Anarchism: Real Politics or Politics of the Act?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Anarchism: Real Politics or Politics of the Act?

  1. Thanks for writing & posting this. For me, I have found that my thinking about anarchism, about how to find room to think… is inseparable from what happens together, acting together, learning to make decisions through a horizontal process, checking ourselves for our assimilated privileges. It is so difficult, so totally non-utopian by any definition… and always evolving. Continually surprised by how different thinking together is, from thinking alone–though the one could not happen without the other. And there lies the point of crisis–how the authenticity of the collective process absolutely depends on the subjective, individual experience of everyone involved, without the collective becoming the unnamed oedipal master. What I don’t understand, is how it’s possible to think concretely about anarchism–as something relative to our need to transform the machinery of power, without being engaged in actions dedicated to bringing that about. That we fail, again and again, to find the right way–is bound up with how we work out the most robust way of thinking about this, isn’t it? We don’t come equipped with answers, with a ready made map to follow, but rather, cast our lots by action, experiments to critique and correct and refine as we go.
    I’m not being as clear as I would like… but these have been questions much on my mind in recent years.

    • Some people do not find the beautify in the ingenuity of studying the simple facts of life and making them even more simple… Anarchism is just one principle derived from long human history: the common denominator of all evil is the present of system in which hierarchy of rulers govern society. Abolishing it is what anarchism is about. The details about how to do that and the thinking/studying why is it so are subject to wisdom and experimenting and even writing.
      real “utopia” is the result contemplating how the world will function without rulers.
      Any one who is not in the spectrum of rejecting rulers and striving to bring about such social order can be many things but not anarchists in the dictionary meaning of the word…

  2. regarding ilan’s comment, I find that possibly a bit vague though i tend to call myself an anti-authoritarian. To be an anarchist do you have to focus on say ‘political structures’ (governments) and possibly (for anarcho-communist types) the economic system as well. There are lots ‘rulers’ and rules (and to be honest, coming from a somewhat math type background) ‘rulers’ can also mean ones that measure things (sometimes also called ‘metrics’ or ‘gauges’); Einstein changed the metric in classical mechanics to get relativistic physics for example.
    (see also Agency article on infoshop—they link to a NYT’s article about the death of a famous mathematician whose father was a russian anarchist).

    Also I am not sure whether ‘rulers’ as opposed to ‘rules’ can be seen as the priorities—alot of rulers sortuh come and go, but the rules remain the same, and essentially create new ones (the way cockroaches are spontaneously generated in kitchen trash; spontaneous generation explains the origin of all life, and was discovered at CERN in Geneva last year by Darwin, Aristotle and ‘Louie Louie’ Pasteur (you gotta go). Since they speak french in geneva, in that language its called the Higgs Boson Merde, or Galapagos Turtle Island (its turtles all the way down; see Geoffrey Chew’s bootstrap theory or F Capra’s tao of physics). Rulers do create rules, as chickens create eggs, and snakes live by eating their tails, but there is anotjher way of looking at it too. (See discussion by the philosopher “Hegel Wittgenstein’ who writes using the pen name ‘”Iggy ‘david bowie’ pop’ in the song ‘baby’ on the Idiot album (on youtube, and linked on my blog).

    Does a child who revolts against parents or teachers or school rules count as an anarchist? How about musicians ranging from Cage, Stravinsky, sex pistols, charlies parker, etc. who break the rules of their field? Or people who try to create ‘paraconsistant logic’ or alternative physics theories? Or people who oppose rules at work, about how nature is treated (eg suppose i want to throw trash on the ground?), or about marijuana, drinking alcohol outside, or various sex rules? . People lijke Stirner i gather who are ‘individualists’ (partly because they uniquely among anarchists spontaneously generate themselves, and have no ties to nor need for the rest of humanity or the world for that matter, have no parents and never needed to have their diapers changed, and even only eat or sh-t by choice) i think believe anarchism comes from within, and if you believe in the government or any other rulers and rules exist you are ‘alienated’ , mentally ill or confused and ignorant, and hence a totally lost non-anarchist and deserve exactly what you get, since people like that are the enemies of anarchists. As they say, ‘they shoot horses don’t they (patti smith)?’ So one could do some sports hunting, blessed by the NRA (and maybe even you could endorse their products for some cash—-i could see a whole line (or brand) of anarchist handgus, ak presses, etc.) Or enslave people to satisfy your ‘will for power’ (TM) which is the basic ‘instinct for freedom’ (Kropotkin, Chomsky—its innate like the language organ, and humans are not blank slates, but rather blank generations (Richard Hell and the Voidoids)). One can be ‘free at last, no money down!’ as the great martin luther ‘rodney’ king told the Pope.

    I remember some people told me ‘fuck anarchy, just do what you want’ (though actually they were against that in practice).

    I think many people may be anarchists in say certain dimensions, and in certain others they aren’t.

    Thats why i sortugh like that little pamphlet ‘degrees of freedom’ by jens bjorneboe who worked with arnae naess of ‘deep ecology’ which i hated though i gather he was a pretty good person inspired in part by the liberal ‘rachel carson’ (silent spring); the people i knew into ‘deep ecology’ were mnostly these sortuh ‘new age ‘ types who go around pretending they are native americans and stealing their land and proerty too and selling it to wealthy psychobabble types. But I guess thats ‘deep’, like Chomsky’s ‘deep structures’ (another lunatic ideology which sold well), but not Mobb Deep (rap). . Also it goes along with both physics and math(ematical logic); the latter field terms them ‘hierarchy of degrees’ (s kleene), or degrees of unsolvability.

    So, the final solution is there’s no solution. Through mutual aid, one can fellow travel, or travel with the fell-uhs (eg uh oh uh uh oh—some by JYB (junkyard) , on my blog, their first drummer got killed of course, i dont know about the rest) . The rulers and the ruled are codependent, and the lions can lie down with the lambs east of eden, and then eat them, or be eaten. Its survival of the fit test—how many vegetables can you name?

    • As I said above: the best thing is to make the simple things more simple. No rulers is just that. How to organize the life on earth without rulers is not too complicated that you need the speculation of famous dead people or scientists of various sciences. Lot of communities were functioning in direct democracy so you do not need to invent the wheel again.
      The “do” and “not to do” in a society with no rulers is not so complicated once the principles of Freedom + Equality + solidarity/fraternity are guiding all sane people.

      People who had not the experience of living in such communities my find it hard to conceive – like color blind or total blind encountering a rainbow at sunset.

  3. if its simple , then why not just do it. i can’t think of any ‘community’ operating with direct democracy (of course some anarchists want consensus, so anything can be blocked by one person or jerk or…) that had internet for example (maybe for you thats simple, starting from lacan and detour through google to face to face interacvtion on the cloud) (and i’ve lived in some who thought they were direct democracies, and such). my impression is ilaf s. lives in israel (had kibbutz etc.). alot of freedom equality solidarity fraternity is really ‘all aminals are equal but some aminals are more equal than others’ . . yeah, its not complicated—if you cooperate ( a la kroptokin, mutual aid) u wont get hurt. go along to get along, lil dogie. could be anarchism is fascism by another name.
    thats why those communities fail (and why much of the ‘left’ and now ‘anarchism’ is just an academic project in the ‘west’—once u get past the gate(d community) you can do what u want.
    the simple is complex in my view. ‘strait is the gate’ (jean genet). half a nice (i sometimes use another word which gets me in trouble but its just a word) day.

    • Some people use words without regard to the truth value in their content. Some people regard fame as the best indicator for wisdom and truth telling. I am just a simple person of an eastern country who think that there is beauty in the simple words of facts and truth.

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