Thinking about anarchism

Democracy, majority rule, and autonomy

As anarchists, we want to create a society that is based on individual human freedom. Other socialists seem to think that freedom is dispensable as long as there is a more equitable distribution of wealth (and look where that got the Bolsheviks). For anarchists the two issues can't be separated, you can't have one without the other. But what kind of democracy do we mean?

Obviously we don't have much time for so-called 'parliamentary democracy'. Politicians, be they in Europe, national parliaments, or local councils, regularly ignore the wishes of their constituents to pursue their own agendas, which is usually to further the interests of their financial backers. We get a vote in elections, but only to choose between rulers. Our main participation in the government of the country is to mark a ballot paper every few years. What chance do we have to set policy?

Occasionally we do get a greater say in the government, when we get to vote directly on policy, as with the Nice referendum. This is a little closer to real democracy, which is why the WSM has taken part in referendum campaigns in the past. In an election campaign politicians can promise one thing, and then vote for another, but that's not a possibility in a referendum. All of the major political parties supported the Nice treaty, but they still can't ignore the referendum result. They'll certainly hold another referendum next year, but in the meantime there's nothing they can do.

But even referenda don't offer much chance to participate. We have a vote, but only on the question that's put to us. We can't frame the question, and we can't force a referendum to be held on a particular question. So we had a referendum on the International Criminal Court, but not on the World Bank. We were able to remove the constitutional ban on divorce, but we'll be a long time waiting to remove the constitutional ban on abortion. Referenda may be better than elections, but they still offer only a very limited way to participate in decision making. Real democracy would mean that we get to propose decisions to vote on and have an equal chance to debate those issues.


Another important element of real democracy is that decisions should be made by those who are effected by them. This doesn't simply mean that 'everyone should get a vote', quite the opposite. It means that, for a lot of issues, only certain people will really be effected by a decision, and so they should be the only ones to make it. Of course it isn't always easy to draw the line between those who are and aren't effected by a decision, but its an important distinction to make. A decision that effects only the people of Dublin (for example) should be made by only the people of Dublin, not all of Leinster, or Ireland, or all of Europe.

One situation where this principle is important is in the demonstrations at Prague, Seattle, Gothenburg etc, where there may be many different people protesting, who have different ideas about what kind of actions should be taken. At first sight, it may seem that decisions about using peaceful or confrontational protest, or whether to break or obey the law, should be made by all of those protesting. But that would lead to fierce arguments, and completely divide the movement for no good reason. A much better solution is to agree that different tactics will be used in different areas of the protest (as happened in Quebec and Prague). By accepting the differences between people, and not trying to force an overall agreement, the protestors side-stepped most of the arguments. Legal protests were held in one area, more confrontational protests in another, and everyone (except the politicians and police) was happy.

Another example of this principle, and one that's especially relevant in Ireland, is the question of abortion. The essence of the pro-choice position is that different people will have different opinions of abortion, and some may have strong objections to it. But the decision of whether a woman should have an abortion or not can only be made by the person effected by it - the pregnant woman herself. For anyone else, priest or politician, to interfere in that choice is anti-democratic.

Ray Cunningham

This page is from the print version of the Irish Anarchist paper '
Workers Solidarity'. We also provide a PDF file of the latest edition (with pictures) for you to print out and distribute locally

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This edition is No65 published in July 2001