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.
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.
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 fallingintoincandescence.com
3 thoughts on “Towards an Anarchism with Principles: A Response to “Freely Disassociating,” by Scott Campbell”
A Response to Scott Campbell
by Kevin Van Meter
In “Towards an Anarchism with Principles: A Response to ‘Freely Disassociating,’” Scott Campbell argues that anarchism should “appeal to interiority,” avoid “guilt” and “reactivity,” become “intentional” and “remain intuitive.” To result in a healthier radical movement, the response argues, we will need an effort that feels right and is positive intellectually. By extension, he continues, a healthy movement will attend to the needs of the minds and bodies of adherents and here anarchism with principles begins by feeling right within these spheres. Campbell offers a generous, thoughtful, and considerate reply to the original article and extends a number of its arguments, some of which will be addressed in a future article titled “Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles.”
While I am in general agreement with the thrust of Campbell’s arguments there are clear differences between our positions. Points of commonality together with areas of divergence are worth noting.
Campbell argues that, “instead of perpetual guilt there [needs to be] space for growth, amends, and change.” While I appreciate his phrasing – that there needs to be, “a response rather than a reaction,” to the conditions and ‘troubles’ that we now face – it seems insufficient to respond, when we in fact require reflection on a movement-wide scale. Within organizations and movement networks we need a generalized amnesty for minor offenses before principles can be established. In loosely organized post-Left social networks, and much of the contemporary anarchist movement, responses and reactions are often confused: a reasonable response follows what you, your network, and your hyphenated-anarchist affiliation does. Whereas a robust reaction is warranted when someone you disagree with does something objectionable, even if it is a similar act or near identical position to one of your own.
By suggesting that anarchism should become intentional, Campbell extends his argument for “growth… and change.” If I understand him correctly, intention counters “formulaic reactivity”; then as a counter-action, intention moves toward a way of refining principles. Although I concur with this suggestion, a slight modification in its construction is required. Formulaic reactivity countered by intentionality sets up a dichotomy wherein one’s formulaic reactivity is another’s intentionality; one’s correct principles are another’s incorrect principles. In place of labeling behaviors, I think we should simply ask: do our actions further organizational and community building efforts and strengthen the relationships within movements? Yes insinuates intentionally, no suggests reactivity. Interpersonal behaviors that could or couldn’t further efforts and strengthen relationships, answering yes instead of no, is similar to how anarchism with principles propositions criticisms where as contemporary anarchism offers dismissals. For instance, by dismissing the state we leave its complexities unexamined, while the states penetration into our everyday lives – through methods of surveillance, mechanisms of control, imposing limits – goes unopposed. As Gustav Landauer recommended, “the state is a condition […] we destroy it by contracting other relationships.” These “other relationships” cannot be assembled until the hierarchies, forms of oppression and exploitation, and relations of power (potestas as authority, management, dominion, and the state) are thoroughly criticized as part of the process (potentia as potential, ability, productivity, and force, or as some have suggested force of the multitude) of directly challenging and overthrowing the state. Contemporary radical movements, we both concur, would benefit greatly from acting intentionally, reflecting frequently, responding reasonably, and criticizing thoroughly.
As Campbell moves from becoming intentional toward making anarchism accessible, he “appeal[s] to interiority.” Declaring, “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. Principles are arrived at not only intellectually, but based on somatic, emotional, psychic, and social inputs.” On this latter point, that principles are arrived at via a range of sources and through innumerable stimuli, Campbell and I agree. Nevertheless I believe Campbell’s claim that anarchism “assigns meaning” contradicts this. Anarchism, as it is currently constituted, can only assign meaning. The anarchism that I am proposing, which extracts this notion out of Autonomist Marxism, produces meaning and in turn is produced by meaning. Meanings that are granted externally through a theoretical abstraction based in god, nature, history, or well-intended anarchist sources have the potential of degenerating into morality; that is, to be used to merely judge actions good to bad. Instead, practical, lived experiences of anarchism with principles produce their own meaning and then are arbitrated by this meaning. Then, when such a meaning is no longer useful or productive it is jettisoned through a process determined by agreed upon principles. I propose an anarchism of encounter, an ethical anarchism.
A collectivity, or a society commoning – actively creating and managing the commons, sets its own standards and establishes mechanism for principles to be overcome. In The Magna Carta Manifesto historian Peter Linebaugh offers a precise definition of the common:
“First, common rights are embedded in a particular ecology with its local husbandry. For commoners, the expression “law of the land” from chapter 39 [of the Magna Carta] does not refer to the will of the sovereign. Commoners think first not of title deeds, but of human deeds: how will this land be tilled? Does it require manuring? What grows there? They begin to explore. You might call it a natural attitude. Second, commoning is embedded in a labor process; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. Third, commoning is collective. Fourth, being independent of the state, commoning is independent also of the temporality of the law and state.”
Linebaugh’s commoning is identical to my mechanisms; commoning, as do mechanisms, produce meaning and in turn are produced by meaning. Here we are simply relying on different tributaries within the current of Autonomist Marxism.
The notion that anarchism assigns meaning requires additional consideration and here I am extending Campbell’s argument to what I believe are its logical ends. Campbell considers anarchism a “filter through which we interpret events and assign meaning.” This is a point where we differ, and where Autonomist Marxism diverges from anarchism. If anarchism is going to be a living philosophy it needs to go beyond the idea that it is anything more than one tool to interpret events and assign meaning. One example, found amongst a particularly workerist variant of anarchism (and of course Orthodox Marxism from which it is derived), is the undo emphasis placed upon developing the consciousness of the masses or working-class. When this anarchist tradition wants to develop the “class consciousness” of a population, they really intend for this population to integrate predetermined anarchist consciousness into their own. Autonomists, amongst others, see no division between consciousness and embodied activity. As feminist-activist Silvia Federici has remarked, “power educates.” Rather, autonomists view struggles against potestas and encounters with potentia as instructive, as producing knowledge about potentia and, in turn, ourselves.
Further, I want to guard against the idea that, as Campbell offers, “[the] subjective, personal realm of felt sense and intuitive experience,” can do anything but have very limited explanatory power. Hence I propose activity that is both singular and collective, as conscious and embodied experience can only take place in common. Though, his notion that one should “feel right” with anarchism is something that should be expanded upon, since so many of us came to the ‘idea,’ as anarchism was once called, because of deeply felt emotions.
It is quite possible that I have argued myself out of an “accessible anarchism” with principles, which is of course the goal that Campbell and I share. Accessible anarchism is a logical conclusion to Campbell’s arguments and I want to expand upon it in two ways. First, as I argued in “Freely Disassociating” and Campbell mentions, there needs to be a “robust [working-class] intellectual culture.” Those fleeing the limitations placed upon their lives by capital and the state-apparatus as factory hands, tenant farmers, and housewives may find utility and possibility in intellectual and creative pursuits offered by accessible anarchism. This notion draws on EP Thompson’s description of made and making from The Making of the English Working-Class. A robust intellectual culture will provide the means and resources for those who want to become other than what capital has made them. As they become revolutionary and remake themselves, their lives, and the worlds in which they inhabit. And second, well-defined ideas need to be connected to actual people. Meaning, we aren’t going to convince people to become revolutionary by simply making the ideas available. We need to be part of the lives, communities, and worlds that are becoming revolutionary. Ideas are plausible when they are tied to initiatives in the actual world, which affect actual people, whose actual lives are improved. People won’t become revolutionary by hearing about anarchism, but by engaging in revolutionary, anarchistic activities.
Analysis is good but needs to be more simple and clear.
Firstly, I would like to thank Kevin Van Meter for his thoughtful and constructive response and encourage readers to take in his article “Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles.” Secondly, I apologize for my much-delayed reply. In it, I will comment on some of Van Meter’s points/critiques and hopefully refine some of my arguments from my initial response.
In my original piece, I suggest that part of the process of arriving at and practicing an anarchism with principles requires individuals and collectives to respond rather than react to events, transgressions and conditions, calling upon intentionality to guide us, as opposed to formulaic reactivity. Van Meter proposes that this does not go far enough, advocating “reflection on a movement-wide scale” and that classifying behavior in the manner I lay out may encourage judgmental labeling of others’ activities as formulaic or reactive based on one’s own positions. I concede that such a possibility exists. I also concur with the necessity of reflection. Asking questions such as “Do our actions further organizations and community building efforts and strengthen the relationships within movements?” is very important and is more likely to lead to an intentional response as opposed to a formulaic reaction.
A concern I have is that answering such questions may not go far enough in ensuring a reflective, intentional response or action. I offer that in my construction of intentionality, I believe it is important to look at what aspect/facet/lens/part of us (the individual or collective) is speaking as the source of the answer. What so often leads to confusion regarding responses versus reactions is that one often reacts without being aware of it, or couches their reaction within enough rhetorical scaffolding so as to make it appear as a response. Reactions in humans are predictable, well-worn thought patterns or behaviors that originate in childhood, or as a result of social conditioning, or due to trauma. Many of us find that our reactions may at one point have served us, but no longer do so. Yet it takes much work to unlearn them and establish new behavioral patterns, new responses to life. The same could be said of political philosophies subscribed to on a collective level, which contain their own collective histories and traumas. Reactions serve as a kind of ideological defense mechanism. The picture only becomes murkier when we then overlay the collective and the individual stories together within social movements.
I propose it is necessary to hold this idea of the answer’s source in awareness when we set about examining the questions Van Meter suggests. That along with logically thinking through to an answer, to also look at if the answer or causal event brings up feelings of fear, anger, excitement, love, hate, etc. What stories are beneath those emotions? How might they be impacting our seemingly logical thinking? Are these narratives still serving us or is it preferable to modify them? Taking all of this into consideration is part of crafting an intentional response. It takes longer and seems messier, but is likely to lead to more coherent, consistent, constructive, holistic and healthy activity, both on the individual and collective level. Again, I appeal to collective and individual interiority as discussed in my previous piece as a key component of this process.
Perhaps the above can be illustrated by addressing another potential point of contention between Van Meter and myself. In my previous response, I wrote that anarchism is “a filter through which we interpret events and assign meaning.” Van Meter argues that, “If anarchism is going to be a living philosophy it needs to go beyond the idea that it is anything more than one tool to interpret events and assign meaning….Instead, practical, lived experiences of anarchism with principles produce their own meaning and then are arbitrated by this meaning.” I agree with this up to a point. Anarchism cannot remain stagnant. We can’t point to a text of anarchist theory and say, “That is anarchism, everything in existence can and must be interpreted according to what is outlined in those pages.” A rather extreme example, I admit. The idea of a living, adaptive, reflexive anarchism that makes its own meaning through the doing resonates with me. As I conceptualize it, however, I see two possible drawbacks. One being that in order to implement an anarchism with principles which produces its own meaning, we first need an anarchism with principles, bringing us back to the process of how to develop it. I believe what Van Meter is saying is that the development of it happens through the doing. Meaning is created through action, further refining meaning and guiding future actions, eventually becoming a lived experience. (Though he expounds upon this much more eloquently than I.)
I appreciate that this gives us an avenue to move forward, as opposed to merely wrestling in the theoretical realm over what an anarchism with principles would look like. An anarchism with principles emerges through praxis, and the foundations of that praxis are what I believe Van Meter and I have attempted to elaborate upon in this exchange. Nonetheless, I caution that even a living philosophy which creates its own meaning is a type of filter. It may be a healthy, supportive, liberatory filter that becomes so enmeshed is us that we move from responding according to an anarchism with principles to reacting according to an anarchism with principles. Not to sound too Kantian, but I believe we cannot experience the noumenal, ontological world. We experience phenomena as interpreted through filters, including paradigmatic ones such as an anarchism with principles. It strikes me as important to hold that in awareness, to always consider the source, lest we fall into formulaic reactivity.
To avoid the risk of dragging this discussion down the rabbit hole, or perhaps it is already there, I will close by echoing Van Meter’s statement that, “[W]e aren’t going to convince people to become revolutionary by simply making the ideas available. We need to be part of the lives, communities, and worlds that are becoming revolutionary.” It is my hope that this exchange manifests in its own small way as being a part of, rather than an offering to, the revolutionary worlds already in the making.
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