It was sort of a wild idea: to propose a year-long course on anarchist ideas, on short notice, for an audience of whoever shows up, and to start off with the elaboration, largely on the fly, of an idiosyncratic anarchist synthesis, drawing on a wide variety of source material. But here we are, finishing up that first and probably most difficult phase of things.
Let’s take a few moments and review what we’ve done so far, clarifying things a bit as well. There has been, I know, a certain amount of uncertainty about how to categorize the material. The most important thing to reiterate is probably that my intention has not been to explain anarchism to anyone, but instead to present an example of various ways in which anyone might use aspects of the anarchist past in order to make anarchism their own, gaining clarity and choosing among various possible interpretations. So, while it has been necessary to “put myself out there,” it’s been much more a matter of “making an example” of myself—perhaps, at times, even a cautionary example—than of playing “expert.” I have approached my work for the project as the sort of thing one offers to friends and friends of friends—people among whom my reputation undoubtedly proceeds me—for them to use or set aside as it suits them. The 45,000 words of new material produced would be a rotten monograph, but as a collection of examples—operation after operation performed on the materials of the anarchist past, with an eye to present utility—I think I am not unjustified in thinking it really has its moments.
The twelve concepts I chose to work with are not all of a single sort, because there is arguably more than one kind of work required to make anarchism our own. If we can account for anarchy as an abstract concept, we also need to account for the role of tradition as a means of organizing the anarchist past and set limits on anarchism in the present. I’ve proposed synthesis as a means of addressing the undeniable heterogeneity of anarchism, both past as present. Then, as a step toward synthesis, I’ve spent quite a bit of time laying out the basics of a neo-Proudhonian sociology, critiquing, revising and expanding “classical” anarchist thought in the process of introducing much of it to a modern audience. Finally, in these last few posts, there’s been some attempt to sketch out a program of sorts, imagining anarchist practice as a series of encounters, all of which might conceivably be shaped according to anarchist principles.
The presentation of a conception of anarchism is, then, the final step in this experiment and one that extends the “program” already sketched out—though perhaps not precisely in the way that you might expect.
“All these isms aren’t worth a pair of boots.”—Proudhon
I have a real love for anarchy, despite (or, to be honest, sometimes because of) all of the complications that come with it, and a much more complicated relationship with anarchism. As an interdisciplinary scholar and, well, a big nerd, my political and intellectual development included the almost obligatory initiation into Ideologiekritik, a complicated love affair with the Situationist International (complete with various appropriately suspect pro-situ productions) and some fairly deep dives into the more or less abstruse philosophical expressions of Europe’s extraparliamentary left. In theory, I was a scholar of 19th-century US culture, with an emphasis on popular culture—even when the internet happened, and I spent a few glorious years studying virtual community, cyberpunk, information sickness, etc.—and it was to intellectual history that I would return after my exit from the academy. But by the time I began to really immerse myself in the earliest phases of anarchist history, I had some explicitly post-1968 reasons for doing things the way that I did.
I’ll let others decide to what extend practices like detournement and dérive play a part in the games I play with the anarchist past, and judge whether approaching daily life in terms of a series of anarchic encounters might, for example, serve to “construct new ambiences that will be both the products and the instruments of new forms of behavior.” The same goes for the question of transvaluation in relation to the treatment of the anarchist “classics”—as opposed to simple devaluation and redeployment. Working so much on the fly, perhaps I have done some justice to my education in these matters and perhaps not.
In any event, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over my now almost instinctive resistance to almost every sort of ism.
How best to take the final step, despite resistances? Perhaps in the form of an encounter, emphasizing what is anarchic in anarchism. We know, after all, that even when the suffix –ism really does seem to indicate something a bit reified for some anarchist tastes—a particular ideology or program, a particular organization or organizational form—we are quite consistently left with multiple candidates vying for recognition as anarchism per se.
We have already set the stage to recognize the anarchist past and various versions of anarchist tradition as forms of anarchism. Similarly, our discussion of synthesis as a basic anarchist practice sets up at least the possibility of a synthetic anarchism, combining the most anarchistic elements of the various forms proposed, whether or not we ever learn to recognize and make us of that potentiality.
But I’ve also raised the possibility of other kinds of –isms, citing the complicated development of the anarchist vocabulary. Sometimes, in the past, terms like mutualism and anarchism have described tendencies or the expression of principles like mutuality and anarchy. Those expressions of anarchy, those tendencies of anarchists, are also among the anarchisms that we have inherited. Running down the list of meanings for that suffix –ism, we can imagine anarchisms that are characteristic quirks or structural changes, anarchisms that resemble volcanisms, exorcisms, heroisms, witticisms, tropisms, etc.
As we move into our quirky survey of the anarchist past, we may find that the list of analogues is actually much longer.
What is important to me in all of this is that anarchism remains something that we recognize as vital and, in different senses, both multiple and partial. It is at once something that we can, in fact, encounter in at least some of its forms and with which we can, in various ways, come to terms. From those encounters, we can draw conclusions, compose descriptions and propose revisions, without, in the process, cutting anarchism down to size—provided we remain cognizant of its vitality, its multiple and partial character. There are parts of it that we can indeed make our own, but also certainly parts that we always elude any sort of capture, any attempt at systemization, any process of reification. Certainly, if we accustom ourselves to seeing anarchy in most things, it will be hard to miss in anarchism.
And perhaps that is as good a place as any to conclude this opening example.
My intention is to take a break from very substantive posting for the remainder of March and start the historical survey the first weekend of April. I will, of course, be available to discuss any of the material posted so far and will provide information about the second phase of the workshop fairly soon. But I want to take a bit of time to digest these initial experiments and work up the rest of a suitable introduction for those who join us without benefit of the work done so far.