A Schematic Anarchism: Rethinking Anarchism Without Adjectives and Synthesis


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MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
GREAT DIVIDES: Lessons of the Outbound Journey
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      The schematic anarchism introduced over the last few months is at once a comparatively adjectiveless anarchism and a tool for synthesis. It is, however, not an example of anarchism without adjectives or anarchist synthesis in their most familiar senses. Exploring the ways in which those ideas are transformed in the context of this new conceptual toolkit should help clarify the character and uses of the new apparatus.

      The first and most obvious quality that distinguishes the schematic anarchism is its treatments of isms. It is probably safe to say that, at present, we tend to recognizeeven our own isms as ideological constructions—always a bit perilously close to rules for anarchists, however freely they may be chosen. The schematic framework proposed instead uses a much broader sense, recognizing as anarchisms a wide range of expressions—expressions of anarchy and by anarchists.

      …we can imagine anarchisms that are characteristic quirks or structural changes, anarchisms that resemble volcanisms, exorcisms, heroisms, witticisms, tropisms, etc.

      This is not necessarily a broadening of our sense of what anarchism is in practice. Each of these diverse anarchisms presumably still corresponds in its structure to the proposed schematic. Given the specific rigors of that model, perhaps some common practices of anarchists will not be specifically recognizable as anarchisms—however good and useful they may be. It also does not exclude ideological constructions, but instead simply denies their primacy. The same is true of various sorts of organizational strategy, which in this specific context simply assume their place in the anarchy of anarchisms—whatever we may think of their importance in various sorts of struggle in our present archic context.

      There is a need in this new analysis to distinguish as clearly as possible between anarchisms and useful, perhaps necessary responses to existing archies that take other forms. To simplify matters in future discussion, let’s adopt Gérard de Lacaze-Duthiers notion of ant-archy and reserve the term antarchism for more strictly negative expressions of opposition and resistance to archic conditions, which may not correspond in their structure to the schematic proposed. At the same time, let’s recognize that the distinction is one that we will have to use very carefully, as even anarchisms defined in the mostly narrowly privative terms will themselves often find expression in negative projects. 

      Further clarification is something that can be attempted as the exploratory typology of anarchisms comes together. For now, we probably have to mark the distinction between anarchism and antarchism as a problem to be addressed. We can, however, use the present difficulties in addressing it as an opportunity to make some other clarifications.

      As I suggested in the introductory article, the general anarchist practice that I’m attempting to describe involves at least two distinct elements. There is an ongoing practice of coming to grips with anarchy, which may be more or less individual, and there is the equally ongoing practice of coming to terms with anarchism, in its most general sense, which is inevitably a social matter, whether or not we commit ourselves to participation in strictly anarchist movements, organizations, milieus, etc.

      I expect there to be a certain amount of tension between those two forms of practice. As we refine our individual understandings of anarchy, that will not always simplify our relations with “actually existing anarchism,” the anarchy-in-general that stands in for the anarchy of anarchisms in so much of our talk about the beautiful idea, any more than it will necessarily ease our relations with other students of anarchy. For better or worse, however, anarchists aren’t really in a position to try to “lay down the law” with one another. As demanding as we can and arguably should be with ourselves, when it comes to grappling with the complexities of our privative ideal, we’re left to work things out with others—and with the parts of anarchism that are already embodied in various cultural expressions, artifacts and associations.

      Anarchism, in that most general of senses, is what it is. It has a history, organization and tendencies that are likely to respond only slowly and unpredictably to our individual interventions—when it responds at all. In the context of the analysis I’m building here, that anarchism-in-general occupies one more place among the various anarchisms, at some opposite extreme from the schematic anarchism. (And let’s formally introduce anarchism-in-general into the project’s lexicon as a descriptor of the necessarily vague sum of all that “anarchism” might signify in a given time and place.) 

      We are likely to encounter anarchism-in-general as the thing we thought we knew before we got too deep into the somewhat better defined anarchisms of some particular anarchist time and place. Or it may take the form of the lessons we have to unlearn as we begin to wrestle more seriously with the concept and consequences of anarchy. It’s the rumor or misconception we are forced to debunk—perhaps time and time again. It’s other people’s ideas, attitudes, neuroses, grooming habits, etc.—which at times we may wish weren’t our problem. It is also, of course, a grand old living tradition with the capacity to amplify our own actions and expressions, however imperfectly, to a remarkable degree. In the terms of Proudhon’s social science, it is a manifestation of collective force, powerful in large part because of its internal tensions. In terms of his theory of non-governmental “rights,” it resembles the various larger-scale social collectivities that demand recognition, if only because their existence and interests are in some complicated sense still our own, but which cannot claim any predominance simply because they exist on larger scales then human individuals.

      Anarchism-in-general, we might say, “has its rights,” to the extend that rights are a useful concept, and it certainly has its power and influence, but ultimately it’s just one anarchism among the anarchy of others. Individually, we couldn’t do much about its presence and persistence if we wanted to, but, if we recognize it as a product of collective force, we at least have the consolation that our fidelity to the shared project of anarchism is likely to be best demonstrated by active and sometimes antagonistic engagement.

      Being anarchists together and contributing to the joint project of anarchism may be largely a matter of making our inevitable conflicts fruitful and avoiding the circumstances in which proponents of more or less incommensurable anarchisms simply talk past each other. Anarchist “unity” may look more like picking the very best fights, rather than deferring or suppressing conflict, in the hope that there is strength in numbers alone.

      Again, this is all fairly straightforward and “orthodox,” if you start from the anarchistic social science of Proudhon, but I suspect that it is intelligible from most anarchist perspectives. Whether you have a rich conception of society or just a narrow individualist concern with consequences, there is likely to be a kind of sweet spot where conflict and solidarity are hard to distinguish from one another—and one of the things I expect further exploration to suggest is that those spots make a fairly tight cluster.

      So what does all this have to do with anarchism without adjectives and synthesis?

      If we think about anarchism-in-general and its potential for amplifying our anarchistic projects in terms of productive conflict, then we presumably need some tools to help us engage in good fights, rather than talking past each other. The simpler we can make these tools, the more hope we have that others will choose to share them, so my inclination is to focus, at least to begin, on simply elaborating our the schematic a bit more, highlighting significant generalities that we might use as points of reference and comparison. 

      It’s worth emphasizing that this leveling process, by which the various anarchisms are engaged as “equals,” without any hierarchical framework, is a matter of specification, rather than devaluation. Cutting things down to their own size is simply a step toward clarity—and this particular step is a fairly obviously anarchistic one. Particular anarchisms will rise and fall in immediate importance, based on a variety of developing contexts—and, no doubt, also developing conflicts. As our projects increase in complexity, so will the mixes of specific anarchisms contributing to and often guiding larger assemblages of ideas, practices, etc.

      So, for example, we might observe that our anarchistic practices always seems subject to comparisons with, one the one hand, the kind of naive interpretation of the language of anarchy that I’ve tried to present systematically in the schematic anarchism and, on the other, anarchism-in-general. We might think of these two elements as two faces of an anarchism without adjectives that guides or haunts our more specific endeavors—an individual and a social aspect—which we must account for in our own practice if we are to operate as anarchists-among-anarchists.

      This anarchism without adjectives, this recognition that there are two general forms that are essentially given as contexts for our own constructions, would then be a supplement to our own projects, while our projects might produce anarchisms very narrowly constrained and defined by other contexts. One consequence of the embrace of anarchisms in the plural is that we should expect the most adjectiveless forms to occur where the constructions are most abstractly conceptual or most historically inclusive. Everywhere else, we will be using our “exploded view” to examine the specific ways in which a given construction is recognizable without a particular context as an anarchism. In my notes, I have constructed a variant on that exploded view schematic:

      anarchism ↔ (((((an + arche)X)ist)X)ism)

      The Xs here simply represent the places where the world intervenes, in all sorts of ways, to shape both our conceptions of anarchy and our expressions of anarchism. The intervening factors are conditions and constraints, but also our reasons for focusing on anarchy in the first place. Since we are explicitly rejecting the notion that anarchy is a rule, given in some sense independent of circumstance, we should expect that we would cease to be anarchists in any meaningful sense just as soon as the world stopped confronting us with archies. Our assumption of anarchist as an identity presumably signals an expectation that the problems of archies are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

      This approach to anarchism without adjectives can also be seen as in tune with at least some of the origins of the tendency. The history of the Spanish collectivists’ development of the idea is full of turns that may seem strange to those who only know the regularly repeated bits. Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, who is credited with coining the phrase anarquía sin adjetivos in 1889, had abandoned the language of anarchy altogether by 1908—as we can see in his rewriting of the essay in which the phrase first appeared. Ricardo Mella’s famous phrase, “la anarquía no admite adjetivos,” was actually written in an essay defending collectivist anarchism from a rather literal sort of critique.

      It seems true, as Mella voiced the objection of his critics, that “Anarchy … accepts no adjectives, because this would be equivalent to qualifying it, determining it” — two operations that anarchy at least resists. There is probably a good deal more that is true in his defense of collectivism, which asserts that “anarchy is an inspiration” and distinguishes the means of achieving it from the potential end itself. But perhaps what is important in the present context is to simply underline the ways in which our attempts to understand and embrace anarchy, like our attempts to express it in various forms of anarchism, arise from and are necessarily shaped by particular experiences of the world. Our anarchisms will, for the most part, be shaped in ways that we have associated, in these particular debates, with “adjectives.”

      Because our specific anarchisms will not take on archy as such, responding instead to specific archic elements in the world around us, they will always be local, narrow and partial, even when they assume the form we expect from the schematic anarchism. Some anarchisms will, however, be much more local, much more partial than others—and the differences will be another of the factors that shape when we can consider anarchist something like an identity. We might acknowledge, for example, that some of the attempts to marry partial anarchisms to otherwise authoritarian projects are indeed quite radical, as far as they go, and that they conform to the expected structures, within very narrow contexts. Still, when the authoritarian tries to claim, on that basis of some very partial anarchism, that “I’m something of an anarchist myself,” the claim is unlikely to seem particularly plausible.

      The schematic anarchism does confront us with the possibility of a wide range of positions that are at least formally intelligible as anarchisms, but it also presents us with one key variable—the conception of archy / arche, with its “curious combination” of concerns—that marks one extreme of possibilities, allowing us to recognize which conceptions of anarchy and anarchism only manage the most minimal, formal sort of intelligibility and which seem to involve a real engagement with the potentially intractable problems that anarchy seems destined to pose.

      As one face of anarchism without adjectives, then, the schematic anarchism might function as a consistent foil for all of our specific, partial anarchisms. Part of our work as anarchists will undoubtedly involve applying our toolkit to very local problems, relying heavily at times on its formal elements to identify the ways in which a specifically anarchistic critique and practice might find purchase on our present situation. But our commitments to those various specific anarchisms will presumably come and go as conditions change. The schematic anarchism would then function as an anarchism we can cling to more consistently—not just despite its complexities, but in large part because of them. Commitment to an acontextual anarchism—or at least one conceived as having so much anarchy at its core—may, a bit paradoxically, serve as a constant reminder that none of our anarchisms really provide an arche. We can’t make “no rules” a rule, but we can cherish and share the reminder that seems built into even a fairly naive engagement with anarchy.

      The schematic anarchism is the face of this anarchism without adjectives that corresponds to our individual practice. As such, it has the kind of searching qualities we expect of a reflective practice. It tends to consistently defer definitive judgments, to emphasize our freedom, moving forward into new conditions, from the last anarchism, without, in the process, devaluing it.

      As the more social face, anarchism-in-general provides a different kind of perspective. When we come to propose some new practice under the name of “anarchism,” the one thing we can be pretty sure of is that our particular formulation has been challenged in advance, both by directly contradictory formulations and by the sheer anarchic variety of precedents. We can attribute these challenges to differing contexts—and in many cases we probably should—but we can hardly escape the fact that “anarchism” is a label that is already subject to a variety of contested interpretations.

      As an aspect of an anarchism without adjectives, embracing the complex, contested diversity of anarchism-in-general, both historically and in the present, is another way of dispensing with the demand for an arche or rule, without, in the process, leaving ourselves without landmarks for our own practice. Importantly, however, it is unlikely that we can really actively embrace that diversity without involving ourselves in the conflicts—becoming “social” anarchists in a particular sense and adding our individual impetus to the play of collective force.

      Taking the two aspects together, this anarchism without adjectives would position us between all of the various things that a carefully considered (((an + arche)ist)ism) might be and all of the things that “anarchism” has already signified. (Readers of my other work might recognize another appearance of uncertainty and profusion.) Simply committing ourselves to considering those two elements as we construct our own anarchisms, or evaluate the constructions of others seems likely to provide some useful perspective. Trivial or anomalous constructions seem more likely, in this kind of context, to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

      The bottom line, however, is that we have quite intentionally provided ourselves with nothing definitive, establishing instead a context in which any attempt at laying down the law about anarchism is certain to meet challenges from various sides, while, at the same time, we have potentially broadened the range of contexts in which a kind of formal anarchism might be recognized.

      That’s fine.

      It seems to be part of what our anarchistic commitments demand.

      Still, having provided individual anarchists with some suitably anarchic points of reference, we haven’t very directly addressed the power of anarchism-in-general as a generator and reservoir of collective force, with its potential to transform the anarchy of anarchisms into a force that provides extra impetus to a range of anarchisms. That is perhaps the context in which to rethink synthesis.

      Voline’s 1924 essay, “On Synthesis,” proposed anarchist synthesis as more than just a model for the arrangement of formal organizations. Instead, he presented it as a kind of ongoing practice by which anarchists engaged in various specific forms of anarchism might broaden their understanding of anarchist ideas and practices by consulting one another, comparing practices in different contexts, etc. In the present context, there are a variety of ways in which we might want to clarify and enrich that model—details I want to tackle in another post—but Voline seems to set us on the right path.

      A step beyond simply recognizing the inescapably social character of a long-standing tradition like anarchism would be to not only embrace the existence of anarchism-in-general, but to actively take up a portion of the labor of shaping it in the present. There are various reasons, I think, why anarchists all stand to benefit, despite our real differences, from that sort of joint construction and maintenance. For now, however, let’s just mark the upkeep of anarchism-in-general as a problem and propose synthesis as the name for at least one way of solving it.

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