From “Democracy” to Freedom
From Democracy to Freedom: the difference between government and self-determination by the Crimethinc ex-workers collective, Salem Oregon, 2017
Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.
And when there are problems with democracy, what’s the cure? Everyone agrees: more democracy. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a spate of new movements promising to deliver real democracy, in contrast to ostensibly democratic institutions that they describe as exclusive, coercive, and alienating.
Is there a common thread that links all these different kinds of democracy? Which of them is the real one? Can any of them deliver the inclusivity and freedom we associate with the word?
Impelled by our own experiences in directly democratic movements, we’ve returned to these questions. Our conclusion is that the dramatic imbalances in economic and political power that inspired occupations and uprisings from New York City to Sarajevo are not incidental defects in specific democracies, but structural features that date back to the origins of democracy itself; they appear in practically every example of democratic government through the ages. Representative democracy preserved the bureaucratic apparatus originally invented to serve kings, and direct democracy tends to recreate this on a smaller scale, even outside the formal structures of the state. Democracy isn’t the same as self-determination.
This isn’t an argument against discussions, collectives, assemblies, networks, federations, or working with people you don’t agree with. The argument, rather, is that when we engage in these practices, if we understand what we’re doing as democracy – as a form of participatory government rather than a collective pursuit of freedom, sooner or later, we’ll recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government. This goes for representative democracy, direct democracy, and even for the consensus process.
Rather than championing democratic procedures as an end in themselves, let’s evaluate them according to the values that drew us to democracy in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, and the idea that each person should control her own destiny. If democracy isn’t the most effective way to actualize these values, what is?
As fiercer and fiercer struggles rock today’s democracies, the stakes of this discussion keep getting higher. If we go on trying to replace the prevailing order with a more participatory version of the same thing, we’ll keep ending up right back where we started, and others who share our disillusionment will gravitate towards more authoritarian alternatives. We need a framework that can fulfill the promises democracy has betrayed.
What is democracy, exactly? Most of the textbook definitions have to do with majority rule or government by elected representatives. Yet the word is often used more broadly to invoke self-determination and equality as abstract ideals; a few radicals have gone so far as to argue that real democracy only takes place outside and against the state’s monopoly on power. Is democracy a means of state government, a form of horizontal self-organization, or something else?
Used precisely, democracy denotes a specific set of decision-making practices with a history going back to ancient Greece. By association, the word invokes an abstract aspiration to egalitarian, inclusive, and participatory politics. The fundamental question for those who embrace these aspirations is whether the practices associated with democracy are the most effective way to realize them.
The range of procedures associated with democracy is wide indeed: it includes everything from the Electoral College to informal consensus process. All of these are ways to legitimize a power structure as representing the participants. What else do they have in common? We can look for clues in the origins of the term itself. The word democracy derives from the ancient Greek dēmokratía, from dêmos(“people”) and krátos(“power”). In short, democracy is rule by the people.
But which people, and what sort of power?
These root words, demos and kratos, suggest two common denominators of all democratic procedures: a way of determining who participates in the decision-making and a way of enforcing decisions. In short, citizenship and policing. These are the essentials of democracy; they’re what make it a form of government.
Who qualifies as demos, the people? Every form of democracy has a way of distinguishing between included and excluded. This dividing line could be membership in a legislature, citizenship in a nation, being part of a group, or participation in neighborhood assemblies; it could be race, gender, property ownership, age, or legal status. Who gets to make the decisions might simply be determined by who can show up to meetings, but even in the most informal cases, democratic structures always require a mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. In this regard, democracy institutionalizes the provincial, chauvinist character of its Greek origins; this is why it’s proven so compatible with nationalism and the state – it presupposes the Other, who isn’t accorded the same rights or political agency.
Now let’s turn to the other root, kratos. Democracy shares this suffix with aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, plutocracy, and technocracy. Each of these terms describes government by some subset of society, but they all share the suffix kratos, meaning power. In classical Greece, every abstract concept was personified by a divine being. Kratos was an implacable Titan embodying the kind of coercive force associated with state power. One of the oldest sources in which Kratos appears is the play “Prometheus Bound,” composed by Aeschylus in the early days of Athenian democracy. The play opens with Kratos forcibly escorting the shackled Prometheus, who’s being punished for stealing fire from the gods to give to humanity. Kratos appears as a jailer unthinkingly carrying out Zeus’s orders. The sort of force personified by Kratos is what democracy has in common with autocracy and every other form of rule: the institutions of coercion – the legal apparatus, the police, and the military, all of which preceded democracy and have repeatedly outlived it. These are the tools “made for any tyrant’s acts,” whether the tyrant is a king, a class of bureaucrats, or “the people” themselves. In modern Greek, kratos is the word for state.
As a form of government, democracy serves to produce a single order out of a cacophony of desires, absorbing the resources and activities of the minority into policies dictated by the majority. In order to accomplish this, every democracy requires a space of legitimate decision-making distinct from the rest of life. This could be a congress in a parliament building, a general assembly on the sidewalk, or an app soliciting votes via iPhone. In every case, the ultimate source of legitimacy isn’t the immediate needs and desires of the participants, but a particular decision-making process and protocol. In a state, this is called “the rule of law,” though the principle doesn’t require a formal legal system. This is the essence of government: decisions made in one space determine what can take place in all other spaces. The result is alienation – the friction between what’s decided and what’s lived. Democracy promises to solve the problem of alienation by incorporating everyone into the space of decision-making: the rule of all by all. “The citizens of a democracy submit to the law because they recognize that, however indirectly, they are submitting to themselves as makers of the law.” But if all those decisions were actually made by the people they impact, there would be no need for a means of enforcing them.
How much do you buy into the idea that the democratic process should trump your own conscience and values? Let’s try a quick exercise. Imagine yourself in a democratic republic with slaves – say, ancient Athens, Rome, or the United States until 1865. Would you obey the law and treat people as property while endeavoring to change the laws, knowing full well that generations might live and die in chains in the meantime? Or would you act according to your conscience in defiance of the law, like Harriet Tubman and John Brown? If you’d follow in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman, then you, too, believe that there’s something more important than the rule of law. This is a problem for anyone who wants to make conformity with the law or with the will of the majority into the final arbiter of legitimacy.
What protects minorities in a winner-take-all system? Advocates of democracy explain that minorities will be protected by institutional provisions – checks and balances. In other words, the same structure that holds power over them is supposed to protect them from itself. This paradox didn’t trouble the framers of the US Constitution because the minority whose rights they were chiefly concerned with protecting was themselves: property owners who already had disproportionate leverage on state institutions. Thus, the institutions of majority rule may serve to protect minorities, but only if we’re talking about the most privileged minorities. Only a decentralized distribution of power reinforced by a collective commitment to solidarity can ensure that other minorities will always be able to resist domination by majorities.
Instead of thinking of liberty as a zero-sum game to be regulated by the state, what if we imagine it as something cumulative? Where others accept tyranny, we must live under it as well; but when they stand up to it, they create opportunities for us to do the same. If we understand freedom as a collectively produced relationship to our potential rather than a static bubble of private rights, being free isn’t simply a question of being protected by the authorities, but the project of creating open-ended spaces of possibility. In that view, the freedom of one person adds to the freedom of all, whereas the more that coercive force is centralized, the less freedom there is for anyone.
In ancient Athens, the much-touted “birthplace of democracy,” we already see the exclusion and coercion that have been essential features of democratic government ever since. Only adult male citizens with military training could vote; women, slaves, debtors, and all who lacked Athenian blood were excluded. At the very most, democracy involved less than a fifth of the population. Indeed, slavery was more prevalent in ancient Athens than in other Greek city states, and women had fewer rights relative to men. Assemblies and court proceedings took place in the agora, a marketplace lined by temples that also hosted the slave market. Here in embryo we see all the pillars of our society – economy, church, state, and people – and the inequality and exclusion intrinsic to them.
We can map the boundaries of this gated community in the Athenian opposition between public and private, polisand oikos. The polis, the Greek city-state, was a space of public discourse in which all citizens were considered equals, at least in theory. By contrast, the oikos, the household, was a hierarchical space in which male property owners ruled supreme, a zone outside the purview of the political, yet serving as its foundation. In this dichotomy, the oikos represents everything that provides the resources that sustain politics, yet is taken for granted and outside it. These categories remain with us today. The words politics (“the affairs of the city”) and police (“the administration of the city”) come from polis, while economy (“the management of the household”) and ecology (“the study of the household”) derive from oikos. Democracy is still premised on this division. As long as there’s a political distinction between public and private, everything from the household (the gendered space of intimacy that sustains the prevailing order with invisible and unpaid labor) to entire continents and peoples (like Africa during the colonial period – or even blackness itself) is seen as outside the sphere of politics. Likewise, the institution of property and the market economy it produces, which have served as the substructure of democracy since its origins, are placed beyond question at the same time as they’re enforced and defended by the political apparatus. The feminist argument that “the personal is political” constitutes a rejection of the dichotomy between oikos and polis. But if this argument is understood to mean that the personal, too, should be subject to democratic decision-making, it only extends the logic of government into additional aspects of life. The real alternative is to affirm multiple sites of power, arguing that legitimacy should not be confined to any one space, so that decisions made in the household are not subordinated to those made in the sites of formal politics.
Fortunately, ancient Athens isn’t the only reference point for egalitarian decision-making. A cursory survey of other societies reveals plenty of other examples, many of which are not predicated on exclusivity or coercion. But should we understand these as democracies, too? In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber takes his colleagues to task for identifying Athens as the origin of democracy, and reminds us of Iroquois and other non-European models that focused on building consensus rather than practicing coercion: many of these embody the best values associated with democracy better than ancient Athens did. He concludes that “for the last 200 years, democrats have been trying to graft ideals of popular self- governance onto the coercive apparatus of the state. In the end, the project is simply unworkable. States by their nature can’t ever be truly democratized.”
The US government has more in common with the Roman Republic than with Athens. Rather than governing directly, Roman citizens elected representatives. As Roman territory expanded and wealth flooded in, small farmers lost their footing and massive numbers of the dispossessed flooded the capital; unrest forced the Republic to extend voting rights to wider and wider segments of the population, yet political inclusion did little to counteract the economic stratification of Roman society. All this sounds eerily familiar. The Roman Republic came to an end when Julius Caesar seized power; from then on, Rome was ruled by emperors, with the bureaucracy, the military, the economy, and the courts continuing to function as before.
Fast-forward 18 centuries to the American Revolution. Outraged about “taxation without representation,” North American subjects of the British Empire rebelled and established a representative democracy of their own, complete with a Roman-style Senate. Yet once again, the function of the state remained unchanged. Those who’d fought to throw off the king discovered that taxation with representation was little different. The result was a series of uprisings including Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87), the Whisky Rebellion (1794), and Fries’s Rebellion (1799-1800), all of which were brutally suppressed. The new democratic government succeeded in pacifying the population where the British Empire had failed, thanks to the loyalty of many ordinary citizens who’d revolted against the king. This time, they sided with the authorities, believing that the new government represented them. This tragedy has been repeated time and time again. In the 20th century transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Greece, Spain, Chile, and more recently in Tunisia and Egypt, social movements that overthrew dictators had to go on fighting against the same police authorities under the democratic regime. Kratos carried over from one regime to the next.
Laws, courts, prisons, intelligence agencies, tax collectors, armies, and police – most of the instruments of coercive power that we consider oppressive in a monarchy or a dictatorship operate no differently in a democracy. That’s why the same government can seamlessly transition back and forth between imposing the decisions of a minority and enforcing majority rule. It’s just that when we’re permitted to cast ballots about who supervises these institutions, we’re more likely to regard them as ours, even when they’re used against us. This is the great achievement of two and a half centuries of democratic revolutions: instead of abolishing the means by which kings governed, they’ve rendered those means popular.
Thus, since the American Revolution the transfer of power from rulers to assemblies has served to prematurely halt revolutionary movements. Rather than making the changes they sought via direct action, the rebels entrusted that task to their new representatives at the helm of the state – only to see their dreams betrayed, time and time again. The state can’t deliver freedom to its subjects because it derives its very being from their subjection. It can subject others, it can commandeer and concentrate resources, it can impose dues and duties, it can dole out rights and concessions – the consolation prizes of the governed, but it can’t offer self-determination. Instead, representative democracy promises us the opportunity to rule each other on a rotating basis. There are still rulers who wield tremendous power relative to everyone else; usually, like the Bushes and Clintons, they hail from the de factoruling class. Unsurprisingly, this ruling class also tends to occupy the upper echelons of all the other hierarchies of our society, formal and informal. Even if a politician grew up among the plebs(common people), the longer he exercises authority, the more his interests will diverge from those of the governed. Yet the real problem isn’t the intentions of specific politicians; it’s the apparatus of the state.
Representative democracy offers a pressure valve: when people are dissatisfied, they set their sights on the next elections, taking the state itself for granted. Indeed, if you want to put a stop to corporate profiteering or environmental devastation, isn’t the state the only instrument powerful enough to accomplish that? Never mind that it was state that established the conditions in which those are possible in the first place.
So much for democracy and political inequality. What about the economic inequality that’s attended democracy since the beginning? You’d think that a system based on majority rule would tend to reduce the disparities between rich and poor, seeing as the poor constitute the majority. Yet, just as in ancient Rome, the current ascendancy of democracy is matched by enormous gulfs between the haves and the have-nots. In contrast to the political and economic stasis of the feudal era, capitalism and democracy ceaselessly reapportion power, and thanks to this dynamic flexibility, the potential rebel has better odds of improving his status within the prevailing order than of toppling it. Consequently, opposition tends to reenergize the political system from within rather than threatening it.
As Herbert Marcuse wrote in One-Dimensional Man, “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.”
Representative democracy is to politics what capitalism is to economics. The desires of the consumer and the voter are represented by currencies that promise individual empowerment, yet relentlessly concentrate power at the top of the social pyramid. As long as power is concentrated there, it’s easy to block, buy off, or destroy anyone who threatens the pyramid itself. This explains why, when the wealthy and powerful have seen their interests challenged through the institutions of democracy, they’ve been able to go as far as suspending the law to deal with the problem – witness the gruesome fates of the Gracchi brothers in ancient Rome and Salvador Allende in modern Chile, politicians who came to power via democratic elections only to be overthrown for threatening to redistribute wealth. Within the framework of the state, property has always trumped democracy. In representative democracy as in capitalist competition, everyone supposedly gets a chance, but only a few come out on top. If you didn’t win, you must not have tried hard enough!
Many people in Europe and the Americas, 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 that we wield power directly rather than delegating it to politicians? But what does that mean, exactly? Regular referendums, like the one that produced the Brexit? Voting on laws rather than legislators? Toppling the prevailing government and instituting a government of federated assemblies?
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 inherent in it. There’s 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…One of the most robust versions of this vision is the digital democracy, or e-democracy promoted by the various European Pirate Parties. 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 could shape the conceptual frameworks of the participants a thousand times more invasively than election-year advertising does today.
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 doesn’t render a political process any less coercive. As long as the majority has the capacity to force its decisions on the minority, we’re 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. If it’s difficult to rally people against racist policing today, think how much more difficult it would be to argue that such policing is illegitimate if the citizens of a predominantly white community were directing police operations through their smart phones, democratically.
Real freedom isn’t 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’re 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.
During the anti-government protests of 2011 in Spain and Greece, 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 disappointed their followers and are now behaving like any other political parties. 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.
When we identify what we’re doing when we oppose the state as the practice of democracy, we set the stage for our efforts to be reabsorbed back into larger representational structures. Democracy isn’t 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 can’t 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.
The important distinction isn’t between democracy and the state, but between government and self-determination. Government is the exercise of authority over a given space or polity, and 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’re not ruling each other, but fostering autonomy on a mutually reinforcing basis. Freely made agreements require no enforcement; systems that concentrate legitimacy in a single institution or decision-making process always do.
It’s strange to use the word democracy for the idea that the state is inherently undesirable anyway. The proper word for that idea is anarchism (from the Greek for “without rulers”). Anarchism opposes all exclusion and domination in favor of the radical decentralization of power structures, decision-making processes, and notions of legitimacy. It isn’t a matter of governing in a completely participatory manner, but of making it impossible to impose any form of rule.
This problem came to the fore during the Occupy movement in 2011. Some participants understood the general assemblies to be the governing bodies of the movement; from their perspective, it was undemocratic for people to act without unanimous authorization. Others approached the assemblies as spaces of encounter without prescriptive authority: spaces in which people could exchange influence and ideas, forming fluid constellations around shared goals to take action. The former felt betrayed when their fellow Occupiers engaged in tactics that hadn’t been agreed on in the general assembly; the latter countered that it didn’t make sense to grant veto power to an arbitrarily convened mass including anyone who happened by on the street.
Perhaps the answer is that the structures of decision-making must be decentralized as well as consensus-based, so that universal agreement is unnecessary. This is a step in the right direction, but it introduces new questions. How should people be divided into polities? What dictates the jurisdiction of an assembly or the scope of the decisions it can make? Who determines which assemblies a person may participate in, or who is most affected by a given decision? How are conflicts between assemblies resolved? The answers to these questions will either institutionalize a set of rules governing legitimacy, or prioritize voluntary forms of association. In the former case, the rules will likely ossify over time into something like a state, as people refer to protocol to resolve disputes. In the latter case, the structures of decision-making will continuously shift, fracture, clash, and re-emerge in organic processes that can hardly be described as government. When the participants in a decision-making process are free to withdraw from it or engage in activity that contradicts the decisions, then what’s taking place isn’t government –it’s conversation.
From one perspective, this is a question of emphasis. Is our goal to produce the ideal institutions, rendering them as horizontal and participatory as possible but deferring to them as the ultimate foundation of authority? Or is our goal to maximize freedom, in which case any institution we create is subordinate to liberty and therefore dispensable? Once more – what’s more legitimate, our institutions or the needs and desires they exist to fulfill? Even at their best, institutions are just a means to an end; they have no value in and of themselves. No one should be obliged to adhere to the protocol of any institution that suppresses her freedom or fails to meet her needs. If everyone were free to organize with others on a purely voluntary basis, that would be the best way to generate social forms that are truly in the interests of all participants: for as soon as a structure wasn’t working for everyone involved, they’d have to refine or replace it. This approach won’t bring all of society into consensus, but it’s the only way to guarantee that consensus is meaningful and desirable when it does arise.
Let’s use patriarchy as an example. There are two ways to respond to male domination of the political sphere. The first is to try to make the formal public space as accessible and inclusive as possible – for example, by registering women to vote, providing child care, setting quotas of who must participate in decisions, weighting who is permitted to speak in discussions, or even, as in Rojava, establishing women-only assemblies with veto power. This strategy seeks to implement equality, but still assumes that all power should be vested in the public sphere. The alternative is to identify sites and practices of decision-making that already empower people who don’t benefit from male privilege, and grant them greater legitimacy. This approach draws on longstanding feminist traditions that prioritize people’s lives and experiences over formal structures and ideologies, recognizing the importance of diversity and valuing dimensions of life that are usually invisible. These two approaches can coincide and complement each other, but only if we dispense with the idea that all legitimacy should be concentrated in a single institutional structure.
Arguments Against Autonomy
There are several objections to the idea that decision-making structures should be voluntary rather than obligatory, decentralized rather than monolithic. We’re told, for example, that without a central mechanism for deciding conflicts, society will degrade into civil war; that it’s impossible to defend against centralized aggressors without a central authority; and that we need the apparatus of central government to deal with oppression and injustice. Let’s discuss each of these objections in turn.
In fact, centralizing power is as likely to provoke strife as to resolve it. When everyone has to gain control of the structures of the state to obtain influence over the conditions of her own life, this is bound to generate friction. In Israel/Palestine, India/Pakistan, and other places where people of various religions and ethnicities had coexisted autonomously in relative peace, the colonially imposed imperative to contend for political power within the framework of a single state has produced protracted ethnic violence. Such conflicts were common in 19thcentury US politics, as well – consider the fight for Bleeding Kansas. If these struggles are no longer common in the US, that isn’t evidence that the state has resolved all the conflicts it’s generated [in the Trump era, we can easily see serious conflict reemerging]. Centralized government, touted as a way to conclude disputes, just consolidates power so the victors can maintain their position through force of arms. And when centralized structures collapse, as Yugoslavia did during the introduction of democracy in the 1990s, the consequences can be bloody. At best, centralization only postpones strife, like a debt accumulating interest.
But can decentralized networks stand a chance against centralized power structures? The answer remains to be seen, but today’s centralized powers are by no means sure of their own invulnerability. Over the past two decades, from the so-called anti-globalization movement to Occupy to the Kurdish experiment with autonomy in Rojava, the initiatives that have succeeded in opening up space for new movements and social experiments, both democratic and anarchistic, have been decentralized, while more centralized efforts like Syriza have been coopted almost immediately.
Finally, there is the question of whether a society needs a centralized political apparatus to be able to put a stop to oppression and injustice. Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War, is one of the strongest expressions of this argument. Lincoln associates anarchy with the secession of the Southern states, mounting a critique of autonomy that echoes to this day. If it weren’t for the federal government, the argument goes, slavery would never have been abolished, nor would the South have desegregated or granted civil rights to people of color. These measures against injustice had to be introduced at gunpoint by the armies of the Union and, a century later, the National Guard. In this context, advocating decentralization seems to mean accepting slavery, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan. Without a legitimate central governing body, what mechanism can stop people from acting oppressively?
There are several errors here. The first is obvious: of Lincoln’s three options – despotism, majority rule, and anarchy – the secessionists represented despotism, not anarchy. Likewise, it’s naive to imagine that the apparatus of central government will be employed solely on the side of freedom. The same National Guard that oversaw integration in the South used live ammunition to put down black uprisings around the country, and today, there are nearly as many black people in US prisons as there once were slaves in the US. Finally, one need not vest all legitimacy in a single governing body in order to act against oppression. One may still act – the only difference is that one does so without the pretext of enforcing law, and without having one’s hands tied by it.
Opposing the centralization of power and legitimacy doesn’t mean withdrawing into quietism. Some conflicts musttake place; they follow from irreconcilable differences, and the imposition of a false unity only defers them. In his inaugural address, Lincoln was pleading in the name of the state to suspend the conflict between abolitionists and partisans of slavery – an inevitable and necessary conflict already delayed through decades of intolerable compromise. Meanwhile, abolitionists like Nat Turner and John Brown were able to act decisively without need of a central political authority – indeed, they were able to act thus only because they didn’t recognize one. Were it not for the pressure generated by autonomous actions like theirs, the federal government would never have intervened in the South; had more people taken the initiative the way they did, slavery would have become impossible and the Civil War wouldn’t have been necessary. In other words, the problem wasn’t too much anarchy, but too little. It was autonomous action that forced the issue of slavery, not democratic deliberation. What’s more, had there been more partisans of anarchy, rather than majority rule, it wouldn’t have been possible for Southern whites to regain political supremacy in the South after Reconstruction.
One more anecdote bears mention. A year after his inaugural speech, Lincoln addressed a committee of free men of color to argue that they should emigrate to found another colony like Liberia in hopes that the rest of black America would follow. Regarding the relation between emancipated black people and white American citizens, he argued, “It is better for us both to be separated…There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” So, in Lincoln’s political cosmology, the polis of white citizens can’t separate, but as soon as the black slaves of the oikos no longer occupy their economic role, it’s better that they depart. This dramatizes things clearly enough: the nation is indivisible, but the excluded are disposable. Had the slaves freed after the Civil War emigrated to Africa, they would have arrived just in time to experience the horrors of European colonization, with a death toll of ten million in Belgian Congo alone. The proper solution to such catastrophes isn’t to integrate all the world into a single republic governed by majority rule, but to combat all institutions that divide people into majorities and minorities – rulers and ruled – however “democratic” they might be.
Democratic Obstacles to Liberation
Whatever the state promises, nothing can compensate for having to cede control of our lives. Democracy provides another election, another government, and another cycle of optimism and disappointment, but this doesn’t always pacify the population. The past decade has seen movements and uprisings all around the world, from Oaxaca to Tunis, Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, Kiev to Hong Kong, in which the disillusioned and disaffected attempt to take matters into their own hands. Most of these have rallied around the standard of more and better democracy, though that has hardly been unanimous. Considering how much power markets and governments wield over us, it’s tempting to imagine that we could turn the tables and govern them. Even those who don’t believe that it’s possible for the people to rule the government usually end up governing the one thing left to them – the ways they rebel. Approaching protest movements as experiments in direct democracy, they set out to prefigure the structures of a more democratic world. But what if prefiguring “democracy” is part of the problem? That would explain why so few of these movements have been able to mount an irreconcilable opposition to the structures they formed to oppose. With the arguable exceptions of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the autonomous region of Rojava in Syria, all of them have been defeated (Occupy), reintegrated into the functioning of the prevailing government (Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain), or, worse still, have overthrown and replaced that government without achieving any real change in society (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Ukraine).
When a movement seeks to legitimize itself on the basis of the same principles as state democracy, it ends up trying to beat the state at its own game. Even if it succeeds, the reward for victory is to be coopted and institutionalized, whether within the existing structures of government or by reinventing them. This can play out in many different ways. There are movements that hamstring themselves by claiming to be more democratic, more transparent, or more representative than the authorities; movements that come to power through electoral politics, only
to betray their original goals; movements that promote directly democratic tactics that turn out to be just as useful to those who seek state power; and movements that topple governments, only to replace them. Let’s consider these one at a time.
If we limit our movements to what the majority of participants can agree on in advance, we may not be able to get them off the ground in the first place. When much of the population has accepted the legitimacy of the government and its laws, most people don’t feel they can to do anything that could challenge the existing power structure, no matter how badly it treats them. For this reason, a movement that makes decisions by majority vote or consensus may have difficulty agreeing to utilize any but the most symbolic tactics, with the consequence that, since it can exert no leverage to achieve its objectives, few are interested in participating.
Consider the uprising that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 in response to the murder of Michael Brown. Can you imagine the residents of Ferguson holding a consensus meeting to decide whether to burn the QuikTrip store and fight off the police – the actions that sparked what came to be known as the Black Lives Matter movement? People usually have to experience something new to be open to it; it’s a mistake to confine an entire movement to what’s already familiar to the majority of participants.
By the same token, if we insist on our movements being completely transparent, that means letting the authorities dictate which tactics we can use. In conditions of widespread infiltration and surveillance, conducting all decision-making in public without the option of anonymity invites repression on anyone perceived as a threat to the status quo. The more public and transparent a decision-making body is, the more conservative its actions are likely to be, even when this contradicts its express reason for being – think of all the environmental coalitions that have never taken a single step to halt the activities that cause climate change. Within democratic logic, it makes sense to demand transparency from the government, but outside that logic, rather than demanding that participants in social movements represent and answer to each other, we should seek to maximize the autonomy with which they may act.
If we claim legitimacy for our movements on the grounds that we represent the public, we offer the authorities an easy way to outmaneuver us, while opening the way for others to coopt our efforts. Before the introduction of universal suffrage, it was possible to maintain that a movement represented the will of the people; but nowadays an election can draw more people to the polls than even the most massive movement can mobilize into the streets. The winners of elections will always be able to claim to represent more people than can participate in movements. Movements purporting to represent the most oppressed sectors of society can also be outflanked by the inclusion of token representatives in the halls of power. And as long as we validate the idea of representation, some new politician or party can use our rhetoric to get into office. Rather than claiming that we represent the people, we should assert that no one has the right to represent us.
What happens when a movement comes to power through electoral politics? The victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party in Brazil seemed to present a best-case scenario in which a party based in grassroots radical organizing took the helm of the state. At the time, Brazil hosted some of the world’s most powerful social movements, including the 1.5-million-strong land reform campaign MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), and many of these were connected with the Workers’ Party. Yet after Lula took office in 2002, social movements entered a precipitous decline that lasted until 2013. Members of the Workers’ Party dropped out of local organizing to take positions in the government, while the necessities of realpolitikprevented Lula from granting concessions to the movements he’d previously supported. The MST had forced the conservative government that preceded Lula to legalize many land occupations, but it made no headway under Lula. This pattern recurred all around Latin America as supposedly radical politicians betrayed the social movements that had put them in office. As of 2016, the most powerful social movements in Brazil were the right-wing protests that toppled the Workers’ Party with a coup; grassroots movements were forced to choose between sitting on the sidelines and mobilizing behind the party that had betrayed them. There are no electoral shortcuts to freedom.
What if instead of seeking state power, we focus on promoting directly democratic models such as neighborhood assemblies? Unfortunately, these practices can also be appropriated to serve a wide range of agendas. In 2009, members of the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn joined locals in the Athenian neighborhood of Agios Panteleimonasin organizing an assembly that coordinated attacks on immigrants and anarchists. After the Slovenian uprising of 2012, while self-organized neighborhood assemblies continued to meet in Ljubljana, an NGO financed by the city authorities began organizing assemblies in a “neglected” neighborhood as a pilot project towards “revitalizing” the area, with the explicit intention of drawing disaffected citizens back into dialogue with the government. During the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, the fascist parties Svoboda and Right Sector came to prominence in democratic protests based on the Occupy model.
If we want to foster inclusivity and self-determination, it isn’t enough to propagate the rhetoric and procedures of participatory democracy. We need to spread a framework that opposes the state and other forms of hierarchical power in and of themselves.
Even explicitly revolutionary strategies can be turned to the advantage of world powers in the name of democracy. Since 2014, in Venezuela, Macedonia, Brazil, and elsewhere, we’ve seen state actors and vested interests channel genuine popular dissent into ersatz social movements in order to shorten the election cycle. Usually, the goal is to force the ruling party to resign in order to replace it with a more “democratic” government – i.e., a government more amenable to US or EU objectives. Such movements usually focus on “corruption,” implying that the system would work just fine if only the right people were in power. When we enter the streets, rather than risk being the dupes of some foreign policy initiative, we shouldn’t mobilize against any particular government, but against government per se.
In the face of economic crises and widespread disillusionment with representational politics, we see governments offering more direct participation in decision-making to pacify the public. Just as the dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and Chile were compelled to transition to democracy to neutralize protest movements, the state is opening up new roles for those who might otherwise lead the opposition to it. If we’re responsible for making the political system work, we’ll blame ourselves when it fails, not the format itself. This explains new experiments such as the “participatory” budgets local governments are implementing from Pôrto Alegre to Poznań. In practice, the participants rarely have any leverage on town officials; at most, they can act as consultants, or vote on a measly 0.1% of city funds. The real purpose of participatory budgeting and other such programs is to redirect popular attention from the failures of government to the project of making it more “democratic.”
As long as we submit to being governed, the state will shift back and forth as needed between majority rule and tyranny: two expressions of the same basic principle. The state can assume many shapes; like vegetation, it can die back, then regrow from the roots. It can take the form of a monarchy or a parliamentary democracy, a revolutionary dictatorship or a provisional council; when the authorities have fled and the military has mutinied, the state can linger as a germ carried by the partisans of order and protocol in an apparently horizontal general assembly. All of these forms, however democratic, can regenerate into a regime capable of crushing freedom and self-determination.
The one sure way to avoid cooptation, manipulation, and opportunism is to refuse to legitimize any form of rule. When people solve their problems and meet their needs directly through flexible, horizontal, decentralized structures, there are no leaders to corrupt, no formal structures to ossify, no single process to hijack. Do away with the concentrations of power and those who wish to seize power can get no purchase. An ungovernable people may have to defend themselves against would-be tyrants, but they’ll never put their own strength behind any tyrant’s efforts to rule.
Reimagining humanity without government is an ambitious project. Most of the models of stateless relations that sustained us through our first 200,000 years have been stamped out, and two centuries of anarchist theory only scratch the surface. For now, we’ll just suggest a few basic values that could guide us beyond democracy, and a few general proposals for how to understand what we might do instead of governing.
Horizontality, Decentralization, Autonomy, Anarchy
Under scrutiny, democracy doesn’t live up to the values that drew us to it in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, and self-determination. To realize these values, we must add horizontality, decentralization, and autonomy as their indispensible counterparts.
As a political aspiration, horizontality has gained a lot of currency since the late 20thcentury. Starting with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and gaining momentum through the worldwide anti-globalization movement, a series of ostensibly horizontal grassroots social movements have promoted nonhierarchical organization. The slogan Que se vayan todos(“They all must go!”), popularized during the rebellion of 2001 in Argentina, adequately expresses widespread disillusionment with politicians, parties, and leaders of all stripes. But decentralization is just as important as horizontality if we don’t wish to be trapped in a tyranny of equals, in which everyone has to be able to agree on something for anyone to be able to do it. Rather than a single process through which all agency must pass, decentralization means multiple sites of decision-making and multiple forms of legitimacy. That way, when power is distributed unevenly in one context, it can be counterbalanced elsewhere. Decentralization means preserving difference – strategic and ideological diversity is a source of strength for movements and communities, just as biodiversity is in the natural world. We should neither reduce our politics to lowest common denominators nor segregate ourselves into homogeneous groups according to affinity alone.
Decentralization implies autonomy: the ability to act freely on one’s own initiative. Autonomy can apply at any level of scale – a single person, a neighborhood, a movement, or an whole region. To be free, you need control over your immediate surroundings and the details of your daily life; the more self- sufficient you are, the more secure your autonomy is. This needn’t mean meeting all your needs independently; it can also include mutual aid, sharing, and interdependence. No single institution should be able to monopolize access to resources or social relations. A society that promotes autonomy requires what an engineer would call redundancy: a wide range of options and possibilities in every aspect of life.
Yet if we wish to foster freedom, it’s not enough to affirm autonomy alone. A nation-state or political party can assert autonomy; so can nationalists and racists. The fact that a person or group is autonomous tells us little about whether the relations they cultivate with others are egalitarian or hierarchical, inclusive or exclusive. If we wish to maximize autonomy for everyone rather than simply seeking it for ourselves, we have to create a social context in which no one is able to accumulate institutional power over anyone else. We have to create anarchy.
Institutions exist to serve us, not the other way around. They have no inherent claim on our obedience, and we should never invest them with more legitimacy than our own needs and desires. When our wishes conflict with others’ wishes, we can see if an institutional process can produce a solution that satisfies everyone; but as soon as we accord an institution the right to adjudicate our conflicts or dictate our decisions, we’ve abdicated our freedom. This isn’t a critique of a particular organizational model, or an argument for “informal” structures over “formal” ones. Rather, this insight demands that we treat all models as provisional – that we ceaselessly reappraise and reinvent them. While Thomas Paine wanted to enthrone the law as king and enthusiasts of capitalism dream of a society based solely on contracts, we counter that when relations are truly in the best interests of all participants, there’s no need for laws or contracts. Nor is this an argument in favor of mere individualism, of treating relationships as expendable, or organizing only with those who share our preferences. In a crowded, interdependent world, we can’t afford to refuse to coexist or coordinate with others. The point is simply that we mustn’t seek to legislate relations. Instead of deferring to a blueprint or protocol, we can evaluate institutions on an ongoing basis: Do they reward cooperation or contention? Do they distribute agency or create bottlenecks of power? Do they offer each participant the opportunity to fulfill her potential on her own terms or impose external imperatives? Do they facilitate the resolution of conflict on mutually agreeable terms or punish all who run afoul of a codified system?
Creating Spaces of Encounter
In place of formal sites of centralized decision-making, we propose a variety of spaces of encounter where people may open themselves to each other’s influence and find others who share their priorities. Encounter means mutual transformation: establishing common points of reference and common concerns. The space of encounter is neither a representative body vested with the authority to make decisions for others, nor a governing body employing majority rule or consensus. It’s an opportunity for people to experiment with acting in different configurations on a voluntary basis.
The spokescouncil immediately preceding the demonstrations against the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City was a classic space of encounter, bringing together a wide range of autonomous groups. Rather than trying to make binding decisions as a body, the participants introduced the initiatives their groups had prepared and set out to coordinate their efforts for mutual benefit. Much of the decision-making occurred later in informal intergroup discussions. By this means, thousands of people were able to synchronize their actions without relying on central leadership or giving the police much insight into the plans that were to unfold. Had the spokescouncil employed an organizational model intended to produce unity and centralization, the participants could have spent the entire night fruitlessly arguing about which goals to embrace, which strategy to adopt, and which tactics to allow.
Most of the social movements of the past two decades have been hybrid models juxtaposing spaces of encounter with some form of democracy. In Occupy, for example, the encampments served as open-ended spaces of encounter, while the general assemblies were intended to function as directly democratic decision-making bodies. Most of those movements achieved their greatest effects because the encounters they facilitated opened up opportunities for autonomous action, however, rather than because they centralized group activity through direct democracy. If we approach the encounter as the driving force of these movements, rather than as raw material to be shaped through democratic process, it might help us prioritize what we do best.
Anarchists frustrated by the contradictions of democratic discourse have sometimes withdrawn to organize themselves according to preexisting affinity alone. Yet segregation breeds stagnation and fractiousness. It’s better to organize on the basis of our conditions and needs so that we come into contact with all the others who share them. Only when we understand ourselves as nodes within dynamic collectivities, rather than discrete entities possessed of static interests, can we make sense of the rapid metamorphoses that people undergo in the course of experiences like the Occupy movement and the tremendous power of the encounter to transform us if we’re open to it.
Cultivating Collectivity, Preserving Difference
If no institution, contract, or law should be able to dictate our decisions, how do we agree on what responsibilities we have towards each other? One proposal is to make a distinction between “closed” groups, in which the participants agree to answer to each other for their actions, and “open” groups that don’t need to reach consensus. (This is a variation on the old opposition between formal and informal, and there’s a hint of polis and oikos in it.) But how do we draw a line between the two? If we’re accountable to our fellows in a closed group only until we choose to leave it, and we can leave at any time, it’s little different from participating in an open group. On the other hand, we’re all involved, like it or not, in one closed group sharing a single inescapable space: earth. So it isn’t a question of distinguishing the spaces in which we must be accountable to each other from the spaces in which we may act freely. The question is how to foster both responsibility and autonomy at every order of scale.
Toward this end, we can set out to create mutually fulfilling collectivities at each level of society – spaces in which people identify with each other and have cause to do right by each other. These can take many forms, from housing cooperatives and neighborhood assemblies to international networks. At the same time, we recognize that we’ll have to reconfigure them continuously according to how much intimacy and interdependence proves beneficial for the participants.
Instead of treating group decision-making as a pursuit of unanimity, we can approach it as a space for differences to arise, conflicts to play out, and transformations to occur as different social constellations converge and diverge. Disagreeing and dissociating can be just as desirable as reaching agreement, provided they occur for the right reasons; the inherent advantages of organizing in larger numbers should suffice to discourage people from fracturing gratuitously. Learning how to separate gracefully should enable us to avoid needlessly acrimonious schisms, preserving the possibility that those who part ways will later be able to come back together. Our institutions should help us to identify and understand our differences, not suppress or submerge them.
Some witnesses returning from the autonomous regions in Rojava report that when an assembly there can’t reach consensus, it splits into two bodies, dividing resources between them. If this is true, it offers a model of voluntary association that’s a vast improvement on the forced “unity” of democracy.
Sometimes dividing into separate groups isn’t enough to resolve conflicts. To dispense with centralized coercion, we have to come up with new ways of addressing strife.
One of the most basic functions of democracy is to offer a way of concluding disputes. Voting, courts, and police all serve to decide conflicts without necessarily resolving them. By centralizing force, a strong state is able to compel feuding parties to suspend hostilities even on mutually unacceptable terms. This enables a government to suppress forms of strife that interfere with its control, such as class warfare, while fostering forms of conflict that undermine horizontal and autonomous resistance, such as gang warfare. We can’t understand the religious and ethnic violence of our time without factoring in the ways that state structures provoke and exacerbate it. When we accord institutions inherent legitimacy, this offers us an excuse not to resolve conflicts, relying instead on the intercession of the state. It gives us an alibi to conclude disputes by force and to exclude those who are structurally disadvantaged. Rather than taking the initiative to work things out directly, we end up jockeying for power.
If we don’t recognize the authority of the state, we have no such excuses: we must find mutually satisfying resolutions or else suffer the consequences of ongoing strife. This is an incentive to take all parties’ needs and perceptions seriously, and to develop skills with which to defuse tensions and reconcile rivals. It isn’t necessary to get everyone to agree, but we have to find ways to differ that don’t produce hierarchies, oppression, or pointless antagonism.
Refusing to Be Ruled
Envisioning what a horizontal and decentralized society might look like, we can imagine overlapping networks of collectives and assemblies in which people organize to meet their daily needs for food, shelter, medical care, work, recreation, discussion, and companionship. Being interdependent, they’d have good reason to settle disputes amicably, but no one could force anyone else to remain in an arrangement that was unhealthy or unfulfilling. In response to threats, they’d mobilize in larger ad hocformations, drawing on connections with other communities around the world. Throughout the course of human history, many stateless societies have looked something like this, and models are appearing today at the intersections of indigenous, feminist, and anarchist traditions. This isn’t an outdated way of life, but the end of a long error. It’s not the functioning of democracy, but the experience of freedom – of collectively taking our destinies in our hands. No set of procedures could institutionalize this. It’s a prize we must wrest from the jaws of habit and history again and again. Next time a window of opportunity opens and we have the chance to remake our lives and our world, rather than reinventing “real democracy” once more, let’s set our sights on freedom itself.
Assemblies are a great way to make certain decisions in specific situations, but direct democracy gives precedence to the general assembly over the affinity group, the kitchen, the study circle, the workshop, and a thousand other spaces in which we organize ourselves. This is an exact parallel to how all governments bestow an exclusive legitimacy on whatever form of decision-making they control within institutional channels. A government run by charismatic statesmen will give precedence to a congress or parliament, a government run by technocrats will give precedence to central banks and state commissions, and a government run by grassroots activists on their way to professionalization will give precedence to the assembly. In the Russian revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks made use of the soviets, which functioned as democratic assemblies and which contemporary anarchists like Voline pointed out were ripe for co-optation, until they’d consolidated their bureaucratic state enough to no longer need them. This is a pattern that keeps repeating.
We live in an oppressive society because every day we help reproduce that oppression. Instead of proposing an end to the ruling institutions, direct democracy activists propose ways to fix them. Rather than seeking the abolition of hierarchical society and choosing sides in the antagonisms of class, colonialism, and patriarchy, they seek social “unity.” This reformist bent diverts our movement from opposing the real problem: authority. Revolution is never pragmatic or cautious – it must be carried beyond our horizons into the unpredictable, the uncertain, the furthest bounds of our imagination, or it dies.
It’s not our responsibility as anarchists to come up with solutions for the rest of society, but if we aren’t capable of figuring out how to use heterogeneous assemblies to advance anti-authoritarian projects based on mutual aid in response to people’s real needs, how can we expect anyone else to do so? It’s in this sense that the 2011 Spanish assemblies ended up being useless. No one dared take the step of using them to fulfill our collective needs, and capitalism and democratic government were waiting, as always, to step in and offer their own solutions. This failure could be the subject for an entire book, or more appropriately, for a collective learning process involving thousands of dreamers and revolutionaries and spanning generations. As a simple gesture to point out other ways forward from this impasse, I’ll mention two components I found lacking: imagination and skills.
Imagination refers to the capacity to create imaginaries: visions of other worlds in which our desires and projections can reside, even thrive, at times when capitalism permits no autonomous space in which communal relations might develop. It’s no coincidence that today’s revolutionary movements lack visions of other worlds, or that a great part of capitalist production supplants imagination among its consumers, offering imaginary worlds that become more elaborate every day – more visually stimulating and more interactive, so that people no longer have to imagine anything for themselves because a thousand worlds and fantasies already come prepackaged. All the old fantasies that used to set us dreaming have now been fixed in Hollywood productions, with convincing actors, fully depicted terrains, and emotive soundtracks. Nothing is left for us to recreate, only to consume. In the current marketplace of ideas, it seems that the only imaginaries that describe our future are apocalypses or the science fiction colonization of outer space. The latter is the final frontier for capitalist expansion, now that this planet is getting used up, and the former is the only alternative capitalism is willing to concede outside its dominion. We’re being encouraged to imagine ourselves in the only worlds that can be conceived from within the capitalist perspective. The revolutionaries of a hundred years ago continuously dreamed and schemed of a world without the State and without capitalism. Some of them made the mistake of turning their dreams into blueprints, dogmatic guidelines that functioned as yardsticks by which to measure deviance. But today we face a much greater problem: the absence of revolutionary imaginaries and the near total atrophy of the imagination in ourselves and in the rest of society. The imagination is the most revolutionary organ in our collective social body, because it’s the only one capable of creating new worlds, of traveling outside capitalism and state authority, of enabling us to surpass the limits of insurrection that have become so evident in the past few years.
I know few people who can imagine what anarchy might look like. The uncertainty isn’t the problem. Uncertainty is one of the fundamentals of chaotic organization, and it’s only the authoritarian neurosis of states that obliges us to impose certainty on an ever-shifting reality. The problem, rather, is that this lack of imagination constitutes a disconnection from present reality. A vital part of ourselves is no longer there, as it used to be, on the cusp of the horizon, greeting each new element coming into our lives. Imagination can always be renewed and reinvigorated, however, and we must emphasize the radical importance of this work if people are once more to create, share, and discuss new possible worlds or profound transformations of this one.
Complementary to our lack of imagination is a lack of skills. The skills we need to survive in the capitalist marketplace are useless for survival in any other mode. Without the skills to build, to heal, to fix, to transform, to feed, mutual aid and self-organization are just slogans. Anyone can learn natural therapies or gardening and create a business, and capitalism will happily oblige such a limited reskilling, as long as there are enough wealthy consumers to serve as patrons. But when these skills are put at the service of a revolutionary imagination and a collective antagonism towards the dominant institutions, the possibility of creating a new world arises.
The regeneration of democracy, here and elsewhere, has given a new lease on life to the structures of domination that so many were losing faith in. Grim futures loom, and if anything we’re only getting further away from the possibility of revolution. But the chaotic reality of the universe offers us a promise: nothing is predictable, no future is written, and the most rigid structures are broken, ridiculed, and forgotten in the rushing river of time. Seemingly impervious orders crumble and new forms of life emerge. We have every reason to learn from our mistakes, renew our conviction in the theories that events have confirmed, and once again offer an invitation to any who would partake in this dreamer’s quest for total freedom.
Our worst enemy was our inability to bring our ideals down from the clouds of anarchism to the rough and dirty ground of anarchy. Under these circumstances [an election], with no other concrete options, people felt obliged – or forced – to choose between the party of social control offering them a totalitarian leader for a father figure, or the social-democratic party promising them free schools, hospitals, and some amount of protection from the wild neoliberal sharks that govern this world. After speaking in the assemblies, after participating in “direct” democracy, people got in line once again to vote, to reaffirm the democracy of the state.
Democracy was constructed by people with a political and economic interest in keeping the masses under control by means of words rather than the sword (and with the sword when words are not enough). Representative democracy is a system of mind control offering a pseudo-reality of freedom in which you can’t have any serious influence over the fundamental decisions about your life. This system fosters corruption, as the leaders drain the resources of the community, and keeps people apathetic. Nobody gives a damn about your opinion; you’re just one statistic among millions. You’re not supposed to speak out; you’re there to applaud. Throughout your entire political life, you’re absent, represented.
Democracy keeps you afraid, afraid of the enemies of your democratic community, your nation. Democracy creates borders in your life and you’re drafted to protect them with your body. The borders are imaginary social constructs, but your dead body on the battleground is real. Democracy excludes the rest of humanity from your community and prepares an army, including you, to kill the excluded ones. And if you refuse to kill for the sake of democracy, you too will be excluded.
This system has an amazing ability to reproduce itself. It produces schools, hospitals, theaters, kindergartens, military camps, university campuses, galleries, museums, amusement parks. You can spend your whole life inside those institutions, and if you try to escape from them, you’ll probably end up in a homeless shelter, a jail, or a psychiatric clinic (all of which are also democratic institutions). The consequence of this resilience is that democracy is unable to surpass itself, to evolve into something different, in the same way that the Soviet Union never arrived at the communist paradise.
Statutes, politicians, and means of governing may be replaced, but democracy is always the same oligarchic system, aristocratic at its core. Democracy is always searching, through elections and business contracts and nepotism, for the best ones to perpetuate it. This is nothing new. Democracy is a conservative tribal method by which certain ancient Greek tribes reproduced themselves. It will never allow you to become different until you escape from the tribe. Today, when the capitalist market and the democratic state exert total control all around the world, there is no other way to escape democracy except to destroy it.
Even knowing all of this, some people defend democracy. They want to find a form of democracy that doesn’t end up in oligarchy, just like the 21stcentury communists who are searching for communist systems that don’t lead to totalitarianism. But the Founding Fathers of all nations loom over democrats of all stripes, looking on approvingly as normality reasserts itself – the same conditions of exploitation, new faces in the same old positions of authority. The world will never change as long as we’re afraid to cut the roots of this order. Democracy is the final alternative for those afraid to step into the unknown territory of their own desires, their own power. Likewise, the demand for “real” democracy is the last way for social movements to legitimize themselves in the supposed “social sphere” (and to try to avoid being criminalized). Just as it’s the final step, democracy is also the final obstacle to new possibilities arising in social movements.
There is no general assembly that could know better than we do how we should make the most of our abilities to benefit the people around us. This is the difference between an affinity group, which produces a collective and expansive power, and a democratic assembly, which concentrates power in an institutional space distinct from our lives and relationships, alienating us from ourselves and each other. Any kind of “direct democracy” reproduces the same conditions as representative democracy, just on a smaller scale. The majority suppresses the minority, driving them into apathy. Often, you don’t even try to express your opinion, as you know you’ll have no chance to put it into practice. Often, you’re afraid to speak, as you know you’ll be humiliated by the majority. Homogeneity is the ultimate imperative of any democratic procedure, “direct” or representational – a homogeneity that ends up as two final opinions (the majority and minority), losing the vast richness of human intelligence and sensibility and erasing all the complexity and diversity of human needs and desires.
Within a few months of its election in 2015, SYRIZA betrayed all its promises to the Greek people, caving in to all the austerity policies demanded by the European Union.
Christianity and Islam attracted millions of poor people with promises of social justice and eternal love; a few years later, they became ideological tools for massive genocides around the world, absolute enemies of human emancipation and obstacles to real human spirituality. The Communist Party, proclaimed to be the voice of those without voices, became the worst enemy of freedom of expression. We might sacrifice our lives to liberate ourselves from the old world’s prisons only to find ourselves locked inside a new jail.
Anarcho-communism, an emancipatory vision that we in Void Network share, is an old vision of a world without money or borders. But it needs to be updated for the 21stcentury; otherwise, it will remain in our minds like a mythological ghost, another obstacle. If we want a world without money, we have to transform labor into open-source creativity and turn workplaces into sites of voluntary creative participation in a global web that freely distributes all material and mental production. If we want a world without borders, that means a world without foreigners – so you will not be a “stranger” anywhere in the world at any moment of your life. We have to transform societies into open and inclusive communities connected in a global network, so that everyone can be welcome and useful anywhere and anytime on this planet, not divided into isolated, xenophobic groups.
In the eight decades since the collapse of the Spanish Revolution, anarchists have avoided offering solid plans for anarchist revolution on this scale. Meanwhile, during those years, capitalism has evolved to levels that the revolutionaries of late 19thcentury couldn’t have imagined. Global capitalism is here, global anarchism is not.
The only possible way that an anarchist revolution could happen is on a planetary scale, not on a local scale on isolated islands. Even if it will take 200 years for an anarchist revolution to extend to every corner of this world, this is what has to be envisioned, planned, and realized. If we reduce the scale of our organizational structures to local neighborhood assemblies or tiny eco-communities, we’ll find ourselves dealing with problems that pass through our small community the way huge ocean waves pass over a small fishing boat. Neo-totalitarianism will never leave us alone in alternative-lifestyle bubbles (though it might sell vacations in eco-paradises to the rich). We can’t separate ourselves from the suffering of this world. We need a global network of communities in struggle, a network of millions of flexible groups ready to fight against totalitarianism, to create public liberated zones, to defend them against their enemies and connect them in a revolutionary wave of global social emancipation – and we need to do all this without central control.
Could anarchy – total freedom, absolute social and economic equality, and global fellowship – offer an inclusive consciousness to a fragmented humanity for the 21stcentury? It isn’t simple even to begin thinking about it. And if we want a vision of emancipation that’s created socially and collectively, we have to avoid simplistic solutions and the leadership of specific individuals. For example, Karl Marx was a very smart man, but Marxism is an obstacle for free thinking.
We’re fighting against the state and capitalism to open passages – practices, strategies, and methodologies – that lead to total freedom, social equality, mutual aid, and self-determination. We have to find a way to connect with the many, in order that together we may transform the conditions that produce our reality. Against homogeneity, we have to foster diversity; against certitude, we have to make space for all truths; against exclusion, we want to empower the stranger, the queer, the old, the young, the freak, the unknown; against borders, we want to live openheartedly; against atomization, to care for others, to learn from each other, to carry out great plans and achieve our ultimate goals. Otherwise, established political authority and economic interests will reassert themselves in endless variations on the same conditions. This world will never change until we dare to live free, to share everything, to spread anarchy!
The US (the Occupy Movement)
The story goes that the first gathering to plan Occupy Wall Street began as an old-fashioned top-down rally with speakers droning on until a Greek anarchist interrupted and demanded that they hold a proper horizontal assembly instead. She and some of the younger people in attendance sat down in a circle on the other side of the plaza and began holding a meeting using consensus process. One by one, more people trickled over from the audience that had been listening to speakers and joined the circle. It was August 2, 2011.
Here, in the origin myth of the Occupy Movement, we encounter the fundamental ambiguity in its relationship to organization. We can understand this shift to consensus process as the adoption of a more inclusive and therefore more legitimate democratic model, anticipating later claims that the general assemblies of Occupy represented real democracy in action. Or we can focus on the decision to withdraw from the initial rally, seeing it as a gesture in favor of voluntary association. Over the following year, this internal tension erupted repeatedly, pitting democrats determined to demonstrate a new form of governance against anarchists intent upon asserting the primacy of autonomy.
Though David Graeber (see “Some Remarks on Consensus”) encouraged participants to regard consensus as a set of principles rather than rules, both the proponents of consensus process and its authoritarian opponents persisted in treating it as a formal means of government. The movement’s failure to reach consensus about the meaning of consensus culminated in ugly attacks in which the pundits Rebecca Solnit and Chris Hedges attempted to brand anarchist participants as “violent thugs.” (See “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House: Thoughts on the Importance of Nonviolence in the Occupy Revolution” and “The Cancer in Occupy”; see also our response, “The Illegitimacy of Violence, the Violence of Legitimacy.”
How did that play out in the hinterlands, where small-town Occupy groups took up the decision-making practices of Occupy Wall Street? Let’s shift from New York City to a small town in Middle America to find out. I live in a town with a population of less than 100,000. We have a university, a sizeable part of the population engaged in service sector work that barely pays the bills, and a greater number of active anarchists than most towns this size. A decade and a half ago, I participated in the so-called “anti- globalization movement,” so dubbed by corporate journalists who had apparently been instructed not to print the word “anti-capitalist.” Beginning with a groundswell of local initiatives, it culminated in a string of massive riots at international trade summits including the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in November 1999, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, DC in April 2000 and Prague in September 2000, the summit to plan the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City in April, 2001, and the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. Although I’d been an anarchist for some years already, I learned to use consensus process in the course of those demonstrations. Like many other participants, I believed that this form of decision-making pointed the way to a world without government or capitalism. We cherished the seemingly quixotic dream that one day this obscure subcultural decision-making process might spread to the population at large.
Ten years later, in September 2011, I visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. It had only existed for two weeks, yet it had already developed its political culture: daily assemblies, “mic check,” and consensus process. This was all familiar to me from my anti-globalization days, though most people there clearly didn’t share that background. I heard a lot of legalistic and reformist rhetoric in the course of my brief visit. At the same time, this was what we’d dreamed of: our organizational structures and decision-making practices spreading outside our milieu. Could the practices themselves instill the political values that had originally inspired us to employ them? Some of my comrades had argued that directly democratic models could help to radicalize people who weren’t yet ready for the likes of anarchism. The following months put that theory to the test.
Two weeks after my visit to Manhattan, I was back in my hometown in Middle America, attending our Occupy group’s second assembly. We had gathered in the central plaza on the main thoroughfare. A hundred people from a wide range of backgrounds and political perspectives were debating whether to establish an encampment of our own. It isn’t easy for a crowd arbitrarily convened through an open invitation on Facebook to make a decision together. Some people were arguing against establishing an occupation immediately; they said the police would just evict us, and insisted that we should apply for a permit first. Yet in the nearest city, occupiers had applied for a permit but were only granted one lasting a few hours, and everyone who remained after it expired was arrested. A few of us thought it better to go forward without permission than to embolden the authorities to believe we would comply with whatever was convenient for them.
A different facilitator would have let the debate remain abstract indefinitely, effectively quashing the possibility of an occupation in the name of consensus. But ours cut right to the chase: “Raise your hand if you want to camp out here tonight.” A few hands went hesitantly up. “Looks like five…six, seven…OK, let’s split into two groups: those who want to occupy, and everyone else. We’ll reconvene in ten minutes.” At first there were only a half dozen of us meeting on the occupiers’ side of the plaza, but after we took the first step, others drifted over. Ten minutes later, there were 24 of us, and that night dozens of people camped out in the Plaza. I stayed up all night waiting for the police to raid, but they never showed up. We’d won the first round, expanding what everyone imagined to be possible, and we owed it to people taking the initiative autonomously, not to everyone reaching consensus.
Our occupation was a success. Over the first few weeks, scores of people met and got to know each other through frequent demonstrations, logistical work, and nights of impassioned discussion. The nightly assemblies served as a space to become better acquainted politically. First, we heard a wide range of testimonials about why people were there. These ranged from boring to fascinating, but they died out swiftly once the business of making decisions via assemblies got underway. Next, we weathered lengthy debates about whether there should be a nonviolence policy, with nonviolence serving as a code word for legalistic obedience. Thanks to the participation of many anarchists, this discussion was split pretty much down the middle, and no consensus was ever reached. If nothing else, it enabled many occupiers who had never been part of a movement like this to hear arguments from both sides of the issue. It was interesting to watch so many people go through such a rapid political evolution. I enjoyed the debates, the drama of watching middle-class liberals struggle to converse on an equal footing with anarchists and angry poor people. On the other hand, the assemblies were ineffective as a way to make decisions. After weeks of grueling daily sessions, we gave up entirely on formulating a mission statement about our basic goals, consensus having been repeatedly blocked by a lone right-wing libertarian contrarian. Some people managed to push a couple of small demonstrations through the consensus process, but they attracted few participants. The assembly’s stamp of approval didn’t correlate with people actually investing themselves; the momentum to make an effort succeed was determined elsewhere.
While the nightly assemblies helped us get to know each other politically, if you wanted to get to know people personally, you had to spend more time at the encampment. Standing night watch, facing off with drunk college students and other reactionaries, I became acquainted with many of the occupiers who’d first arrived as disconnected individuals. Those connections gave us cause to be invested in each other’s efforts over the following months.
The liberals were among those most invested in the protocol of consensus process, even though most of them had learned it from us. However unfamiliar it was, they found it reassuring that there was a proper way of doing things. This emphasis on protocol created rifts with the actual inhabitants of the encampment, many of whom felt ill at ease communicating in such a formal structure, and that class divide proved to be a more fundamental conflict than any political disagreement. From the perspective of the liberals, there was a democratic assembly in which anyone could participate, and those who didn’t attend or speak up couldn’t complain about the decisions made there. From the vantage point of those who lived in the camp, the liberals showed up for an hour or two every couple of days, expecting to be able to dictate decisions to people who were in the camp 24 hours a day. Usually, they didn’t even stick around to implement them.
When I left town to visit other Occupy groups or talked with friends across the country, they all reported something similar. The conflict between the general assembly and the encampment was practically universal. It expressed the most fundamental tensions within the movement.
As one of the few participants who had already been familiar with consensus process yet spent considerable time in the camp outside the assemblies, I could see both sides. I tried to explain to the liberals who only showed up for the assemblies – the ones who understood Occupy as a political project rather than a social space – that there were already functioning decision-making processes at work in the encampment, however informal they might be. If they wanted to establish better relations with the residents of the encampment, I argued, they should take those processes seriously and try to participate in them, too.
After the first few weeks, the flow of new participants slowed. We were becoming a known quantity. Consequently, we began to lose our leverage on the authorities and our hold on the popular imagination. Meanwhile, it was getting colder out, and winter was on the way. Based on our experience attempting to formulate a mission statement or call for demonstrations, it seemed clear that if there was to be a next step, it would have to be determined outside the general assemblies.
I got together with some friends I’d known and trusted for a long time – the same group that had called for Occupy in our town in the first place. We discussed whether to occupy a vast empty building a few blocks from the plaza. Most of us thought it was impossible, but a few fanatics insisted it could be done. We decided that if they could get us inside, we’d try to hold onto it. But the plan had to be a secret until we were in, so the police couldn’t stop us.
The building occupation was a success. Over a hundred people flooded into the building, setting up a kitchen, a reading library, and sleeping quarters. A band performed, followed by a dance party. That night, dozens of people slept in the building rather than at the plaza, relieved to be out of the cold. Once again, I stood watch all night, waiting for the police. The stakes were higher this time, but they still didn’t show up. Spirits were high: once again, we’d expanded the space of possibility. The following afternoon, as we continued cleaning and repairing the building, a rumor circulated that the police were preparing a raid. Several dozen of us gathered for an impromptu meeting. It struck me how different the atmosphere was from our usual general assemblies. There were no bureaucratic formalities, no deadlocks over minutia. No one droned on just to hear himself speak or stared off listlessly. There was no grandstanding or chiding each other about protocol.
Perhaps that was because here, there was nothing abstract about the issues at hand. Just by being present, we were putting our bodies on the line. We were discussing real choices that would have immediate consequences for all of us. We didn’t need a facilitator to listen to each other or stay on topic. With our freedom at stake, we had every reason to work well together.
The day after the raid, a huge crowd gathered at the original encampment for a contentious general assembly, the biggest and most energetic our town witnessed throughout the entire sequence of Occupy. Our decision to occupy the building, arrived at outside the general assembly, had ironically made the general assembly irresistible to everyone. Some people were inspired by the building occupation and our response to the police raid; others, who assumed the general assembly to be the governing body of the movement, were outraged that we had bypassed it; still others, who hadn’t been interested in Occupy till now, came to engage with us because they now saw us as capable of making a big impact. Even if they were only there to argue that we should “be peaceful” and obey the law, we hoped that entering that space of dialogue might expand their sense of what was possible, too.
So the assembly benefited from the building occupation, whether or not people approved of it. But ironically, they only came because of the power we’d expressed by acting on our own, without its stamp of approval. It was this power that they sought to access through the assembly – some to increase it, some to command it, some to tame it. In fact, the power didn’t reside in the assembly as a decision-making space, but in the people who came to it and the connections they forged there.
Over the following week, people inspired by the building occupations in Oakland and our little town occupied buildings in St. Louis, Washington, DC, and Seattle. This new wave of actions pushed the Occupy movement from symbolic protests toward directly challenging the sanctity of capitalist notions of property. Our town saw its biggest unpermitted demonstrations in years.
Months later, I compared notes with comrades around the country about how this mass experiment in consensus process had turned out. Everywhere, there had been the same conflicts, as some people who saw the assemblies as the legitimate space of decision-making criticized those who propelled the movement forward by acting autonomously. Even in Oakland, famously the most confrontational encampment in the country, almost everything that gave it its character never passed through the general assembly. They experienced the same controversies we did, writ large. In a photograph taken after the riots with which occupiers retaliated against the eviction of their encampment, someone has written on a broken window, “This act of vandalism was NOT authorized by the GA,” as if the GA were a governmental body, answerable for its subjects and therefore entitled to legitimize or delegitimize their actions. That shows a profound misunderstanding of what consensus procedure is good for. Like any tool, power flows from us to it, not the other way around – we can invest it with power, but using it won’t necessarily make us more powerful. Every step that made Occupy succeed in our town, from the call for the first assembly to the decision to occupy the plaza to the decision to occupy a building, was the result of an autonomous initiative. We never could have reached consensus to do any of those things in an open assembly that included anarchists, Maoists, reactionary poor people, middle-class liberals, police infiltrators, people with mental health issues, aspiring politicians, and whoever else happened to stop by.
The assemblies were essential as a space where we could intersect and exchange proposals, creating new affinities and building a sense of our collective power. But we don’t need a more participatory – and therefore even more inefficient and invasive – form of government. We need the ability to act freely as we see fit, the common sense to coexist with others wherever possible, and the courage to stand up for ourselves when there are real conflicts.
As the Occupy movement was dying down, the faction that was most invested in legalism and protocol called for a National Gathering in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012, at which to “collectively craft a Vision of a Democratic Future.” Barely 500 people showed from around the country, a tiny fraction of the number that had blocked ports, occupied parks, and marched in the streets. The people, as they say, had voted with their feet.
Democratic Practices and Institutional Legitimacy in Occupy Oakland
In the process of preparing this book, we recorded a discussion with some participants in Occupy Oakland about their experiences with democratic and autonomous practices during the Occupy movement. The following is comprised of excerpts from a much longer conversation.
Let’s start with the role of the General Assembly in Occupy Oakland. I’ve heard a wide variety of contradictory perspectives about how anarchists related to it. The answers run the gamut between two poles. At one extreme, some people argue that everything worthwhile that occurred during Occupy Oakland only took place because of the leverage anarchists had in the General Assembly. This view seems to affirm a sort of democratic centralism: centralized decision-making is legitimate and desirable, as long as anarchists are the ones calling the shots. At the other extreme, others argue that legitimizing the General Assembly in any way is contrary to the values of autonomy. In that view, the less that people rely on the General Assembly, the better. The problem with this position is that it offers no analysis of the role that the General Assembly played in the tremendous surge in momentum that anti-capitalist and anti-state organizing experienced in the Bay Area in 2011.
In your view, to what extent did anarchists legitimize the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland as the governing body of the movement? What were the advantages and disadvantages of this approach? And did that facilitate autonomous activity, or interfere with it?
B: One of the key functions that anarchists played in Occupy Oakland was in shaping the principles of the General Assembly, so they wouldn’t be as restrictive and narrowly democratic – you might say authoritarian – as in many other Occupy groups. The emphasis was on understanding the assembly as a forum for people to express ideas and find other people to collaborate with, and then go forward with those projects without waiting for permission.
T: In many Occupy groups, there was an idea that everything had to be approved by the general assembly. In Oakland, it was explicitly asserted that autonomous action should be coordinated outside it. Certain people were never happy about this, but that was the understanding from day one.
P: I don’t think that support for autonomous actions was ever formally agreed on. It was just something many people asserted at the beginning. There were a few things like that that were said early on and just stuck. Another example was the refusal to let police into the encampment. There was never a vote on that.
T: That was understood from the beginning. Among the random people who showed up at first, in response to the initial call, the overwhelming sentiment was, “This is Oakland, and no police are allowed at this occupation.”
B: When they tried to enter, people always surrounded them!
P: All those cases beg the question: was the General Assembly an anarchistic forum or a democratic forum? There was never a vote agreeing that the GA didn’t have the authority to forbid certain actions: that was already assumed by the people who called for it in the first place. Yes, there was voting, there were proposals about where to occupy and what to name the occupation, but all of that was framed in an anarchistic way, not a democratic way.
B: Thinking back, I can pick out several different forms of autonomous action that were essential to Occupy Oakland. When the assembly would call for a demonstration, for example, it was understood that there were no prescribed guidelines for what kind of tactics people were allowed to employ. So that was one way that the GA opened space for autonomous action. But it was also important that most of the day-to-day functioning of the camp was organized autonomously. There were committees, but they didn’t do or determine everything. For example, when the grass was getting too muddy, one day a pathway of pallets appeared connecting the entire camp. People just took pallets from stores in Oakland and built those pathways. The GA didn’t “open up space” for that to happen, it just happened.
P: In the standard political framework, there’s a sort of Cartesian dualism in the separation between the “mind” of the movement and its body. On the one side, there’s the political forum, like the GA in Occupy Oakland, and on the other side, there’s the beating heart of the movement – the kitchen, for example. The most amazing parts of Occupy were the vital, organic parts. The political forum was amazing too, but nothing compared to the lived experience of being together. There’s a tendency to focus on the political theater more than what actually happens. In Occupy Oakland, they were both intertwined, and both essential.
B: In some ways, you could say that anarchists had an advantage in that space because they felt comfortable taking initiatives without waiting for institutional go-ahead, whereas other people assumed that they needed the approval of this assembly. But there were conflicts in the General Assembly about what should be permitted, right?
B: It’s true, many people put a lot of energy into combatting authoritarian proposals in the assembly – there was a modified consensus in which we had to reach 90% for a proposal to pass. A lot of what anarchists were doing in the assembly was just making sure that nothing ever passed that abridged anyone’s autonomy. There were multiple attempts to pass a nonviolence resolution, for example. None of them ever passed. We spent a lot of time making sure none of those proposals passed. And that would get pretty procedural. Like, people were using phone trees to get each other out to certain assemblies: “You’ve gotta be here at 6:15 in time to speak.” Like, stacking the list of speakers against a certain proposal. “And make sure that you talk to the facilitator beforehand to get that other proposal off the list.”
P: You had to get people in the facilitation committees.
T: It was very…parliamentarian, you know?
B: In the 1930s, the Communist Party in the United States was famous for going to union halls and positioning one of their members in each corner. They had a name for it, even. At a certain point, in Occupy Oakland, it occurred to us that we were all sitting in the same place, and, “Well, maybe we need to spread out.” So sometimes we did things like that. At the end of the day, I thought that was important, even though it was a little weird. We put a tremendous amount of energy into trying to influence how things went in the General Assembly, in hopes that as a result, there would be fewer restrictions on activity.
B: That’s a little ironic, isn’t it? Relying on protocol to block proposals that would centralize the authority of the assembly? I can understand it as a way to engage in necessary public debate about what should be considered acceptable and where legitimacy should reside. But to the extent to which those conclusions have legitimacy in people’s minds because they received a stamp of approval from the assembly, you’re winning the battle by losing the war. In our Occupy group, we never agreed that the General Assembly would be the governing body of the movement. But once our general assembly was understood as a place where power was wielded, one of the ways that people competed for that power was by trying to determine the protocol by which decisions would be made. The other way was by trying to use the assembly to prescribe what sort of actions should be viewed as legitimate. In those debates, we often found ourselves grounding our arguments in established precedent, even when it was basically arbitrary. And precedent is also a kind of authority. For example, after our building occupation, when there were intense arguments about whether it was acceptable to occupy buildings, some of us cited the original Occupy Wall Street Call to Action in which they called for people to occupy buildings. We were arguing for autonomous actions by pointing to the founding documents of the Occupy movement, behaving as though autonomy was vouchsafed by a decision that had previously been made at another assembly, in a totally different part of the country.
T: I don’t think anyone was manipulating the General Assembly. We were just utilizing it. I mean, who set up the General Assembly? It wasn’t like it was someone else’s structure we were coopting. Anarchists created it, with a 90% threshold for consensus so that five people couldn’t block things. Anarchists were in the kitchen, anarchists were cleaning the bathroom, anarchists were running security, anarchists were organizing the marches, anarchists were facilitating the assemblies. And we all knew each other from years of experience, so we were better positioned to make things happen than anyone else. I’m the only person here who was on the facilitation committee. It wasn’t like people were breaking the rules or anything.
B: I didn’t mean there was manipulation in the sense of breaking the rules. I mean that we had an agenda and we went there to push that agenda through. Being able to stack the discussions, getting people there – that was important.
T: As for what you’re saying about the seating…All the liberals and pacifists would sit on the right side, and on the left side there was a smoking section right by 14thStreet. That was where all the anarchists hung out. Everyone would be wearing black there and smoking. People called it the black lung bloc. And that group just constantly blocked proposals, one after another. Sometimes that group would be 200 people, and they would just block anything that would potentially constrain action.
Here’s the question I have. When socialists engage in the same activity, we’re critical of it. Let’s say they’re there from the beginning of a social movement, and they set up a decision-making space that functions according to their values, and everyone comes to rely on it the way that everyone relied on the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland. When they succeed in centralizing their structure that way, they’re able to marginalize anyone who doesn’t accept their leadership and their restrictions, at least, unless we are able to delegitimize the structure itself. In that situation is our critique that the wrong group has achieved hegemony in that space, so it operates by the wrong values? In that case, our goal would be to see to it that people with the right values dictate what happens in the decision-making process. But that basically means trying to accomplish the same thing that the socialists are, and utilizing the same tactics. And if they outmaneuver us, then all the legitimacy invested in the space that we were competing for transfers to them. Or do we have a different idea of how those spaces should work, in the first place, so that it’s not a question of who is in control of them? In that case, we have to spread a totally different framework for how people should relate to those spaces, not just try to win the debates that take place in them.
P: To me, it came down to asserting different values, both in the assembly and outside it. That’s what justified our approach, even if it’s a slippery slope. There are many problems with that sort of vanguardism. But it served an anti-authoritarian purpose in protecting the movement as a whole from would-be leaders who’d concentrate too much power in their hands. Sure, there were moments where people would slip into leadership positions. But the idea was to construct a format that would allow different kinds of people to come together and interact without authoritarian elements being able to dominate.
T: Whether or not this argument is legitimate, whenever anarchists participate in democratic frameworks here, the justification has always been that it was to protect the social movement from authoritarians. Like, it’s OK to be sort of vanguardist in order to make sure vanguardists can’t take power.
B: But if socialists had been doing the same thing in the assembly, it’s true, we would have accused them of vanguardism, right? I thought a lot about this. There were some people who were throwing around accusations, like, “Y’all are being Leninists.”
T: “Anarcho-Leninists.” We heard that a lot.
B: Here’s the thing, though. If the ISO [International Socialist Organization] or the RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] or one of these parasitic groups had succeeded in gaining that much influence, they would have had really different intentions. For example, they seek ideological uniformity, whereas none of us necessarily share an ideology. That’s important, I think. Anarchists in Occupy Oakland never shared an ideology. They shared principles, values, and tactics, nothing more. If you had sat down in the black lung bloc and asked any of us about our opinions, we would all have very different answers as to how we understand the world.
When the RCP or the ISO seek to gain control over demonstrations or movements in Oakland, their goal is to imbue them with a specific ideology. Whereas what unites us is that we’re always asking how to push these movements further. I think those are very different things.
P: I want to consider this idea of legitimacy. The general assembly was a tool that we used in a specific context. What is the point of being anarchists if we’re not going to experiment with different tools? Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater every time some elements of a tool are not exactly to our liking? Being purists isn’t going to get us anywhere. This is one of the things that has gone fairly well in the Bay Area, historically: being willing to take risks and try things that might be a little out of the ordinary for anarchists. It’s a way of encountering people different from you, people who could be interested in these new ideas and ways of acting. Just because we use a tool doesn’t make it legitimate – it doesn’t mean saying it should have power over anyone. It’s just like we can use social media while still being critical of it. We have to engage with the rest of the world, even though it isn’t structured for people like us, or for people who want what we want. Of course, the real issue comes up when we’ve crossed that bridge, we get to the other side, and suddenly we see that we’re building a new world that has some of the same structures as the old one. And that’s where I see more serious questions come up.
I’m not trying to get anarchists to be purists, but some people once argued that you have to seize the apparatus of the state to dismantle it, too, and you see where that’s gotten us. If the General Assembly has the right to legitimize autonomous actions, it also has the right to forbid them. If we believe that autonomous actions are legitimate whether or not they are endorsed by the General Assembly, we can use the General Assembly to make that argument, but only by treating it as a public forum rather than a decision-making body.
T: To me, the best part of all the assemblies was the discussion. Sometimes when a proposal was brought up, thirty people or forty people would speak in the comment section before the vote. And people would give amazing speeches, saying things I’ve never heard anyone say before. We all said things that we’ve never said before, especially in front of a thousand people in front of City Hall. That was the coolest part. I’ve always thought, what would happen if we did all the speaking, and then skipped the vote? Like, not have any actual decision-making? I don’t know if that would draw as much participation.
OK, so let’s come at this from the opposite direction now, to see if we can make a case for treating the General Assembly as a governing body. The strongest argument I’ve heard in favor of the role of democratic process in Occupy is that the decision calling for the general strike of November 2ndonly had enough force to draw tens of thousands of people into the streets because it was made by consensus in a massive, publicly recognized decision-making organ.
T: That assembly took place just after the police raided the camp for the first time. There were 2,000 people there: all these people who had not participated before, who got involved because the police fractured [Iraq War veteran] Scott Olsen’s skull.
The General Assembly didn’t become such a contentious place until after that. That’s when you started to hear proposal after proposal about whether to restrict tactics.
But can we imagine a mobilization on the scale of the general strike coming about in any other way? You were talking about how Occupy Oakland functioned as a space for people to find each other and undertake projects autonomously, but would November 2nd have been such a success if it had just been an idea that people discussed, rather than a proposal that was officially endorsed by what was basically an executive political body?
T: Well, everyone was talking about a general strike from the beginning. After the occupation of the capitol building in Wisconsin in February 2011, you’d see the idea of a general strike popping up on banners, on signs, in discussions. After the police raid on the encampment in October, several different people independently conceived that idea. Regardless of who ended up bringing the proposal to the General Assembly that afternoon, it was already in the air. In fact, all the important decisions that were passed in the General Assembly were ideas that already had force. It wasn’t that the General Assembly gave them force – they already had it. But there was something about the General Assembly, where you had to go through the motions of bringing a proposal that had already been agreed upon so it could be understood as official. This is where the question of the General Assembly as a legitimate decision-making body comes in.
B: But it wasn’t just a matter of legitimizing things – it was also a question of coordinating them. For example, for the general strike, we had ten or fifteen different groups distributing fliers in different parts of the Bay Area.
T: It was also important that there were so many other assemblies. There was the General Assembly, but there were also all these spin-off assemblies. Were those different from the working groups?
T: They were working groups, but all of them were run as assemblies. And some of them got quite large at times. So you were saying that it was already determined before the General Assembly whether something could happen. Does that mean that the debates that really determined what would happen didn’t take place in the General Assembly, but elsewhere?
P: Sometimes. But most of it was that everyone was just talking politics the whole time, everywhere you went, in the encampment or on the street or at home. So we can understand the consensus process of the General Assembly as a sort of formal ceremony in which the participants established that they were already on the same page about something?
T: That’s the optimistic way of looking at it. There’s a darker side, which is that even if we all agreed on something in the camp and in our day-to-day interactions, it still wouldn’t happen unless we went through this sort of parliamentary process to give it the official stamp of the Occupy General Assembly. That’s how I viewed the general strike: even if it was agreed beforehand, even if the decision had already been made by everyone, we still had to go through this formal performance or else it wouldn’t happen.
P: Maybe that’s why, towards the end of Occupy Oakland, the General Assembly became a formal body that just gave its stamp of approval in a totally meaningless, ineffectual way. People who hadn’t been involved in it would bring these proposals, and literally all they were asking for was a stamp of approval. The structure had become totally disconnected from the social movement.
T: And they thought that if they got the stamp of approval for their actions, that would mean that those actions would be as big as everything else had been, and everyone in Occupy Oakland would have to go to them. But that wasn’t how it worked at all. Things had to happen organically, they couldn’t be declared from the top down. But there was at least one situation later in which the General Assembly intervened and shut down one of the working groups, as if it had jurisdiction over it. I’m talking about when the media group was disbanded.
T: I think that was an important shift. That was the only time that the General Assembly stepped in and disbanded a group that had been operating autonomously. I stood by that, because the media group had put out a statement that was totally racist, based on a report that was proven to be false. I mean, I thought they should disband. And when the Assembly voted that they had to, they did.
B: And that’s a slippery slope. I agree, it’s good that they were disbanded. But it’s a dangerous path to start down. Because what happens when autonomous elements emerge that we don’t agree with? Do you use the assembly to control the movement? The conflict with the media working group is interesting to me because, basically, we’re talking about rival forms of representation here. If you were saying that the General Assembly functioned as a space where participants in Occupy Oakland could represent themselves to each other as sharing commitment to a project, and perhaps that was a necessary means of getting everyone on the same page, we can understand the media as serving a similar function. In many Occupy groups, there were conflicts about media representation – we used to joke about the provisional dictatorship of the media working group. Those groups had tremendous power because media is also a way of depicting us to ourselves and each other, in order to dictate what we agree on and believe in. Those portrayals shape what we expect from each other and what we consider ourselves to be capable of. And that’s precisely what the democratic process does: it represents us to ourselves.
S: That’s what I’m thinking about, listening to you all reflecting on this. The question is basically what gives people the feeling that they can do things? Even if many people didn’t consider the General Assembly to be a governing body, despite the phone trees and the efforts to stack the discussions, eventually, as things escalated, it became the center of everything, the unifying space, and we all shared this enormous belief in what it could accomplish on the basis of what we’d done together already. But the assembly was just this thing that we were giving our power to, just like every Democrat or American citizen gives their power to institutions. It was just our radicalized version of it. I think it’s possible that we could have built that shared belief in our power on something else, and that could have saved us from some of the problems that happened later. Deep in our psyches as Americans, we have this image of people gathered in a political assembly, making decisions. It’s one of our founding myths. We could recognize the General Assembly as a distorted version of something that was already familiar, something that already had power in our imaginations. And it wasn’t just us – all the liberal people who came into the movement after the raid brought those same associations with them, that same mythology, and many of them didn’t believe in autonomy or anything like that. Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing what we did, what Occupy Oakland did. The spirit behind it was amazing. But why did that spirit dissipate? Maybe because we based it in that representative structure. When the assembly becomes an institution that represents us to ourselves, when it represents what’s possible and what we’re capable of, it becomes dangerous. All the times that the assembly would put its stamp on something, and then nothing would happen, that chipped away our belief in ourselves as a force, which chipped away at our ability to act, and that became a degenerative feedback loop. The things that worked didn’t happen because they were endorsed by the assembly; they worked because we invested everything in them together. So yes, we should be open to new opportunities, new models, but we should always remember their limitations, and we should remember that their power comes from us. We should never let them make us lose faith in ourselves.
Direct Action in Slovenia
In 2011 occupation movements were seizing squares all over the world. In Spain, people came out to the streets in the movement later known as 15M; in the US, it was known as Occupy. In Slovenia, as in many other parts of Europe, the first occupation started out as a protest against financial capitalism on October 15, 2011. Consequently, in Ljubljana, the movement came to be known as 15O. The occupation of the square in front of the stock exchange lasted six months. This occupation brought out into the open all the divisions in society that are otherwise hidden. Poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, mental health problems, the misery of everyday life under capitalism – all of these became visible to everyone, so they could no longer be dismissed as a matter of personal failure. The 15O movement didn’t center only on the demand for real democracy; rather, it attacked financialization, capitalism, precarity, austerity, total institutions, and representational politics. No topic was too small; for many, the camp and the assemblies became platforms to discuss if not organize for every political activity in the city. Particularly in the first weeks of the occupation, the camp was just one of many playful direct actions taking place all around the city. Tired of being talked at about what ought to be done by people who didn’t take initiative themselves, participants in the movement developed the concept of “democracy of direct action” (DDA). This basically meant that if you proposed something, you should also participate in it. In that sense, the values of DDA helped to foster autonomous action rather than centralizing democratic decision-making processes in the assembly. As a result, the culture that developed in the movement was oriented toward action, mostly in the form of efforts to communicate with the general public through various kinds of performance.
DDA had disadvantages as well. As often happens in a variety of structures, it (unreflectively) favored those who were articulate enough to attract more people to their initiatives. The multiplicity of actions carried out by a relatively small number of participants in the movement also meant that energy was widely dispersed, efforts often weren’t interlinked, and overextended comrades often struggled with burnout. Along with the distribution of political projects among a variety of working groups, DDA helped to create several different sites of decision-making; yet it didn’t generate a space of encounter in which people came together for mutual learning to create a meaningful force beyond direct democracy.
The daily assemblies became focused on camp issues, and there were fewer and fewer participants, while the monthly assemblies focused more on the political content of the movement. Those who were involved in the working groups but not sleeping in the camp eventually felt alienated by it. In the end, 15O ended in exhaustion and frustration. Many were driven into isolation and depression.
However, 15O taught us several important lessons. First, despite all the talk about direct democracy as a positive aspect of the Occupy movements, some participants in 15O concluded from firsthand experience that the concentration of legitimacy in a single site of decision-making was not productive. Did it make sense to understand what was happening in the occupation in front of the stock exchange as a directly democratic movement, when all the groundbreaking and exciting things developed outside of consensus-based democratic procedures? Perhaps if we had made the question of how to promote decentralized action central to our thinking, we could have avoided all the problems that resulted from centralizing the assembly. If we hadn’t informally institutionalized the assemblies, taking them for granted as the foundation of the movement, maybe we would have been able recognize the moments when we had the potential to make a big impact, and, later, to realize that we’d been successfully marginalized. Perhaps we would have been more capable of asking ourselves which tactics were advancing our agendas, and which ones were just draining us.
When it became clear that certain organized groups within the uprising were trying to determine and represent the movement’s demands in order to steer the movement in a centralized and predictable direction, other participants introduced assemblies as a tool to prevent centralization and unification, rather than as a method for being “directly democratic.” By gathering many different participants into one place, the assembly created an infrastructure in which every attempt to establish hierarchies would be visible to everyone and therefore questioned and rejected. From the beginning, the “Uprising Open Assembly” was positioned as only one of several different ways of coordinating, communicating, and building common power. The aim was to create a space of convergence and encounter, but never to let it become the sole decision-making space for the uprising as a whole. This was a place for people who wanted to do similar things to find each other, and to discuss problematic occurrences – for instance, it was the platform in which people attacked nationalism. One of the biggest achievements of those assemblies was that they served to communicate radical approaches to people who weren’t yet using them. The value of a diversity of tactics gained recognition in the assemblies; as a result of the discussions, many participants committed themselves to solidarity with all forms of protest. During the first few protests, some people had actively turned over demonstrators dressed in black to the police; towards the end of the uprising, when a few protesters were arrested, hundreds of people ran to the police station and blocked it until they were released.
Although the uprising maintained its intensity for half a year, only a few assemblies took place in Ljubljana during that period. Based on our negative experiences in the two preceding movements, we felt that if the assembly was to be a tool for the movement rather than an end in itself, it was important to know when to drop it. When fewer people were showing up on the streets, it became obvious that we needed to move on, not to try to recreate a situation that had already passed. At the point when the assemblies could have become just a space of nostalgic behavior, we refused to call for another; instead, we started thinking about where a new point of conflict might emerge, and how to organize around it.
Maribor had a different experience. Neighborhood assemblies covering roughly half of the city were still happening there in 2016, over three years after the end of uprising. These mostly focused on self-organizing daily life in various neighborhoods. Some speculate that the assemblies continued in Maribor but not in Ljubljana because there was a greater need for practical self-organization in a city laid waste by de-industrialization. Others have argued that the assemblies have continued in Maribor because one of the groups there made it a priority to maintain them as their primary project. The open question here is whether such assemblies can produce radical content, or is it enough that they are using a supposedly radical form? What if the people participating in the neighborhood assemblies use them to pursue reactionary goals? Does it make sense to promote radical values along with the tactic of assembly? Is it enough to open up that space?
In the uprising, despite going against and beyond the concepts of direct democracy in our practices, we were still using that term to describe many of our actions. This became a problem – not so much in the assemblies themselves, but in connection with other outcomes of the uprising. While it seemed that anarchists and anti-authoritarian ideas were at the forefront of the diverse actions on the ground, the representation of the uprising to the public fell to people who later formed a political party along the lines of Syriza, promising more direct democracy in the parliament and a productive relationship with social movements. Would they have been able to pull this off if we hadn’t helped promote the language of direct democracy?
When the uprising was dying, people wondered how to transmit the connections we’d built in the streets into our everyday lives. In one of the assemblies in Ljubljana, people formed a working group to organize in the neighborhoods, hoping to radicalize people there by setting up a structure in which people could self-organize. We never wanted to be the professional organizers of the resistance, so we only organized in the neighborhoods where we lived; likewise, we intended to rotate roles as much as possible. During the peak of the uprising, when the frequency of actions was so overwhelming that it was hard to keep track of them all, it had been easy enough to utilize the assembly as a tool without it becoming an end in itself. This grew more difficult when there was no one left on the streets and the assemblies became the only form of action in the neighborhoods. Despite good turnouts at the neighborhood assemblies, we soon realized that people were relying on us to organize and facilitate the meetings. All of the working groups wanted us to be involved, to such an extent that we felt that it was no longer a self-organized process. We realized that it was better not to have assemblies at all than to have them organized by a few. We didn’t want to accept a position of authority in this way.
For the city government, however, this was not an obstacle. When we heard that a neighborhood where we were not organizing had also started to hold assemblies, at first we thought that we were finally seeing authentic self-organization. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an intervention orchestrated by the city government through an NGO. They were financing people to work on the project of “self-organization.” The city government had coopted the framework of direct democracy, using it as a tool to neutralize any potential for dissent that might emerge from that neighborhood.
We still need to create opportunities to engage in open discussion and realize our full potential through our intersections with one another, and the assembly will probably continue to play a part in this process. But we may have to approach it differently, not as a tool of direct democracy but rather as a platform for connecting and coordinating autonomous actions and groups. In 2016, we saw an example of this in the Anti-Racist Front, a space for individuals and groups active in migrant struggles.
This is our conclusion coming out of several years of experimentation with direct democracy in Slovenia: we are tentatively retaining the forms, but we need to ditch the discourse.
In February 2014, two decades after the war that left Bosnia devastated and divided into three ethnic regions, the country erupted in flames again. This time, it wasn’t ethnic strife, but the rage of people uniting against politicians. For years, these politicians had stirred up ethnic divisions to distract the people while systematically looting the country. The result was intense poverty: unemployment was at 44% in 2014, and up to 60% among the young.
People flooded into the streets. Beating back the police, they burned the parliament and municipal buildings. In the turmoil of the protests, panicking politicians stole money from the national treasury and prepared to flee the country. In Mostar, a city divided between Muslims and Catholics, several politicians sent their families into Croatia through the nearby border. Protests under the slogans “Freedom is my nation” and “Let’s fire all the politicians” drew crowds in 33 cities. People gathered to experiment with direct democracy in assemblies (dubbed plenums) of up to a thousand, something that hadn’t been seen on such a scale in any ex-Yugoslavian country since the last Balkan wars. Outside Bosnia, partisans of direct democracy expressed considerable enthusiasm about what some called the Bosnian Spring.
There were many inspiring things about the 2014 uprising: the rejection of nationalism and representative democracy, the visibility of women protesting in a largely patriarchal society, the focus on social and economic struggles rather than ethnic hatred. Many people from all sectors of society were radicalized through the protests. However, the uprising abated just as the plenums were getting off the ground. At the time, many saw the plenums as the next step after the riots: once the police had been defeated and the politicians put on the defensive, it was time for people to get together and figure out what they wanted instead. Yet a few months later, the government had reasserted control, the plenums had lost all their leverage, and it was back to business as usual.
What defeated the uprising? Was it repression in the streets, or pacification in the plenums? Was it the division between riot and plenum? Or would it have died anyway?
At the beginning, the plenums were an organic expression of the struggle on the streets. Like the protests, they drew people who had never participated in such struggles before. Some people didn’t feel comfortable in the clashes, yet wanted to speak out about their anger or to articulate their desires for the future. They came together with demonstrators to form directly democratic assemblies: the plenums, which served many as a kind of collective therapy. They offered a common space in which people could be heard – for the first time in their lives, they felt their opinions mattered. They spoke about the war, about post-traumatic stress, about their living conditions, about their hatred of the system that had humiliated them to such an extent that they no longer felt like human beings. “Struggle gave us our dignity back,” many people said.
The procedures of the plenums were intended to keep power horizontal: roles rotated between participants, speakers were limited to a few minutes each, the facilitation was intended to foster inclusiveness and egalitarianism. In some cases, this served to keep the plenums a diverse space. Elsewhere, those who had more formal education were more comfortable in the discussions, as they were used to articulating themselves in this kind of public discourse; in some of the plenums, influence accrued in the hands of intellectuals like Asim Mujkić, a professor of political science who repeatedly represented the Sarajevo plenum in the media. Meanwhile, some people who had participated in the demonstrations didn’t come to the plenums; others came at first, then stopped coming. Some apparently trusted the plenums to represent their needs, whether they attended or not. Others likely resented the idea that anyone was speaking in their name.
Just as attendance at the plenums was dying down, the police were quietly reestablishing control of the streets. The city governments set back up in smaller offices outside the burned buildings. I could understand why people who’d just burned down the headquarters of the government would be hesitant to show up to public meetings. Indeed, not long after everything died down, the police began doling out terrorism charges. At the same time, what kind of sense does it make to burn down the offices of the government, and then present petitions to them?
The plenum facilitators and the most active organizers of working groups, who’d initiated their efforts in an honest attempt to spread the struggle into other spheres of life, found themselves in a position of de factoauthority. They were the ones setting the agenda and determining the course of discussions; they became the names and faces of the uprising. It was up to them, it seemed, to identify, express, and prioritize the demands that had driven people to rise up. Most of these organizers never wanted that kind of power, but they wanted the uprising to succeed in changing Bosnian society, and they believed that the plenums were essential to this. Most of the facilitators were committed to the principles of direct democracy. They believed that adhering to directly democratic procedures in the assemblies would stave off power imbalances and bureaucracy. But already, in this hope, a subtle shift had taken place: rather than vesting legitimacy in the needs and desires of the participants in the uprising, they were beginning to vest it in the plenums as institutions. Instead of serving as one tool among many with which to solve problems and meet needs, the plenums were becoming an end unto themselves.
As the demonstrations came to an end, the plenums ceased serving as a tool to reinforce the actions people took in the streets. More and more, they took on the role of a traditional protest organization, a sort of watchdog monitoring the government. Only without teeth. “We didn’t mean to end up in that situation,” said one of the former facilitators of the Sarajevo plenums. “We wanted to help, but not to have so much control over the process. It wasn’t clear to us at the time that it was happening that way.”
The riots of spring 2014 gave Bosnian politicians a scare for the first time in many years. As soon as they felt safe again, they retaliated on several fronts. Hoping to discredit protesters in the media, they compared burning the parliament in Sarajevo to Serbian aggression during the siege; this set the stage for them to press terrorism charges later. At the same time, they attempted to channel the movement back into conventional politics, making it less radical, less unpredictable, and less uncontrollable. Unfortunately, the plenums turned out to be conducive to this effort.
The Bosnian uprising gave voice to thousands of individual desires, ideas, and needs. But rather than connecting these in a common language of struggle that could preserve what was unique in each while creating a platform for people to act in concert, the consensus-building process of the plenums served to reduce this diversity of voices to a few basic demands. In an attempt to strengthen the leverage of the plenums, the plenums of various cities made contact and undertook to formulate a list of common demands. Working groups that consisted of fewer and fewer people worked through thousands of demands, joining some together, interpreting and adjusting others, and discarding some altogether. It took them until April 9th, two months after the riots, to present the common demands of all the plenums to the government at a symbolic protest in Sarajevo. They received no response. By the time the plenums had reduced everyone’s rage to a few demands, the government didn’t need to care anymore. This was the last nail in the coffin of the uprising.
In Tuzla, where the uprising started, the riots had forced the prime minister of the canton to resign. The plenum then demanded that a non-affiliated provisional government be formed until the regular elections. They expected this government to report to the plenum every week. Indeed, they got a provisional government with a professor for prime minister, accompanied by a few ministers who hadn’t been much involved in politics before. Yet it soon turned out that not only were many of these new politicians connected to the established political parties, they were also involved in corruption, which had been one of the immediate causes of the uprising in the first place. It didn’t take long for the newly elected politicians to stop communicating with the plenum and its committees. There were new faces in the government, but the elite had preserved its power.
The second-to-last entry on plenumsa.org, the website of the Sarajevo plenum, is about responding to the floods that ravaged Bosnia in May 2014. Self-organized relief efforts by the participants of plenums were essential to helping many people to weather this disaster, while the government did precious little to help. Yet after that, these sites of self-organization were abandoned. The following October, the elections brought one of the conservative parties back to power in Tuzla – the party rumored to have been pulling the strings of the provisional government all along.
And the leader of this new government? A former minister of the interior, who had been in charge of the police.
Over the past few years, there have been several movements in Bosnia, each of them going a bit further than the last. Each of these movements has brought new people into the streets and then subsided, but the question is what happens next. Do these people continue to develop their capacity to act autonomously, building strength from uprising to uprising? Or do they end up joining the ranks of the political parties? Basing social struggles on the demand for more democracy, whether representative or direct, is especially seductive in Bosnia, where people feel that the Dayton Agreement that concluded the war in 1995 paralyzed the country by enforcing divisions along ethnic lines throughout the administration and daily life. Many people in Bosnia think that the solution to all their problems would be to create a functional, unified state no longer divided according to the Dayton treaty, incorporating everyone from the three “nations” as fellow citizens. They look approvingly to the countries of northern and western Europe as a model for their own. Even many who consider themselves radicals understand direct democracy as a means to this end, rather than a way of restructuring society from the ground up. This may explain why it was such a short step from the direct democracy of the plenums back to the (barely) representative democracy of the government. When we legitimize our struggles by means of the rhetoric of democracy, it opens the door for the partisans of the status quo to justify the return to normal on the same grounds. Order must be restored so there can be proper elections!
In fact, the same unemployment, poverty, and ethnic strife that have inflicted so much suffering in Bosnia are spreading all around Europe, from Greece to Finland. Modernizing the government and purging it of “corruption” isn’t enough to turn a country into a wealthy social democracy; in a profit-driven economy, there will never be enough wealth to go around. If we limit ourselves to attempting to reform governments, even if that means replacing them with networks of plenums intended to fulfill the same functions, we’ll never get to the root of the problem. What would it mean to look at the uprising and the plenums as steps towards a totally different social order, rather than a means to revitalize this one?
Perhaps if the plenums had served as spaces for coordinating ongoing action, they could have propelled the uprising further, organizing new attacks to keep the authorities at bay and generating new forms of life outside the capitalist economy. Once the discussions in the plenums became abstract, it was inevitable that regardless of the participants’ and facilitators’ intentions they would be reduced to delegating, to representing, to petitioning. As “direct” as the plenums aspired to be, they ended up treating the uprising as an expression of desires that had to be represented, not as a space where those desires could be fulfilled. Once the participants understood the uprising that way, it was only natural to address those desires to the government, the proper representational body, in the form of demands. Those demands could only strengthen the government, fatally weakening the plenums.
The Bosnian uprising of 2014 is just one example out of a long line of experiments with assemblies as a tool of revolt. It appears that the assembly cannot serve as a place for envisioning the future, then looking around for some other political body to institute it. That political body will always be the state, which has no need of the assembly except as a means of legitimizing itself. Likewise, the assembly must not become an institution with its own procedures that are regarded as legitimate in and of themselves – if it does, then at best, it will become the state. To play a part in liberation, the assembly has to be a tool via which power is exercised directly according to a different logic, a logic that doesn’t concentrate it, but disperses it, promoting the autonomy and freedom of the participants.
In ancient Rome, when the common people wanted to force the nobility to grant them more political rights, the whole plebian class would climb a hill and refuse to come down until their demands were granted. This was called secessio plebis: secession of the people. The world was smaller then and things were simpler. But the political model Rome developed has colonized the world, its boundaries expanding so far, there’s no hill left to climb. We have to secede in the heart of the empire, not to present demands to our rulers, but to seize back the resources they’ve taken from us, creating spaces beyond their control in which power flows according to a different logic. It’s a tall order. But if we can open a rift in the fabric of empire, surely countless others will pour through it alongside us.
As we were completing this book, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, the autocratic Turkish government thwarted a coup in which both sides claimed to be defending democracy, a reactionary populist movement brought about the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and Donald Trump became president of the United States. In all of these cases, democratic rhetoric and practices legitimized the consolidation of repressive regimes and xenophobic nationalism, all of this shocking those who assume that democracy goes hand in hand with progressive politics. We’re entering an era in which the discourse of democracy, the mode of government under which Hitler came to power, will be used to advance more and more reactionary agendas.
It’s more pressing than ever to update the vocabulary with which we describe what we oppose in the prevailing order and what kind of world we want to live in. We humbly put this book at your disposal as one tool in that struggle.