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Mar 29, 16

From Democracy To Freedom

From CrimethInc.

This is part of a series expressing an anarchist critique of democracy.

Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.

And what’s the cure for the problems with democracy? Everyone agrees: more democracy. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a spate of new movements promising to deliver real democracy, in contrast to ostensibly democratic institutions that they describe as exclusive, coercive, and alienating.

Is there a common thread that links all these different kinds of democracy? Which of them is the real one? Can any of them deliver the inclusivity and freedom we associate with the word?

Impelled by our own experiences in directly democratic movements, we’ve returned to these questions. Our conclusion is that the dramatic imbalances in economic and political power that have driven people into the streets from New York City to Sarajevo are not incidental defects in specific democracies, but structural features dating back to the origins of democracy itself; they appear in practically every example of democratic government through the ages. Representative democracy preserved all the bureaucratic apparatus that was originally invented to serve kings; direct democracy tends to recreate it on a smaller scale, even outside the formal structures of the state. Democracy is not the same as self-determination.

To be sure, many good things are regularly described as democratic. This is not an argument against discussions, collectives, assemblies, networks, federations, or working with people you don’t always agree with. The argument, rather, is that when we engage in those practices, if we understand what we are doing as democracy—as a form of participatory government rather than a collective practice of freedom—then sooner or later, we will recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government. This goes for representative democracy and direct democracy alike, and even for consensus process.

Rather than championing democratic procedures as an end in themselves, then, let’s return to the values that drew us to democracy in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, the idea that each person should control her own destiny. If democracy is not the most effective way to actualize these, what is?

As fiercer and fiercer struggles rock today’s democracies, the stakes of this discussion keep getting higher. If we go on trying to replace the prevailing order with a more participatory version of the same thing, we’ll keep ending up right back where we started, and others who share our disillusionment will gravitate towards more authoritarian alternatives. We need a framework that can fulfill the promises democracy has betrayed.

In the following text, we examine the common threads that connect different forms of democracy, trace the development of democracy from its classical origins to its contemporary representative, direct, and consensus-based variants, and evaluate how democratic discourse and procedures serve the social movements that adopt them. Along the way, we outline what it would mean to seek freedom directly rather than through democratic rule.

This project is the result of years of transcontinental dialogue. To complement it, we are publishing case studies from participants in movements that have been promoted as models of direct democracy: 15M in Spain (2011), the occupation of Syntagma Square in Greece (2011), Occupy in the United States (2011–2012), the Slovenian uprising (2012–2013), the plenums in Bosnia (2014), and the Rojava revolution (2012–2016).

What Is Democracy?

What is democracy, exactly? Most of the textbook definitions have to do with majority rule or government by elected representatives. On the other hand, a few radicals have argued that “real” democracy only takes place outside and against the state’s monopoly on power. Should we understand democracy as a set of decision-making procedures with a specific history, or as a general aspiration to egalitarian, inclusive, and participatory politics?

To pin down the object of our critique, let’s start with the term itself. The word democracy derives from the ancient Greek dēmokratía, from dêmos “people” and krátos “power.” This formulation of rule by the people, which has resurfaced in Latin America as poder popular, begs the question: which people? And what kind of power?

These root words, demos and kratos, suggest two common denominators of all democracy: a way of determining who participates in the decision-making, and a way of enforcing decisions. Citizenship, in other words, and policing. These are the essentials of democracy; they are what make it a form of government. Anything short of that is more properly described as anarchy—the absence of government, from the Greek an- “without” and arkhos “ruler.”

Common denominators of democracy:
a way of determining who participates in making decisions
a way of enforcing decisions
a space of legitimate decision-making
and the resources that sustain it

Who qualifies as demos? Some have argued that etymologically, demos never meant all people, but only particular social classes. Even as its partisans have trumpeted its supposed inclusivity, in practice democracy has always demanded a way of distinguishing between included and excluded. That could be status in the legislature, voting rights, citizenship, membership, race, gender, age, or participation in street assemblies; but in every form of democracy, for there to be legitimate decisions, there have to be formal conditions of legitimacy, and a defined group of people who meet them.

In this regard, democracy institutionalizes the provincial, chauvinist character of its Greek origins, at the same time as it seemingly offers a model that could involve all the world. This is why democracy has proven so compatible with nationalism and the state; it presupposes the Other, who is not accorded the same rights or political agency.

The focus on inclusion and exclusion is clear enough at the dawn of modern democracy in Rousseau’s influential Of the Social Contract, in which he emphasizes that there is no contradiction between democracy and slavery. The more “evildoers” are in chains, he suggests, the more perfect the freedom of the citizens. Freedom for the wolf is death for the lamb, as Isaiah Berlin later put it. The zero-sum conception of freedom expressed in this metaphor is the foundation of the discourse of rights granted and protected by the state. In other words: for citizens to be free, the state must possess ultimate authority and the capacity to exercise total control. The state seeks to produce sheep, reserving the position of wolf for itself.

By contrast, if we understand freedom as cumulative, the freedom of one person becomes the freedom of all: it is not simply a question of being protected by the authorities, but of intersecting with each other in a way that maximizes the possibilities for everyone. In this framework, the more that coercive force is centralized, the less freedom there can be. This way of conceiving freedom is social rather than individualistic: it approaches liberty as a collectively produced relationship to our potential, not a static bubble of private rights.1

Let’s turn to the other root, kratos. Democracy shares this suffix with aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, plutocracy, and technocracy. Each of these terms describes government by some subset of society, but they all share a common logic. That common thread is kratos, power.

What kind of power? Let’s consult the ancient Greeks once more.

In classical Greece, every abstract concept was personified by a divine being. Kratos was an implacable Titan embodying the kind of coercive force associated with state power. One of the oldest sources in which Kratos appears is the play Prometheus Bound, composed by Aeschylus in the early days of Athenian democracy. The play opens with Kratos forcibly escorting the shackled Prometheus, who is being punished for stealing fire from the gods to give to humanity. Kratos appears as a jailer unthinkingly carrying out Zeus’s orders—a brute “made for any tyrant’s acts.”

The sort of force personified by Kratos is what democracy has in common with autocracy and every other form of rule. They share the institutions of coercion: the legal apparatus, the police, and the military, all of which preceded democracy and have repeatedly outlived it. These are the tools “made for any tyrant’s acts,” whether the tyrant at the helm is a king, a class of bureaucrats, or “the people” themselves. “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people,” as Oscar Wilde put it. Mu’ammer al Gaddafi echoed this approvingly a century later, without irony: “Democracy is the supervision of the people by the people.”

In modern-day Greek, kratos is simply the word for state. To understand democracy, we have to look closer at government itself.

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