Monday, 15 January 2018

Book Review - The Origins of Collective Decision Making

From LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018) and #64 (Summer 2018) 


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The Origins of Collective Decision Making 
(Studies in Critical Social Sciences) 
By Andy Blunden 
Haymarket 2017
 ISBN 978-1608468046 

Part 1 (from LSHG Newsletter #63 (Spring 2018)

The Chartists and Democracy 

Andy Blunden’s chapter on the Chartists in this book gives a decent summary of how the movement worked, at least up until 1848 (after which he is on less certain ground). He rightly notes the importance of the 1834 Poor Law Act in mobilising activity and particularly that of women. The Chartists contended for universal male suffrage, but women were active in Chartism, except at the level of leadership.

The Chartists focused on political democracy, a vote in Parliamentary elections and representation in Parliament, and as Blunden notes, the three Chartist petitions were central to this. They were able in a few cases to elect Chartist MPs - Feargus O’Connor sat for Nottingham - under the very limited democracy introduced by the 1832 Reform Act. As Blunden also notes the Chartists used various means, familiar in the modern labour movement, to organise and mobilise activity. The Chartist weekly paper the Northern Star was the key organiser and had the largest sale of any paper in the 1840s. The early trade unions were also engaged and many were sympathetic to Chartism. The National Charter Association formed in 1841 was the world’s first working class party based, as Blunden notes, on the kind of local organisation used by the Methodists.

This was the model available to the Chartists. Delegate conferences were held based on majority voting and Blunden points out that meant that the views of middle class reformers like Joseph Sturge were marginalised. Neither on the one side the influence of money (the Chartists had power of numbers), nor on the other the idea of a block vote of affiliated interests, was yet present.

Where Blunden doesn’t quite capture the essence of Chartism and democracy is looking beyond the upfront policy of petitioning for Parliamentary representation, although he clearly references the much wider range of tactics and strategies the Chartists used. They had no model of workers’ democracy to look to, hence the focus on an expanded and popular Parliamentary democracy.

However as Trotsky noted in Where is Britain Going, the Chartists laid down the original template for what was to follow, pursuing every angle from the petition to an armed rising (in Newport in 1839) and a General Strike (in 1842). As the leading Chartist J R Stephens expressed the Chartist strategy to win the vote ‘peacably if we can, forcibly if we must’.

There was still an element of old style conspiratorial politics about Chartism up to the summer of 1848, as David Goodway’s London Chartism underlines. After that, with the failure of the petition in that year, Chartism moved decisively away from conspiratorial politics and adopted the social democratic programme The Charter and Something More.

The 1850s saw the development of forms of Chartist democracy familiar to this day. A Labour Parliament was held in 1854 but in practice Ernest Jones became a one-person Chartist leadership. Blunden makes the point that after 1848 George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones established ‘secret societies’ rather than engaging with democratic working-class politics.

This is a misunderstanding of what took place. Harney and Jones were involved with groups of political refugees from the defeat of the European 1848 and no doubt there was an element of secrecy about at least some of this.

The significant change to democratic practice in the 1850s and beyond however was the rise of organised labour in the form of trade unions, which while encouraging mass activity, such as that which led to the 1867 Reform Bill, were also concerned to put in place a much more formal democratic framework around their activities which many have seen as the beginnings of the development of a bureaucracy.

Blunden’s book which ranges across a much wider range of example in the context of consensus and majority voting decision making methods, provides a very useful and insightful comparative historical tool.

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Part two of the review (from LSHG Newsletter #64 Summer 2018) 

How decisions are made, and in particular how they are made democratically and in a way that can give a reasonable prospect of them being carried through, has concerned the left since something recognisably associated with that label has existed.

A concern in the English Civil War and perhaps particularly after Cromwell replaced Charles I in 1649 was how to make sure that decisions in Parliament reflected the interests of the poorest as well as the richest members of society.

The mid-seventeenth century was a precursor to the democratic age which, broadly, was ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789. It was in the wake of this in the 1790s that the London Corresponding Society decided to open its doors in principle to ‘members unlimited’ something that was then, and for much of the first half of the nineteenth century of doubtful general legality.

Andy Blunden’s book seeks to put the debates about democracy that have arisen, perhaps particularly at times of upheaval in society, into wider framework. So for example he places the democracy of the 1640s and 1650s in a ‘consensus’ category and that of the 1790s in the majority category.

Anyone familiar with the left and the labour movement today will recognise these ways of reaching decisions as alternatives that are still very much current. Understanding their history is therefore of particular importance to activists today as well as to historians.

Blunden is critical, at least of his own experiences of consensus decision making on the left, in the sense that it was difficult to reach consensus and even more difficult to get a decision carried out.

One might argue that the template for consensus was the Putney Debates during the English Civil War, where what to do was extensively discussed, some agreement reached and some things at least were implemented. The issue, as the book makes clear, was that the bottom of line of consensus was the status quo, which did not reflect the demand of the Levellers for male suffrage.

Consensus however covers a broad spectrum of actual perspectives on democracy, as Blunden underlines in the book. A common issue, as evidenced by Cromwell’s refusal to carry through much of what was agreed at Putney in 1647 is that whoever are actually charged with implementing decisions tend to do so in ways that suit themselves. Collective responsibility then becomes an issue of accountability of leadership.

It is unfortunate in this respect that Blunden does not explore the intent behind and the impact of the Clyde Workers Committee view on leaders in 1917. Blunden’s conclusion notes that neither majority or consensual methods of democratic decision making are automatic routes to getting things done that have apparently been agreed.

He also notes a third way of reaching a decision: counsel. That is when whoever is charged with making a decision takes ‘soundings’ from those concerned or involved and then makes a decision on that basis. A good deal of this comes down to what E.P. Thompson called the ‘legitimizing notion’ for action to take place. If people are agreed that something that needs to be done and broadly what that might be, then it will happen, in some form, come what may.

Blunden also argues correctly that decision making is best done from the bottom-up. In summary those who are most likely to be expected to carry out a decision and/or be impacted by what it is have a key say in the process. That is still far too rare an occurrence. Blunden’s though provoking book deserves to be read by anyone involved in trying to change the world for the better.

Keith Flett

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