Getting Free a sketch of An Association of Democratic, Autonomous Neighborhoods

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Getting Free
A Sketch of

An Association of Democratic,

Autonomous Neighborhoods

And How to Create It

By James Herod

c Copyright 2004 by James Herod and

placed in the public domain. Please reproduce freely.
First edition, fall 1998, eighty copies.

Second (Internet) edition, revised and expanded, January 2000.

Third (Internet) edition, revised and expanded, February 2002.

Final version, January 2004.

Getting Free is available on the Web at:

and also at:
A Portuguese translation of the 2nd Internet edition is available on the web at:
A Spanish translation of the final edition is available on the web at:

A serialized transation of the first edition into Persian has appeared in:


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ... 4

Preface ... 5

An Awareness of How We Do Not Want to Live ... 8

A Notion of How We Might Want to Live ... 10

Basic Agreements of the Association ... 12

Obstacles ... 13

Strategies That Have Failed ... 16

The Strategy Described Abstractly ... 23

Ways to Begin Gutting Capitalism ... 25

General Comments on the Strategy ... 42

Ways to Finish Gutting Capitalism ... 44

Further Discussion ... 44

Some Comments on the Literature ... 63

Appendix: Draft General Agreement for "An Association

of Democratic, Autonomous Neighborhoods" ... 73

Footnote on Terminology ... 75

Recommended Reading ... 76


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

I would like to thank the following friends and acquaintances who read various earlier drafts of the essay and returned comments to me (my apologies if I have overlooked anyone): George Salzman, Betsy Rueda Gynn, Libardo Rueda, Jaime Becker, Brian Hart, Juan Carlos Oretga, 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, and Alex Dajkovic.

I also presented the paper at a workshop at the Anarchist Gathering held in Lawrence, Kansas in June 2002. The essay was well received and I got much useful feedback from some of those attending.

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

I was able to improve the essay 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.

I did the typesetting and proof reading myself (and am therefore responsible for the remaining mistakes), but I had help, much appreciated, in reproducing and distributing the first edition, from Betsy Gynn, Jon Bekken, Kenn Browne, and Chris Pauli. Unfortunately, the manuscript has not yet been privileged to receive the attention of a good copy editor; I’m sure the text could be improved thereby.

I would especially like to thank George Salzman. Without his interest and encouragement I doubt if the essay would have reached this finished form. He carefully read the various versions of the essay, and made comments that helped clarify the text at numerous places. He has also promoted the essay vigorously in many ways, including posting it on his web site, and arranging to have it translated into Spanish. Naturally, he doesn’t (and hardly anyone does) agree with everything in it.

A first edition was published in the fall of 1998 in only eighty copies, photocopied (not printed), but bound in book form. A second version, revised and expanded, was posted on the Internet in the winter of 2000, under the name of Jared James. The Internet version was updated with further additions and revisions in February, 2002. This last, and final, version was wrapped up in January 2004.

Rather than load this book down with footnotes, I've decided to refer the reader instead to another book of mine, Emancipatory Social Thought: A Partially Annotated Bibliography in English for the Libertarian Left and Progressive Populists in the United States, which gives references to most of the topics discussed here.

I would also like to refer the reader to half-dozen or so other essays I’ve written over the past few years which supplement Getting Free. These are included in my book, Selected Writings: 1969-2004.

Neither of these works has yet been published, but are available on the Internet at:


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

The advantage of shifting the battleground to the three strategic sites is that it is an offensive strategy, not merely a defensive one. That is, it is not merely our reacting to things we don't like and want to stop, not merely our resisting what they are doing to us, but rather our defending what we are doing to them through our new social creations. It means that we would begin to take the initiative to build the life we want, and then fight to defend this life, and defend our social creations from attacks by the ruling class. I think people will be much more willing to fight 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 fights. 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 defeating capitalism has been an 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, and to reflect on where we've been and what we've tried, and on where ought to be going now, and what we ought to be trying to do. I do not claim that the strategy I outline here is the end all and be all. It's a proposal, that's all, an assessment, a reflection on what I think it will take for us to win. But I'm only one person. Fashioning a new anti-capitalist 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, like demonstrations and single-issue campaigns, should clearly 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 which 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 very 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, the marches, the civil disobedience, the 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, and will eventually fizzle out and disappear, just like the revolts of the sixties 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 -- demonstrate -- 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 just backwards, 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, and if we then chose to demonstrate in the streets, there would be some teeth to it, and not be 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, but refuse them, neutralize them. This cannot be done by affinity groups, NGOs, or isolated individuals converging periodically at world summits to protest against the ruling class, but only by free associations rooted in real 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 to them if they didn't cease oppressive practices. But opposition movements gravitate again and again to these kinds of demonstrations. "Taking to the Streets", we call it. 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 real organizations like governments, corporations, and police, we will always be on the receiving end of the tear gas, pepper spray, 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 sixties, as the movement traveled to Washington DC time and again, taking to the streets. We are still like children, only able to 'raise a ruckus'. We are not yet adults who can assemble, reason together, take stock of our options, devise a strategy, and then strike, to defeat our enemies, and build the world we want.

We are living in a window of opportunity. Anti-capitalist 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. Anti-statist approaches are gaining ground, even among some communists and marxists. I think of my essay as a contribution to this world-wide effort to redefine radical politics and to 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 essay helps renew radical politics in several ways I believe. 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, that is, its relocation, out of state bureaucracies, parliaments, and corporate boards, and into our assemblies. It also emphasizes capturing the means of re-production (and not only of production) through household associations. Its guiding principle is free association. It focuses squarely on the necessity of building an opposition movement and culture, and of creating for ourselves new social relations. It also integrates the goal and the strategy for achieving the goal, suggesting very 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 anti-capitalist 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 is 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 “complex industrial society.” I have always disagreed with this view.

You will also not be able to understand my remarks unless you are aware that I think of capitalism as a worldwide system, which is approximately 500 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 500 years is thus in the main the story of this assault 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 (tax paying subjects). It is also the story of the worldwide resistance to this invasion. A good part of the story 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, enslaving and exploiting 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 is 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 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 resistance to an act of violence? Nonviolence is a main ideological weapon of a very violent ruling class. They use it to pacify us. They use their mass media to preach nonviolence incessantly. It's an effective weapon because we all (but they don't) want to live in a peaceful, nonviolent world. We would do well to chart a careful course through this swamp.

In this essay I have focused on the three strategic associations that are needed to defeat capitalists. I have not attempted to discuss also 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 of America. 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 have studied other cultures. My remarks are therefore most relevant to others living in this country, and 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 essay has been written for those who already want to destroy capitalism. It is not intended to persuade anyone that it ought to be. 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, 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.

An Awareness of How We Do Not Want To Live

There are places where you can come over a bridge and see a whole big city spread out before you. The Mystic River Bridge coming into Boston is such a place, as is the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, or the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. Driving over one of these bridges you can see the dozens of skyscrapers, the hundreds of office buildings and factories, the hundreds of stores and shops, thousands of people bustling along, traffic everywhere, and ships in the harbor. And you think to yourself, how could we ever presume to change all this? It is so vast. Countless activities. Millions of people going to work everyday. Thousands of enterprises. Goods being shipped. Phones ringing. How could we ever presume to change it?

And yet this whole enormous edifice is built on one tiny single social relation: wage-slavery (the extraction of wealth by force from the direct producers by the accumulators of capital). The government bureaucracies, the police, the thousands of lawyers, the schools, the courts, are all there to enforce this tiny single social relation. But hardly anyone knows this anymore. This fact has been carefully hidden in dozens of ways. The knowledge that this wealth is extracted by force has long been lost, even though brute force is used all over the world on a daily basis to defend this relation, and even though millions of us face unemployment (and hence destitution) not so infrequently. The knowledge that we are slaves, being bought by the hour rather than by the lifetime, has also been lost. We have been wage-slaves for so long we have forgotten there is any other way to live. We have forgotten that once we had land and tools and could live independently, providing for ourselves, without being forced to sell our labor power for wages.

So this is the first and most important awareness we can come to: we should not be living as slaves but as free people. Seen in this light capitalism does not seem so invincible, but actually rather vulnerable. If we could only sever this single relation we could destroy capitalism and free ourselves to create a new social world. This is undoubtedly why capitalists go to such lengths to camouflage, mystify, and deny the wage-slave relation. It is their Achilles’ heel.

A second awareness is more easily come by. If we take a stroll around one of these cities, noticing the kinds of buildings that exist, we will come up with something like this list: banks, factories, department stores, warehouses, office buildings, shops, churches, houses, apartment buildings, museums, schools, an occasional union hall, sports arenas, theaters, restaurants, convention centers, garages, airports, train stations, bus depots, nightclubs, hospitals, nursing homes, gyms, malls, hotels, courthouses, police stations, post offices. What we will never see is a Meeting Hall. If we happen to live in a capital city we will be able to find there somewhere a single chamber, where the politicians meet. Worshipers congregate in churches of course. Unionists hold meetings sometimes in their union halls, businessmen convene in downtown centers, spectators aggregate in theaters and arenas to watch games, movies, plays, ballets, and concerts, and students gather for lectures, sometimes in large auditoriums. But there are no Meeting Halls, as such, for citizens, where we can assemble to make decisions and govern our own lives. So how can it be said that we live in a democracy, if we don’t even assemble, nor have any facilities for doing so? Here is a second awareness we can come to. Not only should we not be living as slaves, we should not be living in an undemocratic society, but rather in a real democracy, where we govern our own communities.

Beyond these two basic awarenesses, there is the awareness of the linkages between our many miseries and the wage-slave system. This awareness is more difficult to acquire, mainly because capitalists, and their PR men, take such pains to blame the sufferings of the world on anything and everything other than their own practices. If there is starvation in Bangladesh, it’s because there are too many people, and not because agricultural self-sufficiency has been destroyed by capitalist world markets. If the oceans are dying from oil tanker flushes, this is a shame, but it’s really no one’s fault; it’s just the price we must pay for progress and civilization. If millions are living in abject poverty in the shantytowns of third world cities, there is nothing unusual about this; it’s just part of the worldwide “process of urbanization”; they never mention that governments and corporations have seized the peasants’ lands, forcing them to leave their homes. If cities are filling up with the homeless it’s because these people are lazy and won’t look for work, and not because there aren't enough jobs for everyone, and rents are sky high. If there is filth and trash everywhere it’s our own fault because we litter. And it’s no mystery why cities are congested with traffic; we just keep refusing to use car pools. The list of such subterfuges is endless.

The truth is that most of the suffering in the world now is directly attributable to capitalists. I wouldn’t want to put an exact percentage on it, but it is way way up there. But for capitalists, most of the illness in the world could be eliminated, as well as most of the hunger, most of the ignorance, most of the homelessness, most of the environmental destruction, most of the congestion, most of the warfare, most of the crime, most of the insecurity, most of the waste, most of the boredom, most of the loneliness, and so forth. Even much of the suffering caused by hurricanes, floods, droughts, and earthquakes can be laid at the feet of capitalists because capitalists prevent us from preparing for and responding to these disasters as a community, in an intelligent way. And recently, capitalists are to blame for the increased severity of some of these events, which is due to global warming, which capitalists have caused. Unless you’re already convinced, I know you’re not going to believe these bald claims. But others have documented the linkages between these various evils and the profit system, if you care enough to study their works.

I have my own personal hate list. I hate advertisements, seriously. Nothing could be sweeter to me than living in an advertisement-free world. I hate congested cities, being stuck in traffic jams, not being able to park, being ticketed unfairly, having to suffer the rudeness of Boston drivers. I hate car alarms, a perfect example of a totally unnecessary aggravation, but for the insanity of capitalism. (To see the connection between the scourge of car alarms and capitalism will be a test of your newfound awareness of linkages.) I hate insurance companies, the biggest racketeers in America (not counting the Savings and Loans crooks of course). I hate the Internal Revenue Service, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. I hate telemarketing. I hate call waiting. I hate weather forecasters; they are alarmists, and not one of them likes rain (among their many other faults). I hate cops; and they are everywhere now, even at the movies, in workplaces, department stores, parks, schools, and libraries. I hate bosses. I never had one who was a decent human being (at least not at work), but always twisted in some way, mean, self-centered, or arrogant, or else incompetent, bluffing through it, pretending not to be, with no one daring to say otherwise. I hate mechanics. I hate the terrible insecurity of not having a reliable income. I hate this precarious existence. I hate looking for a job, big time. This is when you realize what a bind they’ve got you in. No way to live without a job; so hustle, make the rounds, update the resume, get the interviews, all for free (i.e., job hunting is unpaid labor which benefits corporations). Money running out or already gone; no one to help. Desperate to find someone to buy your poor self by the hour. Desperately seeking slavery in order to go on living. This is what I hate. And then, once a buyer is found, the boredom, drudgery, and fatigue starts all over again, and you see your life slipping away, all used up by businessmen, and all for nothing. I hate living alone, with my crippled emotions and aborted love life. I hate television with a passion, and have ever since the first set appeared in my parents’ home in 1951. I hate doctors. I hate seeing the earth, such a beautiful place, go down the tubes, just so some greedy morons can make a profit. I hate not being around small children, they being the loveliest creatures to grace our lives (most of them). I hate social scientists. Nothing has done more to make the world unintelligible than their decades of jargon and gibberish. I hate standing in line at banks (and I hate banks). It’s bad enough that I’m paying them to use my money to make themselves a profit. It’s the standing in line to do it that rankles. I hate automobiles, in too many ways to even count. I hate nondairy creamer. I hate seat belts, the thousandth way they have found to blame the victim. I hate being chased off the beach during a hurricane. I hate Smoky the Bear. I hate lawns. I haven’t even begun to list all the things I hate about our present disorder.

I suppose, to be fair, I should list now all the things I love, in order to balance the picture, but it wouldn’t be in character.

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