Anarchism: Toward Global Justice

anti-globalization portland

Getting back to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins, development and evolution of anarchist ideas, in this installment I discuss the relationship between anarchism and contemporary anti-capitalist movements. As the electoral debacles of representative government in capitalist “democracies” continue to unfold, perhaps we will see yet another resurgence in direct action movements against capitalism and domination.

anti-capitalist-protest

Anarchism and Global Justice Movements

David Graeber, among others, has noted that many groups involved in the global justice movement utilize “a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments—spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on—all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity; without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do,” an essentially anarchist approach. Indeed, the “very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative—all of this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition” (Volume Three, Selection 1). Similar approaches have been adopted by the Occupy movements that spread across the globe in 2011 (Volume Three, Selection 9).

In light of these developments, some anarchists have begun to articulate a less sectarian and more inclusive conception of anarchism which focuses on process and action, allowing for a diversity of views regarding ultimate ends, recognizing that what anarchists seek is social liberation, not the triumph of an ideology. Anarchists have participated in such international resistance networks as People’s Global Action, which also include many non-anarchists, but which also reject more conventional organizational structures. As the Zapatista inspired Second Declaration of La Realidad put it, such networks have “no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist” (Volume Three, Selections 1 & 58).

This view has been embraced by a variety of anarchist groups. In the 2001 Madrid Declaration of social revolutionary libertarian groups from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, they argue that anarchists “should currently strive towards encouraging convergence, the interaction of social movements—including the workers’ movement—in a solid social movement antagonistic to capital and its present true face: economic globalization and all other types of domination. This antagonistic social movement does not have, and nor should it have, a single organizational expression. It is pluralistic, based on current reality, coming and acting together in the same territory, recreating a common territorial identity, composed of many identities,” such as “the workers’ movement, the unemployed, the excluded, indigenous movements, discriminated groups, ecologists and feminists, promoting direct action as a way towards social reappropriation of wealth and as a form of propaganda by the deed, as an exercise in direct democracy, participatory and federalist, without delegations or intermediaries, building on a community level in each territory and as an alternative to authoritarian institutions” (Volume Three, Selection 2).

cnt_march

One of the signatories to the Madrid Declaration, the CIPO-RFM or Consejo Indigena Popular de Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ Native People’s Council of Oaxaca), is a liberation movement in the Oaxaca region of Mexico that consciously draws on the heritage of Mexican anarchism and indigenous traditions (Volume One, Selection 73; Volume Three, Selection 59). As the Columbian anarchist group, Colectivo Alas de Xue, argues, there exists much common ground between anarchists and many indigenous (or “Indian”) groups in the Americas, such as opposition to the conformity and homogenization imposed by nation states within their own borders, with their centralized power structures, national “culture” and “official” languages, and the separation of peoples by those same borders, dividing families and inhibiting people’s movements (Volume Three, Selection 60). Many anarchists have become involved in groups like “No Borders” and “No One Is Illegal,” which seek, in Harsha Walia’s words, “to attain justice and victories for immigrants and refugees, and to develop the communities’ own capacity to attain dignity for themselves and their families. Real justice will come as immigrants, refugees, and nonstatus people build greater trust in visions of an alternate world, and organize, educate, act, and fight for their own self-determination” (Volume Three, Selection 64).

This quest for self-determination often brings indigenous peoples and immigrants into conflict with national governments, multinational corporations and the paramilitary organizations upon which they sometimes rely, but it is a quest which lies at the heart of anarchism conceived as a movement that seeks to create a world in which people may, in Bakunin’s words, “take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

From this perspective, there is no necessary conflict between anarchist anti-statism and communal self-determination—rather, they can be seen as parts of the same age old struggle for freedom, often incorporating similar decision making procedures and forms of organization while employing similar tactics, such as direct action. As Uri Gordon argues in the context of the Palestinian struggle for independence, “anarchists may take action in solidarity with Palestinians (as well as Tibetans, West Papuans and Sahrawis for that matter) without reference to the question of statehood. The everyday acts of resistance that anarchists join and defend in Palestine and Israel are immediate steps to help preserve people’s livelihoods and dignity, which are in no way necessarily connected to a statist project” (Volume Three, Selection 21).

latin american anarchism

The Colectivo Alas de Xue notes that many indigenous societies utilize collective forms of decision making similar to the kinds of direct democracy that “libertarians have yearned for down through the centuries” (Volume Three, Selection 60). As David Graeber argues, many indigenous communities developed forms of consensus-based decision making that provide a model consonant with anarchist conceptions of direct democracy precisely because in such societies there is “no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision—either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making” (Volume Three, Selection 6).

This is not to say that libertarian groups drawing on these communal traditions uncritically endorse every aspect of them. Sharif Gemie points out that “many tribal lifestyles are explicitly patriarchal: they refuse women any formal involvement in decision-making. Many tribes also affirm the sanctity of rule by elders, thus rejecting the political potential of younger people” (Volume Three, Selection 50). In Mexico, the CIPO-RFM has consciously striven to deal with these sorts of issues by, for example, actively promoting “a culture of respect for women and for women’s rights, ensuring in practice that within our organization women take up their equal and fair share of positions of representation and responsibility within our ranks” (Volume Three, Selection 59).

In Africa, anarchists have sought to build upon the pre-colonial history of people living without states in egalitarian communities, particularly in light of the disastrous consequences of colonialism and the division of Africa into nation states whose borders were arbitrarily set by the former colonial powers (Volume Three, Selections 51 & 52). Kurdish anarchists have similarly argued that tribal traditions of decentralization and hostility toward the various nation states which have sought to control them predispose the Kurds toward anarchism, leading to the development of a community assembly movement drawing on the ideas of Murray Bookchin (Volume 3, Selection 61). Bas Umali has suggested that Bookchin’s ideas can also be adapted to conditions in the Philippine archipelago, building on traditional community forms such as the “barangay,” a small community of 50 to 100 families (Volume Three, Selection 62).

Whether in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, wherever functioning communities exist, there will also exist social practices and institutions of solidarity and mutual aid. As Elisée Reclus noted long ago, “where anarchist practice really triumphs is in the course of everyday life among common people who would not be able to endure their dreadful struggle for existence if they did not engage in spontaneous mutual aid, putting aside differences and conflicts of interest” (Volume One, Selection 38). Colin Ward therefore argues that “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism” (1973: 11). From this perspective, anarchism is not “the founding of something new,” but as Gustav Landauer wrote, “the actualization and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste” (Ward, 1973: 11).

Robert Graham

another world is possible

The Spanish Revolution – 80th Anniversary

"Freedom"

“Freedom”

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution that included writings from before and during the revolution regarding the Spanish anarchist movement and its role in the often misrepresented and sometimes ignored contributions of the anarchists to the social revolution in Spain that began with the Civil War that was precipitated by a fascist military coup on July 19, 1936. I have added extra material on the role of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution to this blog. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, I present a very short introduction (take that Oxford University Press) from the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

Anarchist and syndicalist ideas had deep roots among Spanish peasants and workers. In 1911, a massive revolutionary trade union federation, the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) was formed. It had two aims; first, to fight the bosses with mass action in the daily struggle and, second, to make an anarchist revolution by organising the workers and the poor to seize back the land, factories and mines.

The CNT led many militant and successful struggles against the bosses and the government. By 1936 it was the biggest union in Spain, with nearly two million members. But the CNT was always democratic and, despite its giant size, never had more than one paid official.

The Anarchists did not restrict themselves to the workplace. They also organised an anarchist political group to work within the unions (the FAI) and organised rent boycotts in poor areas. The CNT itself included working peasants, farm workers and the unemployed. It even organised workers’ schools!

In July 1936, fascists led by General Franco, and backed by the rich and the Church, tried to seize power in Spain. The elected government (the Popular Front coalition of left-wing parties) was unable and unwilling to deal with the fascists. It even tried to strike a deal with the fascists by appointing a right-winger as Prime Minister. Why? Because they would rather compromise with the right wing and protect their wealth and power than arm the workers and the poor for self-defence.

Fortunately, the workers and the peasants did not wait around for the government to act. The CNT declared a general strike and organised armed resistance to the attempted take-over. Other unions and left wing groups followed the CNT’s lead.

In this way the people were able to stop the fascists in two-thirds of Spain. It soon became apparent to these workers and peasants that this was not just a war against fascists, but the beginning of a revolution! Anarchist influence was everywhere, workers’ militias were set up independently from the State, workers seized control of their workplaces and peasants seized the land.

There were many triumphs of the revolution, although we are only able to consider a few of the Spanish workers’ and peasants’ victories here. These included the general take over of the land and factories.

Small peasants and farm workers faced extremely harsh conditions in Spain. Starvation and repression were a part of their daily lives and, as a result, anarchism was particularly strong in the countryside. During the revolution, as many as 7 million peasants and farm workers set up voluntary collectives in the anti-fascist regions. After landowners fled, a village assembly was held. If a decision to collectivise was taken, all the land, tools and animals were pooled together for the use of the entire collective. Teams were formed to look after the various areas of work, while a committee was elected to co-ordinate the overall running of the collective. Each collective had regular general meetings in which all members participated. Individuals who did not want to join the collectives were not forced to. They were given enough land to farm on, but were forbidden to hire labourers to work this land. Most “individualists” eventually joined the collectives when they saw how successful they were.

Anarchism inspired massive transformations in industry. Workers seized control over their workplaces, and directly controlled production by themselves and for the benefit of the Spanish workers and peasants. The tram system in Barcelona provided a shining example of just how much better things can be done under direct workers’ control. On July 24th 1936, the tram crews got together and decided to run the whole system themselves. Within five days, 700 trams were in service instead of the usual 600. Wages were equalised and working conditions improved, with free medical care provided for workers.

Everyone benefited from the trams being under workers’ control. Fares were reduced and an extra 50 million passengers were transported. Surplus income was used to improve transport services and produce weapons for defence of the revolution. With the capitalist profit motive gone, safety became much more important and the number of accidents were reduced.

In the early stages of the revolution, the armed forces of the state had effectively collapsed. In their place, the trade unions and left-wing organisations set about organising the armed workers and peasants into militias. Overall, there were 150,000 volunteers willing to fight where they were needed. The vast majority were members of the CNT. All officers were elected by the rank-and-file and had no special privileges.

The revolution showed that workers, peasants and the poor could create a new world without bosses or a government. It showed that anarchist ideas and methods (such as building revolutionary unions) could work. Yet despite all this, the revolution was defeated. By 1939, the fascists had won the civil war and crushed the working-class and peasants with a brutal dictatorship.

Why did this happen? The revolution was defeated partly because of the strength of the fascists. They were backed by the rich, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The CNT also made mistakes. It aimed for maximum anti-fascist unity and joined the Popular Front alliance, which included political parties from government and pro-capitalist forces. This required the CNT to make many compromises in its revolutionary programme. It also gave the Popular Front government an opportunity to undermine and destroy the anarchist collectives and the workers militias, with the Communist Party playing a leading role in these attacks at the behest of Stalinist Russia.

Nevertheless, anarchists had proved that ideas, which look good in the pages of theory books, look even better on the canvas of life.

Workers Solidarity Movement

'The Revolution and the War are Inseparable'

‘The Revolution and the War are Inseparable’

Berned! Sanders Supports Clinton

Now that, predictably, Bernie Sanders has thrown his support behind Hillary Clinton, I thought this video from the Stimulator was particularly appropriate. You have to click on the link immediately below (#BERNEDOUT). WordPress now charges extra to display the video graphic. The image below the link is just that – an image, not the link to the video.

#BERNEDOUT

Berned Out!

Berned Out!

Neither EU Nor UK

Brexit

The recent “Brexit” vote in Britain brings to mind a few things. First, the counter-revolutionary role of state-controlled referendums (‘referenda’ for the language police), something that Proudhon pointed out in 1851 in General Idea of the Revolution, building on his previous seemingly paradoxical statement that “universal suffrage is counter-revolution” (I included excerpts from General Idea in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and several other of Proudhon’s anarchist writings). Just as universal suffrage is used to legitimate political rule by giving the illusion of popular sovereignty, so do referendums provide an illusion of “direct democracy,” when the ruling classes remain firmly in control (although not always as firmly as they like)

lesser evil

Second, the false dichotomies represented by the choices provided in referendums — in this case the choice between an “independent United Kingdom” and the European Union. Throughout the history of anarchist movements, anarchists have been told they have to choose between one or the other unacceptable alternative, the so-called “lesser evil” (and so we have “derivative anarchist fellow traveller” Noam Chomsky advocating support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump). Failing to choose is supposed to constitute an abdication of responsibility and to condemn anarchists to powerlessness and irrelevancy. In 1851 in France, the choice was supposed to be between Napoleon III or the Republic; during the Russian Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between the Bolsheviks (Marxist Leninists) or the counter-revolution; during the two World Wars, in Europe the choice was supposed to be between the “Allies” or Germany/the Nazis; during the Spanish Revolution, the choice was supposed to be between Fascism or the Republic, or between military victory or social revolution; during the Cold War, the choice was supposed to be between US or Soviet imperialism, inspiring Marie Louise Berneri to coin the phrase, “Neither East Nor West” (see Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). In response to the Brexit vote, I would like to put forward a variation of that theme: Neither the EU Nor the UK.

Third, if anarchists reject this latest false dilemma, what alternatives can they present? Besides the obvious (possibly long term) ones, like social revolution, an anarchist society without hierarchy and domination, freedom and equality, and so forth? As a contribution to that debate, I present Andrew Flood’s 10 point guide for post Brexit resistance (from the Workers Solidarity Movement website). Andrew has also presented an excellent analysis of the Brexit vote results.

10 point guide for post Brexit resistance as racist right wins EU referendum

  1. The Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union demonstrates that even weak parliamentary democracy is incompatible with escalating neoliberal inequality.  In the UK as elsewhere a tiny segment of the population have taken a larger and larger share of total wealth in the last decades.  Particularly under austerity almost everyone else has seen their share of the wealth they produce decline massively.
  2. The Remain campaign was headed up by the political class of the neoliberal establishment and backed by model neo liberal corporations like Ryanair.  But because the anger against rising inequality was successfully diverted through scapegoating already marginalized people, in particular migrants, the Leave campaign was also led by wealthy elitist bigots whose variant of neoliberalism looks to the former colonies and the US rather than Europe.
  3. The markets are now punishing the electorate with capital flight. But the racist colonialist nature of the Leave campaign means that rather than capitalism being blamed migrants will again be scapegoated.  The impact of continued inequality – on white citizen workers – will be blamed on attacks on migrants not being as cruel and ruthless as ‘required’.
  4. The alternative to fight for isn’t yet another referendum but the abolition of a global order built on inequality & market dictatorship.
  5. In the immediate future, the defense of migrants, including those yet to come, is fundamental to opposing the swing to the right post-Brexit.
  6. If the left swings towards a simple economist stance post-Brexit then the racist colonialist nature of that vote will be solidified  We must argue on the more apparently difficult grounds of global class solidarity and not on the treacherous path of the narrow self interest of white citizen workers which can only serve a reactionary English nationalism steeped in racism and colonialism.
  7. The fallout from the Leave vote will not just be limited within the borders of the UK will see a  but huge boost for racist colonialist movements across EU.  The leaders of those movements, like Marine Le Pen have already greeted the Leave vote with joy.
  8. It’s vital to understand this cannot be combatted with liberal platitudes because it is a consequence of the rising inequality economic liberalism has created.  We are facing either a transformation to radical direct democracy that will create economic equality or a turn to the authoritarian politics of control needed to enforce sharp divisions in wealth.
  9. Things look grim but then they were already grim as we face into climate change and automation under capitalism.  The rise of the far right and colonialist racism is not a natural phenomenon but a consequence of a system in a crisis that is a fundamental product of  its own functioning.
  10. We need to take our world back from the patriarchal white supremacist capitalist elite that dominates the planet and dominated both sides of the EU referendum.  The transformation we need if we are not to face escalating poverty, war and climate destruction is a total one that eliminates the state and capitalism to create libertarian communism.

Andrew Flood

brexit voter analysis

Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin

radical-ecological-democracy-towards-a-sustainable-and-equitable-world-feb-2014-1-638

Below I reproduce a recent piece on Cornelius Castoriadis and  Murray Bookchin by Yavor Tarinski, who emphasizes the similarities in their ideas regarding direct democracy and ecology (I have taken the liberty of correcting various grammatical and typographical errors). It is interesting that both Castoriadis and Bookchin were young Marxists during the 1940s who took seriously Leon Trotsky’s remark at the beginning of World War II that if the war was not succeeded by a world revolution, Marxists would have to rethink everything, an intellectual project that Castoriadis and Bookchin soon embarked on. Castoriadis, under the name Paul Cardan, helped found the Socialism or Barbarism group in France, which was very influential in the “New Left” of the 1960s, and helped inspire the events of May 1968. Bookchin began drawing the connections between ecological crisis, capitalism, hierarchy and domination in the early 1960s, in a series of essays, some of which I included in Volume 2 of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. While Bookchin rejected Castoriadis’ ideas regarding the constitution of the “social imaginary,” their concrete political proposals were very similar.

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Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control.
Vandana Shiva

Nowadays constantly we are being told “from above” that we don’t have a choice but to conform to the status quo. The dominant power institutions are doing everything they can to convince us that the solution to our social and environmental problems is going to be found in the very same policies that have created them in the first place. The T.I.N.A. [There is No Alternative] narrative continues to dominate the mainstream discourse; and the widespread consumerist culture, in combination with the long-lasting representative crisis, is infecting people’s imaginary with cynicism, general conformism and apathy.

But germs of other ways of thinking and living are trying to break their way through the passivity of present day logic. New significations that are going beyond the contemporary bureaucratic capitalist discourse, offering new sets of reasons and values, which to navigate societal life away from the destructiveness of constant economic growth and cynical apathy.

With popular dissatisfaction of the present order of things on the rise we can distinguish two significations that offer a radical break with the present normality:

On the one hand, there is growing interest in political participation and direct democracy. Nowadays it is becoming almost unthinkable to think of popular unrest outside of the general frame of democracy: first, the demands almost always revolve around more citizen involvement in one form or another; second, the way of organizing popular struggle for a long time has [surpassed] the centralism of the traditional political organizations, insisting instead on self-organization and collaboration.

On the other hand, ecology is emerging as major concern and as an answer to the contemporary growth-based politico-economic model that is responsible for the creation of a tangible environmental crisis and rapidly unfolding climate change. It is being expressed in the form of popular struggles against capitalist extractivist projects, harmful to the environment, human health, as well as to local autonomy. It also takes the form of resistance to consumerist culture, both of which boost innovative new theories like de-growth.

Amongst the diverse spectrum of thinkers that nowadays are developing these new significations we can distinguish Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin as two of the most influential. Both emerged from the Left and through their thought, as well as activist practices, managed to overpass ideological dogmas and to develop their own political projects, incorporating and advancing further direct democracy and ecology. It’s not surprising that they collaborated in the journal Society & Nature, and later in its successor Democracy & Nature, until 1996, when a bitter conflict between the two emerged [http://www.democracynature.org/vol3/biehl_bookchin.htm].

Nowadays their legacy is being carried on by social movements and struggles that place these two significations at the heart of their political activities. Castoriadis’s thought was revitalized with the popular uprisings across Europe of the last years and especially with the so called “Movement of the Squares” (also known as The Indignados), that was driven not by “pure” ideologies but by passion for political action and critical thinking, while Bookchin’s project is being partially implemented in practice by the kurdish liberation movement in the heart of the Middle East (most notably in Rojava), influencing it to such a degree that it completely abandoned its marxist-leninist orientation.

It must be noted that the target of the present text is not the development of a deep comparative analysis between the works of both of them, but instead an effort at underlining two elements of their thought that are especially actual for our current context and are charged with huge potential for change.

Direct Democracy

Both Castoriadis and Bookchin saw great liberatory potential in direct democracy and placed it at the heart of their political projects. They devoted a great part of their writings to that matter, developing this notion beyond the frames set by traditional ideologies. In stark difference with authoritarian views, mistrusting society and thus calling for its subjection to hierarchical, extra-social mechanisms, on the one hand, and on the other, with such views that reject every form of laws and institutions, the two thinkers proposed the establishment of structures and institutions that will allow direct public interaction, while maintaining social cohesion through horizontal flows of power.

According to Castoriadis, the majority of human societies were established on the basis of heteronomy, which he describes as a situation in which the society’s rules are being set by some extra-social source (such as the party, god, historic necessity, etc.). The institutions of the heteronomous societies are conceived as given/self-evident and thus, unquestionable, i.e. incompatible with popular interaction. For him the organizational structure of the modern western world, while usually characterized as “democracy”, is actually a liberal oligarchy, with some liberties for the people, but the general management of social life is situated in the hands of tiny elites (Castoriadis, 1989).

For Castoriadis democracy is an essential element of the social and individual autonomy (the people to set their own rules and institutions), which is the opposite of heteronomy. What he called the project of autonomy entailed direct-democratic self-instituting by the society, consisting of conscious citizens, who realize that they draw their own destiny and not some extra-social force, either natural or metaphysical (Castoriadis, 1992). I.e. in the hands of society lies the highest power that is: to give itself the laws and institutions under which it lives.

Castoriadis derives his understanding of democracy from the classical meaning of the term, originating from Ancient Athens (demos/people and kratos/power). Thus on the basis of this he denotes today’s liberal regimes as non-democratic, since they are based on the election of representatives and not on direct citizen participation. According to him democracy can be only direct, thus incompatible with bureaucracy, expertism, economic inequality and other features of our modern political system (Castoriadis, 1989).

On a more concrete level he suggested the establishment of territorial units with populations of up to 100,000 people, which [were] to self-manage themselves through general assemblies. For coordination between different such units he proposed the establishment of councils and committees to which the local decision-making bodies [would] send revocable short-term delegates (Castoriadis, 2013: pp.42-43). Thus power remains in the hands of the demos, while allowing non-statist coordination on a larger scale.

For Bookchin too, the characterization of the today’s system as a democracy was a mistake, an oxymoron. He reminds us that two centuries ago the term democracy was depicted by rulers as “mob rule”, a prelude to chaos, while nowadays [it] is being used to mask one representative regime, which in its essence is republican oligarchy since a tiny clique of a chosen few rules over the powerless many (Bookchin, 1996).

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, based his understanding of democracy on the experience of the ancient Athenian politia. That is one of the reasons he placed so much attention on the role of the city (Bookchin, 1964). He describes how with the rise of what he called statecraft, the active citizens, deeply and morally committed to their cities, were replaced by passive consumers subjected to parliamentarian rule, whose free time is spent shopping in retail stores and mega malls.

After many years of involvement in different political movements, Bookchin developed his own political project, called Communalism. Based on direct democracy, it revolves extensively around the question of power, rejecting escapist and lifestyle practices. Communalism focuses instead on a center of power that could potentially be subjected to the will of the people – the municipal council – through which to create and coordinate local assembles. He emphasized the antagonistic character towards the state apparatus that these institutions have and the possibility of them becoming the exclusive sources of power in their villages, towns and cities. The democratized municipalities, Bookchin suggested, would confederate with each other by sending revocable delegates to popular assemblies and confederal councils, thus challenging the need of centralized statist power. This concrete model Bookchin called libertarian municipalism (Bookchin, 1996), which has influenced to a big degree Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish struggle for social liberation.

A distinguishing feature of Bookchin’s vision of direct democracy in his communalism was the element of majority voting, which he considered as the only equitable way for a large number of people to make decisions (Bookchin, 2002). According to him consensus, in which a single person can veto every decision, presents a danger for society to be dismantled. However, according to him, all members of society possess knowledge and memory, and thus the social collectivity does not have an interest in depriving “minorities” of their rights. For him the views of a minority are a potential source of new insights and nascent truths, which are great sources of creativity and progress for society as a whole.

Ecology

Ecology played major role in the thought of the two big philosophers. Both of them however viewed it in stark contrast from most of the environmentalists of their time (and of today as well). Unlike the widespread understanding of nature as a commodity, as something separated from society, Castoriadis and Bookchin viewed it in direct link with social life, relationships and values, thus incorporating it in their political projects.

Castoriadis argues that ecology is, in its essence, a political matter. It is about political choices for setting certain limits and goals in the relationship between humanity and nature (Castoriadis, 1993). It has nothing to do with science, since the latter is about exploring possibilities and giving answers to specific questions and not about self-limitation. However, Castoriadis urges mobilizing science’s resources for exploring nature and our impact on it, but he remains firm that the choice that will be made in the end will be in its essence a political one.

Therefore the solutions that should be given to every ecological crisis should be political. Castoriadis remains critical of the green parties and the parliamentary system in general, since through the electoral processes it strives at “liberating” the people from politics, [leaving] it instead solely in the hands of professional “representatives”. As a result of this the people are left to view nature in a de-politicized manner, only as a commodity, because of which many contemporary ecological movements deal almost exclusively with questions about the environment, unconcerned with social and political matters.

Following this line of thought it comes as no surprise that Castoriadis remains critical towards the rare occasions when big green movements and parties come up with proposals of a political nature for resolving the environmental crisis (Castoriadis, 1981). This is so, because most of the time, although their political proposals revolve around more popular participation – for example green parties that have come up with proposals for sortition and rotation of their M.P.’s, more referendums, etc. – they are still embedded in the contemporary parliamentary regime. Being anadvocate of direct democracy, Castoriadis believes that single elements of it, being embedded in the representative system, will lose their meaning.

Similarly, Bookchin also links the ecological sphere with the social one and politics in general. For him nearly all of the present ecological problems result from problems deeply rooted in the social order – because of which he spoke about social ecology (Bookchin, 1993). Ecological crises couldn’t be either understood nor much less resolved if not linked to society, since economic, cultural, gender and other conflicts in it were the source of serious ecological dislocations.

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, strongly disagreed with environmentalists who looked to disconnect ecology from politics and society, identifying it instead with preservation of wildlife, wilderness or malthusian deep ecology, etc. (Bookchin, 1988). He insisted on the impact on nature that our capitalist hierarchical society is causing (with its large scale, profit-driven, extractivist projects), thus making it clear that unless we resolve our social problems we cannot save the planet.

For Murray Bookchin the hierarchical mentality and economic inequality that have permeated society today are the main sources of the very idea that man should dominate nature. Thus the ecological struggle cannot hope for any success unless it integrates itself into a holistic political project that challenges the very source of the present environmental and social crisis, that is, to challenge hierarchy and inequality (Bookchin, 1993).

Conclusion

Despite the differences and disagreements between them, Castoriadis and Bookchin shared a lot in common – especially the way they viewed direct democracy and ecology. Their contributions in these fields provided very fertile soil for further theoretical and practical advance. It is not by chance that in a period in which the questions of democracy and ecology are attracting growing attention, we listen ever more often about the two of them.

These concepts are proving to be of great interest to an increasing number of people in an age of continuous deprivation of rights, fierce substitution of the citizen by the consumer, growing economic inequalities and devastation of the natural world. Direct democracy and ecology contain the germs of another possible world. They seem as two of the best significations that the grassroots have managed to create and articulate as a potential substitute for the rotting ones of hierarchy and commodification which dominate and destroy our world today.

Yavor Tarinski

Bibliography:

Bookchin-Öcalan correspondence
Bookchin, Murray. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964)
Bookchin, Murray. The Communalist Project (2002)
Bookchin, Murray. The Crisis in the Ecology Movement (1988)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Communalism? (1996)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Democracy and Relativism (2013)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. From Ecology to Autonomy (1981)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1992)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Revolutionary Force of Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Worker Councils and the Economy of the Self-managed Society (1972)

Republished from: http://www.babylonia.gr/2016/06/10/reflections-on-castoriadis-and-bookchin/

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CrimethInc: From Democracy to Freedom

vote for nobody

Last week, I posted a brief section on “community assemblies” from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I raised some concerns regarding proposals for direct democracy that to my mind create structures that are too rigid and will result in a return to political parties and power politics as people coalesce into groups with sometimes conflicting interests (a critique I have more fully developed in my article, “Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology,”[6] in Anarchist Studies, Volume 12, No. 4 (2004)). Previously, I posted some selections from Malatesta, Luce Fabbri and Murray Bookchin setting forth different views about anarchy and democracy. Coincidentally, CrimethInc. has been running a serious of articles providing an anarchist critique of even directly democratic forms of government. Here, I present some excerpts from the section on democracy and freedom.

democracy means police

Anarchist critiques of democracy

Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.

And what’s the cure for the problems with democracy? Everyone agrees: more democracy. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a spate of new movements promising to deliver real democracy, in contrast to ostensibly democratic institutions that they describe as exclusive, coercive, and alienating.

Is there a common thread that links all these different kinds of democracy? Which of them is the real one? Can any of them deliver the inclusivity and freedom we associate with the word?

Impelled by our own experiences in directly democratic movements, we’ve returned to these questions. Our conclusion is that the dramatic imbalances in economic and political power that have driven people into the streets from New York City to Sarajevo are not incidental defects in specific democracies, but structural features dating back to the origins of democracy itself; they appear in practically every example of democratic government through the ages. Representative democracy preserved all the bureaucratic apparatus that was originally invented to serve kings; direct democracy tends to recreate it on a smaller scale, even outside the formal structures of the state. Democracy is not the same as self-determination.

To be sure, many good things are regularly described as democratic. This is not an argument against discussions, collectives, assemblies, networks, federations, or working with people you don’t always agree with. The argument, rather, is that when we engage in those practices, if we understand what we are doing as democracy—as a form of participatory government rather than a collective practice of freedom—then sooner or later, we will recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government. This goes for representative democracy and direct democracy alike, and even for consensus process.

Rather than championing democratic procedures as an end in themselves, then, let’s return to the values that drew us to democracy in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, the idea that each person should control her own destiny. If democracy is not the most effective way to actualize these, what is?

As fiercer and fiercer struggles rock today’s democracies, the stakes of this discussion keep getting higher. If we go on trying to replace the prevailing order with a more participatory version of the same thing, we’ll keep ending up right back where we started, and others who share our disillusionment will gravitate towards more authoritarian alternatives. We need a framework that can fulfill the promises democracy has betrayed…

oakland-commune-barricade

Creating Spaces of Encounter

In place of formal sites of centralized decision-making, we propose a variety of spaces of encounter where people may open themselves to each other’s influence and find others who share their priorities. Encounter means mutual transformation: establishing common points of reference, common concerns. The space of encounter is not a representative body vested with the authority to make decisions for others, nor a governing body employing majority rule or consensus. It is an opportunity for people to experiment with acting in different configurations on a voluntary basis.

The spokescouncil immediately preceding the demonstrations against the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City was a classic space of encounter. This meeting brought together a wide range of autonomous groups that had converged from around the world to protest the FTAA. Rather than attempting to make binding decisions, the participants introduced the initiatives that their groups had prepared and coordinated for mutual benefit wherever possible.

Much of the decision-making occurred afterwards in informal intergroup discussions. By this means, thousands of people were able to synchronize their actions without need of central leadership, without giving the police much insight into the wide array of plans that were to unfold. Had the spokescouncil employed an organizational model intended to produce unity and centralization, the participants could have spent the entire night fruitlessly arguing about goals, strategy, and which tactics to allow.

Most of the social movements of the past two decades have been hybrid models juxtaposing spaces of encounter with some form of democracy. In Occupy, for example, the encampments served as open-ended spaces of encounter, while the general assemblies were formally intended to function as directly democratic decision-making bodies. Most of those movements achieved their greatest effects because the encounters they facilitated opened up opportunities for autonomous action, not because they centralized group activity through direct democracy.16

Many of the decisions that gave Occupy Oakland a greater impact than other Occupy encampments, including the refusal to negotiate with the city government and the militant reaction to the first eviction, were the result of autonomous initiatives, not consensus process. Meanwhile, some occupiers interpreted consensus process as a sort of decentralized legal framework in which any action undertaken by any participant in the occupation should require the consent of every other participant.

As one participant recalls, “One of the first times the police tried to enter the camp at Occupy Oakland, they were immediately surrounded and shouted at by a group of about twenty people. Some other people weren’t happy about this. The most vocal of these pacifists placed himself in front of those confronting the police, crossed his forearms in the X that symbolizes strong disagreement in the sign language of consensus process, and said ‘You can’t do this! I block you!’ For him, consensus was a tool of horizontal control, giving everyone the right to suppress whichever of others’ actions they found disagreeable.” If we approach the encounter as the driving force of these movements, rather than as a raw material to be shaped through democratic process, it might help us to prioritize what we do best.

Anarchists frustrated by the contradictions of democratic discourse have sometimes withdrawn to organize themselves according to preexisting affinity alone. Yet segregation breeds stagnation and fractiousness. It is better to organize on the basis of our conditions and needs so we come into contact with all the others who share them. Only when we understand ourselves as nodes within dynamic collectivities, rather than discrete entities possessed of static interests, can we make sense of the rapid metamorphoses that people undergo in the course of experiences like the Occupy movement—and the tremendous power of the encounter to transform us if we open ourselves to it.

democracy autonomy

Community Assemblies

A communal assembly in Rojava

A communal assembly in Rojava

Here is a very short excerpt from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I discuss Murray Bookchin’s idea of community assemblies, an idea which appears to have been taken up by people in Rojava, under constant threat from both ISIS and Turkish armed forces. The issue for me is whether these assemblies form voluntary federations or whether they become communal or cantonal systems of government.

bookchin next revolution large

Community Assemblies

The contractarian ideal seeks to reduce all relationships to contractual relationships, ultimately eliminating the need for any public political process. Murray Bookchin has argued to the contrary that there is, or should be, a genuine public sphere in which all members of a community are free to participate and able to collectively make decisions regarding the policies that are to be followed by that community. Community assemblies, in contrast to factory councils, provide everyone with a voice in collective decision making, not just those directly involved in the production process (Volume Two, Selection 62). Such assemblies would function much like the anarchist “collectives” in the Spanish Revolution documented by Gaston Leval (Volume One, Selection 126).

Questions arise however regarding the relationship between community assemblies and other forms of organization, whether workers’ councils, trade unions, community assemblies in other areas, or voluntary associations in general. In addition to rejecting simple majority rule, anarchists have historically supported not only the right of individuals and groups to associate, network and federate with other individuals and groups but to secede or disassociate from them. One cannot have voluntary associations based on compulsory membership (Ward: Volume Two, Selection 63).

Disregarding the difficulties in determining the “will” of an assembly (whether by simple majority vote of those present, as Bookchin advocated, or by some more sophisticated means), except in rare cases of unanimity one would expect genuine and sincere disagreements over public policy decisions to continue to arise even after the abolition of class interests. The enforcement of assembly decisions would not only exacerbate conflict, it would encourage factionalism, with people sharing particular views or interests uniting to ensure that their views predominate. In such circumstances, “positive altruism and voluntary cooperative behaviour” tend to atrophy (Taylor, Volume Two, Selection 65), as the focus of collective action through the assemblies becomes achieving coercive legal support for one’s own views rather than eliciting the cooperation of others (Graham, 2004).

Robert Graham

voting fair vote

Feminism and Democracy

anarcha-feminism

anarcha-feminism

Here is a statement for International Women’s Day from the Spanish anarchist group, Apoyo Mutuo. I included material from various anarchist feminists in all three volumes of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Some of the anarchist women included in the anthology are Louise Michel, Charlotte Wilson, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, He Zhen, Itô Noe, Takamure Itsue, Marie Louise Berneri, Ethel Mannin, Peggy Kornegger, Carol Ehrlich, Rossella Di Leo and Carole Pateman.

feminist

There is no democracy without feminism

The legacy of the struggles of women against patriarchal domination contributes to the definition of the current socio-political model. Its discourse and strategies against this sexist, unjust and authoritarian system are the source of forms of resistance and creation that we practice today. Although we find experiences of antipatriarchal rebellion in any historical moment, for more than three centuries feminism, as a unifying concept of perspectives, projects its heritage beyond the limits of a mere social movement. It is not a current, it is a critical way of understanding reality.

The multifaceted nature of the struggle for the rights and freedoms of women, with different approaches and points of incidence, invites us to speak of “feminisms” in the plural. We thus recognize a proactive and transformative condition, in constant adaptation, which has been shaping and consolidating other political movements. Feminisms have brought about changes that affect us as individuals and as a group, helping us to overcome purely ideological positions and to put into practice discourses. They offer guidance on how to realize values such as solidarity or freedom in everyday acts.

This intellectual tradition teaches us that we can not speak of “women” as a homogeneous subject. To be aware that our knowledge and perspectives are defined by our place in the world (ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, national origin, age… ) requires us to be cautious when studying the category that society calls “woman”. This concept, limited and insufficient, is instrumentalized to render invisible, from women workers, the indigenous, lesbians, black women, to dissident bodies and so many others.

This critical view of our own discourse does not, however, assume that give up looking at ourselves as an oppressed group. To complete our knowledge with a thorough analysis of the areas and diversity of feminisms will help us design more transversal strategies. To update our feminist agendas with this new look is the challenge.

With this perspective it is impossible to deny the centrality of some urgent problems such as gender violence and the feminization of poverty, both closely related. This terrifying alliance between capitalism and patriarchy costs us lives. From our various feminisms, we are forced to design a common agenda to combat both systems of domination in all strata and levels: on the street and in institutions, in the workplace and the home, in organizations and everyday relationships; so many tactics as partners to have at the service of a single objective.

A model of democracy that fully guarantees the rights of women is desirable but insufficient. Feminist economics has taught us that the values and priorities of the economy of patriarchy are the ultimate cause of social injustice and are obstacles to sustainability. Feminisms brought back to the center of the debate the most essential: sustaining life. There is an array of tasks, jobs and functions that the dominant economic system denies or ignores, but which are absolutely essential for social welfare or even for survival.

The recognition of so-called ‘domestic work’ is an example of this struggle between feminisms and patriarchy. The capitalist system boasts of its ability to find a balance in the relationship between work and pay, but it survives thanks to the work of millions of people, mostly women, who provide their services for free. Feminisms unmasked the problem, denounced it and offer profound solutions to eradicate it.

To launch our offensive we must first define our opponent, to whom we turn. It is necessary to keep in mind that the institutions are not reducible to the state, with its multiple heads and instrument, the Law. Social roles are also institutions, whose transformation is addressed by designing and reproducing new educational models, as are the family or the couple, which are challenged through the practice of other affective models which must be made visible and supported.

In short, women’s struggle is a struggle for the freedom of all people. It teaches us how to decommodify and democratize human relations, recuperating the fair value of people over things; the practice and theory of mutual support that are the foundation of the social change that we are building.

Apoyo Mutuo

anarcho-feminism

Murray Bookchin: HeartBern

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Bookchin v.

Sanders

Sanders

When Bernie Sanders began his campaign for president, I recalled that Murray Bookchin had some critical things to say about him when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s. Fortunately, someone has now posted on the internet Bookchin’s 1986 article on Sander’s record as mayor. Bookchin lived in Burlington, and so witnessed first hand Sander’s peculiar version of “socialism in one city.” Bookchin’s comments on Sanders’ predilection for top down organization and centralized leadership suggests someone well suited for presidential government, while highlighting the limits of Sanders’ so-called “socialism.” I included several selections by Murray Bookchin on social ecology, direct democracy and direct action in Volumes Two and Three of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here I reproduce excerpts from Bookchin’s 1986 article on Sanders in the Socialist Review.

Sanders for mayor

Sanders’ Record 

SANDERS’ CLAIM that he has created “open government” in Burlington is premised on a very elastic assumption of what one means by the word “open.“ That Sanders prides himself on being “responsive” to underprivileged people in Burlington who are faced with evictions, lack of heat, wretched housing conditions, and the ills of poverty is not evidence of “openness” — that is, if we assume the term means greater municipal democracy and public participation. What often passes for “open government” in the Sanders cosmos is the mayor’s willingness to hear the complaints and distress signals of his clients and courtiers, not a responsibility to give them any appreciable share in the city’s government. What Sanders dispenses under the name of “open government” is personal paternalism rather than democracy. After six years of Sanders’ paternalism, there is nothing that resembles Berkeley’s elaborate network of grassroots organizations and councils that feed into City Hall.

When it comes to municipal democracy, Sanders is surprisingly tight-fisted and plays his cards very close to his chest. Queried shortly after his 1981 election on a local talk-show, You Can Quote Me, Sanders was pointedly asked if he favored town-meeting government, a very traditional form of citizen assemblies that has deep-seated roots in Vermont townships. Sanders’ response was as pointed as the question. It was an emphatic “No.” After expressing his proclivity for the present aldermanic system, the mayor was to enter into a chronic battle with the “Republicrat” board of aldermen over appointments and requests that were to be stubbornly rejected by the very system of government that had his early sanction.

Sanders’ quarrels with the board of aldermen did not significantly alter his identification of “open government” with personal paternalism. As an accepted fixture in Burlington’s civic politics, he now runs the city with cool self-assurance, surrounded by a small group of a half-dozen or so aides who formulate his best ideas and occasionally receive his most strident verbal abuse. The Mayor’s Council on the Arts is a hand-picked affair, whether by the mayor directly or by completely dedicated devotees; similarly, the Mayor’s Youth Office. It is difficult to tell when Sanders will create another “council” — or, more appropriately, an “office” — except to note that there are peace, environmental, and gay communities, not to speak of unemployed, elderly, welfare, and many similar constituents who have no “Mayor’s” councils in City Hall. Nor is it clear to what extent any of the existing councils authentically represent local organizations and/or tendencies that exist in the subcultures and deprived communities in Burlington.

Sanders is a centralist and his administration, despite its democratic proclivities, tends to look more like a civic oligarchy than a municipal democracy. The Neighborhood Planning Assemblies (NPAs) which were introduced in Burlington’s six wards in the autumn of 1982 and have been widely touted as evidence of “grassroots democracy” were not institutions that originated in Sanders’ head. Their origin is fairly complex and stems from a welter of notions that were floating around Burlington in neighborhood organizations that gathered shortly after Sanders’ 1981 election to develop ideas for wider citizen participation in the city and its affairs. That people in the administration played a role in forming assemblies is indisputably true, but so too did others who have since come to oppose Sanders for positions that have compromised his pledges to the electorate.

Bernard Sanders’ view of government appears in its most sharply etched form in an interview the mayor gave to a fairly sympathetic reporter on the Burlington Free Press in June, 1984. Headlined “Sanders Works to Expand Mayor’s Role,” the story carried a portrait of the mayor in one of his more pensive moods with the quote: “We are absolutely rewriting the role of what city government is supposed to be doing in the state of Vermont.’ The article leaped immediately into the whole thrust of Sanders’ version of city government: “to expand and strengthen the role of the [mayor’s] office in city government:” This process has been marked by an “expanding City Hall staff,” an increased “role in the selection of a new fire chief,” “a similar role in the Police Department,” and “in development issues, such as the proposed downtown hotel.” In response to criticism that Sanders has been “centraliz-ing” power and reducing the checks and balances in city government, his supporters “stress that citizen input, through both the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and expanded voter output, has been greatly increased.” That the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies have essentially been permitted to languish in an atmosphere of benign neglect and that voter participation in elections hardly equatable to direct participation by the citizenry has left the mayor thoroughly unruffled.

A FAIR CONSIDERATION of the results produced by Sanders’ increased role in city affairs provides a good test of a political strategy that threatens to create institutional forms for a Burlington version of New York’s Mayor Koch. The best case for the mayor appears in the Monthly Review of May, 1984, where a Pollyanna article written by Beth Bates, “a writer and farmer,” celebrates the virtues of Sanders’ efforts as “Socialism on the Local Level” — followed, I might add, by a prudent question mark. Like Sanders’ own claims, the main thrust of the article is that the “socialist” administration is “efficient.” Sanders has shown that “radicals, too, can be fiscal conservatives, even while they are concerned that government does the little things that make life more comfortable” like street repair, volunteer aid to dig paths for the elderly after snowstorms, and save money. The administration brings greater revenues into the city’s coffers by modernizing the budgetary process, principally by investing its money in high-return institutions, opening city contracts to competitive bidding, centralizing purchasing, and slapping fees on a wide range of items like building permits, utility excavations, private fire and police alarms, and the like…

THE ULTIMATE EFFECT Of Sanders’ aging form of “socialism” is to facilitate the ease with which business interests can profit from the city. Beyond the dangers of an increasingly centralized civic machinery, one that must eventually be inherited by a “Republicrat” administration, are the extraordinary privileges Sanders hasprovided to the most predatory enterprises in Burlington — privileges that have been justified by a “socialism” that is committed to “growth,” “planning,” “order,” and a blue-collar “radicalism” that actually yields low-paying jobs and non-union establishments without any regard to the quality of life and environmental well-being of the community at large.

Bernard Sanders could have established an example of a radical municipalism, one rooted in Vermont’s localist tradition of direct democracy, that might have served as a living educational arena for developing an active citizenry and a popular political culture. Whether it was because of a shallow productivist notion of “socialism” oriented around “growth” and “efficiency” or simply personal careerism, the Burlington mayor has been guided by a strategy that sacrifices education to mobilization and democratic principles to pragmatic results. This “managerial radicalism” with its technocratic bias and its corporate concern for expansion is bourgeois to the core — and even brings the authenticity of traditional “socialist” canons into grave question. A recent Burlington Free Press headline which declared: “Sanders Unites with Business on Waterfront” could be taken as a verdict by the local business establishment as a whole that it is not they who have been joining Sanders but Sanders who has joined them. When productivist forms of “socialism” begin to resemble corporate forms of capitalism, it may be well to ask how these inversions occur and whether they are accidental at all. This question is not only one that must concern Sanders and his supporters; it is a matter of grim concern for the American radical community as a whole.

Murray Bookchin

Socialist Review 90 (November-December 1986), pp. 51-62

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Hurrah for Anarchy!

hurrah for anarchy

Recently Dissent magazine carried a rather lame critique of anarchism by Sheri Berman. Here I present an excellent rejoinder, posted by “Patrick” (also the author?) at For Student Power and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation website. As the article notes, Berman’s comments about the Paris Commune being an example of anarchism’s failure are particularly off the mark (for a different perspective, see my book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It). As for Dissent, I can’t resist recalling an old Woody Allen joke about Dissent merging with a similar magazine, Commentary, to create a new magazine, Dissentary.

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Another Day, Another Hatchet Job

Is just me, or has the quality of critiques of anarchism been getting worse lately?

Barnard Professor Sheri Berman’s contribution to Dissent’s Fall 2015 issue (“No Cheers for Anarchism”) makes it clear she holds anarchism — and anarchists — in contempt. I looked for, but sadly could not find, a well-argued reason why. Her essay is plagued by the kind of scattershot superficial analysis, innuendo, and guilt-by-association better suited to a publication like the Weekly Standard than such a storied journal of the left.

Berman’s trouble begins when she asserts a fundamental similarity between anarchists and libertarians:

Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).

While it’s true that American libertarians essentially stole their appellation from us (“libertarian” at least in Europe still largely means anarchist), they sadly did not deign to import any of our ideas. Anarchist analysis is fundamentally social and structural, and is the common thread that links our opposition to capitalism and the state, our resistance to all forms of oppression and domination, and our proposal of common ownership of wealth and production through direct democracy. Libertarians, on the other hand, construct their world starting with the atomized individual, resting on a foundation of modern property rights: it is a thoroughly reactionary ideology.

no to anarcho-capitalism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism’s rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune.

It is strange to see Berman assert that anarchists during that time rejected “traditional political organizations and activity.” I can only assume she means electoral and party politics, which given the time period were anything but traditional. Indeed, Europe has a much longer history of strikes, revolts, and revolutions than of parliaments. Modern European political parties only kicked off in earnest post-1848 while universal suffrage took even longer. And while she claims anarchism is a very different animal from its brethren on the left, anarchists made up a significant portion of the First International, and have joined arms with their fellow socialists in barricades, picket lines, and revolutions ever since.

Odder still, considering how few actual anarchists were there, is Berman’s implication that the Paris Commune was an “anarchist activity”:

Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune’s lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution.

Given that both Marxists and anarchists spoke highly of the Commune, one suspects there is more to it than Berman lets on. While she pins the blame on a “lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals,” one of the anarchist critiques of the Commune is that while there was plenty of internal organization, it was hobbled by its centralized and bureaucratic nature. As Kropotkin put it:

But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre — the people — they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Berman then claims that the fin-de-siecle left abandoned anarchism for political parties and trade unions, neglecting to mention that a large majority of anarchists at that time were already moving into the labor movement. While many socialist parties at the time saw trade unions as little more than party recruiting grounds and vehicles for turf wars with other socialists, anarchists placed labor struggles at the heart of revolutionary strategy (exemplified by the prominent rise of anarcho-syndicalism across Europe and Latin America).

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Berman correctly notes that after World War I “socialists played a significant role” in governments across Europe:

During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience—none of which appealed to anarchists.

While socialists in power were quite successful at breaking strikes and attacking popular movements on their left, they failed at what was possibly their most important task: heading off the rise of nationalism and fascism. The world paid dearly for that failure. In Spain it was the election of a social democrat-led coalition, not anarchist agitation (as Berman alleges), that spurred Franco’s coup. Were it not for the immediate actions taken by the UGT and anarchist-led CNT trade unions to arm and mobilize the population, against a backdrop of paralysis on the part of the government, Franco’s victory likely would have been nearly instantaneous.

Similarly, Berman’s analysis of the 1960s is painfully incomplete. Claiming the post-1945 social democratic order “undergirded an unprecedented period of consolidated democracy, economic growth, and social stability in Europe and the West,” she neglects to mention the mountains of stolen resources and millions of bodies across Asia and Africa on which that order depended. Nor does she mention that the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist project was central to the radical left of the 1960s, simply stating that “many anarchist-influenced ‘New Left’ and counter-culture movements (including punk and the Yippies in the United States, and squatters movements in many European cities) attack[ed] the reigning ‘bourgeois, capitalist’ order.” The only time Berman bothers to reach outside the comforts of the West is for a few bogeymen:

Some praised the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro—hardly icons of freedom—and showed scorn for public opinion and for the “masses” who didn’t share their vision of the world.

Trying to hang those three around anarchism’s neck — none of whom were remotely anarchist, and in the case of Castro, actively jailed and murdered Cuban anarchists? The mind boggles.

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

In the post-Cold War era, anarchism has emerged as arguably the most energetic current on the left in the U.S. Berman dismisses Occupy Wall Street as a flash in the pan, little more than “theatrics” with “ephemeral impact.” While neither OWS nor the many successful campaigns and movements it birthed were majority anarchist, their tools, sensibilities and outlook drew heavily from that tradition. And too many progressives forget that over the course of a few months, OWS dramatically changed the bounds of mainstream economic and political debate (remember the summer preceding it, when matters of wealth inequality and Wall Street were permanently sidelined to debt ceilings and austerity packages?). That’s something for which the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanderses of the world should thank their friendly neighborhood anarchist.

Berman reaches peak superficiality as she concludes her essay by way of former congressman Barney Frank, a man whose blinkered conception of social change can only be measured in angry letters and phone calls to the Capitol switchboard:

In his recent book, Barney Frank, for example, contrasted the National Rifle Association’s persistent grassroots organizing and resultant ability to mobilize supporters to flood lawmakers’ offices with letters and calls and to vote as a bloc, with the inclination of many on the left to “hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs.” Frank goes on to argue that “if you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others . . . you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.”

There’s quite a bit of confusion here, not least of which is the implication that social movements (let alone anarchist-inspired ones) desire the same scope and scale of change that the NRA does. I for one am glad that so many movements reject the Berman-Frank model of social change. From immigrant rights (in both the Americas and Europe) to service sector unionization, from campaigns against fossil fuel projects to the 2012 Québec student strike, anarchists are at the forefront and in the trenches, helping shape analysis and strategy. Instead of petitioning their elected officials, they are doing what every successful movement has done: changing the reality on the ground so starkly and fundamentally that political and economic elites are forced to accommodate.

chomsky on anarchism

Ultimately, the shadow that hangs over Berman’s entire essay is cast not by anarchism, but by the colossal wreckage of social democracy.

Berman approvingly quotes François Mitterand’s denunciation of Paris protesters in May 1968: “what a mish-mash of quasi-Marxism, what hotch-potch, what confusion.” While she contents to caricature one of the most important events of the twentieth century, the quote much more accurately describes Mitterand’s own panicked and confused descent into austerity when faced with all the terrible demands of capital but none of the workers and youth on the streets to force him to live up to his socialist promises.

For decades now, social democratic parties across the West have taken up the mantle of hatchet men for the interests of capital. It is austerity imposed by the “left” that cuts deepest and is hardest to oppose. This slow self-immolation by socialist parties, stretching from London to Athens and Paris to Berlin, reminds us that we can’t administer our way out of the horrors of capitalism. While those on the electoral left — the true starry-eyed utopians — propose yet another round of minor fixes to capitalism’s foundational deformities, anarchists and our allies will keep fighting for and building a liberated world, one that needs neither capitalists nor their reluctant stewards.

January 2016

A different perspective

A different perspective

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