Democracy or Autonomy?

  
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.

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5 thoughts on “Democracy or Autonomy?

  1. After making a profile, you need to do the following (as explained at https://we.riseup.net/democracyandanarchy/how-to-get-started):

    —Click on the “Groups” tab at the top left of the page (next to the raven icon).

    —From the “Groups” tab, select “Search” from your options on the left. Type “democracyandanarchy” into the search box and click “Search.”

    —Join the “democracyandanarchy” forum by clicking on it and then clicking ”Join Organization” on the left. This enables you to read and contribute to the discussion threads.

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  2. This is some of the discussion about this essay taking place at https://we.riseup.net/democracyandanarchy :

    I.

    “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?”

    That’s a lot of caveats, given all the different ways the word “democracy” is used. At the minimum, Connor has made a compelling case that the word democracy is insufficient to describe what we want as anarchists. This much, at least, I find this convincing. Here’s his conclusion:

    “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.”

    Seeing that anarchist proponents of the word democracy often argue that we should use it because it is less off-putting than the word anarchism, these seems to put us right back where we started.

    If we emphasize that we are democratic, we risk making “democracy” the dominant gene in the argument, and “autonomy” the recessive one. Participants in Occupy and similar movements will recognize what I’m talking about here. If you convene a movement on the basis of rhetoric that could be interpreted within both anti-authoritarian and centralized/majority-rule frameworks, you will end up in conflicts with fellow participants who understand themselves to be cleaving rigorously to the spirit of the movement even as they argue in favor of centralized and authoritarian methods. For example, think of the people who treated the General Assembly as a government during Occupy, a body that could legitimize or delegitimize actions associated with the movement—some of whom went on to try to form a political party, a recuperative project that met with more success in Spain and Greece.

    If we emphasize the anarchist aspect of the equation, which I agree with Connor that we would have to do in his approach, we risk seeming just as off-putting and obscure as we do when we simply identify as anarchists. What’s more, we will constantly be having to clarify the differences between ourselves and other “democrats,” differences that may strike most people as negligible when in fact we consider them to be the heart of our politics. If only we could begin by boldly clarifying these differences, we might save everyone a lot of trouble and confusion.

    The word anarchism has gained some visibility over the past two decades. You can tell that it is gaining traction on the public imagination, because right-wing groups are making a play for it. Rather than abandoning it to them in favor of language that is universally popular but equally vague and ultimately unsatisfying, I think we should be clear in asserting that our ideas and practices constitute a clear break with what 99.99% of the world understands as democratic practice.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean making a lot of noise about how we oppose democracy—that might also be a needless distraction. But it means not fogging up our arguments with buzzwords and democratic rhetoric that could reinforce precisely the currents in the movements we participate in that do not value autonomy and freedom of association.

    II.

    “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.”

    If we start with Athenian democracy, we can make the argument that the first democracy was indeed direct democracy. For now, let’s set aside the somewhat older Spartan democracy, in which the crowd chose leaders by a shouting contest: “acclamation.” For the most part, the Athenians didn’t elect representatives, but voted directly on issues and distributed roles in the courts, etc. by sortition. So far, so good, I guess.

    But majority rule was absolutely essential to Athenian democracy, as it was to every self-professed democracy that came after it right up to the 20th century. That explains why, as Connor writes, “many anarchists … use the word democracy to refer to the idea of majority rule and the denial of dissenters to go their own way.” For the first 2300+ years, democracy meant majority rule, pure and simple.

    And not just majority rule—majority rule by a minority of citizens identified by class, ethnicity, and gender. This is the heritage of democracy, this is its longtime meaning.

    David Graeber tries to solve this problem by situating Athenian democracy within a broad and largely non-“Western” tradition of participatory decision-making, all of which he classes as democratic, regardless of how the participants described it. (I understand this as a well-intended attempt to extend the legitimacy associated with the word “democracy” beyond the “Western” paradigm, mirrored by groups in Rojava and Chiapas who desperately need that legitimacy to avert destruction.) But for anarchists and other proponents of stateless freedom, the difference between decision-making models that prioritize autonomy and consensus-building and models based in majority rule is essential, not incidental. The same goes for the difference between citizenship-based exclusive models and open, inclusive models.

    Graeber is obscuring the most important distinctions here, in hopes of making the powerful historical tradition of democracy serve the anarchist project. Yet such historical forces are stronger than us, with an internal momentum that often sweeps up and carries along those who attempt to yoke them to another purpose.

    In any case, historically speaking, the difference between autonomy and democracy has never been “a false dichotomy,” as Connor alleges. As Connor is invested in decision-making methods that are “voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede),” it doesn’t make sense to seek precedents for these values in Classical Athens. Of those values, we can only find a limited “horizontalism” in Athens, and that limited narrowly to the political sphere and to a select body of property-owning male citizens.

    It’s beyond my scope here to make arguments about the recent effort to reinvent democracy as the expression of values that were historically foreign to it. In short, I would argue that we should try to connect with people who are drawn to democracy on the basis of the things they want from it (self-determination, freedom, equality) rather than on the basis of democracy itself (which usually means majority rule, rule of law, etc. at the minimum).

    III.

    Here, I’ll add one more point: Connor is at pains to argue against the anti-social or elitist tendencies that are associated with some autonomist politics, and I’m tempted to agree with him there. But I’m not sure that democracy necessarily discourages anti-social or elitist behavior. Competing to form majorities has often produced needless social conflict and hostility, and from what I’ve read, Ancient Athens also had a problem with elitism, as wealthy citizens who were good speakers would accrue undo power in the assemblies.

    Granted, these critiques don’t relate to Connor’s (particular) understanding of democracy; my point is simply that there’s nothing essential to really-existing democracy that is pro(?)-social or anti-elitist.

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    1. I’m afraid the responder makes numerous errors about my intentions. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in the original piece, I was thinking about a few amendments anyway, but yes, this reply contains flaws.

      The biggest one being the belief that anarchists ought to use the term democracy *instead of* anarchism. On the contrary, what I’d suggest is more along the lines of introducing social anarchism first, then explaining its decision-making processes as one species of direct democracy. Not that anarchism is synonymous with democracy. Nor even that anarchism is a direct descendent of the democratic tradition itself.

      Rather, that anarchists should:

      1. Acknowledge ourselves as following in the tradition of the radical thread *within* the democratic tradition.

      2. Consider the type of democracy we practice – autonomous democracy – as something specific to us, anarchists.

      Personally, I don’t think there’s any difference in practical terms between what I call autonomous democracy and what crimethinc simply call “autonomy”. By democracy, I don’t mean any kind of grassroots state, or a system of compulsory majority rule. This disagreement is merely over whether it makes sense to describe anarchism as “democratic” or not.

      Used in the broadest sense of the term (popular self-organisation) it’s quite clear it is. Everything from town hall meetings to village gatherings in tribal societies could likewise be classed as democratic, even if they wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. I’ve heard many arguments against this expanded usage, and this pasting of the word onto such forms of popular self-organisation; with the person usually claiming it should be reserved exclusively for derivatives of Athenian democracy and any tradition which self-identifies with the term. Though these are unconvincing. You could say the same about any common term when applied to peoples who didn’t use the term themselves. For example, the term “ruling class” when applied to any upper strata of a society or “socialistic” to describe certain property norms.

      Having read all the crimethinc arguments against the expanded sense of the word democracy, I find most of them extremely weak and inconsistent. Many of the essays don’t even specify from one paragraph to the next whether they’re talking about direct democracy or representative democracy, speaking as if they’re two shades of the same thing; despite any in-depth study of their history revealing the latter evolved out of aristocracy – a separate political tradition – and merely had the term “democratic” slapped onto it after the fact.

      “It’s too vague” and “too many political factions use it” could likewise be said about the word freedom, which they use throughout; or equality, or justice, or cooperation, etc.

      Crucially, it doesn’t make a similar case for dropping the word socialism from the anarchist lexicon, yet that’s a word far more problematic and with far less appeal than democracy has.

      Just as anarchism’s economics can be described as a species of the genus socialism (libertarian socialism), it’s politics can be described as a species of the genus democracy (autonomous democracy).
      But not either socialist or democratic without qualification. You could say the same about anarchist freedom not being without qualification, being necessarily reciprocal rather than positive or negative.

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      1. I’m afraid that even after making a profile, the conversation just isn’t showing up at my end. All I see are three discussion threads; one with a reading list, the other two of which don’t even have responses.

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