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

Robert Graham: Anarchy, Hierarchy and Democracy

anarchists assembling in Athens

Inspired by the recent online debate at Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) on anarchy and democracy, I have been posting some material on anarchy and democracy, to complement earlier posts of material by Errico Malatesta, Luce Fabbri and Murray Bookchin. In 2004, I published an anarchist critique of Bookchin’s theory of “confederal democracy” under the title, “Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology” (Anarchist Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1). I thought now would be a good time to reproduce some excerpts.


The question which… arises is whether [the] face-to-face [non-mediated] political relationships [advocated by Murray Bookchin] are inherently libertarian and non-hierarchical. Certainly, there are many direct relationships that are neither libertarian nor non-hierarchical, for example master-slave and master-servant relationships, and patriarchal familial relationships. In Bookchin’s proposed community assemblies, it will still be possible for some members of the assembly to engage in domineering and manipulative behaviour. That the members of the assembly will know each other personally is no guarantee against that, as anyone involved in familial relationships can attest.

While manipulative and domineering behaviour may be incapable of elimination from social and political life, Bookchin would argue that the assembly remains non-hierarchical, with each member having equal voice and vote. However, policy decisions will ultimately be made by majority vote. If factions develop, as they invariably do, the very real possibility arises that some people will find themselves in the minority on many issues. Unable to marshal a majority in favour of their policy proposals, and against those of their political opponents, they will find their votes ineffective. This may in turn cause them to cease participating in the assembly or even to rebel against it, due to their lack of real decision-making power.

The majority may very well be placed in the position of having to enforce their decisions against a recalcitrant minority. The minority will have to decide whether to abide by the majority decision or face the consequences of disobedience. In either case, the majority will hold political authority over the minority. Whenever there is a lack of unanimity on a policy decision, or someone later decides the policy was mistaken, a hierarchical relationship will arise. That individual members of the assembly will sometimes be with the majority, sometimes not, does not change the fact that, with respect to the adoption and implementation of majority policy decisions, the majority on a particular issue will be in a position of authority over the minority on that issue. Hierarchical relationships will be created and recreated with every vote.

With respect to the so-called administrative functions to be performed by the various workplace and neighbourhood committees and councils, one of those functions will be the implementation of the majority decisions of the community assembly and, presumably, their enforcement, including the monitoring of compliance by community members with the policies adopted by the assembly. The various committees, councils, boards and tribunals will exercise authority over the individual members, associations and groups comprising the community.

The authority and power relationships between these administrative bodies and the individual members and groups in the community are a kind of hierarchical relationship, even if the alleged legitimacy of the authority and power exercised by these administrative bodies is based on policy-making functions being reserved to the community assembly. The fact remains that these administrative bodies will have the authority and the power to implement and enforce the policies adopted by the assembly, and the individual members and groups in the community will have an obligation to comply with these policies, and to abide by the administrative decisions of the administrative bodies delegated the responsibility of implementing and enforcing them.


Whether administrative bodies can limit their functions to strictly administrative ones, without engaging in any policy-making, is open to question. If administrative bodies must engage, at least to some extent, in policy-making, then one of the central bases for the legitimacy of the authority of the community assembly, namely that all policies are made directly by the members of the community in assembly will be undermined.

John Clark has argued that it is impossible for community assemblies to formulate policies with sufficient specificity `that administrators would have no significant role in shaping policy’ (`Municipal Dreams’, p41). The idea is that in applying general policies to specific cases, administrative bodies are themselves engaging in policy-making by giving general policies specific content. This is similar to arguments that conventional courts, in interpreting and applying the law to specific cases, are in reality creating law, a function that is supposed to be reserved to the legislature.

Clark suggests that administrative power can be kept in check by popular juries and citizens’ committees randomly selected from among the members of the community (`Municipal Dreams’, p42). In contrast, Bookchin has proposed that administrative bodies be kept in check by the community assembly itself (TE; p216).

Even if Clark were right that administrative bodies must engage in policy making at some level, creating yet more administrative bodies to oversee them is not a particularly attractive solution. That will simply create yet another level of political authority with which individual citizens will have to deal. In addition these supervisory bodies will themselves presumably have to be overseen by the community assembly or some other, higher, level of government, in which case the assembly or yet another level of authority will still be faced with what Clark believes to be the impossibly complex task of overseeing all administrative activity (`Municipal Dreams’, p47). Bookchin’s proposal that administrative bodies be overseen directly by the community assembly is at least more democratic.


Both Clark’s and Bookchin’s schemes entail a hierarchical structure of authority. In implementing and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly, the firsl level administrative bodies endorsed by Bookchin exercise authority over individual community members. In supervising the exercise of this authority, the popular juries and citizens’ committees proposed by Clark exercise authority over the first-level administrative bodies and, indirectly, over the individual community member. In both cases the highest authority, at least at the community level, remains the assembly of all community members based on majority vote.

If individual members of the community are also members of the governing authority, then how can it be said that there is a hierarchy of authority? Bookchin goes so far as to say that `the self that finds expression in the assembly and community is literally, the assembly and community that has found self-expression – a complete congruence of form and content’ (PSA, p 167, fn.). Yet this would only be the case if the assembly always spoke in one voice. However, when decisions are made by majority vote, this often may not be the case. The minority on an issue will be subject to the authority of the majority and to the derivative authority of the administrative and supervisory bodies charged with implementing, interpreting, applying and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly by majority vote.


The question that naturally arises is whether or not any properly political relationship can be non-hierarchical. It may be that Bakunin was right when he wrote, `whoever talks of political power talks of domination’ (The Anarchist Reader, p109). How is it possible to create political relationships that are truly non-hierarchical? Can there be such a thing as non-hierarchical political authority?

These are questions to which Bookchin has never provided satisfactory answers. To critics of majoritarian direct democracy, Bookchin has responded that the majority `could hardly “dictate” to anyone. The minority would have every opportunity to dissent, to work to reverse that decision through unimpaired discussion and advocacy’ (AMFL, p147). This response ignores the fact that unless and until the minority is able to reverse the decision (thereby creating yet another dissenting minority, unless unanimous agreement is reached), it remains subject to the decision, and the authority, of the majority.

The feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman, has proposed a model of direct, participatory democracy that is non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian. To give substantive recognition to the freedom and equality of all citizens, Pateman argues, one must give practical recognition to `the right of minorities to refuse or withdraw consent, or where necessary, to disobey’ majority decisions (PPO, p162). Political relationships remain non-hierarchical, because the majority does not exercise institutional power over the minority. The minority is free to decide `whether or not they ought to consent to, or comply with’, majority decisions (PPO, p137). Direct democracy conceived in these terms is compatible with a social ecological and anarchist conception of non-dominating, non-hierarchical community.

Bookchin does not consider this alternative, but appears to believe that the only real alternative to majority rule is decision-making based on consensus, or unanimous agreement. The important difference between consensus-based decision-making and the kind of direct democracy advocated by Pateman, is that only in the former can a `minority of one’ prevent the rest of the community from adopting a policy or deciding on some collective action (Bookchin, AMFL, p147). This does give the dissenters their own kind of de facto authority over the majority because their refusal to consent to a proposal governs the outcome of the decision making process. However, under Pateman’s proposal, the majority can adopt policy and act on it despite minority dissent, although they may decide not to in the face of such dissent. What the majority cannot do is force the minority to obey its decisions, which is different from a minority being able to force the majority act in accordance with its wishes. This kind of political `authority’ does not legitimize the exercise of `power over others’ but rather gives `citizens collective power to, or the ability to, act for themselves’ (PPO, p136).

Bookchin himself proposed a kind of non-dominating authority as a means of undermining the authority of existing, statist political institutions in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (RUDC). Neighbourhood assemblies are to elect mandated, recallable delegates to municipal and state councils assembly delegates, creating a parallel moral authority to oversee and influence the legal, civic and state governments (pp271-273). Although these municipal statewide councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates would not exercise and official political power, they would `function as the popular voice of the citizenry articulated into communities rather than anonymous voters’ (p273). Through this process, `governance by legislative command, with its panoply of penalties an coercion, would begin to yield to governance by moral suasion, with its evocation of public responsibility and individual probity’ (p274).

If councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates can, through moral suasion, influence the exercise of political power by existing institutions, then one would think they would be able to exert an even more powerful influence over the individual members of the community for whom the councils would be providing a voice, without resorting to the `panoply of penalties and coercion’ upon which existing political institutions and governments depend. If majority rule is ultimately upheld by the use of coercive sanctions, the focus of political activity will be on mobilizing majority support instead of achieving mutual understanding, cooperation and agreement by rational persuasion. Bookchin’s `vision of community life as an ethical compact’ will be seriously, if not fatally, undermined if the community assembly must ultimately resort to coercive measures in order to maintain its authority (RUDC, p274)…

Robert Graham (2004)

Bakunin: Letter to “Democracy” (1868)

Here is some more material from Bakunin, translated by Shawn Wilbur, on democracy, socialism and federalism, this time from 1868.  It is in the form of a letter to Charles-Louis Chassin (1831-1901), a French democrat, who was in the process of establishing a political journal, La Démocratie (“Democracy). Chassin appears to have also become a member of the International, as he was one of the signatories to the 1870 appeal of the French Internationalists to the German people and democratic socialists against the Franco-Prussian War. Bakunin would have met Chassin at the September 1867 congress of the League of Peace and Freedom in Geneva, Switzerland, where Bakunin gave a speech in favour of socialist federalism. The League was a group of prominent European writers, republicans and democrats, including Victor Hugo, John Stuart Mill and the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, that sought to achieve peace and freedom for Europe. In his speech at the League’s September 1867 Geneva Congress, Bakunin argued that peace could only be secured through the abolition of the nation-state and the creation of federations of socialist communes and associations. He put forth his ideas in more detail in his essay, “Federalism, Socialism, Anti-Theologism,” which concluded with Bakunin’s famous declaration that “liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” Bakunin recapitulates these themes in this May 1868 letter to Chassin regarding the proposed program for “Democracy.” It is in this letter that Bakunin describes Proudhon as “the true master of us all.”

On the Program of “Democracy”

Need I say that as far as a foreigner may be allowed to meddle in your affairs, I sympathize with all my heart with your courageous enterprise and that I subscribe completely to your program? You have the noble ambition of restoring the press in your country to the heights from which it should never have descended, whatever the storms that have assailed it, and of once again accustoming is to seek our inspirations there, a habit that we have lost for nearly 19 years.

Be sure that, in all countries, all men to whom liberty and humanity are dear will happily salute the end of the French eclipse, even when they no longer have need of the resplendent sun of France in order to know their way.

The time of the messiah-peoples has passed. Liberty, justice, from now only no longer form the monopoly of any one nation. – The initiative, – to make use of the favorite expression of Mazzini, – that initiative (which, in the case of Dante, he wanted to bestow exclusively upon fair Italy, his homeland) belongs from now on to all the peoples; it is, to different degrees, it is true, divided among them all. This is a true division of labor, proportionate to the intellectual and moral power of each nation; and the last word of that division will be the federal organization of Europe.

All for each and all by each: such must be today our motto, our watchword. But the harmony would be very imperfect, it would be impossible, if the light and the powerful participation of France was lacking. That is the sense in which we all greet happily its reawakening to liberty.

I can only subscribe fully to the principle of decentralization that you set down as one of the principal bases of your program. Seventy-five years of sad, hard experience, passed in a fruitless tossing between a liberty, re-conquered several times, but always lost again, and the despotism of the increasingly triumphant State, have proven to France and that world that in 1793 your Girondins were in the right against your Jacobins. Robespierre, St.-Just, Carnot, Couthon, Cambon and so many other citizens of the Mountain have been great and pure patriots, but it remains no less true that they have organized the governmental machine, that formidable centralization of the State, which has made possible, natural and necessary, the military dictatorship of Napoleon I, which, surviving all the revolutions that have followed, in no way diminished, but on the contrary preserved, caressed and developed, through the Restoration, the July Monarchy and the Republic of 1848, has inevitably led to the destruction of your liberties.

Many of the democrats of the old unitary school – and I should even say Catholic school, although they are that most often without knowing it themselves – still think today that communal autonomy can suffice, and that with emancipated communes on one side, and on the other side a powerful centralization of the State, the organization of Liberty is possible. Such is the belief boldly professed by the illustrious Italian democrat Joseph Mazzini.

Despite the deep and sincere respect that I bear for this great creator of modern Italian unity, the distressing spectacle presented by that same Italy today would suffice by itself to make me doubt the goodness of his doctrine. I do not hesitate to say that Mazzini and all those who think like him fall into a profound error. No, communal autonomy will never be sufficient to establish liberty in any country; to isolated commune will always be too weak to resist the crushing centralization of all the legislative and executive powers in the State. – in order for communal Liberty to be real, an intermediary more powerful than the commune is required between the commune and the State: the autonomous department or province.

We can be certain that where commercial autonomy does not exist, the self-government of the commune will never be anything but a fiction. On the other hand, whatever Mazzini may say, a State powerfully centralized internally will never be anything externally but a war machine, which could enter into a federation of peoples in order to dominate it, but never to submit, on equal conditions with all the other nations, to the supreme law of international justice, that is to say purely human justice and, as such, contrary to the transcendent, theological, political and legal justice of the States.

I am happy to see the flag of anti-theologism bravely displayed in France. A mind enveloped in theological and metaphysical fictions, which bows before any authority whatsoever, other than that of rational and experimental science, can only produce the political and social slavery of a nation. Whatever is said by your representatives of the official morality and your spiritualist democrats, scientific and humanitarian materialism alone is capable of establishing liberty, justice, and consequently also morality on branches truly broad and unshakeable.

Isn’t it indeed a remarkable thing that, while the spiritualists, taking their point of departure in free will, end inevitably at the doctrine of authority, to the more or less open or masked, but always complete negation of liberty, – we materialists, we start from inevitability, both natural and social, in order to proclaim the progressive emancipation of humanity.

You are socialist. One does not have the right to call oneself a democrat today if, alongside the most complete political emancipation, one does not want as fully the economic emancipation of the people. You are a thousand times right to no longer wish to separate those two great questions which make up, in reality, only a single one: the political question and the social question.

Like you, I deplore the blindness of that party–and not too considerable a party, let us hope–of workers in Europe, who imagine that by abstaining from any intervention in the political affairs of their country, they serve that much better their own material interests, and who think that they could attain economic equality and justice, to which the working classes aspire today, by another road than that of liberty.

The unanimous testimony of the history of all times and all countries shows us that justice is never given to those who do not know how to take it themselves; logic confirms, by explaining it to us, that demonstration of history. It is not in the nature of a privilege, of a monopoly, of an existing power to cede or abdicate without being forced to do it; in order for right to triumph, it must become a force in its turn.

This truth is so simple, it is so well proven by the experience of each day, that we have the right to be astonished that people are still found who can doubt it. Equality without liberty is a noxious fiction created by the rogues to fool the sots. Equality without liberty is the despotism of the State, and the despotic State could not exist a single day without having at least an exploiting and privileged class; the bureaucracy, a hereditary power as in Russia and China, or de facto as in Germany and among you.

The great and true master of us all, Proudhon, has written, in his fine book on Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, that the most disastrous combination that could be formed would be that which would join together socialism with absolutism, the tendencies of the people toward economic emancipation and material well being with [the dictatorial] concentration of all political and social powers in the State.

So let the future preserve us from the favors of despotism; but let it save us from the disastrous and mind-numbing consequences of authoritarian, doctrinaire or State socialism. Let us be socialists, but let us never become sheeplike peoples. Let us seek justice, all political, economic and social justice, only on the path of liberty. There can be nothing living and human apart from liberty, and a socialism that would cast it from its bosom or that would not accept it as the unique creative principle and basis would lead us straight to slavery and brutishness.

But if, on the one hand, we must energetically reject [repousser] every socialist system not inspired by the principle of collective and individual liberty, we must separate ourselves with the same energy and frankness from all the parties that declare their wish to remain strangers to the social question, the most formidable but also the greatest of all those questions that occupy the world today.

Your great revolution, which began its sublime work with the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” would only have ended when it had organized – not only in your country, but on the whole surface of the globe – society according to justice: a society that, at the beginning of the life of each of its members, whether of masculine or feminine sex, would have guaranteed equality from the point of departure, as that equality would depend on social organization, setting aside the natural differences between individuals; a society that, in economic and social respects, would offer to each the equally real possibility for all to raise themselves up – in proportion to the energy and individual capacities of each – to the greatest heights of humanity, first through education and instruction, then through the labor or each, freely associated or not associated – labor at once muscular and nervous, manual and intellectual, which, becoming the legitimate source of all individual, but not hereditary, property, would in the end be considered the principal basis of all political and social rights.

Such is, in my opinion, the last word of the revolutionary program. We could protest the difficulties of its realization; but we could not, without renouncing all logic, be unaware of what is there an absolute condition of true justice. And we who have renounced every theological faith in order to have the right and the power to embrace the human faith, we must still maintain the program of justice.

Finally you are persuaded, are you not, that all new wine must be poured in new bottles and that, turning your back on the henceforth exhausted mob of the cripples of theologism, of privilege, of anti-socialist democracy and transcendent politics, we should base all of our hopes on that party of the intelligent and studious, but not doctrinaire youth, who, feeling in themselves the need to merge with the mass of the people, in order to draw a life from it that ostensibly begins to be lacking in the higher regions of society, love, respect the people enough to have the right to instruct them and if necessary that of guiding them; – but especially on the working classes who, moralized by labor and not being exhausted by the abuse of the pleasures of life, are today the bearers and dispensers of every future?

Here is, my dear Chassin, my profession of faith. If it does not displease you too much, accept me among your numerous collaborators. In the meantime, please record me among your subscribers.

Michael Bakunin

La Voix de l’Avenir, May 24, 1868, Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

Bakunin on Liberty, Equality and Democracy (1866)

Recently I have been posting material on anarchy and democracy, and liberty and equality (or “equaliberty,” as Tomás Ibáñez (and others) would put it). Seeing as it was just Bakunin’s birthday (May 30th – happy 203rd birthday Mikhail!), I thought it appropriate to post these excerpts, translated by the inestimable Shawn Wilbur, from Bakunin’s 1866 “Revolutionary Catechism.” The “Catechism” is noteworthy on a number of grounds. While Bakunin did not yet identify himself as an anarchist when this was written, he advocates a form of what I have described elsewhere as federative, associational direct democracy, a form of democracy without the state, having as its basis “the completely autonomous commune.” Bakunin expressly calls for the abolition of classes and the state. He draws the connection between religious belief in a (patriarchal) personal god and the “principle of authority,” rejecting both, while at the same time defending the right to one’s personal beliefs and freedom of association. He advocates complete equality between men and women, and the abolition of the patriarchal “legal” family. While he was later to develop a more sophisticated critique of political organization, moving towards a more fluid conception of voluntary federation as associations of productive, communal and functional groups transcending national boundaries, without any coercive authority within or above the associated groups, the Catechism (only a small portion of which I have included here  – for the complete version click here) sets forth the basic principles of what was to become Bakunin’s anarchism.

The Bakunin Library

Revolutionary Catechism

  1. Denial of the existence of a real, otherworldly, personal God, and consequently also of all revelation and all divine intervention in the affairs of the world and humanity. Abolition of the service and cult of the Divinity.
  2. Replacing the worship of God with respect and love for humanity, we affirm human reason as the sole criterion of truth; human conscience, as the basis of justice; and individual and collective liberty, as the sole creator of order for humanity.
  3. Liberty is the absolute right of every man or woman, having reached majority, to seek no other sanction for their actions than their own conscience and their own reason, to determine them only by their own will, and consequently to be responsible for them first only with regard to themselves, and then with regard to the society of which they are a part, but only in so far as they freely consent to be a part of it.
  4. It is not true that the liberty of one individual is limited by that of all the others. Man is only really free to the extent that his liberty, freely recognized and represented as in a mirror by the free consent of those others, finds confirmation and boundless expansion in their liberty. Man is truly free only among equally free men; and as he is free only by virtue of being human, the slavery of one single human being on earth, being an offense against the very principle of humanity, is a negation of the liberty of all.
  5. The liberty of each is thus realizable only in the equality of all. The realization of liberty through equality, by right and in fact, is justice.
  6. There exists only one single dogma, one single law, one single moral basis for me: it is liberty. To respect the liberty of one’s fellows, that is duty; to love, aid, and serve them, that is virtue.
  7. Absolute exclusion of every principle of authority and of the Reason of State.—Human society, having been originally a fact of nature, prior to liberty and to the awakening of human thought, later became a religious fact, organized according to the principle of divine and human authority, must today reconstruct itself on the basis of liberty, which must from now on become the sole constitutive principle of political and economic organization. Order in society must be the result of the greatest possible development of all the local, collective and individual liberties.
  8. Consequently, the political and economic organization of social life must begin—no longer as today from high to low, and from the center to the circumference, according to the principle of unity and forced centralization—but from low to high, and from the circumference to the center, according to the principle of free association and free federation.
  9. Political organization. It is impossible to determine a concrete, universal, and obligatory norm for the internal development and political organization of the nations; the existence of each nation being subordinated to a mass of different historical, geographical, and economic conditions, which will never allow us to establish a model of organization equally good and acceptable for all. Furthermore, any such enterprise, absolute devoid of practical utility, would detract from the richness and spontaneity of life which flourishes only in infinite diversity and, what is more, would be contrary to the very principle of liberty. There are, however, some absolute, essential conditions, in the absence of which the practical realization and organization of liberty will be forever impossible.

These conditions are:

A. The radical abolition of all official religions and of every Church privileged, or simply protected, funded and maintained by the State. Absolute liberty of conscience and propaganda for each, with the unlimited ability to raise as many temples as they please to whatever Gods they have, and to pay and support the priests of their religion.

B. The churches, considered as religious corporations, should never enjoy any of the political rights granted to the productive associations; nor could they inherit, nor possess goods in common, except for their houses or places of worship, and could never concern themselves with the education of children;—the only object of their existence being the systematic negation of morality and liberty, and the practice of a lucrative form of witchcraft.

C. Abolition of monarchyRepublic.

D. Abolition of classes, ranks, privileges, and all sorts of distinction.—Absolute equality of political rights for all men and women; universal suffrage.

E. Abolition, dissolution, and social, political, judiciary, bureaucratic and financial bankruptcy of the tutelary, transcendental, and centralist State, the double and alter ego of the Church, and as such, a permanent cause of impoverishment, brutalization, and enslavement for the people. As a natural consequence, Abolition of all state universities,—the task of public instruction must belong exclusively to the communes and free associations. Abolition of the State magistracy—all judges must be elected by the people. Abolition of all criminal and civil codes which are presently in force in Europe—because all of them, being equally inspired by the worship of God, of the State, of the religiously or politically sanctioned family, and of property, are contrary to human rights, and because the code of liberty can be created only by liberty itself. Abolition of the banks and all the other state institutions of credit. Abolition of all central administration, of the bureaucracy, of the permanent armies and the state police.

F. Immediate and direct election of all public functionaries, judicial and civil, as well as all the national, provincial, and communal representatives or counselors by the people, that is by universal suffrage of all adult individuals, male and female.

G. Internal reorganization of each country, taking for its point of departure and basis the absolute liberty of individuals, productive associations, and communes.

Michael Bakunin (1814 – 1876)

Robert Graham: Anarchy and Democracy

My most recent post was from a group of Brazilian anarchists advocating direct democracy in response to the current political crisis in Brazil. Whether anarchists are or should be advocates of direct democracy is a matter of long-standing debate, going back to the origins of anarchism as a political (or anti-political) movement in the 19th century. Previously, I have posted a number of contributions to this debate from both anarchist advocates of direct democracy and those who argue that anarchy dispenses with all forms of government, including directly democratic ones. The Center for a Stateless Society is currently hosting an online symposium on this subject. I have written on this topic over the years, advocating a form of what I call “associational” direct democracy that rejects simple majority rule, drawing on the ideas of the feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman (see for example, “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology,” in For Anarchism (1989), ed. David Goodway). Recently, I contributed a piece to the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, in which I discuss the historical origins of the debate and some of the more theoretical issues, including the development of anarchist conceptions of direct democracy that seek to transcend a simple majoritarian decision-making model.

Anarchy and Democracy

The relationship between anarchy and democracy has always been ambivalent. Both concepts have had many different interpretations, both positive and negative. Anarchy is equated with chaos, a “war of all against all,” and terrorism. Democracy is equated with “mobocracy,” one step away from tyranny, or simply as a sham. But when conceived in a more positive light, anarchy and democracy share some similar characteristics, particularly when democracy is conceived as a form of social organization that gives people the power to participate directly in the making of the decisions regarding their own lives, workplaces and communities, instead of that decision-making power being given to “representatives” who then make those decisions, allegedly on the people’s behalf. Anarchy and direct, as opposed to representative, democracy, both seek to realize a social form of freedom in equality and equality in freedom. Both therefore are subversive of the existing social order.

But the tension between anarchy, which seeks to reject all rule, and even direct democracy, which purports to provide for collective self-rule, remains. And this tension is something that anarchists have grappled with since the time of the 1789 French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, there was open conflict between the supporters of representative government, or “parliamentarianism,” and advocates of direct democracy, and between them and the advocates of revolutionary dictatorship. The proponents of parliamentary democracy advocated a system by which people (usually just male property owners) would elect representatives who would then form a government that would rule over everyone (including those without any right to vote, such as women and workers). The proponents of direct democracy advocated that everyone should be able to directly participate in political decision-making by voting on policy matters in their own assemblies, neighbourhoods, districts and communes. Both groups were inspired by the French political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

In his book, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau developed two related arguments which both his later followers, and many of his critics, including anarchists, often conflated. His first purpose in the book was to provide a rational justification for authority by means of the notion of a “social contract” that everyone must be assumed to have entered into in order to create a system of government that would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. Anarchists later denounced this argument on historical and theoretical grounds, because the social contract was entirely hypothetical, and because the system of government that everyone had purportedly agreed to did not and could not guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. In reality, governments acted in the interests of the small minority of the rich and powerful, guaranteeing the exploitation and domination of the masses.

But what many anarchists failed to fully appreciate was the second part of Rousseau’s argument, namely what sort of government would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. And in this regard, Rousseau advocated a system of direct, not parliamentary, democracy, despite the claims of many of his so-called followers, including some of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In a noteworthy passage regarding the English system of parliamentary government, Rousseau wrote that: “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”

However, Rousseau’s notion of direct democracy was unitary, based on his notion of the “general will,” which led him (and his followers) to reject direct democracy conceived as a federation of directly democratic associations, and to the idea that you can “force people to be free,” by forcing them to conform to the “general will,” as expressed by the majority, which purportedly expressed their real wills. The Jacobins used these kinds of arguments to justify banning trade unions in France during the Revolution, and any other kind of association which could challenge their power.

But other people took Rousseau’s ideas in a more libertarian direction. During the French Revolution itself, the people of Paris created the “Commune of Paris,” based on general assemblies in each district, where people would vote directly on political matters. The anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) later argued that this was an example of “the principles of anarchism” being put into practice. Jean Varlet (1764-1837), a French revolutionary who denounced the Jacobin dictatorship, argued that only the people in their directly democratic assemblies could express the “general will,” and that anyone delegated the task of representing the views of the assemblies must be subject to recall so that they could not substitute their “individual wills” for the will of the people.

Working people in Europe began to create their own nascent trade union organizations, such as mutual aid societies and societies of “resistance,” in order to pool their resources and to coordinate actions against their employers. In France, a practice of direct democracy developed within many of these organizations, with the general members directly voting on policy matters, and any elected officials being subject to recall if they did not act in accordance with the membership’s wishes.

By the 1840s, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) first gave explicit expression to anarchist ideas in France, there were numerous workers’ societies and associations that practiced some form of direct democracy. Although Proudhon distinguished anarchy, “no government,” from democracy, “self-government,” when he came to propose alternative forms of social organization as a positive form of “anarchy” to replace existing economic and political institutions, he included directly democratic forms of organization with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates, such as the “People’s Bank” that was to replace the Bank of France. With respect to large scale enterprises, he advocated a form of workers’ self-management, where the workers would manage their workplaces on a directly democratic basis.

But Proudhon was aware of the problem of adopting a system of simple majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations. In contrast to Rousseau, he advocated voluntary association and federalism. Individual workers (or anyone else) could not be compelled to join an association, and both individuals and groups that federated with other groups would be free to secede from their respective associations and federations. Consequently, someone or some group that found themselves continually in the minority on votes within an association or federation would be able to leave the group and to form or join another one composed of people with more similar views. But a tension remained regarding whether within a particular group the minority could be forced to comply with a decision by the majority.

When followers of Proudhon (many of whom, admittedly, were not anarchists), began trying to organize an international association of workers in the 1850s and early 1860s, culminating in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, this practice of working class direct democracy had become well established in France. The Proudhonist members of the International saw it as a voluntary international association of workers’ organizations that should be based on Proudhon’s notion of federation, with no central governing power. The International’s so-called General Council was to be an administrative, not a governing body, and all policy matters were to be decided by recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the International’s annual congresses.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), who was on the General Council, fundamentally disagreed with this approach, which eventually led to the split in the International in 1872 between Marx and his supporters, and the “federalists,” “anti-authoritarians,” and “anarchists.” Marx tried to turn the General Council into a governing body that could impose policies on the members and groups belonging to the International, and expel anyone who did not comply with them. He opposed any attempts to turn the General Council into a council of delegates mandated by the member associations, such that the General Council became (at best) a representative body, not a directly democratic one. One of the policies Marx tried to impose, despite the opposition of the majority of the International’s member groups, was the requirement that they create working class political parties that would participate in existing systems of representative government, with the object of “conquering” political power.

It was through the conflict with the Marxist approach to the internal governance of the International, and Marx’s imposition of a policy committing the International’s member groups to participation in parliamentary politics, that many of Marx’s opponents in the International began to identify themselves as anarchists. In the process, they came to develop new, and sometimes diverging, ideas about the relationship between anarchy and democracy.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) is a case in point. Prior to joining the International in 1868, Bakunin had sketched out various revolutionary socialist programs advocating an anarchist form of direct democracy. For example, in his 1866 program for the “International Brotherhood” of revolutionary socialists, Bakunin advocated a federation of autonomous communes, within which individuals and groups would enjoy full rights to freedom of association, but envisaged these federations eventually being replaced by federations of workers’ associations “organized according to the requirements not of politics but of production.” These views were very similar to Proudhon’s and the more radical Proudhonist elements in the International, although they did not yet identify themselves as anarchists.

What some of them eventually came to share with Bakunin was a concept of anarchy as a form of what I would describe as “associational” direct democracy – direct democracy conceived as an association (or federation) of associations without any central authority or state above them, with the member groups, each with its own directly democratic decision-making procedures, coordinating their activities through voluntary federation with other associations, using recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of federation in order to pursue common courses of action.

However, as a result of Marx’s attempts to turn the International into a top-down organization with the General Council acting as its executive power, Bakunin and some other Internationalists began to develop a critique of federalist organization that raised issues regarding associational direct democracy, both in terms of the manner in which the federated groups could coordinate their activities while preserving their autonomy, and in terms of the internal organization and decision-making procedures within the associated groups.

Bakunin and others argued that the only way to prevent a higher level coordinating body, such as the General Council, from being transformed into an executive power, is to do away with such coordinating bodies altogether. Instead, the various associations would communicate directly with each other in order to coordinate their activities, including the organization of policy conferences or congresses, where delegates from the various groups would debate the issues of the day, such as the revolutionary general strike v. the revolutionary commune, anarchist communism or anarchist collectivism, propaganda by the deed and insurrection.

When the anti-authoritarians, federalists and anarchists reconstituted the International, they compromised on this issue, agreeing to have a coordinating correspondence bureau, but the seat of the bureau was to rotate from one federation to another each year. More importantly, the anti-authoritarian International decided that any policies endorsed at an International congress would not be binding on the member groups. It was up to each group, and its members, to ultimately determine which policies they were to adopt. This was meant to ensure that it was the members themselves, through their own directly democratic organizations, who would make the policies they were to follow, rather than delegates at international congresses, even if the latter were supposed to be subject to imperative mandates (which the delegates could violate, as had happened at the 1872 Hague Congress, when some delegates from federalist sections sided with the Marxists, contrary to their mandates).

But if policies endorsed at a congress of delegates subject to imperative mandates, and to recall if they violated their mandates, could not be binding on the member groups, whose own members were to decide these issues, then how could policies adopted by the members of the constitutive groups be binding on other members of these groups who did not vote in favour of them? Bakunin, for one, began to develop a critique of binding policies, or legislation, even if they were decided by a directly democratic vote. This led to the idea that voting should be replaced by “free agreement,” and to the development of anarchist theories of organization based more on notions of voluntary association than on notions of direct democracy. Anarchy and democracy began again to be conceived as distinct, rather than complimentary, concepts, mainly by anarchist communists, such as Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and Kropotkin.

Writing about the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin suggested that the Commune had no more need for an internal government than for a central government above it, with the people instead forming “themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself.” Rather than a formal structure of even directly democratic assemblies federated into a commune or city-wide organization, then regional, national and international federations, there would be “the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer to the multiple aspirations of all.”

While some of the anarchists and socialists in the anti-authoritarian International began to move toward a “communalist” position, such as Paul Brousse, Gustave Lefrançais and Adhemar Schwitzguébel, advocating participation in municipal elections and the creation of socialist communes, Elisée Reclus and other anarchist communists rejected that approach, reminding everyone that they were “no more communalists than statists; we are anarchists. Let us not forget that.” As Malatesta later put it, “anarchists do not recognise that the majority as such, even if it were possible to establish beyond doubt what it wanted, has the right to impose itself on the dissident minorities by the use of force.”

In various parts of Europe, some of the anarchist communists opted for small groups of anarchist militants with no formal networks or federations, with decisions being based on the free agreement of each member. In Spain, the majority of the anarchists continued to advocate the use of revolutionary trade unions and to utilize a directly democratic federalist structure with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of the federations. According to the anarchist historian Max Nettlau (1865-1944), the anarchist communist groups in France, which today would be described as “affinity groups,” remained isolated from the people; there was a “fine flowering” of anarchist ideas, “but little concern for the fruit that should issue from the flower.”

There was a return to more federalist forms of organization based on directly democratic base groups when anarchists again turned their focus on working class movements for self-emancipation, leading to the rise of revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements prior to the First World War. During revolutionary upheavals, workers began to create their own political structures, many of which had directly democratic structures, in opposition to existing governments.

Anarchists participated in the first soviets during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and again in the soviets that arose during the 1917 Russian Revolution. But there were concerns that the soviets functioned more like workers’ parliaments, with many of their members representing the platforms of their respective political parties rather than the views of the workers they were supposed to represent. This led some of the Russian anarcho-syndicalists to advocate a new form of directly democratic organization: the factory committee or council. Anarchists in Italy and Germany also supported the factory and workers’ council movements there. During the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939), yet another directly democratic form of self-governance arose under anarchist impetus, the libertarian “collectives,” in which all members of the community participated regardless of their role in the production and distribution process.

Anarchists critical of the notion of majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations, such as Malatesta, nevertheless participated in these movements, seeking to push them as far as they could go. This was also the approach advocated by Kropotkin. Despite having anarchy as their goal, where social relations and collective decision-making would be based on free agreement and voluntary association, they recognized that directly democratic popular organizations were a step toward that goal.

In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin argued for directly democratic community or neighbourhood assemblies, that would enable everyone to participate directly in policy making, as the political basis for a decentralized ecological form of anarchism. But he also saw a positive role for both affinity groups, which would act as revolutionary “catalysts” and would also form the “cell tissue” of an eco-anarchist society, and factory or workplace councils through which workers would manage their own workplaces. Later he became more narrowly focused on the concept of directly democratic municipal government, which he called “communalism,” and eventually rejected the anarchist label altogether.

During the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s, among the more radical “second wave” feminist movements of the same era, and then the so-called “anti-globalization” and “Occupy” movements of more recent years, anarchists have sought to create affinity group based social movements that coalesce into broader networks or webs, creating an amalgam of social forms that combine affinity based small group organization with various forms of direct democracy and voluntary federation, similar to what Bookchin had advocated in the 1960s.

But contemporary anarchists, such as David Graeber, conceive of direct democracy in broader terms than Bookchin, recognizing that there are “Non-Western” forms of direct democracy that are more consensus based, in contrast to systems where decisions are ultimately based on a majority vote. Feminist political theorists, such as Carole Pateman, have also criticized simple majority rule within directly democratic forms of organization, arguing that those in the minority cannot be forced to obey, as this would reintroduce domination within the groups.

Yet the debate about whether anarchy and democracy are compatible continues. One can argue for more sophisticated decision making processes that are more inclusive and which are meant to prevent the domination of directly democratic groups by powerful personalities, or simply by those who are more active or have greater stamina; or one can argue that the concept of “democracy” has become so corrupted that anarchists should no longer make any use of it.

But one could just as well argue that the concept of “anarchy” has become so twisted in the popular imagination that its negative connotations now outweigh the positive to such an extent that the concept should simply be abandoned. It really depends on the concrete circumstances in which you find yourself. Rather than arguing about which labels to adopt or promote, perhaps it would be better to work with others in creating non-hierarchical organizations in which everyone really does have an equal voice, and then see where they can take you.

Robert Graham

Brazilian Anarchists on the Crisis in Brazil

Brazil is back in the news as people there begin again to mobilize against corrupt politicians (for a detailed analysis of the corruption itself, see this article from the Guardian newspaper). It’s been four years since the “Free Pass Movement” that began as a protest against transit fare increases and turned into a movement for free access to a variety of public services. Since then the most corrupt of the Brazilian politicians forced the impeachment of the President, Dilma Rousseff, replacing her with someone even more corrupt, Michel Temer. On May 24, 2017, Temer issued a decree for the military enforcement of “law and order.” In the piece below by Coordenação Anarquista Brasileira (Brazilian Anarchist Coordination, CAB), the CAB calls for the intensification of the popular movements for political power through directly democratic organizations (translation from

Direct democracy now!

Brazil is experiencing a political earthquake, laying bare the rottenness of the country’s elites and further weakening the ties that sustain them in power. The orchestrated operation that enabled the recording between President Michel Temer and the owner of JBS, the largest meat company in the world, changes the balance of forces in the country and pours petrol on the political and social crisis. With the political instability it is more difficult for the government to mobilize its base and move forward with the Labor Rights and Pension Reforms, the biggest attacks on the oppressed class.

But this is no reason to celebrate and we must not be complacent about these struggles. Now is the time to intensify the struggle, to generalize the mobilizations with the blockading of streets, work stoppages building towards the general strike to block the social cuts and reforms. We must deepen democracy, but direct democracy, where workers in their places of work, study and residence decide the direction of the country. We cannot accept the crumbs from those at the top, we need to impose a popular program of social rights built and decided by the people. We need to build direct democracy – outside the agreements of those at the top – in neighborhoods, in slums, in villages, in land and housing occupations, in factories, in schools.

The coup that brought down the PT/PMDB’s fourth mandate in the presidency made it possible to begin a successful first round of harsh anti-people measures at an overwhelming pace, with broad support in Congress and in the media, notably the Globo television network. Temer approved the high school education reform, the PEC spending cap bill, the outsourcing bill, privatizations and several more attacks – initiated during the PT government itself.

Decades of bureaucratization of struggles by the large trade unions centrals and the practice of co-opting leaders of big social movements by the PT helped, and is still helping, to demobilize the people and impede the generalization of resistance against these attacks. Despite this, other sectors such as high school students and indigenous people are breathing new life into the social struggle. The growth of popular dissatisfaction with Temer’s labour and pension reforms manifested itself with great impact in the streets, in the mobilizations by the general strike of 15 and 28 April, forcing the coup makers to back down with their proposals.

With more than 90% rejection, the Temer government doesn’t even have the legitimacy to sustain this false democratic system. This serves only to maintain the businessmen and political class robbing and killing the people. Lula and Dilma’s government of class conciliation was a government for businessmen and the rich, with a few crumbs for the poor. And the innumerable accusations of corruption only make evident the disgusting relationship of favoritism that exists between big business and the state. The cases of corruption are not isolated incidents but what makes the wheels of the state and private sector turn. That is, the representative system does not serve the interests of the people but those of capitalism, so that the political and business class can advance their projects.

That is why “magic solutions” like privatization, outsourcing, attacks on workers’ rights only serve to make businessmen profit more. Attacks on social rights, attacks on indigenous people and their territories, on peasants and the landless, on women, LGBTQIs, the genocide of blacks and residents of slums and poor neighborhoods and the criminalization of poverty are the same. They are all measures and policies for the right wing and conservative sectors, businessmen, landowners, bankers to impose their ideology, profit more, concentrate more wealth and exploit the people more. Businessmen, like João Dória, are no different from other politicians, they are enemies of the people.

If professional politicians are in disrepute the justice system tries to assert legitimacy with anti-corruption operations in order to increase its power in the state structure. The heads of the Judiciary, Federal Police and Public Prosecutor’s Office, with sectors directly aligned to the United States, have massive support from the Globo network to accumulate power with dangerously authoritarian biases. It is necessary to repudiate this escalation and to avoid any illusion in salvation by bourgeois justice.

The old media plays a crucial role in the tangle of ruling class interests. The Globo network, which supported the Parliamentary Judicial Media Coup, engineered and legitimized the current coup and has now placed itself on the stronger side, with the Attorney General’s Office (PGR, Procuradoria-Geral da República), for the departure of Temer. The purpose is to recuperate the conditions to approve the reforms with the election of a new president by indirect elections. We can not underestimate the role that communication giants play in the ideological field.

Globo’s turn against Temer does not signify any advance for the popular camp. In the discrediting of professional politicians it discards old bets, like Aécio Neves, and orients its agenda by the worldwide tendency to leverage the candidacies of personalities seemingly “from outside” the political-partisan camp. They seek to put in place subjects directly from the business community (Doria, Meirelles), the judiciary (Nelson Jobim, Carmem Lúcia, Joaquim Barbosa), or even the entertainment media (Luciano Huck). It is strategic to advance in the discrediting of the old media and to strengthen the demand for the democratization of communication with restrictions to the power of these companies, as well as to strengthen popular means of communication.

It is still necessary to question the reason for the denunciations only arriving at this moment. Even though they have discarded some politicians and triggered some instability, the action shows loyalty in the agreements between state and capital. The criterion is economic and there is an interest in defending a company that recently faced the Carne Fraca (“Weak Meat”) operation; an action that, if on the one hand has demonstrated the terrible conditions in which our food is produced, first served the US interests of weakening a competitor in the international dispute of the meat market. It should be noted that it was the PT/PMDB government that fattened JBS up through BNDES with millions of dollars, transforming the company into one of the largest in the world.

From Below and to the Left, Direct Democracy now!

The fact is that the demand that brought many people onto the streets in this 1 year of Temer government could become reality: Michel Temer’s departure from the presidency of the republic. And we ask ourselves: what now? What is the next step? We know that with the coup makers weakened and their parliamentary base oscillating, there is a lack of conditions to continue the process of labor and pension reform.

Now it is urgent to generalize the struggle against the reforms and to take back the rights that were rolled back by coup makers from the past and the present conjuncture, the PT/PMDB. In addition to blocking the reforms we need to build a project that makes the rich pay for the cost of the crisis and that recognizes the political, business and media elite as enemies of the people. Big companies like JBS owe the government more than 400 billion, about three times the amount they contribute to the false social security deficit.

Only the organization of the people and pressure in the streets can prevent the reforms and attacks on social rights. Nothing from parliament will go in that direction. We have to prevent businessmen and the political elite from making their summit agreements and coups in order to proceed with their project. Mobilization and popular pressure are necessary and urgent now to block the reforms from moving forward amid this instability. They are necessary pressures to impose a popular agenda on the government, even in the case of a direct election. And the mobilization of the people today is urgent to prevent the worst case scenario, which is a suspension of the elections in 2018 through a political-military intervention and the persecution of the combative sectors of the left.

The electoral left demands rights now so that the Presidency of the Republic and lulismo (Lula-ism) can appear, as in previous years, managing to present itself as a supposed popular exit in the middle of the earthquake of the political crisis. We can not deceive ourselves! We have affirmed and continue affirming: we must overcome petismo (PT-ism) and all its inheritance on the left. The belief that Lula will have to deal with the crisis and bring about improvements in the living conditions of those at the bottom of society does not hold up. An election of Lula would only represent another class pact with the bourgeoisie and the bosses, in even more withdrawn terms than in previous years.

The important thing at the moment is that the struggle has to be from below and in the streets in order to advance a popular rights program! Promote organization, mobilization against the pension and labor rights reform, and for the construction of a popular project based on class independence. Catalyze popular dissatisfaction in revolt and advance in grassroots struggles.

Do not allow yourself to be carried away by immediate solutions, in this process of reorganization of the left and summit agreements to save bourgeois democracy. There is no rabbit in a top hat, the way out is to build popular organization in the neighborhoods, in schools, in workplaces with the poor and oppressed people. We must demand the suspension of all the anti-people measures initiated by the PT government and continued by the coup leader Temer.

The moment is unfavorable for us oppressed, but the crisis and the dispute between the elites open up space for other projects. We need to use the dissatisfaction to delegitimize this system and channel the social struggle.

Direct Democracy now!
For the suspension of all anti-people measures!
Against the fiscal adjustment and rights cuts!
Away with Globo coup makers!
Build Popular Power against austerity and repression!

Dilar Dirik: Patriarchy, Fascism and Capitalism

Illustration by Javier de Riba

This is an excerpt from an article by Dilar Dirik, “Radical Democracy: The First Line Against Fascism,” in which she argues that the radical direct democracy being created in Rojava in northern Syria is a crucial weapon in the fight against ISIS and fascism. In this excerpt, she draws the connections between ISIS, fascism, capitalism and patriarchy. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some classic anarchist critiques of fascism by Luigi Fabbri, Rudolf Rocker and Alex Comfort. Dirik’s article originally appeared in Roar magazine. 

A Product of Capitalist Modernity

There have been many attempts to explain the phenomenon of ISIS and its appeal to thousands of young people, especially considering the brutality of the organization’s methods. Many came to the conclusion that those who live under ISIS often serve the group because of fear or economic rewards. But clearly thousands of people worldwide voluntarily joined the atrocious group not despite, but precisely because of its ability to commit the most unthinkable evils. It seems that it is not religion, but a cruel, merciless sense of power — even at the cost of death — radiating from ISIS that attracts people from across the globe to the extremist group.

Single-factor theories generally fail to consider the regional and international political, economic, social context that enables an anti-life doctrine like that of ISIS to emerge. We must acknowledge ISIS’ appeal to young men, deprived of the chance to be adequate, decent human beings, without justifying the group’s mind-blowing rapist, genocidal agenda or removing the agency and accountability of individuals who commit these crimes against humanity. It is crucial to contextualize the sense of instant gratification in the form of authoritarian power, money and sex that ISIS offers in a cancerous society under patriarchal capitalism, which renders life meaningless, empty and hopeless.

Pathologizing the appeal of ISIS behind the backdrop of the so-called “war on terror,” instead of situating it in the context of wider institutions of power and violence which in interplay generate entire systems of authoritarianism, will not allow us to begin to understand what drives “good boys” from Germany to travel to the Middle East to become slaughterers. And yet ISIS is only the most extreme manifestation of a seemingly apocalyptic global trend. With the recent shift towards authoritarian right-wing politics worldwide, one word — once considered banished from human society forever — has re-entered our everyday lives and our political lexicon: fascism.

Clearly, there are immense differences between the contexts, features and methods of various fascist movements. But when it comes to its hierarchical organization, authoritarian thought process, extreme sexism, populist terminology, and clever recruitment patterns, capitalizing on perceived needs, fears or desires among vulnerable social groups, ISIS in many ways mirrors its international counterparts.

Perhaps we can think of fascism as a spectrum, in which established states on top of the capitalist world-system have the means to reproduce their authority through certain political institutions, economic policies, arms trade, media and cultural hegemony, while others, in reaction, rely on more “primitive” forms of fascism, such as seemingly random extremist violence. There are clear parallels in how fascists everywhere rely on a regime of paranoia, mistrust and fear to strengthen the strong hand of the state. Those who challenge their enemies are labelled “terrorists” or “enemies of God” — any action to destroy them is permissible.

Fascism strongly relies on the complete lack of decision-making agency within the broader community. It is nourished by a climate in which the community is stripped of its ability to initiate direct action, express creativity and develop its own alternatives. Any form of solidarity and any loyalty directed at anything or anyone other than the state must be systematically eradicated, so that the isolated, individualized citizen is dependent on the state and its policing institutions and knowledge systems.

That is why one of the most critical pillars of fascism is capitalism, as an economic system, ideology and form of social interaction. In the value system of capitalist modernity, human relations need to be reduced to mere economic interactions, calculable and measurable by interest and profit. It is easy to see capitalism’s ability to dispose of life in the name of larger interests as running parallel to ISIS’ wasting of lives for the sake of its pseudo-caliphate of rape, pillage and murder.

Kurdish militia

The Oldest Colony of All

Perhaps most crucially, fascism could never emerge if not for the enslavement of the oldest colony of all: women. Of all oppressed and brutalized groups, women have been subjected to the most ancient forms of institutionalized violence. The view of women as war spoils, as tools in the service of men, as objects of sexual gratification and sites to assert ultimate power persists in every single fascist manifesto. The emergence of the state, together with the fetishization of private property, was enabled above all by the submission of women.

Indeed, it is impossible to assert control over entire populations or create deep-cutting social divisions without the oppression and marginalization of women, promoted in male-dominated history-writing, theory production, meaning-giving practices, and economic and political administration. The state is modelled after the patriarchal family and vice versa. All forms of social domination are at some level replications of the most comprehensive, intimate, direct and harmful form of slavery, which is the sexual subjugation of women in all spheres of life.

Different structures and institutions of violence and hierarchy — such as capitalism or patriarchy — have distinct features, but fascism constitutes the concentrated, inter-related, systematized collaboration between them. And this is where fascism and capitalism, together with the most ancient form of human domination — patriarchy — find their most monopolized, systematic expressions in the modern nation-state.

Previous regimes over the course of history had despotic characters, but always relied on moral codes, religious theologies and divine or spiritual institutions to be seen as legitimate by the population. It is a particularity of capitalist modernity that it sheds all pretentions and claims to morality in relation to law and order, and exposes its obscenely destructive systems for the sake of nothing but the state itself.

Without the hierarchical, hegemonic nature of the state, which monopolizes the use of force, the economy, official ideology, information and culture; without the omnipresent security apparatuses that penetrate all aspects of life, from the media to the bedroom; without the disciplinary hand of the state as God on Earth, no system of exploitation or violence could survive. ISIS is a direct product of both: ancient models of hierarchy and violence, as well as capitalist modernity with its particular mindset, economy and culture. Understanding ISIS — and fascism more generally — means understanding the relationship between patriarchy, capitalism and the state.

Dilar Dirik, April 2017

Kropotkin: The Coming Anarchy (1887)

In my last post, I reproduced some thoughts of Tomás Ibáñez on the “coming anarchism,” that is the anarchism of the future, modified and adapted to rapidly changing conditions unforeseen by 19th century anarchist revolutionaries. The title to the piece was an allusion to an article by the anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin, “The Coming Anarchy,” the second part of an essay he published in the English review, The Nineteenth Century (February and August 1887 issues). The two parts of Kropotkin’s essay were republished as the pamphlet, “Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles” (1887, reprinted on its 100th anniversary in Kropotkin, Anarchism and Anarchist Communism, ed. N. Walter, Freedom Press,  1987). Here, I reproduce excerpts from “The Coming Anarchy,” highlighting Kropotkin’s advocacy not only of anarchism, but of anarchy itself. Unlike some anarchists who equate “anarchy” with some decentralized, federalist forms of direct democracy, Kropotkin argued that what we should be striving for is anarchy in the sense of a society without any kind of law or government at all. I included several selections by Kropotkin on anarchy, anarchist communism, law and morality in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Peter Kropotkin

The Coming Anarchy

I have already said that anarchy means no-government. We know well that the word ‘anarchy’ is also used in the current language as synonymous with disorder. But that meaning of ‘anarchy’ being a derived one, implies at least two suppositions. It implies, first, that whenever there is no government there is disorder; and it implies, moreover, that order, due to a strong government and a strong police, is always beneficial. Both implications, however, are anything but proved. There is plenty of order — we should say, of harmony — in many branches of human activity where the government, happily, does not interfere.

As to the beneficial effects of order, the kind of order that reigned at Naples under the Bourbons surely was not preferable to some disorder started by Garibaldi; while the Protestants of this country will probably say that the good deal of disorder made by Luther was preferable, at any rate, to the order which reigned under the Pope. As to the proverbial ‘order’ which was once ‘restored at Warsaw,’[1] there are, I suppose, no two opinions about it. While all agree that harmony is always desirable, there is no such unanimity about order, and still less about the ‘order’ which is supposed to reign on our modern societies; so that we have no objection whatever to the use of the word ‘anarchy’ as a negation of what has been often described as order.

By taking for our watchword anarchy, in its sense of no-government, we intend to express a pronounced tendency of human society. In history we see that precisely those epochs when small parts of humanity broke down the power of their rulers and reassumed their freedom were epochs of the greatest progress, economical and intellectual. Be it the growth of the free cities, whose unrivalled monuments — free work of free associations of workers — still testify [to] the revival of mind and of the well-being of the citizen; be it the great movement which gave birth to the Reformation — those epochs when the individual recovered some part of his freedom witnessed the greatest progress.

And if we carefully watch the present development of civilized nations, we cannot fail to discover in it a marked and ever-growing movement towards limiting more and more the sphere of action of government, so as to leave more and more liberty to the initiative of the individual. After having tried all kinds of government, and endeavoring to solve the insoluble problem of having a government ‘which might compel the individual to obedience, without escaping itself from obedience to collectivity,’ humanity is trying now to free itself from the bonds of any government whatever, and to respond to its needs of organization by the free understanding between individuals prosecuting the same common aims.

Home Rule, even for the smallest territorial unity or group, becomes a growing need; free agreement is becoming a substitute for the law; and free co-operation a substitute for governmental guardianship. One after the other those functions which were considered as the functions of government during the last two centuries are disputed; society moves better the less it is governed.

And the more we study the advance made in this direction, as well as the inadequacy of governments to fulfill the expectations placed in them, the more we are bound to conclude that Humanity, by steadily limiting the functions of government, is marching towards reducing them finally to nil; and we already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds — by nothing else but his own social habits and the necessity, which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbours.

Of course, the no-government ethics will meet with at least as many objectives as the no-capital economics [communism]. Our minds have been so nurtured in prejudices as to the providential functions of government that anarchist ideas must be received with distrust. Our whole education, from childhood to the grave, nurtures the belief in the necessity of a government and its beneficial effects.

Systems of philosophy have been elaborated to support this view; history has been written from this standpoint; theories of law have been circulated and taught for the same purpose. All politics are based on the same principles, each politician saying to the people he wants to support him : ‘Give me the governmental power; I will, I can, relieve you from the hardships of your present life.’

All our education is permeated with the same teachings. We may open any book of sociology, history, law, or ethics : everywhere we find government, its organization, its deeds, playing so prominent a part that we grow accustomed to suppose that the State and the political men are everything; that there is nothing behind the big statesmen. The same teachings are daily repeated in the Press. Whole columns are filled up with minutest records of parliamentary debates, of movements of political persons; and, while reading these columns, we too often forget that there is an immense body of men — mankind, in fact — growing and dying, living in happiness or sorrow, labouring and consuming, thinking and creating, besides those few men whose importance has been so swollen up as to overshadow humanity.

And yet, if we revert from the printed matter to our real life, and cast a broad glance on society as it is, we are struck with the infinitesimal part played by government in our life. Millions of human beings live and die without having had anything to do with government. Every day millions of transactions are made without the slightest interference of government; and those who enter into agreements have not the slightest intention of breaking bargains. Nay, those agreements which are not protected by government (those of the Exchange, or card [gambling] debts) are perhaps better kept than any others. The simple habit of keeping one’s word, the desire of not losing confidence, are quite sufficient in the immense overwhelming majority of cases to enforce the keeping of agreements.

Of course, it may be said that there is still the government which might enforce them if necessary. But not to speak of the numberless cases which could not even be brought before a court, everybody who has the slightest acquaintance with trade will undoubtedly confirm the assertion that, if there were not so strong a feeling of honour in keeping agreements, trade itself would become utterly impossible.

Even those merchants and manufacturers who feel not the slightest remorse when poisoning their customers with all kinds of abominable drugs, duly labelled, even they also keep their commercial agreements. But, if such a relative morality as commercial honesty exists now, under the present conditions, when enrichment is the chief motive, the same feeling will further develop very fast as soon as robbing somebody of the fruits of his labour is no longer the economical basis of our life…

The objections to the above may be easily foreseen. It will be said of course: “But what is to be done with those who do not keep their agreements? What with those who are not inclined to work? What with those who would prefer breaking the written laws of society, or—on the anarchist hypothesis—its unwritten customs? Anarchism may be good for a higher humanity,—not for the men of our own times.”

First of all, there are two kinds of agreements: there is the free one which is entered upon by free consent, as a free choice between different courses equally open to each of the agreeing parties. And there is the enforced agreement, imposed by one party upon the other, and accepted by the latter from sheer necessity; in fact, it is no agreement at all; it is a mere submission to necessity. Unhappily, the great bulk of what are now described as agreements belong to the latter category. When a workman sells his labour to an employer and knows perfectly well that some part of the value of his produce will be unjustly taken by the employer; when he sells it without even the slightest guarantee of being employed so much as six consecutive months, it is a sad mockery to call that a free contract. Modern economists may call it free, but the father of political economy—Adam Smith—was never guilty of such a misrepresentation. As long as three-quarters of humanity are compelled to enter into agreements of that description, force is of course necessary, both to enforce the supposed agreements and to maintain such a state of things. Force—and a great deal of force—is necessary to prevent the labourers from taking possession of what they consider unjustly appropriated by the few; and force is necessary to continually bring new “uncivilized nations” under the same conditions.

But we do not see the necessity of force for enforcing agreements freely entered upon. We never heard of a penalty imposed on a man who belonged to the crew of a lifeboat and at a given moment preferred to abandon the association. All that his comrades would do with him, if he were guilty of a gross neglect, would probably be to refuse to have anything further to do with him. Nor did we hear of fines imposed on a contributor to the dictionary for a delay in his work, or of gendarmes driving the volunteers of Garibaldi to the battlefield. Free agreements need not be enforced.

As to the so-often repeated objection that no one would labour if he were not compelled to do so by sheer necessity, we heard enough of it before the emancipation of slaves in America, as well as before the emancipation of serfs in Russia…

Overwork is repulsive to human nature—not work. Overwork for supplying the few with luxury—not work for the well-being of all. Work is a physiological necessity, a necessity of spending accumulated bodily energy, a necessity which is health and life itself. If so many branches of useful work are so reluctantly done now, it is merely because they mean overwork, or they are improperly organized. But we know—old [Benjamin] Franklin knew it—that four hours of useful work every day would be more than sufficient for supplying everybody with the comfort of a moderately well-to-do middle-class house, if we all gave ourselves to productive work, and if we did not waste our productive powers as we do waste them now.

As to the childish question, repeated for fifty years: “Who would do disagreeable work?” frankly I regret that none of our savants has ever been brought to do it, be it for only one day in his life. If there is still work which is really disagreeable in itself, it is only because our scientific men have never cared to consider the means of rendering it less so. They have always known that there were plenty of starving men who would do it for a few cents a day.

As to the third—the chief—objection, which maintains the necessity of a government for punishing those who break the law of society, there is so much to say about it that it hardly can be touched incidentally. The more we study the question, the more we are brought to the conclusion that society itself is responsible for the anti-social deeds perpetrated in its midst, and that no punishment, no prisons, and no hangmen can diminish the numbers of such deeds; nothing short of a reorganization of society itself.

Three quarters of all the acts which are brought before our courts every year have their origin, either directly or indirectly, in the present disorganized state of society with regard to the production and distribution of wealth—not in perversity of human nature. As to the relatively few anti-social deeds which result from anti-social inclinations of separate individuals, it is not by prisons, nor even by resorting to the hangmen, that we can diminish their numbers. By our prisons, we merely multiply them and render them worse. By our detectives, our “price of blood,” our executions, and our jails, we spread in society such a terrible flow of basest passions and habits, that he who should realize the effects of these institutions to their full extent would be frightened by what society is doing under the pretext of maintaining morality. We must search for other remedies, and the remedies have been indicated long since.

…[I]f all our children—all children are our children—received a sound instruction and education—and we have the means of giving it; if every family lived in a decent home—and they could at the present high pitch of our production; if every boy and girl were taught a handicraft at the same time as he or she receives scientific instruction, and not to be a manual producer of wealth were considered as a token of inferiority; if men lived in closer contact with one another, and had continually to come into contact on those public affairs which now are vested in the few; and if, in consequence of a closer contact. we were brought to take as lively an interest in our neighbours’ difficulties and pains as we formerly took in those of our kinsfolk—then we should not resort to policemen and judges, to prisons and executions. Anti-social deeds would be nipped in the bud, not punished. The few contests which would arise would be easily settled by arbitrators; and no more force would be necessary to impose their decisions than is required now for enforcing the decisions of the family tribunals of China.

And here we are brought to consider a great question: what would become of morality in a society which recognized no laws and proclaimed the full freedom of the individual? Our answer is plain. Public morality is independent from, and anterior to, law and religion. Until now, the teachings of morality have been associated with religious teachings. But the influence which religious teachings formerly exercised on the mind has faded of late, and the sanction which morality derived from religion has no longer the power it formerly had. Millions and millions grow in our cities who have lost the old faith. Is it a reason for throwing morality overboard, and for treating it with the same sarcasm as primitive cosmogony?

Obviously not. No society is possible without certain principles of morality generally recognized. If everyone grew accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men; if we never could rely on each other’s promise and words; if everyone treated his fellow as an enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justifiable—no society could exist. And we see, in fact, that notwithstanding the decay of religious beliefs, the principles of morality remain unshaken. We even see irreligious people trying to raise the current standard of morality. The fact is that moral principles are independent of religious beliefs: they are anterior to them…

In fact, each new religion takes its moral principles from the only real stock of morality—the moral habits which grow with men as soon as they unite to live together in tribes, cities, or nations. No animal society is possible without resulting in a growth of certain moral habits of mutual support and even self-sacrifice for the common well-being. These habits are a necessary condition for the welfare of the species in its struggle for life—cooperation of individuals being a much more important factor in the struggle for the preservation of the species than the so-much-spoken-of physical struggle between individuals for the means of existence. The “fittest” in the organic world are those who grow accustomed to life in society; and life in society necessarily implies moral habits.

As to mankind, it has during its long existence developed in its midst a nucleus of social habits, of moral habits, which cannot disappear as long as human societies exist. And therefore, notwithstanding the influences to the contrary which are now at work in consequence of our present economic relations, the nucleus of our moral habits continues to exist. Law and religion only formulate them and endeavour to enforce them by their sanction…

Whatever the variety of theories of morality, all can be brought under three chief categories: the morality of religion; the utilitarian morality; and the theory of moral habits resulting from the very needs of life in society. Each religious morality sanctifies its prescriptions by making them originate from revelation; and it tries to impress its teachings on the mind by a promise of reward, or punishment, either in this or in a future life.

The utilitarian morality maintains the idea of reward, but it finds it in man himself. It invites men to analyse their pleasures, to classify them, and to give preference to those which are most intense and most durable. We must recognize, however, that, although it has exercised some influence, this system has been judged too artificial by the great mass of human beings.

And finally—whatever its varieties—there is the third system of morality which sees in moral actions—in those actions which are most powerful in rendering men best fitted for life in society—a mere necessity of the individual to enjoy the joys of his brethren, to suffer when some of his brethren are suffering; a habit and a second nature, slowly elaborated and perfected by life in society. That is the morality of mankind; and that is also the morality of anarchism.

Such are, in a very brief summary, the leading principles of anarchism. Each of them hurts many a prejudice, and yet each of them results from an analysis of the very tendencies displayed by human society. Each of them is rich in consequences and implies a thorough revision of many a current opinion. And anarchism is not a mere insight into a remote future. Already now, whatever the sphere of action of the individual, he can act, either in accordance with anarchist principles or on an opposite line. And all that may be done in that direction will be done in the direction to which further development goes. All that may be done in the opposite way will be an attempt to force humanity to go where it will not go.

Peter Kropotkin

1. This was a statement made by the Russian Governor of Poland, Muraviov, after brutally putting down the Polish uprising of 1863.