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Thursday, November 8, 2012

reinventing anarchy: what are anarchists doing these days? (1981)

reinventing anarchy: what are anarchists doing these days?
Douglas, Carol Anne. Off Our Backs11. 4 (Apr 30, 1981): 20. 

Anarchist thought has made a significant although often unacknowledged contribution to feminist thought. The idea that hierarchy is fundamentally unnecessary and destructive is derived from anarchism. Working collectively is a practice derived from anarchism.

Often we have acquired these ideas almost unconsciously, from contact with other people in the Left, rather than from reading Anarchist books are much less frequently read and more difficult to find than Marxist books. However, our movement -- at least structurally -- is much more similar to anarchist organizational ideas than to Marxist -Leninism.

Anarchism is not respectable. There are courses on Marxism in most university political science departments, but none on anarchism. It's almost as disreputable as radical feminism. Marxists have territories and nuclear weapons, so they have to be taken seriously.

Reinventing Anarchy presents some anarchist ideas, including anarchist feminism, in readable language. Some of the essays are reprints, while others are new. There are differences in emphasis among the authors.

Like radical feminists, anarchists emphasize that both the individual and society have to change. Unlike many Marxists, anarchists do not see all oppression as stemming from economic exploitation, but from unequal power relationships as such, whether personal, political, economic, or based on any other criterion.

Like the "young Marx" in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (to use the title of the collection edited by Bottomore), anarchists suggest that a division of labor, with different kinds of tasks being performed by different groups of people, is inherently unequal. They feel that everyone must share in both "more inherently satisfying" and "less inherently satisfying" work -- a major principle of many radical feminists.

In her essay, "Anarchism: the Feminist Connection", Peggy Kornegger calls the anarchist tendency within radical feminism a "subsurface anarchist consciousness which, if articulated and concretized, can take us further than any previous group toward the achievement of total revolution." Not only radical feminists, but most "Women frequently speak and act as `intuitive' anarchists," she writes. I agree that our collective structures are not accidents. 

The anarcha-feminist writers in the book point out that the rejection of patriarchy and the nuclear family as the basis for all authoritarian systems are anarchist ideas. Consciousness-raising groups and other small groups are anarchist (no-one-ruling) structures, using anarchist methods such as consensus rather than majority-vote decision-making.

In "Socialism, Anarchism, and Feminism", Carol Ehrlich writes that anarchism (social anarchism, or left-wing anarchism) is socialism, or is the same as libertarian (non-authoritarian) socialism. Such anarchism seeks social, not individual, solutions, such as redistributing a community's wealth to its members. She -- like many other anarchists -- criticizes most Marxist socialism primarily for its emphasis on hierarchy, and suggests that many radical feminists' commitment to end hierarchy is far closer to anarchism than to socialism. However, she also suggests that many socialist feminists have departed substantially from Marxism by endorsing an autonomous women's movement and by maintaining that sex oppression is as basic as class oppression. (Despite their criticisms of Marxism, the authors' cite Yugoslavia's workers' councils as a good example of a step toward worker-controlled workplaces.)

According to the 1971 Anarcho-Feminist Manifesto reprinted in this book, the word "anarchism" stresses what anarcha-feminists don't want -- government, patriarchy, capitalism, etc; the word "socialism" suggests what they do want -- cooperation.

All of the authors included in this book are operating from within the collective, cooperative anarchist tradition. But there is another anarchist or anti-governmental tradition -- the individualistic, go-it-alone, to-hell-with-anyone-else tradition -- which may be more consistent with some aspects of the United States' national myths. I don't think the authors deal sufficiently with the appeals and dangers of this sort of Libertarian Party-type anarchism, or worse.

When the authors' write about an anarchist society, they seem to mean an anarchist society without large corporations. But there is little said about how to break up the corporations.

The writers are open about some of the problems involved in implementing their ideas, Gar Alperovitz admits that workers managing their own enterprises would not necessarily choose to produce what is most needed by society, to adopt more expensive but environmentally safer methods or to make other decisions not in their immediate self-interest.

In the introduction which has a list of common questions about anarchism and possible answers, the editors discuss such questions as: "How can people be motivated to participate in decisions that affect their lives if they don't want to participate?" (Answer: by education and persuasion.) "When does a community become too large to operate with direct participation by everyone?" (Hundreds? Thousands?) "Is a system of representation ever justified?" (Although as anarchists they do not believe that people should delegate their power to make decisions over their own lives, the editors suggest that frequent rotation and very brief use for very specific tasks would make representatives more accountable.)

Some of the writers -- particularly Alperovitz -- seem to assume that there would really be a larger, coordinating level over a society of self-managing collectives. Even if members of this coordinating level were frequently rotated, wouldn't that still constitute a state?

Anarchists are urged to act directly, not indirectly. Any government action is considered to be indirect action. David de Leon gives various examples of direct and indirect action. In a civil rights case, direct action would be confronting the person who has discriminated against one, explaining that he is wrong and demanding that he stop. Indirect action would be filing a suit through the government. The comparison is almost funny. If one is being discriminated against, one presumably belongs to a group that is less powerful in the community. How far would non-violent confrontation have gotten in the civil rights movement if the federal government was not willing at some point to back up the protestors? Some were killed, but the local white community knew that it couldn't just massacre them whole-sale because the federal government would step in. Non-violent action, in so far as it has been successful, has been more successful at moving the government to act (as by passing legislation) than at moving business to change.

The authors prescribe local collectives and redirecting toward community. Splitting political units into smaller units -- especially geographical units -- presumes that one feels more of a tie with "neighbors" than with anyone else, and a total emphasis on community activism even implies that one cares little about the rest of the world. Such an approach could foster provincialism; no doubt that is better than imperialism, but there are other alternatives. For myself, I find it unimaginable that I could be as concerned about or as willing to work politically with a heterosexual male living on my block as lesbians -- or any women -- living in Peoria, San Francisco, Nairobi or Leningrad.
But why should geographical community be the most important unit for decision-making? Isn't this bunching together of very different kinds of people, with only a tenuous, changeable characteristic (living in the same area) in common part of what makes the present political system so alienating?

the right
Occasionally, some of the anarchists' ideas sound a bit too frighteningly similar to their Libertarian right-wing brothers'. For instance, author Fred Woodworth writes in a 1973 essay, "even people who oppose the public schools and never make any use of them are still compelled to pay for them -- and this is to name only a single instance of...injustice." Really? What about mutual responsibility and cooperation? He writes further, "the basis of all governments is robbery, or compulsory taxation..." Will the anarchist society have no funds for mutual services which need contributions from everyone?

The anarchist writers' total rejection of voting in the present system strikes me as an expensive luxury that can cause much damage -- rather like insisting on being hauled off to jail for a traffic violation on the grounds that paying a fine is a recognition of the state that departs from anarchist principles. Isn't voting cynically for candidates who seem least likely to lead a system into a major war, while defining one's most important political life as one's radical activities, a practical measure akin to paying a fine -- or to watching out for dangerous drivers on the highway?

The authors do not deal with the growing spread of pseudo-participation in this society, which is perhaps best exemplified by the growing use of initiatives brought to the ballot by groups of every political hue. People decide by majority vote on such issues as whether lesbians and gays should have rights, whether there should be tax cuts that often particularly benefit the rich, whether there should be capital punishment, etc. Only a few people participate in framing the wording of these initiatives, and the side that has the most money to buy television time often wins. Another form of political communication -- which was mentioned favorably in this book although not really discussed -- that some governments are already using -- is two-way television, in which voters can register a vote on their sets on some issue that has just been debated. But who decides what the issues are? The potential for manipulation in these pseudo-participatory methods may be as great as or greater than in representative politics.

The authors emphasize that, unlike the public image of anarchism, violence is not inherent in anarchism. Groups such as the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance are cited as groups operating on anarchist principles.

Marxists have suggested that the state will wither away after the proletariat has taken it over; this book suggests that the state will wither away without being taken over. It remains to be seen whether a modern military-industrial state can wither away in either case. Certainly people are becoming disillusioned, but whether they will turn to egalitarian collectives as an alternative remains to be seen.
I don't think that radicals should dismiss or minimize the amount of dislocation, economic hardship and suffering that generally accompanies the disintegration of one social order and the establishment of another. Especially in a welfare-capitalist society, in which millions of people exist on state payments, the dislocations could be horrendous, and the existence of some alternative structures may not be anywhere near enough to mitigate the economic shock for many people. On the other hand, we might not have any choice about whether the system disintegrates; it just might do so whether we are ready or not.

While I certainly don't believe that people are intrinsically "bad" or oppressive, I doubt that a breakdown of the state could take place without many violent groups setting themselves up as mini-states or police forces. "Survivalists" are arming already; more violent, paramilitary groups are spreading. It is certainly not clear that a violent community group of people who freely decide to work together (e.g. the Ku Klux Klan) is less oppressive than a state. In fact, in so far as it sets up a code of behavior and coerces others to comply with it, one could say that such a group is setting itself up as a state.

None of the writers seem to discuss the need to stop violence against women. The men, not surprisingly, don't see it as a major problem but assume that violence would decrease if government decreased. More surprisingly, the anarcha-feminists don't discuss it either. No doubt the male attitudes that foster governmental domination and war are connected to male dominance and rape, but to assume that ending the former would end the latter is rather surprising. The assumption (and I'm not saying that the anarcha-feminists are necessarily making this assumption) would be particularly surprising if one assumes that the conquest of women was the first conquest, which provided the model for government rule, rather than the other way around. 

Frankly, I don't have much trouble imagining a society of women operating according to anarchist principles, but I have more difficulty imagining large groups of men operating non-violently and collectively, without seeking to assert themselves over others. 

If there is a disintegration of our present state, will women benefit? It seems to me that that is not a foregone conclusion, but depends on the direction change took. 

Like many radical feminists, the anarcha-feminists want to end power and domination as such, rather than substituting one form of domination for another. As these anarcha-feminist authors say, they reject the idea of a female-controlled state as a possible goal. Such a state, the introduction to their essays argues, could not end power over others per se. 

The end of power over others certainly sounds like a desirable goal. But won't forcing men to accept women's right to freedom take a certain amount of coercion? Won't it take coercion to stop rape and woman-beating? Won't it take coercion to take our share of the means of production and its fruits? Is all of this simply accomplished by persuasion? Isn't "persuasion" by our collective strength somewhat coercive? Can we honestly say that we do not intend to use any forms of coercion? Is it better to be honest if we are using them? Doesn't using some form of coercion imply that one is setting oneself up as a state, or enforcer? 

I like the idea of anarcha-feminism. I think -- from experience -- that collective structures work, and can serve as models for the future. I believe that, if one could start from the beginning, in children's education, one could teach people to become anarchist -- both cooperative and autonomous. But I can't envision a period of transition that does not involve the use of coercion. And I wonder whether people will behave more responsibly to others if they admit they are coercing them than if they maintain they are not, while doing so.

One tactical advantage that Marxism has over anarchism is that Marxism more neatly polarizes people into classes while anarchism, although it recognizes classes, tends more to emphasize the "we are all responsible" approach. Emphasizing the polarization of power between different groups of people -- such as women and men -- keeps reminding us that these groups may have different priorities and different stakes in the degree and form of change.

Despite the many good points to be found in anarchism, I wonder about the desirability of incorporating it wholesale into a feminist political self-definition. Does commitment to any ideology other than feminism leave room to put women first? As the early statements of New York Radical Women and the Redstockings' said, a radical feminist does not ask whether an action is radical or reformist, but whether it benefits women. I don't want to have to measure my actions by whether they are sufficiently anarchist. Can we best protect ourselves by direct action, indirect action, or a combination? I'm not sure. If we can best free women without any sort of state or coercion, fine, all the better.

While a real end to oppression would mean the end of power over others, are there lesser steps, aimed at specific oppressions, that are worth taking? Is it possible to move toward ending oppression by trying to eliminate power-over-others within the movement before one tries to eliminate it in one's dealings with the oppressor group? In other words, can we use an anarchist, egalitarian way of operating within the feminist movement while believing that we might need the power to coerce men to some extent? That is, to coerce them to let us be free.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Apr 30, 1981

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