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Tuesday, May 27

Self-Government: A closer look at Adolf Gasser's points and a brief return to Arvind Kejriwal's "Swaraj"

"An increasingly sophisticated and highly specialised society and economy can only function if decisions are taken locally and the process is decentralised ... This speaks in favour of politically non-central solutions and underscores the growing importance of communal and personal autonomy."
-- From Robert Nef's analysis of Adolf Gasser's major work

In Part Three of The Devil and Departmentalization (Beat the Devil) I looked briefly at Robert Nef's discussion of Adolf Gasser's ideas about municipal autonomy and found they came up short, when applied to unrestricted departmentalization in government agencies:
Gasser was analyzing the effects of centralized government on the patchwork of countries on the European continent, all of which combined could fit into the continental United States 2-1/2 times. So while municipal autonomy can ward off the worst effects of departmentalization gone berserk in a small country, what happens when a municipality is as large as one or more European countries?
But while I provided the link to Nef's paper and quoted Wikipedia's summary of Gasser's work, my very circumscribed area of criticism shortchanged Gasser's points as they apply to defending freedom; specifically, preventing a democratic republic from lapsing into authoritarian rule.  Yet the points hold as true today as during World War II, when Gasser surveyed the wreck of Europe's experiment in democracy.

The problem is that Gasser's magnum opus has never been translated into English (to my knowledge).  So here I again rely on Robert Nef's translation for a closer look at Gasser's major points.

With regard to the term "federalism," elsewhere in his paper Nef drily observes that an American professor collects definitions of the term as a hobby; he'd collected 495. But Nef's paper is a good grounding in the term.

Two caveats before I turn to Nef's analysis.  He writes, "Countries that have inherited systems of local autonomy dating back to times immemorial have effectively resisted both monarchic and bureaucratic centralisation in the form of absolutism as well as left- and right-wing totalitarianism."

I venture that Gasser and Nef confined their observations to Western countries.  The Devil and Departmentalization series was inspired by my reading of Arvind Kejriwal's 2011 Swaraj ("Self Rule"); specifically, his discussion of how the British Raj used a process of departmentalization to co-opt a system of self government in India's villages that had existed unbroken for thousands of years.

The system did survive, in sort of a Potemkin form after the British left.  As Kejriwal noted, after Independence the central government switched out the British Sahib for the Indian Sahib.  And so India's central government retains control over the local ones in the country.

The point is that it takes more than a good system of local government to protect it from being co-opted.  A carefully written Constitution, while not a guarantee, as Nef points out, is a prerequisite, as is a robust justice system.

But as I stressed in Beat the Devil a key factor in maintaining good local government may well be keeping it nonprofessional; i.e., a volunteer effort. This on the theory that when people have to volunteer their time to making government work, they tend to come up with solutions rather than making a career out of problems.

The other caveat is that Nef's analysis necessarily focuses on the mechanics of governing.  Yet prior to good government or undergirding it is self-sufficiency; without this, even the best decentralized governing mechanics can be co-opted by a central authority. Gasser was very clearly aware of this point. ("Municipalities would have to be in a position to secure for themselves adequate sources of revenue.")

I'll discuss the issue of self-sufficiency in upcoming posts.    

From In Praise of Non-Centralism; Section 9, Federalism and Municipal Autonomy; pp. 71-75; 2003; Robert Nef. (Nef's entire paper is available for free, in English, in PDF):

Gasser’s central concern is to illustrate the interdependence of democracy and municipal autonomy as a precondition for a permanently stable state.

During the second world war, the Swiss historian, Adolf Gasser, wrote Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas ["Communal Freedom as the Salvation of Europe;" first ed. 1943], a well-reasoned and pioneering [discourse] on municipal autonomy as the saviour of Europe.

With intellectual acumen and brilliant language, Gasser develops the main thrust of his thesis: countries with democratic constitutions can only be viable if they have federalist structures and the municipalities have extensive, legally guaranteed autonomy.

According to Gasser, “internal and not external policy was responsible for the collapse of libertarian state constitutions. Democracy failed in all countries with a tradition of political freedom because, as liberty and order could not be combined into an organic whole, it was only obvious that opposing social and political forces would take over and hamper the successful development of democratic institutions” (Gemeindefreiheit, p. 8).

By liberty and order, Gasser means a socio-political constitution that is based upon and builds on municipal autonomy. Municipal freedom means the free social cooperation and classification of the individual. The will to be involved and take on responsibility within a small sphere is crucial. Countries that have inherited systems of local autonomy dating back to times immemorial have effectively resisted both monarchic and bureaucratic centralisation in the form of absolutism as well as left- and right-wing totalitarianism. In Gasser’s opinion these ‘old free’ states include Great Britain, the USA, the north European countries, the Netherands and Switzerland.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘liberalised authoritarian countries’ of continental Europe like Spain, France, Italy, and Germany. “The large mainland states have completely absorbed the principle of administrative command and subordination and are therefore imbued with the spirit of power […] Consequently, the modern state in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and Austria was also built unilaterally, from the top down. Thus individual classes of society were mechanically fused together by an administrative command and power apparatus to form a national unit, leaving the people with no opportunity in their local sphere to work together and shoulder collective responsibility for the prosperity of the state, while learning to trust each other politically” (Ibid, p. 103).

“Interpreting what constitutes the ‘state’ is very different in a world with municipal freedom and in a world without it. In the former, state order is based on the general desire for local self-administration while in the latter, it is based on general subjugation to the bureaucratic apparatus."

In Gasser’s opinion, it is, therefore, a “fundamental mistake to somehow try and compare the social and political differences of the authoritarian, centralist world with those of the communal, federative world. When situations within the hierarchy of officialdom threaten to degenerate into passion and hatred, even where there are liberal constitutions, the moderating effect of moral counter forces will prevail in conditions of wide-ranging local autonomy” (Ibid, p. 181).

Gasser’s central concern is to illustrate the interdependence of democracy and municipal autonomy as a precondition for a permanently stable state.

“Living together in freedom is viable only if an organisation has a clear and transparent structure, people know each other personally and usually judge others and members of their self-elected local governments not only by the party they belong to, but by their skills and even more by character. Such a vibrant ‘citizens’ school’ where different opinions and special interests are in constant competition to ensure that a sensible balance is achieved, can be realised only if there is a free municipal self-government” (Ibid, p. 166 and onwards).

Gasser's vision of a new Europe after 1945 carries greater weight today than ever before. “Europe can only become a world of true universal democracy, if, at the same time, it becomes a world of communalism and vibrant self-government, if steps are taken to liberate centralist countries from bureaucratic hierarchy and from the administrative principle of command and subordination, and to rebuild from the bottom up.”

To carry out this process successfully, Gasser proposes giving “prompt and strict instructions to the district bureaucracies to refrain from handling certain matters that come under the purview of the municipal administration. The partial autonomy secured in this manner will then gradually develop into a “pouvoir communal” by allocating more responsibilities elsewhere, and communal power should be legally safeguarded against intervention.

Municipalities would have to be in a position to secure for themselves adequate sources of revenue, and be given full responsibility for determining their own budget with all the self-discipline that this entails. Without being responsible for their own finances, neither the desire for living self-government nor communal social ethics will be able to flourish” (Ibid, p. 199).

Gasser however admits that there would be several hurdles impeding a “strategy of ordered withdrawal” and these would be difficult to overcome.

“In places where people have always been accustomed to an administration based on centralist bureaucratic hierarchy, demands for greater municipal autonomy are not particularly popular […] (Ibid, p. 204). Re-education should be considered only if a strong and stable government acknowledges the necessity, tackles the process methodically and gives step-by-step instruction.”

It remains to be seen whether this is a realistic method or whether change can only be induced through pressure ‘from the bottom up’.

“The rejection of the authoritarian state and the principle of administrative command and subordination that underlies all genuine communalisation ultimately require a new interpretation of the law. This means that the state should no longer be the source of all legislation; we must perceive the constituent parts of the state as upholders of their own independent laws as was the case in early and medieval European law: individuals, families and communities first, followed by districts and provinces. On no account should one be content with comprehensive federalism unless there is comprehensive and legally secure municipal autonomy” (Ibid, p. 205).

Are municipal autonomy and democracy still suitable in a service- and information-based society characterised by mobility, complex labour division, and interdependence? Are small, democratic social units and communal autonomy not rooted in static, rural-agricultural, and small-town societies that are virtually nonexistent today?

Gasser denied this and singled out municipal autonomy as the balancing element in a social and welfare-state political system. He believed that only in conditions that people understand and are true-to-life can they acquire “what is described as political intuition and a sense for human proportions […]; only here, on the ground of freedom, does a modicum of belief in the community develop that can effectively curb the tendency towards authoritarianism and anarchy […]” (Gemeindefreiheit und Zukunft Europas, p. 463).

An increasingly sophisticated and highly specialised society and economy can only function if decisions are taken locally and the process is decentralised, in other words, people take the initiative and are prepared to take over their own responsibility. This speaks in favour of politically non-central solutions and underscores the growing importance of communal and personal autonomy.

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