Anarchism as Institution
From Ding Politik
The impasse of contemporary anarchist thinking today can be described as a problem of meta-ethics. In this regard, there have been two movements. The first movement consisted of a problematic reduction of anarchist thinking to either meta-ethical universalism or meta-ethical relativism. The second movement, within which my own thinking once found itself captured, reduced anarchist thinking to a pure negativity outside of dialectical recuperation. Today’s problem, which, to be sure, I now understand as the timeless problem of anarchist thinking itself, is the problem of affirmation. I will describe the problem as I see it: anarchists are resistant to any affirmation which occurs within the universal dimension; as a result, anarchists have retreated into the relativist dimension, and; those who are now growing dissatisfied with the relativist dimension have turned to the meta-ethical third-way: nihilism, or, the affirmation of pure negativity.
This raises many problems for the anarchist thinker. I have carefully outlined many of these problems in my book After Post-Anarchism, which, incidentally, was recently described by one of the most highly respected anarchist thinkers today as one of the most important anarchist theory books of recent times (Cf., forthcoming review in Anarchist Studies). I do not want to go over these problems again. Rather, I will refer to only one such problem: the relativist is forced to elide the universalist dimension. This means that the relativist, when put to the test, must defend a universal dimension for relativism itself or else risk relativism’s own subsumption under the universalist framework. If, for example, I state that each individual builds his own ethical framework then I must account for the fact that each individual is united with others in his relative autonomy to construct an independent ethical framework. At the normative level, for example, if I claim that each individual ought to be capable of realizing his own ethical maxim then I must as a natural consequence also maintain that each individual ought to be protected against the imposition of another ethical maxim; this latter claim can only be accomplished with recourse to the universal dimension. When taken to its conclusion, then, relativism is always a cunning form of universalism. This means that anarchists who are against meta-ethical universalism must also, by necessity, be against meta-ethical relativism, because meta-ethical relativism is a far more deceptive and dangerous form of meta-ethical universalism.
Thus, we return to the problem of universalism. It is my claim that meta-ethical universalism is much more difficult to refute. We can claim, as many have, that meta-ethical universalism is inherently oppressive because it imposes itself onto various particular positions. However, this claim conflates universalism with statism and thereby maintains that universalism is always a form of statism or hegemony. But this is clearly not the case. One can make a universal claim without necessarily endorsing the particularity of the state or the hegemonic order. Moreover, one can be a universalist at the descriptive and meta-ethical level while also being a relativist at the normative and personal level. We could simply ignore the universal dimension and embrace the third-way of nihilism by affirming the pure negativity of anarchism. However, this only achieves the promise of getting around the problem of universalism without adequately refuting the universal meta-ethical argument. Moreover, the meta-ethical nihilist is incapable of providing a compelling argument about why we should ever build a new world. We can talk as much as we want about the inability of the state to recuperate our anarchic negativity but this does not itself put an end to the state; it merely absolves ourselves of the burden to construct a solution to the eventual absence of the state. In this case, the nihilist position could be a temptation for those who have simply lost all hope and found themselves impotent.
My claim is that we, as anarchists ought not leave the difficult task of building a new world to others. It is best if we take it upon ourselves to build the new world. It may very well be our calling. It is therefore my belief that the universal dimension of meta-ethical thinking must remain in place and that the particular order of the universal as it happens to find itself today must be dismantled. In any case, while I believe that the nihilist third-way offers a compelling reason to reject relativism, it does not, for that matter, offer a compelling reason to reject universalism. Paradoxically, it seems to me that the nihilist third-way offers us a reason to return to the problem of meta-ethical universalism again. Nihilists found the universalist framework too statist. Very well, what world do you want in place of the one in which you find yourself? The problem for anarchist thinking today is therefore the problem of not having an adequate solution to the problem of meta-ethical universalism. We know that the state is only one particular way of affirming the universal dimension – it is one order that can exist within the world. However, we do not yet know what a new world, and its new order, might begin to look like. We know that we envision a new world which is neither statist nor pluralistic – we want a new world for everybody and not just a new world for some.
In the midst of this problem, all that we truly have is the tradition which anchors us together: anarchism. And so we are really only still in the beginning of our thinking. In the beginning there was the word and the word was anarchism. That word, anarchism, is all that holds us together: we have our anarchism. And yet we want our anarchism to be neither big-tent nor relativistic. And so where does that leave us? Our tradition also suffers from problems. And so I reduce the tradition to a single word. The word, insofar as it unites all anarchists, is a function through which we all pass as variables in the revolutionary equation which we envision to solve the problem of the world as it is.
What then can we do with this word? How can we put it to use? We do not know the direction of our struggle. Inasmuch as the new world is there within our hearts, it is not a blue-print but a passion. A passion is not tangible and neither is it transmissible. It is an address that is addressed to each of us at the most general level possible: it transmits nothing. Inasmuch as it is a passion then it is a passion for the revolutionary event, the eruption of the possibility for a new world. But it is also just a feeling of preparedness for this new world. We are prepared for the new world but we are not yet within that new world. And neither are we within the thinking of what that world might look like. And so we are really still only at the very beginning. If we’ve become nihilist anarchists, if we’ve finally affirmed the pure negativity of anarchy, then we’ve finally only made a beginning at anarchism. We as yet still have nothing and we as yet are still nothing. Those who have remained committed to anarchism for all of these years, those of us who have not given in to the compromises of the world as it is, continue to feel that flame burning deep within our bosoms. We feel that flame burning and we try, sometimes without much luck, to keep that flame from burning ourselves alive. We seldom achieve this task: some of us let that flame burn ourselves up during our sacrifices on the battlefield with the police. We allow our passions for the new world to bring us to our own defeat. We give it all for a partial victory in one area or we give ourselves entirely to the cause in a burning moment of passion, but we do so without giving anything more to the cause itself. Rather, we give it all to a beautiful Ideal. Let us distinguish the beautiful Idea from the beautiful Ideal, for the beautiful Idea is an ideal which compels us to be patient.
Anarchists must be patient because that is all that our passion for the beautiful Idea allows us to do. To be patient is not to wait for the revolution because for many of us the revolution has already happened. To be patient is to be prepared, and to be prepared is to allow the affirmation of pure negativity to move us forward toward a new world. We need to move forward from the affirmation of pure negativity so that we might be prepared for an event. We need to move from the beginning toward the middle, and what is at the middle but the institution? If we move forward only for ourselves then we will achieve the smallest victory for ourselves and the biggest defeat for our cause; and if we move forward only when the time is right – while the iron is hot – then we will achieve much for ourselves and much for everybody else as well. In the beginning was the word, anarchism, which is only a beginning; but this is not all we have. We have the word, but we also have our passion, which is a preparedness for an event. If the revolution is the movement from the beginning of an affirmation of pure negativity then the revolutionary event is the moment when our patience (it is not a coincidence that “patience” and “passion” share a similar etymology) is put on trial. Thus, to move beyond the beginning toward the middle, to overcome the revolution of subjectivity, is to pass through anarchism as an institution and to thus be shaped by patience and passion, by passience.
So, we are not in the worst situation: we have the word, which binds us, the patience, which ignites us, and the event, which compels us. But what, for all that, happens between the word and the event? Any revolutionary event requires knights of faith who have the passience for revolution. The problem is that we may very well have few knights who have properly made it from the word toward the passience or preparedness for the event. The word therefore must be followed by a function and it is this function which I call the institution. Anarchism, as a word, must have it within itself to operate as an institution. And it must be an institution capable of transforming regular people into knights of faith. Anarchism, as a word, must function so as to instill revolutionary passience. To move beyond the beginning requires that anarchists become nihilists and to move beyond the middle requires that nihilists become anarchist-nihilists.
Anarchism, as an institution, must offer itself up to men who are or have been reduced to nothing and who thus wish to change the world not only for themselves but for everybody else who has likewise been reduced to nothing. Anarchism must prepare people for the revolutionary event. Anarchism’s task is not to make the revolution, but rather to prepare people for the revolution. Anarchism is the knot that ties together the knights of revolution. This is the only function that matters for anarchism. What makes anarchism a timeless political philosophy is always also what makes it a timeless institution. Anarchism must ensure the future of the revolutionary event by producing subjects capable of responding to the event when such an event calls out to them. Anarchism’s destiny is to ensure that a revolutionary event, if one should ever come, ought not be resisted by those who could most benefit from it. Anarchism’s function is to create revolutionaries of the event.
If we allow our word to degenerate into an organization or party-form then we have allowed the function of our word to institute revolutionaries of the world as it is rather than the new world. The party-form has as its agenda the movement toward a new order within the world as it is, a new order which has sometimes been called the dictatorship of the proletariat or the transitional state. This is why the nihilist third-way is so important today – it compels us to rethink meta-ethical universalism so as to not allow the conflation of statism and universalism. What anarchists want is not just a new order of the old world, nor a rejection of the world as it is, but rather a new world and a new order. This is why I distinguish between anarchists, nihilists, and anarchist-nihilists. Anarchists are content with the universalism/relativism dichotomy, nihilists are content with the affirmation of pure negativity, but anarchist-nihilists are content to defend anarchism as an institution. Anarchist-nihilists want to instill revolutionary passience in the subjects of the world as it is. Anarchists have not passed through the institution of anarchism, nihilists are stuck in the middle of the institution (the training), and anarchist-nihilists have passience to move beyond the institution.
Anarchist-nihilists do not want, as a consequence, the preservation of the old world for the benefit for a new order, but rather, they want, as a consequence, the destruction of the old world as well as the old order in favour of the preservation of a new world without the old order. Anarchism’s function, as an institution, is not to prescribe the revolution nor to sublimate the passions of the lumpen, nor is it to ignore the call for a new world. Rather, anarchism’s function is to offer its word as a function for mediating the world as it is and the new world, the world as it ought to be.