Democracy is great, when people genuinely participate in making decisions about things that affect them. But it seldom works out that way. Once a formally democratic entity gets large enough to require government by representatives and a permanent administrative apparatus, it ceases to be “democratic” in anything but that formal sense. This results from what Robert Michels, in his analysis of the European social democratic parties a century ago, called the Iron Law of Oligarchy: “the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandatories over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators.”
A society could be organized along the best syndicalist or libertarian communist lines, with federal bodies made up of delegates recallable at will by local worker-managed factories. But the tasks of central coordination would still require permanent staffs of economists and other experts, and in time the formally democratic bodies of delegates would be reduced to rubber stamping plans made by those permanent staffs. In the end, centralized institutions — whatever their ostensible purpose — serve the interests of those who run them.
But what about the local level, where elected representatives have small constituencies and are closest and most accessible to the people?
Several years ago in nearby Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I lived at the time, Dan Coody — the leader of a dissident, New Urbanist minority faction on the City Board, who had fought the real estate developers and other good ol’ boys for years — was elected mayor.
After his election his New Urbanist agenda consisted entirely of greenwash: Nitpicky aesthetic standards for buildings, an ordinance regulating the maximum size of signs, ubiquitous speed bumps in residential areas, and all sorts of other yuppie micromanagement.
When it came to stuff within his legitimate purview that would have genuinely curtailed sprawl, he was afraid to rock the boat. For example, when the sewer system needed a capacity upgrade because of the increased burden from all of real estate baron Jim Lindsey’s new outlying developments, what did Coody propose? Increased sewer hookup fees to make the developers pull their weight? That choice wasn’t even presented — the only alternative was an up or down vote on a penny sales tax to fund the renovation.
In Springdale, where I live now, voters last year turned down a millage increase for new school construction. The agenda included extravagances like giving the new second high school its own football field so the two schools wouldn’t have to share.
The vote came on the heels of a bunch of unpopular measures, taken in a virtually unaccountable manner by the school board, like closing the city’s main street for a block on either side of the old high school and constructing a luxurious administrative building — with an enormous central dome and atrium — spanning the street.
During the debate, a bunch of other interesting stuff came out. For example, the school board gave Superintendent Rollins a new Tahoe, and school staff were used — on the clock — to cater the new high school principal’s third wedding.
After the measure failed, the school board scheduled a second vote less than a year later. This time, Rollins leaned aggressively on teachers to propagandize parents and get supporters out to vote. But the administration kept a low profile in public venues like the local newspaper and tried to avoid drawing general public attention to the issue. So this time, with fewer voters and the deck stacked in favor of supporters, the millage increase won. Our “public servants” showed us who was boss.
The local governing institutions of northwest Arkansas, supposedly so close to the people, comprise an interlocking directorate. They include the city councils; the boards of directors at Tyson, Wal-Mart, Lindsey Real Estate, J.B Hunt, the University, and the Walton Arts Center; and the Northwest Arkansas Council (a quasi-private shadow government — er, public service organization — made up of corporate welfare queens). And the same handful of people keep shuffling back and forth among them.
In the real world, governments are simply beyond genuine democratic control. No matter how “progressive” candidates are, how much they talk about “hope” and “change,” once elected they’ll find they have more in common with the oligarchy than with you, and their primary interest will be continuance in office.
Democracy’s a great thing when people voluntarily associate for their own purposes, and participate directly in making decisions. But when it comes to controlling organizations that exercise coercive authority, like the state, democracy simply doesn’t work.