By Michael Albert at Dec 25, 2011
Like most social movements anarchism is diverse. Most broadly an anarchist seeks out and identifies structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life, and tries to challenge them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. Anarchists work to eliminate subordination. They focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations via effects on the environment, and much else as well. Of course anarchists challenge the state and the corporate rulers of the domestic and international economy, but they also challenge every other instance and manifestation of illegitimate authority.
So why wouldn’t everyone concerned that people ought have appropriate control over their lives admire anarchism?
Problems arise because from being "opponents of illegitimate authority" one can grow movements of incomparable majesty, on the one hand, and movements that are majestically unimpressive, on the other hand.
If anarchism means mostly the former, good people will admire and gravitate toward anarchism. But if anarchism means mostly the latter, then good people will have reservations or even be hostile to it. So what's the not so admirable or even distasteful version of anarchism now? And what is the admirable version? And do even the admirable strands incorporate sufficient insight to be successful?
Distasteful "anarchism" is the brand that dismisses political forms per se, or institutions per se, or even plain old technology per se, or that dismisses fighting for reforms per se, as if political structures, institutional arrangements, or even technological innovation, all intrinsically impose illegitimate authority, or as if relating to existing social structures to win immediate limited gains is an automatic sign of hypocrisy.
Folks holding these views presumably see the contemporary state's use of force and rule to subjugate the many and deduce that this is an outgrowth of trying to adjudicate, or legislate, or implement shared aims, or even just to cooperate on a large scale, per se, rather than seeing that it is instead an outgrowth of doing these things in particular ways to serve narrow elites so that what we need is to fulfill the functions more positively.
They see that many and even most of our institutions, while delivering to people needed organization, celebration, food, transport, homes, services, etc., also restrict what people can do in ways contrary to human aspirations and dignity. They wrongly deduce that this must be the case for all institutions per se, so that instead of institutions we need only voluntary spontaneous interactions in which at all times all aspects are fluid and spontaneously generated and dissolved. Of course, in fact, without stable and lasting institutions that have well conceived and lasting norms and roles, advanced relations among disparate populations and even among individuals are quite impossible. The mistake is that while institutional roles that compel people to deny their humanity or the humanity of others are, of course, abominable, institutions that permit people to express their humanity more fully and freely are not abominable at all, but part and parcel of a just social order.
The situation with technology is similar. The critic looks at assembly lines, weapons, and energy use that despoil our world, and says there is something about pursuit of technological mastery that intrinsically breeds these sorts of horrible outcomes so that we'd be better off without technology. Of course, this misses the point that pencils are technology, clothes are technology, and indeed all human artifacts are technology, and that life would be short and brutish, at best, without technologies. So, the issue isn't to decry and escape technology per se, but to create and retain only technologies that serve humane aims and potentials.
And finally, regarding reforms, the debilitating orientation notices that with many reforms the gains are fleeting, and elites even manage to reinforce their legitimacy and extend their domain of control by first granting and then domesticating and then eliminating the advances. But again, this doesn’t result from change or reform per se, but from change conceived, sought, and implemented in reformist ways that presuppose and do not challenge system maintenance. What's needed instead isn't to have no reforms, which would simply capitulate the playing field to elites, but to fight for reforms that are non-reformist, that is, to fight for reforms that we conceive, seek, and implement in ways leading activists to seek still more gains in a trajectory of change leading ultimately to new institutions.
It shouldn't be necessary to even discuss a "bad trajectory" of anarchism and its anti political, anti-institutional, anti-technology, and anti-reform confusions. It is perfectly natural and understandable for folks first becoming sensitized to the ills of political forms, or institutions, or technologies, or first encountering reform struggles to momentarily go awry and blame the entire category of each for the ills of the worst instances of each. But if this confusion were to thereafter be addressed naturally, it would be a very temporary one. After all, without political structures, without institutions per se, and/or without technology, not to mention without progressive reforms, humanity would barely survive much less prosper and fulfill its many capacities. But, of course media and elites will take any negative trajectory of anarchism and prop it up, portraying it as the whole of anarchism, elevating the confused and unworthy to crowd out the valuable and discredit the whole. In this context, some of the most extreme (but colorful) advocates of these counter productive viewpoints will be highlighted by media. The whole unsustainable and objectionable approach will thereby gain far more visibility than warranted by its numbers, much less by its logic or values, and, thereafter, also a certain tenacity.
What about the good trajectory of contemporary anarchism, less visible in the mass media? This seems to me to be far more uplifting and inspiring. It is the widely awakening impetus to fight on the side of the oppressed in every domain of life, from family, to culture, to state, to economy, to the now very visible international arena of "globalization," and to do so in creative and courageous ways conceived to win immediate improvements in people's lives even while leading toward winning new institutions in the future.
The good anarchism nowadays transcends a narrowness that has often in the past befallen the approach. Instead of being solely politically anti-authoritarian, as often in the old days, nowadays being an anarchist more and more implies having a gender, cultural, and an economic, as well as a politically-rooted orientation, with each aspect taken on a par with and also informing the rest. This is relatively new, at least in my experience of anarchism, and it is useful to recall that many anarchists as little as a few decades back, perhaps even more recently, would have said that anarchism addresses everything, yes, of course, but via an anti-authoritarian focus rather than by simultaneously elevating other concepts in their own right. Such past anarchists thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian angle could explain the nuclear family better than an analysis rooted as well in kinship concepts, and could explain race or religion better than an analysis rooted as well in cultural concepts, and could explain production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis rooted as well in economic concepts. They were wrong, and it is a great advance that most modern anarchists know this and are broadening their intellectual approach in accord so that anarchism now highlights not only the state, but also gender relations, and not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, and sexuality. This anarchism seeks freedom in every form it can be sought, and each not only through the sole prism of authority relations, but also informed by richer and more diverse concepts.
And of course this desirable anarchism not only doesn't decry technology per se, but it becomes familiar with and employs diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn't decry institutions per se, or political forms per se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, new ways of decision making, new ways of coordinating, and so on, most recently including revitalized affinity groups and original spokes structures and general assemblies.
And this anarchism not only doesn’t decry reforms per se, but it struggles to define and win non-reformist reforms, attentive to people’s immediate needs and bettering people’s lives now as well as moving toward further gains, and eventually transformative gains, in the future. How else explain seeking to protect people’s homes and take back those foreclosed, as but one among many examples?
So why doesn't the good anarchism trump the not so good anarchism out of visibility, so to speak, leaving the way clear for most everyone on the left to gravitate toward anarchism’s best side? Part of the answer, already noted, is that elites and mainstream media highlight the not-so-good, giving it far more weight and tenacity than it would otherwise embody. But part of the answer is also that the good side of contemporary anarchism is in various respects too vague to rise above the rest. What’s the root of this vagueness? I think it’s that the good anarchism doesn't posit clear and compelling goals.
Anarchism has historically focused on the political realm of life. But even there, and even with the long history, the emerging anarchism of today's movements doesn't yet clarify for us what an anarchist polity could be. Assuming that societies need to fulfill adjudicative, legislative, and implementation functions in the political realm of life, and need to do this via institutions which citizens partake of and constitute, then what should these institutions be? If the bad trend is to say that we favor no political institutions but only spontaneous face to face interaction of free individuals each doing as they choose with no constraints on them, then what is the good trend’s better viewpoint? What kind of structures with what kinds of social roles and norms in an anarchist polity will accomplish political functions while also propelling values we support?
It is perhaps premature to expect newly enlarging anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or a future vision of kinship, sexuality, procreation, or socialization relations, or even a future vision of production, consumption, or allocation relations. But regarding attaining, implementing, and protecting against the abuse of shared political agendas, adjudicating disputes, and creating and enforcing norms of collective interaction, it seems to me that anarchism ought to be where the action is. Nonetheless, has there been any serious anarchist attempt to explain how legal disputes should be resolved? How legal adjudication should occur? How laws and political coordination should be attained? How violations and disruptions should be handled? How shared programs should be positively implemented? In other words, what are the anarchist’s full set of positive institutional alternatives to contemporary legislatures, courts, police, and diverse executive agencies? Not a blueprint, of course, but at least the minimal key features that make a world of political self management plausible and inspiring to behold.
What institutions do anarchists seek that would advance solidarity, equity, participatory self-management, diversity, and whatever other life-affirming and liberatory values anarchists support, while also accomplishing needed political functions?
Huge numbers of citizens of developed societies are not going to risk what they have, however little it may be in some cases, to pursue a goal about which they have no clarity. It is one thing for people to get angry and join in relatively modest numbers passionate and warranted outcries for better than we have. It is another thing to have sustained, positive, activism by tens of millions of people. When that occurred, recently, in Egypt, for example, there was a clear aim - oust the dictator, install democracy. Democracy proved not so wonderful. Not so complete. Pending clarity about the next step amassing millions, tens of millions, with clarity about aims to that desirable aims in fact emerge, will prove more difficult.
How often do people have to ask us what we are for before we give them some serious, sufficiently extensive, carefully thought through, and compelling answers? Again, not blueprints - which are impossible and wrong header in any case. But a compelling picture of key structures to fight for and implement as the scaffolding upon which details will emerge in practice?
Offering a political vision that encompasses legislation, implementation, adjudication, and enforcement and that shows broadly how each can be effectively accomplished in a non-authoritarian way that promotes positive outcomes would not only provide our contemporary activism much-needed long-term hope, it would also inform our immediate responses to today's electoral, law-making, law enforcement, and court system, and thus many of our strategic choices.
So shouldn't today's anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think it should, and I eagerly hope it will be forthcoming soon. Indeed, I suspect that until there is a widespread component of anarchism that puts forth something positive and worthy regarding political goals, and perhaps goals for other spheres of life as well - the negative component of anarchism decrying all political structures and even all institutions - however small it may actually be - will remain highly visible and will greatly reduce potential allegiance to anarchism.
Some will say anarchism has more than enough vision already. Too much vision will constrain ingenuity and innovation. I reply that this is the same type mistake as dumping political structures, or all institutions, or all technology, or all reforms. The problem isn't vision per se. The problem is vision that is held and owned only by elites and that serves only elites. Public, accessible vision, political and otherwise, which truly serves the whole populace is precisely what we need. Vision that doesn’t go beyond our range of thought. Vision that doesn’t go beyond our range of legitimate aim. We want a self managing future. Fine, what basic centrally defining institutions are essential to and able to generate self mangement for our children and children’s children? Our aim should not be to make decision now that are rightfully theirs to make in their own future. That would be usurping their freedom. Violating our range. But, if they are to self manage they will need defining political institutions consistent with self management. Providing them with those is our political responsibility. Envision those is our visionary political task.
So what about good anarchism’s potentials? I guess I would say that if anarchism has truly recognized the need for culture-based, economy-based, and gender-based, as well as for polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision originating in other movements about non-governmental social dimensions while itself providing compelling political vision, and if the anarchist community can avoid strange confusions over technology, political structures, institutions per se, and seeking to win non-reformist reforms—then I think anarchism has a whole lot going for it and could well become the main 21st century source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the effort to make our world a much better place.