Syndicalism and the Welfare State: The SAC’s Historical Compromise

Since my post on the origins of anarcho-syndicalism in the First International, particularly through the debates at the 1869 Basle Congress, I have been posting more contemporary pieces that defend various syndicalist approaches in today’s world, from Alex Kolokotronis’ more reformist call for a “municipalist syndicalism” to Graham Purchase’s advocacy of a “green” anarcho-syndicalism. While I included some pieces in Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas reinterpreting syndicalist approaches to social change in the post-World War II era, I skipped the reformist turn taken by the Swedish syndicalist federation (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation Syndikalisterna – Central Organization of Swedish Workers–the SAC), mainly because that belongs more properly in a documentary history of syndicalism, not a documentary history of anarchist ideas. But that doesn’t stop me from posting this excerpt from the SAC’s 1963 pamphlet in which the Swedish syndicalists advocated a more reformist syndicalism that accepted the reality of the post-War welfare state. One of the biggest problems with this approach is that as the Welfare State came under increasing attack starting with the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the early 1980s, people who had advocated working alongside it now faced the dilemma of whether to defend it against neo-liberal attacks, or whether to return to a more radical approach.

Syndicalism in Modern Society

[…] During the [19]40s Syndicalism went into its fourth and present phase. The new orientation has its origin above all in three things. The experiences of the Spanish Civil War, where the Anarohosyndicalist ideas for the first time could be put into practice on a large scale, the changed society and its new problems, foremost the emergence of the Welfare State but also Bolshevism’s push forward, and thirdly the actualization of certain liberal and anarchist lines of thought. Because of the advanced character of the Swedish Social State and the, from the international point of view, relatively strong position of Swedish Syndicalism after Spanish Anarchosyndicalism had been driven into exile after Franco’s victory, the new course has, in the first hand, been marked out in Sweden.

Modern Libertarian Syndicalism has written off the ”class struggle dogma” of the classical Syndìcalists and stresses very strongly its libertarian character. The old thought of a definitive general strike revolution has been abandoned for being, in today’s society, unrealistic and implying totalitarian risks. The development towards a Libertarian Socialist society is thought as an evolutionary process with trade union struggle, opinion making and other direct social activity as pushing means. On the whole, for modern Syndicalists the end plays a considerably lesser part than the direction, and Libertarian Syndicalism is still more undoctrinaire and pragmatic than older Syndicalism.

Although not constituting (as yet anyhow) a new historical phase something should perhaps be added about the youngest generation of Swedish Syndicalists. They have a somewhat broader perspective, and the young Marx, modern ”Revisionism” and British Anarchist and New Left thinking are new sources of inspiration. Having grown up together with the Anti-Colonial Revolution in Asia and Africa the young Syndicalists base their View of the world on the emergence of these new countries. This new generation is mostly to be found in the ideological groups and in the circle around the ”Journal of Libertarian Socialism”, Zenit.

Syndicalism in Today’s Sweden

The principal organization of Swedish Syndicalism is Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (Central Organization of Swedish Workers) SAC, a Syndicalist trade union movement founded in 1910, organizing all categories of wage and salary earners and having about 20.000 members with its greatest strength among wood- and building-workers. Beside SAC there is a Syndicalist women’s federation and independent ideological and/or propagandistical groups, among others students’ clubs.

The Syndicalist press in Sweden comprises the famous weekly Arbetaren (The Worker), the union organ Industriarbetaren and the ideological and cultural review Zenit.

Internationally, the Swedish Syndicalists cooperate with several Syndicalist and other Libertarian and Socialist organizations all over the world.

The Declaration of Principles of the Central Organization of Swedish Workers (SAC)

1) The Syndicalist movement is emanating from the working class as a safeguard for the interests of the working people and with the purpose of remoulding society into a Libertarian Socialist direction, which implies the greatest possible freedom and economic justice being given to everybody.

2) The world scene is primarily dominated by three systems:
a) The democratic-statist with a mixture of private, state and other collective property together with political democracy and certain rights for individuals and organizations.
b) The statist-totalitarian system, where property as well as power monopoly are entirely in the hands of the state.
e) The politically statist-totalitarian system, where the property monopoly predominantly is in private hands.

3) The SAC is against all these systems but does not equate them. The society which respects the human rights is preferred decidedly. Syndicalism has contributed to the creation of the human liberties and rights which exist in the democratic society and is ready to defend these against the adherents of dictatorship.

4) Where private capitalism is dominating there also exists the private monopoly of supplies of raw materials and of means of production. This monopoly is a bar to continued economic democratization and federative administration. Instead of being objects of speculation for a privileged few the production must, to an equal degree, be put at everybody’s disposal. Thereby the greatest cause for exploitation and economic conflicts between men is removed.

5) In industrialized countries with a political democracy the social security of the property-less masses has become greater through the modern social reforms, but at the same time has the power of the state increased by this policy. Through its organizational strength the working-class must see to it that the carrying through of the social security reforms occur in forms favouring self-administration and being under the control of the popular organizations.

6) Syndicalism opposes the nationalization of the economic, social and cultural life. It appeals to all who are opposed to every form of exploitation, to all who do not defend economic or other privileges and who are ready to participate in a struggle for a social order where all Working people have a chance of getting a coresponsibility in the administration of the means of production by adhesion to cooperative producers’ groups, and where every member of society, on the basis of extended forms of communal and regional autonomy gets the opportunity of actively participating in a decentralized social life.

7) Syndicalism fights against every form of dictatorship and declines all authoritarian forms of organization, which by the centralization of the right of decision, create oppressors and oppressed and which render more difficult the development of self-responsibility which is the prerequisite for autonomy. Since one man does not have a natural right to determine over another and since might in itself is not right, there only rest the voluntarily made agreements as a basis for men’s social cooperation.

From this fact the federative form of organization is derived. Therefore, Syndicalism in the first hand directs its energies towards the building up of organizations on a federative basis, within which it is left to each organizational unit to decide their own affairs, which does not imply that the units have a right to act contrarily to commonly made regulations.

This organization is shaped so, that these locally employed in an enterprise form an operation section; the operation sections from all enterprises in the same branch and at the same place form a syndicate, and all syndicates form together in their turn the local federation, which as regards general and common interests form the unit within the central organization. For the furthering of the activity and special interests of the respective industrial groups the syndicates form country-wide federations, according to expediency are brought together into departments. This organization shall be developed with all vital functions in a free socialist society taken into consideration.

8) The SAC does not participate in party politics. Both in the day-to-day struggle and for the creation of a classless social order the direct, economic, social and cultural activity is regarded as the essential. Syndicalism prepares and follows up the social transformation from below with the place of work as point of departure and with a constructive View of the social upbuilding. The SAC, therefore, organizes all workers — wherein technicians and administrators of all kinds also are included — in their character of producers, in a common organization, which beyond the immediate interest struggle aims at the construction of a Syndicalist society.

The members of the SAC have the right outside the movement to participate in the forms of social activity that corresponds to their political, philosophic and religions views on the condition that this activity does not bring them into a state of open hostility to the Syndicalist movement.

9) Syndicalism contributes to a cooperative economy in a socialist meaning and aims at the forming of international federations of producers’ cooperatives as a first step towards the Libertarian Socialism of the future. Syndicalism regards all forms of cooperative activity, even the cooperation of the farmers and the self-employed, which does not exploit other labour or sets aside social solidarity, as a stage in the development towards e society where everybody is liberated from undue economic dependence and where all appropriate forms of mutual aid are coordinated according to federalist principles. Syndicalism also regards the consumers’ cooperation as an applicable means in the struggle against national and international monopolies.

Syndicalism’s order of production implies the complete realization of Industrial Democracy, so as a striving towards this goal the SAC participates, by direct union-industrial measures in every activity aiming at coinfluence of the workers in private, communal, state or consumer-owned enterprises. Syndicalism therefore also intends to give the partial industrial democracy a socialist direction, bearing in mind that the administration of the means of productions shall he overtaken by all employed.

10) State boundaries’ and national administration unite are contrary to the social structure of Syndicalism, which follows the economic life and is, administrationally, nationless. In consequence of that is the state as a representative of nationalism and war the bitterest enemy of Syndicalism. Syndicalism, therefore, combats militarism and regards the anti-militarist propaganda as one of. its most important civilizational tasks. It moreover works for a joint action against militarism and war by the free popular movements. The methods for the anti-military struggle will be determined by the situation prevailing in each special case.

Instead of the existing system of sovereign states Syndicalism aims at international, regional and universal federations, resting upon economic and cultural unions of both geographic and functional character. Autonomy and suitable forms of control in all social fields must make the guarantee for a democratic development within the frame of a common federalist judicial system which overcomes nationalism and makes militarism superfluent.

In this way Syndicalism wants to further a humanistic view of life and a higher civilization in the spirit of freedom and solidarity with the intent at last to reach a brotherly cooperation between all peoples and races of the earth.

The SAC, 1963

Advertisements

Catalonia 2017

The Spanish government’s response to the Catalan independence vote brought back some painful memories regarding Franco’s dictatorship following the defeat of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. Here is a brief statement from the CNT – Catalonia-Balearic Islands that I thought summed things up very well. Respecting people’s right to collective self-determination, while recognizing that such self-determination can only truly be achieved through an anarchist social revolution, is a position that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist movement, but that attained greater prominence after World War II, with the emergence of various national liberation movements across the globe, something that I have documented in Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), in my trilogy, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

CTN – Catalonia-Balearic Islands Statement on the Catalan Independence Vote

The CNT local unions from Catalonia and the Balearic Islands publicly state our support for the self-determination of the Catalan people.

As anarcho-syndicalists, we don’t think that political reforms within a capitalist framework can reflect our desire for social transformation, a change that would place production and consumption means in workers’ hands. Because of this, our daily struggles do not focus on creating new states or backing parliamentary initiatives.

However, we can’t look the other way when regular people are being attacked and repressed by any state. A state that has, in this case, removed its mask and revealed itself as an authoritarian rule, the true heir of the Franco regime. This is something that could be glimpsed before through many instances, such as labour law reforms, bank bail-outs, cuts on health and education, mass evictions of out-of-work families…many of which were implemented by the Catalan government itself.

CNT Catalonia and the Balearic greet this spirit of disobedience against a dictatorial state, a discriminatory and fascist state, and want to assert our strongest denunciation of repression against workers and of those who carry it out.

The men and women in CNT will stand as one to defend their neighbours and townsfolks, as couldn´t be otherwise with an anarcho-syndicalist, and henceforth revolutionary, organisation.

Originally published by CNT L’ Hospitalet.

Graham Purchase: Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Graham Purchase’s essay, “Anarcho-Syndicalism, Technology and Ecology,” which originally appeared in Kick It Over, #35 (Summer, 1995). Purchase argues that anarcho-syndicalism and environmentalism (or ecology) are not only compatible but necessary to each other, in contrast to Murray Bookchin, who criticised the anarcho-syndicalists for being too narrowly focused on the working class and “proletarian revolution,” arguing instead for an approach based on community assemblies. Purchase’s approach is explicitly anarchist, and therefore worth repeating in response to Alex Kolokotronis’ recent advocacy of a “municipalist syndicalism” that proposes an alliance between conventional trade unions and democratic socialists at the municipal level, an approach that I do not regard as being either anarchist or syndicalist (the “revolutionary syndicalists,” who did not advocate anarchy per se, nevertheless did not advocate working with socialist political parties in order to transform governments at any level, including the municipal level; for them, “syndicalism” was “sufficient unto itself,” an approach criticised by Errico Malatesta in his debate with the French syndicalist, Pierre Monatte, at the 19o7 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, reprinted in Volume One of my Anarchism anthology).

Anarcho-Syndicalism and Environmentalism

Only time will tell whether human technology and society can co-evolve successfully with nature. Neither the “primitivists” nor the “technophiles” can read the future, but I am convinced that neither alone holds the answer. That we can simply dismantle the industrial and technological revolutions and return to small-scale tribal communities seems even more naive a proposal than some old-fashioned anarcho-syndicalists’ view that workers self-management alone will bring about the “free society.” The idea that a workers’ paradise could simply be built upon the shoulders of global capitalism is simply preposterous. The large-scale, centralized, mass-production approach that developed with capitalism, idolized by many Marxists, was, unfortunately, never seriously challenged by either the union movement or by anarcho-syndicalists. The wider anarchist movement, however, has always distrusted large-scale, wasteful industrial practices and deplored the regimentation involved in work and the factory system, and has placed its faith in the self-governing, environmentally integrated community. Anarcho-syndicalists should review the intellectual insights of the broad anarchist movement to a much greater extent than they have. Otherwise, anarcho-syndicalism will become just another tired, 19th-century socialist philosophy with an overly optimistic assessment of the liberatory potential of mass industrial culture.

Nevertheless, it is only through organizing our fellow wage-earners, who have the least to gain from the continued functioning of global capitalism, that we can build any lasting challenge to the state and its power elite. The traditional methods of syndicalism, such as the general strike, could bring the global mega-machine to a complete standstill overnight. No other group can achieve this, because wage-earners, and especially the growing army of service workers, represent the majority (at least 60%) of the adult population. Once the people wrest the industrial and service infrastructure from the hands of the elite, we can do what we will with it. Maybe the majority of workers will choose to dismantle their factories and abandon their fast-food restaurant chains, committing industrial mass manufacture to the dustbin of history; or perhaps they will elect to develop new, more localized versions of their industries. Of course, unless anarchists persuade their fellow workers to organize themselves to resist and eventually eliminate the current state and corporate coercive apparatus, this whole discussion is so much pie in the sky. This is the most compelling reason why an environmentally sensitive and rejuvenated anarcho-syndicalist movement represents one of the most practical methods of halting the destructive advance of the state and the mega-corporation.

The worldwide nature of pollution provides more reason for international workers’ organizations. Even though governments have achieved some successes in controlling pollution, these successes have been sporadic and limited. For example, the Montreal protocol appears to have been successful in slowing the continued production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, of CFCs. These chemicals are, however, mainly produced by only six companies, and we should not be too optimistic about the possibility for global co-operation between capitalists and national governments on environmental issues. (The failure to do anything about “greenhouse” gas emissions shows the near-total lack of environmental concern of those in power.) Although CFCs were first synthesized in 1894, they were not used industrially until 1927. Had they been used beginning in 1894, we may not have had an ozone layer left to protect. We are told that, after a period of thinning, the ozone layer will most likely begin to repair itself. But what other long-term or irreversible industrial damage is occurring without our being aware of it?

The industrial system as we know it may indeed be causing such damage, but what do anti-syndicalist anarchists propose to do about it? Even if humanity decided to give up industrialism altogether and return to a craft economy, global co-operation among the industrial workers of the world would be necessary to implement that decision — via a permanent, worldwide general strike. In the absence of a grassroots and anarchistically inspired workers’ movement that could mount a sustained opposition to industrial capitalism, such a course does not even present itself as a possibility. Anti-syndicalist anarchists, if they are sincere in their desire to abolish the industrial system, should as a matter of logic talk with working people, persuade them to accept their point of view, and then help organize them to implement it. Neither capitalists nor unorganized, unaware workers will abandon their factories and consumerist habits. And, as long as there are industrial capitalists — and no massive international opposition to them — industrialism as we know it will assuredly remain.

Means and Ends

It is true that we may ultimately discover that most technology, and even the industrial system itself, is inherently environmentally destructive. It is even possible that many of the new eco-technologies that seem to offer hope may turn out to have unforeseen side effects, and that humanity will be compelled to give up modern technology altogether. But, if this happens, it must be an organic process. Its starting point, one would hope, would not be simply to smash up the machines, dynamite the roads and abandon the cities, beginning again at “year zero” — as Pol Pot attempted to do in Cambodia. The only non-authoritarian way in which the “year zero” can come is for the people to decide unanimously to destroy their factories, stores, highways, and telephone systems themselves. If this happens, there would be nothing anyone could or should do to stop them. But starvation, dislocation, chaos and violence would almost certainly be the immediate result of such reckless actions, leading to dictatorship, horrendous suffering, and political and social passivity in the long run. (And even if primitivists would, by some miracle, convince a majority of our fellow citizens to discard science and technology, would that give them the right to force the rest of us to submit to their will?)

The everyday needs of humanity are enmeshed in the continued functioning of the industrial machine. One cannot simply smash up the life-support system and hope for the best. Instead, it must be carefully dismantled while new methods and practices are developed. If we are to achieve an eco-anarchist society, workers must wrest power from their employers, after which the goal should be production of socially necessary and environmentally benign goods. Once people are no longer forced to produce useless consumer goods and services, it is likely that every person will work only a very few hours per week — leaving people with much more time to devote to their own interests and to their communities. By eliminating the parasitic classes and reducing industrial activity to the production of basic necessities, a huge amount of human energy would be released. The reconstruction of the eco-regionally integrated human community from the corpse of the state could thus commence in an incremental way, ensuring that basic human needs would be effectively met while retaining the positive aspects of the industrial infrastructure. Each of us would have to continue to work a few hours per week to keep the industrial machine minimally functioning while we made changes.

If, in the face of sustained efforts to reduce its adverse effects and to integrate it with the local eco-region, the industrial system still proved to be an environmental menace, then humanity would, one hopes, have had the time to explore new ways of life suited to meeting its basic needs without industry as we know it. Industrial syndicalism is one relatively bloodless way of doing away with the state/capitalist elite, and of allowing construction of an anarchist society; it may or may not have a place in the creation of an ecologically sound way of life, but it is a sure method of returning economic and industrial power into the hands of the people. Anarchists — be they industrial-syndicalist, technophile, or neo-primitivist — thus have no program other than to bluntly declare that it is the people who must decide their own social and environmental destiny.

Of course, the question remains of whether industrial syndicalism is the only, or most satisfactory, anarchist method of reorganizing the distribution of goods and services within communities. What we can be sure of is that the individualistic mass consumerism of the current state/capitalist system is quite ill-suited to the health and sustainability of life on Earth.

 

Alex Kolokotronis: Municipalist Syndicalism

I always found Murray Bookchin’s perennial critiques of anarcho-syndicalism to be misdirected. It’s not as if there was a burgeoning anarcho-syndicalist movement in the United States that was steering the revolutionary masses in the wrong direction. Bookchin also misrepresented the revolutionary politics of historic anarcho-syndicalist movements, which never narrowly focused on the workplace as the one and only revolutionary arena. The first anarcho-syndicalists, although they referred to themselves as federalists, anarchists, and collectivists, were the anti-authoritarian activists in the First International associated with the anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin. And when they first put forward an anarcho-syndicalist program at the 1869 Basle Congress of the International, they advocated organizing for the revolution through the workers’ autonomous organizations and on a communal (or municipal) basis, a combination of revolutionary trade unions and revolutionary communes that would together provide the basis for a stateless federation of directly democratic associations for production, distribution and consumption in conjunction with more geographically based federations of communes, which together would create a socialist society. Although Bookchin claimed that he did not ignore the importance of working class organizations in achieving an ecological society, his focus on municipal politics and continual sniping at the anarcho-syndicalists left the impression that he did not see class based organizations playing much of a role. 

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Bookchin advocating “municipal” as opposed to “workers’ control” of the means of production. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this creates serious problems regarding the realization of Bookchin’s social ecological vision of a stateless future without hierarchy and domination in which people live in harmony with themselves and with nature if people, in their capacity as workers, are subject to the authority of the municipal assemblies. I also included a piece by Graham Purchase under the heading “Green Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in which he argued that revolutionary trade unions would have to play a role in the creation of an ecological society, which does not mean giving them a privileged role or power over others.

Alex Kolokotronis takes another approach in his article from Roar magazine, “Municipalist Syndicalism,” which differs significantly from Purchase’s “green anarcho-syndicalism,” primarily in that it is not an anarchist form of municipalism or syndicalism. I’ve reproduced a portion of Kolokotronis’ article below.  Kolokotronis advocates the democratization of existing trade unions, rather than the creation of revolutionary trade unions, which can then provide organizational and financial support for a municipalist political program in multiple locations.

Municipalist Syndicalism

The strength of municipalism lies in its locality, in its attention to the particular — an attention that some of the best unions have and harness. But to offset against at least some pressures, it must also find strength in its multiplicity. That is to say, not just the multiplicity that lies within a given locale, town or city, but the multiplicity that is at the core of notions of confederalism.

I call this type of politics municipalist syndicalism because, although it is socialistic and premised on multi-tendency coalitions, different chief agents will arise in different contexts. In the context of unionized “eds & meds” metropolitan regions, the unionized “new” working class can be that agent. Where will the meetings be held? Who will have resources to establish an effective communications system? Who will do the canvassing (whether for candidates or as part of a participatory process)? Unions can do a substantial part of this work. And in that way, it is syndicalist: unions deploying their self-organized power and resources towards a political end. Yet, it is municipalist in that organized labor’s eyes are turned for more far-reaching transformation. A transformation beyond the point-of-production.

Before this can take place, however, there must be a democratization of unions themselves.

Community-Focused Union Democracy

As I noted in a previous piece for ROAR Magazine, concepts and designs of union democracy have remained quite thin. Participatory budgeting for union dues can be part of a union’s democratized design. I have argued that participatory budgeting can help stimulate class consciousness, serve as a means for worker education (particularly in the area of self-management), and help transform bureaucracy into a collaborative iterative form of administration.

Participatory budgeting also has an intersectional character. It has been a forum for including and empowering immigrants. It has also increasingly become a staple of the Movement for Black Lives. Public Agenda’s research of PB in North America finds that “black residents were overrepresented or represented proportionally to the local census among voter survey respondents.” In an official statement addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Black Youth Project 100 called “for a participatory city budget in which the public has the power to defund the Chicago Police Department and invest those dollars and resources in Black futures by setting a living wage with union representation.”

BYP 100 member Rossanna Mercedes writes that she has “witnessed first hand the organizing power of black people in participatory budgeting.” Mercedes recounts that “formerly incarcerated persons, mostly Black men, organiz[ing] together through a local community based organization and decide how to spend tax dollars in their neighborhoods. Black youth let[ting] their neighbors know about the process by knocking on doors, taking the vote to them to build support for projects they’ve proposed for their communities.” Mercedes goes further, imagining “what we could do with Community Development Block Grants, the billions in federal funding for those of us in low income communities.”

Participatory budgeting for a labor union could potentially help ground and scale this work, and also connect to it. It can be an organizational form that materially connects labor unions to community groups, with the backing and creative leadership of membership. It can create the necessary alliances for a real municipalist program and movement. There can even be cross-union and cross-local participatory budgeting processes, reminiscent of the regional assemblies once held by the Knights of Labor in the nineteenth century.

Unions can even help community groups achieve their targets, by deploying both their fiscal capital as well as social capital. A labor union participatory budgeting process, for example, could include a budget category of external or “community relations.” Union members could propose ideas and craft projects that directly benefit or work together with the larger community.

This dimension of a union participatory budgeting process could then flow into a democratized “Bargaining for the Common Good” initiatives (partnerships between labor unions and community-based organization that pursue “broad based campaigns that demand common good solutions to win progressive revenue and advance community fights such as affordable housing, universal pre-k and expanded after school programs, and improved city services, as just a few examples”). Such Common Good Bargaining frameworks would be more thoroughly co-designed, which itself would flow out of experiences of co-design and co-production practiced in project development phase of the labor union participatory budgeting process.

There are other ways that democratic union processes can be designed for intersectional ends. One way of explicitly doing this could be through a participatory mapping process. Here members themselves bring their “local situated knowledges” and “standpoints” to the mapping of a workplace or work-location. For example, a number of public schools in the United States fall short of meeting requirements prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even when accessibility grievances are lodged through unions, such grievances either fall through the union’s bureaucratic cracks or are simply ignored. Participatory mapping processes could be formally linked to what ends up on the bargaining table between unions and employers. Member participation would achieve results by substantively reorienting unions towards intersectional concerns, while also informally pressuring union leadership to act accordingly.

Participatory budgeting and mapping processes within labor unions would also prepare unionized workers to take part in municipal-level participatory budgeting processes. Beyond cultivating trust, this would train union members to operate large-scale participatory budgeting processes in preparation for significant scaling and expansion of participatory democratic processes. Competencies developed within unions would be readily available for transference and scaling at the municipal level. With all of these initiatives being inclusive of non-labor community groups, coalitions would be in place and there would be a backlog of trust-generating experience of having worked together.

Working with this variety of community groups and associations — such as retirees — unions can also streamline the creation of a sector of workers’ controlled enterprises. Soon-to-be retirees hold a stock of businesses that could be converted to democratic employee-ownership. Retiree associations possess networks that could connect those seeking to convert their enterprise with those who can help carry out the conversion. Retirees are also a significant segment of the voting base. Through lending legal and fiscal capacity for converting businesses to democratic employee-ownership (this itself is a tremendous opportunity considering that nearly 25 million workers are employed in businesses susceptible to conversion), soon-to-be-retirees will have found an exit-option.

Municipalist takeover by unions would then enable redeployment of this legal capacity — with greater resourcing, staffing and generalized support. With an autonomous federation of workers’ controlled businesses, democratized unions would have another ally possessing extensive fiscal resources — an ally operating according to socialist relations of production.

A number of unions in eds & meds already see the municipality as a key site of political engagement. In New Haven, a number of current or former UNITE-HERE organizers or officers have been elected to the Board of Alders (effectively, the City Council). There, a coalition of unions and community groups successfully called on Yale University to hire five-hundred residents from communities of color. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has run multiple teachers as candidates for the city’s Board of Alders and mayorality. It has also publicly forged ties with community groups, earning the CTU’s reputation for practicing “social movement unionism.” Power is being leveraged in these cities not only for organized labor as it stands, but the city as a whole. Labor unions are already heading this way. The key is imbuing this movement with a democratized form, imperative and character.

DSA as Potential Platform for Municipalist Syndicalism

There is another question: through what inter-union platforms could this be coordinated. One potential organization is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the fastest growing socialist organization with 25,000 members. Countless members have demonstrated a commitment to an intersectional socialism as well as one focused on the labor movement. As shown by the intersectional character of participatory budgeting and other processes above, municipalist syndicalism gives content to this commitment.

Thus, as DSA turns towards creating a Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), it would be wise to consider how union democracy can help flow into the construction of a municipalist socialism. Subsection 3 of the priorities resolution states that “DSA is committed to building democratic labor unions that empower and activate their rank-and-file members.” Putting forward a mix of reforms that include union dues participatory budgeting and common good bargaining adds programmatic weight to this statement.

A DSLC that “coordinates chapter-based labor branches” can do so along such lines, on the premise that if democratic socialism is to be implemented on the national level it must be first experimented with within our unions and within our cities. DSLC can help materially articulate a municipalist syndicalism. A socialism in which democratized unions take leadership, by constructing intersecting layers of self-governance and self-management at the municipal and regional level. Democratization of unions — and union capacity deployed-today towards democratization of the workplace — would remake unions into a “bridgehead” to a participatory society.

The seeds of a municipalist program already lie within the labor movement’s capacity. Once planted, the seeds of municipalism can grow from a democratization of the union to a democratization of the city itself — along direct and participatory lines. It is not the only pathway to radical municipalism, but it is the promise of the new working class. It is the promise of socialist-led union democracy in the twenty-first century.

Alexander Kolokotronis

Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

The Origins of Anarcho-Syndicalism: the 1869 Basle Congress

This month marks the 148th anniversary of the September 5 – 12, 1869 Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”). This was the most representative congress held by the International, with around 78 delegates from the United States, England France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. It is noteworthy then that it was at this Congress that the delegates endorsed an essentially anarcho-syndicalist program for the International. Rather than relying on political parties to achieve their emancipation, the workers, through their own organizations, such as resistance societies (trade unions), and the International itself, would replace capitalism and the state, with these working class organizations providing the basis for the organization of a socialist society, “the free federation of free producers.” I discuss the Basle Congress in more detail in We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Here, I present the speech by one of the French delegates, Jean-Louis Pindy (1840-1917), in which he argues in favour of a dual struggle, that of the trade unions and that of the communes, or municipalities, which together would form the socialist workers’ federation of the future. Pindy played an active role in the Paris Commune, narrowly escaping with his life, and supported the anarchists after the International was split in two by Marx’s expulsion of Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International at the 1872 Hague Congress.

Jean-Louis Pindy

Jean-Louis Pindy: Toward the Society of the Future

We anticipate the workers organizing in two ways: first, a local grouping which allows the workers in the same area to liaise on a day-to-day basis: then, a linking up of various localities, fields, regions, etc.

The first mode: This grouping is in keeping with the political relations of the existing society which it replaces to advantage: thus far, it has been the approach adopted by the International Working Men’s Association. Implicit in this state of affairs, where mutual societies are concerned, is federation of the local societies, helping one another out by means of money loans, organizing meetings to discuss social issues and, in concert, taking steps of mutual interest.

But as industry expands, another style of organization alongside the former becomes necessary. In every country, the workers sense that their interests are interlinked, and that they are being ground down one by one. For another thing, the future requires an organization that reaches beyond the precincts of the towns and, ignoring frontiers, establishes a sweeping reallocation of work around the globe: for this dual purpose, trades societies must be organized internationally: each trades body should maintain an exchange of correspondence and information within the country and with other countries (…)

This sort of association becomes a factor for decentralization, for no longer is it a matter of founding within each country a center common to all industries, but each one of them will be centered upon the locality where it is most developed: for example, in the case of France, while the colliers will be federated around Saint-Etienne, the silk workers will be federated around Lyon and the luxury industries around Paris. Once these two types of association have been established, labor organizes for present and future by doing away with wage slavery (…)

Association of the different corporations on the basis of town or country (…) leads to the commune of the future, just as the other mode of organization leads to the labor representation of the future. Government is replaced by the assembled councils of the trades bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates, overseeing the labor relations which are to take the place of politics. (…) We propose the following resolution:

“Congress is of the view that all workers should actively engage in the creation of strike funds in the various trades bodies.

“As these societies take shape, it invites sections, federal groups and central councils to keep societies from the same corporation informed, so that they may proceed to formation of national associations of trades bodies.

“Such federations are to have charge of gathering all information regarding their respective industry, overseeing the steps to be taken in concert, regulating strikes and working actively towards their success, until such time as wage slavery may be replaced by the federation of free producers.”

CrimethInc. – Not Your Grandpa’s Anti-Fascism

Antifa in Berkeley

Things are really starting to heat up in the US in the struggle against fascism. Here I present some reflections on anti-fascism by the CrimethInc. ex-workers collective. The complete article can be found here.

Not Your Grandfather’s Anti-Fascism

Following the clashes in Charlottesville and the massive anti-fascist demonstrations afterwards in Durham, Boston, and the Bay Area, the struggle against fascism has arrived in the consciousness of the general public. Tens of thousands of people are realizing that the fight against fascism didn’t end in 1945—that today, as increasingly authoritarian governments collude with ascendant fascist movements, this battle is more pressing than ever.

It’s worth taking a moment to review what anti-fascists have accomplished since Trump was elected. Despite harassment and attacks from fascists and law enforcement, what was initially a few hundred people without financial resources or sponsors has grown into the foundation for a massive social movement. On April 15, fascists rampaged through Berkeley, recording video footage of themselves beating people to use for recruiting purposes. On Sunday, August 27, the same fascists attempted to hold another rally in Berkeley. In response to the murder of Heather Heyer during a fascist rally in Charlottesville two weeks prior, thousands of people converged to make the fascist demonstration impossible.

Imagine if the “Unite the Right” rally had taken place without resistance, and a thousand white supremacists had been able to march around Charlottesville unopposed. In that scenario, emboldened fascists could have presented themselves as a legitimate part of the political spectrum, while preparing the way for more murders like the ones in Charleston and Portland. In that case, the government with Trump at the helm would be able to present itself as the only possible solution to fascist violence, and the general public would be forced to seek assistance from the very authorities that are already implementing most of the white supremacist agenda. We should be grateful that long before Charlottesville, forward-thinking anti-fascists were doing the thankless work of monitoring fascists and mobilizing against them.

But now that the struggle against fascism has arrived on a massive scale, it’s time to come to grips with the limitations the movement faces today. Every victory generates new challenges. Let’s explore the obstacles that the anti-fascist movement will have to overcome to succeed in creating a world free of authoritarianism.

This article is available as a zine you can print out and distribute in your community.

Corporate Media Back the Fascists

The Washington Post titled their coverage of Sunday’s demonstration “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley.” It is not surprising when Fox News publishes barefaced propaganda describing the organizer of far-right demonstrations that have included at least one fascist murderer as a “prayer activist,” but it is more unsettling to see fascist talking points parroted by supposedly liberal outlets.

The image at the top of the Washington Post article shows a right-wing demonstrator apparently being shoved by an anti-fascist with a shield. Yet several videos show the same far-right demonstrator pepper-spraying anti-fascist demonstrators without provocation and then pepper-spraying people at random immediately before the photo was taken. If you look closely, the attacker is wearing a shirt that celebrates Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet for murdering dissidents by dropping them out of helicopters. If you look closer, you can see that the anti-fascist in the picture has a stick, but is choosing not to use it, instead simply using a shield to block the fascist with the pepper-spray from carrying out further attacks. In fact, the Washington Post chose to use a photo in which the assailant’s right hand is not visible, so readers would not see the pepper spray he holds in it.

When the Washington Post portrays such fascists as “peaceful,” suggesting that they are victims even as they attack people and glorify mass murder, this gives them legitimacy, securing space for them to recruit and to promote and organize further attacks. Why would liberal media outlets do this?

Journalists often determine the substance of their story in advance, and it appears that media outlets across the spectrum had determined in advance to report the anti-fascist demonstration in Berkeley as an expression of violent excess even before it happened. In the event, the demonstration was largely peaceful; even the worst clashes were considerably less violent than the fighting on April 15. Despite this, corporate media outlets that had ignored April 15 altogether devoted considerable space to a few isolated incidents in which anti-fascists scuffled with fascists or other Trump supporters.

The intention was clearly to impose a limit on the amount of popular legitimacy anti-fascists would be permitted to accrue after the events in Charlottesville. Two weeks of positive coverage of anti-fascists, during which various members of the clergy came forward to praise their efforts, were deemed to be too much. Heather Heyer’s murder had taken corporate media by surprise, interrupting their conventional narratives and proving that the threat anti-fascists had supposedly been blowing out of proportion was all too real. It took corporate editors two weeks to regain control of the discourse. As soon as they did, they reimposed their old stereotypes as if Heather had never been killed.

This should put an end to any illusions we might have had that corporate media could side with anti-fascists. Outlets like the Washington Post aspire to position themselves against both Trump and his adversaries in the streets—to occupy what some call “the extreme center.” They are gambling that the current polarization of society is temporary, that they can be the beneficiaries of disillusionment with both sides.

Anti-fascists have to strategize about how to organize and legitimize our efforts to the general public without the benefit of positive media coverage. This is no easy task. At the minimum, it will demand our own grassroots media, at the same time that this media is under systematic assault from right-wing trolls.

This challenge is symptomatic of the larger phenomenon of polarization, which is worth examining separately.

The Swinging Pendulum of Polarization

US society has been splintering and polarizing for years now, since the recession of 2008 if not before. The movement against police and white supremacy that burst onto the national stage in Ferguson in 2014 as Black Lives Matter generated a far-right backlash, which inspired a resurgence of anti-fascist organizing. In response, fascists gave angry liberals and anti-fascists a central place in their strategy, seeking to provoke them into reactive behavior that could be used to further mobilize the right-wing base. Milo Yiannopoulos used this strategy until it blew up in his face last February, when a black bloc of hundreds shut down his event in Berkeley.

Various fascist and fascist-friendly organizers also used this approach, baiting leftists and anti-fascists with a series of “free speech” rallies in Berkeley, Portland, and elsewhere around the country that won the nascent fascist movement notoriety and momentum. This movement appeared fully formed for the first time in Charlottesville—but the shockwaves of that debut drew many more people into the movement against fascism, changing the balance of power once again. The “free speech” rallies scheduled afterwards in Boston and the Bay Area were total washouts for the fascists.

In each of these cases, when the pendulum of polarization swung to one side, the opposing side was able to use the specter of that victory to draw more sympathizers into action. With the media narrative coming out about Berkeley, the pendulum has again swung away from anti-fascists to benefit the right-wing reaction.

So long as this pattern persists, every anti-fascist victory will produce an even greater threat from the far-right and the government. To break out of the pattern, anti-fascists have to strike blows in ways that don’t enable fascists to cash in on the resulting fear among right-wingers, or else to find a way to draw in large swathes of the population more rapidly than their competition on the right.

Luigi Fabbri – Reflections on Fascism

As fascist, neo-nazi, white supremacist and right-wing paramilitary groups continue to pursue their agenda in the United States with relative impunity, egged on by a racist and authoritarian President, one can only think of how fascists in the past have used the same sort of demagoguery, violence and terrorism to claw their way to power. But always behind them are very powerful interests who benefit from what the Italian anarchist, Luigi Fabbri, described as the fascist “preventative counter-revolution.” Capitalists will always hang the threat of fascism over ordinary people’s heads in order to keep them in line and to stop them from impeding the ruling classes’ own agendas. Here, I reproduce Fabbri’s introduction to his ground breaking analysis of fascism, Fascism: The Preventative Counter-Revolution. I included lengthier excerpts in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Even then (1921), Fabbri was able to identify the elements of a racist fascism in the United States.

Reflections on Fascism

In spite of all the good intentions to the contrary which I brought to this essay, I have in fact failed, in examining the dark issue of fascism, to stand “above the fray”.

Many a time I have tried to suppress the pain and outrage that stirred my hand, but immediately thereafter wounded feelings surged back to offer me counsel in tune with a disturbed and aggravated state of mind. The fact is that I do not really stand above the fray. If only for personal reasons, as a matter of temperament and custom and, to a slight extent – confined to the climate in which I live – out of a professional obligation, I stand slightly apart from the active, militant movement, which is to say that my involvement in the bitter social struggle is all too slight and almost exclusively confined to my writing, even though I too am in this fight with all of my heart and mind.

For around thirty years now I have been an anarchist and revolutionary and I regard myself as another obscure soldier in the proletarian army fighting the old world: and whereas this was something in which I took pride, when fortune was smiling upon us and the working class looked, after victory upon victory, to be on the verge of the ultimate victory, I was all the more proud to feel that I was one of its own come the grey and yellow hour of disappointment and defeat. And I cherished the hope of fairly imminent revenge, since, while troops easily enthused about the prospect of imminent excitement were disappointed, I stood firm in my belief in the inevitable victory of an egalitarian, libertarian justice for all.

Maybe we needed this harsh lesson from reality. For some time past too much detritus had been building up along the way, too many thoughtless things had been said and done and unduly easy successes had attracted to our side insincere and self-seeking persons out to turn our ideal into a cloak or a kiosk. And upstarts eager to use it for self-advancement. Maybe it was good luck that made many of them less kindly and less fair, or overly complacent and indulgent of the onset of the sort of degeneration that always besets movements that look to be the strongest and on the verge of success. And, when the storm struck, and the gale swept away the detritus and all the trivia, it also swept away the insincere self-seekers. We may well lament the fact that the lightning also struck the old sturdy, fruitful tree that had borne good crops, but on the other hand, the soil will have become more fertile under the plough of pain and the whirlwind will have left the air purer and fresher.

However, while it is true that it is an ill wind that blows no good, evil is always evil and as such, must be resisted. To resist it we need to look it in the face and take the measure of it. And the modest pages that follow may prove of service to that end. They make no claim to the prize of impartiality and the most Olympian serenity, for I too am parti pris, committed to the ranks in which I march and I identify profoundly with all the oppressed, whatever their particular political background, against those who beat, murder, torch and destroy in such cavalier fashion and with such impunity today. But, however much passion may have prompted me to speak thus, I hope that I have not done any injury to the truth.

What I have written here is not a history of fascism; I have merely made the occasional reference to certain specific facts, more in support of my thesis than with any real narrative intent. So many of my assertions may appear unduly absolute and axiomatic. However, not one of those assertions does not have precise corresponding facts, many specific facts with which the newspapers have been replete for the past year or so; and I do not mean just the subversive press. One can draw up the harshest and most violent indictment of fascism on foot of documentation drawn from the conservative papers most well-disposed towards fascism and from the fascist press proper.

Moreover, the fascist phenomenon is not peculiar to Italy. It has surfaced in even more serious form in Spain and has raised its head in Germany, Hungary, the Americas and elsewhere. Nor were persecution and unlawful reaction mounted by private citizens unknown prior to the World War. In certain respects, they had precedents in the pogroms in Russia and the lynchings in the United States. What is more, the United States has always had a sort of private police in the service of the capitalists, acting in cahoots with the official police, but independently of government, in troubled times and during strikes.

Italian fascism has its own characteristics, motley origins, positions, etc. In some instances it is an improvement upon its brothers or precursors beyond the mountains or across the seas, and in some cases worse than these. But it is not entirely a novelty. From a detailed reading of Italian history from 1795 and 1860, we might well be able to trace its historical ancestry. Take, for example, the Sanfedisti: in the context of the secret societies, these seem to have begun as a patriotic, reform-minded sect, albeit sui generis; but later they turned reactionary and pro-Austrian establishment against the “red” conspirators from the Carbonari and Young Italy.

Especially in the Papal States, in Faenza, Ravenna, etc., the Sanfedisti warred with the Carbonari: but the government heaped all the blame exclusively upon the Carbonari. De Castro (Mondo Secreto, Vol. VIII) recounts: “An armed, bloodthirsty rabble wrought havoc and looted throughout the city and countryside of Frosinone in the name of defending the throne and hunted down liberals: and the government dispatched the liberals to the gallows and acquitted the brigands.”

There is nothing really new under the sun, or so it seems! And if, in the past, the most violent conspiracies against freedom and against the people proved unable to fend off new ideas, prevent the downfall of old institutions and the emergence of new ones, then today too, they will not succeed and they will not succeed in the future.

The living step into the shoes of the dead,
Hope follows mourning,
The army is unleashed and goes marching
Blithely lashing out at the vanquished.

Luigi Fabbri

Bologna, 15 October 1921

 

CrimethInc. – Direct Democracy or Self-Determination?

The people in assembly

The relationship between anarchy and democracy in anarchist discourse continues to be a matter of great debate. Shawn Wilbur has argued in favour of anarchy conceived as a form of self-government based on free agreement, where reliance on democratic decision-making procedures represents at best a compromise of anarchist principles, and at worst a failure to apply those principles in practice. David Graeber, Murray Bookchin and many others have argued for direct democracy without the state. The CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective has now published its contribution to this debate in book form: From Democracy to Freedom: The Difference Between Democracy and Self-Determination.

Direct Democracy: Government without the State?

[…] Africa and Asia are witnessing new movements in favor of democracy; meanwhile, many people in Europe and the Americas who are disillusioned by the failures of representative democracy have pinned their hopes on direct democracy, shifting from the model of the Roman Republic back to its Athenian predecessor. If the problem is that government is unresponsive to our needs, isn’t the solution to make it more participatory, so we wield power directly rather than delegating it to politicians?

But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean voting on laws rather than legislators? Or toppling the prevailing government and instituting a government of federated assemblies in its place? Or something else?

“True democracy exists only through the direct participation of the people, and not through the activity of their representatives. Parliaments have been a legal barrier between the people and the exercise of authority, excluding the masses from meaningful politics and monopolizing sovereignty in their place. People are left with only a façade of democracy, manifested in long queues to cast their election ballots.”

– Mu’ammer al Gaddafi, The Green Book

On one hand, if direct democracy is just a more participatory and time-consuming way to pilot the state, it might offer us more say in the details of government, but it will preserve the centralization of power that is inherent in it. There is a problem of scale here: can we imagine 219 million eligible voters directly conducting the activities of the US government? The conventional answer is that local assemblies would send representatives to regional assemblies, which in turn would send representatives to a national assembly—but there, already, we are speaking about representative democracy again. At best, in place of periodically electing representatives, we can picture a ceaseless series of referendums decreed from on high.

One of the most robust versions of that vision is digital democracy, or e-democracy, promoted by groups like the Pirate Party. The Pirate Party has already been incorporated into the existing political system; but in theory, we can imagine a population linked through digital technology, making all the decisions regarding their society via majority vote in real time. In such an order, majoritarian government would gain a practically irresistible legitimacy; yet the greatest power would likely be concentrated in the hands of the technocrats who administered the system. Coding the algorithms that determined which information and which questions came to the fore, they would shape the conceptual frameworks of the participants a thousand times more invasively than election-year advertising does today.

Electronic democracy

“The digital project of reducing the world to representation converges with the program of electoral democracy, in which only representatives acting through the prescribed channels may exercise power. Both set themselves against all that is incomputable and irreducible, fitting humanity to a Procrustean bed. Fused as electronic democracy, they would present the opportunity to vote on a vast array of minutia, while rendering the infrastructure itself unquestionable—the more participatory a system is, the more ‘legitimate.’”

Deserting the Digital Utopia

But even if such a system could be made to work perfectly—do we want to retain centralized majoritarian rule in the first place? The mere fact of being participatory does not make a political process any less coercive. As long as the majority has the capacity to force its decisions on the minority, we are talking about a system identical in spirit with the one that governs the US today—a system that would also require prisons, police, and tax collectors, or else other ways to perform the same functions.

Real freedom is not a question of how participatory the process of answering questions is, but of the extent to which we can frame the questions ourselves—and whether we can stop others from imposing their answers on us. The institutions that operate under a dictatorship or an elected government are no less oppressive when they are employed directly by a majority without the mediation of representatives. In the final analysis, even the most directly democratic state is better at concentrating power than maximizing freedom.

On the other hand, not everyone believes that democracy is a means of state governance. Some proponents of democracy have attempted to transform the discourse, arguing that true democracy only takes place outside the state and against its monopoly on power. For opponents of the state, this appears to be a strategic move, in that it appropriates all the legitimacy that has been invested in democracy across three centuries of popular movements and self-congratulatory state propaganda. Yet there are three fundamental problems with this approach.

“Democracy is not, to begin with, a form of State. It is, in the first place, the reality of the power of the people that can never coincide with the form of a State. There will always be tension between democracy as the exercise of a shared power of thinking and acting, and the State, whose very principle is to appropriate this power… The power of citizens is, above all, the power for them to act for themselves, to constitute themselves into an autonomous force. Citizenship is not a prerogative linked to the fact of being registered as an inhabitant and voter in a country; it is, above all, an exercise that cannot be delegated.”

Jacques Rancière

First, it’s ahistorical. Democracy originated as a form of state government; practically all the familiar historical examples of democracy were carried out via the state or at least by people who aspired to govern. The positive associations we have with democracy as a set of abstract aspirations came later.

Second, it fosters confusion. Those who promote democracy as an alternative to the state rarely draw a meaningful distinction between the two. If you dispense with representation, coercive enforcement, and the rule of law, yet keep all the other hallmarks that make democracy a means of governing—citizenship, voting, and the centralization of legitimacy in a single decision-making structure—you end up retaining the procedures of government without the mechanisms that make them effective. This combines the worst of both worlds. It ensures that those who approach anti-state democracy expecting it to perform the same function as the state will inevitably be disappointed, while creating a situation in which anti-state democracy tends to reproduce the dynamics associated with state democracy on a smaller scale.

Finally, it’s a losing battle. If what you mean to denote by the word democracy can only occur outside the framework of the state, it creates considerable ambiguity to use a term that has been associated with state politics for 2500 years. The objection that the democracies that govern the world today aren’t real democracies is a variant of the classic “No true Scotsman” fallacy. If, upon investigation, it turns out that not a single existing democracy lives up to what you mean by the word, you might need a different expression for what you are trying to describe. This is like communists who, confronted with all the repressive communist regimes of the 20th century, protest that not a single one of them was properly communist. When an idea is so difficult to implement that millions of people equipped with a considerable portion of the resources of humanity and doing their best across a period of centuries can’t produce a single working model, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Give anarchists a tenth of the opportunities Marxists and democrats have had, and then we may speak about whether anarchy works! Most people will assume that what you mean by democracy is reconcilable with the state after all. This sets the stage for statist parties and strategies to regain legitimacy in the public eye, even after having been completely discredited. The political parties Podemos and Syriza gained traction in the occupied squares of Barcelona and Athens thanks to their rhetoric about direct democracy, only to make their way into the halls of government where they are now behaving like any other political party. They’re still doing democracy, just more efficiently and effectively. Without a language that differentiates what they are doing in parliament from what people were doing in the squares, this process will recur again and again.

“We must all be both rulers and ruled simultaneously, or a system of rulers and subjects is the only alternative… Freedom, in other words, can only be maintained through a sharing of political power, and this sharing happens through political institutions.”

– Cindy Milstein, “Democracy Is Direct”

When we identify what we are doing when we oppose the state as the practice of democracy, we set the stage for our efforts to be reabsorbed into larger representational structures. Democracy is not just a way of managing the apparatus of government, but also of regenerating and legitimizing it. Candidates, parties, regimes, and even the form of government can be swapped out from time to time when it becomes clear that they cannot solve the problems of their constituents. In this way, government itself—the source of at least some of those problems—is able to persist. Direct democracy is just the latest way to rebrand it.

Even without the familiar trappings of the state, any form of government requires some way of determining who can participate in decision-making and on what terms—once again, who counts as the demos. Such stipulations may be vague at first, but they will get more concrete the older an institution grows and the higher the stakes get. And if there is no way of enforcing decisions—no kratos—the decision-making processes of government will have no more weight than decisions people make autonomously. Without formal institutions, democratic organizations often enforce decisions by delegitimizing actions initiated outside their structures and encouraging the use of force against them. Hence the classic scene in which protest marshals attack demonstrators for doing something that wasn’t agreed upon in advance via a centralized democratic process. This is the paradox of a project that seeks government without the state.

These contradictions are stark enough in Murray Bookchin’s formulation of libertarian municipalism as an alternative to state governance. In libertarian municipalism, Bookchin explained, an exclusive and avowedly vanguardist organization governed by laws and a Constitution would make decisions by majority vote. They would run candidates in city council elections, with the long-term goal of establishing a confederation that could replace the state. Once such a confederation got underway, membership was to be binding even if participating municipalities wanted to withdraw. Those who try to retain government without the state are likely to end up with something like the state by another name.

The important distinction is not between democracy and the state, then, but between government and self-determination. Government is the exercise of authority over a given space or polity: whether the process is dictatorial or participatory, the end result is the imposition of control. By contrast, self-determination means disposing of one’s potential on one’s own terms: when people engage in it together, they are not ruling each other, but fostering cumulative autonomy. Freely made agreements require no enforcement; systems that concentrate legitimacy in a single institution or decision-making process always do.

It is strange to use the word democracy for the idea that the state is inherently undesirable. The proper word for that idea is anarchism. Anarchism opposes all exclusion and domination in favor of the radical decentralization of power structures, decision-making processes, and notions of legitimacy. It is not a matter of governing in a completely participatory manner, but of making it impossible to impose any form of rule.

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective

June 2017

Shawn Wilbur: Anarchy and Self-Government

Here are some excerpts from Shawn Wilbur’s final contribution to the Center for a Stateless Society’s forum on anarchy and democracy. It begins with a reference to David Graeber’s social anarchist approach to democracy, which emphasizes alternative conceptions of participatory democracy, drawing on various peoples’ actual practices of non-hierarchical collective decision-making, and then discusses a Proudhonian approach to anarchy and democracy, which provides a place for certain “democratic practices” within the context of Proudhon’s concepts of “self-government” and voluntary federation. I included several selections from Proudhon on workers’ self-management, anarchy and federalism in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I discuss the historical development of anarchist approaches to anarchy, democracy, organization and federalism in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

Anarchy and Self-Government

As the market advocates among us are almost certainly aware, it is a common trope among Graeber-inspired anarchists that people only turn to counting and calculation as a means of organizing themselves when society (characterized in this view by a basis in communism and informal democracy) begins to break down. And that reading seems generally faithful to Graeber’s variety of social anarchism, at the core of which is a faith that people can work things out without recourse to mechanisms like market valuation or vote-taking…

I then want to undertake a limited defense of democratic practices, including voting, in a way that draws on Proudhon’s later works and, in a sense, completes the argument against the democratic principle

I would simply like to pick out one aspect of Proudhon’s theory—his frequent use of the English term self-government among the synonyms for anarchy—and propose the bare outline how anarchic self-government might function in practice.

Let’s figure out how we might build a road, or undertake similar projects, using the principle of federation and the sociology of collective force. Readers can then determine whether the distinctions that I have been proposing do or do not actually make a difference.  I’ll structure the sketch around four basic observations about social organization:

  1. The importance of specific decision-making mechanisms or organizational structures to the organization of a free society is almost certainly overestimated. If we are considering building a road, then there are all sorts of technical questions to be answered. We need to know about potential users, routes, construction methods, ecological impacts, etc.—and the answers to all of these questions will significantly narrow the range of possible proposals. We need to make sure that the plans which seem to serve specific local needs can be met with local resources, which will further narrow the possibilities. And in a non-governmental society, there can be no right to coerce individuals in the name of “the People,” nor can there be any obligation for individuals to give way to the will of the majority—and this absence of democratic rights and duties must, I think, be recognized, if the society is to be considered even vaguely anarchistic—so new limitations are likely to appear when individuals feel that their interests are not represented by proposals.

The simplest sort of self-government, where individuals simply pursue a combination of their own interests—including, of course, their interests as members of various social collectivities—and the knowledge necessary to serve them, will either lead to proposals that are acceptable to all the interested parties or they will encounter some obstacle that this sort of simple self-government appears unable to overcome. This second case is presumably the point at which a vote and the imposition of the will of the majority might seem useful. But what is obvious is that such a resolution does not solve the problem facing this particular polity. This sort of democracy is what happens when the simplest sort of self-government—which is probably not worth calling government at all—breaks down, and it involves relations that seem difficult to reconcile with the notion of self-government.

But perhaps this very simple self-government revolves around the wrong sort of self.

  1. The “self” in anarchic self-government is neither simply the human individual, nor “the People,” understood abstractly, but some real social collectivity. The vast majority of Proudhon’s sociological writings actually relate to the analysis of how unity-collectivities, organized social groups with a unified character, emerge and dissolve in society, but what is key for us to note here is that we are not talking about abstract notions like “the People.” Instead, if we are talking about a sort of social self-government, it would seem that the avoidance of exploitation and oppression is going to depend on carefully identifying real collectivities to which various interested parties belong. While “the People” may find their mutual dependence a rather abstract matter, the more precisely we can identify and clarify the workings of specific collectivities, the less chance there should be that purely individual interests undercut negotiations among the members of those collectivities.

One of the important elements of Proudhon’s sociology is his recognition that collectivities may have different interests than the strictly individual interests of the persons of which they are composed. That means that individuals may find themselves forced to recognize their own interests as complex and perhaps in conflicts, depending on the scale and focus of analysis. This may mean, for example, that there will be hard choices between the direct satisfaction of individual desires and various indirect, social satisfactions. But it should also mean that the more strictly individual sorts of satisfaction cannot be neglected when members are thinking about the health and success of the group.

To the extent that real collectivities can be identified, and decisions regarding them limited to the members of those collectivities, negotiations can be structured quite explicitly around the likely trade-offs. To the extent that the health and success of the collectivity depends on lively forms of conflict among the members (and Proudhon made complexity and intensity of internal relations one of the markers of the health—and the freedom—of these entities), then the more conscious all members must be of the need to maintain balance without resorting to some winner-take-all scenario.

It will, of course, not always be possible to resolve conflict by bringing together a single collectivity. There will be issues that can be resolved through additional fact-finding or compromises within the group, but there will be others that call for the identification of other groups of interested parties, whether in parallel with the existing groups, addressing different sorts of shared interests, at a smaller scale, addressing interests that can be addressed separately from the present context, or on a larger scale, addressing issues shared by the given group and other groups as well. We can already see how this analysis leads to federalism as an organizing principle, but perhaps it is not quite clear how and why these various groups might be constituted.

  1. The “nucleus” of every unity-collectivity is likely to be a conflict, problem or convergence of interests. One of the consequences of breaking with the governmental principle ought to be the abandonment of the worldview that sees society always present as “the People,” a fundamentally governmental collectivity always present to intervene in the affairs of individual persons. While there might be a few institutions of self-government that enjoy a perpetual existence, anarchists should almost certainly break with the notion that that each individual is obliged to stand as a citizen of some general polity whenever called to account for themselves.

Instead, the principle of voluntary association and careful attention to real relations of interdependence ought to be our guides. And the rich sort of self-interest we’ve been exploring here ought to serve us well in that regard. To abandon the assumptions of governmentalism and take on the task of self-government is going to be extremely demanding in some cases, so we might expect that individuals will desire to keep their relations simple where they can, coming together to form explicit associations only when circumstances demand it—and then dissolving those association when circumstances allow.

Where existing relations seem inadequate to meet our needs and desires, then some new form of association is always an option—and with practice hopefully we will learn to take on the complex responsibilities involved. Where existing relations seem to bind us in ways that stand in the way of our needs and desires, we’ll learn to distinguish between those existing associations which simply do not serve and those of a more fundamental, inescapable sort—and hopefully we will grow into those large-scale responsibilities from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Conventions for the use of property, the distribution of revenue and products, the mechanics of exchange, etc. can probably be approached in much the same way we would approach the formation of a new workgroup, the extension of a roadway, the establishment of sustainable waste or stormwater disposal, etc.

  1. Organization, according to the federative principle, is a process by which we identify—or extricate—specific social “selves,” on the one hand, or establish their involvement in larger-scale collectivities, on the other, and establish the narrow confines within which various “democratic” practices might come into play. If we are organized in anarchistic federations, then we can expect that organization to be not just bottom-up, but very specifically up from the problems, up from the local needs and desires, up from the material constraints, with the larger-scale collectivities only emerging on the basis of converging interests. Beyond the comparatively temporary nature of the federated collectivities, we should probably specify that we are talking about a largely consultative federalism, within which individuals strive to avoid circumstances in which decision among options is likely to become a clear loss for any of the interested parties. If we are forced by circumstances to resort to mechanisms like a majority vote, then we will want to contain the damage as much as possible. But I suspect we will often find that the local decisions that are both sufficiently collective and divisive to require something worth calling “democratic practices,” but also sufficiently serious to push us to confrontations within local groups may find solutions through consultation with other, similar groups. Alternately, if the urgency is not simply local—if, for example, ecological concerns are a factor—they may find themselves “solved,” not by local desires at all, but by consideration of the effects elsewhere.

Taking these various observations together, it should be clear that I do indeed believe that sometimes we will be required to fall back on familiar sorts of democratic practices, but I hope it is also clear why, in very practical terms, I believe that this will constitute a failure within an anarchist society.

Shawn Wilbur

David Graeber: Democracy v. the State

Continuing with the democracy and anarchy theme, here are some excerpts from an essay by David Graeber on the incompatibility of democracy and the modern state. The complete article, There Never Was a West, Or, Democracy Emerges from the Spaces in Between,” can be found in Graeber’s collection of essays, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, published by AK Press. I included some of Graeber’s writings on the “new” anarchism, anarchy and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Graeber explores many of these ideas in more detail in his book, The Democracy Project.

Democracy and the State: The Impossible Marriage

For the last two hundred years, democrats have been trying to graft ideals of popular self-governance onto the coercive apparatus of the state. In the end, the project is simply unworkable. States cannot, by their nature, ever truly be democratized. They are, after all, basically ways of organizing violence. The American Federalists were being quite realistic when they argued that democracy is inconsistent with a society based on inequalities of wealth; since, in order to protect wealth, one needs an apparatus of coercion to keep down the very “mob” that democracy would empower. Athens was a unique case in this respect because it was, in effect, transitional: there were certainly inequalities of wealth, even, arguably, a ruling class, but there was virtually no formal apparatus of coercion. Hence there’s no consensus among scholars whether it can really be considered a state at all.

It’s precisely when one considers the problem of the modern state’s monopoly of coercive force that the whole pretence of democracy dissolves into a welter of contradictions. For example: while modem elites have largely put aside the earlier discourse of the “mob” as a murderous “great beast,” the same imagery still pops back, in almost exactly the form it had in the sixteenth century, the moment anyone proposes democratizing some aspect of the apparatus of coercion. In the US, for example, advocates of the “fully informed jury movement,” who point out that the Constitution actually allows juries to decide on questions of law, not just of evidence, are regularly denounced in the media as wishing to go back to the days of lynchings and “mob rule,” It’s no coincidence that the United States, a country that still prides itself on its democratic spirit, has also led the world in mythologizing, even deifying, its police.

Francis Dupuis-Deri (2002) has coined the term “political agoraphobia” to refer to the suspicion of public deliberation and decision-maki ng that runs through the Western tradition, just as much in the works of Constant, Siey<&, or Madison as in Plato or Aristotle. I would add that even the most impressive accomplishments of the liberal state, its most genuinely democratic elements—for instance, its guarantees on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—are premised on such agoraphobia. It is only once it becomes absolutely clear that public speech and assembly is no longer itself the medium of political decision-making, but at best an attempt to criticize, influence, or make suggestions to political decision-makers, that they can be treated as sacrosanct. Critically, this agoraphobia is not just shared by politicians and professional journalists, but in large measure by the public itself.

The reasons, I think, are not far to seek. While liberal democracies lack anything resembling the Athenian agora, they certainly do not lack equivalents to Roman circuses. The ugly mirror phenomenon, by which ruling elites encourage forms of popular participation that continually remind the public just how much they are unfit to rule, seems, in many modern states, to have been brought to a condition of unprecedented perfection. Consider here, for example, the view of human nature one might derive generalizing from the experience of driving to work on the highway, as opposed to the view one might derive from the experience of public transportation. Yet the American—or German—love affair with the car was the result of conscious policy decisions by political and corporate elites beginning in the 1930s. One could write a similar history of the television, or consumerism, or, as Polanyi long ago noted, “the market”.

Jurists, meanwhile, have long been aware that the coercive nature of the state ensures that democratic constitutions are founded on a fundamental contradiction. Walter Benjamin (1978) summed it up nicely by pointing out that any legal order that claims a monopoly of the use of violence has to be founded by some power other than itself, which inevitably means by acts that were illegal according to whatever system of law came before. The legitimacy of a system of law, thus, necessarily rests on acts of criminal violence. American and French revolutionaries were, after all, by the law under which they grew up, guilty of high treason. Of course, sacred kings from Africa to Nepal have managed to solve this logical conundrum by placing themselves, like God, outside the system.

But as political theorists from Agamben to Negri remind us, there is no obvious way for “the people” to exercise sovereignty in the same way. Both the right-wing solution (constitutional orders are founded by, and can be set aside by, inspired leaders—whether Founding Fathers, or Fiihrers—who embody the popular will), and the left-wing solution (constitutional orders usually gain their legitimacy through violent popular revolutions) lead to endless practical contradictions. In fact, as sociologist Michael Mann has hinted (1999), much of the slaughter of the twentieth century derives from some version of this contradiction. The demand to simultaneously create a uniform apparatus of coercion within every piece of land on the surface of the planet, and to maintain the pretense that the legitimacy of that apparatus derives from “the people,” has led to an endless need to determine who, precisely, “the people” are supposed to be.

In all the varied German law courts of the last eighty years—from Weimar to Nazi to communist DDR to the Bundesrepublik—the judges have used the same opening formula: “In Namen des Volkes,” “In the Name of the People.” American courts prefer the formula “The Case of the People versus X” (Mann 1999: 19).

In other words, “the people” must be evoked as the authority behind the allocation of violence, despite the fact that any suggestion that the proceedings be in any way democratized is likely to be greeted with horror by all concerned. Mann suggests that pragmatic efforts to work out this contradiction, to use the apparatus of violence to identify and constitute a “people” that those maintaining that apparatus feel are worthy of being the source of their authority, has been responsible for at least sixty million murders in the twentieth century alone.

It is in this context that I might suggest that the anarchist solution— that there really is no resolution to this paradox—is really not all that unreasonable. The democratic state was always a contradiction. Globalization has simply exposed the rotten underpinnings, by creating the need for decision making structures on a planetary scale where any attempt to maintain the pretense of popular sovereignty, let alone participation, would be obviously absurd. The neo-liberal solution, of course, is to declare the market the only form of public deliberation one really needs, and to restrict the state almost exclusively to its coercive function. In this context, the Zapatista response— to abandon the notion that revolution is a matter of seizing control over the coercive apparatus of the state, and instead proposing to refound democracy in the self-organization of autonomous communities—makes perfect sense. This is the reason an otherwise obscure insurrection in southern Mexico caused such a sensation in radical circles to begin with.

Democracy, then, is for the moment returning to the spaces in which it originated: the spaces in between. Whether it can then proceed to engulf the world depends perhaps less on what kind of theories we make about it, but on whether we honestly believe that ordinary human beings, sitting down together in deliberative bodies, would be capable of managing their own affairs as well as elites, whose decisions are backed up by the power of weapons, are of managing it for them—or even whether, even if they wouldn’t, they have the right to be allowed to try. For most of human history, faced with such questions, professional intellectuals have almost universally taken the side of the elites. It is rather my impression that, if it really comes down to it, the overwhelming majority are still seduced by the various ugly mirrors and have no real faith in the possibilities of popular democracy. But perhaps this too could change.

David Graeber

Graeber possibilities