Demolish the Demos Reply

By Grayson English

Center for a Stateless Society

There has long been a certain kind of democratic spirit in anarchism. Of course when we bring forth the imagery of statist and authoritarian injustice, we feel the rhetorical pull to illustrate it as a collective issue: one that is relevant and applicable to all and as such in the interest of all to take to heart. When we wish to persuade people that the interests of the elites are distinct and separate from theirs, we talk of general violations of, and opposition to, popular visions and desires. And of course we must do this, because to speak about anarchism publicly requires speaking to public interests, and calling for the severance of society from the state in public language fits most naturally with calls for democracy, the independent self-government of society.

It is probably easy to understand, then, why so eminent an anarchist thinker as David Graeber would content himself with the conclusion that “anarchism and democracy are—or should be—largely identical (Possibilities, 330).” If we wish to maintain society without the state, isn’t self-organization and self-governance the obvious solution?

Such an approach might be sensible if equality of authority were our only demand. However, while we say that all must be equal in authority, what we actually mean is that all should be equal in having no authority over anyone but themselves, and absolute authority over themselves—individual sovereignty. We do not wish for a world in which all are slaves, but a world in which all are kings. For this reason, even the constitution of a demos is a problem, for it involves, in some sense, the establishment of a center of gravity outside of individuals, which pulls them in toward collective identity and lifeway.

In fact, the demos is the original enemy for an anarchist. It is no coincidence that once a People have formed, there must emerge mediations of their interests and projects—representation becomes necessary. Many thinkers have located representation in many places, from dictators to committees and even more diffuse bodies, and it’s no coincidence that they use democratic language to justify those systems. Since, in the last analysis, it presupposes the annihilation of the individual in the collective, and since it is a public-oriented politics, it follows that there are many potentially popular governmental systems.

Once confronted with this antagonism—between individual sovereignty and democracy—one might note that for all our talk, humans are social beings and “a life apart” seems either inconceivable or miserable. Democracy might be an indispensable part of an ongoing dialectic between the individual and the social. But this, I think, mistakes the nature of our aim. What we should seek is not compromise. Equality of authority at zero differs fundamentally from equality of authority at some positive point. The social should exist, ultimately, as the facilitator of individuality, and not as a force to be respected in itself. Our lives are intractably social, that much is true; but the social should exist to make room for the individual, and not vice versa. Societies should not be free, societies should not be considered as interested partners to individuals.

This is because, metaphysically, individuals and collectives are not on equal footing. Individuals act, and individuals embody a dialectical, reflexive spirit. Collectives do not act, do not reflect. This is why we can say that we are against all nations, that we are ungovernable, that our aim is anarchy. Anarchy is not defined procedurally—it’s not just consensus or majority—and it’s not defined pluralistically. Anarchy is incompatible, for instance, with even stateless nationalism because the only collectivity we accept is one which is, root and branch, characterized by individuation, the facilitation of individual self-definition. The society we want is one that continually dissolves itself into individuals, and only exists as a springboard for unique individuals to interface with each other to gain ever greater access to technologies for self-creation.

We’re too ambitious to settle for a world in which individuals remain mechanistic representatives of collective spirits, even if we’re also realists about our human need for connection and transcendent identification. We reject popular rule and local “self-organization” in favor of a social individuality. The cosmopolitan citizen of anarchy is an insider-outsider, a collaborative self-creator.

 

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