The Washington Post’s Peter Wallsten reports that “voting-related bills being pushed by newly empowered Republican state lawmakers across the country” have provoked a partisan “clash over voting laws.” Critics of the proposals, which would (among other things) make it more difficult for college students to vote in their schools’ locals, charge that they are to attempts “to rig elections” and wage a “war on voting.”
“One side,” observes Pew Center on the States’s Doug Chapin, “is convinced fraud is rampant; the other believes that disenfranchisement is widespread.” Carrying on the statist tradition, both sides’ arguments are predictably confined to the politically-acceptable margins, taking no notice of deeper structural problems with American democracy.
In America, democracy, vaguely defined and isolated from meaningful debate, is a guiding mantra, the inviolable linchpin of American political life. Like all concepts with social or political import, however, “democracy” subsumes a diverse cluster of disparate, even contradictory, ideas. When anarchists speak of the “free market,” we’re aspiring to something quite different from the state capitalism of today, and the same is true for democracy, with direct democracy often regarded as a key ingredient in a stateless society.
Coinciding with a formulation of democracy that regards it as an egalitarian triumph — stationing political power in the common man — is a more bleak understanding of democracy often overlooked. Common misgivings about democracy, going back to James Fenimore Cooper’s The American Democrat and before, center on the notion of the tyranny of the majority — the concern that the will of the masses might be allowed to withdraw the freedoms of minority groups. Legitimate reasons for such worries exist, with dominant and intolerant cultural blocs often essaying to so use the political process.
At the same time, hand in hand with the tyranny of the majority problem, American democracy might be described as facilitating the tyranny of the minority. Where, as in the United States, political debate and electoral politics are confined to what are almost universally inconsequential minutiae, the present incarnation of democracy can be seen as a mere safety valve; it allows the broad majority of the population to “blow off steam” and feel involved in the political decision-making that is actually confined to a small minority of elites whose power is well beyond popular reach.
Voting, then — reduced to an empty exercise designed to change nothing important about the statist framework — becomes a device for legitimizing the state’s hierarchies. As George H. Smith articulated it, elections become “the mechanism by which political sanctification occurs.”
Counter to the statist categories of democracy that exist to give (in mainstream political jargon) a “mandate” to coercion, free market anarchists favor voluntary democracy. Leaving each individual free within her own sphere of decision-making autonomy, market anarchism contemplates group decisions based on the consent and participation of all involved.
Cooperatives, mutuals, and any number of other, peacefully organized groups could — without the violent imposition of state interference — make decisions for collective action. With individuals retaining the power to withdraw their consent from institutions founded on free agreement, democracy would become a valid, organic process.
Today, democracy and its many accoutrements make up an extravaganza for celebrating and purifying the acts of the modern, total state. Free market anarchism simply calls for a democratic ideal wherein unchained individuals resolve problems and come to conclusions through nonviolent channels of action. Regardless of the details of bills moving about in state legislatures, the democracy of the state will always be of the state, by the state and for the state.