APP Editors’ Note:
This is the ninth in a series on the historical and philosophical foundations of anarchism and socialism, with special reference to social anarchism (aka “anarcho-socialism,” “libertarian socialism,” etc.) and democratic socialism.
We decided to devote the first five installments of the series to the Democratic Socialists of America, aka the DSA, and the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, aka the BRRN, for three reasons:
first, to highlight the recent emergence of the Democratic Socialists of America as a significant political movement in the USA,
second, to stress the fundamental convergences, parallels, and shared ideals between contemporary social anarchism and democratic socialism in the USA, and
third, to point up the burning contemporary need for a “borderless,” constructive, cosmopolitan coalition of all serious leftists and progressives everywhere.
And then go on from there, to a critique of so-called anarcho-capitalism by Andrew D. Chapman, in the sixth installment.
In the seventh installment, we took a retrospective look at Murray Bookchin’s classic essay, Social Anarchism or Life Style Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.
In the eighth installment, Andrew D. Chapman and his student Connor Scroggins presented a completely original argument for social anarchism, from existentialist premises.
In this essay, by Z, we’re moving up one level and providing a brief synopsis of, and critical reflection on, democratic socialism and social anarchism taken in relation to one another.
Here’s a very clear statement of the nature of democratic socialism, as formulated by William Thompson:
DSA believes that the fight for democratic socialism is one and the same as the fight for radical democracy, which we understand as the freedom of all people to determine all aspects of their lives to the greatest extent possible. Our vision entails nothing less than the radical democratization of all areas of life, not least of which is the economy. Under capitalism we are supposed to take for granted that a small, largely unaccountable group of corporate executives should make all fundamental decisions about the management of a company comprised of thousands of people. This group has the power to determine how most of us spend the lion’s share of our waking hours, as well as the right to fire anyone for basically any reason, no matter how arbitrary. Under democratic socialism, this authoritarian system would be replaced with economic democracy. This simply means that democracy would be expanded beyond the election of political officials to include the democratic management of all businesses by the workers who comprise them and by the communities in which they operate. Very large, strategically important sectors of the economy — such as housing, utilities and heavy industry — would be subject to democratic planning outside the market, while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and -operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods. In this society, large-scale investments in new technologies and enterprises would be made on the basis of maximizing the public good, rather than shareholder value. Crucially, investments in renewable energy and efficient technologies would be prioritized to guarantee ecological sustainability and the future existence of life on Earth.
A democratic socialist society would also guarantee a wide range of social rights in order to ensure equality of citizenship for all. Vital services such as health care, child care, education (from pre-K through higher education), shelter and transportation would be publicly provided to everyone on demand, free of charge. Further, in order to ensure that the enjoyment of full citizenship was not tied to ups and downs in the labor market, everyone would also receive a universal basic income — that is, a base salary for every member of society, regardless of the person’s employment status. Finally, the work week would be gradually reduced and vacation time would be expanded to guarantee that everyone in society benefited from increasingly efficient technologies that decrease the overall amount of labor needed in the economy (and also to ensure that all who wish to find employment are able to do so).
Economic democracy would be complemented in the political sphere by a new system that combined an overhauled form of representative democracy (our current system) with direct democracy, a system in which individuals participate directly in the making of political decisions that affect them. In this system, the Senate (an extremely unrepresentative political body in which states with very small populations have the same level of representation as the most populous states) would be abolished, and a system of proportional representation would be established so that Congress actually reflects the political will of the electorate. A democratic socialist government would also implement new referenda and recall mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable during their tenure in office, and a vast system of local participatory institutions would be set up to ensure individuals had a direct voice in political decision-making beyond the ballot box. These institutions would include citizen boards for various government services, program councils (at the national, state and local levels) for those who receive government services, and municipal and state-level citizen assemblies that would be open to all and would be tasked with making budget decisions (much like participatory budgeting processes currently in use around the world today). Finally, individual civil and political rights (freedom of speech, assembly, the right to vote, etc.), which are currently routinely violated, would be strengthened, and public resources would be devoted to the development of a genuinely free press and a democratically administered mass media.
While DSA believes that economic exploitation cuts across all other forms of oppression, and therefore that radical economic and social democracy would dramatically enhance most people’s capacity for self-determination, we do not believe that racial, gender, sexual and other forms of oppression are reducible to economic exploitation. Solidarity among all working people who are ensnared in the capitalist system may be a prerequisite for a strong socialist movement, but socialism as radical democracy is much more than the emancipation of a single economic class. The democratic socialist project also entails addressing a wide range of oppressions in law, culture and society that limit people’s capacity for self-determination. (Thompson, Resistance Rising: Socialist Strategy in the Age of Political Revolution)
Correspondingly, here are two equally clear statements of the nature of social anarchism, as formulated by Murray Bookchin and Thomas Giovanni:
Social anarchism, in my view, is … heir to the Enlightenment tradition, with due regard to that tradition’s limits and incompleteness. Depending upon how it defines reason, social anarchism celebrates the thinking human mind without in any way denying passion, ecstasy, imagination, play, and art. Yet rather than reify them into hazy categories, it tries to incorporate them into everyday life. It is committed to rationality while opposing the rationalization of experience; to technology, while opposing the “megamachine”; to social institutionalization, while opposing class rule and hierarchy; to a genuine politics based on the confederal coordination of municipalities or communes by the people in direct face-to-face democracy, while opposing parliamentarism and the state…. I would be the last to contend that anarchists should not live their anarchism as much as possible on a day-to-day basis – personally as well as socially, aesthetically as well as pragmatically. But they should not live an anarchism that diminishes, indeed effaces the most important features that have distinguished anarchism, as a movement, practice, and program, from statist socialism. Anarchism today must resolutely retain its character as a social movement–a programmatic as well as activist social movement– a movement that melds its embattled vision of a libertarian communist society with its forthright critique of capitalism, unobscured by names like “industrial society.” In short, social anarchism must resolutely affirm its differences with lifestyle anarchism…. [A] social anarchist movement [must] translate its fourfold tenets—municipal confederalism, opposition to statism, direct democracy, and ultimately libertarian communism—into a lived practice in a new public sphere. (Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, pp. 56-67 and 60)
At the most basic level, anarchists believe in the equal value of all human beings. Anarchists also believe that hierarchical power relations are not only unjust, but corrupt those who have power and dehumanize those who don’t. Instead anarchists believe in direct democracy, cooperation, and solidarity. Anarchists oppose the state, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and other forms of oppression, not because they believe in disorder; but rather because they believe in equal freedom for all and oppose all forms of exploitation, domination and hierarchy. (Giovanni, Who Are the Anarchists, and What Is Anarchism?)
So, what can be said by way of a brief synopsis of democratic socialism and social anarchism?
On the one hand, democratic socialists reject all forms of capitalism, and all possession of private property, as systematically and inherently alienating, commodifying, and exploiting workers, hence oppressing them.
But while democratic socialists concentrate primarily on the oppression of the working class, they do not do so exclusively: they also explicitly reject any social institution that oppresses people by systematically treating them merely as means or as mere things, hence undermining their universal, innate human dignity and capacity for autonomy–especially including racism, gender discrimination, and sexual discrimination.
Moreover, on the positive side, democratic socialists hold that only radically democratic forms of social governance and social organization, such as direct democracy—that is, collective, face-to-face, participatory decision-making in a non-majoritarian, non-representative framework—can overcome the depredations of capitalism and private property, and emancipate people from oppression, by means of workers’ collective control of the means and products of their production, and a radically egalitarian redistribution of wealth, in order to satisfy people’s basic human needs.
On the other hand, social anarchists reject the coercive authoritarianism of all States and State-like institutions, and concentrate on resisting, exiting, and revolutionizing all varieties of State- or State-like oppression.
Coercion means forcing other people to do things, for the sake of self-interested or publicly-beneficial reasons held by the coercer, via actual or threatened violence, or via actual or threatened salient harms of other kinds (like getting the coerced people fired from their jobs); and authoritarianism says that the government’s laws and imperatives are morally and politically good and right just because the government commands them and backs them up with coercive power–as opposed to their being commanded because they’re actually morally and politically good and right.
Hence all States and State-like institutions systematically oppress people by treating them as mere means or mere things, hence violating their universal, innate human dignity (i.e., intrinsic, absolute moral worth as an agent capable of consciousness, caring, self-consciousness, cognition, and practical agency) and their capacity for autonomy (i.e., the capacity for metaphysically real free choice, free action, and rational self-determination by general principles, hence the capacity that’s central to practical agency)–especially including racism, gender discrimination, and sexual discrimination.
Social anarchists also hold that coercive authoritarian States and State-like institutions are enabling presuppositions of all oppressive forms of capitalism: hence rejecting, resisting, exiting, and revolutionizing the State and State-like institutions entails hence rejecting, resisting, exiting, and revolutionizing all Statist-enabled, oppressive forms of capitalism.
Moreover, on the positive side, social anarchists are committed to radically democratic forms of social governance and social organization, especially including direct democracy and local, voluntary cooperatives and federations.
So, in fundamental respects, democratic socialism and social anarchism significantly converge and overlap.
Nevertheless, it’s required for social anarchists to accept any non-oppressive form of capitalism or possession of private property, insofar as it isn’t grounded on the coercive authoritarianism of States or State-like institutions, and doesn’t involve violations of human dignity and autonomy.
And it’s also required for social anarchists to reject, resist, exit, and revolutionize any form of socialist organization that is itself coercive and authoritarian, including coercive authoritarian socialist States–e.g., Stalinist Russia and Maoist China–coercive authoritarian socialist workers’ unions, and other State-like socialist institutions, whether these occur in democratic or non-democratic societies.
By contrast, democratic socialists explicitly endorse all socialist States, socialist workers’ unions, and other socialist State-like institutions, provided that these occur in democratic societies.
So whereas, by virtue of their commitments to the State, socialist workers’ unions, and other socialist State-like institutions in democratic societies, democratic socialists are committed to, or at least open to, coercive authoritarian top-down emancipation, social transformation, and governance in democratic States, by contrast, social anarchists reject all top-down forms of liberation, social revolution, and governance, and are committed exclusively to bottom-up emancipation, social transformation, and direct democracy.
Therefore, in these two important respects—namely,
(i) a blanket rejection of capitalism and private property (democratic socialism) versus a more nuanced rejection only of Statist-enabled, oppressive forms of capitalism and private property (social anarchism), and
(ii) a blanket endorsement of democratic socialist States, socialist worker’s unions, and other socialist State-like organizations, including top-down, or even coercive authoritarian ones, provided they flow from democratic processes (democratic socialism) versus a blanket rejection of top-down, coercive authoritarian social institutions, whether they occur in democratic or non-democratic societies, together with an endorsement only of bottom-up, anti-coercive, anti-authoritarian, local, voluntary cooperatives and federations (social anarchism),
—democratic socialism and social anarchism, on the face of it, diverge and are, to that extent, in conflict with one another.
Can democratic socialism and social anarchism be reconciled?
One way of approaching this issue is via classical normative ethical considerations, and in particular, the distinction between non-consequentialism and consequentialism.
Consequentialism says that the highest good for human agents consists in the extrinsic beneficial effects of their individual actions or collective actions, or general social polices, for themselves and/or other human agents, insofar as those actions and/or the implementation of those policies satisfy their basic human needs; and non-consequentialism says that the highest good for human agents consists in the intrinsic value of their personhood, as innate possessors of dignity, and innately capable of autonomy, and their individual or collective actions, or general social policies, for themselves and/or other human agents, insofar as that dignity and those autonomous actions and/or policies flow from principles that obtain independently of all consequences.
Leaving aside capitalism and the possession of private property for a moment, it is self-evidently clear that the social anarchists’ objection to the top-down, coercive authoritarianism of all States and State-like institutions, including socialist workers’ unions, whether they occur in democratic or non-democratic societies, is based on the broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist moral thesis that it is categorically immoral to violate people’s universal, innate dignity and undermine their capacity for autonomy by treating any of them merely as means or as things, independently of the human-need-satisfying social benefits that other people, even a moderate or overwhelming majority of other people, might receive by their doing so.
Contrariwise, it seems equally clear that the standard rational and moral justifications that one could offer for top-down, coercive authoritarian socialist States, socialist workers’ unions, and other socialist State-like institutions, even in democratic societies, would be
either (i) broadly identitarian and consequentialist, drawing on the social bonds of like-minded, like-hearted members of some special community, who increase and express the strength of those social bonds by controlling or punishing the members of other identitarian communities, or
or (ii) broadly Utilitarian and consequentialist, by virtue of the fact that a moderate or overwhelming majority of people would satisfy some of their basic human needs by virtue of the top-down, coercive authoritarian operations of such democratic social institutions.
Yet, at the same time, otherwise, democratic socialists explicitly reject any social institution that systematically oppresses people by treat them merely as means or as mere things, thereby violating their universal innate dignity and undermining their capacity for autonomy; and, most importantly, by virtue of that explicit rejection, democratic socialists must thereby also reject any such social institution even if it could be demonstrated that it increased or expressed the social bonds of group-identity, or that a moderate or overwhelming majority of people in a democratic society would satisfy some of their basic human needs, by means of the top-down, coercive authoritarian operations of such social institutions.
For example, suppose that a moderate or overwhelming majority of people in some democratic socialist State or democratic socialist workers’ union were able to increase or express the social bonds of group identity, or satisfy some basic human needs, by discriminating against, by systematically exploiting, or by moralistically punishing, some minority group: then, other things being equal, democratic socialists would be fully committed to rejecting this.
More generally, it is a huge philosophical, moral, and political mistake for identitarian socialists to define themselves in terms of, and attribute special positive value and moral virtues to, the very same arbitrarily-selected, contingent characteristics–race, gender, sexuality, economic class, physical ability, etc., etc.–which their oppressors single out and attribute special negative value and moral vices to.
That’s what Paulo Freire right-on aptly called internalizing the oppressor.
Correspondingly, the only identity with fundamental moral and political value is personal identity, because only individual persons are the ultimate sources of dignity and autonomy, and because all social collectives and communities derive whatever fundamental moral and political value they have, from the several individual persons who jointly constitute that social collective or community.
In other words, democratic socialists are also broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialists; but at the same time, by virtue of their classical-Marxist-driven ideological commitments to socialist States and socialist workers’ unions, and also by virtue of their classical-democrat-driven ideological commitment to democracy, and their more recent, post-1970s commitment to identitarian group-thinking and group-feeling, democratic socialists might also fail to see how this broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist normative ethical commitment also undermines the top-down, coercive authoritarianism of socialist States, socialist workers’ unions, and other socialist State-like social institutions, even in democratic societies, no matter how many people might be able to strengthen or express social bonds of group-identity or satisfy some of their basic human needs by means of the operations of such institutions in those societies.
Therefore, a consistent commitment to the normative ethical thesis of broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialism would turn democratic socialism into the moral and political equivalent of social anarchism.
Now let’s bring capitalism and the possession of private property back into the picture.
Using our normative ethical distinction between
(i) broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist reasons for individual action and social institutions, and
(ii) broadly Utilitarian consequentialist reasons for individual action and social institutions,
we can focus on
(iii) the broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist moral and political thesis that we must reject any social institution that systematically oppresses people by treating them merely as means or as mere things, thereby violating their human dignity and capacity for autonomy, and also on
(iv) its direct implication, that we must reject any such social institution even if it could be shown that a moderate or overwhelming majority of people in a democratic society would strengthen or express social bonds of group-identity, or satisfy some of their basic human needs, by means of the operations of such an institution.
Then, correspondingly, we can distinguish between
(v) forms of capitalism and the possession of private property that pass this broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist moral test and are therefore morally permissible and politically acceptable, and
(vi) forms of capitalism and the possession of private property that fail this moral test and are therefore morally impermissible and political unacceptable.
Therefore, again, a consistent commitment to the normative ethical thesis of broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialism would turn democratic socialism into the moral and political equivalent of social anarchism.
I conclude, then, that the mutually consistent, broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist versions of democratic socialism and social anarchism are not only essentially identical, but also what all democratic socialists and social anarchists should fully accept and wholeheartedly pursue.
And this, in turn, overcomes the prima facie divergences and conflicts between democratic socialism and social anarchism, and fundamentally reconciles them–although, to be sure, at the cost of critically paring down the classical-Marxist-driven ideological categorical rejections of capitalism and the possession of private property, the classical-American-democrat-driven ideological endorsements of all socialist States and State-like institutions, including socialist workers’ unions, and the identitarian ideological endorsement of various kinds of group-think and group-feel, provided that they occur in democratic societies.
But since this cost is essentially ideological and not essentially moral, then, given their own fundamental ethical commitment to broadly Kantian dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, non-consequentialist reasons for individual or collective action and/or social policies, democratic socialists should be fully prepared to pay it.
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