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

Kevin objects to my focus on the etymology of “democracy” and brings up the post-left distancing from “the left” as something he finds similarly arbitrary.

This is not a symposium on the post-left and certainly that term of self-identification has been increasingly appropriated by reactionaries, but it’s important to note that the original post-left argument for anarchists to distance ourselves from “the left” was the opposite of some kind of etymological argument that appealed to relatively fixed underlying meanings. One doesn’t have to positively assert that “the left” is any single thing to urge anarchists to avoid identifying with it. Certainly there are bespoke definitions of “the left” out there that anarchism is reconcilable with if not synonymous with — the point however is that “the left” has no fixed center of mass; it’s an incredibly arbitrary and amorphous category that gets assigned to any manner of things. “The left” is defined solely by its associations — and for a significant fraction of the world those associations are bureaucracy, totalitarianism, centralism, collectivism, paternalism, and Luddism. Over a century of slaughter and repression, authoritarians have thoroughly poisoned the well of “the left” and there is no clear reason why we should continue fighting for the term.

This is in stark contrast with “anarchism” which contains an etymological center of mass: a very clear definition that it’s almost impossible for the term to shake. Certainly the associations of “anarchy” in the general public are quite negative, but the tension between the core etymology of “without rulership” and the general associations of “dog-eat-dog” constitutes an Orwellianism that has had a huge impact upon our world’s language and discourse. The definition of “anarchy” must be challenged if we are to have any hope of being able to speak of a world without rulership without people immediately transmuting that into a world of fractured rulership.

Anarchists have always played with words and definitions. Proudhon’s “anarchy is order” was at least as provocative as “the left is authoritarianism” or “democracy is the rule of all over all,” however there were reasons that Proudhon chose that linguistic fight. Clear etymology holds a different and often stronger kind of weight than looser political or social associations.

But even if you write off the etymology of democracy entirely (while clinging onto the etymology of anarchy), it’s generally good practice to assign our most basic words to the most basic concepts. “The rule of all over all” is a very basic concept — useful and distinct — whereas “face-to-face participation by equals in governance where a common decision is necessary, and the right to a say in matters affecting oneself” is a much more complex, arbitrary, and also indistinct concept. I also object to Kevin’s claim that such a definition has been true since the beginning — “democracy” has much more wildly varying connotations and definitions across time, some of which are quite negative.

I also want to reiterate yet again that “the right to a say in matters affecting oneself” is often a bad thing. There are plenty of matters that affect you that you should have no say over. Even the barest consideration should make this blindingly apparent. You shouldn’t get a say in whether scientific knowledge that will change the world is released by the discoverer. You shouldn’t get a say in whether your crush chooses to date someone else. Kevin wants to split things up between the shitty versions of “a say in matters affecting oneself” and the more positive versions, but my whole point is that I think that distinction is a hard one to make without the clear underlying conceptual distinction of rulership versus the absence of rulership. I think the value of “anarchy” helps us navigate that complex boundary, whereas stitching in that boundary on top of the labored, complicated definition of democracy Kevin gave only makes the term more arbitrary.

Kevin optimistically claims that my call for “an unterrified attitude about dissolution and reformation” is what anarchists have long meant by democracy, but this flies utterly in the face of my near two decades of experience as an activist and organizer. Almost no anarchist project or organization I’ve ever been a part of has had anything but absolute terror and repulsion towards the prospect of dissolution. Almost every organization or group longs to perpetuate itself, even those ostensibly post-leftist projects often worship a singular notion of the project or group above a responsive attention to the agency of the individuals involved.

I generally run with mainstream insurrectionary anarchists who consider the sort of majoritarianism found with, say, the IWW to be horrifying and embarrassing, and yet while they use consensus instead, they still almost without exception fall into the same static ruts.

Would that Occupy had truly been “a stigmergic support platform, or toolkit, which could be used in a permissionless manner by the wide variety of nodes participating in it.” That’s the lovely promise of anarchist notions of consensus! But it’s a promise repeatedly betrayed and murdered by the misaligned values propagated by “democracy”.


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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