Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Don't Want To Be Anarchists Anymore

    I took a walk with a friend the other day. A relatively recent emigree to the east bay, her life was in the midst of a down-shift; she had gone recently from holding down two jobs and attending school to just the one and, without much connection to a social or artistic or political scene in her new home, all the unfilled time in her life was beginning to intimidate her.

    She said that everything was fine, but that something was missing, that her life was too placid, that it had nothing at the center of it.  Other friends of hers, she told me, particularly the ones who’d been in AA, had advised her to look for a Spirituality to help guide her into the next part of her life. She said that she couldn’t relate to a word, an idea, like “spirituality”. She said that she had tried but it felt like faking.
I told her I couldn’t relate to it either, but that I understood what those more woo-woo friends were trying to get at-they just chose bad, loaded words to say something that’s in a certain way more simple. Part of what “spiritual” people get out of their faith is an Organizing Principle, something that gives meaning and value to their actions and decisions, something that informs everyday life.
Everybody needs an Organizing Principle. Everybody in fact has an organizing principle. For most people in the United States it is a relationship to buying and having. For a lot of people the world over, it’s one religion or another. For some it’s capital-A Art. For others it’s radical activism.
“I just don’t really know what to do with myself”, she said, “now that I’m not an anarchist anymore.”
Her words struck a bell in my head. I realized, with perfect calm, that I wasn’t an anarchist anymore either. I just hadn’t known it until someone else articulated it for me. 

If you are a mentally awake person, if you live a self-aware, examined life, it may happen that as your life changes, the ideas through which you have organized your life-your reasons for living-may also need to change.
I would have told her “me, neither”, which would have been at least a little true, but before I spoke I corrected myself-I realized that I still believed in human freedom, in the necessity of the elimination of centralized power, and in the essential capacity of humankind for self-governance. I still believed in anarchy and anarchism. I just didn’t want to be an anarchist anymore. My life had changed and my reasons changed with it.
Anarchism, in my experience, is two parts social milieu to one part political activism. There is a constant tension between these aspects, which often work at cross-purposes to one another, and in that tension I was able to find a kind of Praxis for most of a decade of my life. I butted my head over and over against the restrictions imposed by Anarchism’s central contradiction. The meaning I found in anarchism was not in being one-I am too suspicious of the mob, or too selfish, (or both) to ever be anything other than what I am-but in trying to make changes (improvements, from where I stood) to how anarchism worked internally. My investment in the whole thing came from my fundamental agreement with anarchism’s essential values. I believed in human freedom then and still do. I just wanted the practice of anarchism to be worth more to non-anarchists.

I can no longer find any meaning or satisfaction in trying to make changes to the state of anarchism. And I cannot now, as I could not before, find satisfaction or meaning in participating in the anarchist social milieu as it is, on its own terms. I have engineered better things for myself to do. The anarchist project for human freedom will have to continue without me, at least until they devise an auxiliary Anarchism For Adults, in which we put at least as much energy into reconfiguring the society outside of our peer-group as we do fighting or trying to fuck each other.
I knew I was done a year or more ago, as I watched the scene run yet another one of its own through the infighting-rumors-ostracization wringer. Anarchism eats its young, and it would have eaten me long ago (I tend to make myself an easy target) if I’d ever given myself to it fully.
My poor friend was not like me. She was not so sure. She was not so sure what she wanted next, what could be possible next; she hadn’t yet, perhaps, separated her activism from the personal values that informed it. In a way, she’s lucky. It’s very exciting to be Born Again, and even moreso when you are privileged to help decide who you might become. Hopefully she is not one of the majority, one of those who lose their sense of themselves and never find it again (those ghosts who drift through life looking backwards, to the illusory surety of adolescence); hopefully the transition will be kind to her.


  1. From the third paragraph:

    "I butted my head over and over against the restrictions imposed by Anarchism’s central contradiction."

    I'm curious if you could clarify what you mean by this. Are you referring to the collective organizing and solidarity versus individuality and autonomy problem? Or just the fact that it's hard to make progress working against an organized system with disorganized people?

    I still consider myself an anarchist. It's been half a decade now since I've done anything to directly challenge the system, but i don't think that that's the end all/be all of anarchism anyway. I still like to read books on the subject, not so much as a guide to better direct action, but rather as fuel for my fantasies of what the future might be like when humans begin to wake up from the fossil fuel binge of the last 200 years. Whenever I'm confronted with the reality of global climate change and the end of cheap petroleum and the inevitable contraction that headed our way, I take hope in thinking about the possibilities that will open up for communities to organize themselves in ways that were never necessary, or even thought possible in the previous era.

    Anarchists have been thinking about this type of organizing for years and it's my hope that their accumulated knowledge will serve us well as we make the post-oil transition into more autonomous, self-organizing communities.

  2. I think that's about where i stand too. I'm frustrated by the apparent futility and, um, frustrations of the ways "we" anarchists use presently to engage the system directly. I'd love to be part of some quantum leap forward in direct-0action engagement but i can say confidently that the model we use now is not worth my time and energy.
    I debated using the word "activist" in lieu of "anarchist" in this essay because what i'm really on about is a PRACTICE, or praxis, of anarchism. I'm ambivalent about using the word if it isn't accompanied by some dedication in the form of activist action.
    In answer to yr query i specifically meant the tension in anarchism btw the collectivist and the individualist ethos. Punk also suffers from this split. It's part of what makes either milieu such a hard place to live sometimes.


    PS all power and good luck to those of us who DON'T have this problem yet!