The Distinct Radicalism of Anarchism
Anarchists tend to pose our core differences with marxists in terms of degrees of radicalism or rootedness. One of the classic ways this gets stated is that marxism deals with the political whereas we deal with the ethical.
These terms to the disagreement, once posed, are almost always immediately acknowledged and indeed embraced by both marxists and anarchists.
The marxists tend to be delighted by the framing because it smoothly follows their narrative of being the pragmatists. And additionally by and large most marxists are explicit moral nihilists — they don’t believe there’s a point to the investigations of ethical philosophy. They’re not interested in interrogating what values or desires they should hold, they’re interested in pursuing the desires they already have, or that they see as roughly uncontroversial. And those few marxists that do see value to ethical philosophy tend to oppose rigor in it, and also tend to disconnect it from their political work. Or else, when they do consider ethics, they tend to end up very close to anarchists.
Conversely anarchists tend to embrace this distinction because it’s obviously a distinction of radicalism. The super-structures that the marxist would typically speak entirely in terms of are ultimately simplistic macroscopic abstractions floating above a far more complicated and dynamic reality. The marxist loves to talk in terms of classes, the anarchist prioritizes talking in terms of interpersonal relationships and interactions. In such a sense we anarchists are both more universalist and more particularist. We seek the more fundamental and foundational dynamics, less bound to the vagaries of any specific historical context, but in so doing we obtain the means to analyze specific contexts with greater detail and insight. Of course we recognize the frequent practical utility of analysis in terms of oppressed/oppressor classes, but we see the fuzziness of such abstractions for what it is and are happy to go deeper than such simple frameworks. The radical position is that you can retain the insights offered by hasty generalizations — at the molar level — while also recognizing that these are ultimately not as fundamental and can be superseded by deeper dynamics — at the molecular level.
If marxism looks rather like engineering, anarchism looks a lot like physics. It should come as little surprise that I think the physics perspective ultimately trumps the “common sense” practicality of the engineering perspective. And it should be just as unsurprising that the marxists see “common sense” as the ideal starting point. You start with what you already know and only update that model once it starts clearly breaking down and you’re forced to. This explains the very modular way marxist discourse has updated itself to consider things beyond their original proletariat v bourgeoisie focus. New discourses on liberation and oppression (similarly simplified into tales of relatively simple class conflicts) get grafted on to marxist thought in ungainly ways and the whole discourse lumbers on.
What is now starting to be more widely characterized in a negative manner as identity politics or “idpol” is in many respects just a continuation of this kind of simplistic sort of conceptual schematization. Modern social justice is the product of liberatory insights expanding from the discourse of a small number of radicals and becoming very rapidly adopted by millions. It’s only natural that some compression or simplification occurs, and that those so overwhelmed by the onrush of new considerations try to parse it all into rigid frameworks.
Social justice has — on the whole — thus become in many regards a rather pragmatic attempt to hash out an etiquette or legal system (albeit a decentralized one largely enforced through reputation rather than state violence). This is an undertaking quite different from ethics. Indeed the biggest advantage and disadvantage of social justice is that it seeks to be as motivation-independent as it can be. It doesn’t attempt to establish why one should be for example opposed to misogyny. It either takes for granted that its audience already shares the same values (naturally causing some confusion from slight differences in these assumed values), or it seeks to arrange a sociocultural state of affairs independent of people’s underlying values. “Who cares what people actually believe, let’s find ways of browbeating them into at least acting decently.”
One can see why, as with marxism, most anarchists find the mainstream of social justice profoundly incomplete and insufficiently audacious. It often gives up before going deeper into challenging all power relations in and of themselves, settling instead for an incomplete intersectionality, and it shies away from the far more fractious problems of figuring out what we really value or should value, much less speaking explicitly of such values and their tensions. Of course the failure mode of some teens browbeating people over inane otherkin-style shit is a hell of a lot better than the marxist failure mode of The People’s Cops actually physically beating people.
Similarly there’s a temptation to see anarchist nuance and absolutism as frustratingly unpragmatic. There are big enemies doing a lot of damage that need to be knocked down and dithering trying to add complexities to our picture or speak in terms of distant and even more idealistic aspirations can understandably seem like a bunch of sabotague and backstabbing. When there’s a goal practically right in front of your nose you don’t want to hear some buzzkill well-actually anarchist telling you that’s not the ultimate goal and that the shortcut you want to take risks endangering their grander aspirations. Fuck their preposterously grand ambitions of a world without relations of control, you just want fucking bread. The picture you have, both of the world and your desires within it, are just common sense. Why dirty that up? Why undermine it?
There’s a bit of a parallel here to the completely different definitions of “reductionism” used in the hard sciences and those used in the humanities or social sciences. In the social fields “reductionism” is shorthand for a kind of oversimplification, an imposed conceptual model that papers over complications and particulars. To reduce the descriptive fidelity of the model in favor of a toy that’s easier to work with. As such in these fields “reductionism” functions almost exclusively as an epithet. However in most of the harder sciences, particularly in physics and mathematics, “reductionism” has the exact opposite valences. To reduce in physics is to minimize the description necessary to fully replicate all the particulars. Reductionism in the hard sciences is not a matter of stripping away descriptive capacity, but doing more with less, or drawing out more detail an accuracy from a previously clunky impression of things; to go from a coarsely-grained picture to a finely-grained one. You may start with a simple concept of a table, and through reductionism you get a much richer picture of atomic and molecular arrangements, the flows of wood and structural tensions in screws or pegs, of complex underlying interactions. Such reductionism ultimately enhances rather than impairs. You can still operate at the somewhat clunky level of abstraction of “table” — and that can be a good and sufficient shorthand in a large variety of situations — but you now have the freedom to move beyond the “common sense” and to predict the boundaries of its usefulness.
Marxism and social justice largely look at the radicalism of anarchism with suspicion, seeing it as the kind of “reductionism” so accursed in the humanities. As something that either gets in the way of common sense or dissolves it entirely into useless and masturbatory intellectual rabbit holes. (“Oh so we’re supposed to care about individuals ultimately, I suppose that means ignoring systematic injustice and prioritizing every white dude with hurt feels cuz someone yelled at him.”) The proper notion of radicalism/reductionism — as something that compliments a realization of broad patterns and ultimately provides additional useful perspectives without undermining all capacity to prioritize — is alien to them.
Of course it’s also true that radical inquiry can shift and alter one’s values. And additionally if the radical discovers that say the ameliorations in the union contract secured today would become a serious impediment to future advancements, or the gun law ostensibly proposed to stop murderous white supremacists in the present would make state tyranny all the more invulnerable in the future, the radical might well work against the shortsighted goals or priorities of “common sense”.
This distinction between radicalism and superficial but supposedly practical impressions helps get at another divide in language and analysis. Both marxists and anarchists use the term “liberal” as an epithet. But for quite different reasons.
To the marxist the central sin of liberalism is its focus on individual liberty, a preposterous and distracting bit of bourgeois moralism. Thus naturally the marxist sees anarchists as basically another stripe of liberal.
Conversely to the anarchist the central sin of liberalism is its limited horizons and insufficient audacity. The chief tenant of liberalism, in the anarchists’ eyes, might well be Keynes’ infamous quote, “in the long run we’re all dead.” Liberalism settles for crippling half-measures, happily trading away the world and freedom of future generations for small short term gains. They are happy to make the state more powerful and deeply ingrained in our lives, to appeal to the cops and those in authority, to seek the placidity of neutralized struggle, so as to avoid cataclysm or expensive and grueling resistance. Liberals have a short horizon, they want what they can get now. And thus likewise from this perspective anarchists view marxists as just another variant of liberals. At best their dictatorship of the proletariat accomplishes a few things quickly at the expense of giving up even greater aspirations in the long run. The centralized coercive apparatus the marxists seek as a means being just another version of the same myopic Faustian bargain that the liberals make with their state. Both power structures once embraced will metastasize and grow to full blown authoritarianism. But the marxists, just like the liberals, express little true interest in this danger. Either because they ultimately just want power, or because their “practicality” blinds them to any and all “theoretical” dangers just over the horizon.
Similarly liberals and marxists have little appreciation for suffering in the here and now when that suffering is outside their “practical” focus. The liberal cares a lot about the problems that are teed up for them, never mind what’s actually of greatest stake or impact. Similarly the marxist (and the more vulgar social justice advocates) develop a kind of laser focus on some specific categories or forms of domination, often completely unequipped or unwilling to address more nuanced or complicated situations. Indeed just as marxist organizations have become particularly infamous among the activist left for tolerating and protecting abusers and rapists in their leadership, everyone is aware of circles of social justice where horrific interpersonal abuse is given a pass or becomes clouded and impossible to speak cleanly of because the perpetrators behavior isn’t easily definable along traditional dimensions of heteropatriarchal and white supremacist categories. The now quite old joke “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face while shouting ‘but this isn’t Formal Oppression!’ forever” reveals just how insufficient the “practical” lens can be. Aligning yourself against the currently most prominent expressions of power and domination does not equate preparing yourself to resist new or more local and particular instantiations of power, which can be all the more insidious or silencing for their relatively uniqueness or rarity.
While there’s no doubt often immense utility to the practical, the stakes in this world are too high to sit back and take things for granted. The marxist and liberals both protest that their theoretical picture is surely nuanced enough and if any dramatic limitation to that picture arises it will surely be adapted to quickly. But history shows that oversimplifications into neat rhetorical frameworks have their own long-lasting momentum. People come to associate not with their original ethical motivations (if they even notice them) but merely in terms of the affiliations and strategies that once derived from such. The crude macroscopic patterns or tendencies that may well be correctly identified eventually get detached from their underlying roots. Those self-identified as underdogs remain stubbornly self-identified underdogs even when they come to rule regimes that slaughter millions, set up gulags, or occupy Palestine.
The radicalism of anarchism is what has left it fairly distinct among ideologies and mass movements, with no instances of mass murder in its name. It’s hard to stray too far, to ever let inertia and some “common sense” lead you down the road of slaughter and tyranny, when your philosophy grounds itself so directly in ethics, highlights it in every way and never lets you detach from your ultimate values. Many passingly claim to be champions of liberty, but anarchism demands of every action, every plan, does this liberate? Could this be more coherent with liberty? And if there are necessary tradeoffs how exactly do they work? Can they be improved? Are there better ways?
To reach a moment where we sit back, entirely satisfied, would be to abandon anarchism. To the radical there is no litmus for “due diligence”, no final finish line, no moment where we pat ourselves on the back. The vigilance of the radical is never satiated.
You Are Not The Target Audience
So there was a demonstration and some people got a little militant and maybe broke some windows. Chances are the demonstration wasn’t a rally against the existence of windows so this may not look like the smartest of moves to you. In fact, it probably seems pretty asinine. A broken shop window doesn’t really hurt those in power yet it probably rose more than a few folks’ hackles. Vandalism and a few street scuffles with the cops obviously aren’t potent enough to directly overcome the state by force so why bother if it’s going to turn a lot of people against you?
The answer as it turns out is a little complex. It may surprise you to learn that most of the time those who break windows or get into scuffles with the police at these kind of things are not the equivalent of human non sequiturs but highly committed and rational individuals, who–right or wrong–choose their actions after careful deliberation and in sharp awareness of the personal risk they run. Although you may not immediately see it, there is no small amount of strategic thought behind such tactics.
But before I illuminate it, it probably behooves us to run through some standard stuff:
Property destruction is not violence in any substantive sense. To use the same term for vandalism as direct physical brutality is an Orwellian pollution of language that cheapens real violence and suggests that people are equivalent to things. Obviously destroying people’s inert possessions is usually not ethically justifiable — but the bar is much lower than with real violence. Civil disobedience, like blocking a port, can incur costs in the millions of dollars, while other actions widely accepted as ‘non-violent’ like pouring fake blood over draft cards or mortgage records can amount to incredibly costly direct property destruction. Breaking cheap windows may look scarier to some, but appearing intimidating is hardly an atrocity.
It should also go without saying that some property is less legitimate than others. Institutions and individuals that benefit significantly from injustice — even through indirect channels — cannot lay a legitimate claim to all their wealth. Targeting small community businesses is almost universally frowned upon and, despite media portrayal, incredibly rare in political riots. (When looters managed to take advantage of an anarchist action in Greece to destroy an old woman’s shop the anarchists raised money and rebuilt it for her.) But again let’s remember that property destruction is almost inconsequential beside resisting actual physical violence; when under siege from the police, for example, it’s highly rational for folks to set fires in bins so that the smoke can negate the tear gas.
Similarly, masking up is not just useful when it comes to filtering chemical irritants but also a good way to avoid persecution. It’s a sorrowful fact that merely being identified at a demonstration has been repeatedly used by police to pin fake charges. Masking up collectively helps obscure those individuals who are at higher risk for police retaliation, like people of color. In a just world we could stand openly behind our beliefs and actions without flagrantly unjust repercussions, but we do not believe we live in anything approaching a just world. It would be ridiculous to call the French Maquis cowards for not lining up publicly in town square.
Okay? Got it? Good, now we can move on.
In order to understand the sense behind those silly busted windows it’s important that you look beyond your personal reaction, indeed you should probably even look beyond the reactions of most of the people you know. We’re conditioned to assume that winning over a majority is the very definition of success, but in many cases that’s not true at all. Sure, when you’re trying to impose your will upon others it helps to have a ton of support, but when you’re only out to resist it doesn’t take much to make yourselves ungovernable.
As anarchists we’re not out to impose some totalizing vision upon the whole of society–exactly how you live your own life is your lookout–but we do mean to lend a hand where we can to make it impossible for anyone to impose their will over another. It wouldn’t matter if a majority of folks supported chattel slavery, we’d help slaves shoot their owners regardless (and incidentally we did). A very small minority can be such a grievous pain as to make large systems of power unsustainable. This much is obvious to everyone in our day and age. If three million people–less than 1% of the US population–launched an armed insurrection it would obviously be enough to bring all semblance of state power down. Of course that’s not precisely what we’re attempting, we are hardly blind to the non-state dynamics of power such a blithely single-minded campaign would ignore, but it is illustrative. Even the American Revolution–a campaign that sadly wasted much to replace one authority with another–was won with the support of barely over a third of the populace. You don’t need a majority to derail an injustice.
However it does help to have more than a few people. There aren’t three million self-aware and committed anarchists in the US. Our movement has been rebuilding fast since the days when capitalist and communist governments openly collaborated to kill us off, and since the nineties that growth has been exponential, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Outreach matters. And when an activist tamely busts some window they’re obviously not trying to win by depriving the state of glass surfaces. This too is outreach of a form.
But you are not the target audience.
This may come as a shock. We’re all so used to politicians and lobbying groups trying to win our support that the notion of someone completely uninterested in what you’ll say about them over the proverbial watercooler is a little insulting. Tough. To the serious activist on the street it doesn’t matter how you’re likely to vote or whether you’ll donate money — those are not feasible routes to the sort of social change we’re interested in. Are you going to actively join us in struggle or not? Organize your workplace, start a community garden, retake an abandoned building, code better tools, fight off a cop? Are you likely to seriously commit? In practice some people are quicker and more effective allies than others.
You don’t have to explain the institutional allegiances of the police to certain communities. Many folks already know the score. All that’s holding them back from joining in active resistance is a sense of isolation, weakness, and despair. In this context street fighting and vandalism are not so much proofs of method but statements of commitment and seriousness. There are others like you who are willing to fight, and we can hurt them, or at the very least we can shatter the air of invulnerability that pervades business as usual. It’s hard to overstate the psychological effect this can have on those who feel ground down or fenced in. Riots are especially useful when passive protest is widely acknowledged in certain circles to be laughably useless and indicative of protesters unwilling to commit. It doesn’t matter if a riot is directly successful on the scale of burning down city hall or permanently evicting the police from a neighborhood, what matters more is the change in perceptions. There’s a long history of social struggle skyrocketing after street confrontations — not because folks believe a few busted windows or bruised cops pave the road to a better world, but because it at least demonstrates potential.
That’s why politicians and police consistently go apeshit over things like measly storefront windows. Their control is dependent in no small part on being seen as in control. Certain boundaries to what’s considered feasible must be secured at all cost lest they begin to lose the illusion of invulnerability that dissuades the subjugated from rising up. No one in power gets hysterical when a common thief, for example, breaks a window because thieves are perceived as part of the same ecosystem of exploitation in which cops and CEOs position themselves as apex predators. Political vandalism is potent in part precisely because it risks much for no personal gain. It announces a violation of the established rules of the game, both of power and protest.
To be sure, the tactic of playing a victim in front of TV cameras in hopes of provoking outcry or disenchantment can also be useful in the right situation (when cameras are filming, enough people are listening, and public response is enough of a threat to change the cost-benefit analysis of those in charge). But such protest, even at its most acrimonious, still takes the form of an appeal to power — it assumes certain institutions can be reasoned with. As such it risks effectively bolstering the perceived legitimacy of those institutions.
In contrast, physical resistance challenges not only the state’s appearance of control but also the legitimacy of their monopoly on force. It’s a damned-either-way situation for the state. Any response sufficient to reassert the inviolability of their power will rightly strike anyone who isn’t a total asshole as grossly disproportionate; there’s no equivocating to be had when the state responds to broken windows by breaking skulls. And even if the cameras are off or filtered by ruthless propagandists, when the priorities of the state are laid bare it can still have a huge impact on first-hand witnesses and their friends. Again, what’s more valuable, avoiding a few million people briefly tut-tutting at the ‘violent protesters’ before promptly forgetting us or shattering the worldviews of hundreds and gaining fifty new full-time activists brimming with passion?
It’s worth remembering that all the public outcry in the world won’t win certain battles. There are some concessions those in power will never make. Passive protest negotiates by raising costs to the point where certain trade-offs become acceptable, but it can only succeed on issues where those in power are left room to retreat and regroup. On issues like abolishing borders, prisons, or the police, our demands will never be met because they pose an existential threat to the very premise of the state itself. No matter how limited a sociopath’s options become the total abolition of all positions of power is always going to be dead last on their list of preferences. At some point those in power will have to be physically dragged kicking and screaming out. Part of building a movement should be building the capacity to do precisely that. And that kind of strength doesn’t just spring into existence the moment our leaders cross a line, it must be nurtured and developed as our ranks grow. Demonstrating that we’re at least committed to working on it — that we haven’t forgotten that success on any serious issue will require us to develop and maintain a capacity for physical resistance — is an important part of being taken seriously and building our numbers. Even if we demonstrate that through actions that leave us looking a little juvenile.
Any given tactic is going to alienate some people and draw in others. There is no such thing as a universally well-received action. When critiquing actions what you need to check is whose perspectives you’re prioritizing and precisely why you think they matter more. What are you presupposing about the political landscape?
All the considerations I’ve discussed frequently vary in relevancy and degree. It should really go without saying that every context is going to be different. Sometimes purely passive protest can have a hugely positive impact. A lot of the time — frankly most of the time — busted windows and street scuffles end up serving little to no positive effect whatsoever. But gauging such consequences is never trivial. The point is that “public opinion” is an incredibly complex subject with even more complex strategic considerations. It is not reducible to polling data or the sensibilities of the people you socialize with. There’s plenty of room for productive conversations on what’s a good idea and what isn’t, but everyone has a different slice of the world apparent to them so evaluations of strategy will always have an inescapably subjective component. Someone busting a window at a demonstration may indeed be making an ultimately poor decision, but that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent or unethical.
Organizations Versus Getting Shit Done
Organizations have a lot of downsides. Anyone who’s ever attended a meeting recognizes this on some level. And yet most folks persist in an either instinctive or confused idealization of forming and participating in organizations.
Part of this is semantic. The term “organization” is so loose as to be either universally trivial or—more often—a substantive but hazy jumble of associations. Often such bundling acts to disingenuously assert a premise from the get-go and it’s worth picking apart exactly what is meant by an “organization.” “Anarchy,” for instance, directly means “without rulership” but the broader associations of violence, chaos and dog-eat-dog famously imply an inherent casual connection without bothering to enunciate it. Of course this is a flat contradiction in terms, obvious on the slightest examination; the spectre of everyone attempting to dominate everyone else is simply a change in the flavor of power relations, of relevant archies, not their total abolition. Yet such conflation has had huge impact because unspoken, unexamined ideas bundled as common sense have a pressure greater than the spoken.
“Organization” can stand for literally all modes of human interaction, but in common use “being organized” signifies effective and intentional structures of collaboration. Something anarchists defensively jump to assert we’re capable of! But as such the term is almost meaningless; no one on earth would argue against the utility of deliberative and rational approaches to collaboration – one might as well say “being intelligent“. The substance of the matter is of course how we chose to arrange and structure our collaboration. It is here that “organization” smuggles in assumptions through double-meanings. Because in practice the noun of “an organization” usually refers to a highly particular beast, requiring highly particular structures.
Is power stronger when it’s centralized or when it’s decentralized?
It seems quite strange to assert that the psychoses of power are capable of accomplishing far more when centralized as opposed to decentralized, when this is not true for anything else. Empire is not magically apart from the psychological roots that give rise to it. So why should the project of oppressing people be accomplished more efficiently by the centralization of those efforts rather than through diffuse decentralized approaches?
Certainly it’s worth noting that, somewhat unique among goals, power has the property of diminishing the strength of the mind its rooted in, but I fail to see how this makes the many-minded pursuit of power different from more single, collective or centralized approaches. It’s not like the trivially differing particulars between individual power-goals conflict with one another in any non-trivial way. Introduce yet another prince or warlord to a conflict seeking to personally rule all and you hardly lower the body count or the efficiency of enslavement.
Indeed one is left to wonder why those who are otherwise quite aware of the innate inefficiencies and diseconomies of scale in corporations or communism, nevertheless approach the state’s attempts to subjugate us as though they were exempt from the same realities. Surely all of Hitler’s meticulous clockwork of genocide was proven fundamentally out-gunned in speed and gumption by poorly armed peasants in Rwanda.
It has always appeared quite clear to me that we should consider ourselves lucky to live in a world defined by global Empire. Obviously our world is still a horrific one, whose innate evil and daily atrocities we, as anarchists, can never begin to accept. But while we work tirelessly to overcome and eradicate power, seizing every opportunity to change the parameters of the game, it does not seem clear to me that we should simply leap upon developments that remove the largest impediment our enemies currently have.
Now, obviously, as an anarchist I oppose affirmative action, welfare, public education and the like because they’re statist programs and, as such, are inherently, unavoidably, grounded in violence and the perpetuation of power structures. As statist programs they ultimately do more bad than good. And of course given freedom we could accomplish their stated ends far more efficiently without oppressing anyone.
There’s nary an anarchist in the world that would go out of their way to abolish such projects first.
The reason for this is strategy. The first task of a prisoner is to escape, and with that goal in mind we’re not about to stop eating the meals they give us. Sure those meals are poisoning us. Sure those meals are sapping our strength and conditioning us to salivate on command by the prison guards. But. We. Must. Stay. Alive.
In examining socialist programs it’s critical that we not sully our analysis with instinctive allegiances but instead look only upon how effective those programs are at sustaining us. If the warden takes away our meals many of us will die in our cells. This makes the prison’s “food program” a momentary necessity. If people are locked out of jobs by the corporate monopolies that our government set up and their homes are bulldozed by investment firms with politicians in their pockets, those people are not going to find new lives as roving vigilantes taking out bureaucrats and burning down office blocks. No, they’re going to end up in even greater poverty, abject misery and alienation. Spreading the burden throughout their social nets.
Socialist programs, we all know, toe a balance between crippling the working class enough to keep them unable to revolt and satiating them enough with illusions of security to make them unwilling to.
The trick–as any half-cocked fool with a big beard could tell you–lies in exploiting the inherent friction between these two statist tactics. In generating the sort of dynamic social instabilities that make their analysis subject to calculation limits. Where they can’t accurately judge which to give us where. When the carrot and the stick are frantically applied in such a way to inflame dissent and then supply us sufficient resources to rebel.
This is the core of our strategy with regard to their “public services.”
We embrace that which will keep us in the fight and reject everything else. At the same time we struggle to continue leading insurrection, building gardenboxes in the windows of our cells and preparing to retake that which they have not allowed us to organize for ourselves.
So when I look at a socialist program like affirmative action’s mandatory quotas or biases my first step is to recognize that, since ends and means are interconnected, such a statist program will never solve racism or even make inroads. The application of statist oppression will only further inflame and ingrain the social psychoses at hand, although they may make strides towards some superficial semblance of material equality. The statist and hierarchical character of affirmative action is undeniable.
That said, the second step is to investigate whether despite its long term ill effects such a program is strategically necessary to our current survival. And while getting into fancy colleges and jobs at a higher rate is clearly not a matter of material survival, one can argue that some of the ways it provides exit opportunities from inner city “schools” to other forms of public education will allow–in some measure–an underclass to retain access to intellectual weaponry, which does directly pertain to the survival of resistance. Similarly, although hate-crimes laws are a ridiculous step towards the outright criminalization of thought itself, it’s worth remembering that anything that stops lynchings should be tallied as keeping us alive.
The strategic and tactical distinctions we’re forced to make on such issues are necessarily going to be complex and nuanced, but at the same time, as anarchists, we never loose sight of the fact that these programs are evil and that ultimately we oppose them.
Classic welfare programs, of course, are the most clearcut example. Since my family and I owe our lives many times over to Food Stamps and HUD, I’m not going to pretend I’m not biased. Obviously any welfare system is deeply predicated on state violence in the form of taxation and puts a superficial bandaid on the immediacy of capitalism’s crimes. But if you think welfare leaves the poor a bunch of lazy queens dependent on the system and defensive of it, you’ve never been forced to sit and wait while your life hung on the whims of government bureaucracy. Socialist programs that keep the poor alive are always a good thing, strategically. They sustain the class most likely to lead any insurrection and at the same time inspire in that class a fierce hatred of the government as well as a lasting critique of its inefficiency compared to self-organization.
All are reasons to momentarily avoid directly attacking such programs, but in no means are they reasons to avoid conflict with them.
As with any statist means, socialist projects will ultimately only further statist ends. But if by accident they give us any breathing room we, as prisoners, are obliged to seize it. To fight tooth and nail to build our own capacity for charity, mutual aid and self-sufficiency when they’re not looking. The only solution to socialist programs is to make them irrelevant.
Is Government A Necessary Evil?
Is government a necessary evil?
I conclude that today, on this specific hour, it is.
Surely, were the governments of the world and all their popularly associated implements of control to suddenly roll up and disappear at this very moment, there would be a significant upswell in oppression. Without warning or preparation, there would be chaos and violence in the streets. Probably far less than you imagine, but a significant quantity nonetheless. Over the fledgling shouts of anarcho-syndicalist union organizers, anarcho-capitalist property-mongers and smug primitivists heading for the treeline, would be the sound of a people still completely wrapped in the psychosis of power. Bosses, gangbangers, social-democrats and warlords.
From one (or two hundred) violent monopolies, society would shatter into a million competing enterprises, each one more violent than the next.
Is government a necessary evil?
Today, on this specific hour, it is. Tomorrow, less so. Four months from now, even less. A century, a millennium from now? Surely not at all.
Of course if today should become tomorrow and yet the state of the world remain precisely the same, then government would, at that moment, be precisely as necessary an evil as it is today. If we should somehow drift into the future without doing a single thing to make it a better one. If we should somehow proceed without taking a single step towards making government unnecessary. …If four centuries should pass and yet somehow the conditions of our world remain precisely the same, then on that day government will be just as necessary an evil.
But the future is unwritten.
There is no guarantee that by tomorrow, the people of the world will not have shrugged off the disease that is our pursuit of power. Unlikely, to be sure. But for now, at least, we still have a measure of agency to make ourselves better people. The ability to build alternatives, inspire hope and expose the inherent weaknesses of those would-be warlords and social-democrats. And the capacity to eventually take such a small and fledgling step as abolishing government. Uncertainty exists.
And surely, extended out as much as four centuries from now, that uncertainty is more than sufficient to completely eclipse the world as it is today. So from our standpoint, while it may be necessary today, there is no reason why government should be considered a necessary evil for our grandchildren.
Even so, at the end of the day, perhaps government will remain just as necessary an evil as it was in the morning.
But it will be by no fault of my own.
Can you say the same?
Memetic Stasis: The Seed Of Power
The State, like all social phenomena, stems from psychological roots. The State is a way of thinking, a agglomeration of ideas forming a larger structure (or set of structures) that interacts with the surrounding world so as to secure and perpetuate itself.
The State belongs to a wider family of idea-structures sharing a common gene: Power. Which in turn, is one branch of a wider adaptive phenomenon: the assumption that it is better to ignore than to investigate.
You see, there are two ways that an organism can come into prominence. It can, in a variety of ways, keep reaching out into its environment and changing itself in concordance with what it finds, or it can, through other means, wall itself off and struggle to keep its environment from changing it. The later clause often grows to thoroughly infect entire ecosystems, underlying every aspect of social and personal thought. Naturally the ideas, the interacting states of mind it stabilizes, are temporary at best. They’re always falling apart, in a million tiny disasters. Rebuilding and re-securing, until the next collapse. Some of these collapses are truly catastrophic, extending across entire societies. Entire religions and civilizations die. But the seed, it has survived. Because it has gone unaddressed itself. It is the remnant of prehistory. The counter-revolution against thought itself.
It is neurological rigidity.
The State is based in the assumption that stability is more important than contact or touch. And everything it does acts to directly minimize interaction between ideas, individuals and nature. The State is, at its core, nothing more than secrecy and stupidity.
Two Definitions Of Power
In our everyday language we often to use the term “power” in very different ways. This can lead to all manner of confusion. Worse, it can hobble our own understanding of a situation and allow others to twist and distort our capacity to call shit out. The Bolsheviks infamously appropriated and distorted the decentralist, anti-state slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” into a rallying cry for centralized state control. Today one can visit a demonstration and simultaneously see “Power To The People” sprayed on walls while at the same time “Fight The Power” blasts out a stereo. In activist critiques talk of “empowerment” runs parallel to struggles to “abolish all power relations.” All of these notions are clearly related, but the occasional dissonance between them poses a danger worth addressing.
There are ultimately, I feel, two broad ways we think of and use the term “power”:
1. Power as capacity. The enhancement or expansion of one’s options.
2. Power as control. The limitation or suppression of one’s options.
With empowerment, aside from the abstract connotations of self-actualization, what’s really being said is: one has the capacity to do something. When one has the ‘power to lift something’ one has the ability to lift it.
But with the strict sociological definition of power, we specifically refer to control over another; coercion perhaps not conveyed in violence or the threat of violence, but nevertheless a situation where one person looses to some degree their own agency to become a extension of some external will. Or, in the material case, where an object’s behavior is determined more fully by one’s will. On a first glance this appears to follow from the definition as capacity — when you control other people that control can grant you the capacity to undertake vast projects, to build pyramids and pick cotton.
We say that one individual has ‘power over another‘ when they can determine that individual’s actions/thoughts. However that same phrase can be — and often is — read as having more power than another. Thus power might simply be a quantity. A substance, the unequal distribution of which between the two individuals is the source of the determination of the other’s thoughts/actions. This is the classical Marxist position, often directly referring to the distribution of resources. One person “has” more resources and these resources lend them the capacity to take certain actions with a varying degree of force. Between two individuals the one with the most material capacity can win any contention between wills, and thus has control over the other because they have more capacity. Further this control, once obtained, can grant the controlling party the capacity to do even more. Capacity, being the root concept in this model, often appears to be the subject best deserving the recognition of the term “power.”
But is this really so?
We can easily conceive of a situation where, despite equal allocations of capacity, both individuals are capable of coercing one another. Even further, occasions where they do. Two people can assert a high degree of control over one another without either acquiring any additional capacity — with, in fact, such control limiting both of them.
This is not just a specific hypothetical, this is the most common case.
One might be intelligent and manipulative while the other might be strong and brutal. Both individual’s wills would be constrained by the other’s conditions. The brute may intimidate the conman while simultaneously be in turn manipulated by him. The conman’s agency constrained by the ever-present threat of the brute’s fury on some areas, while the brute may be beguiled into certain forms of behavior. One might object that this only demonstrates the existence of different kinds of power. But we can, with a little more thought, replicate the same phenomenon with two conmen or two brutes. While in a contest of wills neither party will triumph in achieving their goal, both parties find themselves constrained. Even if one party finally triumphs, the extra exertion is limiting.
The contest of wills itself is constraining. And yet neither party would consider the other powerless. In fact both would likely consider the other to be exerting power over them. The conmen in particular may find themselves ever more deeply wrapped in a relationship they are unable to escape, their thoughts ever more dominated by reactive calculations.
In short, both parties capacities are reduced while we do not say the same of their power. Power thus seems to operate as “control.” In everyday use we don’t run across situations where one speaks of “having power” in a situation of high capacity and low control. But there are situations where one “has power” with high control and low capacity. We’re reminded of the classic image of a king becomes a slave to his own throne. He has power — control — but is controlled himself by the maintenance of it.
Power then — despite some sloppy thinking — is best referenced in the social realm not as a quantity of capacity but rather a relationship of control. Often to some degree mutual control.
Power is a psychosis. Our goal as Anarchists is not to equalize power and give everyone the same 5.3 milliHitlers of oppression each. Unlike the Marxists our goal is not to attempt some balancing of the books. It’s to overcome the very premise of our existing social relations.
Statement of Intent
There are three common mathematical arguments for Anarchism that I will tritely state as such:
1. Altruism is pragmatic. cf Kropotkin via Game Theory, Evolution
2. Centralization is inefficient. cf Mises via Price Signals, Economics
3. Collapse is inevitable. cf Zerzan via Systems Dynamics, Anthropology
Each are more or less correct. But even combined they are insufficient at providing a solid inclination, much less moral ought, towards the abolition of rulership. Further all sorts of psychopathy, manipulation and coercion are still possible.
These mathematical realities are supposed to lead individuals to social and political perspectives like so:
1. Collective solidarity is sufficient to meet the individual’s desires as well as the course of action with the most certain positive results. There are far fewer individuals on the margins in an anarcho-communist society, thus from a Rawlsian perspective anarcho-communism best balances our desires with the fullest possibility of their achievement. So, to avoid the drastic uncertainties of statist capitalism, abolish the state and abolish capitalism.
2. Diffuse systems will provide for everyone’s desires better. The rich will get richer, the poor will get richer. If you want to get richer, abolish the state.
3. Extended rigid structures or limited processes applied perpetually are bound to fail. The tension and eventual crises they generate are undesired. Thus, to avoid as much undesired tension as possible, refuse to participate in the state and capitalism, and when civilization collapses don’t rebuild it.
There is a hole in each of these arguments.
1. While the gratification of one’s desires in existing society may be uncertain, an individual might place value in the fulfillment of their desires differently. The possibility of being a millionaire, or even simply petite bourgeoisie in the first world, may be desired so extraordinarily that it outweighs the greater likelihood of being or remaining a prole for life. Lastly, of course, none of us are behind a veil of ignorance and society is already constructed. The benefactors of privilege have no personal incentive to downgrade the satisfaction of their desires. Game theory evaluations that favor mutual aid are premised upon largely uniform or linear value systems. Sociology and psychology teach us that the valuations of the human mind are anything but.
Note 1: Kropotkin had an additional element to his argument — in fact the more significant component — which appealed to human nature. Being altruistic or, more broadly, participating in a naturally composed social ecology, is one of our innate biological desires. Because our evolution was effected by game theory. This is a good trick and pretty much the central patch keeping Social Anarchism afloat. But there’s no reason this natural desire to participate in mutual aid is so strong as to not be individually fulfilled within existing conditions. The giving of charity is a product like any other under capitalism and welfare in the state, maybe even to a sufficient extent to satisfy our biological desire. In short the tendency towards Mutual Aid must compete with every other desire. Humans, like all animals, are born with varying tendencies. Some individuals will barely feel altruistic desires. And as individuals or even just products of our society we have some control over our genetic desires. Most importantly: What’s to stop me from writing mutual aid out of my DNA? Self-improvement (once the core of anarchist thought) is utterly irreconcilable with appeals to biological essentialism.
Note 2: Marx claimed that the proles would inevitably one day have the strength to overthrow the upper classes. Thus it would make sense as an individual to side ahead of time with the winning bloc. If this truly was inevitable or even probable within our life times then it might be possible to set off a chain reaction where differently inclined individuals progressively abandon their privilege to adopt anarcho-communism until all the rats have finally jumped ship. But by all accounts the proles are not going to win, they never were. The very idea is preposterous and utterly disconnected from all history, culture, realpolitik and sociology. As should be obvious after all these centuries, the proles are not the strongest class, they’re unfortunately the weakest class. They can only win if a significant fraction of the upper classes voluntarily side with them. If there’s a state apparatus waiting for them with the promise of more privilege, then such a move would make sense. And historically, in a few cases, did. But it is in no way proven — or even suggested by history — that the upper classes can be sufficiently moved by the desire for mutual aid. Insofar as this desire crops up, capitalism and the state, as we’ve seen, provide them with substantive placebos.
2. While abolishing the state may make me richer, there’s far more frequently something to be said for playing its game. Furthermore, should the state dissolve, it’s important to note that there’s nothing whatsoever dissuading me from taking advantage of others as opportunity avails itself. But even if we take game theory into account and combine with #1 (decentralized market + mutual aid), the same realities apply. We can still find occasion to manipulate and coerce where the counter-incentives are outweighed. Decentralized conspiracy or arbitrary separatism is rewarded. Privilege can be easily re-established in a decentralized, altruistically acting society. Simply keep your knowledge to yourself or closely mind the circles of its transmission. Very quickly power structures can emerge (or simply remain) based solely on information and association. Those who cluster in shared circles create classes, while those who most adeptly manipulate the lines of communication gather self-compounding power. In short relative differences in social strength can reach a point where whatever absolute advances in strength those at the bottom might have made, they can be rolled back.
Note 1: Rothbard makes some ridiculous jumbo about “rights” and “natural law.” This is clearly meant to amuse us. The supposed a priori case for property titles, non-aggression, etc. is sufficiently elegant and grounded in common sense to gain internet fanboys, but as a theoretical physicist I find its assumptions (like the distinction between positive and negative action) about as reasonable as golden thrones in the clouds and holy trinities. My market anarchist comrades will have to excuse me for not mincing words. If property titles are to be reconstructed — or even excused — they must have a more substantive basis. I believe reputation markets offer this, but that’s a treatise unto itself.
3. This is by far the most convincing of arguments, I was a primitivist for a good many years for a reason. Elaborate lies, systems and power structures do tend to eventually fall apart when embedded in dynamic realities. Their collapse is often drastic, unpredictable and of such magnitude as to outweigh any good derived from them. But they do not have to fall within an individual’s lifetime. This is the abhorrent truth and the whole reason Civilization (in the bad sense) caught on to begin with. Crooks can, and often do, die happy. Thus, even if Peak Whatever is set to inevitably destroy Civilization within an individual’s life time there’s no inherent reason to avoid creating separate power structures around oneself. One can detach from doomed existing structures, while still participating in the creation of such structures. Just ones that have a good chance of keeping you in a position of privilege till death.
In short, no matter what in all of these arguments — even combined — there is a slim (or not so slim) opening for manipulation, control, exploitation, privilege and power. The rulership Anarchism claims to oppose. All these mathematical realities do is generate awareness of the broader landscape in which one’s personal power operates. In fact, as is apparent across the Social Anarchist milieu, such knowledge has in most cases only facilitated the spread of power. We Anarchists, being attuned to all these nuances and experienced in a wide variety of settings/procedures, have become the most adroit Machiavellians in the world. (Thank god by the time we develop these skills most of us are trapped in a dead-end scene!) Although detached from the altruistic placebos of the State, we still manage to find useless wastes of time to keep our genes content while opening entirely new vistas of power games.
I intend to provide, establish and elucidate the personal moral ought that is missing from this discussion.
note: don’t expect go expecting a complete work any time soon.