By Alexander Reid Ross
Center for a Stateless Society
This piece is the fourth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.”
Democracy is a word that evokes an array of affective responses depending on time, place, and people involved. For the Patriot movement, democracy stimulates a constellation of ideals, values, and principles. People who view the Patriot movement’s adherence to such forms as hypocritical might attempt to recuperate the term or abandon it entirely. To decipher the usage of democracy in everyday discourse, we must first plunge into the phenomena of words, concepts, and ideas in efforts to understand and properly define it. The following admission must be made: I use terms for practical purposes but with intent, recognizing that their meanings as defined in this essay cannot be seen as universally understood. Suffice it to say that they are adequate to the facts of this piece but should not be seen as their only conceivable usage. Words are useful in context and must not be made into altars. This is, perhaps, the first principle of understanding the word “democracy.”
Most people will agree that the world exists to us insofar as we can perceive it. That it is not a formless soup of undifferentiated matter, existential phenomenology tells us, is due to our ability as a species to discern one thing from another. Such discernment can be driven largely by the evolutionary form our species has taken. For example, I cannot keep my eyes open or breathe underwater. At the same time, discernment can be intentionally conditioned through cultural practice and repetition, like “acquired tastes” such as wine.
The ability to perceive distinction and recognize things as our senses perceive it certainly remains within the domain of the subjective. To this world of the affective is typically assigned the word, “notion.” If one has a notion of something, one feels it intuitively. Only together through experience and common notions can we agree upon a baseline existential-perceptive reality. It is through the affective, the sensual—the accepted as well as the rejected—that we understand the world of things as a world of objects that can be put to use. This public motion toward cooperative fellowship is typically linked to the “idea”—a momentous event where our consensus reality intertwines subject and object to recognize the utility of things and their consequences. As we gather ideas and accumulate knowledge based on consequences to our actions, we develop concepts or “frameworks” through which we interpret the world and clarify our understanding of its workings and ours.
Lastly, we come to that which is called “the truth.” The truth is not a statement of objectivity, it is an expression of a reality that has been socially produced. Here I disagree with the French philosopher Alain Badiou who, in the Heideggerian vein, approaches the truth event as an act of destruction that returns the subject to a pre-reflective condition of emptiness. Rather, it is my understanding that the truth presents simply an affirmative statement or group of statements that correctly articulate the premise on which social reality is produced. Hence, truth becomes a matter of constant negotiation over experiences superior and inferior, desirable and undesirable. It might be ably said that truth is the method of inquiry that recognizes fact from fiction and seeks to use knowledge toward the advancement of others as well as one’s self, or, as Turcato calls anarchism, “the method of freedom.”
Here, truth becomes a dialectical phenomenon of human experience relatable to the universality of fact on the basis of humanity’s long and short term desires. It is, then, a way of living more than a strict observation. A way of living considered true and accepted for its providential merit is considered a principle. The consensus about reality is constantly tested through art, which really is nothing less than that which makes us what we are. The consensus about truth lies in the realm of philosophy. The consensus about principles lies in the domain of the political.
The first philosopher in European history to truly understand these terms was Aristotle, because he recognized that people’s equal potential to know the truth and to follow right principles, which return to a subject who knows what they want and want the right thing. Aristotle identified politics as the act of being together in the city and identifying as a political community. People form mutual associations and “political friendships” on the basis of common agreements on the experience of life and happiness. The mutual benefit of collaborative labor binds the city in practical thought and turns it toward logical administration. As city life unfolds in its beautiful reasoned chaos, its appreciation reaches the philosophical, from which it can be theorized as a whole, a la Jane Jacobs. Democracy, for Aristotle, becomes the sum total of theory, which we have understood as the sublation of notion, idea, concept, and principle.
We must remain critical of the Aristotelian tradition, of course. Though he is roundly critiqued for believing slavery to be a consequence of inferior will, Aristotle also insisted that democracy cannot truly exist in a state of slavery, and that democracy manifests the superior form of human political participation. I will not defend the Ancient Greek understanding of slavery, save to point to Frantz Fanon’s deliberation on the “master-slave” dialectic in which the philosopher identifies liberation through self-emancipation.
The most important thing to point out in Aristotle, rather, is his sexism and classism. Enfranchising class divisions within the city, Aristotle automatically pitched experiential equality into the crisis of economic inequality. The basis for this failure of economic and political thought lies in Aristotle’s assessment of women as lacking the logos of politics. Women’s authority belonged in the oikos, the household, from which we receive the root for our words economy and ecology. Women cared for the running of the household, its economy and relation to the outside, while disturbingly men sought socio-political status often through pedophilia. If, as Marx claimed, man is not a political but first a social animal, it is crucial to recognize even in Marx the placement of oikos and economy at the root of social intercourse.
What Aristotle and his tradition leaves us with, then, is a problematic theory of democracy that contributes to both its critique and rectification. If Aristotle’s understanding of democracy is plagued by patriarchy, it is also a decisive defense of human equality. The hypocrisy here should aggravate any believer in truth, given our understanding of truth as a way of living that closest resembles what we understand to be factual, accurate, and of positive consequence to our community. In Theory of Democracy, Giovanni Sartori states, “Aristotle defined a stateless, direct democracy,” yet even here we recoil from such a thing where it is dominated by patriarchy.
One does not have to wait for Utopian Socialists like Fourier and Robert Owen to see the patriarchal oikos delinked from the principle of equality in the interests of latent democratic tendencies throughout the Medieval times. Far more insightful historians than myself have delved into the practices of some Cathars, Beguines, and Franciscans who sought to develop alternative forms of social organization, family life, and political practice. Three hundred years before the birth of Marx, Thomas Müntzer terrorized the German princes and Pope alike, discussing the abolition of property. A hundred years following that, the Diggers and Levelers identified common lands as the crux of a community grounded in an openness, humility, and generosity.
Truly, such people had imperfections, believed in false notions, and their movements suffered for that. Yet they each challenged the essence of authority as it existed in their lives, and generally from a position of equality. When the Ciompe rebelled against the Florentine elites, they insisted that the clothes of the nobility were the only things that distinguished them. Similarly, during the French Jacquerie, the concept of equality formed the basis for a rejection of the crown. When the Huguenots rose against the Bourbon monarchy, they similarly insisted that the sovereignty of the people would overcome that of a dubious government.
Without these movements the French revolution is unimaginable. Without the French revolution, it is impossible to conceive of the Mazzinist secret societies that emancipated Italian states, or the Blanquist insurrectionists inspired by them, or for that matter the incipient societies that conglomerated into the Workers’ International. The key for these revolutionary movements of the Enlightenment was not merely equality but liberty articulated through the political system of democracy. It would be the sovereignty of the people enshrined in the principle of liberation from oppression that comprised the egalitarian impulse of revolution.
Here lies the greatest problem: where democracy existed on the conceptual level for Aristotle, and could be linked to the Constitution of Solon through the school of Aristotle, it was distinct from the theory of democracy as a discrete political system. For it was the manipulation of democracy on that high governmental level of bureaucracy, where Abbé Sieyès, who pronounced that the Third Estate wants to be everything, could usher in the reign of Napoleon, and the main internationalist of the revolution, Anacharsis Cloots, could be sentenced to death at the Moulin à Silence. If it is democracy on the level of principle that motivates people to revolution, it seems as though democracy on the institutional level causes their ruination.
Why does this occur? Are the “people” too immoderate? Do they need a good lord? Anarchists have always insisted not. Anarchist historian George Woodcock writes of early anarchist, William Godwin, “It is in discussing democracy that he is original and characteristically anarchistic.” PJ Proudhon understood a better system of political economy as functioning along federalist lines according to a “workers’ democracy,” a valuable corrective to Aristotle’s class-stratified demos. It was not this concept of a “workers’ democracy” that Marx argued against but Proudhon’s own resistance to Marx’s efforts to control the discourse of revolution. Throughout his lengthy attack against Proudhon, Marx succeeds in conveying one argument well: that Proudhon delivers false ideals rather than principles mobilized through practice. Unfortunately, here Marx appears more jealous than correct, as his own critical position in the workers’ movement failed at every turn to propose a viable positive alternative to capital.
As we range through other anarchists as different as Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, and Bertrand Russell, we find continued efforts at redeeming democracy in principle while providing a scathing critique of its institutionalization. The anarchist challenge to the political system extended from principle of truth and justice irreconcilable with the enfranchisement of modern capitalism. They insisted that the revolutionary declaration of equality and freedom be honored in thought, word, and deed. With Malatesta, they loved the theory of “true democracy.” Through the Spanish Civil War, much of the anarchist struggle against the Marxists was representative of the struggle over the theory of “workers’ democracy” and how to execute it. In more recent times, such a theory has developed outside of the exclusive property of the proletariat, extending as well to the geographic reorganization of a municipality, vis-à-vis the “direct democracy” of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, or to all of humanity, as perhaps with David Graeber’s “baseline communism.” On another level, perhaps one could envision a socio-political understanding that decentralizes conventional anthropocentrism through the methodical practice of equality and freedom, as decolonial scholar and anarchist, Maia Ramnath, has suggested.
While some anarchists remain absolute in their rejection of everything to do with democracy, their proud stance often remains in keeping with the principles that produce it. One might claim to reject the existence of freedom, like some neo-atheists, while politely rationalizing every judgment as an effect of probability and failing to analyze the randomness of being in the first place. One might deny the fact of equality on the premise of a refusal to simplify or homogenize without recognizing that the division between the same and the equal marks the first distinction that formulates an intellectual understanding of the world and the contiguity of its internal functions.
One might negate the theory of democracy and remain an anarchist or whatever; essentialism is useless to discovery and inquiry. However, where even the most colloquial usage of the word “democracy” is construed as rank sectarianism, discourse is denied and the conditions for a better world stifled. In keeping with the anarchist tradition, the systems of representative democracy as they have enfranchised the political sovereignty of tyrannical corporations must be overcome. But let us recognize the origins of such systems through methodical study, and attempt to fulfill our principles by overcoming their failings rather than lapsing into self-destructive solipsisms.
Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.
Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at email@example.com.