Tag Archives: anarchism

an end in itself

As I remarked to a friend last night, the defining feature of middle age seems to be that it’s the period when you start losing friends, family, heroes and teachers at a distressingly regular rate. The latest to go—and to go far too early—is David Graeber.

I never knew the guy, and I’ve never read as much of his work as I meant to, but I feel fairly safe in saying he’d probably rather be celebrated than mourned—celebrated not for himself, but for his work, and for his work’s unapologetic yet cheery defiance.

To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company. From the Russian perspective, this does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.

His work was also his play. Ironically, perhaps, that’s a tough example to live up to—but only because we’ve been atomised into a system of relentless competition that sets us one against the other. What I’ll take with me going forward is this bit, which Graeber wrote with Andrej Grubačić as part of an introduction to a new edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

In Capital, the only real attention to cooperation is an examination of cooperative activities as forms and consequences of factory production, where workers “merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.” It would seem that two projects complement each other very well. Kropotkin aimed to understand precisely what it was that an alienated worker had lost. But to integrate the two would mean to understand how even capitalism is ultimately founded on communism (“mutual aid”), even if it’s a communism it does not acknowledge; how communism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it—even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively. It’s become fashionable lately to say that capitalism has entered a new phase in which it has become parasitical of forms of creative cooperation, largely on the internet. This is nonsense. It has always been so.

This is a worthy intellectual project. For some reason, almost no one is interested in carrying it out. Instead of examining how the relations of hierarchy and exploitation are reproduced, refused, and entangled with relations of mutual aid, how relations of care become continuous with relations of violence, but nonetheless hold together systems of violence so that they don’t entirely fall apart, both traditional Marxism and contemporary social theory have stubbornly dismissed pretty much anything suggestive of generosity, cooperation, or altruism as some kind of bourgeois illusion. Conflict and egoistic calculation proved to be more interesting than “union.” (Similarly, it is fairly common for academic leftists to write about Carl Schmidt or Turgot, while is almost impossible to find those who write about Bakunin and Kondiaronk.) As Marx himself complained, under the capitalist mode of production, to exist is to accumulate[. F]or the last few decades we have heard little else than relentless exhortations on cynical strategies used to increase our respective (social, cultural, or material) capital. These are framed as critiques. But if all you’re willing to talk about is that which you claim to stand against, if all you can imagine is what you claim to stand against, then in what sense do you actually stand against it?

That last line there chimes bright and clear with Matt Colquhoun’s statement from a few days back, and with much of my own experience in the last decade or so. Positive projects… the hacienda must be built.

Rest in power, man.

the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.

A famous piece that I’d heretofore never gotten round to reading. I sometimes see it cited as a rejoinder to anarchist-adjacent organisational principles, and/or to network/rhizomic conceptualisations of systems, but a careful reading reveals it to be nothing of the sort: Freeman’s point is that structure is inevitable and useful, and that hierarchy is the result of the ossification and hegemony of a given structure, rather than a function of structure per se. (A good set of guidelines for keeping the org fresh come at the end of the piece.)

better isn’t best, but

Sean Guynes drops his second of two essays on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. If it’s a book you know, or if it’s a book you simply know of, I recommend this piece wholeheartendly—and on that basis, the rest of Guynes’s Le Guin re-read to come at Tor.com. (And if you haven’t even heard of it, ehrmahgehrd get yourself a copy and fix that right away.)

I’m clipping this bit in particular, though, because it’s such an elegant and eloquent summary of an argument I’ve been pushing for more than half a decade, and intend to push for the rest of my forseeable:

If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Yes, exactly this. And now is a moment in which we need to remember and rehearse that attitude more than ever.

the monstering

Almost a decade ago, I reviewed a book at Futurismic written by someone I’d gotten to know via the blog circuit. Ryan Oakley is a pretty singular character, and Technicolor Ultra Mall was a pretty singular book, too—furiously angry and cynical about the world that capital had made for us. With hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t just a bit before its time; things were starting to shift back then, but this was before the genre-fiction culture wars had peaked, and while nakedly anti-capitalist science fiction is relatively commonplace now, it wasn’t then.

Despite the book being fairly well-received (and not just by yours truly), Oakley kinda dropped out of the writing world—partly in response to the three-ring-circus set-up of the publishing world, but also because he’s not someone with a great deal of tolerance for bullshit and pangloss, which (with the benefit of hindsight) was perhaps the defining tonality of the twentyteens. I lost track of him, much to my regret—though looking at my email archives, I see that it was me who broke the chain of replies, for shame.

But it turns out he’s still out there, and blogging up a storm from Korea, where he relocated with his wife a while back. He’s lost none of his fury and sharpness—and in a way that I’m sure he’d be the first to admit is kind of tragic, the SARS-2 crisis has given him something to focus that fury upon. There are lots of calls to the metaphorical barricades going around at the moment, but few are written with this unrepentant fire:

It’s reassuring to think that we can help without sacrifice — that we can not only save our neighbors and the planet but even get new goods while we do so. Our consumerism can be ethical. Our systems present the solution to a crisis, they are not the crisis. If we only make the right purchasing decisions, the market will adapt and we will save the world. The citizen becomes the consumer and the corporate media the parliament in which representation must be achieved. Spending power becomes votes. Philanthropy instead of taxation. A universal basic income instead of a social safety net. A Go Fund Me instead of a go fund a fucking healthcare system. Money can and will save us all. We need more choice, not less.

But our current crisis has given the lie to this thinking. If people could not or would not support their local artists and brands while they had a job, how are they supposed to do it now? What good is a universal basic income that you cannot spend? Are you just supposed to send it direct to your landlord while your other bills come due – you simply acting as a middleman for another massive upwards redistribution of wealth? Is a rich patron the answer to your specific problems? Maybe. But no such patron is coming. Even if they were, they would not fix everyone’s problems. Could they fix any of this? I have some doubts. And money? It’s less important than the necessities it’s supposed to deliver. Many of these must now be delivered without money. Without profit. Food, medicine, tests, and shelter. These must now be treated as public utilities. If they are not given, they must be taken.

What is now being asked of us is to imagine a world beyond capitalism. A world where the market is not expected to solve everything and the voting power of wallets is curtailed. It’s a world with some rules outside of those of the market. A world of fewer choices, not more.

A world of monsters.

[…]

This is a a crisis but it’s also new opportunity. This is the argument for all those systems that were dismissed as senseless luxuries just months ago. And it won’t be easy to build our new world. But it might not be as hard as what you think either. […] Many of these other systems exist and work in variety of countries. You only need to copy and paste. The problem has never been knowing the answers, it’s being acting like you know. Now we know what happens when we don’t.

Come for the union-mutualist political outlook, stay for the withering misanthropy and sarcasm (and the immaculate tailoring). Of all the blogs that have been restarted or rediscovered in recent months, this is perhaps the one I’m most pleased to be reading again.

a house that grows

Paul Dobraszczyk on Graham Caine’s Street Farmhouse eco-structure from the early 1970s:

Even though Caine intended the eco-house to be a model for a new kind of society that embraced self-determination as a fundamental tenet in all aspects of life, it nevertheless failed because of its vulnerability to disorder. The ways in which humans occupy houses is fundamentally unpredictable and thus any regenerative system put in place is at risk of failing. In coming to the conclusion that the only way to be radical is to separate oneself entirely from the corrupt society around you, Caine fell into the trap of seeing self-sufficiency as a strategy for emancipation rather than the reverse. Borrowing his ideas from contemporaneous experiments by NASA to develop space colonies, Caine’s ‘closed-system’ was precisely that – a dead-end of autonomy that could not help but fail because it didn’t allow anything from the outside to enter in. In the end, such connection – compromising and sullying as it undoubtedly is – is in fact vital for a house to grow because, to continue to be healthy, we always need feeding from the outside as much as from within.