Democracy Against Representation: A Radical Realist View

by Paul Raekstad


In recent years, radical movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy and beyond have been calling for “democracy.” These movements also claim to reject representation—a keystone of many contemporary liberal understandings of democracy. How can we make sense of this? There is ongoing debate about this in these movements and their descendants, part of which consists in figuring out what we should take “democracy” to mean. This article tries to contribute to this process of collective self-clarification by reconstructing one notion of what we could take “democracy” to mean. Thereafter, we will see how we can use this concept to make sense of the critique of representation in many contemporary radical movements and how useful it can be for helping to guide social change and the practices seeking to bring it about. I will thus argue that a coherent conception of democracy can be found, and that it can be a powerful tool both for understanding and critiquing the shortcomings of contemporary societies and for guiding our efforts to overcome them.

This article is part of Abolition’s second issue.

[The image above is of Occupy Wall Street taking over Washington Square Park, NYC, 10/8/2011. Photo by Darwin Yamamoto via Flickr.]


A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason.

Or it can be thrown through the window.

-Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus


Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Movement of the Squares, Occupy, and beyond, contemporary radical movements have been calling for “democracy.” In areas as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, and the United States, “each of these movements has brought democracy into question.”[1] Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini go on to write,


A uniting agenda is that of challenging rule by politicians: we can govern ourselves. Movement participants around the world believe that representative democracies are not democratic, and that established politicians and political institutions should not be trusted. Instead, most of the new movements practice forms of direct democracy in public spaces. . . . In this way, the political, economic, and social spheres are no longer separated. In fact, this practice is grounded in a long global history. . . . Nevertheless, the embrace of direct and participatory democracy is one of the most strikingly novel aspects of today’s global movements.[2]


Similarly, Jerome Roos and Leonidas Oikonomakis write that by “refusing to align themselves with any political party or ideology,” the movements “challenged the legitimacy of prevalent power structures,” revealing “a profound crisis of representation in democratic capitalist society.”[3] In so doing, these movements and their surviving descendants repeat the calls for a society ruled for and by the people—in the same way that earlier revolutionary organizations called for “social democracy.”[4]

Paradoxically to some, these movements also claim to reject representation—a keystone of many contemporary liberal understandings of democracy, and certainly of almost all the academic discussion. How can we make sense of this? There is ongoing debate about this in the movements I’ve mentioned and their descendants, and part of that work consists in figuring out what we should take “democracy” to mean. This article tries to contribute to that development by reconstructing an idea of what we might take “democracy” to mean, how we can use this concept to make sense of the critique of representation prominent in many contemporary radical movements, and examine how useful it might be for helping guide social change and the practices seeking to bring it about.[5] My investigation will be “realist” in the sense that it contributes a piece of political theory that seeks to make sense in terms of and guide real politics.[6] In this view, real politics is fundamentally about how human actions and interactions are organized, coordinated, and carried out. More precisely, it centers on three related questions: (1) the agents and contexts of political action; (2) the timing of such actions; and (3) their motivation, justification, and legitimation.[7] The main goal of this article is to develop and defend a radical concept of democracy that can make sense to and help guide the politics of a range of radical movements today. Despite first appearances, I will argue that a coherent conception of democracy can be found and that it can be a powerful tool for understanding and critiquing the shortcomings of contemporary societies as well as for guiding our efforts to overcome them.[8]

My argument is structured as follows: The first section discusses a small part of the history of the term “democracy” in the ancient and modern world, and argues that there is at least one sense of “democracy” that is useful to contemporary radical movements. In this view, democracy is defined in terms of the collective self-rule of a group of people, and an institution is democratic if and only if it is collectively self-ruled or self-governed by all of its members. The second section argues that this definition allows us to distinguish between “democracy” on the one hand, and different institutional forms that are often associated with it—like representative states or direct voting—on the other, and points out some advantages that this provides. The third and fourth sections show how this concept of democracy can be used to critique both the modern state and capitalism, respectively. The fifth section responds to some criticisms of using the term “democracy” to advance radical political projects, and finally section six concludes.


What is Democracy?

The modern concept of democracy is vague, complicated, and often contradictory. It’s associated with a variety of different things: the ancient and radical enlightenment idea of the collective self-rule of a group of people; the idea of voting for your rulers and administrators, or at least some of them; the acknowledgment and securing of certain political freedoms like speech, press, conviction, et cetera; and it is associated with a variety of other values such as freedom, equality, and solidarity. It would be very odd if all of these things occurred together, either always or in general. I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of everyday usage of the term as well as a large amount of the academic—especially normative and philosophical—literature on democracy conflates and confuses a variety of different things. In particular, much of the contemporary philosophical or political-theoretical work on democracy simply assumes—absent evidence or argument—that letting people vote for representatives is sufficient for them to have real powers to determine their governments’ deliberation and decision-making.[9] As we have seen, this is precisely what many participants in contemporary social movements reject, and as I’ll discuss below, it’s demonstrably false.

Can we, in spite of this, reconstruct a clear meaning that makes sense for, and is relevant to, the ones we see in contemporary radical movements? I think that we can, provided we don’t try to do the impossible: analyze the word as it is used and assume that we have to come up with a definition that fits every single intuition about and application of it. Instead, what I’ll try to do here is to refine or develop a concept of democracy that is coherent, usefully connected to much of its past and present usage, that avoids the naïve identification of democracy with either representative or direct institutional forms, that usefully captures what many contemporary radical movements want to do with it (such as critique contemporary states and capitalism), and that can answer the objections put forward by critics.

My starting point for developing a concept of democracy is the traditional definition of democracy as the collective self-rule of a group of people. In Europe, this word and its concept originate in ancient Greece, with discussions about how to structure independent cities, the polis. There were, according to ancient Greek thinkers, three main ways in which a polis could be structured. A polis could be a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. This is fundamentally a question about who rules the polis. If one person rules or holds power within the polis it is a monarchy, if a minority of people — the few — do it is an aristocracy, and if all people — the many — do it is a democracy.[10]

This concept is taken up by the radical enlightenment tradition from Spinoza through to Marx, but now gets expanded to thinking about issues of how to organize human societies on much larger scales.[11] For these ancient and radical enlightenment thinkers, democracy refers to the collective self-rule of a group of people. A society is a democracy if and only if all of its members rule; if they do not, it is either a monarchy or an oligarchy. Democracy, in this sense, is a question of power—it’s about who has it and who doesn’t.

It was this notion of democracy the American Founding Fathers were using when they modeled their new constitution on the political structure of the British Empire, with the explicit aim of preventing democracy, and the debt cancellations they feared would follow. Instead, they wanted a republic, a “balanced” form of government really ruled only by and for wealthy, white men, and feared the burgeoning democratic movements they saw around them.[12] Even today, David Graeber writes, “there’s nothing that scares the rulers of America more than the prospect of democracy breaking out.”[13]

Looking back, there is reason to think they were successful. Even after extending suffrage and (at least some) basic political rights to women, people of color, and the area’s few remaining original inhabitants, the latest evidence suggests that the majority of the United States’ population has no influence on their representatives’ actions—unlike a wealthy minority, who do so strongly and consistently. As Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their study examining the ability of different segments of the American population to affect government action, “when the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”[14]

They go on to write that this suggests, “that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” and this means “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”[15] Note that the claim here is not that constituents are rarely or never aligned with the actions of their representatives in the contemporary United States. Nor is the claim that these representatives are entirely unaffected by the wishes and preferences of their constituents as a whole. Instead, the claim is that only a minority of wealthy constituents and interest groups has any significant effect on what the U.S. government does. On a conception of democracy as collective self-rule, this cannot be considered particularly democratic.

The idea of democracy as collective self-rule was carried on into the early socialist movement. In his younger, presocialist years, Marx advocates democracy in this sense, writing that unlike other forms of society, in “a democracy the constitution, law, i.e. the political state, is itself only a self-determination of the people and the determinate content of the people.”[16] Its “formal” principle is therefore identical with its “material” principle,[17] meaning that the institution that claims to rule for and on behalf of the community of individuals really does so. For the early Marx, this entails a reappropriation of humans’ social essence. As I have argued elsewhere, this entails that the


various social forces created by, and inherent in, human society are no longer wielded by alien powers external and opposed to that of the vast majority of the population—whether these powers be those of a capitalist economy over workers in it, those of an absolute monarch over his or her subjects, those of a privileged feudal nobility over their serfs, etc. Instead, these social powers are taken over by the body of the people, subjected to their rule, and thereby transformed into powers under their own command.[18]


When he becomes a socialist, Marx retains this radical democratic core, adding specifically economic elements to do with overcoming the capitalist division of labor, instituting a participatory form of economic planning, and distributing goods and services according to needs. For the later Marx, a future socialist society is supposed to be “the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man; it is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social, i.e. human, being.”[19] Socialism is able to achieve this because it makes possible “universally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal [gemeinschaftlich] relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control.”[20] In this sense it is the case that in “a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.”[21]

Marx was far from alone in this. Early revolutionary anarchists such as Bakunin also used the language of democracy, for example, when naming one of their groups the “International Alliance of Socialist Democracy.” As Graeber writes on the connections between democracy and anarchism, “Anarchism does not mean the negation of democracy—or at least, any of the aspects of democracy that most Americans have historically liked. Rather, anarchism is a matter of taking those core democratic principles to their logical conclusions.”[22]

Now, it is well known that there is no such thing as a single Marxist or anarchist concept of, or approach to, democracy. Different Marxist and anarchist thinkers have many differing conceptions of, views on, and arguments for and against what they call “democracy.” In large part this is due to the shifting meaning of the term “democracy” throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When the early Marx called for democracy, when Bakunin called his organization, the “Alliance for Socialist Democracy,” and when Graeber writes of anarchism as taking democratic principles to their logical conclusion, what they mean by “democracy” is precisely collective self-rule, where this is not associated with modern representative states with universal suffrage. In the first two cases this is because such states don’t yet exist, and the association between “democracy” and modern representative states has not yet developed, and in the last instance Graeber is using a concept of democracy to advocate replacing states altogether.

The term “democracy” gradually became associated with modern representative states, first in the United States and then spreading worldwide. Graeber writes that it “was between 1830 and 1850 that politicians in the United States and France began to identify themselves as democrats and to use democracy to designate the electoral regime, even though no constitutional change or transformation of the decision-making process warranted this change in name.” This “cynical ploy” was widely successful, and the result was that soon all candidates began to refer to their electoral systems as “democratic.”[23] As a result of this, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Marxists begin to make distinctions between “bourgeois” democracy and “proletarian” democracy, and anarchists begin to reject “democracy” outright.[24] In so doing, they reject the representative states they oppose; needless to say, they are in no way giving up on their goals and ideals of collective self-rule. Today, there are disagreements among Marxists, anarchists, and other radicals about whether the term “democracy” is best reclaimed in a more radical sense useful for critiquing modern society, or abandoned as too associated with modern state structures. The point of this article is to argue that the former is a viable project, and to suggest that this is best done by defining democracy in terms of the collective self-rule of a group of people. I think that much of this idea remains in the way we think and speak about “democracy” today, and it’s this I want to argue is useful for contemporary radical movements.

There are three main reasons why this conception of democracy is useful for contemporary radical movements: (1) it is an already-existing evaluative concept with significant emotional and political power; (2) the ancient and radical idea of democracy as the real rule of the people, by the people, for the people is still a part of the confused amalgam that is its everyday concept; and (3) it is not a merely procedural criterion for a process, decision, or action; it makes strong, valuable, and substantive demands for the reconstruction or replacement of our basic economic and political institutions, and as such sits nicely alongside other valuable concepts like equality and freedom.

This conception of democracy is something that we might call a conception of institutional substance, as opposed to institutional form. It is an instance of institutional substance in the sense that it lays out a description or requirement a society or institution needs to fulfill in order to be considered a democracy—i.e., is it or is it not an institution featuring collective self-rule? It does not, however, specify the precise institutional forms through which this is instituted or brought about—i.e., how does the collective self-rule happen? It does not, for instance, say anything specific about voting procedures, whether decisions are taken by simple majority vote, supermajority vote, consensus, and so forth.[25] This is an important point, because it allows this concept of democracy to avoid the impasse of identifying it with either the representative forms of the modern state apparatus or the direct models of, for example, ancient Athens.


Neither Direct nor Representative Democracy

This focus on substance over form gives us reason to move away from the question of direct or representative institutional forms. On the one hand, representative state formations—often labeled “representative democracies”—are one of the things that many radical movements want to reject as fundamentally undemocratic in nature.[26] On the other hand, purely direct models—either consensus or by direct assembly voting on every issue—have problems with numbers and scale.[27] This is a serious dilemma: If we identify “democracy” with representative forms like modern states, the critique of the state and representation in many radical movements falls apart by definition; if we identify it only with strict direct forms like ancient Athens or large direct assemblies that eschew delegation of any kind, then we risk advocating something that arguably cannot scale to modern societies with millions of people.

Defining democracy in terms of institutional substance (is it or is it not an institution featuring collective self-rule?) rather than institutional forms (how does it do it?) avoids this dilemma. When the question of democracy is about collective self-rule, we don’t have to assume that either representative or direct structures of whatever kind are democratic by definition, and this has significant advantages. As I’ll argue below, it gives us a good definition from which to argue that representative states are not democratic, which is a powerful argument.

There are other advantages as well. First, by distinguishing between substance and form we can advocate something we value and care about—collective self-rule—and criticize institutions for failing to live up to it, without assuming that what we value is necessarily instantiated in only one kind of way. Instead of assuming that both representative and direct institutional forms are “democratic” in some hazy and necessarily incoherent sense, or that only direct institutional forms of some very specific kinds can be democratic at all, it becomes an open empirical question whether any particular institutional forms are democratic or not.

This means that we can potentially use this concept of democracy to criticize any kind of institutional forms for failing to be genuine instances of democracy as collective self-rule, and there are cases where that is important. For example, even a direct vote among a small group of people could fail to realize collective self-rule if wealthy individuals were allowed to threaten or bribe people to vote one way or the other. Or take an example of strict consensus decision-making where one person consistently blocks every proposal (without the group throwing them out or moving to a form of supermajority, etc.). Here too there is a failure for certain institutional forms to instantiate genuine democracy as collective self-rule. In both these cases, distinguishing clearly between a substantial conception of democracy as collective self-rule and the institutional forms that may or may not realize it allows us to avoid having to say that they are democratic (directly or otherwise) when, in those cases, they clearly are not democratic in any sense that we value and care about. Direct institutional forms may of course be the best and most reliable way of securing democracy in the sense I’m advocating, but this is something that should be argued for in a clear and factual way; it’s not something one should try to smuggle in via hazy and incoherent definitions.

Another advantage of defining democracy in this way is that it makes it harder for political opponents of contemporary radical movements to misrepresent what they are advocating. By advocating “direct democracy,” it often seems to those uninitiated that what is being advocated is simply huge assemblies where everyone present either votes on each and every issue or seeks to achieve consensus on each and every issue—often with the added assumption that this was all there was to the workings of the Athenian polis and to how the Greeks thought about it. This is harmful to the movement because it leaves it vulnerable to the seemingly solid objection that contemporary societies, which are not only more complex but much larger in scale than any ancient Greek city-state ever was, simply cannot be organized adequately along such lines. This, of course, is not actually a good argument, since even those advocating consensus forms of decision-making allow for delegation in some sense. Even the most ardent advocates of direct and consensus modes of deliberation and decision-making, such as Marianne Maeckelbergh and David Graeber,[28] point this out in their discussion of spokes councils, and in their advocacy of the spokes council model over simply having huge consensus assemblies (as happened in much of Occupy in the United States). The point I want to emphasize here is that when things like “direct democracy” are advocated, this is usually interpreted to mean institutional forms that do away with all forms of delegation altogether, which immediately makes it seem unrealistic and therefore unappealing. Defining democracy in the substantive terms I’m advocating avoids this confusion from the outset.

Defining democracy in this way also has a third advantage. It helps us to see more clearly how what we are advocating relates meaningfully to what other thinkers in ancient Greece, in the radical enlightenment (such as Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, and Mary Wollstonecraft), and in early socialism (Marx included) were doing when they advocated “democracy” in a sense much more radical and very different from what modern liberals euphemistically term “representative democracy,” yet without ever explicitly talking about “direct democracy.” If we also make the common erroneous assumption that there are two kinds of “democracy”—direct and representative—then we end up erroneously assuming that everyone has to be talking about either a direct model (such as the ancient Greeks, but as we’ve seen that’s often not what’s meant) or something like an idealized representative state. Murray Bookchin, for example, does this when he writes, “the word politics itself contains the Greek word for ‘city’ or polis, and its use in classical Athens, together with democracy, connoted the direct governing of the city by its citizens.”[29] This reading is incorrect since it wrongly assumes that the Greeks were using “democracy” in the same way that Bookchin uses the term “direct democracy.” To take just two examples from Aristotle, he called not just post–Cleisthenes Athens a “democracy” but also Solonian Athens, which he believed elected people to offices through votes, while being able to hold them to account when necessary, and Mantinea, in which offices were appointed by elected representatives (in turn elected by the whole people).[30] Neither of these are “direct democracies” in Bookchin’s sense, so the Greek term cannot mean what he thinks it does. Since Bookchin assumes that people talking about “democracy” must be talking about “direct democracy” or “representative democracy,” and since the Greeks couldn’t have been talking about the latter, he thinks they must be talking about “direct democracy” in his sense. Within this framework of assumptions it becomes impossible to understand what the Greeks meant, since it runs together ideas about institutional substance and institutional forms. This thwarts our ability to understand the past and to draw on its useful radical content (while also, of course, criticizing it for its shortcomings).

Finally, thinking about democracy in substantive terms helps to open the way for a serious and much-needed debate on the institutional forms we want to aspire to in a future society, and that we want to try to implement in contemporary organizing. Any modern society and organization beyond a certain size arguably requires a degree of delegation. Since the advent of modern libertarian socialist movements the question has been, how do we ensure that these delegates enable society’s collective self-rule rather than thwart it? In ancient Athens, the question was solved by drawing officials by lots, rotation, and direct voting on all major issues.[31] Among anarchists and other libertarian socialists historically, the answer has typically involved tools like mandating delegates, potentially forcing a revote if any mandate is breached; frequent rotation of delegates; keeping delegates tied to their bases, for example, by remaining members of the lower-level assemblies from which they come; putting in place mechanisms whereby delegates must report back and explain themselves to their lower-level assemblies; systems of immediate recall; and either not compensating delegates at all or giving them a salary sufficient to compensate for just the time spent, but not enough to constitute a separate job or profession. And for many of the Occupy encampments across the United States, the Global Justice Movement, and others, it has involved consensus modes of deliberation and decision-making (often with forms of supermajority as fall-back options if and when necessary), spokes councils, and a host of sophisticated tools to ensure that deliberation reaches an acceptable consensus.[32] In any case, this is a debate we need to have on a clear conceptual basis. I think the best way of doing this is to first try to be clear about what we want to achieve by our institutions and organizations and then try to determine which institutional forms achieve this best as a matter of fact.

In addition to these advantages, conceiving democracy in terms of collective self-rule also gives us good foundations from which to mount powerful critiques of both the contemporary state and capitalism.


Democracy Against Representation

How can this conception of democracy be used to critique the state and capitalism? As mentioned above, the most solid empirical evidence available shows that in the world’s most well-known representative or “democratic” state, the United States, the majority of the population has no influence on the state’s actions. Do we have any reason to assume that things are better anywhere else? Is there any good evidence to indicate it?

Consider how representatives in contemporary states actually operate:


In [so-called] liberal or representative democracy, the “representatives” do not have to comply with what they or their party promised during elections, or what their party program says. Once they are elected, they do whatever they want (or what the economic elites want), and do not have to justify themselves to the people who voted for them. There is no accountability for decisions, even not if they do the exact opposite of what they promised while campaigning. Supporters of liberal democracy try to hide these circumstances by saying that the elected representatives should act “according to their conscience” regardless of the stance of the electorate or their party. This not only turns the supposed “representation” into a joke, but also obviously transforms the campaigns into fairytale contests.[33]


Consider also how states frequently act contrary to popular opinion on crucial issues: the widespread, and deeply unpopular, imposition of austerity throughout Europe today; the moves to transfer state power to increasingly secretive and unaccountable transnational institutions like the EU, the ECB, the IMF, et cetera; the widespread surveillance and repression of popular movements; TISA, TTIP, TTP, and their like; or the deeply unpopular neoliberal imperial warfare we’ve seen create humanitarian disasters across the Middle East. These things are all deeply unpopular, but what the population wants seems irrelevant to what the state does—except insofar as such opinion generates actions that force it to do otherwise.

The fact that such things are possible illustrates precisely that modern representative states are not institutions within and through which the people really participate in deliberation and decision-making in any meaningful way. Modern states are therefore not, on the definition I’ve been discussing, democratic. In very basic terms, this shows how we can begin to critique the modern state on the basis of the concept of democracy as collective self-rule. Modern states and the politicians that staff them are not at all vehicles for their citizens’ collective self-rule. Their claims to democratic legitimacy are founded on false assumptions. As one participant in Greece put it, “This is not democracy. We have no power. We don’t make decisions.”[34] We have enough here to come up with a useful distinction between delegation and representation, even though they are often used synonymously in popular parlance. Delegation can be defined as the act of selecting a group or individual that claims to speak and act on behalf of a group of people. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about delegation in this sense; delegation is one conceptually possible means through which a group might rule itself collectively. By contrast, the sense of “representation” that I think is rightly rejected by many radical movements as undemocratic can be defined as the act of selecting a group or individual that claims to speak and act on behalf of a group of people without those people being able to significantly affect their actions. The reason this is undemocratic is obvious: if the people being “represented” lack the power to affect what their supposed “representatives” do, then it is simply impossible for the latter to be a vehicle through which the former rules itself collectively.

But the power of democracy as a critical concept goes further than this.


Democracy Against Capitalism

The focus on institutional substance that I am arguing for also moves a radical discussion of democracy away from narrow and fetishistic liberal confinement of the question of democracy to the polity or the state. It moves the debate to where it belongs: to the deeper questions about the nature of power in decision-making structures, thereby enabling one to critique the decision-making structures in any aspect of society.[35] As such, it is a concept that can more readily be used to criticize not only representative state structures but also things like the capitalist economy.

Under capitalism, people are not allowed to control their working lives or the wider economy in any meaningful way. The vast majority of people have no say in what their workplace does (e.g., the things it makes or the services it provides), how their workplace goes about doing it, and who benefits from it and how. They have no control over who gets hired or fired, whether their workplace gets moved abroad to exploit cheaper and more easily oppressed labor, whether to maximize profits in the hands of a tiny clique of shareholders who store it in tax havens, or whether to invest society’s surplus into sustainable industries or gamble them away on the stock market. Unlike states, modern-day corporations don’t even pretend to feature any form of meaningful public input into the way they’re structured, and myths of “consumer sovereignty” are universally unsupported and frankly ludicrous.

A movement for democracy, in the sense discussed here, can also say something substantial about what to do about this state of affairs. It can and should insist on a fundamental restructuring of all social institutions in such a way that their participants collectively control them by fully participating in deliberation and decision-making. To do this would require rejecting a cornerstone of modern representative states: the division between the economic and the political. Sitrin and Azzellini make this point well:


Modern democracy [here, representative states] being founded upon the separation of the economic, political, and social spheres, the economy and society are excluded from democratic governance. Yet this separation is inextricably linked to the idea of representation: the government’s powers being limited to the political sphere and focused primarily on guaranteeing individual rights and civil liberties (including the right to private property), political participation is kept at arm’s length from economic and civic life. Political participation is necessarily indirect. Thankfully, other forms of democracy are possible.[36]


Three Objections and Replies

If this concept of democracy is basically coherent and useful, we now need to see if it can respond to some prominent criticisms. Specifically, this section considers the arguments that calling for democracy is bad because (1) it involves defending something that exists that we shouldn’t be propping up, such as hierarchical representative states, (2) it involves obscuring and hiding oppression and social contradictions, and (3) it avoids the critical question of the collective power of the people.[37]

First, do calls for “democracy” necessarily end up propping up things that shouldn’t be, like modern states? From an anarchist perspective, the CrimethInc collective has recently argued that when we understand participation in assemblies, networks, et cetera “as democracy—as a form of participatory government rather than a collective practice of freedom—then sooner or later, we will recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government,”[38] thereby coming to reinforce forms of hierarchy and domination the authors claim to be inherent in, among other things, modern representative states. Writing from a nonanarchist Marxist perspective, Jodi Dean similarly argues that calling for democracy “is a defence of the status quo, a call for more of the same”—that is, more of the representative capitalist state.[39] It’s worth noting that Dean provides no argument or evidence for her claims that this is what participants in Occupy mean or meant by their calls for “democracy,” “real democracy,” and so on. Similarly, CrimethInc leaves out the possibility that we can think of “democracy” in a sense different from the one they go by, avoiding the conclusions they fear.

Their critiques of using democracy as a radical critical concept in general only makes sense if we assume that “democracy” necessarily involves accepting the rule of some people over others in some way, people who are usually selected through election. This assumption is false. First, many democrats explicitly want to avoid electing anyone to anything, as was the case in ancient Athens, where only generals and a few financial officers were elected—and that was considered an exceptional concession. Other ardent democrats like Spinoza and the early Marx advocate democracy, but they define it entirely differently. Similarly, it’s clear that many of the participants in the Occupy and other radical movements like the Movement of the Squares in Spain and Greece—many of them libertarian socialists—call for “democracy” precisely as a way of criticizing the state and advocating its abolition. In fact, these claims directly contradict what some of its most prominent participants and commentators write, such as David Graeber,[40] Mark Bray,[41] and Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini,[42] and which the latter support with a huge amount of personal experience, evidence, and argument. Obviously, this can mean more than simply more of the same (e.g., state representation). The critics could reply that there can be no coherent concept of “democracy” that does this, but as this article has argued, defining democracy in terms of collective self-rule is coherent, can make sense of (at least some of) how that term is used in radical movements, and can be used to critique both the state and capitalism.

Does democracy, and calls for democracy, necessarily obscure oppression and social contradictions and avoid the critical question of collective power? Paul Z. Simmons argues that democracy (and calls for democracy) “functions as a mask for coercion, making horror palatable while producing unbearable consequences for the individual, for the species, and for the planet,”[43] whereas Dean writes that the Left’s usage “of the language of democracy now avoids the fundamental antagonism between the 1 percent and the rest of us by acting as if the only thing really missing was participation.”[44] Moreover, the Left “should be committed to the collective power of the people,” which Dean claims that calls for democracy avoid.[45]

Again, we can see why critics think this only if we assume that the liberal definition of democracy, or something very close to it, is the only one available. Only if we start by assuming that democracy entails the rule by some over others does it make sense to say that advocating “democracy” obscures real issues of collective power.

If we think about democracy in terms of collective self-rule, however, the question of power is placed front and center. If we define democracy in terms of collective self-rule in any area of social life, then any advocacy of democracy will inherently draw attention to the contradictions between the ruling minority and ruled majority, since this contradiction is above all a contradiction of power and interests. If we don’t collectively rule our societies, then who does? And in whose interests do they do so? The 1% are the 1% because they have the power necessary to become so and stay so. The 99% do not rule and do not control our societies, either their polities or their economies, and this critique is right at the core of many contemporary radical movements. If we understand democracy in a radical way, democracy is the antithesis to minority rule. This is the way democracy was thought of throughout much of the term’s history, and it remains an important and central ingredient in the existing mishmash of ideas and usages of the term. If we understand democracy in a more precise way as collective self-rule, then we can do exactly the opposite of what these critics suggest. Instead of obscuring the question of collective power, understanding democracy as collective self-rule can help to put it front and center of our theory and practice. Taking democracy seriously need not obscure the contradictions between the rulers and the ruled; it tells us that we need to abolish them.



This article has argued that we should think of democracy as the collective self-rule of a group of people. This is a clear and coherent definition that does what I and (I think) many other participants in various parts of contemporary radical movements and organizations—including but not limited to Occupy and its offshoots—want it to. As we have seen, this definition is by no means a new one, but has a long history of being part of struggles for freedom and equality. This article is thus an attempt to help the normative self-clarification of a wider social movement. Ultimately, its usefulness is not something that can be argued for in any piece of writing but something that must be proved through the role it manages to play in ongoing political practice. If we want democracy to be realized in the basic institutions of society, then we need movements and organizations that function on the basis of collective self-rule. The fact that this has been happening is one of the most encouraging developments of recent years.

I’ve focused on how this relates to issues of polity and economy because they’re the ones most talked about when it comes to discussions of “democracy,” and because they’re the ones I’m at all qualified to say something about. But contemporary social movements and their struggles over which way our world will be going are about much more than this, raising profound questions about how we organize our social life. The “role of democracy as a political value” in the modern world is to “probe constantly the tolerable limits of injustice, a permanent and sometimes very intense blend of cultural enquiry with social and political struggle.”[46] “The true definition of democracy is merely one prize at stake in those quarrels.”[47] I think it is worth taking seriously.


About the Author

Paul Raekstad is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of
Amsterdam. They work on methodological questions in political theory,
democracy, future economic institutions, and how to reach them. They also
have special interests in Marxism, anarchism, and prefigurative politics.



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[1]. Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy From Greece to Occupy (London: Verso, 2014), 10.

[2]. Sitrin and Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!, 10; see also Jerome Roos and Leonidas Oikonomakis, “They Don’t Represent Us! The Global Resonance of the Real Democracy Movement from the Indignados to Occupy,” in Spreading Protest: Social Movements in Times of Crisis, ed. Donatella della Porta and Alice Mantonini (Essex: ECPR Press, 2014), 117–36.

[3]. Roos and Oikonomakis, “They Don’t Represent Us!,” 118. This article focuses on movements like the Movement of the Squares and Occupy, which the author has some experience with and about which a lot has been written. Having said that, a great number of other very important movements also have (among other things) a radical democratic politics at their core, such as Nouvel Debout, Black Lives Matter (see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, [Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016]) and a variety of movements and organizations covered by what Chris Dixon has called the antiauthoritarian current of North American social movements (Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements, [Oakland: University of California Press, 2014]). I don’t know whether the argument of this article will be relevant to all of these, and in any case that’s a decision that can only be made by people and movements themselves. This article addresses itself to any and all contemporary anticapitalist and antistate movement participants that are considering, among other things, using a radical concept of democracy as part of their critique of contemporary society, and it wants to avoid labeling or deciding exactly who might or might not count as part of this. To the extent that various groups and activists are interested in a radical concept of “democracy” that can be used to critique the basic structures of our society—including but not limited to capitalism and the state—I’m hoping they find it to offer some interesting ideas and suggestions.

[4]. For instance, many early revolutionary Marxist parties called themselves “Social Democratic,” and the revolutionary anarchist organization Bakunin founded before joining the First International was called the “International Alliance of Socialist Democracy.”

[5]. This article is written from the perspective of a participant in some of these movements, particularly in Britain, with experience from the student movement, Occupy, and the radical labor movement, as well as a couple of different libertarian socialist organizations. None of this gives me any particular position or authority from which to be writing this, but the question of democracy as a political value of and for radical movements keeps coming up, and would like to present some useful ideas in that regard.

[6]. See Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), and Paul Raekstad, “Two Contemporary Approaches to Political Theory”, International Critical Thought 5: 2 (2015): 226-40.

[7]. See Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics, Part I.

[8]. Let me stress that my purpose here is to develop a concept of democracy to be used for certain evaluative and practical purposes. I am not attempting to say anything detailed about certain kinds of things (e.g., certain institutions) that may or may not call themselves “democracies.”

[9]. Sometimes this is made explicit by normatively focused philosophers, and other times it’s an unstated assumption. Richard Arneson, for instance, writes, “The vote in a serious political election is one among many that together determine rules that constrain citizens’ conduct and life options in obvious and palpable ways. The vote gives each citizen of a democracy a tiny bit of the political power a dictator or powerful monarch possesses.” Richard Arneson, “Defending the Purely Instrumental Account of Democratic Legitimacy,” Journal of Political Philosophy, 11 (2003): 125; Ronald Dworkin similarly claims that, in modern states, the vote guarantees a degree of political influence to all people. Sovereign Virtue, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 202. Similarly, Thomas Christiano writes, “it is because voting power is widely distributed that public deliberation on a wide scale exists at all.” Thomas Christiano, “The Significance of Public Deliberation,” in Deliberative Democracy, eds. James Bohman and William Rehg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 251.

[10]. For proper discussion of this and more, see Herman Mogens Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles, and Ideology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).

[11]. See Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009); and Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750–1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

[12]. See Woody Holton, “‘Divide et Impera’: ‘Federalist 10’ in a Wider Sphere,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 62, no. 2 (2005): 175–212; David Graeber, The Democracy Project (London: Allen Lane, 2012), ch. 3; and Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. ch. 7.

[13]. Graeber, The Democracy Project, xiv. Note that the sense in which Graeber here uses the term “democracy” is one according to which the past and present United States is not a democracy. In Graeber’s view, the elites are not scared of the kind of republic the United States was or is but of democracy in a different sense to do collective self-government—a sense that he believes does not accurately describe the political structure of the United States.

[14]. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, “Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 575.

[15]. Ibid, 577.

[16]. Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State,” in Karl Marx: Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1992), 89.

[17]. Ibid, 88.

[18]. Paul Raekstad, “The Democratic Theory of the Early Marx”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, forthcoming, 21.

[19]. Marx, Karl Marx: Early Writings, 348.

[20]. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1973), 162.

[21]. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, German Ideology, Part 1 and Selections from Parts 2 and 3 (New York: New World Paperbacks, 1970), 83. The link between Marx and radical enlightenment thinkers is far from new—see Albert Igoin, “De l’ellipse de la théoriepolitique de Spinoza chez le jeune Marx,” Cahiers Spinoza 1, (1977): 213–28; Alexandre Matheron, “Le Traitéthéologico-politiquelu par le jeune Marx,” Cahiers Spinoza 1 (1977): 159–212; Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics (London: Verso, 2008); Miguel Abensour, La Démocratiecontrel’État: Marx et le momentmachiavélien (Paris: Éditions du Félin, 2004); and Stathis Kouvelakis, Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx. (London: Verso, 2003)—but is often insufficiently appreciated. For instance, in his early democratic period Marx makes extensive notes on Spinoza (see Marx and Engels, Gesamtausgabe, vol. IV: 1, 233–76), and throughout his life he was an avowed fan of many radical-democratic writers such as Helvétius, Diderot, and Goethe. His conception of democracy is basically identical to the one he discusses in his notes on Spinoza’s TractatusTheologico-Politicus (see the Gesamtausgabe, vol. IV: 1, 240–1, 785).

[22]. Graeber, The Democracy Project, 154.

[23]. Ibid, 169–70.

[24]. For a number of contemporary examples, see CrimethInc’s recent series “The Anarchist Critique of Democracy” here:

[25]. Three examples bring this out really well. First, Aristotle, for instance, terms both his contemporary Athens, which overwhelmingly operated according to direct voting and selection by lots as democratic, and at the same time applied the term “democratic” to other institutional forms, such as Solonian Athens, which he believed elected people to offices through votes, while being able to hold them to account when necessary (see, for example, his Politics in Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle [New York: The Modern Library, 2001], 1247a15–18) and Mantinea, in which offices were appointed by elected representatives (in turn elected by the whole people) (Politics, 1318b21–35, see also 1281b). It only makes sense for Aristotle to talk about these institutional forms as “democratic” if we don’t read him as identifying democracy with direct, delegated, or representative forms specifically, but instead with a common institutional substance they help to instantiate. Second, at one point Thucydides writes that during the leadership of Pericles “what was in name a democracy was in practice government by the foremost man,” i.e., a monarchy. Thucydides, The History of the War of the Pelepponesians and the Athenians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 130. Such a statement is only possible if democracy is not associated with any specific forms (which did not change during the period he’s writing about) but rather with substance, i.e., who really has power, who really determines deliberation and decision-making. (As an aside, this is not particularly plausible, since, as Thucydides notes just before this quote, the Athenian assembly did turn against him and even fined him on one occasion, which is not the sort of thing that happens when there’s a single undisputed ruler). Third, when Marx advocates democracy in the above sense, he is actually sensitive to the potential complications involved in delegation and representation, and explicitly notes that the important question is not delegation or direct voting per se but rather the extension of real participation in society’s deliberation and decision-making. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Gesamtausgabe (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1975), volume I: 2, 130, and 133; and see also I: 1, 285. Again, this only makes sense if he is thinking of democracy in terms of institutional substance rather than institutional forms, see Raekstad, “The Democratic Theory of the Early Marx”.

[26]. See, for example, Mark Bray, Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street (Alresford Hants: Zero Books, 2013); Graeber The Democracy Project; Roos and Oikonomakis, “They Don’t Represent Us!”; and Sitrin and Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!

[27]. See Bray, Translating Anarchy, ch. 2 for an anarchist critique of this; defenses in Marianne Maeckelbergh, “Horizontal Democracy Now: From Alterglobalization to Occupation,” Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements 4, no. 1 (2012): 207–34; and Graeber, The Democracy Project, ch. 3.

[28]. Graeber, The Democracy Project; and Maeckelbergh, “Horizontal Democracy Now.” This also goes for other advocates of what they call “direct democracy,” such as Murray Bookchin, who is explicit about advocating a confederalist model. See, for example, Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution (London: Verso, 2015).

[29]. Bookchin, The Next Revolution, 11–12.

[30]. See note 25.

[31]. See Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes.

[32]. Here, David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography (Oakland: AK Press, 2009) is invaluable.

[33]. Sitrin and Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!, 41–42.

[34]. Cited in Sitrin and Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!, 41.

[35]. See István Mészáros, The Necessity of Social Control (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).

[36]. Sitrin and Azzellini They Can’t Represent Us!, 51.

[37]. Focusing on these three connected arguments necessarily leaves out one or two other important critiques of using democracy for radical politics, such as that of Uri Gordon, “Democracy: The Patriotic Temptation,” available online at

[38]. See CrimethInc, “ From Democracy to Freedom,” Available online at

[39]. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012), 57–58.

[40]. Graeber, The Democracy Project.

[41]. Bray, Translating Anarchy.

[42]. Sitrin and Azzellini They Can’t Represent Us!

[43]. Paul Z. Simmons, “Rojava: Democracy and Commune,” Available online at He goes on to discuss how experiments in Rojava may be turning democracy from a worthless and outdated principle into one worthy of contemporary anarchist theory, and then goes on to talk about the commune.

[44]. Dean, The Communist Horizon, 57–58.

[45]. Ibid., 60.

[46]. John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2005), 171.

[47]. Ibid., 172.

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