Getting Free Creating an Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods

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Getting Free

Getting Free
Creating an Association of

Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods

By James Herod



© 2007 by James Herod

First Printing B May 2007 B 378 copies
First edition 1998

Second (Internet) edition 2000

Third (Internet) edition 2002

Fourth (Internet) edition 2004

Getting Free is available on the web at:


It is mirror posted at:


A Portuguese translation of the second

Internet edition is available at:


A Spanish translation of this edition,

in preparation, will be available at:

The first edition was translated into Farsi by Payman Piedar

and published in three installments in the Persian journal of

anarcho communism, Nakhdar, issues #2 (2001), #3 (2003), and

#4 (2005), P.O. Box 380473, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139.

Published by the

Lucy Parsons Center

549 Columbus Avenue

Boston, Massachusetts 02118

Distributed by

AK Press Distribution

674-A 23rd Street

Oakland, California 94612

Printed and bound by
5120 Cedar Lake Road
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55416

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

A Note on Terminology ix

Introduction 1

1. An Awareness of How

We Do Not Want to Live 7

2. A Notion of How We Might

Want to Live 11

3. Basic Agreements of the Association 17

4. Obstacles 19

5. Strategies That Have Failed 24

6. The Strategy Described Abstractly 38

7. Ways to Begin Gutting Capitalism 42

8. General Comments on the Strategy 82

9. Ways to Finish Gutting Capitalism 85

10. Further Discussion of Topics Relevant
to the Proposed Strategy 86

11. Some Comments on the Literature 121

Postscript B March 2007 139

Appendix: Draft General Agreement for an

Association of Democratic Autonomous
Neighborhoods 145

Recommended Reading 150


Getting Free, in a much shorter version, was first prepared for the Critical Issues in Contemporary Anarchism conference held at Montague, Massachusetts, June 7-9, 1996. I would like to thank the organizers of that conference, John Petrovato and Cindy Milstein, for providing an incentive to write this work.

In June 2002, having been invited by Dave Strano at Lawrence’s Solidarity Library, I also presented the book at a workshop at the National Annual Anarchist Gathering held in Lawrence, Kansas. The ideas were well received, and I got much useful feedback from some of those in attendance.

I would like to thank the following friends and acquaintances who read various earlier drafts of this book and returned comments to me: George Salzman, Betsy Rueda Gynn, Libardo Rueda, Jaime Becker, Brian Hart, Juan Carlos Ortega, Sonya Huber, Gary Zabel, Chris Pauli, Brian Griffin, Henry Jung, Bob McKinney, Thomas Reifer, Marianela Tovar, Behrooz Ghassemi, Monty Neill, Charlene Decker, Steve Heims, Danielle Zabel, Jon Bekken, Sanya Hyland, MaRK Laskey, Suzanne Miller, Sarah Shoemaker, Barry Tilles, Andrew Nevins, Hudson Luce, Tony Young, Nathan Abold, Scott Pinkelman, Nathan Hollister, Felipe Messeguer, and Alex Dajkovic. I’m quite sure that this list is incomplete. Various versions of the text have been in circulation in the movement and on the Web for over ten years. I have sometimes failed to note down the names of persons who were talking to me about it and making suggestions for changes.

As well, I had interesting discussions about the book via email with Derek, Kenny, Lenny Gray, Edwin Laing, Marc Silverstein, (I)An ok Ta Chai, Duy Nguyen, Brian Martin, Micah Bales, Simon Cumming, Hugo Mildenberger, Sebastien Gagnon, Louis Gosselin, Justin Gilmore, and Matt Leonard.

I was able to improve the book considerably because of these many suggestions, although I did not agree with all of them. I've tried to answer some of the criticisms in this revised version.

A first edition of this book was published in fall 1998; those eighty copies were photocopied (not printed), but bound in book form. I had much appreciated help in reproducing and distributing the first edition from Betsy Gynn, Jon Bekken, Kenn Brown, and Chris Pauli. A second revised and expanded version was posted on the Internet in winter 2000, under the name of Jared James. The Internet version was updated with further additions and revisions in February 2002 and again in January 2004. Final revisions were completed in March 2007.

For this printed edition, I would like to thank the copy editor, Cindy Milstein. Her astute and tasteful editing greatly improved the coherence and readability of the text. Also, thanks go to: Jerry Kaplan and Alexander Dwinell for helpful advice about how to publish a book, Roger Winn at the Lucy Parsons Center for handling the account for the book, Tony Sutton for the front cover design, Sanya Hyland for the back cover, Nathan Hollister for proofing the text to make sure that the copy editor’s changes had been correctly inserted, and David Rhoads for last minute technical assistance in getting the book formatted properly. Scott Pinkelman’s interest in my work and his assistance with the book has been greatly appreciated. Many thanks go to Hollin Elizabeth Pagos. Last summer she read the entire manuscript in a way no one else had and made numerous suggestions for improving the text, a few of which will save me from considerable embarrassment. Thanks to the ten-person collective at AK Press for agreeing to distribute the book, and to Suzanne Shaffer, my contact person there, for her always prompt replies to my letters. Thanks to Nicole Baxter at BookMobile for her graciousness in dealing with an amateur publisher, and to all the production workers there for physically making the book.

I would especially like to thank George Salzman. Without his interest and encouragement, I doubt if the book would ever have reached this finished form. He carefully read the various versions and made comments that helped clarify the text at numerous places. He has also promoted the work vigorously in many ways, including posting it on his Web site. Most important, he paid the production costs of the printed edition. Naturally, he does not (and hardly anyone does) agree with everything in it.

A Note on Terminology

What follows is a discussion of the terminology I have chosen to use in outlining a notion of how we might want to live. That is, when writing this book, I faced a naming problem. What are we to call our social creations? It was something of a dilemma as to what to call the overall social order as well as the specific social bodies within it, but I made the following choices:

$ Household is a pretty good term, although in contemporary U.S. usage it refers to a much smaller unit B namely, the nuclear family. But historically, households have been larger. My usage, for a residential complex housing up to two hundred people, is a reversion to and an expansion of the historical meaning. Co-housing, a growing contemporary movement, comes close to what I’m talking about.

$ Neighborhood assembly is a commonplace phrase, but it works. Other possibilities were town meeting, community assembly, general assembly, core assembly, base assembly, parliament, plenum, congregation, conference, senate, or convention B none of which seemed to fit. In all earlier versions of this book, I used the term home assembly instead of neighborhood assembly. But the term home tends to be associated with a household rather than a neighborhood. So I finally decided that the confusion the phrase introduced was counterproductive and changed it. But I liked the term home assembly because it gave us an identity linked to the assembly (and meeting hall) where we participate in community decisions to govern our social lives. Everyone will be a member of an assembly somewhere. Where we participate in decision making is where our home is, or so I like to think. Thus, the neighborhood assembly is elevated over kinship or work relations (reproduction or production relations). The primacy of decision-making relations will characterize the new civilization and set it apart from all previous forms of social organization.

$ Peer circle is a strange term, but I don’t like any of the alternatives I’ve come across. The traditional term among radicals is council, but this term has no general usage elsewhere in our culture and actually has other connotations in popular language. The other possibilities were caucus, bee, peer group, meeting (as in a Friends meeting), or peer meeting.

$ Project is a good name for the activities we undertake together to accomplish something. We certainly can’t call them businesses, enterprises, organizations, or institutions. I’m quite happy with the term project. It applies to everything we do together – growing food, making things, health care, child care, bands and orchestras, sports, learning, research, and so forth.

$ In the original draft of this book, I had inadvertently used the term community to refer to the two thousand people constituting a neighborhood assembly. Community is a good term, but it obviously cannot be restricted to mean a single two thousand member body. So I had to switch to the term neighborhood, which sounds limited, yet is more accurate. At least it makes clear that our basic social unit is a small neighborhood face-to-face decision-making assembly. All larger associations are based on this core social entity.

$ At one point, in order to make the text consistent throughout in relation to the projected gift giving and mutual aid, I had to search through the book for the words trade and exchange and change them to other, usually more cumbersome expressions, using words like distribute, circulate, transfer, and interchange. Trade and exchange are almost exclusively associated with a money economy.

$ As for what to call the overall social order, none of the usual terms has clear meanings anymore B such as democracy, socialism, anarchism, or communism. Until a new name emerges, I’ve simply been describing my proposed social order as an association of democratic autonomous neighborhoods. I should add, though, that I mean direct democracy, not representative democracy, and by direct democracy I do not mean telepolling or referenda but face-to-face assemblies. I should also add that the association is based on a treaty negotiation among equals, not federation (since I contend that federated structures are hierarchical). Moreover, autonomous merely means self-governing and not complete self-sufficiency in the material sense (there will still be interchanging of goods back and forth, through swaps, gifts, etc.). In other words, the phrase is meaningless without further definition. It is better to focus on the concrete social relations themselves and shape them the way we want, than to waste time defining abstract concepts.

$ There is also the problem of what to call the strategy itself. I'm sorry to say that I have not been able to invent a good name for it.

While we’re on the question of terminology, I must warn the reader not to be turned off too quickly by the words I use. I choose words with care. It is not by accident or through carelessness that I say Aruling class,@ for example. I do it deliberately. I believe this is the clearest way to talk about our situation. If you do not believe there is a ruling class, perhaps you have been watching too much television or have taken too many sociology courses. The same goes for other words that I use B such as murderers, thieves, invasion, oppression, exploitation, working class, wage slavery, empire, lackeys, and capitalists. These are not the concepts of a fanatic, although they might sound that way to some who are steeped in the language of the owners of the world. They are powerful and accurate terms that illuminate our situation. It has taken years to rid myself of the mystifying language of the exploiting class.

For those readers who may be new to radical writing, however, maybe a few brief definitions will be useful. Capitalism is a social system based on profit. Profit is made by paying workers less than the true value of the products they make (formally known as the expropriation of surplus value). Capitalism depends on having turned labor power into a commodity, which is bought and sold on the market, and on having created a social situation in which millions of people can survive only by selling their labor power. Imperialism is merely a name for the international dimension of capitalism. Capitalism has been an international system from the very beginning, rooted as it is in the system of nation-states. Wage-slavery is a name for the condition people find themselves in if they have only their labor power to sell in order to live. Such people make up the working class. Class is defined not by the amount of income, but its source B from wages or profit. Capital tends to commodify everything to keep the profits flowing in. Neoliberalism is a recent capitalist offensive to accomplish this on a global scale. I tend to use the word anarchy as the name of a social order and anarchism as the name of a social philosophy. But this is not common practice, nor do I do this consistently, and it’s no big deal. I have found that for my purposes I do not need to make a distinction between strategy and tactics, as is common with military historians. So I pretty much use these words interchangeably. I often use the terms direct democracy, anarchy, real communism, and libertarian socialism interchangeably. I think they all refer to basically the same thing. What I mean by these terms is defined throughout the text.

I hope these remarks on terminology will help readers to more easily understand my writing.


The main purpose of this book is to try to persuade revolutionaries to shift the sites of the anticapitalist struggle and to select new battlefields. I identify three strategic sites for fighting B neighborhoods, workplaces, and households B that I believe will not only enable us to defeat capitalists but also to build a new society in the process.

The advantage of this shift is that it offers an offensive strategy, not merely a defensive one. That is, it is not merely about reacting to things we don't like and want to stop, nor is it about resisting what they are doing to us. Rather it is about defending what we are doing to them through our new social creations. This means that we would begin to take the initiative to build the life we want, and then fight to defend this life and our social creations from attacks by the ruling class. I think people will be much more willing to struggle for something like this than to fight to stop outrages of the ruling class elsewhere, which often seem remote from their everyday lives. But we should be quite clear that this will involve us in terrible battles. We will never be able to establish free associations on any of these sites without directly confronting ruling-class power.

In listing all the strategies that have failed, it isn't my intention to denigrate the revolutionary efforts of past generations. Resisting and attempting to defeat capitalism has been a historical project of enormous scope; revolutionaries have poured their lives into strategies they considered best at the time. I'm simply trying to take stock: to reflect on where we've been and what we've tried, and on where we ought to be going now, as well as what we ought to be trying to do. I do not claim that the strategy I outline here is the be-all and end-all. It's a proposal, an assessment, a reflection on what I think it will take for us to win. But I'm only one person. Fashioning a new anticapitalist strategy for our times is obviously a task for millions.

Nor is it my intention (in listing what I claim are failed strategies) to say that people should stop resisting altogether. It is to argue that these forms of resistance, although they have accomplished a lot, haven't gotten us very far toward our ultimate goal of destroying capitalism. They haven't enabled us to overthrow the system, defeat the ruling class, or build a free society, and I don't think they ever will.

Some of these failed strategies, like the leninist vanguard party, social democracy, dropping out, and guerrilla warfare, should be abandoned completely. Others, such as demonstrations and single  issue campaigns, should be subordinated to the main task of building free associations in neighborhoods, workplaces, and households. It's not so much that strategies like strikes, civil disobedience, or insurrections are wrong in themselves. It's that they are not enough, and by themselves cannot defeat capitalism. To win we must add another whole dimension.

The sad truth, though, is that the three strategic sites we could be fighting on, and that might lead us to victory, are largely being ignored. The workplace struggles going on are largely reformist, as are most neighborhood organizing initiatives, while there is little organizing at all being done around households. So the bulk of our energies are not going into these three strategic sites at all but into other arenas. I would feel much better about all the demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience, and single-issue campaigns if significant struggles were also being waged in workplaces, neighborhoods, and households. But in the absence of these fights, where does all the rest get us? Not to victory, that's clear enough.

The recent spectacular resurgence of radical movements the world over, first symbolized by the Battle of Seattle in November 1999, and continuing on through Quebec City and Genoa, highlights the issues I've raised in a most urgent way. As heartening as these developments have been, and as wonderful as they are to see, it's all too possible that they will go nowhere, eventually fizzling out and disappearing, just like the revolts of the 1960s did, unless they can be linked to struggles to seize control of our lives on the local level.

Somehow, it has come to be accepted that this is what radicals do B demonstrate B when they want to protest or stop something, and that mass demonstrations take priority over everything else. I will be arguing that we have it upside down. If we had reorganized ourselves into neighborhood, workplace, and household assemblies, and were struggling to seize power there, then we would have a base from which to stop ruling-class offensives like neoliberalism. If we then chose to demonstrate in the streets, there would be some teeth to it, rather than it being just an isolated ephemeral event, which can be pretty much ignored by our rulers. We would not be just protesting but countering. We have to organize ourselves in such a way that we have the power to counter them, not just protest against them, to refuse them, to neutralize them. This cannot be done by affinity groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or isolated individuals converging periodically at world summits to protest against the ruling class, but only by free associations rooted in normal everyday life.

And if we were organized like this, it might not even be necessary to go to mass demonstrations at all. We could simply announce what we were going to do if the ruling classes didn't cease their oppressive practices. But opposition movements gravitate again and again to these kinds of actions. "Taking to the Streets," we call it. Yet we can't build a new social world in the streets. As long as we're only in the streets, whereas our opponents function through enduring organizations like governments, corporations, and police, we will always be on the receiving end of the tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, and almost everywhere in the world but North America or Europe, real bullets, napalm, poisons, and bombs. This predilection for protests and demonstrations prevailed throughout the 1960s, as the movements traveled to Washington, DC, time and again, taking to the streets. We are still like children, only able to Araise a ruckus.@ We are not yet adults who can assemble, reason together, take stock of our options, devise a strategy, and then strike, to both defeat our enemies and build the world we want.

We are faced with a window of opportunity. Anticapitalist forces have been at a strategic impasse for decades, with widespread confusion over both the shape of the new world we want and how to dismantle the existing one. But the complete collapse and discrediting of the Bolshevik model in Russia and all over the third world, and the equal bankruptcy of social democracy in Europe, opens up the possibility of redefining radical politics, of rethinking the goal of the revolution and its strategy. For the first time in over a century, anarchist perspectives are back on the agenda in a serious way. Antistatist approaches are gaining ground, even among some communists and marxists. I think of my book as a contribution to this worldwide effort to redefine radical politics and break out of the impasse that has stymied the revolution ever since the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the socialist democrats were defeated in Germany in 1919, and the Spanish Revolution went down to defeat in 1939.

My book helps renew radical politics in several ways. By outlining a three-pronged attack on the system, by focusing not merely on the workplace (seizing the means of production) but also on neighborhoods and households, it anticipates a recapturing of decision making B that is, its relocation out of state bureaucracies, parliaments, and corporate boards, and into our assemblies. It also emphasizes capturing the means of reproduction (and not only production) through household associations. Its guiding principle is free association. It focuses squarely on the necessity of building an opposition movement and culture, and creating new social relations for ourselves. It also integrates the goal and the strategy for achieving the goal, suggesting concrete steps that ordinary people can take to defeat capitalism and build a new world.

I have taken some ideas for granted, in addition to an anticapitalist outlook, which the reader needs to be aware of in order to understand why I have written as I have. My sketch of a new social world and a strategy for achieving it are based on a firm commitment to direct democracy, not representative democracy or federation. I am aware that almost everyone now automatically dismisses direct democracy as being no longer possible in a Acomplex industrial society.@ I have always disagreed with this view.

The reader will also not be able to understand my remarks unless they are aware that I think of capitalism as a worldwide system, which is approximately five hundred years old. Capitalists started establishing their way of living in Europe between 1450 and 1650 roughly, and then over the next several centuries, carried their practices to every corner of the globe, destroying and displacing other traditions, usually through warfare. World history for the last five hundred years is thus mainly the story of this assault that capitalists have thrown against the world’s peoples, beginning with the peasants of Europe, in order to seize their lands and force them into wage slavery (wealth-making laborers), tenancy (rent-paying residents), and citizenship (taxpaying subjects). It is also the story of the worldwide resistance to this invasion. A good part of the tale, of course, is taken up merely with the fights among capitalists themselves.

You should also be aware that from this perspective, countries that came to be called communist were just capitalist states doing what capitalists always do: enslave and exploit their populations. There was always a radical tradition that perceived the Soviet experiment and the colonial revolutions that aped it in these terms (council communists, Western marxists, anarchists, and anarcho-syndicalists). Now that the Soviet Union is gone, more people are realizing that communist countries were just capitalism in a different form and had little to do with the struggle against capitalism.

A further assumption I make is that it is impossible to defeat our ruling class by force of arms. The level of firepower currently possessed by all major governments and most minor ones is simply overwhelming. It is bought with the expropriated wealth of billions of people. For any opposition movement to think that it can acquire, maintain, and deploy a similarly vast and sophisticated armament is ludicrous. I have nothing against armed struggle in principle (although of course I don't like it); I just don’t think it can work now. It would take an empire as enormous and rich as capitalism itself to fight capitalists on their own terms. This is something the working classes of the world will never have, nor should we even want it.

This does not mean, though, that we should not think strategically in order to win and defeat our oppressors. It means that we have to learn how to destroy them without firing a single shot. It means that we have to look to and invent if necessary other weapons, other tactics. But we must be careful not to fall into the nonviolence/violence trap. Is tearing down a fence a violent act or is it resistance to the violence of those who erected the fence in the first place? Is throwing a tear gas canister back at the police who fired it an act of violence or is it resistance to an act of violence? Nonviolence is a key ideological weapon of a violent ruling class. This class uses it to pacify us; it uses its mass media to preach nonviolence incessantly. Such rhetoric is an effective weapon because we all (but they don't) want to live in a peaceful world. We would do well to chart a careful course through this swamp.

In this book I have focused on the three strategic associations that are needed to defeat capitalists. I have not attempted to discuss the numerous and varied cultural associations that will undoubtedly be created by free peoples, covering every conceivable interest.

As will become evident, I'm writing from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States. This is the only culture that I'm familiar with in any depth, although I have traveled abroad, lived two years in the Middle East, and studied other cultures. My remarks are therefore most relevant to others living in this country, to a lesser extent to persons living in other core capitalist countries, and to a still lesser extent to persons living in the rest of the world, although I hope everyone may find some value in it.

This book has been written for those who already want to destroy capitalism; it is not intended to persuade anyone why it should be destroyed. That is a task of a different kind. What is self-evident to me, as it is to most radicals, is unfortunately not so self-evident to others, not even to the working class itself. Nevertheless, I have included a short initial section on how we do not want to live in hopes of attracting a wider range of readers B readers who may be quite unhappy with their lives, but who are far from attributing their misery to capitalists. I’ve also included a list of recommended readings for those who want to explore emancipatory social thought further.

Several of my essays from the past decade are directly relevant to this book and can serve as supplementary material for the issues discussed here. They are posted on my web site under >Selected Papers: 1998 to Present,= at: . I would like to call your attention to the following papers: (a) “Seeing the Inadequacies of ACF’s Strategy Statement” (February 1999); (b) “Breaking Out of the Cage and Destroying Our Jailers” (June 1999); (c) “The Weakness of a Politics of Protest” (June 2000); (d) “Notes on Building a Movement for Direct Democracy” (June 2004); and (e) “Anarchist Revolutionary Strategy” (April 2006).

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