anarchists

So You Think You’re An Anarchist? (Review)

"Anarchism" is a word that's tossed around too easily in today's shallow discourse. What it actually means, and could look like, requires rather more consideration.

The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism
By John P. Clark, PM Press (2022)
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Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century
By Tom Wetzel, AK Press (2022)
Buy this book on Bookshop.org

Given the hollow rhetoric surrounding contemporary uses of “freedom” and “democracy” by mainstream politicians from the center-left to the ultra-right, many people yearn for a coherent alternative politics that would give these terms vibrancy and real meaning in our everyday lives.

 Such a yearning has been nurtured during several decades of grassroots activism, from the anti-nuke and anti-war movements to 2011’s #Occupy. All these dynamic movements were shaped by self-proclaimed anarchists, who inspired many people to associate themselves with the venerable philosophical tradition without fully grasping what it has meant historically, nor more practically in the here and now. 

To be sure, anarchism has never been a unified, homogeneous political idea. Efforts to define and enclose it invariably engender harsh criticisms from others who embrace the term with equal fervor.

Two new books from anarchist writers await the eager explorer. If you are more inclined to a densely philosophical approach that foregrounds a communitarian and ecological focus, the just-published second edition of John P. Clark’s The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (PM Press: 2022) is a challenging and rewarding volume. If you prefer a prosaic and accessible tone, that roots itself in a dogged (and sometimes dogmatic) adherence to centering “the working class,” then Tom Wetzel’s Overcoming Capitalism: Strategy for the Working Class in the 21st Century (AK Press: 2022) is a better place to start. 

Both books advance deeply thoughtful critiques of the system of domination in which we live, albeit in strikingly different language and emphasis. And both writers consistently advocate for a transformed organization for our political, economic, and social lives rooted in a bottom-up, egalitarian, and truly self-directed logic. Both writers categorically reject the State and government as they exist, as well as the corporations and bureaucracies that functionally control the lives of most of the people on the planet through the deeply corrupt and complex system of global capitalism. 

Most anarchist thinkers probably agree with these general concepts. What struck me as I plowed through their volumes was how distinctive these two writers are in spite of their areas of agreement. 

Not only do they write very differently and emphasize  very different historical moments, but they also foreground social and historical agency in remarkably different ways. For anyone seeking an “anarchist path” these two authors present formidable issues to be wrestled with. Yet neither of these hard-working anarchist thinkers left me feeling convinced about their visions, nor hopeful that their book would inspire others to embark on a life dedicated to revolutionary change. 

I hope I’m wrong!

Creating Activists

Clark opens his book with a long and dense discussion of Hegel. He defines what he’s up to in a quote full of Hegelianisms:

[The goal] here is to show how a radically anarchist conception of freedom and a radically communitarian conception of solidarity complement and fulfill one another. (p. 1)… The awakened, liberatory community, as the site of the emergence of universal particularity, is a self-negating and self-transcending whole. There is nothing “pure” about it other than the excessiveness of pure life. (p. 6) … So we might say that “a specter is haunting the Left.” It is the Phantom of Possibility. It is the Ghost of a Chance. The Chance is, of course, the chance that revolutionary, liberatory social transformation is still possible. This is the Possible Impossibility that the famous slogan asks us to demand. (p. 29)

OK, so he starts off with a somewhat poetic bang. Tom Wetzel waits until his sixth chapter to start “thinking about anti-capitalist strategy,” and that’s where I jumped in. I’ve known Wetzel as a friend for decades, and full disclosure, I did not read his entire book, but skipped the first chapters in which he lays out his understanding and critique of contemporary life and how capitalism operates in the United States. 

As mentioned, he foregrounds “the working class,” and much of his book is addressed to people who identify as workers and want to engage in social change from that standpoint. For him, without the working class at the center of social transformation, there can be no real change. But he’s not delusional about the state of the working class and recognizes that some internal transformation will be necessary for it to move to the center of social upheaval.

The working class can’t liberate itself unless it can “form” itself into a movement that aims at general social liberation—addressing issues like the oppressive character of the state, the patterns of racialized and gendered inequality, and the ecologically ruinous character of capitalist dynamics. (p. 194)

OK, fair enough. He also argues that the working class has to become a movement by creating and institutionalizing a grassroots unionism that operates on syndicalist principles, seeking ultimately to control all workplaces through direct face-to-face assemblies. Out of these assemblies, he says, workers in each factory (or office or hospital or university) would make all the decisions about the conditions of their work, what technologies would be deployed, how long work hours would be, etc. Assemblies would send recallable delegates to participate in a system of confederated committees that could eventually take over all aspects of economic coordination and planning on successively wider geographic scales. 

Both writers emphasize the need to produce more people ready to organize and participate in the new machinery of a complex self-managed society.

Wetzel asserts: “A more effective grassroots unionism is possible if more working people have the skills and confidence to act as organizers and to participate in the running of their own union. This is why many syndicalists have stressed the process of ‘preparation’ or ‘formation’ of the worker as organizer and activist” (p. 176). 

Clark goes deeper into this issue and raises some of the problems inherent in it:

There is often in contemporary anarchist movements a neglect of the hard work of formation of activists and movement workers. Such formation might even be questioned, based on a fundamentally valid interest in combating excessive division of labor, on a wise concern that essential skills should be dispersed widely throughout the community, and on a healthy fear of the emergence of vanguardism, militantism, and elitism. However, such opposition can also reveal excessive faith in pure spontaneity and an exaggerated individualism, and can itself become a new form of rigidity and dogmatism. Marx’s nagging question of “who will educate the educators” must be taken very seriously. (p. 233)

Confronting the Ecological Crisis

For both of these writers, we can examine their theories against a dominant struggle of modern society: The ecological crisis. 

For Wetzel, the ecological crisis is simply a problem of “cost-shifting” and an insufficiently comprehensive system of pricing and accounting. From one point of view you could say that his anarchism is still under the sway of what Clark calls the “quasi-hegemonic … economistic ideology [with its] dialectic between the productionist and consumptionist dimensions of this sector.” 

Here’s how Wetzel frames the ecological crisis and how his all-purpose solution of self-managed assemblies would address it:

Just as worker assemblies provide the base for workers’ self-management of workplaces, assemblies that bring people together can provide a social base for self-management of public affairs and public services by an area’s population. (p. 335) … The neighborhood assemblies and wide-scope congresses of communities would be developing requests to the worker-managed system of social production. (p. 336) … This leads to what I call the dual governance model for a socialized economy. This means that we take seriously the idea of popular self-management for decision making about the concerns that people have as consumers, users of public services, or as residents affected by environmental issues. (p. 337) … The ability to assign accurate prices to throughput enables us to have an economy that generates a tendency toward greater ecological efficiency. Thus, if the ecological efficiency of production is improved, some element of growth can occur without increasing ecological damage. (p. 339)

This is one of the more frustrating shortcomings of Wetzel’s book. He pays lip service in many places to the ecological crisis, but at no point does he discuss the overwhelming necessity of completely redesigning how we work, what we do, how we interact with nature, and how a radical reimagining of our material well-being is unavoidable. His argument about increasing efficiency allowing for damage-free “growth” is problematic, and I wondered if he’d heard of Jevons Paradox. This concept refers specifically to the idea that falling costs through increased (“throughput”) efficiency actually drives up aggregate demand for the product, ultimately leading to a greater ecological burden than before the new efficiencies were achieved. 

    Clark seems more alert to this issue, and repeatedly raises the deeper problem that the radical redesigns ahead present for our thinking—and nearly all visions of social transformation: 

…there is a general failure to consider the profound challenge that ecological crisis poses for all of our dominant institutions and ways of thinking and perceiving. We need to ask what a truly ecological culture and system of production might look like, with some degree of specificity — as if we are actually planning to create them on some scale or another. (p. 51-52)

The Problem of Work

Another problem that leaps out of Wetzel’s book is his uncritical view of work. 

Clearly he objects to its current organization, but the only place he mentions the idea that work itself is oppressive and needs to be radically reduced (and as much as possible eliminated) is in a desultory comment towards the end of his book:

What about individuals who have an aversion to work or difficulty in getting along in a work group? We don’t have to throw them under the bus. There could be a certain minimum level of consumption entitlement that everyone is guaranteed. If a person decides to just survive on this, it’s not likely to be a problem as long as this “universal basic income” is lower than the average consumption entitlement from work. (p. 356)

Yikes! He elsewhere explains that while he’s for the abolition of the “wage system,” workers in his vision of the future will still be given a “wage.” And as this last quote indicates, he seems to believe that remuneration will still be a major motivation for people to do necessary work in any future scenario. It’s hard not to hear Clark’s critique resonating in the wings when reading this part of Wetzel’s book:

The ultimate totalitarian achievement is the capture of the imagination, and the reinforcement of that conquest, as the dominant order is legitimated through processes of sublimation and banalization. The consuming subject is overawed by the sublime consumptionist spectacle and automatized by the realities and rituals of everyday productionist and consumptionist life. (p. 134)

To be fair, Tom Wetzel is not a man whose imagination has been captured by capitalist domination. At least not when it comes to his prolific vision of how a libertarian syndicalist society would be organized. But given his deep commitment to centering workers at the workplaces in which they presently find themselves, I do think he falls short when it comes to the critique of the existing economy and the work most people do. 

Where did that age-old anarchist critique of work go? 

At least Clark brings in some commentaries from Charles Fourier, William Morris, and Lewis Mumford:

[Fourier] contends that under civilization, unbearably long hours of unfulfilling work activity have been imposed in the name of productivity and economic need, while, in reality, all the labor required to satisfy the needs of society, and, indeed, to produce abundance, can be furnished without the infliction of any such undeserved punishment. He notes that even highly pleasurable activities become boring after several hours, and asks quite sensibly how human beings can possibly be expected to engage even that long in labor that is only mildly agreeable, much less the kind that is truly unpleasant or even repugnant. (p. 139) … The goal of labor would be the collective creation of a community in which beauty, joy, and freedom would be realized. Morris’s utopia is the quintessence of what Mumford described as “the community as a work of art.” (p.  140)

These days critiques of work are all over the place. Sarah Jaffee’s Work Won’t Love You Back, for example, is rooted in her years of labor journalism, supportively covering organizing campaigns and strikes, but the book holds no illusions about the value of a great deal of the work going on in the world today. She offers a nuanced analysis of specific people and specific jobs, and the sad and self-defeating dialectic that encourages and enlists workers’ pride and self-worth to pour more of themselves into the empty stupidity of much work. 

This kind of basic understanding is absent from Wetzel’s book, which centers workers and the working class, and is only obliquely present in Clark’s, which focuses on communities and “positive practice[s] of social transformation and social regeneration based on nondominating mutual aid and cooperation” in our everyday relationships. 

Beyond the Union

“In the beginning is the scream. We scream. 

… Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO. ” —John Holloway

Sharply contrasting with both of these approaches is the blistering “NO!” of refusal that begins John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book published over 20 years ago that inspired radical workers movements in Argentina, Italy, and across the world. He pursues a rigorous anti-statist, anti-capitalist politics that calls itself small ‘c’ communist rather than anarchist, but has much in common with historic lines of anarchist thought. 

Looking back on my own writings I found a blog post referring to a frustrating May 2005 conference on “Anarchism Now” at UC Santa Cruz, where John Holloway and other luminaries were present, but where a sense that anarchist theory was hopelessly disconnected from real issues and the real lives of people prevailed. And in another post a year later I quoted Holloway:

“We hate capitalism and fight against it, but that does not make us into the embodiment of good fighting against evil. On the contrary, we hate it not just because we adopt the common condition of the multitude, but because it tears us apart, because it penetrates us, because it turns us against ourselves, because it maims us. Communism is not the struggle of the Pure Subject, but the struggle of the maimed and schizophrenic.” 

If there’s one place that Holloway really goes beyond the stale debate that limits itself to the type of union struggles we might choose to engage in, it’s when he argues that the fundamental logic we are up against is one that has objectified our creative possibilities. We live in a world that hides the infinite possibilities of doing under the dull assertion that everything already is: “…the world is not, there is no being, there is only doing, a doing torn asunder in such a manner that the done takes on a life of its own and appears to be.”

In other words: When we go beyond our shrunken status as mere workers, our ability to create an abundant, shared life opens up; when we define ourselves as workers, we have already in some meaningful way lost the battle to the logic of capital. Defining ourselves as workers is to accept a definition imposed by capital that reduces us from our full humanity to an alienated seller of our creative possibilities. 

Where Wetzel refers back to the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s for examples to demonstrate how mass organizations can seize workplaces and whole industries and broadly decommodify housing (for example), Clark’s historic examples are more rooted in other anarchist theoretical works. He spends a whole chapter critiquing Murray Bookchin’s evolution from social anarchist to “libertarian municipalist” (which would be more interesting in an updated form were he to apply the same critique to Abdullah Öcalan and the revolutionary Kurds of Rojava who have all become Bookchin acolytes). He plumbs an important gendered distinction that he locates in a thread from Mikhail Bakunin (the anarchist who famously broke with Karl Marx during the First International) to Murray Bookchin:

… Bookchin’s politics carries on certain dimensions of the Bakuninist tradition in anarchism. It is in many ways an expression of the masculinist moment of anarchism. It focuses on the importance of establishing the correct set of ideas and principles (the program) and then organizing institutions (the movement) through which these ideas can be willed into reality through the decisive act. There is a feminist moment of anarchism, on the other hand, that is associated with the patient, diligent work of nurturing libertarian and communitarian sensibilities and relationships, and fostering communities of solidarity that are for the needs of the members and help them realize their human capacities. (p. 251)

I would say that Wetzel’s analysis follows this masculinist tradition right up to the moment where Bakunin wanted sheer dominating willpower to bring forth the decisive act to provoke the revolutionary transformation. Tom stops well short of such a climax, but in his patient assembling of his ideas and principles (the program), and his identification of the self-managed worker-run unions to carry it out (the movement) he is remarkably close to this.   

I’m not writing this to elevate or denigrate either of these authors. As I said at the outset, each of them makes important contributions and raises issues that must be considered by anyone enthusiastic about a liberatory future. And each of them, for different reasons, fails in his effort to offer a “one-stop” solution, or approach. That said, by juxtaposing some of their arguments, we gain insight into contemporary anarchism’s fissures, which hopefully leads to new creative thinking.

Organization Problems

While Wetzel promotes face-to-face assemblies as a kind of formulaic solution to all problems, or at least a preferred method of self-governance over any other options, Clark doesn’t agree that that form is much of a solution at all:

… if no explicit general rules are adopted by the assembly, then it will have the impossibly complex task of applying its implicit rules to all disputed cases and formulating all important details of programs. We are left with a purgatorial vision of hapless citizens condemned to listening endlessly to “hopefully competing” experts on every imaginable area of municipal administration and then desperately struggling to micromanage all the affairs of the community. (p. 276) … Some of the possible corrupting influences on large assemblies (encouragement of egoistic competition, undue influence by power-seeking personalities, etc.) are much less likely to emerge in such a context. Both the application of general decisions to specific cases at the local level and collective decision-making beyond the local level pose difficult challenges to direct democracy. (p. 277) … For the assembly and other organs of direct democracy to contribute effectively to a free, cooperative community, they must be purged of the competitive, agonistic, masculinist aspects that have often corrupted them. They can only fulfill their democratic promise if they are an integral expression of the cooperative community that embodies in its institutions a spirit of solidarity with that community itself, and with the larger communities of humanity and nature. Such a community will only be realized if the movement to create it is itself a transformative community that reshapes, through its own self-consciously liberatory and solidaristic processes and institutions, the values, feelings, sensibilities, and relationships of its members. (p. 283)

Well then! A bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum here, where some future organ of direct democracy (call it an assembly or whatever) must be made up of people of exemplary behavior who have been “purged” of many of the deep character qualities prevalent among broad swaths of the population. 

Clark raises an important rejoinder to any uncritical belief that assemblies will be a panacea for complicated social conflicts — but if you follow his critique all the way, the only solution is to limit participation to people who are almost saint-like in their lack of ego, aggression, or (quite normal) competitive instincts. The honest truth is that there is nothing automatic about any of this. No formal structure, no set of rules, will smooth over the myriad conflicts that are bound to erupt when human choice is centered over the blind outcomes of markets and buyers and sellers. 

Here’s Clark again:

In either case (pure community democracy or a mixed system of community and workplace democracy), it seems obvious that there would be a continual potential for conflict between workers who are focused on their needs and responsibilities as producers and assembly members who are focused on the needs and responsibilities of the local community as a whole, and this problem cannot be solved through a merely theoretical affirmation of the priority of the community. [or, as Wetzel prefers, the priority of the workers—CC] (p. 286)

Another generative disagreement between these two writers is on the recurring question of how democratic groups should make decisions. Wetzel prefers majority vote and Clark predictably prefers to work for consensus. Actually I think Wetzel is fine with efforts to find consensus too, but his focus in the book is how large groups of diverse people can make decisions together, and consensus is often a recipe for paralysis in such situations. Clark’s focus is on intimate groups of people already building the new way of living in the interstices of this world, so naturally, he gravitates to a system in which everyone’s views are given full reign.

The anarchist commitment to seeking consensus is … based on a realistic recognition that conformism, instrumentalist thinking, and power-seeking behavior are ever-present dangers in all decision-making bodies. (p. 190) … As voluntary associations, and unlike states, [anarchist groups and communities] accord members who wish to end their association the greatest practically possible opportunity to disassociate without penalty. For similar reasons, anarchist groups and communities seek the greatest possible consensus decision-making (or when possible, consensual cooperation without formal decision-making) before resorting to majoritarian democracy. (p. 188)

But Wetzel has sat through countless meetings over the past few decades and seen dozens of efforts devolve into stasis when consensus is allowed to trump the will of the majority:

The preference for a formally democratic organization based on majority vote in meetings is at odds with the consensus decision-making process that gained a foothold in certain activist subcultures in the U.S. between the 1970s and the Occupy movement of 2011. (p. 206) … Consensus is biased in favor of people who work shorter hours or have more flexible schedules, such as students. An organization that thwarts the will of the majority and gets mired in long meetings is not going to be an effective vehicle for working-class people. (p. 209)

It’s curious to imagine that Wetzel’s face-to-face assemblies are not going to require a great deal of participation in long meetings, even if they do find a way to end debates with a vote. And the likelihood of angry minorities who lose to persistent majorities creating even more dissension seems likely too, not the best recipe for a harmonious self-management process going forward. 

On the other hand, Clark’s vision is one that depends heavily on “prefigurative” social practices, in which small groups of individuals are living out the values of the libertarian, ecologically transformed world. He was inspired by his experience in the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where he experienced what he calls “disaster anarchism” (and writer Rebecca Solnit has referred to as “Paradise Built in Hell”), 

… that breaks radically with this ordinary course of things. It consists of an extraordinary flourishing of love, compassion, solidarity, mutual aid, and voluntary cooperation. Within it there emerges a strong sense of the possibility of a qualitatively different way of life, through the actual experience of that other way of living. (p. 218)

Clark goes off on a long chapter on Gandhi and social movements he inspired in India as quintessential examples of anarchism in action, which I found dubious at best. Enthusiastically citing Thomas Vettickal’s studies as vindicating the idea that the “pure ideal of Gandhi is philosophical anarchism, a stateless, classless society marked by voluntary cooperation,” Clark neglects the bitter historical splits between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, and specifically Ambedkar’s epic The Annihilation of Caste, which Gandhi attacked while supporting the historic caste structure (see Arundhati Roy’s great essay “The Doctor and the Saint” for an eye-popping account of this).

Finally, Clark’s summarizes the point of his long book this way:

…the contention here is that a dialectical social ecology, combined with a radical communitarian anarchist politics, is the strongest position in contemporary anarchist thought. (p. 250)

Wetzel offers a different kind of summary, one that seeks to wrap up his self-management argument into a comprehensive vision of a rewired society:

…the worker organizations that self-manage the various industries will have to be socially accountable to the larger society—accountable to the masses who they are producing the goods and services for, and accountable to the entire populace who share the ecological commons we all depend on. Thus, self-management doesn’t just apply to worker control of decisions about the labor process and workplaces. The goal of libertarian socialism is to rebuild all the institutions of the society on the basis of self-management, rooted in the face-to-face democracy of the assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods. (p. 331)

We live in a society that is philosophically and politically underdeveloped, to say the least. In the U.S. what passes for “left” (especially as claimed by the rabid lunatics of the extreme right–now the owners of a major part of the Republican Party) wouldn’t even be center-left in many countries. The ideas that percolate among radicals, anarchists, communists, and all sorts of people around the world who are grappling with the dire problems we collectively face, deserve to be far more widely disseminated and debated in our society. 

Though our mass media works 24/7 to keep such ideas out of the public eye, they percolate nevertheless. These books are part of that process, as is this review. You can do your part!

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Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson, co-director of the “history from below” project Shaping San Francisco (shapingsf.org) and its incomparable archive FoundSF.org, is a writer, publisher, editor, photographer, public speaker, and occasional professor. He was one of the founders in 1981 of the infamous underground San Francisco magazine Processed World. In 1992 Carlsson co-founded Critical Mass in San Francisco, which both led to a local bicycling boom and helped to incubate transformative urban movements in hundreds of cities, large and small, worldwide. Carlsson has written three books: Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes, and Radical Histories (Pluto Press: 2020); his 2004 novel set in a future “post-economic” San Francisco, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004); and his groundbreaking look at class and work in Nowtopia (AK Press: 2008) which uniquely examined how hard and pleasantly we work when we’re not at our official jobs. He has also edited six books. He has given hundreds of public presentations, and has appeared dozens of times in radio, television and on the internet.

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