The Dilemma of Anarchist Practice
The ugly truth is that there is little evidence to suggest that we will ever be more than one of countless minority groups, competing with other minority groups for not only social influence, but for a share of the world that is adequate for an autonomous existence. We are left with two basic ends towards which we can act; not necessarily ends that are mutually exclusive, but nevertheless highly demanding. The one end towards which we can act is towards the end of our own autonomy, personally and/or collectively. To acquire by whatever strategy and tactics we deem conscionable, all that we need to survive on our own and defend ourselves from others, and all that we deem desirable to live in a style of our choosing. The other end towards which we can act is towards the end of influencing those who do not share an anarchist ethic, or vision, or whatever it is that one might define themselves as an anarchist by. Since we have achieved neither the one, nor the other (autonomy, nor revolution), we are stuck, we are subjects without our roots anchored into the world, without any asylum granted to us to experiment freely, gazed upon with hostility.
Ultimately, this puts us into conflict with ourselves. Not simply because devising actions worthy of collaborating on is an ever-difficult task, but because there are fundamental limits created by our ethics. If we define ourselves as anarchists because we seek an autonomy that is different from the sort of autonomy that other groups seek for themselves (an anti-authoritarian autonomy), we assert that difference by refusing to dominate others externally as an out-group …and internally, as autonomous individuals without hierarchy, nor normative controls. Following that logic leaves us with only a few possibilities, most of which are some version of creating, or earning what we need; or, identifying an appropriate enemy to take from.
Along the former sort of path (creating and earning), we compromise ourselves because the market, the government, other forces that aim to subjugate us are so total that there is no outside to their established space. Along the latter sort of path (taking from an enemy), identifying true enemies …those that share enmity with us, those that are actual combatants …that is itself quite difficult. Yet, in failing to find these relationships of actual enmity, we can’t take from others without positioning ourselves above them. The more we would try, the more we would be about as justified in the act as any other group that declares a war on those different from them, simply because they believe their way of life entitles them to. That belief could be within the realms of an anarchist ethics, it just doesn’t amount to much more than the assertion of one group, against the assertion of other groups.
The arguments that make this such a complicated assertion can be found in places like the Federalist Papers, where the Federal State is thought to ensure a form of peace that most people would prefer to the more free, but more brutal world of small groups fighting about their entitlements. In other words, we live in a society that mostly agrees, despite their serious differences, that maintaining “the Peace” through the State is more valuable than their autonomy. Though as anarchists we may value our autonomy more than “the Peace,” it is difficult to argue that such priorities give us any more justification to break that peace than countless other groups seeking their autonomy to exercise more-or-less different values that conflict with that peace. At the very least, we live in society that has historically agreed to use economic and political means to sort out entitlements, exactly because such ethical dilemmas tend to make everyone’s life less free and less enjoyable in sum, through bloody conflicts.
As for the other end towards which we can act (the revolutionary end), we have yet to make much progress towards that end for quite some time. What the 20th Century has demonstrated to us, is that even when we succeed in becoming a regional majority, we are endlessly attacked from outside …rather than our autonomy being respected and treatises of peace allowing us the development of self-sustaining societies. When that end becomes our only end, we tend to compromise over-and-over again in attempts at incremental improvements and assimilationist agitation for our ideas: mass movements, organizations that aim to self-preserve rather than win gains, etc.
In the end, most of us realize that the best we can really do as anarchists is perform some sort of cost-benefit analysis in relation to both of these ends. A little compromise here for the sake of autonomy, a little compromise there for the sake of revolution. However, this actually doesn’t do us much good as far as making a case that we ought to even bother calling ourselves “anarchists”. In the immediate situation, the distinction between our actions and the actions of others attempting to gain autonomy (cults, theocrats, racial separatists, etc) are very superficial. So superficial that without considering our stated aims in comparison with the aims of others, it would be difficult to tell from outside that we are in-fact any different at all. In other words, we appear to be yet another group of people whom for whatever reasons, compete with everyone else for power that most everyone is denied.
What is there to prove that any of us are truly working towards either of those ends, or any other imaginable anarchist end-goal? Does our anarchism then just become a simple claim that we are? An “identity” in the most adolescent sense of the term? To the extent that any one of us or group of us are successful, do we have anything but our word to prove that we aren’t merely just enjoying a convenient identity as “an anarchist”, probably from a convenient position in life? And if we are truly pursuing any anarchist end at all, yet find ourselves stuck in this position that we’re in, does it make any sense to bother with “anarchists” when so many others would be better partners in our pursuits? If there can be a proof worth anything at all, it would be in our actions and in our progress towards those ends …not alone, but together. And even this small bit of expectation from one another, that we are to be sincere by creating, acquiring, taking and sharing wealth to gain our autonomy or anything else practical …this small bit of expectation from one another has yet to become a serious expectation. Who can say that they are not surprised when they meet an anarchist that is good on their word to a comrade, will come through to aid in the material needs of their accomplices, or anything else of the sort? No, it is quite a surprise when any of those things happen.
You see how this is circular now, yes?
That it isn’t because of our theory, but because of our material impoverishment and practical weakness that we are stuck in these circumstances. That what distinguishes us from others has more to do with what we won’t do, less to do with what we will do. For instance, we have no ideological monopoly on squatting, or trying to eliminate the police, or prisons, or fighting gentrification, or taking to the streets, or forming street crews, or battling fascists, or establishing commons for one another, or anything else that is anarchistic. Our differences are validated in circumstances that we rarely find ourselves in, such-as anarchist actions during Hurricane Katrina, or the Russian Revolution, or the Spanish Civil War, or the streets of Ex Archia, and so on. Our differences are validated when we’re powerful enough to demonstrate that we are true to our word, and not merely making promises like so many cults, religions, and politicians have made. In the mean time, or in these places where we have not established any autonomy for ourselves, we ought to reflect on the extent to which we’re merely different from others in word and not in deed. That although we may make a big noise about our theoretical opposition to the state of things, it is often just noise and little reason feel superior to those that doubt us, or think in contradiction to us, or who simply aren’t as noisy.