Having already written three essays on the topic of anarchism’s relation to democracy, I will only present a few comments. These are generally in response to the interesting remarks of other writers in this series.
I do not think that any of the other writers have answered my challenge about how an agro-industrial commune would decide whether or not to build a road. If not by democracy, then how? They tend to write as if people had a choice about whether or not to make collective decisions (especially true of William Gillis). But we live in a world of interconnected industries and technologies, in small and large communities. Anarchists wish to decentralize those communities and technologies and to redevelop them for human scale and the self-management of the working people. But we cannot hope for a totally non-centralized, individualized, society, each on his or her own. It wouldn’t work. This means that there must be some sort of collective, cooperative, decisionmaking mechanisms. (Of course, as I said, there are all sorts of issues which are outside of collective decision-making: choice of religion, sexual practices, taste in art, etc. These are the decisions of individuals or small groups. Anarchists have always defended them against majorities.)
Since some form of collectivity is necessary in many areas, then what form of (necessary) decision-making is most consistent with freedom? Surely it can only be democratic processes, especially small-group, direct, face-to-face democracy, organized into decentralized federations.
Does this mean that the majority will “dominate,” “coerce,” or “rule” over the minority, as the other writers insist? No. The traditional definition of democracy is “majority rule, with respect for the rights of the minority.” If everyone does not get to hear every view, including the views of those who end up in the minority, then the majority cannot be said to really have made a free decision, that is, to really be a democratic majority. This is precisely the situation under bourgeois democracy, where radical views are excluded from the public discussion, denied the ability to reach the mass of people. (The problem with bourgeois democracy is not that the majority “rules,” but that the majority is duped into supporting a minority—the ruling capitalist class.)
More to the point: during a discussion (let us say, on whether to build a road or whether the workers in a shop will produce a new type of shoe) everyone gets to participate. At the start, there is no set “majority” or “minority.” Everyone participates. Every opinion is heard. People are able to argue for their positions, to write papers, and to organize a caucus (or “party”) for their opinion. Over time (long or short), opinions crystalize. A majority (most people) forms in favor of one decision. A minority (a few people) may remain unhappy with the decision. But they are not persecuted or lose any rights. On the next discussion, they may be in the majority!
Under anarchist direct democracy, this whole notion of a majority ruling over and oppressing a minority is a meaningless abstraction. Sure, those in the minority on this issue may feel coerced—on this one issue. But they fully participated in the democratic process. They are not oppressed as a minority, as African-Americans are under white supremacy.
Shawn Wilbur postulates an ideal vision of anarchy where no one coerces anyone else in even the most indirect way. No one tells anyone else what to do. This he counterposes to even the most radically democratic decentralized socialism. On the other hand, he apparently recognizes that such a completely individualized society would not work in some (many? most?) cases, at least not for a lengthy “transitional” period of increasing freedom. Therefore, he seems to say, in practice it will be necessary to use democratic methods, including voting. I do not agree with this sort of sharp division between the ideal and practice. But in practice, what would he do that is different from what I would do? A difference which makes no difference is no difference.
It is possible to find statements against democracy by many anarchists (although the same ones often use “self-management,” “self-government,” or similar terms which are synonymous with democracy). I first learned my anarchism from reading Paul Goodman, probably the most influential anarchist of the sixties. He repeatedly presented his anarchism as consistent with the ideal of democracy, including the democratic tradition from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey.
My concept of anarchy does not start with total individualism. It starts with total opposition to the state—the bureaucratic-military socially-alienated organization which stands over and above the rest of society. As well as opposition to capitalism, patriarchy, and all other institutions of oppression. Recently I have been reading histories of the First International. The conflict between Marx and Bakunin (and their co-thinkers) focused on the state as an institution. This was over strategic issues (should workers build parties to run in elections with the aim of taking over the state?) and issues of vision and goals (should their aim be the reorganization of the state or the abolition of the state and its replacement by federations of associations and communes?). So I have no problem focusing my anarchism—my vision of anarchy—on the overthrow of the state and the institutions it supports.
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