New Socialism and Democracy

Following the collapse of the USSR and the complete restoration of capitalism, was complete economic degeneration. The net effect of 13 years of capitalism was to leave Russia with half the industrial capacity that could have been expected even from the poorest performing years of the socialist economy. The main cause of this was because of the political structure of the former USSR, and the affect bringing about liberal democracy had on it. All the industries in the countries were designed to work together collectively, and when the union was dismantled and the enterprises and industries no longer received orders from the state but were left to their own on the market, they didn’t have nearly the output capacity or efficiency they once had under the guidance of a central plan.

Table 2: Output of Selected Branches of Industry in Russia in 2003 Compared to 1990 (1990 = 100)
Total Industry 66
Electric power 77
Gas 97
Oil extraction 94
Oil refining 70
Ferrous metallurgy 79
Non-ferrous metallurgy 80
Chemicals and petrochemicals 67
Machine building 54
Wood and paper 48
Building materials 42
Light industry 15
Food 67

Source: Goskomstat, 2004, Table 14.3

From this, it is no wonder the socialist countries in East Asia learned from the former USSR’s experience and recognized the need to keep the communist party in power in order to prevent their country from falling into the same economic collapse the former SSRs are still suffering from to a certain degree today. Although the East Asian countries realized the need for rejecting a liberalized political system, this did not stop countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos, etc. from liberalizing their economic systems which has lead to significant growth in these countries, however at the expense of large social inequalities, human rights abuses, high levels of mental instability, and inhumane conditions for working.

So this now brings us to the question of democracy, and which form to use. We can see that introducing the solution offered by the western Left of parliamentary democracy has not only miserably failed for building socialism but has rather only existed to be the enemy of socialism. We also see that the former Soviet democracy which currently exists to a degree in the states that consider themselves Marxist-Leninist today has also failed to build socialism, and has just resulted in the restoration of capitalism.

So what is the solution? The answer is participatory/direct democracy. The failure of Soviet and parliamentary democracy is that they are simply replicating what they are supposed to replace. They are efficient for rapidly changing society from the capitalist mode of production to a socialist one, but then they decay into an oligarchy like we saw in the former ML states. Participatory democracy allows for extensive citizen participation via referendums, and replacing elected councils with citizens assemblies which has representatives selected at random by lot.

An assembly selected by lot will be a representative sample of the different classes in society. The elites are invariably suspicious of direct democracy. They complain that the general public are too ignorant and prejudiced to make decisions on their own behalf – far better to leave decisions to educated and cultured people. But the obvious point is that the educated and cultured will look out for themselves and can certainly not be trusted to have the interests of the poor and less educated at heart. The old 19th century socialist movements knew this and advocated direct popular legislation – an idea that was disliked by the Socialist Party leaderships even then.

Modern technology makes it much easier to hold popular votes. Almost everyone has a mobile phone, and secure, anonymous and verifiable voting can be done this way. As an example the Handivote system allows voting by SMS with people being able to check that their votes are correctly tallied. The Handivote system works as follows:

  1. Voters shall choose a random voter card when they present their identification to the electoral office and this identification matches the name on the voters roll. This ensures that only eligible voters vote and that they can vote anonymously
  2. Voters may place their vote using a variety of devices including mobile phones, landline phones, public phones and the polling booths. This lowers barriers to participation and facilitates mobility of voters.
  3. A re-vote on a particular voter card number will void the previous vote if it is different from the original vote. This discourages voter card theft and offers some level of protection against coercion. Lists of voter cards together with votes cast are made publicly available once the election period has concluded. This provides the transparency often lacking in current e-voting processes. It is also possible for any voter to check the accuracy of the count. It also ensures that no person or group will know the intermediate outcome and have time to mount a massive coercion-based attack to swing the outcome of the plebiscite.
  4. Finally, the Handivote system is characterized by the simplicity of the voting process. Voters either enter use the voter card in the polling booth or contact the voting line by phone, provide their card number and PIN, and choose an option. There are no complicated extra steps involved as is the case for other e-voting schemes.

Such digital systems can be easily extended to allow the citizens at large to make the sorts of major strategic choices needed for socialist planning. Planning is only democratic if at least the big ticket headings: health and education investment are settled by popular decision. It is possible for voters to make numerical choices about levels of public resources via the electric voting system. And this is how we maintain socialist democracy.

Let’s run an example. Let’s say you are voting for healthcare expenditure, and there are three numbers you can text to represent what it is you want done (the Xs represent a decided upon number, only the last digit changes):

  1. xxx xxx0 means reduce it by 5%,
  2. xxx xxx1 means leave it unchanged
  3. xxx xxx2 means increase it by 5%

From this, it’s clear that by averaging the votes you can get percentage change in health expenditure. The result is the average of what the voters want. This will, in our case, be bounded by -5% to +5%, but these bounds could be varied by those setting the vote, and, at the cost of some slight increase in complexity, a broader range of numbers to dial could be provided without changing the basic procedure.

Now suppose that there are three items to be decided on: income tax, school expenditure and health expenditure. A simple extension would be to set up 9 phone numbers for voting as follows

  1. xxx xx00 Income tax down 5%
  2. xxx xx01 Income tax leave as is
  3. xxx xx02 Income tax up 5%
  4. xxx xx10 Health down 5%
  5. xxx xx11 Health leave as is
  6. xxx xx12 Health up 5%
  7. xxx xx20 Schools down 5%
  8. xxx xx21 Schools leave as is
  9. xxx xx22 Schools up 5%

People could then text in to express their personal decisions. The result would be to obtain an average percentage change for each particular heading. As long as sufficient people vote on each individual issue, the law of large numbers means that will get a reasonably accurate estimate of public opinion on that topic. Surowiecki and Silverman (et al.) showed in their book: The Wisdom of Crowds that an opinion aggregated from many non-experts is usually superior to that of a few experts.

2017-01-30
Figure 0.1

The obvious danger is that everyone votes for more expenditure and less taxation, but there are easy ways around this. Let’s suppose that the average vote was indicating a 4% increase in school expenditure and only a 2% increase in taxes to cover it (let’s make the simplifying assumption for now that schools are the only form of expenditure). Figure 0.1 shows the average vote at position as well as a diagonal line representing the feasible combinations of expenditure and tax. The best choice given the constraints is labeled compromise Geometrically, the compromise is the closest point on the feasible combination line to the average vote. It is the choice which minimizes voter dissatisfaction, while also making sure there are no large disparities between what voters want and how much they’re willing to pay.

From a socialist standpoint it is very important that for any form of participatory budgeting to work, there must be a vote on both expenditure and taxation. The right is willing to introduce participatory budgeting provided that it votes only on taxation since they hope, by this, to create a constant downward pressure on taxes and thus on expenditure for public services. By allowing people to simultaneously vote for increases in services and computing the compromise position you stand a good chance of preventing this, securing voter happiness, and maintaining a socialist democracy.

References:

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