via Roar Magazine
Anarchism has long caught a bad rap, being likened to chaos and a negatively connoted devolution into pandemonium — “Things were pure anarchy!” we often hear. But anarchism, in fact, names a mode of relating to the world in non-statist, non-authoritative and directly participatory ways. That is, anarchism commits to engendering a world in which the state — understood as the primary progenitor of violence and not only an institution (or many institutions) but a way of relating to others as well — is abolished; no one has “authority” over others, which is to say that we are all in non-hierarchized relation to one another; and any and all rules or ethics that might affect someone ought to be decided upon in conversation with that person.
Black anarchism, then, is not simply Black people who agree with the aforementioned. Rather, Black anarchism refers to a qualitative shift in what anarchism is and does. This shift is what I have deemed “Anarcho-Blackness.”
Anarcho-Blackness is the analytic I use to think through Black anarchism. Someone like Carl Levy focuses on the “-ism” of anarchism, which defines anarchism as a social movement that arose in a specific time and location and is identifiable as a social movement with members and the like. For me to focus on the anarcho- is to emphasize the spirit of anarchic tendencies and modes of relation. It is a focus on a world-making sensibility rather than a particular political cadre of writing and movements.
Constitutive of this is the Black feminism of the Combahee River Collective (CRC), for example. While they call themselves socialists and not anarchists, they still, in my estimation, anarchize socialism proper. That is, since anarchists hold that “until all are free then no one is free,” we can note the express anarchism of the CRC when they argue that “if black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since black women’s freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
In addition to Black feminism, my conception of Black anarchism necessitates that one also bear a queer and trans relationship to sociality because the imposition of gender might be the Chief Executive Officer of the state, so to deviate from and undermine the state requires a deviation and undermining of gender’s coercive regime.
Black anarchism’s Black feminism, queerness and transness demands that one bears such a relationship to normativity — and specifically normative gender — which is not merely the clothes one wears or the inflection in one’s voice but a relative mobilization of subjective gendered effect. To express a trans relationship to (gendered) normativity is to socio-politically deploy one’s own gender as well as gendered sociality in non-normative, subversive ways.
This is how we might begin to conceptualize Black anarchism.
The following is an excerpt from “Anarcho-Blackness: Notes Toward a Black Anarchism” by Marquis Bey, now available from AK Press.
“Anarchism portends the promise of the absence of authority/order…[it] is intent on creating mayhem against those epistemological and metaphorical foundations that have so violently scripted Black people and communities as a people without history, without knowledge, and without dream.”
— H.L.T. Quan, “Emancipatory Social Inquiry: Democratic Anarchism and the Robinsonian Method”
William Godwin, Max Stirner, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta did not really talk about Blackness, were not really concerned with Blackness, did not bring Blackness to bear on their thinking and did not think that Blackness’s specificity demanded attention. Not to mention that, save, really, for Goldman, anarchists did not really think about the specificities of gender, let alone how gender circulates necessarily within capitalist and white supremacist formations — how race and class, that is, are constituted through and by gender. It was capitalism this, government that, authority, individualism, rulers, the State and on and on.
But I am actually quite uninterested in the expected rhetorical move that implicitly garners one a kind of validity: that of pointing out racial and gendered elisions as the totality of one’s argument. I will, however, do just that, but only for a moment, before more importantly speaking of Blackness and its constitutive factors in this meditation — namely, queerness and (Black) feminism — on their own terms.
But, ahh, the classics… The anarchist canon, as it were, has had its central tenets — if such an anti-authoritarian, non-doctrinal intellectual praxis like anarchism can be said to have tenets — expressed by many of the aforementioned figures.
To summarize, anarchism is the general critique of centralized, hierarchical and thus oppressively coercive systems of power and authority. State power and capitalism are the culprits responsible for the horrors that surround us, being deemed by anarchists as monopolistic and coercive and hence illegitimate. The state, for instance, is inextricable from domination, Bakunin arguing that, “If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another.”
In theory, anarchism is touted to oppose all kinds of oppression, be it racism, sexism, transanatagonism, classism, colonialism, ageism, etc. While there has been much less explicit meditation on the anarchist stance toward transanatagonism than, say, capitalism, the overarching claim of anarchist ideology is that any kind of coercive, dominative oppression is to be quashed. To be established instead is a society based on direct democratic collaboration, mutual aid, diversity, and equity. “From each according to his [sic] ability, to each according to his [sic] need.”
Though there are those who are more strict about incorporating those who preceded the 19th century heyday of people beginning to explicitly call themselves, and rally around a political movement called anarchism, I will not partake in such gatekeeping, for better — where a longer lineage of anarchist thought can be mobilized — or worse — where any form of dissent might be unjustifiably subsumed under anarchism, diluting its specificity and historical situatedness. Like Kropotkin, one might understand the Epicureans and Cynics as anarchists, since they avoided participation in the political sphere, retreated from governmental life and advocated allegiance to no state or party. They lacked the “desire to belong either to the governing or the governed class.” Kropotkin understands this as a proto-anarchic anti-State and anti-authoritarian disposition.
Far from meaning that everyone is left alone and unorganized, anarchism in the classical sense privileges democratic and communal relationality, obviating external rule and control. This is a positive conception of anarchism as voluntary participation predicated on each individual’s autonomy and agreement with communal values. It bears noting, though, that an anarchist society may take different forms: socialist anarchism, which emphasizes developing communal groups that are intended to thrive in the absence of hierarchies and a centralized governmental structure; or individualist anarchism, some of which reject any and all group identities, communal mores of the good and venerate individual autonomy.
Max Stirner represented perhaps the furthest pole of this tendency, with his refusal to obey any law or any state, even if it was collectively arrived at. The self is the only arbiter of one’s life. As well, there is anarcho-syndicalism, which supports workers in a capitalist society gaining control over parts of the economy and emphasizes solidarity, direct participation and the self-management of workers. Additionally, anarcho-syndicalism has the aim of abolishing the wage system, seeing it as inextricable from wage slavery.
Life under non-anarchist rule conceives of the political arena as a good that exists to protect and serve the people; or better, a system chosen by the people. So much of ancient Greek philosophies, modern liberal philosophies and political philosophies assert, in various ways, that obedience to the law is a prima facie duty and inarguable good. Anarchism has called this very foundation into question. What arises in the hopeful disintegration of rule by an authoritarian nation-state is a society that cares for one another communally and democratically without the need for a tyrannical force of coercion and sovereignty. Anarchists like Godwin, Proudhon and Bakunin based this anarchist society on beliefs in reason, universal moral law, education and conscience.
With this very brief overview, the task set forth here is slightly different. It parallels yet departs from, as well as stands in contrast to, this anarchist history — an anarchic “shadow history,” if you will, a para-anarchism that anarchizes anarchism. What is not being done here is an attempt to find heads or figures of Black anarchism to give clout to it as a wing of anarchism as a whole.
While I will surely cite throughout this chapter, as well as subsequent chapters, the thought of people like Lucy Parsons, the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin and Zoé Samudzi, this project is in fact not concerned with simply trotting out a list of anarchist Black people as the meaning of Black anarchism. I am articulating an anarcho-Blackness, first and foremost, as an inhabitable modality of anarchic subjectivity and engagement. This may lead to a discernible Black anarchism. Fine. But the aim is not to arrive at Black anarchism; it is, rather, to engage an anarcho-Blackness that moves toward what might be called a Black anarchism.
There are a number of racialized, gendered and racialized gendered elisions present in classical anarchist theorizations that demand being pointed out. Bakunin: “If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable — and this is why we are the enemies of the State.”
Overlooked here is how the history of the enslavement of peoples of color, specifically Black people in the Western world, is the haunting specter of his claim. The condition of the slave, which is on one plane the condition of Blackness, is the relationship between a people to the state. Thus, anarchism, in its anti-statism, must reckon full force with Blackness as Blackness serves as the distinct angle of vision for encountering the effects of state-sanctioned enslavement and oppression. To abolish slavery necessitates the liberation of Blackness, making anarchism an emancipatory project, a project that has as its foundation a grappling with Blackness.
On the topic of the state, there has also been the tendency to collapse the relative effects of violence. That is, if it is indeed true that the state bears a hostile relationship to those it controls, there are some who are controlled in different ways and who feel the force of the state in more acute ways. To rest at the nexus of Black and trans, for example, is to feel the brunt of the state in scrutinizing, gender binaristic and racializing ways, which give one over to the likelihood of poor housing conditions, lack of job access, increased rates of incarceration — which then subjects one to the gendered carcerality of prisons and its pervasive mis-gendering violence — and the like. Examine the lives of Miss Major, Marsha P. Johnson, CeCe McDonald. Anarchic meditation on the terrors of the state begin in the right direction, but they fall short of taking the critique as deeply as it demands.
A critique of the state is in order too, though. A traditional focus on the state as the end-all be-all of oppression must be thought of as more than simply a governmental agency or bastion up on high doling out sentences and decrees. The state is, too, a relation, a way of dictating how people are to be interacted with. We encounter one another on the logics of intelligibility that the state demands and that structures how one can appear to others, circumscribing subjective parts and desires that fall outside of this framework. And this is a violence.
We must also note how this relation is not only in the public sphere but characterizes any sphere in which interaction is had. And furthermore, these relations are textured by racial and gender hierarchies. One relates to others on their presumed gender, their presumed race and disallows them to be otherwise than this fundamentally externally imposed subjectivity. The other has had no opportunity to announce themselves to us on non-state grounds.
Any anarchism, then, must recognize this and commit to dismantling their hierarchies within relationality and move toward the disorderly, disruptive refusal to continue living by state laws.
So if anarchism truly does represent “to the unthinking what the proverbial bad man does to the child — a black monster bent on swallowing everything,”as Emma Goldman writes, then we must recognize that the blackness of the “black monster” is no accident. It is in fact constitutive.
To infuse anarchism with anarcho-Blackness is to push anarchism’s logics further. Many anarchists did not organize on the grounds of difference and differentiation, even as they sought ways to prevent their silencing. Hence, anarcho-Blackness supplements these oversights via an insistence on perhaps assemblage or swarm or ensemble, whereby there is a consensus, or consent, not to be individuated — which is another way to say an affirmation to emanate from difference toward the insistence on collectivity and agential singularity. It is not unanimous we seek to be; it is ensemblic, assemblic, a distinction that manifests in the proliferation of life for those who might queerly emerge when conditions are saturated with the elimination of institutions that curtail such life.
Saidiya Hartman writes in “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum”: “Better the fields and the shotgun houses and the dusty towns and the interminable cycle of credit and debt, better this than black anarchy.” These “zones of nonbeing” Hartman says, purloining Frantz Fanon, are the regulated domains of Black peoples, or more precisely of those who inhabit the rebellious posture of anarcho-Blackness. They are attempts to corral what Hartman calls “black anarchy,” or what William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi call “the anarchism of blackness.”
This is anarcho-Blackness: the primordial mutiny to which regulation responds. It concerns what Michael Hardt, reading Foucault’s reading of Marx, calls a priority of the resistance to power. If Marx understood dominative disciplining in the workplace as a response to worker insurgency and if we understand the era of US enslavement as a response to the anticaptivity expressed through Blackness — and further, if we understand capitalism’s constitutive racial differentiation and reproduction of (re)productive and disposable humanity rooted in the commodification of Blackened subjects — then anarcho-Blackness comes in to describe the anarchic insurgency that defines the abolition of the state and hierarchization.
This is about what Blackness does to and through anarchism, not against it. We need anarchism’s musings and movement strategies, so it would be antithetical to radical world transformation to jettison anarchism’s gifts. Too, though, anarchism cannot simply do what it has always done — which is itself a multifarious enterprise — as such has been predicated on, in part, an elision of the weight of white — and cis male — supremacy.
That is, we cannot just add in racial and gendered perspectives to an already-functioning anarchism; we cannot, also, simply throw out anarchism on the grounds of these elisions. The task is to mobilize the effects of Black feminism and anarchism colliding in harmoniously complex chaos. This mobilization is what I’ve deemed anarcho-Blackness, an “anarchaos,” to borrow a beautifully apt lexicon from Christopher R. Williams and Bruce A. Arrigo.