Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anarchism Part II: The Pacifist and the Black Masks

It always surprises people who know little about anarchists that we believe in organizing and working together. As my last post explains, anarchists tend to be highly organized, and most of us have very coherent systems of thought. We can even be dogmatic, contradictory as that sounds, but what we don’t normally do, or should not do anyway, is try to regulate or control what others think. Anarchists probably have as many opinions per capita as Jews, and as for Jewish anarchists … well you do the math.


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When Emma Goldman was coming up as a young anarchist, her mentor was Johann Most, who believed in the liberatory power of individual courageous actions, including assassinations. After her lover, Alexander Berkman, went to prison for attempting to assassinate a union-busting industrialist and financier named Henry Clay Frick, Goldman changed her beliefs and became more a follower of Peter Kropotkin, who believed (by that time, anyway) in collective nonviolent action. At the same time, a guy named Benjamin R. Tucker was the main spokesperson for a libertarian anarchism, based on the premise that:

If … extortion from labor rest upon denials of liberty, plainly the remedy consists in the realization of liberty. Destroy the banking monopoly, establish freedom in finance, and down will go interest on money through the beneficent influence of competition. Capital will be set free, business will flourish, new enterprises will start, labor will be in demand, and gradually the wages of labor will rise to a level with its product. And it is the same with the other monopolies. Abolish the tariffs, issue no patents[,] take down the bars from unoccupied land, and labor will straightway rush in and take possession of its own. Then mankind will live in freedom and in comfort.
Some anarchists believe in a really radical form of autonomism, where no one ever has to be answerable to the collective, and presumably the collective bears no responsibility for the actions of the individual. I believe just the opposite – that in order for each of us to be free we must value the collective more than our individual desires, and that the collective must take responsibility for the consequences of any actions taken in accordance with its decisions.

By definition, anarchists reject hierarchy – the Greek word “archist” is long-disused, interestingly, but in the New Testament, I’m told, it’s translated as “ruler.” So even though I believe in sublimating my individual will to that of the collective, it has to be done freely and in every situation because every one of us believes that we are stronger within the collective. As soon as I feel that the collective does not serve my interest, I am free to leave it, regaining my autonomy but sacrificing the strength and protection of the community.

Though anarchists do not all reject violence, we all reject state violence. That means we do not use the power of the state, even against our enemies. If you are willing to demand that the cops arrest Zionists or anti-abortion protesters who assault you, you are not an Anarchist. As Anarchists, we have to find ways of defending our own communities, something that the various Occupy/Decolonize/Liberate camps had varying success with.

Slingshot #108, which was labeled “Extra Hella Occupy Edition” has some really excellent pieces about militancy, tactics, property damage, and the limits of collectivism and autonomy. One of the best, I thought, by Evan Buswell, reflects,

“Consensus depends on the fiction of an ‘outside’ in two respects: first, that each individual has the capacity to act autonomously outside the group, apart from the group, not affecting the group as a whole; second, that disunited elements can be merely ejected back into the already-existing society…Consensus is totally dependent on the presence of a larger state to which it can eject elements that its process has no other means to discipline.”

The mask-wearing, sometimes projectile-throwing or shield-wielding “anarchists” who have been most active and visible at Occupy Oakland do not, in my experience, use the label “black bloc” and I am not sure they all identify as anarchists. They seem to prefer the terms “militant” and “insurrectionist.” It’s completely inaccurate to call them “outsiders” or suggest that they are all or mostly “agent provocateurs.” Of course, some of them are. We probably won’t know who for many years, if ever. But that’s not limited to the insurrectionists. No doubt there are infiltrators or informers among medics, consensus facilitators and even pacifists. Many of the militants are long-term and even thoughtful activists, whom I’ve known for years. Some of them did a lot of the work to set up Occupy Oakland, and worked day and night to keep it running smoothly. They have beliefs I totally disagree with, but they are deeply held beliefs.

One thing that did surprise me is that many of them describe themselves is “nihilist.” Back in the day we used to use that term pejoratively – “don’t be nihilistic,” meant don’t be juvenile, just randomly lashing out at stuff. But like most pejoratives, it’s been reclaimed. An article on explains:

Nihilist anarchy is a collection of political theories, a growing tendency and influence within the anarchist movement. Nihilist anarchists approach society with skepticism and they attempt to avoid the pitfalls of speculation, even to the point of denying a future vision of society. Some focus on the need to address the problems of the present, but do so without subscribing to the models that are seen to hold back other radicals. By doing this, they reject "progress, evolution, the general strike, the insurrection to end all insurrections, or the supremacy of theory over action."
This form of nihilist anarchism, which the author distinguishes from “Nietzschean nihilism” and “Russian nihilism” is based in a “revolutionary skepticism” which holds:

  • An ethical revolution does not necessarily create an ethical society.
  • No future is as possible as any future.
  • Reject the world as it is. It must be superceded before it can be valued.
  • All attempts to inflict radical change have failed, giving legitimacy to the idea that action is not bound by moral restraint.
  • There is no single method of revolt nor is there a grand scheme behind it. When these ideas are imposed is when we are promised more of the same (reaction and failure).
  • Revolt is not found in moral living.
  • Revolt despite the consequences is worth living.
  • Revolt is without hope, but not without casualties.

The nihilists reject both “prefigurative politics,” which seek to create the new society we want to see at the same time that we struggle to overthrow the existing authoritarian institutions, and any effort to win immediate reforms while trying to create the conditions for revolution. Much like Berkman and Most, they believe visible attacks on corporate and state institutions help to show the system’s weaknesses. At an Occupy Oakland forum on nonviolence, one of the insurrectionists quoted Rudy Giuliani’s “Broken Windows Theory,” under which minor property damage is kind of a gateway drug leading to the collapse of the social order. All I can say is, if only it were so easy.

In January, a number of “anti-capitalist” tendencies in Seattle came together for a five-hour “Anti-Capitalist Smackdown: A Debate among Tendencies in the Occupy Movement.” Here’s the facebook announcement:

Participating tendencies (in alphabetic order)

  • Anarcho-syndicalism
  • Black Orchid
  • Communization
  • Insurrectionary anarchy
  • Nihilism

3-5PM: debates on

  • The enemy (capitalism or civilization?)
  • Revolution (ultimate goals and how to get there)
  • Class & identity
  • The role of revolutionaries
5-6PM: dinner break

6-7:15PM: debates on

  • Unions & solidarity networks
  • Prefigurative (anti)politics
  • The Occupy movement
7:15-8PM: open discussion with audience

A report posted afterwards says: “Definitely successful! The venue was packed, a full house. Comrades stood outside to listen in on the debate.There was a lot of talk of future debates and open discussion on revolutionary politics between tendencies due to the success of this debate and discussion. I think it built a lot of comradary and understanding between the different tendencies.”

Wish I could have been there! Waiting breathlessly for the video.

1 comment:

  1. How do you find your political/theoretical ideas have changed since the 1980s? I was in various leninist or quasi leninist groups for ten years from 1976 through 1986 and dropped out of organizing a few years after that. I find myself reinvigorated by the Occupy movement and am happily re-engaged in the real world political movement in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Interestingly, there are several other people of our generation or slightly older getting back involved in the same group. I find s lot of the old ideological hairsplitting un-useful at the same time as I'm drawn to find new language for certain core beliefs. Curious about your own experience.