Title: Democracy vs Desire: Beyond the Politics of Measure
Author: Andy Robinson
Date: 2005–2006
Notes: Originally published in “Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed” #60, Fall/Winter, 2005–06, Vol. 23, No. 2.

My contention in this article is that anarchy and democracy are incompatible, because anarchy is based on an active politics of desire whereas democracy is necessarily reactive and thus plays into the repressive logics of industrial society and especially, of contemporary capitalism. I conceive of a politics of desire as operating through the liberation of active desires — desires that actively connect with the world — over and against reactive desires — desires that are fueled by a primary desire to repress desire itself. Conventional political ideologies depend deeply on reactive schemas, and the point of anarchy is not simply to oppose the macro-social forms that result from such schemas, but also to oppose the micro-social and emotional/psychological formations on which such forms are built.

Democracy and the politics of desire may seem complementary, but in fact they run contrary to each other. The reason for this is that, while the politics of desire involves an immediacy of expression and an opposition to discursive exclusions that operate repressively, democracy implies the exclusion or repression of minorities as part of its basic logic. That minorities be prevented from expressing themselves with wildness and immediacy — that they remain always the “loyal opposition” within the confines of a system in which the majority gets its way — is a necessary part of the idea of democracy. For this reason, democracy goes against the emancipation of desire, operating simply as a particularly powerful ideology of recuperation with especially effective, and therefore insidious, ways of excusing social repression.

Democracy has come to mean at least three different things in contemporary political discourse. First of all, it means “rule by the people” — the literal meaning. Secondly, it means more specifically, rule by the majority — counterposed to minority rule (and also, invisibly, to the refusal of rule, to anarchy, which is also a refusal of minorities to be ruled by majorities, as well as a refusal to rule over them). Thirdly, it is used to refer to a complex of institutions typical of societies embracing aspects of liberalism. It is only in this third sense that democracy can be taken to imply minority rights, and only of the kind and in the context implied by the “rule of law” and the power of the state. In all of these senses, democracy is a specific instance of state power — and not, as implied by some anarchists, a critique of state power or a form of anarchy. Unconditional rule by a majority cannot be compatible with anarchy because it implies repression on various levels.

Social exclusion

An insurgent understanding of inclusion and exclusion is distinct from the conventional meanings of these terms, although related to them in a complex way. The idea of social exclusion has become fashionable lately, mainly because of a double discursive trick used by the neo-liberal power-elites. Firstly, the issue of poverty is shifted out of the political mainstream by replacing it with exclusion. And secondly, this new “problem” is blamed on the victims of capitalist/industrial society, treating the excluded themselves as the problem. This occurs, ironically enough, at just the point where new forms of biopower are being imposed in such a way as to render exclusion harsher and more pervasive than ever. Datacide (www.datacide.org) analyse what they call “new age” policing such as “preventive” surveillance of “suspected” or “potential” lawbreakers and criminalisation of legal acts through administrative orders as ‘the real subsumption of every singularity in the domain of the State.

From now on if your attributes don’t quite extend to crime, a judge’s word suffices to ensure that crime will reach out and embrace your attributes... As the distinction fades between administering sickness and management of crime, the role of both in capital’s imposition of (waged and unwaged) work becomes less mysterious than ever. In the last few years criminal sanctions have been used to cut off lines of flight from the labour market, with the “fraud” menace as pretext for attacks on dole and sickness benefit autonomy. Meanwhile therapeutic models prevail in the benefit / work-imposition system... Capitalist work must not only produce commodities and reproduce physical labour-power, it must also nurture forms of subjectivity likely to ensure its own survival.[1]

Thus, an expanding politics of exclusion operates on multiple levels. First of all, there is an extension of the notion of “employability” to reconstruct the subjectivity of workers and to eliminate the “refusal of work” within the workplace through a graded exclusion of potentially disruptive workers from the factories and offices. Secondly, there is a pervasive attack on “dole autonomy” and other forms of state-legitimated provision for non-workers. Thirdly, and most crucially, there is an increasing tendency towards totalitarian regimes of control of space so as to preclude re-use of spaces by those who are excluded in the first two ways, through strategies including through the selective criminalisation of particular actions by individuals singled out by the state, technological control through means such as biometric ID, RFIDs and CCTV, and narrow definitions of legitimate use associated in particular with “gated” institutions of all kinds, from closed residential; complexes to shopping malls. In this way, the capitalist subsumption of social spaces is extended beyond it’s former bounds, and the threat it poses to freedom is increased.

Against this regime of intensifying control, Crisso and Odoteo rightly counterpose the “new barbarians” — those who are so radically exterior to current social forms that they do not even speak the language of these forms, who can engage with these forms only as a threatening force emerging as if from outside.

The Empire is not inclusive; it is exclusive... The barbarian is the one who does not speak the language of the city-state and also the one who breaks loose with fury... Today the barbarians no longer camp at the gates of the City. They already find themselves inside it, because they were born in it. There are no longer cold lands of the North or barren steppes of the East from which to start the invasion. It is necessary to recognize that the barbarians arise from the ranks of the imperial subjects themselves. In other words, the barbarians are everywhere. For ears accustomed to the language of the polis, it is easy to recognize them, because when they express themselves, they stammer. But there is no need to let oneself be fooled by the incomprehensible sound of their voices; there is no need to confuse the one without a language with the one who speaks a different language... If their language seems obscure, irritating, stuttering, it is because it does not endlessly conjugate the imperial Verb to the infinitive. These barbarians are all the ones who deliberately refuse to follow the institutional itinerary. They have other paths to travel, other worlds to discover, other existences to live... Against the senile disorder of politics, the barbarians affirm that freedom is the most urgent and terrifying need of human nature. And unbridled freedom makes use of all the world’s products, of alt the objects, using them as playthings.[2]

The “new barbarians” are likely to be a growing group, precisely because, as the system closes its grip on those it controls, more and more people slip through its grasp and into the spaces of the excluded. The struggle for survival and for freedom carried out by the excluded runs counter to the ever-intensifying menace of state and corporate control of spaces. Thus, the resistances of the present period emerge, not at the core of the productive system, but rather, at the most peripheral points — where the logic of subsumption collides most violently with the “new barbarians” in all their forms.

Democracy and crackdown culture

Where does democracy fit into all of this? It is first of all important to note that, at least in the core countries that dominate the world system, the majority often support wholeheartedly the crackdown culture that is the spectacular / mediatised expression of the intensified subsumption of social spaces. There is consistent high support for “tough” anti-“crime” measures in opinion polls throughout the west, large audiences for media that promote this culture, and a pressure on politicians to conform to the crackdown model that is as often bottom-up as top-down. On a deeper level, democracy can be seen as operating to incorporate the subjects into the maintenance of Empire. Sergio Bologna already in the 1970s saw in democratic self-management a preservation strategy for capitalist society, referring to

’[a] State-form in which it is the masses themselves who act as judge and jury, judging who is deviant and who is not, who is productive and who is not, who is socially dangerous and who is not. Now it is to be the factory mass meetings that expel the extremist; the mass tenants’ meeting that decides to expel the young hooligan; and the college assembly to expel the “undesirable” student with his pistol and iron bar... Once you have the collective acting as judge and jury, then the institutional forms of the law (wigs and robes etc) have only a ratifying function: they take delivery of the hostage, the tumour that has been driven out of the otherwise healthy body. The State-form appears as a kind of immunising process of civil society... Henceforth it is civil society, the collectivity, that fixes the norm and formulates the sentence; while the apparatus is left with the technical task of punishment.’[3]

This strategy has gone further and further in associating the suppression of political revolt and social nonconformity with an agenda of support for the normal/decent insiders against those labelled as deviant.

By allowing the working class (defined reactively and repressively by its role in capitalism) to regulate its own “communities” (defined even more repressively in terms of fixed standards of behaviour and cultural identity), capitalism could save itself the policing costs of holding the workers down, and turn the lowest of the included into the guardians of the very order that exploits and subordinates them. In other words, the majoritarian tyranny of crackdown culture is itself an expression of the way in which capitalism uses democracy to preserve itself. It is not exterior to democracy but a part of how democracy functions in a context where the majority have identities and attachments formed (reactively) by the social system.

The crackdown culture is democratic in the first of the senses listed above — it is at its core about the formation and policing of the boundaries of the “people.” The people — the “decent” or “law-abiding” or “hard-working” ordinary folk or “citizens” invoked to justify crackdowns and repression — are the agent of repression, while the excluded, the new barbarians, defined as criminal, indecent, and “anti-social,” are the object. It is thus “rule by the people” at its most brutal — a violent tyranny by those who define themselves as the authentic people, over those who are excluded from it. It is also, of course, a self-policing of capitalism and industrial society — but this is unsurprising, since the “people”, after all, are not defined externally to this society but rather are constructed by it. Where the majority are subordinated into the existing social system, it is unsurprising that they internalise and conform to its norms, and even that they feel a sense of identity with its boundaries and its limits. They have often also formed repressive psychological structures in order to cope with their position in an unfree society that controls and represses them, and these structures operate so as to intensify reactions against those perceived as too free and as threatening to the equilibrium of self-identity that safeguards social inclusion. Reactive psychology, which expresses itself in the ethics of self-deadening “shoulds,” transmutes the internal repression of desire (itself necessary for one to subordinate oneself to the majority) into a hostility against the expression of active desires by others, thus drawing social repression as the consequence of psychological repression. Where the majority have such character-structures, democracy can be nothing more than a dictatorship by bigots. Where they do not, democracy is unstable, undermined in its calculative finality by desires that overflow it.

Yet still, one finds among many anarchists an uncritical celebration of the masses, or at least the workers. Is it a coincidence that the same self-styled anarchists who identify anarchism with democracy are also often insufficiently rigorous in opposing the new form of capitalist control expressed through the crackdown culture? In Britain, the Independent Working-Class Association (IWCA) epitomises the new governmentality of capitalism through the self-policing of the masses. The IWCA campaigns for self-government of working-class areas by the locals — defined as the decent, law-abiding conformists — through violence and exclusion directed at various folk devils and groups perceived as disruptive. This group is supported by many who claim to be anarchists, despite being an electoral formation with a repressive and reactive ideological agenda. This case is not unique. Everywhere, “class struggle” anarchists rally behind the calls to oppose “anti-social” activities, even to the point of critically supporting crackdowns (always, of course, with the usual supplements, denouncing the existing state even while forming the working-class itself into a parallel state with its own repressive force and its own conformity-imposing closures). One thus finds these would-be anarchists cast as the last defenders of the state. For the state, in its last instance, is not the macro-social aggregate; it is the logic of control and policing of life from above, which is epitomised locally in policing agencies (whether those of the official state police or of vigilantes, snoops, and busybodies), and psychologically in repressively formulated ethics (whether those of a liberal or aristocratic elite, or those of a self-righteous “decent people” fixated on its own decency). Without a rejection of the fixed identities and categories that operate as cops in our heads, there can be no destruction of the state — only its transmutation, fragmentation, and ultimate revival ih new, and maybe stronger, forms.

The “people” who rule must after all be a determinate entity, and in order to be conceived as such, the “people” must be given fixity as what Max Stirner terms a spook — an ideological construction to which actual people subordinate themselves, and of which one is a part only to the extent that one conforms.

The People is a higher essence than an individual, and, like Man or the Spirit of Man, a spirit haunting the individual — the Spirit of the People. For this reason they revered this spirit, and only so far as he served this or else a spirit related to it (e. g. the Spirit of the Family) could the individual appear significant; only for the sake of the higher essence, the People, was consideration allowed to the “member of the people.[4]

“Rule by the people” thus turns out not to be self-determination by actual people at all, but rather, to be the tyrannical imposition of a normative conception of an essence of peoplehood by those whose own identity is constructed around this category. What is excluded is the “un-people” to misquote Stirner — the flows of desire and activity which exceed and overflow the fixed category, which are unspeakable in terms of its representations. Democracy is thus at its core undemocratic, for the dictatorship of the adherents of a spook over those who do not support it cannot be justified by reference also to the latter, but only when the spook is established as a dominant symbolic element through a logic of forced choice — all are free to be part of the people or not, on condition that they make the right choice, or else be excluded. The adherents of anarchy, the opponents of despotic gestures of this kind, must necessarily be on the side of the excluded, indeed, among the excluded, and thus, against the imposition of conformity, and radically exterior to the imagined “community” their fixed categories construct.

The non-denumerable barbarians

Yet the problems with democracy do not end with the problem of the “people.” Democracy as rule by the majority is also a rule over all by numbers. Majority rule presupposes the existence of a category within which a majority is established, and is thus dependent on the prior construction of the “people” which rules to include some and exclude others. Just as crucially, however, majority rule implies a willingness of all to subordinate themselves to the outcome of a specific procedure. This can only be a reactive willingness, since otherwise, there is no way to guarantee that a specific outcome will not be intolerable at the level of desire or need. Furthermore, the decisive factor is number. Thus, majority rule is a subordination of all to the logic of mathematics — the rule of King Abacus.

As so often with quantification, majoritarianism implies an equivalence of all which is the basis for comparison. It therefore precludes and forecloses a recognition of difference, except as a secondary element of difference among the fundamentally similar. John Zerzan writes of number that

[i]ts essential attitude toward the whole colorful movement of life is summed up by, “Put this and that equal to that and this!” Abstraction and equivalence of identity are inseparable; the suppression of the world’s richness which is paramount in identity brought Adorno to the “primal world of ideology.” The untruth of identity is simply that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived... Boas concluded that “counting does not become necessary until objects are considered in such generalized form that their individualities are entirely lost sight of. In the growth of civilization we have learned to use increasingly abstract signs to point at increasingly abstract referents.[5]

It is these abstract referents that are empowered through numerical procedures of establishing majorities, not the actual people who are reductively forced into the categories which these referents construct.

This imposed equivalence is reductive and destructive, for what it leaves unsaid is the possibility of an excess irreducible to equivalence, to the claim that 1=1. Interpreted strictly (and without its contingent conflation with liberal notions of rights), democracy implies total rightslessness of each and every person, the included as much as the excluded. Because any can end up in the minority, any may be overruled. Thus, no need or desire is recognised as having a claim on its own basis. No wonder, then, that the loudest calls on behalf of desire come from minorities of various kinds. No wonder, too, that entrenched minorities often come to oppose their own subsumption within larger groupings, so that permanent minorities such as the Tamils and the Basques become a constant social-control problem for the powerful. Democracy is not an inclusion of all those who vote; it is a means of silencing those who are left in the minority. It is only at the level of the spook — the mythical inscription of a “people” of which all are a part, whatever their own fate — that the outvoted minority remains part of the same totality as the majority.

A politics of desire, however, is necessarily minori-tarian (in the Deleuzian sense of “against the majority”) in a more fundamental way. Active desire is not capable of accepting the a priori insistence that it conform to the result of a majority decision. Only if the threat of disorder — the possibility of no decision resulting — outweighed every specific desire would it be conceivable for someone to accept this insistence. Thus, desire is minoritarian not simply in that it can often end up in the minority when a vote is taken; it is minoritarian in that it is non-denumerable, it cannot be reduced to something to be counted and weighed on a scale with other desires or with other entities of whatever kind. To reject the aspiration to be the majority — not only in the numerical sense but in the ideological sense, to reject the aspiration for one’s own desires and contingencies to be classified as decent and normal to the exclusion of others — is a logical extension of active desire. Active desire, wildness, is unconditional and irreducible. It cannot, therefore, find expression in a system which reduces it to its representation, as one among many elements to be counted.

Conclusion: Beyond Democracy

If, then, democracy is to be rejected as a concomitant of an anarchist anti-politics, what is to be counterposed to it? The answer is, first of all, that the flows of desire themselves must define the contours of socio-political action, and not the other way around. On one level, however, more needs to be said. For a rejection of “democracy” — of the reduction of desires to one among many, to an equivalential and representational status — does not imply a tyrannical standpoint. One can be a master without having slaves; the goal then would be to be a master among masters. The point is thus precisely to refuse the blackmail that says that the only alternative to democracy is despotism — repeated as insistently by the state-socialist adherents of the latter as by the liberal and social-democratic apologists for the former. This binary must be seen as one of the “false choices” of the society of the spectacle — a choice between two similar entities (such as Pepsi and Coke) that ultimately serves to head off a perception of the dividing-lines which run, not between the rivals, but between the system in its entirety (with both its binarised poles) and that which opposes it. In the binary of democracy versus dictatorship, what is foreclosed is the possibility of anarchy — a refusal of rule by either minorities or majorities; a refusal of rule as such.

There are many ways to attempt to construct non-oppressive relations with others — both human and nonhuman — without the reduction to similarity implicit in democracy and other statist forms. First of all, the self is in a condition of overflow with the world, as a situated being-in-becoming that is not reduceable to fixed categories. In this way, as many ecologists recognise, the self already has an interior connection to the goal of forming sustainable relations with the world, without any need to introduce self-sacrificing elements to justify such a concern. Secondly, difference doesn’t need to disappear to enable dialogical interaction. Indeed, social relations are enriched where difference can become a source of new experiences and of relations in which differences become strengths. The way in which some hunter-gatherers take on animal attributes through shamanism would be an example of this; the way in which different abilities can be combined to complete a task is another. Thirdly, power for the self does not necessarily imply disempowerment of others. It is possible to conceive of, formulate, and actively live, types of power which empower across intersubjective boundaries. Nietzsche cites poets as his example of how a self-active egoism in the Stirnerian sense can be something which is also enriching for others; Deleuze prefers the example of a productive relationship or friendship, in which each partner’s enjoyment intensifies the enjoyment of the other. Fourthly, desires can often find non-repressive expression in ways that are not destructive of other active desires, through forming assemblages in which desires are articulated around one another and are channelled in productive ways that enmesh with the desires of others. Fourier’s concept of “harmony” is one example of this kind of approach, which replaces repression with rearticulation. These are just a few of the possible ways in which desires can operate constructively outside a framework of repression.

The point about democracy, however, is that, contrary to the claims of its more vocal advocates, it does not enable or encourage the construction of spaces where these kinds of non-oppressive relations can come into being. Rather, it ensures a closure around the “people,” the majority, and the procedures of counting. It tends to foreclose dialogue and interchange in advance by allowing the majority a self-satisfied despotic position, and demanding of the excluded a self-subordinating reactive conformity.

The possibility of a non-repressive and sustainable social world is thus something that lies beyond the boundaries of democracy. It is something too radical for the numerical and symbolic reductions necessary to democratic practice, which recognises instead that the forces of life cannot be reduced to figures in an equation. It is only beyond the reductive logics of sameness that emancipation becomes conceivable, and it is thus beyond such frameworks that anarchists must look.


[1] Datacide, “New Age Policing: Biology is Ideology,” datacide.c8.com.

[2] Crisso and Odoteo, “Barbarians: The Disordered Insurgence,” www.geocities.com .

[3] Sergio Bologna, “The Tribe of Moles,” http://www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/moles.html.

[4] Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, p. 53, http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchi5m/stirner/theego3.html.

[5] John Zerzan, “Number: Its Origin and Evolution,” www.primitivism.com.