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Anarchism Today


Michael Albert

In

lieu of attending the North American Anarchist Conference (NAAC), I was asked:

“what do you think of anarchism as an existing and potential ideology and

movement?” Well, I think if anarchism were an ecology, it would be a tropical

rain forest–broad, wide, and deep, a many faceted organism. A brief reply

won’t touch most of anarchism’s facets, of course, but perhaps I can address

a part of the heart of the matter.

 

Anarchist

Focus

To

me anarchist practice seeks liberation and decries strategy that reproduces the

contours of an oppressive past. It rejects government that subordinates most of

society to elites in positions of power. This is Kropotkin, Bakunin, Goldman,

and Berkman’s very impressive heritage. Their anarchism means eliminating

unjust authoritarian hierarchy.

But

what about anarchism today? Well, it depends. If “anarchism today” is like

anarchism of old and is mainly an anti-authoritarian practice, then I think

anarchism today is good for siding with those most oppressed by

authoritarianism, just as feminism today is good for siding with those most

oppressed by sexism. But if a social activist says their whole mindset stems

from anti-sexist concepts, though I would support and welcome their work, I

would also feel it was narrow vis-a-vis the entire agenda we face. And likewise,

if a social activist says their whole minset stems from anti-authoritarian

concepts, though I would support and welcome their work too, I would again feel

it was narrow vis-a-vis the entire agenda we face.

I

am told, however, that instead of being centrally anti-authoritarian, as in the

old days, nowadays being an anarchist implies having a gender, cultural,

economic, and a politically-rooted orientation, each aspect on a par with and

also informing the rest. This is new in my experience of anarchism, and it is

useful to recall that many anarchists as little as a decade back, perhaps even

more recently, would have said that anarchism addresses everything, yes, but via

an anti-authoritarian focus rather than by elevating other concepts in their own

right. They thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an

overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian angle could explain the nuclear family better

than an analysis based in kinship concepts, and could explain race or religion

better than an analysis based in cultural concepts, and could explain

production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis based in

economic concepts. They were wrong, and it is good to hear that many modern

anarchists know this.

 

Anarchist

Vision?

There

is much to celebrate in the breadth and depth of anarchism, of course, but we

must also overcome lingering faults, and I think a primary fault to overcome is

that anarchism lacks vision.

Anarchists

rightly teach that oppression rests not only on forceful defense of advantage

from above, but also on convincing citizens below that there is no more

liberating social order that they can seek. Elites impose hopelessness on the

rest of us, that is, as a damper on our activism and resistance. Why, then, I

wonder, have anarchists been largely silent about political vision? 

I

wouldn’t expect anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future

religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or of kinship,

sexuality, procreation or socialization, or of production, consumption, or

allocation. But regarding attaining, implementing, and protecting against the

abuse of shared political agendas, it seems to me that anarchism ought to be

where the action is, and, indeed, that it even has a responsibility to be where

the action is. Nonetheless, has there been any serious anarchist attempt to

explain how what we call legal disputes should be resolved? How legal

adjudication should occur? How laws and thus political coordination should be

attained? How violations and disruptions should be handled? And for that matter

how shared programs should be positively implemented? In other words, what is

the anarchist institutional alternative to contemporary legislatures, courts,

police, and diverse executive agencies? What institutions do anarchists seek

that would advance solidarity, equity, participatory self-management, diversity,

and whatever other life-affirming and liberatory values we support, while also

accomplishing needed political functions? I wonder why after a century of

opposing authoritarian political relations and exploring these matters,

anarchism still doesn’t clearly, widely, and with vigor offer a broad,

overarching political vision? How long until we realize that huge numbers of

citizens of developed societies are not going to risk what they have, however

little it may be in some cases, to pursue a goal about which they have no

clarity? How often do they have to ask us what we are for, before we give them

some serious answers? Why hasn’t anarchism reached the point where its

advocates can say that yes, we oppose the existing state and its authoritarian

hierarchies and implications — and so here are the non-authoritarian political

values and institutions we favor instead.

Offering

a political vision that encompasses legislation, implementation, adjudication,

and enforcement and that shows how each of these functions would be accomplished

in a non-authoritarian way promoting values we favor, would not only provide our

contemporary activism much-needed long-term values and hope, it would also

inform our immediate responses to today’s electoral, law-making, law

enforcement, and court system, and all our strategic choices. So shouldn’t

today’s anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think so,

and so I keep looking for it, eagerly hoping it will be forthcoming.

 

Some

Questionable Anarchist Practice

Finally,

regarding anarchism and movements today, I have another broad range of concerns

having to do with personal practice. I worry about certain strange formulations

and styles that keep percolating into view among self described anarchists, but

that I hope have very little support in the broader anarchist community. I have

in mind, for example, views that technology is in itself an enemy of justice and

liberty. Or that all institutions by their very nature are infringements on

human freedom. Or that relating to existing political or social structures in

any sense at all is an automatic sign of hypocrisy or fickle intent. Or that

reforms are by their very nature system-supportive and therefore utterly to be

avoided, those seeking them to be chastised.

These

odd views, which call themselves anarchist but certainly aren’t, are not

getting to the heart of the matter of contemporary social injustice, as their

advocates presumably think, but are instead jumping entirely off the tracks of

useful assessment and prescription into self destructiveness and sectarianism.

They confuse the social relations of injustice with the physical, chemical, and

biological insights that become embodied in instruments that are admittedly

often used for bad ends — or they even confuse it with the very idea of

instruments at all. They mistake the necessary fact of humans working together

in sustained structures with lasting roles, which is to say in institutions,

with the admittedly horrific specific types of institutions that we often find

ourselves stuck in today — corporations, political hierarchies, etc. They

mistake trying to self-consciously improve life for people suffering in

difficult contexts that impose diverse compromises on our choices, with

misunderstanding that the pains people now endure owe themselves to the

institutions around us. That is, they confuse reforms with reformism, and

confuse being a revolutionary with being someone who a priori rejects winning

improvements now, even if the improvements not only contribute to bettering

people’s lives today, but also to winning further gains in the future.

Likewise,

I am concerned about signs I sometimes see of a life-style emphasis that

exaggerates the importance and efficacy of personal consumption choices, often

seeing one’s own consumption preferences (in food, music, entertainment,

movies, culture, reading) as superior while harshly disparaging other people’s

different choices as inferior, all the while oblivious to the fact that

different people face different limitations and settings contouring the logic of

their options. And I am particularly concerned about behaviors that denigrate

the ways various constituencies other than one’s own try to find positive

engagement and entertainment in life, such as those who are religious or those

who play or enjoy sports, or those who watch TV, as if by such pursuits one

indicates that one is somehow an unworthy person or otherwise deserves contempt.

These kinds of sectarian manifestation of what you would think would be quite

rare lifestyle preferences and attitudes matter quite a lot when they become

homogenous to movement memberships and thus come to characterize a whole

ideology or movement, not least because they affect the quality of our behavior,

how we come across to others, what it seems we are in favor of and oppose, and

even our capacities for positive empathy and enjoyment.

Thus,

finally, to answer the question what do I think of anarchism as an existing and

potential ideology of movement, I guess I would say that if anarchism has truly

recognized the need for culture-based, economy-based, and gender-based, as well

as polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision

arising from non-governmental social dimensions while also itself providing

serious and compelling political vision, and if the anarchist community can

avoid or at least minimize lifestyle sectarianism as well as strange confusions

between bad technology and technology per se, authoritarian government and

political structures per se, oppressive institutions and institutions per se,

and seeking to win reforms versus being reformist – then I think anarchism has

a whole lot going for it as a source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the

effort to make our world a much better place.

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