Beyond a Radical Minority: An Interview with Chris Dixon
Introducing Agency’s Anarchist Profiles Series
Chris Dixon’s Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements, published last year by University of California Press, is a compelling introduction to anti-authoritarian politics in North America. Drawing on dozens of interviews, Chris offers a primer on an approach to organizing against capitalism and social oppression that also refuses top-down structures, including the state, political parties, and hierarchical organizations. Another Politics highlights the role of anarchism alongside black liberation, feminism, Zapatismo, and revolutionary nonviolence in informing the current generation of radical action.
Chris describes himself as both a cheerleader for radical movements and as someone who attempts to pose tough questions radicals need to reflect upon. I caught up with him in the wake of a thirty-city tour bringing the book to activist communities across Canada and the United States.
Carwil Bjork-James (CBJ) for Agency: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your own background and how that led to writing this book.
Chris Dixon (CD): I am originally from Anchorage, Alaska, on traditional Dena’ina territory and I currently live in Canada, in the national capital Ottawa, which is on unceded Algonquin territory. Between those two parts of my life, I lived on the West Coast of the United States in every single state, and I moved into the Canadian context about eight years ago. And in all of those different places, really since I was in my early teens, I’ve been involved in radical activism related to antiracism, environmentalism, labor solidarity, feminist politics, and environmental defense.
What led me into graduate school was my hope to try to use the resources of where I went, the University of California at Santa Cruz, to try to further the struggles that I care about. I went in basically to try and do research and ultimately write a dissertation that would provide some space for reflecting on a whole set of transformative politics and radical activist efforts across North America. Ultimately, what that involved was me traveling around the US and Canada interviewing dozens and dozens of long-time anti-authoritarian activists and organizers involved in a whole bunch of different kinds of movements. And I was asking a series of questions that basically came down to: What are we learning as we do this? What kinds of challenges are we consistently coming up against? And what kinds of unanswered questions are we still struggling with in the midst of all of this? That’s the research that became this book.
CBJ: Your book centers on something you call the anti-authoritarian current. Can you give us your definition of who or what that is?
CD: The thumbnail way I define this current has two parts. First, this is a political tendency that defines itself by being opposed to all forms of domination, oppression, and exploitation and really draws on the vital legacy of women of color feminism and this idea that systems of oppression and exploitation—whether we’re talking about patriarchy, heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, capitalism, so on—actually work with and through one another and cannot be disentangled from one another. And in fact require, if we’re going to try and ultimately do away with them and create a different way of relating, a whole different social structure. That’s going to require us to have a kind of multilayered revolutionary politics that takes on all of these things at once. It’s about taking up a very rigorous sort of anti-oppression—what some people might call “intersectional”—politics.
The other part—and I think this as equally important in defining the anti-authoritarian current as far as I see it—is a commitment to organizing. So, a commitment to trying to build movements beyond self-selected circles of already identified activists. Organizing is about trying bring people together in the places where they are, based in struggles that are somewhat connected to their daily conditions of life, and building power there to try to transform the system.
One thing I think is really important to clarify is when I say anti-authoritarian current, I don’t just mean anarchists. In fact, there are many anarchists who probably wouldn’t see themselves as part of this current, whose politics or practical day-to-day activities aren’t really a part of this current.
CBJ: How much was this book is intended as a way to encourage people in a very multi-segmented current to see one another across differences within the movement, or different origins in terms of which activist tradition they’re a part of?
CD: A lot of what’s happening right now with broad social and ecological justice activism is that it is very segmented. I was hoping to at least lift up some common themes, questions, and experiences, that I was hoping could create a situation where people might have some mutual recognition. And so far my experience while going on tour with this book—which is what I’ve been doing over the last several months, I’ve been in more than thirty cities—my experience is that people are very hungry for ways to think about the connections between what they’re doing in their particular place, and what people are doing in another place. There are some common questions and values at play, and there are lessons that people can often learn across these really intense segments.
Right now, it’s absolutely clear that many people are getting activated through Black Lives Matter. And Black Lives Matter is connected to a long Black freedom struggle in the United States and globally as well, and it’s also connected to the movement against the prison industrial complex, which has really been developing very significantly over the last twenty years. Going back a few years, many people also came in through the Occupy movement. And as they came in, anarchist politics really loomed large—anarchist politics with both its problems and its possibilities. I think that was a really key entry point for a whole other cohort.
Even as people come in through particular trajectories, I do see a lot of cross-pollination happening right now. Many people I spoke to talked in terms of an idea of a synthetic politics, trying to learn from a variety of traditions and experiences and draw out the best of those traditions and experiences, while also being critical about the failings, the limits of many of those movement histories and also current day politics. So, I do feel like we’re in a moment where lots of people are trying to draw on various things and I think that’s valuable, important and useful.
CBJ / Agency: Can you talk about what you’ve observed particularly for people for whom anarchism is their home base? Where are they coming into this conversation? What particular ideas and critiques do they bring to the larger movements in which they participate?
CD: A lot of people that I’ve been encountering more recently who are coming into anarchist politics bring what I see as some of the real strengths of anarchist politics. These include a strong commitment to deeply democratic or highly participatory forms of self-organization, and really prioritizing that in all the movement spaces that we come into. And also a real strong commitment to direct action, to using confrontational forms of protest to try and create disruption and push at this system in ways that can make a difference. Another thing that I see a lot of anarchists bringing in this moment that is really useful, is a commitment to what is often called prefigurative politics: this idea that to the greatest extent possible, we should try and bring in our visions and values for the better society to what we’re trying to do right now and how we’re trying to organize and using those to build institutions right now that try to serve people’s immediate needs. Those are all really helpful values and practices.
I do think there are both positive and challenging aspects to what I call “actually existing anarchism” in North America. Some of the more difficult things that are commonplace right now are, one, a real reticence about strategy, about trying to develop plans to move us toward a longer term vision of what we want to achieve beyond our immediate activities. Second is a kind of subcultural stuckness, a sense of “Let’s create a radical activist identity with very specific kinds of fashions and vocabularies connected to it, and let’s be in fact skeptical of people who try to connect to us who don’t share our ways of dressing or our ways of talking.” I think that often leads to an insularity that gets in the way of us trying to organize with other people. And there’s also a lot of reticence towards building organizations and institutions that are going to help us keep struggling for the long haul. I understand where some of that skepticism comes from; people don’t want to build parties and I’m totally with that. But at the same time, I do think we need some resilient structures that can facilitate ongoing work and hold people as they age, move through their lives, and continue to stay involved in movements.
Part of the tension here is that within anarchist politics specifically I don’t think we have great ways of talking about reform fights. And talking about some of these campaigns, whether we’re talking about defending reproductive rights, or we’re talking about fights for a higher minimum wage, a so-called living wage, fights to defend particular kinds of long-time labor organizing rights, and so on. Within anarchist politics, we often focus either on the immediate confrontational actions we’re involved in or we talk about our “liberatory” visions for the future, but we do have a very difficult time getting into some of the details of what we’re going to do to actually get ourselves to our “liberatory” visions. And here I think we do need to talk critically about reforms without being dismissive of all reform fights. Because I do think there are ways to evaluate these campaigns and to think critically and constructively about how to engage them.
But it is a messy, difficult process, and that is something that came up again and again as I went around and interviewed people. Because most of the people I interviewed are engaged in precisely these kinds of campaigns. Whether they’re involved in defense campaigns for people facing deportations, whether they’re trying to build labor organizations or feminist institutions and so on, they’re stepping into this messiness, where there are never clear-cut answers about how to navigate all of this, about how to carry our critical commitments while engaging with these real world kinds of campaigns. And the best I can say is that we’ve just got to step in and try and do it and not get too caught up in absolutism or perfectionism.
CBJ: Given your background and political perspective, why was the book about “anti-authoritarian” rather than “anarchist” politics? Asked differently, or perhaps a separate question: Does the term anti-authoritarian reflect an unwillingness (yours or theirs) to use the word “anarchist”? What motivates that?
CD: I made that decision early on as I was contacting activists and organizers to interview. Keep in mind that I was especially focusing on talking to people of color, queer people, working-class people, and women and gender non-conforming people. What I had been experiencing – and what become very clear as I began conducting interviews – is that there are lots of people in struggle who share broadly similar values, practices, and visions. But only some – a minority, really – of these people call themselves anarchists. And I do think this is connected to some of what I was saying earlier about the challenges of “actually existing anarchism,” which in North America has been too often rooted in predominately white middle-class subcultural scenes and frequently allergic to strategy and organizing.
As I interviewed people, I asked explicitly how they got politicized. These were always incredible conversations. And what I discovered is that there are many trajectories – many ways – into politics that we might call anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppression. People come through radical women of color feminism, prison industrial complex abolitionism, Indigenous sovereignty struggles, radical queer activism, Latin American autonomous movements, and other crucial routes. Often they come through more than one of these. And for some people, anarchism has been a big influence, and for others it has been irrelevant – or worse.
It’s possible that this might be changing. As I’ve been touring, I’ve seen some indications of this. Also, I know there are regional specificities to what anarchism looks like and is associated with across this continent.
In any case, as I was interviewing people, I started using the intentionally broader term “anti-authoritarian” to describe the political current I was encountering and participating in. Of course, this also isn’t a term that everyone uses, and I try to be up front about that in the book. But more people were comfortable with this term. And in trying to make sense of this, I was influenced by Maia Ramnath’s argument in her book Decolonizing Anarchism that perhaps we should see anarchist politics as one manifestation of a much bigger tree or family of anti-authoritarianism.
So, I’m an anarchist, for sure. But I think it’s essential to be critical about anarchism – to recognize that it doesn’t give us all the answers for making revolution in the 21st century and that, in its current form, it has some significant limitations. And in working with other people to build movements, I’ve actually come to be much more concerned with what I think of as the “three P’s”: principles, processes, and practices. I’m more interested in how, why, and toward what end people do things than I am with the specific political labels they use. What I’ve found is that people who call themselves abolitionists, women of color feminists, Indigenous, and/or anti-authoritarian are propelling many of the most dynamic struggles and movements right now. This is the perspective I tried to bring into the book.
CBJ: What do you think has been the most exciting lesson of the faster moving, broadly expanding movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter?
CD: Well, there are actually many great lessons there, but I think one of the biggest and most exciting and important lessons is that each of these mobilizations reveals new layers of people who have become completely fed up with aspects of this system and maybe haven’t been involved in explicit movement work but are suddenly moving into action.
There’s this kind of weird double way of thinking that sometimes happens on the radical left, when we talk about the masses. The one idea is that the vast majority of people in our society are just brainwashed and dupes and there’s no hope in them. They’re not going to move and so therefore we, as a kind of radical minority, should just try and push as much as we can. And the other view that we sometimes flip into is really romanticizing ordinary people and saying, actually, people are just being held back but they’re ready for insurrection right around the corner.
I think what these mass mobilizations suggest is that neither of those perspectives are quite right, but there are a lot of people who, in various ways, understand that we are living the midst of an interconnected social, ecological, political, and economic crisis. They’re fed up with these circumstances and are hungry for other ways of understanding what’s going on and are ready to move into trying to change things. I think these mobilizations have revealed a wonderful kind of possibility for action that’s far beyond what we often limit ourselves to within activist circles.
CBJ: Something that I wondered about your intervention in writing this book was how much it was intended as a way for people in what sounds like a very multi-segmented current—encouraging those people to maybe see one another across some differences within the movement or different origins in terms of which activist tradition they’re a part of, to see more commonality. Was that one of your goals? And do you see that as something that’s in process, and something that you’re furthering with the book?
CD: Absolutely. A lot of times, people within social justice activism more generally in the US in particular talk about a kind of silo effect, of many kinds of activist and organizing work happening but in many different silos. And there’s a way that the non-profit structure in organizing contributes to a silo effect, where people are pursuing grants in competition from one another and trying to distinguish themselves as doing important, leading, cutting-edge kinds of work. And that can have all kinds of negative effects.
More generally, broad social and ecological justice activism in North America is very segmented, and that’s not just within the non-profit sector. This happens even among people who are very critical of the non-profit sector, who are involved in radical activism that in some way rejects the non-profit approach. There’s a lot of this kind of competition and dismissal of one another. And often just not really paying attention to what’s happening in other movements or other contexts. This is certainly true in terms of race, in the kind of racial segregation of activism and organizing. It’s certainly true in terms of class, intersecting with race. And it’s certainly true in relation to gender. All of these things play out. Now it’s also true in terms of geography; a lot of people are very much focused on where they are in a particular city or a particular region.
So with this book, I was hoping to at least lift up some common themes, questions, and experiences, that I was hoping could create a situation where people might have some mutual recognition. And so far my experience while going on tour with this book—which is what I’ve been doing over the last several months, I’ve been in more than thirty cities—my experience is that people are very hungry for ways to think about the connections between what they’re doing in their particular locale, and what people are doing in another place. Maybe it’s people who are involved in fighting a pipeline construction project where they live, and in another place, maybe it’s people who are involved in gender-based violence. There are some common questions and values at play, and there are lessons that people can often learn across these pretty intense segments. This is what I was hoping to do and to whatever extent it’s helping to bridge those barriers I’m really happy.
Find out more:
- Chris Dixon’s blog: Writing With Movements
- Another Politics from University of California Press
- Carwil Bjork-James’ Review of Another Politics
Carwil Bjork-James lives in Tennessee. Over the years he has worked with a variety of organizations including the Independent Media Center, Direct Action to Stop the War, and Free University of New York City. He is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.