I use the phrase democracy, when describing an alternative social assortment, to refer to people managing themselves on a shared horizontal basis. Doing this is rather controversial in anarchist discussion, because there are recent critiques on the role, meaning and consequences of what has historically been attributed to ‘democracy’. Especially, when considering the different implications raised in advocating an apparently fixed system while affiliating with those opposed to hierarchy and imposed order.
The debate around ‘democracy’ in anarchist circles comes down mainly to semantics and practice. The former covers the abstractness of the word, including the perspective that it has historically developed into a sort of facade to entice the masses into an incorporated tyranny that imposes the will of the majority on the minority, instead of consolidating voices and meeting them equally. With this in mind, there is an idea that it can only be exercised along these lines. The latter questions the positioning of a process once defined: if such a process is central and overarching to all portions of a society like in nation-states, or if its freely carried out by the agreement of individual groups.
The first step is to express the actual nuance of what I mean. For starters, I don’t argue for a definite political shape, but I do advocate definite principles by which something might take one. I don’t even argue for voting toward a majority [by default] (I think in the worst-case scenario, its necessary for resolving a severe dispute), but I do encourage a mix of valuing our concerns equally through consensus with an understanding that we know when to consent to entrusting temporary power to someone on our immediate behalf when a situation calls for it.
The second is to emphasize not a defense of democracy as any system but as a descriptor. It is used to condense an idea of participatory politics that is bound to emerge in people not alienated by status or privilege. We can easily imagine ‘democracy’ stripped down to its core idea separate from the historical corrupted practice. Does it really matter if the origin of democracy, the idea that people can rule themselves, is one of contradiction and folly? Does it matter with any idea that became a basis for politics in the future? We don’t seem to mind that a lot of the forerunners of anarchism had various contradictions of opinion because of the time in which they wrote, and so it doesn’t add up to me to apply this concern then to a label for some sort of self-direction, even if an imperfect one. I don’t think it hurts to repurpose the face of a clear idea that hardly ever had its time in the sun because the guy who happened to introduced it first acted on it in terrible, oppressive ways.
There are infinite ways to approach and define democracy in the same sense there are ways to define and approach anarchy/ism. We’re talking about a notion of how things interrelate, or should, and the outline of accomplishing something around that. This often doesn’t come with a prescribed set traits that the pillars of action need, taking for instance how leftism doesn’t narrow to one or two schools. We’re left to expand these notions as we go along with action, and with continuous action comes the changed impression of it, such as an interpretation of democracy.
We can probably spend days on end taking one feature used in a political program, dissecting its aim, history, causes and effects and relaying it to the present aim we’re invested in. We can do that to anything. We can take self-determination and turn it into a fascist concept because Hitler advocated a sort of nationalist, white self-determination. In the same way, we already know how bastardized ‘freedom’ has become thanks to the capitalist, patriarchal narratives of the United States. What matters is using terms and ideas in a general proximity to our actual aim through context and elaboration. No one idea is ours or the enemy’s, but its up to us to give it an alternative practice.
We’ve simply arrived at one set of analyses that sees democracy as a holistic product of the nation-state which gravitates toward being an overarching, unportable mode of tyranny in the pursuit of deciding on an action via majority. The problem is that me and those who think this way have been talking about the same thing.
I can and will contend that democracy in the forms people are most acquainted with developed out of a softening of protecting tyranny on other fronts. It didn’t develop out of liberation, but as a way to make control more appealing and imbued with the social romance of participation, and it certainly didn’t take into account a fundamental emphasis on communal autonomy that we desire now. It stemmed from monarchy and oligarchy and thus inherited a good deal of those undertones, which is seen in the credence of majority-rule. But my defense isn’t really about defending democracy, if that makes any sense. Its about defending a way to explain a complex approach in one analogous word or comparison.
Additionally to this is the adjective direct. Direct democracy is another example under this; there is the Swiss quasi-direct democratic model (in which citizens partly take the place of representatives) that is championed by various progressives in American politics, and there is the kind of direct that is theorized, and even practiced, but not the staple of ideal democracy as a diverse body. One that strives for consensus and cooperation rather than a chattering box of winners and loosers. One that is unmitigated and spontaneous in it being compelled only by the result of a freely taken participation. One which makes a viable case that the anarchist objections to so-called ‘democracy’ are actually objections to oligarchy and opportunism, and not what was actually stolen from us by these barriers.
I am, of course, referring to the deliberative and federal structures that existed in the social revolutionary experimentations of different areas in the world at one point or other. Direct takes on a different form in this sense. It departs from a suggestion in the word alone that the workers directlyengage in a competitive environment of how they ought to do things without representation; a glamorized distancing from solidarity. Instead it envisions that we are directly connected to, and responsible for, the situations we find ourselves in and the steps we take to accomplish things, thus sustaining the reciprocal autonomy of the collective and the individual. Direct suggests the residents, the workers: the anarchist conception of the demos (everyone), are the direct cause and effect of collective action; that there is no fixed destination to strive for as the intermediary, but a goal constantly evolving with the actions of those taking part.
The social vision remains precisely the same while the use of terms contrast. It can never be guaranteed if we mean the same thing when our preferences for words are so diverse.
Probably the most popular contrast I’ve encountered is that we should not have democracy, but anarchy. And while this is completely true for the overarching condition where free decision-making can flourish, we are still subject to define some practices inside the existence of real possibility. We are referring to the existence of any decision-making practice under anarchy. Its through democracy, any process of shared self-management, that anarchy is given meaning and the actual channels to exercise itself. In this sense, when one advocates a direct form of democracy they are necessarily advocating the enveloping condition of anarchy. But the need for anarchy is satisfied through more than just that. Its accomplished by the existence of varied and decentralized methods. Moreover, there cannot be anarchy without an association to confirm that suggestion for themselves.
If someone is looking for a home, that is the guiding condition which will be satisfied by the acquisition of one. But they cannot have acquired a house without it possessing some property of color, shape or size. They then become in possession of a home as the satisfaction of the need, but there is a set of other characteristics that becomes part of the scenario. This is what I’m talking about when I mean democracy. Its the adjective to first describe the closest familiar type of a just arrangement of affairs, and then an extended guiding principle from that understanding to avoid accidentally describing central, enveloping democracy rather than anarchy with autonomous structures under it.
People right now happen to think in terms of Democracy or Dictatorship. That doesn’t mean I reduce my own language and understanding for their sake, but I do place self-management to what its closest to when having to describe anarchist principles to everyday people. Thats how I got where I am, and I have a habit of passing on the same thing when I have the chance to inform people. Again, what matters most is elaborating your use of terms in hopes to disarm conflicts of connotations.
I think we’re simply facing a tangle in deconstructing everything, meanwhile people like me have grasped what they meant before anything was said. It seems the no-democracy types are addressing the liberal idea of more citizen-participation in the state instead of a situation where individuals, free of class and social authority, are the cause of organizations and decisions directly. But there is a tendency for dialogs to recurse and inadvertently become a critique of its own idea utilizing sometimes confusing points which we already sympathized with.
If we need to level with each other, fine: I’m not defending democracy. Certainly not the state attempt at it, the majority-only approach, the replacement for individual autonomy or the liberal direct concept. But I am defending the use of it as a vehicle to convey our proposed modes of organizing and acting. Democracy is overall a figure of language. Its pliable and abstract, something no term is free of. But knowing this, we should not distance from it. We should acknowledge it’s use to explain similar principles that the anarchists take into deeper consideration. It just so happens that there are different historical and political tragedies that we share in being connected to the principles done differently. We share this issue in our conceptions of freedom, equality and liberation that differ from other philosophies, and simply put: it doesn’t seem reasonable to hold contempt for an impression of a concept we are otherwise tied to as anarchists.
If democracy is a word anarchists are uncomfortable with, they are welcome to harp on about autonomy, horizontality and self-determination ‘only’, and while those are the exact principles I advocate through a popular figure of language, they shouldn’t expect newcomers to be too open and patient with them when they feel like someone is speaking an entirely different language to them. And thats really all this comes down to. Its not about advocating democracy or autonomy, its about the two being synonymous in a certain context, and unfortunately about people wasting their breath when they could just use one word.