What is Anarchism Part 2: “Democracy” and the State?

In this follow-up post, I will reflect on the question of whether the State can be legitimate at all, and why anarchists refuse to use the word “police” to describe the legitimate authoritative forces they would support. In essence, anarchists believe that power must justify itself, and that the power must come from the people. In other words, they are radical democrats – they believe that the people must organize itself such that it can make decisions for itself, rather than passing off this responsibility to a tiny elite which in every case co-opts power for a small aristocratic-esq interest group.  The reasons why mass elections in a state would always lead to the dominance of a tiny, anti-democratic elite, have been understood since Hegel:

As for mass elections, it may be noted that, in large states in particular, the electorate inevitably becomes indifference in view of the fact that a single vote has little effect when numbers are so large; and however highly they are urged to value the right to vote, those who enjoy this right will simply fail to make use of it. As a result, an institution of this kind achieves the opposite of its intended purpose, and the election comes under control of a few people, of a faction, and hence of that particular and contingent interest which it was designed specifically to neutralize.

So what should we do?  Right Hegelianism seeks, rather than change the structure of society to overcome the problems of elections, to instead construct a bureaucracy headed by a sovereign monarch which through its organization can assure that the universal interest of the state be advanced. Edward Bernays, although not a personal fan of Hegel, can be seen as a culmination of this tradition in the early 20th century. Bernays understood that

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propagandahas proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”[5]

In other words, public relations can be used to produce the consent of the masse, so that they can be governed by the “small faction” which Hegel spoke about.

Anarchists are, in short, those democrats who remain angry that democracy was stolen by a small faction, and who still believe that genuine democracy is possible. How could it be possible? Taking Hegel’s critique seriously, the state is too large a body in which to have Democracy. This is why Anarchist movements concentrate on the local, and envision relations between local power centres by which real representatives of the actual general interests could work together to form not “states” but federations. The Paris Commune is one of the few examples of an attempt to enact such a federation, beginning with a single Commune (althoughsimultaneous uprisings in Grenobles and Lyon also established short lived communes).

What would the “police” look like in such a commune? They would be above all sanctioned by the community. We do actually have a good example of what this looks like, because Free Derry was a no-go zone for nearly a year between August ’71 and the end of July ’72

Law and order was maintained by a ‘peace corps’—volunteers organised by the DCDA [Derry citizens defence association] to patrol the streets and man the barricades. There was very little crime. Punishment, in the words of Eamonn McCann, “as often as not consisted of a stern lecture from Seán Keenan on the need for solidarity within the area.”

Volunteers from a community which is already self-organized towards a particular end are likely to have a high degree of legitimacy in the form of respect, and a strongly felt duty to rightness if rightness is central to the end of that community. This is most likely easier if a community is under threat, but no doubt possible for any actively political group. As usual, apathy is the enemy of active democratic structures, because an apathetic citizen fails in his or her duty to grasp the body politic as something other than something which opposes them. This potential contradiction was already grasped clearly by Rousseau:

In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constitutes the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfil the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.
No one thinks having a legitimate political organization would be easy; the difference between Liberals and Anarchists exists only in their fidelity to the ideals of liberal democracy. Liberals are content with what might be called “second best” – the appearance of democracy, some freedoms, but no real lack of hypocrisy in one’s ideals, or fairness for the poor. Anarchists, on the other hand, demand that the basic ideals of democracy be enacted – and if they can not be enacted on the scale envisioned by the French Revolution, then the scale ought be adjusted so they can be.

In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constitutes the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfil the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.

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