“I’ve recently returned from the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Syria, known as Rojava, where I had the opportunity to observe a unique form of democracy implemented by a revolutionary libertarian social movement. […] These innovations seem like good first steps towards turning democracy from a worthless antiquity into a workable principle within anarchist theory.” Paul Z. Simons, ‘Rojava: Democracy and Commune’
The status of democracy within the anarchist movement seems to be a pretty hot topic at the moment. In the previous issue of The Anarcho Tourist Review, one author wrote that “if anarchism is to become more of a force in the world, it would mean rejecting the current democratic values”. The anarchist movement, they argue, suffers from an overabundance of democracy, and we would thereby do well to accept the implicitly elitist nature of our ideas. Moreover, and in Greece as much as elsewhere, many anarchists argue that the concept of democracy has been irredeemably corrupted by modern politics, or even that anarchy and democracy were always incompatible. On the contrary, my aim here is to establish the importance of a commitment to democracy for the wider anarchist movement. The concepts of anarchy and democracy ultimately sit very well together – so well, I argue, that jettisoning the democratic commitment risks seriously undermining the potency of the anarchist agenda.
First things first, this section is used to argue that anarchism and (certain forms of) democracy are fully compatible. My approach here rests, no surprise, on the important distinction between direct and indirect democracy. Modern politics is dominated by the form of indirect democracy, in which politicians are elected to government, whilst direct democracy involves ordinary people engaging in political decision-making for themselves. For one, so many anarchist critiques of democracy are implicitly leveled against its indirect form – the one that dominates popular consciousness. And it is, of course, quite clear that any system in which a tiny group of political professionals makes the decisions for literally millions of others needs to be ardently rejected by anarchists. However, time is also wasted on talking about indirect democracy as if it were even open for consideration, because, as a political system that obviously presupposes the need for the state, it goes without saying that it is something that no committed anarchist would touch.
In fact, we should seriously be asking whether indirect forms of political participation even deserve to be called democratic in the first place (Chomsky, for example, is amongst the at least vaguely anarchist thinkers making this point). The core concept of democracy, as arising from its etymology, is rule by the people. And it is hard to see how, in a system in which a government is elected for the explicit purpose of administering a nation state, it is the people who are doing the ruling. No doubt, electoral systems allow ordinary people to have something of a say in deciding who will rule them, and maybe that counts for something. However, insofar as a minority group is vested with the explicit task of ruling over the rest of society, it is quite obvious that the general public will not be the ones in charge. As such, it seems that, just as most anarchists are ready to say that Somalia is not really in a state of anarchy, and also that the Soviet Union offered neither communism nor socialism in a strict sense, we should also forget about calling the current system democratic. In a roundabout sense, therefore, we should reject (the mainstream conception of) democracy on the basis that it is undemocratic. The present discussion thereby shifts to the more interesting question regarding the relationship between anarchism and direct democracy.
There is no reason to think that anarchism is incompatible with this purer, more direct approach to democracy – the one that is genuinely committed to bringing about rule by the people. After all, if anarchists are not attempting to put the people in power, then what is it that we are even trying to do? Indeed, it is often overlooked that the core concepts of anarchy and democracy are actually very similar. Etymologically speaking, anarchy means no rulers, and it is hard to see how a situation in which there are no rulers would be significantly different to one in which the people simply rule themselves. If the general public is the highest political authority there is, and everyone thereby takes part in ruling the political community, then this is really no different to saying that there are no rulers altogether. To establish true democracy thus can only mean to level the distinction between those who rule, and those who are ruled. And this is also to say that, irrespective of whether or not people are happy to call it anarchy, a thoroughgoing commitment to democracy can only mean a rejection of the state, capitalism, and social hierarchy in general. My belief is thus that the term democracy should be reclaimed as a fighting word rather than quarantined. Instead of ceding this revolutionary tool to the establishment, we should be thinking about how to turn democracy against them – about how to deprive the state of this dubious linchpin of its legitimacy.
This approach runs contrary, for example, to one forwarded in a recent article released by Crimethinc. (From Democracy to Freedom). Here democracy is defined – along with aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, and technocracy – as just another form of government, another attempt by one subset of society to rule over the rest. Moreover, the characterization of democracy as an inherently statist ideology is hardly an anomaly, and is actually pretty popular amongst anarchists nowadays (The Coordination of Anarchist Group’s Against Democracy is another key example). However, it nonetheless stands (as was previously mentioned) that this kind of anarchist critique is really only relevant to indirect, rather than direct, forms of democracy. Insofar as direct democracy is genuinely realized, which is to say that all members of the political community play a role in its administration, then the existence of a government is hardly implied. To say that everyone takes part equally in governing surely entails that the government, understood as a body distinct from those being governed, is thereby effectively dissolved. Here it would not be a matter of one subset of society ruling over another, but instead of ordinary people doing away with mediated political power altogether and simply ruling themselves. Unless we want a world with no rules whatsoever, there is no reason for anarchists to have a problem with rule by the people.
Having said that, however, it should be noted that not all forms of direct democracy deflect the worry of reproducing governmental structures. Particularly outside of more radical circles, direct democracy is normally realized in the form of majoritarian decision-making. Here the majority gets their way, and those in the minority simply have to put up with what is decided. Now, it is true that majoritarian systems reproduce, albeit in a much more fluid sense, an order in which one subset of society rules over the rest. However, this would be a silly reason to do away with talk of democracy altogether. All it suggests is that we should prioritize systems based around achieving consensus. Insofar as everyone consents to the decisions they are subject to, there is no hierarchy of one section of society over another. Moreover, and not by coincidence either, consensus decisionmaking is also the option that remains truest to the democratic ideal, because majoritarian approaches really only offer rule by most of the people, and not by the people in general.
Bringing this discussion of the compatibility between anarchy and democracy to a close, it is worth taking a quick look at the example offered by the Occupy movement. Something striking here is that the typical Occupy camp was, quite arguably, a genuine microcosm of an anarchist society. They were political communities that were organized horizontally, without leaders, and on the basis of consensus, all of which was combined with a hostility towards the state, capitalism, and oppressive social structures more generally. And yet, the movement was not rooted in anarchist ideas, but instead in a fuzzier commitment to ‘real democracy’. This overall point surely confirms how close, both in theory and in practice, anarchy and democracy really are to one another (something that advocates of both ideals frequently overlook). All that needs to be done is to interpret the concept of democracy in a more thoroughgoing way, one that refuses to presuppose that the current global order is in fact democratic. Nonetheless, however, the Occupy movement has since melted away, or worse been siphoned off into reheating an incoherent enthusiasm for parliamentary politics. But perhaps the real problem here lay not with the convictions of those involved, but instead with our own failure, as anarchists, to nourish those convictions with the radical depth they deserved. Henceforth we must make it clear: anyone serious about getting to the bottom of the democratic ideal can only unearth the fountainhead of anarchy.
This section is used offer an argument for the usefulness of the principle of democracy for anarchist organizing. In making this case, it is worth noting, for one, that the principle of anarchy – the commitment to bringing about a world without rulers – really only entails a purely negative political outlook. This is because the fact of abolishing mastery is only necessarily connected to the destruction of the current order, and thereby fails to imply what kinds of social structures (if any) should be constructed as replacements for the currently dominant ones. In other words, whilst worrying only about anarchy explains what we disagree with, it fails to set out the alternative we are supposed to be proposing. In this sense, an exclusive commitment to the principle of anarchy is consistent with an outcome that most would find patently unacceptable – perhaps a world in which there are, strictly speaking, no rulers, but that is nonetheless just as atomized, dysfunctional, and individualistic as the decomposed pseudosociety we see today. This confirms the need to be on the lookout for additional political principles – ones that are more positive in nature – in order to facilitate the generation of a more comprehensive anarchist political programme.
Here is where the principle of democracy, insofar as it is considered on an anti-statist basis, becomes somewhat indispensible (at least for more prosocial approaches to anarchist organizing). The relevant theme here is the attainment of autonomy (and, when it comes down to it, this goal is possibly the most viable candidate for the highest good of the anarchist movement). On the one hand, autonomy is often thought about as an individualistic endeavour – as the process by which someone comes to behave in a way that is consistent with their authentic beliefs or desires, and is thereby established, as Kant would have said, as the giver of their own law. On the other hand, however, it is no less important to recognize the undeniably collective dimension to the attainment of autonomy. Even Stirner, for example – as hardened an anarchist individualist as you could find – argued that some kind of ‘union of egoists’ was necessary for promoting individual flourishing. This brings to mind a more collectivistic (and also distinctly more Spinozan) approach to understanding autonomy – one in which a number of individuals come together to form a single body, decide what form the self-organization of the community will take, and thereby realize their autonomy in common with one another.
This concept of collective rulership – one that could be applied to offer a positive characterization of our proposed social structures – is precisely the one offered by the more thoroughgoing interpretation of democracy outlined in the previous section. And whilst some anarchists would perhaps prefer not to use the term democracy to refer to this concept, doing so would only require coming up with an entirely new term that was nonetheless etymologically identical to the one we already have. In sum, therefore, anarchist democracy (really its only kind) can be thought about simply as autonomy collectivised – as the attempt not merely to balance the interests of the individual with those of the collective, but to strengthen both in virtue of their union. In this sense, one might say that the principles of anarchy and democracy are fundamentally symbiotic: anarchy gives rule by the people the necessary radical depth, whilst democracy provides our antistatism with a blueprint for planning how the future will be organized.
To make this discussion a little less abstract, I conclude here by positing (as was previously implied) that this concept of collective rulership can only be practically manifested in the form of consensus decisionmaking. Because really this is the only way of maintaining a robustly horizontal organizational structure – one in which the opinions of all individual members are supported by the decisions reached by the collective. As such, consensus decision-making is the only model that is capable of combining both the individualistic and the collectivistic forms of autonomy, the outcome of which is a synthesis in which the individual is incorporated into a larger communal body without sacrificing their personal dispositions. Moreover, this model is already well versed in many radical circles – from animal rights and environmentalist campaigns, through more mainstream movements such as Occupy and Nuit debout, right down to most of the squats here in Athens. Of course, I do not deny that there can be issues with consensus, but I would nonetheless maintain that these are not unavoidable problems as much as they are simply of consensus done badly. At the very least, it seems clear that consensus should be sought as a first port of call, and that it can only legitimately be abandoned – if at all – insofar as collective functionality will otherwise be significantly compromised (maybe this would be something to think about if anarchist communes were to begin federating with one another in the future).
Moving on, this section is used to strengthen the plausability of the anarchist commitment to democracy by clarifying the limits of democratic processes (and, in doing so, to alleviate the fear that the revolution will just be a big, long meeting…). My basic view here is that, in those cases where formal political association is needed, we should be ordering such interactions democratically. Importantly, however, this is not to say that all aspects of political life require formal association. In fact, it seems clear that the vast majority of them do not, and here democracy is irrelevant simply because no form of rule whatsoever is applicable. If people are behaving in ways that have no significant bearing on the interests of others, then there is no need to consult a collective decision-making body regarding the relevant issues in the first place. Because a commitment to democracy is not some panacea that will remedy all the shortcomings of the anarchist movement, it is merely a useful way of thinking about how to unite a diverse range of individuals into a single body (and only when doing so is necessary). The door nonetheless remains open to the great many instances of human life that ultimately have no bearing on the need for formal association.
This point can be developed in the form of a criticism of how an enthusiasm for the applicability of democracy, whilst essential for movements such as Occupy and Nuit debout to maintain, was also sometimes taken a bit too far. On the one hand, it was stunning to see how they demonstrated the redundancy of centralized institutions when organizing around issues that significantly effected the interests of all participants – perhaps where and when to set up a protest camp, or what rules those within it would be subject to. On the other hand, however, it was a big problem for some of the more docile participants in the movement to attempt to disown more militant actions – such as confrontations with the police, or attacks on the flows of capital – by claiming that they lacked the support of the general assembly (that not everyone showed up to anyway!).
The problem here is that a phony commitment to democracy was used to tell other members of the political community what to do. And I say that this commitment was phony because the very point of democracy is surely to promote autonomy, whilst applying collective decision-making processes to irrelevant aspects of the struggle ultimately does the exact opposite. Respecting autonomy often means knowing when it is time to agree to disagree, and this requires encouraging, or at least being willing to tolerate, a diversity of tactics. Otherwise, in refusing to allow others to act in ways that seem disagreeable, such movements began to look a little like the monolithic, totalizing force that dominates global politics today – precisely what they were supposed to be challenging. At the end of day, just as those who were more militant were not forcing others to take part in their actions, those who did not want to take part also had no right to try to stop them. And, whilst it is true that militancy often invites state repression, it is no less true that boredom and passivity are always going to be at least as big a threat to any vibrant social movement.
Finally, in terms of offering a final refinement to my overall view, it is important to explain something that has so far only been hinted at. Whilst I think a commitment to democracy is integral for the construction of a cohesive political community, it is undeniable that many anarchists ultimately have no interest in being part of a united body at all. This disposition is favoured by plenty of the anarchists in Exarcheia, and also elsewhere (particularly by those of a more nihilist flavour). Rather than wanting to restructure politics in an authentically nonhierarchical way, these anarchists are seemingly more committed to smashing politics altogether. If they believed there were cases in which formal political association was useful, perhaps they would accept some kind of commitment to democracy, but their basic claim is probably that there are no cases in which such relations are worthwhile. Now, this is not the place to wade into the already long simmering debate between nihilist and social anarchism (something that is becoming increasingly tense in Athens nowadays). Nor do I want to discredit those anarchists who have much more time for burning, and none at all for meetings, because this attitude is surely an important part of any effective mosaic of resistance. All I will say here is that my case for the importance of democracy is based on the presumption that we should be aiming to build a cohesive political community, whilst those anarchists who have no interest in working together in the first place ultimately escape my conclusion.
I turn now to responding to the democratic scepticism that arises from the article quoted in my introductory paragraph (Fragments for the New Politics). Here the author argues that it is not merely statists who tell the rest of society what to do, because we do it all the time as well. Given the fact that anarchism is currently somewhat unpopular, it follows that every assertion of our beliefs is based on the assumption that the vast majority of people are wrong, and that we are the ones who know what is best for them. Now this hardly sounds very democratic… On the contrary, it sides much more with Emma Goldman’s ominous claim that “all true anarchists were aristocrats”. As such, the author argues that, rather than going as far as totally abandoning a commitment to democracy, we should be mixing it with an openness to more centralized political forms such as aristocracy. This was allegedly the model seen in Ancient Athenian democracy, in which popular participation was balanced with the guidance of aristocrats such as Pericles. And this approach is supposedly also quite sensible, because ordinary people clearly make bad decisions all the time.
My response is that, whilst anarchism can be called aristocratic in a rhetorical sense, our obvious pretensions to being a righteous minority do not actually override a commitment to democracy. Yes, we tell people what we think is best, but, unlike with the aristocracy, the safeguarding of autonomy constrains the words of anarchists not to exceed the force of mere recommendation. Anarchism is not about taking control of the state in order to attempt to liberate the people, it is about convincing the masses to knowingly take the steps necessary to liberate themselves – this much is clear. In fact, an outright hostility to such aristocratic attitudes is surely presupposed by the important recognition amongst anarchists that parliamentarian approaches to politics are nowadays completely outdated. The key point here is that, beyond their undone top-buttons and hollow affirmations of people power, statists like Syriza are no less committed than the right-wing to supporting a system in which a cadre of political professionals get to tell the rest of society what to do. For an anarchist to make such arguments, whilst also supporting an openness to aristocracy, would succumb to a weird kind of crypto-Marxism – a political concoction made all the more dangerous by the fact that it is disguised as a strategy for abolishing mastery.
Relatedly, there is good reason to believe that the idea of mixing democracy with aristocracy is also somewhat incoherent. The existence of a democracy means, in essence, that the general public are the supreme authority within a political community, whilst the existence of an aristocracy means that supreme authority is held instead by the upper class. However, it is impossible to imagine a political community with more than one supreme authority, precisely because the supremacy of an authority entails that it is the highest within that community. Even if, for example, aristocrats like Pericles listen carefully to the concerns of the people, the community will, insofar as the final say goes to the upper class, nonetheless be an aristocracy. Just as well, even if members of a democracy follow the proposals of certain people more than those of others, the political community will – insofar as such recommendations are followed in a genuinely voluntary way – nonetheless remain a democracy. As such, there is no way we can have aristocracy and democracy – either we want the people to be at the top (and that means the very top!) or we do not. In fact, it was surely the failure to recognize the contradiction inherent in this two-faced kind of strategy – other versions of which have been democratic centralism, state socialism more generally, and even Bakunin’s proposal for secret societies to control popular uprisings – that led to the implosion of the majority of leftist revolutions that defined (and doomed) the last century of human history.
What it ultimately comes down to is the question of whether or not we are willing to put our trust in the capabilities of the masses. However, I think it is clear what, as anarchists, our answer needs to be. For one, whilst it is true that people often make bad decisions, this point is not relevant to democracy as much as it is to human psychology in general. Humans can be pretty stupid, and there is no political system that escapes this basic fact. As such, whilst democracies can indeed produce reprehensible outcomes (perhaps the execution of Socrates is an example), there is also no guarantee that aristocracies will behave any better. If anything, democracy is surely the least imperfect remedy to our all too human shortcomings. My assumption here is that political communities will tend to reach the best outcomes if they act in accordance with the views of all members, rather than only those of a privileged elite. And, whilst this assumption may be controversial for some, it should be a given for all serious anarchists. Because if we are unwilling to encourage people to organize themselves, and insist instead on introducing some kind of coercive vanguard, then me must surely give up on the idea of anarchy altogether. Anarchy was never merely about challenging the state, it was about challenging political mastery in all of its forms – even if the masters are waving red and black flags! If the heroic days of the proletariat, or le peuple, (or whoever!) really are over, then the heroic days of anarchism, too, have ended before they could even begin.
To give a brief summary of what has already been said: I began by making my case for the friendliness between anarchy and democracy, and then set out the role that democracy could be playing in the anarchist movement – something that culminated in an appraisal for consensus decision-making. This discussion was then tempered with a few points regarding the limited applicability of formal political association in general, after which I responded to the democratic scepticism seen in Fragments for the New Politics by arguing that anarchism is dependent on an undilutable commitment to democracy. Finally, I turn now to offering my last (and surely key) reason for thinking that aligning ourselves with anti-statist democracy can greatly increase the potency of the anarchist agenda.
One thing we rarely think about seriously enough is how best to make our movement mainstream – how to enable anarchism to overflow from the squats, and the dustier corners of libraries, and into the forefront of collective consciousness. Relatedly, it can be easy to forget, having spent too much time within activist milieus, just how radical our political programme really is. Even in its most minimal sense, anarchism amounts to a rejection of the state, capitalism, nations, borders, banks, prisons, and the police, and it is thereby unavoidable for most people who are new to to our ideas to be met with a certain degree of inaccessibility. To be clear, I am not saying that we should be watering down our message at all, because it is our unapologetic distinctiveness from the outdated rituals of modern society that grants anarchism its profound relevance. All I am suggesting is that there is a need to be on the lookout for methods of making our alternative seem a little less scary.
Accordingly, I wonder if a rejection of democracy – amongst the most highly regarded of all political ideals, something almost everyone takes for granted – would not ultimately cement our lingering irrelevance even more. For many, claiming that anarchism is against rule by the people might be just a bit too much to take. If, on the other hand, it was proven that a thoroughgoing commitment to democracy actually entails an unequivocal rejection of statist politics, one could hardly overestimate the gains. I think some of the remarks made in the first section, namely those claiming that anarchy and democracy are actually conceptually very close, suggest that such an approach is waiting to be experimented with. Instead of rejecting democracy, why not use it as a foothold in collective consciousness, a kind of handrail capable of guiding people, just a little more gently, to the radicalism of our agenda? Speaking anecdotally, I realize, for one, that this was exactly my own passage to anarchism: having internalized from birth the reactionary dispositions of our culture, it was only upon recognizing that we actually do not live in a democracy, whilst nonetheless remaining firm on my belief in the democratic ideal, that I first found myself critiquing the legitimacy of the state. Rule by the people means the abolition of social hierarchy, and the time has come to emphasize this neglected truism.
Really our only obstacle is the fact that the establishment has already succeeded in debasing the common understanding of democracy. It is undeniable that this mechanism is nowadays the Trojan Horse of modern politics – an ancient ideal so deviously hollowed out that it has gone as far as granting secular authoritarianism an air of legitimacy. However, the democratic ideal, as universally assumed as it is underestimated, can still be turned against the powers that be. If anything, the fact that it has been so deeply internalized by mainstream culture offers us, in combination with its anarchist implications, a serious advantage. Democracy is sitting in the stomach of the state, and it is ready to be converted into a virus. Many people are already beginning to ask how democratic the current situation really is, and all we need to do is fill these doubts with a degree of political maturity. Granted a fair amount of fine polishing, there is no reason to think that the democratic assumption could not ultimately offer one of the most useful tools in our revolutionary toolbox. So perhaps it is not time for the anarchists, but instead for the parliamentarians, to do away with their talk of democracy. Because, if anarchism cannot offer rule by the people, then really nothing can.
p38-53, March 2017
The Anarcho Tourist Review Issue 2