Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.11

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A.2.11 Why are most anarchists in favour of direct democracy?

For most anarchists, direct democratic voting on policy decisions within free associations is the political counterpart of free agreement (this is also known as "self-management"). The reason is that "many forms of domination can be carried out in a 'free.' non-coercive, contractual manner. . . and it is naive. . . to think that mere opposition to political control will in itself lead to an end of oppression." [John P. Clark, Max Stirner's Egoism, p. 93] Thus the relationships we create within an organisation is as important in determining its libertarian nature as its voluntary nature (see section A.2.14 for more discussion).

It is obvious that individuals must work together in order to lead a fully human life. And so, "[h]aving to join with others humans" the individual has three options: "he [or she] must submit to the will of others (be enslaved) or subject others to his will (be in authority) or live with others in fraternal agreement in the interests of the greatest good of all (be an associate). Nobody can escape from this necessity." [Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 85]

Anarchists obviously pick the last option, association, as the only means by which individuals can work together as free and equal human beings, respecting the uniqueness and liberty of one another. Only within direct democracy can individuals express themselves, practice critical thought and self-government, so developing their intellectual and ethical capacities to the full. In terms of increasing an individual's freedom and their intellectual, ethical and social faculties, it is far better to be sometimes in a minority than be subject to the will of a boss all the time. So what is the theory behind anarchist direct democracy?

As Bertrand Russell noted, the anarchist "does not wish to abolish government in the sense of collective decisions: what he does wish to abolish is the system by which a decision is enforced upon those who oppose it." [Roads to Freedom, p. 85] Anarchists see self-management as the means to achieve this. Once an individual joins a community or workplace, he or she becomes a "citizen" (for want of a better word) of that association. The association is organised around an assembly of all its members (in the case of large workplaces and towns, this may be a functional sub-group such as a specific office or neighbourhood). In this assembly, in concert with others, the contents of his or her political obligations are defined. In acting within the association, people must exercise critical judgement and choice, i.e. manage their own activity. Rather than promising to obey (as in hierarchical organisations like the state or capitalist firm), individuals participate in making their own collective decisions, their own commitments to their fellows. This means that political obligation is not owed to a separate entity above the group or society, such as the state or company, but to one's fellow "citizens."

Although the assembled people collectively legislate the rules governing their association, and are bound by them as individuals, they are also superior to them in the sense that these rules can always be modified or repealed. Collectively, the associated "citizens" constitute a political "authority", but as this "authority" is based on horizontal relationships between themselves rather than vertical ones between themselves and an elite, the "authority" is non-hierarchical ("rational" or "natural," see section B.1 - "Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy?" - for more on this). Thus Proudhon:

   "In place of laws, we will put contracts [i.e. free agreement]. - No more laws voted by a majority, nor even unanimously; each citizen, each town, each industrial union, makes its own laws." [The General Idea of the Revolution, pp. 245-6] 

Such a system does not mean, of course, that everyone participates in every decision needed, no matter how trivial. While any decision can be put to the assembly (if the assembly so decides, perhaps prompted by some of its members), in practice certain activities (and so purely functional decisions) will be handled by the association's elected administration. This is because, to quote a Spanish anarchist activist, "a collectivity as such cannot write a letter or add up a list of figures or do hundreds of chores which only an individual can perform." Thus the need "to organise the administration." Supposing an association is "organised without any directive council or any hierarchical offices" which "meets in general assembly once a week or more often, when it settles all matters needful for its progress" it still "nominates a commission with strictly administrative functions." However, the assembly "prescribes a definite line of conduct for this commission or gives it an imperative mandate" and so "would be perfectly anarchist." As it "follows that delegating these tasks to qualified individuals, who are instructed in advance how to proceed, . . . does not mean an abdication of that collectivity's own liberty." [Jose Llunas Pujols, quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, p. 187] This, it should be noted, follows Proudhon's ideas that within the workers' associations "all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members." [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 222]

Instead of capitalist or statist hierarchy, self-management (i.e. direct democracy) would be the guiding principle of the freely joined associations that make up a free society. This would apply to the federations of associations an anarchist society would need to function. "All the commissions or delegations nominated in an anarchist society," correctly argued Jose Llunas Pujols, "must be subject to replacement and recall at any time by the permanent suffrage of the section or sections that elected them." Combined with the "imperative mandate" and "purely administrative functions," this "make[s] it thereby impossible for anyone to arrogate to himself [or herself] a scintilla of authority." [quoted by Max Nettlau, Op. Cit., pp. 188-9] Again, Pujols follows Proudhon who demanded twenty years previously the "implementation of the binding mandate" to ensure the people do not "adjure their sovereignty." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 63]

By means of a federalism based on mandates and elections, anarchists ensure that decisions flow from the bottom-up. By making our own decisions, by looking after our joint interests ourselves, we exclude others ruling over us. Self-management, for anarchists, is essential to ensure freedom within the organisations so needed for any decent human existence.

Of course it could be argued that if you are in a minority, you are governed by others ("Democratic rule is still rule" [L. Susan Brown, The Politics of Individualism, p. 53]). Now, the concept of direct democracy as we have described it is not necessarily tied to the concept of majority rule. If someone finds themselves in a minority on a particular vote, he or she is confronted with the choice of either consenting or refusing to recognise it as binding. To deny the minority the opportunity to exercise its judgement and choice is to infringe its autonomy and to impose obligation upon it which it has not freely accepted. The coercive imposition of the majority will is contrary to the ideal of self-assumed obligation, and so is contrary to direct democracy and free association. Therefore, far from being a denial of freedom, direct democracy within the context of free association and self-assumed obligation is the only means by which liberty can be nurtured ("Individual autonomy limited by the obligation to hold given promises." [Malatesta, quoted by quoted by Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta: The Biography of an Anarchist]). Needless to say, a minority, if it remains in the association, can argue its case and try to convince the majority of the error of its ways.

And we must point out here that anarchist support for direct democracy does not suggest we think that the majority is always right. Far from it! The case for democratic participation is not that the majority is always right, but that no minority can be trusted not to prefer its own advantage to the good of the whole. History proves what common-sense predicts, namely that anyone with dictatorial powers (by they a head of state, a boss, a husband, whatever) will use their power to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of those subject to their decisions.

Anarchists recognise that majorities can and do make mistakes and that is why our theories on association place great importance on minority rights. This can be seen from our theory of self-assumed obligation, which bases itself on the right of minorities to protest against majority decisions and makes dissent a key factor in decision making. Thus Carole Pateman:

   "If the majority have acted in bad faith. . . [then the] minority will have to take political action, including politically disobedient action if appropriate, to defend their citizenship and independence, and the political association itself. . . Political disobedience is merely one possible expression of the active citizenship on which a self-managing democracy is based . . . The social practice of promising involves the right to refuse or change commitments; similarly, the practice of self-assumed political obligation is meaningless without the practical recognition of the right of minorities to refuse or withdraw consent, or where necessary, to disobey." [The Problem of Political Obligation, p. 162] 

Moving beyond relationships within associations, we must highlight how different associations work together. As would be imagined, the links between associations follow the same outlines as for the associations themselves. Instead of individuals joining an association, we have associations joining confederations. The links between associations in the confederation are of the same horizontal and voluntary nature as within associations, with the same rights of "voice and exit" for members and the same rights for minorities. In this way society becomes an association of associations, a community of communities, a commune of communes, based upon maximising individual freedom by maximising participation and self-management.

The workings of such a confederation are outlined in section A.2.9 ( What sort of society do anarchists want?) and discussed in greater detail in section I (What would an anarchist society look like?).

This system of direct democracy fits nicely into anarchist theory. Malatesta speaks for all anarchists when he argued that "anarchists deny the right of the majority to govern human society in general." As can be seen, the majority has no right to enforce itself on a minority -- the minority can leave the association at any time and so, to use Malatesta's words, do not have to "submit to the decisions of the majority before they have even heard what these might be." [The Anarchist Revolution, p. 100 and p. 101] Hence, direct democracy within voluntary association does not create "majority rule" nor assume that the minority must submit to the majority no matter what. In effect, anarchist supporters of direct democracy argue that it fits Malatesta's argument that:

   "Certainly anarchists recognise that where life is lived in common it is often necessary for the minority to come to accept the opinion of the majority. When there is an obvious need or usefulness in doing something and, to do it requires the agreement of all, the few should feel the need to adapt to the wishes of the many . . . But such adaptation on the one hand by one group must be on the other be reciprocal, voluntary and must stem from an awareness of need and of goodwill to prevent the running of social affairs from being paralysed by obstinacy. It cannot be imposed as a principle and statutory norm. . ." [Op. Cit., p. 100] 

As the minority has the right to secede from the association as well as having extensive rights of action, protest and appeal, majority rule is not imposed as a principle. Rather, it is purely a decision making tool which allows minority dissent and opinion to be expressed (and acted upon) while ensuring that no minority forces its will on the majority. In other words, majority decisions are not binding on the minority. After all, as Malatesta argued:

   "one cannot expect, or even wish, that someone who is firmly convinced that the course taken by the majority leads to disaster, should sacrifice his [or her] own convictions and passively look on, or even worse, should support a policy he [or she] considers wrong." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 132] 

Even the Individual Anarchist Lysander Spooner acknowledged that direct democracy has its uses when he noted that "[a]ll, or nearly all, voluntary associations give a majority, or some other portion of the members less than the whole, the right to use some limited discretion as to the means to be used to accomplish the ends in view." However, only the unanimous decision of a jury (which would "judge the law, and the justice of the law") could determine individual rights as this "tribunal fairly represent[s] the whole people" as "no law can rightfully be enforced by the association in its corporate capacity, against the goods, rights, or person of any individual, except it be such as all members of the association agree that it may enforce" (his support of juries results from Spooner acknowledging that it "would be impossible in practice" for all members of an association to agree) [Trial by Jury, p. 130-1f, p. 134, p. 214, p. 152 and p. 132]

Thus direct democracy and individual/minority rights need not clash. In practice, we can imagine direct democracy would be used to make most decisions within most associations (perhaps with super-majorities required for fundamental decisions) plus some combination of a jury system and minority protest/direct action and evaluate/protect minority claims/rights in an anarchist society. The actual forms of freedom can only be created through practical experience by the people directly involved.

Lastly, we must stress that anarchist support for direct democracy does not mean that this solution is to be favoured in all circumstances. For example, many small associations may favour consensus decision making (see the next section on consensus and why most anarchists do not think that it is a viable alternative to direct democracy). However, most anarchists think that direct democracy within free association is the best (and most realistic) form of organisation which is consistent with anarchist principles of individual freedom, dignity and equality.