What Does It Mean to Be an Anarchist? Research Time, 19/04/2018

When I started the research for Utopias a few years ago, one of the first traditions of political thinking I looked into was anarchism.

I wanted to explore a tradition that I thought was a clear alternative to many of the political systems and concepts we take for granted. You ask what it means to live without a state. You investigate what relationships can constitute a strong community.

Thinking about anarchism also encourages you to rethink how many institutions you need in your society to hold it together. It encourages you to analyze the real powers of brotherhood in a community. You wonder how much we really need coercive authority to keep a community from becoming violent.

Anarchist thinking often works better as a guide for resistance to an
unjust and violent state apparatus than as a concrete political
program. There's just so much work we have to do on ourselves
as people before anarchism can become a viable framework for
organizing our lives as communities.
You wonder if we really need the police? The army? Any institution of the state that we typically think we have a duty to obey. You come to doubt the truth of our entire heritage of political thinking that has an ancestor in Thomas Hobbes.

So you come to doubt pretty much every principle taken for granted in Western political philosophy – the social contract, the authority of the state, the obligations of citizens to police and military authority. That’s the value of looking into thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman.

Yet I have my doubts about the power of a straight-ahead anarchism to provide actionable values for human society. Frankly, anarchist values like mutual aid and intuitive social solidarity are too difficult for most humans to live by.

Paul Patton makes this point in one of his books about Gilles Deleuze. He writes about how people often take Deleuze and Guattari to have been anarchists. It’s true that their political thinking was very critical of state authority. And they were involved as thought leaders and activists with real anarchist and communist political movements in Europe during their lives.

But Patton makes one very insightful point in the early stages of that book – anarchism requires an optimism about humanity’s inherent goodness and kindness to each other that Deleuze and Guattari didn’t really share.

Humans are too terrible to each other. We resent each other. We make aliens of each other. We hate each other for no real reason, both as individuals and as groups. We need a long period of education and moral training to be as kind to each other as the mutual aid principles of an anarchist society would require.

And it would be even more difficult to prevent the xenophobia that can so easily arise when we let communitarian values drive our us vs them cultural imagery. Humans are, for the most part, simply not good or kind enough creatures to live according to a thoroughly anarchist political morality.

Anarchism’s most important contribution to practical political thinking in the 21st century, I think, is its spirit. Rebellion against taking coercive authority, the power of the state over society’s development, for granted. Critiquing the institutions that we’ve been taught almost all our lives are beyond reproach.

That spirit – maybe you could call it punk philosophy – should inspire any approach to political thinking that takes seriously the possibility of change. Demands for political, social, moral, and ethical change requires conceiving of the radically different. Maybe it’s achievable. Or maybe we’ll always fall short of our ideal.

What matters is the image of a different path.

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