In Greece, as the state collapses, the neighborhoods organize – An interview with a member of the Athenian assembly movement

syneleysi1 has translated (in December 2014) an interview with a participant the Greek assembly movement first published in 2013, providing details concerning the methods employed by the movement and the obstacles that it has encountered since its rise in 2008. (Here is the original in Spanish, published in the Spanish journal, Argelaga, No. 5, Fall 2014). Originally has been published in French, under the title, “L’etat s’effondre, les quartiers s’organisent”. Retour sur le mouvement des assemblées de quartier. La revue Z, No. 7, 2013. Dossier Grèce: Thessalonique dans la dépression européenne. Bricolages quotidiens et résistances insolvables.

In Greece, as the State Collapses, the Neighborhoods Organize – An Interview with a Member of the Assembly Movement

[Introductory note added by the editors of Argelaga: An interview conducted for issue no. 7 [2013] of the French journal, Z, which perfectly illustrates the process of autonomous organization of the population in the face of the decomposition and collapse of the State apparatus. The example is valid for any other European country; the difference is only one of degree. Let us recapitulate some of the difficulties that stand in the way of autonomy: the inertia of a life subject to the commodity, the habit of appealing to the State for help, egoism, the rise of fascism, police repression, weariness in the face of constant sacrifices, etc. A life of freedom is not an easy road, but a life of slavery is not easy, either.]

Where did the neighborhood assembly movement originate?

I must point out that the movement is quite varied, that it has passed through various stages and for that reason it can be described in a thousand different ways. The idea of neighborhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighborhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country. After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centers reached its limit and then shifted to the neighborhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.

Can you tell us about the assembly in your neighborhood?

The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighborhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighborhood during the Resistance, the neighborhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighborhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theater in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theater would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighborhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighborhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participate in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.

What kind of actions are you organizing?

We are involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we are defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we are elaborating projects and ways of life that seem desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighborhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult. The people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—have a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union. Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the pigs attacked the march of the neighborhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma, who almost died, and others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centers of the neighborhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighborhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighborhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also hold a barter market once a month in different squares. We also have a meeting hall with a library that is open to the neighborhood, in which we organize various activities, debates and talks.

All these actions are undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that have seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State is indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we are attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighborhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.

How do you propose to deal with the problem of food?

We had to deal with this problem ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighborhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land. We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly is now responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighborhoods that are cooperating on this project. We are still a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it is a first step. Having said this, the garden is being threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, have multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.

We have heard a lot about the polarization of Greek society. Have you noticed this in your assembly?

Certain people have spoken at the assembly to express their view that there are too many immigrants in the neighborhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighborhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighborhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.

Do you have a lot of run-ins with Golden Dawn?

Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they have received as a result, Golden Dawn has opened offices throughout Greece. Whenever they open a new office, protests and demonstrations are held that often result in confrontations with the police. Without police protection, the fascists would not be able to maintain a presence in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, at least for now, they only have two really active neighborhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighborhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they have a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighborhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighborhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.

You mentioned the first wave of assemblies after December 2008. What other initiatives for common action have taken place in the neighborhoods?

In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighborhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view. A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.

Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It is very dynamic and is actually quite radical: our neighborhoods do not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax or for any other reason. For us, electricity is a vital good.

The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighborhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. Today, we have established neighborhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. At the present time, along with the antifascist struggle, this is the main fight that the assemblies are waging.

Can you tell us about the movements that have influenced you?

The assembly movement owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes, we were inspired by the Argentinian experience, and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighborhood.

One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.

In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.

What is your overall assessment of the four years of existence of your assembly? And what is your assessment of the neighborhood assemblies, generally speaking?

It’s hard to say. After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighborhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevent us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.

One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence have never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighborhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighborhood assemblies do not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.

The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services. I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts, there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.

I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.



An Interview with Howard Zinn on Anarchism: Rebels Against Tyranny

By Ziga Vodovnik (January,2010)

zinnHoward Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010) was a Professor Emeritus of political science at Boston University. He was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1922 to a poor immigrant family. He realized early in his youth that the promise of the “American Dream“, that will come true to all hard-working and diligent people, is just that—a promise and a dream. During World War II he joined US Air Force and served as a bombardier in the “European Theatre“. This proved to be a formative experience that only strengthened his convictions that there is no such thing as a just war. It also revealed, once again, the real face of the socio-economic order, where the suffering and sacrifice of the ordinary people is always used only to higher the profits of the privileged few.

Although Zinn spent his youthful years helping his parents support the family by working in the shipyards, he started with studies at Columbia University after WWII, where he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in 1958. Later he was appointed as a chairman of the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College, an all-black women’s college in Atlanta, GA, where he actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement.

From the onset of the Vietnam War he was active within the emerging anti-war movement, and in the following years only stepped up his involvement in movements aspiring towards another, better world. Zinn is the author of more than 20 books, including A People’s History of the United States that is “a brilliant and moving history of the American people from the point of view of those who have been exploited politically and economically and whose plight has been largely omitted from most histories…” (Library Journal)

Zinn’s most recent book is entitled A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, and is a fascinating collection of essays that Zinn wrote in the last couple of years. Beloved radical historian is still lecturing across the US and around the world, and is, with active participation and support of various progressive social movements continuing his struggle for free and just society.

Ziga Vodovnik: From the 1980s onwards we are witnessing the process of economic globalization getting stronger day after day. Many on the Left are now caught between a “dilemma”—either to work to reinforce the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital; or to strive towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization and that is equally global. What’s your opinion about this?

Howard Zinn: I am an anarchist, and according to anarchist principles nation states become obstacles to a true humanistic globalization. In a certain sense, the movement towards globalization where capitalists are trying to leap over nation state barriers, creates a kind of opportunity for movement to ignore national barriers, and to bring people together globally, across national lines in opposition to globalization of capital, to create globalization of people, opposed to traditional notion of globalization. In other words to use globalization—there is nothing wrong with idea of globalization—in a way that bypasses national boundaries and of course that there is not involved corporate control of the economic decisions that are made about people all over the world.

ZV: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote that: “Freedom is the mother, not the daughter of order.” Where do you see life after or beyond (nation) states?

HZ: Beyond the nation states? (laughter) I think what lies beyond the nation states is a world without national boundaries, but also with people organized. But not organized as nations, but people organized as groups, as collectives, without national and any kind of boundaries. Without any kind of borders, passports, visas. None of that! Of collectives of different sizes, depending on the function of the collective, having contacts with one another. You cannot have self-sufficient little collectives, because these collectives have different resources available to them. This is something anarchist theory has not worked out and maybe cannot possibly work out in advance, because it would have to work itself out in practice.

ZV: Do you think that a change can be achieved through institutionalized party politics, or only through alternative meanswith disobedience, building parallel frameworks, establishing alternative media, etc.

HZ: If you work through the existing structures you are going to be corrupted. By working through political system that poisons the atmosphere, even the progressive organizations, you can see it even now in the US, where people on the “Left” are all caught in the electoral campaign and get into fierce arguments about should we support this third party candidate or that third party candidate. This is a sort of little piece of evidence that suggests that when you get into working through electoral politics you begin to corrupt your ideals. So I think a way to behave is to think not in terms of representative government, not in terms of voting, not in terms of electoral politics, but thinking in terms of organizing social movements, organizing in the work place, organizing in the neighborhood, organizing collectives that can become strong enough to eventually take over —first to become strong enough to resist what has been done to them by authority, and second, later, to become strong enough to actually take over the institutions.

ZV: One personal question. Do you go to the polls? Do you vote?

HZ: I do. Sometimes, not always. It depends. But I believe that it is preferable sometimes to have one candidate rather another candidate, while you understand that that is not the solution. Sometimes the lesser evil is not so lesser, so you want to ignore that, and you either do not vote or vote for third party as a protest against the party system. Sometimes the difference between two candidates is an important one in the immediate sense, and then I believe trying to get somebody into office, who is a little better, who is less dangerous, is understandable. But never forgetting that no matter who gets into office, the crucial question is not who is in office, but what kind of social movement do you have. Because we have seen historically that if you have a powerful social movement, it doesn’t matter who is in office. Whoever is in office, they could be Republican or Democrat, if you have a powerful social movement, the person in office will have to yield, will have to in some ways respect the power of social movements.

We saw this in the 1960s. Richard Nixon was not the lesser evil, he was the greater evil, but in his administration the war was finally brought to an end, because he had to deal with the power of the anti-war movement as well as the power of the Vietnamese movement. I will vote, but always with a caution that voting is not crucial, and organizing is the important thing.

When some people ask me about voting, they would say will you support this candidate or that candidate? I say: “I will support this candidate for one minute that I am in the voting booth. At that moment I will support A versus B, but before I am going to the voting booth, and after I leave the voting booth, I am going to concentrate on organizing people and not organizing electoral campaign.”

ZV: Anarchism is in this respect rightly opposing representative democracy since it is still form of tyranny tyranny of majority. They object to the notion of majority vote, noting that the views of the majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. Thoreau once wrote that we have an obligation to act according to the dictates of our conscience, even if the latter goes against the majority opinion or the laws of the society. Do you agree with this?

HZ: Absolutely. Rousseau once said, if I am part of a group of 100 people, do 99 people have the right to sentence me to death, just because they are majority? No, majorities can be wrong, majorities can overrule rights of minorities. If majorities ruled, we could still have slavery. 80% of the population once enslaved 20% of the population. While run by majority rule that is ok. That is very flawed notion of what democracy is. Democracy has to take into account several things—proportionate requirements of people, not just needs of the majority, but also needs of the minority. And also has to take into account that majority, especially in societies where the media manipulates public opinion, can be totally wrong and evil. So yes, people have to act according to conscience and not by majority vote.

ZV: Where do you see the historical origins of anarchism in the United States?

HZ: One of the problems with dealing with anarchism is that there are many people whose ideas are anarchist, but who do not necessarily call themselves anarchists. The word was first used by Proudhon in the middle of the 19th century, but actually there were anarchist ideas that proceeded Proudhon, those in Europe and also in the United States. For instance, there are some ideas of Thomas Paine, who was not an anarchist, who would not call himself an anarchist, but he was suspicious of government. Also Henry David Thoreau. He does not know the word anarchism, and does not use the word anarchism, but Thoreau’s ideas are very close to anarchism. He is very hostile to all forms of government. If we trace origins of anarchism in the United States, then probably Thoreau is the closest you can come to an early American anarchist. You do not really encounter anarchism until after the Civil War, when you have European anarchists, especially German anarchists, coming to the United States. They actually begin to organize. The first time that anarchism has an organized force and becomes publicly known in the United States is in Chicago at the time of Haymarket Affair.

ZV: Where do you see the main inspiration of contemporary anarchism in the United States? What is your opinion about the Transcendentalism i.e., Henry D. Thoreau, Ralph W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, et an inspiration in this perspective?

HZ: Well, the Transcendentalism is, we might say, an early form of anarchism. The Transcendentalists also did not call themselves anarchists, but there are anarchist ideas in their thinking and in their literature. In many ways Herman Melville shows some of those anarchist ideas. They were all suspicious of authority. We might say that the Transcendentalism played a role in creating an atmosphere of skepticism towards authority, towards government.

Unfortunately, today there is no real organized anarchist movement in the United States. There are many important groups or collectives that call themselves anarchist, but they are small. I remember that in 1960s there was an anarchist collective here in Boston that consisted of fifteen (sic!) people, but then they split. But in 1960s the idea of anarchism became more important in connection with the movements of 1960s.

ZV: Most of the creative energy for radical politics is nowadays coming from anarchism, but only few of the people involved in the movement actually call themselves “anarchists”. Where do you see the main reason for this? Are activists ashamed to identify themselves with this intellectual tradition, or rather they are true to the commitment that real emancipation needs emancipation from any label?

HZ: The term anarchism has become associated with two phenomena with which real anarchist don’t want to associate themselves with. One is violence, and the other is disorder or chaos. The popular conception of anarchism is on the one hand bomb-throwing and terrorism, and on the other hand no rules, no regulations, no discipline, everybody does what they want, confusion, etc. That is why there is a reluctance to use the term anarchism. But actually the ideas of anarchism are incorporated in the way the movements of the 1960s began to think.

I think that probably the best manifestation of that was in the civil rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—SNCC. SNCC without knowing about anarchism as philosophy embodied the characteristics of anarchism. They were decentralized. Other civil rights organizations, for example Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were centralized organizations with a leader—Martin Luther King. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were based in New York, and also had some kind of centralized organization. SNCC, on the other hand, was totally decentralized. It had what they called field secretaries, who worked in little towns all over the South, with great deal of autonomy. They had an office in Atlanta, Georgia, but the office was not a strong centralized authority. The people who were working out in the field—in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi—they were very much on their own. They were working together with local people, with grassroots people. And so there is no one leader for SNCC, and also great suspicion of government.

They could not depend on government to help them, to support them, even though the government of the time, in the early 1960s, was considered to be progressive, liberal. John F. Kennedy especially. But they looked at John F. Kennedy, they saw how he behaved. John F. Kennedy was not supporting the Southern movement for equal rights for Black people. He was appointing the segregationists judges in the South, he was allowing southern segregationists to do whatever they wanted to do. So SNCC was decentralized, anti-government, without leadership, but they did not have a vision of a future society like the anarchists. They were not thinking long term, they were not asking what kind of society shall we have in the future. They were really concentrated on immediate problem of racial segregation. But their attitude, the way they worked, the way they were organized, was along, you might say, anarchist lines.

ZV: Do you think that pejorative (mis)usage of the word anarchism is direct consequence of the fact that the ideas that people can be free, was and is very frightening to those in power?

HZ: No doubt! No doubt that anarchist ideas are frightening to those in power. People in power can tolerate liberal ideas. They can tolerate ideas that call for reforms, but they cannot tolerate the idea that there will be no state, no central authority. So it is very important for them to ridicule the idea of anarchism to create this impression of anarchism as violent and chaotic. It is useful for them, yes.

ZV: In theoretical political science, we can analytically identify two main conceptions of anarchism a so-called collectivist anarchism limited to Europe, and on another hand individualist anarchism limited to US. Do you agree with this analytical separation?

HZ: To me this is an artificial separation. As so often happens analysts can make things easier for themselves, like to create categories and fit movements into categories, but I don’t think you can do that. Here in the United States, sure there have been people who believed in individualist anarchism, but in the United States have also been organized anarchists of Chicago in 1880s or SNCC. I guess in both instances, in Europe and in the United States, you find both manifestations, except that maybe in Europe the idea of anarcho-syndicalism became stronger in Europe than in the US. While in the US you have the IWW, which is an anarcho-syndicalist organization and certainly not in keeping with individualist anarchism.

ZV: What is your opinion about the “dilemma” of meansrevolution versus social and cultural evolution?

HZ: I think here are several different questions. One of them is the issue of violence, and I think here anarchists have disagreed. Here in the US you find a disagreement, and you can find this disagreement within one person. Emma Goldman, you might say she brought anarchism, after she was dead, to the forefront in the US in the 1960s, when she suddenly became an important figure. But Emma Goldman was in favor of the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, but then she decided that this is not the way. Her friend and comrade, Alexander Berkman, he did not give up totally the idea of violence. On the other hand, you have people who were anarchistic in way like Tolstoy and also Gandhi, who believed in nonviolence.

There is one central characteristic of anarchism on the matter of means, and that central principle is a principle of direct action—of not going through the forms that the society offers you, of representative government, of voting, of legislation, but directly taking power. In case of trade unions, in case of anarcho-syndicalism, it means workers going on strike, and not just that, but actually also taking hold of industries in which they work and managing them. What is direct action? In the South when black people were organizing against racial segregation, they did not wait for the government to give them a signal, or to go through the courts, to file lawsuits, wait for Congress to pass the legislation. They took direct action; they went into restaurants, were sitting down there and wouldn’t move. They got on those buses and acted out the situation that they wanted to exist.

Of course, strike is always a form of direct action. With the strike, too, you are not asking government to make things easier for you by passing legislation, you are taking a direct action against the employer. I would say, as far as means go, the idea of direct action against the evil that you want to overcome is a kind of common denominator for anarchist ideas, anarchist movements. I still think one of the most important principles of anarchism is that you cannot separate means and ends. And that is, if your end is egalitarian society you have to use egalitarian means, if your end is non-violent society without war, you cannot use war to achieve your end. I think anarchism requires means and ends to be in line with one another. I think this is in fact one of the distinguishing characteristics of anarchism.

ZV: On one occasion Noam Chomsky has been asked about his specific vision of anarchist society and about his very detailed plan to get there. He answered that “we can not figure out what problems are going to arise unless you experiment with them.” Do you also have a feeling that many left intellectuals are loosing too much energy with their theoretical disputes about the proper means and ends, to even start “experimenting” in practice?

HZ: I think it is worth presenting ideas, like Michael Albert did with Parecon for instance, even though if you maintain flexibility. We cannot create blueprint for future society now, but I think it is good to think about that. I think it is good to have in mind a goal. It is constructive, it is helpful, it is healthy, to think about what future society might be like, because then it guides you somewhat what you are doing today, but only so long as this discussions about future society don’t become obstacles to working towards this future society. Otherwise you can spend discussing this utopian possibility versus that utopian possibility, and in the mean time you are not acting in a way that would bring you closer to that.

ZV: In your A People’s History of the United States you show us that our freedom, rights, environmental standards, etc., have never been given to us from the wealthy and influential few, but have always been fought out by ordinary peoplewith civil disobedience. What should be in this respect our first steps toward another, better world?

HZ: I think our first step is to organize ourselves and protest against existing order—against war, against economic and sexual exploitation, against racism, etc. But to organize ourselves in such a way that means correspond to the ends, and to organize ourselves in such a way as to create kind of human relationship that should exist in future society. That would mean to organize ourselves without centralize authority, without charismatic leader, in a way that represents in miniature the ideal of the future egalitarian society. So that even if you don’t win some victory tomorrow or next year in the meantime you have created a model. You have acted out how future society should be and you created immediate satisfaction, even if you have not achieved your ultimate goal.

ZV: What is your opinion about different attempts to scientifically prove Bakunin’s ontological assumption that human beings have “instinct for freedom”, not just will but also biological need?

HZ: Actually I believe in this idea, but I think that you cannot have biological evidence for this. You would have to find a gene for freedom? No. I think the other possible way is to go by history of human behavior. History of human behavior shows this desire for freedom, shows that whenever people have been living under tyranny, people would rebel against that.

Ziga Vodovnik is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, where his teaching and research is focused on anarchist theory/praxis and social movements in the Americas. His new book Anarchy of Everyday Life – Notes on anarchism and its Forgotten Confluences will be released in late 2008.

Republication from AK PRESS

Manifesto 2014 (English version)

Read the Greek version here

The collective of started its operation in December 2010, as an initiative not only for dialogue and counter-information but also to promote philosophical, political and cultural self-education of human beings based on universal values ​​and ideals (such as freedom of speech, the right to education, gender, racial and sexual equality, the right of excluded social groups – like immigrants and unemployed – the opposition to any exploitation of man by man, the review of work and labour and its alienating consequences …). brings together people from diverse political spaces, mostly ardent supporters of the project of autonomy – as expressed by Cornelius Castoriadis – thinkers of council democracy (inspired by Hannah Arendt) and anarchist supporters (with particular emphasis on Murray Bookchin and Errico Malatesta), or situationists commentators and analysts who do not wish to compromise ideologically with the dominant values ​​that underlie the modern capitalist imaginary but instead seek for political alternatives rejecting at the same time the notion of representation, or even theories acknowledged as a solid truths and doctrinal beliefs. is consisted by activists, journalists and political writers/researchers who refuse to reproduce social taboos, nationalism or outdated ideological currents. Always posing as a key project the social transformation, according to political, economic and cultural justice and equality, direct deliberative democracy and rejection of any kind of bureaucracy and hierarchy, this collectivity continues to promote in the public dialogue political ideas that remain largely undiscovered, ideas that promote a different understanding not only on the ways and means of social change but also regarding the objectives of that change. Far from trivial and sterile entrenched perceptions, breaking from ideological taboos and all kinds of conservatism, continues its difficult work, welcoming all who respond to this call for political dialogue.

Coming from different backgrounds (workers, students, unemployed, artists, academics, writers) we are people with similar problems and concerns, people from different parts of the world who unite our voices under a common purpose: to contribute in the radical change of things. We know that this requires a clear rupture with any kind of transcendental or metaphysical rigid determinism (such as religious beliefs, laws of ancestors, laws of markets, laws of history) – that is called heteronomy – aiming to a world fairer and freer, to a world of political, economic and cultural equality, where processes through direct participation in decision-making will take place, enhancing the feasibility for us to redefine our needs and prioritize the values ​​that govern human communities. We know, of course, that the achievement of these objectives is not an easy task given that a) under the current situation with the rise of extreme right-wing populist, fascist movements and the hardening of state repression (which threatens and violates basic civil, democratic, social and economic rights earned with hard struggles), our efforts may face several risks (although that does not intimidate us), and b) in the era of mass apathy, of de-politicization and generalized poverism/conformity, where public communication is swamped by silence and isolation, the responses may not be broadly accepted in comparison with the initiatives that had significant resonance in the period of great social struggles during the past two centuries. We believe, however, that it is up to us to offer a political impetus for the further expansion of the antagonistic network that aims to the beginning of new struggles, while stressing that human beings are not solely destined for labour and consumption, obeying blindly and unquestioningly commands as slaves. The human (political) being can also create and excel using positive imagination and providing meaning to his/her existence.

In principle, we reject the contemporary global political infrastructure, the concentration of power in the hands of the few which reproduces and perpetuates poverty, inequality and injustice in all areas, leading inevitably to violence and dissolving any bond of social solidarity. The existing political system of liberal oligarchies deprives humanity as it measures every human value in profit (the only dominant value) destroying every spirit of friendship. Values ​​such as political participation, concepts such as consultation and communication are gradually fading away in a world that manufactures human machines, isolated individuals who attempt to disguise the lack of any meaning regarding their existence through consumerism (which is regarded as personal «success» and fulfilment), with lonely individuals who are accept pauperization as a natural condition in this jungle of social Darwinism that characterizes the capitalist imaginary, a dreadful machinery that generates and reproduces indifference, hatred and derision for the less powerful. Thus, we demand equality, ie actual (direct and deliberative) democracy, which according to us is inseparable from justice, equality and isonomy, that is equal participation in political power for all citizens. This requires explicit rupture with parliamentary institutions and any mechanism that perpetuates hierarchy and thus exploitation, heteronomy and alienation into the abyss of insignificance. Having acknowledged that the eutopic (and not utopic) political system we want isn’t going to be achieved through press releases, or ballot boxes, we call into question of the current state of power relations, we challenge all social institutions (such as the state – which gradually throws away its mask revealing its true face, that of a punisher -, or party offices), surpassing the demand for improving, rationalizing, or replacing them with others that will move into the same direction. Thus, we propose to replace all of these institutions that constitute and reproduce the modern capitalist (and ostensibly free) social reality, by political bodies that will allow all citizens to participate in the making (and taking) of decisions concerning public life, popular assemblies in squares, municipalities, workplaces (schools, factories, universities). Equality, friendship, solidarity and human creation for us should be a key objective of these new institutions.

At the same time we reject the imaginary of unlimited economic growth based on the hierarchical structure of the productive capitalist model which serves the interests of a small oligarchy in the arena of global competition that has transformed the entire planet into financial casino, damaging at the same time our natural environment and turning populations into profit machines that blindly execute orders in exchange for survival. Always under the scope of democratic transformation we promote the project of self-organization of production, moving away from the capitalist standards, away from the accumulation of profit in the hands of few, objecting to equal sharing of the wealth (and of course to income equality) while at the same time we incorporate environmental initiatives within the framework of our political program. But as aforementioned, human beings are not born and die having as an intended goal labour/production and consumption. Humans action can also result to worldliness – and this is the raison d’être of genuine politics (of direct democracy and autonomy), which undeniably cannot take place within our, utterly alienated by the imaginary of poverism, societies, deeply eroded by the insignificance of pseudo-individualism. Given that lack of freedom is not something that only concerns the work relationships (the oppression and exploitation of the worker from the employer and the boss) but has also to do with the nature of the production process, we aim not only to provide a more substantial meaning to work and workmanship (by asking ourselves why and for whom we labour?), but also to reduce the work-time, which is undoubtedly necessary for public happiness (namely for the re-emergence of a public realm). Such a system can not exist within the capitalist economic model that leaves no space for real communication between people and instead imprisons everyone to the impotence of private sphere. Extreme adherence to the work ethic, to productivism and profit-making signifies lack of time for reading, for analysis and discussion. Political representation serves exactly this pathology; to let others – some skilled technocrats – undertake the task of political implementation, a task that in fact should be exclusively our concern instead of acknowledging as our ultimate goal only private happiness.

Therefore, we reject any notion of bureaucratisation and we do not believe in change through the means that the system itself has created, means that keep us trapped in the world of impotence, conformity, entertainment and spectacle. Hence, we are not only looking for a public space as a key component of the participatory democracy we aim, but also for public time as an important tool to achieve our goals. Of course, for us the meaning of bureaucracy is not only confined to the hierarchical structures of the state apparatus, it does not solely refer to dialectic between rulers and the ruled (or in the workplace between masters and labourers, as mentioned above). The entire bureaucratization for our lives is characterized by the sheer totality of capitalist (and every heteronomous) imaginary that embraces every aspect of human activity and condition. It is located in the education system which produces «technocrats» who perpetuate the existing structures by prioritizing specific needs, it is incarnated in the psychological and anthropological approaches of the contemporary world, in short, it is an objective of (self)manipulation. We can see it on the Media (TV, magazines, radio, books), in all the institutions of mass culture. It is also located even in science which no longer serves the people but the large economic interests. We intent thus to challenge all the sociological narratives which proclaim that human beings are incapable of freedom and that the need for guidance by a skilled artisan, a polar economist is always required. The phrase of Sophocles «there is no more fearful or admirable being than a human» denotes explicitly the capabilities of human beings for self-creation and freedom.

To counter the current political challenges, we declare that the time to rise up and act collectively through a joint new network of revolutionary agenda is here. Through open assemblies, councils and open political bodies in every square, where communication and interaction will become possible, we aim to liberate ourselves. Not as lenders and borrowers, not as rich and poor, not as prosecutors and defendants, but as equal and free citizens, if we do not wish concepts such as democracy and freedom to become forgotten entries in encyclopedic dictionaries and history books.

Occupied London issue #5: ‘Disorder of the Day’

Post image for Occupied London issue #5: ‘Disorder of the Day’

As the frames of revolt reach a dazzling speed, this last issue of the anarchist journal takes a step back to reflect on the uprisings of recent years.

Editorial by the Occupied London collective:

This is the last issue of Occupied London, a journal that started in the political freeze-frame that was London in the mid 00s. In December 2008, at the continent’s other end, the frames started moving again; as they sped up, new movements, revolts, ripples of transformation appeared. We changed our shape to respond to this unfolding condition. For a few years, we focused on regular blog updates from the streets in Greece; then, taking a few steps back and a deep breath, we put a book together, trying to understand the state of the antagonist movement in Greece with our comrades.

And now? The frames have reached a dazzling speed; the consensus of democracy’s good ol’ times has broken and sheds its glass all over the continent, and beyond: the old world is in crisis, and along with it is its previously imposed global consensus on what counts as “progress”, “democracy” or “development”. Are these the creaks and sighs of a new global order settling, are they the early days of global economic fascism, or, could they be the cracks and moaning of its collapse?

The change in everything that we live through is dramatic — and the only way to respond to this new landscape is by changing the format through which we act, communicate, the way we do and spread our politics. If there is a lesson that we should have learned by now in this prolonged moment of crisis, it is that political action that isn’t versatile is doomed to be paralysed in a radical milieu that becomes rapidly outpaced, superseded by the anger of peoples the world over. What has it ever meant to be underground or radical? Whatever the answer, it had already mattered less and less so in, say, struggles over gender, race, or sexuality — now, with revolts becoming the (dis)order of the day, old identifications become obsolete in street politics, too.

And so, this issue is an end and a beginning. It is the end of Occupied London as it existed so far: as irregular journal issues and as a single blog. From now on, we want to be able to respond faster and more acutely to what is playing out around us. Over the coming months, we will be working on both an expanded version of our “From the Greek Streets” blog and on a web platform that will allow for in-depth analysis of our time of global revolt. And then, on much more… We will not reveal much more about the full future format of Occupied London; suffice to say, we will continue updating the blog while we work on the shape of things to come.

Around four years since our last print issue, we have decided to end this phase of the Occupied London project with one final tribute to our journal format. This, our last issue, features reflections from many recent sites of mass revolts from the past few years: it is reminiscent and eagerly awaiting the times to come…

Download a PDF version of Occupied London #5 here.

Occupied London issue #5: ‘Disorder of the Day’

Democracy and Beyond


For the greek translation, click here

by Amedeo Bertolo

If understood to the letter a democracy must be a stateless society…
Power belongs to the people insofar as the people exercise it themselves. Giovanni Sartori

This article is concerned with democracy from an anarchist point of view and with anarchism from a democratic point of view. The principal question is those aspects of the two political and philosophical categories which are relevant to a confrontation between them, that is to say the essential differences and similarities between democracy and anarchism.

This means that neither democracy as it is commonly understood («representative» democracy) nor political anarchism (as anarchists see it) will be looked at in detail, nor even that particular primary form of democracy, «direct democracy», which lies on the borderline between democracy and anarchism. It would need much more space than we have here to deal with any or all of these in detail and so I will limit myself to brief definitions for the purpose of comparison, or better said, to a general assessment of their compatibility/comparability.

What I hope to demonstrate is that democracy and anarchism are neither identical (under certain conditions) nor antithetical. Anarchism is the most fully developed form of democracy but at the same time moves definitively beyond it –as the title of this article suggests.

To the question of whether it is possible to move beyond democracy I would say yes, it is, in both quality and quantity. In an analogy to what I once wrote about freedom[1], the anarchist conception of freedom is both «more» and «different» than the liberal one. In simpler terms, this «difference» or diversity lies in the fact that for the liberals the freedom of single individuals is limited by that of others, while for the anarchists it is enhanced.

However the «different» freedom of the anarchists also encompasses that of the liberals, while moving beyond in both quantity and quality. Quantity is essential as without it there is no guarantee of quality; a «different» freedom must at the same time signify a greater one. Even religious fundamentalists (Christian, Moslem, etc.) speak of «different» freedoms which are however less freedom, both at the individual level and at the collective one– particularly individual. Thus the political idea of the anarchists is and must necessarily be greater democracy, over and above anything else, if it is not to remain on this side of the dividing line. This is in fact what anarchists maintain: that it is both greater and different.

So the anarchist idea of the political is of something both quantitatively and qualitatively beyond the democratic one. This is so for the reigning democratic idea, the representative one, and for more radical ones such as «participatory democracy»…[2] and even for so-called «direct democracy».[3] The anarchist idea of the political, which could be termed «anarchist politics», is in fact at one and the same time «more» than democracy and something different.

How then can something be one thing and at the same time another? Difficult though it may be to comprehend, it is in fact possible. Here we are thinking not of «things» from the physical world, but of «things» from the social-political imaginary, for which the way they «are» depends on the point of view from which they are viewed. Anarchism, in this case, can be seen as an extreme form of democracy and as a different form of constructing the political, or even as something lying beyond the political.

First it must be clearly stated that I have in mind certain definitions of democracy (or better democracies[4], which were always implicit but have gradually become more explicit. These definitions are relatively neutral –total neutrality being neither possible for useful. They are definitions of anarchism first and foremost from an anarchist perspective (although bearing in mind the democratic critique) and of democracy from the democratic perspective[5] (although bearing in mind the anarchist critique).

First, however, I would like to make a digression which is only apparently irrelevant andior personal.


When I am in a bad mood and I look around me in the «ideological storeroom» of anarchism, I feel as if I were in the back of a second-hand shop. Not an antique shop, as some malicious enemy of anarchism might have it, but worse– a second hand shop. In among the timeworn set phrases, the declarations of principle, the verbal extremism, the statements of affection, recollections, dear departed ones… I can see bits and pieces of a more recent date – not old enough to be antiques but enough so not to be really modern, i.e. almost contemporary.

I know that anarchism has produced original and important things in the last fifty years (particularly in the last twenty or thirty), things that can justifiably be termed modern. I know too that anarchist thought has of course preserved some wonderful «antiques» of its classical period. It still bases itself largely on these and by making fun of the ingenuity and rich potential of the «modern», the «old», i.e. the vulgate, has built itself a shell of common ground to protect its fragile identity. The identity of the «classics», of the founding fathers of anarchism was so strong that they could even contradict themselves (really or apparently) without any great difficulties. Lucky them!

In 1848 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a member of the National Assembly; in 1849 he wrote a crystal clear and devastating attack not only on the state and the government but on the political dimension per se. In 1863 in Du Principe fédératif he set out a plan for an autonomous political sphere, speaking of communes, provinces, regions, and, Hear ye well!, of government and the state[6].

Then there was Mikhail Bakunin, who wrote to his friend and comrade from Naples, Carlo Gambuzzi, «You will perhaps be surprised to hear that I, a passionately convinced abstentionist, am now suggesting to my friends that they stand for election to the national assembly. The circumstances however have changed»[7]. And what circumstances had changed –was good old Bak no longer an anarchist? You must be joking! It is just that while anarchism today holds up abstentionism as a principle, for Bakunin it was a strategic choice, or judging from the above quote we could almost say a tactical one.[8]

You may be asking what this has to do with the subject, but it is indeed relevant, if only in part. The idea that anarchists today have of democracy is heavily influenced by the anarchist vulgate, just as the idea that democrats have of anarchism (apart from some clear cases of ignorance and distrust) is heavily influenced by their vulgate.

One example is the statement that «anarchists do not vote». If this is a fundamental principle it is inevitable that the vulgate maintains that not only are anarchists opposed to voting in certain historical (social, economic, political) conditions, but that anarchists never and never will vote in any circumstances, and that is sublimely foolish. Sublimely because it is a declaration of faith that is totally utopian, and utopia is an essential element of anarchism. Foolish because it is entirely devoid of that common sense without which there can be no «possible anarchism» i.e. anarchism that has an important role in transforming society, not only by revolution.

To avoid any misunderstandings, I should say that I am fifty-seven years of age and I have never voted in any of the elections (most of them touted as «decisive») in Italy in the last thirty-two years. But this is not the point, or at least not the place to look for it.

So what then is the point? I think Bakunin summed it up in his outline for society after the revolution: «The basis of all political organisation in a country must be the totally autonomous commune, always represented by the majority (my italics) of the votes of all adult men and women residing there»[9]. And again: «Elections of all national, provincial and communal representatives […] shall be by universal suffrage (my italics) of all adult men and women»[10].

And this brings us back to the point.

The Government of All

Francesco Saverio Merlino, who was an anarchist in the 1890s and later moved towards libertarian and then liberal socialism, wrote that «government by all = government by none»[11]. Shortly before he died he made a note on a manuscript that «democracy = anarchy». Merlino looked beyond the similarities that are obvious to me and found identity, either because he undervalued anarchy or because he overvalued democracy –or both at once.

Merlino’s two statements (which do seem to present a pair of clear affinities: government by all/democracy, government by none/anarchy) can act as a starting point for a more deep-reaching comparative analysis of democracy and anarchy, if taken together with certain useful definitions and such a confrontation.

Taking anarchy first, it can be (and indeed has been) be understood in different ways, even by anarchists themselves. The particular interpretations which are of interest here are of a society without government, or without a state, or without power (or better,} without domination. These interpretations call for further clarification. What, for example, is meant by government? Anarchists often speak in positive terms of «self-government», so that what they reject must be the «government by others», government imposed on one part of society by another, a division between the government and the governed, rather than government per se.

As far as the state is concerned, this is a particular historical form of legitimisation and organisation of political power. Its legitimacy is rational, bestowed by a real or supposed «popular will» rather than by the will of God or who knows what else. It still however lies within a hierarchical view of society, the state being a }{paradigm of power}{, or better of domination[12]. The state is an institution (or a sum of institutions), but above all something which provides the conceptual foundation of modern class domination[13].

When anarchists speak of power they virtually always mean that «evil» (i.e. what they reject) hierarchical power which entails a relationship of command-obedience. In the case of political power (which is always seen as negative) this is not the normative function of society, nor the «collective political force»[14], but the usurpation of the political corpus of society with all its functions by a minority. In a society split between the rulers and the ruled, the power which anarchists reject is that which is constantly exercised by the former over the latter. Anarchy is not anomy (i.e. the absence of norms), but, with the necessary specifications, autonomy.

By the way, I prefer the terms domination[15] to signify the expropriated power of the «collective force», retaining a more neutral meaning for the term power, although in a hierarchical society this is still rich in hierarchical potential. I also prefer to use the term domination to talk of constantly asymmetrical power relations, including those which fall outside the political sphere. This includes those asymmetric relations between humans and nature which can be traced back to the same concept of domination carried over from the social[16].

Returning to the question of anarchy, this is a strongly libertarian principal of organisation of reality, a non-hierarchical conception of the world, which is not limited to the political sphere. «Anarchy» is more the realm of philosophy, ethics and aesthetics than of politics, although it is this latter political dimension which is of interest here.

So since anarchists claim to have a conception of society which rejects domination but not the collective functions of organisation of society (rejecting only the hierarchical forms and the implications of domination), it can perhaps be said that anarchists believe in a government/non-government, in a state/non-state, in a power/non-power. This only seems to be paradoxical since the first term in each pair refers to a neutral concept of the corresponding function, while the second refers to the actual function founded on a hierarchial principle.

For the state too it is necessary to be clear about what we really mean by this term. We do not mean the state in its historical configuration (which anarchists have rightfully shown to bea exemplary form of modern domination, a central hierarchical institution of reality and of the social imaginary of the post-Enlightenment), but rather the state in the sense of a «republic» {res publica}[17], the public domain, a term which the classics of anarchism used more than once in a neutral sense.

Words do of course carry a heavy emotional and ideological load, which is why anarchists prefer not to use in a neutral sense words like government, State and power, which have great historical significance. In the same way they reject the word «party» for their political organisations, even though these are undeniably forms of party/non-party. It is a party because it is a social group organised to pursue certain values and interests, but it is a non-party because it has no hierarchical structure and is not directed towards gaining power.

Forms of the Political

However much they may want to go «beyond politics» the anarchists have not entirely managed to avoid proposing, both in words and deeds, forms of political organisation that are compatible (although not identical) with anarchism understood as the absence/negation of domination. In the same way in the economic field, while recognising something «beyond» economics, they have always suggested economic forms which essentially boil down to what can be called self-management. The forms of government/non-government that the anarchists propose to take over the political functions of society can essentially be boiled down to what has been termed direct democracy. Whatever Merlino may have said, democracy, even in its direct form, is not anarchism (and nor is self-management). It is not true that the power of all is at the same time the power of none, or at least not entirely true. There is still some measure of coercive power, even if only through moral sanctions. It is power over someone, not over no-one. So even the limited form of direct democracy, democracy that operates face-to-face and through unanimity (i.e. only through unanimous decisions), limited also by its limited area of practical functioning, is not necessarily anarchist in the fullest sense. It may perhaps be so in political terms, since theoretically when all norms are fixed and all decisions taken by all and particularly by every individual concerned, there is no domination.

This distinction between all and every individual is important since for the «anthropological form» suggested as the basis of anarchism (what one author[18] has called communitarian individuality) «political sovereignty» does not lie in the society or in the individual but a continual unresolved tension between the two. If this prevails, even in a democratic form, it is tyranny, disintegration and loss of sense. Anarchism is jealously individualist, but also generously communitarian. And it is perfectly aware that the unique individual is also inevitably a social product and subject.

If everyone consciously and freely joins in and at the same time respects (not «obeys») deliberations, this is not the domination of one part of society and nor of «all» over the individual. There is the not insignificant theoretical problem of norms established in the past and still in force due to social inertia, norms which an individual has not always joined insetting or approved and which they cannot modify and which therefore represent a form of domination of the past over the present, but for the present we can leave this aside. So if everyone etc…, sovereignty lies in both individual and the collective. On a theoretical level direct democracy in its «purest» form can reconcile the apparently irreconcilable.

However this is a precise case: direct democracy which is unanimous and applied only in situations which do not lend themselves to a generalised application, i.e. on a small level and with an extreme homogeneity of values and interests. Beyond this smallest dimension delegation becomes essential. Without a strong homogeneity there must be a mechanism for decision-making over and above unanimity.

If decisions were always and only really unanimous, very few would ever be taken, even within groups with a high level of social and cultural homogeneity. It is true that when there is a certain level of homogeneity and where there are no opposing interests, unanimous decisions can often be reached without any great difficulty or exhausting discussions as an individual (or a minority) may well withdraw their opposition to the opinions and so the decisions of the majority. This could however surely be seen as a particular consensual form of majority decision.

When the collectivity making decisions (whether ten people or one hundred or one thousand…) is heterogeneous in terms of values and interests, unanimous decisions, even in the limited form described above, become difficult, if not impossible. It is then that the democratic mechanism of the majority comes to seem the lesser evil among the possible decision-making criteria. A lesser evil that is from the anarchist point of view. The majorities may be simple, absolute, qualified, even highly qualified (two thirds, four fifths, nine tenths…), but they are majorities nonetheless.

When the anarchist Errico Malatesta replied to Merlino, who had accused him of having said that in certain situations a majority decision is better than none … he did so by accepting, in substance, the majoritarian criteria[19].

The Scale

Once we move beyond a certain numerical threshold (one hundred people? five hundred? a thousand?), direct democracy in the strict sense of face to face democratic meetings, no longer works. It cannot work, because for face-to-face democracy to work those present at a meeting must know each other at least a little and have a certain degree of mutual trust. They must be able to talk in other situations as well and, last but not least, they must be able to contribute directly to the discussion leading up to a decision, as this is an integral part of the decision-making process.

Anyone with any experience of meetings knows that beyond a certain dimension they tend to move closer to demagogy than to direct democracy, with the majority of the «participants» in fact merely being present. In this way the «public» changes from participants to spectators with varying degrees of interest and motivation, just like the audience at a theatre (or a cinema or concert) or a football match. They are transformed from the thing to its representation, even if emotionally involved. Direct democracy becomes representative democracy.

The first question is where this threshold lies? This depends on many factors: the complexity of the subjects in qestion; the «democratic maturity» of the participants; their knowledge of the subject; their psychological make-up; their willingness to be really involved in the decision-making process; and the relative homogeneity of their values and their real interests. But whatever the circumstances there is a threshold and it is not very high.

The long-lasting «utopian» experiment of the Israeli kibbutzim shows that the upper limit for a meeting to be considered direct democracy is somewhere around some hundred persons. It is certainly far from hundreds of thousands. To gather this number of persons together in a stadium does not mean they will discuss a question and reach an agreement, seeking an acceptable compromise. Even putting a decision to the hypothetical electronic vote of a million people means having to simplify the question and the possible options to a binary level of yes/no. In such a case, whoever simplifies the question has in a certain sense already partly decided the answer. Not even in the best possible scenario can this be considered direct democracy in the true sense.

So over and above face-to-face democracy there is inevitably a dimension of democracy which is in some way indirect, at least in fact. There are federal and confederal forms of «direct» democracy. As Bakunin said, «every organisation must work from the bottom up, from the commune to the central organ, the State, by the route of federation»[20]. Such federal and confederal forms must inevitably use some form of «representation» (the quotes are to distinguish it from the particular form of representation familiar from representative democracy).

The form which anarchists have given to such «federal» representation (in both theory and practice) is an «}{authoritative and revocable}{» mandate. This mandate can at any time be revoked by those who gave it, i.e. through direct democracy in the strict sense. It is difficult, but not impossible to imagine this immediacy even for second and third degree mandates (delegates elected by delegates and so on). The authority of the mandate comes because politics is also the art of mediation, of compromise, and the decision-making process (at all levels from the local meeting through all the different levels of delegation) is one of compromise between opinions and interests that need not be opposing (although they sometimes are) as much as diverse. How then is it possible to find an equilibrium on the base of authoritative, i.e. rigid, mandates. Only mandates that are reasonably flexible can produce a satisfactory compromise.

Among the three features of direct democracy which anarchists see as «necessary» unanimity, an authoritative and revocable mandate two at least are, if taken to the letter, difficult to reconcile (to put it mildly) with the functioning of a society that is somewhat more complex than that of the Inuit (Eskimos), of the Yanomani (Amazonian Indians) or of the Nuer (from the Sudan). That is if they are taken to the letter.

It is worth leaving this question to one side for a while and turn to the question of representative democracy.

The Dominant and the Dominated

Democracy as it is generally understood, as vaunted by various self-styled liberal-democrats, is representative democracy and not democracy per se. Even the «people’s democracy» of the former so-called State socialists was representative democracy, on its own terms of course. Even Fascism was in its way a representative democracy. Its «political class» represented the Italian «demos», it was just that the forms of representation were different to those of pluralist political systems. We should not be overlook the fact that freedom of speech, of the press, of association… were limited. But then what belongs to the liberal ambit does not necessarily belong to the democratic one. It cannot be denied that on the eve of the second world war, the fascist regime enjoyed the support, active or passive, of the majority of Italians, i.e. of the people. Nor that the Camera dei Fasci e delle Corporazioni (the Italian Fascist parliament) was an elected body representing the demos.

An anarchist friend from Portugal recently pointed out to me that Antonio Salazar’s regime regularly held semi-democratic elections – and won them all. Even in the last one, shortly before the «revolution of carnations», the regime won an, admittedly slight, majority.

I am not trying to place fascism and liberal democracy on the same level – such logical gymnastics would belong to the worst anarchist «junk shop». I am simply trying to show that the term democracy covers a semantic space that stretches from direct democracy in the strict sense to authoritarian democracy, passing through forms of limited and controlled delegation, to forms of representation that are generically limited (true «limited partnerships») and periodically renewed through the electoral process (in the dual sense of choice and selection), which unite the elements of agreement and co-opting in different measures.

If direct democracy in its «pure» form represents one pole of this continuum, the liberal version of representative democracy (which is the best form which has been thought up or implemented to date), i.e. liberal democracy, does not represent the opposite pole (which is authoritarian democracy) but is undoubtedly somewhat closer to that pole. It is no coincidence that in social crisis, when confronted by the risk not so much of revolution as of radical reform of the economic power, liberal democracy has shown no great difficulty or reluctance in «letting itself be transformed» into its authoritarian counterpart (and on occasions into true dictatorship) for however long it may take to rebuild sufficient support on the part of the ruling/dominant class for a return to a more «liberal» form of democracy. It is only natural that representative liberal democracy should be closer to the authoritarian pole than to the libertarian one. It is in fact the «human face» of the «rational» division between the ruler and the ruled, the political counterpart of the division between dominant and dominated, of the class division of society and of its hierarchical structure. There is no reason to labour this point here since there is a wealth of writings[21], both anarchist and non-anarchist, which have demolished the myth of representative democracy, i.e. the myth of its real democracy in the original sense of the word.

Democracy is the government of the demos, of the people. The demos has been defined in various ways, on the basis of gender, of citizenship, of wealth, of age, and so on.[22] In its most wide-reaching form (as, for example, in Italy today) it includes virtually all citizens over the age of 18 (which is not the same as all inhabitants), regardless of class, wealth, sex and race.

How then does this demos, i.e. the great majority of Italians, exercise its «government», its «power»? It does not exercise it in person; that would be self-government, direct democracy. Instead it delegates it’s declared right to an elected oligarchy which then exercises this power in its own name. And it is not as if the only choice was that between an unlikely anarchism and an electoral oligarchy (representative democracy)…. Dahl[23] says that while representative democracy may have major defects (another euphemism) there is no better alternative… but there is.

There is the alternative of direct democracy integrated in a system of federations and confederations, in the broadest sense, in a greatly decentralised political sphere in which the mandates of even the delegates of the basic social structures can be revoked and limited (albeit with relative room for manoeuvre) on specific decisions, and where the power delegated in a coordinated situation is always less than that which is not delegated. This would be a democracy in which a community of ten thousand inhabitants would primarily be governed by its own decisions and not by those of the province, let alone those of the region, etc. etc. in a federal succession. This would be a democracy in which «peripheral» political realities (city neighbourhoods, or towns or regions) would not be a partial devolution of a central power, but in which the «central» body would be a federal system of partial devolution of power stemming from the base. This is not just playing with words. Under representative democracy, on the other hand, the power to decide is delegated to a body of political professionals and the only «power» left with the demos is that to choose its representatives (under conditions in which there is some reason to doubt the real and conscious freedom of choice), and power grows rather than decreases as you move from the political «periphery» to the centre, from the local to the national. This is a different dimension of democracy. It is not the demos which governs itself, albeit with contradictions which cannot be eliminated but can be controlled once their existence is recognised, but a demos in whose name someone governs, with some mechanisms for creating and/or simulating consent. There is a quality leap in the nature of the apparent continuum of the democratic forms.

A democracy that is compatible with the anarchist rejection of domination (and in political terms of the division between the rulers and the ruled) is necessarily a «direct» democracy in the above sense , i.e. strongly based in democratic meetings and with a necessary but controlled system of temporary political delegates. Delegates may be elected or chosen by lot (why not –it was the case with the magistrates of Athens) but would be truly representatives. Under no circumstances would there be a political class (whether one party or several makes no difference) cut off from the demos by the simple fact of being professional politicians.

A Model

Planning forms of direct democracy is already a move beyond democracy as it is generally understood, i.e. representative liberal democracy. This space beyond (as has been said more than once) presumes something that is both greater and at the same time different democracy. Direct democracy places much greater power in the hands of every individual making up the demos, by breaking up, decentralising and diffusing political power.

Direct democracy is a discrete approximation of a political an-archy (absence of domination). And in fact in both theory (as with Proudhon and Bakunin) and practice (in the various revolutionary situations like Spain in 1936 in which anarchists have played a decisive role) the political forms suggested and experimented with have been those of «direct democracy on a federal basis».

This is a good approximation of political anarchism. It is nothing more but nor is it any less than that. Political anarchism is certainly founded on an further «beyond», but just as the christian ideal is sainthood «in imitation of Christ» and yet all Christians including the saints settle for less, indeed for much less, for striving towards the ideal, so too do anarchists. There is another sense in which anarchism goes beyond democracy. As has already been said, anarchism is a principle for organising reality which goes beyond the political sphere (and indeed beyond the social sphere too, but this is beyond the scope of this article). As a philosophical, ethical and aesthetic principle it stretches beyond the political arena (which is that of democracy) and indeed rejects it. It moves beyond it because even the extreme model of direct democracy is not really enough.

A face-to-face meeting could pass unanimous decisions that are horribly incompatible with anarchism. The direct democracy of Athens could burn Pythagoras’ books or condemn Socrates to death, but nobody can make an anarchist accept the justice of a verdict which punishes heterodox ideas. Unanimity, and even less a majority, may be accepted by anarchists as the criteria for political decisions in specific contexts, but never as a way of deciding in absolute terms what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly.

Even liberals see certain areas of «human rights» as lying outside the majoritarian mechanism, and they have quite conscious doubts about the power of the majority. For example: «for the democratic doctrine, the simple fact that the majority wants something is enough to make what it wants good; […] the will of the majority determines not only that something is a law, but also that it is a good law». And again, «it is at least conceivable that under the rule of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority, a democratic regime could be as oppressive as the worst dictatorship».[24]

There is yet another and perhaps even greater way in which anarchism goes beyond politics. Politics, like economics, is a dimension of society which has become visible and «autonomous» of the totality of social functions and a «fixed point» of history. In this way it can be seen as a historical creation. Both the political function and the economic one have always existed in some form and degree in every society, but (apart from the Athenian «interlude» it is only in recent centuries that they have been observed, described, prescribed, studied and practised as independent social forms, starting with Machiavelli, Hobbes, etc., and increasing after the Enlightenment with its disenchantment of the world and its «worldly» deconsecration and reconsecration of domination.

Libertarian Democracy

Like economics and almost at the same time, politics too has acquired an «autonomy» of the social magma in the imaginary and institutional representation. Economics has sought to apply its own categories to social phenomena (the «utopian» undertaking of capitalist ideology is in fact impossible) and to bend them to its own form of «reason»[25]. Politics has been more modest although no less dangerous and has sought to explain itself «according to its own rules». There have been attempts to shape society to it which have had considerable historical and ideological significance: Leninism, and those third-world forms more or less contaminated by it, as well as fascism: «everything for the State, nothing outside and against the State», as Mussolini said.

But economic, political, legal, ideological-religious and other functions of society are precisely that, functions of a «social being» which is not economic, nor political, nor… The realisation that the overall physiology of the social being has various diverse functions is undoubtedly an important addition to our knowledge, knowledge necessary for a radical transformation of society as it is, but it is also important to recognise and understand the close links and interrelationships between the various organs and functions.

«Holistic» medicine can only be seen as progressive once anatomy and physiology have already identified and studied the various processes of the human body, including the as yet little understood psychosomatic relationships. The holistic idea can be valuable as something beyond anatomy and physiology, otherwise it would be just magic or charlatanism.

Anarchism is in fact a «holistic» conception of society and can only be beyond politics, economics, and so on (not an ingenuous and primitivist «before»). The social organism is not just a sum, a mechanical combination of politics, economics…, but rather an organic interrelationship of political, economic and other functions. There can be no real democracy in the political sphere unless all those acting in it are socially equal (or if you prefer, equivalent}. Thus it is not possible to have political democracy without economic democracy[26], which we may call self-management. And it is not possible to have self-management unless the people involved are equal, i.e. without the integration of manual and intellectual work[27]. And so it goes on.

LIBERTARIAN DEMOCRACY (to employ a neologism)[28] (which is more or less synonymous with possible, practical anarchism) is impossible unless the ethos of society and its fundamental values do not have at least a certain coherence with direct democracy and self-management, that is to say with equality, freedom, solidarity and diversity in the broadest sense. That is, more or less, anarchism. Q.E.D. quod erat demostrandum

(Translation by April Retter)

[1] Amedeo Bertolo, «I fanatici della libertà», Volontà, n. 3-4, 1996. An abridged English translation of a previous version of this writing was published as «Fanatics of Freedom» on Our Generation, vol 23, n. 2 (1992), pp.50-66.

[2] David Held, Modelli di democrazia, Bologna 1989, p.332 (English edition: Models of Democracy, Cambridge, 1987).

[3] For a fairly full dicussion and benevolent critique of direct democracy from non-anarchist prospects (the first neo-marxist and the second liberal-socialist) see David Held, op. cit, pp.157-178, and Norberto Bobbio, Il futuro della democrazia, Torino, 1993, pp.36-61.

[4] See David Held, op. cit.

[5] See Murray Bookchin, Democrazia Diretta, Milano, 1993; Id. Remaking Society, Montreal, 1993; Id., «Communalism: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism», Democracy and Nature, 1995, pp.1-17; Robert Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, Yale,1989; Giovanni Sartori, Democrazia. Cos’è, Milano, 1993.

[6] Giampietro Berti(ed.), La dimensione libertaria di Proudhon, Roma, 1982, p.77.

[7] Quoted in François Munoz, Bakounine et la Liberté, Paris 1965, p.228.

[8] Errico Malatesta too, 25 Years later, wrote that «For us abstentionism is a question of tactics», although he added that it is so important that when it is abandoned we risk to abandon the principles » (E. Malatesta,F.S. Merlino, Anarchismo e democrazia, Ragusa,1974, p.60.

[9] Michail Bakunin, Libertà eguaglianza rivoluzione, Milano 1976, p.93.

[10] {. Ibid}., p.88.

[11] Quoted in Giampietro Berti, Francesco Saverio Merlino, Milano, 1993, p.414.

[12] Eduardo Colombo, «Lo Stato come paradigma del potere», Volontà, n.3, 1984.

[13] See Renée Lourau, L’Etat incoscient, Paris, 1978.

[14] Giampietro Berti (ed.), op. cit., p.45.

[15] See Amedeo Bertolo, «Potere, autorità, dominio», Volontà, n.2,1983. An abridged English translation was published with the title }{Authority, Power and Domination}, in Laslo Sekelj (ed.), Anarchism. Community and Utopia, Praha, 1993, pp.137-166.

[16] See Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, Palo Alto, 1982.

[17] As E. Colombo shows («Della polis e dello spazio sociale plebeo», Volontà, n.4, 1989), publicus is derived from populicus, i.e. «of the people», which is clearly relevant to democracy.

[18] Alan Ritter, Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis, Cambridge,1980, chap.II.

[19] E. Malatesta, F.S. Merlino, op.cit., pp.42-43.

[20] Michail Bakunin, op.cit., p.92.

[21] See Robert Dahl, op.cit., who sets out and argues against the critique of democracy from various points of view, including the anarchist one, even if in fact based mainly the anarchist critique on a writer who is not an anarchist (Robert Wolff). See also E. Colombo, «Della polis etc.», cit.

[22] E. Colombo («Della polis etc.», cit) in fact says that , according to some hellenistics, the term democracy (which was created by enimies of democracy) is inappropriate as kratos means domination or force exercized by one part of the society over an other, while legitimate authority is arkhè. It would thus be more correct to speak of demarchy t than democracy and maybe of acracy than anarchy.

[23] Robert Dahl, op.cit., pp.75-76.

[24] Friedrich von Hayek, quoted in D. Held, op.cit., p.314.

[25] See Luciano Lanza, «Il mercante e l’utopista», Volontà, n.1-2, 1990.

[26] See Takis Fotopoulos, Toward an Inclusive Democracy, London, 1997.

[27] See two «classics» of anarchism: Michail Bakunin, op.cit.,chap. on «Integral Education», and Petr Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow (ed. by C. Ward), London, 1974, chap. on «Intellectual and Manual Work».

[28] To my knowledge, this expression was first used by Gaston Leval (Espagne Libertaire. 1936-1939, Paris, 1971, pp. 217-225)

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