How do anarchists see change happening?

March 26, 2009

Among those anarchists who reject what's known as "lifestyle anarchism," a question remains about how they see change taking place.

GREG RODRIGUEZ, in a letter responding to my column on anarchism ("Refusing to be ruled over") suggested that I "do not do enough here to defend or credit the social movements that anarchists have played a major role in" (see Greg's "Libertarian socialism, not lifestyle anarchism").

Fair enough. I did not mention the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago in the 1880s and the exemplary role of the Haymarket Martyrs; nor did I talk about the important struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World (who were not so much anarchists as syndicalists).

I did, however, say something about the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, anarchism's high water mark and the point at which it had the most influence in the class struggle.

My intention, however, was not to present a comprehensive history of anarchism or the role anarchists have played, but merely to explain why I started as an anarchist and ended up rejecting anarchism.

The examples were illustrative of what I consider to be some of anarchism's weaknesses: the idea that forms of struggle and organization should prefigure the future society; opposition to majority rule; and the idea that we must renounce all state power. Two of my conclusions are based on my own experience, the other on my reading of what happened in Spain.

Mr. Rodriquez, strangely enough, didn't answer any of my criticisms, choosing instead to call my piece "sectarian," though he agreed with my criticism of lifestyle anarchism. (In truth he is far harsher on lifestyle anarchism than I am: "Anyone who sees injustice in our society and decides to ...go live off in a commune somewhere forgets about everyone else who suffers, and is no different from those that cause the suffering."

Mr. Rodriquez concludes by saying that he thinks I should spend more time reading anarchists writers--he urges me, for example, to "check out Murray Bookchin's Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism."

I have read it. In it, Bookchin describes how "the 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who--their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside--are cultivating a latter-day anarchist individualism that I will call lifestyle anarchism."

Bookchin attacks this brand of anarchism's "basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life"--which, he argues, reflects "the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades."

BOOKCHIN IS scathing but on target, possibly because he himself was once an advocate of these politics. In his famous 1968 tract "Listen, Marxist," he writes: "The concern of the anarchist movement with lifestyle is not merely a preoccupation with its own integrity, but with the integrity of the revolution itself." He continues in an appended note: "The anarchist flip-out attempts to shatter the internal values inherited from hierarchical society, to explode the rigidities instilled by the bourgeois socialization process."

As late as 1990, in his book Remaking Society, Bookchin praised the "communal lifestyles" of the 1960s counterculture and sings praises to the "semi-nude youth, who flagrantly smoked marijuana under the very noses of the police."

It was a definite advance for Bookchin to declare in Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism that "social anarchism must resolutely affirm its differences with lifestyle anarchism." However, there is still a fairly wide gulf between the politics of anarcho-syndicalism and Bookchin's radical municipalism.

In Remaking Society, Bookchin explicitly rejected the idea that the working class can transform society. For him, the working class was "simply an organ within the body of capitalism." Bookchin found it "an impenetrable mystery" how the working class could "rise beyond its own narrow interests, in an economy to which it was integrally wedded by its narrow demands for jobs, higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions within the capitalist system," he wrote.

In place of Marxism's emphasis on the centrality of the actions of the key exploited class under capitalism, Bookchin called for the unity of all citizens based on the common threat to the planet of environmental destruction. "The success of the revolutionary project," he argues, "must now rest on the emergence of a general human interest that cuts across the particularistic interests of class, nationality, ethnicity and gender."

Somehow, in Bookchin's scheme of social change, all other classes and groups in society except the working class are able to "rise beyond" their "narrow limits." But if workers are an "organ within the body of capitalism," what class or social group is not? Is not the middle class professional, the doctor, the lawyer, the manager, embedded within the body of capitalism?

Is not the ruling class--the minority class that makes billions off the labor of the many--the most embedded and the most committed to this social system? It has certainly proved incapable, if not indifferent, to the damaging environmental effects of capitalist production. Why should we expect them to suddenly "get religion" when doing so would mean the end of their existence as a privileged class?

According to the argument, either change is impossible (we are all trapped within the body of capitalism), or there exists a special elite that is able to stand outside these relations of the market, of oppression and of class domination, and see more clearly than others--precisely the kind of elitism that anarchism is meant to reject.

To argue that workers do not automatically unite, and do not automatically move from struggles for immediate improvements to posing a challenge to capitalism as a whole, is one thing. To say that workers are structurally incapable of fighting for anything but reforms within the system is flatly contradicted by a whole host of revolutionary upheavals, including the Paris Commune and Spanish Civil War.

AS AN alternative to class struggle, Bookchin envisions a movement to establish local municipal democracy, which would then spread by example. "Unless we try--vainly, I believe--to revive myths of proletarian insurrection, of a feeble armed confrontation with the vast nuclear armamentarium of the modern nation-state," he argues, "we are obliged to seek out counter-institutions [radical municipalities] that stand opposed to the power of the nation-state."

But if the state is so powerful, how can a politics based on seizing control of local communities be successful? We are led to believe that workers' revolution--a mass uprising of millions that confronts and breaks the power of the army (because it consists also of workers)--is a "feeble" dream, whereas taking control of the local town hall will do the trick.

The history of all revolts and revolutions shows that local rebellions (rather than national) are more easily crushed by central governments. The only time they are not (crushed) is when they are not a threat to the system. This is another possible form of "municipalism"--tinkering with local governments in such a way as to pose no serious challenge to the survival of capitalism.

Industry and infrastructure are not neatly parceled out on a purely localized basis. On the contrary, capitalism has created a vast interdependence between regions and between industries that municipal democracy does not even begin to address.

Of course, there are crucially important local struggles. But if these local fights are not integrated at some point into broader ones, municipalism stands in danger of devolving into pedestrian local reform struggles over issues like street lighting and school board composition.

Finally, the municipality is not a homogenous unit. It is divided by class. The local chamber of commerce and the local trade union do not have similar interests. Each locality has its oppressors and oppressed, each has its police force that harasses the working class, the poor and minorities, and defends the rights of property. One cannot have genuine local democracy, let alone national democracy, no matter how municipalities are structured, unless the power of the local bosses is confronted and defeated.

This is another example of how prefigurative politics fails. Only after the capitalist state is confronted and defeated can we begin to reorganize society and allow local communities to flourish.

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