Recently, someone I'm just getting to know came across a piece of writing in which I identified in passing as an anarchist. It was written a few years ago, so he asked if I still identified that way. This took me aback.
Partly, that's because of a flash of insecurity that my political practice was somehow inadequate or unworthy of the label in the eyes of this other person, who meets a much more conventional picture of what "anarchist" means in current activist subcultures. But that's just me being insecure: all political labels are flexible enough to relate to a broader range of practices than might be conventionally recognized, and I think "anarchist" most of all.
But mostly, I was taken aback because I actually had to think about it. I tend to shy away from applying labels to myself, especially high-twitch labels like "anarchist," because such terms have been so filled with emotionally laden and completely incorrect content by those who oppose them that their appearance in conversation often serves to shut down discussion before it begins.
As M. Junaid Alam says, often in a tongue-in-cheek way, in an article I've linked to before called "Why I Am No Longer a Radical":
Once you tell folks you’re a radical leftist of some sort, they’ll either smile at you slightly like you’re trying to save the dinosaurs from extinction, or stare at you in deep puzzlement as if you’ve just announced that you applied for death row....For to let the Right claim the very mantle of “mainstream” for themselves, as they have increasingly tended to do, to let them spin off basic values like social equality, human rights, religious tolerance, and peace as the byproducts of a bygone era of amoral “radical” hippies, would be a total catastrophe....So the way I see it, if we are to be real radicals, we need stop acting like our agenda is, well, radical. We need to focus on the fact that even though our aims have been depicted in such distorted ways that they are not even popular among our target audience -- ordinary people -- we are not just standing up for unpopular justice. Rather, we are standing up for justice that has been unpopularized, because the Right has popularized injustice. [emphases in original]
Of course an ability to openly claim labels that apply to you is very important as well, and it had been awhile since I last really evaluated how well this claimed identity fit me. And I came to the conclusion that:
- it still very much fits my gut feelings about the world;
- how it relates to my analysis of the world has probably shifted somewhat since I wrote that, as I have learned more from Marxism-derived sources and from anti-oppression-based sources (which, admittedly, can have a strong anarchist flavour to them, though often don't directly claim that influence and often, at least the more theoretical ones, do claim a Marxist or more broadly socialist heritage) in the last few years;
- how it relates to my political practice is probably not best judged by me.
Gramsci Is Dead is a wonderful piece of anarchist theory that is helping churn up some of that stuff and make me rethink and think in new ways. It might even be helping to provide me with some theory to help me connect my gut, my head, and my practice in new ways.
The main purpose of this book is to contrast two different logics of social change, which the author names "hegemony" and "affinity." Hegemony he links to both the liberal and the Marxist traditions which dominated much political thought and action throughout the twentieth century. In this understanding, a single order, a single centre, a single system, dominates (has hegemony over) a geographical area, often a nation state but increasingly at the global level. When applied to social change, the idea is that in order to effect change you must shift or transform the forces exerting hegemonic control, but keep the hegemonic nature of such control intact.
Affinity, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with change that is transient or incomplete, with struggles that are ongoing, with decentralized networks of nodes of collectives that come together, partially liberate some time and space, that say "this is what we want for us, what do you want for you?", and perhaps dissipate and reform and resurge in another guise elsehwere, elsehwhen, but do not seek to impose a single model of change on everyone and every thing. He sees this as a logic with a history in anarchist thought that is coming to the forefront in the newest social movements, from the Zapatistas and other indigenous struggles to the Independent Media Centres and the Italian autonomous zones.
The book uses a technique borrowed from Michel Foucault called "geneology" to examine the paths that these two logics have followed in Western political thought. He examines texts of classical Marxism, liberalism, and anarchism, and on through to neoliberalism, academic postmarxism, postanarchism, autonomist marxism, and poststructuralism. Which is perhaps an intimidating listing of labels, but it needn't be. One way that this text was very useful was in its examination of these various traditions, and its explanation of at least a few of the key features of each -- I have read bits and pieces of various items on that list, but my reading of theory (and everything else) has tended to be very self-directed and therefore very incomplete and fragmented, so even his partial summaries were useful to me.
My biggest learning about classical anarchism was that most of the big names in the canon (a problematic and unanarchist idea itself) were not really anarchists as we would understand the term today. Anarchism has had a curious tradition of each generation being very selective in how it reads the preceding generation, and then following generations largely just accepting that.
I also learned a lot about poststructuralism. I have tended to follow the trend of dismissing such theory as being arcane and depoliticizing, but Day emphasizes that there is a difference between a certain set of French theorists who founded poststructuralism and who were themselves very concerned with practical social change, and the trend in the North American academy towards postmodernism, which is often purely careerist and very disempowering. I don't know enough about poststructuralism myself to assess what he says about it, and he admits that his discussion of some of these thinkers is even more partial than in the other traditions, but I am more convinced than before that these thinkers have things of value to offer people trying to make practical change in the world, even if the accessibility of their writing remains a serious issue.
I am unwilling to pass a final judgment on the central thesis of the book, for a number of reasons. There are a few points I remain unconvinced of, but mostly I just need to let it settle for a year or two.
One thing with which I was unsatisfied was the climax of the discussion of hegemonic logic. He argues that in both its liberal and marxist or postmarxist forms, social change based on this logic cannot grant the demands of the pluralistic actors in social change that must be considered if you are going to end up with a system that is not just replicating oppression. He uses liberal multiculturalism as a detailed example of this, which is perhaps too easy a target, and was convincing on that side of things. My instinctive reaction is to agree with the idea that such a problem is inevitable with any radical marxist restructuring of the state, but I don't think he did enough to demonstrate that such problems are inherent in all articulations of hegemonic logic rather than just a problem of liberalism and some marxisms.
I am also, as I said, a little unsure about some of the post-structuralist stuff. He did say he was aiming to reach activist academics and theoretically inclined activists, and I appreciate that because I think I fit in that group. But I'm not sure that all of the post-structuralist stuff was explained as clearly as it could be. I mean, all language is metaphor, but it was not always clear to me how the more deliberately deployed abstracted metaphors from some of these theorists were really relevant to doing stuff on the ground. That may be my problem, not the text's, but then if it's my problem, it is probably other people's problem too.
I am also curious about how this framework, and Day's obvious desire to have people give struggles based in the logic of affinity more serious consideration and support, might relate to the horrific environmental crisis that is in the works (whether George Bush and some segments of the left admit it or not). While people liberating themselves in different ways, in different places, with different end goals in mind sounds wonderful, right now the hegemonic logic in control of most institutions on the planet is killing the planet, and I wonder whether a vision for changing this that is non-hegemonic is really sufficient. I suppose the counter-argument would be that hegemonic approaches don't seem to have done so well so far, and what we need to aim for is a critical mass of different affinity-based counter-projects that are sufficient to disrupt the dominant hegemony without replacing it. Not sure I completely buy that, though.
Anyway, I need to let it all settle more. It has succeeded in convincing me that the main concepts used in the argument are useful ones, and ones that I will assess against what I see in the world and what I read in the future. I think the distinction between social change based on a logic of affinity and that based on a logic of hegemony is a real and useful one, even if I have not completely bought all of the details.
And I like the logic of affinity. That shouldn't be the only way we evaluate analyses of the world and ways of intervening in it, but I think it is important.
I like it because it escapes the reform/revolution dichotomy, something I've thought was a dumb way of thinking about social change since I first saw it in I.S. materials back as an undergrad. No millenial moment of traditional revolution will make it all better, but no supplication to our rulers will make them nicer no matter how cleverly argued, so surely there must be a different framework. And perhaps there is.
I have also been thinking for awhile that what we need, practically speaking, are nodes of activity (i.e. groups of connected (inter)active resistant people) grounded in logics of behaviour that are something other-than-the-neoliberal-market. Their collective nature would hopefully make these nodes more stable and more able to exert power than purely individual decisions to act in some way differently. In a way, this is what Taiaike Alfred argues for in his grounding of social change by indigenous peoples in indigenous cultures and ways of being that are collective, distinct, but non-hegemonic. I also see some similarities to anti-integrationist queer writers like Michael Warner and his advocacy of a radical embrace of shame as a political grounding. Of course, it is important that we not prove the traditional marxists right in describing this affinity-based logic as a flight of fancy by having illusions about how different it can be -- it won't always be permanent, it won't always shed its ties to oppressive ways of being as completley and immediately as we might like, and it will always be "in process." Our argument has to be that, even when "the revolution" wins or, at least, is winning as in places like Venezuela, it is still just as much "in process" as struggles that explicitly disavow the seizure of state power, like the Zapatistas, albeit in different ways. In any case, one useful insight for me is that the "collective" that is necessary for constructing meaningful opposing to and difference from the currently hegemonic neoliberal capitalist atomized individualism (etc., etc.) just needs to mean "some," it doesn't need to mean "all" to have some value. That idea isn't new to me, but I haven't always connected that fact to an approach to social change that this book would class as being about affinity rather than hegemony.
So am I an anarchist? Yeah, I think so. It definitely remains an important strand in how I think about the world and how I want to act in it. But I definitely don't see the traditions most directly associated with that label as having all the answers. And I refuse to let a label, with all the baggage such things drag along even when used by those who apply it to themselves, place arbitrary limits on my personal and analytical and political-practical growth. (Is that an anarchist answer to that question or what? ;) )
This book certainly has implications for my political practice, but I don't know yet what they are. For the time being, I am thankful that it has given me a few new conceptual tools.
And, lefty book nerd that I am, I am both thankful and wearied at the very thought that my already seemingly endless need to read more about 20th century Canadian social movements has just been augmented by an amplified interest in reading areas of theory that I never knew existed or previously chose to pass over.
[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]