Category Archives: anarchist practice

Notes on the anarchist culture wars

[This is actually a social media status that took on a sprawling life of its own. It is not exactly a response to Alexander Reid Ross’ essay “The Left Overs: How Fascists Court the Post-Left,” but rather some more general thoughts on the dynamics that might be in play in all of the similar culture-wars skirmishes that periodically break out in radical circles. I’m happy to grant the best of intentions to some critiques I find less than useful, largely because there really does seem to be one of those infamous “failures to communicate” that keeps this particular pot boiling. I’m a lot more interested in the potential incompatibility of various intellectual cultures within the milieu than I am with the drama that emerges from that problem.]

With regard to the “courting” of anarchists by authoritarians, and as someone who has been so courted on various occasions, it seems to me that the key vulnerability among radicals is not attraction to certain authors or ideas, but particular ways of interacting with ideas. And that vulnerability is widespread in the milieu, with perhaps the more dangerous instances involving ideas that are not themselves so obviously edgy.

What is required for someone to slide from Stirner toward fascism, from Proudhon toward monarchy, from Bakunin toward actual dictatorship, etc. is for a few, generally uncharacteristic bits of their thought to be disconnected from their context, elevated in importance and then associated with similarly disconnected bits of authoritarian thought, with some sort of eclecticism, “syncretism” or outright opportunism as the guiding philosophy. The alt-right has made this sort of opportunist, hodge-podge thinking a fairly explicit policy. Unfortunately, many radicals also engage in it, without much sense of the stakes.The result is a convergence of people who aren’t really all that interested in ideas, except as potential capital to put behind projects with some less philosophical basis or as a sort of personal adornment. And these people, whether they identify with the right or the left, tend to tell a story about “theory” that assumes ideas are generally mixable. No idea is really very distant from any other, provided you simply disregard the bits that establish distance (and, of course, clarity.)

(These folks will “use” any idea, no matter how radical, provided they can break off some little bit of it that appeals to their audience of people who don’t care much. We can never stop these people from this kind of annoying, but ultimately trivial appropriation. All we can do is be clearer than they are, so that people who actually do care aren’t mislead. You never convince opportunists that they are wrong, because that’s not ultimately what it’s about. You can, however, demonstrate the weaknesses of opportunism as a mode of thought.)

Sometimes these folks find common cause with people who think that ideas are indeed important, but draw firm lines between ideas that they think of as “bad” or “dangerous” and some set of ideas that seem to them safe, good, etc. There’s a kind of narrow rationalism that is constantly concerned that “something could go wrong” if we have unsafe thoughts or make use of ideas and ways of thinking unapproved by its particular standards. A lot of well-meaning and unconsciously authoritarian would-be radicals fall into this camp. Some of them are quite serious about the defense of their particular sort of approved thinking and some just have a low tolerance for anything that might seem “problematic,” “sketchy” or “fucked up.”

When we do find people swept from one position to another, I suspect these are often people who rather enjoy the fact that many ideas are dangerous, but aren’t so concerned about using ideas in any very serious way. Philosophy, like ideology, can be just another recreational drug. When we “lose” these people, we probably have to acknowledge that we only had them in a very limited sense in the first place.

None of these groups, it seems to me, are very well situated to deal with the notion of anarchy, which is necessarily (in the short term certainly, but probably also in the longest of terms) a truly dangerous idea. Now, some self-proclaimed “anarchists” are happy to do without the notion of anarchy, but as far as I can see that’s just giving up before you get started. But there are also people who look at Stirner (or something they’ve heard about egoism) and think “that’s problematic,” hear the usual criticisms of Proudhon and Bakunin and think “that’s fucked up,” worry about what might “go wrong” with poststructuralism, etc., but then look at anarchy and think “nothing to worry about here, folks.” But we often find that these folks also consider “democracy” a safe, positive notion, will find room in their nominally “anarchist” theory for authority, hierarchy, etc. It’s easy to be tolerant of this sort of thing as “rookie mistakes,” which ought to be fixed by more exposure to anarchist thought — except that there doesn’t seem to be much in the milieu pushing anarchists towards any more complex engagement, while there is perhaps an increasing resistance.

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.” This isn’t a question of an intellectual vanguard or any sort of commitment that should exclude the average working stiff. We just shouldn’t be surprised that committing to even the serious contemplation of anarchy, which involves a radical break with the principles that govern the majority of our current relations and institutions, takes some mental effort, no matter where we’re starting from. You don’t have to know that Proudhon came to anarchy as a result of research into “the criterion” of certainty, but you probably do have to come to terms, in one way or another, that the “definitive” and “authoritative” are at least going to have to undergo some reworking in an anarchistic context, if they don’t simply get swept away with the authoritarian.

But if you can come to terms with anarchy, then you have not only gained an ideal, but presumably also mastered a skill. And that skill is, it seems to me, the one that best protects us whenever we are dealing with “dangerous” ideas. It might even simply involve the recognition that all ideas are dangerous, which is a pretty good inoculation against all the various systems and schemes that are peddled from every direction.

This is really just another version of my usual, broken-record sermon on the necessity for anarchists of really engaging with the notion of anarchy, with the twist that what I want to suggest here is that it is not just an idea that is necessary to build with, if we really want a free society and anti-authoritarian relations, but that it is also an idea that is good to think with, in the sense that the demands it makes on us as thinkers, and the skills that it develops, are likely to stand us in good stead in all areas of our lives.

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The Stirner Question

stirner-roguesEach of the earliest pioneers of the anarchist tradition asked, I think, a question or three that still very much pertain to the problems of 21st-century life. They’re not always easy to extract or to drag into the present, and they’re not always flattering to us when applied to the culture of anarchism that has developed since the late 19th century. Working from the roots of the tradition has been a valuable experience, both in terms of focusing my analysis on key concepts and in terms of gaining tools with which to understand why the anarchist milieu is the often frustrating place that it is.

Getting to know the early history and theory is one of the things that keeps anarchist thought fresh and inviting for me. And I think that there are very few of the problems faced by the anarchist milieu that can’t be resolved by a bit of careful rethinking of our relationship to that history and theory. But some aspects of that rethinking are more demanding than others, and perhaps the hardest of all involve a dilemma I have alluded to on a variety of occasions, when discussing the differences between the “era of anarchy” and the “era of anarchism.”

The emergence of anarchism as the key organizing concept of an emerging anarchist milieu in the late 19th century meant that a variety of new things were possible. As anarchists positioned themselves around specific, shared ideologies, anarchism also became a manifestation of collective force, with, as we might expect, interests, dynamics and logics all its own, not always, as we might also expect, precisely in sympathy with the interests and logics of individual anarchists. Unsurprisingly, that meant that at times individual interests would be sacrificed to the interests of the collective and that some anarchists would recreate the governmentalist dynamic of “external constitution” right in the heart of the tradition that began with a call for its abolition.

It is not hard to go as far as opposing anarchy to anarchism—at least as a vague, conceptual opposition—but it is hard, I think, to know what to do with the opposition once we have made it. We are, after all, all products of ideological societies in which individual identity tends to be defined in terms mediated by a identifications that are themselves really instances of external constitution. So, among other things, we are anarchists because of a relationship to anarchism that can hardly escape some degree of self-subordination.

I’m not terribly interested at this point in talking about the benefits of that kind of identification, which are, I think, clear enough to all of us, whether our goals involve building mass movements or just making it through the day without being crushed by our alienation from other collective movements. We get together to get things done and hopefully, if we are anarchists, we find some means to balance interests in a way that is at least better than the alternatives. In the process, if we are conscientious about applying the theories that we have inherited, we engage Proudhon’s questions about the dynamics of social life and collective force, and keep in mind his cautions about absolutism. We bring the lessons of Proudhon and Bakunin to bear on those situations where we real the limits of our capacities for freedom and are forced to roll the dice with some form of authority. But the truth is that there are conflicts baked right into the anarchist tradition that no amount of conscientious analysis is ever going to resolve, in part because these fundamental, “classical” questions are largely alien to the thought of much of the anarchist milieu.

That leaves a difficult problem for those of us who fervently believe in the desirability and possibility of anarchy, who would consider ourselves anarchists, who even acknowledge the necessity, given the history through which we have inherited those other notions, of some kind of anarchism: how to think about our place in the contemporary milieu without just joining one faction or another in the hope of dominating the definitions. It’s a Stirnerian question: how to “be an anarchist” and still be unique, in the sense of not defining ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be defined, as an instance of a type.

For me, this is the last question to be answered for the work-in-progress, Anarchism, Plain and Simple, but it has become the urgent next question to be answered for me personally, as the milieu seems more and more likely to simply wring all the joy of anarchy out of me. The difficulties of the question are, I think, underlined by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to think about the adjustments required except in terms of quitting or burning out. And, honestly, it’s not so easy to think of the sort of movement and necessary separation involved in anything but relatively maudlin terms, even if, at some other level, the whole, still indistinct process is at least conceivable as the preservation and intensification of joy, the refusal of unnecessary and harmful mediation, etc., etc.

Anyway, that is my question for the foreseeable future. And the answers will undoubtedly involve a variety of changes in my practices and affiliations, though the long-term, essentially custodial work on key texts and core ideas will continue. Like the “year without mutualism,” this shift is not a threat or a promise about what I might decide is necessary another year down the road, but like that adjustment it is driven by the realization that I am certainly not doing myself or anyone else any favors by clinging to a particular relationship with a milieu that I find at least as exhausting as sustaining.

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