'Council democracy' - reform must begin with the local

Arendt, Jefferson and Maitland are three great thinkers who all shared a passion for the power of local democracy, its ability to bridge the distance of representation. As our political system breaks down, it's an idea we must consider once again.

Ivo Mosley
22 May 2013

If by the word ‘democracy’ we mean ‘rule by the people’ or ‘power lodged with the people’ it is obvious to most people that representative government is no longer convincingly democratic. New élites possess the power and wealth of the world: ‘the people’ are everywhere helpless victims of financial and power structures that are closed off to them. With this in mind, may we hope for a more real kind of democracy sometime in the future? This article is about one such idea.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), F.W. Maitland (1850-1906) and Hannah Arendt (1906-75) had something in common: an enthusiasm late in their lives for ‘council democracy’. The idea of ‘council’ democracy is simple. Local people meet in local assemblies to decide on local matters. They choose individuals from among their number to participate in assemblies higher up. The process can be repeated at many different levels, so that politicians are chosen by citizens who know them personally, not by political parties.

This idea is the complete opposite to the structure of political authority in party-political ‘democracies’ where representatives are put forward by those in power, managed by party organisations, excluding people at large from the exercise of power.

The three writers mentioned above each have a different take on ‘council democracy’ but they share one thing in common: although they are among the recognised ‘greats’ of Western thought, their enthusiasms for genuine and effective democracy have been consigned to dustbins of neglect even among their admirers.

Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Thirty years later, having completed two terms-of-office as President, he was thoroughly disillusioned with the politics of the nation he had helped create. In particular, he was disgusted at party politics: the need to belong to a party was, he said, ‘the last degradation of a free and moral agent.’ In letters to friends he developed the idea that the counties of the individual States be divided into wards, which would effectively be ‘elementary republics’ where ‘the voice of the whole people would be fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed and decided by the common reason’ of all citizens. His idea stemmed from the townships of New England where people regularly gathered to decide directly on matters of politics. The tragedy was that Federal government had not developed from these democratic institutions, from the bottom up, but from top down, from concentrations of established power. In 1824 he wrote: ‘As Cato concluded every speech with the words, Carthago delenda est, so do I every opinion, with the words ‘divide the counties into wards’.

F. W. Maitland is recognised as the greatest of all legal historians, and is claimed by some as the greatest of all English historians. Towards the end of his life he was pre-occupied with corporations as legally-recognised ‘persons’, and how they can be used for good or bad. Their good use was to protect liberties, both individual and communal; their bad use was for the operation of overwhelming and exploitative power. For Maitland, it was the ‘great blunder of English law’ and a ‘national misfortune’ that the villages and townships of England had not become reservoirs of political independence and power. ‘It was a grave misfortune that English lawyers thought themselves forbidden to see and nurse into strength the flickering life of the village community.’ Maitland, like Jefferson, saw in the township of New England the development of this form of government, so vulnerable to suppression by power from above. ‘The township of New England became a thoroughly English person,’ he wrote. He ascribed its failed development in England to the union of Church and State, so that local power became vested in ‘Parish, Vestry, Church House and Church Wardens’ rather than ‘Town, Township, Town-Meeting, Moot Hall and Town Wardens’. This made it easy for political parties later to appropriate local power in the name (though not necessarily in the interests) of ‘the people’.

The last of our three writers, Hannah Arendt, developed the idea of ‘council democracy’ more fully than the earlier two (Maitland died young, a projected work on ‘The Damnability of Corporations’ not even begun.) In her book On Revolution she put forward the idea that revolutions in the modern age have followed a regular sequence, and that this sequence has been ignored or suppressed in books by fashionable and conventional historians. The sequence might be summarised thus:

1. Revolutionaries do not start the revolution, they merely hang around waiting for it to happen.
2. When a revolution starts, local 'councils' immediately spring up: these are genuine democratic formations. By sending delegates to the next level up, they begin to build a genuine democratic structure.
3. The revolutionaries then move in with apparatuses of violence, often assisted by support from outside. With backward-looking theories based on models of absolute government, and with organisations of control and suppression at-the-ready, they crush these nascent democracies and institute copies of the ancien regime, only worse.

Interestingly, the Arab Spring provides fresh confirmation of Arendt’s idea. In Libya, for instance, at the end of the internal war that ousted Gaddafi, local councils immediately began to form, often initiated and managed by women, restoring services, helping victims and re-building civil society. Meanwhile groups of young men with guns, partly financed by foreign interests, were awaiting their opportunities for taking power; and old patriarchs, accustomed to corruption and violence, are offering their services as focal points for these groups of armed young men.

Perhaps there is no end to this kind of domination. Perhaps, if the ideas above were more recognised, there is the possibility that one day they might be acted on and developed.

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