The Red and the Black: The Contemporary US Left and the War on Anarchist Desires

Here’s something that is happening on the US Left that I hate a great deal: the growth of a reflexive anti-anarchist politics.

I am not an anarchist. I identify with a different position, and a different set of intellectual priorities. My reading of history and my hunches about human nature lead me away from anarchist interpretations of current events. I also must confess that I find a lot of anarchist talk to be a bit boring. (Appropriately, many anarchists find the sort of reading and talking that I like to do to be painfully dull).

And though I am not an anarchist, I relate deeply to the desire called anarchism. Like this. This is a song suffused with anarchist sentiment, longing, dreaming:

If that one isn’t to your taste, how about this?

The Left needs to acknowledge its debt to anarchist desires, in large part because anarchism is the radical face of romanticism. And for whatever reason, and I don’t necessarily like it, all political formations in the West still rely on romanticism as a source of energy and motivation. If you don’t believe me, consider for a moment why even the most wonkish liberals and leftists have such an intense and bizarrely intimate relationship with the music of Bruce Springsteen. Why they love “Breaking Bad.” And the French Revolution.

These anarchist desires have also been the sources of so many of the key institutional developments that sustained the Left during its darkest moments, a fact that became obvious with Occupy Wall Street and the various offshooot Occupies. Historically speaking, anarchist desires are central to the longer genealogy of the Left that we must continually renovate if we are to escape the entirely fair charge that the Marxist account of the emancipatory tradition was, from the start, distorted by Eurocentrism. Radical saints, slave revolts, maroon communities, fence breaking, forest poaching: these are anarchist events. E.P. Thompson and C.L.R. James knew that, and they emphasized it throughout their careers. There is some irony that today, the journal that borrows, at least in part, its title and logo from the latter’s history of the Haitian Revolution, never misses a chance to throw shade at anarchist desires and anarchist sentiment.

***

I have been greatly influenced by anarchist ideas and texts. That’s something you’re not supposed to admit in the circles in which I travel.  I learned an awful lot as a younger person from the writings of Ivan Illich, the critiques of medicalization put forth by antipsychiatry movement and picked up by Michel Foucault, and the surrealist musings of weirdos like Hakim Bey. My memory is foggy. This literature must have resonated with me, although I can’t recall precisely what drew me to it. I suppose that I always hated hierarchy and bureaucracy. I found school stultifying, hospitals terrifying, and the thought of armies and prisons nightmare-inducing. I was raised on bizarre reenactments of the Holocaust at Jewish summer camp, and tales of the Russian state’s terrorization of my ancestors. My Chilean and Caribbean-Canadian friends in junior high told stories of harassment at the hands of Toronto’s 52 Division and the horrors of “juvie hall.” By the time I was a teenager, I was a confirmed antistatist. I was also a confirmed anti-everything-else-ist. That’s not a place you can live forever. But I tried.

My first inclination that I might be able to put something together for myself that resembled a life came from sources that were more or less anarchist in orientation. In my late teens, I began to play free improvised/experimental music, which led to an interest in the non-hierarchical practices developed by Derek Bailey, Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars, and Pauline Oliveros, among many others, to overturn the toxic individualism and the self-imposed and communally policed channelization of creative desire in more traditional musical milieus.  The theoretical writings of Deleuze and Guattari, whose collaborative rhapsodizing reflected the influence of various left-anarchist and left-libertarian muses, from Georges Bataille to Pierre Clastres to Wilhelm Reich to the transversal experiments of the La Borde clinic, suggested that knocking down the fences that enclosed desire might provide us with the means to collectively discover how we might be happy.

So I was ready as a younger person, as I am now, to see the state as a terrifying menace, rather than the natural form of social cooperation: a Franz Kafka fable, rather than a Frank Capra montage. My ears were open then, as I hope they are now, to hearing friends tell me that the state seems to them the source of injury, not relief. I don’t tend to see the state that way myself, or rather, I’ve come to the conclusion that if the only options are the state or the market, I always prefer the former and always oppose the latter. I’ve been swayed by the reading I’ve done in US history: for example, on the importance of the federal government as the protector of the precarious freedoms of African Americans, or on the capacity of unregulated capitalism to create horrors like “Phossy Jaw” or the Triangle Shirtwaist Company sweatshop. Against the libertarians, it seems to me incontrovertible that the New Deal system succeeded in restraining the outrageous levels of income inequality that preceded and have succeeded it. (I choose these examples rather than the many grotesque atrocities that accompanied, say, the transition to capitalism because they remain in play in contemporary American politics: African Americans and minorities still need the federal government if they are not to be robbed of every civil rights advancement; as workers and consumers we still need state-backed unions, regulators, and inspectors if we are not to be injured or poisoned; and we need capital controls and countercyclical economic policy if we are to avoid regular catastrophes for the working class). I think the state is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and I think that socialists probably have to make peace with it, to imagine a form of the state that we can live with. But I don’t think that these conclusions force me to slander my anarchist friends, to renounce my own affinities with their desires and passions, or to torpedo any possibility of productive political collaboration.

***

Why do I write this stuff? Who cares? Really, it is very boring. It’s like rock writing: “I heard the Human League when I was 10, and I realized that my grandmother was addicted to skittles” or whatever. Who likes that? But I’m not deleting it, because locating myself in this way helps me remember why I am so annoyed by all of the putatively Left knee-jerk anti-anarchist writing that I am encountering, it seems, with increasing regularity. Not because there is anything noble about having come to intellectual maturity under the influence of various anarchist of left-libertarian practices–what you read before the age of 25 is largely a matter of blind luck, or at least it was prior to the advent of the internet–and not because there is anything to apologize for, either.

So I suppose that what I am trying to write through is this: I have a different intuitive, visceral reaction to anarchist critique as a form of desiring. This seems to distance me from other Leftists who otherwise share my worldview, and I don’t know why, and it bothers me. The denigration of anarchism as juvenile, nostalgic, naive, or crypto-neoliberal is usually mean-spirited, under-informed, uncharitable, and soaked in the values of the ruling elites. It should stop.

4 Comments on “The Red and the Black: The Contemporary US Left and the War on Anarchist Desires

  1. I am closer to anarchist than not, and have become only more so as I’ve gotten older (I am 42). I’m glad to see you attempting to intervene in this way, though, happily, I tend to be involved in more areas that are anarchist-friendly (so I don’t know the exact issues you’re responding to, other than the reference to Jacobin).

    A few meandering remarks regarding specific points you raise:

    I take some issue with the characterizaton of anarchism as romantic. Though certainly I know that much of it is, I’m convinced that there’s an anarchism that is not. Though many anarchist impulses are romantic, may anarchist critiques are level-headed and realistic. Anarchists understand the state better than non-anarchists do. There is no choice between “state” and “market”. Each depends on the other, the state is an actor in, and regulator of the market, such as it exists at all. The positive things we can point to in the state’s history are not functions of the state but of struggle with that state, forcing it to take different approaches to its engagement with and regulation of the market. Without the state existing at all, the market–as we understand it–would cease to exist (obviously that’s a grand romantic-sounding statement, but I mean it in very broad-strokes). Yet it’s indeed true that the state is here with us and will be for the foreseeable future, and we should make do with it as best we can. I know not a single real-life Anarchist who believes or acts otherwise.

    Finally, why should writing about your history be boring? It is not, not at all. It’s not at all like the “I hear the Human League when I was 10, etc” example, but even that could be the start of something worth attending to. I like it when someone tells us how they got to where they are in their thinking. It’s much better than god-like disconnected pronouncements from on high.

  2. I should add, I am frankly unaware of any functioning “Left” that is not predominantly anarchist. This could be because I’m in Baltimore, which has a vibrant anarchist community, but which beyond that is basically liberal (i.e., hostile to *any* leftism).

  3. Thanks so much for these comments. And, yes, it was sloppy to lump all anarchist projects as “romantic.” That’s obviously untrue.

    But, as I reread my piece, I think the real bad faith gesture was to say “I don’t necessarily like it.” Because I do like it. I tend to agree with Nancy Rosenblum that modern politics (even on the Left) is animated by a dialectical oscillation between liberalism and romanticism, between cold legalism and abstract police business, and the warm, sensuous protest against alienation and for organic community. I find that I live, most of the time, on the latter side of that volley.

    Owning up to that, I think, helps me clarify what I mean by “romantic” in the first place: not a slur of anarchism’s alleged voluntarism (which is often overstated, but which, I think you might agree, is a real thing) but rather its hopefulness, its vision of a new (or recovered old) humanity that could emerge intact from the injuries of capitalism and the capitalist state.

    As far as examples of anti-anarchist nonsense on the Left: Jacobin is the worst, of course. Erickson’s piece on unschooling was an abomination, and her responses on twitter were not encouraging. There is also a piece going around about a foolish young man who thinks he is an anarchist (but is more of a fascist provocateur) who sought big speaking fees as the mouthpiece of OWS, that is brutally dismissive of anarchism. Very disappointing that lefties are passing this around without cautioning that the anarchism-bashing is pure bourgeois arrogance.

    And yes: you are absolutely right that the important (to me) Left projects of the last few decades have been collaborations between socialists and anarchists, or socialist and anarchist desires: Facing Reality, Wages for Housework, Midnight Notes, semiotext(e), ntifada, Zappatistas, alter-globalization, Hardt and Negri, Critical Resistance, copwatch, Occupy. What is left when you get rid of that stuff? Harringtonian socialists in the DSA, mostly. One would think that their limited successes (or at least the memory of the rather suicidal intraleft battles of the 1930s) would have induced some modesty.

    Thanks again for the comments! I appreciate them greatly.

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