Formality, Collectivity and Anarchy Reply

By Derek Wittorff

Center for a Stateless Society

I found William Gillis’ essay “The Abolition of Rulership Or The Rule Of All Over All” to be a very interesting read. It covered many of the same points as my essay without much disagreement, and in a much less compressed manner. However, there was one notable difference, and a couple of slight disagreements. Addressing these points of departure will hopefully help contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

William’s definition of democracy as the “rule of all over all” actually paralleled my definition of communism. His definition of democracy is appears to be slightly more broad, ranging from the “rule of the majority” to the unanimity of consensus. This essentially gives democracy a little bit more room for compatibility with anarchy (in a very limited space, i.e. extremely informal, small, ad hoc forms of consensus). Although I do not define consensus as a form of democracy, we find ourselves both agreeing that consensus has some limited overlap with anarchism. It appears the disagreement is over how far that overlap extends, or whether formal organizations using consensus have any anarchist applications at all.

Quoting from the section “Democracy as Consensus”:

“There’s a massive difference between consensus that’s arrived at through free association, and consensus that’s arrived because people are locked into some collective body to some degree. Often what passes for “consensus” within anarchist activist projects is merely consensus within the prison of a reified organization. Modern anarchists are still quite bad at embracing the fluidity of truly free association, we cling to familiar edifices. Our organizations reassure us insofar as they function like the state, simplistic monoliths that exist outside of time and beyond the changing desires and relations of their constituent members…

…for consensus to be truly anarchistic we must be willing to consense upon autonomy, to shed off our reactionary hunger for established perpetual collective entities. Otherwise consensus will erode back in the direction of majority rules, individuals feeling obliged to tolerate decisions lest they break the uniformity of the established collective.”


While I agree that the consensus of informal groups with limited size and structure involves much fluidity and respect for autonomy, I’m not convinced that autonomy cannot be respected in formal organizations. I understand that in many cases — in today’s society — large organizations are reified beyond the relations and interactions of their constituent members. The State in any territory is probably the most outstanding example of such reification, including the corporate organizations made artificially large and hierarchical by means of government subsidies. Nonetheless, if there’s a clear understanding of the complexity of relations necessary to produce a specific good, such as a finished product requiring highly skilled laborers and a complex division of labor, and there’s obviously going to be some level of structural capital necessary, people agreeing to participate in such a collective endeavor are only going to sacrifice as much autonomy as is necessary to complete the goal. They may not be engaging in a reification organization; rather, they could be engaging in something they know is very complex, not easily analyzed, and not reducible to their small individual contribution. Some people aren’t disempowered by meetings, discussions, or a lack of obviously perceivable impact from their own individual participation, etc. While we prefer agency to structure, we cannot deny that some level of structure (even if it is only informal and ad hoc) is necessary to produce agency. For some, agency might be translated from formal structures. If someone is passionate about the work they do, and find agency in performing the work, but requires a formal structure and long meetings to self-manage the division of labor, we can’t say it’s going to come at the cost of that person’s agency since it’s a matter of subjectivity.

In the section, “Democracy as Collective Decision Making”, William goes on:

“Many leftists are scarred by the alienating social dynamics of our society and seek meetings as a kind of structured socializing time to make friends and conjure a sense of belonging to a community, but this is absolutely not the same thing as engendering a sense of altruism or empathy. If anything collective meetings are horrible draining experiences that scar everyone involved and only partially satiate the most isolated and socially desperate. Like a starving person eating grass the nutrition is never good enough and so the activist becomes trapped in endless performative communities, going to endless group meetings to imperfectly reassure base psychological needs rather than efficaciously change the world for the better. (I say such cutting words with all the love and sympathy of someone who’s nevertheless persisted as an activist and organizer attempting to do shit for almost two decades.) Collective decision-making itself is no balm or salve to the horrors that plague this world.

But that’s not even the worst of it. Collective decision-making is itself fundamentally constraining, it frequently makes situations worse to attempt to make decisions as a collective rather than autonomously as networked individuals.”

I agree that making friends and conjuring a sense of belonging to a community isn’t a means of spreading anarchy outside the anarchist community, but providing “altruism and empathy” within that community is useful. Meetings and structured socializing time are definitely not best the way to do this. Regardless, in terms of expanding anarchy outside our immediate groups, in order to have the greatest altruistic impact, sometimes collective goals that are decidedly not just collaborative networks of individuals are necessary when the need is particularly unique or demanding. Collective direct action isn’t always characterized by collaborative networks. I’ll go into more depth after this next quote:

“The processing of information is the most important dynamic to how our societies are structured. A boss in a large firm for example appoints middle managers to filter and process information because a raw stream of reports from the shop floor would be too overwhelming for his brain to analyze. There are many ways in which aspects of the flow of information constrain social organizations, but when it comes to collective decision-making the most relevant thing is the vast difference between the complexity our brains are capable of holding and the small trickle of that we can express in language. As a rule individuals are better off with the autonomy to just act in pursuit of their desires rather than trying to convey them in their full unknowable complexity. But when communication is called for it’s far, far more efficient to speak in pairs one-on-one, and let conclusions percolate organically into generality. “Collective” decision-making almost always assumes a discussion with more than two people — a collective — an often incredibly inefficient arrangement where everyone has to put their internal life in stasis and listen to piles of other people speak one at a time. The information theoretic constraints are profound.

If collective decision-making is supposed to provide us with the positive freedoms possible through collaboration it offers only the tiniest fraction of what is usually actually possible. That there are occasionally situations so shitty that collective decision-making is requisite does not mean anarchists should worship or applaud it. And one would be hard-pressed to classify something far more general like *collaboration* itself as ‘democracy’.”

We could definitely imagine a society in which there is a robust digital commons, and all productive needs supplied by a collaborative p2p network of individual producers, but many currently do not have the means. At the same time we all have short-term needs that must be satisfied. This may come at the cost of maintaining structural capital, and listening to “piles of other people speak one at a time,” while still having a horizontal structure or network between such collectives. Think of it as a trade-off: not one sacrificing sociological principles, but definitely costing something in terms of economics. If it’s more than a short-term need, but some idealistic desire, the cost of maintaining the structural capital of a formal organization may be an option. Producing the components or the finished product of some kind of experimental propulsion system that could revolutionize how we travel may not be effectively coordinated through p2p collaboration. It may require a definite, formal, and large organization (somewhere along the structure of production from raw materials to finished product) to produce.

If this is too abstract, let me try a more contemporary example in movement building. If there’s a union shop of thirty workers that want to join and collaborate with a general network that characterizes a general strike, that union shop itself isn’t going to operate by informal decisionmaking. They’re going to need a form of collective decisionmaking on what resources to request, how best to participate etc.

Individuals could defect and join the strike without that group, which is a definite possibility, but sometimes there’s benefits to collective direct action. The union shop might have more resources made accessible by connection to the larger organization. This is all hypothetical, and surely syndicalism might be the target of some criticism here, but it can’t be criticized on the basis of not attempting to do community outreach. Ironically, and more often than not, it seems that informal groups are the ones that fail to extend beyond their own community. Informal groups may have more fluid information mechanisms, and they may internally aggregate capital faster, but they don’t necessarily aggregate capital any better if time-preference isn’t the only standard, which means they can just as effectively commit to community outreach.

It should also be understood that even in contexts of collective decisionmaking — consensus-based or not — there are layers of collaborative networks that are going to exist. People are going to have issues, often between each other in small isolated incidents, that can be resolved without going through formal channels. If two people cannot collaborate, and formal channels become an option for resolution, we’re talking about a sort of hierarchy where people outside the problem, but inside the larger group, determine the resolution. That’s a problem, but one I think individuals are capable of resolving through collaboration on their own, especially if we believe anarchism is practical. Let’s say I work in a kitchen, and a nearby workstation is disorganized, making my work more difficult. It doesn’t need to be made an issue or proposal for the whole group unless maybe it might actually improve cooperation between everyone, but that would be up to everyone to decide, and since it’s subject to personal preference, it really isn’t a collective issue. There is a way to draw the line between personal issues and collective issues without undermining the existence of either.

Point being, is there an unresolvable tension between collaborative networks and collective decisionmaking in principle? I don’t think so: not unless we want to simplify either the structure of such networks or consensus models. In any case, I think our disagreement is a matter of degree and not principle. We definitely both oppose collective action for the sake of collective action. I agree it’s also important to classify the difference between collaborative networks and collective decisionmaking, and make distinctly different approaches depending on the necessities at hand. However, to think there isn’t some kind of practical overlap between the two might be misguided.

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