For those of you that haven’t heard I threw an event with Bob Black at our local infoshop on August 7th 2015. At this event local activist “Morgan Le Fay” came to protest Bob for the 1995 Hogshire affair and ended up punching him a few times (3) in the face. A month later Bob announced on Facebook that I was both a traitor and enemy. He proceeded to blow my pseudonym (incorrectly) as an act of vengeance.
Rather than speaking about my own anger at Morgan or Bob at their behavior I am going to give the eulogy–one I’ve been contemplating for some time–of Bob.
I have known Bob, not in his daring years when I could have been a co-conspirator to his minor offenses against local legends Processed World, not when he was at the peak of his power and railed against work at the Gorilla Grotto, but perhaps in his decline, as publisher of his last two books. But the relationship between a publisher and an author is a close one. We could safely discuss his entire oeuvre at length and depth. We could discuss our shared ideological enemies. I could share with him my goal of returning his name back to being on the cynosure of anarchist thinkers where he belonged, returning him from his exile (for his naughty behavior against Jim Hogshire, etc.). As the preening narcissist he has always been, Bob basked in my appreciation, of someone he delusionally believed to be a fawning acolyte.
I still believe that Bob deserves defending, and my defense of him follows in three parts: he survived, he did something (even if it was the wrong thing), and he did it alone (for better and worse).
I imagine become an anarchist in the twilight period between the end of the Vietnam War era (not exactly a banner time for anarchists anyway) and the rise of (albiet low-profile) anarchist punks must have been quite lonely. I can’t imagine having these ideas without the benefit of seeing what impact they had on relationships as they were tested out. One of my clearest experiments of this sort was when I moved out of a group house (the very next day as I recall) when they wrote my name to an objectionable task on the chore wheel because I was at work. I had Debordian fantasies and put my body on the line in their pursuit. But I did not do it in a vacuum. The day I left the house I drove across the state to a warm, waiting room with friends who were happy to see me. The situation would have been miserable if I didn’t have those friends, that shared understanding about Debord, or the money to have a car to make that drive.
While Bob isn’t the only survivor of his generation I have a giant soft spot for all of them. Their clarity about then is one of the reasons that we can be fighting different fights now. Specifically I am referring to the context of anarchism, workerism, the left, and ATR. I have so much respect for this generation because I caught the tail end of the Red anarchist menace and its mediocrity was asphyxiating. As an ex-post-left anarchist I’ve had enough talk of what the left should be (if only…) to last three lifetimes. Dodging the bullet of having to endure Great-Men-Talking-about-Revolution-as-if-it-were-about-to-happen (or already did) I still consider quite the achievement, which would not have been possible if it were not for the ones who survived and particularly for Bob Black.
But they paid a price. In Bob’s case an ass-kicking or two, for others it was different kinds of social exclusions, ones that reflected their personalities and survival skills. On another level they paid the price of loss of faith. Obviously we are talking about a secular kind of faith–a belief that when exposed to a correct analysis or critique people will change their minds–but a faith nonetheless. A faith that other people, strangers, are like you: reasonable, argumentative, and more interested in something-like-truth than in popularity contests or petty games. This loss of faith has created grumpy, lonely men but it has also created a neon colored sign post for us, the next generation, and for those who are arriving after us.
I realize that most of the anarchists of the post-left generation have exposed their own influences as being egoist but that wasn’t my perception of them or their position(s) during my first decade of exposure to them (prior to meeting them). It seemed to me that Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed was the American wing of a post-situationist perspective, full stop. In hindsight, I realize how little I knew but it was the SI that excited me when I was just an anarcho-tot. It was their practice of critique-as-action that made sense to me, and it was how I saw action that I wanted to participate in. The SI critique of what we would now call activism felt complete to me and, as a result, held no interest, it was complete. The attacks against groups and people of the same fighting weight did, and still does, hold me captivated.
This is where my defense of Bob is strongest. Whether in the name of revenge or his own sense of rightousness Bob devoted his life to fighting people and institutions outside of his weight class. We once had a conversation where I was expressing how not-in-a-hurry I was with regard to dealing with a slight because I held that the long view, the strategic view, would win out against hurried action. Bob made it clear that while he might have agreed with me about the likelihood of winning, my attitude was bullshit. The only time to deal with opponents is now. He meant it. He would rather lose the fight, and do it now, than wait and win.
This charming personality trait explains nearly every scandal and misstep Bob ever took. As he aged, his rush to fight took on the long form essay rather than the flaming poop bag, but the will to fight never waned.
This point, by the way, is why the activist insult against theory/critique people has always aggravated me. I try to give the activist crowd the benefit of the doubt that they do truly believe in the political practice they are part of “in the streets” and are not just using regular people as cover for their desire to see the glittering rain of a window pane. (The least they can do is realize that a vigorous internal conversation is a verb and not “doing nothing” but whatever.)
Bob has taught anarchism a lesson that has yet to be meaningfully followed up. We need to establish something like a set of rules, or a kind of terrain, around how to fight with one another. When Bob accused Ramsey, in the letter section of AJODA, of being a state agent (on the flimsey grounds that they needed to evade the consequences of the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1901), there were two results . One, Bob broke an unspoken rule against snitch-jacketing and two, Ramsey took him (and the accusation) extremeley seriously. Ramsey placed a fatwa against that issue of the magazine (#65, which had quite of few strong articles) and did whatever he could do persuade us (including by threat of force) and whomever was in his sphere of influence (which mostly meant infoshops that inclined Red) to not carry it. By putting his (and by extension ours–as AJODA did the material suffering, since AK Press stopped distributing the magazine after this issue) body on the line, Bob proved an unintended point. He provided Ramsey an opportunity to show what Ramsey was all about and Ramsey’s response to that paragraph of text couldn’t have been clearer.
For those of us who are similarly inclined, this lesson should be instructive. When you throw your body, identity, and personhood into the fray you rarely get accolades or huzzahs. At best you get a clarifying moment on a tangential point related to but not necessarily central to why you were acting in the first place. What most people do with this information is hide themselves behind nicknames, anonymity, or silence, and we, as a politic and practice, suffer for it.
The power of one
Bob has never had an ally (or accomplice in the modern vernacular) as he made it structurally impossible for anybody to be (or become) one. There are many private examples of how this looked in practice but it’s an obvious point that if you are fighting for your interpretation of the singular right and correct position anyone who would join you has to convince you that they think the same way that you do and for the same reasons.
Bob’s life is a series of breaks from limited collaborations that is not disconnected from the Stirnerite postulation about organization only lasting as long as the participants in it gain satisfaction in that arrangement. Bob’s innovation, if it could be called that, was to (mostly) set fire to any possibility of future collaboration by way of personal insults and public declarations of acrimony. Let’s call this practice “angry egoism,” which can only be ameliorated by its target bending knee, thereby placing future collaboration on the unstable base of an explicit power-over relationship.
And these dysfunctions ultimately rise from the fact that every battle, every idea, and every break happened for Bob alone. He has had lovers and temporary friends but largely his life was one lived alone, with no voice cautioning consequences or suggesting a different pacing, no daily consultations in bed. The only voice in his head was his, amplified by a Debordesque diet of spirits.
By this cautionary tale I put Bob Black to rest. He was a clarifying influence in my life, largely as a negative example but also as a good writer, but one incapable of reaching the heights he reached for. He will be remembered as much for who he wasn’t as for who he wanted to be but this is the most anarchist of problems. Most of us will not be remembered at all as our shared Beautiful Idea is larger than each of us and continues on after we are gone. The best we can hope for is some contribution to that idea and as a person who lived and wrote in especially challenging times and circumstances Bob Black has done his part.
It has been a rough year so far. For the past few years I’ve been able to afford to work very part time and devote my energy to projects that I love and share with my closest friends. I’ve lost a few of those friends, some recently, and some in years past but if radical politics has taught me anything it is that friendship isn’t forever. Anyway, I’ve returned to full time(+) work and it’s reminded me about keeping things in perspective, especially in regards to friendship.
There seems to be a general confusion about the difference between friendship and comrades(hip). Furthermore this confusion lives in short-time. Terribly short time. And as the confusion tends to to mean conflating the two things, it means increased the frequency that it takes them to cycle through our world without increasing the amplitude of the relationship(s).
In my few friendships is a feeling, a shared chemistry, and the lack of need to spend a bunch of time defining terms, calibrating jargon, and deciding what to do next. We already knew. Friendship is in the category of romance, fleeting, uplifting, and harder to achieve as the years go by. Thirty years ago I made friends nearly every day. At 45 I find friendship almost impossible to find and to nurture (nostalgia is a hell of a drug.)
Comrades, on the other hand, are a bit easier to find, even today. I don’t have to sit strangers down to calibrate them to my interests. By the time they find me they’ve usually calibrated themselves (or visa versa of course.) My interest in topics like alienation, social change, and the transformation of daily life has a predetermied audience (for and against). Politics, by this measure, is what my comrades and I are capable of doing. My project is to share the building of that capacity and collaborate with comrades about what to do with our capacity.
When I see people talk like strugglismo’s (which frequently means pretending that their crew of friends are on the cusp of something great, something permanent, something that can’t possibly be coopted–even at THE EXACT MOMENT that cooptation is is exactly what is happening), I don’t blame their friendships, which are enviable, I blame their politics. Their inability to see what is happening to and around them is the failure of their political imagination, on the one side believing that substantial libertarian change is possible (in the here and now), and on the other believing in their relevance (aka imminent necessity) to that change.
Camatte was onto something when he said “One awaits the revolution in vain, for it is already underway. It is unnoticed by those who await it, expecting a particular sign, a ‘crisis’ releasing the vast insurrectional movement which would produce another essential sign, the formation of the party etc…” but he uses the term revolution differently from me. When I use the term I attempt to always use it as a negative, as the project of the old left to create their bureaucratic utopia or of the christians (who almost always call themselves something else… like anarchist) who have clear intentions about their heaven on earth. Camatte is using the term in a far less grandiose manner. “The increasing loss of our real submission to capital will allow us to confront the true question of the revolution, not that of changing life, because all life has been enslaved, domesticated, misled by the existence of classes for millennia, but the creation of human life.” I wouldn’t put it this way (as I’m not exactly up on people) but for Camatte the revolution that is happening now is the creation of human life outside of politics, jargon, and “the struggle for the streets” (aka playing with cops in urban playgrounds).
Here the American followers of the Appelistas get it half right. The milieu is not, nor ever intended to be, the active agent for future revolutionary activity. If that’s what you are looking for good luck to you. It has always been the place to meet the fellow revolutionaries of the “create a human life worth living” school and this is why I will continue to serve it (even while largely not benefiting from it).
But of course all of this is a preface to a different point. As much as the Internet has allowed for a certain kind of hostility to exist between us, I forgive you your excesses. Forgive me for being a rude host, but my goal was always to get us to talk to each other. I didn’t realize how alienated those discussions would turn out but of course, in hindsight, it makes sense. I apologize for letting you believe we were ever going to be friends even though we agree about nearly everything. As much as I may hate you right now I really understand that in the landscapes of hatred it really isn’t a thing.
On the other hand I have been working a lot. I’m trying to take care of a pile of personal and family debt that I never took seriously before but that now looms large. Now I am hunkered in the digital coal mines tap, tap, tapping. My mind is never clear, rested, or happy with the task at hand. Even the things I love doing (like LBC) are annoyances and burdens. This reminds me that we are not enemies. We may not be friends any more, we may only be silent, or indifferent, comrades, but my hate for you is nothing. It is not a thing. My enemy is this imagination-killing nightmare called work. It is the duty to debt, the separation from my body, and the incredible organization of it all that has rationalized my life along with 7 billion of my closest… friends?
I hate using code words, or jargon, to substitute for my feelings, so of course it is the cops who implement, the middle managers who hammer out the terms, the teachers and parents who convince us there is no outside, and the shoppers, wage laborers, and protesters who consent to the terms of the agreement, so blame isn’t much beyond the rhetoric and shouting. My feeling is that the agreement is the problem and the process by which one figures out exactly what we agreed to is one I continue to be capable of being seduced by. I may hate you but in your stupid, ill-advised, immature, silly yearning I still love you. Both are true at once.
I would not say the same for the architects of this disaster.
Anarchism cannot be reconciled to life in this world, to a world of day jobs and bills, of having children and mortgages, and of relationships that find politics to be exhausting and not a language of liberation. But, of course, this isn’t the anarchism-of-the-heart it’s the anarchism of “the scene” or anarchism “of the streets” or the anarchism of sisyphus. One can believe, can dream, and can aspire to the freedom of anarchy no matter who their friends are, and no matter what their day job is, and no matter what their lifestyle is. There is no correct form of anarchist life but there is a body of people who identify as anarchists, and for many of us, leaving these people is part of the process we need to go through to become happy people.
Counter-cultures, whether youth, music, or political are usually self-marginalized . That is to say they make choices to separate themselves from /normal/ culture and as a result become irreconcilable to a normal life. We may all agree that normal sucks but we cannot doubt its gravity. We age and need health care, we fall out of love with young rebels, we want to make commitments and stay in one place, we make choices, which usually means boring, normal choices. Anarchism, like punk rock, veganism, and a thousand other counter-cultures seems to force dogmatisms and judgmentalism and it begins to wear on a person. At some point the cost-benifit analysis is made and anarchism-as-a-practice falls short.
I personally feel and have reconciled myself to both this force of gravity and my own life project of fighting this gravity but I do not think I have made the right choice. I realize why I have so few age peers in this life (and its not just because I am a jerk). The choice to stay within anarchism-as-a-practice is to live with constant failure (as in we haven’t won yet, have we?), constant bickering (not just because I am not conversant with the newest political line against the newest forms of oppression), constant knee-capping of projects, and constant floods of young know-it-alls. It is also not a place to talk about adult problems like the death of a parent, paying off student loans, or caring for elders who cared for you as a child. This is doubley true for men (at least in my experience). And the nature of this gravity is that eventually it will break my heart, even though I started out with one that was good and strong, because the constant pull is constant.
All of this is a preface. I want to put together an anthology of these stories, of departures and those who have departed, and I don’t know how to invite you other than by this kind of complicated chunk of text. I don’t know how to persuade you to tell your personal story, that probably includes resentment at people like me, without putting some blood into the game. I don’t want to pretend that our stories can make youth last any longer than it does, or put an end to a world gone wildy awry but I think that just as most of us found each other after feeling lonely and isolated as young people, many of us too find loneliness entering into a middle age, only this time also lacks the easy socialibility of counter-culture and the easy answers of a political identity.
If you have some interest on working on this with me drop me a line at email@example.com
Thanks for asking about the oblique statement I made on Facebook to quote…
I am terrified by the politics behind the phrase “decolonize the imagination”
To begin with let me state unequivocally that I loved Octavia Butler as an author and respect that fact that a generation of new authors have found her writing to be inspiring and her personal story heartwrenching. There is probably no better way to honor her than to put together a collection of SF writings by POC authors. I also respect the fact that Walidah Imarisha is doing good PR work for her project and finding whatever media sources available to get out the word of the project. As someone who works in publishing, I recognize the work that she is doing as uncomfortable but necessary in this early stage of the digital publishing transformation. It’ll probably work at selling many copies of the book.
Again, as a publisher of books in the conceptual neighborhood of this one, and as a life-long lover of SF I can’t help but be envious of AK Press for being associated with this project EXCEPT for the content of the book (or at least the PR) itself. Now, I have not read it so I can’t speak to the actual content, but I can speak to the political suppositions made in the boingboing article which, I assume, reflects the tenor of the introduction (ie the framing) of the book. Here is a quote that seems to get to the heart of the politics of Octavia’s Brood:
“Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always towards justice,” writes Imarisha. “We believe this space is vital for any process of decolonization, for the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is, for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”
Here is where you see the difference between an Octavia Butler–who in her essay “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future” made it clear that the strong-throated assertions of politicians are to considered in the face of the unintended consequences of their solutions–and the topicality of Imarisha’s declarations around decolonization and justice. On the one hand you have an author who decries the simplicity of speaking in terms of solutions to frightful, terrifying problems and on the other hand we have a vague, programmatic. “Take this world, add decolonization to imagination, and the future is limitless.” As any lover of SF will tell you, if you assume imagination, full stop, the world is limitless. That’s the definition of the word!
The alternative, offered here, is an imagination that is colonized by some foreign, external force. If we accept Imarisha’s premise that our imagination is colonized then we are utterly without hope. Imagination, as far as I’m concerned, is the magic dust that makes every other thing possible whether it’s activism, the pursuit of knowledge, or the will to fight. To start the conversation, whether it’s about visionary fiction or changing the world, by shooting yourself in the leg vis a vis imagination is to end it pre-born, it’s a fight for voice rather than speaking with it, it’s a fight for the right to think rather than thinking.
This brings us to the topicality of the message of Octavia’s Brood. The primary coded term in use here is decolonization. It’s used three times in the quote up above and I’m left struggling to understand what it means. I understand its use in the sense of ejecting foreign occupation of one’s land. I also understand the Fanonian idea that foreign values have come to dominate here (eg North America). I do not, though, understand what the connection to those two uses of the term have to do something called decolonization and I think that this is an intentional mystification.
I think that the word decolonization, in this use and generally, is intended to evoke a militant attitude regarding existential and physical occupation without much thinking, or practicality, behind it. It seems to be used as a powerful way to say “good, but not in a white way” without, necessarily, specifically racializing the point. In the quote above the subtext is of a liberation movement that begins by an oppressed minority breaking the deep existential chains that bind without having to name that minority or the oppressor. It is, in other words, topical PR about a book, using for inspiration a woman who deserves something less crass and ham-handed than she is getting.
I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been feeling pretty low and unexcited about the anarchist space but didn’t want to devote much energy to complaining about it. I feel a bit better now. I participated in the 2015 NAASN gathering. I was motivated by Tom Nomad and his idea to discuss three perspectives on the role of anarchists in social movements. Tom, Doug and I gave presentations. I’ve attached the schedule and descriptions here.
Here is my presentation (more or less as a transcript). Enjoy!
Am I a pessimist?
so the first thing I want to say is that this panel (there are a couple others but very few this weekend) are sort of outside of the tradition of anarchist studies. to me, this is a good way to start thinking about what pessimism means.
I actually disagree with the premise (this is my habit, of course), I disagree with the premise of the question. So I’m here to represent the pessimistic, in this question, but I disagree with the premise. But to extend that a little, for me the pessimistic orientation, which I mostly do see as a modern, youth perspective… a pessimistic perspective sits on the outside as an observer, is disempowered, and sort of whines about how things are going, how shitty everything is, and how shitty everyone is. That’s the pessimistic position.
I would like to believe that I don’t do that at all. That my projects by and large (specifically Little Black Cart, but also certain web projects I do) has me absolutely engaged with the things that are happening around me and with this thing that I love, which I call anarchism.
I mention that because within the anarchist studies context, there is a quiet consensus that anarchism is a class-struggle perspective, and that anarchism is collegiate (because many of the people who are involved in anarchist studies together know that they will be seeing each other in sociology conferences, and what not, in the future; to some extent this is a wading pool for their bigger academic life, which—if they’re successful—they’ll actually have). so when you see the list of all the names, there’s a surprisingly small fraction of speakers who are outside of that tradition. One of the terms used to dismissively refer to these [outside-of-the-academic-tradition] people is “organic intellectuals;” and I guess i’m one of them.
I’m going to give a presentation from some notes that I wrote down, but I want to be cautious, because I know I’m liable to flights of fancy where people might not get the things I reference and could get confused. So I know that i’m somewhat notoriously incomprehensible. I apologize for that ahead of time and I’ll try to fill in a lot here, to make it clear what I’m trying to get at.
I’m here to represent the position with the absolute worst marketing in all of anarchism or even radical politics. I wish I could just blame bob black for this (which of course I can), but the amount of vitriol piled onto what is perceived to be my position is in absolute contrast to common sense. Whether you call it post left, anti left, anti organizational, anti civilization, or nihilist anarchy, it’s reviled from Bookchin to Zerzan. But at the end of the day, it is the anarchist position. It is an approach of utter hostility to the existing order, and or revulsion to most successful approaches to changing the world.
(That’s pretty clear.)
Where my position differs from my comrades here today is that I am not only opposed to successful approaches to changing the world–ie state communists, capitalists, technocrat– i’m also against failed approaches to changing the world. Every time I hear the word revolution, especially as it’s used by the class-struggle and struggle-struggle-all-the-time-strugglismos, what I perceive are plaintive wails of a failed secular crusade against the infidels.
To put this in some context, I think I, like many of you, began being a radical in the shadow of what felt like a very structured arrangement. Like, “Spain is the high point of anarchist struggle,” “things have gotten better over time” (so, a progressive story about history), and over time when I stopped thinking of these accepted premises as true, and started to think about what they meant, what they assumed, I found that there were fewer and fewer answers the further I went down this rabbit hole. So not to simplify too much, but one of the history of ideas that I think is absolutely to think about in the context of anarchism (this is actually talked about a lot in a book called Anti-Nietzsche, by Bell—he’s a marxist scholar who attempts to revile Nietzsche from a Marxist perspective but makes an interesting point that may be valid), the first rebels were the rebels who contemplated the possibility that there might not be a God. Sorry, let me make the big clarification, the first rebels in the western tradition, the tradition that most of us in this room are locked into. So the first rebellion was even opening up the idea that God wasn’t this omnipotent, singular, reflection. So it was only later that sort of sub-Gods began to be of concern; so what we now say is that anarchism is against capitalism and the state. That’s a later formation. The original heresy in the western tradition is just to be against God. This is because the western tradition at its very core is a christian, religious, judeo-christian formation. The way we think about logic, history, the progress of history, the way we metaphysically place ourselves in the universe, has an entire christian pedagogical terrain. And I think it’s fair to say that anarchism does the same thing, in almost all its iterations.
Last night there was a very nice presentation about anarcho-pacifism that left out the Jesus… but there’s plenty of Jesus in anarcho-pacifism. To me the striking thing is that in all the beautiful flourishes that we all cheer along to, from the stories that we heard last night, almost all those stories begin and end with a narrative that looks like salvation by way of revolution.
So the reason that I question the premise that i’m a pessimist is because I question the premise that a revolution will save us, that the french revolution model of transforming society and social relationships—not only whether or not it’s valid but whether or not it’s… the toolset is incomplete. And that’s entirely putting aside the fact that the western model and the western gaze here doesn’t describe much more than 25% of the world. It just happens to be the winning 25%, at least as we understand it today.
So there’s the context.
As for the rest of us, the dirty savages of daily life… we labor in silence, fully aware that we are not the future managers of society. We are not necessary or considered in regards to how to feed and water the masses. We’re nto invited to the organizational meetings, or the fashionable equivalents in the 21st century, sex parties, how to set up a commune or whatever, we scrape and scrabble merely to survive. So let me restate my premise in reference to our current impasse (an impasse referred to in the original text, something of what tom was talking about). In days of yore, we believed in the spirits of rocks, trees, lakes around us. Our deities were human-sized, and we had personal relationships with them, as is normal when the frame of your reference is small and human-sized. Eventually our deities organized themselves and found heroes, stories, morality. This was a nightmare because it grew our frame of reference outside the band, into a gang, and bullies started to find themselves. The rest of us suffered. Finally these pantheons had it out with one another, and ended up in really large stories, universal stories that raged across continents, cutting people down like trees, and forcing many of us to fight for their flags and holy trinities.
Lucky for some, at some point someone came up with a better version of this story, that spun fire and brimstone into inside heating and iphones. This modern story is one that agrees on all levels with the universal monotheistic religion, but calls it something else, humanity let’s say. It convinces because it has better songs, FM radio, and shit, but perhaps has made some sort of back room deal with monotheism, because the two don’t seem to squabble at all in public at this point. But from the perspective of an anarchist, those who fight for one are identical in every way to those who fight for jesus and would hand infidels from the walls of the city (except for terminology and a decided lack of passion… growing less as times goes on).
So stop wasting your time, fellow anarchists, with a failed modernist strategy of a crusade against society in all its forms. There is no path from here to there. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you an ideology, full stop. The things we should be doing together and apart is to create anarchic moments of our own, not merely in the reflection of cops’ riot masks, but in the interstitial spaces of a totalizing world that aspires to fill more and more of the spaces between us. If one aspires to activism, it should in growing and developing those interstitial spaces rather than defending spaces that are long gone.
The point is no longer to fight against symbols of bad as a solution to a world gone bad, but to fight as a matter of affect, to create a loving hostility, that’s the only thing that anarchy can be today.
Ideally I would be updating this thing at least once a month. At least that often I have some poignant thing that I’m working through that I’d love to share in this context as at least a bookmark for further thinking but I find I’m rarely getting around to it. Why? Because between websites I run (and that self destruct), publishing a book a month, helping run a distro, trying to get & keep some paying work, publishing and writing for a newspaper, and just keeping up with the daily grind of keeping all of this in order… writing is a hard sell.
Oh yeah, and there is traveling. At least 2 major and 3-4 minor times a year I leave the Bay and go to some other part of anarchyland to discover what riches and dramas live there. It makes sense as a way to break my own head out of the drama of the Bay and to submerge myself in “somewhere else” which is a favored place to visit for sure. This November I traveled to the southeast part of the US and visited Atlanta, Asheville, and Chapel Hill/Carrboro. Here are my thoughts about this trip.
In the Bay we are starting to have a serious problem with the age gap between new residents to anarchyland and the old timers. I saw a shadow play version of the same issue in the SE where the young people seem to have generationally different concerns and interests than the late 20-something people who have distinctly different priorities than those in the next older age group. This could be talked about as a Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials distinction but also breaks down as a pre-Seattle ‘99, post-Seattle 99, and post-RNC (or even post-Occupy) split in anarchyland.
Sure there isn’t really a disagreement between the three around a general orientation about how to live ones life (aka the lifestyle questions are in the range of more free time and less working for others, diet leaning towards veganism, affect towards stylish REI suburban america gear) but the projectuality was distinct. I was excited there was so much Gen X energy on this trip as most of the US doesn’t seem to have it at all or there just isn’t a large enough center of gravity to keep older people around and productive.
I guess this experience can be summed up by the conclusion that North American anarchyland is finally starting to have a generation gap. Enough people in enough age categories to reflect a changing and different anarchy for each. This portends something exciting as, arguably, a culture of resistance (or whatever) may only be truly possible when there is enough of a range of people to actually demonstrate anarchy-as-a-form-of-life from cradle to grave.
I’m not going to call out a specific group or set of ideas but I want to put the warning into peoples heads that, much like the RCP and other recruiting organizations of the past, there may be a group of dedicated and intelligent individuals using anarchyland to recruit for a cult. Again, I don’t want to overstate the case but somewhere in the combination of self-appointed charismatic spokespeople, a value system that seems innovative and exclusive, and a double set of ethics is something-like-a-cult.
Beware the wolf by first recognizing it.
There is a significant way in which I belong in the SE. It still hangs on to hardcore scene roots, which I grew up with, as a source of pride (or at least self-recognition) rather than “aw shucks I was never in to that” which I experience in most other places. This is a generational questions too as the Gen Y (aka post-Seattle) generation and younger is more likely to not have a background in the punk/hardcore scene… but in the SE it still feels on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Proof? The first night of the Carrboro bookfair weekend there was an ad-hoc, put-together-in-four-hours, jump on each others sweaty bodies, use a megaphone as a microphone, break a window, put a foot into my nose, cover band of Minor Threat. It was awesome, trust me.
That said, I’m not into Hardcore like I used to be. The iconography is still meaningful to me but when I was booted from the mainline of HC I realized important things about myself that I count as the lessons of adulthood. HC was great for my adolescence but things changed. HC didn’t. (not to give any credit to Uppercut, I’m not talking about selling out but about what a music scene’s limitations are)
At some point during my time in CH/C I said something about how ethical the place was… What I meant, what I experienced, was an approach to disagreement that is qualitatively different from how I experience it. If I disagree with someone or something disagreeable is referred to in a room I am in I will often make a joke at the disagreeable objects expense. Usually the joke is funny/not-funny and has, if I do it right, the multiple levels of agreement, disagreement, and ambivalence I feel towards the disagreeable subject are all implied by the joke. I’d like to say that I only don’t talk/joke about the things I absolutely despise, otherwise, games on.
What I realize, now that I’m gone, is that the South really has a thing about politeness that is more-or-less the opposite of my approach. Disagreeable subjects are almost never talked about as disagreeable or in a cruel or sloppy way. Instead the universe slows down and a series of precise statements that clarifies the exact terrain of the disagreement between the speaker and the subject are made. I confused this with ethics because I tend not to treat my (political) rivals with a great deal of respect (preferring to roll about in the mud with them, thank you very much) but it’s something else.
Another example that kind of muddies the water. There were many guests passing through CH/C while I was there including an American ex-pat who currently lives in Berlin. In a rare moment of joviality the kitchen table was making jokes around the challenges of call out culture. The specific example that was being cited was a very complicated situation that was only discussed obliquely but concerned trans identity and the line between trans-misogyny and something else lie. The ex-pat put an absolute chill into the room by saying (more-or-less) “where I am from we don’t make jokes about trans issues because they are very serious” which put the room into a shame spiral that lasted the next 20 minutes.
This attitude and the response is what confused me about the difference between ethical social behavior and a sort of cultural norm around hospitality and the like. Obviously I am ideological when it comes to my ideas around the value of humor, especially if it is painful and disrespectful, but I’m not going to defend this here. I’ll say instead that it’s nice to see that there are still local characteristics in different parts of the country.
In my imagination anarchyland could be a healthy, multi-generational, cauldron of persons, ideas, and projects. Among the limitations to this ever happening is the moralism around broke culture. I share a condemnation of work(ing for a living). I recognize how American culture pulls us towards a shallow materialism and crazy ideas like freedom = property ownership et al. I choose as one of my least desirable abstractions the one called Capitalism (I especially like this critique of it). I also see a hard contradiction between the ways that anarchyland forces people to choose a side around having money and being a true & real anarchist.
I lived in the Mission district prior to the first dot com bubble in the late 90s (I believe I moved to the East Bay around 97). During the 90s most of the people I knew worked no more than 20 hours a week and spent the rest of their energy doing creative interesting things. There was a balance between living (the things one enjoyed doing) and working (the things violently forced on us by this world). It was great and I was surrounded by sparks and fire.
I despise the violence of this world but scurrying about as if it doesn’t constrain our imagination and possibilities adds a second level of abstraction to a condition that is already difficult. Forcing our people to see themselves as good or bad depending on how much of their working life is criminal or black/gray market is… sad. It’s also IMO one of the sub-cultural aspects of anarchyland that I hate the most. It seems to drive people to doing Jobs They Believe in (TM) or leaving anarchyland altogether.
I believe we could be more creative about how we work rather than create ultimatums around it. Sure figuring out coops and collectives may be part of that but so too could shared jobs and other types of resource sharing. Most of us live in cities where the cost of living is outrageously high and our lack of trust in each other means we each face these obstacles alone.
Thanks to my hosts in ATL, Asheville, and Chapel Hill/Carrboro. Thanks for letting me into your home and lives.
This has been a harder piece to write than I expected it to be, since the point I want to discuss is relatively simple. What isn’t simple is the supporting material: the bits around the central bit. There is this larger piece I’m in the middle of thinking about the next issue of Black Seed: What is Anarchist thinking? (Others may ask what is anarchist scholarship or epistomology or whatever.) This somehow merges in my mind into a question about how each of us embodies a story of ideas in motion. If we aren’t robots or ideologues we change our minds on central questions or, at the very least, approach them from different perspectives as we age. Our politics and the way we express them changes over time. Anarchist thinking should reflect that.
Since I was a tike of 15 I’ve been obsessed with the question of how to live the ideas I was immersing myself in. What seems simple when you are a weirdo punk rebel youth becomes complicated as you try to keep a job or have a conversation with anyone who isn’t punk, a rebel, youth, or weird. We, or at least I, get confused about the signs that people put out there and what exactly they signify and eventually I figured out that it is in that gap (sign-signified) that lay all the interesting bits; about new friends, about ourselves, and that the simple logical people who A + B = C their entire lives aren’t the people for me. Figuring everything out turns out to be a great way to generate boring people.
To put this in a more argumentative way I want to make an initial presupposition that anarchist thinking should be destructive thinking: it should embody attack. It should never assume its context within existing models but recognize its hostility to those systems, especially in this world, and move from there into one of a knowing absence. I’ll try to develop this elsewhere but the point it brings up here is the positive inclination it maps onto things like confusion, inexperience, and not knowing exactly what is going on and acting anyway. Anarchist thinking may improve when there is more connective tissue but flexibility and pliability are core values. I would set this kind of mental flexibility next to imagination, hatred of authority, and a desire for collaboration and mutuality and call the list the anarchist value system, but obviously that’s getting way ahead of ourselves…
The challenge I’m concerned with today is the idea that anarchist practice should be seen as indistinguishable from anarchist ideas or, to put it another way, that means and ends should be indistinguishable. That, in lieu of a revolution and perhaps instead of a revolution, we should exhibit and inhabit the way we want to be in the world, full stop. Insofar as we desire a world free from coercion and authority we should not be coercive or authoritarian. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see that this position has wide implications, not the least of which is an obsession with calling out behavior as coercive or authoritarian and by extension declaring individuals, by their incongruous actions, not-anarchists.
As an initial effort to nibble around the edges of this ethical position I’d like to introduce a counterexample to this inseparability of ends and means. I’ll go even further and use this case as a testament to a broader set of counterexamples. I am referring to what it is that we do for money. How do we live in this world?
I want to be as precise as possible here because while I may have an aesthetic preference for sloth, or at the very least for work avoidance, I am compelled to work for others for money. This compulsion is real and rather distinct from the projectual focus of my life generally. While I respect the fact that many people avoid this compulsion by hiding from the world of rent and responsibility (-to-others) I have found that by and large this is only a temporary or privileged position. Most people experience their lives as broken into at least two pieces, one being the set of things you are forced to do to live in this world, the other being the set of things you do because of desire, joy, or preference.
What seems to be the common ethical anarchist practice of reconciliation between these two spheres of life is to find work (ie compulsory labor) in a field resembling the social services. This could be directly as a social worker, or commonly as a nurse or health practitioner or teacher, or perhaps work in an NGO where policy changes can be interpreted as effort towards a common good.
My theory is that this reconciliation is impossible. Moreover, the attempt exemplifies the idea that politics can (and should) be practiced by participating in institutions that either by form or function reflect (although usually only partially and by an amount that degrades over time) your personal values. If your institution is healthy then the particular political position it represents is seen as waxing. In anarchist jargon this is the critique of representation: (here is a nice overview).
The other piece of this (function) is the question of whether
good works can lead to the salvation of man we make the change we’d like to see in the world. This is most blatant in the context of, for example, health care, where you are in fact making life and quality of life decisions for and with other human beings. It’s hard to differentiate the human side of health care from the entirely disembodied aspects of doing care work for pay and in increasingly rational and rationalized ways. When you are in it your perspective changes… and that is exactly the (or a) problem!
This is not a declaration to stop doing things, or even to stop working jobs that improve yourselves (singular and plural) but a small declaration that thinking anarchisticaly should not reconcile this contradiction. For some this means that they want to live in the grief of doing care work while under the discipline of wage, rational systems, and assholes (both those being cared for and the bureaucracy above) but for others, for me, it means I keep the life I live in this world unreconciled with the life I live in our world.
I maintain a firewall between work (a jargon term that means obligatory labor in the marketplace) and the things I do (for pleasure). This has made me a shitty employee from the perspective of promotions and career advancement since I don’t appear to be willing to give myself up for my employer but a better anarchist, albeit by a new definition. An anarchist is not one whose means and ends are inseperable. An anarchist is one who devotes a great deal of energy understanding the difference between the world–of power, authority, and domination–and a world of our creation. An anarchist in this world has to understand boundaries and all the ways that power, care, and the violence of exchange conspire to turn us into our opposite.
This reportback will include some thoughts about the different locations I visited in my trip around the US, highlights from my presentation, and some thoughts about where current conversations are at regarding Green & anarchist ideas. The broad project of Black Seed is to grow the audience and definition of green anarchism beyond the constrains of windmills, wolves, and wildness into a broad category of non-instrumental approaches to living, struggling, and thinking. This means fighting the allure of jargon, counter-cultural shortcuts, and sectarianism. A green anarchism can (and should) be one that is pluralist with bruises rather than righteously exclusionary.
Timing is Everything
The Black Seed tour was somewhat motivated by the desire to go to the Cleveland and NYC Anarchist bookfairs (for LBC) and wanting to make sure people who wouldn’t otherwise ask for a copy of Black Seed would still get one as easily as possible. With that in mind the tour was setup just a few weeks before it began and ended up including events in Milwaukee, Cleveland OH, Pittsburgh PA, Rochester NY, Buffalo NY, Philadelphia PA, Columbus OH, Bloomington IN, and Salt Lake City UT.
Given that (sadly) anarchism tends to be of interest to a primarily college-aged crowd if you want to speak to a larger-than-small crowd you should orient your trip around student participation. Traveling to a town a week or two after finals is therefore not recommended. Mostly, towns where there was not a standing anarchist population had nearly zero turnout.
Couple that with the perceived (or not-so-perceived) hostility between old-time red anarchists and anything not-red and I felt a little bummed in a couple towns. But turnouts that are really just become conversations rather than presentations and while I think I’m better at the latter (with strangers) than the former… context matters and acting like you are talking to an audience when three people are in the room is kind of silly.
Initially I was going to prepare a new presentation regarding some of my current thinking about the problem of indigeneity but the Black Seed editors reminded me of an important thing. I am not an editor of Black Seed, I am the publisher. This point, while subtle in an anarchist project where lines are often muddied and disrespected, is an important one as I am not nearly as equipped to represent the content of the paper as I am to present my own thoughts. If the stated goal was to bring Black Seed to towns… then doing that, describing the context that Black Seed came out of, reading the editorial, and calling for questions seemed to be the appropriate level of engagement. This is an especially important point given that the very small GA milieu seems particularly guilty of personalizing projects/ideas which is absolutely not the goal of Black Seed. Green Anarchism will whither on the vine again if it is about personalities (or singular projects).
Since I know this will be asked, I’ll answer it ahead of time. The difference between a publisher and editor of a project (or at least this one) is basically one of experience and money. A publisher pays for the printing and deals with the distribution. An editor collaborates with authors to make their writing as strong as possible, which can mean political, content, or copy editing work.
Here are a few bullets points from the presentation.
What is green anarchism
In one view of anarchism it is part of the divided revolutionary project in a dialectical relationship with Marxism and its branches. In that view Green Anarchism is a branch that only began to thrive as the ecological movement came into general consciousness after WWII (although it did have an earlier origin story). This isn’t my definition of GA.
For me there is one great story, one bible, of radical engagement to the world and that is Hegelianism. Those who reject this specific story, the idea that reality can be expressed by rational categories and that the goal is to reduce reality to a unity, may be green anarchists. This means that my orientation is more cautious & circumspect than declarative and valiant. It also means I don’t tend to buy “the end is nigh therefore…” arguments as I don’t think that human consciousness/will/capacity is all it’s cracked up to be. Put another way, not only am I not a humanist (by design), I don’t think humans are either. But that’s just me.
The context of Black Seed
We miss the magazine Green Anarchy. It died, to a greater or lesser extent, as a consequence of the Green Scare (aka the persecution of anarchist, earth, and animal liberations types on the West Coast). It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, but the feds set the fire and only lunatics and fools don’t run from fire.
Black Seed is the serotinous result of this fire.
The critique of anthropology
This is obviously the topic of a larger “meta” conversation but here are the stated concerns/issues/critiques of anthropology as stated in Black Seed. One, anthropology is an academic discipline that begs for a deeper analysis of why anti-authoritarians would engage in a field that uses knowledge to grow the power of the existent and not something that thrives outside of the academy. Two, anthropology traditionally “others” people in ways that can only be described as problematic (or genocidal depending on your perspective). Three, anthropology is a discipline of truth (with a capital T). If it were a form of story telling (where the aspects of truth are malleable and subjective) there would be little concern with it. Disciplines of truth are some of the arcane magicks that have summoned Leviathan.
Here are some brief notes on some of the stops on the tour.
NYC believes it is the center of the universe. It absolutely is not. Especially when it comes to anarchy. Even moreso when it comes to vibrant, exciting, searching for new ideas. NYC is where ideas and dreamers go to die.
I did get to see Jerry Koch and Daniel McGowan back from prison and back in the mix. That made my heart soar (no joke).
The First Annual Cleveland Anarchist Bookfair was a great first time effort by a very young crew. Bloomington always turns out an inquisitive crowd. Columbus was a really positive and engaged group of people at the new Sporeprint Infoshop. These three towns were the best attended events and most interested attendees on the tour.
The area between the West Coast and the Great Lakes is a huge wasteland of anarchist emptiness. The only exception (this trip) was Salt Lake City which was a strange mix (and included an event with me and scott crow…) that included a great group house, an utterly hostile town, and a group of people who seemed to have been passed by by time…
Finally I’ll speak a bit to the condition of anarchy (especially green) based on my fractional view of NA@ on the Black Seed tour. First, I got the strong impression that there is an eager audience for a new/refreshed view of a green anarchist perspective that is not EF! style activism or ideological. People seem to feel that -something- green reflects their values but are really looking for an active conversation about it (rather than a fait accompli). Second, the history of even recent North American radical activity is woefully incomplete and under told. This is probably a direct result of the turn-26-and-youre-out nature of 21st century anarchism but I’ll also go ahead and blame wikipedia, the @ FAQ, and the vicious little scene that eats everyone alive who participates in it. Third, many anti-left positions no longer have to be defended. Everyone agrees on the basics and (in an all-too-american way) want to get down to brass tacks.
For future trips I would recommend an editor and an author or two to travel together with a wider variety of approaches (like skill + content, intro + experiential, etc) than my “one person show” was capable of. Plus, I’m getting to old to haul books, drive thousands of miles, and give a compelling presentation to a small crowd without getting demoralized. Which isn’t to say that I feel demoralized after the trip but that some days felt like I was only capable of reaching one or two people (rather than dozens, hundreds, or the millions necessary to shift our conversations beyond the arcane and irrelevant).
Final note. The last event I did on this tour was a public conversation with Scott Crow who, perhaps, would seem like someone from a different corner of the big tent of anarchy. The conversation was productive but only because we came into it already knowing each others jargon (ie the very different words we used to say the same things) and liking each other. I’ll say tentatively that our capacity to find common cause may indicate a possibility for many of the different clans to find ways to work together. Scott is a great contrast to the color coded sectarianism of the rest of the anarchist world and I think we can agree that a black flag is good enough.
by aragorn in General
or what are we to do about Maoism
One of the reasons that anarchism has become a popular political perspective is because in many contexts (for instance mass mobilizations or broad direct action campaigns) we seem open, friendly, and nonsectarian. This is in great contrast to visible (and visibly) Marxist or Leftist organizations, which either seem like newspaper-selling robots or ancient thorny creatures entirely out of touch with the ambivalence of the modern political atmosphere. Anarchists seem to get that ambivalence and contest it with hope and enthusiasm rather than finger-wagging.
The public face of anarchism tends towards approachability and youth: kids being pepper sprayed, the general assemblies of the occupy movement, and drum circles. These are the images of the past five years that stand in contrast to the image of anarchists as athletic black clad window breakers. Both are true (or as true as an image can be) and both demonstrate why a criticism of anarchists continues to be that (even at our best) we are politically naïve.
Of course very few window breakers believe that breaking windows means much beyond the scope of an insurance form or a janitorial task, but that is beside the point. What matters is that the politics of no demands makes the impossible task of intelligent political discourse in America even more complicated (by assuming that discourse is a Pyhrric act). To put the issue differently, the dialectical binary of both engaging in the social, dialogic, compromising act of public politics while asserting that there is no request of those-in-power worth stating or compromising on isn’t possible. It is cake-and-eat-it thinking that is exactly why Anarchists must do what Anarchist must do1.
This rejection of how the game is played while participating in it hasn’t shown itself to be a long term strategy– impossible never is. For lessons on playing the game we have to turn to the winners of politics and revolution: neoliberalists, sure, but also statist Marxists, reactionaries (from racist populists to nationalist Know Nothings or their descendants in the Tea Party), and what remnants exist of the old and new Left. Just to make the point crystal clear I’ll restate it. On the one hand you have the ridiculous non- or even anti-strategy of anarchist political theater that cannot achieve the impossible goal of everything for everybody forever. On the other hand you have realpolitik: the pragmatic application of power in the political sphere. This simplistic dualism is why most intelligent people abandon politics altogether and retreat to NIMBYism (at best) or the quiet solitude of screaming at a television screen as the only expression of engagement with the outside world.
In this light, a discussion about maoism might seem outrageous and it is! Maoism isn’t a relevant political tendency or movement in America. It isn’t leading guerrilla forces in the hills, it has no leaders-in-waiting just outside the border (unless you count Avakian which you should in no way do), but it isn’t further from the mainstream of American political thought than Anarchism is (anarchist big tent populists to the contrary) and is arguably much closer (in an often cited example, the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, is a former Maoist). More pointedly, Maoism and Anarchism have been cross-pollinating for decades. Our task here is to shine a light on that history and challenge what benefits anarchists have garnered from this little-discussed pollination.
A defense of anarchism
One may pause here to consider the goal of defending anarchism against Maoism (or any other ideology of the left). Why bother? Isn’t anarchism exactly as irrelevant as these other 19th century ideas? Yes and no. If you are talking about the fights within the First International about what form the revolutionary party will take (secret or public), or the composition of the most advanced working class groups (craftsmen or factory), than yes, absolutely. Even if you are talking about the integrated partisans of the Spanish Civil War, then the term has declined into the merely historical. Of interest perhaps, primarily because of the optimism and ferocity of it’s partisans, but really a demonstration of a good liberal university education and not much else.
If, on the other hand, anarchism is the term used to describe an open-ended theory that will not, cannot, be set in stone until the day of days, because it isn’t named after a man, because it is named after negation, because it is impossible, then no. In its hostile negative anarchism is a well suited expression of our time.
As anarchism is the theory that we are the ones who directly engage with life, not representatives (whether politicians, NGOs, or community leaders), not systems of control (statistical, bureaucratic, or functional), and not specialists in freedom (authors, etc), then we embrace it. We doubly embrace it if somehow this engagement with life also means the absolute destruction of the system-as-it-is but we know that this destruction–whether called revolution, evolution, or communization–is not guaranteed or even likely in our lifetime. This means that our theory interfaces with the reality of politics and other people every day but without the burden of the correct revolutionary ideology that has in no way been more successful than anarchism, just more bloody.
A little history
I’ll leave it to others to do an accurate and deep review of the history of Maoism in the US since the end of the Vietnam War and how it has melted into the firmament of Cultural Studies programs and the counter-cultural left (by way of Refuse and Resist, No Business As Usual, the October 22 Coalition Against Police Brutality, Not In Our Name, the World Can’t Wait, etc). My task is to show that there is a weave of relationships rather than to make something functional out of that weave. In the Bay Area the vigor of Maoism as a viable political ideology is entirely due to two factors: the Black Panther Party and the RCP.
While the depth of Maoist politics in the BPP is largely locked up in unreported meetings and allegations that the BPP did a bang up business selling Little Red Books in the late 60s, the Maoist trappings of the BPP aren’t in question. We have to contend with the BPP (a relatively small and historical group) currently almost entirely because of their representation in movies and visual media. The BPP continue to be among the most cited predecessors of modern political movements. We all have an image seared into our mind of ourselves, as radicals, engaging with the straight world (whether in the halls of the Legislature or the streets of our towns) wearing visually striking attire, with weapons over our shoulders. Obviously the direct action work (from neighborhood armed defense to feeding and schooling the kids) of the BPP is beyond reproach (if the history of such is to be believed) but this is an entirely different topic than the ideas of The Party per se or the stories of the heroes of the BPP. This is the story of grassroots organizing by any other name; this name just has a solid mythology surrounding it.
It is worth mentioning that I don’t in fact have strong feelings about the BPP. The social and political atmosphere that they derive from are so entirely different than ours that I am in no way qualified to make categorical statements about them. They are a historical artifact that can be, and is, debated as such, but by-and-large this debate isn’t an anarchist one (either in name, sentiment, or aesthetic). For many people, recognizing the significance of the BPP (as in the differences between the perceived work of the BPP and the work of radical politics today) is a necessary part of political development. Recognizing the differences between the work of the BPP in the 60s and our work today is how we determine our own project, and that has nothing to do with political ideologies.
The RCP can be more cleanly dealt with. No caveats need apply to this hack organization that should be utterly reviled by any anarchist. Moreover the concept that building up the theory or personality of Bob Avakian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_Communist_Party,_USA#Activities) as important, revolutionary, or even notable is entirely preposterous .
That said, the practice of rebranding oneself, of spinning up front groups as quickly as new single issues come to the fore, is obviously a smart and pernicious idea. It allows a political organization to control its messaging, gating new members through specific interests rather than through an entire, decades-long political program. It provides a way to show rather than to talk (which is a significant anarchist weakness). It builds relationships through “common struggle” rather than through debate, coercion, or brow-beating. While the result is still the same, this multi-form and layered approach to inculcating new members is persuasive and confusing, exactly the goal of groups that do it.
Mentioning these two groups isn’t intended to say that the influence of Maoist ideas, or those of other historical political traditions, can be constrained by these two data points. Modern Maoist thought has become much more diffuse than either of these historic reference points would lead one to believe. We’ll get into examples later but when people used to use terms like Imperialism, Revolution, and the Party, they now use terms like gentrification, insurrection, and organization: softer, less disagreeable terms that reflect our time. The point is that political approaches have evolved from specific times and places, and that to understand that genealogy is necessary to defend ourselves from taking these approaches at face value.
A little about ideas
The reason that anarchists should study and reflect on Maoism, in particular, is because (in the words of MIM, an RCP split that dissolved a few years ago) “Maoism and real anarchism have the same long-run goals.” (Avakian has said similar things in his critiques of anarchism). MIM (and other explicit Maoists) believe that the only fundamental difference between their perspective and that of anarchists is that Maoists have a plan to implement this shared goal, so their revolutionary program is authentic rather than anarchists’ expression of bourgeois ideology. Right ideas + leadership = revolutionary moral authority?
We live in a post-party era, where the traditional left–whether of unions or alphabet groups–has largely disappeared, and the terrain of anarchistic political discourse cannot be dismissed with the typical anarchist wave of the hand and a decry against “authoritarianism.” By and large, everyone (activists, Occupy, organizers) is willing to say they are anti-authoritarian. The rub is to describe exactly what that means.
The most common place where this discussion is happening couldn’t be older, or more historical. It surrounds the concept of the National Question and how one or another perspective has a solution to it. This concept has its origin in Stalin’s working definition of a nation: “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up, manifested in a common culture.” The Maoist revision includes an addendum that “internal colonies” of nations, exist within the belly of countries like the US (or in the rings of French cities). In either case the National Question is a way to frame the issue of how to organize the shock troops of the next social unrest and how to articulate the program of what the fight is about.
In a useful recent exchange about this between two Maoist groups (the Fire Next Time Committee and Signalfire), here is a summary from Signalfire:
To sum up our stance…it is sufficient to say one step forward, two steps back. In attempting to deal with the real problematic of the ‘people of color’ discourse and identity politics, it seeks to establish an analysis of race coupled with an analysis of class. In doing so, rather than producing an adequate critique and substantive class analysis, the author simply gives us generalities which interrogated at a basic level are superficial and useless in satisfying the need for a real class analysis of the United States.
Rather than seeking truth from facts, it telescopes the particularity of experiences into universalities,and simply doesn’t have an analysis of class that actually corresponds with the existing class structure. It has rather engaged in another sort of “identity politics” of a Brown/Yellow guilt type in relationship to Black oppression, centering it as a fulcrum for the articulation of white supremacist ideology and class structure.
Obviously the National Question still looms large for Maoists and this terminology should be familiar to anyone who is active in big city radical politics. Understanding these two paragraphs is sufficient to function well in the Bay Area political scene.
To draw the linkage between Mao-eque approaches and anarchist thinking we should talk a little bit about Imperialism, Colonialism, and Gentrification. Obviously, according to a dictionary definition, these three things occur. Colonialism leads to Imperialism (or is it the other way around) and from within Empire the shifting of the economic landscape takes on a similar character that is described as Gentrification. These are descriptive terms to the economic, political, and social character of where we live and how we got here.
What they are not are vectors. They don’t trace a line from some historical moment (for example, of primitive purity) on through our current horrorshow into a dystopia/utopia. Descriptors are often confused for causes and this is nowhere more clear than from political perspectives that Have Answers, answers that can be argued for, that are believed to be only capable of winning if others are convinced, and finally, ones that create a logical whole, something coherent (as if this world is coherent).
While many anarchists are convinced by this logical procedural thinking, anyone who is opposed to authoritarianism should break with this trajectory when it comes to a history of Imperialism or Colonialism (or even gentrification) that doesn’t see the state as a necessary part of the genealogy. A monopoly on violence is entirely necessary to invade, control, and genocide a people. It is only to the extent to which capitalism has taken on this monopoly (if it has) that it has taken center stage as the villain for communists and anti-authoritarians.
For anarchists these questions are much simpler. As soon as monopolistic impulses are discovered the hackles of most anarchists are raised. This means that party discipline or even toeing an ideological line tends to be impossible in most anarchist circles. If you accept the Leninist/Blanquist (vanguard/small cadre) model of revolution then anarchists make poor cadre (but so does everyone else!).
Where does this leave us in terms of the most American of all questions: what about race? How is it separable and inseparable from the National Question as framed by Communists in general, and Maoists in particular? Simply put, it leaves us nowhere. The history of racism generally, and slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc in particular, is an integrated part of the story of Imperial America. As residents, and as victims, of that place we should feel obligated to understand that story but we have no power to change it. Revolutionary aspirations to the contrary we cannot manage, dictate, or smash our way out of it, but we also don’t have to own it.
Privilege theory places agency on those who have privilege. If one is determined to hold together a pluralist democratic society this kind of thinking is absolutely necessary but what if you don’t? What if you are hostile to the conceptual framework that holds together a society of 300 million people (which you can do even while recognizing that this framework is the structure that society itself is built on)?
Respecting the self-determination of a group of people, from an anarchist perspective, should look a lot less like listening to the leaders or elders of a group you aren’t a part of, than like finding common cause against those that constrain self-determination in the first place. Primarily this is the state but it’s also the economic relationships that subjugate all of us. Respect doesn’t mean friendship or agreeing. It means recognition, boundaries, and qualified solidarity.
One common hostility I have towards many anarchists is the general attitude I find that anarchists tend to be for good things and against bad things. It is a kind of modified kindergarten attitude that makes sure everyone sees each other for the good-intentioned beautiful snowflakes that they are, rather than doing much with all that intention and beauty. At its worst, this attitude makes discussions about personal, emotional issues intolerable, because everybody has to demonstrate to everybody else that they, in fact, are paragons of multi-racial purity. But in fact, everybody, without exception, are bigoted, prejudiced, close-minded idiots. Getting this essential truth out early allows the eventual name-calling of racist, sexist, transphobe, kyriarchiest to be framed appropriately.
We are against bad things, therefore we are also against ourselves.
The Wisdom of Fools
As long as anarchists do not inform ourselves about the myriad of forces that seek to intentionally confuse their project for an anarchist one, we will continue to be fooled by them. More problematically, and over a long enough timeline, this confusion becomes reality. “Anti-authoritarian” becomes a soft way to obscure that you are a Maoist whose “revolutionary program” is what makes you a true anti-antiauthoritarian. “Anti-Imperialist” becomes a way to describe hostility to American foreign policy and not an adherent of the three worlds theory of Maoism. “Decolonization” becomes code for an urban aspiration for an impossible culture instead of a problematic term relating to everything from native resistance to resource extraction, the dismantling of older Empires, or a project of the United Nations.
Perhaps it is too late, at least in the US, at least for my lifetime. We are a culture that has abandoned not just reading but critical thinking on the whole. Watching language morph into its opposite used to be something associated with the totalitarianism of the USSR or Newspeak of Orwell’s fictional universe. Debord’s spectacle updated this dialectical perversion by demonstrating how capitalism has buttressed the monopoly of violence that used to be a prerequisite for this violence to language. Our meme-tastic, utterly superficial engagement with even political questions like how to live, how to do it together, and who am I in relationship to others, seems to show that pointing to Maoists as a political problem is about as useful as talking about aliens and pyramid power. Anarchy as conflict with the existing order, both state and capital and also the its conceptual framework, is an infinite endeavor.
Hesitations aside I know that someone out there will hear me. They will recognize a political pedigree in the rhetoric of some local blowhard and will be tempted to stand alone in a room, point a finger, and shout J’accuse! I would warn you against this line of thinking. If the post-left has anything to teach us it is that being right, and informing others of it, isn’t nearly enough. It may be preferable to maintain the affect of the happy fool, the politically naïve, while tilling the soil for the seeds to feed those who will engage in the challenges of how to engage (as anarchists) with politicians. Decrying their badness polarizes the point too early in the relationship. Timing means recognizing that the first moment one understands a situation isn’t the moment to act. Anarchy means attack and attack means patience.
Links related to text
- MD On What Anarchists Can Say
- Tyranny of Structureless & Anarchist Response
- Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM)
- Van Jones
- More about VJ
- Reflections on STORM
- More Context
- Roger White’s essay
- 10 Theses
- Response to 10 Theses
- National Question
- Recent commentary on NQ
- Unpacking the Knapsack
by aragorn in General
By and large I tend to keep my vocation (what I do to make money) entirely separate from the things that I write about. Even when that writing is the impoverished form of the blog entry, I try to keep it distinct from my life as a technologist. However I am making some career shifts that will entail, at the very least, working (in my vocation) with more of my anarchist friends, so here I ponder some things that connect the two worlds.
This is a report back from a “trust” conference I went to last Thursday called Trusty Con (https://trustycon.org/). I stayed for the first two of three sessions (loosely: legal, technology, and activism). You can see what I saw here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkO8SNiDSw0. I strongly recommend you watch this if you are interested in current discussions on security and trust in computer communication.
On one level this was a protest event in relation to the RSA Conference (held a block away at the Moscone Center). On another level it was an event needed in its own right. It included a variety of the usual suspects on the topic (EFF, Free Speech Foundation, etc).
Adorably, Trusty Con was held in a movie theater. What was less adorable was the punchline to the event, which is that state agents are incredibly powerful. To give just one example, the presentation by Steve Weiss on “Trusted Computing Tech and Government Implants” was authentically and deeply terrifying. It detailed less than 10% of the known list of active NSA programs designed to compromise server technology, and while there were gaping holes in what could be determined from the slides (it was unclear what the compromise in security would mean for intelligence), what was clear is that current and future attacks on privacy and dissent are coming in directions previously impossible.
Two examples from the slides: a program (DIETYBOUNCE) that attacks the firmware (the software layer that is active after the machine turns on and before the operating system starts) on Dell servers, using a simple USB key insert. This results in a payload delivery into an operating system at boot time. Another program (Cottonmouth) is the production of USB dongles that include a radio for a secondary mechanism to either keylog, root, or attack an air gapped machine. The important point here is that LEO can currently do things that we only suspected it to be capable of up till now and we know some of the specifics.
To put it another way, and this was nicely demonstrated by some slides, compared to us, state agents are in fact operating on the level of James Bond, and our ability to defend ourselves against them, especially when they are focused on us specifically, is nil (or might as well be). Things are far scarier, in this regard, than I imagined.
For the participants of the event this was in contrast to the more recent and perhaps actionable category of problems called SBC (surreptitious bulk collection). In the pre-history of law enforcement (aka before 9/11) the idea was that LEO (law enforcement officers) would start with a crime (or at the very least a suspect) and then use forensic and investigative tools to determine guilt or innocence, or the very least prosecutability. In the past decade infrastructure has been put into place to harvest enough metadata from the entire world to work from the other direction.
The activist privacy advocate would argue that better, or different, laws would protect us from the consequences of this state of affairs. The technologist privacy advocate has to argue that the capacity to harvest is the real risk and that technologies to hide metadata are urgently necessary. The anarchist has to shiver in terror at either solution. For the 96% of the world that isn’t the US, but whose data passes through our pipes, the anarchist isn’t being dramatic enough.
Obviously trust in governmental agencies is out of the question, not only for anarchists but for any intelligent person. (One might trust that the evaluative capacity of LEO is limited as far as what they can grok, but the consumptive capacity can now safely be assumed to be infinite.)
This doesn’t mean that everything we do is being watched. Modern paranoia should be tempered with some understanding of the context in which we live. Many things (especially meta data to services like email, searching, our browser fingerprint, etc) are stored and “big data” type calculations are connecting our usage of Internet communication to Real LifeTM but LEO is still a slow, lumbering beast that thinks in terms of Occam’s Razor and prefers cops-and-robbers (ie the Shield) to Pattern Recognition.
Prosecutorial instincts aside, this does mean that the Internet has become enclosed. It is not a place where freedom happens by default, and whatever libre does occur here does so because of the intentional and consistent labor of someone. Probably someone who is paying for and implementing the infrastructure and technologies for others to perform freedom. In this world, someone is always paying, either directly or in exchange for psychological manipulation (riffing off of Schneier for this one). Most of us have become accustomed to being manipulated, so it seems like the lesser cost. But is it?
Blah. I’m getting too wrapped up in this entire way of looking at the problem. I am a service provider to radicals. I’ve always been ambivalent about it and I’ve done it anyway. I’ve done it less over the years but I think that was the wrong instinct. The right approach was, and is, finding a crew of politically like-minded @ (ie hopeless ones) to do this work with. I have spent too much time doing it alone and now it just feels like an impossibly huge task, especially to do it right.
To put it another way, Riseup does a great job of delivering email but they do little else. Even less that they are “held accountable” for (crabgrass being a case in point). They do not do web hosting because web hosting is a support nightmare! As a matter of fact it’s been 10 years or so since any radical group (tao, mutual aid, etc) has done public web hosting. AFAICT this is because it’s difficult to do and exhausting (no reward if you aren’t doing it for $). Even the providers of free blogging (like noblogs) don’t seem particularly proactive when it comes to user requests. Helping people, day in day out, is hard. Not like rocket science hard but hard enough to be damn near impossible for radicals (and, obviously this is also true for services like those offered by paypal or gmail).
I used to make fun of anarchists who would decry other anarchists with the claim that we needed to “get organized.” Of course they were right if we shared a goal of social revolution or whatever, but they were also deeply wrong, because we don’t share that common of a goal at all. We live in a highly attenuated age where articulation of shared (especially mass) goals is rather naive. Perhaps the end of revolutionary aspirations has entirely negative consequences for the bulk of human, or radical, endeavors but it can’t be said to be innocent… Innocence, today, seems to live in the “in between places” where someone communicates with others, can seem articulate and bright, but has knowledge that is entirely “wikipedia deep” and is more-or-less not available without access to a cell phone. Innocence is the fatal response to leftism, not by becoming the Right (or Conservative) but by becoming useless.
In non-anarchist green thought the topic of enclosure, especially in the intellectual and cultural sense of the term, has been topical for decades. Whether the critique was about using plastic or television sets, the answer was to do less of it (aka the liberal response) or to shy away from destroying our capacity to do it all (the radical response). The anti-civilization turn was to begin with the radical response and go further… but to what end? To become the meanest, greenest boy scouts ever (rewilding)? To become indistinguishable from the street corner preachers declaring apocalypse is nigh? Technology marches on, as a force of doing (rather than convincing), and has overshadowed all critiques of it as a universalizing, totalizing, apocalypse-in-waiting by demonstrating that that isn’t all bad.
When I am feeling hopeless (which is often) I intersect these two lines. On the one hand radicals have valorized uselessness (ie being triggered, idle, anti-work, Critical, etc) and on the other the march of technology has generated meaningful, life-altering, subjectively positive consequences in the vast majority of people’s lives.
My paid work has made me a more successful anarchist not because I’ve become entranced by technology. Quite the opposite. I find technology to be increasingly annoying, cloying, and asphyxiating. But I also recognize that prior to experiencing the constraints of the real world (exemplified by but not limited to paid work) I was not able to set my mind to a task and see it through to completion. Success, as an anarchist, is not about winning (duh). It is about having the capacity to play in increasingly interesting and complex terrains with equally compelling people.