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Review: Authentic Democracy: An Ethical Justification of Anarchism

Authentic Democracy: An Ethical Justification of Anarchism

By Dan McKee

Tippermuir Books, 2020

Review by Uri Gordon

In this engaging and accessible book, Dan McKee makes the case for anarchism based on a long-overdue critique of liberal political theory, in particular the social contract tradition. The book develops two connected arguments: a) No centralised state could satisfy the conditions envisioned in the liberal social contract tradition; and b) Anarchist programs for social organisation do a much better job at
realising the basic intuitions about human survival, equality, freedom and flourishing, compared to capitalist societies that pretend to be legitimated by the liberal social contract.

Compared to the volumes of text produced by anarchists in the confrontation with authoritarian Marxism, liberal political theory has received much less of their critical attention. Proudhon, Rudolf Rocker, Robert Paul Wolff and L. Susan Brown are among the very few to anarchist writers to carefully scrutinise the liberal common sense of government by consent, and the way in which it obscures society’s real power relations structured by class, gender, race, and other regimes of domination. Similarly, while anarchism has successfully supplanted authorirtarian Marxism as the ideological point of reference for transformative social struggles, it is the liberal common sense that continues to underwrite everyday obedience in Western capitalist societies.

In this context, Authentic Democracy is an important contribution. The book starts with an sharp critical review of the social contract tradition from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Nozick. The critique is
astute, informed by historical context and close attention to the texts. Even without it, the first part of Authentic Democracy could rival any university textbook for clarity of explanation alone. The next section works out an account of essential human “species-facts” and their corresponding “species-interests” – the latter ranging from bare material needs to sociability, autonomy and self-expression. The satisfaction of these needs, McKee argues, is the implicit ethical basis of all contract theories.

At this point anarchism is introduced, drawing on modern accounts by e.g. Colin Ward and Ruth Kinna. This is identified with “authentic democracy” in the direct, federated and horizontal sense of the word.
This is clearly distinguished from representative government, drawing on R. P. Wolff and Noam Chomsky. There follow a powerful indictment of the harsh realities of existing capitalist society, and a summary of the case for anarchism.

In handling all of these complex issues McKee writes concisely and accessibly. In addition to its penetrating insights, Authentic Democracy is also a pleasure to read. This book will no doubt help many anarchist readers articulate their own critical intuitions about the liberal common sense. For those who still take this common sense for granted, it will be even more valuable as an eye-opener.

Uri Gordon