Response to Goodman
This piece is the eleventh essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.” It is written in reply to this contribution by Nathan Goodman.

Nathan Goodman brings an interesting definition of “democracy” to the conversation — and one that I didn’t preemptively critique — openness. Seeking to bridge the oft-stated dichotomy of markets and democracy, Nathan cites Don Lavoie’s conception which essentially posits markets as the truest expression of democracy:

“In Lavoie’s framework, democracy is not something expressed through a state with a monopoly on the use of force, or through elections to decide what such a state will do. Instead, democracy occurs through open discourse, debate, contestation, and interaction among citizens. To borrow a concept from the Ostroms, democracy rightly understood is polycentric rather than monocentric. … If democracy is characterized by openness, then the ballot box is not the epitome of democracy. Instead, democracy is defined by those who, from the bottom up, contribute to an open society. People who film police and expose their crimes do this. Journalists who investigate powerful people, debate ideas, and keep the free press alive embody democracy.”

It’s worth underlining, of course, that Lavoie’s conception of “democracy” as reconcilable with markets obliges an expansion of our consideration from the thinnest economic reductionism, obliging a wider culture of liberty, openness, discourse, and engagement. Nathan is right to crow that this lines up perfectly with the position of “thick libertarianism,” first introduced by Charles Johnson. For too long, too many libertarians have insisted that liberation can be achieved through the narrowest certification of voluntary transactions, with everything else rendered superfluous to securing a libertarian society. Of course, sadly, most contemporary right-libertarians have dropped their self-proclaimed “thin libertarian” act and endorsed a wild array of supposed cultural preconditions for freedom: often supporting extreme authoritarianism as a means to institute such cultural conditions. This position is almost identical to Marxism’s pretenses of being a path to anarchy. These “libertarians” — who think that a stultifying reactionary culture of traditional authoritarianism is necessary for liberation — are now too busy marching with neo-Nazis in intimidation rallies to bother attempting to justify such twists.

I have to say though, I love this concept that Nathan cites of Lavoie’s. But it’s almost impossible for me to square such truly decentralized discussion with almost any common usage of “democracy,” even among radicals and anarchists.

Nathan distinguishes the “democracy” of open engagement he wants from the centralizations and power relations found in direct democracy, federated worker cooperatives, and council communism, which is all well and good. But how many proponents of democracy mean neither those things nor the absurd majoritarian totalitarianism found in statist discourse? The number appears to be Nathan and Don Lavoie alone, and maybe a few dozen Ostromite libertarians that might be receptive.

If most of society were to suddenly switch overnight to this definition of democracy, I’d happily give up my complaints that etymology  strongly suggests a “Rule Of All Over All,” but I doubt that’s going to happen. It seems weird to assume that those who presently support “democracy” in its current guises of majoritarianism and centralized collectivism would be open to switching their allegiance to openness. Part of the reason “democracy” has such widespread positive associations, I would argue, is that people often like the horrors that democracy presently refers to — not because there’s some inner lurking idealism of openness that is being mischanneled.

People like getting to vote on their neighbors’ lives. They like the sense of belonging and power that comes with participation in collective domination. There might be slight inclinations towards some aspects of the ideal of openness, but for the most part people are driven by a hunger for participatory tyranny. Scratch your local “grassroots” politician or democratic activist and you’ll find someone who’d be a busybody in any context. The causes they latch onto may sometimes be just and even heartfelt, but underneath remains an intense need to have a say in the lives of other people. Were the big evil they’re campaigning against removed, most of them would find new evils in the length of their neighbor’s lawn.

There are obviously certain cultural prerequisites for a libertarian or anarchist society. Empathy and compassion, a commitment to respecting autonomy, a libertine let-live attitude towards cultural mutation and miscegenation, and — yes — definitely an ideal of open engagement. We need to build and spread such norms and values if we’re ever to see liberation, but this also involves overthrowing many of the existing values that have led to and sustained statism. Democracy, I would argue, is one such poisonous tradition.

Perhaps many who pray to the god of democracy also share anarchist values, even bundling them in their minds with the negatives of democracy. But the negatives remain and must be rooted out. Identifying democracy not as a positive that needs purification but as a creeping negative that needs distinguishing appears to me to be the best way to do that.


Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at cory.massimino@c4ss.org.

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