Democracy? That Would Be Anarchy!
Democracy? That Would Be Anarchy!
By Liam Barrington-Bush /

The lead-up to an election is a tough time to be an anarchist. There's always someone wagging a patronising finger and telling you that your, or their, or someone's grandparents died for your 'right' to submit agency over your life to someone who also claims to represent 68,000 or so others, every five years. Without wanting to disrespect the dead, I think many would agree that we can do democracy a lot better than we are in 2015.

A Zimbabwean activist I met in Toronto once gave me some perspective on how the notion of democracy varies from place to place. "When we hear the word 'representative,'" he said, "we ask: 'who's not there?'"

Rather than signifying the fundamental building block of the democratic form, representation is seen as an impediment to the free participation of one and all in the realisation of agency in our own lives. At best, representation is democracy's watered-down consolation prize.

Imagine if we embraced this? Imagine if rather than aspire towards ever-greater leaders, who will craft ever-greater decisions and policies, we decided that we should be directly involved in the issues that affect us? Contrary to popular misconception, this is anarchism. (LSE anthropologist David Graeber argues that the American founding fathers used the words 'democracy' and 'anarchism' interchangeably, and with equal contempt, until representative democracy was established.)

The initial cynicism direct democracy elicits (often disguised as 'realism'), seems to stem from the assumption that we'd drag 60 million people into Westminster and try to bash out defence budgets or immigration reforms together. To put such worries to rest, I don't think we would.

I imagine a more organic transformation which starts closer to home, perhaps in a neighbourhood. I think this makes sense for a few reasons, such as the visceral connection to a local place, the way that immediate shared issues help us overcome ideological differences, and the practicality of smaller numbers of people being able to engage closer to where we live our lives.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, where I lived for a year, the city of half-a-million managed just fine for six months after kicking out their state and local governments in June 2006. They organised themselves via 250 local neighbourhood assemblies, and one bigger public square assembly where overlapping hyper-local issues could be discussed. Garbage collection, health services, media, food distribution, justice provision - were all coordinated via consensus-based open meetings. And without police around, local crime rates actually dropped well below the city's usual levels.

The experiment only came to an end when the Mexican army was sent in to inflict terror upon the autonomous city that December. The Oaxaca commune reminds us that when self-organisation fails, it is worth asking if it is indeed the result of 'human nature,' or of a heavily armed state deciding that brutal repression is preferable to a self-organised populous?
We could also start our own democratic experiments in a workplace, for many of the same reasons that neighbourhoods offer good in-roads. This has been popular in Argentina and Greece, where workers have made a habit of taking over factories their former bosses deemed unprofitable. These workplaces (roughly 400 of them in Argentina alone... and one in the US, even!) have shown the world that we don't need bosses in order to do even the most mechanical of tasks together. They've reminded us that we can make both immediate technical decisions and broader strategic ones collectively, better than countless senior managers, and that consensus decision making doesn't keep people from getting things done - it makes for stronger decisions!

The beauty of both neighbourhood and workplace assemblies, is that they offer us a different glimpse into the idea of scale. Rather than imagining that a country of 60 million will need to replicate a political structure built for 60 million, why not start with a truly democratic structure for 6, or 60, or 600, and offer what we learn directly to others near and far, who might want to start their own experiments?

In Oaxaca, Buenos Aires, Thessaloniki, and countless other cities, smaller group sizes have not prevented large numbers from organising themselves, nor have they descended into local factionalism. If anything, the opposite has been true, with small, autonomous communities and workplaces finding ways to support and learn from one another's experiences, strengthening their own groups and the wider networks at the same time.

So when I think about democracy, I think about us. All of us. And however many days there might be 'til the next election is of little relevance because we won't vote our way to the kind of democracy the world needs; we'll figure it out together, where we are.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of the book, Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades.

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Democracy? That Would Be Anarchy!