Book Review: 'Deciding For Ourselves'

A review of a book about contemporary examples of direct democracy.

Submitted by LAMA on August 25, 2020

Deciding For Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy
Cindy Millstein (ed) pp.269
AK Press (Chico, Edinburgh, 2020)
ISBN: 9-781849-353731

There are two basic ways of approaching anarchism. Either as the conscious organising of those who are well versed in an explicit and thoroughly demarcated theoretical tradition. This is big @ Anarchism, people who self-identify with the label and do stuff on that basis. The other is small @ anarchism. That is, individuals, groups and peoples who may not use the name or be familiar with the ‘key’ theorists and histories, but nevertheless act in ways that are so compatible, they can potentially be included within the tradition or at least have a close affinity with it. In comparison to most ways of viewing the world, anarchism adopts a pretty broad lens.

There is potential tension here. Fanatics among the big @ types can use a narrow set of criteria to exclude those they might regard as not the real deal. Arguably there’s a kind of ironic hierarchy to it. Those who can quote the most big-name anarchist ‘authorities’ or ‘know’ how to run a meeting get to hold sway, while those who don’t are excluded. Yet there’s a kernel of validity in sensing who should be in and who is out. Failure to do that can result in defending unsavory people either in terms of personal behaviour or political stance. Also, while there may be some affinity between big @ anarchists and others, perhaps the latter shouldn’t always or don’t want to be subsumed under the label. For example, indigenous peoples in some parts of the world might not necessarily want to be viewed in such a way or individuals within the global West might feel “Hey look, I’m just doing my thing, don’t load your political baggage on me”.

Deciding For Ourselves is an anthology that tackles the broad sweep of contemporary practices seen as Anarchist. It looks at both Big @ and small @ varieties from across the world in a collection of essays. These are written either by participants within organisations and projects or in the form of sympathetic interviews by closely aligned observers. We are offered a panorama encompassing smaller scale projects such as squats, worker-run co-ops and gardening/food projects that occupy a few hectares or streets in the urban centres of France, Spain and Greece, the use of grassroots assemblies in Puerto Rico, occupations in Brazil, indigenous organising on Turtle Island through to large scale regional efforts at autonomy in Mexico and Rojava. Among the voices within the essays are indigenous women, black liberation activists, the old, the young, the named, the anonymous, the skilled, the unskilled, the educated, peasants and urban dwellers, those who identify explicitly as anarchists and those who have spontaneously organised themselves along such lines in their daily lives. It’s a rich tapestry.

Everyone who picks up this book will be able to dip into it and find experiences of interest. One of its greatest strengths is that it doesn’t shy away from tackling the hard stuff. A straw figure assault on anarchism from detractors has always been claims of utopianism. This text makes it clear that there are people dealing with often incredibly harsh realities. For example, the residents of the famous intentional community of Christiana in Denmark trying to tackle drug problems or the people of Cheran in Mexico fighting drug cartels and illegal loggers. In some cases, the participants manage to just about stay on top of these impediments to community. Sometimes they fuck up and there are serious consequences. There are also contradictory situations and behaviours. While revolutionary Rojava has made great progress along anarchist compatible lines, the realities on the ground are such that:

“It is also a place where a woman can learn about women’s history and go home to beat her children for something that is “shameful”; where men can talk publically about gender equality and yet complain about the increasing divorce cases filed by women; where someone can be part of creating the YPJ [Women’s Protection Units] and then decide to become a housewife; or where parents gladly defend the land to death but send their children to Europe” (p.226)

None of this ultimately cheapens or lessens the value of the social experimentation occurring in these places. It shows that the struggle for a better world is never easy, is always provisional, needs to be struggled for both within yourself and among those you live, love, work, and sometimes die with.

Whether you think Anarchism needs to be tightly defined in order to carry analytical weight or you are happy with a very wide interpretation of its meaning, you will find all sorts of genuine experiences of ordinary people in diverse places to help you challenge your understanding of the world within the pages of Deciding For Ourselves.