CrimethInc: From Democracy to Freedom

vote for nobody

Last week, I posted a brief section on “community assemblies” from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I raised some concerns regarding proposals for direct democracy that to my mind create structures that are too rigid and will result in a return to political parties and power politics as people coalesce into groups with sometimes conflicting interests (a critique I have more fully developed in my article, “Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology,”[6] in Anarchist Studies, Volume 12, No. 4 (2004)). Previously, I posted some selections from Malatesta, Luce Fabbri and Murray Bookchin setting forth different views about anarchy and democracy. Coincidentally, CrimethInc. has been running a serious of articles providing an anarchist critique of even directly democratic forms of government. Here, I present some excerpts from the section on democracy and freedom.

democracy means police

Anarchist critiques of democracy

Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.

And what’s the cure for the problems with democracy? Everyone agrees: more democracy. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a spate of new movements promising to deliver real democracy, in contrast to ostensibly democratic institutions that they describe as exclusive, coercive, and alienating.

Is there a common thread that links all these different kinds of democracy? Which of them is the real one? Can any of them deliver the inclusivity and freedom we associate with the word?

Impelled by our own experiences in directly democratic movements, we’ve returned to these questions. Our conclusion is that the dramatic imbalances in economic and political power that have driven people into the streets from New York City to Sarajevo are not incidental defects in specific democracies, but structural features dating back to the origins of democracy itself; they appear in practically every example of democratic government through the ages. Representative democracy preserved all the bureaucratic apparatus that was originally invented to serve kings; direct democracy tends to recreate it on a smaller scale, even outside the formal structures of the state. Democracy is not the same as self-determination.

To be sure, many good things are regularly described as democratic. This is not an argument against discussions, collectives, assemblies, networks, federations, or working with people you don’t always agree with. The argument, rather, is that when we engage in those practices, if we understand what we are doing as democracy—as a form of participatory government rather than a collective practice of freedom—then sooner or later, we will recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government. This goes for representative democracy and direct democracy alike, and even for consensus process.

Rather than championing democratic procedures as an end in themselves, then, let’s return to the values that drew us to democracy in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, the idea that each person should control her own destiny. If democracy is not the most effective way to actualize these, what is?

As fiercer and fiercer struggles rock today’s democracies, the stakes of this discussion keep getting higher. If we go on trying to replace the prevailing order with a more participatory version of the same thing, we’ll keep ending up right back where we started, and others who share our disillusionment will gravitate towards more authoritarian alternatives. We need a framework that can fulfill the promises democracy has betrayed…


Creating Spaces of Encounter

In place of formal sites of centralized decision-making, we propose a variety of spaces of encounter where people may open themselves to each other’s influence and find others who share their priorities. Encounter means mutual transformation: establishing common points of reference, common concerns. The space of encounter is not a representative body vested with the authority to make decisions for others, nor a governing body employing majority rule or consensus. It is an opportunity for people to experiment with acting in different configurations on a voluntary basis.

The spokescouncil immediately preceding the demonstrations against the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City was a classic space of encounter. This meeting brought together a wide range of autonomous groups that had converged from around the world to protest the FTAA. Rather than attempting to make binding decisions, the participants introduced the initiatives that their groups had prepared and coordinated for mutual benefit wherever possible.

Much of the decision-making occurred afterwards in informal intergroup discussions. By this means, thousands of people were able to synchronize their actions without need of central leadership, without giving the police much insight into the wide array of plans that were to unfold. Had the spokescouncil employed an organizational model intended to produce unity and centralization, the participants could have spent the entire night fruitlessly arguing about goals, strategy, and which tactics to allow.

Most of the social movements of the past two decades have been hybrid models juxtaposing spaces of encounter with some form of democracy. In Occupy, for example, the encampments served as open-ended spaces of encounter, while the general assemblies were formally intended to function as directly democratic decision-making bodies. Most of those movements achieved their greatest effects because the encounters they facilitated opened up opportunities for autonomous action, not because they centralized group activity through direct democracy.16

Many of the decisions that gave Occupy Oakland a greater impact than other Occupy encampments, including the refusal to negotiate with the city government and the militant reaction to the first eviction, were the result of autonomous initiatives, not consensus process. Meanwhile, some occupiers interpreted consensus process as a sort of decentralized legal framework in which any action undertaken by any participant in the occupation should require the consent of every other participant.

As one participant recalls, “One of the first times the police tried to enter the camp at Occupy Oakland, they were immediately surrounded and shouted at by a group of about twenty people. Some other people weren’t happy about this. The most vocal of these pacifists placed himself in front of those confronting the police, crossed his forearms in the X that symbolizes strong disagreement in the sign language of consensus process, and said ‘You can’t do this! I block you!’ For him, consensus was a tool of horizontal control, giving everyone the right to suppress whichever of others’ actions they found disagreeable.” If we approach the encounter as the driving force of these movements, rather than as a raw material to be shaped through democratic process, it might help us to prioritize what we do best.

Anarchists frustrated by the contradictions of democratic discourse have sometimes withdrawn to organize themselves according to preexisting affinity alone. Yet segregation breeds stagnation and fractiousness. It is better to organize on the basis of our conditions and needs so we come into contact with all the others who share them. Only when we understand ourselves as nodes within dynamic collectivities, rather than discrete entities possessed of static interests, can we make sense of the rapid metamorphoses that people undergo in the course of experiences like the Occupy movement—and the tremendous power of the encounter to transform us if we open ourselves to it.

democracy autonomy

Anarchy and Democracy

Anarchy: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy

I have created a new page, Anarchy and Democracy: Bookchin, Malatesta and Fabbri, which consolidates three previous posts on anarchy and democracy by Murray Bookchin, Errico Malatesta and Luce Fabbri. With the overthrow of dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, Occupy movements everywhere, the continuing disaster of “unrepresentative” capitalist democracy and struggles for freedom across the globe, questions regarding what alternatives are available naturally come to the fore. Anarchy is one alternative that deserves more serious consideration. Anarchist ideas that retain their relevance today include workers’ self-management, libertarian socialism, voluntary association, federalism, decentralization and  direct democracy, ideas that are discussed in detail by a variety of writers in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Luce Fabbri: Transforming Democracy

With the overthrow of dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and the continuing struggle for freedom throughout the Middle East, as the “Arab Spring” carries on into the fall of 2011, questions regarding what alternatives are available naturally come to the fore. Anarchy is one alternative that deserves more serious consideration. Anarchist ideas that retain their relevance today include workers’ self-management, libertarian socialism, voluntary association, federalism, decentralization and  direct democracy, ideas that are discussed in detail by a variety of writers in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Recently, I have been posting on my blog articles focusing on these topics to supplement the material included in the printed volumes of the Anarchism anthology.

Luce Fabbri (1908-2000) was an Italian born anarchist writer who spent most of her life in Uruguay, where her family eventually emigrated after being forced to flee Fascist Italy. Her father was the great anarchist critic of fascism and totalitarianism, Luigi Fabbri (Volume One, Selection 113). Luce Fabbri experienced dictatorship both in Italy and, for a time, Uruguay. In the following excerpts from her article, “More on the Matter of Democracy,” translated by Paul Sharkey, she argues that anarchy and democracy are not incompatible, but that anarchy represents a further step forward in the struggle for human liberation.

From Democracy to Anarchy

Anarchists are the eternal opposition: it will always be their task to combat governments and they must never consider mounting opposition from the governing heights. They are the vanquished of history as commonly understood and yet, with every added dose of freedom and fairness, they score little victories, but are never happy with that victory and are forever winding up in jail. Their ideal is forever “on the horizon” as [Eduardo] Colombo so pungently puts it in a recent article (“Anarchy is the horizon rather than the end of history”, in Volontá, 1982, No. 2, p. 98). And we know that the horizon is the immeasurable circumference of which we are the centre and which changes position the moment we change ours. Embracing this way of thinking about anarchism is the precondition for any realistic view of our position and our task in the changing times in which we do and are destined to live…

Democracy and anarchy are not mutually contradictory but the one represents an advance upon the other. In fact, there is no diametrical opposition between the rights of the majority upon which democracy is built and the free consent that is characteristic of libertarian solutions; the difference is, instead, a difference of degree, since we see the point as trying to manage conflicts through tolerance, acknowledgment of the rights of the minority and of individuals, federal coordination and freedom of initiative. But the obsession with avoiding the violent ascendancy of the minority is one that we all share. And the traditional democratic mentality in the broadest sense always represents a defence against that danger…

[D]emocracies are particularly vulnerable, precisely because they persist in having power as their organizing factor.  The telling factor in the initial defeat of Franco (which is to say, up until all the governments lined up, through action or omission, against the Spanish people) was the anarchists who naturally formed the backbone of popular spontaneity. They operated more or less well outside the parameters of democratic institutions, except at the point when CNT representatives took their places in the government, something they deemed necessary on account of the desperate needs of the war, but a move made in knowing contravention of their own principles and looked upon more as a defeat than as a victory. And, beyond the narrow parameters of democracy, they so successfully breathed life into their revolution that it took the combination of a totalitarian stab in the back plus the onslaught of Franco’s armies, abetted by half of Europe, plus the complicit indifference of the other half, for it to be crushed. But all of this was feasible thanks to the organizing, propaganda, idea and program-generating efforts (Congress of Zaragoza [Volume One, Selection 124]) made against a democratic backdrop prior to July 1936. And it all began that July 19th with the anarchists rallying to the defence of basic freedoms alongside all the other antifascist forces against the rebel army. For us, the advantage of democracy, however limited, is precisely the fact that defence of certain facets of it (against a totalitarian regime) does not imply indiscriminately buying into the whole package…

Those who figure that all State-based regimes… are substantially the same, look upon anyone prepared to draw distinctions and operate in accordance with them as espousing a reformist line, defined as a readiness to adapt to existing society, a retreat to superseded positions on the basis of a convenient, pragmatic approach to the “lesser evil“. Now, where I myself am concerned at any rate, this is anything but the case. It is a matter of occupying what spaces there are that are still free (and which must, with our help, be kept free) in order to nurture an overhaul that should start with ourselves and then radiate out from us, placing all problems on a new footing, breaking with the authority and violence which are characteristic of the world today. It is a matter of rediscovering that all men are brothers and equals, though not the same, that their lives are dependent on one another, that each one has his own personal world to defend: it is a matter of not recognizing the power (be it political or economic) of one man over another, in a context changing faster than the human mind can keep pace with. Man himself does not change as readily as he can change the things surrounding him, and in the turmoil a diffuse violence surfaces, ideas become confused and the unwary individual, fearing that there is worse to come, surrenders to the omnipotence of the State the way he once would have surrendered to the omnipotence of God. This is a slippery slope that leads to the abyss. In order to resist, one has to act and one has to be constructive: at the same time, one has to be familiar with this incandescent world, a participant in its lightning quick process of change, and one has to do so from as autonomous a position as possible. The situation is such as to require a new mind-set if the species is to survive, a mind-set that is not tied to traditional models. And, for a start, we have to break out of the vicious circle of violence that cries out for further violence and which is always authoritarian. In a society like this, that means embracing whatever there is in this world that is neither violent nor authoritarian and making that the starting point for a libertarian-inclined future by breathing a new spirit into it…

Now, the creative fight against the state has become a very complicated affair, due to the huge array of agencies hitched to the machinery of state which (however poorly) oversees social welfare, health care, meteorological services, the struggle against pollution, the distribution of power and drinking water supplies, the organization of transport services, postal services, telegraph communications, telephone services, radio and television services, schooling for all, retirement schemes… Socializing all of this without undue bureaucratization and ensuring that nothing falls into private hands, or, worse still, into the hands of agencies or parties that might use them in order to exercise power, is a difficult undertaking requiring not just the strength that flows from consensus and the power of numbers, but also proficiency in every one of those spheres (not to mention a good sprinkling of patience and tolerance, which goes without saying, but the Spanish revolution has shown these to be eminently revolutionary qualities). It involves an effort to decentralize along federal lines a mechanism with which one needs to be comprehensively familiar and that prior to the advent of any opportunity to tinker with it.

Now, decentralization of utilities, the struggle to have grassroots forces take them in hand, are feasible only in a democratic society and represent positive partial goals, even should these be “reformist”. And, let me say it again, they require specific competencies. Which brings us back to the theme of education again. One can only transform that with which one has a familiarity and the tools of transformation are becoming increasingly complex, so complex that the present generation is even now losing out in terms of affective life. Ignorance is no defence for us against what Alvin Toffler has termed “Futureshock“. Mankind can grapple with that only if it ceases being a mass and if every individual comes into his own and familiarizes himself with the world around him so that he can devise his own, individual response. And at present this can only be achieved through knowledge and conscious collaboration with his fellows. I figure that libertarian socialism (however little self-awareness and however much unselfconsciousness there may be) is the only thing that can occupy that ground today…

It is not exactly a matter of being a supporter of this or that state (East versus West, North against South, industrialized nations versus the Third World etc., etc.). It can happen, and in fact is a certainty, that, as someone once said, there is more of a revolutionary mind-set in Poland than in some democratic states. All I am saying is that among the demands made by [the Polish independent trade union movement] Solidarity in a struggle dear in terms of sweat and blood, there are many which are already extant, albeit imperfect and in peril, in countries more or less governed by democracy. It is to be desired that the yearning for socialism should not disappear from the struggle for freedom. Should it disappear, the fault will lie, not with democracy but with the totalitarian rule that has emblazoned a phony socialism on its banner, barring the way to genuine socialism. So it is not a matter of “playing the democratic card” and repeating [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn’s tragic mistake (albeit that Solzhenitsyn is no socialist). The point is, and I apologize for repeating myself here, not to defend a democratic system but rather to defend the fundamental freedoms existing within it from the assaults from totalitarian forces and, under their aegis, bolster all collective bodies not linked to the state or which are susceptible to a process of de-statification, decentralization in a libertarian and socialist sense (hence the focus I think there should be on cooperatives, for all their shortcomings, and my advocacy of participation in trade union activity at grassroots levels). More important still is creative activity in this sphere: urban communities, rural collectives, operationally coordinated neighbourhood groups, etc.

Plainly I will meet objections to the effect that we should not be relying on a mentality other than our own, but rather trying to turn it libertarian. Naturally we will never give up on our efforts at persuasion and we should never be slow to set an example (which carries more weight but is also harder to do). But — aside from the party political game and the powers-that-be — the democratic mind-set is, after all, not that far removed from our own. What divides us is the apocalyptical insurrectionism of one segment of our movement on the one hand, and, on the other, people’s faith in the traditions of representative democracy, essentially in the ballot-box, two hurdles that have been losing their impact (voting having lost much of its credibility).

In any event, since the essence of the libertarian mind-set is tolerance and since we represent a minority force, our relations with others are dictated by how much or how little affinity there is between us. So I believe that our starting-point and the focus of our efforts are located among the masses who regard themselves as democrats. We should aim to socialize and federalize democracy and turn it into a direct, socialist democracy. Surrender to the State does not come into it. Our role is to represent the anti-statist axis. Which is a difficult role to fill unless we get away from the simplistic view of the all or nothing, “pull it out by the roots!” approach, but it is worth the effort. It is an ongoing vocation that does not hold out the prospect of “total” victory, but is worthwhile for all that.

Revolution is a magical word, one of which we ought to be mistrustful, as we should be of all magic. But it is a cherished term not yet ready to be consigned to the archives. But we need to be careful about how it is used. And, above all, I think it should never be used as a synonym for “insurrection”. I count myself a revolutionary. But as I see it, revolution is thoroughgoing change in consciousnesses and in things. I think the big mistake is to think that it should necessarily happen first in the realm of things. Out of this latter belief comes the very significant role assigned in the revolution to the act of insurrection which readjusts the power relationships. Sometimes that insurrection fails to materialize and sometimes it comes later, after the change has taken place and the situation has reached a breaking point, triggering violent resistance from wounded interests and thereby rendering counter-violence inevitable. Thus the insurrectionist phase was not present in the Spanish revolution… it was the outcome of a reactionary, conservative insurrection. From which revolution ensued, it being ripe in people’s minds and indeed in the reconstruction plans of the CNT unions, which were the strongest ones.

In actual fact, no change is of any value and endures unless it is the product of a sufficiently widespread determination. The more widely shared the determination, the less violent and thus less authoritarian the change. Far from adapting to capitalist democracy, such a revolutionary determination wants to reach the deepest recesses and is not content with “reforms”… Let us take note — at the risk of stating the obvious — that… someone who does not reject power can achieve nothing in terms of the creative: he may win through the insurrection or the coup d’état, but he will lose the revolution by dint of the very exercise of power, and the more absolute his power, the more radically will he be defeated…

What is to become of socialism? It has a saviour role to fulfill in today’s world, but can only perform it through a freedom devoid of compromises with the State, which is to say, where independent trade unions and cooperatives can be organized that shift basic control of production and consumption into different hands. And here, by way of conclusion, let us return to the core argument of this essay as indicated by its title: democracy. The… [1956] Hungarian revolution was made in the name of factory councils, the agencies of a free trade unionism, and was crushed by a totalitarianism characterized by, among other things, state-controlled trade unionism. Where the right to strike is non-existent, where economic power and the police are in the same hands, all creative endeavour along socialist lines becomes desperately hard and the only thing possible is rebellion in order to secure that essential space which, albeit imperfectly and at the cost of much strife, survives in countries where basic freedoms have not been done away with. The fact is that only by moving onward can man save himself: but it is equally a fact that no forward movement is possible unless he manages to hold on to what he has achieved.

Revista Anarchica, No. 104 (1983)