Jun 7, 2019

Anomie and Direct Democracy

By Yavor Tarinski / filmsforaction.org
Anomie and Direct Democracy

All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify

and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.

-Hannah Arendt[1]


Nowadays we constantly hear how the political system is in deep crisis. There are various reasons, which are being offered as an explanation for this: ranging from calls for deepening transnational alliances, to retreat to the nation-state. One thing however seems to hold for most regimes, regardless of their ideological mantle - the bankruptcy of their political foundations, i.e. their oligarchic structure. It is not only liberal and capitalist oligarchies that are experiencing massive waves of popular discontent, but also countries which are run by left-wing governments. One example is Rafael Correa’s crack down on popular ecologist and indigenous struggles: his socialist administration, running Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, went so far as to label every resistance to its developmentalist policies “environmental terrorism”[2]. Another similar case is Obrador’s leftwing government in Mexico and the threat it presents to the autonomous Zapatista territories and other indigenous communities. Parallels can be drawn also from popular resistances against supposedly anti-imperialist regimes in the Middle East.

Although expressed differently, and for varying reasons, popular dissatisfaction seems to be directed towards the oligarchic (genuinely hierarchical) nature of the dominant governmental model (right or left) around the world. This is increasingly evident by the demands for more participation and the attempts at creating grassroots decision-making bodies during popular uprisings: such were established by protesters during Occupy in the US, Indignados in Europe, Arab Spring, the Bosnian Uprising of 2014, the French Nuit Debout, and more recently by the Yellow Vests movement at the roundabouts of rural France. It is this bureaucratic management of society, stripping the latter from any real power, which can be viewed as the real root of popular discontent worldwide.

It is not so difficult to recognize that: many have already reached to this conclusion. The real difficulty lies in the question of what will come to replace oligarchy and domination. One of the predominant proposals among traditional political movements on the Left tends to insist on the importance of bureaucracy in the form of party politics and leadership, thus reproducing the very foundations of oligarchic government. They prefer to seek shallow solutions (mostly in the economic sphere) to much deeper problems (which have to do with the question of who determines the role in life of each one of us). It is no wonder why such vanguardist tendencies have pretty much lost (for some time now) the support of social movements and popular struggles.

Anomie and institutionlesness

There are other trends that are more antiauthoritarian and anarchic, which seek the abolition of every trace of domination and hierarchy in society. Their stances reflect to a greater extent the general spirit of contemporary social movements. But there is a certain belief, shared by many of them, which makes the creation of viable political alternatives to the current system impossible – namely, the belief in anomie.

Anomie comes from the Greek language and it literally translates as absence of laws. It is clearly exemplified by the anarchist slogan “make war on institutions, not on people”[3] (although not shared by all anarchist tendencies). We can also detect it in one of the reasons for Proudhon’s refusal to vote for new constitution, while serving as member of the French Chamber of Deputies after the French Revolution (although later on he supported it as a last means to stop Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power). One of the reasons for his refusal was that it gave far too much power to the president, for which he had the right on his side. But the second reason he gave was on the grounds that he couldn’t support a constitution of any kind, something which indicated certain inclination towards anomie. This view comes to suggest that ideally people can somehow gain independence from any institutional obligations, and that institutions as such are obstacles to free expression and self-determination. In short, it suggests that every institution is, by definition, oligarchic.

There are certain traces of anomie in capitalism, as well as in parliamentarism, although they ultimately remain mostly on narrative level or restrained to those at the top of the pyramid. In the first case, right-wing libertarians, neoliberals and other pro-capitalists believe that we can let the economic activity to “self-regulate” with as little restraints as possible, wrapping their theory in ideological mantle that includes religious-like notions like “invisible hand” etc. In the latter case, candidate politicians ask voters to “trust” them and elect them into power for a certain period (usually 4 to 5 years), where they will be beyond genuine social control. Often those involved in the electoral race invoke metaphysical slogans, like “Hope begins Today”[4] and “One people, under one God, saluting one flag”[5]. These traces indicate that bureaucracy allows certain anomie to those at the top of the pyramid, due to the fact that their actions are beyond social control. But such anomie is a product of bureaucratic mechanisms and institutionalized hierarchies, thus it is part of oligarchy.

Non-oligarchic anomie is, as Murray Bookchin noted in 1999[6], grossly fallacious. He suggested that[7], unlike animals, which can live without institutions (often because their behavior is imprinted in them genetically), human beings require institutions, however simple or complex, to mold their societies. According to Cornelius Castoriadis, whatever the degree of individual development, technical progress, or economic abundance, people will always need political institutions in order to be able to tackle the innumerable problems people's collective existence constantly raises[8].

Institutions and direct democracy

In the conditions of direct democracy, institutions are being created through a process of constant social self-institution: i.e. they are not bureaucratic bodies that act beyond the reach of society. Instead they are its direct creation and under its self-management via democratic mechanisms like popular assemblies, councils and sorititon (choosing by lot). As Castoriadis suggests[9], such democratic institutions are necessary for arrangements and procedures that will permit discussion and choice. In such conditions, equality is being established as a starting point, and not as a goal to be attained in a distant future. Jacques Ranciere describes this relationship in the following manner:

[E]quality is not a goal to be reached. It is not a common level, an equivalent amount of riches or an identity of living conditions that must be reached as the consequence of historic evolution and strategic action. Instead it is a point of departure. This first principle immediately ties up with a second one: equality is not a common measure between individuals, it is a capacity through which individuals act as the holders of a common power.[10]

Otherwise, in conditions of anomie, authoritarian tendencies towards “domination-over” can thrive, as there will be no institutional arrangements to protect the weaker members of society.

The institutions of direct democracy create the conditions for society to self-limit itself, unlike oligarchic institutions which allow to narrow elites to set the limits of everyone else. Such self-limitation does imply that certain things will be off-limits, but their determination is going to be done through rational and inclusive deliberations and investigations by all people.

For example, the laws of one society could be determined by popular assemblies, in which all citizens of a given neighborhood or village have the right to participate and decide, as well as by local councils, whose members are constantly revocable by their communities. In this way it will be the local communities that will craft the rules according which their life in common will take place. Certain laws that affect smaller scales (like the sustainment of the inner order of certain community) will be decided by local institutions, while others (like the question of energy sustainability) will have to be decided by confederal ones, which sustain the sovereignty of involved communities. Murray Bookchin describes[11] that one such democratic confederation should be regarded as a binding agreement, not one that can be canceled for frivolous “voluntaristic” reasons. A municipality should be able to withdraw from a confederation only after every citizen of the confederation has had the opportunity to thoroughly explore the municipality’s grievances and to decide by a majority vote of the entire confederation that it can withdraw without undermining the entire confederation itself.

Such self-limitation is a prelude to freedom. As Rousseau has said[12], the impulse of mere appetite is slavery, while obedience to a self-prescribed law is liberty.

The struggle for democratic institutions

Unlike those who believe that change is born in flames and dies in grassroots institutions – as was the case with Crimethinc and their analysis of the 2014 Bosnian uprising entitled “Born in Flames, Died in Plenum”[13] – oppressed people have seek to diminish, indeed eliminate, the power of oppressors through institutionalized forms of popular control. Eight century BCE Greek poet Hesiod had expressed this strive against the frivolous behavior of the exploiters in the following way: laws […] warn men against acting like beasts and reward them for acting justly[14].

Even today, social movements and uprisings against exploitation often result in the creation of democratic institutions that contain the seeds of direct democracy. A recent example can be seen in the Yellow Vest uprising in France. During the blockades of roundabounds all over the country a dense network of local assemblies emerged, in which organizational matters were discussed by all protesters. But unlike other recent leaderless movements, the self-institutionalization of the movement did not end on this level, but proceeded towards establishing another institutional dimension – the confederal one, through which it maintained its decentralized character.


In order to fight the current oligarchic system, we have to avoid entrapping ourselves in the logic of anomie (which as we saw above can even be linked to oligarchy). While the institutions which rule over us today are oppressive and exploitive, it is not enough to only dismantle them and to wait for individual and social instincts of mutual aid to awaken. There is the need of new democratic institutions, created and managed directly by all members of society, which to create conditions of equality, solidarity and passion for popular self-institutions. In other words, an institutional framework in which domination and oligarchy will be entirely replaced by social and individual autonomy.



[1] Hannah Arendt: Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972) p150

[8] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (D.A.Curtis, Ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) p189

[9] Cornelius Castoriadis: The Castoriadis Reader (D.A.Curtis, Ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) p189

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1998), p20.

[14] Alex Priou: Hesoid: Man, Laws and Cosmos, in “Polis, The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought 31” (2014) p254

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