Anarchism and Democracy: Response to Wittorff Reply

By William Gillis

Center for a Stateless Society

I should clarify for Derek Wittorff that I wasn’t embracing, for example, calling all collective decisionmaking “democracy.” Rather, I was entertaining the more extreme definitions out there. I was attempting to point out how some kernel of “the rule of all over all” lies within each of these alternative definitions — or at the very least how they conflict or risk deviating from anarchism — not to endorse those definitions.

I should also clarify that I have nothing against unanimity, indeed it is often a desirable end. My point was that the way we presently handle consensus process overemphasizes the value of affiliation in a persistent collective organization at the cost of a truer emphasis on freedom of association. Consensus process (done right) encourages people to disassociate and reassociate fluidly. Consensus should ideally be a test applied that dissolves associations and discourages persistent groups just as much as it facilitates the discovery of affinities or detentes.

Unfortunately, the left-liberal concept of consensus has largely won out in activist spaces over the anarchist concept of consensus.

I agree, of course, that we can expect people in a free world to sacrifice some level of agency for the reassurances of persistent structures. And there are certainly problems of economies of scale and externalities in our immediate world that will require all manner of trade-offs, as I openly admitted in my opening essay. There will certainly be situations where accomplishing a task is only possible if people stick together. My point here is that people should consciously decide whether that is the case, and whether the task is worth it. The default right now is almost always to assume that every undertaking requires sticking together in some group, and that such a course of action is worth it. I think we need a much stronger skepticism about the necessity of sticking together, much less in persistent organizations. We must get over our deep-seated fear of disassociation for anarchy to ever flourish.

Where Derek starts to lose me is in treating “agency” like an emotional affect subjective to each person. While the quantification of agency in particular cases is truly forbidding, we can nevertheless speak with some substance of it. An agent locked in a small room from which no information or causal influence escapes clearly has a maximum limit to their agency. And we can clearly say that an agent locked in a bigger box, all other things being equal, has more possible agency. They can do more things. They have more choices and more of the universe is contingent upon their thoughts. (As anarchists we obviously want to go much further than longer chains. We want no chains — the ultimate end of infinite freedom.) Similarly, an agent with 1 bit of information about their world and what choices are available to them has less agency than an agent with 2 bits of information about the same.

It is in this sense that we can say that everyone is disempowered by meetings, regardless of whether they recognize it or not. This is because the meeting form is poorly structured and deeply inefficient at processing information.

I think that Wittorff misrepresents my advocacy of fluid networks when he starts talking about “informal groups.” Firstly, my whole post-leftist point here is one about being deeply critical of groups themselves. But secondly, the associations he invokes with “informal” are those of things like friendship groups. Informality may sometimes offer a certain fluidity but it isn’t the path to fluidity I’m advocating. Informal groups are often just everything wrong with groups themselves with the added benefit of being opaque. Similarly to how informal power structures are often just everything wrong with power structures plus an increased resilience against liberation.

I am not advocating informality (nor rejecting it per se) here, I’m advocating fluidity. It’s a tragedy that explicitness has become so deeply associated with rigidity today. Indeed, the promise of consensus process for anarchists is that it can offer a way to be explicit about our fluid associations.

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