Graham Purchase: Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

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

Anarcho-Syndicalism and Environmentalism

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

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

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

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

Means and Ends

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

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

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

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

 

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Alex Kolokotronis: Municipalist Syndicalism

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

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

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

Municipalist Syndicalism

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

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

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

Community-Focused Union Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSA as Potential Platform for Municipalist Syndicalism

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

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

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

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

Alexander Kolokotronis

Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

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.

DOMINATION AND DIRECT RELATIONSHIPS

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.

POLICY-MAKING AND ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION

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.

MEDIATION, HIERARCHY AND AUTHORITY

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.

POLITICAL POWER AND MAJORITY RULE

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)

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

Uri Gordon: Is Anarchy Democracy?

crimethinc democracy

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

dejacque

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

for-sale-democracy

Selling Anarchism as Democracy

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

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

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

an open question

an open question

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

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

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

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

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

wells athenian democracy

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

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

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

Uri Gordon

we-dont-need-patriotism

Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin

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

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

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Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Yavor Tarinski

Bibliography:

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

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

eco-anarchist-flag

The Economics of Anarchy

anarchist revolt

After a bit of a break, I’m continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. This section discusses different anarchist approaches to economic organization. Contrary to the sectarians at the Socialist Party of Great Britain, just because I included a variety of perspectives does not indicate endorsement of any particular position.

Tree of Anarchy

The Economics of Anarchy

In the “economic” sphere, Murray Bookchin came to advocate “municipal control” of the economy by community assemblies, thereby abolishing the “economic” as a distinct social sphere by absorbing it into the “political” sphere (Volume Three, Selection 46), a reversal of Proudhon’s earlier argument that “political institutions must be lost in industrial organization” (Volume One, Selection 12). In order to avoid such community control from degenerating into a system of competing city-states, he advocated anarchist communism within each community (the abolition of private property and distribution according to need), and federalism between communities. Bookchin claimed that the “syndicalist alternative” of workers’ control “re-privatizes the economy into ‘self-managed’ collectives,” opening “the way to their degeneration into traditional forms of private property” (Volume Three, Selection 46).

eco-communalism

eco-communalism

However, most anarcho-syndicalists would respond that workers’ self-management would not be based on a simple factory council model of organization but would include self-managed communal, consumer, trade (or vocational), industrial and service organizations forming a complex network of interlocking groups in which factory councils would be unable to reconstitute themselves as autonomous private firms operating for their own profit (see, for example, Sansom, Volume Two, Selection 58, and Joyeaux, Volume Two, Selection 61), particularly when the economy as a whole would be organized along anarchist communist lines.

anarchist communism kropotkin

John Crump and Adam Buick have emphasized that selling, “as an act of exchange… could only take place between separate owners. Yet separate owners of parts of the social product are precisely what would not, and could not, exist” in an anarchist communist society. “With the replacement of exchange by common ownership what basically would happen is that wealth would cease to take the form of exchange value, so that all the expressions of this social relationship peculiar to an exchange economy, such as money and prices, would automatically disappear” (Volume Three, Selection 48).

mutualism

Anarchists continue to debate the kind of economy compatible with their vision of a free society. Kevin Carson, updating Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker’s “mutualist” ideas, argues for a gradual transition to a stateless society through the creation of “alternative social infrastructure,” such as “producers’ and consumers’ co-ops, LETS [local exchange trading] systems and mutual banks, syndicalist industrial unions, tenant associations and rent strikes, neighbourhood associations, (non-police affiliated) crime-watch and cop-watch programs, voluntary courts for civil arbitration, community-supported agriculture, etc.” For Carson, “mutualism means building the kind of society we want here and now, based on grass-roots organization for voluntary cooperation and mutual aid—instead of waiting for the revolution.”

Unlike most other anarchists, Carson advocates the retention of market relations because when “firms and self-employed individuals deal with each other through market, rather than federal relations, there are no organizations superior to them. Rather than decisions being made by permanent organizations, which will inevitably serve as power bases for managers and ‘experts,’ decisions will be made by the invisible hand of the marketplace” (Volume Three, Selection 47).

revolution

John Crump and Adam Buick argue against reliance on market mechanisms and deny that there can be a gradual transition from capitalism to anarchist communism. In an anarchist communist society, “resources and labour would be allocated… by conscious decisions, not through the operation of economic laws acting with the same coercive force as laws of nature,” such as the “invisible hand” of the market. A “gradual evolution from a class society to a classless society is impossible because at some stage there would have to be a rupture which would deprive the state capitalist ruling class—be they well-meaning or, more likely, otherwise—of their exclusive control over the means of production” (Volume Three, Selection 48).

Luciano Lanza argues that there are ways to temper reliance on market mechanisms, for example by sharing profits among firms. But for him the main point is to move beyond the “logic of the market,” a society in which “the capitalist market defines every aspect of social coexistence,” to a society where, quoting Cornelius Castoriadis, “economics has been restored to its place as a mere auxiliary to human life rather than its ultimate purpose” (Volume Three, Selection 49). As George Benello puts it, “the goal is a society organized in such a fashion that the basic activities of living are carried out through organizations whose style and structure mirror the values sought for.”

Alexander Berkman

Because this “vision is a total one, rather than centered on specific issues and problems, projects of many sorts will reinforce the vision: co-operative schools, day care centers, community [credit] unions, newspapers, radio, and later producer enterprise.” As these projects proliferate, society becomes more “densely and intensively organized in an integrative fashion wherein the basic activities of life interrelate,” so that what comes to be “defended is not simply a set of discrete political goals, but a way of life” (Volume Two, Selection 44). This is yet another example of the “prefigurative politics” that anarchists have advocated and practiced since at least the time of Proudhon, and which has again come to the fore with the advent of “global justice” movements against neo-liberalism toward the end of the 20th century.

Robert Graham

emma goldman

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…

oakland-commune-barricade

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

Community Assemblies

A communal assembly in Rojava

A communal assembly in Rojava

Here is a very short excerpt from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I discuss Murray Bookchin’s idea of community assemblies, an idea which appears to have been taken up by people in Rojava, under constant threat from both ISIS and Turkish armed forces. The issue for me is whether these assemblies form voluntary federations or whether they become communal or cantonal systems of government.

bookchin next revolution large

Community Assemblies

The contractarian ideal seeks to reduce all relationships to contractual relationships, ultimately eliminating the need for any public political process. Murray Bookchin has argued to the contrary that there is, or should be, a genuine public sphere in which all members of a community are free to participate and able to collectively make decisions regarding the policies that are to be followed by that community. Community assemblies, in contrast to factory councils, provide everyone with a voice in collective decision making, not just those directly involved in the production process (Volume Two, Selection 62). Such assemblies would function much like the anarchist “collectives” in the Spanish Revolution documented by Gaston Leval (Volume One, Selection 126).

Questions arise however regarding the relationship between community assemblies and other forms of organization, whether workers’ councils, trade unions, community assemblies in other areas, or voluntary associations in general. In addition to rejecting simple majority rule, anarchists have historically supported not only the right of individuals and groups to associate, network and federate with other individuals and groups but to secede or disassociate from them. One cannot have voluntary associations based on compulsory membership (Ward: Volume Two, Selection 63).

Disregarding the difficulties in determining the “will” of an assembly (whether by simple majority vote of those present, as Bookchin advocated, or by some more sophisticated means), except in rare cases of unanimity one would expect genuine and sincere disagreements over public policy decisions to continue to arise even after the abolition of class interests. The enforcement of assembly decisions would not only exacerbate conflict, it would encourage factionalism, with people sharing particular views or interests uniting to ensure that their views predominate. In such circumstances, “positive altruism and voluntary cooperative behaviour” tend to atrophy (Taylor, Volume Two, Selection 65), as the focus of collective action through the assemblies becomes achieving coercive legal support for one’s own views rather than eliciting the cooperation of others (Graham, 2004).

Robert Graham

voting fair vote

Toward a Convivial Society

Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I focus on Ivan Illich and his critique of modern institutions, “disabling” professions, and the commodification of everyday life, and his alternative vision of a convivial society. Illich was friends with Paul Goodman, who helped to inspire Illich to write one of his best known books, Deschooling Society. Like Goodman, Illich has unjustly faded from public view since his death (in 2002). By that time he had already become marginalized, as even “liberal” intellectual forums, like the New York Review of Books, had long since ceased to discuss his work, following a brief intellectual opening in the late 1960s and the 1970s (with Noam Chomsky suffering a similar fate). While Illich never described himself as an anarchist, some of his critics did. I included one of his essays in Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology. Anarchists can still benefit from his critique of modern industrialized society.

Illich Tools

Toward a Convivial Society

In the 1970s, Ivan Illich, who was close to Paul Goodman, called for the “inversion of present institutional purposes,” seeking to create a “convivial society,” by which he meant “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and intercourse of persons with their environment.” For Illich, as with most anarchists, “individual freedom [is] realized in mutual personal interdependence,” the sort of interdependence which atrophies under the state and capitalism. The problem with present institutions is that they “provide clients with predetermined goods,” making “commodities out of health, education, housing, transportation, and welfare. We need arrangements which permit modern man to engage in the activities of healing and health maintenance, learning and teaching, moving and dwelling.” He argued that desirable institutions are therefore those which “enable people to meet their own needs.”

Where Illich parted company with anarchists was in his endorsement of legal coercion to establish limits to personal consumption. He proposed “to set a legal limit to the tooling of society in such a way that the toolkit necessary to conviviality will be accessible for the autonomous use of a maximum number of people” (Volume Two, Selection 73). For anarchists, one of the problems with coercive legal government is that, in the words of Allan Ritter, the “remoteness of its officials and the permanence and generality of its controls cause it to treat its subjects as abstract strangers. Such treatment is the very opposite of the personal friendly treatment” appropriate to the sort of convivial society that Illich sought to create (Volume Three, Selection 18).

Anarchists would agree with Illich that existing political systems “provide goods with clients rather than people with goods. Individuals are forced to pay for and use things they do not need; they are allowed no effective part in the process of choosing, let alone producing them.” Anarchists would also support “the individual’s right to use only what he [or she] needs, to play an increasing part as an individual in its production,” and the “guarantee” of “an environment so simple and transparent that all [people] most of the time have access to all the things which are useful to care for themselves and for others.” While Illich’s emphasis on “the need for limits of per capita consumption” may appear to run counter to the historic anarchist communist commitment to a society of abundance in which all are free to take what they need, anarchists would agree with Illich that people should be in “control of the means and the mode of production” so that they are “in the service of the people” rather than people being controlled by them “for the purpose of raising output at all cost and then worrying how to distribute it in a fair way” (Volume Two, Selection 73).

Illich proposed that “the first step in a more general program of institutional inversion” would be the “de-schooling of society.” By this he meant the abolition of schools which “enable a teacher to establish classes of subjects and to impute the need for them to classes of people called pupils. The inverse of schools would be opportunity networks which permit individuals to state their present interest and seek a match for it.” Illich therefore went one step beyond the traditional anarchist focus on creating libertarian schools that students are free to attend and in which they choose what to learn (Volume One, Selections 65 & 66), adopting a position similar to Paul Goodman, who argued that children should not be institutionalized within a school system at all (1964).

illich deschooling 2

By replacing the commodity of “education” with “learning,” which is an activity, Illich hoped to move away from “our present world view, in which our needs can be satisfied only by tangible or intangible commodities which we consume” (Volume Two, Selection 73). The “commodification” of social life is a common theme in anarchist writings, from the time when Proudhon denounced capitalism for reducing the worker to “a chattel, a thing” (Volume One, Selection 9), to George Woodcock’s critique of the “tyranny of the clock,” which “turns time from a process of nature into a commodity that can be measured and bought and sold like soap or sultanas” (Volume Two, Selection 69).

Illich criticized those anarchists who “would make their followers believe that the maximum technically possible is not simply the maximum desirable for a few, but that it can also provide everybody with maximum benefits at minimum cost,” describing them as “techno-anarchists” because they “have fallen victim to the illusion that it is possible to socialize the technocratic imperative” (Volume Two, Selection 73). It is not clear to whom Illich was directing these comments, but a few years earlier Richard Kostelanetz had written an article defending what he described as “technoanarchism,” in which he criticized the more common anarchist stance critical toward modern technology (Volume Two, selection 72).

Kostelanetz suggested that “by freeing more people from the necessity of productivity, automation increasingly permits everyone his artistic or craftsmanly pursuits,” a position similar to that of Oscar Wilde (Volume One, Selection 61). Instead of criticizing modern technology, anarchists should recognize that the “real dehumanizer” is “uncaring bureaucracy.” Air pollution can be more effectively dealt with through the development of “less deleterious technologies of energy production, or better technologies of pollutant-removal or the dispersion of urban industry.” Agreeing with Irving Horowitz’s claim that anarchists ignored “the problems of a vast technology,” by trying to find their way back “to a system of production that was satisfactory to the individual producer, rather than feasible for a growing mass society,” Kostelanetz argued that anarchists must now regard technology as “a kind of second nature… regarding it as similarly cordial if not ultimately harmonious, as initial nature” (Volume Two, Selection 72).

In response to Horowitz’s comments, David Watson later wrote that the argument “is posed backwards. Technology has certainly transformed the world, but the question is not whether the anarchist vision of freedom, autonomy, and mutual cooperation is any longer relevant to mass technological civilization. It is more pertinent to ask whether freedom, autonomy, or human cooperation themselves can be possible in such a civilization” (Watson: 165-166). For Murray Bookchin, “the issue of disbanding the factory—indeed, of restoring manufacture in its literal sense as a manual art rather than a muscular ‘megamachine’—has become a priority of enormous social importance,” because “we must arrest more than just the ravaging  and simplification of nature. We must also arrest the ravaging and simplification of the human spirit, of human personality, of human community… and humanity’s own fecundity within the natural world” by creating decentralized ecocommunities “scaled to human dimensions” and “artistically tailored to their natural surroundings” (Volume Two, Selection 74).

Robert Graham

radical tech