Jews, largely Holocaust survivors, on their way from France to Mandatory Palestine, aboard the SS Exodus
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Anarchist Peoplehood

One of the last times we talked, I ended on some notes about peoplehood, nationality, the State, and some such things. I also emphasized the conclusion that anarchism is basically an ethical approach to political philosophy and praxis. To develop all of this further, I’d like to now turn to the question of the nature of anarchist sociality. If anarchists can be thought of as “a people” (and we will ask if indeed we can be), what sort of people would they be? What features of peoplehood could anarchists recognize amongst themselves? What other peoples could anarchists compare themselves with? If there is at least one anarchist identity that one could internalize, modify, and express… what would thus be its features?

It is easiest for me to discuss all of these complicated questions by drawing on the history and projects of a group that I am most intimately familiar with, the Jews. I’m a little hesitant to do so, since I assume that for various reasons this isn’t the most comfortable association for many people to consider; so, maybe in the future I’ll find a more relatable way to talk about all of this. It is also easiest for me to turn towards other thinkers, Jewish and not, who are within or adjacent to the philosophy I am most acquainted with: existentialism. Again, I assume this diminishes the relatability of what I’m about to say. That said, let’s continue…

A long, long time ago – but not especially long ago on the timeline of human history – a mixed multitude came together who would become known as the Jews. Among other things, what they had in common was a belief in the One …in monotheism. There are various debates about where, when, and how all of this happened, but the basic idea seems to be uncontested; that the origin of this people involved some kind of agreement amongst a diversity of other peoples to believe in certain different things and live in specifically different ways from those around them. That eventually, what had begun as something like a metaphysical, or an ethical movement eventually became a people.

Now, let’s put that to the side for a moment and talk about the nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries that have done so much to circumscribe the notions of peoplehood that nation states are based on. What we almost always find in these movements is the transformation of something like the notion of Christendom into more regional, ethnic, linguistic, and/or racial notions that delimit who is and who is not a member of the nation. An exception is the United States. However, I would argue that even though the United States seems to be explicitly civic in its nationalism, its actual practice of colonial and racial segregations makes it just as much an ethno-state as the others. Anyway, what we find in this history is a series of projects to re-think peoples as nations, and to build for nations various territorial, military, and judicial entities we call states.

So if we take these two versions of peoplehood and compare them – that is, comparing Jewish history with the history of nationalism – there are some interesting differences in how the different groups constitute themselves as peoples. Jews constituted themselves through their covenant. Nationalisms constitute themselves through their regional distinctions. Jews have a complicated relationship with Israel, both as an idea and as a territory. Nationalisms have a straightforward claim to specific lands as territories. Jews have created various political institutions for themselves and lived under the rule of various political institutions others have created. Nationalisms almost always aim to create states specifically for their own nations.

When it comes to anarchists, we don’t really have a history of constituting ourselves as a people that I am aware of. Anarchists have considered themselves as agents of a cause, or a movement, or a pure expression of a larger movement (socialism), or as avatars of nature’s will, or as a return to an indigenous egalitarianism… but, not as a people. However, as the decades and now centuries pass and anarchists create and hand down their traditions from one generation to the next, it seems to me that if anarchists aren’t in fact a people already they are on the road to becoming one.

Since anarchists at the very least reject nationalisms and often live nomadic lives, have a history of migrating, and are opposed to the State, they already identify more with one another than they do with many other peoples. Anarchists are members of a basically global network that shares values, history, aspirations, and even aesthetic styles. And yet, for all of that the sense I get from most anarchists is that they do not experience themselves as such. There seems to be very little sense of peoplehood. Even when in affinity groups, each individual anarchists seems to experience themselves as a private individual that does not belong to many, if any people. At most, it seems to be the case that anarchists understand themselves as an anarchist version of some other people. In my case, this would be like me saying that I am an “anarchist Jew”.

I think that this is all very important. One reason why has to do with the notion of “home,” or in that scumbag Nazi Heidegger’s philosophy, Heimat. I don’t say “scumbag Nazi” when I mention him for arbitrary reasons. It is this notion of Heimat that was central to Heidegger’s form of spiritual National Socialism. And I think that for this reason, this discussion of anarchist peoplehood comes into direct conflict with the philosophical basis of the peoplehood of our enemies. I think that to fundamentally oppose the nationalists, fascists, and nazis we ought to deal with these questions of peoplehood and Heimat, to demonstrate alternative formulations that would underlie anarchist constitutionalization and institutionality.

On the other hand, no one is born an anarchist. You can be a so-called “black diaper baby” and inherit some anarchist tradition and culture, but you wouldn’t be considered an anarchist simply because your parents, or family are anarchists. There aren’t really any conversion rituals to become an anarchist and there aren’t really any excommunication rituals, either. Anarchists might agree on some ethical conclusions, but they hardly agree on the fundamentals: metaphysics, ontology, epistemology. All of these are things that would make for a good counter-argument to the idea that anarchists could be considered a people.

Ok – so, not a people. But I don’t think some other notions fit too well either. For instance, I don’t think we can really talk about anarchism and its adherents (or, practitioners) a movement. Movements are a bit too historically specific to describe what anarchists have been up to for the past couple-hundred years. The Enlightenment was a movement. There are feminist movements. There are various civil rights movements. Sure, there have been anarchist movements, but whether or not a given society is moved by anarchism, there is something historically transcendent about anarchism. It isn’t bound to specific classes, to specific industrial configurations, or to specific legal regimes. There is something more traditional and self-reproducing about anarchists throughout history and anarchism encompasses so much of life that it encourages forms of cultural distinction (or, subculture) to emerge instead of modifying a few features of whatever society it touches. It functions much more like religions, which also have movements. And since it doesn’t bind itself to a specific section of society, like the proletariat, it isn’t quite like Marxist sects, either. It is very easy to compare an anarchist commune with a religious commune, but a Marxist commune or an Enlightenment commune doesn’t make a lot of sense. The former aim at impacting the society they are in, while the latter in some way break from the society they are in to constitute their own society.


Definition of diaspora:

Yiddish is my Homeland:

Heidegger on dwelling and heimat:

Jewish Heimat:

Hannah Arendt:

Diaspora and Culture:

Anarchist texts: