Overthrowing the Old When No One Trusts the New, Research Time, 05/09/2014

One of the curious elements of philosophical (and literary, but I have more experience here) research, is the patterns you can uncover just from the order in which you read material. Humans are very good at recognizing, or more often making, patterns among events whose causal relationship remains unclear. We spot associations, and build conceptual pictures with them. 

In this case, I’ve been alternating between reading anarchist theorists in the 19th and 20th centuries. It throws the contrasts between the two periods into sharper contrast, allowing me to see different ideas.

The most obvious of these contrasts is the reliance on violent overthrow of the state to achieve goals. Reading Mikhail Bakunin (and Peter Kropotkin, though there was less emphasis there), you can tell how devoted he was to radical revolutionary activity. Even just knowledge of Bakunin’s biography is enough to demonstrate that. The man was thrown in a Russian prison for over a decade, and spent most of his life actively agitating for the overthrow of the states of Europe with actual revolutionary armies.

The same zeal is present in Emma Goldman: although she never openly advocated the violent overthrow of the American state, probably in fear of police action herself, her essays are filled with praise for the assassins of US President William McKinley (and just as many denials that they ever met) and King Umberto I of Italy. I admire the kind of courage she had even to state these endorsements in public, given a political environment where people were actually fired from their jobs and arrested just for shaking her hand. It’s not something that most contemporary self-identified anarchist writers have to worry about. 

Anarchist politics isn't about destruction, but organizing
networks of mutual support. I don't know what you prove
by destroying the front of a shitty chain store.
I’m not talking about the agitators who regularly protest trade and international security summits, who are more often young fools who don’t know how else to channel their idealism and misdirect it into smashing a Starbucks window, causing a whole $1000 in damage. Committing acts of violence in the face of militarized police forces takes a courage of its own, but I wouldn’t exactly call it wise, as it only makes anarchists of all stripes look like the uneducated punks that reactionaries and conservatives say they are. So revolutionary.

No, I mean the theorists like Colin Ward, a political philosopher who worked all his life in the British university sector writing books about the radical necessity to reform the British education system that, while they were read and controversial upon release, contained little that was ever enacted. University anarchism was the kind of radical politics that doesn’t even achieve any potentially dangerous agitation anymore. After decades of Cold War polarization, achieving an actual collective or networked society had become materially impossible. 

People couldn’t even conceive of such a radical change in human society anymore. Ward, writing his central theoretical works in the 1970s, could watch with hope the protest movements of the late 1960s and the cultural currents they generated, especially in Europe. But for the majority who never connected with these ideas, social change of any kind remained an impossible undertaking and a dangerous proposition.

All he could do was write books and join public debates on specific policies and institutions, like education and the schools, and hope to change minds further in his direction by this indirect means. It may have been less exciting, and I don’t think it was successful either,* but I think it had more opportunity for success than the violent revolution of the previous century. It’s much more difficult to become enraged and afraid of a book than a bunch of men and women with weapons.

* Despite the flowering of left-wing political theory in Ward’s golden era, the rise of Thatcher and Reagan ended the possibility of their acceptance in government. The change in popular consciousness after the end of the Cold War, where individualist market ideologies were no longer contested in any major media, only made anarchist ideas seem even more ridiculous. The networked society always seems like an idea whose time will never come.

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