Freely Disassociating: Three Stories On Contemporary Radical Movements by Kevin Van Meter
I don’t know how to begin because I am no longer sure for whom I am writing. I am concerned that there is no longer an audience to write for.
As a necessary aside: with the disappearance of Left print media and the rise of blogs, there are few places left to publish. Journals with limited circulation or preselected audiences dominate the landscape and the contemporary radical media cannot reach fellow adherents, much less the larger public. Often, it seems that all that remains is a smattering of decrepit publications that speak for the ‘dead institutions’ of the American Left or function as the Daily Worker of a non-existent party — or, and possibly worse, blogs that only run the poorly written position papers of minuscule sects too self-obsessed to see their vanguardism coupled with, and only overshadowed by, their irrelevancy.
Is there an audience? More precisely: is there an audience that has not already self-selected, self-sorted, and in turn self-limited? Is there an audience that can access arguments and positions outside those with which it already agrees?
Depending on where “Freely Disassociating” appears – presuming it materializes anywhere – I will be maligned with the label “liberal,” identified with various types of apologism, and branded with political and other assumptions beyond and seemingly more important than the text and its arguments.
In what follows, three stories concerning radical movements and free association are recounted as a way of examining the contemporary crisis in political organizing amongst revolutionaries in the United States. Terms such as anarchism are used to include various anarchist strains, autonomists, small “c” communists, and other anti-authoritarian revolutionaries; while radical movements refer to the constellation of extra-parliamentary organizations and loosely organized post-Left social networks. Herein the coupling of free association and freely disassociating remains loosely demarcated since a political project must emerge to define them. While “Freely Disassociating” uses recent developments as a basis for its claims, this article could have been written a decade ago making many of the same arguments and reaching similar, if not identical, conclusions.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I authored a piece reflecting on the then-crisis in organizing. Titled “Fireflies in the Night,” it appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (http://www.cwmorse.org/archives/perspectives.on.anarchist.theory.vol6.no1.spring2002.pdf). Prior to the print article appearing in Perspectives, a longer online version circulated on Infoshop.org and subsequently (and unbeknownst to me, at least for some months) a pamphlet was produced of the article and sold in photocopy form at anarchist book fairs. The piece wasn’t well received for two reasons: one troubling, the other distressing. (Or a possible third I am open to as well: perhaps it just wasn’t any good.)
Against the accepted wisdom of the period, the article claimed that the counter-globalization movement failed under its own weight and its inability to organize outside of preconceived groups of affinity prior to 9/11. The dominant discourse amongst radicals was that the events of that day and the state’s response effectively ended the possibility of political action in the short term. This argument not only conceded too much power to the state and closed off potential avenues for political intervention, it conveniently transferred responsibility for movement failures to a sole external source. Such excuses are troubling, but not surprising. What is much more troubling, indeed distressing, is the means by which my argument was discounted.
The Infoshop.org version (and, as a result, the pamphlet) listed as part of my biography that I was “a student at the Institute for Social Ecology.” For those unfamiliar, the Institute, based in Plainfield, Vermont, was the product of the contentious and cantankerous eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin and his advocates. Even a cursory reading of “Fireflies” would note its poetically eclectic tone, the ultra-Left and autonomist influences, and utter lack of ideas drawn from social ecology. Amongst the words not found in the text of “Fireflies”: social ecology, libertarian municipalism, dialectics, second nature, hierarchy, and others associated with Bookchin’s extensive canon. In fact, the article was the result of a personal and collective break with anarchism and subsequent affiliation with a heterodox, anti-state communism that the American radical economist Harry Cleaver called Autonomist Marxism.
Nevertheless, I was labeled a Bookchinite, and hence my argument was dismissed. It is a charge that can still be found in an online comment on the article. While negligible, it was a charge that followed me to public presentations at the National Conference of Organized Resistance – back when anarchists held organizing conferences rather than book fairs – and elsewhere.
What should be distressing to any reader is how an accusation, a contagion, can follow an author even when they are publicly disagreeing, admittedly indirectly in my case, with the institution or organization of which they are or were loosely associated. Here the accusation of being a Bookchinite – and thus dogmatic, rigid, and unable to see beyond the limits of Bookchin’s ideological lens – was factually incorrect. But even where it may have some basis, the term still unfairly excludes those who have found utility in Bookchin’s thinking and bars them from dialogue. In this case it was deployed without any relation to the text and, I can only assume, to prevent engagement with the article and its arguments.
In March of 2014, while in Portland, Oregon on a particularly rainy day, I found myself dashing between puddles in the attempt to stay dry and obtain a quick take-out lunch. The counter-person noticed the logo on my sweatshirt and quipped, “Oh’ AK Press, rad,” or something similar. I nodded. A few minutes later they gestured in my direction. I presumed that this meant my order was ready. As I approached, they blurted out, “You know that AK shouldn’t publish Derrick Jensen!”
I responded quickly and in a tone that hinted at my disinterest, “But… AK doesn’t publish him!”
“He’s fucked up and AK shouldn’t publish him,” they reply.
For the blissfully or purposefully unaware, Jensen is an anti-civilization writer of some talent with the knack for pulling in audiences orbiting the radical milieu and drawing adherents from the core of anarchist, ecological, and various Northwest subcultural movements. Though, any writing ability is used as cover for his overly simplistic ideas on human societies, equation of unequatables (civilization = domestic violence), vague assertions about indigenous peoples, and an essentialist conception of nature. Jensen’s success came to an abrupt end two years ago when an associate, whom he later publicly defended, was unveiled as viciously transphobic. Many, rightfully so, were distraught that transphobia would be found so deep inside a so-called radical movement.
I have no love for Jensen. In fact, I believe his gender essentialism is just an extension of a more fundamental failing – his simplistic view of nature. To all but his cultish fan club, Jensen’s essentialist claims about nature – what is the natural world and hence what is an anti-civilization politic – should have already been disconcerting. The concept of nature is itself a political construction; therefore it cannot provide an objective foundation for a political program. Jensen’s transphobia, not to mention his occasional “blood and soil” rhetoric, only point to the deeper problems.
I didn’t voice this critique while waiting for lunch, I merely suggested that my wait staff acquaintance might have been thinking of PM Press and misidentified it with AK, and use of my internet-enabled phone to confirm that, in fact, AK is the distributor for a few of Jensen’s titles while PM, Chelsea Green, and Seven Stories publish them. Their rebuke: “That is just as bad.” Which is to say: the facts are irrelevant.
Fortuitously, lunch arrived before this exchange could continue. Nevertheless, questions arise. Should we recall support from radical presses who publish Jensen’s troubling words on nature? Even if his distressing views on gender do not appear amongst their pages? Does this contagion spread to the distributor? What about the bookseller? Their staff? Their customers?
In this story, as the one told above, the isolated currents of contemporary radical movements in the US have preemptively dismissed evidence when it comes to even minor claims. There are certain situations where a requirement of evidence has provided cover for abusive and oppressive acts – domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault – but the publishing of Jensen’s anti-civilization tracks isn’t one of them. Further, when terms like “snitching,” “violence,” and “assault,” retain their emotional force but lose any definitional precision, our analysis suffers and the necessary political project of dismantling systems of abuse and power is preemptively stunted. With the politics of contagion, especially where evidence is deemed irrelevant, a vague assertion can grow into a vehement accusation, increasing in magnitude with each step it takes further from its point of origin. Herein the politics of contagion allows accusations to circulate without evidence or requisite clarification and lacks any possibility of measurement, which in turn prevents precise interventions and the development of useful strategies to address concrete realities of domination, oppression, and violence. It is not simply that contagion leapt from Jensen to AK to, apparently (via a sweatshirt), me as well, or that the simple facts were disregarded, but that the effects of such practices can be disastrous for radical movements — as we are now witnessing.
These are clearly minor incidents, easily forgotten. But the lessons drawn from them still apply to our current crisis. I claim, and the reader will have to determine the validity of this argument, that they are illustrative of how radical movements’ function in our contemporary period.
Two interrelated concerns arise. First, the very definitions of concepts such as anarchism, feminism, revolution, accountability, and others have had their theoretical core evacuated to the point that the accusation of being liberal or anti-feminist can be used without clarification. Second, ephemeral social networks have replaced grounded organizing, narcissism has replaced collective action, friendship groups have self-referentially identified themselves as the revolutionary subject, and this relates directly to a dominant culture that appears to further the democratization of opinion alongside a concomitantly developed, and required, frame that limits certain expressions and implicitly expresses a ‘hatred of democracy.’ With certain anarchists arguing for an anarchism without principles (overt ones at least), coupled with the assumption that democratic discourse requires limiting devices – who speaks, who doesn’t, and who has the right to speak on particular experiences – the potential for the emergence of a revolutionary politics is regulated by the dominant culture while it is diminished by a radical one.
As referred to above, radical movements in the United States have recently been rattled by ‘troubles.’ I refer to these as such because to cite the specifics would immediately foreclose discussion and prevent the circulation of these ideas. The existing camps would only dig further into their trenches and sort these words (and every word I have written or uttered in public or private) according to a ‘with us or with them’ divide. To call these circumstances anything but ‘troubles’ provides credence to them and ignores the simple fact that the political issues seemingly at play are cover for interpersonal anomalies and the worst forms of cultish groupthink. The viciousness of these battles is in direct correlation to their meaninglessness and ineffectiveness. Of course such impotence is to be expected when it is assumed that the political sphere has been totally colonized by the state, or sovereign, and where radical movements are unable to articulate a motor for social, much less revolutionary, change. The individual and collective behaviors on display echo what Michel Foucault offered in the “Preface” to Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, about the fascisms that “constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives.” The bitterness of our contemporary everyday existence is seemingly inescapable and cruel, and with sensitivity to oppression and exploitation, this is often amplified in radical movements. Further, these are not isolated incidents, as they are not isolated to particular regions or subsets of radical movements. For if they were, compromise could be reached or the cause of their smoldering embers extinguished. Too many of us are what Fanny Lou Hammer called “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of radical movements, in addition to the world as it is currently composed.
What is clear is that these ‘troubles’ are not radical. Further, I claim, they result from an anti-intellectualism that has crept into radical movements over the past decade. This ‘anarchy of fools’ is merely a reflection of the public’s more general skepticism, illustrated by a well-founded but ineffectual distrust of ‘elites,’ vague panics about everything from vaccines and fluoride to the mainstream media, conspiracy theories, and a form of politics that view obstruction as the only meaningful expression. In such a political climate, the state requires its antithesis and incorporates such simplistic confrontations as part of its own renewal. Meanwhile the state maintains social hierarchies and divisions of labor, continues undeterred in its attempt at total control of the political sphere, as it coordinates various apparatuses of violence and domination. As an auxiliary, radicals have unleashed social forces that are beyond our control, but which gain increasing power within the larger, dominant culture. Demands for accountability, trigger warnings, and call-out culture, when divorced from a revolutionary project and implemented in an institutional setting, become the tools for repression and retribution. These are mechanisms that will be used against us.
Consequently, I am suggesting a politics that freely disassociates from contemporary radical movements, as they are currently constituted.
May I trouble the reader with another, and final, story that will illuminate this point?
I and another cis-male friend were chatting about having children, when he offered that some years earlier he decided to have a vasectomy. It wasn’t simply that he wasn’t interested in having his own children; he was uninterested in providing childcare as well. In explaining, he recounted another conversation from a few days prior. A couple expecting their first child said something to him to the effect that, as an anarchist and a self-identified feminist, he was required to provide childcare once the baby arrived. He used this story, within the story I am telling, to express his disinclination, almost to the point of refusal, to be conscripted into babysitting. At the time, having spent some years writing and conducting workshops about the importance of care and support in radical communities influenced by what feminist Silvia Federici calls “self-reproducing movements,” I was deeply troubled, almost emotional, about his position. Now I agree with it.
I, like the expectant couple, presumed that there was an agreed-upon standard and an obligation that those who identified with radical movements provide childcare, and a well-rehearsed list of other ‘duties,’ as part of this identification. But what these assumptions ignore is his abilities and needs, necessary specializations of labor, and the well-developed principle of free association. Classical anarchism viewed free association of individuals and groups as a basis for a new society. Mutual aid, “a factor in evolution,” is an expression of the social bonds and activities of that make this association possible; the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Preamble, which sought to “carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown,” required a pairing of revolutionary union discipline and the development of cooperative forms of production and reproduction. In “Part One” of the Critique of the Gotha Programme Karl Marx provided a phrase that would serve as the watchwords of communist and anarchist newspapers for a hundred years hence. Here it is in its queered form, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!”
What are the abilities and needs of my companion? How can the “enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor” and “antithesis between mental and physical labor,” to draw from Marx’s Critique again, be overcome? For one could not be expected to work at the food coop on Monday, provide childcare on Tuesday, write on Wednesday, and perform similar tasks on other days — as the stacking of vegetables, raising children, and written word will all be done poorly and sometimes by those with no interest in these particular tasks. Rather, some specialization and elasticity of types of labor will replace the imposition of divisions of labor with the necessary caveat that the racialized, gendered, ageist, and ableist aspects are overthrown and the possibility of their reoccurrence continuously undermined. The full body of the free association of production, and reproduction, will find my companion performing mental and physical labors, including some that have been determined as needs of the community in which he is part.
However, this vision of a post-revolutionary society has long been exhausted. All the utopianism and speculation of prior generations hasn’t brought us closer to it. If this vision once rallied factory hands, tenant farmers, and housewives – all of whom joined revolutionary movements as part of the refusal to be identified in narrow ways – to the ‘idea,’ as anarchism was once called, it can no longer serve that function. When we look out at the dying dawn, what do we see? Technofascists of Silicon Valley, progressive bike-riding gentrifiers of the urban landscape, fart-sniffing Leninists of the academy, the delusional fools of the whirling Left, and insurrectionists obsessed with clandestinity but too lazy to go underground. Anarchism – defined broadly to include various anarchist strains, autonomists, small “c” communists, and other anti-authoritarian revolutionaries – is the only revolutionary tradition that claimed that there was never to be a world again without us, without any of us. Yet, throughout the ‘troubles,’ with a movement assuming contagion and discounting evidence, individuals once engaged are freely disassociating themselves from radical movements.
It is to this concept of freely disassociating that attention must now turn. Still, there is a point with the larger argument in the paragraph above that is worth consideration. The factory hands, tenant farmers, and housewives refused to define themselves within the narrow roles prescribed by waged and unwaged work. Rather, the revolutionary traditions of the past developed rich working-class intellectual cultures. For instance, Bookchin, along with Marty Glaberman and Stanley Aronowitz, spent years as factory workers and union organizers before transforming into scholars and public intellectuals. A short generation earlier James Baldwin, and his righteous talents, unraveled the complexities of his poor and Black and queer body as it encountered the world; I cannot comprehend the cycle of struggles that proceeded our own with returning to the prophetic poetics of The Fire Next Time. Approaching the end of the years of fire, feminist consciousness-raising and Black feminist groups along with queer liberation movements incorporated these insights while eschewing the centrality of the individual voice — thus democratizing the production and circulation of knowledge.
An emerging working class, and revolutionary, intellectual culture will need to directly confront the arguments and preemptions used to prop up these recent ‘troubles.’ Such a project will have as its object, or rather its ‘plurality of subjects,’ the task of developing an anarchism with principles. This project is in contradiction to a nebulous anarchism without principles and hence the reliance on social networks, interpersonal relationships, and simplistic claims, all of which have the possibility of breaking down for reasons external to a revolutionary undertaking. For, without ethics all we have is morality, without a revolutionary project all we have is outrage. Hence, against the vagueness of the contemporary period, the ‘idea’ and its potentialities become the point that a politics of free association, and in turn free disassociation, find grounding. Without a defined set of principles, brought into being through dialogical and participatory mechanisms, ‘free association’ becomes instead imposed or assumed association. From the evacuated core of our present radical movement, all that can be heard are the screams of moral outrage. Against this, anarchism with principles provides the ground for ethical positions and political projects —projects that seek to struggle toward the horizon of the post-political, rather then claiming that it already exists in friendship networks identified with a particular scene. Such principles allow for individuals and collectivities to associate or disassociate, create connections between one another, and further a multitudinous revolutionary undertaking. As the recently-retired Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional offered: “The world we want is a world where many worlds fit.”
Finally, an anarchism with principles cannot be located in Classical anarchism, a particular conception of god or nature or history, or, much less so, in the privately circulated zine manifestos of a self-aggrandizing vanguard. These principles come from us, emerge alongside organizing, and are tested on the field of struggle. To concretize this further, the formation of study groups, open dialogs and debates, the circulation of papers on anarchist principles, the development of formal and overt political organizations with the possibility of armed, clandestine ones, and examining the successes and failures of organizing efforts, insurrections, and rebellions, is part of this larger endeavor. The dead motor at the center of the revolutionary project – that of organizing outside the narrow and self-imposed limits of the radical community to confront capital and the state-apparatus – will require the ability to improvise from a set of clear principles and a diverse set of tactics. The success of our radical movements, of launching insurgencies, of organizing against and beyond the limits set by capital and the state-apparatus, of creating new forms of life and refusing the impositions of work and divisions of labor, will be confirmed in fields, factories, and workshops together with pubs, kitchens, bedrooms, and offices. This confirmation will not take place a priori and certainly not in essays such as this one.
An anarchism of principles, and of free association, can only begin with our freely disassociating from contemporary radical movements.
Kevin Van Meter is a member of the Team Colors Collective, is employed in a knowledge factory, and strives to be part of a movement that is worth freely associating with.