Review of Anarchy Alive! by Lawrence Jarach
Re-posted with permission
An Oxford University trained sociologist wrote this book, a retooling of his doctoral thesis?! An activist with Indymedia, Peoples' Global Action, and Anarchists Against the Wall?! A participant-observer in current anarchist-led and/or anarchist-oriented and/or anarchist-tinged struggles?! How dare he write a book about anarchist politics that attempts to break down the barriers of the (in)famous dichotomy between theory and practice, between writers and activists? The audacity! The gall!
When I started reading the preface and acknowledgements, I was underwhelmed. He thanks various tenured academics (for whom it is now safe to write about anarchism) and activists who are not exactly the favorite authors of this writer and some of whom have come in for some heavy criticism (if not in these pages, then at least in less formal conversations). Gordon begins by recounting some heady moments at the Gleneagles anti-G-8 demonstrations as a way of introducing unfamiliar readers to the concept of participant-observer. Then on page 3 of the introduction, he lets readers know what to expect:
Anarchy Alive! is an anarchist book about anarchism. It...aims to demonstrate what a theory based on practice can achieve when applied to central debates and dilemmas in the movement today... [T]he major aim is to make a contribution within anarchist theory, without having to apologise about it.
Sounds both plausible and ambitious, but can this academic participant-observer deliver the goods? After a cursory introduction, Gordon does indeed start to deliver with an examination of areas of contention between and among anarchists and others interested in social change. The questions of Violence, Power, Technology, and Nationalism are each given their own chapters, with a few excellent points raised, some common misunderstandings demolished, and a few surprises for those accustomed to reading academic liberals pretending to be anarchists.
Not content to leave the question of violence to the pacifists and hand-wringing moralists, Gordon (re-) introduces the issue of power (both as personal/group capacity and as the ability to exert compulsion or coercion on others) into the discourse--despite each topic getting its own chapter, there are clearly overlaps. His style throughout the book is densely informative, and therefore worth quoting at length. Eventually, after some preliminary discussion of definitions of coercion and capacity, the idea of enforcement looms large and central.
Enforcement is coercion that follows formal procedures and guidelines... the means and protocols for enforcement are constantly available to the enforcer. The coercer, on the other hand, may have to `invent' their own means and strategy for coercion.
...[W]hereas diffuse social sanctions are indeed coercive, they are hardly something on which an edifice of enforcement could be built... And aside from social sanctions, the available sanctions that can be exercised in a networked social movement are next to nil.... [t]he lack of appropriate sanctions, then, makes enforcement not only undesirable for anarchists in their politics, but structurally impossible...
I am not asking whether this absolute non-enforcement can or cannot work in an anarchist society and apply to all areas of life... [D]ecentralisation and autonomy are not just values but also facts on the ground. They are there because [of] the impossibility of rationalised, permanent enforcement...
And in the very next paragraph, he even manages to sneak in (well it's not really that sneaky, but it was a bit unexpected nonetheless) a dig at the obnoxiously persistent topic of democracy as it relates--or more accurately, doesn't--to anarchist practice. Most anarchist critics of democracy take issue with representation, or majority rule, and try to force democratic processes into a more familiar anarchist framework--using the strange and internally contradictory term "direct democracy" as if that somehow alters the tensions between no rule and majority rule. Gordon, however, due to his examination of enforcement, scrutinizes a more interesting theoretical objection to anarcho-democracy.
Once we shift our understanding...we are able to shift the mistake that most clouds our thinking over process - the continued couching of the debate in the language of democracy... Democratic discourse assumes without exception that the political process results, at some point, in collectively binding decisions... Binding means enforceable and enforceability is a background assumption of democracy. But the outcomes of anarchist process are inherently impossible to enforce. That is why the process is not `democratic' at all, since in democracy the point of equal participation in determining decisions is that this is what legitimates these decisions' subsequent enforcement - or simply sweetens the pill. Anarchism, then, represents not the most radical form of democracy, but an altogether different paradigm of collective action.
The issue of accountability as it relates to non-affinity group decision making takes another unexpected turn. In discussing the difference of location between a more formal and public venue (what he calls the Plenary) and a truly informal, even secretive, location (what he dubs the Campfire), Gordon declares that decision-making
in the Plenary requires precisely those resources which are most difficult to share - public confidence, articulation and charisma. Not only that, often these resources only become ones that generate inequality in such formal and assemblary venues of decision-making. Because it is so difficult to share this resource, and because its current distribution strongly reflects patterns of domination in society, the only way to equalise the access to the influence it generates is to minimise its relevance as a resource...
While anarchist networks may well be a supportive environment for self-deprogramming and empowerment, as matters stand it is unfair to say to a woman `you have to get self-confidence' as a condition for participation. Why does she have to make a special effort to change in order to participate on equal footing just because she is a woman in a patriarchal society? At the same time, privileging the Plenary erases and de-legitimises the manifold forms of using power that women have developed in response to patriarchy, and the ways in which many people find it most comfortable to empower themselves. As a result of these considerations, I think anarchists are bound to acknowledge that this invisible, subterranean, indeed unaccountable use of power is not only inevitable in some measure (because of habit and secrecy), but also needs to be embraced, since it coheres with their worldview in important respects.
The quest for accountability, then, arrives at a dead end... any modification to how people reflect upon and wield power in anarchist organising would have to be viewed not as a restriction on freedom, but as its expression. Rather than discouraging empowerment in informal venues, it would make people more encouraged and excited to create, initiate and do - only perhaps in a different way. Precisely because the entire edifice of anarchist organising is built on pure voluntarism, any change would have to be actively desired rather than seen as a concession.
For these reasons, I would suggest that the only way to resolve this particular set of anarchist anxieties would be through a culture of solidarity around the invisible wielding of power... inasmuch as solidarity modifies behaviour it does so as a positive motivation, not as a limiting duty... People can initiate change in their own organisational practices, taking initiative to create habits of resource-sharing and of reflective and considerate use of informal power, displaying that agenda and hopefully inspiring others to follow suit. If these practices catch on, then resource-sharing and solidarity will have become something that people keep in mind by default. Such a resolution is clearly partial and imperfect, but at least it is something that can actually happen, unlike a 180-degree turn away from informal organising that extinguishes the Campfire of initiative.
His discussion of violence/non-violence is just as subtle and meaningful. Rather than keeping it on the level of rhetoric and cursing, Gordon introduces another axis of meaning: justified/unjustified. Now we're getting somewhere, and that somewhere is intellectual honesty and reflection rather than quick denunciation and attempts at marginalization from supposed allies. Another important topic that Gordon isn't shy about is the place of revenge as a motivating factor in justifying violence. This is good stuff, even if it takes place over the space of only three and a half pages.
Aside from the old (but constant) question of what is labeled violence, Gordon devotes a chapter to one of the other most vexing issues among contemporary anarchists--what he calls "a curious ambivalence" (109) toward technology. Avoiding the usual critics of technology cited by most primitivists (Mumford and Ellul, perhaps Heidegger and Marcuse), Gordon goes directly to contemporary non-anarchist academics, those whose entire careers are devoted to the topic. On that basis, Gordon assures readers that the "neutrality [of technology] thesis has been rejected," (115) because "modern society has come to depend materially on the pervasive stability of large-scale infrastructures." The deployment of particular technologies creates "technical arrangements that determine social results in a way that logically and temporally precedes their actual use. There are predictable social consequences to deploying a given technology or set of technologies" (117). For anyone with even a passing sympathy for the green/primitivist/anti-civilization discourse, this is mundane, almost self-evident. But that's not good enough for Gordon the engaged critic and activist; and given the unquestioning adherence of many anti-primitivist/anti-green anarchists to the dominant technology-as-neutral discourse, it bears repeating. On a practical level, discussing the relevance of particular technologies and their appropriateness in an anarchist (or merely anarchist-friendly) society or even a small community, is inevitable--but, again, is strangely absent in almost all anti-primitivist discussions. Gordon says with confidence that
communities will truly be able to judge whether [technologies] are appropriate on conditions such as sustainability, non-specialism, and a human scale of operation and maintenance that encourages creativity, conviviality and cooperation.
Sadly, nothing this profound--despite its shortness--appears in any of the anti-primitivist literature; if there were anything comparable, it would be easier to consider their arguments as something other than sectarian sniping. Gordon also asks the one major question about industrial technology that needs to be addressed and tackled by all anarchists and others interested in fundamental social change:
at least some measure of technological abolitionism must be brought into the horizon of anarchist politics. How extensive a technological roll-back is envisioned is beside the point: the relevant question from an anarchist perspective is not where to stop, but where to start.
For those who insist that technology is nothing more than the use of tools, Gordon has his own response (although it does not originate with him). Differentiating between the pervasive human curiosity about our environments and how to alter things in them for our personal and communal advantage on the one hand, and the apparently insatiable drive of elites in class-based cultures to dominate and destroy, Gordon separates technique from its culturally specific (in this case, the culture of hierarchy, specialization, and domination) rationalizations, marking him as anything but a mindless neo-Luddite.
The value of this capacity, through which human beings acquire a sense of ability and mastery..., is very hard to challenge. The issue here, however, is that the [European] cultural ideal of technology, as it increasingly monopolises fascination with human creative power, does so while seamlessly appropriating it into a humanist Enlightenment narrative of progress. What is actually the source of fascination is technique... But technology as a cultural ideal obscures this source, just as technique is materially sublimated into a social project of rationalised surplus- and capacity-building. It is the impulse to extract technique from its sublimation in progress, and to valorise it as an experience rather than as a basis for the `positive' aspect of an anarchist politics of technology... [I]t is certainly possible to realise inventive/creative capabilities in a decentralised, liberatory and sustainable way. This is because there are at least some ways of intervention in the material world which anarchists would want to promote.
The last area of examination is the question of nationalism, and Gordon is uniquely placed (both as an anarchist and as an Israeli) to discuss it within the context of an ongoing and bloodily contentious struggle. Readers who expect an analysis consistent with his subtle and profound looks at the previous topics will not be disappointed. Taking issue with the simplistic condemnation of any kind of Palestinian opposition to Israeli oppression as nationalist state-building, Gordon dives into the sticky subject with his typical finesse, dismissing the "pox on both your houses" stance of many anarchists outside the region by focusing on the actions of individual Israeli anarchists and the groups they're in, along with their strategy of joint struggle unmediated by official or institutional channels.
The everyday acts of resistance that anarchists join and defend in Palestine - e.g. removing roadblocks or defending olive harvesters from attacks by Jewish settlers - are immediate steps to help preserve people's livelihoods and dignity, not a step toward statehood... Israelis taking direct action alongside Palestinians is a strong public message in itself... Israelis who demonstrate hand-in-hand with Palestinians are threatening because they are afraid neither of Arabs or the Second Holocaust that they are supposedly destined to perpetrate... And this is threatening on a deeper level than any hole in the [separation] fence - but then again, anarchists didn't get their reputation as trouble-makers for nothing.
...the relevant point is that unlike coexistence and dialogue for the sake of it, joint struggle does not imply normalisation. This is because it is clearly infused with antagonism towards the commanding logic of both the Israeli state, and the Palestinian parties and militias who condemn any dealings with Israelis. So while the creation and fostering of spaces which facilitate mutual aid between Palestinians and Israelis is indeed required, only such spaces which are ones of rebellion and struggle can honestly stand up to the charge of false normalisation and `coexistence'... Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in militant but non-violent action is inherently powerful because it enacts a dramatic, 90-degree flip of perspective: the `horizontal' imagery of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is displaced by the `vertical' one of struggle between people and government.
Ultimately though, for all his promotions of some actual practices that he finds consistent with his vision of anarchy, Gordon is not a dogmatist. All of his practical suggestions are just that--suggestions. Shunning blueprints, he finishes with the open-ended stance of a critic instead of the certainties of a bureaucrat:
And so once again there are more questions than answers.
Written like a true anarchist.