Democracy and Autonomy – (Fragments of a draft, 2009)

There is a gap in the ideas people are using today between the critique of the state and the concept of autonomy. The critique of the state contains a component which focuses on the centralization of power and the effect that hierarchical power relationships has on society as a whole. The distance between centralized state authority and the practices, beliefs, and needs of the people creates a political problem for those who want to see a society run by and for everyone. With the centralization of power and resources, the state is an organized force only a few steps away from an organ of popular repression, and the consolidation of power of a ruling class or a ruling class to be. There is a contradiction between the notion of an institutionalized power body and self-governance of the people.

This critique is fairly common sense, and is even granted to some degree by those who admire dictatorship and hierarchy (jab right, fake left. Democracy + iron clad leadership). A traditional answer that has become quite popular is to decentralize. Replacing centralized power with decentralized power is seen as the antidote for the alienation of power from the people, and diffuse power creates a social counterweight to potential rulers to be. The idea then is to disperse power on some level into localized forms of popular governance.

Why local? Here we find a leap in logic. Local is counterpoised to the national and global logic of centralized bodies, which hierarchy makes incapable of navigating the different conditions we all find ourselves in. Standardization, monoculture, and unitary approaches to disparate environments are characteristic of centralized institutions. The thought is then that local autonomy provides the scale and organizational level where people actually are. Autonomy then is a form of participation based on local freedoms and responsibilities to other locales. It’s worth seeing though that despite the definition, self-law, autonomy is essentially a negative concept. Autonomy is autonomy from generally, autonomy from the constraints of present society.

The common reply to this, by anyone you talk to on the street is, why wouldn’t people just use their autonomy to fuck everyone else over? Some locales seek autonomy to carry out reactionary and racist measures against minorities in their community.

The problem here is that we’re confusing two different things by missing something  fundamental.  We see a problem, the state. Features of that problem (centralization) have real impact. The solution proposed is a reply to those features. The focus though is essentially on the form of the state, and so the solution obscures something quite basic, it’s content. Proposing is to merely disperse power relationships into smaller units, and to create formal democracy (with the hope that real democracy emerges out of that). It’s natural then for people to say, well why wouldn’t other power issues emerge, but on a smaller scale?

But if we think about content, then the whole thing is flipped on its head. Since we live in a society rife with struggle and contradictions, democracy is not always democratic. Minorities can be right and just, and majorities oppressive. Workers can vote to strike to keep black workers out of their company, and it can be autonomous and democratic, but reactionary. Whatever solutions lies to our problems will lie here and not only through forms.


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