Instead of a “Dear John” Letter

[I have wrestled more than a bit with the question of whether this is a clear and useful intervention. I am still not certain. The first responses were so petty and inane that I decided, for a day or so, that I didn’t much care and simply replaced this with the “Bottom Line” post. The problem is that I can’t really sustain the indifference, in part as a matter of temperament and in part because I am, for better or worse, a full-time worker in the realm of anarchy. So there is a great deal of more sober clarification that will have to follow this, but I suppose that will make just a bit more sense if this is in the record. I would ask, however, that it not be made grist for the mill of any of the general anarchist sites. It is not, from my perspective, news or propaganda, and it should not, if I have made my position even vaguely clear, make good fuel for any of the usual fires. It is, to be clear at the outset, a plea for more anarchy and more anarchists, whatever happens in the development of the ideologies and institutions of anarchism. The potential choice implied is as at least as old as the term “anarchism,” and readers here should be prepared to recognize the broad historical context in which I present it.]

 “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more…”—Popeye

There is a tendency, when radicals reach that last-straw moment, to identify the problem as “burn-out”—that is, we tend to assume that the problem is with the individual, who should presumably be able to stand whatever “the movement” dishes out. Of course, what “the movement” dishes out is ultimately the actions and demands of individuals, some of whom are pretty clear about what “anarchy” would entail and have some developed sense of how that ideal of anarchy might condition the dynamics of a movement—and some of whom haven’t much of a clue about anything and won’t necessarily be contributing to the demands of the de facto collective tomorrow. Most of us fall somewhere in between, if only because the dynamics we’re trying to understand are invariably a moving target and even the most basic of our concepts—anarchy chief among them—have been subject to conflict as long as there have been anarchists.

We’ve never been one big, happy family. Bakunin straw-manned Proudhon and the anti-authoritarian communists opposed the anarchists until they thought the coast was clear, and they could make an anarchism more or less in their own image. Just about everybody who has claimed Proudhon or Bakunin as an anarchist predecessor has reinvented them for the purpose. And Stirner’s not your founding father. You’re still just Stirner’s food. But none of that is even particularly interesting, except as a sort of reality check, useful at those times when we start to act as if anarchism—or the union of anarchists, or whatever we think we ought to call the always rather dubious we—was ever likely to have that happy family vibe. We’re certainly no kind of happy family now, and not just because some of us favor industrial unions and some of us favor full-body tattoos. Hell, right now we could probably all agree to disagree on most of the things we tend to disagree about and still be a pretty unhappy bunch.

Let’s think about all those things we so often disagree about. How often are our disagreements actually about something other than words or phrases—fundamentally aesthetic objections that trip us up before we even manage to have a decent fight, precisely because we have all become astonishingly adept at going off half-cocked? Maybe I’ve just been overwhelmed by the general suspicion, but I have a strong sense that even a large number of conversations that follow the forms of deep analysis or debate still ultimately stop short of the sort of grappling with fundamental ideas that anarchist theory seems to call for. That, however, seems like a problem that would fix itself, provided there was any general tendency towards clarity.

To be honest, I think the general tendency is in the opposite direction. In this regard, there may not be much to distinguish anarchism from the obvious debacle of conventional politics. And if there is something that distinguishes nominally radical politics from its more workaday relations, perhaps it is actually an intensification of the tendency to take important concepts and potentially powerful theories and employ them in the crudest sorts of ways.

Face it. If our “radicalism” is anything but a joke, we need to concern ourselves with the roots of things, and that means that we can’t have the theoretical rigor of the average Donald Trump supporter, but, y’know, be “right” about the issues. Those two conditions simply don’t go together. We live in a fundamentalist era, where the fundamental principles are the things that cannot be questioned. And, if we were honest, I think we would have to admit that we have plenty of fundamentalists in “the movement”—which should just raise all sorts of questions about what is anarchist about “the movement.” Again, if we were honest and clear about things, perhaps we would recognize that anti-fundamentalism, in its broadest sense, was as central to anarchism in our own time as anti-capitalism, anti-statism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. To be a consistent anti-authoritarian in a fundamentalist age is to struggle against the notion that our rules and our prejudices are different—particularly when a second look suggests we are mostly very much products of our surrounding cultures. That hurts. I know. I feel it too. But I believe that it is altogether too true.

There are lots of logical reasons why we might have ended up where we appear to be. We got clever about culture. We learned to be on the lookout for recuperation, and indeed developed a sort of hyper-vigilance about that sort of thing. We digested everything we could of “postmodernism”—even, and sometimes especially, those of us who vehemently rejected the associated critiques. But postmodernism probably was just “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” and the most useful parts were the least digestible. Maybe we should have learned more precisely from those bits that stuck in our craw. Maybe there’s still time for that. But I wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything about that would be easy. Assuming we could let our guard down long enough to come to terms with what we did and didn’t actually learn from poststructuralism, the SI, etc. that wasn’t the only sort of hyper-vigilance we were infected with in recent decades.

Post-9/11, of course, the questioning impulse behind “postmodernism” was rejected as trivializing, while the real trivializing mechanisms were put into overdrive. This is, as they used to say during one of those other Middle Eastern wars, an ongoing operation, and we will take no questions regarding it at this time. In wartime, questions are unsafe, unless, of course, they are applied by the properly constituted authorities, in the cause of the greater good and with God on their side—in which case there are no holds barred. When we’re looking for reasons why there hasn’t been a more widespread, effective anti-war movement as we moved into an era of perpetual war, perhaps it would be useful—if also undoubtedly painful—to look at the sorts of concerns that have dominated radical politics in the same period. I don’t want to belabor this bit, but if you feel like taking a walk in some potentially dark places you might ask yourself how much of the security state’s obsession with identifying every potential threat has seeped into anarchist practices as we struggle to establish our own sort of public safety…

What I want to suggest is that, while some sort of “eternal vigilance” is called for by our anarchist ideals, it is not at all clear that we have struck on the right sort yet. More seriously, to the extent that we have taken in the dominant culture’s rather confused notions about safety and uncertainty, we may have erected a significant roadblock between ourselves and our nominal ideals. It is, after all, more than just an entertaining anecdote that Proudhon came to embrace an-archy in the course of a search for “the criterion of certainty,” and that the two ended up being essentially one and the same. Anarchy and uncertainty are inextricably tied together, and that makes security, outside of some very specific tactical contexts, at least a complicated concept for anarchists. The old notion that “anarchy is order” is only true when the equivalence is reciprocal and when both terms are given full expression. Order is anarchic when it is so broadly conceived that it is no one’s order, no specific order. This poses a problem for the “rules, not rulers” crowd, since a concept of “rules” with a similarly universal breadth would be, in effect, the same as “no rules.” It is precisely the appearance of any specific system of rules for which our anarchistic form of vigilance is going to have to keep up its eternal watch.

Maybe these colors don’t seem right to you, and you’re wondering what I’m going on about. It’s just possible, I suppose, that my current dissatisfaction with the anarchist movement is a personal problem, that I need to get out more, or differently, or something… I came to anarchism a comparatively late in life, and then gravitated to some odd margins of the tradition. And I am, well, “of a certain age,” when perhaps my vitality and, um, sticktoitiveness might be called into question. But I’m not just a middle-aged grump. I’m also a historian, and what I’m seeing around me actually looks about like what you would expect when deep, divisive questions about the core principles of anarchism get asked within just a few years of the term’s emergence, and then are allowed to go largely unanswered for 120 years. And that, as it happens, is almost exactly what has happened.

As for energy and perseverance, I can honestly say that I have never been more in love with the ideal of anarchy or more convinced of the possibility of its practical application, provided people actually want it. I feel like I have a clear sense of the general lines of the tradition and, somewhat surprisingly, that the elements that originally drew me to that tradition were no so marginal to it as I had been led to believe. I find myself curiously mainstream, with a line of influences running right through the heart of the “classical” part of the tradition (roughly Fourier—Proudhon—Bakunin—Mella—Nettlau—> .)

The last couple of years have been like a homecoming, though perhaps a little light at times on the welcome. The last couple of months have been about getting okay with all of that.

It’s not so easy to feel like you have finally reached the sort of understanding you’ve been struggling toward, and to end up feeling more than a bit lonely when you get there. It’s easy to imagine that, even among anarchists, failure to conform is failure. But I’ve come to believe, over time and through periods of wrestling with facts and stakes, that it is unfortunate, but not unlikely that coming to terms with the ideal of anarchy, in the midst of a world that is so firmly set against it, should be an isolating affair. I’ve spent a lot of time, particularly quite recently, in the context of some other anarchists’ explorations of similar concerns, thinking about what “not giving up” and “not burning out” might look like, and also what it might look like it the burn-out was more general than individual. And I’ve reached my own conclusions, for better or worse, and this time around I really think that, well…

It’s not me, it’s you, anarchist movement.

I think you’ve let yourself be carried along by tendencies that are absolutely inimical to your alleged ideals. I think you’ve been drawn in by the seductive possibilities of “theory,” but have recoiled at the uncertainty and insecurity that careful application would have committed you to. As a result, your enemies have often been able to run you ragged, trolling and derailing, relentlessly presenting the same red herrings until you have, in essence, assented to play their version of your own game. And because you can sense the inadequacy of the defenses you have let yourself be drawn into, you have been irresolute, or you have splintered around real problems with the positions you have embraced. In the process, things have been turned on their heads. “Anarchism without adjectives” has become an excuse for any number of anti-anarchist modifications. “Intersectionality” has as often as not meant a reduction in the complexity of our understanding of oppression and certainly hasn’t stemmed the tide of new generalizations about individuals of various demographics. In many ways, and often, I am sure, with the best of intentions, we’ve become a sort of weird parody of the bigots we used to preserve as the one class of people we felt free to hate. Our hatred is much freer now, although it is also watered down and trivialized by computer-mediated self-righteousness. (And somewhere on the internet, someone is drinking in the sweet taste of my tears, because… well, because that’s what we do now, because someone has stepped out of line.)

I could go on. I probably should. There’s no shortage of hard things that should probably be said, but most of them come down to single problem: We have tended to lose track of ANARCHY in all of our attempts to defend and promote ANARCHISM. Given our history, that has always been a danger. Given the world situation, it should come as no surprise if the danger is manifesting itself. And it should be no greater surprise if we are ill-prepared to face it.

We. Collectively. Ultimately, this letter is not addressed to anyone in particular. So you can stop glaring over there—or not, as it suits you. Everything I’m suggesting is wrong with “the movement” at the moment is something I’ve gone through or encountered, and my perspective is that of someone who has been around for a while and, while feeling pretty well fed up with the general disarray in “the movement,” recognizes that the disarray is really general and has no intention of doing anything but staying the course as I understand it. But as someone who has been around for a while, I have also experienced and witnessed all the symptoms of impending burn-out, I would be lacking in the most basic sort of solidarity if I did not point out that we seem to be—we, collectively, and at the same time not very collectively—working ourselves into a bad sort of state.

There are probably repercussions for pointing out what seems obvious to me. There are repercussions for remaining silent. From my side of things, none of this really changes what I do or with whom. Those changes have always depended on a complicated balance of factors, but the truth is that I am committed to projects in all sorts of parts of “the movement,” and they are all labors of love, independent in the end from calculations about “winning” and the like. But it seems useful to mark a transition in my own development as an anarchist, not independent of the things I am slowly but surely learning about anarchist theory, as I resolve from now on to treat “the movement,” to which I undoubtedly will still contribute energy of various sorts, more as a sort of wayward comrade than as a source of identity.

And we’ll see how that works out…

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.