Anarchy is a Scale-Independent Proposition
There’s a particular narrative–surprisingly common in certain corners of the anarchist scene–that no one has really bothered to call out and so has grown rather fat and comfortable over the last few decades. It goes something like this:
Thinking or acting from a big-picture perspective is–if not The Problem–then at least a major root cause of everything miserable about our world. Any claims, theories, ideals, or motivations that extend our frame of reference beyond our immediate lives are predicated in the same mistaken arrogance, a mistake responsible for the seemingly intractable poison within the left and activist struggles, as well as so much more. In response we must ward ourselves from the ideologies, the grand constructs, the stories that dwarf the particulars of our immediate perceptions, our social circles, our daily struggles. Most of all we must reject the search for universals and focus only on the “human sized”.
Often this narrative quickly segues to pattern-matching this “big-thinking” tendency in terms of some unified Judeo-Christian tradition (under the assumption that there’s only a tiny chance of running across anyone with a strong claim to be part of a different tradition). At this point the narrative really picks up steam: There was once polytheism/animism/spiritualism but then all the little gods and little tribes got ground up by the big universal monster and now there’s just universal stuff, and we should just break things apart again until they’re back on a “human scale”–ala Dunbar’s Number–where we can better keep track of everything. And, supposedly, therefor stop our thought from growing “out of control.”
All you should be concerned about are your immediate relationships with other people in your social/drama circles, how you relate to them and the kind of psychological states you’re able to briefly create together.
For a lot of people this perspective somehow resonates very deeply as a kind of clean break. There’s this big boogeyman representation of supposedly all existing paradigms, and then there’s them, breaking away, abruptly free to explore an array of new possibilities. You get this with a lot of cults too, once you just see The Problem everything is so clear and filled with newness and possibility. Our brains love the feeling of a new perspective or a new context, especially when we’re dealing with continually grinding problems. We get to let go of all our frustrating calculations and considerations constantly hanging around, persisting in the back of our minds, and start anew! People get so overwhelmed by that rush that they refuse to pay attention when this new One Simple Trick fails to actually address anything, when the exact same sort of problems creep back, and the limits of the new paradigm start to feel like prison walls again. And so you see people, enraptured by the feeling of the original break, with the impression of it, refusing to feel out for these walls, repeating the same kind of sad content-devoid mantras in response to any input. “If you’d only see that it’s all Moralism maann.”
Granted, this can be an important step in flexing your brain, I guess, if you come from a certain background, with certain priorities. But I don’t. This shit and the context it comes out of are just so incredibly alien to me. And so the magical salve of returning to the small-scale is just a wad of spit and leaves to me. It doesn’t begin to address the things that worry me.
Like a lot of people I didn’t originally become an anarchist over concerns about black helicopters or mushroom clouds or any showy large-scale horror. I first became an anarchist because at a very young age I saw people–individual people–exercising control over other people. I saw dynamics of abuse, coercion and manipulation and I recoiled from them. I thought about the way these dynamics worked and then I critiqued and rejected them. Simple as that. Crucially these behaviors were often completely divorced from epic narratives, big ideologies or global forces. They were, in fact, often intensely localized, personal, and situational. Sometimes they gave rise to grand ambitions and sweeping frameworks. But they arose separately, and indeed, were often joined closely with an anti-narrative and anti-globalist bent. “This situation is unique and can’t or shouldn’t be compared with any other, much less any commonality identified.” “Ethics is a delusion for weak people.” “There are no constants so why not give into whatever impulses strike me.” Indeed the most powerful tools in perpetuating these power dynamics were those that denied universals or constants and those that exploited limited knowledge, information or communication. Gaslighting. Triangulation. Isolation.
“You actually believed me?!” and then cackling laughter.
Such sociopathy is not a fringe dynamic, but a near constant tendency that is deeply deeply riven in just about every society or culture on this planet. It survives in no small part by keeping its ever present machinations hidden or at least unspoken. It perpetuates itself through narratives that reduce the world to an unmappable formless mess, devoid of constants or directions. It portrays the world and our experiences as a substanceless game of immediate impulses and chance particulars. Everything is arbitrary, so why not? An impulse towards friends and family after all is just a historically contingent trapping that one could easily emerge without or shed off. Love and compassion just a fleeting affliction of sentiment, with no deep reason to prompt valuing its perpetuation. I may bask in parental love for you today and tomorrow delight myself by your screams as I break your fingers. There are no constants, no universal attractors, no way to argue or persuade that isn’t just manipulation, positioning, delusion. Being kind or resisting power might happen to give you some sense of pleasure or happiness but any sufficiently intelligent person can change their brain. Why not take the easier route and just just find ways to hack how you get pleasure? To distract yourself from recognizing oppression and suffering, or to take delight in them?
Cinematic buckets of blood dumped on Carrie or the hordes beating Piggy are not a departure from the norm but are implicit in everything we do. Our society’s illusion of normalcy is a detente riven with the fluctuations of our continuing and almost-all-present manipulations, cruelties, and selfish acts. These small violences form a constant fabric whose wrinkles form the scaffolding of larger emergent structures until we arrive at governments, religions and corporations.
Leftists declare such interpersonal power dynamics–insofar as they are ever forced to recognize them–only the consequence of macroscopic patterns like Capitalism. What a laugh! The small is ultimately not so much the result of the big as the other way around. Feudalism, state communism, city states, federated tribes… no matter how you push the wrinkles in the fabric around the psychology of abuse, control and deception that ties it together remains unaddressed. Hunter gatherers like any other iteration of humanity often did horrible things to one another, held each other in abusive bondage, faith and ritual. The bonds that oppress us are no less bonds if they are small-scale and responsive. The might of emperors has oft been but a puff of air compared to aggregate coercive power and suffering caused by every abusive partner or parent or friend in the world. It does not take the existence of sweeping patriarchal norms and socializations for partners to abuse each other, for parents to be cruel or domineering to children, these behaviors emerge in almost every culture or circle. The rates of abuse and physical violence among lesbians are the same as among heteros. This is not some magically adaptable macroscopic force or conspiracy that absorbs every punch we through at it and reorganizes itself, it is not some huge spectre out there beyond our immediate lives, it is a persistent tendency, a creeping low-level infection riven throughout our immediate lives, our collective and one-on-one relations.
And everywhere it smirks to itself. Every Pope has been an atheist. Every successful president or czar a passionate egoist. They wrap their thoughts in robes, just as most of us wrap our thoughts in what we term ‘useful‘ delusions in our most clearheaded moments. Temporary allegiances and affectations. Sure the power that binds others often binds the wielder. But not always. And certainly not always in a meaningful one-to-one relation against the subjective desires of the wielder.
This kind of person, this kind of thinking, has no need for universal or big-perspective thinking; they will scramble for power in any context. The problem they represent is irrespective of the scale of pageantry. These sociopathic currents run deep in almost every cluster of individuals and often crawl into our own heads.
The damage we do each other at the small-scale, at the “human level”, is usually far more profound in suffering than the damage done by big tangled contexts and social organisms above and beyond our families, lovers, and friends. They intersect, they feedback off each other in interesting ways, and with bigger scale comes bigger risk, to be sure, but at the end of the day the narrative of small-scale against big-scale is utterly toothless against the roots of the horrors we face.
I and many others were originally attracted to anarchism not because we were looking to satiate some hunger for the participatory delusion / commodity known as “community”, but as a ray of absolute resistance against the fundamentally sociopathic and nihilistic social norms of our world. Against an omnipresent foul fog that burns our lungs and seeks to settle deep into our skin.
For us Anarchism has always first, foremost, and at root, presented itself as a sharp critique of this rampantly common and pedestrian perspective, this staunch belief in immediatism and the irrelevance or nonexistence of universals or solids of any form of truly persuasive arguments that might be found–this assumption of the uniform arbitrariness and futility of vigilant investigation beyond one’s momentary or happenstance motivations–that infests every abuser, every conman, every social capitalist, every creep, every rapist.
Our anarchism represents a break with this, it is the cry that an-archy is possible, even considerable, that we need not reassign the term like so much litter to denote merely diffuse, local and personal archies. That we need not embrace the orwellian framework in which anarchy is the same shit, only more locally responsive. It is the declaration that there is a substantive differentiation to be found between the ideologies or psychologies of constraint and those of richer, wider engagement, of more expansive identity and compassion. And that the latter is ultimately more attractive than the former. That we need not shy away from reality or lower our gaze in furtive dejection to our immediate trappings, to mere fleeting impressions of love and resistance, to aesthetics rather than anything of consequence.
Such an anarchism is an unraveling of the very fabric of power relations that bind almost every society on earth. And critically: there is no scale at which it does not apply.
That big showy tangles of power must also be dissolved is but a trivial ramification, it is no more representative of the anarchist break than any other shift or twist in the fabric of power relations. Nor can our break be characterized by a brief or local loosening of the weave. The break anarchism signifies is not with the particularities of the west, or of civilization, it goes far far deeper than that.
Why do we throw ourselves on bombs or strap bombs on ourselves to save others? These are not superficial feelings, they are not socialized happenstance or quirk of birth. These are conclusions those who are radical in their investigations, their vigilant explorations, find themselves drawn to. As radicals we never allow ourselves to be satisfied with hazy mystical simplified abstractions and spooks like “friendship” rather than concrete realities and dynamics of thought and action. Or wander in circles, adding contextual complications but not even attempting to weigh, reorganize or sort through them. Relishing the self-created maze of notes upon notes and so never attempting to isolate the deeper patterns or consistencies.
The narrative of opposition to “big-thinking” is at its core just a kind of smug pride in timidity, of ritualized fear and comfortable despair. “We have not won in a few scant iterations of history and this is proof that we will lose.” “Some people tried thinking and look at where that inevitably led.” It’s the instinctive recoil of the traumatized animal. A sense that “when the stakes go up we dare not rise to compete.” And at its core it swallows and preserves every nihilistic assumption at the core of our sociopathic society. One might be able to relate to the mewling slave repeating “might makes right” like a prayer of absolution, having internalized the masters’ intellectual laziness, but one should never join them.
Let us never forget that coffins are made “human sized”; our lives should be bigger than them.
The Retreat of the Immediate
Anarchists who intend to act as though we didn’t live in a dystopic world must find themselves perplexed at every moment. With the ecosystems of civil society so atrophied and virtually every surviving institution of value captured and beaten into participating in the bloody circus of statism, who do you call? What do you do when you see a thug with a gun (and a badge) looming over someone, much less kidnapping or shooting people? Hell, how do you deal with the existence of sitcoms?
Ethically navigating the horrors of our world is a challenging task for anyone with a shred of humanity, but it’s unfathomable once you abandon the notion of strategy – the pursuit of wider context.
And yet the appeal of immediatism has grown widely in recent years, under various banners and in many circles. Perhaps this is a reaction to the patently ludicrous Plans of social democrats, state communists, vulgar libertarians and organizationalist ideologues–in such light it’s clearly a sympathetic instinct. But it is also a surrender of the mind and heart.
Immediatism, in almost every formulation, has two sides.
On one side is Rothbard’s famous “big button” that we might break our fingers pushing to suddenly poof away the militaries, courts, politicians and police of the world – come what may in the aftermath. I waft back and forth on this hypothetical. It’s certainly rhetorically convenient for emphasizing the scale of state atrocities being committed right now, but unconvincing to anyone versed in the wilds of sociopaths, thugs and would-be-DMV-administrators that currently infest our world. The state is but the apex predator in a rich ecosystem of would-be states. As anarchists our goal to abolish power relations doesn’t stop at merely the most prominent ones. And fractured civil war between would-be warlords and social democrats can be many times more destructive and oppressive than the off-hand tyranny of old, fat and senile sociopaths.
We anarchists are objectively right, centralization is inefficient. But this cuts two ways. Rwanda’s machetes were more efficient than Hitler’s gas chambers. Robust markets will efficiently deliver death just as much as any other “good” a certain culture might value. Meanwhile the wicked truth is libertarians often flourish in overextended empires where the mountains are high and the emperor far away. At one time I used to retort that if I could push a button and create a single incredibly centralized global government I would. Better to have a single enemy to focus on than two hundred, interlocking, redundant and locally attentive ones.
States create game theoretic environments around their peripheries that suppress cooperation and reward antisocial strategies. Primordial empires wouldn’t have persisted if they didn’t constantly sow the seeds of future cops, rulers, and bureaucrats through the cultural and economic norms they instilled. But not every bully can grow up to be picked as Head Genocidaire and the landscape is littered with the failures. Some are too stupid to make it, some confined to small-time crime, some in miniature statelettes like the mob running in parallel to their more official brothers, some seeing greater advantage in milking hidden privileges from the current state, and some simply unlucky. Many more, despite being distorted and corrupted by their environment, are too humane to function well in the gears of state power. They nevertheless instinctively support the stability of any known social form and lash out at deviation, thoroughly persuaded that cooperation is impossible on any significant level and our only hope is to eek out a living as moss on a wall without attracting the wrath of whatever sociopaths are in power.
If we were to press that magical button these residual forces, endemic across our society, would immediately begin the reconstitution of states. There would be serious opportunity for sustained development of more ideal communities (as we have seen in virtually every crisis), but so too, in the absence of vigorous preexisting social antibodies to power accumulation, would there be terror and micro-totalitarianisms. Not universally, but all too often even a small presence leads to widespread PTSD, a willingness to grasp any known “solution” however imperfect rather than spend the time and iterations of trial-and-error necessary to win categorical improvements. The most staunch conservatives and proponents of totalitarianism I’ve met have been survivors of civil wars. Only when there are anarchist community centers in every neighborhood, self-defense cooperatives, arbitration bodies, autonomous basic-needs infrastructure, widespread awareness of alternative justice systems, et alia, would pushing that button actually be a surefire reduction in state violence.
Of course I don’t fault anyone for lusting after that button, I even tend to lean towards pushing it in my read of the weighted probabilities, but A) the button is very much just an unrealistic thought experiment, and B) focusing on the dichotomy it frames things in is incredibly strategically unhealthy. We don’t win the moment a state ceases to exist, much less all two hundred or so officially registered “states.” To even speak of anything approaching a win condition for us we must damn well consider the default strategies and frameworks ossified in a number of people’s heads. While the decline and fall of existing states will be an amazing battle to win, it is not the war. We win by turning the tide against power psychosis, not certain symptoms. And that, sadly, is an inherently gradual thing without clear markers.
But then we’re anarchists: Our decentralized and autonomous asses flourish in situations involving vastly complicated contexts unknowable to a single actor or reducible to simple terms! Which brings me to my second point.
The other side of immediatism is the adoption of limited ethics, whether deontological or nihilistic. Pretending we live today in the world we’d like to see (or dismissing any ideal or goal as hopeless) explicitly involves ditching context.
The world is not a simple place and simplistic abstractions (even in the form of “shit’s too complicated” or “we’re sure to lose”) do violence through irresponsibility. Further they signal a cognitive surrender to the ossified and sweeping logic of the state.
Rather than delve after the true comprehensive roots of a dynamic and risk being reshaped in the process, the rigid algorithms that make up the psychosis of power try to impose simplified and relatively unchanging macroscopic abstractions. To think, to reformulate with greater context, is to risk deviation from the game theoretic dynamics that preserve simplicity. The drive for control is the drive to reduce the amount of thinking one has to do–often by force. The state requires this strategic rigidity and simplicity in its components so that they might be A) calculable and B) stable in the weird niche of game theoretic phase space it survives in. While the state embraces limited attempts at foresight, explorations in meta-strategy and awareness are always, by necessity, confined.
Conscious intentional actors are the state’s worst nightmare. The mere pressure of oppositional tactics alone is easily integrated into state calculations, even reformulated as a vital organ. If every sharp grievance is turned into a mindless rupture, then the number of burnt cars this week becomes just another focus group report. They have storefronts and cops aplenty to sacrifice. Sure, despite our best efforts they might miscalculate still, and our endless siege rush through the cracks to some meaningful accomplishment/destruction, but there’s no good reason to settle for this minimal effectiveness. Like the old post-left slogan, “an insurrection of generals not an army of soldiers” actively thinking through strategies of attack and exploitation individually is the only way to leverage the state’s calculational constraints. What does our embrace of agency as anarchists even mean, if in our resistance we gravitate towards any form of attack in front of us or stirs our first impulse? If all your resistance can be easily replaced with a lego mindstorms robot, identifying cops via python script and chucking firebombs at them, it stands to reason you might be at least a little bit more effective at building such robots. And if you’re willing to take one step of foresight in the causal pursuit of our desires, why not more?
Barely better than chucking our bodies at their nightsticks or shooting the first thug with a badge we see kidnapping people is the sort of internalized legalism that tries to slice up the world in terms of immediately visible violence. We see this most egregiously among certain vulgar anarcho-capitalists who famously can’t tell if something is unethical unless things have gotten to the point where someone is openly pointing a gun. Never mind amorphous culturally implied threats or conversations about the unbelievable subsidy left by historical genocide and slavery. Coercive power and profit from it is a tangled thing and if we throw up our hands at a few steps of removal or the blurring of direct responsibility through convoluted shell games we invite sociopaths to walk all over us. Pick two random people, even two random anarchists, and they’ll give you two very different definitions of “what counts”.
The answer is, of course, that it all counts.
Lines of power, control and implicit coercion crisscross our world; we are all chained up in them to varying degrees. Perhaps it really would be a good thing, if we all started blazing away at our oppressors and the only people left standing to start over were a couple saintly homeless queer disabled black kids. Sometimes, in despair, I think exactly that.
I understand the common impulse to ignore the big picture entirely and attempt to lose oneself in the accounting of proportionality, personal blame and other relatively crisp immediates. But this is suicidally insufficient and to constrain ourselves to such immediate reactions is to become complicit. It is the nature of tangles that they cannot be resolved by merely pushing back. We do not live in a world where violence is a deviation rather than the norm and, thus, easily squashed the moment it rears its head. When a shell game has been going on for centuries, passing balls of coercion between billions, retribution can only get us so far. How responsible is the individual cop that shoots us for resisting an IRS warrant versus the officer who gave the order, or the politician who signed the law, or the friend who snitched, or the teacher whose salary it’ll partially go to? How “responsible” is a white american who’s benefited from centuries of subsidy for the relative immiseration of a decedent of slaves? What of the beneficiaries of economies of scale generated by a transportation infrastructure built on genocide? The framework of blame is the fantasy of quick answers from immediate context. We cannot know the constraints placed on other people, the distorted choices and incomplete information available to them. “Responsibility” much less “proportionality” are profoundly arbitrary in most situations. Focusing on them frequently poses daunting collective action problems as well as issues of representation and, thus, effectively prioritizing some situations of sharp oppression over others.
But all is not lost, we can at least try to minimize oppressive constraining bullshit or, equivalently, maximize agency. This instinct is shared by both those who talk of responses being justified “up to what’s necessary to immediately stop the aggression” and those who instead talk about rehabilitory approaches that “even if they may never end up working all that well all of the time,” will at least avoid escalating to the point of murdering every last person who adamantly refuses to stop some micro-aggression. Both approaches, however, by attempting to write out a simple universal operating method, are too cute and fall into the same statist trap of ossified frameworks rather than active and fully-context-sensitive strategizing.
As anarchists, native to the knowledge problems of subjectivity, we need to embrace knowing when we don’t have the answers. Not knowing the full particulars and context of a comrade struggling on the other side of the world we can at best only helpfully point out glaring contradictions, externalities or potential inefficiencies of one strategy versus another (imprisoning people in gulags, for example, won’t make them freer or lead to the state withering away). Sometimes this means not acting. Shooting a politician might lead to better conditions, it might lead to sharply worse ones. Same with blowing away the first cop you see. Sincere passionate, highly intelligent and considered anarchists will disagree on whether or not to push Rothbard’s hypothetical button this very moment. Merely by virtue of having different life experiences and seeing different spatterings of data on social conditions. On the other hand dramatically increasing the power of the state to fight the corporations historically inseparable from the state, without a viable means of then fighting the resulting super-empowered state (never mind whether it gets the corporations or just increases the potency of regulatory capture), is clearly a strategy developed with limited exploration of ramifications. Continuing to investigate is important.
Merely blindly escalating to the level of retaliation necessary to fend off each and every aggression flowing through the facet of this world would mean a total war of annihilation. Conversely, in many cases, failing to escalate beyond some arbitrary line or apportioning our efforts according to degrees of “responsibility” rather than “what will stop the violence” can leave us in an intractable mess. The solution is to reject the paradigm of escalation entirely, a notion that was only possible by examining interactions in isolation. Reprisal is but one tiny sliver of tactics. When facing an ungodly mesh of knots you don’t push or pull, you examine the whole structure and look for weak points. The question before us, as anarchists, isn’t how hard to bluntly react when our world fails to be perfect but where and how to proactively strike against dystopia.
Sometimes that means letting things pass in silence, sometimes it means sucker punching, and sometimes it means something completely orthogonal.
Some problems can’t be solved directly. Sometimes you have to go around them. This requires seeing the full breadth of our society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In a world filled with people who feel entitled to control others in a million tiny and not-so-tiny ways, selfcenteredly focusing on wiping the blood off our own hands or trying to pin precise apportionments of blame can only leave us complicit in the blood awash around us. There is no universal formula, no simple heuristic or paint-by-numbers methodology that will get us to a better world. Indeed such shortsighted procedurism flies in the face of virtually every anarchist vision. “Freedom” is a meaningless slogan without vigilance and agency. If “freedom” from proactive consideration is what we were looking for this world already offers many avenues. Indeed that is practically all it embraces.
That anarchists occasionally throw up their hands and retreat to a tiny sphere of immediate considerations – whether embracing blind optimism or blind despair–is entirely understandable given the challenges we face. But such a retreat is not a victory, nor could it ever somehow be representative of liberation.
Why Anarchism? A Love Letter to Our Doubters, Burnouts, Expats, & Refugees
I’ve identified as an anarchist for over two decades. Like any ideology or flag of identification it is, to most people, a weird, antiquated sort of thing to do. Relatively few people actually care about the world and those with the audacity to set out to change it are rarer still. Even among them radicalism is infrequent, and such prominent flag-flying practically extinct. It is, I’ll readily admit, on the face of it rather intellectually suspect. Akin to the lone old Marxist grumbling in the back of the hackerspace at the nerve of people to choose terminology outside his tradition’s memetic scaffolding. We’re all busy getting things done as informed, free-thinking, universally iconoclastic individuals these days, why willingly chain yourself to the baggage of centuries old political tensions and the flotsam of small but frequently problematic milieu?
This sort of questioning washes in with every wave of burnout and trauma. What once felt exciting and liberating becomes all too familiar and constraining. And in many people’s need to push back, to reassert their underlying agency as human beings rather than characters in a political narrative and question ties of assumed “affinity” with scurrilous personalities or behaviors they end up floating away entirely.
So I thought I’d write a little piece about why I don’t leave. How coming in originally with a deeply suspicious and critical eye on these issues I ended up nevertheless choosing to hoist the black flag on which nothing is written and cast a huge chunk of my life in its shadow.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me that it’s ultimately not about the people or even the history but the word and conceptual space itself.
“Anarchy” is unarguably the greatest and most consequential Orwellianism in the world. In every language to have touched Greek it bundles a kind of sociopathic chaos onto the concept of pure freedom. Freedom in our common tongue isn’t merely slavery, it’s a nightmarish state of death and domination devoid of substantive empathy. And the implication is the root of virtually every paradigm, social ecosystem, and cognitive strategy on display: That there is no escape from lines of domination, no aspect of relation to one another outside the binary of controller and controlled. Anarchy, as a word, is the ultimate reset button on those who dare to dream outside the rules of the games we play. A reminder that society is, supposedly, a zero sum game, and any present deviation from that reality a fleeting collective irrationality, capable of being popped at any moment by exploring too far or thinking too deeply. We have a word for the absence of rulership, and we use it to signify fractured rulership.
This is, once you start to notice it, a poisonous, ruinous affair that spreads widely if subtly in effect. There are many kinks in our languages and conceptual schemas, and we frequently manage to work around most of them, but “anarchy” sits at the center of a topological defect so vast it almost characterizes the entire landscape of our social relations. That we might be able to slither out an equivalent victory without contesting this conceptual perversion directly shouldn’t blind us to its centrality. We are not merely using an ungainly word to describe something everyone is basically already on board with. We are challenging an assumption that underpins virtually every other political, ethical or motivational paradigm. Both conservatism and liberalism, broadly recognized, see sociopathy as fundamental, one embraces that nihilism opportunistically, the other seeks to hide from it by embracing arbitrary, shortsighted abstraction and rejecting all inquiry into the roots.
The prominent use of the term “anarchy” is not a pedantic definitional battle to save the legacy of some long dead but kinda awesome communards, nor is it an attempt to set our lives by their historically-situated rhetorical proclamations and strategic fumblings. It is a surgical strike on the chessboard and a clearing of the air. No endeavor can make significant headway in the long run without self honesty. It is through pressing concepts and notions to their extremes and examining their high-energy behavior for contradictions or simplifications that we avoid getting lost in a miasma of localized abstractions of indeterminate depth or arbitrariness, unable to effectively navigate or orient ourselves. A willingness to bite bullets, to fearlessly and seriously swim to the boundaries of the possible, is vital not just in changing the world but having any agency in our own lives.
And what is lost through identification with the marginalizing term “anarchy” is arguably more than made up for through that marginalization. While all those who identify with anarchy do not always live up to the radical inquiry it suggests, at worst anarchist circles serve as fertile territory for explorations in extremism. Unbridled sociopaths, the inventively unhinged, and ideological robots of a thousands colors contribute to a deluge of first-hand data and such productive, passionate experimentation as found nowhere else. There are also, of course, saints and angels to be found in abundance too, human beings so sharply and intensely human you can get addicted to their realness. Through two centuries of struggle “anarchy”, like the word “love” has become a defect pummeled into a hole. Things happen there. Radiation comes blasting out.
I’m not arguing that mundane, petty, shortsighted prickishness doesn’t in some ways characterize wide swathes of those who identify as anarchists. Or that utterly reprehensible behaviors and structures aren’t replicated by many wrapped in our flag. We all know that most communists are just capitalists who think the game should be confined to social capital. But, however much we may opportunistically or aspirationally use the phrase, there is no “anarchist movement”. There are rather countless circles and individuals on various trajectories, interacting at this single point and sometimes allowing the goodwill or romanticism attached to “anarchism” to bind them to people of wildly different motivation or experience. Anarchism has gone through many iterations, with bundles of associated things rising and falling, while other, largely unrelated waves do the same. There are many anarchist cultures and global scenes, some almost hermetically sealed to each other. Whatever horror appears to span the anarchist world you’ve seen, it is likely that this too shall pass. Far better and far worse, and just far different ones will take their place. Some of today’s breakaway clusters, insurgent inclinations, and alien appropriators will be tomorrow’s mainstay.
Some of this is just inevitable cultural tectonics, some of it is the direct result of conscious exploits or better ideas. People can and do have significant impacts on the trajectory of anarchist milieus and conceptual evolution. Things will change and you can have a significant effect in changing them.
But no, not every victory is immediately possible wearing the anarchist flag. Don’t get me wrong, there are countless critical insights unique to anarchist discourse, some still to be detached as modules and exported like so many others to “the left”, to subcultures, and to the mainstream, others so deeply embedded with a universal rejection of power relations they are possibly undetachable. Some things will likely only ever be possible under the flag of anarchism. Yet, if you’re looking for a specific victory the anarchist label is indeed sometimes a bad bet. You can do better with the loose “movement of movements”. You can do better with your friends. You can do better within “non-ideological” projects that sacrifice processing efficiency by cloaking deep motivations and settling on superficial but productive affinities.
Some people will tell you anarchism is about the existing insights. Those too largely can and will be exported. It’s not the array of tools and insights developed so far but the rootedness that has driven those insights.
As I said “Anarchism” has a clearer etymology than “feminism”, or “communism”, or “socialism”, or “social justice”, and it targets not something as macroscopic and aggregate as “women” or “community” but an incredibly important conceptual tangle that gets at the root of many of our society’s problems. The crux of “anarchy” is an ethical orientation, not a political platform. It’s intellectually easy to be a sociopath and also a feminist or a communist, or whatever. In the very best currents of such traditions “never holding control over another mind” is still only loosely stitched on as a bullet point. Anarchism is simply more closely tied to “no power relations ever” or “see others freedom as your own” and this matters in a wider array of situations than something historically particular. Anarchism can be corrupted and obviously often is, but it’s harder, in the grand scheme of things, to corrupt anarchism than anything else. We’ve numbered in the millions and moved the world yet deliberately never seized power. For all the shit that’s cropped up in our ranks, unlike virtually any other comparable framework you care to name no anarchist has ever been responsible for genocide or megadeath. That is actually, sadly, amazingly unique in history. Our focus on power itself rather than any of its instantiations has an effect that’s hard to deny. We may fuck up, but we course-correct. If not ourselves then our comrades. The cognitive dissonance is usually just too great.
Yes, this bias sometimes comes at the expense of immediate returns, praise, and the exhilaration of momentum. Do our banners fly over huge armies? Not always. But what often matters more is who gets the ball rolling, who provides the tools that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered or dreamt of. What anarchism provides is not so much an ideological platform and a cohesive movement but a think tank and a laboratory. It is far from the only space capable of insight and has no monopoly on useful information–indeed many spaces are practically defined by exclusive access to certain experiences and insights. But just as it is hard to plot a radical arc that doesn’t pass into “anarchy” there is still so much more to discover and resolve. Beyond our current experiences, beyond our present concerns. This is the realm of maximum possible impact. Anarchists exist in and are native to virtually every struggle and community. We famously punch many many orders of magnitude above our weight and we do so not by seizing other people as tools but by providing people with new tools, by seeing hopes and dangers long in advance. The whole point of getting to the roots is to map out the stuff no one else has seen yet, to recognize new possibilities, to prepare for wildly different futures, to do the hard work no one else sees the utility in. You don’t walk away from that awareness and somehow come out more productive.
Probably the complaint I receive the most is: there’s so little forgiveness or empathy in the anarchist community, it’s all just hyper line-drawing moralism. Well, yeah, you get some decent human beings in a room suddenly more free from bullshit and they’ll start upping their standards. Opening your eyes to power relations and daring to stand against them is a fucking dangerous, traumatizing thing. Suspicion and defensive walls are only natural. This creates a mildly productive competitive dynamic where we’re all constantly burning bridges while each learning more about decency all the time. This state of affairs works well enough yet of course is suboptimal. People get run out for being from a different culture; while some sociopaths are allowed to dig in deep once they learn some sufficient “rules” to play within. The latter is an amazing opportunity for us to preemptively map out every last corner for sociopathy to hide in through experiment. The former, however, doesn’t take much to change. All it takes is meeting people halfway yourself. You don’t have to change the entire “scene” all you have to do is get critical mass to count as your own scene. And share your insights!
The second most frequent complaint is that anarchism has failed to ingest certain good ideas or realizations from other people. In my experience that’s just not true, or at least not a good portrayal of what’s going wrong. There’s plenty of anarchists deeply aware of critical race theory, or ableism, or neuroscience, or Hayekian calculation limits, or whatever–and plenty of anarchist discussions and developments on those ideas. The problem is internal communication and documentation; so many of our theoretical insights and developments happen in conversation or on the ground. Circulation takes forever. Right now we’re in a stage where we’re constantly re-inventing the wheel. We don’t publish our ideas to the world in any accessible or mapped way, just to our immediate friends. So we entered the 00s lurching, bitten by the 80s luddite zombies and didn’t sufficiently embrace or shape the internet. So what? This is rotten and embarrassing situation to be sure, but it’s obviously a transient one that you can help speed up our recovery from.
At the start of this I wasn’t entirely honest, I too have tried to leave anarchist circles. Almost a decade ago, but years after I’d done my time in various trenches and cycled through burnouts. I know the allure. The laundry list of failings and frustrations with the milieu, with the canonical discourses, with the daunting challenges we face. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. What are you going to do, just go ride bikes? Work on some feel-good campaign adrift and at the mercy of a wider context? Get high off cynical elitism reading Baedan? Vacations are good and all, but at some point everything else starts to pale in comparison. The cruft and collisions anarchy can draw are often quite wild and I don’t blame anyone occasionally ducking out for some security or safety. But amid the blazing horrors, the anarchist singularity is simply the best place to find rooted concepts and as a result real, long-term hopes and the sort of affinities that really truly matter. Not just people deeply committed to good, but friends who will find paths towards it that you didn’t even think of. Not just victories in the immediate, but opportunities for coherent progress on the whole.
I hate to break it to you, but there’s no avoiding it at this point. You’re in this for the long haul.
I Am Not Afraid of Islam
Make no bones about it: Faith is evil. Faith is the absence of vigilance and ethics necessitates vigilance. And so faith, in any form, is flagrantly unethical, immoral, evil… whatever terminology you prefer. But it’s an evil in the same sense as zombies. More bumbling than diabolical. And the fact of the matter is almost everyone these days has a little bit of the zombie juice inside of them.
In 2001 the technoprogressive and cyberlibertarian dreams of the 90s were largely on ice. The hacker community moribund. Everywhere the future seemed in retreat. For two years popular culture had dwelled on the turn of the millenium and the uncontroversial conclusion was nothing had lived up to snuff. To those who had been actively struggling in broad spheres the postponement of such predictions and dreams hardly needed explanation; hands-on engagement brings with it an appreciation of the complexity to culture and society in all its many fractal arenas. But to a certain class of people, junior technocrats mostly, who had grown up taking comfort growing up from prophesies of an assured gleaming rationalist future, this was an ecclesiastical betrayal that required a simple answer. And then the towers came down.
The core of the internet has always been atheist and so to was the fledgling bloggosphere in 2001. The difference was mostly one of age and cynical elitism. It takes a while to develop a finer appreciation of the underlying mechanisms of our society, there’s simply too much going on. “Why” can be a steep learning curve; explorations don’t deliver any framing narratives quickly. So much easier to stay at the surface with “People are stupid.” In this way, in that way. Slowly collect and label little discrete failings apparent in others, each one with attendant narrative implications. As parts of the picture fill in so to does a reflexive defense of certain institutions and assumptions.
9/11 was a pivotal paradigm-shift for a host of reasons from bewildered suburban housewives with existential vertigo to jetsetting corporate executives shocked that old fashioned things like national governments hadn’t been sufficiently sidelined. But the technocratic hordes reading instapundit, poised on the foundations of our embryonic information society, ended up playing no small part. Finally the world could be epic again. A clash of civilizations! Their conservatism was fancy devices and Janes and Stratfor, white, male and upper-middle-class, or at least aspirationally inclined to those things; they had little to fear from the conservatism of George W Bush, then merely an ineffective moderate. America was a bastion of secularism and gleaming champion of initiative, as atheists they convinced themselves it was the only tool worth a damn. And Islam was the devil. The heart of everything holding us back from an Asimovian paradise.
It’s so sad that one of the most potent cultural impetuses to the last decade of imperialism could be so blatantly fucking ridiculous.
Islam is a joke. (Christianity is a joke too.)
There are many forms of faith possible in life; religions only happen at the point when metaphorical flesh is dripping off a fractured logical skeleton and the insides have already rotted away.
Anyone and everyone capable of seizing any sort of power must at least retain enough brains to machievelli. It’s impossible to keep enough of a dynamic mind to look out for threats and manage the social complexities that interface with a religion without taking a step back from that religion and grounding yourself in less bulky faiths and more explicit selfishness. Our leaders from Ahmadinejad to Pope Sidious are atheists at core, always have been. Doesn’t make them any less evil, obviously, but it does assure a certain level of rational self-interest. bin Laden was an incredible dumbass, and he was contextually fenced in terms of social capital and desire, but he wasn’t such a dumbass as to actually be religious in his heart of hearts. He wasn’t going to start an apocalypse.
Further, at the end of the day Al Queda was stuck working through religion. Hezbolla, The Islamic Brotherhood, etc. No matter how much some of them may want to eat all our brains they’re an innately hobbled force. They have the mass sometimes, they just don’t have the speed or dexterity.
I am not afraid of Islam for a lot of reasons. But ultimately I am not scared of Islam because unlike those privileged and content enough to sit back and wait to be ushered in to some gleaming new world those of us actually struggling to build the future have a better appreciation of the landscape and dynamic obstacles at play. You can’t judge progress by comparison to shiny pamphlets as if the future was a condo going up (Next Fall!). In the trenches, in the nitty-gritty, you can see progress happening still small, sometimes just grinding industriously away at the rocks in our path, but accelerating with exponential growth nonetheless. We are changing the conditions of the battlefield faster than they can shamble. So no, you entitled bourgeois assholes who’ve never fought a fascist in your life or done any struggle besides petulant bloviating in the defacto service of totalitarianism, I’m aint scared of no holy ghost. Nor its followers.
And, if the last decade wasn’t mounds and mounds of proof that you shouldn’t think of the religious as anything other than a mindless natural disaster that it’s relatively easy to skirt, I’d like to tell you of a gal I saw once.
Minneapolis has a large Somali immigrant community, burqas and hijab are a common sight on the bus, with hot-pink phones flashing under the sleeves. One afternoon in the month leading up to the RNC while I was taking the 14 through South Minneapolis to meet up with someone at a FNB, one of these teenage Somali gals got on the bus in full black burqa. Except that covering the back of it were punk patches. From Antischism to Bad Religion. I don’t know if she was trying to balance Islam with anarcho-punk or if she was maintaining the burqa as an atheist punk in some personal fuck you to cultural prejudice and patriarchal sexualization, the way her sharp eyes burned I suspected the later. Either way, and I don’t mean to say this with any colonial associations: Free thought can consume anything. We got nothing to fear.
Or at least my team doesn’t. To hell with yours.
Objectification & Pornography
Obvious trigger warnings. Further this is gonna be an abstract conversation on concepts. If you’re one of those rare folks who feels the war against patriarchy can’t ever afford side conversations for the sake of curiosity/clarity that aren’t rhetorically perfected weapons pointed towards teh enemy or if you figure there’s nothing new under the sun to be heard from cis-ish male-bodied people I totes understand and sympathize and I hope you will take my disagreement for what it is. I abhor speaking to a choir and try not to write until I’m assured I can at least contribute something at least moderately original and challenging, but c’est la vie.
No one would disagree that porn is a major site of importance in modern patriarchy. And there are usually three broad categories of critique leveled against it: 1) That the means of its production are exploitative. 2) That it pushes narratives and perspectives reinforcing of patriarchy. 3) That the very act of getting off to or sexualizing visual stimuli mentally reduces other people to objects.
It’s this last critique, rarely addressed head-on or in good faith, that’s the most fundamental. The first two, while undoubtedly significant, are ultimately just matters of detail. There are folks who produce porn through egalitarian collectives just as there are now literally millions of exhibitionists who freely share images/video of themselves in open forums, repositories and networking sites. So too is there queer porn. Indeed even the most cursory overviews would reveal the last decade has seen the exponential spread into the mainstream of increasingly complicated and diffuse presentations of gender and desire. At this point the conventional for-profit “Porn Industry” is basically a tiny antiquated sideshow dwarfed by a hundred million digital cameras and sketchpads. (In this piece I’ll stick with a more Dworkin-esque definition of porn as inclusive of things termed ‘erotica’ because any distinction between the two either begs the question or is wildly arbitrary not to mention usually classist. Plus it would be more than a little haughty to completely ignore how the term is actually used.)
To be clear however just because porn is a wide category growing more diverse daily doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of freaking evil shit out there. Recognizing complexity shouldn’t mean throwing up our hands and failing to critically engage, nor should it temper the intensity of our rage. Rapists are being made. And porn is a medium used to champion this in a variety of ways. Sometimes deliberately and explicitly, but at the very least huge swathes of what’s produced today still effectively contributes to, buffers, and insulates rape culture. This is no small issue and pretty much every other conversation on porn pales before it. Yet having our priorities in line shouldn’t equate disregarding those complexities. True ‘radicalism’ means exploring concepts down to the roots rather than settling for totalizing banners, no matter how generally adequate they seem. Individuals engage with things in a variety of ways with a variety of effects; done right analytical nuance and strategic dexterity doesn’t have to lead to equivocation or lost momentum. In fact, for those of us outside institutional power such precision and nimbleness is arguably our greatest natural asset.
What I find attractive about the notion that pornography is innately objectifying is not its obvious intuitive resonance but the promise of an inarguable underlying reality leading to clear-cut prescriptions. Yet there are actually quite a variety of arguments leveled in practice, working from significantly differing fundamentals. One can argue, for example, that sexual objectification derives from any divorce between desire regarding another’s physical body and desire regarding their mental existence, while alternatively one can argue that objectification stems from any desire regarding another’s physical body fullstop. Those are obviously very different approaches and frankly I find the latter far more secure. Most of us would surely find the former more pleasant or at least lenient in prescription but it reeks of unjustifiable arbitrariness. It’s not at all clear what would constitute such a divorce, nor what degree we should recoil from.
The fact is our minds change focus all the time. Does spending a minute or two reveling in some aspect of physical sensuality or desire mean hardening our neural pathways to perceive the existence of a partner more exclusively those material terms? Obviously there is a risk present, but how innately or concretely can we speak of it? If we spend a masturbation session primarily remembering a partner’s body/touch rather than anything specifically related to their character will that necessarily have any lasting effect upon us? What if it’s a child trying to imagine what sex would be like? Or a sickly person? Or a deformed person? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the danger in focusing on the physical nature of sexual pleasure and desire is entirely dependent on things like the awareness, vigilance, and plasticity of a given mind — a conclusion that would lead to wildly variant prescriptions and significantly problematize any uniform social policy or campaign. If we can ever temporarily shift the focus of our desires/pleasure towards physical attributes/actions of a person and avoid generating any tendency to think of them as objects then the same would be true when it comes to pornography of one another.
One response is to turn the focus explicitly on whether a physical desire initially arises in response to personal associations or narratives predicated on the other’s existence as an agent. (eg ‘I only became in any way physically attracted to them after I got to know them.’) This might still allow forms of pornography to slip by when tied to a substantive narrative (the already large field of romance novels / pornographic comics offering many noteworthy candidates) yet at least allows us to critique the characterizations, etc presented. Unfortunately at the end of the day it’s not clear what could justify holding the original prompts of a given physical desire in such significance. The argument seems to be saying implicitly that what matters is what perspective or desire is ultimately prior or more fundamental in someone’s head than a momentary perspective/desire. And surely this is a matter of choice for anyone with even the most basic vigilance or agency in the construction of their own thoughts. We frequently choose to dabble in limited perspectives and focuses in ways that avoid overwriting our more core and motivating perspectives. Certainly corruption is a danger, and the social context of patriarchy can contribute significantly, but that’s no more innate a threat with one versus the other. Momentary desire for physical aspects of a partner can lead to ingraining objectifying patterns of thought just as easily as focus on those feelings more abstractly. There’s no straightforward reason to disallow taking such a risk in the one set of cases but not the other.
So what are we left with? Well, as previously mentioned, the other major approach is to reject sexual desire of physical things (at least in any way relating to people) wholesale.
I should note that at its greatest extreme this can even mean rejecting all sexual desire (arguing that surrendering one’s mind to desires arising from one’s own body counts in some sense as objectification of oneself). Frankly, I’ve always found anti-sexual positions kinda cool. I have a lot of admiration for people who bite bullets and in my mind the audacity of the proposition speaks positively of it. Plus I spent my teenage and young adult years seriously debating whether to go on chemical libido suppressants just to get by, so suffice to say I have an appreciation of how sexual desire can subjugate and reduce one’s own mind. But the same holds true of practically anything. The fact that one can get lost compulsively surfing Wikipedia for the dopamine fix of new information, while worth consideration, obviously shouldn’t speak to its proper utility. Sexual desire and sensuality interface socially, pharmaceutically, and psychologically in a host of ways, providing a vast array of tools that can be extraordinarily useful. Chucking it out would be akin to chucking any other field of technology. Sadly, to get started on anything even approximating an appropriate overview would require its own blog post so let’s skip that for now and just press on under the working assumption that sex is acceptable in certain forms.
What we can still at least conclude is that sexual titillation by compassion, mathematical aptitude, or say pine trees clearly wouldn’t involve preferences directed at anyone else’s body. There are still valid concerns to be had about the preformative aspect of mental actions (‘dance monkey dance‘ is obviously objectifying in any form), but I think we’ve clearly achieved enough distance from concerns about objectification to stop and take a look back. Does this resemble what hardline opponents of pornography within feminism are actually saying?
In almost every case, no. (The exceptions, insofar as they’re honest about it, are really cool. But again as above I will avoid exploring that direction in depth here for space.) Instead it’s almost universally conceded that the biological prompts of sexual desire are just too strong overall. We get turned on by certain forms of touch and smell for example without conscious choice. There are a wealth of hardwired physiological circuits capable of triggering chemical responses. Some, possibly even all, can be fiddled with or cut but the effort required can be functionally unfeasible and there are a multitude of them. That’s not, obviously, to throw up our hands in surrender (some of us are transhumanists after all). But it does generally seem to prescribe a certain pragmatism towards sexual desire that allows us to embrace the positives while staying alert to the negatives. It’s okay, in short, to do things like turn one’s focus to a lover’s body or fantasize about a fictional character or imagine what a certain experience would be like.
So what then is such a fundamental problem with pornography?
In practice it seems to be centered around an objection to the visual (as opposed to tactile or aromatic) component of the sensation. While most feminists left the Porn Wars with a nuanced perspective on porn as a medium capable of conducting good as well as bad (with effects dependent on a vast array of context both social and individual), the horrified lot that wrote us off as heinous apostates didn’t seem to do so just because they were wedded to rhetorical trenches or sumsuch; there was a notable tone of alienation and disgust at the very notion of visual desire. It was declared obviously suspicious because it was ‘unnatural.’ Anecdotal evidence can only go so far but time and again I’ve found an exceptionally strong correlation between my stridently anti-porn friends (of different genders) and ‘just not really getting the whole visual attraction thing‘.
Which makes a lot of sense. A straightforward experience-gap would explain in a sympathetic light why so many discussions on pornography within feminism, even when approached in good faith by both sides, so often grind up against a wall of mutual incomprehension. Well no freaking duh. If there was an entire avenue of physiological desire other people experienced that you didn’t (or didn’t experience with anything approaching the same intensity) and intersected with patriarchy the way porn does you’d be overwhelmingly inclined to write it off as a construct of patriarchy too. I mean good god! It’s a neat hypothesis at least in regard to some anti-porn feminists because experience-gaps don’t speak to intelligence, and over the decades I’ve encountered more than a few brilliant people with incomprehensibly absolutist stances on pornography. Sending pictures to your partner? Objectification. A pubescent kid drawing boobs? Objectification. An incredibly popular porn site consisting of user-submitted videos of the faces they make during masturbation and orgasm? Objectification. (Because getting off solely to indications of someone else’s pleasure is clearly… wait, what?) The line drawn is always between visual and tactile sensation. Dildos and even fleshlights no matter how evocative are almost always given a pass by the same people who assume any reasonable person would be grossed by the notion of getting off to imagery.
There may not be hope of persuading everyone stuck in such a trap. At this point the paranoia and war-effort frame of mind probably runs too deep for some and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s at least another opportunity to drive home the so easily forgotten reality that people’s physical and neurological experiences can be quite different; our own are not necessarily a good baseline by which to judge others. Is it really so weird to consider that just as most brains are built with certain circuits tailored to recognizing and responding to faces there might also be circuits that automatically recognize and respond to other bodily details? Are we really so scared of the “but that’s just the way biology is babe” bros that we can’t allow ourselves any explorations in empathy?
At the end of the day the only question that matters is What Is The Mechanism? Because statistical correlation isn’t enough. There’s unbelievable diversity to how people think, what frames of mind they inherit or choose in approaching a given thing in a given context, and we’re not going to win by going around voting up or down on aggregates. I’m not saying, for example, that the societal and cultural effects of pornographic saturation aren’t significant or something that we should in any way shirk from attacking. But things are rarely cut and dry. Nor would it necessarily be better if they were. Complexity allows us a lot of directions from which to attack things, just as, in conjunction with our agency and proper vigilance, it allows us room to maneuver. Porn is just a medium and even Mein Kampf can be read for diverse reasons without corruption. Over the last decade various mainstream cultural ecosystems of porn (from imagefap to deviantart) have acted as virulent contagion vectors for a number of incredibly positive perspectives on consent and queered notions of gender/sexuality as well as broadly countering patriarchal narratives through direct interaction and omnipresent diversity. They’ve also served as vectors for the standard horribly fucked up shit, but in many cases the payloads have been subverted or partially neutralized as play made less potent by the surrounding free-wheeling context. Folks can no longer avoid recognizing the complexity of desire and identity in society and with less and less uniform social pressure a particular fetishization coming from a fucked up place no longer feels the obligation to form a totalizing counter-narrative and push it fascisticly. Porn as a whole has taken the form of a conversation.
That doesn’t make it anything close to a utopia yet. We still live under patriarchy and a diffuse post-modern fascism is still fascism. But it does make pornography a hugely dynamic and vital theater of conflict. And it does mean that the agency of the various speakers is creeping to the fore in undeniable ways among even those realms of kink that its hard at the outset to see any excusable mindset for. We can exploit this. And indeed a good many folks have rolled up their sleeves to get their hands dirty. So it’s sad to see a tiny remainder of otherwise brilliant feminists filled with right and glorious rage still bashing their heads together with sweeping practically deontological 70s-era frameworks. (Incidentally calling ourselves “sex-positive” is in most cases just incredibly underhanded and douchey and not making things any better.) This isn’t about some whiney liberal appeal to ‘free speech’ or chucking core principles out to win over bros. As I’ve picked apart there simply isn’t any root principle that pornography falls afoul of inherently; getting off to imagery relating to other people isn’t magically objectifying because people both differ and have agency in their self-construction. Socialization is anything but uniform and it certainly doesn’t create mechanistic people with mechanistic perspectives. Treating people like it does is itself objectifying.
Something About Makhno And The Right Approach
The recent ELF attack on a nanotech research center in Europe throws into sharp relief the problem of division within the anarchist milieu. What happens if two factions end up viewing the other as just as much (or worse) a threat to liberty as any traditional outside enemy?
In the last century we’ve been lucky enough to be able to gloss over most of our divides. Emphatic partisans may in some instances refuse to collaborate with certain others, but general rules of solidarity nevertheless prevail. We work together, share friends, projects and hopefully at least some commitment to rejecting power dynamics. I would like to think that despite some profoundly different avenues of exploration we might all feel the tug of a certain bellweather, keeping us in some level of mutual engagement and bending us back home when we stray. But that’s mostly wishful thinking. What keeps the milieu together is largely just mutual marginalization and alienation, mixed with some desperately believed myths. We are not all working towards the same root thing. There are almost as many concepts of liberty as there are folks wearing the identity of ‘anarchist.’ Many of these are closely reconcilable, different facets of the same fundamental. Some are within reach of rapprochement. But some are not.
I’ve made no bones about it, I think there’s a strand in primitivism that simply can’t be reconcilled with the rest of anarchism. There is no fury like that of a former partisan, and I’ve spent years rolling back the influence its had. I think any goal of freedom that doesn’t include the capacity to explore every depth of the world and reshape oneself as one pleases would be a deplorable half-measure, and the embrace of submission and conformity to some sort of natural identity or role is beyond abhorrent. Our read of history is entirely at odds too. Where they see any substantive inquiry and creativity (science/technology) as the fountainhead of oppression throughout history, I’m with those who read it as locked in a struggle with power, an arms race where Empire spreads itself progressively thinner trying desperately to steer and coopt the engines of our collective inquiry/creativity.
Of course there’s plenty of perfectly admirable anarchists who identify as primitivists, sadly lowering their hopes (as I once did) to deal with the assumed certainty of civiliational collapse and horror of ecological collapse. But the other tendency within their ranks is still problematic. It’s hard to reconcile with someone so scared of life, so petrified by freedom, they want to go back to being a mentally sendentary biological machine, comfortably trapped in a limited body, with limited aspirations, limited knowledge and limited horizons. Now by all accounts the primitivist wave broke a long time ago and they might simply continue fading away or thankfully remove themselves from our movement (as with DGR). But not necessarily. And I think there’s broad value in investigating the possibility of a true and permanent break within anarchism.
Perhaps the best historical comparison available is the split in the 1st International. Some marxists and anarchists continue to this day to work together and extend lines of solidarity — with those idiots on our side almost always surprised at the inevitable betrayal, but I digress — however to most anarchists the divide in fundamentals runs too deep for any meaningful sense of alliance. Our ethical motivation, goals and methods too deeply at odds to ever forget the danger posed by the other. And in many contexts we’re simply unadultured enemies.
A more modern example would that of the early struggle against white supremacy in the skinhead milieu. With more primitivists embracing their bioconservatism these days and aligning explicitly against transfolk among others there’s certainly some added salience. The amorphous but tense division, the attempts for peace and pan-identity, the outside voices (Jensen) driving recruitment… Not a pretty picture as the refusal to organize and confront voices with so many mutual social connections led to such a widespread rot that by the time violence became unavoidable the original skinheads were a minority. It’s kind of sad to compare the whole of the social anarchist ‘movement’ to a subculture, but there’s truth enough to set one to unease. Should we be organizing the equivalent of Antifa / ARA / SHARPs to deal with our primitivist currents? Do enough of us have the stomach for that kind of awful, dragged out fight? On the otherhand, is it the height of irresponsibility to put it off?
I think it comes down to what sort of lines get crossed before “anarcho”-primitivism might finally wither away. The ELF attack obviously crossed a lot of people’s lines and peppered my feeds with shock, concern and outrage. It’s strange to hear and take part of the shift in terms to “not part of my movement”, “not my ally”. A long time coming perhaps, but scary in a sense all the same. I’m really fond of Zerzan in person, and most of my transhumanist friends these days started out as primitivists like me. But you know the composition of their opposition to science — however much we may like to believe otherwise do you really think they’ll see any difference with sabotaging the launch of a satellite telescope or murdering a math professor? What use would it be to continue dealing them with solidarity gloves when the damage they’re doing to our collective freedom, our capacity to engage with the universe, outweighs any positive actions they might happen to undertake in the social sphere? How much does proclaiming yourself an “anarchist” and sharing some acquaintances buy you? The day comes when you find people in your community burning the equivalent of jewish community centers and you have no choice but to turn around and fight them in the streets.
Whether or not it comes to a true schism, whether or not primitivism even lasts that long in identification with anarchism, we need to be aware of the possibility. Five summers ago a friend and I harried all the greens we knew to answer a simple question: “Say that the collapse and all its horrors could be prevented — I know, I know — for shorthand imagine something like cold fusion comes along that sates all our infrastructural needs. And you had a button in front of you that would stop this, that would artificially force a collapse of civ, the deaths of 7 billion people and incidentally the permanent limitation of the survivors’ understanding of the cosmos. Would you push it?” About half bit the bullet.
Stress, Labor & Play
There’s a lot of talk in anarchist circles about abolishing work. Some of it in line with the dream of a high-technology path to post-scarcity. But a lot of it takes an alternative route and settles for simply building a ludic society — that is to say a culture that adapts its tasks into “play”. Like a lot of romantic, boundary-pushing, post-leftish notions it’s purposefully detached from precise conceptual formulations, but the general notion is that the exertion fundamentally necessary to, you know, keeping us alive should be fun rather than drudgerous. Appealing to the dichotomy of association we distinguish between “work” and “play.”
But while this is an intuitive bundling, I think there’s an analytical weakness worth noting, or at least a reality getting glossed over. Ignoring all the vectors of drudgery that plague the modern world there’s still a fundamental conceptual distinction between projects that we undertake that have serious consequences and projects that do not. Drudgery and alienation — in short *disinterest* — can be eliminated, but stress is a different beast. A game of calvinball for instance is an undertaking of pure (random) process divorced from results. There’s nothing to invest in and/or nothing we might invest. Roughhousing, shenanigans, fiddling, aimless exploration. These allow us to engage in action without belaboring ourselves with concern. Naturally they carry with them an immense sense of freedom and relief. But while the process of undertaking projects with real-world consequences can be fun, enjoyable and a chance to scratch personal itches. Their very synchronicity with our driving desires can instigate a radically different experience. While it’s perfectly rational to talk of a world in which we are no longer forced to take actions we’d rather not, eliminating all perception of weightiness to those actions is a different and much stronger type of impossible. There are plenty of actions we ultimately want to take that at the same time inspire trepidation and tension.
Duh, right? But in the succulent rhetoricism of dismissing work I think there’s been an insipid conflation between these negative associations. Stress has somewhat paradoxically gotten bundled with disinterest. And liberation implicitly set in opposition to both.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s value to consequence-less play — it helps us practice process and overwrites the klaxons ringing in our brains. Play frees up mental space, allowing us to reboot while at the same time charging up our minds or at least to keep rolling rather than go dead. But its value is in balancing and augmenting our stressful pursuits. The danger is that in certain circumstances the easy, investment-minimal repetitive action found in such play can invoke empty illusions of productivity. Because this gratifying sensation of pseudo-accomplishment comes without the stress of substantive commitment and concern it can fast become a sinkhole ultimately just as alienating as wage-slavery.
It’s not hard to see examples throughout the milieu of people intuitively appealing to this bundled notion of liberation choosing incredibly unproductive patterns of action. This isn’t the time or place to call out specific embarrassments, but in illustration we’re obviously all familiar with occasions of rhapsodic “we did such and such lame thing and it felt so liberating” where strategic vigilance is intentionally thrown out the window. (I’m just grabbing a common touchpoint. Insurrectionary approaches can have very good arguments — even for not being particularly rational on some levels — but y’all can’t argue that sometimes shit claimed as such ends up just stupid.)
Relieving stress is great, but when it’s set in artificial either/or conflict with caring enough to get wrapped up in an undertaking — vigilantly struggling to affect some consequence — what results isn’t a liberation of our desires, but a broadening flatness to our lives. Pursuing desires is part and parcel of being human, and it’s ridiculous to presume that that won’t occasionally require investments, risk and the attentive concern that comes with that. Don’t get me wrong, meetings suck. There are a great many components to the psychologically taxing projects we undertake in this movement that could seriously stand some massive revision/abolition. But the mere fact that such projects can be a stressful, taxing commitment is not proof that they’re dismissible reproductions of the forms of labor we seek to abolish.
Communism Reconstituted as Psychotherapy: The Coming Insurrection
Everyone knows. It’s really nothing new. Their attack on Green Capitalism is delicious, while their advocacy of “communes” is without substance, tacked on and arguably specious. There’s a lot of language in it specific to the European intellectual scene. Honestly, it’s a bit pretentious. If it doesn’t live up to the hype it’s their own fault.
The Coming Insurrection is actually pretty good. But it’s ‘pretty good’ on par with Crimethinc’s Days of War, Nights of Love. A fun read, a few well-delivered points, the sort of thing you’d loan a friend’s little sister. If that’s a devastating takedown it shouldn’t be. The Coming Insurrection is hugely ambitious. Not just in the material it covers — for to even speak of hope we must all be hugely ambitious these days — but rather in the repackaging it attempts. No, what’s troubling about The Coming Insurrection is the conservatism and stodginess it betrays in this audacious approach. Ultimately The Coming Insurrection is just the latest of many attempts to slip the philosophical baggage of Communism in the lingerie of modern anti-authoritarianism. It is unarguably the most pithy. Every page is full of imminently quotable turns of phrase. A potent, modern sexiness that certainly smacks of anarchist romantics. But take it as anything more than a series of loose aphoristic appeals and old structures emerge.
The fundamental difference at heart between the approaches of Communism and Anarchism has been their treatment of agency. Where anarchism makes ethical appeals, communist theorists invariably leap on assertions of inevitability. This is because Communism has positioned itself not as an immortal declaration, but as a mechanical response and reaction to specific conditions. While Anarchism treats our desires and aspirations as forces struggling to act upon the world, the communist tradition has oriented itself around attempts to *fix* specific broken structures.
In this light, despite its many anarchist trappings, The Comming Insurrection simply signifies the completion of a shift in communist thought from a focus on economic crises to neurological ones.
No longer dying in the factories, we are now suffocating in the alienation wrought by the goods those factories produced.
Rather than examine the desires this holds back, The Coming Insurrection instead postulates a resolution to the resulting conflict. Its battlecry is not an appreciation of what drives us to struggle but a nebulous appeal to peace of mind and cohesion in life. In the present this means fire in the streets, elsewhere it prescribes a more tangible and absolute attachment with the qualia of our lives. It’s prescription to alienation is not self-actualization but self-situation. They must know where they are. Even the most common of language is twisted to support such osmosis. So they laboriously make sure to speak of a STATE of joy rather than the act or motion that gives it reality.
But we are not simply a tension mediating the spider web of our experience, we are the fire burning the world brighter with the sharing of our passion. It’s the difference between being and becoming. Atomic point particles bound in contextual bonds rather than living vectors.
The Coming Insurrection is Communism boiled down and adapted as close to anarchism as it can get. The gulf is still vast.
Why Futurism Matters
By the time we’ve built the capacity to significantly affect the world, the world will have changed. Thus the models and vectors of attack that we adopt now must be prepared to deal with the conditions and challenges we will face then.
As anarchists this is particularly salient — and not just because of our current weak and ineffectual state. Our goals are the most long-term of them all. For us, even the most practical, everyday struggle is only useful insofar as it actually furthers the abolition of all power relations.
That’s not to say that the present is irrelevant — some fights take less time than others, sometimes with certain issues the act of fighting itself can play a critical role of keeping us in the game. And it can be easy to build support on issues that more tangibly affect people in the here and now. But the relevance of these realities derives from their service to our longer commitment.
No matter how much we may despise malaise and disconnect, we struggle to accomplish certain ends — not for the sensation of struggle itself. To fight effectively we must always consider how things might change. Not just in the short term — the disparate tactical engagements that our individual struggles and projects comprise — but in the long term measured on the scale of our goal.
The fullest realization of the world we struggle for will not be achieved today or in two centuries. It’s attainment is a vast undertaking and even the knocking aside of our first, tiny impediments — the governments — still appears impassable. But we cannot afford to retreat from this enormity, to loose ourselves in petty reaction. If we mean for our struggles and sacrifices to amount to a damn we must consider how the world is developing, how it is likely to develop and what we have to offer in the light of those developments. We must be smart with our investments, mindful of their payoffs and of the effort required.
We cannot afford to continue building organizations, projects or campaigns whose barest potential will, at best, only be achieved after the relevancy of their battlefield has faded.
Rather than playing catchup to new social and technological developments, releasing critiques and responses after the rest of the world has already stumbled into their own language and analytical framework — we must seek to preempt them. To be ready and waiting with solutions. With theory and tactics not only reconcilable with the new context, but uniquely native to it.
Yes, this means we have to be conversant in advanced science. It means we have to pay attention to social and political trends. Not just the patterns we immediately pick out but the shaping forces and limitations that give rise to them. It means we’ll have to work our minds as hard as we claim to work our hands. And it means, as anarchists, that we’ll have to continue to consider and fully explore things others might dismiss as far-fetched. Not as exercises in masturbatory self-entertainment, but as an extension of our vigilance as alleged radicals. Futurism is the only damn hope this movement has.
The Union Makes Us Weak
I wrote a pretty lengthy response to Iain McKay’s recent bit on post-leftism and was asked to repost it beyond Infoshop.
First, let’s ignore the non sequitur anti-science and anti-tech bullshit for now, since perspectives on either have absolutely nothing to do with post-leftism. After all while there are primmies and anti-civs within the post-left, there are also a plethora of transhumanists, cyberpunx and general internet-loving radicals who see invention and exploration as inherently liberatory acts.
Post Left Anarchists are functionally distinct from Left Anarchists in our distaste and suspicion of organization. That is to say our focus on critiquing the drive for organization-as-an-ends-unto-itself. Yes, we recognize that for all the profound changes in social and economic context since the days of yore, there are still workers and bosses and that very real advantages can be wrung out of the system through collective action. But we find the drive for mass and momentum as a primary ends to be constricting and ultimately self-crippling. We see Left Anarchists, and the Left as a whole, as instinctively clinging to the idea of numbers as a solution. Perhaps this is primarily a relic of those ancient days when any social adversary could be squashed by simply throwing enough bodies at it, or perhaps it is a perversion wrought by years of indoctrination in democratic ideals. Modern politics views building mass as the definition of success — and certainly we will not see anything near true anarchy until every single human being comes to the realization that power relations are always evil — but getting people to march under a banner is not the same thing as bringing them to a fuller appreciation of the nature of power. (Similarly, discussions on class-relations circa 1917 will not lay the groundwork to the better interpersonal relations that must come before any larger project.) And yet we feel that too often conventional Left Anarchists focus on getting people into the organization (as well as building the solidity of said organization and its brand name) to the detriment of these fundamentals.
Maybe that was pragmatic a century ago, but today mass matters a whole heck of a lot less. The state, the class system, etc, are underpinned less through the application of blunt social force and more through complicated machinations. The ecosystems of power relations we find ourselves embedded within can sustain great pressure, they can handle mass. The key to winning the war today is not mass — we’re not out to win some Revolution as though it were an election by another name — the key is intelligent proactive exploitation of weak spots. Killing the motherfucker will involve a whole lot less brute grappling and a whole lot more hacking. We will win not as an army of soldiers but an insurrection of generals.
Hence our annoyance with the inclination to build a sense of structure and mass first and apply it — or figure out how to apply it — second. We’ve always seen the world we’re building as an ad hoc one of projects and discussions, not organizations and federations. Our take away from this dream is the realization that if a project needs to focus on structure and lines of inclusion and exclusion in order to motivate action then, in the words of a cute kitten, “ur doin’ it wrong.” The Union hasn’t made us strong, the Union’s made us weak. It’s wasted our time, suppressed our innovation and chained us to groupthink.
That’s not to say that we’re completely different from Left Anarchists. Certainly they as well have at times expressed a mild realization of the problems with this, just as we have participated in large federations and wasted hours of our life in rooms debating process documents. But even if it’s only a matter of degree, in practice this difference of opinion/desire/strategy is still an important distinction.
And, if we are to be allowed to make this distinction, it’s worth noting that our perspective is quite at odds with the overwhelming historical nature of the Left. Or, at the very least, the Left outside of Anarchism. So why the hell not define the Left in these terms of mass and structure worship and ourselves as outside it?
“Perhaps it is the American political climate which demonises “socialism” (in all its forms, equating it to Stalinism usually), a climate they are adjusting themselves to?”
And why shouldn’t we?!
Putting aside Iain’s smug british-chauvinism in this quote, it’s worth wondering just why in the hell anyone should want to continue fighting a definitional war over “The Left.” The Left-Right polarity in politics has shifted dramatically throughout history and is grounded in an almost meaningless obscurity. There were radical free market folks of worse behavior than the worst ancap today who sat to the left of the president’s chair. Even worse the revolutionary distinction between “left and right” was in the popular mind considered one of action vs theory. Surely none of us want to chain ourselves to one of those at the total expense of the other?
Yes, in America “The Left” is largely synonymous with authoritarian socialism and paternalism… just as it is in the rest of the world. Even if the devastating effects of the Soviet Union’s influence could be overcome in the public’s mind, that’s not a battle most anarchists around the world are fighting. In much of Latin America and Eastern Europe anarchists have completely abandoned self-identification as Leftists. Western Europe is a more complicated matter, but there are plenty of anarcho-syndicalists who refuse to call themselves left. Just as similar although not entirely overlapping numbers of folk have abandoned the term “socialism”. Indeed, on a global scale, the British Isles seem to be the only ones making a shrill fuss about this.
Yes there’s a history that’s important to be aware of. Folks who took exception to the same things we take exception to but worked under the Left nonetheless because it was the only possible game in town back then. But things have changed and the example of the rest of the Left and Socialism, much less their influence, have become concrete blocks on our feet. We fight over the definition of the word “anarchy” because we’re forced to. Because an-archy has a clear etymological definition that it’ll never shed and we have a drastically different evaluation of “without rulership.” We’re going to have to die on that hill no matter how strategically inopportune. But “social-ism” much less “left” are fluid, entirely fucking arbitrary words. They’re defined by what they’re associated with. And that’s pretty awful company.