Not like your mom and dad’s anarchy


Alex Birnel

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 8.47.16 PMThe ideas of anarchism, anarchists and non-identifying fellow travelers in the tradition have been debased by distorted beliefs about them at a time when their guidance is needed most.

It’s true that the tradition of anarchism has attracted juveniles, misfits and eccentrics, but it’s equally true that anarchism has produced its fair share of fierce theorists of freedom and admirable practitioners of mutual aid and direct action. Because the banner of anarchism can accommodate so much underneath it, defining it systematically is nearly impossible.

However, I suggest that one of anarchism’s most durable meanings is generally true, defensible and easy to adopt as a personal disposition. It’s in part a philosophy and an attitude towards power. To put it simply, anarchism is treating democracy as an active verb, not a fixed noun.

In grade school, most of us learned to describe our political system as a “democracy.”

As we went farther in grades, we were taught slightly more technical definitions like “representative democracy” or “republic.” Without ever disclosing it, the manner in which our teachers taught us about these words aggregated into a bias  in our thinking. We developed the bad habit of labeling whole, complex systems with single nouns. “We have a democracy,” someone might say under this influence, instead of “we have a political system that features both democratic elements and undemocratic elements with a whole ecology of forces that shape it.”

If democracy is giving the most decision making power to the greatest number of people, then democracy as a verb means identifying systems and institutions that over-concentrate power and dismantling them if they can’t justify their existence. In other words, concentrated power should always meet a burden of proof. The litmus test for dismantling power is whether a viable democratic alternative to centralized power is conceivable.

It’s anarchistic to push for democratization, or decentralization. This broadened perspective on power allows you to identify it in places where power might otherwise go unnoticed, from the inside of a family, between men and women, black and white, old and young, rich and poor, cis and trans, to the arrangements of a workplace, the nation-state system, or finally, the transnational corporations and multilateral organizations existing over them. To suspect that these power systems are unnecessary is anarchistic. To debate on behalf of democratized alternatives is the source of struggle.

To be less abstract, as someone with anarchist tendencies myself, I look at the number of corporations that exist under capitalism and decry their hierarchy. Workers at the bottom; owners at the top. Under a corporate model, owners and executive boards decide what to do with revenues and surpluses, and since under capitalism, the name of the game is competing in the market for consumers, they usually choose to reinvest revenue into expansion and to sell their surpluses for a profit instead of distributing revenue among the workers, or surpluses to people in larger society. Corporations are the dominant institutions in this capitalist system. Their top-down arrangements make them undemocratic.

As an anarchist, the question is: what’s a democratized alternative?

Worker owned businesses are an option. Workers collectively own the workplace; decide things such as pay and hours, and what to do with surpluses and revenue.

The point here is not to dismantle a whole economic system like capitalism. It’s the difference between having a vision and having a goal. Under capitalism, worker owned businesses are still subject to competition with ordinary businesses. It’s not the competitive dynamic that’s improved with worker ownership; it’s the democratic arrangement.

I intentionally chose an example with some political limitations. Frequently, anarchists are labeled “utopians” to cut their romantic wings. Those who cast doubt say that a society without a state or a market is either in chaos or a pipe dream. I don’t personally think it’s wise to present some final, total vision for a perfect society. History is too complex and variable for blueprints. Instead, I pointed to one institution, the workplace, where democratizing it seems like a no-brainer, a target for social struggle.

If we can see that far ahead, then we adapt and learn as we go. I’d hope that ecologists would point out that continual growth is unsustainable and attack the social dictates of competition. I’d hope that feminists would add their efforts to keep patriarchy from hampering the collective project of social renewal. I’d hope notions of work common to historical communism that define “labor as a prerequisite for compensation” are challenged by the physically impaired. I’d hope anti-racist activists would call out the consequences of white privilege on the democracy struggle, and so much more.

A society drafted in advance completely purged of its prejudices and forms of structural violence is difficult to conceive of in a destination fashion.

But we can begin with good first premises. 

An anarchist outlook doesn’t negate the possibilities of an improved future because of a strict, misanthropic reading of human nature as inherently “competitive.”  It doesn’t bias one trait as “who we are as a species.” Instead, the outlook takes a social  view of human nature. The values, norms, ideas, and institutions around us shape us, and we shape them too, to incentivize or disincentivize cooperative and competitive behaviors. The field of epigenetics has replaced the “nature vs. nurture” binary.  Our biology is just a set of inputs. Who we are as people, and by magnification, as a society, is an ecology of interaction between those hereditary inputs and the values, norms, ideas, and institutions we are exposed to. In sum, our plasticity is good news for the aim of liberation and political possibility.

Finally, an anarchistic point of view is agnostic about the unfolding of history. It says that engine behind human history is struggle and adaptation. Instead of “broad historical forces” governing the direction humans take, anarchists argue these phrases submerge the role of conscious choice in history, doing detriment to our self-image as people with power.  This stripping of our agency is a conservative, alienated view of history.  By contrast, with struggle, we have the prospect of control to guide history towards a democratized future.

You may have noticed by now that anarchism’s intellectual tendency is to put everything on the table for debate. I contend that this is a good, ethical byproduct. It normalizes what many might dismiss as radical. With love, in response to this accusation, I hope you can say “I see nothing radical in using a suspicion of power to democratize our world.” I hope that’s what anarchism can teach.