Uri Gordon: Is Anarchy Democracy?

crimethinc democracy

As part of its series on anarchy and democracy, CrimethInc posted a piece by Uri Gordon, “Democracy: The Patriotic Temptation,” in which he highlights the perils of promoting anarchy as the only genuine form of democracy. I have left out the historical introduction, where Gordon summarizes the anarchist critique of democracy that goes back at least to Proudhon. However, I disagree that “the association between anarchism and democracy makes its appearance only around the 1980s, through the writings of Murray Bookchin.” While it is true that Bookchin made great efforts to associate anarchism with direct democracy (starting in the 1960s, in essays like “The Forms of Freedom,” excerpts from which are included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), at times even 19th century anarchists, particularly Proudhon himself, associated anarchy with forms of direct democracy. Drawing on the heritage of direct democracy that came to the fore during the French Revolution and was carried on by workers’ associations well into the 19th century, Proudhon advocated voluntary federations of directly democratic functional groups, with the delegates to the various federations being subject to imperative mandates and recall should they violate their mandates, much the same sort of direct democracy that Bookchin advocated in the 1960s (although even then Bookchin put much more emphasis on community assemblies than Proudhon ever did).

dejacque

Other anarchists, such as Joseph Déjacque, also advocated forms of direct democracy (I included selections from Déjacque’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). The anarchists in the First International argued that the International should be organized on “federalist” lines, with the delegates to the International’s congresses, and the members of the General Council themselves, subject to imperative mandates from and recall by the sections of the International that had delegated them. Marx and his cohorts, despite the Marxist propaganda regarding his alleged support for direct democracy (based on the misconception that the government of the Paris Commune was some kind of direct democracy, when it was actually a representative form of government), opposed any attempts to require the members of the General Council to be delegated by the member sections of the International, and expressly attacked the anarchists’ advocacy of direct democracy within the International at the 1872 Hague Congress, where they ridiculed the anarchists’ insistence that delegates follow the mandates given to them by the sections that had delegated them to attend the Congress. I review this history in some detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

for-sale-democracy

Selling Anarchism as Democracy

Essentially, the association of anarchism with democracy is a two-pronged rhetorical maneuver intended to increase the appeal of anarchism for mainstream publics. The first component of the maneuver is to latch onto the existing positive connotations that democracy carries in established political language. Instead of the negative (and false) image of anarchism as mindless and chaotic, a positive image is fostered by riding on the coattails of “democracy” as a widely-endorsed term in the mass media, educational system, and everyday speech. The appeal here is not to any specific set of institutions or decision-making procedures, but to the association of democracy with freedom, equality, and solidarity—to the sentiments that go to work when democracy is placed in binary opposition to dictatorship, and celebrated as what distinguishes the “free countries” of the West from other regimes.

Yet the second component of the maneuver is subversive: it seeks to portray current capitalist societies as not, in fact, democratic, since they alienate decision-making power from the people and place it in the hands of elites. This amounts to an argument that the institutions and procedures that mainstream audiences associate with democracy—government by representatives—are not in fact democratic, or at least a very pale and limited fulfilment of the values they are said to embody. True democracy, in this account, can only be local, direct, participatory, and deliberative, and is ultimately achievable only in a stateless and classless society. The rhetorical aim of the maneuver as a whole is to generate in the audience a sense of indignation at having been deceived: while the emotional attachment to “democracy” is confirmed, the belief that it actually exists is denied.

Now there are two problems with this maneuver, one conceptual and one more substantive. The conceptual problem is that it introduces a truly idiosyncratic notion of democracy, so ambitious as to disqualify almost all political experiences that fall under the common understanding of the term—including all electoral systems in which representatives do not have a strict mandate and are not immediately recallable. By claiming that current “democratic” regimes are in fact not democratic at all and that the only democracy worthy of the name is actually some version of an anarchist society, anarchists are asking people to reconfigure their understanding of democracy in a rather extreme way. While it is possible to maintain this new usage with logical coherence, it is nevertheless so rarefied and contrary to the common usage that its potential as a pivot for mainstream opinion is highly questionable.

an open question

an open question

The second problem is graver. While the association with democracy may seek to appeal only to its egalitarian and libertarian connotations, it also entangles anarchism with the patriotic nature of the pride in democracy which it seeks to subvert. The appeal is not simply to an abstract design for participatory institutions, but to participatory institutions recovered from the American revolutionary tradition. Bookchin (1985) is quite explicit about this, when he calls on anarchists to “start speaking in the vocabulary of the democratic revolutions” while unearthing and enlarging their libertarian content:

That [American] bourgeois past has libertarian features about it: the town meetings of New England. Municipal and local control, the American mythology that the less government the better, the American belief in independence and individualism. All these things are antithetical to a cybernetic economy, a highly centralized corporative economy and a highly centralized political system… I’m for democratizing the republic and radicalizing the democracy, and doing that on the grass roots level: that will involve establishing libertarian institutions which are totally consistent with the American tradition. We can’t go back to the Russian Revolution or the Spanish revolution any more. Those revolutions are alien to people in North America.

Cindy Milstein’s formulation in her article “Democracy is Direct” (Milstein 2000) works directly to fulfil this program by seeking to build on American origin myths:

Given that the United States is held up as the pinnacle of democracy, it seems particularly appropriate to hark back to those strains of a radicalized democracy that fought so valiantly and lost so crushingly in the American Revolution. We need to take up that unfinished project… Like all the great modern revolutions, the American Revolution spawned a politics based on face-to-face assemblies confederated within and between cities… Those of us living in the United States have inherited this self-schooling in direct democracy, even if only in vague echoes… deep-seated values that many still hold dear: independence, initiative, liberty, equality. They continue to create a very real tension between grassroots self-governance and top-down representation.

The appeal to the consensus view of the American polity as founded in a popular and democratic revolution, genuinely animated by freedom and equality, is precisely intended to target existing patriotic sentiments, even as it emphasises their subversive consequences. Milstein even invokes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when she criticises reformist agendas which “work with a circumscribed and neutralized notion of democracy, where democracy is neither of the people, by the people, nor for the people, but rather, only in the supposed name of the people.” Yet this is a dangerous move, since it relies on a self-limiting critique of the patriotic sentiment itself, and allows the foundation myths to which it appeals to remain untouched by critiques of manufactured collective identity and colonial exclusion. While noting the need not to whitewash the racial, gendered, and other injustices that were part of “the historic event that created this country,” Milstein can only offer an unspecific exhortation to “grapple with the relation between this oppression and the liberatory moments of the American Revolution.”

wells athenian democracy

Yet given that the appeal is targeted at non-anarchist participants, there is little if any guarantee that such a grappling would actually take place. The patriotic sentiment appealed to here is more often than not a component of a larger nationalist narrative, one that hardly partakes of a decolonial critique (which by itself would have many questions about the Western enlightenment roots of notions of citizenship and the public sphere). The celebration of democracy in terms that directly invoke the early days of the American polity may end up reinforcing rather than questioning loyalties to the nation-state that claims, however falsely, to be the carrier of the democratic inheritance of the colonial period. This is especially poignant in the context of the recent wave of mobilization, which displays precisely this mix of quintessentially anarchist-influenced means of organization and action, and distinctly patriotic and nationalist discourses—from the Egyptian revolution’s embrace of the military, through the Jeffersonian sentiments pervading the Occupy movement, and on to the outright nationalism of the Ukrainian revolution.

There is, indeed, one reason to question this concern—namely, the democratic and nationalist sentiments that have been expressed by movements with which anarchists have good reasons to sense an affinity. The most prominent of these are the struggles of communities in Chiapas linked to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in southeast Mexico and the revolutionary movement in Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. Both have not only employed the language of democracy to signify a decentralised and egalitarian form of society, but also an explicit agenda of national liberation. The Kurdish movement has publicly endorsed Bookchin as a source of inspiration. Does this mean that anarchists are wrong to maintain active solidarity with these movements? My answer is “No”—but due to a crucial difference that also vindicates the general argument above. It is not the same thing for stateless minorities in the global South to use the language of democracy and national liberation as it is for citizens of advanced capitalist countries in which national independence is already an accomplished fact. The former do not appeal to patriotic founding myths engendered by an existing nation state, with their associated privileges and injustices, but to the possibility of a different and untested form of radically decentralised and potentially stateless “national liberation.” To be sure, this carries its own risks, but anarchists in the global North are hardly in a position to preach on these matters.

Thus we return to the main point: for anarchists in the USA and Western Europe, at least, the choice to use the language of democracy is based on the desire to mobilize and subvert a form of patriotism that is ultimately establishment-friendly; it risks cementing the nationalist sentiments it seeks to undermine. Anarchists have always had a public image problem. Trying to undo it through the connection to mainstream democratic and nationalist sentiments is not worth this risk.

Uri Gordon

we-dont-need-patriotism

Brian Morris: The Myth of the Liberal State

Brian Morris

Brian Morris

Brian Morris is one of those authors whose writings, regrettably, I was unable to fit into Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. He surely deserved a place in Volume Three, The New Anarchism (1974-2012). He has written too many books to list here, but from an anarchist perspective his most noteworthy include Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (1993), Ecology and Anarchism (1996), Kropotkin: The Politics of Community (2004), Pioneers of Ecological Humanism (2012), and Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader (2014). The following is a piece Brian Morris wrote for the English anarchist paper, Freedom, in 1993, in which he handily disposes of the Oxford academic David Miller’s claims that some kind of state is necessary to achieve and maintain economic prosperity, distributive justice and peace.

Morris anthology

A Critique of Liberal Social Theory

David Miller’s useful book on ‘Anarchism’ [1984] was an attempt – so he assured us – to rescue anarchism from the dustbin of history.  He felt anarchism was an important political tradition and had something of value.  It could teach us about the abuses of power, and about the possibilities of free social relationships.  Miller, as a market socialist, advocated three specific values; economic efficiency, distributive justice and the control of “anti-social” behaviour.  In terms of these values, anarchism was declared not to be a viable political option.  He argued that without a market system and the nation state these values were simply not attainable.  Hence Miller’s advocacy of market socialism, otherwise known by its more familiar name of welfare capitalism.

Yet when we look at the real world, beyond the cloisters of Nuffield College, what do we observe?  None of Miller’s esteemed values are anywhere in evidence.

Take economic efficiency.  What do we find?  Poverty, malnutrition and famine throughout much of Africa and Latin America.  There is ecological degradation, increasing desertification, destruction of forests and woodlands, depletion at all levels.  Much of this is due to so-called “development”; to the intensification of agriculture, and to the economic maraudings of multinational capital in search of profits.  Judged in terms of economic efficiency, capitalism – the market economy – is a complete and utter failure, and a serious threat to human survival.

As for “distributive justice”?  What do we find?  Corruption, injustice, and obscene and blatant social inequalities everywhere.  Land holding and the ownership of productive capital, as well as access to the media, are everywhere maldistributed.  Thus, for example, we find in Peru that 10 per cent of the landowners own 93 per cent of the agricultural land.  We find that between 1982 and 1985 the Sudan exported millions of tons of sorghum – in order to feed animals in the richer countries – while at the same time thousands of peasants in southern Sudan were dying of hunger.  People in extreme poverty, without access to land, without any visible means of support and often without even a roof over their head, are to be seen throughout the world living in juxtaposition to extremes of luxury and wealth.  If anything there is, and always has been, an obverse correlation between capitalism and “distributive justice”.  For where commodity production prevails or intrudes, social inequalities invariably increase or are generated.  The green revolution in India has not only been a breeding ground for civil unrest and violence, but, as Vandana Shiva and others have written, has lead to INCREASING social inequalities.

Morris Kropotkin

As for the nation state keeping the peace, or curtailing “anti-social” behaviour, what do we, in reality, find?  Exactly the opposite.  The state is THE source of violent repression, of social and political harassment, and of the curtailment of civil liberties everywhere.  Militarism is rife throughout the world, and the oppression of people by state functionaries, usually on behalf of commercial interests, is the norm.  As Vithal Rajan puts it, in referring to India: if a tiger is poached, the international community is loud in its disapproval: but if the police shoot ten tribal people defending their customary rights to the forest it is frequently not even considered an offence, and is certainly not reported in the international press.

David Miller, like other liberals, has a rather quaint idea that governments are essentially neutral and benign institutions, serving to protect us from “anti-social” people.  The reality is rather different: such institutions are there to support and protect private property and capitalist interests.  This is clearly brought out in David Powell’s recent study of the coal industry in Britain, appropriately entitled “The Power Game”.  The book clearly states which side the state was on in the bitter struggles between labour and capital during the years of industrialism.  At the periphery of the capitalist system, the state is not an institution that protects people; it is one that they need protection from.  The state is organized violence and the reason that power has a capillary effect in modern society – as Foucault argued – is not that there are no centralized institutions but to the fact that the state is now so powerful.  It is infrastructural – penetrating social institutions – as well as overtly coercive and despotic.  The state is incompatible with liberty as is capitalism as an economic system.  Nowadays it is difficult to disentangle the two, and a form of state capitalism prevails.

There is no evidence for the supposed correlation between capitalism and freedom which liberal scholars like Friedman, Hayek, Gray and Fukuyama are so fond of stressing.  John Hall and John Ikenberry in their Open University Book on “The State” (1989) assert that early modern Europe was characterized by an intrinsic link between commerce and liberty (52).  Such a distorted reading of history is only possible if one completely oblates the fact that not only was there little liberty in Europe for working people during this period, but also the “commerce” of which they speak entailed rapacious mercantile trade, genocide and slavery.  Capitalism, as Ngugi Wa Thiongo notes, “came to the world dripping with blood”.  It hardly needs mentioning that some of the most important liberal scholars – like Hume and Locke – were personally implicated in the slave “trade”, worthy though they may have been in other respects.  There has never been a correlation between capitalism and liberty if capitalism is seen for what it is; namely a world system that is intrinsically exploitative of people and of the natural environment.

As a political scientist David Miller has little interest in ecology.  Even people who see themselves as radical ecologists – writers like Arne Naess, Paul Ekins, and Robyn Eckersley – and who are alive to current problems relating to “social justice” and “ecological sustainability”, embrace, when it comes to offering some vision of an alternative future, the kind of welfare capitalism long ago suggested by liberal scholars.  Their vision is no different from that of Miller.  They are thus advocates of the “market” as the best way of allocating resources – and assume that it will simply cease to be exploitative of people and of nature.  The state, they believe, will simply transform itself into a benign institution, one that will provide “macro-controls” on the market – protecting ecosystem integrity, social justice and equality, as well as curtailing excessive concentrations of economic power.  A political vision that is hardly new or radical: it just provides scholarly colleagues with an up-date on liberal theory taking into account the global ecological and economic crisis.  It is an attempt to “green” liberal political theory, just as, at another level, multinational corporations are engaged in greening the retail business.

Brian Morris, Freedom (1993)

Morris pioneers of ecological humanism

Fearless Anarchy

Fireworks of various colors bursting against a black background

Just got my sales statement from AK Press, and see that ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement has now sold over 1200 copies! (over 1100 paperbacks and over 100 e-books). Many thanks to AK Press for their excellent marketing and promotion. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion, drawing some lessons for today from out of the debates among the anarchists in the International Workingmen’s Association.

We Do Not Fear the Cover

Anarchism and Social Movements

Today, many anarchists advocate not only working within broader based social movements, but helping to establish popular movements that from their inception adopt decentralized, affinity group based organizational structures that form horizontal networks and popular assemblies where power remains at the base, not in a hierarchical administration, bureaucracy or executive.[i]

But this concept can also be traced back to the International, for it was the federalists, anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the International who insisted that the workers’ own organizations, including the International itself, should be directly democratic, voluntary federations freely federated with one another, for they were to provide the very basis for the future free society. Contemporary anarchists have simply developed more sophisticated ways of implementing these ideas and preventing movements from being co-opted and transformed into top down organizations.

Gone is the “inverted” pyramid of the 19th century anarchists, with smaller scale groups federating into larger and more encompassing federations, ultimately resulting in international federations composed of groups from lower level federations, such as national or regional federations. The problem with these kinds of federations is that the higher level federations can be transformed into governing bodies, particularly in times of crisis, as Marx and Engels attempted to transform the International’s General Council into an executive power after the suppression of the Paris Commune.

Instead of federations organized “from the bottom up,” many contemporary anarchists advocate interlocking horizontal networks like those used in various global movements against neo-liberalism, the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina and the Occupy movement, networks with no centres, not even administrative or “federalist” ones.[ii] These contemporary movements have been able, at least for a time, to break out of the isolation to which autonomous anarchist communist groups in late 19th century Europe were prone prior to the renewed involvement of many anarchists in the workers’ movement in the mid-1890s, which gave rise to various revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements in Europe and the Americas.

What is different about contemporary anarchist approaches to organization is that they bridge the gap between the affinity group, popular assemblies and broader networks of similar organizations and movements in a way that 19th century anarchist communist groups were unable to do, without relying on the more permanent forms and institutions utilized by the anarcho-syndicalists in their federalist organizations. Syndicalist organizations were always in danger of being transformed into top down bureaucratic organizations, as eventually happened with the French CGT during the First World War and even more so after the Russian Revolution, when the CGT came under the control of the Marxists. Under the pressure of the Spanish Civil War, even the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain began turning into a bureaucratic organization.

In many ways, these contemporary forms of anarchist organization mirror the anarchist communist vision of a society in which, in Kropotkin’s words, “ever modified associations… carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.”[iii] By making these kinds of organizations, like affinity groups, the basis of their horizontal networks, contemporary anarchists have created non-hierarchical organizations that not just prefigure, but realize in the here and now, the organizational forms consonant with an anarchist communist future, within the context of broader movements for social change.

Robert Graham

[i] Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” in Anarchism Vol. 3, “The New Anarchism,” ed R. Graham, 2012: 1-11.

[ii] Graham, ibid: 572-576.

[iii] Graham, Anarchism Vol. 1, “From Anarchy to Anarchism,” 2005: 142.

anarchist_commmunist_poster_by_redclasspride

An Anarchist FAQ – 20th Anniversary

anarchist FAQ

Another anniversary worth commemorating – the 20th anniversary of an Anarchist FAQ! If anyone wants to see an exposition of anarchism as a coherent political theory, this is the place to go. Congratulations in particular to Iain McKay for his unstinting work on the FAQ. Here I present an excerpt on the incompatibility of anarchy with hierarchy, which ties in nicely with the Encyclopédie Anarchiste definition of “hierarchy” that I posted previously.

hierarchy

Anarchy v. Hierarchy

If one is an anti-authoritarian, one must oppose all hierarchical institutions, since they embody the principle of authority. For, as Emma Goldman argued, “it is not only government in the sense of the state which is destructive of every individual value and quality. It is the whole complex authority and institutional domination which strangles life. It is the superstition, myth, pretence, evasions, and subservience which support authority and institutional domination.” [Red Emma Speaks, p. 435] This means that “there is and will always be a need to discover and overcome structures of hierarchy, authority and domination and constraints on freedom: slavery, wage-slavery [i.e. capitalism], racism, sexism, authoritarian schools, etc.” [Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics, p. 364]

Thus the consistent anarchist must oppose hierarchical relationships as well as the state. Whether economic, social or political, to be an anarchist means to oppose hierarchy. The argument for this (if anybody needs one) is as follows:

“All authoritarian institutions are organised as pyramids: the state, the private or public corporation, the army, the police, the church, the university, the hospital: they are all pyramidal structures with a small group of decision-makers at the top and a broad base of people whose decisions are made for them at the bottom. Anarchism does not demand the changing of labels on the layers, it doesn’t want different people on top, it wants us to clamber out from underneath.” [Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action, p. 22]

Hierarchies “share a common feature: they are organised systems of command and obedience” and so anarchists seek “to eliminate hierarchy per se, not simply replace one form of hierarchy with another.” [Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 27] A hierarchy is a pyramidally-structured organisation composed of a series of grades, ranks, or offices of increasing power, prestige, and (usually) remuneration. Scholars who have investigated the hierarchical form have found that the two primary principles it embodies are domination and exploitation. For example, in his classic article “What Do Bosses Do?” (Review of Radical Political Economy, Vol. 6, No. 2), a study of the modern factory, Steven Marglin found that the main function of the corporate hierarchy is not greater productive efficiency (as capitalists claim), but greater control over workers, the purpose of such control being more effective exploitation.

Control in a hierarchy is maintained by coercion, that is, by the threat of negative sanctions of one kind or another: physical, economic, psychological, social, etc. Such control, including the repression of dissent and rebellion, therefore necessitates centralisation: a set of power relations in which the greatest control is exercised by the few at the top (particularly the head of the organisation), while those in the middle ranks have much less control and the many at the bottom have virtually none.

Since domination, coercion, and centralisation are essential features of authoritarianism, and as those features are embodied in hierarchies, all hierarchical institutions are authoritarian. Moreover, for anarchists, any organisation marked by hierarchy, centralism and authoritarianism is state-like, or “statist.” And as anarchists oppose both the state and authoritarian relations, anyone who does not seek to dismantle all forms of hierarchy cannot be called an anarchist. This applies to capitalist firms. As Noam Chomsky points out, the structure of the capitalist firm is extremely hierarchical, indeed fascist, in nature:

“a fascist system. . . [is] absolutist – power goes from top down . . . the ideal state is top down control with the public essentially following orders.

“Let’s take a look at a corporation. . . [I]f you look at what they are, power goes strictly top down, from the board of directors to managers to lower managers to ultimately the people on the shop floor, typing messages, and so on. There’s no flow of power or planning from the bottom up. People can disrupt and make suggestions, but the same is true of a slave society. The structure of power is linear, from the top down.” [Keeping the Rabble in Line, p. 237]

David Deleon indicates these similarities between the company and the state well when he writes:

“Most factories are like military dictatorships. Those at the bottom are privates, the supervisors are sergeants, and on up through the hierarchy. The organisation can dictate everything from our clothing and hair style to how we spend a large portion of our lives, during work. It can compel overtime; it can require us to see a company doctor if we have a medical complaint; it can forbid us free time to engage in political activity; it can suppress freedom of speech, press and assembly — it can use ID cards and armed security police, along with closed-circuit TVs to watch us; it can punish dissenters with ‘disciplinary layoffs’ (as GM calls them), or it can fire us. We are forced, by circumstances, to accept much of this, or join the millions of unemployed. . . In almost every job, we have only the ‘right’ to quit. Major decisions are made at the top and we are expected to obey, whether we work in an ivory tower or a mine shaft.” [“For Democracy Where We Work: A rationale for social self-management”, Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), pp. 193-4]

Thus the consistent anarchist must oppose hierarchy in all its forms, including the capitalist firm. Not to do so is to support archy — which an anarchist, by definition, cannot do. In other words, for anarchists, “[p]romises to obey, contracts of (wage) slavery, agreements requiring the acceptance of a subordinate status, are all illegitimate because they do restrict and restrain individual autonomy.” [Robert Graham, “The Anarchist Contract, Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), p. 77] Hierarchy, therefore, is against the basic principles which drive anarchism. It denies what makes us human and “divest[s] the personality of its most integral traits; it denies the very notion that the individual is competent to deal not only with the management of his or her personal life but with its most important context: the social context.” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 202]

An Anarchist FAQ

hierarchy-and-anarchy

Anarchism: Toward Global Justice

anti-globalization portland

Getting back to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins, development and evolution of anarchist ideas, in this installment I discuss the relationship between anarchism and contemporary anti-capitalist movements. As the electoral debacles of representative government in capitalist “democracies” continue to unfold, perhaps we will see yet another resurgence in direct action movements against capitalism and domination.

anti-capitalist-protest

Anarchism and Global Justice Movements

David Graeber, among others, has noted that many groups involved in the global justice movement utilize “a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments—spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on—all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity; without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do,” an essentially anarchist approach. Indeed, the “very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative—all of this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition” (Volume Three, Selection 1). Similar approaches have been adopted by the Occupy movements that spread across the globe in 2011 (Volume Three, Selection 9).

In light of these developments, some anarchists have begun to articulate a less sectarian and more inclusive conception of anarchism which focuses on process and action, allowing for a diversity of views regarding ultimate ends, recognizing that what anarchists seek is social liberation, not the triumph of an ideology. Anarchists have participated in such international resistance networks as People’s Global Action, which also include many non-anarchists, but which also reject more conventional organizational structures. As the Zapatista inspired Second Declaration of La Realidad put it, such networks have “no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist” (Volume Three, Selections 1 & 58).

This view has been embraced by a variety of anarchist groups. In the 2001 Madrid Declaration of social revolutionary libertarian groups from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, they argue that anarchists “should currently strive towards encouraging convergence, the interaction of social movements—including the workers’ movement—in a solid social movement antagonistic to capital and its present true face: economic globalization and all other types of domination. This antagonistic social movement does not have, and nor should it have, a single organizational expression. It is pluralistic, based on current reality, coming and acting together in the same territory, recreating a common territorial identity, composed of many identities,” such as “the workers’ movement, the unemployed, the excluded, indigenous movements, discriminated groups, ecologists and feminists, promoting direct action as a way towards social reappropriation of wealth and as a form of propaganda by the deed, as an exercise in direct democracy, participatory and federalist, without delegations or intermediaries, building on a community level in each territory and as an alternative to authoritarian institutions” (Volume Three, Selection 2).

cnt_march

One of the signatories to the Madrid Declaration, the CIPO-RFM or Consejo Indigena Popular de Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ Native People’s Council of Oaxaca), is a liberation movement in the Oaxaca region of Mexico that consciously draws on the heritage of Mexican anarchism and indigenous traditions (Volume One, Selection 73; Volume Three, Selection 59). As the Columbian anarchist group, Colectivo Alas de Xue, argues, there exists much common ground between anarchists and many indigenous (or “Indian”) groups in the Americas, such as opposition to the conformity and homogenization imposed by nation states within their own borders, with their centralized power structures, national “culture” and “official” languages, and the separation of peoples by those same borders, dividing families and inhibiting people’s movements (Volume Three, Selection 60). Many anarchists have become involved in groups like “No Borders” and “No One Is Illegal,” which seek, in Harsha Walia’s words, “to attain justice and victories for immigrants and refugees, and to develop the communities’ own capacity to attain dignity for themselves and their families. Real justice will come as immigrants, refugees, and nonstatus people build greater trust in visions of an alternate world, and organize, educate, act, and fight for their own self-determination” (Volume Three, Selection 64).

This quest for self-determination often brings indigenous peoples and immigrants into conflict with national governments, multinational corporations and the paramilitary organizations upon which they sometimes rely, but it is a quest which lies at the heart of anarchism conceived as a movement that seeks to create a world in which people may, in Bakunin’s words, “take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

From this perspective, there is no necessary conflict between anarchist anti-statism and communal self-determination—rather, they can be seen as parts of the same age old struggle for freedom, often incorporating similar decision making procedures and forms of organization while employing similar tactics, such as direct action. As Uri Gordon argues in the context of the Palestinian struggle for independence, “anarchists may take action in solidarity with Palestinians (as well as Tibetans, West Papuans and Sahrawis for that matter) without reference to the question of statehood. The everyday acts of resistance that anarchists join and defend in Palestine and Israel are immediate steps to help preserve people’s livelihoods and dignity, which are in no way necessarily connected to a statist project” (Volume Three, Selection 21).

latin american anarchism

The Colectivo Alas de Xue notes that many indigenous societies utilize collective forms of decision making similar to the kinds of direct democracy that “libertarians have yearned for down through the centuries” (Volume Three, Selection 60). As David Graeber argues, many indigenous communities developed forms of consensus-based decision making that provide a model consonant with anarchist conceptions of direct democracy precisely because in such societies there is “no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision—either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making” (Volume Three, Selection 6).

This is not to say that libertarian groups drawing on these communal traditions uncritically endorse every aspect of them. Sharif Gemie points out that “many tribal lifestyles are explicitly patriarchal: they refuse women any formal involvement in decision-making. Many tribes also affirm the sanctity of rule by elders, thus rejecting the political potential of younger people” (Volume Three, Selection 50). In Mexico, the CIPO-RFM has consciously striven to deal with these sorts of issues by, for example, actively promoting “a culture of respect for women and for women’s rights, ensuring in practice that within our organization women take up their equal and fair share of positions of representation and responsibility within our ranks” (Volume Three, Selection 59).

In Africa, anarchists have sought to build upon the pre-colonial history of people living without states in egalitarian communities, particularly in light of the disastrous consequences of colonialism and the division of Africa into nation states whose borders were arbitrarily set by the former colonial powers (Volume Three, Selections 51 & 52). Kurdish anarchists have similarly argued that tribal traditions of decentralization and hostility toward the various nation states which have sought to control them predispose the Kurds toward anarchism, leading to the development of a community assembly movement drawing on the ideas of Murray Bookchin (Volume 3, Selection 61). Bas Umali has suggested that Bookchin’s ideas can also be adapted to conditions in the Philippine archipelago, building on traditional community forms such as the “barangay,” a small community of 50 to 100 families (Volume Three, Selection 62).

Whether in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, wherever functioning communities exist, there will also exist social practices and institutions of solidarity and mutual aid. As Elisée Reclus noted long ago, “where anarchist practice really triumphs is in the course of everyday life among common people who would not be able to endure their dreadful struggle for existence if they did not engage in spontaneous mutual aid, putting aside differences and conflicts of interest” (Volume One, Selection 38). Colin Ward therefore argues that “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism” (1973: 11). From this perspective, anarchism is not “the founding of something new,” but as Gustav Landauer wrote, “the actualization and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste” (Ward, 1973: 11).

Robert Graham

another world is possible

A Living Utopia – Spanish Anarchism and Revolution

A documentary with English subtitles on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution. This time you can click on the play button to watch the film. Viva la anarquia!

The Spanish Revolution – 80th Anniversary

"Freedom"

“Freedom”

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution that included writings from before and during the revolution regarding the Spanish anarchist movement and its role in the often misrepresented and sometimes ignored contributions of the anarchists to the social revolution in Spain that began with the Civil War that was precipitated by a fascist military coup on July 19, 1936. I have added extra material on the role of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution to this blog. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, I present a very short introduction (take that Oxford University Press) from the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

Anarchist and syndicalist ideas had deep roots among Spanish peasants and workers. In 1911, a massive revolutionary trade union federation, the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) was formed. It had two aims; first, to fight the bosses with mass action in the daily struggle and, second, to make an anarchist revolution by organising the workers and the poor to seize back the land, factories and mines.

The CNT led many militant and successful struggles against the bosses and the government. By 1936 it was the biggest union in Spain, with nearly two million members. But the CNT was always democratic and, despite its giant size, never had more than one paid official.

The Anarchists did not restrict themselves to the workplace. They also organised an anarchist political group to work within the unions (the FAI) and organised rent boycotts in poor areas. The CNT itself included working peasants, farm workers and the unemployed. It even organised workers’ schools!

In July 1936, fascists led by General Franco, and backed by the rich and the Church, tried to seize power in Spain. The elected government (the Popular Front coalition of left-wing parties) was unable and unwilling to deal with the fascists. It even tried to strike a deal with the fascists by appointing a right-winger as Prime Minister. Why? Because they would rather compromise with the right wing and protect their wealth and power than arm the workers and the poor for self-defence.

Fortunately, the workers and the peasants did not wait around for the government to act. The CNT declared a general strike and organised armed resistance to the attempted take-over. Other unions and left wing groups followed the CNT’s lead.

In this way the people were able to stop the fascists in two-thirds of Spain. It soon became apparent to these workers and peasants that this was not just a war against fascists, but the beginning of a revolution! Anarchist influence was everywhere, workers’ militias were set up independently from the State, workers seized control of their workplaces and peasants seized the land.

There were many triumphs of the revolution, although we are only able to consider a few of the Spanish workers’ and peasants’ victories here. These included the general take over of the land and factories.

Small peasants and farm workers faced extremely harsh conditions in Spain. Starvation and repression were a part of their daily lives and, as a result, anarchism was particularly strong in the countryside. During the revolution, as many as 7 million peasants and farm workers set up voluntary collectives in the anti-fascist regions. After landowners fled, a village assembly was held. If a decision to collectivise was taken, all the land, tools and animals were pooled together for the use of the entire collective. Teams were formed to look after the various areas of work, while a committee was elected to co-ordinate the overall running of the collective. Each collective had regular general meetings in which all members participated. Individuals who did not want to join the collectives were not forced to. They were given enough land to farm on, but were forbidden to hire labourers to work this land. Most “individualists” eventually joined the collectives when they saw how successful they were.

Anarchism inspired massive transformations in industry. Workers seized control over their workplaces, and directly controlled production by themselves and for the benefit of the Spanish workers and peasants. The tram system in Barcelona provided a shining example of just how much better things can be done under direct workers’ control. On July 24th 1936, the tram crews got together and decided to run the whole system themselves. Within five days, 700 trams were in service instead of the usual 600. Wages were equalised and working conditions improved, with free medical care provided for workers.

Everyone benefited from the trams being under workers’ control. Fares were reduced and an extra 50 million passengers were transported. Surplus income was used to improve transport services and produce weapons for defence of the revolution. With the capitalist profit motive gone, safety became much more important and the number of accidents were reduced.

In the early stages of the revolution, the armed forces of the state had effectively collapsed. In their place, the trade unions and left-wing organisations set about organising the armed workers and peasants into militias. Overall, there were 150,000 volunteers willing to fight where they were needed. The vast majority were members of the CNT. All officers were elected by the rank-and-file and had no special privileges.

The revolution showed that workers, peasants and the poor could create a new world without bosses or a government. It showed that anarchist ideas and methods (such as building revolutionary unions) could work. Yet despite all this, the revolution was defeated. By 1939, the fascists had won the civil war and crushed the working-class and peasants with a brutal dictatorship.

Why did this happen? The revolution was defeated partly because of the strength of the fascists. They were backed by the rich, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The CNT also made mistakes. It aimed for maximum anti-fascist unity and joined the Popular Front alliance, which included political parties from government and pro-capitalist forces. This required the CNT to make many compromises in its revolutionary programme. It also gave the Popular Front government an opportunity to undermine and destroy the anarchist collectives and the workers militias, with the Communist Party playing a leading role in these attacks at the behest of Stalinist Russia.

Nevertheless, anarchists had proved that ideas, which look good in the pages of theory books, look even better on the canvas of life.

Workers Solidarity Movement

'The Revolution and the War are Inseparable'

‘The Revolution and the War are Inseparable’

Berned! Sanders Supports Clinton

Now that, predictably, Bernie Sanders has thrown his support behind Hillary Clinton, I thought this video from the Stimulator was particularly appropriate. You have to click on the link immediately below (#BERNEDOUT). WordPress now charges extra to display the video graphic. The image below the link is just that – an image, not the link to the video.

#BERNEDOUT

Berned Out!

Berned Out!

Neither EU Nor UK

Brexit

The recent “Brexit” vote in Britain brings to mind a few things. First, the counter-revolutionary role of state-controlled referendums (‘referenda’ for the language police), something that Proudhon pointed out in 1851 in General Idea of the Revolution, building on his previous seemingly paradoxical statement that “universal suffrage is counter-revolution” (I included excerpts from General Idea in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and several other of Proudhon’s anarchist writings). Just as universal suffrage is used to legitimate political rule by giving the illusion of popular sovereignty, so do referendums provide an illusion of “direct democracy,” when the ruling classes remain firmly in control (although not always as firmly as they like)

lesser evil

Second, the false dichotomies represented by the choices provided in referendums — in this case the choice between an “independent United Kingdom” and the European Union. Throughout the history of anarchist movements, anarchists have been told they have to choose between one or the other unacceptable alternative, the so-called “lesser evil” (and so we have “derivative anarchist fellow traveller” Noam Chomsky advocating support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump). Failing to choose is supposed to constitute an abdication of responsibility and to condemn anarchists to powerlessness and irrelevancy. In 1851 in France, the choice was supposed to be between Napoleon III or the Republic; during the Russian Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between the Bolsheviks (Marxist Leninists) or the counter-revolution; during the two World Wars, in Europe the choice was supposed to be between the “Allies” or Germany/the Nazis; during the Spanish Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between Fascism or the Republic, or between military victory or social revolution; during the Cold War, the choice was supposed to be between US or Soviet imperialism, inspiring Marie Louise Berneri to coin the phrase, “Neither East Nor West” (see Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). In response to the Brexit vote, I would like to put forward a variation of that theme: Neither the EU Nor the UK.

Third, if anarchists reject this latest false dilemma, what alternatives can they present? Besides the obvious (possibly long term) ones, like social revolution, an anarchist society without hierarchy and domination, freedom and equality, and so forth? As a contribution to that debate, I present Andrew Flood’s 10 point guide for post Brexit resistance (from the Workers Solidarity Movement website). Andrew has also presented an excellent analysis of the Brexit vote results.

10 point guide for post Brexit resistance as racist right wins EU referendum

  1. The Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union demonstrates that even weak parliamentary democracy is incompatible with escalating neoliberal inequality.  In the UK as elsewhere a tiny segment of the population have taken a larger and larger share of total wealth in the last decades.  Particularly under austerity almost everyone else has seen their share of the wealth they produce decline massively.
  2. The Remain campaign was headed up by the political class of the neoliberal establishment and backed by model neo liberal corporations like Ryanair.  But because the anger against rising inequality was successfully diverted through scapegoating already marginalized people, in particular migrants, the Leave campaign was also led by wealthy elitist bigots whose variant of neoliberalism looks to the former colonies and the US rather than Europe.
  3. The markets are now punishing the electorate with capital flight. But the racist colonialist nature of the Leave campaign means that rather than capitalism being blamed migrants will again be scapegoated.  The impact of continued inequality – on white citizen workers – will be blamed on attacks on migrants not being as cruel and ruthless as ‘required’.
  4. The alternative to fight for isn’t yet another referendum but the abolition of a global order built on inequality & market dictatorship.
  5. In the immediate future, the defense of migrants, including those yet to come, is fundamental to opposing the swing to the right post-Brexit.
  6. If the left swings towards a simple economist stance post-Brexit then the racist colonialist nature of that vote will be solidified  We must argue on the more apparently difficult grounds of global class solidarity and not on the treacherous path of the narrow self interest of white citizen workers which can only serve a reactionary English nationalism steeped in racism and colonialism.
  7. The fallout from the Leave vote will not just be limited within the borders of the UK will see a  but huge boost for racist colonialist movements across EU.  The leaders of those movements, like Marine Le Pen have already greeted the Leave vote with joy.
  8. It’s vital to understand this cannot be combatted with liberal platitudes because it is a consequence of the rising inequality economic liberalism has created.  We are facing either a transformation to radical direct democracy that will create economic equality or a turn to the authoritarian politics of control needed to enforce sharp divisions in wealth.
  9. Things look grim but then they were already grim as we face into climate change and automation under capitalism.  The rise of the far right and colonialist racism is not a natural phenomenon but a consequence of a system in a crisis that is a fundamental product of  its own functioning.
  10. We need to take our world back from the patriarchal white supremacist capitalist elite that dominates the planet and dominated both sides of the EU referendum.  The transformation we need if we are not to face escalating poverty, war and climate destruction is a total one that eliminates the state and capitalism to create libertarian communism.

Andrew Flood

brexit voter analysis

Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin

radical-ecological-democracy-towards-a-sustainable-and-equitable-world-feb-2014-1-638

Below I reproduce a recent piece on Cornelius Castoriadis and  Murray Bookchin by Yavor Tarinski, who emphasizes the similarities in their ideas regarding direct democracy and ecology (I have taken the liberty of correcting various grammatical and typographical errors). It is interesting that both Castoriadis and Bookchin were young Marxists during the 1940s who took seriously Leon Trotsky’s remark at the beginning of World War II that if the war was not succeeded by a world revolution, Marxists would have to rethink everything, an intellectual project that Castoriadis and Bookchin soon embarked on. Castoriadis, under the name Paul Cardan, helped found the Socialism or Barbarism group in France, which was very influential in the “New Left” of the 1960s, and helped inspire the events of May 1968. Bookchin began drawing the connections between ecological crisis, capitalism, hierarchy and domination in the early 1960s, in a series of essays, some of which I included in Volume 2 of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. While Bookchin rejected Castoriadis’ ideas regarding the constitution of the “social imaginary,” their concrete political proposals were very similar.

bookchin005

Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control.
Vandana Shiva

Nowadays constantly we are being told “from above” that we don’t have a choice but to conform to the status quo. The dominant power institutions are doing everything they can to convince us that the solution to our social and environmental problems is going to be found in the very same policies that have created them in the first place. The T.I.N.A. [There is No Alternative] narrative continues to dominate the mainstream discourse; and the widespread consumerist culture, in combination with the long-lasting representative crisis, is infecting people’s imaginary with cynicism, general conformism and apathy.

But germs of other ways of thinking and living are trying to break their way through the passivity of present day logic. New significations that are going beyond the contemporary bureaucratic capitalist discourse, offering new sets of reasons and values, which to navigate societal life away from the destructiveness of constant economic growth and cynical apathy.

With popular dissatisfaction of the present order of things on the rise we can distinguish two significations that offer a radical break with the present normality:

On the one hand, there is growing interest in political participation and direct democracy. Nowadays it is becoming almost unthinkable to think of popular unrest outside of the general frame of democracy: first, the demands almost always revolve around more citizen involvement in one form or another; second, the way of organizing popular struggle for a long time has [surpassed] the centralism of the traditional political organizations, insisting instead on self-organization and collaboration.

On the other hand, ecology is emerging as major concern and as an answer to the contemporary growth-based politico-economic model that is responsible for the creation of a tangible environmental crisis and rapidly unfolding climate change. It is being expressed in the form of popular struggles against capitalist extractivist projects, harmful to the environment, human health, as well as to local autonomy. It also takes the form of resistance to consumerist culture, both of which boost innovative new theories like de-growth.

Amongst the diverse spectrum of thinkers that nowadays are developing these new significations we can distinguish Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin as two of the most influential. Both emerged from the Left and through their thought, as well as activist practices, managed to overpass ideological dogmas and to develop their own political projects, incorporating and advancing further direct democracy and ecology. It’s not surprising that they collaborated in the journal Society & Nature, and later in its successor Democracy & Nature, until 1996, when a bitter conflict between the two emerged [http://www.democracynature.org/vol3/biehl_bookchin.htm].

Nowadays their legacy is being carried on by social movements and struggles that place these two significations at the heart of their political activities. Castoriadis’s thought was revitalized with the popular uprisings across Europe of the last years and especially with the so called “Movement of the Squares” (also known as The Indignados), that was driven not by “pure” ideologies but by passion for political action and critical thinking, while Bookchin’s project is being partially implemented in practice by the kurdish liberation movement in the heart of the Middle East (most notably in Rojava), influencing it to such a degree that it completely abandoned its marxist-leninist orientation.

It must be noted that the target of the present text is not the development of a deep comparative analysis between the works of both of them, but instead an effort at underlining two elements of their thought that are especially actual for our current context and are charged with huge potential for change.

Direct Democracy

Both Castoriadis and Bookchin saw great liberatory potential in direct democracy and placed it at the heart of their political projects. They devoted a great part of their writings to that matter, developing this notion beyond the frames set by traditional ideologies. In stark difference with authoritarian views, mistrusting society and thus calling for its subjection to hierarchical, extra-social mechanisms, on the one hand, and on the other, with such views that reject every form of laws and institutions, the two thinkers proposed the establishment of structures and institutions that will allow direct public interaction, while maintaining social cohesion through horizontal flows of power.

According to Castoriadis, the majority of human societies were established on the basis of heteronomy, which he describes as a situation in which the society’s rules are being set by some extra-social source (such as the party, god, historic necessity, etc.). The institutions of the heteronomous societies are conceived as given/self-evident and thus, unquestionable, i.e. incompatible with popular interaction. For him the organizational structure of the modern western world, while usually characterized as “democracy”, is actually a liberal oligarchy, with some liberties for the people, but the general management of social life is situated in the hands of tiny elites (Castoriadis, 1989).

For Castoriadis democracy is an essential element of the social and individual autonomy (the people to set their own rules and institutions), which is the opposite of heteronomy. What he called the project of autonomy entailed direct-democratic self-instituting by the society, consisting of conscious citizens, who realize that they draw their own destiny and not some extra-social force, either natural or metaphysical (Castoriadis, 1992). I.e. in the hands of society lies the highest power that is: to give itself the laws and institutions under which it lives.

Castoriadis derives his understanding of democracy from the classical meaning of the term, originating from Ancient Athens (demos/people and kratos/power). Thus on the basis of this he denotes today’s liberal regimes as non-democratic, since they are based on the election of representatives and not on direct citizen participation. According to him democracy can be only direct, thus incompatible with bureaucracy, expertism, economic inequality and other features of our modern political system (Castoriadis, 1989).

On a more concrete level he suggested the establishment of territorial units with populations of up to 100,000 people, which [were] to self-manage themselves through general assemblies. For coordination between different such units he proposed the establishment of councils and committees to which the local decision-making bodies [would] send revocable short-term delegates (Castoriadis, 2013: pp.42-43). Thus power remains in the hands of the demos, while allowing non-statist coordination on a larger scale.

For Bookchin too, the characterization of the today’s system as a democracy was a mistake, an oxymoron. He reminds us that two centuries ago the term democracy was depicted by rulers as “mob rule”, a prelude to chaos, while nowadays [it] is being used to mask one representative regime, which in its essence is republican oligarchy since a tiny clique of a chosen few rules over the powerless many (Bookchin, 1996).

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, based his understanding of democracy on the experience of the ancient Athenian politia. That is one of the reasons he placed so much attention on the role of the city (Bookchin, 1964). He describes how with the rise of what he called statecraft, the active citizens, deeply and morally committed to their cities, were replaced by passive consumers subjected to parliamentarian rule, whose free time is spent shopping in retail stores and mega malls.

After many years of involvement in different political movements, Bookchin developed his own political project, called Communalism. Based on direct democracy, it revolves extensively around the question of power, rejecting escapist and lifestyle practices. Communalism focuses instead on a center of power that could potentially be subjected to the will of the people – the municipal council – through which to create and coordinate local assembles. He emphasized the antagonistic character towards the state apparatus that these institutions have and the possibility of them becoming the exclusive sources of power in their villages, towns and cities. The democratized municipalities, Bookchin suggested, would confederate with each other by sending revocable delegates to popular assemblies and confederal councils, thus challenging the need of centralized statist power. This concrete model Bookchin called libertarian municipalism (Bookchin, 1996), which has influenced to a big degree Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish struggle for social liberation.

A distinguishing feature of Bookchin’s vision of direct democracy in his communalism was the element of majority voting, which he considered as the only equitable way for a large number of people to make decisions (Bookchin, 2002). According to him consensus, in which a single person can veto every decision, presents a danger for society to be dismantled. However, according to him, all members of society possess knowledge and memory, and thus the social collectivity does not have an interest in depriving “minorities” of their rights. For him the views of a minority are a potential source of new insights and nascent truths, which are great sources of creativity and progress for society as a whole.

Ecology

Ecology played major role in the thought of the two big philosophers. Both of them however viewed it in stark contrast from most of the environmentalists of their time (and of today as well). Unlike the widespread understanding of nature as a commodity, as something separated from society, Castoriadis and Bookchin viewed it in direct link with social life, relationships and values, thus incorporating it in their political projects.

Castoriadis argues that ecology is, in its essence, a political matter. It is about political choices for setting certain limits and goals in the relationship between humanity and nature (Castoriadis, 1993). It has nothing to do with science, since the latter is about exploring possibilities and giving answers to specific questions and not about self-limitation. However, Castoriadis urges mobilizing science’s resources for exploring nature and our impact on it, but he remains firm that the choice that will be made in the end will be in its essence a political one.

Therefore the solutions that should be given to every ecological crisis should be political. Castoriadis remains critical of the green parties and the parliamentary system in general, since through the electoral processes it strives at “liberating” the people from politics, [leaving] it instead solely in the hands of professional “representatives”. As a result of this the people are left to view nature in a de-politicized manner, only as a commodity, because of which many contemporary ecological movements deal almost exclusively with questions about the environment, unconcerned with social and political matters.

Following this line of thought it comes as no surprise that Castoriadis remains critical towards the rare occasions when big green movements and parties come up with proposals of a political nature for resolving the environmental crisis (Castoriadis, 1981). This is so, because most of the time, although their political proposals revolve around more popular participation – for example green parties that have come up with proposals for sortition and rotation of their M.P.’s, more referendums, etc. – they are still embedded in the contemporary parliamentary regime. Being anadvocate of direct democracy, Castoriadis believes that single elements of it, being embedded in the representative system, will lose their meaning.

Similarly, Bookchin also links the ecological sphere with the social one and politics in general. For him nearly all of the present ecological problems result from problems deeply rooted in the social order – because of which he spoke about social ecology (Bookchin, 1993). Ecological crises couldn’t be either understood nor much less resolved if not linked to society, since economic, cultural, gender and other conflicts in it were the source of serious ecological dislocations.

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, strongly disagreed with environmentalists who looked to disconnect ecology from politics and society, identifying it instead with preservation of wildlife, wilderness or malthusian deep ecology, etc. (Bookchin, 1988). He insisted on the impact on nature that our capitalist hierarchical society is causing (with its large scale, profit-driven, extractivist projects), thus making it clear that unless we resolve our social problems we cannot save the planet.

For Murray Bookchin the hierarchical mentality and economic inequality that have permeated society today are the main sources of the very idea that man should dominate nature. Thus the ecological struggle cannot hope for any success unless it integrates itself into a holistic political project that challenges the very source of the present environmental and social crisis, that is, to challenge hierarchy and inequality (Bookchin, 1993).

Conclusion

Despite the differences and disagreements between them, Castoriadis and Bookchin shared a lot in common – especially the way they viewed direct democracy and ecology. Their contributions in these fields provided very fertile soil for further theoretical and practical advance. It is not by chance that in a period in which the questions of democracy and ecology are attracting growing attention, we listen ever more often about the two of them.

These concepts are proving to be of great interest to an increasing number of people in an age of continuous deprivation of rights, fierce substitution of the citizen by the consumer, growing economic inequalities and devastation of the natural world. Direct democracy and ecology contain the germs of another possible world. They seem as two of the best significations that the grassroots have managed to create and articulate as a potential substitute for the rotting ones of hierarchy and commodification which dominate and destroy our world today.

Yavor Tarinski

Bibliography:

Bookchin-Öcalan correspondence
Bookchin, Murray. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964)
Bookchin, Murray. The Communalist Project (2002)
Bookchin, Murray. The Crisis in the Ecology Movement (1988)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Communalism? (1996)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Democracy and Relativism (2013)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. From Ecology to Autonomy (1981)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1992)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Revolutionary Force of Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Worker Councils and the Economy of the Self-managed Society (1972)

Republished from: http://www.babylonia.gr/2016/06/10/reflections-on-castoriadis-and-bookchin/

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