Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Practicing anarchism

Anarchism is commonly understood as opposition to hierarchy, the vertical ordering of people on the basis of power. How this opposition can be demonstrated is not an easy question, however, insofar as participating in hierarchies of one form or another is unavoidable for most people in modern societies. How this opposition can be broadened can seem even more perplexing.

Many anarchists are good at reducing their exposure to hierarchies on an individual level; for example, by participating in small-scale cooperative activities. Such efforts are meant to perform a dual function: they provide individuals the experience of working without hierarchy, and they serve as examples to the rest of society that such alternatives exist.

Unfortunately, small-scale cooperatives are themselves at a power disadvantage in relation to state capitalist institutions, and frequently fail or fail to grow past a certain point. What is doubly unfortunate is when the anarchists involved become culturally alienated from working class people in "mainstream" society, and fail to do the kind of outreach necessary to keep their projects growing in scale.

There is a particular need for anarchists who can do effective propaganda both from within and external to functioning anarchist organizations. This means promoting anarchist practices inside hierarchical organizations, where most of humanity already is anyways.

Practicing anarchism inside or between hierarchies may sound like an impossibility, but not if we apply the same principles we observe in the circumstances we can control to the circumstances we mostly can't. This would mean identifying those parts of a particular hierarchy which do and do not have social legitimacy, and picking our targets accordingly: some to promote and some to oppose.

How do we know what is socially legitimate within an institution which, at its core, has no intrinsic legitimacy? The answer is: they are the practices, policies, and other norms that people would likely support, or which our principles endorse, under non-hierarchical conditions.

This can include things like women's equality in the workplace, equal opportunity employment, ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell; and other institutional practices that are socially justified regardless of the circumstances. Such reforms can be used to support people within hierarchies while showcasing the anarchist principle that how organizations are constituted at present is not necessarily how they need to remain, once exposed to the light of human preferences.

Supporting what is socially justified internal to particular hierarchies is probably the only way we have to directly communicate anarchist principles to the people confined within them; what anarchists accomplish without a direct line of communication to their intended audience is almost never fully understood. It is also probably the only realistic way for most anarchists to actually practice their principles, without inviting the problem of leaving society altogether.


Anonymous said...

Something in your 3d paragraph hints at futility and indirectly suggests taking Glossy Karl's path of seizing the reins of the State.

I would suggest that people consider setting up a parallel system within the populace we now have. Plenty of examples abound -- at a simple level, drop out of the corporate employment scheme and support yourself with ingenuity (needs vs wants, reappraised). Begin working with barter rather than idolizing The Dollar. Share, rather than sell or buy.

Voluntariness is the key. The inclination to feel that The State is an imperative and constantly inescapable... well, it's just wrong. Do I have to write a thesis to show why? Or is that understandable?

Randal Graves said...

what anarchists accomplish without a direct line of communication to their intended audience is almost never fully understood.

Well sure, you're all bomb-throwing lunatics.

A huge part of the problem is the word itself. The value judgment of a vast majority of the populace sees it as a haven of my snark above and disheveled college students.

Your 'working within the system' or whatever term one wishes to use is the most readily available avenue. Charles' overarching idea isn't bad, but man, talk about something Sisyphean, given how *deeply* ingrained the state/hierarchy/whatever is in our cultural DNA.

Plus, ingenuity? I'm lucky I'm smart enough to find the bus stop in the morning.

Anonymous said...

Randal, whether it's sisyphean is a matter of how you present the notion to yourself in your internal conversations.


Humans are mortal. Thus, since we die eventually, what's the point of living? May as well give in to the eventuality, and commit suicide. Right now. Immediately. Because it's gonna happen anyway.

JRB said...

Charles F.:

But what if my paragraph 3 refers to your paragraph 2? Doh!

I begin from the assumption that the state is seized by the very hierarchical organizations to which we give so much of our time. So why not "give" that time in a more productive way for ourselves?


You'd think the libertarians and anarchists might dislike the state enough to sort out their differences and do something interesting along the lines of what Charles mentions.

But you still need to address where most people are at. Like yourself, I think most of us are just trying to make it to work on time.

Anonymous said...

JRB -- Well, that too. Heh.

I'd read your third paragraph too, ya know!

My response to the 3d para would be similar to what I said to Randal.

I find it curious that people are so inconsistent about how they use the "oh, but ______ is inevitable" line of argument/rationale in their thinking.

Why do anything?

Your para 3 talks about competition. Who needs to compete? Why does it have to be examined in the context of competition? One of the lessons of capitalism is that using man's competitive instinct as an economic driver will yield destructive social results.

What I'm talking about is a product of re-imagining one's role as a living human. It's not a huge re-imagination conceptually, but it seems distinct enough in perspective that it is hard to grasp for many.

Step outside the confines of the corporate serf role, stop watching broadcast TV... and suddenly there's actually a big range of possibilities available on how to live one's life. There's a lot of freedom if you don't feel compelled to fit in.

So why talk about the failure of competition?

Who's competing? And why?

Anonymous said...

You'd think the libertarians and anarchists might dislike the state enough to sort out their differences and do something interesting along the lines of what Charles mentions.

Wait, what? srsly? Pleas, PLEASE read this: http://dbzer0.com/blog/why-anarchists-and-anarcho-capitalists-cant-be-allies

Randal Graves said...

I would reply, charles, after I recover from the shock of detecting a kernel of optimistic go-get-em in there, that I enjoy existing - someone's gotta surf the internets, dammit - I'm simply more pessimistic (for lack of a better term) than most. I've got zip faith in any -chy or -ism, outside of prestidigitarianism, and even though I'm replying here, this comment might work better with JRB's above post.

Since I don't believe we'll ever get enough people to fight/change/pick-a-term the system or its replacement should the universe collapse on itself because the corporates would be going 'oh shit there's 15 million folks marching on DC,' all I can do is effect my immediate surroundings. I've got some pull with my kids, a smidgen less with my wife, even less with work, and so on. Hell, I'm thrilled when I can get my kids to try something new for dinner, heh.

Everything else has the air of 'clap louder!' JRB can step out, you can, I can, others can, it simply won't ever be enough. So yeah, there's a whiff of the inevitable from where I sit.

Anonymous said...

Not trying hard enough.

In this context (as opposed to being murdered in one's sleep, for example) a person's only a victim to the extent he/she allows it.

Nobody makes us become corporate serfs.

Nobody makes us chase A Nicer House or A Fancier Car.

Nobody makes us think that we have to send our kids to Harvard ...or they'll be utter failures.

These are all shackles of self-imposed limitation.

JRB said...

Charles & Randal:

Anarchists take building parallel structures very seriously, but if they are going to be successful over the long-term they need to connect with the everyday concerns of most Americans. In order to do that, anarchists have to make working class Americans their primary audience, not so much other anarchists.


Most people will depart from ideological purity in the face of immediate problems which require collective solutions -- to the degree that they even approach it in the first place. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we forget this. If the US is ever going to produce anything remotely resembling libertarian socialism, it will only come out of alliances between working people -- and that means working people of every stripe.

Anonymous said...

But how are we supposed to have a system resembling libertarian socialism if libertarian capitalists are working for the exact opposite? How is working with them any different from working with Republicans? I don't think you have to be ideologically pure to be unwilling to give capitalism free reign on the world. You just have to be an anarchist. I think db0's post that I linked to has some really important points.

JRB said...


In any class society, political categories have to be interpreted according to class.

In practice, there is no single "libertarianism": there is libertarianism as it exists amongst the working class; and there is a philosophy of the same name that is promoted by interests within the ruling class.

The material conflict between ruling and working class interests usually leads to "political ideals" being realized in contradictory ways.

This can be used to the advantage of anarchists and other working class advocates, insofar as they look past superficial labels and engage other workers on the basis of what they objectively have in common. That is called "organizing by class."

Whether or not we can be "allies" with other people is something that has to be demonstrated in practice, in our attempts to organize them, not decided in advance on the basis of our preconceptions about who they are or what they believe.