Comments on the Other Lead Essays
This piece is the sixteenth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.” It is written in reply to multiple essays, which can all be accessed here.

In “The Regime of Liberty,” Gabriel Amadej advocates the Proudhonian ideal – reflected in the dictum “property is liberty” – of some individual sphere of last resort where means of subsistence are secure from the will of the majority:

“Democracy disrupts this balance and places society under the unaccountable domain of community. An individual’s means of survival thus came to depend entirely on one’s reputation with one’s neighbours. It is, as Proudhon said, the rule of all by all, which includes every individual involved in that sum.

It is under this condition that Proudhon proclaimed that community, too, is theft. Yet never, in any of his works, did he declare that community is liberty. Despite the fact that, just as he famously declared that property is theft, he also declared property to be liberty. Community was just much a problem, an enigma, as property itself….

“Property is liberty” when labour controls its own product and individuals are sovereign over their means of survival. This is a counterbalance to the absolutist domain of community. If this dimension of property becomes a totalizing force, the regime of liberty suffers again.

We can say that pure democracy threatens to make the domain of community universal, while capitalism likewise threatens to make the domain of property universal. Under both regimes, liberty suffers. Anarchy is neither capitalism nor communism. It is self-government; the absolute sovereignty of the individual.

We should not desire a society where every good is bought and sold under the cash nexus. Neither should we desire a society where one’s access to resources is determined by one’s neighbour’s good will.

This dichotomy needs a resolution, and that resolution is Proudhonian mutualism….

Critical to the survival of anarchy is mutualism: the balance of property and community. The market cannot be free without the commons, and the commons cannot be free without the market.”

The commons, in my opinion, is itself an institution for synthesizing community with liberty. It is a sort of platform, outside the realm of state politics. Unconditional equal access rights to the commons amount to inalienable control over one’s livelihood.

It may be objected that one’s right of access to the commons depends on the goodwill of one’s neighbors. But by that standard, there is no form of possession or property right that does not depend on the willingness of neighbors to recognize and enforce. Any form of organization in an anarchist society ultimately assumes that a majority of the community are of good will and good faith, and willing to adhere to agreed-upon rules. In fact the philosophy of anarchism itself juxtaposes certain assumptions about human nature – the ability of human beings to organize society around peaceful agreement – against the Hobbesian assumption that a state is necessary to impose peace and order.

I think that what Gabriel wants to avoid is “politics” in the sense of one’s rights and livelihood being constantly imperiled by majoritarian politics. We can achieve this by substituting another kind of democracy – organized around the commons, and the transformation of the state into a networked platform – that amounts to the neutral and routinized “administration of things.” Such commons governance is arguably at least as automatic and apolitical as routinized enforcement of property claims in a court system.

In “Democracy, Anarchism, & Freedom,” Wayne Price argues that “anarchism is democracy without the state”; i.e., that “anarchism is the most extreme, radical, form of democracy”:

“I see both “democracy” and “anarchism” as requiring decision-making by the people, from the bottom-up, through cooperation, clashes of opinion, social experimentation, and group intelligence.  

But “democracy” means collective decision-making.  It does not apply to matters which are of individual or minority concern only, such as individual sexual orientation, religion, or artistic taste.  Free choice should rule here, whatever the majority thinks.”

And unlike bourgeois or capitalist democracy, those like Wayne who see anarchism as the ultimate in democracy advocate democratic control over the economy (“[f]or example, a federation of worker-run industries, consumer co-ops, and collective communes”).

He also notes that even professed “anti-democratic” anarchists nevertheless:

“…advocate “self-rule,” “self-governing,” and “self-management.” These terms are no different than “direct democracy” and “participatory democracy.”  

If everyone is involved in governing (participatory democracy), then there is no government—no special institution over society which rules people.  Anarchists are not against all social coordination, community decision-making, and protection of the people.  They are generally for some sort of association of workplace committees and neighborhood assemblies.  They are for the replacement of the police and military by an armed people (a democratic militia, so long as that is necessary).  This is the self-organization of the people—of the former working class and oppressed population, until the heritage of class divisions and oppression has been dissolved into a united population.”

So those of us who see anarchism as the ultimate in democracy, as I do, define “democracy” in terms of non-coercive governance – a value shared even by most anarchists who dislike the word “democracy” as such.

Wayne uses the example of a community decision on whether or not to build a road to examine the question of whether non-state democratic governance entails domination of some sort.

“Does this radical democracy still mean the coercion or domination of some people by others? Let us imagine an industrial-agricultural commune under anarchism.  Some member proposes that it build a new road.  People have differing opinions.  A decision will have to be made; either the road will be built or it won’t (this is coercion by reality, not by the police).  Suppose a majority of the assembly decides in favor of road-building.  A minority disagrees.  Perhaps it is outvoted (under majority rule).  Or perhaps it decides to “stand aside” so as not to “block consensus” (under a consensus system).  

Is the minority coerced?  Its members have participated fully in the community discussions which led up to the decision. They have been free to argue for their viewpoint.  They have been able to organize themselves (in a caucus or “party”) to fight against building the road.  In the end, the minority members retain full rights.  They may be in the majority on the next issue.  (Of course, dissatisfied members may leave the community and go elsewhere.  But other communities also have to decide whether to build roads.)  

The minority may be said to have been coerced on this road-building issue, but I do not see this situation as one of domination.  It is not like a white majority consistently dominating its African-American minority. In a state-less system of direct democracy, all participate in decision-making, even if all individuals are not always satisfied with the outcome.  In any case, the aim of anarchism is not to end absolutely all coercion, but to reduce coercion to the barest minimum possible.  Institutions of domination must be abolished and replaced by bottom-up democratic-libertarian organization.  But there will never be a perfect society.  This is why I began by defining “anarchism” as a society without the state, capitalism, or other institutions of domination.”

Now this contention that anarchism is about minimizing coercion, and not eliminating it altogether, is likely to be challenged by many anarchists. But if we break down the issues here, we may find that even what at first appears to be a minimal level of coercion may be a phantom.

A lot of it hinges, first of all, on the material effect of the majority decision on the minority, after the vote is taken. Is the road to be built on an existing right of way that is common property, or on a route that doesn’t encroach on someone’s existing possessions? Is it to be built with natural resources that are a democratically governed commons? Is the labor to be contributed by willing participants, with no conscription of labor from the unwilling or levies of food and other material means of support from the unwilling?

Second, what is the nature of the social unit making the decision, and what is the relationship of the majority and minority voters to it? As I noted in my own initial contribution to this symposium, when an indivisible asset or resource is being discussed, or a simple up-or-down decision that can’t be broken down into smaller parts, and when a unitary body is making the decision – when some decision is necessary, and it will of necessity affect everyone in an indivisible decision-making unit – the outcome is generally not regarded as coercive. For example, when the roommates sharing an apartment adhere to a majority decision on how to set the thermostat in the living room, the minority who consider the resulting temperature too cold or too hot have not been coerced.

So depending on the answers to all these questions, it is quite possible to address governance issues (like whether to build a road) by majority decision without anyone being subject to coercion.

The second question I raised above may have at least some bearing on the distinction Shawn Wilbur raises in his contribution, “Anarchy and Democracy: Examining the Divide,” between the realm of authority and the realm characterized by the anarchic principle. That is, whether a social unit can be governed democratically and still be characterized by “social relations free from hierarchy, claims of authority and the various types of exploitation that seem to inevitably arise from them” depends in large part on the nature of the social unit itself, and its members’ relationships with it.

If the members are viewed primarily as atomistic individuals in an amorphous, unstructured larger social body, in which any agreement between members of society is on an ad hoc, issue-by-issue basis, then a decision taken may be viewed as a coercive imposition on them. On the other hand if the members are viewed as members of a common enterprise, or going concern, with internal bylaws, things take on a different character. For example in a medieval European open-field village, in which the land is treated as a common unit and the village as a corporate body, the allocation of furlong strips between families on a year-to-year basis is not an act of coercion (as opposed to an action by the state against property held on a fee simple basis, in a system operating on Lockean assumptions). The question of what is “coercive” or “authoritarian” can only be answered by resorting to the question of what are the fundamental component social units of the society.

If social functions can be organized through some combination of commons governance within corporate bodies (for example land and natural resources), self-selected collectives or stigmergic networks, and market exchange, then we may have a state of affairs where “society” as such comes to bear on the individual only insofar as she is co-owner of a democratically-governed common resource, or some self-selected cooperative body, and in no case operates directly on her through any sort of claimed police power for initiating force. It is a virtually pure expression of “collective force” in which “relations remain strictly horizontal.”

And if the only institutional structure co-extensive with society as a whole, or overlapping with most of it, is something along the lines of Orsini’s and Bauwens’s Partner State – to recur to that concept once again – that functions as a support platform, coordinated by the various resource commons and voluntary associations that choose to participate in maintaining it, then it follows that its only relationship to the individual is mediated by the natural resource commons or voluntary collectivities to which she belongs.

I confess to finding myself generally at odds with William Gillis’s approach, in “The Abolition Of Rulership Or The Rule Of All Over All,” of argument by definition. His argument seems to hinge on a dogmatic assertion, based largely on etymology, that democracy “really means” majoritarian tyranny. From this it follows that anarchists who emphasize the liberatory strands within the historical composite of “democracy” are guilty of “orwellianism” or pandering.

I’ve long objected, for similar reasons (arbitrary argumentation from definition) to “post-Left anarchism.” It’s a circular argument that starts out by defining “Left” in terms of the most objectionable characteristics of the stereotypical Old Left – workerism, focus on organizational coordination and mass, etc. – and then defining anything out of it, like decentralist or anti-authoritarian strands of the Left, that’s inconsistent with that stereotype. So anything that doesn’t smack of vanguardism and trudging masses in overalls isn’t “really Left.”

This strikes me as being nearly as fruitless as the Bircher argument that the United States is “a republic not a democracy” based on dogmatic, essentialist definitions of “republic” and “democracy.”

Referring to other conceptions of democracy as “an uphill battle to redefine” it is begging the question. “Democracy” has connotated face-to-face participation by equals in governance where a common decision is necessary, and the right to a say in matters affecting oneself, since the beginning. Focusing on those aspects of the term in considering its relation to anarchy is not “redefining it.”

In fact I agree with William in celebrating liberatory technologies like weapons that shift the advantage to the defense, networked communications, and the emergence of a detente (like left-libertarian, possession-based property norms) from the mutual veto power of individuals. But for me, these things are the ultimate in genuine democracy. And the society I’ve described at various points, of an overlapping series of natural resource commons, self-selected stigmergic networks, voluntary production collectives, etc., horizontally cooperating to maintain a “Partner State” as a non-coercive mutual infrastructure, is the ultimate in William’s “consensus society… comprised of autonomous realms.” And the various opt-in affiliations in such a society are perfectly described by William’s “collectivity” that is “organic and ad hoc,” with “an unterrified attitude about dissolution and reformation.”

This, I think, is what many anarchists have long meant by “democracy,” and recognizing that as a legitimate sense of the term requires no “redefinition” nor violence to its meaning.

I also agree entirely with William’s caveat against fetishizing collective decisionmaking itself. There are indeed “many pragmatic contexts” that require it under some circumstances – mostly natural monopolies like sharing the same groundwater or other resource which must be commonly governed – I have always enthusiastically promoted stigmergic, permissionless organization wherever it is feasible, and celebrated technologies which facilitate stigmergic organization and reduce the need for institutional coordination. My current book project is a critique of Old Left organizational models that lionize large, hierarchical institutions and emphasize the need to get everybody on the same page to do anything.

I’ve also long objected to the mindset that equates meetings and slogan-shouting crowds with “activism”; this is basically a cargo cult approach that takes the incidents of activism as its essentials, without regard to their functional significance or their relevance to a given situation. My enthusiastic support for Occupy was based on the fact – for which it was uniformly criticized by the verticalist usual suspects – of not centrally formulating demands and appointing spokespersons. Occupy was so effective precisely because it was a stigmergic support platform, or toolkit, which could be used in a permissionless manner by the wide variety of nodes participating in it. It functioned in the same “bazaar” model as open-source software, the file-sharing movement, Wikipedia and Al Qaeda – any innovation developed by any node immediately became part of the entire network’s toolkit, available to be used by any other node or not entirely at its discretion.

Organizations built on this model have what strategist John Boyd called “short OODA loops”: they are able to assess feedback from the results of their own previous actions, act on it, assess the feedback from that, and so forth, many times faster than hierarchies that require consensus. The result is that they innovate with the speed of replicating yeast, and run circles around the dinosaur hierarchies they contend with.

As for the idea of “democracy as a say in the things that affect you,” I think it’s a distortion to frame it as a positive right to actions by others that benefit you (e.g. a date with your crush, your social group’s decision re snapchat, etc.). It’s far more charitable (and consistent with actual historic usage), in my opinion, to use it in a sense similar to William’s mutual veto power and resulting detente.

Regarding Graeber’s purported equation of democracy to the “rabble” or “mob,” I’m totally at a loss. I’ve read The Democracy Project, as well as a considerable amount of his other corpus that touch on the subject, and I can’t recall seeing anything remotely like this. To the extent that he discusses democracy as a historic phenomenon, it’s always in a concrete, situationally embedded context comparable to Kropotkin’s folkmotes and Colin Ward’s building societies, or Ostrom’s common pool resource governance – about as far as you can get from mass democracy.

Derek Wittorff, in “Democracy: Self-Government or Systemic Powerlessness?” likewise starts by arguing from a definition of democracy as majoritarianism, and proposing consensus in its stead. This strikes me as ironic, given that David Graeber treated consensus as his favored model of democracy throughout The Democracy Project, and William previously tarred Graeber with “mobocracy.”

I’m not going to address Derek’s definitional issues; to a large extent it would be revisiting ground I already covered. Suffice it to say I see consensus within self-selected nodes as very much a form of democracy.

What’s more interesting is that Derek mates consensus decision-making with a network-node model of federalism, with consensus taking place only at the smallest level at which agreement and collective action are actually necessary, and mostly within nodes which are self-selected collectives. I agree with this approach.

Nathan Goodman’s approach of democracy as openness, in “Anarchism as Radical Liberalism,” seems similar in spirit to mine. The Partner State approach of Orsini and Bauwens has also been described as “open source government.” The description Goodman quotes from Don Lavoie – “a kind of distributed intelligence, not representable by any single organization which may claim to act on society’s behalf” – also coincides closely with the Partner State model (at least as I have developed it in this forum).

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.

As an anarchist without adjectives, and therefore reticent about promoting any single organizational model as the schema for an anarchist society, I would take it a step beyond celebrating the stigmergic character or openness of markets in particular. There is an almost infinite variety of means by which individuals can constitute horizontal relationships within nodes, and nodes can constitute horizontal relationships in a larger society, and Nathan’s comments regarding openness apply to all of them as well as to markets.

My differences with Grayson English (“Demolish the Demos”) cover much of the same ground I’ve already covered above in critiquing William’s argument from definition, so I’ll limit myself to what’s unique to Grayson’s argument. Getting from Graeber’s treatment of “self-organization and self-governance” to the constitution of a demos or People – let alone “the annihilation of the individual in the collective” – seems to leave out a lot of intermediate steps, with no indication that Graeber himself had any intention of following that path.

In my reading, Graeber’s model of consensus democracy at the local level is fully compatible with Toni Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s “multitude,” which they directly oppose to unitary or monolithic conceptions like “the People,” “the masses,” or “the proletariat.” The defining characteristic of multitude is its internal heterogeneity, its status as a “legion” composed by a near infinite number of individuals and nodes horizontally related to each other. And Negri and Hardt (although Multitude predated the Occupy movement) explicitly pointed to stigmergic, networked movements like the post-Seattle movement as examples of the multitude.

Jessica Flanagan, in her lead essay, also takes an approach of arguing from definition; in her case, by defining democracy as the equal right of everyone in society “to determine how political acts of violence will be used and whether and when they and their compatriots will be coerced.”

But as I have already argued, “equal authority” set at a common value of zero, resulting in the kinds of mutual vetoes and detente that William describes, are fully compatible with the spirit of democracy.

Democracy, as such, does not at all necessarily entail a political “tyranny of the majority” through majority control over a coercive state. It can be expressed through self-governance in the wide range of self-constituted bodies and associations discussed above.

Jessica writes: “In ideal theory, collective decisions should be made in ways that minimize the domination of all people and promote openness and human freedom.” I fully agree with her that the need for collective decisions should be minimized, and relegated to those situations (like the governance of shared natural resources) where a single policy is required. The great bulk of social organization should be permissionless and opt-in. For me that maximizes the value of consent, which – as I stated in my lead essay – is the central value of democracy as I understand it.

Jessica goes on to express skepticism as to whether mechanisms for collective decision-making without domination are even possible. She considers markets as equally problematic with the state insofar as they require a social consensus on property conventions. In that regard I don’t think the dependence of property rights on consensus can ever be escaped, because there is no particular property rights regime that can be directly or self-evidently deduced from natural rights without the intermediation of custom, convention, and expediency.


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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