Yesterday I attended the final meeting of the rather enjoyable political philosophy class I signed up for this semester. Over a span of 15 weeks, we covered conservatism, classic liberalism, contemporary liberalism, feminism, anti-racism, socialism and anarchism. The classroom environment was ideal for intellectual growth – a small group seminar led by an enthusiastic, young professor. However, our group generally did not consist of outspoken or obviously passionate students. Many of them kept quite, uttering a sentence or two when prompted. There were a few of us who carried the dialogue the majority of the time.
Imagine my surprise, then, when on our last day the professor asked which ideology had resonated most with each of us (the topic of our last essay), half found anarchism to be the most closely attuned to their belief-system! Another significant portion had written about the anti-racist movement – which they were introduced to through the writings of Angela Davis and Charles Mills (an outstanding political theorist who is worth checking out).
I’d felt so energized and alive on the day we discussed Emma Goldman’s essays and the book by James Scott titled Two Cheers for Anarchism. I’ve always had an aversion to politics, because to me they’ve always represented the ugliest aspects of human relationships. At least, the connotation that “politics” has in American society evokes that feeling. The exception for me has been the empowering nature of anarchism. All misconceptions about what that word means absolutely disintegrated for my fellow students this semester. One student said he’d always thought of it as “destruction, violence and chaos.” When he learned, however, that it literally none of those things (potentially even the opposite) he embraced the ideology so much that it now made more sense to him than the liberal/democratic beliefs he’d held for the better part of his life!
When people realize that it might be possible to live life without bosses, landlords, presidents, CEOs, etc. they tend to become hopeful. They even tend to live out the principles necessary for that sort of society in their personal lives. It was really amazing to see that realization unfold in the classroom. I just hope that the spirit sticks with them and enriches their lives in new and profound ways.
Anyhow, I took the rest of the evening to write my most sincere review of anarchism, and submitted it for the professor’s approval. I will take the rest of this blog post to share it with . . . well, all the people who don’t read this I suppose.
Out of all isms studied throughout our time together, I believe anarchism best describes the role of politics in human life. There are a number of factors which have led me to this conclusion, but all of them are undergirded by one key characteristic– that anarchism is a holistic doctrine which includes non-exploitative elements of all of the other ideologies we examined.
To start with, consider the ideology that anarchism is most competitive with – Communism. Marx and Engels classic, The Communist Manifesto begins, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (1848:14). To say that all of human society is a class dichotomy is absurdly reductionist. Emma Goldman knew this, and reframed this narrative elegantly her book Anarchism and Other Essays. She starts out, “The history of human growth and development is at the same time the history of the terrible struggle of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn” (1910:26). In other words, humans have always been locked in a cycle of “progress.” The underlying message in Goldman’s essay is that marxism, liberalism and other “progressive” ideologies undermine the quality of life in the present by plotting some distant, utopian existence. All the other ideologies we observed, besides conservatism, are utopian in some form or another. Conservatism seems instead to be driven by the past, and its present is only satisfactory if it maintains some continuity with “tradition,” however ugly or unfair.
While other ideologies assume that social stratification is natural, anarchism rejects formal hierarchy. This however is not in a utopian sense, not in the sense that if only we could usher in this or that revolution or economic system, we could live as complete equals without any conflict. Rather, the equality sought exists already in the lifestyle of those who identify as “anarchists.” Anarchism acknowledges that conflict is unavoidable, but proponents of anarchism can see that conflict is far worse in a community policed by authoritarian entities that exist over and against local interests. Goldman again: “So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable” (1910:32). Her choice of words – institutions “conspire” to “misdirect” human energy – may seem cynical, but whether it is a conspiracy is unimportant. The end result of hierarchy, intended or not, is population of disenfranchised human beings who are quite literally “out of control.”
This last point speaks to the key aspect of anarchism that undergirds my conviction – anarchism is holistic, inclusive of the non-exploitative aspects of our other examined beliefs. Consider that each of these doctrines targets some hegemony as their primary source of injustice or inequality. Anti-racism protests the marginalization of race as a result of racial hierarchy; feminism indicts patriarchy as the source of disenfranchisement for at least half of the population; socialism attributes unrest to class inequality; classical liberalism opposes arbitrary government overreach. Anarchism, by its very nature, does all of these things. Goldman writes that anarchism is “a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions . . . Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual” (1910:34). Because of this dynamism, anarchy cannot stagnate like other doctrines can and do. A conservative might oppose change whether or not it makes sense to do so; a feminist or anti-racist might overlook other forms of domination for having too narrow a focus; a socialist might miss an opportunity for social integration for having too much class loyalty. But an anarchist, in her/his rejection of dominance in any form, must recognize and adapt quickly to injustice.
I conclude with a comment on the notion that anarchism is nice, but just “not possible.” The idea that anarchism is not possible is preposterous. Anarchism is possible because it happening all around us. One of the biggest myths in politics, and one of the hardest parts for me to swallow, is the idea that we exist in this massive bubble within which the only political engagements and behaviors that make a difference are those that somehow mirror the dominant ideology. I concede that America could never be anarchist, but that is because America is an idea, and ideas cannot be anarchists. Within America, however, there are real people whose political beliefs vary and whose actions reflect those varied beliefs. Some of these people seek to end domination and inequality, some even call themselves anarchists. Some even behave in a ways that reflect anarchist principles! Therefore, anarchism is not just possible, it’s already here. Will it ever be hegemonic? Well, no, but that is the point!
Here is a list of authors we looked at that are worth checking out: