Constructing an Anarchism: Approaching An-Archy

from The Libertarian Labyrinth

What is anarchy? This is a question that I have returned to repeatedly, a bit obsessively, with different results each time. I have come to the conclusion that anarchy is what we might call a still-emerging concept. At times it strikes me as almost shockingly self-evident, bold and bare like the lovers in some one of a thousand anarcho-naturist poems—or sometimes maybe just bold:

“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”

“Whaddaya got?”

At others, the anarchy of available anarchies makes me wonder if I’ll ever really get more than glimpses of this beautiful idea.

Think of these two responses as poles in what may, at least for now, be a kind of necessary oscillation in our encounter with anarchy. We’re at the stage of confronting ourselves with the fact—what seems to be a fact, at least—that some of our most important concepts continue to elude us, both individually and collectively. And we’re faced with the sheer volume of anarchist history and tradition that cannot help but complicate matters for us. But the basic premise of this whole experiment is that, while the complications are real, they are very far from insurmountable and, with a bit of care, we can probably position ourselves in relation to all that complexity in a way that is not just surmountable, but perhaps is even advantageous.

We’ve already assembled some of what we need to engage with anarchy in all of its, y’know, anarchy. Paying attention to questions of sphere and scope of application—just not trying to use anarchy to answer questions or solve problems that don’t relate—will help us a lot. Being clear with ourselves and with one another about the specific realms to which we think anarchy most pertains will help as well. As someone already long accustomed to wrestling with these questions, it feels quite natural for me to be constantly shifting focus, talking about history at one moment and etymology at the next, shifting from the concerns of the very first conscious anarchists to those of my friends in various modern milieus—trying to balance the need for clarity and the fact that, in the end, I’m really in it for the anarchy. In this context, I am really trying to strike a useful balance, but there are going to be times when perhaps we should have a scrolling banner of the “PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME” variety somewhere on the site.

But you should almost certainly try this at home—or something like it—but just do it in your own way with the tools you can bring to the task in the present.

The fact that anarchy is just anarchy, just right there, out there, taunting us with that “whaddaya got?” is probably the reason that we continue to talk about it, why people who pretty obviously want rather archic things want to talk about it, instead of falling back on some other language, some other rhetorical strategy. Whenever people talk about “rebranding” anarchism, I can’t help but laugh—because, whatever else anarchists may have got wrong over the years, the “brand” has served us well in a variety of ways. But there is no escaping the fact that the language of anarchy has been and remains a provocation, perhaps because it couldn’t be anything else in the circumstances, and that building with a provocation as foundation is likely to produce complicated results.

So let’s not try to escape those facts—and see if there are some other difficulties that we can escape.

We’re stretching out the opening a bit at this point, for a variety of reasons. I haven’t been quite sure if enough of us were on one page to move forward. I’ve been doing what I can in various forums to fix that. I decided I wanted to share a French essay from the 70s—next week—and then realized how much of it was still untranslated. And the good folks at the Anews Podcast spent some time this week responding to the project—which, frankly, just put me in the mood to chat back a bit in the general direction of distant friends.

But it’s time to start my own work of construction, starting with some conception of anarchy that doesn’t consist of more-or-less erudite free association.

It’s time to build.

But we never really get to build from scratch.

To make these concepts « our own » is inevitably to enter into some kind of relationship with existing bodies of thought and those who share an interest in them. And perhaps that relationship is ultimately one of sharing—but it is very difficult to start there.

There’s a work that almost certainly comes first, which arguably calls on us to channel our Inner Stirner, look at the available material in “the anarchist tradition” and see, at least for a time, « my food ». There’s no real harm done if we just tear off whatever chunks seems useful. Ideas are rivalrous in other ways. But there’s something to be said for being quite conscious about our appropriations, looking at anarchism from the outside, extricating first ourselves and then perhaps too-familiar ideas from familiar frameworks.

The problem of establishing a useful perspective will be different for each of us. Some of us will struggle to find a space outside of our anarchist beliefs from which we can still maintain a useful perspective. Some of us will perhaps have to begin by clarifying what we think anarchism is before we can meaningfully confront the tradition as a resource. That’s one of the reasons for the long wind-up. For the moment, it’s mostly just us and a couple of questions:

What is anarchy?

What is anarchism?

But now I’m going to start coming at you with answers, of a sort, which it will be necessary to treat as a kind of creative work—examples of answers, being precisely exemplary (in a modest sense), rather than definitive. That distinction is obviously easiest to maintain if it is indeed a question of multiple examples, which is why we will regularly pair a new conceptualization with some of my past writings on the same topic.

Approaching the concept of An-Archy, we’ve already introduced the texts from the “Defining Anarchy” series. This week, I want to present two more attempts to define or conceptualize anarchy for your consideration. They both deal with the complicated question of what Proudhon meant when we wrote about anarchy. The first, “Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses,” deals with a bizarre set of interpretive problems introduced into the English translation of Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle, when the translator attempted to clarify the text by translating many of the appearances of the word anarchie with English words that were not anarchy. This might not have been a problem, except that Proudhon had himself suggested twice in the text that the various senses of the term were in some sense interchangeable. For example:

The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.

The problem posed by the diversity of those senses is one that I want to return to in next week’s post, but you can read a partial exploration in the second reading, “Anarchy: Historical, Abstract and Resultant.” This attempt to distinguish three types of anarchy that seem to appear in Proudhon’s work really aimed to address a different problem in Proudhon scholarship, concerning his alleged shift away from anarchist ideas in his later works, but should be read here primarily as an example of the clarifying process.

Returning to the warring visions of anarchy with which I began this post, we might think of the first of these readings as dealing with an anarchy that at least Proudhon thought shown through in some relatively uniform way despite significant differences in the uses of the term, while the second demonstrates some of the real diversity in the possible definitions of anarchy. And we’ll see if the two sets of insights can be combined in next’s weeks conceptualization of the concept.

That just leaves one reading for the week: Ricardo Mella’s “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” and its sequel, “The Rising Anarchism.” Mella was a Spanish collectivist anarchist and one of the thinkers associated with the idea of anarquismo sin adjetivos. He was a talented and prolific writer whose works are marked by a fairly constant concern that the anarchic heart of anarchist thought should be maintained. He was hard on all isms, tracing an apparently inevitable trajectory from enthusiasm to dogma to “dreadful questioning:”

The enthusiasm of the neophyte, the healthy and crazy enthusiasm, forges new doctrines and the doctrines forge new beliefs. It desires something better, pursues the ideal, seeks noble and lofty employment of its activities, and barely makes a slight examination, if it finds the note that resonates harmoniously in our understanding and in our heart. It believes. Belief then pulls us along completely, directs and governs our entire existence, and absorbs all our faculties. In no other way could chapels [almost certain sects or narrow schools of thought, in the sense of the French chapelle], like churches, small or large, rise powerfully everywhere. Belief has its altars, its worship and its faithful, as faith had.

But there is a fateful, inevitable hour of dreadful questioning. And this luminous hour is one in which mature reflection asks itself the reason for its beliefs and its ideological loves.

And, as the first essay draws to a close we find that anarchism is apparently not immune to this tendency to bankruptcy. But the sequel, if less poetic and moving, is useful in its measured thoughts about what might keep an anarchism in the black. It is also an early example of an argument for anarchist synthesis, but one perhaps more radical, or at least more compellingly presented, than that of Voline.

If individuals or groups are looking for a text to read closely or to discuss, I think it would be hard to find one that draws together so many of the concerns we have begun to address. And, as it is a particular favorite of mine, it seems likely that I will return to it again.

There are 21 Comments

While I kinda enjoy Wilbur's methodical ramblings across a not too heavy cascade of sources, he's not the type of being in a hurry of "getting to the point", or maybe his getting to the point will be a 500 pages essay we'll have to go through in order to find his path to the new anarchy? I hope not. :-/

I do appreciate the effort, tho, as these are really trying and pivotal times for anarchists in the developed world at least. Any redefinition of what it means to be anarchist in the current social context is much needed for examination.

But he's got a groundbreaking project like he reads he has, well...provide it and make it clear to everyone.

That 500-page book may come some day, but I don't kid myself that any individual vision of anarchism is going to break much ground. So "Constructing Anarchisms" just uses my ongoing work as a source of examples. If any fraction of the folks following along clarify their own ideas a bit, that's probably going to be more useful than any magnum opus I have in me. And, yeah, these opening cautions / pep-talks do drag, but I'm responding to the feedback people are giving me about the basic nature of the project—which is as weird and unlikely a project as I've very undertaken. I promise to shift fairly quickly from "not getting to the point" to "maybe getting to too many points" starting this week.

Wilbur will probably play a small but important role. He's one of the few people doing a discursive deep dive on the finer differences between anarchism and anarchy as well as the the difference between Proudhon and Stirner in terms of what anarchy is. Proudhon and Stirner are, for me, the main two postulates of modern anarchy.

tiktokers won't read shawn p, zoomers are too hip for anarchy, anarchy will die with shawn's generation and we will be left with an exquisite postscript

Anarchism needs to stay dead for any possibility of anarchy to arise from it. Like a Cordyceps

This period of anarchy rhymes with the inner wars period in which it collapsed and it took some time for the silent and baby boom gen to re-conceive it later on in century 20. There are some thought currents out there that I think will make use of it(the radical sense makers come to mind) in new ways. As I have been saying however, this is the end of the 1968 era of anarchism just as the inner wars period was the end of the 1886 era.

Why are anarchist ideologues such flowery terrible writers? Gaseous prose in the service of gaseous philosophy.

Why are haters such superficial commenters? Generic disses in the service of generic dissing.

If I cared about your opinion I'd ask you to name an author whose writing style you'd prefer, just to laugh at your general illiteracy, but I don't get the benefit of seeing you fumble around trying to make a pick, plus it would not benefit you to humor me.

I bet you have bad taste in general and the most boring and noxious politics.
I bet you find the directions on the label of a bleach bottle flowery.
I bet your mother read you the back of a cereal box to make you go to sleep as a child.

Needless to say, flowery prose is not anyone's exclusive domain.
Also, to philosophize about and around the concept of anarchy does not necessarily make you an ideologue, I'd not expect you to be able to make that distinction. I bet this comment is already too long for your attention span.

Orwell, it's said, didn't really like window panes. But he had a secret and truly vicious hatred of the little birds that sometimes fly into them. In manuscript, I believe, the line was "good prose is like an unsupervised outdoor cat." But, at the urging of his editors, he opted for something terser and ultimately more opaque.

every time an idiot uses an apostrophe to indicate a plural noun, Orwell gets another eye-gouge in hell

The insistence of anarchy as a provocation is rude. Actual anarchy is made to feel unwanted. Anarchy is orphan, no one claims it or wants to own up to it. In making anarchy <<our own>> will this mean cutting it down to fit into our miserable lives? I see here 3 types of definitions for anarchy: historical, abstract, resultant. What about actual?
Historical is the resultant that was, and in a way that is. Abstract is just a thought or written word. The thing that comes right before the resultant, the confrontation with reality, the vector that clashes with it, that's the part that interests me, the rest are accessory to it.

Is actual anarchy just a brief escapade that ends in prison or death in the act? Are the only ones who claim it those who get caught with it? Schrodinger's anarchy: everyone's an anarchist until they're asked about what it means, to write about it and share it, or maybe during an interview with NPR or on some podcast, in which case they're not, or they're an anarchist only if they're caught.

Historical, Abstract and Resultant are the only forms of anarchy that can be digestible and widely shared due to being inoffensive. Even those like Gustavo Rodríguez who claims to want to leave aside all historical baggage of anarchism and go into "new" (as if there could be such a thing) exploration of subversive practices seems to prefer to point towards fire (setting fire to all, the act of demolishing, to start from scratch, very "modern" of him) as the new ideal, what's to become synonym for anarchy, instead of a rounder or fuller notion of anarchy.

It's also as if anarchism is the church with its parishioners, and someone like Shawn P. Wilbur is a theologian, which are mostly not the same as a true believer, but those who wink wink are in the know of al the intricacies and different interpretations, cultural influences, how all the notions mutated through time, and are usually not true believers, but refined adopters of a language and cultural legacy, with its set of refined signs and values, shorthands, narratives, parables etc. And then Gustavo Rodríguez is like a new atheist, rabidly lashing against out against this old religion of anarchism and leftists of all stripes. If there ever was anything iconoclastic and anticlerical about the old anarchy, that has come to be seen as a secular christianity and variety of leftism, then Gustavo's posture seems redundant since what's being rejected is the same thing once again, the thing that anarchy was supposed to reject with "no gods no masters" etc, but was only ever taken as provocation, which his writing surely is, unless he's better known for his huge bonfires than his writing. In conclusion, I think anarchy with all its warts is pretty fine except for the fact that rarely anyone wants it except as a provocation or mental exercise.

I heard Father Rodriguez has been venturing as an ascetic in the desert lately, and then had to go inside the full egoist territory of the Bay Area in order to convert unlikely unbelievers... I heard he may have even denied his faith! But I cannot believe that is true. I must travel into the wild plains of anarcho-individualism in order to find him and seek to know what happened...

*cue to several depressing scenes of prison torture and snitching*

Not content with anarchists already leaving behind any notion of realizing some form of revolution or insurrection, haters of anarchists will not cease until they even abandon anarchy as a masturbatory mental exercise. Yet they don't realize they're a merely parasite pestering the last living members of an extinct species that is the only one that can host them.

that you may have found at least somewhat funny if you'd got my reference to Scorcese's movie "Silence".

Anarchy-as-provocation has never certainly lacked adopters. Sure, it's been passed around a bit over the years, but largely because anarchists can't stop fighting over custody. The question of "cutting anarchy down to size" is more serious, because anarchists have certainly tried. But I'm not sure this is a case where more familiarity will breed more contempt. I'm certainly hoping that's not the case, but we'll have to wait and see.

In other words, a nineteenth century horse-drawn buggy with square wheels.

We spontaneous rebels of the antispook shall wait patiently contributing creative to the minimalism of mind-warping structural organizations down to the raw need of existence.

Need a reboot, like a close to death experience to revitalize and then shift the paradigm and Weltanschauung.
A combination of a catastrophe and brutal left or right dictatorship comes to mind.

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