Notes on “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism”

Notes on “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism”

From Libertarian Labyrinth by Shawn P. Wilbur

These are notes from a Reddit debate on “lifestylism.” They are by no means an exhaustive critique of Bookchin’s most divisive text, but perhaps they give some reasons to believe that more is not necessarily needed.

Looking at Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, these problems jump out immediately:

Part 1: Bookchin makes his sweeping statements about the two tendencies in the anarchist tradition, focusing on what he thinks of as “[a]narchism’s failure to resolve this tension, to articulate the relationship of the individual to the collective, and to enunciate the historical circumstances that would make possible a stateless anarchic society.” And then he proceeds to place Proudhon, the theorist of collective force, in the “personalist” camp, presenting an ungenerous reading of a single, decontextualized quote in place of an argument. In the process, he repeats the familiar claim—at best poorly supported by Proudhon’s own work—that he was proposing primarily a society of small producers. Nobody is forced to make generalizations about “classical” anarchism, of course, but if you decide to do so, it would seem that at least understanding the argument behind “property is theft” would be advisable. His treatment of Bakunin is similarly one-sided and if his claims about the intolerance of some anarchist communists and syndicalists to anarchist individualism are true as far as they go, they certainly don’t catch any of the complexities of the relations between anarchist tendencies in the early twentieth century. In the section on “Individualist Anarchism and Reaction,” he shows his prolier-than-thou disdain for most of the cultural expressions of anarchism, makes some dark and potentially icky comments about “outrageous behavior and aberrant lifestyles,” and then goes on to make the baffling claim that anarchist individualists weren’t much into theory.

Now, it is quite possible that Bookchin was so opposed in principle to anarchist individualism that he really had no idea about the theoretical debates in French individualist papers or the contributions of individualists to projects like the Encyclopédie anarchiste. But it’s hard to believe that he was unaware of the similar work in Spanish individualist papers.

It’s a bad start and yet he obviously wants it to stand in as a kind of foundation for the rest of his argument, staging the great manichaean battle he imagined he was part of.

Part 2: The distinction between freedom and autonomy was one of Bookchin’s favorite ways to attack anarchism. It features prominently in works like “Anarchism as Individualism” as well. In that essay, he tries to tar both Proudhon and Kropotkin with the brush of “individualism,” mostly on the basis of a phrase—“a federation of autonomous communes”—which he treats as broadly representative, but does not, despite the quotation marks, seem to attribute to anyone in particular. So it’s not a good use even of an isolated quotation, while it pretty obviously doesn’t capture anything particularly central to the thought of the classical figures he wants to target.

And then he just talks about L. Susan Brown’s book, without giving us much of any reason to care.

Part 3: Having failed to establish the grand narrative with which he would undoubtedly have liked to frame these later attacks, they all come across as a bit puzzling. He goes at Hakim Bey’s work, not just like someone determined to get the joke wrong, but like someone who doesn’t seem to even acknowledge that a provocation has been made. In any event, treating the fun-and-games in a work like T. A. Z. as if they had appeared in the pages of whatever CNT paper he thought was a properly radical publication is, at the very least, a significant critical error. In the section on “Mystical and Irrationalist Anarchism,” he immediately leaps from a offhand reference to “Rabelaisian delights” to a surprisingly literal detail from Gargantua and Pantagruel, which he then seems to turn into the basis of an argument that folks who like to “feast, and run naked, dancing and singing” might not also like to cook. And then he gets into another not very compelling artistic dispute, as if a snarky appropriation of Goya was the thing we really needed to know about Fifth Estate.

Part 4: Bookchin indulges his habit of comparing people he disagrees with to nazis, engages in a bit of potentially useful discussion of Mumford’s project, and then makes his own pitch for technological society. George Bradford and Fifth Estate sort of get lost along the way.

Part 5: More of the same, with perhaps a bit more coherence in the attack on Zerzan.

Part 6: Conclusions for which we really haven’t seen a coherent argument, plus the plug for Bookchin’s “Democratic Communalism.”

And, honestly, it’s exhausting every time I’m forced to try to make sense of what Bookchin thought he was accomplishing with all of this. It’s the sort of thing I would get from students in my teaching days, where obviously there had been strong feelings involved, but perhaps not an outline.

There are 29 Comments

Somehow I never thought about how the argument that ITS shouldn't be engaged because they aren't anarchists could be applied to Bookchin in the same way.

I had been in and or around the Circle A scene in the US for about twenty years at the time of the publication of Bookchin's polemic. I was mighty scared by his reputation! My bad: 'Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism..." was largely on target in what I'd encountered consistently in this scene.

Now, to get the polemical ball rolling:

1. Proudhon:

-- supported the South in the US Civil War,

-- thought women should be the vassals of men,

-- clearly called for the Jews to be driven from Europe or killed, and,

-- his "mutualism" is a market economy based on clownish idealizations of petty-commodity production and wage-slavery without wages.

But don't take my word for it, read his worthless junk yourself.

And paraphrasing Debord in 'SOS', the pretensions of anarchism in its individualist forms have always been laughable.

we can agree that Proudhon was a racist misogynist piece of shit.
but face it bruh, you're like all the other falsely anti-bourgeois radicals who can't stand the fact that actual anarchists tend to avoid if not reject the ideological conformity required by anti-proletarian not-so-crypto marxists like Bookchin and by antisocial (because you're psychologically incapable of maintaining friendships and comradeships) ultra-left commies like you.

You don't judge a 19th century mind by 20th/21st century standards. The ultraleftard above cannot comprehend that there is a structure to Proudhon's discourse that is actually better than moronic Marx who has quantitative value at best. Pierre also saw the market as a means and not an end in itself. As a starting point this is better then his retarded humanist idea of pure use value while maintaining modern complexity. It's basically star trek level nonsense. Proudhon's system is at least grounded in reality unlike Marx and his science reductionist use value fundamentalism.

This ableist clown on a first name basis with Proudhon!

According to this fool logic wouldn't Marx's "discourse" be "better" for Star Trek fans?

Galaxy Brain!

represent a progressive fantasy structure of all science and no market. That's what makes me lump them both as stupid.

"Proudhon was a racist misogynist piece of shit." Oh, so you've just gotten back from a black lives matter rally, which is admirable, however, you've probably been cornered by a pesky liberal sjw who's injected these vapid slanderous rumors about Proudhon, when a well read historian knows that Proudhon had made negative comments about the conduct of a cluster of Jewish capitalists in a certain European city who had purchased a bank and were loaning money to poor peasants wìth cumulative high interest rates, and HE'S the unethical piece of shit?
As for the accusation of misogany, in the 19th century, 105% of men were misogynistic by modern feminist standards, yet because during that era there was a dominant chivalrous ethic such as standing up for women and giving them your seat, or opening doors for them etc, and that wasn't patriarchy, that was just being nice and not seeking ulterior conquests as a trick to sexual intercourse. Also, less women were beaten by men in the 19th C, and wars were conducted out on a field and didn't include bombing cities and killing innocents.
So your comment is very shitty on the whole.

Part of what probably drove his position was the fact that southern agrarian political economy was closer to his ideal of agrarian socialism which to some degree was anti-industrial. Indeed it can be argued that the roots of anti-industrial anarchism go back to Proudhon himself.

Yeah, for a number of reasons such as 1) the decentralization of the State's legislative and executive power 2) the developement of regional autonomous artisan industry thus negating the monopolization of production by capitalism and 3) the ability to provide free and efficient public services.
At the time the northern financed/owned production could not compete with the south for manpower and its neo feudal State-less production model, which with a few tweaks could convert its chatel slavery model into an egalitarian socialism.
The black music would have evolved out of the blues into jazz in 1870's instead of 1920's if Proudhon's ideas had not been overtaken by the Abe Lincoln civil war and the capitalism iñvasion.

Proudhon wasn't particularly anti-industrial. But it would be hard to deny that anarchists have been influenced by the mythology surrounding some of the early figures at least as often as they have been by their actual ideas. The remarks that people take as "support for the South" in the American Civil War are about half condemnation of the sincerity of Northern anti-slavery sentiment and half more complicated and not always convincing stuff about proper relations between groups at different stages in their development.

It was mostly commendable of Proudhon to introduce to the materialist socialists the fact of there being major economic contradictions in there perception of wealth, poverty and theft in the organisation and constitution of the State. He certainly introduced the idea of an individual's sovereignty within the ethical restraints of reciprocity, call it mutualism without an overseer, which could have been the next stage for chatel slavery's peaceful metamorphosis into labor and industry exchange hubs. No more blues in the cotton fields, but an up tempo dixie jazz feel to community relationships and the sharing of infrastructure.

Also Proudhon's mutualism gave the individual a freedom from taxation and global currency complexities. The diversity allowed for a nuanced creative licence to innovate and overcome destructive social and cultural relationships. The American Civil War was the harbinger of the 20th Century's meatgrinding wars.

And ìts most important to understand that one can be anti-capitalist yet still pro-market. Benjamin Tucker had also grasped the axial significance of the individualist's sovereignty empowering their creative potentiality and giving their labor value a freelancing autonomy.

"Also, less women were beaten by men in the 19th C, and wars were conducted out on a field and didn't include bombing cities and killing innocents."

Haha... Napoleon wants to have a word with you.

So you choose an megalomaniacal narcissistic dictator's ruthless battle tactics, which at the tìme were widely regarded as abhorrent deviations from the chivalrous protocols of all other Western armies to challenge my broad statement concerning the treatment of women (poor Josephine) and the bombing of cities claiming innocent lives? Read more books!

I guess it's no real surprise that a specific critique of Bookchin's text would be met with some messy regurgitation of the Gospel According to Hal Draper. If folks do indeed read the "worthless junk," they can expect to find that each of these claims is at least half wrong. But the cocktail napkin's worth of stuff that the "critics" love to quote are actually pretty hard to find amid all the material of an entirely different character, so you might need to set aside a weekend or two...

What's Debord doing there at the end?

I've read that book and those sections a number of times. While useful, I've never understood what these 'pretensions' are. What are they? Why are they laughable?

Debord regardex art as a lifeform and not as a commodity. He critiqued materialist capitalism by emphasizing behavioral aesthetics rather than objects or urban architecture as art. This made Bookchin a reformist in his theory of municipality.

And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames. -- Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 1958
By this, the forms or objects of the bourgeoisie, who never test the flames of real life.

I used to be close to the people around 'Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed' back in the days when Bookchin's polemic was published -- the end of 1995 or so. People in that social set wrote a number of responses, all equally frantic and unpersuasive. One of Bookchin's most significant underlying points, that the anarchist scene in the United States was self-indulgent and irrelevant to the larger world outside of this scene, and especially to emerging real world opportunities for larger social struggles on anti-authoritarian/anti-captalist terms, sailed over the tops of their heads. They had no need to engage with this problem at all. This was not even a problem for them.

You perhaps were close in terms of geography and were lucky to be published by them, but your politics were always -- and still are -- turgid, ideologically blinkered, and thoroughly authoritarian, as befits an ultra-left commie whose idea of revolution is permeated by class revenge fantasies, no doubt derived from your 110% bourgeois upbringing and unresolved daddy issues. Which no doubt contributed to your fawning embrace of Bookchin and his complete lack of coherence; he was the ultimate daddy figure for fake proles who resented anarchists for being anarchists. You were too busy licking his boots (because he chose the same targets you chose) to recognize that he had abandoned proletarians as a combative force in modern class politics decades before... Pathetically, you succumbed to the idiocy of the played out cliche that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". GTFO

Old Man B never did get over how unruly those pesky kids were. He much preferred it in his Stalinist decade, when the young ones knew their place and him and his friends who'd finished Das Kapital got to tell everyone what to do. Those were the days!

I know you are just trolling...but framing everything as threat or non-threat seems tired to me. No criteria is ever given on how to quantify such threatiness, as if it were even possible to fully know. No consideration given to the rule of un-intended consequences. No recognition that maybe there are threats you just don't know about, are illegible, building capacity, or otherwise. Anarchy without culture and lifestyle is boring and inneffectual activist fixation on "threatening the system", playing a role as the opposition in a stalemate with the management of the nightmare.

Always! The indivìdualist's state of self-awareness and self-reliance accompanies them at all occasions, even during sleep, when the ego returns to the abyss for replenishment.

So much has been written about the nature of subjectivity, identity and ego, to the point where, * sighs* i don't know where to start. Leaving the Freudian based models out of this, one must first consider ones social and cultural relationships, or are you a hermit, lone wolf, sociopath, family orientated, religious devotee or political pawn?
Are you you, or just a manipulated minion?
Tell me, and i will be able to determine if you are capable of comprehending the mindbending facts concerning individualism and existense.

Add new comment