Below and Beyond the State

By Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley

We live in a technological age, in which computer chips are made out of rare minerals, and in which AI (Artificial Intelligence) is advancing at breakneck speed. State and transnational apparatuses of surveillance and marketing render the dream of decentralized workers’ control and people power perhaps hopelessly nostalgic, reminiscent of the aspirations of a bygone era. The infrastructure of the global economy operates at a scale that escapes all efforts to contain its centralizing consequences. Freedom and technology are intricately intertwined, and our radical democratic convictions need to perhaps be amended to allow us to harness technological advances and incorporate them into our model of governance. The scale at which the forces of capitalist modernity operates encompasses the whole globe and even beyond. Given this scenario, how can we possibly imagine the sovereignty of the local assembly?

The answer is quite simple: we cannot. There is a paucity of efforts to grapple with this crucial issue within libertarian socialist circles. The localist emphasis would seem utopian in the bad sense of the word. A dialectical unfolding of assaults on the nation-state from above and from below would seem at hand. World citizenship and the rule of international morality must go hand in hand with the impulse to decentralize the nation-state along democratic confederal lines. The structural dependence of the state on capital can only be broken by attacking the sovereignty of the nation-state from both above and below, simultaneously. A double-movement, where the forces of democratic confederalism espouse thoroughgoing internationalism, alongside bottom-up grassroots mobilization underneath the nation-state.

The scale at which our technologies operate is global. Our attempts to regulate and control technological developments must be global as well. Corporate structures, too, are transnational. Exclusively localist efforts to tame corporate power are bound to be outflanked and thus fail. Global production and global supply chains, not to mention global finance, all tower over and undermine the efficacy of localist attempt to transcend the capitalist nation-state. If anything, the nation-state itself is subordinated to the global capitalist order, of which it is a constitutive component.

The social-democratic compromise has been unraveled by the global reach and coordination of big capital. Rather than lining up for a rearguard defense of social-democracy, a realistic assessment of its limitations should animate the struggle for a radical, direct democratic alternative. Let us not be enamored by false hopes of social-democratic restoration as embodied by the likes of Jeremy Corbin or Bernie Sanders. The urgency of the tasks ahead demands a pessimism of the intellect in relation to such losing proposals. By all means, the investment of resources and attention to the electoral circus diverts our concentration at a crucial moment in which the primary task should be framed as the construction of alternative institutions of people power. Let the capitalist order crumble under the weight of its own contradiction, and let us be there to pick up the pieces. A moment of dual power perhaps quickly approaches.

We are not ready. We remain hopelessly divided amongst ourselves. There is division between reformists and revolutionaries, not to mention between statist and anti-statists, on the anti-capitalist left. That said, we embrace the notion of a movement of movements, and do not adhere to the belief that we must agree about everything in order to form a global alliance of counterhegemonic forces.

Agreement upon a common enemy should, for now, suffice.

Even so, within the counterhegemonic alliance, we must be vocal in our defense of a radical anti-statist and anti-corporate, democratic confederal alternative to the global system of the capitalist nation-state. We must not shy away from the urgent task of articulating an alternative of self-determination for the peoples of the planet. Democratic confederalism as self-determination, the ability to shape the social forces which shape our lives. The hegemonic pressures which constrict and confine our democratic voice must be countered effectively if we are to avoid a calamity. Indeed, it may already be too late. But better late than never.

Let us return for a moment to the reflections with which we began the day, to the scale of global technologies, and how this global scale looms large, indeed seemingly renders futile, localist tactics and strategies for transcending the system of the capitalist nation-state. Direct-democratic voices from below may be able to lodge complaints and air grievances; but they are insufficient to render these global forces accountable to an emergent global demos. Murray Bookchin contemplated the possibility of a rescaled liberatory technology many years ago; but developments since then have further complicated the scenario. The infrastructure of global supply chains needs to be coordinated at scales that escape local control. Railways, highways, and air traffic, for example, can scarcely be governed alone from below. Confederations of local assemblies at evolving scales would seem to be required.

Expertise is another issue associated with the theme of global technologies. The now-dead dean of democratic theory, Bob Dahl, once warned that in the 21st century, rule by experts could well emerge as the main threat to democratic control. Technocratic elites threaten to trample all democratic prerogatives. Democratic assemblies can leave room for public debates between technocrats, but ultimately it is the demos that must make informed decisions about the direction and content of policies to be pursued. Rival experts could be called upon to help the demos become informed. Direct democracy can and must incorporate such deliberative elements into the functioning of local and confederated assemblies. Harnessing esoteric knowledge and rendering it accountable to the demos would seem the way to go. Neither ignoring such experts nor subordinating the democratic will to them will suffice. An active citizenry can exercise better judgment than can a technocratic minority. And indeed, immersing the demos in the debates among experts promises to help transform a passive constituency into an active citizenry. Who gets to set the agenda of assemblies, and to select experts for inclusion in debate? The forces behind the organization and construction of popular assemblies should be transparent and subject to recall by a majority of the assembly itself.

For the transcendence of global capitalism, a revolution that is global in scope would seem to be required. This is something that over a century ago, leading revolutionary thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Trotsky agreed: for the revolution to succeed, it must spark a global revolution. The emergence of socialism in one country as an ideological force and agenda under Stalin was but a symptom of the death of the revolution. There is a revolutionary flame that has been lit in Rojava; but ultimately for it to succeed, it must spread. The revolution has been relatively successful in incorporating ethnic and religious minorities into its democratic confederal order. From Assyrian Christians to Arabs, they have provided guarantees of disproportionate representation in governing roles, and they have organized autonomously their own assemblies, and even their own means of self-defense, albeit ultimately incorporated into the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).

Even so, there remains a considerable amount of hostility towards the revolution in neighboring Turkey, not to mention the broader Arab world. This nationalist prejudice against the Kurds has a long history in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Such prejudice serves to divide and conquer, rendering it nearly impossible to imagine the spread of democratic confederal revolution in any of these countries. The revolution is thus surrounded by enemies. It therefore finds itself forced to collaborate with American imperialist forces, but also pummeled by a Turkish assault. As Darnell Stephens Summers likes to put it, when you dance with the devil you are bound to get burned. The so-called “betrayal” of the Americans, their willingness to look the other way and give an effective green light to Turkish invasion and attacks upon Rojava in 2019, was easy to foresee, given the leverage of Turkey, its NATO partner. The Americans are on many sides in the still-unfolding regional war – with the Turks, with the Kurds, with the Saudis, with the Iraqis, with Egypt, with the Israelis, though noticeably not with the Iranians or the Syrians. Regional tyranny is the order of the day. But perhaps beyond the Arab world, into Africa, the conditions are ripe for the spread of revolutionary war. The people in the ghettos have nothing to lose, they are dying everyday under the brutal status quo. Moreover, they constitute the majority in the urban metropolises in which they reside.

It is not impossible to imagine a wave of democratic confederal revolution spreading across the horn of Africa. That would be a gamechanger. The era of renewed inter-imperialist rivalry could give way to a Third Way, a revolutionary democratic way, against neocolonialism and neoliberalism, for the self-determination of the peoples. Such a pan-African revolutionary impulse could perhaps give humanity a fighting chance. Though the politics of the belly, as they say, loom large in the African context.

Global and Local at Once

Both below and beyond the nation-state, our dialectical impulse. A confederation of local assemblies organized across the globe. We must prepare for most turbulent times ahead. But the terminal crisis of capitalist modernity brings with it opportunities for imagining self-determining futures. And for reimagining the principle of self-determination beyond its neocolonial appropriation. We say that we stand for radical democracy against the state. Which can be translated as the radical democratization of the state, and its subordination to a new global order, or a renewed global order, organized around the world in accordance with the principle from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. A radical democratization of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. This is what Marx and Lenin meant when they spoke of smashing the state apparatus. The dictatorship of the proletariat can be here glimpsed.

But for now, the state’s coercive apparatus continues to evolve along a most troubling trajectory. The dream of world citizenship and the rule of international morality remains, as Haile Selassie and Bob Marley put it, but a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained. The warmongers and the plutocrats seem determined to continue their plunder, and to use the state apparatus for the purpose of their own ill begotten gains.

We live in a world of technologically produced abundance. The reign of scarcity need not continue. But the wealthiest few seem determined to continue to horde resources and to enforce a terribly unjust distribution around the globe. The nation-state system constricts and confines our ability to even imagine reparations and redistribution at a worldwide scale. Existing boundaries and borders serve to constitute and reinforce a system of global apartheid. But the flow of humanity cannot be forever contained. The global system has conjured a global demos, and the global majority comes together to demand equity and justice that is transnational in scope. There will be a reckoning, the tactic and strategy of divide and conquer can only keep these pressures at bay for so long. The threat of civilizational collapse creates the conditions for the emergence of a third way, beyond the logic of global capitalism and inter-imperialist rivalry. People power emerges as a clarion call and urgent demand.

The global governing institutions need to be radically reconstituted. A constitutive general assembly called and convoked. The stranglehold of the nation-state system needs to be burst asunder, the global dimension of contemporary citizenship must be recognized at long last.

Global and local at once. The movement slogan to think globally but act locally needs to be amended, for we must act simultaneously at levels both beneath and beyond the nation-state. A demand for global citizenship must be articulated from the global south. The restructuring of the United Nations to reflect the needs and aspirations of the global majority should not be dismissed as an impossible task.

The problem to be confronted is that of brute force. The coercive apparatuses remain structured along the lines of the nation-state. How can we contradict and counteract this stranglehold on the realization of universal ideals? How can we effectively confront the nation-state monopolies of violence? The organization of citizens’ militias for self-defense is easy enough to enunciate, but very difficult to bring about. Within the major militaries, there will come a moment when mutiny becomes a must. That day of reckoning perhaps inevitably approaches. But in the meantime, we must prepare the way.

The options would seem to be social ecology or catastrophe.

Are these fleeting illusions to be pursued but never attained? Only time will tell. The climate calamity can only be attenuated through a radical transformation of social relations, an end to the domination of some humans over others. The struggle against illegitimate and oppressive hierarchy in all its forms. A radical egalitarian alternative we must embrace, both locally and globally. Are we up for this urgent task?

Seizing Versus Dissolving Power

The struggle for self-determination has both a micro and a macro dimension. It is not a coincidence that the psychologists use the term quite frequently. But national self-determination is a collective right and affair. Conditions of exploitation and oppression block the fulfillment of the aspiration at both levels. Collective self-determination need not have a national subject, the collective can be defined in class terms, such as workers’ self-determination, associated with the democracy at the workplace agenda, what is sometimes called autogestión or self-management. Illegitimate hierarchy in all its forms serves as the opposite and adversary of self-determination, to be combatted in peoples’ neighborhoods, at their workplaces, and indeed across all institutions of “civil society”. According to this understanding, self-determination connotes a radical democratization of society in general, a state of affairs in which all institutions approximate the goal of people power. This is what we mean when we speak about self-determination as radical democracy against the state. A radical democratization of all the institutions of the state, and of civil society, a transition from vertical to horizontal social relations, an end to the tyranny of so many hierarchies obstructing human flourishing in daily life.

Such an aspiration may be deemed utopian, but I am with Abdullah Öcalan, that one of the banes of capitalist modernity is that it steals from people the courage and content of their collective dreams.

We should not always think of utopianism in a negative light. There are good ways and bad ways of being a utopian. The exercise of the radical imagination should never be condemned, so long as it does not blind us to the exigencies of tactics and strategy related to the seizure of power.

Öcalan once said that in democratic confederalism there is no room for striving for hegemony. This makes me wonder about the ambiguities involved in the seizure of power. Among those closer to anarchism, such as for much of his life was Bookchin, they prefer to speak of dissolving power rather than seizing it. Though Bookchin’s own criticism of the Spanish revolution is pertinent here, for here he chastised the anarchists for relinquishing power when they held it within their grasp. Indeed, he blames the movement for not having a theory of power, and therefore relinquishing it back to the bourgeoisie.

Bookchin’s critical analysis of so many revolutionary processes, in his multivolume last testament, The Third Revolution, is too often ignored, even among those who claim to be his followers. The lessons he sought to highlight for his fellow revolutionaries in relation to the failures of revolutions past deserve our close attention. For my part, the only real regret I have in relation to these important volumes is how recalcitrant he remained in his Eurocentric blinders, how biased he was against the revolutionary aspirations of people from the so-called Third World. In an age of anticolonial revolutions, he could not find even one that he deemed worthy of his admiration or even his close attention.

Be that as it may, the distinction between seizing power and dissolving it is both analytically and praxiologically useful. The radical democratization of the state bureaucracy, and the direct accountability of all delegates to the dictates of popular assemblies, are among the features that Marx glimpsed as prefiguring the dictatorship of the proletariat in the glorious if short lived Paris Commune.

Self-determination of the peoples requires a blend of seizing and dissolving state power. Our tactic is to focus first on the revolution in consciousness, for the purpose of building up direct democratic institutions of popular power. A dual power is what we intend to forge. A dual power which can establish alternative, horizontal, direct-democratic modes of mandate that can ultimately supplant and replace bureaucratic state power. That is what we mean when we say that genuine self-determination implies power to the people, no delay!


  • Thomas Jeffrey Miley

    Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley is a lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He received his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles (1995) and his PhD. from Yale University (2004). He has lectured at Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Saint Louis University (Madrid) and he has been a Garcia-Pelayo Research Fellow at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid (2007-2009). His research interests include comparative nationalisms, the politics of migration, religion and politics, and democratic theory.

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