand tithes proliferate! As many tithes as there are forms of economic arrangements and as many tithes as there are societies within a global post-capitalist civil body. Each council would determine its own resources and how to allocate them. Trade and aid (T&A) agreements would still be the primary mechanism for resource allocation, but these would be supplemented by and supported by institutions of economic support. 

T&A is an important element of this, as it is the backdrop in which economic institutions such as the tithe exist and thanks to which they thrive. Trade and Aid represent the range of possibilities afforded to societies in interacting with each other at more than just the local level. A combination of the two may be implemented: trade at a discounted rate, for a certain range of goods, for a certain period of time, for example. Societies may determine among themselves, using both market considerations and ethical ones as well, for these are not mutually exclusive, how best to assist each other in allocating scarce resources. Trade is the main mechanism, with aid being an exceptional alternative when faced with serious need or circumstance. Trade and Aid together form the twin poles of economic interaction in a post-capitalist society, replacing the profit incentive with a more tempered system of mutual exchange and benefit. 

Conclusion

To summarize my argument, I contend that any attempt to determine in advance the economic structures that will best allocate resources for a particular community is doomed to failure. Not only because advice even by experts tends to be ignored, but also simply because we cannot know the conditions of the future. Further, societies and collectives at the local level have a right to determine the economic institutions necessary for the support of such societies and collectives (even if they’re wrong about the most effective way to do this!). 

It may be true that larger tithes may become necessary; for example, a continent such as Australia may implement a tithe at 1% for the whole region to combat wildfires, and may lift this tithe during times when it is deemed unnecessary. A global tithe to combat COVID-19, were a similar crisis to take place post-capitalism, may be necessary as well. There would no doubt be a complicated process of deliberation for deciding upon such measures. 

The point is that a tithe is not a determined economic structure, but a framework for instituting such structures in a way that maximizes freedoms and autonomy of collectives in determining their own needs. The form of their collectivization is economic democracy, in other words, the means for sharing resources is one of collective and social economic control. Allied to procedural and organizational principles such as council or direct democracy, institutions like the tithe could be the life-blood of a new and emerging global order.

  1. Any discussion of what these possibilities actually mean would obviously require an attention to definition or else would produce a widely caricatured and parsed-down discussion. I have opted for the latter for the sake of space, please bear with me.
  2. Again, not prescribing in advance what procedures would result in a “most accurate” representation, but trusting that establishing the scale of the council does significant work towards this end, for reasons to follow.

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email editor@c4ss.org or emmibevensee@email.arizona.edu.

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