Monday, February 02, 2015

Review: Another Politics

[Chris Dixon. Another Politics: Talking Across Today's Transformative Movements. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2014.]

This is likely going to be a short review. In part, that's because reviews filled with superlatives tend to get boring quickly.
It's also because I have seen a few other reviews of the book before sitting down to write mine -- something that I usually avoid but was unable to this time -- and I'm not sure that I have any constructive suggestions for the book that others haven't already made. And, finally, I'm hoping to have the author on my radio show in a month or two anyway (though I haven't actually asked him yet), and that will likely be a much more effective way for folks to learn about the book than anything I happen to say about it.

Nonetheless, on we go...

The book is a synthesis of a large number of interviews done with activists and organizers from major cities across Canada and the United States who, without necessarily identifying as such, embody a cluster of ways of doing and thinking about social change that -- loosely, with many contradictions and complexities, but with a perceptible coherence -- map out an emerging political tendency on the radical left in North America that Dixon labels "anti-authoritarian." In getting how Dixon is using this label, it is crucial to appreciate that what he means is not co-terminus with anarchism. Certainly anarchism is one tradition that some anti-authoritarians look to, but many do not, and those who might be located in this current might also/instead trace political lineages through struggles in racialized communities for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, to revolutionary women of colour feminisms, to certain strands of radical queer politics, and more. Though there is no universally shared language across this tendency, there is a range of overlapping sensibilities captured in Dixon's use of phrases like John Holloway's "within, against, and beyond," Andy Cornell's "oppose and propose," and the roughly equivalent "confront and prefigure," that feed into what he refers to (borrowing a phrase from the Zapatistas) as "another politics." Dixon also frames this current by naming four "antis" that it brings together -- anti-authoritarianism in a more grounded sense, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. It is a tendency that samples widely in its politics, and that (at its best, at any rate) synthesizes and improvises in principled yet practical ways.

Dixon begins the book by sketching out three historical genealogies for the anti-authoritarian current -- anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. The next two chapters involve describing the tendency in more detail -- the four antis that inform the confrontational aspects of the tendency's politics in one, and the prefigurative commitments that are mixed in with them in the other. Then two chapters on how the tendency both succeeds and struggles in dealing with strategic thinking, and the final three chapters exploring anti-authoritarian ways of relating to questions of organizing, leadership, and organization.

I really appreciate the book's commitment to combining analysis of the present with historical thinking, which is much rarer on the left than it should be. And I think the genealogical approach Dixon uses is effective in highlighting one of the forms of historical continuity that could and should be most important to movements as we try to think about ourselves historically -- we do this because they did that; they did that because of those specificities then, so how might we tweak what we do now to reflect our own realities. That kind of opportunity for relating to radicals of the past as ancestors whose choices are sites for learning rather than objects of trivial interest is something often lost in more conventional ways of doing history. That said -- and I'm always conscious of how unfair it is to ask for more in these reviews, but I often do so anyway -- it would have been nice, even if they could not be explored in as much detail as the main three, to have other relevant genealogies and perhaps other sorts of influences included in briefer form. (How, for instance, was cross-pollination with other radical strands that are not direct genealogical antecedents at play in shaping "another politics"?)

I'm also very appreciative of how skilfully Dixon draws out and synthesizes the insights of the diversely located organizers and activists whom he talked to. Organizers inevitably generate knowledge about the world as part of engaging in struggle, but that knowledge often stays very localized in the person-to-person and internet-based networks that people happen to be part of. Doing these kinds of interviews is a way of making all of that incredible insight more broadly accessible, which I think is a vitally important task and one that this book does very well. My only concern in this area is more about how this excellent and necessary knowledge production is presented: The writing is wonderfully clear and politically precise, which I very much enjoyed and which will only strengthen the book's ability to contribute to conversations in movement contexts. But I kind of wish that some of that clarity had been sacrificed to make the process of drawing-from and synthesis a bit more visible to the reader -- it may just be a reflection of my own preoccupation with questions of how we know the world, but I think it would've been worth it. To folks who have done this kind of work before, it is likely obvious how the ideas presented in the book emerged very much from deep listening and reflection on what was common across a large amount of disaparately-located, collectively-generated movement knowledge. And, certainly, Dixon is quite clear about naming that, and does do certain things to make the process visible. But I think he could've done more of that, and it would've strengthened the book, because I don't think most people who haven't done this kind of work necessarily appreciate how such an approach is different from the more mainstream academic (and, in some cases, non-academic left) rhetorical violence of dissecting everyday experience to fit pre-existing categories (be they of ruling or of supposed resistance), why that difference really does matter politically, and how it is incredibly relevant to our own choices (as individuals and in collectives) about how we know and act in the world. Again, this could just be my stuff. :)

In judging the book's overall success, it is important to keep in mind what it sets out to do. Though written based on research done during graduate work, the book is less meant to describe the current that it talks about than to provide a nudge and a useful resource for critical reflection and conversation by those who are (or might soon be!) within the orbit of anti-authoritarian organizing. As such, it doesn't shy away from naming the political challenges and weaknesses that the tendency faces; indeed, doing so is a big part of the point. But it does so on the tendency's own terms, as a way of feeding back into the conversations that produced those terms. And because of this commitment to catalyzing critical conversation among anti-authoritarians, and to therefore grounding itself in how those conversations are already happening, while it names challenges and weaknesses of the tendency, it likely won't do so to the satisfaction of those starting from different premises -- those who believe that marxist pre-party formations are the organizational key to a better future won't be satisfied with how it discusses the limits of anti-authoritarian approaches to organization, for instance, and those who scoff at anti-oppression politics in toto are unlikely to think that the it goes far enough as it grapples with the pitfalls in how said politics are enacted. That said, I hope that the book not only catalyzes conversation among anti-authoritarians, but across a broader range of left-of-social-democracy currents as well.

I think perhaps my biggest concern with the book has to do with the ways that its approach isn't always able to deal with specificity. Again, I think this flows in part from the political commitment animating the book: Because this tendency is relatively new (in its present form, at least) and quite internally politically diverse, nudging people to recognize what we share with other organizers doing different work in different places, and also what's historically specific to the tradition that our choices are crafting, is pretty key to being able to have better critical conversations and make better choices. And I can appreciate that this mandate might be unduly complicated by going too far to engage with questions of geographical and/or social specificity.

At the same time, though, that choice not to emphasize specificity has implications. It struck me the most clearly in the book's handful of references to aspects of the Quebec student movement that rose to such visibility in the long strike of 2012. Things like that movement's emphasis on assemblies as a way of making decisions and as a central component of organizing do indeed resonate with approaches taken by the anti-authoritarian current, and people in Montreal who clearly fit into Dixon's understanding of that current and its "another politics" certainly threw themselves into the student struggle in 2012. But there's a lot about how the Quebec student movement works that really has nothing to do with the strands that went into the broader anti-authoritarian current in North America, and the book doesn't make that clear -- the radical syndicalism informing the assembly model has its own genealogy that's quite distinct from the anti-authoritarian current or from student organizing in the rest of the continent; the franco-Quebecois rad left has had a very different trajectory in general than its anglo-North American counterpart; and, like it or not, lots about the Quebec student struggle is pervaded by the national question, not necessarily directly (though that too) but in terms of why things are the way they are and how they got that way. And I think all of that matters, both in presenting the student movement and also in how the anti-authoritarian current can and does exist in Quebec. I think this instance made it all more visible to me because the specificity is more specific in Quebec than it might be in other regions, but noticing this made me wonder how it might play out in relevant ways in other contexts as well.

One element of specificity that the book did capture was that in (settler-majority) anti-authoritarian circles in Canada, indigenous struggles have greater prominence and anti-colonial politics are more developed than in corresponding contexts south of the border -- not to say we necessarily relate to such struggles very well, much of the time, but there's at least an expectation of paying attention to them. But I think a related national difference that wasn't captured in the book was the relative disconnection from (and cluelessness about) legacies of Black struggle in many (white-dominated) Canadian anti-authoritarian contexts -- I don't actually know that that is less dire in US contexts, to be honest, but I imagine it has to be. And noticing that got me to thinking about other flavours of specificity, things like how different relationships to immediate need and different pathways of community formation (which may be geographical, but just as easily may be about socially organized divisions in the same place) interact with the general characteristics of the anti-authoritarian current to shape what happens in various contexts. I can't say with certainty how that matters to the kinds of conversations this book wants to catalyze, but I suspect it does.

In the grand scheme of things, however, those are fairly minor concerns about an overall wonderful book, and ones that can easily be addressed in how we take up and discuss in our communities the knowledge that it presents. And as this review has ended up being rather less brief than I expected, I'll close with simple encouragement for you to read the book -- especially if your own practices place you somewhere in the left-of-social-democracy political ecosystem, doubly especially if your inclinations run towards the more anti-authoritarian side of that. Read it, and then talk with your friends and comrades and fellow organizers and mentors and mentees about strategy, leadership, organizing, organization, and all the rest.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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