Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

* * *

Vol. 4 - No. 2
Fall, 2000


IAS Home

Perspectives Home

Subscribe

 

 

 

Click here for a short biography & selected works of Todd May

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

... political philosophy is motivated by a discordance between how people think the world should be and how they find it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We never know in advance how power works, we need always to keep investigating its operation, in order to see where it's leading and what it's creating."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poststructuralist Anarchism:
An Interview with Todd May

As a political philosophy, anarchism is concerned with the transformation of society; however, anarchism is often neglected by major political and philosophical trends. In an attempt to situate anarchism within contemporary philosophical thought as well as think critically about anarchism, Todd May has created what he calls postructuralist anarchism. By grafting French postructuralist thought onto anarchism, May offers a new political philosophy with which to analyze our world. I conducted an interview with Todd May via email in October 2000. 
                                                     ~ Rebecca DeWitt


Postructuralist Anarchism is the combination of anarchism and poststructuralist philosophy (the work of Foucault, Lyotard and Deleuze). What is essential to both these political philosophies that makes it possible to combine them?

What I see as the essential link between anarchism and the poststructuralism of Lyotard, Deleuze, and especially Foucault, is the denial that there is some central hinge about which political change could or should revolve. For Marx, political change was a matter of seizing the means of production; for liberals, it lies in regulating the state. What anarchists deny (at least in parts of their writings, the parts which I'm trying to draw out) is that there is a single Archimedean point for change. Inasmuch as power is everywhere, the need for political reflection and critique is also everywhere. Not only at the level of the state or the economy, but also at the level of sexuality, race, psychology, teaching, etc. etc.

Is there anything left of anarchism?

I believe there is. If I'm right in my approach, what anarchism provides to poststructuralism is a larger framework within which to situate its specific analyses. The framework is a different one, to be sure, from the traditional anarchist framework. It is not unchanged by poststructuralism. But the new framework I have tried to articulate would be news to most poststructuralists, who resist the idea of a larger framework altogether.

How do we reconcile anarchism, which often relies on politically unifying principles (such as anti-capitalist/statist stances), with postructuralist thought, which sees power as an interconnected network rather than a system to be opposed?

Regarding the idea of totalizing systems, it is surely the case that much of anarchism, both in practice and in theory, targets capitalism and the state. My book is a suggestion that we not look in those two places so as to blind ourselves about the ubiquity of power's operation. If capitalism and the state were the sole culprits, then eliminating them would by itself open us up to a utopian society. But we ought to be leery of such simple solutions. One of the lessons of the struggles against racism, misogyny, prejudice against gays and lesbians, etc. is that power and oppression are not reducible to a single site or a single operation. We need to understand power as it operates not only at the level of the state and capitalism, but in the practices through which we conduct our lives.

In your book, political philosophy is cast in terms of the articulation of "the discordance between the world as it exists and the world as it is envisioned." When the discordance is no longer present, that particular political philosophy became obsolete, whether it occurs because the world has changed or because the goals have been realized. You give the example of the communist revolution where, once the goals of the revolution were reached, the political philosophy that described such a change becomes obsolete and therefore a new political philosophy was needed in order to advance. Is political philosophy a process where we are constantly remaking our view of the world and what we want?

The idea I'm trying to press early in the book is that political philosophy is motivated by a discordance between how people think the world should be and how they find it. Why think about political philosophy unless there is a problem that needs to be addressed? And that problem, for political philosophy, is that the world is distant from how one thinks it should be. Whether political philosophy is a constant process is something I'm not sure how to answer. I don't see any reason in principle why it should be, although it may turn out to be. The question of whether political philosophy is a process of constantly remaking ourselves is tied to the question of what kinds of nature human beings have and what kinds of environments they find themselves in. Since elsewhere in the book I deny that there is anything interesting to say about human nature, it all comes down to environment. But who knows how environments will change, and what kinds of questions they will raise for us?

For postructuralist anarchism, power is both creative and destructive. In contrast, anarchism natural justification of its own existence - that humans are essentially good and it is the institutions of power that are bad therefore we need to get rid of them - characterizes all power as bad.  How does the anarchist concept of power change with the addition of postructuralism?

While [anarchists] have a two-part distinction:  power (bad) vs. human nature (good), I have a four-part one:  power as creative/power as repressive and good/bad.  I do not take creative power as necessarily good, nor repressive power as necessarily bad.  It all depends on what is being created or repressed.  The ethical evaluation is independent of which kind of power it is.  That's why it's so important for there to be clarity on one's ethical vision - a point which too many poststructuralist thinkers neglect.  But one does not solve the ethical problem by positing a good human nature and then saying that it should be allowed to flourish.  There is too much evidence against the idea of an essentially good (or essentially bad) human nature for that claim to be made.  One cannot rest one's ethical judgments on human nature, but instead must develop the socially given ethical networks within which our lives unfold.

You state that we "must abandon [for the most part] the idea of a clear demarcation to be made between political philosophy and political programs.as one moves away from analysis and toward suggestions for intervention, one passes from philosophy to programmatics." Most political philosophies seem incapable of passing into programmatics and then back again. The tension between the world as it exists and what we envision is most often destroyed by consolidation of power by one idea or political party. Anarchism advocates a direct democracy or federalism to ensure that this doesn't happen but is the life of a political philosophy capable surviving programmatics?

Bear in mind that the anarchism I'm trying to draw out of the tradition would not see direct democracy as the answer to all political problems (otherwise, anarchism would be another strategic political philosophy). That said, your question still remains, since one can wonder what happens to political philosophy when a programmatics is carried out. Certainly, one thing would remain of the view I tried to develop: the idea that we need always to be investigating the power relationships that arise in various practices and to give them proper ethical evaluation; that is to say, to ask whether they are acceptable or not. On the view I'm defending, since we never know in advance how power works, we need always to keep investigating its operation, in order to see where it's leading and what it's creating; and we need always to ask the ethical question of whether we find that acceptable.

Whose job is it to construct the programmatic?

As far as who is to construct the program, it is certainly not to be philosophers. (Goodness gracious, banish the thought.) This idea is, I hope, no longer taken seriously, even by philosophers. The only response as to who IS to construct the program, or at least have input into its construction, is that it is those who are affected by the current situation and the proposed changes. Now that may be another way of saying "the people," but it does limit things somewhat. For instance, I will have little to say about ho w gays and lesbians should be treated in society (e.g. should they be admitted into the category of the marriageable or should they challenge marriage itself?) That, it seems to me, is up to them. My role is to support them in their choices.

The anarchist concept of power is characterized as one which "conglomerates at certain points and is reinforced by [power] along certain lines", and therefore can be amenable to the idea of reform because certain reforms at certain points could result in revolution. Is there a place for revolution in postructuralist anarchism?

The term "revolution" strikes me as a loaded one. Sometimes it seems to mean that there is an overturning of the key point of power in a society. When used in that way, the term "revolution" seems to imply a strategic political philosophy, so I think it is better avoided. When things change enough as a result of political intervention, then we have a revolution. Thus, the distinction between reform and revolution should not be the tired one of "mere reform" vs. "real revolution." It should instead be an issue of how much and how deep of a change is going on. In fact, I think the term is often used as a banner, a mark of one's radicalism, and an unconsidered way of marking out one's distinction from liberalism. As such, it hides the question, which we should be asking: what needs to be changed and how does it need to be changed? When we ask that more concrete question (yes, a philosopher suggesting that a certain jargon is hiding our ability to see the concrete), then we're on the right track. The question of is it revolution or just reform drops away.

What is the World Trade Organization to poststructuralist anarchism? The WTO seems to be one of those organizations where power conglomerates, where a variety of practices collude to create an oppressive power arrangement. I think we mistake many supporters of the WTO if we describe them in terms of a conspiracy theory. My suspicion is that most of them sincerely believe they are doing good things, even though they're not. How to explain this? It seems to me that we need to look at the practices they're engaged in and the effects of those practices on others, and to recognize that there are a whole series of deleterious effects that supporters of the WTO have failed to recognize. That, it seems to me, would be a poststructuralist anarchist take on the WTO.As an activist, I find myself in accordance with the recent demonstrations intended to eliminate the WTO and related oppressive institutions and to abolish loan paybacks from Third World countries. Of course, there's a lot more, but philosophy, while it interacts with the programmatic, does not, it seems to me, have as a role the construction of the programmatic

As far as action is concerned, you offer suggestions of how postructuralist anarchism can be acted upon. These include: experimentation, situated freedom, valorization of subjugated discourses, and the intellectual as a participant in theoretical practice rather than a leader. Can you tell me how you and other politically active people can practice these guidelines? It is difficult to practice much of any politics in South Carolina. Just to point in the general direction of how I live this stuff, it concerns my attitude toward gays and lesbians (I was faculty advisor for the gay/lesbian group for six or seven years); my teaching (I try to reject the idea of a given human nature in my courses, I experiment with course ideas, I include neglected works, often with a political spin, in my syllabi, I often situate the problems we face in the context I've developed in the book); and my parenting (trying to see the effects of power relative to my children's lives and attitudes, and offering alternatives to them). If I were to approach the question from the standpoint, say, of someone living in an urban area in the U.S. I would point to the necessity of understanding and participating in struggles against racism, sexism, the WTO, etc., and in doing so to see the interactions among those struggles and the oppressions those struggles seek to overturn, without trying to reduce them all to a simple formula.

Many anarchists feel it is imperative to create a public intellectual culture and that, increasingly, the university is not a place that encourages intellectual freedom, not to mention political thought. What is your experience?

I agree that the university is a questionable source of intellectual culture.I believe that the reality of an intellectual culture is difficult to achieve now, because with the "mall-ization" of the U.S the whole idea of public space is being marginalized. Some say that the internet is a new place for a public culture, but I have my doubts. First, the sheer size of the internet makes the intimacy of an intellectual culture difficult to achieve. Second, there is something about sharing the same space and time in conversation that is denied by the internet, something without which interchange remains too anonymous in character. I don't think the internet is useless; but it's ability to substitute for what we have lost is more limited than some folks think.

Can you respond to critics who charge that poststructuralist theory (postmodernism in general) is an example of a highly specialized, abstract and obscure language that is alienating to most people and doesn't encourage thought outside of a graduate department?

Guilty as charged. But that doesn't apply only to poststructuralists and postmodernists. It is a general problem across the humanities and across academics generally. We talk to one another rather than to those outside our immediate circle. There are a number of reasons for this: pressure to publish, the history of anti-intellectualism in the U.S., etc. But we also contribute by adopting the jargon we do. I have tried to stay away from jargon as much as possible, and I hope that my anarchism book, although difficult, is at least not laden with jargon. But what you're pointing to is a problem for all academics, and only serves to marginalize us further.

Given that "knowledge, like other subjects, is a matter of struggle and domination" and recent publish or perish/cost-analysis tendencies of universities, how does postructuralism escape being just another commodity? Much of poststructuralist discourse is, of course, just like other academic discourse in that it replicates the current academic system of ideas in the cost-benefit consumerist model currently dominating academia. I think that change comes not only through the ideas themselves but, especially in academics, who's spouting them. The real question, it seems to me, is whether people are living these ideas out or whether they are just holding them as ideas.  ~


Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 4, No. 2 - Fall 2000