Democracy Is Direct
by Cindy Milstein
Revolution by the Book
Participating in the debates, deliberations, and decisions of one’s community became part of a full and vibrant life; it not only gave colonists (albeit mostly men, and albeit as settlers) the experience and institutions that would later support their revolution but also a tangible form of freedom worth fighting for. Hence, they struggled to preserve control over their daily lives: first with the British over independence, and later, among themselves over competing forms of governance. The final constitution, of course, set up a federal republic not a direct democracy. But before, during, and after the revolution, time and again, town meetings, confederated assemblies, and militias either exerted their established powers of self-management or created new ones when they were blocked—in both legal and extralegal institutions—becoming ever more radical in the process.
Those of us living in the United States have inherited this self-schooling in direct democracy, even if only in vague echoes like New Hampshire’s “live free or die” motto or Vermont’s yearly Town Meeting Day. Such institutional and cultural fragments, however, bespeak deep-seated values that many still hold dear: independence, initiative, liberty, equality. They continue to create a very real tension between grassroots self-governance and top-down representation—a tension that we, as modern-day revolutionaries, need to build on.
Such values resonate through the history of the U.S. libertarian Left: ranging from late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century experiments in utopian communities and labor organizing; to the civil rights movement starting in the mid-1950s; to the Black Power, American Indian, radical feminist, and queer liberation movements’ struggles for social freedom as well as the Students for a Democratic Society’s demands for a participatory democracy in the 1960s; to the anarchist-inspired affinity group and spokescouncil organizing of the 1970s’ antinuke movement; and then again with the anticapitalist movement’s mass direct actions in the 1990s and early 2000s. In both its principles and practices, antiauthoritarian leftists in the United States have been inventive and dynamic, particularly in the postwar era. We’ve challenged multiple “isms,” calling into question old privileges and dangerous exclusions. We’ve created a culture within our own organizations that nearly mandates, even if it doesn’t always work, an internally democratic process. We’re pretty good at organizing everything from demonstrations to counterinstitutions.
This is not to romanticize the past or present work of the libertarian Left; rather, it is to point out that we, too, haven’t lacked a striving for the values underpinning this country’s birth. Then and now, however, one of our biggest mistakes has been to ignore politics per se—that is, the need for a guaranteed place for freedom to emerge.
The Clash sang years ago of “rebels dancing on air,” and it seems we have modeled our political struggles on this. We may feel free or powerful in the streets or during building occupations, at our infoshops, and within our collective meetings, but this is a momentary and often private sensation. It allows us to be political, as in reacting to, opposing, countering, or even trying to work outside public policy. But it does not let us do politics, as in making public policy itself. It is only “freedom from” those things we don’t like, or more accurately, liberation.
“Liberation and freedom are not the same,” contended Hannah Arendt in On Revolution. Certainly, liberation is a basic necessity: people need to be free from harm, hunger, and hatred. But liberation falls far short of freedom. If we are ever to fulfill both our needs and desires, if we are ever to take control of our lives, each and every one of us needs the “freedom to” self-develop—individually, socially, and politically. As Arendt added, “[Liberation] is incapable of even grasping, let alone realizing, the central idea of revolution, which is the foundation of freedom.” (7)
The revolutionary question becomes: Where do decisions that affect society as a whole get made? For this is where power resides. It is time that we rediscover the “lost treasure” that arises spontaneously during all revolutions—the council, in all its imaginative varieties—as the basis for constituting places of power for everyone.8 For only when we all have equal and ongoing access to participate in the space where public policy is made—the political sphere—will freedom have a fighting chance to gain a footing.
Montesquieu, one of the most influential theorists for the American revolutionists, tried to wrestle with “the constitution of political freedom” in his monumental The Spirit of the Laws.(9) He came to the conclusion that “power must check power.”(10) In the postrevolutionary United States, this idea eventually made its way into the Constitution as a system of checks and balances. Yet Montesquieu’s notion was much more expansive, touching on the very essence of power itself. The problem is not power per se but rather power without limits. Or to press Montesquieu’s concept, the problem is power as an end in itself. Power needs to be forever linked to freedom; freedom needs to be the limit placed on power. Tom Paine, for one, brought this home to the American Revolution in The Rights of Man: “Government on the old system is an assumption of power for the aggrandizement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power for the common benefit of society.” (11)
If freedom is the social aim, power must be held horizontally. We must all be both rulers and ruled simultaneously, or a system of rulers and subjects is the only alternative. We must all hold power equally in our hands if freedom is to coexist with power. Freedom, in other words, can only be maintained through a sharing of political power, and this sharing happens through political institutions. Rather than being made a monopoly, power should be distributed to us all, thereby allowing all our varied “powers” (of reason, persuasion, decision making, and so on) to blossom. This is the power to create rather than dominate.
Of course, institutionalizing direct democracy assures only the barest bones of a free society. Freedom is never a done deal, nor is it a fixed notion. New forms of domination will probably always rear their ugly heads. Yet minimally, directly democratic institutions open a public space in which everyone, if they so choose, can come together in a deliberative and decision-making body; a space where everyone has the opportunity to persuade and be persuaded; a space where no discussion or decision is ever hidden, and where it can always be returned to for scrutiny, accountability, or rethinking. Embryonic within direct democracy, if only to function as a truly open policymaking mechanism, are values such as equality, diversity, cooperation, and respect for human worth—hopefully, the building blocks of a liberatory ethics as we begin to self-manage our communities, the economy, and society in an ever-widening circle of confederated assemblies.
As a practice, direct democracy will have to be learned. As a principle, it will have to undergird all decision making. As an institution, it will have to be fought for. It will not appear magically overnight. It will instead emerge little by little out of struggles to, as Murray Bookchin phrased it, “democratize our republic and radicalize our democracy.” (12)
We must infuse all our political activities with politics. It is time to call for a second “American Revolution,” but this time, one that breaks the bonds of nation-states, one that knows no borders or masters, and one that draws the potentiality of libertarian self-governance to its limits, fully enfranchising all with the power to act democratically. This begins with reclaiming the word democracy itself—not as a better version of representation but as a radical process to directly remake our world.
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