Social, but Still Not Democratic

[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of the Mutual Exchange on Anarchy and Democracy.]

Social, but Still Not Democratic

As long as there has been something called “anarchism,” anarchists have been struggling to define it—and, as often as not, they have been in struggle against other self-identified anarchists. At this point in our history, this seems both hard to deny and pointless to regret. These are not battles that can be won “once and for all,” since the struggle over meaning is just essentially the process by which meaning is made. That means that there is an element of futility to this sort of debate, but not the sort that would ever let us withdraw from the fight.

It’s extremely easy for these debates to simply become focused on words, or even just parts of words, whether it is a matter of the etymological quibbling so familiar in online debate or the rhetorical wars of position that tend to follow every more significant engagement in the struggle. In order to really come to grips with either the concepts behind the words or with our antagonists in debate requires some combination of clarity in our expression and consciousness of the vagaries of various contexts. So, in our case, effectiveness seems to call for being clear about our own conceptions of “anarchy” and “democracy,” but also being sensitive to the way these terms are being used elsewhere in the broad conversation about the defining characteristics of anarchism.

There have undoubtedly been moments in the history of anarchism when recourse to the language of “democracy” created more or less potential confusion than it does at present, just as there have been times when “anarchy” was more or less valued as an ideal among self-proclaimed anarchists. Our assessment of those contexts, together with the details of our own theories of anarchism, will determine how important we consider the debate. For some of us, this is not the hill we’ll pick to die on, while for others of us something vital to the anarchist project is at stake.

I don’t think there is anything I’ve said here that can’t be illustrated with examples from our present exchange, but I’ll leave it to others to apply the analysis.


In my lead essay of “Anarchy and Democracy,” I tried to be fairly careful not to take too much for granted, starting with the question of whether it was possible to draw a clear line between the two concepts in question. Having convinced myself that this was indeed possible, using a familiar concept (absence or presence of rule) to mark the divide, but also using “classical” sources to suggest the possibility of a potentially wide range of anarchies (the anarchic series.) I examined a couple of different possible relationships between democracy and anarchy, and, I think, state fairly clearly the sort of account that would be required to convince me that the most important distinction in all of this was the one that appears to fall between the purest of democracies and the most rudimentary of anarchies.

None of this seems to have made much an impression on Wayne Price, who thinks none of that matters if sometimes someone has no choice but to take a vote. He characterizes my argument in this way:

Shawn Wilbur postulates an ideal vision of anarchy where no one coerces anyone else in even the most indirect way. No one tells anyone else what to do. This he counterposes to even the most radically democratic decentralized socialism. On the other hand, he apparently recognizes that such a completely individualized society would not work in some (many? most?) cases, at least not for a lengthy “transitional” period of increasing freedom. Therefore, he seems to say, in practice it will be necessary to use democratic methods, including voting. I do not agree with this sort of sharp division between the ideal and practice. But in practice, what would he do that is different from what I would do? A difference which makes no difference is no difference.

And there is a lot here that is, willfully or not, simply misrepresentation. The attempt to couple my “ideal vision of anarchy” and “a completely individualized society” is mind-boggling, except for the fact that Price seems to equate the rejection of democracy with a particularly atomic sort of “individualism.” (More on that later.) It’s clear that Price fundamentally misunderstands my “ideal vision of anarchy,” and I think that he does so because he simply refuses not just any “sharp division between the ideal and practice,” but also the distinction that I underlined in my first essay between actions and the authority to act. If you paint a picture of that “ideal vision” in terms of a society in which “no one coerces anyone else in even the most indirect way,” then I suppose that sound unlikely, if not downright silly. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never suggested such a society, and the key to the vision I’ve expressed here is that nobody has a right to coerce anyone else—to which I will happily add “in even the most indirect way.” In the context of such a society, as I’ve said, recourse to certain “democratic” practices might be forced on anarchists by material constraints, but such recourse would have to be treated as a failure, to be avoided, if possible, in the future.

It’s hard to know what Price really rejects in my account. Does he believe that we will have a decisive revolution, after which the most glowing promises of anarchist thought will suddenly become fully realizable? If not, then there is a necessary place for the distinction between principles and practices. Does he believe that practice—or the praxis that he has invoked elsewhere—cannot be subjected to judgments about success and failure with regard to predetermined goals or principles? Does he imagine that the fact of a practice taking place, no matter the circumstances or the assessment of those engaged in it, can act as a sort of substitute for principles? None of these possibilities seem likely.

It seems to me that Price has made his own position clear. He envisions a democracy in which minorities will, in fact, be subject to the decisions of majorities. The silver lining he offers is that the minorities will not be static, so we will not see the same sort of oppression we see in more conventionally hierarchical societies. He seems to see this relationship as just and legitimate, although it is not clear whether he believes there is a political duty to assent to some “will of the people” or whether he believes that there is some more utilitarian justification. What seems clear enough, however, is that this majority rule is not a failure in his mind. Given that apparent fact, it does not seem out of line to attribute to Price some sort of (still not precisely clarified) democratic principle—and one that occupies a place on the political map awfully close to the one I assigned it in my own account.

This ought to mean that Price and I have enough in common to have a useful conversation about anarchy and democracy, and that we could start with something very close to a shared political language. That we obviously have not had a useful conversation requires some explaining, and the key is almost certainly related to this accusation of “individualism.”


In his reply to Grayson English, Price makes a bold claim:

The basic issue, I believe, is not what we mean by “democracy” but what we mean by “anarchism.” It is the commitment to an “individualist” interpretation of anarchism which lead to a rejection of radical democracy.  I believe that this leads, contrary to anyone’s intentions, in an authoritarian direction.

This, perhaps, is progress, in the sense that it acknowledges that we are not, in fact, disagreeing about what Price intends, but that a wide variety of different kinds of anarchist thinkers simply do not accept the rational because we are, despite our differences, all in some sense too “individualist” to accept the “social anarchist” rationale for democratic rule. And, Price believes, this threatens to lead us, willy-nilly, “in an authoritarian direction,” although it appears that the “individualist” positions differ from his own precisely by rejecting democratic authority.

I’ll leave it to English to make a full response to Price’s characterization of his position, but I don’t find it much more faithful than his characterization of mine. I do, however, have to address the question of collective actors. Invoking “the famous example of a group of men moving a piano,” he asks:

Who is moving the piano?  If each one acts completely autonomously, will the piano be moved?  This is a model for any sort of productive activity from hunter-gathering on to today, no matter how decentralized or crafts-like an anarchist technology would be.

But he doesn’t quite answer the question. Presumably he believes that it is “the group” that moves the piano, but isn’t this a really wonderful example of how associated action and individual autonomy are not necessarily at odds? We can imagine “the group” functioning in a disciplined, self-managed workgroup or we can imagine it as a union of egoists, and it seems likely that the piano gets moved in any event. We can also imagine it in authoritarian scenarios, complete with whip-wielding overseers, leaving us with no illusions that collective action is, by itself, anything particularly laudable. In this last instance, it’s all too easy to imagine a boss claiming that, despite all appearances, they moved the piano, because how else would those things have got organized…?

If we are concerning ourselves about views of the piano-moving collective that might lead us in “authoritarian directions,” I guess I am uncertain what seeds of authority there are in an explanation that simply says: We moved the piano together, as a result of voluntary association and without the sacrifice of any individual sovereignty. Price’s objection is presumably contained in this objection, which he attempts to attribute to English: “If no one can tell me what to do, not even the most radically-democratic socialist people, then I must be the king.” English has clarified quite nicely, I think, what he meant by “being a king,” but if Price is so opposed to this sort of kingship, does it follow that someone can tell us what to do in his “democratic anarchist” society? That someone must be “the group,” but if I had to make the judgment, I would say that that is the approach that leads places anarchists should be loathe to go.


I’ve probably lingered on Price’s response to English a bit more than I might have, except that, finding myself apparently lumped in with those who reject democracy because of “individualism,” I’m at a bit of a loss. After all, as someone inspired by Proudhon and an active proponent of the theory of collective force, I could hardly be accused of envisioning, let alone promoting “a completely individualized society.” But that is precisely Price’s accusation.

I’ve already scattered quite a bit of Proudhonian social science through my contributions here, perhaps most prominently in my response to Gabriel Amadej, and I’ll try to spare everyone too much more of that specialized discourse. I think it is useful to show how the distinction I’ve made can be logically defended, and that my references to the anarchist tradition will stand up to critical scrutiny. But at this stage of the game all that is really important is that my position, far from being “individualist,” assumes that all presumably individual action also has a social component and that, at least in a certain sense, groups do indeed act and even think. Those who have read the entries in the early Mutual Exchange on occupancy-and-use will know that one of my concerns there was that, in the context of complex societies with developed technological bases, the very notion of “the individual” (and thus individual property) is increasingly hard to put to use, despite its real utility in various contexts. But in a follow-up essay, “Property, Individuality and Collective Force,” written early in 2016, I actually went quite a bit further.

Let’s linger for a moment and consider the implications of this twist on the notion that property is impossible. For Proudhon, the “impossibility” of property arose primarily from the droit d’aubaine (“right of increase”) attached to capitalist property rights. That did not necessarily preclude some kind of return to strong, exclusive, individual property rights, provided those rights could be constrained either by principles like those found in Locke’s provisos or in a strong egalitarian ethic, such as we find in the “personal property” speculations of even communistic anarchists. After all, between the early works advocating “possession” and the “New Theory” of the 1860s, Proudhon explored both possibilities to at least some degree. But if it is indeed the case that our “individual” interventions and appropriations are no longer in balance with the regenerative capacities of our natural environment, then there are arguably some very interesting, and certainly troubling consequences. First, it raises the possibility that exclusive, individual property rights—even in a radically reimagined form like my “gift economy of property”—may be impossible. But it also raises the possibility that it is not just property rights that are threatened by our current social and technological organization. It may be that property, even in the descriptive sense, is no longer sufficiently individual to support the kind of discussion regarding property that we are accustomed to. That notion may be a bit difficult to come to terms with, but let’s at least attempt to give it a try, particularly as a situation in which we could meaningfully say that individuality is impossible would create problems for our presumably non-propertarian options nearly as great as those confronting any new theory of property rights.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how anyone who understood, even in the most basic terms, the argument behind Proudhon claim that “property is theft” could be an “individualist” in the broad terms Price’s argument demands, but I’m pretty sure there is no way to make the social atomism implied compatible with my own long-stated views. (And old friends and associates may remember that the Whitmanesque questioning of this sort goes back well over a decade.)


It appears that one can espouse a very social anarchism and still reject democracy. The question remains whether democracy is itself particularly conducive to a social anarchism. Consider Price’s account of democratic process:

… during a discussion (let us say, on whether to build a road or whether the workers in a shop will produce a new type of shoe) everyone gets to participate. At the start, there is no set “majority” or “minority.” Everyone participates. Every opinion is heard. People are able to argue for their positions, to write papers, and to organize a caucus (or “party”) for their opinion. Over time (long or short), opinions crystallize. A majority (most people) forms in favor of one decision. A minority (a few people) may remain unhappy with the decision. But they are not persecuted or lose any rights. On the next discussion, they may be in the majority!

Under anarchist direct democracy, this whole notion of a majority ruling over and oppressing a minority is a meaningless abstraction. Sure, those in the minority on this issue may feel coerced—on this one issue. But they fully participated in the democratic process. They are not oppressed as a minority, as are African-Americans under white supremacy.

If I’m following the argument here, the claim that “this whole notion of a majority ruling over and oppressing a minority is a meaningless abstraction” is based on the presumption that individuals will not always be in the majority or the minority, so the dynamics of this majoritarian democracy will not be like the dynamics of, for example, white supremacy. But the dynamics of this majoritarian democracy will still be exactly those of a majoritarian democracy. Even when we are talking about identity-based systems of oppression, potentially “set” minorities and majorities are always altered in practice by intersecting systems of oppression, by the various mechanisms by which members of subaltern groups are pitted against one another, and by a variety of other factors. In “actual politics,” African-Americans differ in gender, sexual orientation, skin tone, income and social status, position within capitalism or the state, etc. We naturally don’t pretend that any of these variations make their specific oppression as African-Americans “a meaningless abstraction.” Instead we recognize that the basic patterns of oppression and exploitation remain quite real across a variety of contexts. Why we would alter our view for democratic minorities isn’t entirely clear.

Price’s answer is, at least in part, that these minorities “are not persecuted or lose any rights.” As far as “rights” go, yes, the minorities retain the same abstract entitlements that they started with, but the question is whether they started out in a situation that anarchists should reject. And Price has himself provided us, or at least nearly provided us, with some reasons to question whether we can count on their real situation not eroding as a result of their democratic losses.


There are two points that I think need to be made about the position of majorities and minorities in a majoritarian democracy. The first relates to the experience of participation. Price has emphasized that the losers in any given context don’t have anything to complain about. They should presumably feel that their position in society remains the same and that their duties to society have been fulfilled through a graceful retreat before the will of the majority.

But how should the majority feel about “winning”?

Let’s recall that one of the strong points of Proudhon’s anarchist theory is that it unites the critiques of capitalism and governmentalism in a single critique, which addresses the role of authority in setting the conditions for exploitation. In a society informed by the principle of authority, production is social, and yet the fruits of social production are not just unevenly divided, but are routinely turned back against the subaltern groups. If it is the case, as we would expect, that cultural and technological shifts have dramatically increased the amount of production that we might attribute to collective force, and if we expect this sort of social organization to persist “after the revolution,” then individuals in such a society might be said to receive “their share” of the products of social production when they have received a fairly bare subsistence, and that their individual claims on control of the remainder might be considered quite weak.

I think there’s a fairly perverse set of incentives likely to emerge here, however, if individuals simply accept that they are entitled to a minimum, but everything above that level is subject, and rightfully so, to the intervention of a majoritarian mechanism. I’m not sure that an anarchist society could survive the sort of general indifference that might emerge among those who find themselves in the minorities. But I’m much more concerned about the effects on the majorities, who find themselves sanctioned in the control of the fruits of collective force, with no clear mandate to safeguard minorities. Endowed with this sort of political privilege, and with perhaps very considerable quantities of wealth and power at their command, could we expect majorities to maintain anarchist principles? Price’s vague disdain for “philosophical” questions may not be representative, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine quite a variety of reasons why the very material inequalities that might be introduced in such a society might not be so readily acknowledged by those who find themselves beneficiaries.

I suppose one could simply reject all or part of the Proudhonian analysis and, for example, fall back on the Marxian account of exploitation, joined with anarchism imagined as simple anti-statism. This is probably not too far from Price’s position, based on his contributions here and his published work. But I’m not sure that there is any easy escape from some version of the same problem.

Consider the material from Bakunin’s Knouto-Germanic Empire that Price has quoted as a contrast to the position he attributes to English. (The heavily edited quotation is drawn from the “continuation” of “God and the State,” as translated by Max Nettlau.) The key paragraphs read, in full:

…man becomes man and becomes conscious of and realizes his humanity only in society and only by the collective action of the whole of society. He emancipates himself from the yoke of outside nature, only by collective or social labor, which alone is able to transform the surface of the globe into an abode propitious to human developments. And without this material emancipation there can be no intellectual or moral emancipation for anybody. Man can only emancipate himself from the yoke of his own nature—that is, he can only subordinate the instincts and movements of his own body to the direction of his mind, which becomes more and more developed, by education and instruction, both of which are eminently exclusively social matter; for apart from society man would have remained always a wild beast or a saint, both of which expressions mean nearly the same. Finally, the isolated man cannot be conscious of his liberty. To be free for a man, means other men around him. Liberty, then, is not a matter of isolation, but of reciprocity; not of exclusion, but on the contrary, of combination, since the liberty of each individual is nothing other than the reflection of his humanity or of his human right in the consciousness of all free men, of his brother, his compeers.

It is only in the presence of other men, and with regard to other men, that I can call and feel myself free. In presence of any inferior animal, I am neither free nor human, since such an animal is unable to conceive of and hence to recognize my humanity. I am myself human and free in so far as I recognize the freedom and humanity of all men around me. Only in respecting their human character do I respect my own. A cannibal who devours his prisoner, treating him as a wild beast might, is not a man, but a beast. Ignoring the humanity of his slaves he also ignores his own humanity. The whole of ancient society furnishes proof of this: the Greeks, the Romans, did not feel themselves to be free as men; they did not consider themselves to be free by any human right. They believed themselves privileged as Greeks, as Romans, only within their own country, and so long as it remained independent, not subjugated; and they subjugated other countries under the special protection of their national gods. They were not astonished, nor did they feel they had a right and a duty to revolt, when being in their turn also vanquished they became slaves.

This is a powerful statement of the importance of society as a necessary support for the freedom of the individual. It is eminently social, but it is also quite clearly reciprocal, in the sense that no human being can be excluded from or subordinated within the relations described without compromising their development out of the animal state and towards full human freedom. Nowhere does there seem to be any rationale for moving from the clearly social state of human beings to the democratic division of society into majorities and minorities.

And there might even be a rather cautionary account right there at the end.


In the end, I don’t suppose I have much hope of convincing anyone wedded to the notion of democracy to strike out into the wilds of the anarchic series. However, given what seem to be real and substantive differences in the conception of anarchism among the participants here, and given the fact that the “democratic anarchism” seems to mingle anarchy and government in ways that seem likely to be detrimental to the progress of anarchism, I hope I have at least provided reasons for those who might be hovering between the two main positions that have been presented to at the very least consider the question very carefully.

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