1. — How would you most succinctly define anarchism? Is there a shared “anarchist project” — and, if so, how would you characterize it?
It would be difficult to define anarchism in a way that would be satisfactory to most anarchists—at least I would imagine—and so perhaps one can already take that as a clue of at least the minimal spirit that fuels ostensive anarchists in their identification and engagement with the movement. Like in all more or less coherent political movements, there are a variety of competing totalizing views, both as theoretical systemitized analysis of extant society and as a negation of that totality with the consequent support of a sort of remainder negative totality. Unlike other political movements, however, anarchism frequently engages in an instinctive skepticism of this very totalization. This would explain the paradoxically friendly and hostile relationship anarchists have with left-wing movements—in particular Marxism. In fact, this contentious relationship is what allows what many more “orthodox” anarchists of the milieu consider more unsavory and illegitimate anarchisms some space in the movement (market anarchism, anarcho-capitalism, etc.).
On the one hand, an aspirational view of totality allows anarchists to reach out into some rather general problems with society (in political terms, authority and sovereign law) and therefore to realize the common problems underlying many social issues (perceived or real), that largely frustrate individual action and desire (even if it may be a desire for community). On the other hand, anarchists’ identification of “the political problem” is in some ways self-reflexive—there’s a degree of necessary skepticism, in the context of *social* epistemology, in any position that introduces itself as “anti-authoritarian” in any robust sense. The scope and scale of the problem of authority and of sovereign law is not clear in its content, precisely because the concepts of “authority” and “sovereign law” are largely formal or structural in essence, and thereby cannot be reduced to any particular substantial social practice. It is conjoined to a kind of internal logic that characterizes tendencies in our relationships with others, that produces very similar kinds of fault-lines and confusions or conflations. In this sense, the anarchist project is a project of understanding some of the possibly transhistorical practical contradictions engendered in many or all discourses, while at the same time providing a general guideline that shows us various escape routes and allows us to approach a politics of affirmation. Unsurprisingly some tension can, in practice, develop between these two demands. Ideally any apparently totalizing substance that fills our narratives here and there should, as anarchists, be seen as a kind of tool, and in this way anti-authoritarianism is a profoundly deep sort of praxis as many times a merely nominal “anti-authoritarianism” can veer its head within all the symbolic and ritual trappings of an effective (“true”) anti-authoritarianism. It can be useful to characterize it as a critique and negation of absolutism, but given the equal and opposite tendency to emphasize the need to optimize the plurality of absolutisms at play in society—the mine and thine of possession/property, the diversity of or for institutional health—this can be misleading and may misrepresent anarchism as it is often concretely manifest in practice.
2. — What is the relationship between anarchism and the concept of anarchy?
Anarch-ism is an-arch-ismos, or the negation (an-) of an arche (source of action—whether that be a principle, rule, an efficient cause or material cause, etc.), while –ismos is a practice or teaching. So anarchism is the practice or teaching of the rejection of principle, cause, rule, etc. Of course, this etymological argument is not very convincing as it is somewhat reductive, and it betrays some of the common arguments made by anarchists: anarchism isn’t a rejection of rules but of rulers. Of course if we look at this latter argument linguistically, the apparent contradiction with the etymological roots of the term is not actually so straight-forward either: ruler is the agent noun form of “rule”. In other words, it is every bit consistent with a rejection of arche insofar as arche is already a unification of the concepts of agency and rule.
The idea of finding an “arche” was in ancient Greek philosophy a twin project of explaining motion and change, and discovering whether there were sources of these things by which they could ultimately be explained. This twin project meant finding a “final agent,” a prime mover—a kind of final arbiter that would become mirrored in the era of modern political philosophy, albeit in a normative rather than merely descriptive form. That is, the “arche” was thought to have to be a prime mover. Of course this is a simplification, but the idea of a “prime mover” is found implicitly beyond the Arisotetlian incarnation, and the concept was still at work among the mechanistic atomists. An anarchist can therefore say, moving onto the normative realm, that what anarchism really means is a rejection of “rule as agent” rather than of rules as such while still faithfully being a rejection of “arche”, as long as it is indeed not possible to reduce a rule to the agent which constitutes it.
But this is a bit of a digression—let me bring it back around to the question: “anarchism” is practicing or teaching how to live with rules disentangled from agents. How to avoid letting social status symbolically conflate rules and agents. Is it really a surprise that anarchism seems ironically obsessed with the rules? This is particularly apparent in the contemporary milieu—the priority that has occluded all others is the decentralized social enforcement of rather explicit and strict rules, nonetheless unpredictable in their significance and incoherent in their totality, and an observable division between public performance of anti-authoritarianism and the subtle hierarchies that can develop therefrom visible only in private spaces. Of course it would be irresponsible to treat this as an intrinsic development of the movement—it’s more that the over-concern for rules was always a potential outgrowth of an underlying anxiety, and that contemporary factors have been opportunistic given this fact. This suggests that anti-authoritarianism has not been fully internalized, in part because starting from a socially defensive position necessitates us to engage in the very inconsistencies which constitute our times. The emphasis on “systems” is a potential symptom of this as well, though it doesn’t have to be (given my answer to the first question, systemic thinking is no insignificant aspect of anarchism).
With a sense of what anarchism looks like, we can more easily differentiate it from anarchy. And in a way, in talking about anarchism, I talked about anarchy already: an-arche. Without the –ismos, anarchy can be taken as messy, sometimes to the point of apparent vagueness, but it is a living reality that can have a tendency to cover itself up and escape sight. There is one sense in which we are practicing it all the time, and we can see this from the messy social collateral we create in our actions and potential unawareness, as well as the consistent way in which persons negotiate in ways that aspire transcending the status quo. Of course this is simultaneously a deep and also rather thin characterization of anarchy, but these two things being at work can lead us, if they are taken seriously under long-run proactive examination with a look towards desire rather than dead moralism, to more properly liberatory projects for society as a whole. Anarchy is the constructive joy involved in anarchism. Anarchism is a set of general guidelines that insure a healthy anarchy (a primary guideline being anti-authoritarianism and rejection of social hierarchy), that can get provisionally beefed up with rules, institutions, systems, but which in-itself does not fully capture and carry the necessary social confrontations that can constitute anarchy.
3. — What is the value of tradition within the anarchist milieus and what might be its uses?
As I’m not a historian and ironically only superficially dabble in historical literature, I feel my response here is likely to be lackluster. Maybe even insultingly generic: the tradition serves as an anchor so that we do not lose track of developments. This is important because it ensures we do not get so caught up in contemporary issues that we are blinded to some long-run factors at work in the formation of the contemporary milieu, and so that we get a better understanding of how and why contemporary events or issues have influenced or are influencing the trajectory of anarchist praxis. This may make it easier to pinpoint what has been going wrong or right in anarchism than purely trying to disentangle the immediate complexity of the meaning of the current everyday. This contrasts greatly with many of the active uses of history within anarchism, that are primarily to rehash old disputes among personalities as sticking points that differentiate us from other anarchists or other leftists. Rehashing can be useful if its meant to bring in a new insight of what exactly fueled the old disputes and how and why that manifests in certain ways now, but rehashing purely in terms of conflicts between personalities and in terms of personal grudges renders the conversations primarily about reactively policing loyalties rather than grasping the meaning of those loyalties.
On the other hand, some “bad” uses of the tradition have their role to play nonetheless. Slogans, buzz-words and mottos create both a sense of continuity and of some sort of unity, and it can also differentiate it us from other political movements at the base level of the desires and concrete attachments reflected in recycled tradition if not on any transparently theoretical or practical basis, but perhaps recently they have been trying to do more work than they can handle. After all, it’s not always obvious what each of our desires actually “are.” Ironically this is as much a strength as a weakness of anarchist projects. If desire were out the window due to some level of indeterminacy, we wouldn’t be anarchists.
4. — What, specifically, is the role to be played in the present by the anarchist literature — whether theoretical or artistic — of the past?
Anarchist literature shares in some of the role that the aforementioned anarchist tradition itself plays in anarchist milieus. Particularly in the aforementioned “bad uses” department of the latter, if we speak of the artistic end of the spectrum.
Regarding more theoretical literature, anarchists in some ways replicate the textual habits of the Marxists. This may be informed by the heavy influence of academia on Leftism during that time when Leftism gained a more significant presence in the academy during the 60’s due to the activist focus of students during this time, and the bidirectional albeit indirect relationship between social experimentation and academic research during the 70’s. Obsessive textual analysis does have huge benefits in distilling and crafting theoretical insights from informational resources, and Marxism being tied to a very particular text from a very particular figure from the history of socialism benefited from this fact during those social opportunities in the 60’s and 70’s. Anarchism followed behind, staking its place by mirroring and replicating some of the institutional practices of academia, but in an extremely ambivalent and anxious way compared to the Marxist academics. The relationship anarchists have to the literature of their own tradition planted within the broader socialist movement (at least originally) reflects this ambivalence: (1) the literature rather than seriously studied is taken as merely an initial source of creative inspiration for anarchists to bring their own particular anarchisms to bare on other particular fields or narrow sociological concerns, or (2) the literature is seriously studied through textual analysis but nonetheless through disciplinary lenses that seem to function independently of theoretical anarchism itself, thereby proceeding in an eclectic but non-synthetic manner.
So anarchism adopts a problem academia has already had at the level of cognitive practice (how to engage in proper interdisciplinary work), and then uses the intellectual product of this fragmented cognitive practice to bare on concrete activity. Anarchism has always wanted to avoid the ivory tower while enjoying some of its benefits, so this makes sense, but the result is that praxis is stuck in a paradoxical situation of simultaneous over- and under- articulation as well as under- and over- sanctioning (this is covered in my response to the first question). There is even a kind of under- and over- contextualization. Descriptions for macro- phenomena are used to characterize micro- relations in a direct and symmetrical way, ignoring that scaling down and scaling up by default involves a spatial and temporal asymmetry of scale with very real effects on what is being observed. That is to say, there is a difference of causal efficacy as well as of spatial distribution of phenomena at higher v. lower scales.
If we wish to treat society as more than just the sum of its parts, we can’t ever really *directly* justify micro- scale action simply on the basis of macro- scale phenomena and vice versa as there is some degree of non-overlap, and it seems anarchists are content in lazily doing this every time an accusation or evaluation of behavior is in question. The fact that this seems to happen despite all the theory surrounding, say, intersectionality (to the point that even the term “intersectionality” has been used in ways that seem to betray the point of the concept) seems to tell us something about anarchists’ problems with and confusions about language. Being able to say something is often seen adequate to go about addressing it, but most problems in praxis do not arise merely in language. Language is a tool and can be used in various ways. And that may well have something to bare on anarchists’ relationship to anarchist literature. To what extent are anarchists not approaching things on those things’ own terms, in the context of what they are doing and how they are being used, in general, but most of all when it comes to texts? The degree of misinterpretation of—or at the very least lack of optimal charitability towards—Proudhon’s works by some anarchists, as well as the willingness to accept those who merely use the right words, tells us quite a bit here. But that’s in some ways the least of it, and the worst effects are arguably in or for anarchist praxis.
5. — What are the most significant challenges facing anarchists — and anarchism, as you understand it — in the present?
I think my answer to this has been implicit or explicit throughout my previous answers. But to extend on my answer to the previous question, perhaps we need a new look at the traditional anarchist notion of the union between cognitive and physical labor—or simply a revisit to a look that was merely lost rather than expired. The biggest irony is that some psychoanalytic Marxists and a few Deleuzians (as much as I complain about Deleuzians sometimes!) have been engaging this issue more seriously in the ivory tower of academia due to contemporary economic problems and perceived inadequacies in “dialectical materialism,”” although those engaging in such issues in academia are nonetheless still few and far between.
Another significant challenge is intertwined with the surveillance state insofar as it involves a widespread stigma against anything that can be misconstrued as extremism, and allows easy sabotage of movements hyper-vigilant against things which might be deemed problematic. The term “terrorism” has been sanitized to the point of feigned depoliticization and this somewhat spills over to very confused public understanding of what “extremism” is. The only way out of this is to politicize it again. One thing to our advantage in doing this is the increasing and already disproportionately large (disproportionate relative to violent crime) prison population and the increasing ubiquity of the prison or “detention center” experience because of it (and also because of the emulation of, and bargain with, the prison model in the school system). The contradictions within the issue of gun control also presents an opportunity, but that issue in particular is too heated and mired in culture war to be an adequate entry-point.
6. — How would you characterize the present state of anarchist activity (outside the realm of theory and propaganda)?
Since I covered questions of praxis/practice in previous questions, I’ll take this question as an opportunity to add a few more unmentioned issues:
(1) Anarchism is simply unprepared for the current era—though it was predicted as well as prefigured in postmodern work, anarchists still fall back on, in practice, naive ideas about how power operates considering we live in an era of simultaneous increased isolation and heightened interconnectivity, and a degree of surveillance that is not reducible only to State actors. Activism must address the interplay between the power of networks, the agency of individuals, and the weaponization of relationships—including those networks of anarchist agents with varied relationships. Those closest to taking this seriously are cryptographic anarchists, anarcho-transhumanists, and—as much as many of us may hate them—accelerationists that are either technocratic or technoprogressive. But these are often not concrete enough, or otherwise entirely contrary to some of our values—and so they end up not having much concrete import for anarchist praxis, especially ones that involve social coordination and questions of prefigurative “counter-“infrastructure. Anarchist praxis must be informed by these kinds of concerns.
(2) U.S. anarchists in particular either have been battered into cynical inactivity or, due to how self-selection into anarchism works, are overrepresented by the politically alienated such that anarchist discourse acts more as a surrogate for political activity. For reasons related to concerns expressed in earlier question answers, anarchist activists are not doing themselves any favors either—not because of some bogus “public respectability” issue that misses the point, but because the risk-taking and daring of those already on board has been dulled. There’s also the individualist undercurrent of anarchism, but this should not be an impediment as there have been times of greater effectiveness for the anarchist movement even with the presence of high internal controversies (as there is a high amount of very questionable activity happening in, say, egoist environmental anarchism). This is not to say that the whole gamut of desperate tactics of past anarchism should be replicated—some should be ones we instinctively avoid either due to moral considerations or new strategic ones. And clearly, I want anarchists to go beyond repeating the past as should be clear from #1.
(3) When it comes to the more Marxist-adjacent side of anarchist thought, anarcho-communism, the strategic relevance of consumer practices and ideologies of consumption often sits in the background. I myself still think the organization of production is of high importance—but when it comes to strategies that either prefigure a new kind of economy or help workers’ in the immediate (public jobs guarantee reforms, etc.), a lot of the differences are tracked by different relationships to consumption. The idea that the proletariat have a slowly-forming emancipatory instinct under labor market pressures ignores the bribe of consumption and how it can reinforce reactionary views and create public support for regulatory reversions to the benefit of capital. There should be more focus on a politics of consumption that doesn’t revert to free market, “individualist” consumer activism, but that is more firmly tied with the politics of desire and desirability and its interaction with notions of scarcity, property, leisure, “usefulness,” etc. This sounds like it would take a theoretical effort (and so seems to borderline ignore the parameters of the question asked here), but ultimately I think it would make a huge difference to anarchist activism, especially when it intersects with worker organization at a time when unionism, despite experiencing a mini-revival, has become somewhat politically stale.
7. — How would you characterize the present state of anarchist theory and propaganda?
Anarchist propaganda seems to have been immobile for a while now—the exception are online meme pages that use trendy albeit subcultural aesthetics (e.g., vaporwave), especially to counteract alt-right aesthetic strategies (although not always consciously so—sometimes its simply an idiosyncratic move). Second, the aesthetics used tends to appeal more directly to teenagers with persistence due to ongoing attachment to these symbols as anarchists grow older, which is not a bad thing, but we want to reach older adults that have absolutely no idea what anarchism is or have some misguided misconceptions by at least attracting them with a more relatable aesthetic or rhetoric. The same thing applies to anarchist engagement with religious groups. Anarchism is likely to be perceived as hyper-critical by outsiders (due to secularism and very biting and sardonic criticisms of religious institutions in the case of religious outsiders), but it then should be made clear in straight-forward ways why it seems that way.
A compliment would be that anarchist reporting that has been going on is fantastic, and it at least feels like it has expanded a bit and even managed to reach a bit more of a general audience in the fray of the current political climate (e.g., IGD). I’ve heard some criticisms of anarchist reporting, but it seems hyperbolic to me—activism of all kind is reported, rather than mere protests, riots or antifa activities. The real issue is in the fact that in more regular activism, anarchists get easily lost within the larger and more general activist scene, and so anarchist activity is more salient to people when it’s more polemical/controversial. I’m not sure how easy it would be to prevent this as it is a product of external factors. Another issue is that the reporting *in presentation* faces similar aesthetic and rhetorical issues as those mentioned earlier. The content is not necessarily a problem though.
8. — What are the most urgent changes to be made in anarchist practice moving forward?
This seems to be a question requiring more concrete tactical suggestions in relation to previous questions, but I don’t think strategic concerns have been answered well enough either in theory or action for tactical questions to have immediate relevance. That’s simply a long-winded way of saying I’m not sure how I could answer this question with any specifics—and perhaps that is also part of the issue. Anarchists haven’t been organized enough in the distribution and spreading of information in ways that unite seemingly divergent efforts, even as I previously complimented an expanding sphere of anarchist publication with gradually increasing visibility. This is increasingly important in our era, because the problem of “unintended consequences” has increased ten-fold and can only be at the very least mitigated with more international coordination.
9. — What is the role of some kind of “anarchist unity” moving forward? What form could or should that unity take?
This is an area of uncertainty to me, but any new unity would have to be international. One of the challenging fronts for the new anarchism will therefore be to find an anarchistic unity within the miasma of diverse cultural hang-ups in an age of consumption as surrogate for community. If successful, however, anarchism is well-placed as an intermediary for communal projects, even those emerging from non-anarchistic sources, as well as as a treasure-trove of auto-critique framed in the form of constructive support. We should at the very least play to our current strengths as people dedicated to an ideal, even when we’re not as anarchistic as we always would like to be.
10. — What are the greatest needs with regard to new anarchist theory, propaganda, literature and art?
As earlier: namely a need to tackle and revisit the issue of cognitive v. physical labor, question or practically challenge the role of consumption in anarchist work, and diversify or expand the aesthetic/rhetoric used in anarchist propaganda and literature. But these are more abstract. Most concrete and immediate needs involve confrontations with expanded surveillance and prison capitalism, and leveraging the internal legal contradictions revealed in border politics and the relationship between internationalism and outlaw status, as well as preventing high rate of worker displacement by the technological revolution underway. I hope I have not misunderstood this question.
11. — Do you currently identify with any particular anarchist current or tendency — and, if so, how do you characterize your position?
I consider myself a mutualist more specifically, although I have sympathies with post-left concerns and have some post-left sensibilities that come from interaction with Stirnerite egoism and general skepticism regarding the long-run functional integrity of institutions. My anti-capitalism is nonetheless heavily influenced by Marxism, but there are gaps or simplifications in Marxist theory that mutualism makes up for, and interesting sociological differences which render mutualism a technically more sweeping critique of social practices than Marxism that also complicates the “teleological” story. “Marxist Mutualist” is my short-hand. Feel it would be inappropriate to go into any further detail on something as broad as this.
12. — What additional questions would it be useful to pose to a broad anarchist audience?
- “As an anarchist, what do you think are the pressing issues in contemporary politics?”
- “What do you think anarchism has to offer for or to non-anarchistic (note: not anti– anarchistic) projects and in what way can these projects be worked into an anarchistic understanding that’s portable and understandable to those working on those projects? Is there anything to offer independently of the question of ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’ sentiments?”
- “What does ‘anarchic’/’anarchistic’ productive activity look like to you?”
- “Is it possible for anarchists to find any particularly key confrontations that can be agreed upon provisionally for at least strategic purposes? If so, is this even desirable?”
- “How should contemporary anarchists interact with clerical institutions and their corresponding religious communities if at all?”
- “What, if any, are the good contemporary entry-points in the public discourse where anarchist thought can have a non-negligible explanatory pull?”
- “What can anarchists bring to the table in tackling potential rural-urban ideological divides? Do you think these ideological divides run deeper (or perhaps shallower) than mere political disagreements? What are the possibilities for an anarchist geography?”
13. — Would you be interested in participating in future surveys, perhaps addressing more specific elements of anarchist theory, practice and culture?
Yes. I would like further opportunities to pretend to know what I’m talking about! 😛