The Trouble with Democracy:An Anarchist View

Jeff Shantz

A saying popular in anarchist circles holds that “Elections are the means by which we choose the sauce with which we will be basted.” Anarchists have a deep problem with claims of representation made by political leaders. Quite simply, no one can truly represent anyone other than themselves, except in some “best guess” approximation of other people’s interests. For many anarchists, the limited access to politics that many social movements seek, whether through representational or policy reforms, at base reaffirm one’s consent to be ruled and have crucial decisions managed on one’s behalf.

Moving beyond the status quo and effecting real social change will require, in part, a refusal to participate in dominant social relationships. Anarchists call for a refusal to surrender individuals’ collective power to politicians or bosses. Instead, they seek to reorganize social institutions to reclaim social and economic power, so that people can exercise it on their own behalf in the service of their own collective interests. Anarchists seek an alternative social infrastructure that is responsive to people’s needs, because it is developed and controlled directly by the people themselves. This is a social framework in which decisions regarding social and economic relations are made by the people whom they affect.

Such an approach takes a firm stand against the authority vested in politicians and their corporate masters. It also speaks against the hierarchical arrangements that exemplify major social institutions, including workplaces, schools, churches, and even the family.

Do-It-Yourself Democracy

Reinventing democracy—and what is meant by “democratic practice”—has been a key concern of contemporary antiglobalization movements. Experiments with participatory forms of democracy provide living examples of how people can manage their lives without relying on state representatives.

As only one example, one might readily refer to the direct-action street demonstrations that have garnered so much attention for contemporary anarchy in cities from Seattle to Prague. The famous “This is what democracy looks like” chant, which captured the public imagination during major antiglobalization actions and has gone on to become a regular, even overused, feature of almost every action since, has always contained a double meaning. On the one hand, it is a public condemnation of what passes for democracy under capitalist neoliberalism, in which fundamental decisions impacting billions of the world’s inhabitants can be made by a handful of rich men in luxury hotels surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by paramilitary forces. On the other hand, it is an expression of activists’ understanding that the means by which these undemocratic processes are confronted and impeded must themselves be built on a participatory and egalitarian basis. Democracy is not what is happening in luxury suites, parliaments, and marble conference halls. It is the far messier, even dirtier, process that occurs in the gutters and alleys of the streets outside. As David Graeber suggests against the dismissive tone of anarchy’s critics: “This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology.”

Rather than rejecting “democracy,” anarchists offer visions of a participatory democracy that permeates all spheres of life (including the workplace, schools, the family, and sexuality). In the spirit of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, contemporary anarchists call for a proliferation of “free” spaces, places, and practices that refuse to be captured and circumscribed within the rigidly mapped territories of states and their legal authority. These “autonomous” realms of thought and action emphasize inclusivity, openness, and fluidity against the temporal and spatial confinement of states.

Contemporary anarchists are also keenly aware of the dangers of majoritarian opinion in nurturing oppressive relations. Majoritarian democracy originated as a military institution, after all. Indeed, we gain some important insights into the military character of representative democracy if we look into the origins of the term democracy itself. Coined as a slur by its elitist opponents, the word actually means the “force” or, even more, the “violence” of the people: kratos rather than archos. This is the worried vision of a populace in arms. Graeber notes that Machiavelli reverted to this sense of democracy in his “modern” notion of a democratic republic.

Graeber suggests that majoritarian democracy only emerges where two factors coincide. These factors are, first, the sentiment that people should have equal say in group decisions; and, second, that there exists an available coercive apparatus by which those decisions can be enforced. According to Graeber, it has been quite unusual in human history to have both at the same time: “Where egalitarian societies exist, it is also usually considered wrong to impose systematic coercion. Where a machinery of coercion did exist, it did not even occur to those wielding it that they were enforcing any sort of popular will.” Looking at available anthropological evidence suggests that every known human community has employed some form of consensus practice to arrive at group decisions—“every one,” Graeber reminds us, “. . . which is not in some way or another drawing on the tradition of ancient Greece. Majoritarian democracy, in the formal, Roberts Rules of Order-type sense rarely emerges of its own accord.”

One might ask why relatively egalitarian communities throughout the world have preferred to practice some form of consensus decision-making. The most straightforward answer is that in a face-to-face community it is much easier to find out how most members of the community would prefer to act than to work out ways to convince or compel those who do not want to go along.

Of course, participatory democracy can be messy, chaotic, slow, and unstable. Anarchists fear none of these outcomes and indeed seem to accept them as acceptable trade-offs for the ability to take part in and carry out the fundamental decisions that affect our lives. They are certainly preferable to the perhaps more convenient, but also more dangerous, alternative of being told what to do.

Indeed, representative democracy, especially where it is confined to a two-party system as in the United States, is partly a response to the dull conformity of consumer capitalism that constrains desires in the permitted realm of market circuits. As a creative response, anarchists defend pluralism and diversity in social relations, encouraging experimentation in living and disdaining censorship. Not believing in the possibility of one “correct” response to questions of authority and power, anarchists encourage people to develop multiple alternatives by considering fully the specific conditions with which they are confronted.

The issue is not to make democracy “more representative.” The problem is rather that it is too “representative” in the first place.

Further Reading

  • Bey, Hakim. The Temporary Autonomous Zone. New York: Autonomedia, 1991.
  • Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004.


Jeff Shantz

Jeff Shantz teaches social theory and public policy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Vancouver, Canada. He is currently preparing a book on the criminalization of dissent in Canada.

A saying popular in anarchist circles holds that “Elections are the means by which we choose the sauce with which we will be basted.” Anarchists have a deep problem with claims of representation made by political leaders. Quite simply, no one can truly represent anyone other than themselves, except in some “best guess” approximation of …

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