This is a bit of a response to a post made earlier this evening on Levi Bryant’s blog about anarchism. Apologies for the scattered ideas and the poor writing.
I’ve been an anarchist for more than half of my life. While I am often charged with being an “armchair anarchist,” the truth is that I spent the greater part of my life on the front lines tossing bricks, building autonomous spaces, and experimenting with different anarchist practices. I’ve been arrested, I’ve hiked the country, I’ve grown gardens, I’ve had dinner parties, I’ve worn black masks, I’ve fought with police officers, I’ve disrupted the meetings of members of the power elite, and I’ve participated in conspiracies against the government, and so on. I write this knowing very well that it marks me as a target. However, I also say it knowing very well that these are no longer practices that I find compelling as an anarchist. I suggest that these are reified forms of political activity which are every bit as recuperated as voting. As it happens, I’ve also spent a significant part of my life reading through the works of the great anarchists of our tradition. I write this so that it can be known that I am fully aware that many people will not recognize the anarchist tradition that I offer for them here. The point is that I recognize it, and, moreover, I am capable of defending it. Anarchism is a tradition, and a tradition which is well worth defending. Moreover, the point is that I see great value in thinking about our tradition, and in thinking itself as a form of direct action.
In a book I wrote many years ago now, namely After Post-Anarchism, I argued that most of anarchist thinking has centred around an influential text by Peter Kropotkin (his “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”). Kropotkin went on to write an unfinished volumes on Ethics. The importance of Kropotkin’s work can not be overstated. He is at the centred of the popular tradition, and unavoidable for thinking anarchists. Moreover, his point of departure, that is, ethics, has defined a trajectory of thought. As a result, many anarchists in this continent, including Uri Gordon, Andrej Grubacic, Simon Critcley, Richard J. F. Day, etc, have argued, in each their own way, that anarchism has been to ethics what Marxism has been to strategy. The point that I am trying to make is that Levi Bryant is correct to suggest that ethics has been central to the anarchist tradition. And so as anarchists we can make a choice: we can accept the tradition as it has been popularly read through Kropotkin, we can reject that tradition (and, perhaps, build our own), or we can reread that tradition to discover entirely new ethical orientations. In After Post-Anarchism, I attempted to do all of the above. I rejected the anarchist tradition and found that at its base it was really a nihilist ethical tradition. But I also offered new readings of the tradition, through Kropotkin and Stirner.
I have argued that anarchism is not itself an ideal form of society, and that it does not necessarily teach us how to act in the world. It does not make prescriptions about action in the world. It does not suggest that building a commune or connecting the syndicates is the way to an ideal society. Anarchists have always tried to distance themselves from lofty ideals and normative abstractions. And so I attempt to demonstrate that anarchism does not necessarily signify “without law” or even “without masters.” Both of these conceptions share a similar utopian presumption about the anarchist tradition. Some of the most interesting and ignored contemporary texts in our continent have reread Kropotkin’s work to discover something similar to what I am outlining here. For example, Brian Morris and Allan Antliff have discovered that Kropotkin was, like Stirner, against these ideals. Allan Antliff has written that Kropotkin’s ethics offer a “refusal to model individuals according to an abstract idea.” This certainly sounds like something Stirner could have written. At base, then, the abstract ideal of freedom, of life without a master, would also be subject to intense anarchist scrutiny.
Some thinkers, notably Larry Gambone, have demonstrated that Proudhon and Kropotkin were against utopia because it was restrictive of personal liberty. Utopia was something that was too violent for the individual, and even for the collective. I think that a more interesting reading would argue that Kropotkin, being against abstract normative ideals, was against utopia precisely because it wasn’t violent enough. In this understanding, the problem is not that anarchism has been understood as an ethics of living without a master but that it suffers from ignoring the properly violent and traumatic dimension of the real. And this is what a politics of the real also suffers from – the real is traumatic, and we do not want to live within it. Moreover, there are times when the symbolic dimension of life collapses into the real, hides out there, and reemerges as the zone of freedom. I recall a painting by Ad Reinhardt named Abstract Painting which presents to us what immediate appears to be pure black. I maintain that this is the space of the real, of freedom, of thinking. I also note that if one remains in front of the appearance for long enough, one might discern the various shades of black that separate and give structure to the painting (see here). Reinhardt explained: “[In this painting,] there is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow.” Well, this is precisely what happens in the real. Sometimes when the distribution of the sensible gives rise to the real, the uncounted, there emerges, deep in the shadows, the hegemony of the straight line. We discover that nothing has really changed. And this is what I find so disconcerting about an anarchism which begins with the assumption that life without a master is possible.
On the contrary, we negotiate with the real. We want to work something out from it, to work through the anxiety that it produces. And we want to do so with courage and conviction. We must be prepared to do the long a difficult work of thinking, of staring at the real and discovering what within it has the structure of the old world. Finally, we must seek a new justice. We must recognize that utopian interpretations of the anarchist tradition go against a deeper and more interesting reading which argues that anarchism is about seeking out and uncovering the masters concealed from the world but which nonetheless subject us to their laws (even and especially when we believe ourselves to be free of them). But anarchism, if it is to be a political doctrine, must also forever find a way to renew a sense of the subject. As Saul Newman argued so many years ago, there is no genuine political philosophy without a point of departure, uncontaminated by power, outside. This outside could be something rather paradoxical: an outside that exists deeply on the inside. We can not lose this sense of the nothing which resists suture, which forces itself inside of the world.
Finally, Levi’s conception of anarchism is that it is always at odds with the vanguard party. On this point, I am in agreement. However, when he employs a particular reading of the Lacanian plus-one as the empty place, he seems to reintroduce the possibility for the reemergence of the vanguard party. As it happens, Jodi Dean and others have already described the vanguard party as the empty place or plus-one of politics. This is why we can not model anarchist politics on the plus-one in practice. We must instead rethink the plus-one from the standpoint of the Lacanian tradition. The first thing we notice is that the plus-one has the power of achieving a sort of direct action at the level of thought: it compels us to think of the master, of all masters, as castrated. But it does not compel us toward utopian presumptions that the master does not or can not in fact exist. The master is the minimal possibility of freedom. Without the master, nothing is permitted. Anarchists know this more than any other – they get off on interrogating the master, without whom they would have no proper existence, or identity. They require the master at the level of thought. The task of anarchism is, then, to castrate the master, and then, moreover, to discover new masters. Who are the masters today? Are they the same as yesterday? Anarchism is the process of thinking and castrating the master and not, as it were, the development of a fantasy about a world without masters.