Friday, August 20, 2010

An anarchist guide to relationships


[W]hen someone claims that there will be an anarchist future and it will include employer/employee relationships, I wonder what the hell kind of anarchist would agree to submit to the control of an employer. And I think back to the central conflict that made me an anarchist in the first place and wonder what kind of anarchy can exist with that kind of power imbalance. The answer, to my mind, is none.

Anarchism is a political philosophy concerned with questions of authority in any relationship. So anarchism can speak to any relationship -- between women and men, governments and citizens, employers and employees, etc. -- and ask questions about how power is distributed and whether such distribution can be justified vis-a-vis the preferences of its participants.

To describe oneself as "anarchist" can give others an idea of our general orientation toward relationships. For example, the current incarnation of this blog might be described as Marxist feminist in focus, anarchist in orientation, because it looks at particular relationships -- between capital and the individual, and women and whatever forms of authority are imposed on them -- through an anarchist approach.

Because anarchism's purpose is to detect and challenge illegitimate authority within relations such that power may be dispersed -- "thus broadening the scope of human freedom," in Chomsky's words -- anarchists naturally favor greater equality of power as opposed to less.

But it is important to remember that anarchism is first and foremost a process for evaluating relationships. If we are going to ask whether specific employer/employee relations are justified, the question must be posed to the participants in the relation. We can't approach the situation by declaring that it would be better if everyone lived in a commune. Maybe it would be better, but that is our judgment, and unless we are participating in the relation, our judgments aren't really relevant.

I often see anarchists make the mistake of judging others based on their own preconceptions of "what would be best" in situations they aren't a part of; they use "anarchism" as a yard stick by which to condemn or approve other people's choices, instead of as a methodology for determining what works best based on individual preferences within a group.

When we talk about the relationship between employers and employees, there are plenty of good reasons to want to eliminate the distinction between those who own what is necessary for survival and those who submit to their terms. But that doesn't tell us anything about how to work towards this goal. It also draws no distinction between examples which conform to what their participants want vs. those that do not. In other words, if we decide as outsiders that we want to unionize an enterprise that basically conforms to the needs and expectations of its employees on the basis that employer/employee relations exist, we are committing ourselves to a fool's errand without the consent of the affected party.

There's likely to be great diversity in the forms of economic organization that one community might choose for itself in one part of the world vs. another community in another part. A community that is resisting the expropriation of communal lands may endorse different kinds of authority structures in their resistance efforts, as with the Indian Naxalites, than unionized autoworkers might in an entirely different context. The point isn't to look for one template to be superimposed on every situation, but to ensure that the model chosen enjoys legitimacy amongst its constituencies: we don't want to embrace a Leninist model that sidelines the concerns of women in India anymore than we want to endorse a syndicalist approach which does the same thing elsewhere.

Anarchism is not a doctrine; it is a way of thinking about relationships. Thinking about relationships should inform how we engage them. We won't know how to engage a relationship until we think about the particular circumstances in which it exists. There may be situations where employer/employee relations are justified, just as there may be cases where property rights are appropriate. We won't know until we understand the concerns of the people involved.


drip said...

Exactly. You go your way and I'll go mine. The trick is to to go our ways without coercion. If our way is the same, much the better for us.

Bruce said...

But are there really "entirely different contexts" in closely connected world?

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