CrimethInc. – Direct Democracy or Self-Determination?

The people in assembly

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

Direct Democracy: Government without the State?

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

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

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

– Mu’ammer al Gaddafi, The Green Book

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

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

Electronic democracy

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

Deserting the Digital Utopia

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

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

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

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

Jacques Rancière

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

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

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

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

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

– Cindy Milstein, “Democracy Is Direct”

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

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

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

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

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

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective

June 2017

Against Intervention in Syria: An Anarchist Perspective

As the United States prepares to take military action in Syria, one is reminded of Marie Louise Berneri’s comments, reproduced in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, regarding the allied bombing of Italy during World War Two. An anarchist exile from Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Berneri was nevertheless very much opposed to the allied bombing, by which Italy would be “liberated” by blowing its people and infrastructure to pieces. She noted that the Italian workers were fighting against fascism, just as many people today are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, writing that:

“The Italian workers have shown that, in spite of twenty years of fascist oppression, they knew better where their class interests lay. They have refused to be willing tools in the hands of the bosses. They have gone on strike, have sabotaged war industry, have cut telephone wires and disorganized transport. What is the answer of Democratic Britain to their struggle against fascism? Bombing and more bombing. The Allies have asked the Italian people to weaken Mussolini’s war machine, and we now take advantage of their weakness to bomb them to bits.”


Below, I reproduce a recent interview between Joshua Stephens and Syrian blogger and activist, Nader Atassi. One of the themes of the interview is the need to go beyond seeing the conflict in Syria in binary terms (Assad/Russia v. Islamists/USA), much as Berneri argued in the aftermath of World War Two, at the start of the Cold War, “Neither East Nor West!”


Syrian Anarchist Challenges the Rebel-Regime Binary View of Resistance

Introduction by Joshua Stephens

As the US intensifies its push for military intervention in Syria, virtually the only narrative available swings from the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad to the role of Islamist elements within the resistance. Further, where dissent with the US position appears, much of it hinges on the contradiction of providing support for Al Qaeda-linked entities seeking to topple the regime, as though they represent the only countervailing force to the existing dictatorship. But as Jay Cassano recently wrote for tech magazine Fast Company, the network of unarmed, democratic resistance to Assad’s regime is rich and varied, representing a vast web of local political initiatives, arts-based coalitions, human rights organizations, nonviolence groups and more (the Syria Nonviolence Movement created an online, interactive map to demonstrate this intricate network of connections.

Meanwhile, the writing and dispatches of Syrian anarchists have been enormously influential in other Arab struggles, with anarchists tortured to death in Assad’s prisons memorialized in the writings of Palestinians, and at demonstrations for Palestinian political prisoners held in Israel. Two key features of this unfolding [of events] warrant close attention: the manner in which anarchists in the Arab world are increasingly staging critiques and interventions that upend the contradictions held up as justification for US foreign policy, and the ongoing conversations between anti-authoritarian movements in the Arab world that bypass and remain unmediated by Western reference points. Whether Syrian anarchists’ insistence on self-determination as a central organizing principle can withstand the immediate reality of violence or the leverage of foreign interests remains an open question.

Nader Atassi is a Syrian political researcher and writer originally from Homs, currently living between the United States and Beirut. He runs the blog Darth Nader, reflecting on events within the Syrian revolution. I talked him into chatting about its anarchist traces, and the prospect of US intervention.

Syrian Students Protest the Situations in Gaza and Syria

Syrian Students Protest the Situations in Gaza and Syria

J.S.: Anarchists have been both active in and writing from the Syrian revolution since the get-go. Do you have any sense of what sort of activity was happening prior? Were there influential threads that generated a Syrian articulation of anarchism?

N.A.: Due to the authoritarian nature of the Syrian regime, there was always very little space to operate before the revolution began. However, in terms of anarchism in the Arab world, many of the most prominent voices were Syrian. Despite there being no organizing that was explicitly “anarchist,” Syrian bloggers and writers with anarchist influences were becoming increasingly prominent in the “scene” in the last decade or so. Mazen Kamalmaz is a Syrian anarchist who has written a lot over the last few years. His writings contain a lot of anarchist theory applied to contemporary situations, and he was a prominent voice in Arab anarchism long before the uprising began. He’s written a good deal in Arabic, and recently gave a talk in a cafe in Cairo titled “What is Anarchism?”

In terms of organizing, the situation was different however. In the tough political landscape of an authoritarian regime, many had to get creative and exploit openings they saw in order to organize any type of movement, and this led to a de facto decentralized mode of organizing. For example, student movements erupted in Syrian universities during the second Palestinian intifada and the Iraq War. This was a type of popular discontent that the regime tolerated. Marches were organized to protest the Iraq War, or in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada. Although many members of the mukhabarat infiltrated those movements and monitored them closely, this was a purely spontaneous eruption on the part of the students. And although the students were well aware how closely they were being watched (apparently, mukhabarat used to follow the marches with a notepad, writing down what slogans were being chanted and being written on signs), they used this little political space they were given to operate in order to gradually address domestic issues within the regime-sanctioned protests about foreign issues.

One of the most daring episodes I’ve heard of is when students at Aleppo University, in a protest against the Iraq War, raised signs with the slogan “No to the Emergency Law” (Syria has been under Emergency Law since 1963). Such actions were unheard of at the time. Many of the students who spontaneously emerged as charismatic organizers from within those protests before the uprising began disappearing very early on in the current uprising. The regime was wary of those activist networks that were created as a result of those previous movements and thus immediately cracked down on those peaceful activists that it knew may be a threat to them (and at the same time, it became more lenient with the jihadi networks, releasing hundreds of them from prison in late 2011).

Aleppo University, as it so happens, has a very well-known student movement in favour of the uprising, so much so that it has been dubbed “University of the Revolution.” The regime would later target the university, killing many students in the School of Architecture.

Freedom for the Syrians

Freedom for the Syrians

J.S.: You recently wrote on your blog about possible US intervention as a sort of corollary to Iranian and Russian intervention on behalf of Assad, and Islamist intervention in revolutionary movements. Much as with Egypt recently, anarchists seem something of signature voice against two unsatisfactory poles within mainstream coverage – a voice preoccupied with self-determination. Is that a fair understanding?

N.A.: Yes, I believe it is, but I would clarify a few things, as well. In the case of Syria, there are many who fit that description; not only anarchists, but Trotskyists, Marxists, leftists, and even some liberals. Also, this iteration of self-determination is based on autonomy and decentralization, not Wilsonian notions of “one people” with some kind of nationalist, centralized self-determination. It is about Syrians being able to determine their own destinies not in the nationalist sense, but in the micro-political sense. So for example, Syrian self-determination doesn’t mean one track which all the Syrians follow, but each person determining their own track, without others interfering. So Syrian Kurds, for example, also have the right to full self-determination in this conception, rather than forcing them into an arbitrary Syrian identity and saying that all the people that fall under this identity have one destiny.

And when we talk about parties, such as the regime, but also its foreign allies, and the jihadis who are against Syrian self-determination – this is not because there is one narrative of Syrian self-determination and jihadis are against it. Rather, they want to impose their own narrative on everyone else. The regime works and has always worked against Syrian self-determination because it holds all political power and refuses to share it. The Islamists work against Syrian self-determination not by virtue of them being Islamists (which is why a lot of liberals oppose them), but because they have a vision of how society should function, and want to forcefully impose that on others whether those people consent to it or not. This is against Syrian self-determination, as well. The allies of the Assad regime, Iran, Russia and various foreign militias, are against Syrian self-determination because they are determined to prop up this regime due to the fact that they’ve decided their geopolitical interests supersede Syrians deciding their destiny for themselves.

So yes, the mainstream coverage always tries to portray people as belonging to some kind of binary. But the Syrian revolution erupted as people demanding self-determination from the one party that was denying it to them: the regime of Bashar al Assad. As time passed, other actors came onto the scene who also denied Syrians their self-determination, even some who fought against the regime. But the position was never simply to be against the regime for the sake of being against the regime, just as I presume that in Egypt, our comrades’ position is not being against the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] for the sake of being against the Ikhwan. The regime took self-determination away from the people, and any removal of the regime that results in replacing it with someone else who will dominate Syrians should not be seen as a success. As in Egypt, when the Ikhwan came to power, those who considered them an affront to the revolution, even if they weren’t felool [Mubarak loyalists], kept repeating the slogan “al thawra mustamera” [“the revolution continues”]. So too will it be in Syria if, after the regime is gone, a party comes to power that also denies Syrians their right to determine their own destiny.

darth nader

J.S.: When I interviewed Mohammed Bamyeh this year, he talked about Syria as a really interesting example of anarchism being a driving methodology on the ground. He pointed out that when one hears about organization within the Syrian revolution, one hears about committees and forms that are quite horizontal and autonomous. His suggestion seems borne out by what people like Budour Hassan have brought to light, documenting the life and work of Omar Aziz. Do you see that influence in what your comrades are doing and reporting?

N.A.: Yes, this comes back to how anarchism should be seen as a set of practices rather than an ideology. Much of the organizing within the Syrian uprising has had an anarchistic approach, even if not explicit. There is the work that the martyr Omar Aziz contributed to the emergence of the local councils, which Tahrir-ICN and Budour Hassan have documented very well. Essentially these councils were conceived by Aziz as organizations where self-governance and mutual aid could flourish. I believe Omar’s vision did breathe life into the way local councils operate, although it is worth noting that the councils have stopped short of self-governance, opting instead for focusing on media and aid efforts. But they still operate based on principles of mutual aid, cooperation and consensus.

The city of Yabroud, halfway between Damascus and Homs, is the Syrian uprising’s commune. Also a model of sectarian coexistence, with a large Christian population living in the city, Yabroud has become a model of autonomy and self-governance in Syria. After the regime security forces withdrew from Yabroud in order for Assad to concentrate elsewhere, residents stepped in to fill the vacuum, declaring “we are now organizing all the aspects of the city life by ourselves.” From decorating the city to renaming the school “Freedom School,” Yabroud is certainly what many Syrians, myself included, hope life after Assad will look like. Other areas controlled by reactionary jihadis paint a potentially grimmer picture of the future, but nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that there are alternatives. There’s also a hardcore network of activists located all over the country, but mainly in Damascus, called the “Syrian Revolutionary Youth.” They’re a secretive organization, and they hold extremely daring protests, oftentimes in the very center of regime-controlled Damascus, wearing masks and carrying signs and flags of the Syrian revolution – often accompanied with Kurdish flags (another taboo in Syria).

In the city of Darayya in the suburbs of Damascus, where the regime has waged a vicious battle ever since it fell to rebels in November 2012, some residents have decided to come together and create a newspaper in the midst of all the fighting, called Enab Baladi (meaning Local Grapes, as Darayya is famous for its grapes). Their paper focuses both on what is happening locally in Darayya and what is happening in the rest of Syria. It’s printed and distributed for free throughout the city. [The] principles [of] self-governance, autonomy, mutual aid and cooperation are present in a lot of the organizations within the uprising. The organizations that operate according to some of those principles obviously don’t comprise the totality of the uprising. There are reactionary elements, sectarian elements, imperialist elements. But we’ve heard about that a lot, haven’t we? There are people doing great work based on sound principles who deserve our support.

Enab Baladi

Enab Baladi

J.S.: How do you think US intervention would ultimately affect the makeup or dynamics of the revolution?

N.A.: I think, in general, intervention has affected the uprising very negatively, and I think US intervention won’t be any different. But I think how this specific intervention will ultimately affect the makeup or dynamics of the revolution depends on the specific scope of the US strikes. If the US strikes the way they are saying they are going to, that is, “punitive,” “limited,” “surgical,” “symbolic” strikes, then this won’t leave any significant changes on the battlefield. It may, however, give the Assad regime a propaganda victory, as then it can claim that it was “steadfast against US imperialism.” Dictators who survive wars against them have a tendency to declare victories simply on the basis of surviving, even if in reality they were on the losing side. After Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait by the US, Saudi Arabia and others, he remained in power for 12 more years, 12 years that were filled with propaganda about how Saddam remained steadfast during “the mother of all battles.”

If the strikes end up being tougher than what is currently being discussed, for one reason or another, and they do make a significant change on the battlefield, or do significantly weaken the Assad regime, then I think the potential negative effects will be different. I think this will lead to a future Syrians won’t have a hand in determining. The US may not like Assad, but they have many times expressed that they believe that regime institutions should remain intact in order to ensure stability in a future Syria. In short, as many have noted, the US wants “Assadism without Assad.” They want the regime without the figure of Assad, just like what they got in Egypt, when Mubarak stepped down but the “deep state” of the military remained, and just like what happened in Yemen where the US negotiated for the president to step down but for everything to remain largely the same. The problem with this is Syrians chanted, “The People Demand the Downfall of the Regime,” not just Assad. There is consensus across the board, from US to Russia to Iran, that no matter what happens in Syria, regime institutions should remain intact. The same institutions that were built by the dictatorship. The same institutions that plundered Syria and provoked the popular discontent that started this uprising. The same institutions that are merely the remnants of French colonialism. Everyone in Syria knows that the US’s preferred candidates for leadership roles in any future Syria are those Syrians who were part of the regime and then defected: Ba’athist bureaucrats turned neoliberal technocrats turned “defectors.” These are the people the US would have rule Syria.

Syrians have already sacrificed so much. They have paid the highest price for their demands. I don’t want all that to go to waste. In the haste to get rid of Assad, the symbol of the regime, I hope the regime is not preserved. Syria deserves better than a bunch of ragtag institutions and a bureaucracy built by dictators who wished to keep the Syrian people under control and pacified. There should be no reason to preserve institutions that have participated in the looting of the country and the killing of the people. And knowing that that’s what the US desires for Syria, I reject any direct involvement by the US. If the US wants to help, it can start by using diplomacy to talk to Russia and Iran and convince them to stop the war so that Syrians themselves can determine what is the next course of action. But US intervening directly is outsiders determining the next stage for Syrians, something I believe should be rejected.

J.S.: What can folks outside of Syria do to provide support?

N.A.: For people outside, it’s tough. In terms of material support, there’s very little that can be done. The only thing that I can think of that’s possible on a large scale is discursive/intellectual support. The left has been very hostile to the Syrian uprising, treating the worst elements of anti-regime activity as if they are the only elements of it, and accepting regime narratives at face value. What I’d ask people to do is to help set that record straight and show that there are elements of the Syrian uprising that are worth supporting. Help break that harmful binary that the decision is between Assad or Al Qaeda, or Assad and US imperialism. Be fair to the history and sacrifices of the Syrian people by giving an accurate account. Perhaps it’s too late, and the hegemonic narratives are too powerful in the present to overcome. But if people start now, maybe the history books can at least be fair.

Syrian Anarcha-Feminist Movement

Syrian Anarcha-Feminist Movement