Teaching Anarchy - by Ron Sakolsky
From the new second edition of Creating Anarchy
Why are there so few anarchists in the academy? It’s that anarchism is primarily concerned with forms of practice; it insists, before anything else, that one’s means must be consonant with one’s ends; one cannot create freedom through authoritarian means; in fact, as much as possible, one must oneself, in one’s relations with one’s friends and allies, embody the society one wishes to create. This does not square very well with operating within the university, doing intellectual battle at conferences in expensive hotels, and trying to pretend all this somehow furthers revolution. At the very least, one would imagine being an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run—and I don’t mean by demanding an anarchist studies department, either and that, of course, is going to get one in far more trouble than anything one could ever write.
—David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, 2004
From freeschooling to homeschooling to deschooling and beyond, anarchist approaches to education abound. The experience recounted here occurred in a learning environment less receptive than these. For twenty years, I taught a course entitled “Anarchy and Social Change.” I worked at a university that was at first fairly experimental (student-centered, no grades, interdisciplinary, participatory decisionmaking and self-designed degrees), but which, over the years, deteriorated (though not without a battle) into the “anywhere USA” franchise of bureaucratic education that is so widespread today. By the time I left teaching there, I was alone in my refusal to adopt the conventional techniques of academic discipline now prevalent elsewhere at the university. However, as a result of a growing corporate climate, I could not as easily create an anarchist-learning experience as had once been possible.
Moreover, the nature of the student body had shifted because the university no longer attracted free spirited radicals. Even beyond the classroom, student ideas for community projects increasingly tended to be of the reformist variety. Aside from the occasional student who identified with anarchy, my classes were flooded with students who did not really want to engage with anarchist ideas. They were often there simply because they had heard that there were no grades and expected an easy ride. Many of these more opportunistic students were not merely uninterested in anarchy, they were actively hostile to it. Their priorities were elsewhere, and their defenses were up whenever I introduced transgressive ideas. Other students, while somewhat curious about anarchy, were unconvinced that it was possible. “Nice idea, but anarchy can’t work in practice,” they’d say, because “people are just too fucked up.” Implied in this miserabilist analysis were a variety of unexamined assumptions about human nature that led to a “taking care of number one” stance for some or a cynical hipster pose for others.
In effect, these students told me that before they would agree to seriously engage in learning about anarchy, they needed to know that it wasn’t just pie in the sky. They wanted proof that human nature is intrinsically compatible with anarchy, or else, why waste their time. Only by recognizing this challenge as valid—and starting from there—could the learning process begin. Fair enough. We began experientially by re-imagining and redesigning both the classroom and the learning process along anarchist lines, from creating learning affinity groups to collectively deciding what to study and how to go about it, starting, of course, with human nature.
This was not easy work. Preconceived notions of human nature go deep and prevent us from learning about anarchy in more than a superficial “oh isn’t that an interesting heresy” kind of way. This ingrained problem is further compounded by the prevailing post-modernist misreading of the anarchist view of human nature as essentialist and ideological. Yet, what is often dismissed as essentialist in anarchy is, in fact, quite nuanced. Similarly, what is rejected as ideological is frequently seen that way because of the viewer’s own unexamined ideological assumptions.
Take Kropotkin… Based on his personal observations of animals surviving under the most difficult circumstances in Siberia, Kropotkin found not “survival of the fittest” in the Social Darwinist sense, but “mutual aid.” His story of how species survive varies widely from what we are accustomed to hearing in capitalist society. As he speculated, like other animals, humans have within themselves the capacity for both cooperative and competitive behavior in solving problems of survival. Which of these elements comes to the fore in social interactions depends largely on the values inculcated by the larger society. However, while capitalist thinking assumes that human nature is, in essence, competitive, that is only part of the picture. Even in a capitalist setting, there is no inherently human way of taking care of survival, much less abundance.
Perhaps it is better for anarchists to think of human nature as encompassing an expansive repertoire of possible behaviors. In so doing, we can release human nature from the narrow confines of an essentialist logic that naively views it as either good or bad (or even evil as in the JudeoChristian language of original sin). While anarchy emphasizes the potential for cooperative behavior embedded in human nature by referencing solidarity against oppression and for the creation of liberatory alternatives, it doesn’t deny the will to power that the state and capitalism tap into so effectively. In this sense, the authoritarian structures of civilization are not strictly based upon imposition for their success, but are built upon human proclivities for competition and control. Precisely because we can’t expect a system in which imperfect human beings are in positions of power to be free of domination, anarchists seek to abolish hierarchy.
However, while we must be vigilant about power dynamics, this does not imply that we need to accept a bleak dog-eat-dog conception of human nature. Authoritarian tendencies in human nature, while real, can be rewarded or discouraged. In turn, anti-authoritarian impulses toward cooperation never completely disappear and can be reinforced by an anarchist vision of social change. In my teaching, I used the following story as a catalyst to elicit related tales of mutual aid from my students.
Several years ago, I was in a freak accident that resulted in my van being totaled. On my drive home, I started to smell smoke. I pulled over toward the side of the road and saw that the engine was in flames. Not having a fire extinguisher at hand, I started to throw dirt on it to no avail. As I looked up in exasperation, I saw a woman running toward me with a fire extinguisher in her hand. Another car stopped with an extinguisher, then another. Still the fire raged. A guy pulled up, jumped out of his car and started directing traffic around my van. Another called the volunteer fire department. A third helped me grab my sleeping bag, tent, camping equipment and tools out of the vehicle. A fourth offered to stick around long enough to give me a ride home. By the time the cops finally got wind of it and arrived, everything that could have been done to bring order to this chaotic situation had already been done. The arriving volunteer fire department trucks put out the blaze, and I caught a ride home with a total stranger.
In fact, all these people that I’ve mentioned were total strangers. Yet, they weren’t helping me because they were doing their anarchist duty, or because they were being paid to do so, but because they recognized their own vulnerability in my struggle, and they acted on their most cooperative instincts. While this story doesn’t have a moral, it offers us a lesson about human nature. After all, someone could have stopped, clubbed me with their tire iron, stole all of my possessions from the car, rifled my wallet, and left me for dead. Humans are capable of such things. But this didn’t happen. Somehow, the people who offered their assistance to me saw their survival as connected to mine, and they were generous instead of predatory in their actions. What people will do to survive is unpredictable because there is no essential human nature determining how they will act. In fact, against all odds, in a society where people live in isolated nuclear units and competition is the norm, they were cooperative.
A different dynamic might have applied if I were a woman or a person of color, a crusty punk, obviously queer, or transgendered. By speculating on what might have happened in these situations, I was able to raise questions in the classroom about patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and gender politics in a way that was directly linked to a true story rather than having it just be a theoretical exercise. In every case, these specific questions related to the larger one of discovering what might be possible in an anarchist society committed to the ideal of uprooting all forms of domination.