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Arguing Anarchism:
A Note On Some Varieties Of the Radical Libertarian-Egalitarian

by Kingsley Widmer

Arguing with a slightly known neighbor, an also retired teacher (but of some business sort of flatulence) in a once rather proletarian California beach town that has gone upscale. Through no fault of mine, my dilapidated little house has price risen over the years more than 300%, soliciting realtors advise me. A certain politics goes with it. My neighbor wants to enlist me in his controversy as to whether the school district should market to developers some unused land, thus avoiding a property tax increase, in order to buy computer systems with higher paid administrators and/or develop a lavish competitive sports complex. Or, was I on the local "liberal" side of doing both by some fiscal manipulation at state and federal levels, which would raise other taxes? I gently mocked his tax views, the pious techies, the thugish jocks, the aggrandizing bureaucrats, the destructively expansive developers, and -- though in not quite these words to him -- the schooling devoted to complementary indoctrinations in competitive techno-hierarchies and their exploitations. I anti-politically concluded that the only sane stance was to resist all of them. With exasperation, he ended, "You're practically an anarchist!"

Yes, indeed. "Sometime," he said in a conciliatory but patronizing gesture as he retreated, "you'll have to explain to me how you got that way." Now there is a real issue to mull: How to persuasively present a radical libertarian-egalitarian perspective?

I conclude that probably there is no way to enlighten my neighbor's righteous petty bourgeois sensibility. Previous efforts with others where I live suggest that if I were to tell of the personal experiences which encouraged my anarchist-mindedness, that would just confirm my role as a weird intellectual. Of course I could pray to the absent deity that my neighbor occasionally invokes that he, too, endure some time as a field and factory hand, a combat infantry soldier, a felony convict, a bureaucratic trouble-maker, a street protester, and the like. But deities of social equality seem in short supply, and the others mostly in hypocritical bankruptcy. Perhaps not even a traumatic revolution would shake his religious sanctioned business-obsessed sensibility.

Possibly, for others, there are ways to the anarchist mind cast. Would that be by reading the classic anarchist writings? From four decades of official teaching, I must have considerable skepticism. But even leaving aside institutionally induced incompetence, I intellectually feel that the usually identified anarchist arguments are far too narrow. I take, and argue for, a broader view. Say, from Diogenes, the fourth century BCE Athenian mocker of all authority, through Ivan Illich, the late-twentieth century Austrian-Latin American social critic of most prevailing institutions. From Taoist Chinese sages through Coyote figures of Native American tales. From dissident western European artists to American picaresque writers. From Saturnalian buffoons to punk rock and hiphop exhibitionists. Few identified themselves as anarchists but that cast of mind has been central and crucial. If texts be the issue, those be the ones, though also always critically.

The parochialism of thinking of anarchism generally just in the Baukunin-Kropotkin nineteenth century matrix, even when adding, say, Stirner, Thoreau, Tolstoy or...what-turned-you-on-in-a-libertarian-way, just won't do -- not only in ideas but in sensibility, not only in history but in possibility. Put another way, anarchism has long been more than ultra-Jacobinism and the minority libertarian side of socialism, counter to authoritarian Marxism on the left, or syndicalism in the Jura and the Wobbly West, or revolution in the Ukraine, Catalonia and, recently, Chiapas (but that last perhaps doubtful, though with some libertarian style, led by longtime Marxist-Leninists). Either anarchism should be responded to as various and protean, or it is the mere pathos of defeats and the marginalia of political history.

That re-defining emphasis noted, let me turn to a different kind of variety, that within moreorless recognized as contemporary American anarchism. For reconstructing strategy, let us say there are three tempers of anarchism: Revisionism, Revolutionism, and Resistance. Not intended as complete, the "three Rs" for liberation are also not mutually exclusive, rather dispositions and modes, all deserving some blessing.

As banner for the revisionists, let me take as text "Anarchism is essentially a theory of organization" (Colin Ward). There is a considerable truth to that (the insufficiency I will get to later). It may especially apply to various libertarian projects, properly small-scale cooperative efforts on the margins of our competitive-exploitative society. Most of us at least know of, if not participated in, examples of non-hierarchical cast. Such as "free" or libertarian schooling, at various levels, pre-school to university, however rarely long-enduring but certainly still needed. Such as work-place democratization, until it is defeated, or twistingly absorbed into bureaucratic unionism and other hierarchical associations. Or little co-op service enterprises -- ones I knew of include a bike shop, a bakery, and a book store. Or libertarian media and art groups, at least until too successful and they become merely "progressive." Or collectives helping prisoners, street people, and other social marginals. And, of course, a variety of consensual-egalitarian protest groups. As I have previously argued (including in SA), some environmental groups, such as Earth First!, contrary to mainstream organizations, show an anarchist mindedness and reordering. There are, I am told, yet other such libertarian-egalitarian reordering of daily activities, such as with coop housing descendants of communes, though they decorously may not claim much anarchist rhetoric. But we should pay more attention to their orderings -- though some certainly deserve questioning -- than their announcements.

However, some anarchist ideologues strongly object, such as the otherwise often antithetical polemicists Murray Bookchin and John Zerzan. They do so on several, usually revolutionist, grounds. Small scale liberations can't last for long against American globalism and giganticism (neither, of course, can even a lot of middling big as well as little profit corporations these days). And they are quite insufficient to significantly counter the competitive ethos, even when they don't implicitly succumb to it. Or, more specifically, mutual aid enterprises just mask what is more broadly wrong with consumerism and marketing. Work-place democratization and libertarian syndicalism just divert efforts to reject the whole system of unjust, misdirected, dehumanizing labors and its dominations. Libertarian media and artistic efforts come out as rather more the variant expression of cultural fashion -- be it collage, rock, documentaries, poetry, or somewhat reconstructing essays such as this -- rather than any thing really different. In sum, little anarchist efforts don't really make any change. They disguise what wrongly dominates. And they divert from the larger and more authentic social revolution.

No doubt there is some truth here, too -- and a lot of arrogant dogmatism. The holy attitude insists on large but not little rebellion, which may be self-defeating hubris. The banner here might include "There never has been a good war or a bad revolution" (Edward Abbey), which on certain protest occasions I approvingly quoted. However, the better truth may be that revolutions become "good" wars, in which as usual mostly the wrong people get it in the neck. My general pragmatic definition of overt violence against people.

Yet libertarian revolutionism may be true in another sense, in reminding us that anarchism as a theory-of-organization not only doesn't stand by itself but probably can't much exist without a larger vision, and passion, of radical social change, a general as well as a local sense of the libertarian and egalitarian society. In other words, ranging utopianism -- and the dystopianism which keeps it honest.

Much of utopianism seems currently out of fashion, treated as bad myths (fanatic falsehoods, as with the religious right) rather than good myths (narratives of possibilities, speculations on better ways of doing things, as well as critical dramatizations against what is). The anarchist-minded, of course, should not only be anti-authoritarian skeptics but promote subversive narratives. Is grand revolution one of them? Possibly, in some places and some times, but, I suspect, not much here and not now. Are we left, then, only with little local efforts at protest and reordering?

That is not my argument, which seeks to affirm a more various anarchism. And I want to at least suggest that many modes of resistance remain, and, as has usually been, seem essential to a radical libertarian-egalitarian perspective. I certainly won't claim much of a case by genteelly arguing with neighbors. But recently I wrote a brief tendentious memoir about my experiences in work-place sabotage (to appear in Fiction International). Retrospectively, I realized, after visiting some parallel work scenes, how some dominations and exploitations have taken on considerably different manners: more rationalized hierarchies, with computerization, temp work, tricky regulations, electronic surveillance, testing, psychological profiling, and all the rest I didn't confront. Others, with more immediate experience of these, can better report on the effective styles of current subversion and sabotage, which certainly remain necessary for proponents of liberty and equality in daily life. I am not suggesting that they just be individual, or done without discrimination, including relevant street smarts, and a concern for humane consequences while cheating the cheaters. Granted, such countering labors won't fit all, and thus are all the more imperative for those who can and will. They may not presumptuously make a social revolution but they may make an expressive and practical difference. Countering can be personally as well as socially liberating.

Sovereignties and authorities extend into most areas, and you and I know none are more than momentarily legitimate. In nearly three-quarters of a century, I have never met an established hierarchy that didn't deserve considerable contempt, and usually in several ways. We anarchists don't deny all leadership, the temporary roles of those who can pertinently respond, do, and be, without enduring prerogatives and rewards ("nonce chiefs"). As for the rest, out them, delimit them, down with them!

Some anarchists remain stuck in industrial age mythologies of the lower-class campaign, as I have sometimes been, and not where we are often actually at, though I would argue that anarchism must still speak especially for the lumpen, and our long central constituencies of libertarianism called bohemian, counter-cultural, marginal, in culture as well as work, and in various circumstances. It is now widely recognized that anti-culture itself is a large part of a culture that has not corpsed out. Blasphemy, parody, mockery, revived dadaism, new as well as old nihilisms, need cultivation. This is but another way of reading Baukunin's "Destruction is a creative act!"

Radical little reordering and large social revolutionary visions may also be seen as but various forms of libertarian resistance. It won't pass for politics? I know (that is why I started this sketch with the anecdote of futilely arguing in the terms of my reactionary neighbor). We must to anti-politics, including that of many on the left. Some of my most vociferous arguments have been with self-identified "left liberals" who hold only to "equality of opportunity," as a kiss-ass certifying substitute for real equality of condition and result -- equal means much more than that, not some conservative jerking off, as, traditionally, with separating "liberty" from "licence." (Did I mention that my call for wide anarchist resistance includes less "niceness" and more revivified invective?) Or with those raise-all-boats bloating shitheads eager to inundate us with the flood of over-population-development-hitech-consumerism-deadly-growth. Will they drown us before they destroy the earth? They seem to even want we old ones to live too long, though only in a synthetic-parts decrepit drugged and wired institutional quiescence -- so to see the end of fortuitous humankind? Any sensitive anarchist must be more than a little misanthropic and nihilistic.

I am arguing that the proper anarchist vocation is to the anti-, the protean countering. From "bad manners" through bureaucracy-baiting and scornful-blasphemous culture play and subversion and sabotage to defiant consciousness raising everywhere, and yet other resistances by those more ingenious than I am, as well as revisions of the daily round and revolutionary social visions. Ah, but you say we already have too much of some of these? -- and too much freedom and equality? I know you, neighbor, for what you are. Or you less fearfully say that I have a point or two but should convert them into more clever irony and appropriate cynicism and even appearance of prevailing pieties, so to be less offensive, more successful. Perhaps we are just of different tempers, but I'll go along with your flight from dumb earnestness and humorless submissions if you go along with mine. There is a lot of anarchism around, amidst the pervasive inequality and domination.. Let us variously contribute to it. But not much compromise radical libertarian egalitarianism, which can be left to all too many others.


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