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Review: "Isocracy: The Institutions of Equality"

Like most terms referring to governance, "Isocracy" means "equal" (iso-) "rule" (-cracy). The first time we here of this phrase is in reference to the famous Attic orators, Isokrates, who was noted for his pragmatic approach to teaching and use of skills in context, and his desire for an educated, multicultural society. Robert Southey referred to William Goodwin, the first modern anarchist, as promoting isocracy. Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have a proposed utopian experiment called "pantisocracy" ("equal government for all"), Grant Allen used the term in the founding documents of the Independent Labor Party in 1893 and wanted the ILP to be called the "the Isocratic Party". From there, there is a handful of references, most importantly by the reputable Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori in 1957 in his "Democrazia e Definizioni". The Isocracy Network, founded in Melbourne is a political organisation that embodies the principle of self-ownership and, by extension informed consent, natural resources as the source of public income and the use for the common good, combining the best elements of the modern traditions of liberal, socialist and anarchist thought. The ten-point-plan of the Isocracy Network provides a practical implementation of this theory.

Recently, there has been an English language edition by Palgrave Mcmillan of Nicolò Bellanca's "Isocracy: The Institutions of Equality", a translation from the Italian Isocrazia: Le istituzioni dell’eguaglianza. which was published by Castelvecchi Editore in 2016. Nicolò Bellanca is an academic at the University of Florence, Department of Economics. It is this book that we now review and from the outset, it should be expected that this is a contribution to the debate over the meaning. After all, there are many books on the practical implementation and meaning of "democracy", and we should expect a little difference over "isocracy". Certainly, it is clear that others are looking at these political traditions as a way to qualitatively improve existing democracies. This is both pragmatic and principled; isocracy does not seek to provide utopia, which of course, translates as "no place", but perhaps a "eutopia", a good place. Bellanca explicitly states this, saying that isocracy is not utopia, but rather "something close", "a good place to live", and offers the following definition: "We can define isocracy as a kind of society where people do not rule or obey, a place where there is order without power, and a non-hierarchical cooperation" (p.v). As such, it follows our existing tradition of combining 20th-century liberal, socialist, and anarchist thought into a new synthesis. It is also a clear indication that we are at the beginning of a new social ideal.

A Good Place to Live

The text consists of five chapters; "A Good Place to Live", "The Economic Institutions of Isocracy", "The Political Institutions of Isocracy", "The Anthropological Mutation", and "The Structural Possibility of an Alternative". In considering "a good place to live", Bellanca points that out that: "When subjects are not equal in terms of power, they cannot share their freedom either" (p2) and, invoking a Hegelian dialectic that when there is an inequality of power the possibility of non-compliance is raised (p8), resulting a situation where power is a sure cost for those who are subject to it in an asymmetrical fashion (p9). Outside of the power enforced in the workplace, there is a relative equality of power during "discretionary time" and this being the case, "in an isocratic society the time devoted to work will be reduced" (p13). This is an example of "simple equality", where "all subjects are provided with an equal endowment or the same opportunity" (p12), but Bellanca also wishes to develop a society that is "radically pluralistic" (p13), necessitating "complex equality", where a citizen may have a high standing in one social sphere and lower in another (p14), thus resulting in a system that has multiple sources of power, a polyarchy (p18) where there is an avoidance of hegemony and centralisation by subdividing society into different institutional spheres (p19). Bellanca notes that under capitalism capital is power and maybe both transmitted and accumulated, and reinvested; "with capitalism, those who seek power act within a different framework of opportunities. Politics, war, religion, and culture remain important means of power; but all become subordinates to capital and its operating logic" (p27).

The Economic Institutions of Isocracy

The objective of this chapter is to describe a post-capitalist society of the isocratic type. Bellenca starts by noting that markets and capitalism can exist independently of each other, the former a means of distribution and resource allocation, the latter a method of ownership (p38). Workers' Cooperatives are a particularly good example, as are labour-capital partnerships (p41). The author should have given attention to at least three other problems raised with such suggestions. The first, is that a Cooperative in a critical industry (e.g., emergency services, mass transit) has undue power over society as a whole. The second, that a labour-capital partnership will inevitably be conflict-laden. The third is exploring the debenture system of funding cooperatives whereby investors make an unsecured loan (usually with a promise of an above-interest rate return). Melbourne's Earthworker Cooperative is an example of the latter.

Bellanca notes that workers need an external source of income outside of the firm to reduce the power imbalance of such environments (p46), and considers some sort of social dividend (p48); this could be developed through a share percentage transferred to a public property fund (p49) in preference to company tax systems. Commons property trusts, which represent independent authorities are considered an important body for managing common natural resources, as well as social infrastructure (p50), noting, in particular, the UK National Trust as an example. Expressing opposition to the funding system for a basic income, Bellanca claims that "basic income appears hardly compatible with an isocratic perspective" (p57) and on this matter, the Isocracy Network certainly disagrees. Of note, the author has not considered the funding of basic income through resource rents, which is a little strange for an economist, as such a proposition has been thoroughly discussed in that discipline.

An interesting suggestion is made to separate currency from money, and respectively consumer goods from capital goods, as one represents consumables and the other property rights (p59). Whilst the distinction is sound, it is unclear what difference this would make. In lieu of the automatic income, Bellanca suggests that all adult citizens should receive an identical portfolio of shares and thus share-income of major national enterprises, which does have the issue of the power of transnational firms (p61). A separation of commercial and investment banks is recommended, along with banning short-selling, restricting cross-border capital movements, and the introduction of a tax on financial transactions (aka Tobin Tax) (p75). Many of these are social-democratic policies mixed with too much nationalism, and as for a Tobin tax, it is well-recognised that when implemented this tended to have disproportionate negative effects and did not produce the benefits expected. The overall objective however, is to provide people additional streams of income that are not tied just to their wage; it is a sort of social welfare system, without the punitive administrative structure: "in an isocracy, no citizen fears to slip in such a condition in which he needs to sell himself to others in some capacity, just as nobody can take advantage of somebody else in a persistent and cumulative manner" (p84)

The Political Institutions of Isocracy

Some advantages in existing democracy are noted; "Representative democracy ... constitutes a peaceful method of alternation of power between leading groups" (p92), but this comes at a cost at reducing the deliberative and participatory forms of democracy, rendering them "marginal and accessory" (p93). Social conflicts, in principle, should be negotiable, however, "we find non-negotiable conflicts mainly in situations that involve power imbalances and identity recognition" (p94), to which it could be added, 'most prominently in class relations'. Social groups find their interests represented in political parties; where there is a multiplicity of interests, there is a multiplicity of parties, which has asymmetric power among the various groups (p100). A "digital party" has the advantage of introducing a greater level of participation by reducing the barrier of physical entry (p101); it should be added that it does lose, however, the inclusion of social cues of non-verbal communication. Bellanca does not suggest whether proportional or single-member electoral systems are preferable (p106) which does come into conflict with the advocacy of participation and deliberation in a polyarchy, all of which would suggest a stronger proportional system, not just to determine alternative governments, but even within government itself - the Swiss Federal executive serving as a prominent example.

Following Hayek, Bellanca suggests entrusting the nomoi to a body, the nomothete, independent of the executive and legislative, devoted to the preventative check of abstract rules of rule (p108) and separate from the legislative creation of concrete normative acts with an independent incentives system. Described as "a constitutional court... its members are elected citizens" (p110), one wonders why a constitutional court is not sufficient. Indeed, given the professional difficulty involved, that is, a full-time position, it is doubtful whether an elected citizenship body could have the professional expertise required. It seems that current constitutional courts would serve this function of government sufficiently. Another curious suggestion is for a "deliberation day" (p115) prior to election day, when deliberative approaches should be used throughout the public sphere. There is also an attempt to argue for quality information via the establishment of a non-profit media organisation (p118), however, the institution suggested is hardly powerful enough to deal with the deluge of "fake news", nor would have electoral enforcement powers such as an independent electoral commission.

The opposite of centralised power is some sort of federalism and Bellanca's isocracy is no different in that regard. Nevertheless, he wishes to avoid its weaknesses and competitive interdependence and thus differentiates between nation-states, jurisdictions, and territorial organisations (p125). A distribution of tasks can be placed on the appropriate type of entity; a political entity can be defined "nation-state" where it creates and applies binding rules, a "jurisdiction" is a territorial public entity that can legislate with taxation and administrative acts, and a territorial organisational unity is when a juridical subject is recognised by the legal system (p125), "a fully realised federalism does not co-ordinate nation-states but rather non-state governments, or jurisdictions, and other entities like the TOUs, within a constitutional setting" (p126). Environmental issues have the possibility of failure in market and in politics at the nation-state and supranational level, as there are no binding rules.

The Anthropological Mutation

A seemingly curious chapter is devoted to social anthropology. Whilst this seems distant from the formal processes of politics and economics as reactionaries have grasped "politics is downstream from culture", hence their obsession with fighting culture wars which they will certainly lose due to technological impetus. Bellanca makes the observation that "the human condition" is firstly an experience of passion; "More than anything else (needs, reason, rationality, ethical sense and others), it is the passions that provide the subjects with motivational stimuli and that fill their actions with meaning" (p148-149) and as a result, "capitalist institutions are anthropogenic instruments" (p149) that controls passions, favouring the "cold" over the "hot", a charioteer that controls the "wild horses" and yet suppressing itself also (one may observe an inkling of Schumpeter here and his advocacy of Unternehmergeist, wild spirits, in entrepreneurship). Bellanca was an isocracy to allow room for such passions, "isocratic society stems from the vital exigence to make the horses-passions run, and by doing this, giving some meaning to who we are and what we do" (p149)

It is recognised that the earlier political theorists (e.g., Lock, Smith, Madison, Mill) acknowledge the role of the passions (p156-157) and that the "recurrent dualistic approach is not only an ethical requirement - to separate virtue from vice - but it stems from in the difficulty in managing the uncontrollable force of passions on a personal as well as social level" (p160). Bellanca claims that "for the first time in history, in capitalism, the human subject is not moved by passions" (p163), by which is meant the "hot or unbridled passions". In suggesting that liberation of the passions one supposes that this is not about removing the differentiation or regulation of virtue and vice. Rather the key purpose is to allow for greater imagination and creativity, especially in allowing for future planning, following Marcuse on the emancipatory power of phantasy (p175-176). The position is unclearly put, however, as Bellanca also claims: The task of the isocratic institutional set-up is not that of regulating passions, but only that of avoiding that the subjects who advocate certain passions can gain permanent advantage over other subjects" (p181). It would seem that the Habermasian distinction between lifeworld and system, whereby imagination and creativity are associated with the former, would be a more valuable path to take.

The Structural Possibility of an Alternative

The final chapter discusses the possibility of Isocracy, distinguishing between an objective (structural) side and a subjective one. For the former, it is proposed that institutional changes occur as imposed plans or those that emerge from the interactions of individuals. For subjective changes, "it is necessary that multiple coalitions defy existing rules" (p187). Bellanca argues that there has been a loss of critical thinking, evident by an inability of many to envisage a future that is anything more than an amplification of the present (p188), as possible and viable alternatives that are a qualitative improvement are necessary. A viable alternative is defined as one which has coherent theoretical premises, an achievable alternative is one which there's structural possibility (p188). Whilst changes in institutions typically occur through deliberate and planned incremental processes or by sudden and spontaneously revolutionary changes, Bellanca considers a patchwork changes, an emergent Harlequin (p190)

Concluding Remarks

There is no doubt that Bellanca has made a significant contribution to the nascent political theory of Isocracy. To be sure, it inevitably differs from the one that finds in at the Isocracy Network which is far more heavily based on a rights-based approach on a very visceral level, whereby equal power is vested inequality of rights and power among individuals. Bellanca orientation is more towards a leveling of power between institutions, which in itself is a worthy contribution to federalist theory and one which is not incompatible at all with the programme of the Isocracy Network. Further, Bellanca makes an interesting contribution in the field of social anthropology, whereas the Network has concentrated far more on the systemic, perhaps an oversight on our part in terms of providing inspirational and eutopian motivation, but certainly grounded on the premise that culture and imagination need their own independent space. It is certainly probably that given Bellanca's contributions that the Isocracy Network will be engaging in future collaborations of common interest and further strengthening the definition of a word that is capturing the imagination of those who support individual liberty and a social commonwealth.

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