The most valuable treatise ever written on politics is Chapter XIII of William Morris’s “News from Nowhere”:
Said I: “How do you manage with politics?”
Said Hammond, smiling: “I am glad that it is of me that you ask the question: I do believe that anybody else would make you explain yourself, or try to do so, till you were sickened of asking questions. Indeed, I believe I am the only man in England who would know what you mean; and since I know, I will answer your question briefly by saying that we are very well off as to politics—because we have none. If you ever make a book out of this conversation, put this in a chapter by itself, after the model of old Horrebow’s Snakes in Iceland.”
“I will,” said I.
It’s a long way yet to Nowhere. Meanwhile, we have the zero-sum society; whence political science. Jane Mansbridge’s ambitious and influential new book illustrates the uselessness of the enterprise.
As is often noted, very little of what passes for systematic political theory emerged from the experience of the New Left and the counterculture of the ‘60s. “Beyond Adversary Democracy” has been welcomed as the first serious and responsible attempt to interpret that experience—chiefly, I suspect, because of its “bitter conclusion” that there is no getting beyond adversary democracy. The politics of competing interests, enriched with insights and techniques from collective, decentralized, participatory communities and workplaces, is about the best any large society can hope for. This is pluralism vindicated, soberly and reluctantly, by one who had hoped for something better. Naturally, it’s a big hit.
Mansbridge explains that the book began as a sympathetic study of decision-making within the fragile, ephemeral institutions of the ‘60s counterculture and the New Left. In their efforts to realize egalitarianism and, as the (fondly remembered) phrase went, “participatory democracy,” these groups nearly always failed. Thinking about why, Mansbridge came to believe that there are two different, complementary kinds of democracy.
She calls the two forms of democracy “unitary” and “adversary.” In a unitary situation, common interests outweigh conflicting interests; in adversary situation, conflicting interests predominate. Unitary procedures, such as consensus and face-to- face discussion, are right for unitary situations and help achieve unitary goals, like mutual respect, solidarity, and personal growth. Adversary procedures, such as representation and majority rule, are for adversary situations and help achieve the main adversary goal, fairness, or equal protection of interests. Mansbridge’s argument is that all groups harbor both common and conflicting interests, and that, within each group, or society, decisions about matters of common interest should be made with unitary procedures, decisions about matters of conflicting interests with adversary procedures.
She applies these distinctions in two case studies—the town meeting in a small Vermont community called “Selby,” and a shelter and crisis-intervention center called “Helpline” (actually Boston’s Project Place). The common interests and shared purposes of members of these groups generally, though not always, out weighed their conflicting interests and purposes; decisions made face-to-face, by consensus, were more satisfying, and even more efficient than decisions made by voting, and friendly, comradely feelings were more important than formal guarantees of fairness. The less influential and articulate members of Selby and Helpline were usually content with unitary procedures be cause they felt, rightly, that all were in it together and that everyone’s fundamental interest was the same. But when they felt differently, they were loath to jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the group, or to sound foolish, and so they acquiesced, resentfully in a false consensus. Selby and Helpline survived these resentments, but all too many brave and earnest little groups in the ‘60s and ‘70s didn’t.
These case studies make fine oral history and may well help people in, say, women’s groups or antinuclear affinity groups to make sense of their experiences. But using them as theory-fodder is dubious. From her discussion of unitary procedures, Mansbridge concludes with spectacular naiveté: “Without an extensive program of decentralization and workplace democracy, few people are likely to have the political experiences necessary for understanding their interests.” This is delivered in the benign tone of a consultant to society at large, as if taking for granted that well-intentioned suggestions to improve the functioning of democracy must be welcomed by all. Can it be she doesn’t. realize that community control and workplace democracy have not come about on any significant scale because the last thing those who own the polity and the economy want is for most people to “understand their interest”? No doubt if ordinary people had real power they would soon learn to behave like citizens rather than atoms. Tell it to Exxon.
There are a good many passages like the one just quoted, which prompt one to wonder in what sense Mansbridge was a New Leftist, or indeed a leftist at all. Elsewhere she writes serenely “In a representative democracy, citizens need not fight their battles themselves; they can send persons more temperamentally suited and trained for conflict out to fight for them. Usually representatives are able to handle conflicts better than their constituents. By running for office, they show themselves more willing than most to face both hostility and the humiliation of losing. By becoming politicians, they embark on a course of professional socialization that prescribes appropriate conduct for moments of conflict. Most important, they are accountable to their constituents, a major structural constraint that keeps them conscious of their adversary relation to one another.”
As a description of our national legislature, this does not advance beyond the civics textbook. There is no hint here that the American political process is corrupt in every important respect; that political discourse is overwhelmingly mystified, trivialized, or falsified; that the role of the citizenry is largely restricted to ratifying the decisions of party managers; that those who finance politicians and employ ex-bureaucrats generally get what they want. It is obvious that this is where serious discussion of democratic politics should begin, apparently far beyond the scope of even this pathbreaking new work of political science.
Mansbridge’s “bitter conclusion” is that since “the larger the polity, the more likely it is that some individuals will have conflicting interests,” we must therefore “reject the vision of national unitary democracy where interests coincide naturally.” The reason interests are bound to conflict is that “two people will usually have a harder time finding a policy that promotes both their interests than will one person, even someone locked in internal debate. Three people will have even greater difficulty, and so on. This is the arithmetic basis of the relationship between size and common interests.” This is realism of a peculiarly unworldly sort.
Reality does make one appearance, in a sentence which reads “Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an interdependent, less competitive economy an vastly increase the average worker’s experience of common interest with others.” The next sentence explains that this important matter has not bee and will not be discussed because “the theme has been treated extensively by others,” and because politics may be, in some “not necessarily large” way, independent of economics.
This leaves one gasping. All that most Utopians have tried to prove is that ”primary cooperative economic relations” (Mansbridge’s phrase) are possible and desirable. If they are, as she seems offhandedly to agree, and if politics is only marginally about something other than economics, then what are the conflicting interests that condemn national politics to the adversary mode? Of course, even after “primarily cooperative economic relations” are instituted (i.e., after a socialist revolution), conflicts of interest will remain, such as whether to serve orange or walnut cake in the cafeteria (her example). And for these we will need political scientists. But even a Utopian would admit as much.
The most (the only) important questions about politics are: What are our interests, really? Must they conflict? And if not, why have we always been told they must? Is there any more fundamental interest than the common interest in everyone’s having material security and creative work? Is there the slightest doubt that this blessed state has been possible for a century or more? And if possible, why not actual?
“Beyond Adversary Democracy,” in the tradition of academic social science, begs or ignores all these questions. Among those who have dealt with them, on the whole rightly, are Winstanley, Humboldt, Godwin, Shelley, Fourier, Marx, Kropotkin, Ruskin, Morris, Bellamy, Wilde, Shaw, Russell, and Paul Goodman. Familiarity with their answers might have spared Manbridge her bitter conclusion.
Every intellectual fogy in America, plus Goodman, used to complain that the New Left didn’t understand history. Neither did the fogies; but Goodman had a point. Those who don’t know the history of their ideals are liable to exchange them plausible illusions, like pluralist political science.