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…)