Anarchism, Realism and a Personal Journey Through Ideology and Science


[Note: This post was updated on June 20, 2020. Instead of a link to the original piece, the post now contains the text of the original. The opening commentary was also changed to reflect the new delivery]

This post originally appeared in the alternative culture website, Scum Gentry. When Scum Gentry invited me to contribute, really almost a year ago, I hemmed and hawed. My immediate gut response was to turn to a work that I was contemplating, but never brought myself to produce, an introspective work on my own political morality, or ideology. Most of my work, my personal research, and the blog is an exercise in balancing my politics with objectivity, analysis, and honest evaluation. I try to hold myself to some pretty strict standards of empiricism. I admit that I don’t always live up to those standards, but I really do try.

With Scum Gentry, however, I had an opportunity, based on the website’s innovative format, to exercise some introspection freed from the sociological lens. Unfortunately, I could never get the essay to coalesce. I knew where I wanted to go but had no idea how to get there. This one essay turned and churned in my mind for months before I could even start to organize these frenetic thoughts. I finally managed to push something out. I think it may be the prelude to a larger project. I just don’t know. Regardless, I’m grateful to Scum Gentry for giving me the opportunity to explore this side of my mind and their patience in waiting an unreasonably long time for such a work. I hope you enjoy it.

Confessions of a Reluctant Anarchist

I have to admit to a certain squeamishness when asked about my political affiliations. Part of this is due to the fact that my political beliefs are, at least as far as I am concerned, complicated. Another variable is that I’ve never been a joiner. Group dynamics have always made me uncomfortable because, very often, the consciousness that develops within the group conflicts with my individual consciousness to which I always defer. I also don’t like to be pigeonholed. I don’t want assumptions to be made about what I believe and what I support by virtue of my group assignation. I like to make up my own mind based on the available evidence. 

“So, you ARE and anarchist!” one of my students exclaimed.

He had just finished telling me that there was a rumor going around the school that I am an anarchist. When I denied this I explained myself more or less in accordance with the above paragraph. 

“I’m not an anarchist. I really don’t hold to any particular labels.” 

“That’s what an anarchist would say,” my student admonished.

This conversation was not going at all as planned. Taking the Political Compass test didn’t help my case. There was my dot, in the bottom left hand corner. Right where the anarchists would be. 

Then there’s the quotes I like to use, many of them from noted anarchists like Emma Goldman or Mikhail Bakunin. There’s the gleam in my when I when I teach about radical politics. There’s my clear scorn for anything that restricts human freedom and reason, and my clear skepticism of any form of hierarchical authority. After all, I always warn my students that power corrupts and nobody is immune to the disease of authority…even your history teacher. 

Okay, so maybe I am an anarchist, dammit!

But I have to offer caveats to that designation. Maybe I’m a reluctant anarchist. Maybe more of realistic anarchist. Thing is, anarchist doesn’t quite capture the complexity that exists between my purist, ideological understanding of the world and how I negotiate the reality of the world in which I live. 

Whenever I’m asked about my politics I always respond with, “I’m a small ‘d’ democrat.” I want to point out that I believe in democratic principles, by which I mean I believe in principles that empower the Demos at the expense of existing societal elites. The problem is that governments do not empower the Demos. Rational legal authority, as defined by Max Weber, is subject to whomever is in the best position to set the structures and to write the laws; that’s normally not the Demos. 

I don’t really want to be associated with a party. After all, a hundred years ago the social theorist Robert Michels observed that even those parties espousing the most democratic ideals tended to structure themselves according to less than democratic oligarchical principles. He referred to this as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, the tendency for democratic movements to lose their democratic nature once organized and structured. Again, the Demos loses. 

So when I say I’m a small ‘d’ democrat, I get smiles and nods and thatsnices. I even get some metoos. But that small ‘d’ carries upon its shoulder an impossible complexity. This complexity is inherent in the contradictions between democratic ideals and the real structural demands required to empower the Demos. An analysis of this small ‘d’ burden can only lead to one possible conclusion. Democracy, as it stands, is inherently nihilistic. 

The problem is in the nature of the resources that the Demos have at their disposal with which to confront the elite. The elite can use their wealth and collective value as the owners of capital in exchange for state protection. So the elite control the wealth resources and the power resources. The Demos, however, control productive labor and have the numbers. To translate these attributes into usable power, however, the Demos must create structures of collective action. In Weber’s terms, they must organize into parties. Unfortunately, these structures, these parties, are invariably rationalized hierarchically, and thus tend to devolve into oligarchy. 

So we end up with a self-destructive cycle. Democratic movements incorporate large numbers of people. To handle the size of the movement, hierarchical structures are created. These hierarchical structures become oligarchic and then serve the ends of those at the top of the hierarchy rather than the founding Demos. Furthermore, this is true of all structures. All structured arrangements of human endeavor, what we sociologists refer to as institutions, become coercive. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. 

Hence the nature of my anarchistic ideals. All social structures are necessarily coercive and must, therefore, be resisted. The State[1] is, of course, the original sin. By constructing a myth of a democratic state we have accepted the validity of an inherent contradiction, that a state can be democratic. Having accepted this contradiction, we then dedicate ourselves to a performance of the legitimizing rituals, we join political parties, we vote, we argue on social media, we sign petitions. Yes, these rituals are premised in democratic ideals, and they have some democratic value, but they ultimately serve to entrench oligarchic norms. 

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine an alternative to structured human endeavor and their hierarchical nature. Currently, I’m tapping on a keyboard linked with my laptop for a work that will be posted on the internet to be viewed by countless numbers of people. It’s hard to imagine how this could happen, how raw materials could be taken from the ground, synthesized into complex technologies that allow access to a global communications network, without the corresponding institutional structures. Could an anarchist utopia even create such a prospect? Without hierarchically organized human structures wouldn’t I be tapping my thoughts into lumps of clay using chips of wood? Isn’t there some value to these structures that allow us to exercise our minds and organize our actions in such a way that makes a nation state of hundreds of millions of people possible? And if there is value to this endeavor, as there undeniably is, isn’t accepting a certain amount of coercion and exploitation an acceptable cost of such benefits? 

As a sociologist, I admit to a certain amount of awe and respect for the institutions created by men that have evolved to integrate vast nation-states into a global network of almost 7 billion people. As an anarchist, I understand the ultimate necessity of undermining every single one of these institutions until we develop flat, demotic systems through which everyone benefits and in which everyone contributes as free, inspired individuals. As a realist, I must come to terms with the world as it exists today with an eye toward reasonable steps in the interest of bringing to fruition a world that can be. 

The problem is the bridge. What is the connective tissue between the world as it is and the anarchist dream of what it could be? This is where ideology is translated into action. The nature of that action may be inspired, but it also must be reasonable and humane. Any socio-historical analysis must conclude that there’s no measure that can be taken today that will bring about the revolutionary change requisite for a truly just, anarchistic world. The kind of structures necessary to bring such a revolutionary transformation would be, by necessity, oligarchical. Thus, the best case scenario would be a transfer of power and elitism from our current capitalist political-economy to a new and yet unidentifiable oligarchy. Such a revolution would look much like state socialism that evolved from the Russian Revolution. Certainly, this would defeat the purpose of any such goals. In essence, this is Bakunin’s critique of Marxism. Unfortunately, Bakunin offers no real alternative to Marx’s dialectic.

To address this conundrum, a closer look at dialectical materialism is in order. For it’s likely that Bakunin’s critique of Marx falls short because it does not address the most obvious flaw. For novices, dialectical materialism posits that history is the result of inherent material conflict between an elite who control the factors of production and those who must sell their labor to the elite for survival. Marx identified a historical progression from a master/slave dialectic to a feudal lord/serf dialectic, to the modern bourgeois capitalist/labor economy. For Marx, the evolution of modern capitalism is a necessary step in a historical process that will ultimately lead to a stateless, communist society representing the end of history. According to Marx, industrial capitalism creates the necessary ingredients for the laboring proletariat to develop a class consciousness by which it collectively rises up against the bourgeoisie. The revolution will result in a “dictatorship of the proletariat” which would usher in a socialist interregnum in which the communist utopia would be constructed. 

Bakunin realized that the more likely outcome is that the leaders of this revolution would constitute a new ruling class, which would design a new state in its own interest. According to Bakunin, there’s no reason to believe that this new state, this dictatorship of the proletariat, will be any less exploitative or power hungry than the capitalists. The later transformation of democratic soviets in post-revolutionary Russia into the totalitarian Soviet Union only proved Bakunin correct. 

The problem may lie with Marx’s theoretical leap along the dialectic from industrial capitalism to socialism to stateless and classless communism. First, there is no reason to believe that this transformation must be revolutionary. The transformation from master/slave to feudalism to capitalism, after all, was marked with transitions that took generations. Sure there were some revolutions such as that which took down the estate system in France, but the driving forces of change were not revolutionary. They were evolutionary. Revolution was symptomatic of the evolutionary changes that were reshaping society, culture and politics. 

The second theoretical leap is the assumption that socialism was the necessary next step in the process. We know that the kind of regional industrial capitalism Marx experienced as he was working on Kapital is very different from the global finance capitalism that we contend with today. Marx did not count on the rise of a strong middle class that would act as a buffer between the capitalist and the proletariat, that would make the proletariat see a very real possibility of achieving a bourgeois life even if getting rich was not within reach. He did not see progressive reforms that made capitalism more humane, more just, more equal and less exploitative. It’s clear that there is at least one more step between industrial capitalism and the revolution of the proletariat. There may be more. There may be five, ten, a hundred. And even if, one day, we are able to achieve our anarchist utopia, there’s no reason to believe that this would constitute the end of history. There may be steps after that…for better or for worse. 

In the face of this theoretical musing, however, we must return to the contingencies of living in the real world, a corrupt world of power and wealth imbalances, of an exploitative economy and a politics corrupted by wealth. Yes, ours is a government that professes democratic pretensions while providing oligarchic rewards to the one percent. The question is, what do we do about it. 

This is where I must part ways with my more militant, more purist, dare I say more “orthodox” anarchist peers. We have to participate in the system. Anyone who is reading this online is already doing so. You are using a device and a technology that is a product of the very exploitative and inhuman efficiencies that we all decry. There is no real alternative. Even if you decide to run off into the wilderness naked, good luck finding one that is not under the management of some state entity. You can found your own little anarchist community, but you will still find yourself doing business with the outside world. And, let’s face it, this world of global markets and nation-states isn’t all bad. 

So if we must participate, then we should participate politically. After all, everything from the air we breathe to the medicines we take to the schools we attend are political. Withdrawing into our own little cocoon of self-righteousness for fear that someone might have a credible reason to point at us and call us hypocrites only means that we are giving up any say in the direction of history. We must participate. This means that we are often going to make decisions that are not optimal, that might contradict our heartfelt beliefs. We might find ourselves supporting a candidate, for instance, not because we believe in that particular politician, but because doing so keeps the body count down. There will almost certainly still be a body count, and that will disgust us, and we should howl protest. But this is the system in which we find ourselves. In many ways, it is a cage as Weber and Michels described. So our choice may be analogous to one of rattling the cage or not. Rattling the cage is an acknowledgement of our imprisonment, but it is real. By not shaking the bars, we may be able to pretend that the cage is meaningless to us, that we are psychologically above the confines of our prison. But the cage is real, and the latter option is either a lie, or a delusion. Neither of which will advance our goals. 

As it stands, our politics is one in which the state serves as a rampart between the Demos and the elite. The government is the body through which the Demos and the elite negotiate for resources. As such, the default option is for the state to serve the interests of the elite. It can do so in one of two ways, through coercion, or through negotiation. It is incumbent upon all of us within the Demos to mitigate the government’s coercive power and encourage negotiation. To do so, we need numbers. We need to work together. 

Furthermore, we need to do so using a long game. I encourage my students to become activists, to participate in shaping their society, their history, their world. My advice to them is to understand that if they choose such a life, then they are certainly not making their lives easy. They are choosing to mostly lose. There is no artifact that can be unearthed, no magic spell that one can learn, that will put the world on the right path. No. Only the actions of millions of dedicated individuals taking small, progressive steps, often unsteady, often painful, often costly steps toward a just vision, can clear the path for a just future. When doing so, it’s very likely that we as individuals will never live to see the fruits of our labors, just as those who tilted against slavery often died in chains. We may even witness everything we’ve worked toward getting dismantled. But we must act because we are not working to further ourselves. We are working for the ages, and the long chronicle of human history suggests that we will win in the end. 

When we act, we want to have a positive vision for the future, for our children, or our grand-children, or our great-grandchildren. For the anarchist, that vision is laudable, beautiful, but well over the foreseeable horizon. There’s only one way to achieve that vision, and that’s in putting one foot in front of the other. We must ask ourselves, what can I do today that will get us (get us) just one step closer to that far horizon. Standing still is not the answer. Sometimes that means voting for that flawed candidate, or supporting a law or policy that just isn’t good enough. Idealists cannot afford to get buried in our ideals. Better may not be best, but it is better, and better is better than not. Often it means, and this is where the anarchists turn their backs on me, compromise. Compromise is not hypocrisy when it gets us just one step closer to the ideal. 

So yes, when I close my eyes and dare to dream, I dream of an anarchist world of free and inspired individuals acting through consensus to further their community and steward their environment. There is no state. There is no profit motive. Everyone contributes what they can and everyone benefits according to their needs, and we all take care of each other. That’s my vision. 

Then, I open my eyes and I’m stuck with…with…this. I can’t complain. I’ve done alright for myself, but I know the world can be better and I strive to make it so. Do my dreams make me an anarchist? Do my actions make me a sell-out to the cause. I’ll defer that debate to anyone who cares. For me, I’ll focus on my next step. 

  1. The original piece used the word “government” and “state” interchangeably. After publication, I regretted that choice. It’s sloppy and, for anarchists, the distinction is important. Government is a broad term for the distribution of power in a society. All societies must find some form of government. The anarchist believes that this government should be directly democratic–that free individuals should govern themselves. Our current form of government in the United States involved the foundation of a federalist state (a state divided up into two levels often defined by region) based on republican principles (we don’t have a royalty) and representative democracy (the Demos–or those who are allowed to participate–vote for representatives to speak for us within the state). The State, is a formal, bureaucratic entity that is recognized by the larger society as having the authority to create and enforce the rules even to the point of using violence against its own citizens. Weber recognized the state as the institution holding a monopoly on legitimate violence. Anarchists believe that states are, by their nature, oppressive. Therefore, the state must be dismantled. But even an anarchist society must be governed. Government is a necessary condition of social organization. The state is not.

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