Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time thinking about words and labels. I'm not one for pigeonholing — I certainly don't think that what I call myself defines me — but I do think that it is important to say what we mean and mean what we say. And so while I am comfortable referring to myself as an anarchist or a socialist, depending on the company I'm in, I wouldn't necessarily say that either of those labels is a perfect fit. They all give someone an idea of what I stand for, but not much more than that.
The chief problem, of course, is that those labels are terribly broad. I'm an anarchist, fine. Am I a mutualist, individualist, syndicalist, anarchist-communist, libertarian municipalist, parecon advocate, Platformist, what? I'm a socialist. Communist, social democrat, Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, reformist, revolutionary, what?
I think, though, that the essence of my political and economic beliefs can be pretty well summed up with two words: radical democracy.
Radical means two things, both equally apt. First, something radical deals with the root or basic cause. Second, radical has come to mean "extreme." I believe that the problems with the modern political and economic systems are fundamental to the systems themselves. They are not caused because the system isn't working the way it should. They are caused because they are the inevitable result of the system working precisely as it is meant to. For example, unemployment and drastic disparities of wealth are not malfunctions of capitalism, they are inherent and necessary for capitalism to function.
Democracy is a word that has come to be corrupted almost out of recognition. But democracy is like a light switch, either on or off, either you have it or you don't. In a democracy, people make the decisions that affect them in proportion to how affected they are. Democracy requires participation, not alienation through pulling a lever or pressing a button every few years. We do not live in a democracy, we live in a liberal oligarchy, in which the power that rightfully belongs to every one of us is instead vested in a minority who exercise it, ideally, in our interests. They need only actually act in our interest to the extent that they can stay in office. Given the rampant political apathy that pervades society, that means for the majority of their time they can act in their own interest, or that of whomever they are indebted to.
Radical democracy affirms the revolutionary motto, "Liberty, equality, solidarity!"
Radical democracy requires liberty. All participants in a democratic society must be free to make their own choices, without coercion or compulsion from another party. Associations must be voluntary, and governments must derive any power they are given from the explicit consent of the people.
Radical democracy requires equality. Not only must all have equal opportunity to affect the decisions that affect themselves, people cannot be divided economically by unequal bargaining power concerning work and consumption. A commitment to equality is a commitment to letting people work with other people, but never for them.
Finally, radical democracy requires solidarity. Humans are social animals not just formally, but in every aspect of our lives. We all live together, and we must all get along together. We can best achieve this through cooperation and mutual aid, not through segregation, isolation, and competition.
A society based around liberty, equality, and solidarity — a radically democratic society — is not something that will come about through voting for Obama instead of Clinton, or Obama instead of McCain. There are no political parties that stand for these things, and in fact there cannot be, because radical democracy is incompatible with that form of government known as the state. Radical democracy can only be built as an alternative through local action.
That doesn't mean that we should ignore the modern political system. Not at all. We can, and should, continue to agitate for those minimal reforms that maximize the potential for a radically democratic alternative to grow. Spreading democracy in the workplace, for example, is certainly easier in a world in which unions are legal than one in which they are not. It is hard to imagine people being concerned about changing the system when they are too busy worrying about their basic human rights. But we must retain a sense of proportion about these things. These are prerequisites for action, but they are not the action themselves.