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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some Thoughts on Anarchism

Some thoughts on Anarchism...

Inspired by a question from Mr. French who also does the In the Name of the Emperor blog.

There are different kinds of anarchists. There are "class struggle" anarchists who read history and theory and are involved with grass roots campaigns and organizations in their community and have a vision for real change. There are also punk rock kids who call themselves anarchists but disdain any kind of sustained involvement in anything. "Lifestyle Anarchism" was an attractive pull for a lot of people during the economic boom when all radical ideas were marginalized and the level of struggle was really low. Like support for the democratic party its prevalence I think was symptomatic of the relative confusion and under confidence of Lefties for a long time.

Murry Bookchin writes some things I don't agree with but his "Social Anarchism vs Lifestyle Anarchism" is a great, short book. I'd like to buy copies of it and give it to every punk rocker I see... But there are a lot of things I'd like to buy..

In general though I think anarchism is theoretically mushy. You can't abolish all authority in a revolution because you are going to face a bloodthirsty counter-revolution ( 1, 2, 3 ) and you are going to need to organize your own defences, which means the planned centralization and coordination of armed force. The "Anarchist" conception of (most preferably "non-violent") revolution, that it just "happens" all at once, that counter-revolution isn't a concern, and that efficient organization should be disdained in favor of interminable debates and the "freedom" of everyone to shirk whatever decisions the majority decides in favor of, is empty phrasemongering. It sounds good only insofar as a revolution never actually happens to put these ideas to the test.

In everyday society, you need authority. ...

Authority needs to be in the hands of democratically elected and recallable bodies and persons and its decisions need to be based on the freest and broadest discussion, but if we work at a hospital, we need a certain number of doctors every day to help the patients. If we schedule a doctor and he doesn't feel obliged by the "authoritarianism" of the scheduler to show up for work, and people die because there is no one there to help them, the staff of the hospital, through a meeting or through an elected scheduler, needs the authority to fire this guy.

Authority doesn't cause oppression. I am a bartender. I have the "authority" to give drinks away for free or to charge people for them. The economy is bad so I charge everyone for drinks. If I give drinks away for free to every alcoholic on east colfax, or if I don't even show up and let the alcoholics decide for themselves whether or not to pay, our restaurant will go broke and 9 people will be out of a job. There is nothing oppressive about me being a bartender. Except perhaps for the fact that it's been really hard lately for me to get a day off.

Only with the development of class society, where it is possible to accumulate and store a surplus of wealth over what you are immediately able to consume, that "authority" arises as a problematic source of contention. Who has the authority to consume, own, or distribute things? When we all worked as hunter-gatherers & small scale farmers, it was pretty basic. All of us helped to make / obtain this food, so we all share in eating it, and we all are involved in making decisions about it.

Today it's very different. The people who own and control the economy aren't the ones actually working to make it function. Bill Gates is rich because he OWNS... he doesn't even write the programs, and he certainly doesn't work "billions of times" harder than the people who do. Ownership is divorced from the act of producing. "Property" retains a social base for its creation but the right to its appropriation is alienated, bought and sold, inherited, or just gambled away, over the heads and without any input from the vast majority of producers.

The ones who own want to keep their billions in the bank account instead of giving it to, say, homeless veterans so they could buy some food. They hire police to periodically arrest any homeless veterans who might to try to "steal" some bit of accumulated wealth (in food form or otherwise) that other people (say, a grocery store) have but are not using...

The "state" emerges to embody and regulate this authority and keep the appropriation of wealth, food, etc... within the boundaries prescribed by capitalists, through their setting of wages at the bare minimum necessary to keep someone alive... while the remainder after costs goes to the profits of the owners.... But "authority" itself ... isn't the cause of the problems, any more than "wood" growing in a forest is responsible for cracking a protester's skull. It's the priorities of capitalism that decided to cut down that tree and build police batons, rather than houses or bridges or schools, with it.

I think people just call themselves "anarchists" without any serious examination of the ideology's flaws because 1) official "socialism" was discredited for many by Social Democracy and Stalinism. And 2) young American politicos today have commitment issues and don't want to invest the time and effort it takes to build sustainable, nation-wide organizations. People would rather just 'do their thing' on a local scale, whenever they feel like it... It's easier to say "political parties are bad" than it is to actually build one. So be a periodic activist whenever you want, but don't bother networking with others across the country in any organized or sustained way. Just call yourself an "anarchist" and you'll have a lot more free time. At heart I really feel the Anarchist arguments against the radical left organizing itself into some kind of party- be it more theoretically coherent such as the Trotskyist groups (1, 2 ) have been, or even looser like the French New Anticapitalist Party, doesn't originate from the pre-existing "fact" that "parties are always bad and corrupt". I think "parties are always bad and corrupt" is an excuse underconfidence can come up with while balking before the great and arduous task of actually building such an organization.

In a more benign way, it makes sense that "Anarchism", or its "libertarian" variant, would be the easiest "radical" ideology to emerge from within the US, where the "Free" values of capitalism are so consistently propagated. There is a great scene in the otherwise terrible film "The Anarchist Cookbook" where in a conversation The Anarchist discovers he can't find any source of disagreement between his own beliefs and that of his Republican, pro-free market employer.

If you take away the talk about class struggle, labor organization, the material roots of oppression, and wealth re-distribution, all you are left with is mushy talk about "freedom" and "liberty" that anti-immigrant, anti- welfare capitalists such as Ron Paul will be among the first to agree with.

In personal experiance I've met and worked with some great people who called themselves "anarchists" but were among the most consistent and self-disciplined activists of anyone. I used to consider myself an "anarchist" when I like 15 or 16 when it was fashionable to do so. The other punks and I just called ourselves that to thumb our noses at authority, but not because it actually made sense to us as a working concept for revolutionary change. But if the limits of your "activism" are getting drunk by the train tracks at night, and perhaps putting a red star sticker on your car or patch on your jacket, you don't exactly need a "working concept for revolutionary change".

I've also worked along some "anarchists" who've been terrible people, who redbait me and anyone else they don't like instead of having a serious and respectful discussion on the matters at hand. I'm sure plenty of police provocateurs and movement spies call themselves "anarchists" in order to sow dissension and victimization among movements. I've also worked with some anarchists who fetishize "consensus" in a way that is simply contemptuous of working class people's lives. It's pretty much just middle class people who have the time in the day to endlessly analyze things from every angle to the point where meetings that start at 7pm end at 11 or 12. If you have a kid or you work two jobs or even one that takes a lot of hours, that is making an unwelcoming environment.

The only "consensus" based groups I've ever been in that were at all functional violated the premise of "consensus" decision making by actually taking votes on key matters. Groups where consensus was fetishized to be observed at all times basically ment that unless the one guy who really likes "consensus" gets what he wants, he is going to keep us all there as long as it takes until we go along with him. That is ridiculous.

At its best I think small communities of Anarchists attempt to develop the repressed human values of sharing, tolerance, compassion, and humanity that capitalism tries to make us forget. This is nice... but developing small benevolent communities isn't the same thing as changing society on a macro-economic, national, or international scale. Capitalism isn't structured locally... fighting it will need to take this into consideration. I think the point is to build a kind of society where such values are able to flourish. Focusing too much on just trying to create them within one tiny area today pretty much writes off most of the country, where you're doing nothing to contest the rule of the republicrats, Wal Mart, and all the rest of it.

Without a fundamental change in the material conditions of existance under which most people have to live... I do think it is Utopian to think "ideas" and "examples" alone could eliminate the crime, abuse, jealously, selfishness, etc... that poverty brings.

If you want to eat out of a trash can, hitch hike, train hop, play the guitar in the desert, live with a lot of friendly but messy roommates, and occasionally protest injustice, Anarchism is a great philosophy that will probably be able to fulfill most of your requirements. If you are interested in your life having a more permanent and sustained impact upon the rest of society, I suggest you look elsewhere.


  1. A+! I think you would have hit the nail on the head with this one; however, we all know there is no head in an anarchist nail... Of course, I do think these are many of the same arguments used for Marxists to distance themselves from anarchists for a century. I have struggled with the same sort of sentiments: What about a counterrevolution? What about when some sort of hierarchy(or something resembling hierarchy) is necessary? What happens if it is just small communities? But then I think "At least I am not a goddamn commie like christian!" I hope all is well and you should come back down to New Orleans if you have the stomach for it.

  2. Awww.... you say the sweetest things...

    I think in the more healthy periods you see activists of different self identified "isms" working together... different ideas ( => ideologies) emerge to argue for different ways forward for a common struggle. Ideas compete among dedicated activists and existing reality is the litmus test against which they are based...

    You saw this in something like the IWW... with "marxists", "socialists", and "anarchists" working together in it. The same thing happened later, like the building of the CIO, which had communists, new deal liberals, and everything in between working in it. Even in the 60s a lot of different people with all kinds of diffuse ideas worked together on things...

    I think it's when there's no struggle going on to base your ideas off of that they tend to get abstracted from reality, and moralism gets attached to "which ideology" you follow.

    I actually went out and bought some herb saint liqour the other day because I felt nostalagic!

  3. Short on time and skim read it but I really agree with what I think were the main points.

    Anarchism ultimately really annoys me in that it seems to be ignoring the existence of imperialism. It seems to pretend that counter revolutions haven't been happening over and over again in Latin America, etc. To be an anarchist ends up looking like a form of holocaust denial in that such imperialism as covered in William Blum's Killing Hope has killed as many people as the holocaust at least. (And actually many more, in terms of the long term decrease in life expectancies, etc.)

    I assume that surely such people just aren't well read about such things but I've never talked to anyone honest enough to admit it. What I have found is people who are just changing the definitions of words. People who actually would still have hierarchies and authorities but have just given them different names.

    It does seem people ultimately who haven't read enough. Who's opinions are still influenced to a large degree by what the MSM told them to believe about the USSR and who are still mostly ignorant about what has happened in Latin America, etc.

  4. If you think anarchism is to mushy, you should try

    Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism