Anarchism and Democracy: Reply to Alexander Reid Ross Reply

By William Gillis

Center for a Stateless Society

It marks a nice contrast from Wayne Price’s relatively “aw shucks” disinterest in philosophical critiques of democracy that Alexander Reid Ross brings history and philosophical language to the defense of democracy. Unfortunately, I have a violent allergic reaction to the flavor of philosophical language he adopts.

On the upside, I appreciate that Alexander has injected a certain amount of historical reference to this discussion by mapping some of the ways “democracy” has morphed in its associations over history and in different contexts or discourses. Of course, whether one agrees with the narrative arc Alexander maps with those details is a different story; he certainly excludes the long history of anarchist critiques of democracy, arguably underhandedly painting Malatesta into the ‘pro’ camp and acting like Bookchin didn’t come to realize his politics had always been irreconcilable with the ideal of anarchism. There is, in short, plenty of room for disagreement here, but I find citations of authors largely a distraction. It should matter not if literally every prior anarchist in history was pro-democracy if what is best meant by democracy is discovered to be irreconcilable with what is best meant by anarchism itself. If every heretofore anarchist was patriarchal or nationalistic that should not prove that anarchism is not in fundamental tension with those values.

Where Alexander’s essay is the strongest is pointing out that notions of liberty and equality got tied up with democracy in some wings of the enlightenment, and thus anarchy and democracy have grown intertwined in some respects. But of course it is frequently the case that irreconcilable concepts become intertwined in complex ways through the vagaries of history. And the popular political prescriptions that were attached to the Enlightenment are a place where I feel its critics actually have some kick.


Where I think Alexander most distinguishes himself in the anarchist debate over democracy is his bipartite analysis, separating democracy as a principle from democracy as an institutional practice:

“If it is democracy on the level of principle that motivates people to revolution, it seems as though democracy on the institutional level that causes their ruination.”

This post-leftist hopes of course that Alexander would extend such to a critique of institutions or organizations themselves. But it still opens up an interesting dichotomy not often heard. Here I wish Alexander would get a little more specific and concrete rather than essentially drifting into talking about historical spirits. Is democracy the ideal of “liberty and equality”? That seems like a plain enough philosophical concept and one that we could interrogate perhaps more fruitfully, although certainly philosophers have picked apart every possible definition of liberty and equality and their various tensions or paths to collaborative reconciliation. Even if I would still find objections to the argument that we should define democracy as “liberty and equality” because of historical associations around the Enlightenment.

Yet Alexander seems unwilling to lock down the supposed principle of “democracy” so clearly and spends the bulk of his essay on a diversion into epistemology that I see as a quagmire.

In particular, he takes the rather shocking approach of defending postmodern claims by appealing to popular opinion: “Most people will agree that the world exists to us insofar as we can perceive it.” Obviously when considered in plain language the vast majority of people wouldn’t agree with that in the slightest. My mother would because she’s a radical idealist who rejects materialism, but such nutty positions are thankfully rare among normal folk. Unless of course we are to presume that “the world” is nothing more than Alexander’s perceptions of the postmodern academia he’s embedded in.

Now of course I’m well aware of the redefinition trickery in some parts of continental philosophy where “world” ceases referring to objective material reality and instead gets detached to (at best) refer to the referent to that reality and at worst be left dangling. There does exist a microscopic set of people in this discursive bubble, but they are hardly representative of common uses of “world.” Alexander pulls a similar move with “truth” and while this seems like a weird philosophical aside into the philosophical fraud of phenomenology it actually does a good job of situating and framing his argument.

Truth, it seems Alexander presumes from the get go, is essentially itself a democratic product, or should be, thus his attempts to appeal to general opinion. Certainly our perceptions of reality are partially socially constructed, no one’s going to disagree with merely that. Yet Alexander goes much further, positing truth as a way of living and principles as essentially traditions that emerge socially for providential merit:

“…truth as a way of living that closest resembles what we understand to be factual, accurate, and of positive consequence to our community.”

I want to be clear here; what an absolutely Orwellian horror!

Never mind whatever shenanigans are no doubt afoot in the residue of what we conventionally think of as truth — now apparently consigned to ‘factualness’ and ‘accuracy’ — let us strenuously emphasize that what is “positive consequence” to some “community” is almost always at odds with what is true. (Or, if we are to cede that word to the ravages of Orwellian misuse, “accurate”.) It is frequently the case that truth is at odds with what strengthens a “community”. Indeed this is one reason that democracy is arguably at odds with truth.

As I’ve argued, the very premise of discrete organizations, groups, and communities is a denial or suppression of truth. Collectivities exist as self-perpetuating simplistic heuristics that obscure the underlying individual relationships, hiding the full extent of what is possible under the umbrella of The Group. Truth and community are in absolute conflict. Rather it is truth and empathy that sync. Love for others is a recognition of the fullness of their reality. But love is something innately between individuals, it’s too rich and real to tolerate being applied to simplistic abstractions like “community” or “nation” or other such monster. One can to some degree love the billions of other minds one is analytically aware of, but not as some simplified collective abstraction as “humanity” or whatever. Love refuses and rejects such dishonesty.

The hunger for truth is prior to care about others because it is what drives our care about others.

Democracy’s focus on majorities, rough consensus, and “the community” is a blunderbuss of violent simplification that deprives individuals of agency and everyone of the full extent of cooperation possible.

So when Alexander talks about “principles” as socially arising traditions the same questions apply. Never mind the injustice such a picture does to the philosophy of ethics, brutally reducing values to mere social traditions rather than objective conceptual attractors that any unsocialized mind like an AI could in theory find. How are these principles or truths socially reached?

Is it a consensus arrived at through market means — that is to say emergent from decentralized and stigmergic roots — or is it a “consensus” arrived at through democratic means — that is to an arbitrary majoritarianism of some kind of arbitrary collective body? I impose my own definitions here, provocatively juxtaposing markets as liberating and democracy as oppressive (contra Nathan Goodman’s reconciliation of the two), because I don’t know of other framing that lays bare the same tension between emergence truly from the roots — from individual to individual relations — versus “emergence” in a manner that sloppily stomps over those individuals — by say collective conversation instead.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m literally arguing that conversations that aren’t one-on-one are oppressive to some degree. Or, at least in greater risk of constraining the agency of all involved, given the information theoretical constraints of conversation. Expect me to release a line of shirts printed with “Anarchism Is Introversion And Nothing Less” soon.

In contrast to my provocative stances, Alexander studiously purports to frame his argument as one for tolerance and ecumenicalism rather than sectarianism:“one might negate the theory of democracy and remain an anarchist or whatever; essentialism is useless to discovery and inquiry.”

But I want to note that this is a rather surprising sentiment. Does Alexander think that one can embrace for example nationalism “and remain an anarchist”? Does Alexander think a definition of anarchism “essentialist” enough to be able to reject “national anarchism” as a contradiction would be “sectarian”?

Obviously he does not. And my comparison with the extreme case of literal fascists using the term “anarchist” is not to suggest that anarchist apologists for “democracy” are remotely as objectionable. However annoying some of us find David Graeber and Cindy Milstein’s rhetoric of “more democratic than democracy,” they’re clearly eons apart from Troy Southgate. However my point is that this sort of argument against essentialism cuts too far.

It’s not “useless” to speak radically, to attempt to root our words to some kind of concrete definition. Rather such conceptual radicalism is the most useful approach we have.

If anarchism is to not blur out and mean anything and everything it must ultimately mean something in specific. We may not be able to fully reach such an ideal or even fully grasp its consequences, and we can be generous in our recognition of those in orbit of it, if convinced they’re orbiting a slightly different point, but that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of degrees of proximity or point out that someone’s motion is taking them around a different concept altogether.

Democracy represents a different concept altogether from anarchy and we should be clear about that.

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