Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world has cringed as US voters struggled to identify the second worst of all possible evils. As anarchists who believe in bona fide self-determination, we have critiqued and mobilized against the reduction of freedom to electoral politics in every Presidential race since 1996. This time, it just seemed redundant.
But the 2016 election is practically over. What’s coming next is worse.
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What harm could possibly come of using the discourse of democracy to describe the object of our movements for liberation? We can answer this question with a fable drawn from history: the story of the uprising that took place in Paris in June 1848.
In addition, to commemorate the June 1848 uprising, 168 years ago this week, we’ve prepared a biography of one of its many colorful participants, including the first translation into English of the only surviving account from the proletarian side of the barricades.
Like most political words, democracy is an “essentially contested” concept—its meaning is itself a political battleground. What political ideologies do, as mass patterns of political expression, is to “de-contest” or fix the meaning of such concepts and place them in particular relationships. The term “equality,” for example, can mean equal access to advantage (liberalism), equal responsibility to the national community (fascism), or equal power in a classless society (anarchism). On such a reading, there is no way objectively to determine the meaning of such concepts—all that exists are distinct usages, each of them regularly grouped with other concepts in one or another ideological formation.
I would therefore like to suspend the discussion of the appropriate conceptual understanding of democracy, and instead ask about the strategic choice to employ the term. Is it worthwhile for anarchists to de-contest “democracy” in ways that point towards statelessness and non-domination? Two arguments follow. The first is that anarchist invocations of democracy are a relatively new and distinctly American phenomenon. The second is that the invocation is problematic, because its rhetorical structure and audience targeting almost inevitably end up appealing to patriotic sentiments and national origin myths.
In the latest installment in our series exploring the anarchist critique of democracy, guest author Paul Z. Simons offers us a meditation on revolutionary forms of organization. Drawing on his experiences in Rojava in 2015, he contrasts conventional democratic practices with what he has seen of democratic confederalism and evaluates the federation of communes as a model for North American anarchists. At a time when the ruling order has been discredited but there are very few proposals for how else to shape our lives, Simons suggests some much-needed points of departure.
On April 23, 2016, hundreds of people gathered to oppose a rally called by the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain Park, Georgia. This convergence brought together a wide range of groups committed to shutting down the KKK. The crowd circumvented several blockades consisting of hundreds of local officers, riot police, and state SWAT teams to reach the parking lot where the white supremacists were assembling.
This was just one of many events in the wave of black-led revolt since the eruption in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 following the murder of Mike Brown. To understand the context of what happened in Stone Mountain, we have to pan back across the struggles of the preceding years. In this report, we recount the demonstrations that led up to this one and offer a blow-by-blow account of the action for everyone who may have to mobilize in response to similar rallies in the years to come.
In the latest installment of our series exploring the role of democracy in the struggles of the past decade, we trace the Bosnian uprising of 2014 from its first fiery days though the massive directly democratic plenums that swept the country to its rapid collapse and the return of business as usual. Enthusiasts of direct democracy all around the world reported eagerly on the plenums when they were at their peak, but within three months they had died away. What can we learn from this brief explosion of popular assemblies? What was its relationship with the riots that opened up an opportunity for social change? Why was it possible for the government to reestablish order?
In winter 2012-13, a massive wave of protests swept Slovenia, a small country in the northern Balkans. It started in the second largest city, Maribor, a de-industrialized husk that was once the center of Slovenia’s vanished automobile industry. The corrupt mayor had installed speed-checking radar at every major crossroads, resulting in hundreds of already impoverished people being charged with penalties they could not afford to pay, for the profit of a private company. In a series of clandestine attacks and public demonstrations, people burned the speed-checking devices one by one, then gathered on the squares and streets to inform the mayor by means of Molotov cocktails, rocks, and everything else they could get hold of that he was no longer welcome in their town. In response to the initial police repression, solidarity protests spread around the country in a matter of a few days. They lasted for six months.
On one hand, these protests were a reaction to the disastrous effects of the transition from socialism to free market capitalism, which left many people poor and humiliated. On the other hand, from the beginning, they were clearly aimed against those who held institutional political power. This was the biggest self-organized struggle in Slovenia since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. It brought down the mayor of Maribor and the national government—but more importantly, it opened up a space in which it became possible to invent new forms of autonomous action and to question representative democracy.
The story goes that the very first gathering of Occupy Wall Street began as an old-fashioned top-down rally with speakers droning on—until a Greek student (and perhaps—an anarchist?) interrupted it and demanded that they hold a proper horizontal assembly instead. She and some of the youngsters 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, 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 a 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 encouraged participants to regard consensus as a set of principles rather than rules, both proponents and authoritarian opponents of consensus process persisted in treating it as a formal means of government—while anarchists who shared Graeber’s framework found themselves outside the consensus reality of their fellow Occupiers. The movement’s failure to reach consensus about the meaning of consensus itself culminated with ugly attacks in which Rebecca Solnit and Chris Hedges attempted to brand anarchist participants as violent thugs.
How did that play out in the hinterlands, where small-town Occupy groups took up the decision-making practices of Occupy Wall Street? The following narrative traces the tensions between democratic and autonomous organizational forms throughout the trajectory of one local occupation.
In summer 2011, tens of thousands of people came together in Syntagma Square in front of the Greek parliament in Athens to express a complete rejection of the government and experiment with direct democracy. At the high point of the protests, over a hundred thousand people clashed with the authorities. Years later, many of the people who flooded Syntagma have poured into the ranks of the ruling party, Syriza, or the fascist party Golden Dawn. In this reflective account, a Greek anarchist narrates the events of 2011 and the developments since then, illustrating the ways that one day’s steps towards liberation become the next day’s obstacles and drawing out the questions that anarchists will have to answer to open the way to freedom.