Anarchy and Anarchism, Insides and Outsides

Dad blame anything a man can’t quit.”—Roger Miller

Make a more or less angry break with the anarchist milieu. Settle down to write a book about anarchism. It might all seem a bit bizarre if it wasn’t, for a certain sort of anarchist, pretty much inevitable. I know that there are people who move from the anarchist scene to other political scenes, who trade in the beautiful idea for other ideas. Honestly, though, I don’t understand them and don’t imagine I have much in common with them. For me, the encounter with anarchy was a sort of Rubicon—or perhaps more like a sort of Styx. Anyway, once across, there has never been any question of crossing back. But it’s not some radical sort of semper fidelis that keeps me faithful to a movement. Instead, for me at least, anarchy is one of those things that, as we say in less serious contexts, “you can’t unsee.” It started as a look outside—and gradually became a kind of being outside—which has always mixed uncomfortably with the often strict border-patrolling characteristic of the milieu.

The outside that characterizes anarchy is not just the outsider status that brought so many of us to the brink. That, as I think most of us recognize, is a relative thing, entirely compatible with various inversions and the creation of new kinds of insider status. Instead, there is something about anarchy itself—the thing that makes it immediately familiar to the intuition and endlessly elusive in the realm of precise definitions—that mocks and punishes us every time we try to build a wall, a system, even a fixed meaning around it. Every time… I firmly believe that—although it has taken some years to come to grips with just how truly ungovernable our ideal of anarchy really can be. And it’s not just a matter of that ideal giving us a kick in the shins every time we go wrong. The kickings are likely to be pretty constant, even when we’ve kept our eyes on the prize and really put our all our strength into the work. Eventually, there ought to be a point at which we stop thinking about every “One more effort, comrades!” as a rebuke and understand that this is is just what living by our own standards entails, but we don’t seem to be anywhere near that point yet. There are arguably a number of transformations to accomplish between our current emphasis on call-outs and laying down the (anarchic?) law and a culture in which we could come together in mutual ungovernability, but perhaps the key to all of them is to come to grips, individually and collectively, with just how demanding our ideal really is, and the specific, systematic problems that ideal of anarchy poses for any and all of the anarchisms we might concoct in pursuit of it.

What happens if we let anarchy have its way—first in our thoughts and our imaginations, and then, bit by bit, in our practice? Should the prospect frighten us? Perhaps. But if anarchy does not seem to be the impulse that takes us the places we want to go, should we think of ourselves as anarchists? Probably not. When I see self-proclaimed anarchists back away from the concept of anarchy, it is generally because it “can mean too many things,” including presumably some bad ones. Now, I’m pretty well convinced that anarchy can actually only mean a very narrow range of things, but that the thing it most obviously means is that none of our pet projects and personal desires are exempt from potential critique. When the early anarchists identified anarchy with progress, what they meant was that only dead things stop growing and not much of anything stops changing. When they identified it with order, it was not in any way that ought to make any “law and order” crowd feel safe. If we don’t feel a tug of fear when we embrace anarchy, we’re probably not doing it right. But the thing to do when we feel it is not to retreat, but to look squarely at our fear. Chances are pretty good that what we fear most is uncertainty—but where, apart from resigning ourselves to some regime of authority, would certainty come from?

Let’s be clear: we will build plenty of safer spaces on the road to anarchy, but anarchy itself is probably not one of them.

Let anarchy have its way. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives.” It is not a space whose borders we can patrol. It is not a substance we can stockpile. It is not, as Bonanno reminded us, a concept that can be defined once and for all or an inheritance that we can squirrel away. It is not any sort of capital. If anything, it is a powerful solvent, with all the dangers we associate with such things.

But it’s not like we’re trying to build a new world with that solvent. Anarchy can only be one tool in our kit, however critically important it may be. And that realization—which perhaps comes harder to us than it should—ought to be an opening to others. Among other things, perhaps it clarifies the precise sort of tension that necessarily exists between anarchy and every sort of anarchism.

Anarchy is an ideal that pertains to a particular aspect of our lives. It concerns the nature of our relations to each other, and to the world. In a sense, all that is really implied by anarchy is that we will relate directly with the world as we encounter it, rather than mediating our interactions through the filters of authority and absolutism. When Proudhon referred to the governmentalist State as “the external constitution of society,” he pointed to something fundamental about the way our lives are organized. We are encouraged to believe that our interactions and collaborations are not significant in themselves—are in some sense not enough—until they are put in the service of a boss or an institution or a reigning abstraction. The real is merely relative until it is validated by some absolute standard. The alternative—what Proudhon called “the elimination of the absolute”—is really just what we might now call a very thoroughgoing horizontalism. If, for the moment, we find ourselves skeptics, relativists or nihilists—or enthusiasts for alternative systems—it is because we remain in a moment of critique, still subject to the terms of the dominant, authoritarian, absolutist culture. There will, however, come a moment, if we do not simply fail, when those critical terms will lose their sense and we will have to continue on into realms, and according to logics, that are hard even to adequately describe right now. But we can, I think, at least imagine ourselves walking away—from law and order, crime and punishment, permission and prohibition, and all the other facets of authority and the absolute—provided, of course, we have not internalized our role as critics as a form of identity. That should be a familiar enough danger. We have to be able to imagine a day when we will no longer be rebels—and when that will be just fine.

The overwhelming emphasis on authority in our culture probably makes us place too high a value on our own rebellion. In our truly authoritarian societies, virtually everything we would like to do is in some sense controlled or mediated by authority, so once we have embraced the position of anarchist—dedicated opponent of all of that—everything we do seems to be a part of our struggle. But there’s a real danger of turning anarchy into just another absolute, another rule to be applied universally. Even the language of ideals tends to play into that kind of thinking—threatening us with a sort of absolutist anarchism—if we don’t fairly carefully eliminate the absolute from our thinking in this case as well. So let’s remember that we became anarchists for specific reasons, because we felt blocked, frustrated or hemmed in in particular aspects of our lives, and then came to generalize our rebellion as the process of questioning specific instances of authority led us to reject authority itself. (If those colors don’t seem right to you, you might ask yourself how else one might become truly and thoroughly anti-authoritarian, and then judge your own experiences accordingly.) If, in the end, we end up substituting “being anarchists” for all those other, specific things that we wanted to do, I would be inclined to think we had either made a bad trade or else had come to think of our anarchism in terms too broad and general to be particularly useful. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but humor me while I propose a somewhat more carefully contained notion of anarchism.

Anarchism is a really curious word, which has come to mean a wide, and seldom particularly well defined, range of things. Let’s recall that both anarchy and anarchist were subject to a similar sort of indeterminacy. For the entire “Era of Anarchy” self-proclaimed anarchists frequently used the word “anarchy” in ways that made no clear distinctions between the absence of government and disorder—to the extent that when we see folks like Proudhon and Bakunin declare themselves in favor of anarchy, we probably have to acknowledge that they had no safe, well-contained program in mind. And, of course, there were those like Ernest Coeurderoy, for whom the road to anarchy appeared inseparable from the mayhem of a Cossack invasion. At the same time, there is at least some question about the extent to which Proudhon’s initial declaration—Je suis anarchiste—should be taken as marking out a specific category of being or identity (“I am an anarchist”), as opposed to a tendency (“I am anarchist.”) Noun or adjective? Interestingly, the original statement is grammatically a bit anarchic, so things could go either way. Now, add in all the things that “anarchism” has been used to designate: ideologies, movements, styles of individual practice, forms of social relations, etc. As I have already suggested, in the face of so much emphasis on authority, it’s not hard for the majority of what we do or say to be colored, at least in our own minds, by our anti-authoritarian positions. But even in this world, if the struggle colors everything, it still is not everything. To the extent that authority conditions our existing relations, our anti-authoritarianism will color our responses, but the goal is still to live, not to conform to an ideology or belong to a tribe. Life may be anarchic—at least when freed from authority—but we probably shouldn’t confuse it with anarchy or anarchism.

We are faced, then, with some distinctions that should probably be made. Anarchy is one way to organize social relations (with all those potentially problematic terms defined very broadly.) Anarchists are those who see that mode of social organization as preferable, in part because we can no longer wrap our heads around the justification for anything else. Anarchism is, in one sphere or another, the application of anarchy to our goal and projects, or against everything that stands between us and their fulfillment—between us and living. But in applying anarchy to life, the mix ought to be really heavy on life, with anarchy just being one of the characteristics of a life worth living. So living is another step from our abstract engagement with the idea of anarchy.

It is because we still do living in a world dominated by authority that it is worth making some sort of anarchist declaration (je suis anarchiste) and developing some set of practical applications worth calling anarchism. And until we find ourselves living in a different sort of world, we are probably going to be stuck dividing our attention between the ideal that is at the center of our critique and the life that we would like to be living. But—to return to our discussion of insides and outsides—neither anarchy nor life is the sort of thing that ought to appear to us as a limited territory that we can or must defend. Both of those focuses ought to have us looking outward—away from the narrow constraints of life under authority, toward freedom and possibility. And if anarchism is the messy, practical bridge between the idea we have formed of a life worth living and actually living it, the vehicle that we imagine will take us from one to the other, we should probably be suspicious of any manifestations of it that appear to wall us up, even in a defensive posture, in the name of anarchy and life.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 132 Articles

Independent scholar, translator and archivist.