The movement to abolish the present state of power: direct democracy, forms, and power

The movement to abolish the present state of power: direct democracy, forms, and power

A critique of belief in the inherent radical nature of forms such as direct democracy in the context of the anti-austerity movements, and an appeal to politics based on a process of struggle across time deepening breaks with capitalist normalcy.

Today society is in transition. Workers in the capitalist core are seeing the stability and benefits that many enjoyed slip away. The relationships that defined the capitalist periphery nations are fundamentally being transformed by deeper integration into the world economic system. The social safety net is being steadily hacked away at, standards of living are declining, and massive wealth transfers to capitalists are being organized by the state in the throws of deep crisis. There’s a growing multitude forced into renewed austerity and discipline, while traditional skilled stable work shrinks with daily attacks.

We live in an era of in which struggles and protagonists are only beginning to emerge. Struggles against dispossession and struggles against exploitation both find expression, and weave into and away from each other. People are being dispossessed of their given way of life, and this creates a dynamic of struggle at once to preserve the present arrangements and to move beyond them. As the crisis attacks the heart of the exploited laboring class, movements too arise to confront exploitation of time and labor.

With the birth of the indignants movements, the councils, assemblies, and occupations, the cycle of debate around forms and democracy has gained new currency. Direct democracy is on the lips of millions of people across the world. These discussions (assemblies, consensus, councils, direct democracy, etc.) are framed both by supporters and enemies as being about anarchism.

In one sense this is positive, in that there is a cycle and currency of recent struggles that has spread worldwide. These practices have become lived and embedded in sections of popular communities, and at the same time are associated with anti-systemic struggles and liberatory movements. Additionally the practice of collective forms of decision making surely do have a positive impact on participants. They are a shift from the normal experiences of social life, and providing a living contrast of the illusory permanence of authoritarian society.

Liberation is not reducible to any structure however. It is not merely the replacement of representational or totalitarian forms of power with direct or mass forms. Neither are those libertarian forms themselves inherently liberatory. Our movement is something deeper and far more radical. It is a living movement of classes in struggle towards very concrete objectives and proposals. Anarchism specifically is a historical and material struggle towards the abolition of present forms of power, with the aim of creating a new society based on new social relations.

Consider a wildcat strike. Often such actions occur in an environment of pressure. A workplace injury or attack by bosses creates an environment where workers become fed up. Such events can explode in silence. There is often no vote or formal structure in which they occur. We would not condemn such an action as being undemocratic however. A wildcat strike can be one of the most democratic actions we can look to even while having no process for making a collective decision. On the otherhand, wildcat strikes can be imposed or occur against the will of the participants. Yet what makes such a strike democratic or not isn’t whether a vote was taken.

Taking a different case, there have been countless experiences in directly democratic structures where decisions are made collectively but dominance by a small minority occurs. At many of the occupations in the United States, assemblies have endorsed working with the police and in some instances to turn over radicals to police. Clearly, this is not the democracy we want. How do we understand such contrasting situations?

The problem is that if we have a formal conception of democracy as a structure, it will distort our understanding. It is possible to create formally democratic structures which will in fact usually be more democratic than other structures (i.e using no structure or representative forms of democracy), but there is still no guarantee that you will achieve a vibrant practiced democracy. They may tend to be more democratic by and large, but democracy is more than structures that tend to produce it. Democracy can emerge completely outside such structures. It’s not that structures are irrelevant, but that we have to a richer understanding of the relationship between the forms we promote, power, and the content of our practices and objectives.

Taken another way, how we make decisions is one thing, which decisions we make is another. Liberation is a particular kind of proposal. The liberation we seek proposes the expropriation and communization of property, and the creation of social relationships that construct solidarity, develop our total personhood, and contribute to a total social flourishing of people’s capabilities and aspirations. The maxim that our aims should approximate our ends is a strength of the anarchist tradition. Whatever can be said of practice, it is a guiding principle that to a certain extent buffers against political realism that plagues the left. Assemblies, councils, and process may be tools that gets us closer to the content we want, but taken alone it will neither guarantee our ends or our means. The deeper point is that the living democracy we seek doesn’t live within those structures. It sometimes resides there, is more likely to be found there, etc., but it isn’t identicle with them. As wildcat strikes show us, democracy is an experience larger than the structure that produces it.

Within recent debates this maxim has served as a motivacion to creating forms of post-revolutionary society immediately. Seemlessly there is a conflation of the general assemblies with coops, squats, open source software, and other forms of intracapitalist experimentation. There surely are lessons there, and experiences that can be drawn from. Looming larger however is that lack of understanding of the reproduction of capitalism and power within our society. Under statist and capitalist social relationships, our forms and our constructions will reflect the society they grown in and struggle against. We should not expect to be able to create islands of communism within a system that incorporates, coopts, represses, and recomposes not in simply in days, but in whole generations.

The point is not to reject experiments or structures, but to contextualize them and understand where they have value and what they are not. With an understanding of liberation as a historical movement towards a specific content, these experiences can be understood as reflections of and lessons to draw from, but not as the movement itself. The problem is that the continuation of capitalist social relationships around these experiences limit their ability to move beyond those dynamics. They continue to reproduce and reflect capitalist and statist society as long as capitalism maintains equilibrium.

We do not merely want to change our understanding of events, but as militants working for liberation we aim to come to action. While at the same time capitalism is laying to waste the basis for present politics, many revolutionaries however remain tied to these. In this conjecture of dispossession, exploitation, and crisis, revolutionaries have been too invested to both existing structures and to the perpetuation of such experimental structures. As long as capitalism can maintain and reproduce itself, the structures will be limited. It is in the breakdown of existing power relations that new things become possible. Our role is to aid in creating the conditions for the transformation of power, and imposing counterpower through collective forms of activity. In doing so, we try to bring the content of liberation to our actions, and make our living experiments embodied with libertarian politics.

Posted By

May 3 2013 12:05


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May 6 2013 11:07

Thanks for posting this. As someone who's quite taken with the idea of direct democracy in a context of anti-austerity movements, I'm sure there's a certain amount of meat I have to chew on here.

I'll get back to you with an 'anti-Critique', maybe...

May 7 2013 09:05

OK. Perhaps I'm not the right person to critique this, as I no longer consider myself an Anarchist.

But, even in terms of Anarchism - structures are not neutral. Yes, the liberation of humanity is a question of class struggle; absolutely, as a Marxist I can't disagree with that. I agree that the form of a mass assembly will not of necessity produce a vibrant political culture. But that's a bit like criticising a plant pot because it doesn't necessrily produce tomatoes. It's true, it doesn't, but it's easier for tomato plants to grow in a plant pot than in a fire.

The point about assemblies is that they are a forum for debate, and what is lacking is precisely that forum - the working class has very few ways to develop its own politics. If 'Anarchism' (or any other liberatory project) is seen as something that stands above the working class then it really is just an ideology. If the working class, in other words, can't reach conclusions consistant with Anarchism through debate in an open forum, then it's Anarchism that's wrong, not the working class.

I'm not an idealist. I don't think the working class needs to 'learn' the liberatory content of Anarchism, I think that it has to experience its own self-liberation and I think assemblies are a way to do that. I think that the process is more important than the content because the content will be developed in the process. Liberation isn't the working class 'acquiring' Anarchism (or Marxism) - it's the working class acting collectively to free themselves and humanity. And it does that in the assemblies and workers' councils.

klas batalo
May 7 2013 14:38
Gilles Dauvé wrote:
The highest level of 60s and 70s radicalism can be summed up in one word: autonomy, i.e. the rejection of all mediations (State, union, party or ideology) by a militant proletarian minority, which tried to act outside and against mediators. 35 or 40 years after the zenith of Italian autonomia, autonomy has become the smallest common denominator of most social movements: grassroots action, collective decision-taking, maximum information circulation. The new "struggle cycle" starts where the former one left off. Unfortunately, although self-activity is indeed a sine qua non component of the communist movement, it is never enough to create its content.

At about the same time as the attempt at autonomy was reaching its utmost, there emerged the idea of revolution as communization (Un Monde sans argent [A World without Money], 1975). At the time, this theoretical breakthrough had no practical effect. Nothing proves that the situation would be different today, or on its way to becoming different. In the present strike and riot surge in Asia, in the resistance in Europe, in Argentina, in Greece, in Oaxaca, in the multi-fold reactions to unemployment and impoverishment, even in the sharpening of class unrest, it is difficult to discern the prospect or the undertow of communisation. The driving force of these significant events is more a general demand for autonomous action: to acknowledge this is not to dismiss them, but to perceive them for what they are. Yesterday's highest point has become today's shared middle ground, no more, so far.

I think this quote gets to the meat of it. Autonomy/self-activity + Communization/socialization is the framework left over from the before recently last cycle of struggle. I am not sure if I share Dauvé's pessimism on the potentials for communization, but we all have a Camatte moment once in a while right? wink

klas batalo
May 7 2013 14:35
Liberation isn't the working class 'acquiring' Anarchism (or Marxism) - it's the working class acting collectively to free themselves and humanity. And it does that in the assemblies and workers' councils.

I think Nappalos' point is exactly that when Anarchism (or Marxism) don't start matching the content of what self-liberation is through a process of autonomous struggle then that is when they become useless. Marx and Mahkno both have those quotes about the real movement and social movement of the labouring masses.That it isn't a beautiful/ abstract idea (ideology) but the content of total liberation and social revolution that is the historical goal.

Or I could be wrong...but I am pretty sure Scott wouldn't disagree with you there.

May 8 2013 08:43
But, even in terms of Anarchism - structures are not neutral. Yes, the liberation of humanity is a question of class struggle; absolutely, as a Marxist I can't disagree with that. I agree that the form of a mass assembly will not of necessity produce a vibrant political culture. But that's a bit like criticizing a plant pot because it doesn't necessarily produce tomatoes. It's true, it doesn't, but it's easier for tomato plants to grow in a plant pot than in a fire.

I agree with you here, slothjabber. And I think the piece agrees with that more or less.

I'm always disappointed with the form/content critique. I'll grant anarchism's recent history of form obsession (anarcho-liberals) but I think it's a problem with the left generally. I do think some folks, granted sloppily, use formal descriptions as a shorthand for the content they wish to convey.

May 10 2013 12:48

I agree with the discussion above. This piece was a response to the stuff being discussed around Occupy at that time where people were hitting hard on the whole direct democracy is the revolution stuff. Equally crass as those structuralist moves is the formula of "communist content is all!". I was trying to introduce a more nuanced approach that places that stuff in a context across time, and tied to a method.