Notes Towards an Anarchist Manifesto
I'd like to offer some thoughts on anarchism, both as it has existed historically and as I envision it. This political worldview may become a significant force in the 21st century, and I'd like to explore its core ideas and its potential.
Anarchism is a set of ideas and practices revolving around opposition to all centralized and centralizing power, political, economic, technological, ecological or cultural. The anarchist worldview instead champions the strength of decentralized, egalitarian, creative communities in the construction and maintenance of society. This takes many forms, from syndicalism that empowers communities of work over the labor process, to communards who try to build directly democratic collectives and and ecovillages. Finally, the basic "strategy" in anarchism is not revolution and takeover of the political machinery of society, but rather building up autonomous spaces and organizations and "escaping" from dominant institutions and bureaucratic, alienating power. We seek to "build a new world in the shell of the old."
Some say the anarchist impulse is related to a variety of political ideas and movements throughout time. We can certainly find resonances between anarchist ideas and practices and those of various religious and mystical orders. We can identify precedent in cultural features of tribal and agrarian cultures. Anarchistic principles are expressed in a variety of radical or counter-cultural movements in world history. Yet contemporary anarchism traces its history to the emergence of the modern political culture of Europe, and is represented by a variety of socialist movements that find their place in the18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The first historical figure to call himself an anarchist was Proudhon, a French cobbler and political leader in the mid-1800s, who espoused the creation of alternative economic structures for working class self-empowerment- worker centers, trade unions, cooperatives, credit unions and mutual aid societies. Bakunin was another major anarchist figure who was a dominant personality in the First International, and the major opponent of Marx. These figures represent the semi-official "origins" of the modern anarchist movement.
It is important though to point out, along with David Graeber, that anarchists have never considered their doctrines and practices as profoundly "novel". Rather than commit ourselves to knee-jerk rejection of all established sociocultural tropes, anarchists have relied upon common but often suppressed or marginalized traditions and activities for our inspiration.
Why does this matter in the present day? I think one of the most important features of anarchism is its focus on building "theory" from practices that already exist in the world and, most importantly, practices "we" do not invent or control. What do I mean? If we survey the projects American anarchists participate in today, we will see a diffuse set of activities that appear to have little in common:
*Worker, consumer and housing cooperatives
*Unions and labor organizing
*Direct action groups
*Free software/open source/p2p projects
*DIY music and culture
*Prison reform/abolition and legal reform
*Homeschooling and alternative education
*Micropower radio and independent media
*Bike promotion and culture
*Sustainable housing and urban design
*Gender rights activism
These types of projects are generally not explicitly anarchist, yet taken as a whole they reveal a shared rhythm of direct, communitarian, creative work that forms the vibrant core of a living anarchism.
Now we shouldn't assume that an anarchist should participate in all of these projects, or that these projects exhaust the potential of anarchist work. But we should realize that anarchism is informed by theoretical arguments not nearly so much as these practical projects in the world.
Rather than developing a pure idea of how society should look, anarchism flourishes when its proponents take the basic ideas of anarchism (direct action in the world, non-representational participation, decentralization and self-management, working through fraternal communities rather than hierarchical ones, deploying unalienated labor) and use them to find common ground in a host of liberatory projects in the world. What unites a community garden plot of garlic and tomatoes with a union for immigrants? This basic pattern, this basic rhythm of direct empowerment, direct activity, communal organization, mutual aid.
I would go so far as to say that the chief goal of anarchists should not be (as it is with other political ideologies) to recruit more anarchists, or to band together just for the sake of banding together. If we are to grow and become meaningful in America, we really must break with models of Party-based revolution that are wholly inappropriate to our culture and context. The grand Revolution isn't coming anytime soon, and it isn't coming because we haven't dedicated ourselves to the decade's long project of building the institutions that will call it forth in all walks of life.
This is quite crucial, because there are always calls to form unified anarchist groups, organizations that function essentially as a simulation of a Party. I have no idea why we might do such a thing or how we might actually promote our worldview thereby. If we are not interested in promoting change from the government, then what do we hope to accomplish with groups organized primarily around self-indulgent platforms instead of existing organizations?
Notes for an Anarchist Organization
We need a larger organization, an umbrella for anarchists and like-minded individuals and groups in the United States. Such a group would have the following basic functions and features:
*Enabling communication and dialogue
*Facilitating movement between communities in different locales
*Enabling shared resources and communication channels
Yet we must be careful in this and not simply try to build an organization based on ideas explicated from our a priori logic. We can't simply say, "We believe X, Y, and Z, and everyone who does so get together in a big club." Words, doctrines, political statements, these may help us move towards truth, but they can never actually substitute for that truth. We encounter the visceral truth of the world by living in and through it, not by projecting a system artificially on the whole.
Now we have a dilemma. How do we create anarchist organizations that are not closed off like political cults or scenes, that have more seriousness than that, yet that allow broad forms of expression by members? After all, the anarchist impulse has no specific domain of immediate application. Unlike liberalism in the electoral domain, or communism in the workplace, anarchist values are explicitly directed at all aspects of life. How could such a worldview become an organization or a movement in the US?
Let me propose a purpose and functions for a broad anarchist organization, rooted in anarchism's polymorphous application and respect for autonomous practices.
1) Anarchists should involve themselves with one or more concrete projects that are potentially liberatory in the sense outlined above. A community garden, a co-op, an activist group, a piece of community infrastructure, a homeschooling network, etc.
A. When a group focused around the particular issue exists in the anarchist's area, s/he should join and try to bring radical sensibility into it. This means: preserving decentralized, egalitarian and directly empowering aspects of the organization; always working to open up the 'virtual space" of the organization by inventing new practices and rearranging old; and building direct connections between that organization and others.
B. When no such organization exists, the anarchist should undertake to build it.
2) An anarchist organization should support them in this endeavor, by bringing together people interested in spearheading projects with their fellows. Members of an anarchist organization should be expected to work in some other organization or build up some other organization.
3) The anarchist organization itself should function to share information and support in networking, while also providing community support for anarchists- materially, politically, and emotionally.
4) Criteria for membership should be fairly loose and based heavily on self-selection. An anarchist organization should include a sizable portion of participants unwilling to call themselves anarchists but dedicated to the basic principles. We need to work with our fellow-travelers as well.
5) The organization should spearhead the development of basic anarchist infrastructure, in the form of community centers of various types (infoshops, DIY centers, event spaces, hostels, etc).
6) This organization should dedicate itself to consolidating alternative "sectors" in a locale. For instance, anarchist members in a variety of local foods organizations might catalyze the development of a coherent local foods system, that would allow any local citizen to "switch" full-time for their food needs.
7) Most ambitiously, it might be worthwhile to develop some sort of credit union or time bank or labor exchange for the organization to facilitate these efforts.
It is crucial here not to fetishize the noun "anarchist" or "anarchism." These terms are secondary, and they only serve as useful placeholders- binding us simultaneously to a vibrant political tradition and to a general set of practices and principles. But they are just words. Words and personal identification with nouns have little real meaning. The core of our identity must be based on life-affirming action undertaken in egalitarian community with our friends, neighbors and comrades. Without this creative, constructive and collective action undertaken in a spirit of genuine fraternity, we are simply spewing nonsense. It means little to espouse the strength of open communities of practice against the nihilism of bureaucratic greed and Power if we are not actually open, not actually communities, and not actually based on practice.
So, I propose that we create an open anarchist organization, a mutual aid organization focused on supporting members in the undertaking of concrete projects and working to create or reform alternative organizations.