The Anarchiod Fallacy: The Problems of Anarcho-Liberals

So before I get tons of comments condemning me for being typical Marxist tarnishing liberals, I will give you my conventional caveat: I am a communist.  I would even go so far as to say that I am a libertarian communist, as my politics are emancipatory.  Yet I am also a Marxist in my critique, and, in the utlimate sense, an anarchist in my goals.  A classless society would be a stateless society.   I do not critique anarchism for a position of renouncing the anarchist suspicion of the state. This has always been the caricature of the communist as a person who wants to centralize all power, but that was never the goal even if that has often been the means. 

So you have my first caveat, and here is my second: I am not opposed to all non-Marxian anarchists, although I find a lot of it to be underdeveloped. I am endorsing a problematic view of a specific tendency within anarchism and this should be treated as such.

Bhaskar Sunkara, for Dissent Magazine in September of 2011, wrote about a new trend in the “radical” left. I disagree that its new, and I’ll come to why in a moment, but I do find this to be an issue:

The mainstream media weren’t the only ones surprised by the “battle in Seattle.” Left-wing commentary also betrayed disbelief at the return of mass street protests. But much had changed since the New Left. The intervening decades saw the rise of neoliberalism, while on the center Left, social democracy was in crisis and struggling to modernize. The situation among radicals was even more disorienting. Stalinism was vanquished, but this triumph, long hoped for by democratic socialists, did not cause a revival on the Left. The old working-class parties weren’t reclaimed by radicals; they either faded away or drifted along with no sense of historical purpose in technocratic directions. Socialism had failed as a political movement and, at the theoretical level, Marxism was increasingly abandoned as a way to understand the world.

Now I wonder about Dissent’s assertion that Marxism was defeated as a political movement, but it has been suplemented in the dominant spectrum with the “liberalization” of China and the collapse of a Soviet Union (whether is was socialist, state capitalist, or a degenerate workers state).  Furthermore while there has been a return to Marx in the last three years in a big way, particularly in the new Lacanian and Post-Maoist forms, it is true that until 2008 it looked like something akin to post-structuralism influenced semi-anarchism became the dominant paradigm.     

But back to the essay:

A crude overview, sure, but right in the broad strokes: the Marxist-derived Left was defeated, while social democracy reconciled to the neoliberal framework. “Anarcho-liberalism” sauntered in a weird middle ground between both camps. Its representatives had the modest ambitions of the social liberals of the center Left, but the flair for the dramatic associated with the most militant anarchists of the far Left. Take the talented Naomi Klein, the archetypical “anarcho-liberal.” At a panel hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society, Klein critiqued Milton Friedman on the peculiarly reactionary grounds that he was a “Utopian ideologue,” mentioning that she didn’t think that there was any great need for “grand projects of human freedom.” This is consistent with past statements to the effect that she wasn’t “a utopian thinker.” She continued, “I don’t imagine my ideal society. I don’t really like to read those books, either. I’m just much more comfortable talking about things that are.”

An odd stance for an iconic intellectual of an avowedly radical movement. Adding to the confusion, she has described herself as a Keynesian.

I have been amazed how many anarchists primarily quote “truth-tellers” like Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein, whose impulses are, well, frankly reactionary in some parts and oddly utopian in others.  Now I like some things both Hedges and Klein say, but I have also thought they have missed the point. Hedges by trying to return to some eden of High American culture that I can find no historical evidence for in the time period of which he seems to place it, and Klein by asserting that the center-left always betrays itself so we should be go back and be good center-left Keynesians and give up any sort of Utopian vision. This could come out of the mouth of Eric Vogelin.   Furthermore, Klein was fundamentally dishonest about Friedman’s own stances and conflated that of some of his students with his own.  That puts a left communist in the strange position of defending Milton Freidman’s character, but our fidelity must be the truth.

Now, I would say Klein is not an anarcho-liberal, but she is a sign of the shift.  Anarcho-liberalism is what Doug Henwood could call “Activistism” on steriods.   What Henwood, Parenti, and Featherstone describe becomes even detached from the NGO.  It becomes direct action as Utopia.   I would say Klein is a transitionary figure, although hardly the first one (in this I would include the Weatherman, the militant liberalism of gutter punk bands like Crass, etc. This is not new). But the inchoate mission of the anarchiod tendency is there:

Some things were broadly shared by “anarcho-liberals”: an anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of “grand narratives” and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organization, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action. The worst of both worlds, the “anarcho-liberal” can neither manage the capitalist state nor overcome it, and aspires to do both and neither at the same time.

This sounds like politics from someone who heard a 10-minute chip of Chomsky on Democracy Now and accidentally walked into a cliftnotes stlyle summary session on Delueze or, perhaps, the situationists. As my friend Ross from Charnal House says,

They carry over the anti-authoritarian ideals from anarchism, but literally refuse to analyze capitalism as a structural totality or consider history as anything more than an elaborate lie told by “dead white men” (or perhaps even a scheming cabal operating through the ages; this is where they often succumb to conspiracy theories).

Everything is reducible to “privilege,” ethics are politics, means are ends, politics are prefigurative, and so on down the line. The “West” is uniformly chauvinist, disenchanted, hyperrationalized, greedy, and bad, while “indigenous peoples” are uniformly hospitable, enchanted, filled with naïve wonder, altruistic, and good. Even if it wasn’t ultimately animated by racist, pseudo-colonialist condescension, I would be disgusted by its romanticism.

In general I refer to such “anarcho-liberals” as “anarchoids,” driven by a vague egalitarian ethos that rejects traditional organizational hierarchies, memorizes choice statistics about global warming or the income gap between CEOs and blue-collar workers, and constantly rehearses liberal-tolerationist talking points against “privilege.” Their politics fall far beneath the threshold of traditional anarchism; I would not deign to insult any real anarchist by dignifying these types with such a title.

Doug Henwood, for all of his faults, had an immortal line with Liza Featherstone and another author about such “activismists” (Adorno would have called them actionists): “[Their] brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.”

But this isn’t activistism, or actionism by itself.  It is decidedly post-political and highly draws from “post-left” anarchism.  Influenced by primitivism and post-structuralism, the activistism of the 1990s mixes with the vanguardism (in the corrupted, almost Stalinist) sense of groups like the Weathermen and then adds basically Keynesianism as an economic model for the transition.   This is what Murray Bookchin would have called Lifestyle anarchism, but without even as radical a veneer.

Of course, there are many in Jacobin, a magazine I often respect, who try to defend this. But even as commenters at Jacobin noticed, this seems like a repeat of the debate between Bookchin and Bill Black.

Update:  I apparently misread the above article at Jacobin. WHich is an expansion, not a critique, of the concept of anarcho-liberal.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on December 9, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    You and I come from different backgrounds and have some fundamental differences in opinion. However, in reading this, I couldn’t be in stronger agreement.

    One thing I just can’t tolerate is anti-intellectualism which can be found both on the left and the right. I’ve met my fair share of liberals, anarchist and otherwise, who won’t follow the logic or the facts all the way to whatever conclusion they might lead to. Such activists and potential activists start with some generalized attitude, belief, ideal, etc. Anything that doesn’t accord with that is dismissed or ignored or not taken seriously or somehow explained away. They are unwilling to do the hardwork of studying and analyzing the details of history along with the complexities entailed by politics and economics.

    In making this criticism, I don’t pretend to know everything or even to know most things that are relevant. I know what I know and I strive to know what I don’t know (while striving to be humble enough to admit it). I’m simply trying to learn as well as I can, to understand the world and not just the parts of it I like and already agree with. I don’t know where I fit into all of these ideological battles. The more I study the less self-certain I become. What becomes more clear to me is what doesn’t work and what are the consequences we face.

    The next step is unclear. All the more reason to keep our eyes open.

    There is a lot of mushy activist rhetoric out there. It can be frustrating. I like to hope that knowledge and truth wins out in the end. Maybe for many people mushy activist rhetoric is an important first step because it helps them express their dissatisfaction, their frustration, their outrage. It opens up the possibility of questioning and doubting. After that, they might just feel a desire to go beyond toward a more substantial position that might lead to more effective action.

    I think we are in a transitional stage at this historical moment. More and more people have been waking up to what is going on in society. When Reagan said that it’s “Morning in America”, many people heard that and took it as a reason to fall back asleep contented with patriotic dreams of freedom and success. It’s taken these past decades for more people to more fully awaken. But in awakening people first open their eyes to blurriness and it takes them a while to wipe the sleep from their eyes. People know something is wrong, even if their attempts to explain it are naive or simplistic or even misguided. That is an acceptable and normal place to begin. The trick is to create the conditions where such people can progress beyond that initial stage of awakening.

    I’m reminded of a trick I learned of about how to develop lucid dreaming. The author suggested the practice of stopping yourself throughout the day and asking yourself, “Am I awake?” It forces you into a state of heightened alertness. I think there is an equivalent to this for lucid politics. At every moment, we should ask ourselves, “Am I awake to what is going on?” That is a challenging question when taken seriously. We are all ignorant and decived to varying degrees. None of us are innocent and all of us are complicit. We can’t pretend to stand on the sidelines with no skin in the game. There is no detached position from which to be objective, no clear view from which to feel certain of what one sees.

    Just some thoughts. Hope they weren’t too inchoate. lol

  2. Well, I appreciate this. I will write on this more in the morning.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up on Cyrus Lewis’ defense of the anarcho-liberal in Jacobin. Needless to say, I side with Bhaskar quite strongly on this one.

  4. Connor Kilpatrick

    Holy hell, y’all have misread Cyrus’s piece. Wildly. Cyrus is not defending anarcho-liberalism. He’s expanding on Bhaskar’s definition. Read it again.

    “I have read many good anarchist critiques of Marxism, but Jacobin isn’t offering it. At all.”

    Wait. You think Cyrus’s piece is an anarchist critique of Marxism? What? Or did you mean Bhaskar’s piece? Neither is an anarchist critique of Marxism.

  5. I’ll re-read and revise, connor.

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