Friday, September 24, 2010

Notes on anarchism

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.


Anonymous said...

Should it really be surprising that anarchism rarely (in the modern context) extends beyond the micro?

What's anarchism? Simplest terms: leave me alone; I don't need you or your over-arching authority/protector.

If that's the case, why would anarchists seek macro grouping? It's contrary to anarchist impulse.

My curiosity: how much time did Milstein (or anyone else) spend on educating, clarifying, refuting the colloquial pejorative understanding of "anarchism" as mayhem, destructive violence, etc?

JRB said...

Charles F.,

You may enjoy perusing the ever-useful Anarchist FAQ:

"Anarchism is, essentially, a revolt against capitalism. As a political theory it was born at the same time as capitalism and in opposition to it. As a social movement it grew in strength and influence as capitalism colonised more and more parts of society. Rather than simply express opposition to the state, as some so-called experts assert, anarchism
has always been opposed to other forms of authority and the oppression they create, in particular capitalism and its particular form of private
property. It is no coincidence that Proudhon, the first person to declare themselves an anarchist, did so in a book entitled What is Property? (and gave the answer "It is theft!"). From Proudhon onwards, anarchism has opposed both the state and capitalism (indeed, it is the one thing such diverse thinkers as Benjamin Tucker and Peter Kropotkin both agreed on).

Needless to say, since Proudhon anarchism has extended its critique of authority beyond these two social evils. Other forms of social hierarchy, such as sexism, racism and homophobia, have been rejected as limitations of freedom and equality."

The short answer then, is that we are not "left alone" by state-capitalism.

If we want to be "left alone" we have to move beyond the micro and confront the bigger trends that make free association impossible.

Anonymous said...

Can't disagree with any of that. I was just raising questions.

However, I think the reference back to Personalities (my term) is a weakening -- at least in my world. I don't need Proudhon or Marx to tell me that it's wrong for anyone to have direct or indirect authority over me.

I think it erroneous to say the word "anarchism" is Proudhon's and his alone. That's like saying the observation "the sky is blue" is true only because the first person to say so, said so. Get my drift?

What anarchism means, literally speaking, is told by its etymology and not by Proudhon-reference. I would suggest that reference to Proudhon creates Proudhonism in place of anarchism.

Maybe this view of mine is rooted more in my distaste for the Personality Cults that are at the core of every social movement, I don't know. Personality Cults have no draw/pull for me; they trigger the opposite response, actually.

The truth of something depends on its veracity, not on the identity of the person who first proposes it.

Anonymous said...

PS: I expanded on that last remark in a new post at my little hovel in blogtopia.

JRB said...

Charles F.,

As long as you frame it that way, I'm always going to say you're right.

Ideally, I think we would acknowledge other people's contributions while assimilating the parts that are useful for us.

I agree with your critique of the Anarchist FAQ. But it is useful to know that this is where much of the mainstream anarchist thought is coming from.

Ultimately we have to decide where we stand with the "great personalities." Inevitably we encounter people who show up and say, "Marx said this, therefore ..." and I think you're better off knowing for yourself whether its bullshit or not, rather dismissing Marx out of hand.

Anonymous said...

Attribution always runs the risk of creating Cults of Personality, simply because a great number of Americans have been raised and inculcated in a system that reveres "experts" -- a system premised on a Cult of Personality. Think of how the founding of America is taught: heroic Washington crossing the Delaware after chopping down the cherry tree and telling mummy and deddy that he "cannot tell a lie." Noble Thomas Jefferson living in Montecello, arguing governmental theory. Brave Ben Franklin, flying his kite and "discovering" electricity. Innovative Thomas Edison, "inventing" the light bulb.

Hero-making. Hero-worshiping.

If people are going to get to a point of believing in themselves and recognizing their autonomy, one of the first steps they must take is the one toward self-reliance. Taking that step requires one to believe that he/she actually has the capacity to do dependable things and think reliable thoughts, independent of what "experts" or "authorities" may have suggested to the contrary.

Systems of education/information therefore should avoid Cults of Personality wherever possible, because such Cults both overtly and subtly suggest that the Cult members must show reverence for the Personality.

The idea of giving "credit" to someone else is a capitalist notion, by the way.

Open source is a better model.

Anonymous said...

PS: The remark about

giving credit ---> capitalist

should have been followed by a wink or chuckle. The remark about open source is a bit more serious.

I agree with you about clarifications when someone mistakenly attributes something to Marx -- up to a point. I can't say where the point is, I guess it depends on the context. But at some point it begins to reflect that Cult of Personality.

Better to stick with what Marx observed that was true, and talk about what is true. This way, it matters not whether someone wrongly attributes something to Marx.

Let the Marxists, who in the big picture are more obstacle than facilitator, be the ones to clarify what Marx did or did not say.

Those who pursue the truth can't be guilty of Personality Cult formation, as long as they are pursuing what's true. Quibbles over what Marx did or did not say, they don't really bear upon the truth of how capitalism operates... they bear only upon what Marx did or didn't say.

JRB said...

Well said!

The issues you raise are always something we "run the risk of" when we try to learn from other perspectives. I think the fact that you emphasize these risks is extremely useful, as a reminder, to ward against forgetting them within our assumptions.

But there are lots of risks, and we have to prioritize them according our own situation. For the sake of promoting any critical dialogue vs. spending our lives endlessly talking about product releases, we have to work with some underlying assumptions so that we don't have to make a disclaimer about "cult of personality" every time we reference somebody with useful ideas.

But this in turn has to do with the context: if I was in Europe or Latin America, etc., I wouldn't use Marx the same way I do in the United States, where there is much less of a temptation for the average person to identify with him at all -- just the opposite. The average American understands Marx as vaguely demonic; subsequently, I think it can be useful to challenge received wisdom with the genuine article -- in a specific context.

Moreover, this has to do with my intended audience -- a general audience -- not Marxists.

Having said that, I think it's useful that you push this emphasis because it is frequently overlooked, and has obviously been a huge problem in the past, as when Marx became attached to bureaucratic regimes. Also, as a long-term vision of having more confidence in ourselves, this is vital.

In the immediate term, people are faced with many obstacles to getting there. Sometimes our symbols and "heroes" are among the few things we have to keep us going, so I am also reluctant to blow them out of the water entirely -- whether its Jesus or Marx -- because I think we want to encourage each other to think for ourselves, not be browbeaten for not being further along -- yet another "risk."

Anarcho-Hippie said...

Anarchism once was a vibrant movement when it attached itself to working class causes. It still can, but it would be much harder. When I think of anarchism I think of the industrial capitalism. They go hand in hand. It was a meaningful critique of the system and working class folks were drawn to it.

For me, it's the only surviving pragmatic radical ideology (hatched from the Enlightenment) that makes any sense. I fully believe that hierarchy and power are the root cause of human suffering. None of the other leftist creeds (ie Marxism) point to this problem. It also is relevant today because it advocates decentralization. As our economy crumbles, mutual aid will be the only way to survive under a weakened and current state.

After 2008, I called myself an anarchist because I realized the system cannot be repaired through ordinary meliorative means. Liberalism is a failed ideology--and I was a liberal for many years. In sum, anarchism makes sense to me, and I hope others discover it. Of course, I advocate for it as much as I can. Regular folks need to fell comfortable discovering anarchism for themselves, apart from all the stupid sectarianism that mars the movement (if there is a movement). This is why I oppose Black Boc because it presents a very distorted view of anarchism. So many brilliant anarchists were non-violent.

Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded. I feel very passionate about the anarchist creed, yet I haven't met maybe two or three "practicing" anarchists in my lifetime!

BroadSnark said...

I saw Cindy at the book fair in Baltimore on Friday. It was a good talk.

It's interesting the hesitation you mention about self identification and what it really means. I think long and hard before I associate myself with terms.

Which reminds me - I am working on a post in answer to your question about why I'm not a feminist. Not ignoring you. It probably won't come out for a couple weeks though.

Richard said...

I came to the same conclusion as anarcho-hippie several years ago as well. I don't call myself an "anarchist", because given my current situation, as a professional in an upper middle class family, it would sound absurd. I do, however, call myself "anarchist-influenced", as anarchism does increasingly shape my view of the world.

Having read Milstein's book as well, I agree that it is an excellent introductory work. I especially agree with her statements early on that resistance to hierarchy is more important than one's perceived left identity, hence, autonomous Marxists may well be one's allies instead of people to subject to lectures about the Stalinist betrayal of the Spanish revolution.

There is a weakness, though, in Milstein's presentation, and that is the relatively slight emphasis placed upon class as an essential aspect of anti-capitalist resistance. Of course, I recognize that anarchists don't recognize the proletariat as the sole agent of radical transformation, as Marxists do, but I do believe that it is the primary one. Instead, she highlights the social dimension in everyday life, and while this is important, it is not, in my view, sufficient in the absence of a class analysis.

A more recent essential book is Raul Zibechi's "Dispersing Power", one of the few books translated into English that examines the anti-authoritarian features of South American social movements, in this instance, the Aymara people of Bolivia.