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Anarchism…. when?

Following yesterday’s rather rambling movie commentaries doubling as quick notes on rewriting the history of the ‘Sixties’ and collective experiments in general…

This past Saturday a bunch of us headed down to good ol’ UC Santa Cruz for a one-day conference on “Anarchism Now”. The speakers were very interesting, and unlike my usual distaste for conferences, I actually enjoyed this one. There were four speakers in the morning session and four in the afternoon, and about an hour and a half to “discuss” following all the 20-minute talks. The discussions left a lot to be desired, mostly because everyone (including me) talked past each other, just blurting out what each of us wanted to communicate, but with very little back and forth or sticking to any particular topic or thread that came earlier.

Partly this was due to the wide range of ideas covered by the speakers (Iain Boal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Eddie Yuen, John Holloway, Arif Dirlik, Barry Pateman, Carwil James, Roger White) and partly it was due to the fact that we were about 100 people in a room trying to say something meaningful about that elusive and frustrating category called ‘anarchism’; or in several cases, trying NOT to, preferring instead to address the practical behaviors and ideas that get labeled ‘anarchist,’ regardless of self-identification.


I can’t say that the discussion got very far. A number of Green Anarchy/anti-civilization types were in the audience, but remained largely mute except to call for some vague principled actions. But as Iain said at the outset, these days north American anarchy’s theory is anti-intellectualism and its practice is action. Roger White was the last speaker of the day and coming from grassroots organizing around the incarcerating state in Oakland, he was one of the only voices all day to refer to actual gnarly problems (bullets flying, people wanting to be protected from violence) that self-styled anarchists largely ignore. Much of the discussion fell into the trap of “us” (we who know) vs. “them” (the rest of America, so dumb, so deluded, so ignorant, so unwilling to engage critically, etc.). Plenty of folks tried to bridge that gap by acknowledging that we aren’t really so different, but the preponderant feeling in the room was of insiders with special knowledge.

Maybe that’s the legacy of the aforementioned ‘sixties’: this sense that some of us are connected to a trajectory, to a set of ideas and experiences that continues to inform our hopes and activities. I met Crystal there, a guy who once lived in the Urban Stonehenge collective on Potrero Hill (my apartment on Folsom was made available to me by the previous residents, also once members of the Urban Stonehenge collective) and remembered me from Processed World days of yore. In fact, San Francisco is rich with collectives, co-ops, and the hundreds of people who have gone through them, and still adhere to basic principles of mutual aid and self-reliance.

But as the conference made clear, whatever comfort zones we may have created for ourselves over these decades don’t matter much to people living in free-fire zones of urban hell. There is no anarchist organization, and those small groups that do exist spend an inordinate amount of time checking each other’s ideas and behaviors for ‘correctness’ (usually vis-a-vis consumption, e.g. veganism, used clothing, recycling, etc., or with respect to consciousness, e.g. about race, gender, patriarchy, and so on).

Open collectives often attract people who are lonely, lost, and in need of serious emotional engagement. But is it the role of political groups to satisfy people’s unmet emotional needs? Apparently. I think that’s one of the major reasons why promising radical grouplets rarely get out of their own small worlds and into the larger world. So much energy gets spent processing in meetings that it’s difficult to move on to new initiatives in the big outside world. As Roger White commented to my point about the problems of excluding unwanted hangers-on, we don’t even have any organization, let alone processes or criteria by which to exclude people!

When you think of the anarchist critique of police and the state, and the overwhelming problems of urban violence and broken communities, you might think this is a ripe territory for anarchist organizing, creating networks of mutual aid and self-defense against the police AND the barbaric criminals terrorizing many neighborhoods. But young anarchists are more interested in the safe stance of opposing “civilization” or “technology” or some other abstraction. In fact, the Anarchism Now conference really devolved into increasingly abstract and empty rhetoric as the day wore on. John Holloway was eloquent in his urgent appeal for revolution, and all the speakers made useful contributions to historicizing our moment, to reframing questions, and to digging deeper into the past and present of radical thinking. But at the end of the day, we were 100 people in a room on the beautiful UCSC campus, and the sense of disconnectedness was probably stronger at the end than it had been at the beginning.

I wish we’d been able to engage in a more polemical exchange instead of stepping so lightly around each other and avoiding the topics that many of us knew going in were extremely contentious. But we weren’t all in one organization, and none of us was ready to assume much by way of accountability to each other or to any larger definitions. Perhaps if this was an ongoing effort we’d be able to start making those assumptions in practice, and we’d have our huge arguments and maybe we’d even get to the point where enough of us would agree to go forward with a practical agenda, a declared idea of a world radically better than this one.

How would anyone not already ‘in the know’ want to join together with this current if we cannot even articulate how much better life will be when our ideas are put into practice? It’s such a basic question and so far removed from contemporary radical discourse.

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