As a working definition of democracy, I think about the best we can do is this description of anarchy in Pyotr Kropotkin’s 1911 Britannica article on anarchism — the attainment of harmony:
“…not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free arrangements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”
To elaborate on this working definition, I would add that a democracy, understood in this way, attempts to maximize the agency of individual people, and their degree of perceived control over the decisions that affect their daily lives. In keeping with the principle of equal liberty, democracy seeks to maximize the individual’s control over the forces shaping her life, to the extent that such a control is compatible with a like degree of control by others over their own lives.
This means a social decision-making process that is permissionless, or stigmergic, insofar as this is possible. The ultimate in democracy, in the sense of a positive-sum maximization of individual agency and control over their lives to the greatest extent possible short of anyone’s agency infringing on anyone else’s, is universal consent of the governed. And in this sense, a permissionless, stigmergic organization, in which all individual activity is self-chosen, is the ultimate in democracy.
In some areas, however, agreement on a common policy for a unitary social body may be necessary. In this case, the next best thing to unanimous consent is that all individuals involved in the decision encounter each other as equals, and seek the closest approximation possible to a unanimous consensus, with no one in a position to use force to impose their will on anyone else.
Viewing democracy in these terms will rid us of some negative habits that usually creep in when considering democracy in conventional terms. For example, it’s common for conventional treatments of democracy to frame it as some kind of institution created by especially gifted people at a few outstanding points in history.
But in reality “democracy” isn’t something that was invented by a bunch of oversized brains in the Athenian agora, or Philadelphia in 1787. It’s something that ordinary people have been doing everywhere throughout history, and long before the beginning of recorded history, whenever they met one another as equals to solve a common problem through discussion and cooperation. In anthropologist David Graeber’s words:
“In this sense democracy is as old as history, as human intelligence itself. No one could possibly own it. I suppose…one could argue it emerged the moment hominids ceased merely trying to bully one another and developed the communication skills to work out a common problem collectively. But such speculation is idle; the point is that democratic assemblies can be attested in all times and places, from Balinese seka to Bolivian ayllu, employing an endless variety of formal procedures, and will always crop up wherever a large group of people sat down together to make a collective decision on the principle that all taking part should have an equal say.1
We are usually told that democracy originated in ancient Athens—like science, or philosophy, it was a Greek invention. It’s never entirely clear what this is supposed to mean. Are we supposed to believe that before the Athenians, it never really occurred to anyone, anywhere, to gather all the members of their community in order to make joint decisions in a way that gave everyone equal say? That would be ridiculous. Clearly there have been plenty of egalitarian societies in history— many far more egalitarian than Athens, many that must have existed before 500 BCE—and obviously, they must have had some kind of procedure for coming to decisions for matters of collective importance. Yet somehow, it is always assumed that these procedures, whatever they might have been, could not have been, properly speaking, “democratic.”2
The real reason for the unwillingness of most scholars to see a Sulawezi or Tallensi village council as “democratic”—well, aside from simple racist reluctance to admit anyone Westerners slaughtered with such relative impunity was quite on the level of Pericles—is that they do not vote. Now, admittedly, this is an interesting fact. Why not? If we accept the idea that a show of hands, or having everyone who supports a proposition stand on one side of the plaza and everyone against stand on the other, are not really such incredibly sophisticated ideas that they never would have occurred to anyone until some ancient genius “invented” them, then why are they so rarely employed? Again, we seem to have an example of explicit rejection. Over and over, across the world, from Australia to Siberia, egalitarian communities have preferred some variation on consensus process. Why?
The explanation I would propose is this; it is much easier, in a face-to-face community, to figure out what most members of that community want to do, than to figure out how to convince those who do not to go along with it. Consensus decision-making is typical of societies where there would be no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision, either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making. If there is no way to compel those who find a majority decision distasteful to go along with it, then the last thing one would want to do is to hold a vote: a public contest which someone will be seen to lose. Voting would be the most likely means to guarantee humiliations, resentments, hatreds, and in the end, the destruction of communities. What is seen as an elaborate and difficult process of finding consensus is, in fact, a long process of making sure no one walks away feeling that their views have been totally ignored.
Majority democracy, we might say, can only emerge when two factors coincide:
- A feeling that people should have equal say in making group decisions, and
- A coercive apparatus capable of enforcing those decisions.
For most of human history, it has been extremely unusual to have both at the same time. Where egalitarian societies exist, it is also usually considered wrong to impose systematic coercion. Where a machinery of coercion did exist, it did not even occur to those wielding it that they were enforcing any sort of popular will.3
Another harmful tendency, especially prevalent on the libertarian right, is to take the democratic pretensions of the modern state at face value, and accordingly frame “democracy” in terms of reactionary cliches like “tyranny of the majority,” “mob rule,” and so forth. “Two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner” is a particularly egregious example.
Formally “democratic” states and “representative democracies” are not, in fact, democratic or representative. To the extent that popular majorities exert any control over states at all, it is largely as a check imposed by popular pressure from the outside to limit or counteract the normal class tendencies of the state.
The idea of a limited, laissez-faire state being succeeded by a mass-democratic state, through which the popular majority looted the public treasury and the property of the rich to fund redistributive programs, is utter nonsense. State robbery and looting–on behalf of the propertied classes–has been integral to capitalism since its origins in the early modern era. And 20th century social welfare programs have been passed largely at the instigation of the propertied classes’ representatives themselves, in order to redistribute downward a small fraction–just enough to stave off depression or revolution–of what the state had previously distributed upward to those same propertied classes. And insofar as social welfare programs have actually been, in part, a response to mass pressure, they have amounted at most to a partial offset of the larger-scale state intervention on behalf of the rich.
And finally, to the extent that government can be pushed to become more democratic in nature, particularly at the local level, to that same extent it is also pushed to become less state-like, as in Michel Bauwens’s Partner State model.4 To that extent, the governance functions of government will be characterized the old Saint-Simonian cliche of transition from “legislation over human beings to administration of things,” and take on the character of a support platform. Whether this can be done is debatable, although I think it is worth trying.
At the very least the new citizen coalitions, offshoots of the M15 movement, that have taken over local governments in Spain like Barcelona and Madrid, and attempted to implement a commons-based political agenda, are pushing things in the right direction. How far they can take it remains to be seen.
But the idea that anything remotely resembling genuine democracy can be achieved through the government of a nation-state of tens or hundreds of millions of people is beyond the bounds of credulity. At best, the nation-state will be a class state whose aid to ruling class rent extraction is limited and partially offset by mass pressure.
There is some hope, in my opinion, that the nation-state may be be bypassed by horizontal linkages between commons-based local polities, and that such confederalism can serve as a platform for resistance to the nation-state: especially as traditional nation-states fall under the sway of authoritarian political movements.
Parallel to this cluster of values centered on unanimous consent and permissionlessness is another value: equal right of access to things which are rightfully governed as a commons, like land and natural resources, aquifers, culture, and information. To the extent that such common goods are replacing large quantities of accumulated physical capital as the main productive forces in society, commons governance means equal access to the commons as a productive asset by all members of society, and the ability to meet a growing share of subsistence needs outside the capitalist wage system.
Going back to our discussion above of the Partner State and commons-based local political agendas, I would suggest a concrete program based on:
- the transfer of all publicly owned lands, including municipal property, into perpetual community land trusts (and most municipalities have enormous real estate holdings as investments against future revenue shortfalls, not even counting properties seized for delinquent taxes);
- the provision of cheap, high-speed Internet using the spare capacity of local government and public utilities’ fibre-optic infrastructure;
- the exclusive use of free and open-source software by all local government agencies and public universities, the mandatory open-sourcing of all research funded by local governments or public universities, and the reliance as much as possible on free and open-source textbooks and curricula by public schools;
- the organization of utilities and other public services as stakeholder cooperatives directly responsible to their users; and
- municipal codes as friendly as possible to a genuine sharing economy based on p2p, user-governed alternatives to Uber and Airbnb, coupled with removal of regulatory barriers to micro-enterprises based on spare capacity of ordinary household goods (home bakeries, sewing shops, daycare centers, etc.).
Taken together, all of these things would amount cumulatively to the kernel of a commons-based economy providing independent access to a major share of people’s livelihoods on a post-scarcity basis.
So ultimately the concept of democracy makes sense as something that ordinary people have actually done, and continue to do when they can create spaces of possibility in which they can act as equals to solve their common problems. The vast range of institutions that people have created for themselves throughout history, when able to carve out such free spaces outside the authority of states and ruling classes–folkmotes, governance bodies for natural resource commons, guilds, friendly societies and bodies for mutual aid, radical unions, networks for commons-based peer production–are all examples of democracy.
If we understand democracy in this way, it is not only indispensable to anarchy: it is anarchy.
(1) David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), p. 184.
(2) Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004), p. 87.
(3) Ibid., pp. 88-89.
(4) “Partner State,” P2P Foundation Wiki <http://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Partner_State> (accessed April 26, 2017).
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