Archive for September, 2014

September 22, 2014

Analogies: the Trinity

The concept of the Trinity has helped me think through a number of issues related to the pollyty, two of which can be derived from the following drawing:


[First off, let me apologize to all Orthodox Christian readers for the filioque arrow. It is there only for historical, not ontological purposes, as i will explain below. For non-Christian readers, you are going to be totally lost.]

Just as the Father is the source of the divine essence and engenders the Son and spirates the Holy Spirit, so the State’s rule of law and the infrastructure it provides make Corporations (or broadly, Capitalism) and Pollyties possible. In that sense, both C and P are built on top of the social and political layer that is provided by S; and yet, insofar as the State’s legal infrastructure is used to define and maintain in existence both Corporations and Pollyties, it is tantamount to a shared essence or ousia: all three are institutions of some sort. But since they are fundamentally different kinds of institutions, and are defined against one another, they cannot be collapsed into one person or hypostasis. Just as the Father never incarnated, and the Son is not just a spirit, so the State is by definition not a voluntary association, and a corporation is not a democratic social net.

The second use i’ve made of the Trinitarian analogy is more basic. Historically, the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) emerged long (say, two centuries) after the Father and Son had been established as separate entities or persons. In fact, the Holy Spirit can be thought of as the necessary solution to the theological problems inherent in the “two God” approach (which seemed to inevitably degenerate into some kind of good god/bad god Gnosticism). The Holy Spirit brought balance to the godhead by serving as a liaison between the just heavenly Father and his earthly loving Son: like the Father, the Spirit was not human; like the Son, e proceeded from the Father; unlike either, e was never addressed in prayer. It is this harmony that made it possible to speak of one God in three persons. In the same way, the pollyty can be thought of as a placeholder for “whatever institution is needed to balance out states and corporations”. Any such institution will do.

September 14, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 6: Radical Pluralism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Radical pluralism is a democratic theory put forward by such thinkers as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Claude Lefort. It opposes liberal and deliberative democracy primarily in its insistence that rational consensus cannot be achieved, but that democracy must allow for healthy political clashes between voters whose positions are deeply held and fundamentally diverge. The philosophers are very suspicious of current democratic practices that seek to gloss over fundamental disagreements by switching the register of public discourse from political conflict to moral consensus.

A pollyty is based on a similar assessment of the necessity of political conflict, however, instead of trying to re-insert a healthy agon into the state’s democratic practices, the pollyty relocates those political disagreements away from the state onto a separate, higher level at which particular cultural and moral choices are no longer mutually exclusive. One pollyty can be thoroughly socialist, denying to its members the very notion of private property, while another could restrict itself to providing (capitalist) mutual insurance policies, another could essentially function as a union, whereas a fourth might provide guild-like educational and employment services. Moreover, an individual could potentially be a member of all four of those guilds. This is a marked advance over the agonistics of radical pluralism, which still requires that the state’s democratic process eventually decide upon one set of laws which must then be applied to the entire population.

September 13, 2014

Analogies: walled cities

A walled city — be it Jericho, Athens, Rome or Florence — allows those who live in violent lands to pool their defensive efforts by agreeing to labor (or taxes) and laws that will afford the construction of a rampart and then man and maintain it thereafter. This reduces enemy raids on inhabitants’ homes; they do not die as often by the sword, are not sold into slavery, and needn’t watch their houses and possessions burn. They are hence freer, wealthier, and perhaps even happier.

A pollyty is like a walled city, only the marauding it abates is now but financial, and the barbarian at its gate incorporated.

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September 12, 2014

Isaiah Berlin on Rousseau

Having recently found Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty at my local bookstore, i decided to read through some of the essays in search of a healthy contrarian view. The chapter on Rousseau was tendentious and at times frankly ad hominem, but nevertheless worthwhile. (The other indictees in this little book are Helvétius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and de Maistre.) Though Berlin objects primarily to the outcome of the philosophy (Hitler and Mussolini! — these are, after all, transcribed radio addresses from the early ’50s), his main contention is with “the mysterious assumption of the coincidence of authority and liberty” which is his gloss on Rousseau’s volonté générale.

Without attempting to defend Mr. Rousseau against Sir Berlin, i would nevertheless like to suggest how the Genevan’s bohemian “paradox” might be calmly explained to a gentleman and a scholar. One might think of this general will, as an instance of Harry Frankfurt’s second-order will. In agreeing to such a social contract, each individual is establishing a second-order will, namely, that e will want what the democratic institutions decide (because it is in es overall or long-term interest). Of course, this defense would be rather weak for large representative democracies as we know them today, but it should be remembered that Rousseau was advocating town-sized direct democracy, so every law was voted upon by every one (well, all eligible voters). Though this does not reduce the Contrat Social to an acceptable form of “negative liberty”, it does explain how one’s liberty might be reconciled with the authority of laws one has freely elected to follow.

Finally, i would like to point out a few modifications one might make to Rousseau’s idea, which would take it yet further towards something Sir Isaiah Berlin might find less objectionable. Two advances in our modern societies have made Rousseau’s general idea more palatable. One is the existence of liberal democracy and its rule of law. A Rousseauvian mini-democracy could easily sit atop this legal framework. This would add two further degrees of freedom: For one, such an association would no longer need to span a defined land area. This would make it much easier for people to leave the association should any of the laws passed not meet with their approval; exit would not require emigration. For another, being freed from maintaining the conditions of negative liberty, the associations could be truly voluntary, making entrance, as well as exit, a matter of individual choice. The second advance is the Internet and mobile computing devices, which add further degrees of simplicity. Associations can now be easily managed, significantly reducing the overhead of direct democracy, since the laws or rules can be automatically implemented by software, and voting requires only that one’s fingers do the traveling.

September 10, 2014

From Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis i learned that the open-mindedness and liberality of Montaigne and Henri IV’s century was abruptly destroyed by the religious morass of the Thirty Years War and replaced in a panic by Descartes’ stubborn certainty and the Westphalian notion of an absolutely sovereign state. Luckily for us, the first of those modern follies is already ceding ground…

September 10, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 5: Deliberative Democracy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

 Deliberative Democracy is described as the grandchild of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. As such it is an attempt to avoid the problems of liberal democratic electioneering by substituting a principle of reasoned debate that should as much as possible reach a consensus, but which can employ voting when a decision is not forthcoming. Against liberalism, it sees the democratic process as one of changing people’s minds and preferences, not aggregating them.

If only due to their relatively small size, pollyties will naturally tend towards a more deliberative and consensual approach. Even if a pollyty is operated through software applications, and hence relies primarily upon voting for decision making, it can easily emulate a consensual process by instituting rules that apply a proposed change as soon as 60% or 90% of members have voted “yes” and none or very few have voted “no”. Moreover, since pollyties are voluntary and self-selecting (unlike nation states or government districts) they will also perhaps more easily reach consensus.

September 10, 2014

Sates, Corporations and Pollyties Compared

The following is a preliminary attempt to outline the specificity of the pollyty by comparing it to the two primary sources of inspiration for it. Pollyties are similar to nation states in their goal of protecting people by being just and democratic; like corporations, they are smallish, voluntary associations that require the stability of existing nation states in order to function.

Criteria State Corporation Pollyty
Sovereign  •    
Land-based  •    
Use of violence/power  •    
Maintains infrastructure  •    
Redistributes wealth  •    •
Provides social insurance  •    •
Democratic  (•)    •
Define themselves in laws/rules  •    •
Trans-national    (•)  (•)
Voluntary    •  •
Members are geographically dispersed    •  •
Subordinate to states’ laws    •  •
Authoritarian  (•)  •  
Hierarchical  •  •  
September 9, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 4 and Excursus: Democratic Pragmatism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Democratic Pragmatism is not so much another theory of democracy, according to Cunningham who is drawing primarily on Dewey, but more so an orientation towards the problems that arise within democracies. In particular, it pays attention to the scope, context and differing degrees of existing democratic institutions. This conforms well with the pollyty inasmuch as the pragmatic approach sees democratic possibilities in a wide range of institutions such as guilds, unions, associations, corporations and, of course, governments at all levels. Democracy will also look and behave differently depending on the cultural, social or economic situation in which people find themselves. Like a pollyty, also, such a pragmatic approach is not concerned with understanding perfectly democratic institutions, but merely how to make existing institutions a bit more democratic than they currently are.

This brings me to a tangent. Why are we striving for democratic solutions in the first place? All theories Cunningham has so far brought forth are concerned with justifying the desirability of democratic institutions, and doing so from the perspective of the (lone) individual. I do not believe the best form of government is democratic, though i could not exactly describe a better form of government. However, i would argue that we needn’t settle on a theory of justice or democracy only then to tweak our institutions into such a format. To channel Rawls, the first virtue of social institutions is not justice but malleability. If we can ensure that our institutions are flexible and respond well to their members’ desires, then they will naturally move towards something like justice, liberty and equality — though perhaps nothing that would exactly fit those three ideals.

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September 7, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 3: Participatory Democracy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]


This chapter deals with the intellectual descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And this is the closest we have come to something similar to a pollyty, for Rousseau’s ideas are also best suited to small societies practicing direct forms of democracy by voting directly upon their laws. One of the main thrusts of this vision is to enable a group of people to gradually establish a unique and cohesive volonté générale instead of the merely aggregated volonté de tous that most forms of representative government achieve. This is no different in a pollyty where all members vote on any rule changes, and it is these rules then that constitute this stronger general will, since they are not mediated by representative’s individual wills or by the rent seeking or lobbying that befall indirect forms of legislation. Moreover, a pollyty, especially one that is instantiated through software applications, needs little administration or executive enforcement, since the (small) group itself (or, better, the software) ensures the rules are always followed. 

Secondly, pollyties also match Rousseau’s vision in that they are autonomous, even in the strict sense of Rousseau’s admirer Kant. Pollyties deliberate and decide upon their own rules and live by them. They are also autonomous in the broader sense of not being submitted to outside forces; their primary goal is in fact to protect their members from the vagaries of capitalistic existence. Though inasmuch as they are built upon the existing rule of law, they do remain within the strictures of modern nation states and are thus not entirely autonomous or sovereign (on which more below).

However, differences remain. Rousseau’s entities are sovereign and land-bound. Their model is a Swiss canton. Pollyties are much more like corporations: they can span national borders and would rarely concentrate all their members into one contiguous piece of land, nor are they concerned with providing the infrastructure or policing that lands require. In that sense, pollyties let nation states retain the honors and duties of sovereignty. This in fact alleviates some of the objections made against participatory democracy, namely, that it becomes unmanageable when applied to modern nation states with large populations and land masses. Pollyties abstract themselves from geographic conditions, and though they are intended for small memberships, they can easily federate upwards and thereby manageably encompass millions.

September 6, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 2: Catallaxy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Catallaxy is described as the economically inspired theory that citizens in a democracy vote based solely on their own desires and for the most part only participate in elections if the cost of doing so does not exceed its benefit. Hence government and representatives do not embody the “will of the people” but rather a game-theoretical equilibrium of voters’ individual preferences, and the more so the larger the voter pool is. According to such a view the market is almost always better at improving people’s lot than government intervention, hence the libertarian emphasis on minimal government and maximal capitalistic solutions.

A pollyty can be seen as approving of much of this analysis, if the pollyty is seen as a market solution to many of the problems the catallaxy analysis points out. As private associations, pollyties will necessarily be subject to the laws of market competition as well as evolutionary pressures as they apply to institutional structures: if people can leave and join pollyties as they please, then these will have to adapt their supply of offerings and structures to demand, and hopefully improve and strengthen as they do so. Moreover, since they are not nation-states, they will not be subject to the negative economies of scale that result in large governments’ voter apathy, rent seeking and onerous bureaucracies/regulations. So, if pollyties prove successful, and evolve to take on important social-financial functions, they could even alleviate current overburdened nation states, and usher in the very minimal governments that the catallaxy analysis promotes.

However, inasmuch as pollyties are solutions to the problems adumbrated by the catallaxists (these would be the Schumpeters, Hayeks, Buchanans and Tullocks of academia), they represent a significant departure from the individualist, liberal-libertarian, pro-capitalist analysis of said thinkers. For far from accepting Adam Smith’s invisible hand as the only viable solution to social and governmental problems, a pollyty aims to create a space above the market and government in which small enough, coherent and well-ordered groups can develop and sustain a “will of the people”, where representation and its evils (rent seeking, voter apathy) can be avoided, and most importantly where significant social and financial benefits can be created within the group without recourse to market forces or large-scale government intervention.