May 2008

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Wow, in that last entry I just wrote this morning (in just 45 minutes, wow!), I sure have a bunch of rambly long sentences. I’ll try to remedy that in my next post…and maybe I’ll even go back and edit the last one.

As I’ve said, I’m focusing on just getting stuff out, in whatever form I can spew it at this point.

Embracing the Historical Moment

I believe that right now we are living in an historical moment in the United States where anarchists and other like minded radical folks can have a tremendous impact on the future of our society. Conditions in the U.S. are such that we can feel the desire for social change in the air, and it goes far beyond the rise of Obama and the explosion of green marketing (though both of these are highly significant). Within activist circles we have accumulated a wealth of tools and historical lessons that allow us to engage in revolutionary politics in ways that are both effective and sustainable. Further, communications technology has evolved to such a point of speed and ease (with anarchist linux-masters at the helm of so many innovations!) that new actions, new experiments, new structures, and new models can spread within minutes across the world. If we are willing to step forward together, humbly yet confidently, unafraid of our politics and of their value to the people around us, we anarchists have the potential to do some incredible things in the 21st century.

And when I say incredible things, I am not talking at all about advancing the anarchist “brand,” but instead about advancing anarchist politics. To be honest, I don’t care much at all about having more black flags at marches, or more anarchist bookfairs, or more media coverage of anarchists. I don’t care about people self-identifying more as anarchists, either. What I care about is that the politics that have made anarchism so special to me can be pushed to their limits, and that they can make their rightful contributions to the political struggles of the coming years. I don’t care who gets the credit, I don’t care what colors or symbols our groups have…I just want to participate in an ecosystem of social movements that practice the three values I discussed in part two. And I want it really, really bad!

So, what should anarchism look like in the 21st century? What do I actually mean when I talk about pushing our politics to the edge?

This is where I get overwhelmed with all that I want to say, and I’m not sure how to structure it. All the pieces are very interlocking, and I don’t think more of my standard numbered lists will do the trick. Perhaps I should go into a little speculative fiction to get us started…working backwards from just one possible future…

Imagine a future U.S. (or former U.S.) in which massive social changes have already taken place. Multinational corporations no longer exist, and community/worker’s cooperatives control the vast majority of productive wealth. Political power is rooted strongly in well-organized local communities, and then filters from the bottom up as the scale of decisions gets more complex. Cultural and gender categories have been exploded to the point that one can’t speak about a dominant culture or gender or sexuality, so much as a multiplicity of inherited and chosen cultures, genders, and sexualities that are fluid, well represented in art and media and education, and celebrated across the society. The society has had discussions about disability and age as important parts of human existence and human diversity, and institutions have been restructured to maximize not only access but actual participation and influence in social institutions by young people, elderly people, and people with a wide range of disabilities. There are no longer one or two imperial nations, but instead we really live in a multi-polar patchwork of liberated nations, bioregional federations, free territories, plus maybe a few old school nation-state hold-outs. Most of all, imagine that this isn’t just one singular revolutionary reality that is equal across all communities. It is, as the Zapatistas say, a world where many worlds fit, and any block you visit, any town, city, bioregion could have wildly different cultures, food systems, work days, architectures, forms of resource distribution, public spending priorities. So much human potential that was trapped in sadistic, iron-spiked cells of oppression has now freed itself, and its vibrant colors flow across the landscape.

This could be. This kind of society is possible. But how did our imaginary revolutionaries get from here to there?

Whereas some Latin American, African, and Asian revolutionaries may have stories about long marches from the underground to the streets to the ballot boxes, and from there using the resources and machinery of state power to effect a slow transition to 21st century participatory socialism, I think U.S. revolutionaries, if they succeeded, would have a different story to tell:

In the 21st century, with growing political, military, economic, and ecological crises, U.S. society finds itself fracturing. The power elite see their imperial hold on the world crumbling as previously subservient nations get defiant, as their multinational financial shell-games start falling apart, and as strategic resources get in shorter supply. Faced with this situation, they do what they do best, squeeze harder to keep their grip, lashing out like furious hydra at all possible threats to their dominance. About 25%-35% of the population of non-elites support this course, out of patriotism, fear for the safety and well-being of their families, or just an outright desire for their side to stay on top. But a huge number of people are feeling the strain, and they are looking for alternatives. They are tired of losing people in war, rising prices, lies and scandals from politicians, of seeing only straight white men in power, and are dead tired of so much violence, division and alienation around them. Changes in the climate are obvious and people are increasingly willing to make sacrifices and investments in order to stave off more natural disasters. A savvy bunch of power elites and politicians see this sentiment in the air, and they cater to this desire for change, with new green products and change-based campaign strategies. But their roots are the same as ever, and as long as actual political, cultural, and economic power fails to flow to ordinary people, a sizable number of those people aren’t buying what’s being sold to them. They had been fooled by false promises too many times before.

Enter the anarchists, and other like-minded radicals. Reading the historical moment, we engage, en masse, in two forms of struggle, always in coalition with non-anarchists and often non-radicals: ongoing resistance to the policies and practices of the elite, and local neighborhood, school, church, and workplace organizing to build community, tackle tough issues, and, most importantly, to build a popular consciousness that the local is the root of people’s power, and that through local organization another world truly is possible. Since praxis makes perfect, in both poles of struggle anarchists focus their energy on inspiring people to experiment with participatory, interactive, and sustainable forms of organizing, forms of organizing that build concrete skills and bring concrete benefits to the community even when larger campaigns lose or blocs of people bail out. Anarchists also are always trying to link issues and connect the dots of power in our work, speaking to people’s moral sensibilities about how privilege and oppression keep us from doing all that we could be doing. In time, we come to be known and trusted as skilled, humble, conscientious, ever optimistic, and even pushy without being too annoying. Over time, people trust themselves more and more, and begin to exercise power in more and more different areas of their lives.

We anarchists aren’t sneaky or manipulative in this work. We let people know who we are and what we believe. We don’t act like an anti-gentrification campaign or a community garden will bring a revolution, but we instead talk about local struggles as stepping stones in a movement…a movement whose endpoint is the building of lasting structures of community power. To this end, we talk regularly about the need for democratic communities to form, federate, and exercise power parallel to the state (or sometimes swallow up local government institutions entirely). Here we are explicit as well, supporting and proposing forms of organizing that have the potential to crystallize into these longer-lasting alliances and intentional community federations. There is no shadow-puppetry or cadre nonsense. We are, as some anarchist-communists say, a conscious minority. We say what we want, as fellow community members, and we engage and compromise with our fellow community members as we see fit.

In time, the state and the elites see the threats and opportunities that our democratic communities represent, and they both repress and court them. We resist the repression of course, and use it as a rallying point for more communities to democratize and federate. As for the courting, this all depends on strategic decisions and compromises, and our communities work to negotiate from positions of strength. Eventually, there are politicians who have risen out of these communities to try to win state power, Chavez style, and our federations have to decide whether to support them or not. But regardless, our work as anarchists remains: let other people negotiate with the powerful, our role is to support people’s own sense of power and to encourage power-building at the grassroots…anything else is doing liberals, progressives, and socialists jobs for them.

Through a combination of state power and local organizing, corporations are slowly limited and then dissolved. The military is democratized and the police are radically restructured and localized. The prison system is abolished and replaced with forms of transformative justice. At all points, we anarchists focus on the grassroots, encouraging our communities to keep the pressure on the state while never forgetting the local roots of power. We are always looking at the next visionary step, always looking for how to help people maximize their own skills and potential, rather than looking up at those with power. Our people are always down here, with us.

And slowly, not easily, we start to have something that looks like the society we had dreamed about.

This is, of course, just one fantastical speculation…but I think the core elements of a 21st century anarchism are contained within, regardless of how the actual process of struggle plays out. I think many of these elements are things that anarchists (and even more so, other radicals) are already doing, and I think others are things that we still have yet synthesized into our work. In coming blog entries, I want to pull out and discuss these elements, and definitely go deeper than this little sci-fi story goes.

But overall, I believe that there are certain things that we can and should be doing to embrace the historical moment that we still aren’t quite doing…at least outside of certain pockets of the country.

(To be continued…)

Nepal…

Quick aside from the anarchism stuff…

In Nepal the Maoists who were engaged in armed struggle since 1996 have recently won a majority in the constitutional assembly, and just abolished the monarchy, giving the king just days to leave his palace before they convert it into a museum. WOW!

I’ll be following this more closely in the future, as the Maoists are certain to have a clear majority in the government, and we’ll be able to see how radical socialists can transition from armed struggle just two years ago to state power (through elections!)…and we’ll get to see how they govern. With India and China right there, I hope they don’t get messed with too much…but then again I know nothing about the Nepalese struggle…so maybe I should do some research before I say too much more.

[Note: Something happened to me when I wrote part one of this little series. So many ideas, many of them long suppressed, rushed back to me, demanding to be elaborated here. I’ve become overwhelmed by all of the things I want to say, and my original outline kind of stopped making sense. What this means is that I might take an even more episodic approach, with little self-contained sections rather than an essay style that has one section that transitions into the next. We’ll see. One great thing about blogging is that I don’t need to fret too much about my writing style…I just have to share my ideas however works best for me!]

Overcoming Our Reluctance

In my now almost 13 (!) years as an anarchist, I have noticed a pattern in anarchist circles that is both completely understandable and really unfortunate. I’ve noticed that anarchists broadly fall into two categories: the loud & proud anarchists, and the reluctant anarchists. Loud & proud anarchists are clear in their self-identification as anarchists, they tend to embrace the historic anarchist tradition, they often use historic anarchist symbols like the black flag and circle-A, and they are usually not afraid to talk about fighting a revolution, smashing the state, fucking capitalism, etc. They are also often open to bold and militant action, often without thinking too deeply about the consequences. Reluctant anarchists, on the other hand, tend to be ex-loud & proud anarchists who have since lost their desire to claim their “anarchisticity.” They have often been humbled by the amazing work of non-anarchist traditions, and/or have been embarrassed by the overall whiteness, straightness, punkness and unflinching militance of loud & proud anarchists, all to the point where self-identifying as an anarchist ceases to make sense or even brings up shame. Reluctant anarchists thus tend to spend more time among non-anarchists than other anarchists, they often eschew militant Anarchist action to engage in “progressive” work that loud & prouds might call reformist, many of them embrace anti-oppression and identity politics in ways that have strained their relationships with the mostly white, straight anarchist subculture, and they tend to only share their anarchism with the soft whisper of a closely guarded secret, or through code-words like anti-authoritarianism, or libertarian socialist.

If the highly biased descriptions above didn’t make it clear, I fit squarely in the reluctant anarchist camp. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I tend to not like loud & proud anarchists, and I would generally choose to hang out with radicals of many other tendencies (revolutionary nationalists, women of color and white feminists, queer & trans liberationists, some types of marxists, green party folks, old new lefties) rather than hang out at the loud & proud anarchist infoshop. I think my reasons are pretty clear: I don’t feel comfortable in the loud & proud subculture; I don’t agree with the dusty, turgid politics of class war anarchists and I think primitivist green anarchism is just silly; I think that loud & prouds’ sense of intersections and anti-oppression analysis are really lacking; I don’t like the sectarian and alienating ways that many loud & prouds talk about non-anarchists; I think the militance-for-militance sake attitude is often not only strategically bankrupt but dangerous to our movement; when I am around them I feel judged for the way I dress and the way I approach process; and, more deeply, I feel embarrassed, on almost a bodily level, to be associated with them because they remind me of who I used to be and of so many of the mistakes I have made.

But I don’t want to get hung up talking about loud & proud anarchists. I know I am over-generalizing, yet I also know that my sentiments are usually confirmed at every explicitly anarchist function I attend in the United States (maybe other countries are different?). Regardless, I am much more interested in talking about my folk, the reluctant anarchists. Because while there are definite reasons why well-meaning, critically thinking folks might choose to back away from the anarchist label, I think it can be costly to our politics. I think many of us reluctant anarchists lose some important things in the transition, which I think we might want to reclaim.

In many cases (I think the Bay Area might be different, bless their cutting-edge radical souls), when we step back from anarchist politics, we reluctant anarchists enter into new political spaces that take away our edge. We enter into the non-profit sector and learn important skills that we might not have even thought about before; we enter into coalition-based campaign work and realize that demanding a vague revolution is way, way different than fighting for specific, winnable demands (although groups like the Northeast Federation of Anarchist Communists seem to have learned that lesson while maintaining their anarchism, good for them!); we go to school and conferences and study groups and learn about analyses of the system that traditional anarchist sources don’t even touch. Sooner or later we have learned so much more from other places and traditions that it feels silly to still call ourselves anarchists…

…yet for many of us that loyalty still remains. We still feel something there bonding us to “the idea” (as the Spanish anarchists used to call it), but we often chalk it up to nostalgia, nothing more. Yet I think our instincts are right. There is something in anarchism that most of our new non-anarchist spaces aren’t quite matching, and the blurrier that something gets, the more we stand to lose. I think that in far too many cases, we slowly begin lose the revolutionary, utopian, deeply democratic values and ideals that originally drew us to anarchism, that make anarchism so special, and we end up settling into the goals and values of the new spaces we occupy, at the price of our revolutionary edge.

For me, there are three sort of basic things about anarchism that make it important to me:

1) Its deep faith in individual human beings, and its utopian belief in the kind of society that human beings can construct by working together. This is what gives anarchism its profound and beautiful interplay between the social and the individual, between individual human desire and expression and collective solidarity. This is what makes Crimethinc stuff so appealing to so many, I think, and it is also what makes anarchists generally the life of the party. Unlike so many others, we actually have a sense of entitlement to a much better world, and we aren’t afraid to say that. Many people have never even been asked what kind of better world they could have, yet anarchism takes pride in its utopianism. It urges us to dream in ways that even revolutionary socialists can’t often match. That dreaminess is contagious. And it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

2) Its profound rejection of all forms of illegitimate authority and oppression. Anarchism has, within the very roots of the word itself, a strong foundation for a holistic, anti-oppression analysis. While anarchism has historically been the tradition of certain, sometimes privileged groups, and while it has historically focused on capitalism and the state at the expense of other systems of oppression, there is no lack of powerful stories of anarchists in queer and trans liberation struggles, animal rights struggles, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles, abolitionist struggles, disability right struggles, and more. Some of the founders of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence are anarchists…and I don’t think that’s just a coincidence for how radically grassroots and revolutionary some of their ideas are. Same for Critical Resistance. Anarchism has always had an anti-oppression streak to it, and potentially now in 21st century more than ever.

3) Its commitment to actually practicing the values we share as we fight for the society that we want.
Anarchism doesn’t hold pragmatism above all else, unlike so many other political tendencies and spaces. Instead anarchism holds its values above all, and it urges us to practice our ethics in the here and now rather than waiting for a revolution or a winning of state power. We are called to build the new world in the shell of the old, to experiment here and now with grassroots democracy, with socialist resource sharing, with gender-norm fucking, with new communal arrangements. This is where anarchism gets its militance from, because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for…if not us, who? If not now, when? Anarchism pushes us to avoid rock-stars, demagogues, and experts. It demands that we listen for the quietest and we look to the smallest. It is also why anarchists can feed the homeless for free from dumpsters, why anarchists knew how to fix bikes better than anyone when everyone else was still driving, why they have lovely gardens…the DIY ethic is a deeply anarchist ethic, and it is shame when reluctant anarchists get re-tied to consumerist, wasteful, ultra-pragmatic spaces when we leave anarchism behind.

These three things are what make me continue on as an anarchist. It doesn’t matter whether we use the anarchist label or not, but I think building a 21st century anarchism is all about reclaiming these three basic values and principles, and then building off of them using all of the vast resources we’ve acquired in non-anarchist spaces. Through innovation and exploration and synthesis, I believe we are capable of new levels of revolutionary work in the U.S., and that is what I want to get into next time. Leaving behind our reluctance, there is some work to do.

During the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped put socialism back on the geopolitical menu by declaring himself in favor of “socialism for the 21st century.” He claimed that his previous belief in a “third way” between capitalism and socialism was mistaken, and he envisioned a new path toward socialism that would not repeat the mistakes of failed past experiments. In a climate of deep and accelerating disillusionment with neoliberal capitalism, a major world leader made the “S-word” a little bit safer to say, and he fired up the imagination of millions who saw the possibility of a new direction for Latin America and the world.

Chávez’ words fired me up, too, along with so many of his speeches and declarations since. As I have gushed about many times on this blog, the Venezuelan/Latin American process toward socialism is no joke; there is something real happening there, and it fills me with a deep, warm hope. There is no question that they are doing it their own way, with all of the questions, and blunders, and contradictions that it entails. Indeed, all over Venezuela, South America, the global south, and the world, people are carrying out experiments in participatory democracy, and in community and worker control of resources. As the long winter of U.S. imperialism gives way to a multi-polar spring, these experiments are poised to bloom like thousands of beautiful flowers. Chávez’ words were a powerful recognition of this visionary reality, and a vital endorsement (many would say co-optation) of its revolutionary potential. For me personally, they made me feel like I wasn’t crazy for being a radical.

But this brings up a simple but very dangerous problem that I want to confront here. It’s the problem of–to use Tom Cruise’s fluid and profound Scientology vocabulary–Spectatorism. It does very little good to simple watch and romanticize and ooh and aah about the struggles and victories of folks across the world. One should not only maintain a critical eye for the differences between rhetoric and reality, but more importantly, one should use the inspiring examples of others to push against one’s own edges (what that wonderful man Paulo Freire called one’s “limit situations”) and grow to new levels of revolutionary work. I don’t want to be only a spectator of the beautiful work of the Venezuelan revolution, or of the Zapatistas, or of the militant South Korean trade unions, or of U.S. groups like INCITE! or Critical Resistance. I don’t want to be just a revolutionary consumerist, reading my Left Turn and listening to my Blue Scholars while I rent eye-opening documentaries on Netflix.

While I am still here sharing this life with you, while my mind still feels clear and my hands, feet and body still serve me, while my bank account is healthy and while I feel so much love and support from so many directions, I want to be of use. I want to make as big as contribution as I can. And when or if all of those things go, I want to still contribute just as much, if not more.

If Chávez’ speech is just greeted with a spectator’s excitement (or boredom or cynicism), then it is guaranteed to become what some fear: another example of revolutionary work being co-opted by top-down leaders at the expense of authentic grassroots democracy. But if Chávez’ speech is greeted as a challenge, as an invitation (whether intended by Hugo or not) to make our mark and give our 2 cents to the revolutionary project, then we can really get somewhere. I choose the latter. And here I want to confront my Spectatorism a little bit by talking about how we can build (in fact, are building!!!) a 21st century anarchism in the U.S. that can parallel the Bolivarians’ 21st century socialism.

(To be continued…)

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi