Reportback on a trip to the South East

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.

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Age

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.

The cult

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.

Culture

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.

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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)

Ethics

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.

Poverty (aesthetic)

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.

The Firewall

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.

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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.

Against friendship – Part I

Herein we will begin to argue against the revolutionary importance of friendship. Will not argue that friendship isn’t a fine and wonderful thing for daily life, for the eating of brunch, or the consumption of beverages. This is all well and good, do what one will, live your life.

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What we will argue against is the way in which the affinity group model that has been abandoned generally (although not universally) in anarchist circles has instead migrated into an unconscious way of life. This migration has caused the conflation of social circles (aka groups of friends) with sharing political values (aka the party) with the result that anarchists (and the ASC who predate on our energy) have become countercultural against their better instincts.

To put this into different terms, the conflation of friendship with politics, if it is caused by conscious agency, is done so either by those who prefer to “just hang out” but also want to believe that they and their friends are conscious social agents OR by those who have a specific political project and want to keep it relevant by having it also be a place where social needs can be met.

If the conflation is not conscious, as in, it merely reflects the spectating nature that radicals have over their own lives, then it goes a long way towards explaining the increasing isolation of radical groupuscles. Our lifeways cannot be attractive outside our capacity to grow our social cliques beyond themselves. It is not that we are not desirable, it is that we are choosing the wrong way to communicate that desirability. Being sexy rebels isn’t nearly enough to affect the kind of attraction we would need to confound even the MSM view of us as dangerous outsiders.

Of course this is not some backhanded way to form or reform some type of anarchist political party. I am asking a question I don’t have the answer to.

Indeed I am suspicious about the way in which this friend-comrade indistinction has occurred. Sure, I can point to a reaction against the new left or organizationalism or the desirability of true affinity or the writing of Tiqqun, but the lack of experimentation after Occupy is suspicious. This is the time to change up, not fall back to pattern. Relying on the cool kids to decide what comes next has obviously had limited returns (unless you’re a cool kid and your goals are limited to, by definition, individual social rewards). Perhaps it is time to stop being coy and declare a goal or two.