Anarchism and Democracy: Continuum or contradiction?on 14 April 2014
“Rebels and Radicals”, this year's PSA conference title, is aptly in tune with the Zeitgeist of political upheaval worldwide. Less often acknowledged, however, is the defining role of anarchism in the revolutions of our times. Anarchists have been key initiators and organisers in the global Occupy and Indignado movements, campaigns against austerity and for refugee rights and climate justice , as well as countless experiments in co-operative production and living. More importantly, these mobilizations have in large part been shaped by the anarchist ethos of direct action and decentralized organisation that prefigures an alternative society - an ethos reaching well beyond those participants who hold a comprehensive anarchist worldview.
In this context, the tense conceptual and practical relationship between anarchism and democracy is brought to the fore. Does the contemporary revolutionary wave represent a revitalization of popular democracy, or do its anarchist underpinnings point away from governance altogether? Does anarchism advocate a qualitative shift in the meaning of democracy, from consent to be governed to a more radical and participatory form of “rule by the people”? Or does anarchists' rejection of the state and all forms of organized, permanent coercion make their agenda incompatible with any consistent account of democracy?
In the session “Anarchism and Radical Democracy” (15th April, 9:00am), we offer diverse points of view on the history, theory, and utopian possibilities of this relationship. Laurence Davis will argue that anarchist ideology offers a transformative utopian vision of democracy, that is rooted in real-world possibilities and thus serves to propel contemporary social movements towards a utopian horizon both radical and eminently realisable. Benjamin Shepard also argues for a mutually supportive relationship between anarchism and direct democracy, in a paper that explores both the theory and practice of anarchism and DIY politics, considering examples from the Punk Rock and Riot Grrl movements, current models of mutual aid among anarchists in New York, and Frederico Montseny and the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) during the Spanish Civil War.
My own contribution offers a dissenting view, arguing that the association between anarchism and democracy is both conceptually unsound and strategically misguided. My argument begins from the observation that those anarchists who openly associate their decentralist practices and resistance to domination with democracy do so with two rhetorical purposes in mind. The first is to draw sympathy from mainstream publics by replacing the negative (and false) image of anarchism as mindless and chaotic with a positive one that builds on the widespread appeal of democratic ideas. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is intended to portray current capitalist democracies as in fact not democratic at all, since they alienate decision-making power from the people and place it in the hands of elites. Anarchism, on this account, is the most direct, participatory and deliberative mode of democracy, and perhaps even the only form of democracy worthy of the name.
There are two conceptual problems with this rhetorical maneouvre. One is that it introduces a truly idiosyncratic notion of democracy, so ambitious as to disqualify almost all political experiences that are widely considered democratic – including all electoral systems in which representatives do not have a strict mandate and are not immediately recallable. The second, and more fundamental issue, is that it overlooks (or dishonestly obscures) democracy's inescapable element of coercive enforcement. Even the most radical accounts of democracy assume without exception that the political process results, at some point, in collectively binding decisions. That these decisions are legitimised – even under stringent conditions of broad participation and free and open debate – does not change the fact that the outcome is seen to have a mandatory nature. Saying that something is collectively binding makes no sense unless we assume a standing apparatus that can enforce those decisions. But anarchism can only reject such an apparatus as the stuff of the state. Therefore it strives not towards the most radical form of democracy, but towards an altogether different horizon of collective action where individuals have the practical option of seceding from the effect of decisions they disagree with.
Strategically, while the association with democracy may seek to appeal only to its egalitarian and libertarian connotations, it also entangles anarchism with other components of the popular perception of democracy – in particular, sovereignty and nationalism. This is especially poignant in the context of the current wave of mobilization, in 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. By promoting the language of “real democracy”, anarchists are clearly appealing to the mainstream's pride in its own democratic spirit, even if this is claimed to have always been stinted by elites. Yet subjectively among non-anarchist participants, this pride is more often than not a component of a larger nationalist narrative, one that celebrates the early days of the democratic nation-state and sees democracy as something that has been corrupted rather than never truly in place. This is a self-defeating move, since it ends up pointing anarchists' potential allies towards reform of existing structures, instead of a wholesale reconstruction of social relationships. Anarchists' desire to appeal to wider publics using the language of democracy may therefore end up reinforcing rather than questioning the latter's loyalty to the nation-state.
Uri Gordon is Lecturer in Political Theory at Loughborough University. He is the author of Anarchy Alive! - Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory (Pluto, 2008) and co-editor of the Bloomsbury Books monograph series Contemporary Anarchist Studies. His work has been translated into ten languages.
Image: Daniel Zanini H. CC BY 2.0