Towards an Anarchism with Principles: A Response to “Freely Disassociating,” by Scott Campbell

July 31, 2015 4:16 am

I read with interest Kevin Van Meter’s recent essay, Freely Disassociating: Three Stories on Contemporary Radical Movements published by Perspectives on Anarchist Theory on the Institute for Anarchist Studies website. In it, he discusses the current climate within the anarchist movement, painting a grim picture where increasingly meaningless labels and judgments get tossed about like political hand grenades, shutting down discussion, utilizing guilt-by-association, fomenting an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism and devolving into moralizing-outrage-as-activism. In his third of the three anecdotes he shares, he also elaborates how association with the anarchist movement can lead to unreasonable expectations and standards being placed on an individual. As a result, the radical movement has largely become a void consumed by the loudest voices or the latest controversy, leading people to disassociate from it.
Facing this scenario, Van Meter argues for developing an “anarchism with principles” based in a milieu of “working class, and revolutionary, intellectual culture.” The principles would emerge through dialog, debate, organizing and application in struggle.

Hopefully my summary fairly characterizes his piece, though I suggest people read it themselves. As I am currently undertaking an evaluation of how I personally engage with radical politics, events and movements, I am drawn to the concerns he raises and his proposal of an “anarchism with principles.” In the spirit of dialog, I would like to offer up some thoughts of my own on the topic.
Acting with Intention
First of all, it is important to note that I recognize some of my past behaviors in what Van Meter criticizes. Especially on social media, I’ve thrown around labels, played guilt-by-association, and held people up to subjective “anarchist standards.” I can now recognize such behaviors on my part as divisive, ineffective and unfair. Yet as I saw myself in his critique, I also saw myself in his proposed solution – that an anarchism with principles would be more nuanced when it comes to individuals and their behavior. The default response being not shunning, but mediation. In this context, my past obnoxious behavior is not wiped from the slate – it certainly still happened – but instead of perpetual guilt there is space for growth, amends, and change. There is a response rather than a reaction. The response may still be necessarily harsh, but at least it will be thoughtfully so.
It is such thoughtfulness which intrigues me. An anarchism with principles may sound like a call for a platform, but I do not see it as such. Instead, I see a call for intentionality. What would anarchism look like if it was directed by intention, as opposed to the formulaic reactivity it often appears as? I view the relationship between intention and principle as reciprocal, and an anarchism with principles would emerge in the interchange between the two. The initial step would be to set the intention for my/our/your anarchism to be one with principles. From that starting place of action guided by intentionality, the principles we aspire to identify would become more apparent through the doing. As the principles become more refined, they are able to replace the more generic original intention.
Intention would mean a reorientation of how at least some of us, myself included at times, utilize our anarchism. In part, anarchism serves as a filter through which we interpret events and assign meaning. Everyone has a perspective or belief system which they filter life through, but only some are aware of it. I believe those who consciously take on a belief system benefit from having the awareness that they see the world in a certain way according to their beliefs and that just as they have a certain worldview there are other ways of seeing the world.
A problem emerges as anarchism envisions a society that is profoundly different from the one we currently inhabit. It is then easy for an anarchist worldview to take on a conflictual, negative relationship with the world as is. Everywhere one can see privilege, oppression, exploitation, coercion. A result of seeing this way is that one can end up judging oneself and/or every other person or entity as racist, sexist, or oppressive in some form. This interpretation can be all-encompassing, leaving one to feel embattled, amped up, defensive, triggered, or hostile just walking down the street. Obviously, there is oppression on the street and elsewhere. That’s not what I’m referring to here. Rather, I mean a predisposition to see circumstances, events and potentialities in a negative light by virtue of their existence in the current world system.
An alternative to interpreting ourselves as under siege by allowing our ideology to assign negative meaning to much of what we see in society is to instead turn that inside out in a way. Rather than inwardly absorbing negativity using the lens of anarchism, we could embody the liberatory perspective anarchism offers and project that outward in our navigation of daily life and organizing. Anarchism is a beautiful, emancipatory social, political, cultural, and spiritual phenomena. We identify with it and hang onto it because it speaks to us, the part of us that yearns for freedom, has even tasted it briefly, and wants to share it with others, as we understand our freedom is bound up with everyone else’s. Imagine adopting a perspective where in going about our day, in every moment we encounter, each interaction, meeting, exchange, our aim is to bring the liberatory spirit we carry within ourselves to the table. This does not mean to be blind to what is going on around us, but to acknowledge it and recognize what we are capable of doing about it.
That is where I locate intention. It begins in the choice of how we each individually decide to use our anarchism to view and interact with the world. We can trudge around in negativity and conflict or offer up liberatory and freeing attitudes. I would offer that an anarchism with principles originates in the intention to adopt the latter stance.
Inviting Interiority
In proposing that an anarchism with principles be sought in part by choosing, with intent, to adopt a liberatory stance toward the world, we are still no closer to the actual principles. In his essay, Van Meter suggests these principles will be found in a revolutionary intellectual culture of study, dialog, debate and organizing. In fact, he may disagree with my appeal to interiority as a starting point as it is the space most difficult to intellectualize. However, I would like to take it a step further in that direction.
Intellectual pursuits to develop an anarchism with principles, yes. I am all in favor of those. I do, however, feel they leave an important aspect out and that without integrating it into the framework as a whole, the project will not be successful. Again, I return to the interior – that subjective, personal realm of felt sense and intuitive experience – and suggest that the principles, which we reach for starting from a place of intention, can only be identified and refined through holistic engagement. Meaning principles are arrived at not only intellectually, but based on somatic, emotional, psychic, and social inputs. One can have an intellectual understanding of how capitalism functions, but that is only a part of what goes into the experience of living under capitalism. I contend the same must apply to anarchism – we can intellectually understand it, but in the experience of striving for it, we utilize all the nodes that inform that experience in developing the principles that guide us.
As a starting point, take for example how we each arrived at identifying as an anarchist. I’m guessing for most of us it was not the result of intellectually evaluating the options available along the political spectrum and choosing via reason and logic that anarchism was best suited to our worldview. That may come later as part of the political education process to intellectually bolster the conclusion we arrived at largely through other means. Those other means are feelings, felt senses, intuition. I have no data to back this up, but I would propose that most of us first gravitated towards anarchism because we felt that things were not right in the world. When exposed to what anarchism proposed, it felt right to us, we felt relief at being understood, of finding an ideological home. Based on that feeling, we then undertook to learn more intellectually about what anarchism was all about, further reinforcing the validity of our initial intuitive sense.
I believe that when it comes to identifying principles, we similarly should rely on how we feel about them, on top of what we may intellectually know about them. This is likely unappealing because it appears to be messy and dealing with emotions and feelings and all those marvelously unquantifiable attributes that make us human. But if there is, say, a discussion about a principle or behavior or decision, the most well-formed position will be the one that intellectually understands it but also is capable and willing to sit with it, feel it, and get a sense of what the heart and gut say about it, along with the head. If some proposal appears intellectually sound yet feels “off” or “not right” to people then it is worth pausing and examining the root of that discomfort.
Incorporating the felt senses also broadens inclusivity. If a proposal, idea, or topic is accessibly explained, everyone can provide input on how it “feels” to them. Similarly, discussion can be raised based on the feeling that something is or is not right, rather than necessarily having to be able to explain it intellectually. Such an approach does not inhibit a revolutionary intellectual culture, but instead provides it with richer material with which to engage in a more highly informed manner processes such as the crafting of principles.

Occupy Wall Street Protests, New York City

Occupy Wall Street Protests, New York City

Bringing it Together
What might this look like? The purpose here is not to propose the actual principles of an anarchism with principles, more what should be considered when formulating those principles. However, one principle I would propose would be around accessibility. I believe anarchism and anarchist ideas and organizing should be made more accessible to the public at large. That entry points for anarchist theory and action be available for non-anarchists in a way that meets them where they are currently at politically. Whether that be through informational meetings, community outreach, infoshops, demonstrations, the internet, or other means is another discussion. But if accessibility were identified as a concern, and if in crafting what accessibility looked like, the intention of anarchism’s liberatory core was held in awareness and a plan or materials or framework was developed in part based on it “feeling right” to the participants, as well as intellectually conveying the necessary information, how would that look? And how would it feel for someone new to enter into that space or receive that information that was created through such a process? As their mind may be telling them stories of how anarchism is something to be feared, their body may be sending them information that this message or this space feels good, safe, or right. And that is as good a place as any to start.
As Van Meter’s stories allude to, right now the radical movement does not feel right, nor is it faring well intellectually. As a result, people are “freely disassociating.” Another way of putting this is that the movement is unhealthy. To rebuild health, one needs to tend to the mind and the body. Van Meter proposes an anarchism with principles as a means of treating the current condition. I advocate including in such a process a focus on intention and felt sense, along with a robust intellectual culture. If we seek to inspire people to freely associate with the radical movement, the movement needs to be well. We can only bring others as far along as we have come ourselves.
Scott Campbell resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been involved in organizing efforts, anti-authoritarian and otherwise, in the US, Mexico and Palestine. He may be found online at