Connor Owens has thoughtfully articulated a counterargument to the critiques of democracy expressed in the CrimethInc. series (www.crimethinc.com/blog/2016/03/16/seri....
You can read the full essay at the link above—it’s short. What do other readers here think? I’ll post my thoughts in a bit.
OK, here are a few thoughts…
“So long as the methods we use for making decisions are voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede), why not call them democratic, given the popular resonance the word so clearly has?”
That’s a lot of caveats, given all the different ways the word “democracy” is used. At the minimum, Connor has made a compelling case that the word democracy is insufficient to describe what we want as anarchists. This much, at least, I find this convincing. Here’s his conclusion:
“The answer is a synthesis of the two traditions: autonomous democracy (or democratic autonomy as the Rojava Kurds call it). We should use both terms in a positive and anarchist-specific sense, letting people know that we don’t allow for majoritarian/involuntary democracy or antisocial/elitist autonomy.”
Seeing that anarchist proponents of the word democracy often argue that we should use it because it is less off-putting than the word anarchism, these seems to put us right back where we started.
If we emphasize that we are democratic, we risk making “democracy” the dominant gene in the argument, and “autonomy” the recessive one. Participants in Occupy and similar movements will recognize what I’m talking about here. If you convene a movement on the basis of rhetoric that could be interpreted within both anti-authoritarian and centralized/majority-rule frameworks, you will end up in conflicts with fellow participants who understand themselves to be cleaving rigorously to the spirit of the movement even as they argue in favor of centralized and authoritarian methods. For example, think of the people who treated the General Assembly as a government during Occupy, a body that could legitimize or delegitimize actions associated with the movement—some of whom went on to try to form a political party, a recuperative project that met with more success in Spain and Greece.
If we emphasize the anarchist aspect of the equation, which I agree with Connor that we would have to do in his approach, we risk seeming just as off-putting and obscure as we do when we simply identify as anarchists. What’s more, we will constantly be having to clarify the differences between ourselves and other “democrats,” differences that may strike most people as negligible when in fact we consider them to be the heart of our politics. If only we could begin by boldly clarifying these differences, we might save everyone a lot of trouble and confusion.
The word anarchism has gained some visibility over the past two decades. You can tell that it is gaining traction on the public imagination, because right-wing groups are making a play for it. Rather than abandoning it to them in favor of language that is universally popular but equally vague and ultimately unsatisfying, I think we should be clear in asserting that our ideas and practices constitute a clear break with what 99.99% of the world understands as democratic practice.
This doesn’t necessarily mean making a lot of noise about how we oppose democracy—that might also be a needless distraction. But it means not fogging up our arguments with buzzwords and democratic rhetoric that could reinforce precisely the currents in the movements we participate in that do not value autonomy and freedom of association.
I’d like to engage with Connor’s historical argument:
“At the beginning, the word was synonymous with what is now called “direct democracy”, and referred more broadly to the idea of a self-organised multitude (“demos”) having ultimate power, rather than royals, elites, or priestly castes ruling in the name of divine authority. Originally, the very term “representative democracy” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms, as popular will by definition can only be direct. It cannot be represented by anyone speaking on people’s behalf.”
If we start with Athenian democracy, we can make the argument that the first democracy was indeed direct democracy. For now, let’s set aside the somewhat older Spartan democracy, in which the crowd chose leaders by a shouting contest: "acclamation." For the most part, the Athenians didn’t elect representatives, but voted directly on issues and distributed roles in the courts, etc. by sortition. So far, so good, I guess.
But majority rule was absolutely essential to Athenian democracy, as it was to every self-professed democracy that came after it right up to the 20th century. That explains why, as Connor writes, “many anarchists … use the word democracy to refer to the idea of majority rule and the denial of dissenters to go their own way.” For the first 2300+ years, democracy meant majority rule, pure and simple.
And not just majority rule—majority rule by a minority of citizens identified by class, ethnicity, and gender. This is the heritage of democracy, this is its longtime meaning.
David Graeber tries to solve this problem by situating Athenian democracy within a broad and largely non-“Western” tradition of participatory decision-making, all of which he classes as democratic, regardless of how the participants described it. (I understand this as a well-intended attempt to extend the legitimacy associated with the word “democracy” beyond the “Western” paradigm, mirrored by groups in Rojava and Chiapas who desperately need that legitimacy to avert destruction.) But for anarchists and other proponents of stateless freedom, the difference between decision-making models that prioritize autonomy and consensus-building and models based in majority rule is essential, not incidental. The same goes for the difference between citizenship-based exclusive models and open, inclusive models.
Graeber is obscuring the most important distinctions here, in hopes of making the powerful historical tradition of democracy serve the anarchist project. Yet such historical forces are stronger than us, with an internal momentum that often sweeps up and carries along those who attempt to yoke them to another purpose.
In any case, historically speaking, the difference between autonomy and democracy has never been “a false dichotomy,” as Connor alleges. As Connor is invested in decision-making methods that are “voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede),” it doesn’t make sense to seek precedents for these values in Classical Athens. Of those values, we can only find a limited “horizontalism” in Athens, and that limited narrowly to the political sphere and to a select body of property-owning male citizens.
It’s beyond my scope here to make arguments about the recent effort to reinvent democracy as the expression of values that were historically foreign to it. In short, I would argue that we should try to connect with people who are drawn to democracy on the basis of the things they want from it (self-determination, freedom, equality) rather than on the basis of democracy itself (which usually means majority rule, rule of law, etc. at the minimum).
Here, I’ll add one more point: Connor is at pains to argue against the anti-social or elitist tendencies that are associated with some autonomist politics, and I’m tempted to agree with him there. But I’m not sure that democracy necessarily discourages anti-social or elitist behavior. Competing to form majorities has often produced needless social conflict and hostility, and from what I’ve read, Ancient Athens also had a problem with elitism, as wealthy citizens who were good speakers would accrue undo power in the assemblies.
Granted, these critiques don’t relate to Connor’s (particular) understanding of democracy; my point is simply that there’s nothing essential to really-existing democracy that is pro(?)-social or anti-elitist.
I think this conversation around social vs. anti-social (setting aside the false dichotomy here) within this context can shed some light on how unsound arguments in favor of democracy can actually be.
For me, the importance of the anti-social element comes from how it can act as a destabilizing force against the world we currently inhabit. If democracy, as Connor discusses it, is the pro-social productive force, it not only begins to prefigure a future I lack the ability to definitively imagine, but also becomes rather predictive. There’s the underlying assumption that if we lived in this (worldwide?) “autonomous democracy,” one who disagrees with the decisions being made could simply leave (this is a rather confused equating of voluntary association with what is more or less voluntary exile). I don’t think it’s that easy, especially when we begin to consider ecological webs where one group may infringe upon another due to either direct or indirect resource use.
In some ways, again what it comes down to is recognizing that “democracy” is a way to create and enforce decisions and policies rather than allowing for a multiplicity of divergent opinions.
Very interested in hearing more of the author’s thoughts here.
Here’s my reply to the above copy-and-pasted from the comments of the original article. To respond quickly to the above, no, when I say voluntary, I mean just that. We should try to work out ways in which dissenters could, realistically, secede from an association and form their own; not have voluntary association be a mere pretence to legitimise certain institutions, in the sense it now is under capitalist-statism.
Given what I mean by the term, I would never use autonomous democracy as a noun, only as an adjective or a verb. So I wouldn’t speak of a worldwide “autonomous democracy”, only autonomous democracy being used as a process for a multitude of interlining associations.
Anyway, the reply:
“I’m afraid the responder makes numerous errors about my intentions. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in the original piece, I was thinking about a few amendments anyway, but yes, this reply contains flaws.
The biggest one being the belief that anarchists ought to use the term democracy instead of anarchism. On the contrary, what I’d suggest is more along the lines of introducing social anarchism first, then explaining its decision-making processes as one species of direct democracy. Not that anarchism is synonymous with democracy. Nor even that anarchism is a direct descendent of the democratic tradition itself.
Rather, that anarchists should:
1. Acknowledge ourselves as following in the tradition of the radical thread within the democratic tradition.
2. Consider the type of democracy we practice – autonomous democracy – as something specific to us, anarchists.
Personally, I don’t think there’s any difference in practical terms between what I call autonomous democracy and what crimethinc simply call “autonomy”. By democracy, I don’t mean any kind of grassroots state, or a system of compulsory majority rule. This disagreement is merely over whether it makes sense to describe anarchism as “democratic” or not.
Used in the broadest sense of the term (popular self-organisation) it’s quite clear it is. Everything from town hall meetings to village gatherings in tribal societies could likewise be classed as democratic, even if they wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. I’ve heard many arguments against this expanded usage, and this pasting of the word onto such forms of popular self-organisation; with the person usually claiming it should be reserved exclusively for derivatives of Athenian democracy and any tradition which self-identifies with the term. Though these are unconvincing. You could say the same about any common term when applied to peoples who didn’t use the term themselves. For example, the term “ruling class” when applied to any upper strata of a society or “socialistic” to describe certain property norms.
Having read all the crimethinc arguments against the expanded sense of the word democracy, I find most of them extremely weak and inconsistent. Many of the essays don’t even specify from one paragraph to the next whether they’re talking about direct democracy or representative democracy, speaking as if they’re two shades of the same thing; despite any in-depth study of their history revealing the latter evolved out of aristocracy – a separate political tradition – and merely had the term “democratic” slapped onto it after the fact.
“It’s too vague” and “too many political factions use it” could likewise be said about the word freedom, which they use throughout; or equality, or justice, or cooperation, etc.
Crucially, it doesn’t make a similar case for dropping the word socialism from the anarchist lexicon, yet that’s a word far more problematic and with far less appeal than democracy has.
Just as anarchism’s economics can be described as a species of the genus socialism (libertarian socialism), it’s politics can be described as a species of the genus democracy (autonomous democracy).
Long story short: what I’m saying is that anarchists should (for reasons of popular appeal) identify what crimethinc call “autonomy” – when used as a form of collective decision-making – as a form of small-d democracy, using democracy as a verb/adjective, not a noun.
We don’t have to say what we want is “democracy” in an unqualified sense anymore than we have to say what we want is “socialism” in an unqualified sense. But both have their uses once you get more specific.
I should also clarify that, personally speaking, while some form of consensus is the ideal to strive for, and absolute consensus can work well in very small groups, I’m fine with majority rule as long as those doing the decision-making are doing so on a voluntary basis.
Too often consensus can in fact become a form of covert minority rule, as those who refuse to compromise find ways to block decisions a big majority agree to. It also eliminates the crucial dimension of dissensus from the process, often leading to the most watered-down lowest-common-denominator course of action being taken.
Now I have heard very good arguments for absolute consensus on grounds of avoiding even the slightest chance of majoritarianism, and I respect those. But, also, I’ve seen rather immature arguments against majority voting (eg: Anarchist News .org) by people who simply can’t stand the thought of not always having their own way, to whom compromise is anathema.
I remember one commenter having a verbal tantrum over the very SUGGESTION of having to compromise with other chapters of an anarchist federation – a hypothetical federation which didn’t even exist!
Thanks for showing up here to have this conversation, Connor! I’m going to engage in critique, but I hope that it’s clear I’m doing so because I consider you a worthy partner in debate.
The flagship CrimethInc. article explicitly suggests that there is something essential that representative democracy and most forms of real existing direct democracy have in common. In short, the argument is that they both tend to vest legitimacy in a single decision-making process or body, and that both of them nearly always involve ways of determining who is qualified to participate in decision-making and ways of enforcing the decisions. That was true in Ancient Athens, just as it is true in the US today. it’s what makes democracy a form of government, which is how 99.9% of people understand it.
Presumably, that is why the CrimethInc. article doesn’t always specify which kind of democracy is being discussed. Representative and direct democracy may have somewhat different specific lineages, but they both derive from the same Western lineage of government. Anarchy is not a form of government, and neither are some of the non-Western models for voluntary, consensus-based relations that you want to call democratic (despite their having much different lineages than either form of democracy).
This is the part of your argument that I really want to engage with:
“Everything from town hall meetings to village gatherings in tribal societies could likewise be classed as democratic, even if they wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. I’ve heard many arguments against this expanded usage, and this pasting of the word onto such forms of popular self-organisation; with the person usually claiming it should be reserved exclusively for derivatives of Athenian democracy and any tradition which self-identifies with the term. Though these are unconvincing. You could say the same about any common term when applied to peoples who didn’t use the term themselves. For example, the term “ruling class” when applied to any upper strata of a society or “socialistic” to describe certain property norms.”
I think you are missing a big difference here. In your example, the term “ruling class” describes the same basic phenomenon in the different cases it could be applied to. On the other hand, there is a fundamental difference between decision-making models that are truly voluntary and consensus-based, on one hand, and models based in majority rule (however horizontal) on the other. It doesn’t make sense to use the same word for both models, because they are fundamentally different. Classing them both as “popular self-organization” might be technically correct, but historically speaking, that category is significantly broader than the category of what has been understood as democracy.
I don’t want to get caught up in mere semantics. But considering that the vast majority of the population understands the word democracy to mean a form of government, it makes sense to me that the terms anarchy and democracy should describe the distinction between those two models. If you want to use other terms, that’s fine, but I would caution you against eliding very different phenomena under the same heading.
You yourself assert the centrality of the distinction between truly autonomous & voluntary models, on one side, and models that are not voluntary and do not prioritize autonomy, on the other. So why would you say that the same term should describe both cases? This is precisely the difference that we anarchists need to be able to designate.
So using the word “democracy” to describe what goes on in non-Western societies that don’t use majority rule is not at all the same thing as using the expression “ruling class” in reference to two different societies that both have an upper strata. No—in taking a word that means one thing in the Western tradition and imposing it on situations that (from an anarchist perspective) are fundamentally different, you are obscuring the issues we need to be able to speak precisely about.
Incidentally, if you have ever seen any CrimethInc. project use the word “socialism” approvingly, that would surprise me. In fact, de facto, I think CrimethInc. projects have indeed tried to “drop the word socialism from the anarchist lexicon,” likely for the same reasons.
You have yet to present a historical example of a self-described democratic project that espoused the values you want us to associate with what you call “autonomous democracy.” Perhaps if you could do that, it would be easier to evaluate what you are proposing.
Finally, I am curious about your suggestion that anarchists are “following in the tradition of the radical thread within the democratic tradition.” The expression “democratic tradition” has been universally understood as a form of government until very recently, as Uri Gordon and others point out. While anarchism arose in dialogue with that tradition, it also represents a break with it, in that we are not proposing any form of rule (neither majority rule nor rule of law). It appears, from conversations like this (and many others), that even avowed anarchists are not yet prepared for the implications of that break.
I don’t mean to except myself or others on this side of the discussion from that description—I think we still have a lot of thinking to do, and we have to build a vocabulary with which to talk about truly voluntary and decentralized relations almost from scratch. Thanks for being part of that process.
Connor—I wrote the previous comment without having seen your third comment (the one posted at 10:50AM).
For the sake of clarity, then, let me assert that in my eyes there is a fundamental difference between voluntary agreements and majority rule. We might all voluntarily agree to make a decision by a majority vote, but that is not the same as the majority being able to impose a decision on the minority. It is often the case that, among people of equal strength, a majority can force things on a minority, but the thing that sets anarchism aside as a practice of freedom is that we do our best to avoid and discourage such behavior... not least because, once the pieces are in place, the same structures can enable a minority to then force things on the majority. Of course, there is a continuum between the two poles of “voluntary majority decisions” and “imposed majority rule” determined by questions like how much one loses by ceasing to organize with others, how feasible it is to decentralize socially produced resources, etc. But insofar as we are anarchists, we try to stay as far towards the voluntary side of that continuum as possible.
I share your critique of consensus as a way for the minority to dominate the majority. In both cases—imposed majority rule and consensus—the problem arises when the decision-making process is understood as a way to arrive at a winner-takes-all conclusion. In other words, the problem is when they are approached as means of government, not forms of voluntary association.
Thanks for the follow-up response.
I don’t have much of my core argument to add, it’s mostly in my first round of comments and in the original article I wrote, though to respond to a few specific things you said:
“Incidentally, if you have ever seen any CrimethInc. project use the word “socialism” approvingly, that would surprise me”
In the ex-worker podcast on “anarcho”-capitalism, they explicitly identify anarchism as a form of libertarian socialism.
“In fact, de facto, I think CrimethInc. projects have indeed tried to “drop the word socialism from the anarchist lexicon,” likely for the same reasons”
A highly problematic and immature move if this is indeed the case. While mentions of democracy in a positive sense are scant among the classical anarchists (just a couple from Proudhon and a single mention from Kropotkin in a letter), anarchism was itself born out of socialism. To attempt to treat it as somehow separate really is a fool’s errand.
“The flagship CrimethInc. article explicitly suggests that there is something essential that representative democracy and most forms of real existing direct democracy have in common”
I was going to immediately respond that despite a possible argument that these two things have a similarity, they emerged independently of each other, and to argue that they are somehow the same is a case of post-facto conflation of two very different things.
But then you wrote something even more troubling …
“Representative and direct democracy may have somewhat different specific lineages, but they both derive from the same Western lineage of government”
The “west” is itself an imperialist and colonialist myth, used to manufacture a common sense of lineage in culture, politics, race, etc. It is an attempt to create commonalities among dwellers of the European subcontinent where there really aren’t any.
Europe and its many colonial satellites have used many different forms of government: democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, aristo-republic, municipal-confederation, tribal chieftainships, and so on.
To conflate elective aristocracy (representative “democracy”) with direct democracy not only because of the name slapped onto the former, but because they’re both classed as “western” is to commit pretty much the exact same fallacy as those who profess the same myth of the “west” in a positive sense, creating a common lineage between two different things where none exists.
“the vast majority of the population understands the word democracy to mean a form of government, it makes sense to me that the terms anarchy and democracy should describe the distinction between those two models”
Here’s where I think we come to a disagreement which goes beyond mere semantics and strategic debates over the effectiveness of using certain words over others. Because I would indeed consider anarchism to be a form of government. Or, to be more specific, a form of govern*nance*, something we do in order to collectively administer society.
Granted, the term in English tends to have associations with external rule, rather than processes which endogenous self-organisation, but in my book, self-governance is still governance. The difference is one of degree, not kind.
I understand that anarchists of a more individualist bent simply hate the notion that anarchism could itself be a “government”, or a “system”, but I think this makes the mistake of buying into the illusion that “anarchy” is somehow a mystical break with all other forms of human association, so perfect in its non-hierarchy that it goes beyond a better system and constitutes a “non-system”.
“You have yet to present a historical example of a self-described democratic project that espoused the values you want us to associate with what you call “autonomous democracy.” "
I think you misunderstand me.
I’ve said this several times now but I’m going to say it again here. (I must confess that I have a very short temper and this is making me extremely agitated).
What I’m saying is that what I call autonomous democracy is not something which has fully existed anywhere before. It should be regarded as something genuinely new and particular to the social anarchist tradition.
I make no claims for direct democracy itself as a tradition, nor for non-autonomous forms of democracy in the expanded sense. But it does have positive associations in the collective memory as a term used to contrast forms of elite rule with forms of popular self-rule.
That’s why I say “use it”, but not in an uncritical sense. If we get involved in movements (and there’ve been a lot lately) for “real democracy”, with people who share many of our aims, don’t say “No! Reject democracy!” say, “okay, it’s good that we’re all doing democracy, but we need to make this democracy autonomous”.
And if we did do it the crimethinc way, of contrasting participatory democracy with “autonomy”, then explained what we mean by autonomy, nine times out of ten I’m fairly sure the response would be “how is that not just a form of democracy?”
What I mean by seeing ourselves as part of its radical thread is that we connect ourselves to that broad grand narrative of popular struggle associated with democracy (as the negation of aristocracy and monarchy), but also dialectically synthesise it with the tradition associated with personal autonomy.
The above constitutes the essence of my main gripe with what crimethinc is doing here: self-marginalisation.
Rather than trying to look at anarchism dialectically as the convergence point of the radical threads in many traditions (socialism, classical liberalism, direct democracy, radical humanism), it does the opposite.
It portrays itself more as a break/disconnection with all those traditions, trying to disassociate with the bad in order to be special snowflakes.
From my perspective, it’s antithesis without synthesis. Negation without the “negation of negation”.
Let me weigh in a bit here.
I’m willing to grant that the idea of “Western” is a reverse-engineered construct to promote a nationalist and colonialist narrative. But it might be argued that (as with race and gender) this construct has real existence insofar as it has real consequences for people. When nationalists trace a “Western lineage” from Greece through the American and French revolutions, they are indeed constructing a very selective narrative. On the other hand, that narrative does describe some common threads that are connected, the same way everything is connected. I imagine Eleutheria might argue that while pro-democracy types might argue that what connects them is good, the anti-democracy position would argue that what connects them is undesirable.
Now, a word about semantics. We can define words however we like, but to function, they must be held in common. Can we redefine democracy and government as something they have almost never meant in practice? Or, using and legitimizing those words, would we accidentally open the door for disastrous misunderstandings? That seems to be the issue here.
From the standard dictionary program on the computer I am using:
It seems to me that what we need most is language to be able to articulate what differentiates the “radical threads” you are talking about from the leftovers of capitalist and statist and otherwise hierarchical institutions and belief systems that are intermingled with them. The distinctions between anarchy/government and democacy/autonomy serve that purpose, while semantic debates about what constitutes “real” democracy or “good” government obscure matters further. Maybe there is other language that would be even more useful for expressing that critique to the general public without being alienating or obscure. Like I said above, none of this means we have to address the public to convince everyone that “democracy is bad” or something like that. But it could mean developing different language for what we want, so it is easy to instantly convey that no party, no form of majority rule, no imposed order, no centralized administration can deliver what we are asking for—in hopes of ultimately legitimizing truly anarchist values and desires.
Also, Connor, the way you are coming at this seems a little abstract and mechanistic. I’m reminded of “anarcho”-capitalists who have thought out how society should function the way Descartes would, in a vacuum, without any historical reference points. We still haven’t heard what “real-existing” democracies you would cite to suggest that there is an “autonomous” thread in the democratic tradition that we could draw out or reinforce. You are arguing that what you want is “genuinely new and particular to the social anarchist tradition,” which seems pretty special-snowflakey to me.
If it’s true that most of the “real-existing” democracies (and most of what people understand democracy to mean) have been oppressive by anarchist standards, then it seems perfectly sensible to me that we would refuse to identify with or legitimize that lineage. Saying "it’s good that we’re all doing democracy, but we need to make this democracy autonomous” risks preserving the legitimacy of that mostly-oppressive legacy (majority rule, representation, the imposition of order as determined by institutions that are separate from daily life).
Have you thought about how to solve that problem? It seems to me that the perceived legitimacy of hierarchy and oppression are a bigger problem for humanity right now than the perceived illegitimacy of any particular anarchist program.
Finally, I’m sorry to hear this is making you agitated. I have the impression that I have a lot in common with you in terms of values and goals, and we are simply having a pleasant discussion about some strategic questions.