Beyond Local Self-organization: A Call for a Reinvigorated Defense of Liberal Democratic Institutions

In times of the social and economic injustice, environmental degradation and fascist upheavals, it is easy to forget the resistance and mobilization this development nourishes. In the face of systemic injustices, which often entail the dominance of neoliberal ideals of economic growth and the exclusion of values such as solidarity and community, we can observe the growth of new forms of popular mobilization, such as self-sufficient collectives on the Portuguese countryside1 and self-organized camps employing direct democracy on the stairs of Wall Street.

There is a romantic shimmer around these popular projects, glorified by both journalists and academics who see an amazing renewal of democracy, whether they refer to the projects mentioned above, Chavista communes in Venezuela or revolutionary villages in Zapatista territory in Mexico. Please do not misunderstand me now; there is something politically significant about self-organized popular mobilization, but it also shows what is believed to be possible to challenge and change in an era of economic, social, ecological and political injustice. Therefore, I want to discuss why these forms of resistance risk not being a radical demand for change, but instead something that not challenges status quo. I want to call this resistance the “inward resistance”.

Let me start with a short discussion on what I believe are the primary inspirational sources for this kind of resistance. In 2004, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt published their book Multitude2 which, together with the books Empire3 and Commonwealth4, became somewhat of a renewal for critical leftist thought. In Multitude, they argue that resistance, in the face of a non-territorialized but global capitalist power, has taken a likewise non-territorialized and non-centralized character. The multitude consists of all those heterogenous struggles that try to undermine capitalist hegemony. The struggle can never be unified into a single emancipatory force. In 1985, anarchist Hakim Bey had argued, in an argument a little more concrete than Hardt and Negri, for the creation of what he called “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (TMZ) which he described as a “guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it”.5 These two works bear the seeds the notion of resistance as desertion and as creating something autonomous outside the established realm of politics.

This is what I want to call the “inward” direction of resistance. Despite its promises of democratic renewal, what are the consequences of this? Let me turn to two poststructuralist thinkers: Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Zizek. Mouffe delivers, especially in her latest book, Agonistics6, a fierce critique against Hardt and Negri for pleading for the withdrawal of activism from established politics. Zizek also frantically attacks the promises of the withdrawal from politics by criticizing different forms of autonomous self-organization. By invoking such projects as the creation of “capitalism-free zones” in Greece in the aftermath of the economic crisis, he claims that these projects can never universalize and sustain themselves in a democratically healthy manner. He even goes on saying that “the most dangerous dream of the left was precisely this idea of some type of immediate, self-transparent direct democracy” and argues for the reinvention of a leftist state that can “change things at the most everyday common life level”, not through short bursts, however enthusiastic, of democracy.

Using the critique of Mouffe and Zizek, I fear that in these times, when resistance is probably needed the most, it will take the form of emancipatory forces that turn inward and leave the liberal democratic institutions to wither away. Despite the democratic promises of self-organization in the form of local multitudes, these forms of organization actually accept defeat. In the face of threats against economic, political and ecological democracy, is withdrawal and temporary autonomy the most radical alternative we can think of? Do we really think that this is the only way we can challenge threats to democracy? Are not democratic ideals worth defending in a constant struggle with the political institutions (as Mouffe also argues for)? Should we not leave the nostalgic notion of how local multitudes create democratic fervor for a few people during a short period of time, while the liberal democratic institutions slowly are hollowed out? To me, self-organized multitudes risk being a depoliticized resistance, without the desire to defend basic liberal democratic institutions and values. In times of fascist challenges to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy we do not need people turning away from it, creating their own zones of autonomy. We need people to fight for its very survival and for the radical demands it originally held.

  1. I am referring to the collective ”Tamera”, which, in the region of Alentejo in Portugal, has created a self-sufficient community with the aim of living in harmony with nature. []
  2. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Penguin Books. []
  3. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. []
  4. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2009). Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. []
  5. Bey, H. in Dunscombe, S. (2002). Cultural Resistance Reader. London: Verso, p. 116-117. []
  6. Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics – Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso. []
David Scott is a PhD student in Political Science at Karlstad University, Sweden, who conducts research on the effects of managerial technologies of governing, such as increased demands on measurability and auditability, on civil society organizations working in the field of international development cooperation. Especially, he is interested in how radical activism, and thereby democratic politics, is affected by marketization and management trends. He also has a general interest in critical leftist thought. David can be reached at: david.scott@kau.se. Read other articles by David.