The following is a translation of “Chapter 2” of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013). We have already translated and posted the “Prologue” and the “Chapter 1” of this work (Click here). And we hope to continue in what will be the complete translation of the book. In this way we hope to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.
Chapter 2: Representative Democracy, Direct Democracy
Criticism of Democracy
Despite the fact that it is common to libertarian thought to demand direct democracy, it is also the case that there are ever more persons who seem to conclude, given the general degradation in the very use of the word democracy, That the moment has arrived to seek less worn out terms. This aside, although many libertarian thinkers distinguish, as regards the degree of perversion, one or other forms of political power, then seek not to delude themselves about the basic meaning of liberal democracy. With regards to this last, one often speaks of farce and exploitation, of inequality and injustice, of the illusion of representation and of the manipulation by the media at the serve of power.
The libertarian criticism of liberal democracy suggests that it, despite the rhetoric, has nothing to do with the celebrated principle of majority rule: it rather inspires itself in ruling minorities who coercively generate self-interested consensuses and who repress everything that works against these last. It is curious that the principle of “one man, one vote” is postulated to identify a system that rests in the end on a scientific and unchangeable organisation of inequality that uses, this yes, an apparent plurality developed in a closed circuit. Lastly, and so that nothing is left out, liberal democracy appears inexorably linked with the activity of a parasitic human group. “The representative system, far from being a guarantee for the people, propitiates and guarantees, on the contrary, the permanent existence of a governmental aristocracy that acts against the people” (Bakunin).(1)
It is also however necessary to ask why liberal democracy also manifestly leaves outside of its purview the economy and the world of work, or, worse, subordinates the political system to the interests of powerful private companies. From a project that serves the visible purpose of ratifying the privileges of the powerful, the majority is paradoxically excluded from the taking of decisions. While economic power concentrates itself, the same occurs with political power, in a scenario weighed upon by oligarchy and inequality. Liberal democracy, in sum, brings in its wake a general aggression against all kinds of alternative horizontal and egalitarian organisations. Consequently, it clearly negates diversity and endeavours to completely cancel out the possibility of searching for other horizons.
Finally, I will emphasise that it is evident that the farce of democracy has perfected itself: it no longer displays the same characteristics that it did in the days of Bakunin or Kropotkin. It has so to speak fattened itself, on the one hand, upon the mechanisms of integration offered by the hand of the illusions of consumption, the generation of dependencies, or the recognition of fictional rights. On the other hand, and more recently, it is also clear and easily discernible that an irrepressible authoritarian shift and a directed effort, not without paradox, to cancel or mitigate the influence of the mechanisms of integration aforementioned. The disaster of the current political scenario is not the product happenstance; it arises inevitably from the foundations of liberal democracy and was perhaps unavoidable. Whoever believes at this point that corruption is a problem linked to certain persons or circumstances, I believe, fails to grasp what is fundamentally at stake.
At the heart of liberal democracy are elections. I remain fascinated by the echo that these continue to have in the minds of so many people. Whoever puts forward a different horizon must punctiliously justify their options, even though, by contrast, the inherent deficiencies of the electoral path pass unnoticed. The most problematic elements impose themselves in an extremely effective way when the logic to which the elections correspond is interiorised as normal and democratic: there is no better way to control people and annihilate dissidence. Even more surprising, in particular, is the fascination that elections inspire among many people on the left, who appear to believe in them blindly. It is at least noteworthy that one no longer hears the argument, the shameful argument, which in the past had some following: that which called attention to the possibility of using elections and parliaments as platforms for the dissemination of ideas.
As elections imply leaving everything in the hands of others who in the future will resolve our problems and – one must assume – liberate us, the mythical belief in them is an indicator of desperation and an abandonment of action. This situation is all the more significant when, in the case of libertarians, the criticism of elections rests upon solidly established grounds – above all that which involves a permanent refusal of delegation – and on a simple and empirical reflection on contemporary reality. It is not too much to recall that elections sustain the pre-given bewilderment and ignorance of the population, which are usually completely ignorant of the political programs of the parties for which they vote; also, that they are a dubious representation of the will of the majority, to the extent that the victorious parties – with internal organisations that are anything but democratic – win modest percentages of the vote, especially when abstention is taken in to account; as well, the dramatic differences in the resources available to political parties, or the common injustices of electoral systems. And to leave nothing out, and as I already have had occasion to mention, the economy exists almost completely at the margin of parliamentary decisions, the judicial power collaborates actively, without any independence whatsoever, in the general plot, as well as the means of miscommunication that increasingly repeat the technocratic discourses which suggest that our principle problems are not political, but merely technical. And if anything should fail, we have, in the dressing room, states of exception and coups d’états, accompanied by horizons of repression that do not subside. Where then is popular sovereignty? The voters are the extras who work for free in a farcical film, the film of democracy, in which “freedom is reduced to a choice between brands of detergent in the aisles of a shopping centre.”(2)
With such a panorama, the criticism of libertarian practices – the criticism of electoral abstention – cannot but be surprising; a criticism often expressed from the trenches of organisations and people who claim the Marx’s thought: a criticism which affirms that, in not participating in elections and institutions, libertarians leave the path open in them to the forces of capital.(3) As if there were not consistent and constant examples of the uselessness of elections and institutions, and, more, of the capacity that liberal democracy demonstrates until now to absorb those who decide to follow its rules. The double conclusion that this apparent democracy opens paths, without caveats, to possibilities of rupture and lacks the means to prevent eventual damage to the edifice of capitalism can only be described as naive: “if elections allowed changing anything, they would have been abolished”, proclaims a well known slogan. More sensible would seem to be the conclusion that the vast majority of the advances secured by workers have had little or nothing to do with elections. In fact, the general crisis of legal labour unionism has an obvious relation with the priority given to them, responsible for bleeding the organisations of struggle of days past. Because, in the end, from above, from the institutions, is the emancipation of people, is the call upon them to do what in other circumstances they would not, even conceivable?
It is the case that in the libertarian world, the question of elections has provoked polemics of some intensity. I am certainly not thinking at this moment of the ontological discussion around the vote: it is obvious that it is not the same exercising the vote in groups comprised of voluntary membership as in elections regulated by self-interested institutions. But beyond this, and in relation to organised elections, there are those who think that it is necessary to proudly and publically abstain, whereas there are those who believe that they should simply be forgotten. Those who position themselves in this second alternative put forward the argument that to call for abstention is in fact to attribute to elections an importance that they do not have, and in a certain way, to participate in them. For he who is considered to be the principal Spanish anarchist theorist, Ricardo Mella, a third path of action is proposed: that of suggesting respect for the decision to vote, but also calling upon the necessity of turning the greater part of one’s attention to everyday direct action, which is far more important and effective.(4)
I have already mentioned that the word democracy is so worn that one might just as well seek another to capture the corresponding referents. Something similarly occurs among us with the term transition: the reference to that initiated in second half of the 1970s that is so lamentable that there are more than sufficient motives to suspect the good sense of the demand for a second transition.
Things as they are, it is evident that, despite what was said, there is a clear defence of direct democracy in the libertarian world. The defence rests on a rejection of delegation and representation, the proposal of organisations with neither coercion nor leaders, and the repudiation of any type of government. To be feasible, all of the above demands, logically a prior and active process of decentralisation, de-complexification and a reduction of the size of political communities. The logic of direct democracy leads inevitably to a contestation of the world of political parties, which is none other than the world of delegation and separation, leaders and hierarchies, elections and parliaments. The party-organisational wager of the traditional left is today clearly not only confronted by the libertarian response; it must also respond to the apparently nebulous and anomic condition of many of the emergent networks.
The discussion around direct democracy in the last years has included a development that is as interesting as it is polemical: that connected with what is called libertarian municipalism. Even though the proposal has various expressions, i will limit myself to recalling that there are many libertarians who seem to view with good eyes participation in elections of a local nature in which, at least on paper, it is possible to maintain many of the characteristic elements of direct democracy, thereby limiting to a significant degree the exercise of representation. This was in sum the project embraced in the beginning by the Candidatures d’Unitat Popular (CUP) in Catalonia. I in no way wish to close the debate on libertarian municipalism, nor to categorically reject the possible virtues of the proposal. But I am obliged to express my fears, which in substance are three. The first emphasises that libertarian municipalism presupposes the acceptance of a category that has an obvious institutional dimension. As such, it carries with it the evident risk of cooption, especially when the project implies the assumption of the rules of the political game that the system imposes (even if it is often accompanied of course by the ambition of changing these rules). The second of these fears takes the form of a question: is it not rather simple for – and I refer again to the model of the Catalan CUPs in their more recent deviation, that may end in more traditional forms as those that can be identified with Sortu or with Syriza – the project here under consideration to lead to, in a flight to the summits, to a compliance with scenarios unequivocally marked by delegation and representation? The third caution recalls that today libertarian municipalism does not appear to bring in its favour any palpable results that are not offered by the non-institutional practice of direct democracy.
I would add that the debate about direct democracy has always been marked by complaints that refer to the supposed impossibility of realising it. In the recurrent argument, Leninists, Social-democrats, Liberal-conservatives have found common voice, without however asking themselves, obviously, about the suitability of their models and without reflecting, furthermore, on the extent to which the hostility that they bestow on direct democracy is not an explanation, if only partial, of the eventual failure of many of the manifestations of it. Beyond the argument, I suspect that the determination of these three political families does not consist in emphasising the difficulties associated with the application of direct democracy in complex societies, but in defending the advantages that representative pseudo-democracy has for the existing disorder. In such a scenario, I will limit myself to stating the conviction that the system that we suffer is perfectly prepared to confront the very relative oppositional spasms that Leninists and Social-Democrats brandish; it is less so, by contrast, to respond to the challenge of democracy from below.
We often forget that direct democracy has, in libertarian thought, an inevitable corollary: that which calls for direct action. Graeber has asserted in this regard that while Marxism tends to be a theoretical or analytical reflection on revolutionary strategy, anarchism signifies rather an ethical reflection on revolutionary praxis.(5)
I will understand by direct action that action which we bring about ourselves, without external mediations – political parties, bureaucracies, governments – and directed at the self-managed control of one’s own life, in such a way that we retain fully and at every moment the capacity to decide with respect to it. A parallel proposal demands self-organisation at the margin of institutions, entails avoiding intermediaries and instructions that come from outside, and, in the majority of formulations, advises avoiding any demand or negotiation with whoever exercises power. This last dimension has divided for some time, certainly, a movement like the 15th of May, one of whose components proposes in essence the elaboration of proposals with the confidence that these will be heard by those who govern, while another aspires to open spaces of autonomy, self-management and de-commodification, without waiting for any authorisation from those who govern.
Direct action is also born from the desire to control, in a mediated way, the events that follow from it. We seek to act as if we were free because in doing so, we begin to be so. In this sense, it has additionally a pre-figurative character, to the extent that the idea that means and ends should be in concordance is laid down. “Care for the present that you create, because it should resemble the future that you dream”, reads a slogan of Mujeres Creando, a Bolivian anarcho-feminist collective of urban agitators. The pre-figurative condition that I have just mentioned is a trait that is obviously absent, by contrast, from civil disobedience.(6) This last, in the end, accepts unequivocally the existing order, to that extent that it calls for, without further qualification, the right to disobey a law that it considers unjust. But how can civil disobedience be managed when it is understood that the majority of the laws, to not say all of them, are unjust?
I would add that direct action maintains a close relation with what for more than a hundred years was commonly called propaganda by deed, in the good sense that this last had almost always a more ambitious condition and more often than not was linked with an insurrection that should in itself become the basis for many others. The connection between direct action and propaganda by deed leads necessarily to the conclusion, anyway, that the first cannot remain a mere symbolic or aesthetic action: it should lead rather to palpable, material changes in reality.
1. Quoted in Guérin, op. cit., p. 27.
2. VV AA: Materiales para una crítica de la democracia. Klinamen, s.l., 2009, p. 7.
3. See, as an example of this kind of literature of combat, the book by John Molyneux: Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism. Bookmarks, London, 2011.
4. Ricardo Mella: “Vota, pero escucha”, in Solidaridad Obrera, n° 24, Gijón, 25th of December 1909.
5. David Graeber, La rivoluzione che viene. Manni, San Cesareo di Lecce, 2012, p. 35.
6. Benjamin Franks, cited in Robert Graham (ed.): A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume 3. The New Anarchism (1974-2012). Black Rose, Montreal/New York/London, p. 86.