Unitary & Adversary: The Two Forms Of Democracy

Distinguishing between the democracy of friends
based on equal respect and the democracy of citizens
based on equal rights helps us use both better

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 10
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

The previous article points to the deep loss of real freedom that occurs when a social system has no peaceful means for resolving conflicts, and implicitly poses the challenge of finding the ways that this "system flaw" can be corrected. This next article explores two distinct ways that are often confused with each other. It is based on excerpts from a book that keeps growing on me, with its simple but profound insights. It’s called Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1983, 398pp, $10.95) and it explores the differences between small scale democracies based on the assumption of common interest and others that assume conflicting interests. The excerpts here deal with general principles, but most of the book is devoted to describing, in detail and with sensitivity and clarity, the workings of two small democracies – a Vermont town and a participatory workplace. If you are interested in how "good will" democracies actually work, I highly recommend the full book to you. Reprinted with permission.


MY WORK deals with two great themes in American political thought: democracy and equality. I began it in the late 1960s, when I was a member of several small "participatory democracies." Sooner or later, internal struggles over equality left each of these groups in disarray. Most of my friends in these organizations attributed inequality and the pain it caused to the warped personalities of particular individuals and, ultimately, to the destructive effect of a capitalist society on the individual personality. I always felt that these explanations had some force. But I also believed – and still believe – that certain kinds of inequality would appear in any society, no matter what its ideology or social system, and that organizations with egalitarian ideals would have to find ways to deal with this fact.

Because I believed in these egalitarian ideals myself, I wanted to find techniques, like occasional referenda or decentralizing to small groups, that would help such organizations implement their ideals. I also wanted to get my friends to stop blaming the inequalities that proved ineradicable on other members of their organizations, and recognize that the fault often lay in the structure of the organization itself.

In order both to test my thesis that certain kinds of inequality were difficult if not impossible to abolish and to identify techniques for handling the less intractable inequalities, I set out on a search for the most successful "participatory democracies" that I could find. I settled on a Vermont town with 350 adult residents and on a "crisis center" whose forty-one paid employees had deposed its founding elite and ran their organization on an extremely egalitarian basis.

In the course of trying to make sense of the concern for solidarity that I had unearthed in interviewing more than a hundred members of my two small democracies, I found a recurrent concept in Aristotle’s Ethics increasingly relevant. Aristotle tells us that the Greeks saw a kind of solidarity, which they called "friendship," as the necessary basis of the state. Further, they identified equality, consensus, face-to-face contact, and common interest as distinguishing features of that friendship.

This line of thinking led eventually to the major conclusion of my work: the model of democracy unconsciously adopted by the participatory democrats of the late 1960s and early 1970s was in essence and in form directly opposed to the model of democracy that I, like most Americans, had grown up with.

The Basic Distinction

The West believes that it invented democracy, and that institutions like Parliament, representation, and universal adult suffrage are synonymous with democracy itself. Every American schoolchild knows that when you set up a democracy you elect representatives – in school, the student council; later, senators, representatives, councilmen, assemblymen, and aldermen. When you do not agree, you take a vote, and the majority rules. This combination of electoral representation, majority rule, and one-citizen/one-vote is democracy. Because this conception of democracy assumes that citizens’ interests are in constant conflict, I have called it "adversary" democracy.

Every step in this adversary process violates another, older understanding of democracy. In that older understanding, people who disagree do not vote; they reason together until they agree on the best answer. Nor do they elect representatives to reason for them. They come together with their friends to find agreement. This democracy is consensual, based on common interest and equal respect. It is the democracy of face-to-face relations. Because it assumes that citizens have a single common interest, I have called it "unitary" democracy.

These two conceptions of democracy persist, side by side, in every modern democracy. The adversary ideal and the procedures derived from it have dominated Western democratic thinking since the seventeenth century. But unitary ideals and procedures continue to influence the way legislative committees, elected representatives, major institutions like the Supreme Court, and local democracies actually act. In crises of legitimacy, citizens often revert to the unitary ideal, as young people did in the small participatory democracies that flourished in America in the 1960s and early 1970s.

These two conceptions of democracy are not only different, but contradictory. Yet those who talk and write about our democratic ideals never distinguish them. They assume either that adversary democracy is the only legitimate form of democracy or that unitary democracy is the ideal form and adversary democracy a compromise between the unitary ideal and the exigencies of practical politics. The main argument of my work is that both the unitary and the adversary forms of democracy embody worthy democratic ideals, although each is appropriate in a different context.

The Original Unitary Democracy

Unitary democracy almost certainly has a longer history than any other form of government. For more than 99 percent of our existence, we human beings lived in hunter- gatherer bands. We know relatively little about these bands in earlier times. What we do know suggests a remarkable degree of economic equality in them. More recent evidence suggests a comparable degree of political equality. At least in the past few centuries, these groups have habitually made their decisions as equals, by consensus, and in face- to-face meetings. It seems fairly safe to infer that hunter- gatherers always operated as unitary democracies.

In modern bands, each adult male comes to the band’s decision-making council as an equal. Some bands have no head at all; others select an older man to act as a peacemaker and arbitrator in the council, not to hold a higher rank or exercise any formal power. This fundamental equality in status does not necessarily imply equal influence on decisions. The opinions of an individual who combines skill in hunting and in warfare with the personal qualities of generosity, kindness, self-control, experience, and good judgment may well carry more weight than those of other men. But the influence of such a man does not derive from a position of formal authority, entails no obligation on the part of other members of the band, and is not accompanied by any marks or perquisites of higher status.

The unitary approach of these bands assumes that the band as a whole has a common interest. But only very small societies can make this assumption and can maintain this kind of decision- making. With increasing membership, the probability of a groups’ achieving a common interest, and therefore genuine consensus, diminishes rapidly. The participants in a large polity may never meet, and if they do, they will usually know each other in only one role, often one that dramatizes conflicts of interest. Large-scale organization also requires a hierarchy of some sort, if only for communications. Finally, sheer numbers make impossible a face-to-face meeting of all members at once. For these and other reasons, unitary democracy has had no large-scale form.

When large-scale polities first developed, they retained the central ideal of common interest while scrapping the democratic paraphernalia of equal status, consensus, and face-to-face assembly. In chiefdoms, monarchies, and even empires, one individual often personified the whole, becoming a unifying force in the face of increasingly diverse interests. The authority structure in these unitary, but nondemocratic, polities mirrored that of hunter-gatherer families rather than that of hunter- gatherer councils. Large- scale democracies had to await the full development of a theory of adversary democracy.

The Adversary Revolution

By accepting some conflict as legitimate and by instituting the formal procedures of one-citizen/one-vote and majority rule, Athens became the first society to move away from unitary democracy while preserving the democratic ideal of involving all full citizens in a decision. Many other assemblies in ancient Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe also adopted the vote and a formal system of majority rule, but they probably, like the Athenian Polis and the English Parliament, made most of their decisions by consensus. It was not until the advent of the large-scale nation-state and the market economy that the foundations were laid for a full-fledged system of adversary democracy.

The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries in Europe saw a feudal, traditional, and theoretically immutable system of "just" prices, "discovered" laws, and personal ties transformed into a national, fluid, and permanently transitory system of shifting prices, positive law, and a mobile self-interested citizenry. The new market economy demanded labor and capital, free to move where opportunities developed, free to contract at rates that shifted with supply and demand, and free to move on again when the market required it. Personal loyalties, local ties, and complex networks of mutual obligation obstructed this process.

In a parallel development in the political realm, the 17th century saw the introduction, at first much-resisted, of a philosophy that human beings were driven by an unceasing desire for power after power that brought them into irreconcilable conflict, and that political institutions must build upon this conflict, not resist it. It saw the English parliament for the first time use majority rule more than consensus, and the word "political party" loses its derogatory connotation.

Over the generations, this idea, that a democracy should weigh and come to terms with conflicting selfish interests rather than trying to reconcile them or to make them subordinate to a larger common good, gradually gained acceptance. Modern political theorists have taken this line of development to its logical conclusion. In current adversary theory, there is no common good or public interest at all. Voters pursue their individual interests by making demands on the political system in proportion to the intensity of their feelings. Politicians, also pursuing their own interests, adopt policies that buy them votes, thus ensuring accountability. In order to stay in office, politicians act like entrepreneurs and brokers, looking for formulas that satisfy as many, and alienate as few, interests as possible. From the interchange between self- interested voters and self-interested brokers emerge decisions that come as close as possible to a balanced aggregation of individual interests.

At bottom, this theory of adversary democracy is remarkably similar to modern laissez-faire economics. Like economists, many modern political scientists believe either that equally weighted votes, majority rule, and electoral competition can in principle aggregate millions of selfish political desires into one common good, or that, because no one can know the common good, the aggregation of selfish political desires is the best substitute.

Because both adversary democracy and laissez-faire economics are founded on self-interest, there is no room in either system for arguments that the interests of some people are better than those of others. Politically, therefore, each individual’s interests should carry equal weight. The central egalitarian ideal in an adversary democracy thus becomes the equal protection of interests, guaranteed by the equal distribution of power through the vote.

Yet equal voting rights coupled with majority rule does not always protect interests equally. As a winner-take-all system, it does not usually produce a proportional distribution of benefits, and it can create permanent minorities. If some one minority is always on the losing side, few would say that the minority’s interests were being protected, let alone that they were being protected equally.

The adversary system also has another, more serious, drawback. The mechanical aggregation of conflicting selfish desires is the very core of an adversary system. But this idea verges on moral bankruptcy. It accepts, and makes no attempt to change, the foundations of selfish desire. It is the democracy of a cynical society. It replaces common interest with self-interest, the dignity of equal status with the baser motives of self-protection, and the communal moments of the face-to-face council with the isolation of a voting machine.

The Limits Of Friendship

Yet the unitary approach also has its limits. No group of people, however small, ever has completely identical interests. But groups whose members have many common interests often develop norms that make it difficult even to suggest that individual interests might conflict. Groups that are accustomed to using consensus find it hard to recognize and to legitimate conflicts of interest by allowing bargains, distributing benefits proportionately, taking turns, or making decisions by majority rule. Such groups end up either reinforcing the status quo or, in an informal and unacknowledged manner, forcing the minority to go along.

The larger the polity, the more likely it is that some individuals will have conflicting interests, and the more individual interests come in conflict, the more a democracy must employ adversary procedures. These two premises demand the conclusion that democracies as large as the modern nation-state be primarily adversary democracies.

This is a bitter conclusion. It means rejecting the vision of national unitary democracy where interests coincide naturally, through unselfishness, or through the power of an idea. The unitary vision appeals to humanity’s most exalted sentiments – the deep joy of spontaneous communion, unselfishness, and commitment to a larger good. When a powerful ideal or moment of transcendence unites millions of people, the result is even more inspiring than in a small community. Yet on this scale, the unitary goal is also more dangerous, because with increasing size the chances of real conflict increase, and so, consequently, do the chances that an appeal to unity will obscure conflict to the benefit of those who launch the appeal.

The depressing conclusion is that democratic institutions on a national scale can seldom be based on the assumption of a common good. Yet a democracy based solely on the cold facts of national conflict will encourage selfishness based on perceiving others as opponents and discourage reasoned discussion among people of good will.

Lessons

The first lesson I draw from my work is that these two forms of democracy are fundamentally different, require different institutions and procedures, and raise different concerns. The failure to distinguish between these two approaches can lead to much confusion, pain, and often the disintegration of the group, as happened in the "participatory democracies" I mentioned at the start of this article. For example, because of fears based on adversary experience, members of these groups were unwilling to empower a leader, yet their common interests would have been better served if they allowed some inequality in power.

The distinction between unitary and adversary has helped me to see that when democrats have defended unequal power they have always assumed common interests between the leaders and the led. Arguments for equal power, on the other hand, have usually assumed conflicting interests. I conclude that we value equal power not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of protecting interests equally. When interests do not conflict, equal power is not necessary for self-protection. If everyone has the same interests, the more powerful will protect the interest of the less powerful automatically. Equal power is also a means to two other ends – maintaining a community of equal respect and promoting personal growth. But these ends too are met by other means when respect does not derive from power and when everyone in a community has the opportunity to take political responsibility. Thus equal power is a conditional value, not an absolute one. Rather than opposing "democracy" to "elitism" as if equal power were an end in itself, members of a group should spend their scarce resources on making power more equal only when equal power is most needed – when interests most conflict, when equal respect cannot be generated from other sources, and when citizens are atrophying from not having enough power and responsibility.

The second lesson balances the first by recognizing that no group is purely one type or the other. Whatever the predominate type, it is still necessary to include some elements from the other approach. For example, a national polity can try to make some forms of the unitary experience available to its citizens. The safest place to do this is on the most local level, either in the workplace or the neighborhood, where the greater information each citizen can have about any decision helps guard against false unity. With such decentralization, a nation operating primarily as an adversary democracy need not condemn its citizens to selfishness and amorality, any more than a state with no established church need condemn its citizens to atheism.

Moreover, even on the national level, some unitary, or almost unitary, moments can be preserved. First, even in a primary adversary democracy, citizens must agree to a significant extent on the ideals that sustain the adversary process itself and place them, by genuine consensus, somewhat beyond the adversary process.

Second, the pursuit of a higher goal – often responding to an external threat – can give citizens some common interests and convince them briefly that these are the only interests that count. These moments are precious, even though they must also be transitory.

Third, in the uninspiring arena of administration, a national bureaucracy can increase the frequency of a common good by handling technical decisions competently and by trying to resolve conflicts of interest on the basis of a rough principle of equal protection rather than denying the legitimacy of conflict.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an interdependent, less competitive economy can vastly increase the average worker’s experience of common interest with others. A nation interested in expanding its citizens’ unitary experience can always use its control over the economy to help achieve that end.

Thus by fostering decentralized and highly participative units, by maintaining a few crucial remnants of consensus, by instituting primarily cooperative economic relations, and by treating adversary methods not as an all-encompassing ideal but as an unavoidable and equitable recourse, a nation can maintain some of the conditions for community, comradeship, selflessness, and idealism without insisting that on most matters all its citizens have a common interest.

Even so, the national polity poses, at its most difficult, the problem that arises even in small groups when they try to move back and forth between unitary and adversary approaches: We find it hard to dip in and out of the adversary mode without being tainted by it, hard to be selfish now and selfless ten minutes later. We can reach common interest with others in part by making their good our own, yet a too frequent recourse to adversary procedures undermines the habits of thought and feeling that induce such behavior.

The subversive effect of adversary procedure on unitary feeling makes it essential that the necessary dominance of adversary democracy in national politics not set the pattern of behavior for the nation as a whole. The effort to maintain unitary elements in the nation in turn depends on widespread rejection both of the cynical doctrine that interests always conflict and the credulous assumption that they can always be harmonious.

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