Collective Self-Rule

The golden road to freedom without violence for Dustin Howes is “collective self-rule.” Basically, that phrase is meant to indicate the instances in which a group of people take into their own hands the initiative to act, not relying on some external agency (like the state) to do their work for them.

Howes is inspired here by Hannah Arendt’s passages on the “lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition,” but more directly influenced by the examples of Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence and the civil rights’ movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States.  In both of the latter cases, large numbers of citizens organized themselves and acted in a variety of ways (primarily non-violent) to move toward their stated goals.  Arendt, writing about similar movements (she was particularly interested in workers’ councils), argues that the more important thing may be the experience of acting itself, of creating collective power through “action in concert” with others, as contrasted to any actual outcome.  Swapping the passivity of a citizen waiting upon the state to do something for the activity of doing things for oneself is the key for her—as it is generally for people who advocate this kind of “participatory democracy,” with its emphasis on “voluntary associations” distinct from the formal institutions (and coercions) characteristic of the state.

There are two immediate and obvious objections to this position.  The first is that both Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s movements were addressed to the state even as they were not of the state.  They both wanted the state to do something—and their various activities were directed to that end.  Not solely, of course, especially in Gandhi’s case.  But to a large extent.

Second, both movements existed at the sufferance of the state.  As many commentators have pointed out, Gandhian tactics would have done Europe’s Jews no good in the face of the Nazis.  (Yes, there is the wonderful exception of Denmark; but that exception connects to the Nazis’ very different relationship to Western as opposed to Eastern Europe.  Poland’s Jews could not have been saved by the Danish stratagem.)

But I don’t want to dismiss “collective self-rule” so completely or easily.  I, too, believe that the health of democracy depends greatly on its wealth of voluntary associations, on the extent to which citizens take things into their own hands.  So the two more important questions for me are:

  1. Are such voluntary associations only possible within a state? I. e. is a protective state, a liberal state that guarantees the rights of assembly, of free speech, and the existence of a non-state civil society necessary for voluntary associations to even exist?  The state, as Howes accepts, following Weber and Benjamin and any number of other theorists, is grounded in violence at the end of the day.  We seem trapped in a politics that utilizes violence again and again if we retain the state.  But imagining political order without the state is very, very hard to do.

2.    If we begin to imagine collective self-rule without a state, we run straight into what Howes (in one of the most trenchant sections of his book) calls the “paradoxical facts of freedom” (157-61).  Those paradoxical facts are that freedom is lodged in individuals, is embodied by an individual acting on his or her own, but such acts are only possible and only meaningful in relation to the others with whom that individual shares a world.  Thus, the violence that would try to eliminate those others because they seem to be thwarting my will can actually only destroy “the world” (Arendt’s usage) in which my acts could be meaningful.  So far, so good. Violence, thus understood, can only counter-productively destroy the individual’s enjoyment of freedom.  But what about conflicts short of eliminating the other?  There are many ways of shutting people out from effective action that don’t require killing them. So, on the one hand, we need to worry about inequality, about the ways collectives can keep various people from fully participating.  (I will return to this issue of equality in future posts.  For now, let me just say that concerns about equality are mostly absent from Howes’ book.)  On the other hand, there is the question of how to deal with those who do not get with the program, who act in ways to gum up the works, whose desires run counter to the “collective.”

Howes’s “facts of freedom” are very much geared toward the irreducibilty of “plurality,” of a world comprised of diverse individuals.  But the leap to “collective self-rule” is difficult precisely because of such diversity.  The state’s powers of sanction are called forth against individuals who are seen as impediments to collective action.  That’s not a pretty picture.  But non-state social movements do end up dealing with similar issues, so we need to think about non-violent strategies for achieving that collective cohesion.

Another way to say this: Gandhi, in his own way, was very much motivated by a desire for self-sufficiency.  His vision was of an India that turned its back on the world, creating out of itself everything it needed.  So the boundaries were to be drawn between India and all the rest.  Similarly, the civil rights movement always had to struggle with the issue of black nationalism.  Were whites to be admitted into the movement—and on what terms?  Collective self-rule depends on defining the collective itself.  How can we think about such acts of definition outside of strategies that rely on violent sanctions?  That’s a vital question, one absolutely central to any attempt to forge a non-violent politics (where “politics” is understood as ways of arranging collective action).

In short, it seems to me that Howes is reaching for an alternative to the state.  I am very sympathetic to that ambition, but have a hard time seeing how we can get from here (where we are today) to there.

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