Last night I attended a talk at Philly's own Wooden Shoe given by Cindy Milstein, author of the recent AK Press title, "Anarchism and Its Aspirations." If you want a short, readable introduction to contemporary anarchist trends, this is your book.
I never feel totally comfortable in a room full of people who self-identify with something as if self-identification alone has great importance. This is especially true of marginal groups which naturally tend to interpret their marginal status as proof that the rest of the world is wrong.
So it was with some reluctance that I raised my hand when Milstein asked for a show of self-identified anarchists in the room: it's true -- I use anarchism to understand relationships -- but what this reveals about myself or anyone else is difficult to predict.
For example, do anarchists have a sense of humor about themselves? Milstein described her experience in the Bay Area working with people who adorned themselves with every high-minded philosophical attribute they could -- yet she had to dedicate an entire hour to putting a single question before her group, ensuring that people answered one at a time, and insisting they do so without falling into lengthy tangents, angry disputes, total non-sequiturs, and the like.
One hour for one question -- this amongst the San Francisco vanguard for social progress; Milstein did this repeatedly until people learned how to listen, to think, and to respond. I tell you: if there had been room I would have thrown myself to floor in hilarity -- so great is the gap between how we regard ourselves and how we behave. As it was, I only embarrassed myself by laughing out loud, because it was crickets all around.
Self-identification can have great significance for you, but that doesn't mean anyone else cares. If we want our beliefs or practices to gain saliency outside our own opinions of ourselves, we have to demonstrate why they are relevant to other people. That doesn't come from merely attaching a label to oneself -- though many of us do this only to retreat into cliques -- or into ourselves -- when nobody else gives a damn.
There was a good amount of discussion and humor relating to other topics, including the Tea Partiers; how we still read Marx, or Marxists (e.g. Situationists), for theory; and the fact that while anarchists do things well at a micro-level, they regularly fail to scale up into anything more. I also appreciated Milstein's observation that if European anarchists do something, North American anarchists will copy it for better or for worse -- in other words, without really considering the context which makes it relevant in Europe. This then gets replicated in every major North American city whether it makes sense or not.