Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles, by Kevin Van Meter
“Freely Disassociating” appeared in June 2015. Although it was written a year prior, the half dozen Left and radical publications to which it was initially submitted would not print it. Since its publication by Perspectives on Anarchist Theory inquiries and positive responses (such as Scott Campbell’s, on which I have commented upon elsewhere ) have found their way to me either directly or through intermediaries. Of course there was a series of irrational and nonsensical comments online that only served to confirm my claim that there isn’t an “audience that can access arguments and positions outside those with which it already agrees.” And for that matter, the positive responses confirm this as well. What is interesting about those who are generally supportive of my arguments is that they often agree with the analysis of the problems that currently exist in radical movements, but are neither able to completely disassociate from the “tyrannical bitterness” of contemporary radical politics nor to engage with the proposal that anarchism with principles will arise from a political project rather than being proposed a priori.
What I had not fully articulated in the original article is that until there is a counter-pole to current radical movements there cannot be a shift toward creating anarchism with principles. It would violate common sense to suggest that you can decrease X (involvement in radical movements as they are currently composed) and as a result Y (a counter-pole, anarchism with principles) would emerge. Our increasingly ideological anarchism is defined by theoretical practices: the setting of ones own limitations rather than common horizons; obsession with imaginary relations instead of relations between anarchism’s collective imagination and the ability to collectivize them in the world; and there is not a Yes to many, many No’s reversing the call for “One No, Many Yeses.” It is these practices that anarchism with principles seeks to counter. Moreover, and possibly more important, two interrelated problems suggest the need for another passage out of the current malaise. The approach of creating forms of organization, from clandestine cells to non-profits, a priori to the desires and activity that will propel them forward, postulate purpose, set priorities, and provide the content and context in which they will operate is fatal. This is exacerbated by the inability to make a clean break from current radical movements and instead align oneself with the rich, substantive history of revolutionary ideas and practices. Until these three separate issues are properly addressed the preconditions required for anarchism with principles to develop cannot be established. I will take each issue in turn.
Part of anarchism with principles, at least the way it was posited in “Freely Disassociating,” is the need to act as organizers rather than individual adherents to a particular radical current or tradition. (Though, it is important to acknowledge that the term organizer comes with limitations and problematic connotations. Therefore I am using it in a loose and general manner here. Perhaps facilitator, teacher, elder, committeeperson, delegate, subcomandante, or as Pierre Clastres expressed, “leaders as servants,” will replace it.) To act as an organizer is to participate in radical movements in such a way as to coordinate and further shared self-interest instead of advocating solely for a particular political or revolutionary line. The former has the potential to go beyond the notion of the distinct individual: citizen of the sovereign state, worker-consumer under capitalism, member of the congregation and nuclear family, that are necessary for the functioning of current regimes of power. While the latter suffers from the terrible idea that the individual can act autonomously from society, social reproduction, its own individual and collective histories; an autonomous individual can be a revolutionary catalyst or agent in-itself. Do our actions further organizational and community building efforts and strengthen the relationships within movements? Do these actions result in short-term gains and long-term benefits? Do our actions express our desire to eradicate forms of oppression and exploitation, improve the human condition, and become increasingly attuned to the planet’s ecosystems? To answer as a distinct individual is to claim abilities, often magical ones, that are presumed to have direct, substantive, and concrete effects on relations of power. Specifically, the distinct individual as activist, anarchist, or radical acts rather than dialogues and reflects. Often reflection is rejected since it would require that one become imperceptible; in turn ones identity as an interloper and revolutionary would by necessity disappear. As with the revolutionary party, once an activist or anarchist ideology is absorbed into ones identity, ones very being, it cannot be overthrown without abandoning the form all together. To answer as an organizer is to humbly ask how such questions can be answered in common and how these questions-answers can lead to more complex, multitudinous, vital, and significant questions-answers. Particularly, the organizer reweaves the social fabric, builds dense networks of relations, facilitates dialogue, provides opportunity for engagement in revolutionary undertakings and practical projects, supports those in becoming more than they are under capitalism though education and self-realization, challenges forms of oppression that arise in daily life, is delegated to whilst delegating, and “leads by obeying.” An organizer seeks to intervene and engage with relations of power as they are currently composed and create encounters and projects to form new relations of power.
The conception of power within contemporary radical movements and the limitations of the English language hamper this discussion. Our limited conception of power is compounded by our overreliance on the concept of the distinct individual. (I concede that the concepts of power and the disctinct individual are broader than considered here.) If we were to map the etymology of the English word power back into its Latin roots, two terms would replace this singular concept: potestas (able) and potentia (to be able). Potestas as authority, management, dominion, and the state. Potentia as potential, ability, productivity, and force, or as some have suggested force of the multitude. Often in contemporary radical movements, the idea of the ‘distinct individual’ is the counter to that of potestas. As such it opposes power, as potestas, and takes on particular qualities, i.e. an ‘autonomous individual can be a revolutionary catalyst or agent in-itself.’ Accordingly, the distinct individual replaces potentia and the productive potentiality of acting in common. Using these conceptions of power, let us examine the last line of the previous paragraph: “An organizer seeks to intervene and engage with relations of potestas as they are currently composed and create common notions and projects to form new relations of potentia.” Therefore, the organizer in this sense inquires into the actually existing relations of potestas, attempts to intervene in these relations as to amplify refusals and everyday resistances to them, and furthers these refusals though creating common notions and projects. These new relations of potentia are stabilized by principles as these relations confirm anarchism with principles produced in common. Relations of potentia and anarchism with principles accompany one another; they emerge concurrently.
If I were to suggest a slogan for the vast majority of infoshops that have been launched in the past twenty years it would be: “If you build it, [they] will come.” In the terrible 1980s film from which this quote is drawn, the past is resurrected by constructing a baseball diamond in a field of corn; arguable, the future is resurrected by constructing an infoshop in an undefined social field populated with those unaware of their agency and hyperaware of their social position. The past is, as the films title suggests, A Field of Dreams where ghosts play nine innings; the future is a field against the nightmare of the larger society where ghosts appear to rummage through the free bins, browse the zine rack, attend a teach-in, and cook for Food Not Bombs. All these are worthwhile activities. Nevertheless the ghosts that inhabit the second illustration are those of revolutionary potential, past orgasms of history, and an imaginary community that inhabits the space. It is common to find “and Community Center” tacked on as an afterthought in designating the space, resulting in Obscure Name, Infoshop, plus and Community Center.
As it often goes, a small group opens an infoshop with little thought to legal practicalities (not renting under an individual’s name and social security number) or budgetary realities (a principal amount of funds to function for a few months without income and a clear, credible plan for obtaining income once the doors open). There is rarely an assessment of the on-the-ground conditions, such as: unfortunate economic realities, access to revenue streams from often unreceptive organizations (the Left, unions, foundations, universities, those with familial wealth, etc.), needs and capacity of radical movements, needs and interests of the neighboring population. It becomes nearly impossible to figure out these conditions when one’s attention is taken up with immediate concerns: balancing the need for social space with the need to efficiently organize the infoshop’s daily workings, keeping the doors open as advertised, and dealing with volunteer capacity. With unfortunate regularity such projects launch and shutter, sustained for months or years with the requisite appeals to an undefined ‘community’ commanding them to give financially to a sinking project. It seems almost habitual that existing radical organizations and networks are not contacted, surveyed, assembled, or even considered at the onset of planning such a project. Often other radicals are oblivious to the infoshop’s workings before the final appeal is circulated. Anyone involved in the anarchist movement over the past two decades can list without much prompting numerous projects that have followed this pattern.
There is a fundamental flaw in contemporary anarchist thinking illustrated here. Infoshops, organizations and federations, movements, insurrections don’t emerge spontaneously. Rather, everyday resistances and less organized activity are expressed and self-managed organizations are produced. This takes place at a particular point in the generalizability of revolutionary struggle across the population. Consequently, once a particular level of self-activity and struggle is reached an organizational form becomes necessary. Therefore infoshops, organizations and federations, movements, and insurrections are the expression of innumerable activities (or working-class self-activity as articulated in Autonomist Marxism) – including, everyday resistances (work refusal, sabotage, counter-planning on the ‘shop floor’ and in the ‘kitchen’; feigning illness, theft, stealing time, slowdowns), wildcats, communication and mutual aid amongst the general population, creating means for survival, reproduction, and education outside and against capitalism and the state. A particular form of organization emerges, is assembled by those involved in said activities, in order to further the level of assembly, scale, and scope of this activity together with the extent that these activities can be generalized across the population. To accomplish this shift away from organizations that exist prior to the desires and activity that will propel them forward, one must “read the struggles” – that is, read everyday resistances, refusals, and overt rebellions in concert with self-organized counter-practices and informal ways of organizing survival and life amongst the working-class and poor peoples. It is in reading the struggles and creating forms appropriate to a particular task – from a clandestine cell for a single action to formal non-profit granting bodies such as the Institute for Anarchist Studies – that organizations are built by and for human beings rather than ghosts.
Once militants ‘read the struggles’ and serve as midwife to forms of organization emerging directly out of self-activity, a counter-pole beings to develop. This is the counter-pole that will eclipse current radical movements. As a result, anarchism with principles will take different forms amongst different populations in different spaces and at different times, as principles will emerge within particular contexts with particular histories resulting in particular conceptual combinations and articulations. Consequently, principles, as with organizational forms, cannot exist a priori to the activity that brings them into being.
Periodically magma from the planet’s core breaks through the mantle and accumulates on the ocean floor. If this accretion is sufficient, and sea levels appropriate, an island forms above the waves. Millennia later, as the tectonic plates shift; a new island will arise from the ocean by the same processes and from the same magma source. And then another, forming an archipelago. One such island chain, the Antipodes Islands found in the subantarctic region south of New Zealand are uninhabited and formed in this fashion.
Gilles Deleuze labeled this island type as oceanic with emergence as its defining characteristic. To the oceanic he contrasted the continental island that is cut off from a larger landmass through erosion, earthquake, or are formed as barrier islands. Exemplar of this latter island type is the Aegean Islands. Both were set apart from continents, each archipelago through fundamentally different processes. Though, the Aegean Islands, and for that matter all continental islands, were part of landmasses that have their origins in volcanic processes.
Occasionally magma from the earth’s core breaks through the mantle and accumulates on the ocean floor; once again a potential oceanic island commences. Just as the magma and shifting tectonic plates formed the Antipodal Islands, the islands of insurgencies are produced and emerge from the ocean floor. While it is often unclear when the mantle might give way and an island might ascend, it is the task of the revolutionary, the organizer as described above, to be attuned to such developments, to perceive the swirling magma below and early stages of emergence. Metaphorically these early stages of emergence are less organized practices, whereas magma is self-activity, or, to use a concept from a different theoretical tradition, desire. Moreover, insurgents – in animal, plant, fungal, and bacterial form – inhabit these islands; wander between them and across their surfaces. In observing the formation of a contemporary island in the process of emergence and recording this progression, one must be accustomed to ecosystems, life forms, geological processes of accretion, and point where magma bursts through the crust.
Delineating Oceanic and Continental Islands
Applied to political and revolutionary history, the Aegean are illustrative of the worst aspects of orthodoxy that sought liberation by reconfiguring capitalism and the nation-state on an offshore island. Upon these islands even Heracles could not empty out the Aegean Stables, the shit of authoritarianism. Erosion, rifts, or withdrawal from capitalism and the state is not sufficient to construct a new, liberatory society. Even the uninhabited, desert oceanic islands are preferable to the continental.
The Antipodal are demonstrative of the rich, substantive narrative of revolutionary ideas and insurgencies – the Charter of the Forest, German peasant revolts, Palmares, Haitian Revolution, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Paris Commune, early-20th century workers councils, Spanish Revolution, May 1968, Stonewall, Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, and countless other uprisings. Initially, as with the Antipodal Islands, these are barren, deserted. Animal, plant, fungal, and bacterial life may eventually inhabit these islands producing their own expressions and ecosystems. (A necessary aside, nomads and wanderers similarly inhabit islands. Colonizers attempt to conquer islands as they have continents. The colonial project is the domain and occupation of the state par excellence.) Determining the type of life present together with its arrangement in complex ecosystems is a demanding task; comprehending the complexity of insurgency is no less challenging. Furthermore, it is difficult to recognize an oceanic archipelago as part of grander processes, as continuity in addition to discontinuity.
Of all tasks this is the most demanding, the revolutionary must attempt to delineate oceanic and continental islands and note when sections of latter drift toward and merge with the former. There are three assumptions to avoid: too often the emergence of a modest desert-oceanic island results in premature exhilaration; a continental island is mistaken for an oceanic one; since continental and oceanic islands are fashioned from similar rock they are assumed to be equivalent. These tasks, and suppositions one must eschew, attempt to detect undercurrents of desire and islands of insurgency as part of the history of the present in addition to carefully observing those islands that are just beginning to emerge.
Historical Impulses, Contemporary Imperatives
Though, we must circumvent a neighboring problem as well – current radical movements aspire to inhabit every island and continent, in effect to populate the metaphorical landmasses of the planet and the entirety of the social field. Adherents of contemporary anarchism and participants in current radical movements share a common flaw. Just as with bourgeois society, contemporary anarchism seeks a “unitary and totalizing” social order. Together they emerged during the Enlightenment with bourgeois society being the articulation of the nation-state as a democratic republic and anarchism being the ever-present criticism of the insufficiencies of such a republic. William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), which can be viewed as the beginning of anarchism’s intellectual history, is a direct response to the limits of the states’ justice and the insufficiencies of bourgeois society. An Enquiry, it is important to note, was written amidst the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. Godwin, followed by Stirner, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and others, extended the creative aspirations and impulses of anarchism as a political philosophy. Most variants of anarchism have two attributes: a political philosophy that has evolved over the last two-hundred and twenty-five years; and the aforementioned undercurrents of desire that flow just below the surface of innumerable human societies and islands of insurgency that emerge from these societies. In effect these two attributes reflect a tension, which is highly productive and grounding, at the center of classical anarchism that is absent from contemporary articulations.
An overreliance on anarchism as a political philosophy results in the inability to observe phenomena in its own context and with its own complexity. When anarchists identify social phenomena – or for that matter, cultural products, aspects of ideas, history, nature, forms of life – along the anarchist/not-anarchist divide, context and complexity evaporates; “reading the struggles” and possibilities for intervention disperse. Identifying the May 1968 rebellions in Paris, continuing uprising of the EZLN, or Occupy Movement with anarchism, or as not-anarchist-enough, based upon a priori assumptions results in a rigid dogmatism. By identifying (or misidentifying) these complicated episodes with anarchism, crude assumptions are reinforced, details are blurred, and nuance lost. In turn, a dynamic and substantive political philosophy is reduced to simple reactions and naive presumptions wherein its positions and arguments find their basis outside of lived experience (in a transcendent god, nature, history, or, as noted in the original article, “in the privately circulated zine manifestos of a self-aggrandizing vanguard”).
A byproduct of this type of thinking is a narrow view of the role of the revolutionary (as distinct individual) and the revolutionary organization. Often the revolutionary association, in various formations from the anti-organizational clandestine cell to the Industrial Workers of the World, is viewed as the only vehicle for revolutionary change. The organization, broadly defined, can educate the masses as social anarchists suggest, recruit the working-class into unions as syndicalist propose, or ignite uprising through “propaganda by the deed” by temporary affinity groups as contemporary insurrectionists argue. The claim that a particular anarchist variant has identified the crucial, only instrument for revolutionary upheaval is thus: particular revolutionary organizations should produce particular outcomes and these organizations-outcomes are determined by the variation of anarchism adhered to by its participants and proponents. In this sense, the form of organization and the tasks it performs are determined a priori, outside but also in advance of the contexts they encounter.
Moreover, a singular revolutionary organization cannot possibly provide organizer training, political education, or community accountability, be in active solidarity with movements of oppressed peoples, and produce radical media in addition to its own responsibilities and self-propulsion. Each of these endeavors requires a level of specialization and focus within a particular geographical context. The desire to have an organization, network, or indeterminate ‘community’ with these initiatives, negates the need to build capacity in particular regions so that an assortment of revolutionary projects can emerge. For platformists proposing federations of anarchist organizations along the Federación Anarquista Ibérica and Confederación Nacional del Trabajo model, they ignore the obvious: FAI-CNT has thousands of like-minded anarchists to draw from, current federations in the United States can barely muster a few dozen members across a huge expanse. Whereas insurrectionists and nihilists believe their minuscule, insignificant friend group will be an insurrectionary vehicle in-itself; although in rejecting liberalism they have adopted the mistaken, if not foolish, Leftist idea that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [that is, distinct individuals] can change the world.” The conception of the revolutionary organization in current radical movements is the result of an imperative toward “unitary and totalizing” anarchism as applied to the motor of revolutionary change.
While this approach can be remedied by constructing a counter-pole, in order to consider the context and complexity of the social field a constellation of organizations and initiatives is needed (a constellation as the result of conscious organizing rather than fragmenting amongst revolutionary forces). Instead of a singular organizational form with a dedicated political or philosophical line, a constellation with various political assertions allows for common needs and desires to be addressed by initiatives fitting the specific needs of the situation they will intervene in. For instance, experimental and varied transformative justice projects will replace the need for each organization and initiative to forge their own accountability processes. This would allow for specialization of roles and the improvement of transformative justice practices as applied to particular contexts through developing a working knowledge of practices and procedures that ensure positive outcomes (specifically improving social conditions that lead to harm). In proposing a constellational approach, space for experimentation opens, successes and failures can be measured, and wider participation from those outside of current radical movements becomes possible. Such an approach will require a sense of humility and a nimble, dynamic anarchism with principles.
To freely disassociate from current radical movements does not require that one extricate themselves from anarchism as a political philosophy or islands of insurgency. The error is when revolutionaries in the United States identify current radical movements with either of these attributes. Certain social anarchists might identify with the former, while insurrectionists might identify with the latter (whilst adhering strictly to the the former), others with both. Disassociating requires the reexamination of the first attribute and attention toward the second outside of the self-imposed limitations and malaise of the present moment. Moreover, it requires thinking beyond a “unitary and totalizing” anarchism.
Anarchism with Principles
Capitalism and the state seek “unitary and totalizing” social relations. To subsume and colonize all social and political space – capital subsumes, the state colonizes. (Herein these terms are used in a narrow, technical sense rather than as they are in everyday vernacular.)
The well-traveled story of the enclosure of the commons in late-12th and early-13th Century Europe will serve as an illustration. In enclosing common land, the state effectively colonized the space, soil, and social relations that had previously defined peasant life. The relationship peasants had to the soil and to one another were severed as they were excluded from communal use of the land first by force, and then by law. The state claimed political control over the territory, appropriated it for its own use, and instituted its own relations of domination whilst occupying the land governmentally (even as the peasants still worked the land as indentured servants). The tithe system became the wage system. Here the means of production were formally subsumed under capital and wage-labor is imposed on the peasant. Capitalism swallows these prior relations and as these relations are increasingly subject to capitalist command and then replaced by forms of work saturated by the needs of capital. (These relations shift from formal subsumption to real or total subsumption in a Marxian conception.) Alternative social relations and means of survival undermine the ability of capital to impose wage-labor, just as social and political space outside of the control of the state provides territory to flee too and raid from.
Consequently, a future society defined by anarchism will hunt down the remnants of social relations defined by capitalism and the state and attempt to prevent their recurrence. In effect anarchism replaces the relations of capital, as it inhabits territory formerly controlled by the state and reweaves relations between human beings, ecosystems in which they are part, and the products of their desires according to ability and need. As it is presently formulated, anarchism proposes a future society in which it inhabits all social and political space as it interprets and expresses all social relations. There is no outside to this anarchist society and there are few, if any, competing social relations. This is anarchism’s totalizing impulse. The future, prefigured anarchist society is unitary in so far as it expresses a unified power (in the vague English-language sense), excluding other relations and forms of life.
What was once an impulse in classical anarchism is now an imperative in contemporary anarchism. These unitary and totalizing aspects of contemporary anarchist thinking are the result of it developing as a political philosophy toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment (1780s) and during the period of democratic revolutions (1770s to early-1800s). As a critical response to the insufficiencies of the democratic republic, anarchism has yet to imagine itself outside of this retort and as a competing political philosophy with orthodox Marxism, nationalism, social democracy and liberalism, populism and fascism. Now, I reason that this is the present formulation as it appears in contemporary radical movements; again the reader will have to determine the validity and accuracy of this claim. While this “unitary and totalizing” impulse is often reflected in anarchism as a political philosophy, such a formulation is incompatible with the second attribute, that is, undercurrents of desire and islands of insurgency. (To each island its own ecosystem, from each island its own distinctiveness.) To think beyond a unitary and totalizing anarchism is to suggest a beyond to anarchism itself, as it is currently formulated and movements as they are currently composed. This second attribute will reinvigorate the first.
“Freely Disassociating,” as a theoretical project reaches its own limits in criticizing contemporary radical movements and recommending preconditions for a passage out our contemporary malaise. A political project, a combined theoretical-organizing effort, begins from the activities and approaches these preconditions suggest. A theoretical project can demarcate ideas and their genealogies, stabilize our understanding of the complexities of everyday life and struggle, and serve as a tool to comprehend how potestas and potentia functions in our society. Whereas organizing and militant research projects can uncover relations of potestas and potentia, refuse the imposition of waged and unwaged work, resist forms of oppression, construct movements attuned to their own reproduction, test the limits of our strategies and organizations as they confront capital and the state, and connect with undercurrents of desires/islands of insurgency in the present. It is an error to think that these transpire in separate moments. Rather, in the moment in which they are occurring, theoretical and organizing projects are indistinguishable. It is only looking historically or projecting into the future that these become distinct. Anarchism with principles must develop concomitantly with an organizing project that will enact its specific principles in the world. Meaning, that the kind of political project that I am suggesting will begin in these preconditions, in disassociating from contemporary radical movements, using mechanisms to produce principles appropriate for the context that the project is operating within, and then deploy the principles in its theoretical-organizing efforts. Principles enacted in the world rely on theoretical-organizing efforts that produce these principles as part of their endeavors within particular context, in defined geographical areas, with precise and well-defined populations.
As denoted in “Freely Disassociating” possible mechanisms include, but are not limited to, “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, [will be] part of [a] larger endeavor.”
The following two scenarios will illustrate potential mechanisms further.
Scenario 1: St. Paul’s Principles
Leading up to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota anarchists developed a set of principles to guide the protests that were to erupt around the region. In effect the principles were agreements between different organizations and stated that:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.
By instituting these principles many of the usual public disagreements between protest factions were avoided and those facing repression after the RNC were able to leverage these relationships.
Such agreements for common understanding need not be limited to protest actions. Rather, by setting community standards of behavior for organizations and their members security threats can be thwarted, internal disagreements remain within the confines of the movement, dialogues and debates on tactics are incubated, and similar issues can be addressed. Such principles make anarchism as a political philosophy together with relationships between revolutionary organizations visible. For instance, in setting principles for accountability, when an individual is exhibiting problematic and harmful behaviors those concerned would have the support of an association of organizations and resources from said organizations could be drawn upon to address the matter.
Principles for common understanding would stabilize internal movement communications, activate solidarity and mutual aid, clarify differences, generate opportunities for shared action while seeking to challenge problematic logics (white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, ableism and ageism) common to both movements and the dominant culture. By simply using a spokescouncil model, organizations could create principles for common action and understanding through a series of dialogues and meetings. Clarity on concepts, positions, and ideas can be aided by the circulation of position papers and extended through common study groups and organizer trainings. Individual organizations can remove themselves from said principles, unaffiliated and anti-organization inclined individuals are unaffected.
Scenario 1 is in effect a stopgap toward addressing possible future conflicts and divisions amongst organizations and individuals eager to move beyond the contemporary malaise. Scenario 2 begins with the assumption that organizing needs to take place outside of the confines of contemporary radical movements.
Scenario 2: Community Dialogues
In early 2008 I returned to radical movements after nearly a year absence due to a personal tragedy that I have recounted elsewhere (“To Care is to Struggle” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory No. 14, Vol. 1  ). There was an event of some kind at a local radical bookstore; it must have been a reading group or book talk, as the details that follow will suggest. Being that I had not ventured out of my apartment in few days’ time, and had withdrawn from organizing for some months, the opportunity to reconnect with recent developments around the region animated me. As the event moved into the discussion session a term that I wasn’t acquainted with was tossed around. While I happened to be familiar with the struggles of trans* peoples from radical organizing together with study of queer theory and liberation, cisgender was unfamiliar. (As a necessary aside, it is important to note that the subject of the event did not directly addressing trans* nor gender politics.) During a lull in the conversation I asked about this term, and was met with glares; side conversations took place in whispers with the requisite accusations. Only after the event, when I was able to approach a close confidant did I get an answer.
The term cisgender appeared in the popular discourse in 2007 after being presented in an English-language academic journal the year prior. Therefore I hadn’t been afforded the opportunity to hear the term and incorporate it into the lexicon of concepts used to delineate and distinguish forms of oppression and exploitation. This story illustrates the speed in which a concept is devised and circulates. And of course the swiftness of circulation is accompanied by the inability of participants in current radical movements to understand that we often damn persons based upon self-policing borders of said movements. An old Rabbi once told me, “disrespect comes from the heart,” and in this scenario disrespect originated in a terminological deficiency and not a lack of knowledge, active solidarity, or respect. An anecdote from my organizing past will illustrate a counter approach.
Following a few months of long-term dialogues on Long Island in late-2001, three or four new individuals joined a revolving assembly of around sixty radicals who were experimenting with a new form for revolutionary projects. These dialogues were open discussions taking place in a circle with a facilitator simply summarizing resonances and differences within the group and providing probing questions to stir conversation. Participants were predominantly young, counter-cultural, mostly white, self-identified anarchists from working-class and middle-class origins. Often exchanges consisted of stories of personal hardship, familial and social experiences, self and societal imposed limitations, violence enacted through varying forms of oppression, personal needs and desires that could become collectivized. Based on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed the purpose of these events, which were held nearly every month from 1999 until 2005, was to use conversations as a mechanism to cultivate mutuality amongst the group assembled, forge bonds between individuals, and address collective and societal problems. These discussions resulted in a density of relationships together with agreed upon standards of behavior and general operating principles.
In such discussions, when the facilitator asked, “what is the biggest problem we are facing collectively at this moment?” one of these new individuals blurted out, “the slaughter of the unborn.” One might expect being a gathering of self-identified anarchists with militantly pro-choice leanings, such a pronouncement would normally be met swiftly with angry denunciations accompanied by arguments around personal autonomy and against forced motherhood. Since those assembled were involved in these dialogical practices, that is, the mechanism of long-term community conversations, the response was fundamentally different. Those who had personal experience with abortion (theirs, their sisters’, mothers’, friends’) spoke about their reasons to terminate a pregnancy and offered sound, grounded arguments that such a procedure should be free of charge and readily available. Numerous women in the circle spoke in such a manner and when the dialogue returned to the individual who had made the original declaration they sheepishly offered, “I had never met someone who had an abortion.” Which is to say: their religious and ideological lens had previously prevented them from having an encounter and dialogue with someone who had chosen abortion. The response from those in the dialogue circle was based in the relationships developed over the preceding months and the response was non-ideological. Rather than simply stating a claim against pro-life assertions, an ideological position removed from grounded experience, those who spoke argued from lived experiences and the conclusion of their arguments was one of personal autonomy.
In stark contrast to current politics, in radical movements, long-term community dialogues attempt to be relational rather than ideological. Accordingly, dialogues in the Freireian tradition can be commonly found in workers centers in the United States. These produce strong relationships between individuals on the basis of needs, desires, and ways of life. As revolutionaries we should have the confidence in our ideas and ideals to construct, organize, and enter dialogues with those outside of current radical movements. Free association, and therefore a radical movement worth participating in, will only come from humility, active solidarity and mutual aid, being attuned to undercurrents of desire along with arising islands of insurgency, and creating dialogues and other mechanisms for anarchism with principles to emerge.
This intervention is an appeal for experimentation, for developing concrete strategies, and grounding our politics in lived experiences, using mechanisms such as community dialogues, and producing principles rather than a “unifying and totalizing” anarchism or transcendent concepts. A necessary component of being experimental is willingness to fail while not viewing failure as a complete indictment of a particular political position, something unmentionable or secret, or invalidating of the revolutionary project. Principles make the ideas and applications of anarchism visible. And in becoming visible said principles enter into our discussions, debates, and examinations, and when necessary these are superseded and replaced as part of theoretical-organizing endeavors (that are in turn cultivated from undercurrents of desire and islands of insurgency). To extend the conclusion in “Freely Disassociating,” “The success of [these grounded] 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.” Anarchism with principles is not an intellectual or semantic battle – anarchism as a political philosophy, not simply a political project – radical movements as they are currently composed. Principles are for enhancing our abilities and addressing our needs, assembling new ways of life and will determine our very existence.
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.