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Anarchism?!


Like most social movements anarchism is diverse. Most broadly an anarchist seeks out and identifies structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life, and tries to challenge them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. Anarchists work to eliminate subordination. They focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations via effects on the environment, and much else as well. Of course anarchists challenge the state and the corporate rulers of the domestic and international economy, but they also challenge every other instance and manifestation of illegitimate authority.

So why wouldn’t everyone concerned that people ought have appropriate control over their lives admire anarchism?

Problems arise because from being “opponents of illegitimate authority” one can grow movements of incomparable majesty, on the one hand, and movements that are majestically unimpressive, on the other hand. If anarchism means mostly the former, good people will admire and gravitate toward anarchism. But if anarchism means mostly the latter, then good people will have reservations or even be hostile to it. So what’s the not so admirable or even distasteful version of anarchism? And what is the admirable version? And do even the admirable strands incorporate sufficient insight to be successful?

Distasteful “anarchism” is the brand that dismisses political forms per se, or institutions per se, or even plain old technology per se, or that dismisses fighting for reforms per se, as if political structures, institutional arrangements, or even technological innovation, all intrinsically impose illegitimate authority, or as if relating to existing social structures to win immediate limited gains is an automatic sign of hypocrisy.

Folks holding these views presumably see that contemporary state’s use of force and rule to subjugate the many, and deduce that this is an outgrowth of trying to adjudicate, or legislate, or implement shared aims, or even just to cooperate on a large scale, per se, rather than seeing that it is instead an outgrowth of doing these things in particular ways to serve narrow elites and what we need is to fulfill the functions more positively.

They see that many and even most of our institutions, while delivering to people needed organization, celebration, food, transport, homes, services, etc., also restrict what people can do in ways contrary to human aspirations and dignity. They wrongly deduce that this must be the case for all institutions per se, so that instead of institutions we need only voluntary spontaneous interactions in which at all times all aspects are fluid and spontaneously generated and dissolved. Of course, in fact, without stable and lasting institutions that have well conceived and lasting norms and roles, advanced relations among disparate populations and even among individuals are quite impossible. The mistake is that while institutional roles that compel people to deny their humanity or the humanity of others are, of course, abominable, institutions that permit people to express their humanity more fully and freely are not abominable at all, but part and parcel of a just social order.

The situation with technology is similar. The critic looks at assembly lines, weapons, and energy use that despoil our world, and says there is something about pursuit of technological mastery that intrinsically breeds these sorts of horrible outcomes so that we’d be better off without technology. Of course, this misses the point that pencils are technology, clothes are technology, and indeed all human artifacts are technology, and that life would be short and brutish, at best, without technologies. So, the issue isn’t to decry and escape technology per se, but to create and retain only technologies that serve humane aims and potentials.

And finally, regarding reforms, the debilitating orientation notices that with many reforms the gains are fleeting, and elites even manage to reinforce their legitimacy and extend their domain of control by first granting and then domesticating and then eliminating the advances. But again, this doesn’t result from change or reform per se, but from change conceived, sought, and implemented in reformist ways that presuppose and do not challenge system maintenance. What’s needed instead isn’t to have no reforms, which would simply capitulate the playing field to elites, but to fight for reforms that are non-reformist, that is, to fight for reforms that we conceive, seek, and implement in ways leading activists to seek still more gains in a trajectory of change leading ultimately to new institutions.

It shouldn’t be necessary to even discuss the above addressed “bad trajectory” of anarchism and its anti political, anti-institutional, anti-technology, and anti-reform confusions. It is perfectly natural and understandable for folks first becoming sensitized to the ills of political forms, or institutions, or technologies, or first encountering reform struggles to momentarily go awry and blame the entire category of each for the ills of the worst instances of each. But if this confusion were to thereafter be addressed naturally, it would be a very temporary one. After all, without political structures, without institutions per se, and/or without technology, not to mention without progressive reforms, humanity would barely survive much less prosper and fulfill its many capacities. But, of course media and elites will take any negative trajectory of anarchism and will prop it up, portraying it as the whole of anarchism, elevating the confused and unworthy to crowd out the valuable and discredit the whole. In this context, some of the most extreme (but colorful) advocates of these counter productive viewpoints will be highlighted by media. The whole unsustainable and objectionable approach will thereby gain far more visibility than warranted by its numbers, much less by its logic or values, and, thereafter, also a certain tenacity.

What about the good trajectory of contemporary anarchism, less visible in the media? This seems to me to be far more uplifting and inspiring. It is the widely awakening impetus to fight on the side of the oppressed in every domain of life, from family, to culture, to state, to economy, to the now very visible international arena of “globalization,” and to do so in creative and courageous ways conceived to win improvements in people’s lives now even while leading toward winning new institutions in the future.

The good anarchism nowadays transcends a narrowness that has often in the past befallen the approach. Instead of being solely politically anti-authoritarian, as often in the old days, nowadays being an anarchist more and more implies having a gender, cultural, and an economic, as well as a politically-rooted orientation, with each aspect taken on a par with and also informing the rest. This is new, at least 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, of course, but via an anti-authoritarian focus rather than by simultaneously elevating other concepts in their own right. Such past anarchists thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian angle could explain the nuclear family better than an analysis rooted as well in kinship concepts, and could explain race or religion better than an analysis rooted as well in cultural concepts, and could explain production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis rooted as well in economic concepts. They were wrong, and it is a great advance that many modern anarchists know this and are broadening their intellectual approach in accord so that anarchism now highlights not only the state, but also gender relations, and not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, sexuality, and freedom in every form it can be sought, and each not only through the sole prism of authority relations, but also informed by richer and more diverse concepts.

And of course this desirable anarchism not only doesn’t decry technology per se, but it becomes familiar with and employs diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn’t decry institutions per se, or political forms per se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, new ways of decision making, new ways of coordinating, and so on, most recently including revitalized affinity groups and original spokes structures and assemblies. And it not only doesn’t decry reforms per se, but it struggles to define and win non-reformist reforms, attentive to people’s immediate needs and bettering people’s lives now as well as moving toward further gains, and eventually transformative gains, in the future.

So why doesn’t the good anarchism trump the not so good anarchism out of visibility, so to speak, leaving the way clear for most everyone on the left to gravitate toward anarchism’s best side?

Part of the answer, already noted, is that elites and mainstream media highlight the not-so-good, giving it far more weight and tenacity than it would otherwise embody. But part of the answer is also that the good side of contemporary anarchism is in various respects too vague to rise above the rest. What’s the problem? I think it is that the good that the good anarchism doesn’t posit clear and compelling goals.

Anarchism has historically focused on the political realm of life. But even there, even with the long history, the emerging anarchism of today’s movements doesn’t clarify for us what an anarchist polity could be. Assuming that societies need to fulfill adjudicative, legislative, and implementation functions in the political realm of life, and need to do this via institutions which citizens partake of and constitute, then what should these institutions be? If the bad trend is to say that we favor no political institutions but only spontaneous face to face interaction of free individuals each doing as they choose with no constraints on them, then what is the good trend’s better viewpoint? What kind of structures with what kinds of social roles and norms in an anarchist polity will accomplish political functions while also propelling values that we support?

It is perhaps premature to expect newly enlarging anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or a future vision of kinship, sexuality, procreation, or socialization relations, or even a future vision of production, consumption, or allocation relations. But regarding attaining, implementing, and protecting against the abuse of shared political agendas, adjudicating disputes, and creating and enforcing norms of collective interaction, it seems to me that anarchism ought to be where the action is. Nonetheless, has there been any serious anarchist attempt to explain how legal disputes should be resolved? How legal adjudication should occur? How laws and political coordination should be attained? How violations and disruptions should be handled? How shared programs should be positively implemented? In other words, what are an anarchist’s full set of positive institutional alternatives 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 libratory values anarchists support, while also accomplishing needed political functions?

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, sufficiently extensive, carefully thought through, and compelling answers? Offering a political vision that encompasses legislation, implementation, adjudication, and enforcement and that shows how each would be effectively accomplished in a non-authoritarian way promoting positive outcomes would not only provide our contemporary activism much-needed long-term hope, it would also inform our immediate responses to today’s electoral, law-making, law enforcement, and court system, and thus many of our strategic choices. So shouldn’t today’s anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think it should, and I eagerly hope it will be forthcoming soon. Indeed, I suspect that until there is a widespread component of anarchism that puts forth something positive and worthy regarding political goals, the negative component decrying all political structures and even all institutions will remain highly visible and will greatly reduce potential allegiance to anarchism.

Some will say anarchism has more than enough vision already. Too much vision will constrain ingenuity and innovation. I reply that this is the same type mistake as dumping political structures, or all institutions, or all technology, or all reforms. The problem isn’t vision per se. The problem is vision that is held and owned only by elites and that serves only elites. Public, accessible vision, political and otherwise, which truly serves the whole populace is precisely what we need.

So what about good anarchism’s potentials? I guess I would say that if anarchism has truly recognized the need for culture-based, economy-based, and gender-based, as well as for polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision originating in other movements about non-governmental social dimensions while itself providing compelling political vision, and if the anarchist community can avoid strange confusions over technology, political structures, institutions per se, and seeking to win non-reformist reforms—then I think anarchism has a whole lot going for it and could well become the main 21st century source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the effort to make our world a much better place.

11 Comments

  1. avatar
    john Mulligan July 25, 2015 1:37 am 

    If anybody goes back and looks at anarchism and the the issues they were concerned with, that has magically disappeared today. Emma Goldman, wrote about “victims” in prisons, you do not get that today and the question is not even raised even from people on the left, what ever that is meant to mean anymore, and that is scary.

    The main concern I have with anarchism is people’s unwillingness to label themselves as such. just consider the terror after the 1901 assassination of the American President. What followed was a terror campaign against anarchists, not just in the U.S but all over the world. Even Sartre said he would commit to the anarchism of the 1890s but not of the 1970s and one grasps his meaning.

    I believe most freedoms have been vanquished and that, for me, at least, goes back to Thatcherism and Reaganism. The savagery of the free market is now treated as Darwinian evolution; a fact of life. It is not even questioned on narrow grounds.

    I am an anarchist because what separates anarchism from other ideologies is like the lunatic in Gogol. Even mainstream anarchists don’t really write about it anymore; Chomsky is the best example. I think without anarchism or the mere mention of it we will all begin to lose our humanity, at least whats left of it in this decaying world.

  2. Marko Beljac July 24, 2015 7:49 am 

    We could add into the majestically unimpressive mix acts of frivolous or even misguided violence. As for the detailed questions of the type here asked that’s more for a people that have unshackled the chains. An anarchism without adjectives would leave such questions aside for the post emancipatory era. The task today is to educate, organise and emancipate.

  3. a0 145 July 22, 2015 5:53 pm 

    The critique of technology is rooted in actually existing technology and its impact on the environment. Even if the development of electronic or industrial technology (to be specific) were worker controlled, it would still have devastating effects on the environment. In light of the very real and currently occurring environmental crisis, a radical reimagining of technology and society are necessary.

    • avatar
      Mark Evans July 22, 2015 9:59 pm 

      This may or may not be true – depending on the logic of the actual worker controlled economic system implemented.

      For example, if the features of the current economy that make sense of ignoring the true social cost of producing certain goods are removed and replaced with alternative features that do take this into account – as with participatory economics, for example – then a worker controlled economy would not “still have devastating effects on the environment.”

      For a good account of this see Robin Hahnel’s Economic Justice and Democracy, (p195-207).

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 24, 2015 6:00 pm 

      Saying we need to conduct our technical research and development consistent with our values – ecological and social, and that we now do not, is quite true. But sometimes people reject technology per se, not bad technology… my guess is we agree.

  4. John Vincent July 21, 2015 4:16 am 

    “Public, accessible vision, political and otherwise, which truly serves the whole populace is precisely what is needed.” – Albert

    That’s absolutely right. Anarchism, or libertarian socialism, does have a whole lot going for it because it is about new organizational structures that are free of the old oppressive and exploitive ones that put decision-making in the hands of a few.

    Voline, the twentieth century anarchist, wrote:

    “A mistaken – or, more often, deliberately inaccurate – interpretation alleges that the libertarian concept means the absence of all organization. This is entirely false: it is not a matter of “organization” or “nonorganization” but of two different principles of organization… Of course, say the anarchists, society must be organized. However, the new organization … must be established freely, socially, and above all, from below.”

    This, I think, is what the Black Lives Matter movement is articulating, consciously or not, when they heckle Democratic presidential candidates for refusing to address directly the immediate need to reform the societal structures that are oppressing Blacks, namely law enforcement, and the judicial and corrections systems. It is obvious that these candidates do not have the answers, nor should they be relied on to have any since the required alternative vision must come from those being oppressed. Not from the elite. This is one example of where an anarchist approach and vision is needed. It needs to call into question the current authoritarian structures that are failing to serve the entire populous and put forward reforms that will lead to new, more socially just institutions.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert July 24, 2015 6:07 pm 

      We agree – but here is a dilemma. Many anarchists reject the idea of poilce – not just today’s police, or bad police, etc., but the notion that there would need to be any kind of apparatus for dealing with violations. Some will say, there will be no violations. Others will say, there will be violations, but everyone should be prepared to deal with them – we don’t need a separate police of any kind. These positions are sometimes held ideologically – as identity, even – rather than based on thinking about social relations and situations.

      A different view would be that a police function is perfectly valid, and like a great many others requires special skills and talents, training, and focus, so needs to be carried out by people prepared to do it well, albeit of course in balanced jobs and subject to popular norms and controls. Then the question becomes, ala Voline, what is the organizational approach that can achieve the goal – and, more immediately, what changes in current relations would improve things now and also move toward what is optimal in the future. I do think if Black Lives Matter arrives at a formulation based on such views it could have very powerful effects both on policing, and on the whole approach people take to dissent and struggle.

  5. John Goodr July 21, 2015 12:23 am 

    I find that it’s not so much anarchists who are averse to technology as those whose socio-political thinking of any future society centers on a worker-led one.
    Technological progress, as it is predicted to run for the next 15 years at least, will rely on silicon-based computing and that will suffice to get to human level artificial intelligence (AI) by the early 2020s after which they become very rapidly much smarter than humans . That means the end of all human labor or sufficient displacement of the global workforce to end all unwanted human labor such that the unemployment rate will be unsustainable for any capitalist society .

    That technology cannot come fast enough for THIS anarchist.

    I am recommending “Rise Of The Robots: Technology And The Threat Of A Jobless Future”
    by Martin Ford , just published in May this year for all those who want a look at what’s coming .
    Argue with HIM and his points if you can but do read the book if you’re at all curious.

    • Andre Guimond July 21, 2015 6:32 pm 

      This seems to me a mistaken view for a few reasons:

      1. It defaults to defeatism. It says, “If robots are going to replace humans anyway, then what’s the point of organizing workplaces, changing political structures, etc., etc.?” I find it very similar to conspiracy theory-type thinking: “If the government carried out 9/11, or the JFK assassination, or whatever, then it’s so powerful that we can’t possibly do anything. Why try?” In effect, accepting such views as impending human-level AI (or ‘the singularity’) requires that we give up — that we say to elites, “Go ahead, it’s all yours, we’re not going to try to stop you. You’ve won.”
      2. It misunderstands the social production of technology. Let’s assume for a second that Ford is right, that technology will in fact advance so rapidly as to create human-level AI (whatever that means) in the near future. Ok. I still don’t see why that means that it will necessarily result in the “end of all unwanted human labor,” or the collapse of capitalism due to high unemployment. Why should it? Take the latter claim first. There are countries all over the world, right now, with unemployment in the 30, 40, even 50% range among some sectors of the population — is capitalism collapsing there? No, of course not. And how would it happen that technology would “replace all unwanted human labor” — by magic? By a remarkable change of heart of previously ravenous elites? All of this completely misunderstands that a hammer is just a hammer is just a hammer. *We* decide whether it builds a house or crushes a skull. Our social institutions, guided by elite interests, decide whether we build bombs or houses. And it will continue that way until we do something about it. David Noble’s “Forces of Production” makes this case in great detail, using concrete, impeccably-researched examples.
      3. It misunderstands AI. Simply put, humans program computers. How can humans possibly program something that is greater than our own intelligence? This is just a basic error of logic. It’s impossible. Yet for some reason such misunderstandings persist — perhaps, I think, because they’re socially useful (see #1 above).

      • John Goodr July 26, 2015 9:55 pm 

        In the early 2020s Moores Law dictates that a computer exceeding a 1000 petaflop capacity which is reckoned as human level , will come into use.

        It will be a machine intelligence that can process info of all sorts at human levels and can and will improve on itself and faster than can be done with humans that think at chemical processes a million times slower than that super-human computer.

        You are conflating the relatively slow processing computers and dumb programs of today with the super-human (thinking) AI that’s coming and there is no comparing the two.

        Kurzweil’s “Singularity” comes when the doubling of that super-human AI reaches something approaching a billion Earth’s civilization’s worth of knowledge sometime around 2045 and at that point no one can predict what becomes of that massive intelligence.

        Second , that smarter-than-human capability will lead to very advanced robotics that can and will certainly replace all human workers in very short order. .
        This is an absolute certainty because just as all competitive manufacturers had to move to low labor cost countries in order to survive, so too will they race headlong into this coming automation explosion because to not do so means economic death for any competitive business.
        The ideal factory-for the owner- has no human workers but with no human workers who will be the consumers capitalism can’t survive without ? .

        Do please read
        “The Rise Of The Robots ”
        I could only scratch the surface and , in your post you are missing a number of things that the book covers in great depth .
        It’s not a tough read and I’d be interested in what you think about all this AFTER you read the back-up material.
        Your arguments are well rebutted by this and several other books recently out.

  6. Philip Mayall July 20, 2015 11:29 am 

    A lot of work is needed to change the definition of anarchism in the media and indeed the popular mind as “lawless, violent, chaos”.

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