Is democracy broken, or only mainstream political parties?

My heroes have shunned party politics.

This goes into the roots of democracy, and asks core questions about the nature of “fairness”, democratic representation, and the disproportionate effect on society of people with money, talent or time. Bear with me, this is going to go deep.

I was raised in a soft-left, Labour-leaning Scottish working class household. On benefits. There’s a simple, basic class alligience there which is made considerably more complicated by the radical right wing (and that’s Indian right wing, Hindu nationalism!) of my father.

As I grew older, I moved through four distinct political phases: Moderate Left, Libertarian, Anarchist and Gandhian. I’m now in a political territory which does not have good names or widespread understanding, but I’m beginning to see a coalescence in a rather unusual direction which challenges my “Political Lone Wolf” tendencies.

I became a Libertarian when a good friend, of course an American, said to me “Socialism requires a central government with arbitrary powers.” It’s a simple statement, but I was in a position to hear it: with sudden insight, I realized that a limited government could not respond to all the needs of the people in all situations, breaking the basic rules of engagement on which socialism was built. “From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs” requires a government that can react to an almost infinite spectrum of responses, and what if something goes wrong, and that infinite flexibility with State power becomes intrusive… or worse. The limits on “need” are not known, and if the State is going to serve, there can be no clear limits on its reach. It’s a simple argument, but boils down to this: each limit on the State will limit its ability to help, as well as harm, and if you assume the State is benign, you ignore the lessons of history, and if you assume limits to the power of the State, you can no longer assume functional socialism in all circumstances. In the limit, it is Limited Government (clearly necessary from recent history) or Socialism.

I became a Libertarian. I chose Limited Government.

I became an Anarchist when I realized that Capitalism, as I understood it, was created by the State. The four main supports of Capitalism are all State-funded supports for business - largely paid for by taxing the income of individuals, rather than companies. Those four main supports are:
  • Limited Liability, where the State protects the Owners of companies from any Debts (including, say, legal settlements for malpractice) incurred by the Companies. This is, essentially, a free (and massive!) insurance policy written by the State to Investors.

  • Property Rights Enforcement, in the form of both Policing and the Military. While ordinary people benefit from this activity, the richer you are, the more you benefit, in a completely non-linear way. By ensuring a set of rules to the game in which property, in any concentration is sacrosanct, the State subsidises the rich more than it subsidises the poor.

  • The Welfare State, where the State picks up the pieces where Capitalism fails to provide for people, and thereby nullifies much of the pressure on Capitalism to actually do the job it proposes to do (make everybody richer in an efficient way) by virtue of stepping in where the Market would starve people to death and filling in the gap. This is a subsidy which has effectively prevented political change for generations, for right or wrong.

  • Money Supply, in which the State (in most cases) borrows money into existence from banks, and then pays then back, with compound interest. The Fiat (State) grant which allows a bank with £100 in reserves to lend £1500, and keep the total repaid, is literally a license to print money. If an individual did this, it would be a crime, but the ability to commit this miracle of turning two loaves and five fishes into a meal for five thousand is accomplished through the power of ignorance and greed.

It’s important to note that a State subsidy can be of two sorts. The first is easy to see, it is simple Redistribution, where taxes are raised on one person and paid to another. Arguing about this kind of activity makes up the majority of politics, but it is a tiny percentage of the actual subsidy the State generates. There is no way to avoid the smokescreen of focussing on government spending, rather than goverment use of Power, in conventional political discourse. But the second class of subsidy dwarfs the first: Legislation, or Control of the Rules of the Game. My mandating compound interest, copyright, patent, indefinite land tenure, a single currency, limited liability, limits to collective bargaining, policing paid for from central government taxes rather than (say) local property taxes and fifty other things, the government moves enormous sums from one pocket to another without every touching the money itself. It simply tilts the board in favor of those it wishes to win, and then suggests that the game is fair because everybody is playing by the same rules. Yes, yes, but those rules were written to ensure that one set of players wins, and the fact they are the same for everybody does not change that only some people own land, own companies, and can maintain the legal costs of making the system work to their advantage. A medical system in which everybody pays the same amount for an operation will save the rich and not the poor, and yet by the standards of many of Government’s other activities, is seen as Fair.

So what I understood was that, actually, Capitalism was not “Free Enterprise” - in fact it had nothng at all to do with Freedom. Rather, vast State power was deployed to support an enterprise in which one had Free Choice with Limited Options, and where certain activities enjoyed massive State support, while other activities which were equally productive and worthy to my eye were marginalized or policed out of existence. The game was, in short, rigged in a manner much like the Marxist analysis (!) but to which Marx offered no solutions because the evil that men do is multiplied by access to power, and we have yet to find a good way to keep evil people from occasionally siezing control of the power of the State and using it to smash the world to pieces from time to time. The more you concentrate power, the worse this occasional failure can be.

My final break with Libertarianism came when I re-examined, from this perspective, what the State is. I’d been using Max Weber’s definition for years “The State is the sole entity which maintains the monopoly on legitimate physical coercion.”

But this definition chafed. I could not wrap my head around edge cases like Gaza or Iraq where there were three, four, five State-like actors duking it out, none with a monopoly, but all working much as States do, on the same soil, with multiple chains of authority connected to the same people in many cases, Power nested like Russian Dolls around the souls of the people. There was no way I could square this with Weber’s work. So I came up with my own definition of the State, namely:

“A State is any entity which can retroactively grant immunity for criminal behavior.” In short, if you kill somebody, and something steps in to protect you after-the-fact, that Somebody is the State or its agent. This privileges Jurisdiction over Sovereignty (over some patch of land) and accurately reflects the lived reality of areas in which multiple States are in conflict over authority, where no legitimate monopoly on violence has been established (e.g. there are three police forces on the streets, all mutually hostile) but where key players in each State-candidate political unit are legally (or practically) immune from criminal prosecution from either either own or other State-candidate entities. In short, in Iraq, if you were Sunni leadership, Shia leadership, American contractors, Iraqi government police or a member of some other groups, you could get away with Murder, and nobody would effectively prosecute you. Many competing groups were capable of offering protection to those committing criminal acts, and my definition of the State accurately speaks to that experience in a way that Weber’s never will. Furthermore, it also explains crisply how the State creates the Army and the Police and Doctors and Tax Collectors and various other professions. The Army is immunized against Murder charges as long as they are obeying the Chain of Command. The Police are immunized against Assault charges, as long as they are envorcing other law. Doctors are immunized from assault and murder and other charges as long as they are obeying good medical practice. Tax collectors are immunized from theft charges (which is what they are clearly doing much of the time) as long as they are siezing assets on behalf of the State in prescribed ways. It is limited grants for otherwise-criminal behavior which defines the State, not the monopoly on violence.

I became an anarchist. I chose a Stateless society.

I became a Gandhian through a more subtle process. I started to try and figure out how you could actually have a Stateless society that worked. I'm from a medical background (my father, a doctor, my mother, a nurse) so my mind was naturally shaped by epidemeological and caring models. I wanted to envisage and work towards a society in which public health was good, and people were happy. These are simple goals to express, albeit far from the heart of most political theory and doctrine, and I wanted to understand how to get there. Gandhi's attitude to war (nonviolence at all costs!) is what he is best remembered for, but it's Gandhian economics which is the Jewel in the Crown of Gandhian thinking.

Gandhian economics (note that it’s not Ghandi - even very politically literate people habitually make that error) is the economics of local, recirculating wealth. Gandhi was acutely aware of the fact the British were in India as looters, to strip the wealth from the society and export it, and stopping this looting was an integral part of his strategy. But, in fact, the idea of “keeping what you make” is close to Libertarianism, integral (no doubt about this) to Anarchism (depending on the nature of the goods, of course…) and Gandhi’s model is uniquely Indian in its inception - when Gandhi says “local” he means “embedded in an extended family, a family of such families, bound together by mutual obligation.” This is at the heart of Western misreadings of Gandhi - he was far from asexual (a tantric, even a celibate one, is not asexual) and his model of society was built on the matrix of mutual obligations which is the core of the Hindu body politic, extended to include those who are not full members of the groups which control local resources. Gandhi wanted to extend the extended family to include everybody, but crucially, face-to-face, daily-contact responsibility for the poor and needy on your doorstep, for the working man who brings you your rice, for the doctor who sees your children, was Gandhi’s model. You might call Gandhi’s vision of the world Individual Socialism, where the matrix of mutual obligations which comprise Indian society at its best is extended to include everybody - we are all obligated to help each-other, without State coercion in the vast majority of cases, and so the world runs.

It’s easy to read Gandhi as a Libertarian Leftist, and I made this mistake myself for years, because I had not fully factored the degree to which Gandhi was building on Indian models of social obligation (and, indeed caste dharma) to build a society. But it all came back to water, to sanitation, to power, to infrastructure, and it’s in this perspective that I found my way.

The most tangible benefit of being a member of a developed world State is infrastructure: water, sanitation, power, roads, all that stuff just works and is damn cheap. People in the poorer countries pay 10x or 100x as much for clean drinking water as we do, because Western states are really good at infrastructure. But does this mean we’re doomed to big central governments as the only way to provide the infrastructure which makes a good standard of living affordable to everybody?

When I first thought about this as a political problem, I could not get anywhere. But I am an engineer and it’s in engineering that I finally found a political synethsis I could believe in.

Gandhi was a designer. The spinning wheel for which he was famous is a political object, which works in three ways.

  • Firstly, it keeps the price of cloth high and distributes the income from making cloth to individual people spinning. Gandhi wore the loincloth (rather than a suit) to show that if you could only afford a little cloth because the hand-spun stuff was so expensive, that was fine.

  • Secondly, the spinning wheel was Free, it was a design which had originated in a competition for a new spinning wheel, which Gandhi then adapted and modified, and which anybody with the skills could manufacture without patent or copyright concerns. It was a tool Of the People, By the People, For the People. It was Freedom, of a material kind.

  • Thirdly, it was sustainable, it used nothing which was imported, it used nothing which was not abundant, it used nothing which could not be replaced. From end to end, the manual spinning of cloth was an organic, indiginous activity with this tooling, quite unlike the far-off Mills of Manchester with their coal-and-iron spinning infrastructure.

And that it when it clicked for me: infrastructure shapes our political options, it shapes the playing field in incredibly deep ways. Deeper that government, the material base of the society shapes the structure of our lives.

Marxism sees Capital, Labour and Talent fighting for their shares of the rewards of Industrial Manufacturing. It’s a model, but an incomplete one.

Georgism sees Capital, Labour, and Talent too, but also takes into account Landlords and Monopolies, which gives a further, wider picture.

But both of these models assume a manufacturing base which greatly rewards large scale and centralization, and the Gandhian model (which I’ll call Individual Socialism a few lines longer) assumes that you can use a Legislative Subsidy (banning factories, essentially) to produce a better wealth distribution, in exactly the same way that Capitalism uses a Legislative Subsidy (in the form of limited liablity) to produce a worse wealth distribution, to pack the resources at the top.

And this became the four turning of the wheel: Infrastructure-Centric politics. I spent a long time writing and thinking about this, producing models like The Free City State and Infrastructure for Anarchists which teach infrastructure theory as a core political truth, literally as the substrate of society, and examine how different styles of engineering and governance over engineered artefacts could produce a better political structure and thereby better society.

It was only after several years of this that I realized I was reprising the work and words of Buckminster Fuller, sometimes to the letter. And that was the political equilibrium at which I remained for several years, plugging away on trying to bulid physical systems, maps and models, to enable a resilient relocalization which would produce high quality of life on practically no natural resources, with the objective of protecting the people from the worse consequences of centralization and authoritarianism, as a first step - no, rather, as a component - of a better future for everyone.

Then then came the Pirate Party.

I'd given up, completely, on electoral politics. I wanted to exercise my political power using as much leverage as I could possibly find, using my engineering nous to exercise disproportionate impact on the future course of humanity and life on planet earth. At this altitude, the air is pretty thin - there were, for many years, perhaps six people in the world that really understood what I was doing and why, and all of them were busy running similar projects, attempting to steer the globe down a better path by skill and individual expertise. This brain trust was a lonely place.

Then the Pirates came, and my ears pricked up. They seemed to understand tech. They were not anarchists, but nor were they Libertarians - a sophisticated discourse about individual liberty and common goods, first in non-scarce areas like knowledge, but with a sophistication that spoke to the clear possibility of extending this kind of savvy into new areas, like perhaps (in the long run) taking an intelligent new approach on land rights, sustainability and environmentalism.

In short, people were beginning to think about politics in a way that I recognized as genuinely fresh, novel and intelligent, and I began to do some research, wrote a short, informal manifesto, and joined. In that order.

And then they won 10% of the votes in German elections. And this rocked me to the core.

I’d implicitly given up on electoral democracy as a route to sane governnance. The track record was so bad in every country I’d lived in that I had simply abandoned hope that there was any way for me to express my political will through the matrix of a political party and not walk away with utter nonsense for results. The tiny fringe parties which might have been closest to my goals were banished to perpetual irrelevance in the First Past the Post, winner take all electoral systems of Britain and America.

But in Germany, the Pirates were winning.

So I rejoined the UK Pirate Party, with an eye on helping move us towards a showing in the European elections, and took a role uniquely suited to my talents.

I am the Defence Policy Working Group leader for the UK Pirate Party. I’ve gone from being a political radical in the wilderness to a small part of a Party Machine because, at last, a political party which shared enough of my beliefs and values to make common cause with arose, and that party is credible enough to command substantial popular support in major global powers.

There’s a new dawn coming, because the Pirate Party has astonishing demographics in under-30s, and the US copyright lobby is going down with the ship as the US hemorrhages political credibility and good-will globally, making breaking the Internet on Hollywood’s behalf less attractive with each passing day.

In short: finally I’ve re-enlisted in Democracy as a route to real political change, and I have the Pirate Party to thank for that. Thanks are due to Falkvinge for daring to do the impossible, and I’m proud to be able to do a little to help.

I might even run for election one day, but that’s a topic for another post.

Yo ho ho!

Life on the pirate ship

… which is great, Vinay. Nice to see that democracy still manages to renew its appeal, even after 25 centuries of honored (and not always so well honored) service. This is where I ask the question that I asked also other people in Edgeryders who got involved with party politics: so how is it? Do you feel you are making a change? Sorry about the pointed question, but how do you know? After all, you are going to go to meetings; maybe you are going to produce documents or whatever. Maybe you use GDocs or Pirate Pad, but other than that it is pretty much the same as a Freemason’s meeting in the 1780s.

This cannot be the main product. What’s in it for you? Why does it feel relevant? Why is this time different? How would you convince me to get involved?

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Spinning wheels, etc.

Vinay, your explanation of Gandhi’s understanding of the purpose of homespun cotton is almost the direct contrary of my previous impression.  Your explanation in a way sounds like the strategy of using artificial scarcity as a tool for preventing deflation as a result of falling production costs, so as to guarantee a revenue stream to incumbent interests.  My impression had always been that economic Swadeshi was about achieving economic independence by making cheap self-provisioning feasible and circumventing things like the textile industry.  Am I misreading you?  It seems to me that cheap means of production, located at the point of consumption and scaled to demand, would have the same practical effect on economic security as guaranteeing a revenue stream to producers –  only it would do it from the opposite direction, by deflationary rather than monopoly means.

Why “deflationary”?

Though you could foresee such a move having an effect on prices, that’s not the point of it. Actually, if you produce for self-consumption there are no prices at all.


The fact that self-provisioned goods and services outside the cash nexus have no  price is what I meant by “deflationary.”  Deflation is when the total monetized GDP, and the total costs of what we consume, decline.  All the economic interests that define themselves in terms of growth, or monetizing the provisions of goods and services, see this as a threat.  So state policy is to prevent deflation by propping up the price of capital and labor and guaranteeing their revenue streams.  The general method is to mandate artificial inefficiency costs and entry barriers, and force people to do stuff in a less efficient manner, so the economy can keep absorbing the unneeded investment capital and employ everyone 40 hours a week – even if it means industrial processes that look like Rube Goldberg machines and work weeks that are mostly spent at the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in.