Politics is the art of
governing mankind by deceiving them.

Benjamin Disraeli

One of the defining tenets setting libertarian socialism apart from authoritarian political traditions of both left and right, is an unshirking commitment to the principles of direct democracy. This is the means advocated by anarchists for exercising and enabling genuinely participative decision making in all domains of human life. Rejecting hierarchical organisation, we argue that both parliamentary “democracy” and totalitarianism have the same intensions – to maintain the distinction between leaders and led, rulers and ruled. Both, in the final analysis, are designed to ensure our passive acceptance of a system that oppresses us.

The idea of direct democracy is not a new one. It surfaced during the Paris Commune (1871), the early part of the Russian Revolution (1917-21), and was implemented on a large scale during the Spanish Revolution (1936-9). Direct democracy is a method used by workers, radicals and protest movements alike, often arising spontaneously during periods of struggle. Employed with a federal and horizontal organisational structure, direct democracy ensures that decision making power flows not from the top down, but from the circumference to the centre. This type of organisation “from the bottom up”, enables authentic democracy and collective decision making, maximises accountability and eschews the ability of any would be leaders, bureaucrats or party hacks to sell us out or otherwise usurp control.

During the early days of industrial capitalism, ideas of direct action and direct democracy posed a very real threat to the established order in strongly advocating the masses’ participation in rather than exclusion from political, cultural and economic decision making. Thus, conceding some semblance of democracy, while still maintaining their privilege and wealth, became a major priority for the ruling classes in the late 19th century.

manufacturing consent

From the onset of the industrial revolution, against the background of a growing urban working class, dealing with “the problem of democracy” was an urgent matter for the rich and powerful. The arrival of universal suffrage saw a shift from a political order where the masses were denied any say, to one where they were nominally included – a state of affairs that continues essentially to this day. Our compliance with a social order based on profit, power and exploitation is now routinely achieved by “manufactured consent”.

In contemporary society, the information we receive, and the media that conveys it, is controlled by a select few. In 2004, the media critic Ben Bagdikian pointed out how the entire US media was then owned by no more than five companies. The information presented is constrained by economic dictats and priorities to coincide with corporate and state interests. Far from an informed choice, the electorates of supposedly “free and democratic” nations face a constant barrage of disinformation and media distortion – not only at election time, but all year round. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and Paul Davies’ Flat Earth News (see review, p29) chronicle the mechanisms for misinforming and manipulating the electorate. The net result is all too predictable:

...corporate lobbies and other elites determine political agendas and ensure that elections choose between candidates who differ primarily in how best to maintain elite prerogatives and advantages. Most of the population doesn’t even participate in electoral charades, and among those who do, most have no other option than to repeatedly favour a lesser evil.

Michael Albert, Realizing Hope

...they’d make it illegal

The emergence of the parliamentary socialist movement in the early 1900s gradually dissuaded large sections of the working class from taking independent action. This curtailed more substantive forms of democracy in favour of one which served the rich and powerful. The Labour Party may have been, in Kier Hardie’s words, “born from the bowels of the trade unions“, but nevertheless proved invaluable in channelling the more progressive working class demands up a safe, controlled blind alley. The integration of the unions into the state structures also helpted diffuse militancy. The unions’ hierarchical, bureaucratic structures not only wrestled power from the rank and file, but also promoted sectional rather than class interests. This model of state managed mitigation of conflict was thereafter highly effective in preserving power relations and class privileges.

Internationally, Labour governments have consistently attacked workers’ interests and steadfastly upheld market priorities at all costs. Even reforms like the welfare state were only conceded because they met the demands of industry for a healthy productive workforce. The few elected “socialist” governments that veered from a pro-business mandate, have been invariably weakened by financial sanctions like “capital flight”. This is the deliberate removal of financial and capital investment – as happened in France after the 1981 Socialist Party victory. As intended, this “moderated” erstwhile progressive and popular policies.

Other subtle financial and market constraints have also succeeded against non-compliant governments. After the 1994 election of the ANC in South Africa, the Financial Times cited the “disciplinary effect” of the devaluation of the rand. This led to the adoption of free market reforms that quashed the expectations of the dispossessed in the aftermath of apartheid. Further-more, it has been well documented how development loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been issued to governments only on the condition that market liberalisation and austerity measures were put in place.


On other (rare) occasions where a party has been elected with the express intention of fulfilling a popular mandate, the threat of a military coup has been exerted to prevent an unwelcome outcome for the ruling class. A planned coup in Britain against Harold Wilson’s government in the 1970s failed to materialise, but elsewhere, successful coups took place in Haiti (1991), Algeria (1992), Nigeria (1993) and Chile (1973). It remains to be seen if the South American regimes of Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia can survive long enough to implement their social democratic reforms, but already US imperialist and domestic business interests have conspired to destabilise both.

From Iran to Central America, the CIA has a long and distinguished history of initiating covert regime change conducted in the name of “preserving democracy”, a common euphemism for the furthering of US imperialist interests. This phenomenonis chronicled at length by Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and others and offers further proof, if it were needed, that powerful elites and market forces ultimately determine political outcomes.

the rich get richer

Globally, “democracy” and fascism have overseen market forces, covert agendas and the conscious exclusion of the majority from anything other than token involvement in political processes with one irresistible outcome – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In May 2006, the UN produced a list of the ten most under-reported stories on the planet. Of these, a 2002 World Bank report highlighted a global surge in poverty since the 1980s, to the extent that 80% of the world’s population were below the poverty line. Meanwhile, 1% of the world’s population enjoyed an annual income equivalent to the poorest 57%. A surge in inequality in developed nations had also gone largely unreported. These trends, plus recurring economic slumps, resource wars and a growing ecological crisis have stimulated renewed interest in revolutionary socialist and anarchist ideas. Significantly, however, only anarchism explicitly advocates direct democracy – for very good reasons.

change the world...

Anarchists, in rejecting both fascism and the smokescreen of parliamentary democracy, have also consistently renounced authoritarian “socialism”. Instead, as Bakunin argued,

…future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in their communes, regions, nations and finally in the great federation, international and universal.

Lenin, Trotsky and Marx’s belief that the state could be a tool of liberation has been found severely wanting every time it has crystalised in power. The state, as we have seen, is the means by which the management of people’s affairs is taken from them into the hands of a few. The degeneration of “socialist” regimes time and again into despotic state-capitalist oligarchies is the inevitable failing of a centralist ideology that equates “dictatorship of the proletariat” with “dictatorship of the party”. We now witness the plainly absurd situation of a multitude of leftist parties claiming themselves to be the one true workers’ vanguard. Spouting slightly different variations of the same failed dogma, these clowns all follow a distinctly authoritarian path which, in practice, has always compromised its revolutionary aspirations, actively crushing genuinely liberatory workers’ movements in the process.

At this point it may be useful to explain further why direct democracy is so distinctly socialist and libertarian, especially when combined with constructive direct action - autonomous of the state, capital and hierarchy.

Firstly, direct democracy is about originating ideas as much as approving them (as is the case under the elective dictatorship of parliamentary democracy with its preordained party mandates). This is based on the simple idea that people, acting consciously in their own interests, should be architects of their own destiny.

Secondly, direct democracy rests on delegation not representation. Crucially, delegates are only elected to implement decisions and, unlike representatives, can be immediately recalled and dismissed if they do not carry out a mandate allotted to them. Further, delegates do not enjoy privileges, permanence or any other conditions that set them apart from those who elect them.

Thirdly, direct democracy relates to all spheres of our lives; economic, cultural and political. Workers and communities have very little real say in decisions regarding their workplaces, communities and global politics. Under direct democracy, we exercise real involvement, real ownership, and real control over all aspects of our lives .

...without taking power

By practising direct democracy, direct action and horizontal organisation here and now, we begin to not only extend political consciousness and confidence, but also create a new society within the shell of the old. The democratic collectives built by the workers of Spain (1936-7), galvanised by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT, provide probably the best example of this being put into practice. This experience led to the wholesale transformation of not only economic, but also wider social relationships (an experience perhaps most famously eulogised in George Orwell’s Homage to Cata-lonia). Popular rule in this case was shown to be practical, possible and effective on a large scale. However, as with all other examples of direct democracy in practice, the failure to establish libertarian socialism on a more permanent basis owed much to the cynical interventions of power crazed authoritarians of both left and right. This proves but one thing – without organisation, we are nothing.

Whether we have parliamentary “democracy” or dictatorship, the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the planet and its peoples will not be solved by a few at the top issuing decrees, manipulating public opinion or pursuing their own selfish agendas. On the contrary, the roots of the social ills we see all around us today are the direct result of our deliberate disempowerment and exclusion from decision making processes. It is only by exercising real (direct) democracy with the long term aim of achieving a libertarian socialist society that we have any hope of retrieving this precarious situation.

It is time to change the world – without taking power.

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