While social anarchists have always used the word autonomy – meaning self-directedness as well as free association – there’s been a certain ambivalence about the word democracy. This can be confusing for newcomers who start reading anarchist literature and see direct democracy being described as anarchistic in one book and lambasted in another.
The term comes from two Greek root words (demos + kratos) which together mean “people power”.
At the beginning, the word was synonymous with what is now called “direct democracy”, and referred more broadly to the idea of a self-organised multitude (“demos”) having ultimate power, rather than royals, elites, or priestly castes ruling in the name of divine authority. Originally, the very term “representative democracy” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms, as popular will by definition can only be direct. It cannot be represented by anyone speaking on people’s behalf.
While democracy was considered a radical and dangerous concept all the way up to the 19th century, often being used in the same way “anarchist” and “extremist” are used today, in the early 1800s the term started being applied to the practice of representative government, first as a populist euphemism, then literally.
Elections for office were in fact an invention of aristocracy, not democracy. Rousseau in the century beforehand described representative government as “elective aristocracy” (a more fitting description for what we have now), not democracy in any sense, which he associated with direct and participatory decision-making through popular assemblies.
With most classic social anarchist literature being written in the 1800s, the early anarchists used the “democracy” in an almost entirely negative sense, to mean both representative government as well as the idea that majorities had the right to rule over minorities.
Since the 1960s though, many social anarchists began reclaiming the earlier radical sense of the word democracy to refer to the kinds of participatory bottom-up decision-making methods they always supported anyway. Most people don’t like the state, which calls itself democratic, but still like the idea of democracy (people power) in essence. So this provided a useful discourse to reframe social anarchist ideas: as the fullest manifestation of democracy in the original sense of the word. This use was also common among others on the libertarian left such as Cornelius Castoriadis, who contrasted democracy with the “liberal oligarchy” that’s normally called democratic.
That’s not to say it doesn’t still have its detractors in anarchist circles. Even if many anarchists understand that what’s being referred to isn’t representative democracy, but direct participatory democracy, they still use it to refer to the idea of majority rule and the denial of dissenters to go their own way.
These anarchists (the North American group Crimethinc among them) contrast “democracy” with “autonomy”.
But are they really so opposed to one another?
All social anarchists agree with the principle of voluntary association and the freedom of any individual or group to disassociate from an organisation if they find themselves in irreconcilable disagreement with it. They can then do their own thing or convince other dissenting parties to join them in forming a new voluntary association.
And in the absence of nobody ever cooperating with anyone else out of fear that they may have to compromise with others, some level of group decision-making will be necessary in order to get anything done on a scale that goes beyond the lone individual.
So long as the methods we use for making decisions are voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede), why not call them democratic, given the popular resonance the word so clearly has?
Just as with individualism and collectivism, setting up a separation between them is establishing a false dichotomy. It’s true that notions of democracy that are majoritarian and not fully voluntary need to be rejected. But then so too do notions of autonomy which are antisocial and elitist.
The lone individual who just wants to do their own thing without being forced to take part in democratic decision-making is someone who should always be respected in any directly-democratic society.
So the answer to this dilemma is not democracy or autonomy, but democracy and autonomy. The aforementioned Cornelius Castoridis even used the two terms as roughly synonymous, identifying the practice of direct participatory democracy as the essence of the project of autonomy which runs throughout human history, always in tension with heteronomy (the opposite of autonomy), or what social anarchists would call hierarchical power.
The answer is a synthesis of the two traditions: autonomous democracy (or democratic autonomy as the Rojava Kurds call it).
We should use both terms in a positive and anarchist-specific sense, letting people know that we don’t allow for majoritarian/involuntary democracy or antisocial/elitist autonomy.
Autonomous democracy avoids the trappings of both rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, fulfilling both the personal and social instincts in humanity.