Reimagining American Community

anarchistsLet me just begin by saying that I love anarchists.  Some of my profoundest intellectual influences are anarchistic in their political orientations:  Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Maurin, Day, Hennacy and Cavanaugh.  Via folk singer-songwriter and fellow Wendell Berry fan John McCutcheon, Gerrard Winstanley and Joe Hill became big early influences on me, and from there, so did Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones.  I love V for Vendetta – both the comics and the movie.  Much of the heavy music (metal, crust punk, grindcore) I listen to – Motörhead, Kreator, TotenmonD, DRI and the Exploited, to name but a few examples – is to a greater or lesser degree politically anarchistic.  I share completely the anarchistic distrust of the nation-state, the corporation and the investment bank, particularly in recent years as all three have grown much more powerful at the expense of those of us outside those institutions.  So, to any anarchists who happen to read this, please read as it is meant:  as admonition from an admiring friend, not as denunciation from a devoted foe.

Anarchism is a political philosophy far too nuanced to reduce to political slogans, naturally, but that is not to say that they do not have them, among which the most popular is ‘question authority’.  A common riposte to this slogan, ‘so then, I should question why you tell me to question authority?’, to some degree misses the point, but it strikes at a deeper problem within anarchist theory.  It misses the point in that what your average anarchist most often tends to mean when they say ‘authority’ is some position of cultural, political or economic power (within, say, a nation-state, a corporation or a church) maintained by physical force or the threat thereof.  But it gets at a deeper problem within anarchist thinking, in that it exposes the conflation of this definition of ‘authority’ with one held by many people unfamiliar with anarchist theory, which is simple ‘authenticity’, or ‘trustworthiness’.

Anarchy is most likely to be wrong precisely where it is the least anarchistic.  For beneath the main family tree of anarchist theory (the inheritance of Proudhon, Bakunin and Stirner) there lies at the root the same gnawing serpent of fear, violence and control which undergirds the nation-state.  Indeed, the conception of the nation-state by which such anarchists define themselves negatively shapes their thinking at a number of different levels:  they cede the nation-state too much power over them from the beginning!  Any hierarchies of values articulated by the governing organs of the nation-state are immediately suspect, and very rightly so…  but all too many Proudhon-Bakunin school anarchists flee from any and all assertions of one value over another, and adopt as their credo ‘an it harm none, do what ye will’, as though they are already in retreat from their own highly admirable convictions.

The suspicion, arising from the unfortunate conflation of ‘authority’ with ‘authoritarianism’, that behind all articulations of right and wrong lies violence (or the threat thereof) is a fatal one for anarchy, because it upholds the very same reasoning the nation-state uses to justify its own existence.  That suspicion relies on the conjecture that there are many modes of being human, which are irreconcilable with each other, or within themselves, without violence.  This is ultimately the reasoning which leads many anarchists to reject religion – but, tellingly, it is also the reasoning, beginning with The Prince and finding its full flowering of expression in Leviathan, which the state uses to control public expressions of value which it deems (sometimes rightly, sometimes not) ‘harmful’.  After all, the nonsense of the Treaty of Westphalia was that dukes and presidents are more to be trusted with res publica than priests or preachers.

But that is all in the past, as they say.  What does it matter now?  Now here is where we get to the interesting part.  Nation-states are inherently ‘progressive’ entities, and are structured in such a way that they are always seeking growth for growth’s sake, always seeking power for power’s sake, always seeking technical mastery for technical mastery’s sake.  Proudhon-Bakunin school anarchists, even if they do not call themselves ‘progressive’, are nonetheless motivated by the same sort of assumptions which undergird the actions of the state:  stagnation is an evil which must be overcome, and tradition and custom per se are to be subsumed in some greater and more glorious end.  (As an aside, there are some highly interesting exceptions to the rule, like anarcho-primitivism.)

In this it must be seen that the most steadfast bulwark against an overreaching nation-state is the miniature voluntary society of the nuclear family.  The nuclear family’s native priority and orientation is its own continuance and stability, rather than power or wealth for its own sake.  It is the transmitter of narratives and the caretaker of each new generation.  Construed rightly, it is perhaps the greatest force for social equality between men and women, and the greatest crucible for raising children into complete and competent human beings fully able to examine themselves and question their social contexts.  Construed rightly, it has also been among the longest-lasting and thus most successful experiments in communal property.

Thus, it always puzzles me why many such anarchists, beginning with Bakunin, seem hell-bent on compromising this institution most favourable to their purposes – to wit, the critique and ultimate transformation of the nation-state into something more humane and egalitarian.  The mushy amorphous idealism which informs all too many of Bakunin’s intellectual heirs with regard to their critiques of love and marriage is all too useful to the purposes of corporation and state.  After all, the current state of affairs stands thus:  no longer is the decision to have a child an (ideally) equal accord between a woman and a man; it is an increasingly unequal agreement between a woman and Pfizer or Merck or Johnson and Johnson (one of which makes a nifty profit off her and her partner, or off the state-mandated insurance plan which foots her bill, and allows her to feel ‘free’, within the context of employer and government, in the meanwhile).

Think of it this way.  We’re not at the point of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World quite yet.  But note that in Huxley’s fictional-but-penetrating critique of modernity, the World State maintains effective control over every aspect of human life – economic, personal, spiritual – by severing love from sex, by severing sex from procreation and by severing procreation from parenting.  These breaking points are where a truly intrusive nation-state and the truly intrusive corporate manager can put down the deepest roots in the lives of their ‘citizens’ and their employees.

Coincidentally, these are the breaking points where Proudhon-Bakunin school anarchism seems to forge ahead with the most gusto:  behind the endurance of eros they fear there lurks a patriarchal desire for possession and oppression; behind procreation they fear lurks the enslavement of women; behind parenting they fear lurks the continuation of the norms of violence they reject.  The nation-state is much more clear-eyed about the direct threats it faces from each link:  eros is a distraction from loyalty to the nation-state; procreation is to be trusted only insofar as the nation-state can control it (as through birth-control technologies); and parenting is to be discouraged where it gets in the way of the nation-state’s enculturation and indoctrination of its young.

Simply put, anarchism likes to posit itself as the implacable adversary of the hierarchical, technocratic and managerial nation-state, but in the realm of the social, in spite of their wildly divergent purposes, anarchism and the hierarchical, technocratic and managerial nation-state find themselves working toward the same ends.  In rejecting the persuasive sense of authority, they leave the field open for the unchecked authoritarian exercise of power.

Anarchism has very much to recommend it, not least in its deep critiques of capitalism’s excesses and its willingness to explore theoretically political, smaller-scale alternatives to the nation-state.  But it needs to be tempered with a high- or red-Tory suspicion of institutional change and its effects, some of which, rather than being easily predictable, may in actuality be detrimental to the cultural, political and economic equality they desire.  Relatedly, Proudhon-Bakunin school anarchism requires a deeper critique of authority which distinguishes between the exercise of power and the pursuit of truth.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.