Top Down vs Bottom Up: Time to Reframe the Debate?
by Len Krimerman, coordinating editor, GEO Newsletter
The stateÁs ÇsupremacyÁ approximates that of the conductor of an orchestra, who makes no music himself but harmonizes those who in producing it are doing the thing intrinsically worthwhile....the national state [should be seen] as just an instrumentality for promoting and protecting other and more voluntary forms of association, rather than a supreme end in itself.Ó John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 202-3.
When I was growing up, Hershel, my favorite uncle, once said to me: "When anyone gives you a choice between A and B, take C." According to Ross Gandy, Justin Podur, and Bob Stone, we must choose either "state power" or grassroots control from below.Ó Gandy holds that the former is indispensableÓ, though he concedes that top down transformationÓ leads us down a repressive and bureaucratic path and, therefore, is himself inclined towards Bakuninist base-level organization... against the Jacobins.Ó Podur opts for a bottom upÓ strategy involving participatory planning among co-opsÓ as well as cross-border solidarity along the lines pioneered, e.g., by the Zapatistas, but fails (according to Gandy) to show how this will not be wiped out by hostile ruling classes running national states.Ó BobÁs clarifying synopsis of the Gandy and Podur positions in issue #55 gives this venerable debate think of Proudhon and Bakunin vs. Marx and Engels a lively and sharpened contemporary form.
So our grassroots and bottom upÓ efforts need top down state power,Ó though it will destroy us. What we want participatory democracy and a solidarity economy of grassroots co-ops cannot become more than marginal in world of 200 nation states.Ó We are thus caught in an intractable dilemma.Ó We must choose between A (state power) or B (grassroots democracy), but, by themselves, neither can get us even close to where we want to go. Choosing the first leads us back to the failed and oppressive Iron Curtain path; choosing the second, makes us easy prey for the US empire and its military, corporate, and cultural hegemony.
Choose C ,Ó Hershel might have said. But is there a CÓ out there in this case? On the face of it, I'd suggest, there is indeed. Why can we not imagine, for starters, a stateÓ or nationÓ that:
‰ directs much or most of its resources tax revenues, technical, educational, and financial expertise into the process of rebuilding from below;Ó
‰ encourages and supports grassroots groups to shape, or interpret/enact, the priorities of the overall community (nation/state);
‰ includes a chamber constituted by grassroots and non-governmental organizations, whose collective voice is of equal or greater importance with that of any geographically representative Congress;
‰ whose role, in general, is not to single-handedly establish policy or or compel compliance with its self-shaped dictates, but (largely, mainly) to help develop the skills by which, and create the public environments in which, local and grassroots groups can resolve their differences and shape policies they find in their common interest.LÁetat cÁest nous.Ó
Of course, like Rome or corporate capitalism, this humane or fusionÓ sort of state cannot be built overnight. But it seems to me a genuine option, one that would avoid the dead end horns of (a) using repressive and bureaucratic means to reach a future ideal society where robust and diversity-embracing democracy blossoms, and (b) relying entirely on resource-poor and (often) politically impotent citizen-based initiatives to offset (much less displace) institutions and organizations whose vast wealth and power is matched only by their capacity to unleash greed and domination.
Genuine, but not easy. Conceivable, approachable, but no rose garden. Fortunately, what George Benello once called working modelsÓ do exist: think here of Emilia-RomagnaÁs blend of pro-active government intervention (supporting child care centers, building housing for workers, providing marketing and other technical asisstance to strengthen local enterprise) and a cooperative flexible manufacturing network economy. Or the replications throughout the southeastern region of Brazil of the Porto Alegre participatory budget process, conceived and engineered by the Workers Party, whose candidate, Lula, has finally won election to the presidency of this country. (Would that these Italian and Brazilian initiatives were combined!) And of course, the World and Regional Social Forums provide cross-national examples of emerging horizontal alliances. Beyond these, much of what G. D. H. Cole wrote almost a century ago about guild socialism,Ó with its multiplicity of associations selecting their own member-delegates rather than relying on political representatives,Ó speaks to ways of getting beyond the dilemmaÁs usual and narrow pair of suspects. So does John DeweyÁs attack, in the work quoted above, on the traditional doctrine of exclusive national sovereignty.Ó And so do two very recent books Tom AtleeÁs The Tao of Democracy and Archon Fung and Erik WrightÁs, Empowered Participatory Governance both of which concretely illuminate fresh forms of democratic governance that colonize the stateÓ in ways that begin at least to provide resources and influence to local and grassroots organizations. (These two fine books will be reviewed in issue #59.)
Of course we will all need to invent our own site-specific forms of robust democracy, but there is no shortage, given the above, of conceptual as well as practical guideposts that can light our path.
Social change movements, have long debated whether society should be transformed using state power or rebuilt from below in the shell of the old.Ó (Ross Gandy) Which foot goes first, Çstate powerÁ or Çgrassroots economicsÁ?Ó (Bob Stone) Perhaps this debate has gone on too long. There is no one single form of the stateÓ, nor of grassroots democracy.Ó Such a skeletal dichotomy need not, should not, present us with any intractable dilemmas or force us to choose sides; indeed, it seems like a weapon devised to divide and conquer the myriad forms of creative and effective resistance. As such, it can only retard our efforts to birth that new world Arundhati Roy has told us she can already hear breathing.
Better perhaps to start building our many roads with bridges linking centralists and decentralists, those who would colonize the state with grassroots insurgents, those working within and those building outside of the (current) state. To do this, we need to reject the classical verticalÓ debate between statists and solidarists, top down and bottom up strategies, etc., and reframe it horizontally:Ó that is, so that we focus on what sort of state, or form of governance, would most embody and support our grassroots initiatives; and, more broadly, would most reflect a society with a place for every human gift and voice.Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
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