Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 6 - No. 1
Spring, 2002


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Fireflies in the Night
By Kevin Van Meter

This is a brief, but strategic look at our present crisis, the potentialities that are unfolding within it, and the terrains of struggle that are opening before us.  This is an attempt to go beyond the ideological limitations of anarchism in its present form.  Here the poet, the romantic, and the revolutionary make up our new trinity.   

1. The Poet. “Against this monster, people all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention.”  - CLR James, Grace C. Lee & Pierre Chaulieu. In the present crisis we find the anti-authoritarian left lost in the night, donning ideological blinders, preventing it from seeing the fireflies dancing right before their faces.  It has lost the simple power of observation, it no longer sees the paths out of the woods, or the strategic approaches that are build on the immanent actions of the oppressed.

1.2 A revolutionary approach to the present crisis. With the above said, I would, for strategic reasons only, like to approach the different facets of the crisis we are now faced with.  To begin, this crisis is the first of its kind, in the post-globalized world, to be taking place within the system.  There are no barbarians at the gates; these “enemies of the western world” are inside the castle walls.  Empire is everywhere.  It is found at the genesis of this crisis; its form is reflected in this crisis and “it is called into being and constituted on the basis of its capacity to resolve conflicts, hence it justifies itself in this crisis; we are witnessing a new stage of the development of capitalism.    

Power itself has become raw, direct, and immanent, but it is the massive production of information and images in the wake of September 11th that shields this fact from the populace.  This crisis is also a test of immaterial production, for if it fails, the ghost of power will be nose to our nose.  But what about nationalism or the hyper-patriotism that we are now witnessing?  Once again we see the corporation dressed in red, white and blue, but this time it is the media multi-nationals, and not just Lockheed Martin, who is hiding behind the robes.  Finally we must remember this crisis, as with globalization, is an attempt and not an absolute.  The guardians are constructing a new order even after the cracks have appeared.  

1.3 War against terrorism, dissent: The war against terrorism is an attack on our present cycle of struggle; against all those who resist, be they the ruling class of Islamic Fundamentalists or those of us un-Americans who dare to question the interests at play here.  The process of globalization has created a diverse set of antagonists, not all with the same liberatory purpose.  The guardians have attacked our newly constructed commons in an attempt to marginalize and restrict our movements.  We see an apparent crisis of the state-form, uneasy in its footing, and straining its power networks; its over-response is a compensation for this. It has realized that it can not contain the multitude. 

The Haitian Revolution in its time was a powerful example of the abilities of the slave population not only to resist, but also to construct their own society.  Its mere existence was a threat to the system of slavery that existed in the United States, South America, and the rest of the Caribbean.  Subcomandante Marcos (among others) is our own Toussaint L’Ouverture.  While the guardians have closed our commons, they have not, and cannot wipe out our grog shops, networks, relationships, everyday resistances, temporary autonomous zones, and the multiplicity of examples that are anticipating a better world.  It is these spaces that we need to facilitate, expand, and organize from.  But we must know how to find them first.

2. The Romantic. “One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness.  Functionally, oppression is domesticating.  To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it.  This can be done only by means of praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” –Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed 

CLR James, Mutual Aid, and the Crisis of Anarchism: “… there was a parallel between Kropotkin’s insistence on the way the tendency of mutual aid asserted itself and Marx’s insistence that workers expand their own self-organization in response to capital’s exploitation.” When theory blinds us to the simply observable social phenomena and this theory no longer applies to the reality that we are confronted with, this theoretical form must be challenged, furthered, and expanded.  Additionally theoretical developments always followed social reality or cycles of struggle.  The ideological blinders of my anarchist colleagues have prevented them from approaching this situation theoretically and they have missed the proverbial boat on the revolutionary potentials of this crisis.  Anarchism, in its present form, needs to be pushed to its theoretical limits and beyond. 

Viewing this crisis in this form, where our once illuminated spaces have turned pitch black has prevented anarchists from seeing the numerous potentials, opportunities and terrains of struggle that exist.  In defining our views on these ideologically anarchist grounds, and seeing every situation in terms of an ‘anarchist movement’, and hence defining our space in a limited fashion, we have self-marginalized the anarchist and anti-authoritarian viewpoint.  Here my argument against the limits of anarchism in its present form takes on two distinct aspects. The first involves a substantive critique of the form itself and the second is a critique of the application of the present form.  Anarchism, especially American anarchism, has not been part of the larger philosophical developments of the past 40 years since the world-wide movements of 1968.  For example it has reinforced the cult of the worker instead of revolting against work itself.  As a post-Enlightenment theoretical development whose major theorists were militant social actors rather then  arm chair philosophers, anarchism has remained a simple set of principles and has not throughly developed its concepts. While its major strength has been these militant social actors, this form has not been conducive to answering the challenges of a changing world and the philosophical developments that are reacting to these changes.  Also, by not reacting to these changes, these principles have solidified into a limited ideology.  For anarchism to be a viable and fruitful methodology it must shed its present ideological form and in doing so, develop its concepts and a synthesis with other theoretical  developments. 

Anarchism has become an ideological totality, defined against other ideological totalities.  This is a totality, not as in totalitarian, but in one system as defined against other ‘one’ system(s), as a whole defined against other wholes.  Anarchism has become an absolutist dogma based upon objective ‘truth claims’, justified outside of the experience of everyday social actors.  This is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘tree thinking’.  Trees are singular, where every development or deviation is unified in a single norm.  The anarchist tree is defined against other trees of the state, capital, police, war, etc.  This anarchist tree must relate everything, every development to itself.  To sum up these related critiques, anarchism in this form has solidified to a simple oppositional ideology incapable of reacting within reality and our present crisis.

Anarchism is justified as the point of departure rather then the endpoint of the thinking process or dialog.  To state “I am an anarchist!  So XYZ…” reflects the process of solidifying anarchism as a totalizing ideology.  To counter this it requires that we see anarchism as a conclusion in our thought process and the end of an argument.  In this way our thought process is immanent, of us, rather than transcendent, or of a system, god or natural development that is justified and concluded before this thought process even begins.  This is reflected in the definitions and contexts we set in our approach to ‘creating anarchists’, specifically anarchist movements and organizations.  We are spreading the anarchist message as defined against other messages, convincing others that anarchism holds the golden kernel of truth.  This belief of objective truth, that stands at the core of anarchism, liberalism, and the Enlightenment from which it originates, has continued the dynamic of the us vs. them, right vs. wrong.

It is this very anarchism to which the space to organize has been closed.  This form that the limited analysis of our present crisis has stemmed.  It is this anarchism that has lost its ability to observe existing social phenomena that are taking place far from the tree and can not be defined or related to it.  Ideological anarchism has ignored its own methodological developments, even those that are similar to the philosophical developments of the last 40 years.           

So what is this social phenomena that I am speaking of?  It is a diverse set of everyday resistances, self-organized activities, networks, relationships, and terrains of struggle.  Some phenomena are related, while others are not.  Some are connected underground, often with no knowledge of the other similar activities.  We can listen to conversations, dialogues, and discussions that run counter to the context set for this crisis, most of which are separate from any organized ‘movement’ or the leftist critique.  We see relationships being forged and new ways of being coming into existence.  We see the desire for community and a life beyond work.  We see human solidarity and expressions of grief that are not defined by nationalism or patriotism.  In addition, new potentialities are being created by this crisis.  New alliances and relationships can be formed.  New spaces are being carved out that can be used as staging grounds for resistance.  New issues and campaigns organized.  And new possibilities for a free society.  But these activities and spaces, our fireflies in the night, cannot be defined by and tied to an ideology; even one as liberatory as anarchism.   

Our only task now is to create a new anarchist methodology; many, many anarchism(s), a multiplicity of anarchism(s); influenced by the theoretical developments post-1968 and by the immanent activities of social actors today.  In this CLR James, among others, offers us a smorgasbord of possibilities, all contained within the general foci of immanence.  Here we see the bridge between Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and James’ work.  James  looked at the revolutionary activity of the slaves of Haiti and its effect on world politics (especially here in the United States where the black population was still enslaved), the struggles of African people and women in his own day, and the workers’ councils of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  James believed that all of these illuminated the self-activity of oppressed peoples, and their ability to organize their own activities.  Once the  “(Hungarian) people erupted spontaneously, the rest followed with an organic necessity and a completeness of self-organization that distinguishes this revolution for all previous revolutions”  It is the workers councils that developed out of these spontaneous activities; workers councils against the union, the party, the state, work and the social factory.  

To conclude this section, our task as anarchists is to understand these broader theoretical developments, the power of observation, of self activity, and the rejection of anarchism in its present form: that of ideology.  Anarchism, if it is going to be a vibrant form of struggle, needs to move away from justifying itself outside of the self-activity and mutual aid of ordinary people.  In this return to its methodological form, its immanent form, a place of which those in the autonomist Marxist school have been chewing over for the past 50 years, I am proposing a new synthesis.  A form of anarchism made up of a series of interconnected concepts.  Multiplicity is nothing, with out non-heirarchical organizing, anti-statism, mutual aid, and direct democracy.           

The Plane of Immanence and Revolutionary Strategy Today: Immanence, the space where struggles are taking place on the most basic level and where organized resistances develop out of these struggles, already exists.  We see this brightly in the example of the Reclaim the Streets movement.  This movement is obviously a development out of, and is affected by, previous struggles, it has blurred ideological lines in favor of methodological and hence immanent ones.  The need for such tactics in the anti-road struggles (where it rises from in England), the creativity and mode of struggle that emanates from this is not immediately translated to the climate here in the United States or, more specifically, New York City, where I was first introduced to them, or even in suburban Long Island where the organization that I work with first used them.  Each of these actions, each location, is different, is immanent, is particular.  It is the general form that is translatable.  Also within this cycle of struggle we see the hope and strength that anti-authoritarian movements have taken from the Zapatistas, a struggle which also cannot be copied and developed in another locale. 

Food Not Bombs, Radical Cheerleaders, Critical Mass, Pirate Radio, our Temporary Autonomous Zones, Free Skools and the thousands of activist collectives and projects that make up this new movement don’t have rigid ideological litmus tests, exclusive membership, or other forms of activism that would be defined as something separate, something outside of society acting upon it to change it.  ‘Do-it-yourself’ ethics is a call to an anarchism that is ‘in the here and now’.  Here ‘activism’ is no longer limited to the activist.  No longer limited to the forms of social change that seek to transcend the existing social order or to those which are justified outside of the experience of the oppressed multitude. 

To return to our original purpose of dealing with our present (post-Sept. 11th) crisis, the anti-authoritarian movement has fallen back on its old ideological foundation for answers and approaches to this crisis.  No one can fault them for this, but unfortunately these ideological roots are based upon transcendents; on principles that are outside our own experience.  Be they justified by evolution, primitive societies, material production, or human nature, they are all insufficient in approaching this crisis.  Developing forms of struggle on the plain of immanence, through our experience and the everyday resistances happening everywhere and always will not only forge this new anarchism but it will create a counter-existence to that of the system.   

It is this plane of immanence, this self-activity that will form the base of our new methodologies, our new anarchism(s).  The fireflies in our neighborhood will light their own paths, communicate with other fireflies, create their own little rebellions, and multiply. 

Rhizomes twinkling in the moonlight: “Rhizomic thinking’ is about multiplicity, living in/with variety and difference, cultivating productive schizophrenia (the ‘cop’ and the ‘revolutionary aren’t the only voices in our heads).  ‘Rhizomic people’ are multiple, fluid, shape shifting, always resisting the temptation of this or that.  They are this, and that, not this, not that, and then some.” – Statement from the Maine Center for Justice, Ecology, and Democracy

The firefly is the perfect metaphor for this project.  It carves space out of the night while communicating in subtle ways with its brothers and sisters.  Our fireflies are not limited in their action, flight pattern, or intensity.  Our fireflies are rhizomes, twinkling in the moonlight.  They are the in-between, without center, they are networks of interconnected roots.  Our fireflies are not the negative of the night; they are part of the night, dancing outside and against the night, ignoring the night, and creating the day to their own rhythms. 

Our first task as anti-authoritarians, as revolutionaries, is not to orchestrate these fireflies or invite them to our dance, but to facilitate, expand, further, and create our own dances and hence these spaces and resistances.  In this, power is being confronted and created, and we have maintained our immanence, our ontology.  We have not separated our theory from reality with the purpose of finding the one true tune.  Our second task is to inspire.  These dances, and tunes are infectious, along with our series of principles and concepts, visions and dreams.                      

Our project is a fundamentally new way of looking at the world, a way to deepen our politics.  Here we are organizing out of reality; out of already existing resistances, our struggle becomes immanent.     

3. The Revolutionary. “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires!” – May 1968, Paris
Approaching Mass Powerlessness:
In the wake of September 11th , the mass powerlessness felt by the populace is the ghost of power butting up against their daily reality.  In a society with few avenues of participation this reaction is one that can be expected.  We also see the desire for community, for communication, to be with others facing this crisis.  All of these are opportunities to offer deeper relationships, deeper possibilities and avenues for participation.  (Beyond “1,2,3,4 we don’t want your racist war” Who is “we”?  Who is “your”?).  Community dialogs, especially those of Paulo Friere’s Popular Education where participants confront, analyze, and act out of their experiences, are the beginning of these new relationships.  The simple act of communication with our neighbors and fellow community members is a powerful act.  The creation of space for dialog is another plateau to reach.  Talking with people, not at them is a revolutionary act!

The opportunity to question the definitions of this crisis has also arisen, and this is already taking place on many terrains.  Whose quality of life are we protecting by bombing Afghanistan, by this “war on terrorism”?  Similarly the opportunity has arisen to create deeper relationships with those who we have not before; with Muslims, Arabs, immigrants in our own communities, with the older peace movement.  We should not, however, confront the unity of the state with our own unity.  Rather we confront their misused solidarity, their unity with multiplicity, with difference, hybrid identities and dynamic potentialities. 

The whole desire for an ‘anarchist presence’ in the anti-war movement is misplaced.  The anti-war movement is a middle class construct in itself.   A united left against the war is the limitation of voices, of vision and of the potential for revolutionary change.  The “revolutionary” voice becomes one among many; one of the voices against the war.  It is not just what we are against that separates us from the authoritarian left but also what we are for.  Leave the left to have their demos, the slogans, and shitty newspapers all of which don’t have the basic elements to communicate with ordinary people.   For the anti-authoritarian, the possibility of dialog, deeper relationships, positive institutions and projects, and movements for justice, are just too numerous to ignore.   The potentialities for community building, for organizing deeper in our communities, for creating accountable democratic structures, local politics and projects, and for expanding our existing circles cannot be ignored either.  We must not allow this crisis to cover up all of the other vital issues, concerns, and campaigns that deserve our attention.

This does not mean that we don’t make demands.  We demand by becoming visible.  We demand reform and revolution.  For example, to demand that this “police action” be taken to the United Nations for resolution, is a demand with many pressure points.  Contained within it is the realization, and demand, that the UN is itself an undemocratic institution based upon undemocratic nation states.   Similarly demanding that all of the nuclear reactors be turned off plays on the existing concerns of the populace and contains the fact that nuclear power is dangerous, destructive to our environment, etc.   Demand that our civil rights be maintained, demand respect and dignity for immigrants, demand a safe food supply, demand the end of work.        

Finally these demands, spaces, dialogs, struggles, community building activities, and fireflies in the night are furthering the accumulation of contradictions.  They are furthering the stresses on our hyper-reality, on the production of images and information, on the systems of power, and on the system itself.  All of our activities are forcing open the contradictions in our society.  As these contradictions accumulate, as the system attempts to compensate for them, deal with them, commodify them, new possibilities fill these cracks, new worlds become visible and are realized.

New potentialities, New terrains of struggle: This crisis has created new potentialities and new terrains of struggle.  Exploring these potentialities and the new possibility for relationships will lead us down interesting and challenging paths.  To not seek out these potentialities is to ignore the immanent reality and to lose opportunities to challenge our existing order and to create new ways of being.  Seismic shifts have created new mountains for guerillas to fight on; new terrains to struggle on.  These guerilla armies are tactics rather than organizations; they are fighting binary opposites, against transcendence.  They are multiple, hybrid, always and everywhere, struggling for immanence, for reality.  On many mountains the fireflies are dancing.  ~


Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 6, No. 1 - Spring 2002