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On January 7, Kevin Schofield of S.C.C. Insight—a blog that covers Seattle City Council—posted an article that revealed something that's at once surprising and not surprising: Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant does not run her office or make its decisions, but her party, the local chapter of the Socialist Alternative (SA), does. The article, "Internal Socialist Alternative Documents Show It Runs Sawant's Office and Controls Her Vote," is long and, as Eli Sanders pointed out, reads like a dossier by a CIA agent. In my opinion, there is not much that is that startling in it. We learn there was a recent split within the party, which has only 200 members locally and 1,000 nationwide. This is puny when compared to the Democratic Socialists of America, which has exploded into 55,000 members and has a true superstar in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We also learn that SA's decision-making structure (called "democratic centralism") is, in parts, not compatible with the conventional structures of governance within City Hall.

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Now, local conservative Jason Rantz described S.C.C. Insight's report as "damning" because it showed that Sawant's party, a "fringe group," has complete control of a major position in the city's government. He finds this horribly upsetting. The party even hires and fires employees in Sawant's public office, and, at the same time, is not accountable in any conventional way to voters. Schofield's response to this revelation about SA and Sawant is more sober than Rantz's, who, as a radio conservative, can't help but be hysterical. What I want to provide in this post is a way to properly understand the indignation of Schofield and the hysteria of Rantz.

Borrowing a bit from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Philosophy of the Right (published in 1820), we must begin by splitting political life into two distinct spheres: one is public (Hegel would call this 'the state'), and the other is civil (or civil society). The former is the government and its institutions, and the latter consists of parties, newspapers, lobbyists, radio shows, Facebook posts, blogs, and on and on. What connects the two political spheres are the votes of citizens. And it is here that SA's decision-making structure is problematic—the point of contact between the public and civil.

The problem becomes obvious once it is understood that, one, the SA is a civil organization, in the way that other parties, newspapers, blogs, and so on are; and, two, each citizen in civil society has one vote (one person, one vote—the grund of American democracy). This one vote reaches but does not crossover into public society. It is represented there. Indeed, this is what a representative is: the projection on the state of an image from a general will shaped in and conducted through the organizations and activism that, as a whole, constitute the civil sphere.

But if the members of a civil organization are permitted to directly vote on public matters, then they have more than just the usual one vote. They have two. These are citizens who can, one, vote as ordinary members of civil society; and, two, citizens who also have the special privilege of voting as public servants. This advantage is bound to rub many in civil society the wrong way. What makes the members of SA more special than, say, radio show hosts, bloggers, activists, or even socialists in other parties?

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It is clear that SA's decision-making structure ("democratic centralism") is not of this world. It is from the world that, according to this organization and its principles, ought to be (das Sollen); the world in which all citizens are socialists and capitalists are no more. In this world (which is by no means fantastic—I am, after all, a post-Keynesian eco-Marxist, but more on that in another post), this is how we would conduct politics: erase the public and civil divide by radically (or universally) decentralizing the decision-making processes. But the world is not structured in this way at all. It has, instead, a very clear (and some may say, useful) boundary between the public and civil.

That said, it is possible for a world where everyone votes on all decisions made by public figures all of the time to exist. And it's easy to see some of the advantages of such a political system. It would, for one, dilute or entirely eliminate the horrible, and democratic-eroding influence of lobbyists. On the other hand, however, this world would also be tedious for most people, because a whole lot of ordinary living time would be sucked up by this constant business of voting: voting on who gets to work in this and that large and small office; voting on every big and little issue. What democratic centralism ignores or misses or both is that political life is vast and complicated and often boring.

To conclude: The problem with SA, a civil organization, running a public seat that represents District 3, is that it grants its members one more vote than those who voted for Sawant in a conventional manner. This is the difficulty with the party's governing structure, which appears, from within, to be radically democratic; but from outside, it has the appearance of being unfair. This is its optics: those who voted for Sawant have a second-rate representation, and those in the party have a first-rate one.