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

It seems to me as though there’s been two prevailing and conflicting ideas about democracy in this symposium. The first idea is that democracy is irreconcilable with anarchy in principle. The second idea is that democracy can — ironically because of practical concerns — be compatible with anarchy. I’ve made my own position clear.

What’s interesting enough about this division is how those who think that democracy and anarchy are very compatible also believe that consensus is the equivalent to democracy. I’ve heard this before, and I’m sure there’s a history to explain this, but the structural forms are quite different. That alone makes it a pressing and important definitional issue. Kevin Carson raised this definitional issue about my piece, but ultimately went on to agree with my “networked-mode of federalism” that involves consensus-based collectives forming each node. To me, it is a type of federalism that could be practiced by individualist anarchists, but also a federalism that isn’t (yet should be) commonly recognized by social anarchists who prefer the old 19th century delegate model which practices a sort of nested hierarchy. It’s what he proposed, with far more examples, in his initial essay “Democracy as a Necessary Anarchist Value”.

However, I simply cannot get behind David Graeber’s equivocation of consensus and democracy, or his treatment of democracy as this populist and metaphysical “base-line communism/egalitarianism” when there are so many examples of it being used as a concept to justify anything from Western military incursions in the Middle East, to liberal democratic States, or even direct democracy of the old left. It’s even a label slapped on “democratic republican” dictatorships in Africa, and the political process of “democratic centralism” in the old USSR. The concept can be traced back and hashed out to obviously refer to better systems of government, but by then it is too broad, abstract, and reified to really have anything to do with a 21st century radicalism.

Although William Gillis and I share a very similar narrative, I do commend his rather extreme application of freedom of association within a given collective. It’s a rather coherent application of individualism with a social mindset. The idea of maximizing fluidity within an association is very important to forming consensus, and is largely why I initially rejected majoritarianism as a decision-making process.

However, he considers my proposed model of “formal values-based consensus” to be “liberal.” I’ll agree, according to his criticism, that it is a more rigid than necessary for smaller groups. At the same time, it rules out the rigidity of structural hierarchy that I would think characterizes it as being “liberal.” He points to the rigidity of the model — the formal channels not allowing fluid communication and association between individuals and subgroups that are eventually supposed to form a larger consensus — but as I’ve stated I do believe there are collaborative networks that underlie the formal channels that ultimately limit the rigidity of the model. You’re surely allowed to talk to others about the operations of a collective outside of the formal meetings. And in regard to those meetings, while there is indeed an intersubjective commonality when it comes to freedom or agency, and spending anymore than needed on meetings is constraining, a “values-based” process is designed precisely to limit the time of the meetings by ensuring a clear understanding of procedure and goals.

In ultimatum, while anarchy and freedom are intimately related concepts, the principled basis of my criticism of democracy as an anarchist revolves around the problems of hierarchy, not rigidity per se. Eliminating the hierarchy of majoritarian democracy eliminates a vast amount of the rigidity that I’m concerned with. We want to maximize freedom, but not dream of some utopia of absolute freedom. My aim was not to value unanimity of an association over fluidity, or rather structure over agency, but I do want to hold unanimity as a value equal to fluidity. I don’t want people valuing persistency of collective decisionmaking over what that is supposed to accrue for every individual. If the scale is too great, and meetings do take up too much time, that again is really up to the individual to decide. There is no point in holding a value of scale above freedom unless we are talking about accumulating social capital. Either way, I’m not seeing any sort of coercion, or forced association, when we talk about this “formal consensus” model because it’s non-hierarchical. 

 


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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