The Autonomous Roots of the Real Democracy Movement

by Jerome Roos on August 30, 2013

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Today’s uprisings may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.

We Are Everywhere!
The Autonomous Roots of the
Real Democracy Movement

By Jérôme E. Roos and Leonidas Oikonomakis
European University Institute

Paper to be presented at the 7th Annual ECPR General Conference
‘Comparative Perspectives on the New Politics of Dissent’
Sciences Po Bordeaux, September 4-7, 2013



The years since 2011 have witnessed the (re-)birth of a global cycle of struggles around the issue of democracy. With the representative institutions of liberal democracy in crisis, social movements appear to be increasingly moving away from claims-based and state-oriented contention towards a global project of autonomy. In this article, we focus on those movements that have articulated a critique of representation and expressed a desire to radically transform democratic processes from below. Referring to the ensemble of these struggles as the Real Democracy Movement (RDM), we set out to trace its autonomous roots in the Global Justice Movement, the Zapatista uprising and the long-standing traditions of anarchism, autonomism and anti-authoritarianism more generally. We identify five specific elements that characterize the RDM: (1) its autonomy from the state; (2) its commitment to horizontalism and direct democracy; (3) its emphasis on direct action; (4) its method of occupation; and (5) its embrace of prefigurative politics. We conclude that the analytical framework of contentious politics may not be able to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM as an autonomous movement and prefer instead to speak of a politics of resistance and prefiguration. Far from being a mere call for attention, the RDM may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.



Introduction: It’s About Democracy!

“This is not just about a couple of trees,” a friend in Istanbul wrote to one of us in June 2013, as a local resistance movement against the planned destruction of Gezi Park spiraled into a nationwide uprising against the increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism of Erdogan’s Islamist government: “it’s about democracy.” Just a few weeks later, a surprisingly similar cry resounded from the streets of Athens after conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras – in an attempt to placate Greece’s Troika of foreign lenders – brusquely bypassed his coalition partners to shut down the country’s public broadcaster (ERT), triggering mass protests and leading the station’s employees to occupy its headquarters and continue broadcasting under worker self-management. “This is not about our broadcaster,” the influential investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis later lamented in an interview: “it’s about our democracy.” Meanwhile, as the streets of Brazil erupted in a blaze of indignation over a raise in public transportation fees, the issue at hand once again seemed to be only the tip of the iceberg. “No, this is not about 20 cents,” a Brazilian activist wrote in a widely disseminated open letter. “If, at the end of these protests, the political class … and its army of capitalist crétins … are removed from power and forced to recognize that an era of real democracy has arrived, then I will be very happy to pay 20 cents more for my bus rides.”

Liberal democracy now finds itself in crisis almost everywhere (Della Porta 2013). From the mass protests in Europe’s heavily indebted periphery to the worldwide Occupy movement and on to the popular uprisings in rapidly emerging countries like Turkey and Brazil, indignant multitudes are spilling over into the streets and squares of the world, contesting the very legitimacy of their elected representatives and expressing a radical desire for real democracy and meaningful self-determination. The new politics of dissent that kicked off with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011 mark the resumption of what Hardt & Negri (2011) have identified as an emerging “cycle of struggles”: a budding wave of popular indignation resonating across the globe and unleashing strikingly similar patterns of leaderless democratic revolt in a great variety of contexts. Needless to say, each of these struggles remains particular to its own context – and yet the movements share a number of key elements in common. To the extent that the struggles offer a critique of representation and express a desire to radically transform democratic processes from below, we therefore refer to them as part of the Real Democracy Movement (RDM).

The precipitous rise of the RDM has left many journalists, commentators and academics scratching their heads in confusion. ‘Why are they not making any demands?’ the mainstream media pundits immediately began to wonder when the Occupy movement first hit the headlines in the United States. ‘Has anyone else noticed the relative lack of Che Guevara invocations?’ a puzzled social movement scholar asked during the recent Brazilian protests. ‘Without leadership or a clear program, these movements are doomed to fail!’ the dumbfounded critics on the institutional left continue to agitate. With such a confused discourse permeating the academic and public debate it is perhaps no surprise that a leading scholar like Sydney Tarrow (2011) would end up defining Occupy as little more than a “we are here” movement, clamoring for attention amid an economic system that has lost its way. By making the state central to its analysis and limiting its empirical investigations to the claims that movements make “on public authorities, other holders of power, competitors, enemies, and objects of popular disapproval” (Tilly 2004:ix), the analytical framework of contentious politics seems unable to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM. As a result, many commentators still struggle to identify the reasons why the anti-capitalist left is increasingly moving away from claims-based forms of contention by stressing its radical autonomy from the traditional triad of political representation: party, state, and vanguard.

In this paper, we aim to take away some of this confusion by situating the present cycle of struggles in its proper historical and theoretical context. In doing so, we hope to elucidate the nature of the RDM as an autonomous movement, one that – consciously or unconsciously – draws heavily on its roots in the Global Justice Movement (GJM), the Zapatista uprising, and the long-standing traditions of anarchism, autonomism and anti-authoritarianism more generally. Seen in this light, the wholesale rejection of representation and the refusal to aim for state power or to make specific political demands are not so much a puzzle, but a logical consequence of the RDM’s ideological commitment to a project of autonomy and horizontalism. We develop this argument in two parts. First we trace some of the organizational forms of the RDM back to the direct democratic processes of the GJM and the Zapatistas, while simultaneously noting how the project of autonomy itself is increasingly animating anti-capitalist struggles across Latin America. The aim of this section is not so much to establish a linear relation between these struggles, or to argue that the RDM somehow ‘diffused’ from Seattle, Buenos Aires or the Lacandon Jungle, but rather to uncover the underlying resonances and mutual sources of inspiration between them.

The second part of the paper looks at the philosophical roots of the RDM and seeks to connect its most salient characteristics to a number of concepts developed by autonomist and anarchist thinkers. Specifically, we identify five interconnected and partly overlapping ideas that characterize the RDM: (1) its radical autonomy from the state, which resonates closely with Holloway’s ideas about “changing the world without taking power”; (2) its rejection of representation in favor of assembly-based horizontalism and direct democracy, leading to a networked organizational form that invokes Hardt and Negri’s multitude; (3) its refusal to make demands and its embrace of anarchist-inspired direct action, defined by Graeber as “acting as if one is already free”; (4) its method of the occupation and its creation of what Hakim Bey has called “temporary autonomous zones”, functioning as liberated sites of experimentation with other-doings, or “cracks in capitalism”; and (5) its deliberate conflation of means and ends as a strategy of prefiguration, defined as “building the new world in the shell of the old.” We conclude on the basis of this discussion that the analytical framework of contentious politics may not be able to fully appreciate the nature and significance of the RDM as an autonomous movement and propose instead to speak of a politics of resistance and prefiguration ... Far from being a mere call for attention, the RDM may be the harbinger of a new era of radical democratic aspirations in which autonomous movements could come to play a central role.

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Jérôme E. Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on the structural power of financial capital in the management of international debt crises and the implications for the quality of democracy (case studies: Mexico, Argentina and Greece). He is the founder and editor of ROAR Magazine.

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research focuses on the different political strategies that social movements adopt in their struggle for social change (case studies: the Zapatistas of Mexico and the Cocaleros of Bolivia). He is a contributing editor of ROAR Magazine.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jkelvynrichards September 11, 2013 at 16:45


In recent articles about ‘democracy’, ROARmag. has emphasized the concept of ‘autonomy’: as an expression of independence from the state or the government or the elites. Having been involved in community action between 1965 and 2002, I want to say more about the implications of local direct politics.
There have been attempts, in North Africa and Southern Europe, to foster community politics and community action with a view to limit the powers of the elites across the world, and liberate poor minorities for several decades. In every case community dissent has been greeted by armed force, by the military or the police. Direct action and direct democracy depend upon the pursuit of dependence, coalition, collaboration, equality, not discrimination nor inequality.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s there was the development and the rapid expansion of the Civil Rights Movement. In the USA and UK, the African communities, [the Afro-Americans, and the Afro-Caribbeans,] organized marches, protests, riots, direct action; occupations as sit-ins; boycotts, all designed to express their dissent against discrimination, and segregation, and to emphasise community life and their rights as citizens.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in the USA in 1964 following extensive campaigns by Malcolm X [who was assassinated in 1965] and Martin Luther King[assassinated in 1968]
The Race Relations Acts in the UK in 1965; and in 1976, were passed in the wake of civil disobedience, and civil disorder.
Civil Rights, when applied to the UK, was exercised particularly in Northern Ireland, to support the Catholics against the Protestants and put a stop to sectarian community militancy and terrorism.
The Civil Rights Movement gave expression to the cycles of struggles over inequality, and poverty amongst the ‘racial’ communities. In the USA the discrimination was based on ‘skin-colour’ and applied to black or white citizens; In the UK, the hostilities were also about skin colour, but the ‘black’ communities were of African/Indian/Bangledeshi/Pakistani/ Caribbean origins, and all British Commonwealth citizens, following the 1948 British Nationality Act.
In all cases the legislation is demanding that ‘the whites’ stop discriminating against ‘the blacks’; and men against women.
Sex discrimination was endemic to all communities, and was seen as part of the equal opportunities agenda. It was part of the Civil Rights Act 1964/1968, and the Equal Pay Act 1963 in the USA. It was made illegal in the UK in 1975.
These examples indicate that community politics had been common and dependent upon the intervention of governments. Racial and sexual discrimination was rampant and was not going to go away. It is clear that the Civil Rights movement supported the emergence of social movements in general and community politics in particular.

The ROAR Collective wants to examine the ways in which the Real Democracy Movement is striving to establish independence [autonomy] from the ‘state’.
The movement has been involved in a cycle of struggles over poverty and inequality, capitalism and banking, oppression and military force. In Syria, the struggle against the state has been a struggle by the majority Sunnis against the Armed forces of the Alawite communities. In Egypt, the struggle has been against the military dictatorship. In Libya, the struggle became a battle against NATO. In Tunisia and Algeria the poor rose in protest against the rich elites.
ROAR identifies a global project of cooperation, mutuality, equality, community, and all attempts to transform democratic systems into community politics. The Arab Spring in North Africa has led to military action in the face of community action, the most extreme form of which has been the gassing of citizens.
Real Democracy is about community action, community decisions, direct democracy, direct action, cooperation, social inclusion, and dialogue, and when necessary, occupation of public and private spaces which should be available for the community.
Any movement for ‘real democracy’ will be ‘anti-capitalist’. Capitalism is elitist, intended to enable the rich elites to get richer, and to exploit workers for lower wages. It is designed to promote inequality, to maximize profits, as well as to increase exploitation of raw materials. Capitalist systems will lead to the destruction of the biosphere, the pollution of the atmosphere, and to climate change.
Community action that is anti-hierarchy, anti-capitalist, anti-elitist , will be the politics of dissent, and will become the target of those in power!
The model of Real Democracy promoted by ROAR is enacted by communal assemblies. All citizens of the local communities will be able to vote on decisions and priorities for their governance. Within this form of community politics, all property will be owned by the local communities and allocated for community use. Real Democracy will be collaborative, collective, cooperative, and expressed as community action. Communal enterprises will be operated as ‘cooperatives’.
In the discussion about ‘Real Democracy’, it is asserted that the citizens must practice what they preach. For example, a participatory democracy must be participatory. All citizens must be able to vote. Of course, it is clear that these ROAR proposals assume a basic model of democracy which is participatory, cooperative, collaborative. A Civil Rights democracy must exercise the civil rights of all citizens: black and white; male and female; Christian and others; and so on. One group must not act on behalf of another. Each community group will be directly involved in the discussions and decisions
An important aspect of this is that citizens must be able to vote ‘for’ and ‘against’ any proposals without fear of penalty. The politics of dissent is acted out in peace. Another aspect, is that community politics will be based on majority votes, not unilateral votes The minority may want to overturn the decision; Or the majority to get rid of the minority. But they need to organize dialogues, and negotiations in cooperation. Community politics is not a system in which all citizens must vote collectively at all times. Nor one in which a majority vote gives the majority absolute power.!
But if we are to explore the possibilities of the development of democracy [or what has been called ‘real democracy’], then all citizens must be entitled to decide how to organize their democratic communities. An important part of the concept of democracy is that all citizens are involved in their governance. This can also mean that they are entitled to decide how they are governed. At the moment, the accepted model is ‘representative democracy’ whereby the majority vote for a party, or an individual or local people. If the practice is participatory democracy, then the citizens are free to decide on how they are governed. If they do not want to be involved in the daily routines of committees, or assemblies, they can draw a lottery. Or volunteer. If the citizens are not fee to choose what sort of democracy they want, what sort of system is that?


Steve Baldwin November 5, 2015 at 16:22

Individuals are not the vehicles of power but its point of application.


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