Is Anarchism Impossible?
As someone who has been an anarchist for a few years and who, taking an interest in the subject, has written several books about it and undertaken both historical and cultural research in regard to it, I am not unaware that in many historical and seemingly also current conceptions of particularly social forms of anarchism a measure of utopian thinking is involved. Put simply, it doesn’t seem too hard for such kinds of anarchists to imagine “an anarchist destination” to which they or we or perhaps even both are supposedly headed – at least in theory. Call this “the destination”. Of course, it then absolutely goes without saying that there are lots and lots of examples of anarchist analysis of our current situation in a world of what I’ve termed “authoritarian capitalism”, a term meant to describe both political and economic circumstances. Call this “the situation”. For at least some anarchist people, anarchism is then imagined to consist in getting from point A, their analysis of “where we are” right now, to point B, that at least partly utopian ideal, the anarchist society.
Yet, as I lay awake one night thinking on my bed, my dog Stirner snoozing beside me, a question and a train of thought came to mind which struck me as a problem. The question was the following: Anarchism, as normally [i.e. socially] understood, is impossible [due to the reality of coercive capitalism] and, if it wasn’t, it would have happened by now, wouldn’t it? Thinking about this question it then seemed to me that this question itself amounted to a further one: Why doesn’t anarchism ever happen? Yet it seemed to me, on my bed, that the answer to that is obvious: people are trapped by capitalism and unable, or unwilling, to do what it takes [which may be hard] to break free from it. But does this then mean the permanent failure of “anarchism” given this situation? This thinking, in fact, was only really me articulating my anxiety in a Western European or North American context that even most anarchists/libertarian socialists/ancoms are actually coerced and beguiled by the trinkets and benefits of money and wealth. This becomes a fatal distraction to even them which demotivates any actual action. People, so it seems, want stuff AND anarchism; they want the trappings of capitalism whilst being somewhere on the way to anarchism as well, a combination it is not clear is either on offer nor even actually possible [much less desirable].
I thought about this and it seemed to me, in the dark intellectually as well as perhaps physically in this respect, that what we need – if we want to see anarchism advance towards “the destination” — is people who reject capitalism and go their own way. That “You can’t create anarchism by capitalism”, as I have put things before, seems an inescapable conclusion that mandates an active and engaged anarchist difference of both values and organization. This, in fact, is the substance of my own investigations into what an “anarchist economics” might amount to in previous texts I have written such as “Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism”, a logic and a plea for the building of non-capitalist relations of mutual aid, or, in “A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection”, an anarchist community which becomes an evangelistic community for anarchism by means of mutual aid, holding things in common [commonism], gifting [just giving people things because they need them] and creating an economic set of relationships between people generally which is a refusal to calculate who owes what to who or how much any one actually has at all. This all seems, although I wasn’t totally aware of this at the time I lay thinking, to conceive of the issues as largely economic and organizational. That is, if we can organize ourselves economically in another way, essentially creating new kinds of relationships, this will both make anarchism as an observable phenomenon more visible and more likely to succeed. Yet, if this is actually right or not, I cannot say.
There are some caveats to my imaginary scenario, however. The first, of course, is that anarchism need not be [and perhaps shouldn’t be] conceived of as a “point A to point B” kind of phenomenon on a grand societal scale [say, as a result of a revolution]. One respondent to these ideas of mine, when I shared them on social media as I sometimes do, did exactly what I had hoped some engaged bright sparks would and deconstructed this conception of anarchism for me. They replied that “little anarchies” are actually happening all the time. And I agree, they are. Within the confines of various local or temporary situations anarchists all over the world are engaging in these “little anarchies” without necessarily even conceiving that what they are doing, or what they should be doing, is contributing to some great imagined societal change. They are just living out the values that they have become inhabited by. I absolutely and totally applaud this and if you read my larger contributions to anarchist thinking you will see I think this completely necessary anyway. What this means is it is not necessarily the case that it is the anarchist’s job to take the world on their shoulders and imagine that it is their task to change it from “the situation” to “the destination”. This is one possible anarchist myth and some believe this story and others don’t.
A further caveat to my scenario above, or, rather, a consequence of it, is to take seriously the physical and intellectual heft of what we know as capitalism in regard to our lives. Our lives in the Western European and North American places I was thinking about as I imagined my scenario [yet also applicable, seemingly, to most other places as well] is one of whole populations gripped by capitalism’s values, practices and institutions. All these aspects are important here — which is to say that even the anarchists have been colonised by capitalist values and ideas, even they want the supposed comforts and conveniences of capitalism [or perhaps just the civilization it currently makes possible]. This gives us a problem and sets up that portion of my scenario where anarchists are imagined to want anarchism yet, please, if possible, without having to give up all the things they like and want which capitalism provided for them. It further raises the problem described as “You cannot get anarchism by capitalism”, a proposition I suggest is profoundly true. The issue here is that capitalism is a genuine, and genuinely dangerous, enemy. It is crushing the earth, voraciously using up its resources without thought for consequences and bringing the civilization it enabled to collapse without even slowing down. Human beings all over the world have been its victims [and its willing or unwilling carriers] for centuries – and as a constant factor of its reality in the world – and its because of capitalism, we might realistically say, that anarchism, as a 19th century reality, ever came to exist.
But back to my scenario which might also be described in the question “If anarchists don’t stop being capitalists then how can ‘anarchism’ ever really take place?” This is really the question I am hooked up on and it focuses on the matter of anarchist character. If you have read “A Handbook for Anarchist Insurrection” you will already know that I don’t conceive of the anarchist task as to find a way to drag society from “the situation” to “the destination”. Such metanarratives of global or societal revolution have just never seemed sensible or realisable to me. They are, in my view, also unanarchistic thinking. Malatesta may have wanted “the people to emancipate themselves” but he was, I think, also convinced that it was up to them as to how and what for. This all fits within that context best described by Gustav Landauer when he said, “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” This, expressed in my own language, is exactly my anarchist point in the scenario I have set out above: to get from something not like anarchism to something more like anarchism, even if only in our own local and/or temporary way, someone, somewhere has to start living according to anarchist values and practices rather than capitalist ones.
But no one does. I say “no one” but of course, in doing so, I know that’s not exactly true. What “no one does” means is that the grand societal narrative that I have imagined at least some anarchists hold in their head as “the point” never actually takes place. I think it doesn’t take place because its actually an undesirable nonsense, a purely imaginary and not very well thought out Utopia probably stealing head space in all those who have no real idea how to get from “the situation” to “the destination” that they have unthinkingly created. This conception of things is pure idealism and so doesn’t really exist in the material world. It is, as I have said before in more moderate terms, almost certainly dumb as a rock to imagine society as a whole anywhere flipping from capitalist to anarchist as the result of some human action. I include in this even the notion of civilizational collapse for are people just supposed to forget they’ve been capitalists all their lives? Psychological reality demands we don’t just imagine that they do. Yes, of course, there are anarchist and pseudo or semi anarchist experiments happening all the time [people love to mention the Zapatistas and Rojava although their realtionships to anarchism – or if it even matters what you call what is going on in these contexts – is contested] but the issue here is how people who have been forced capitalists for all of their existence, and who live in the capitalist heartlands, can ever become anything else or how those who say they want to be anarchists and live as anarchists can do so in contexts in which even sharing food with a homeless person might get you arrested.
The answer I keep returning to is that we need some bold people who make a definitive break with capitalism — who refuse to live as capitalists or on capitalism’s dime – and actually perform an anarchist lifestyle. I suppose in this I am being led by my imagined examples of those who have done this before – Diogenes, Jesus of Nazareth, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, these types of people. None of these people, in their civilization-denying activity, cared about the values or institutions of the wider society. In fact they impugned both in each case. They acted as if they were irrelevant for they were set on a course of manifesting their own values and arrangements, daring, as David Graeber has put this somewhere, the authorities to stop them in so doing. I think we need a lot more of this. A LOT MORE. We need anarchists who are anarchists and not half anarchists or pseudo anarchists who want to be civilized capitalists some of the time and anarchic rebels during the rest of the time. It is my charge that YOU CANNOT BE HALF AN ANARCHIST. Half an anarchist is no anarchist at all. An anarchist living as a capitalist is a fatally compromised anarchist. Anarchists, like pornstars, have to go all the way otherwise they are just another consumerist aesthetic on the political spectrum. They are a look not a vital force for change or a genuine and realistic political alternative.
I’m going to be very blunt: I think a lot of “anarchists” [now appropriately in quotation marks] are exactly these fake aesthetes and I know that in saying that I have now become the thing I really despise, 1990s Murray Bookchin forever complaining about “lifestyle anarchists”. Yet I do honestly think that this is a perennial danger. The question “What are you an anarchist for?” must, to my mind, at least, always lead to the question, “What difference is my anarchism making to anybody?” If the answer is none to little then perhaps, for you, anarchism is just a matter of how you make yourself appear cool to yourself and others. It is neither my job nor my problem though to make your anarchism mean something material in this world. Neither am I one who primarily concerns themselves with how other people live their lives. Education I conceive of as showing people a possible way forward but then leaving it up to them to decide if its a way they want to take. As one felt called out by Bookchin in his criticisms of “lifestyle anarchism”, I am not one besotted with organizing others and creating institutions to oversee them. My vision is not “a society led by the anarchists”. Anarchism, for me, at least, begins with the individual and leads to action with others that comes from those individuals themselves forming relationships for common purposes. No one can tell these anarchists what to do. They must create their own motivation and purpose from within themselves. This is the only way actual anarchism can ever be a genuine thing rather than an instruction from on high. So if you are an aesthetic anarchist then good for you. But I have other things to be taking care of such as changing more capitalist relationships into more anarchist ones. I’d like you to join me but it will take some changes in you if that is to be possible.
Now, of course, I do not actually think “anarchism is impossible”. I think that the revolutionary narrative that some anarchists have been, and perhaps still are, besotted with is much more so though [as well as being very poor strategy and perhaps even a misunderstanding of the idea “anarchism” itself]. Anarchism, in my conception, is more an emergent property of anarchist lives and relationships than a wham bam, thank you ma’am event. This latter possibility seems remote to the point of vanishing impossibility. As a result, the only means to anarchism is living as anarchists and this is exactly what, perhaps pessimistically, I struggle to see in the world. This is not to belittle the thousands and thousands of manifestations of anarchists lives, projects and activities which are going on all the time. It is to say that, in context, they are vanishingly small and consequently largely ineffective. Yet this, of course, is all dependent on what you think anarchism exists to achieve in the first place. Setting up a goal then mandates ideas in order to make said goal then not seem immediately pointless or rhetorical. The bigger the goal, the more pointless and rhetorical it appears to seem.
So I would call people back to a notion of anarchist authenticity for this is where any anarchism must start. I’m increasingly convinced anarchists must be those who go all the way and are unafraid to live the consequences of their values [think Diogenes, Jesus, Winstanley, and others like them, in lives of mutual aid, commonism, gifting and refusal to calculate] without any capitalist safety net or side hustle to support them or fall back on. We are told, over and over again, that its impossible to not live as a capitalist in this world. And, in many respects, capitalism makes it as difficult as possible to achieve without harsh punishments – as even other anarchists might tell us. But my issue is then this: as anarchists, isn’t our only possible response to this to be “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED”?