That which is avant-garde has always transgressed the boundaries of what is considered decent. Yet after the “shock of the new” has worn off, what was once widely perceived as subversive is often viewed by many as socially acceptable if not desirable. Anarchism, ever bohemian due to its utopian edge — even if anarchists see their principles as eminently applicable to the vast majority of peoples’ lives — continually throws itself against the next brick wall as soon as the previous one comes tumbling down. At least to date, then, the praxis of anarchism has voluntarily loitered at the border regions of society, remaining outrageous, but seeing with every new frontier a sense of possibility.
For anarchists and other radicals, this can at times form the backdrop for a productive production. From the 1950s onward, new types of social movements challenged lines etched by everything from colonialism and racism to patriarchy and heterosexism. The uncertainty created by such border crossings has frequently been generative not just of civil unrest and the casting off of old masters but more expansive articulations of liberation. For example, by various movements pressing against the limits of what it means to love or be sexual, “sexuality” as a category was enlarged to include gays and lesbians, then stretched to embrace bisexuals and later transsexuals, and recently further pried open by the contestation of “gender” as a binary concept. Even if heterosexism is far from eradicated, many peoples’ lived experience has improved; even if still confining, more social space has been created for greater self-determination around intimate issues such as partnerings, sensuality, and kinship.
Then too, creative borrowings across borders is a defining feature of the contemporary anti-capitalist movement. The phrase “Our resistance is as transnational as capital” has itself become transnational — a copyright-free good to be used by all. Indeed, a clever idea at one demonstration or an innovative organizing strategy whisks around the world, to be playfully altered in an array of diverse locales and then reinvented elsewhere. There are now a rainbow of blocs at protests; home-made shields at direct actions are crafted out of materials ranging from inner tubes to giant shellacked photos of global youth; and encuentros have beget consultas have beget grassroots social forums, if an exact lineage can even be traced. In this mutualistic economy of the imagination, we gladly share our ideas for globalizing freedom without need of trade agreements, without asking for bills of sales, national identification cards, or passports. And so it is that we cobble together a movement of movements without borders, all the while asserting that “another world is under construction,” as activists did at a recent gathering before the Europe without Capital mobilization in Barcelona.
But whether figurative or literal, borders are places of displacement, marking out danger and potentiality in equal measure. For many, they signify trauma; a better life often isn’t waiting on the other side. And more than ever, border crossings both geographic and cultural, material and emotional, are becoming compulsory points of no return for millions due to forces beyond their control.
The legacy of the anti-authoritarian Left could theoretically offer a framework to boldly approach and contest the legitimacy of the new, confusing divides being erected on a plethora of fronts. It could help ease the passage for those forced into migration and indicate a sense of home ahead. Anarchists, however, seem more comfortable causing disruptions at the old, familiar checkpoints — those guarding, say, culture or forms of resistance. Not that such disruptions aren’t necessary, especially dynamic ones; the best of radical artists retool when their creations become toothless. Still, the taboos and truisms of what is understood as “anarchism” unfortunately stand sentinel at the gates of our own promise to be much more relevant to many more people, in many more arenas. This would entail the discomfort of trudging through those barriers we’ve so far largely ignored.
Such disease with one’s place in the world isn’t necessarily a matter of choice. The tragedy being writ large on the global stage has broken down the boundaries between those who are displaced, the displacers, and those with a miniscule space of their own. All perform overlapping, frequently destructive if not deadly roles, and it is less and less clear who to applaud and who to boo in the improvisation titled “Globalization.” For like the migration of transnational resistance, the much larger migration of peoples and commodities (and people as commodities) across all sorts of uncharted territories has in certain ways unhoused us all.
The current battle over national borders — the effort to maintain an increasingly elusive and illusory national identity — is one case in point. Here, the displaced and the displacers, and those effected by both, all wrestle to define who has a right to a home in the alleged homeland. Whether fought with rocks or bullets, suicide bombers or ballot boxes, this is less a turf fight between or within states than it is about who belongs to “my people.” It is a struggle over who counts as “us” versus “them” based on various and variously contrived criteria of authenticity such as race, religion, or historical injustices. It is a war without winners that alleges, like George W., that there are those who do good (us) and those who do evil (them), and no coexistence between such opposites is possible.
Yet the very act of naming these dualisms — never neatly contained to begin with — indicates that they are at risk of dissolving altogether. The displacements, hybridities, and interdependencies that globalization is making apparent, if not exacerbating, are eroding what meager ground was left for such bipolar thinking. That could offer hope for transnational identities, a qualitative humanism based equally on solidarity and differentiation. But in a world that affords little security for much of humanity, holding fast to one’s “people,” however fraught with contradictions, at least supplies the veneer of home. Such is the foundation, for example, of a nouveau fascism that transgresses the contours of Nazism. Suddenly, it’s “rad to be trad” in the Netherlands, where culturally liberatory sexuality bonds with politically racist ideology in a refashioned far Right.
The parameters of today’s barbarism must be recognized in order to be fought, and that entails addressing its own barrier-breaking logic; how, for one, it feeds on many peoples’ genuine concern over the loss of community and individuality — such that in the Netherlands at least, the xenophobe can be queer. Countering such an ugly avant-garde before its notions become normative requires that we too straddle previously noncontiguous spaces. For instance, in a United States permeated by racism, perhaps anarchism’s antistatism should openly grapple with the necessity of certain forms of national identity as meaningful though not sufficient to people of color in their struggle for freedom (or as Ashanti Alston argues in the spring 2002 issue of Onward, “Beyond nationalism, but not without it”). Attempting such thorny trespasses might just determine whether we continue to play in the refuse of capitalist society, always at its fringes, or can instead offer a semblance of refuge to those made vulnerable at its many points of migrations.