Ridding anarchy of the leftist millstone
For the left, the social struggle against exploitation and oppression is essentially a political program to be realized by whatever means are expedient. Such a conception obviously requires a political methodology of struggle, and such a methodology is bound to contradict some basic anarchist principles. First of all, politics as a distinct category of social existence is the separation of the decisions that determine our lives from the execution of those decisions. This separation resides in institutions that make and impose those decisions. It matters little how democratic or consensual those institutions are; the separation and institutionalization inherent in politics always constitute an imposition simply because they require that decisions be made before the circumstances to which they apply arise. This makes it necessary that they take on the form of general rules that are always to be applied in certain types of situations regardless of the specific circumstances. The seeds of ideological thinking – in which ideas rule the activities of individuals rather than serving individuals in developing their own projects – are found here, but I will go into that later. Of equal importance from an anarchist perspective is the fact that power lies in these decision-making and enforcing institutions. And the leftist conception of social struggle is precisely one of influencing, taking over or creating alternative versions of these institutions. In other words, it is a struggle to change, not to destroy institutionalized power relationships.
This conception of struggle, with its programmatic basis requires an organization as the means for carrying out the struggle. The organization represents the struggle, because it is the concrete expression of its program. If those involved define that program as revolutionary and anarchist, then the organization comes to represent revolution and anarchy for them, and the strength of the organization is equated with the strength of revolutionary and anarchist struggle. A clear example of this is found in the Spanish revolution where the leadership of the CNT, after inspiring the workers and peasants of Catalonia to expropriate the means of production (as well as arms with which they formed their free militias), did not dissolve the organization and allow the workers to explore the recreation of social life on their own terms, but rather took over management of production. This confusion of management by the union for workers’ self-management had results that can be studied by anyone willing to look at those events critically. When the struggle against the ruling order is thus separated from the individuals carrying it out and placed into the hands of the organization, it ceases to be the self-determined project of those individuals and instead becomes a external cause to which they adhere. Because this cause is equated with the organization, the primary activity of the individuals who adhere to it is the maintenance and expansion of the organization.
In fact, the leftist organization is the means through which the left intends to transform institutionalized power relationships. Whether this is done through appeal to the current rulers and the exercise of democratic rights, through the electoral or violent conquest of state power, through the institutional expropriation of the means of production or through a combination of these means is of little importance. To accomplish this, the organization tries to make itself into an alternative power or a counter-power. This is why it must embrace the current ideology of power, i.e., democracy. Democracy is that system of separated and institutionalized decision-making that requires the creation of social consensus for programs put forward. Although power always resides in coercion, in the democratic framework, it is justified through the consent it can win. This is why it is necessary for the left to seek as many adherents as possible, numbers to tally in support of its programs. Thus, in its adherence to democracy, the left must embrace the quantitative illusion.
The attempt to win adherents requires the appeal to the lowest common denominator. So instead of carrying on a vital theoretical exploration, the left develops a set of simplistic doctrines through which to view the world and a litany of moral outrages perpetrated by the current rulers, which leftists hope will have mass appeal. Any questioning or exploration outside of this ideological framework is vehemently condemned or viewed with incomprehension. The incapacity for serious theoretical exploration is the cost of accepting the quantitative illusion according to which numbers of adherents, regardless of their passivity and ignorance, are considered the reflection of a strong movement rather than the quality and coherence of ideas and practice.
The political necessity of appealing to “the masses” also moves the left to use the method of making piece-meal demands to the current rulers. This method is certainly quite consistent with a project of transforming power relationships, precisely because it does not challenge those relationships at their roots. In fact, by making demands of those in power, it implies that simple (though possibly extreme) adjustments of the current relationships are sufficient for the realization of the leftist program. What is not put into question in this method is the ruling order itself, because this would threaten the political framework of the left.
Implicit in this piece-meal approach to change is the doctrine of progressivism (in fact, one of the more popular labels among leftists and liberals nowadays – who would rather leave behind these other sullied labels – is precisely “progressive”). Progressivism is the idea that the current order of things is the result of an ongoing (though possibly “dialectical”) process of improvement and that if we put in the effort (whether through voting, petition, litigation, civil disobedience, political violence or even the conquest of power – anything other than its destruction), we can take this process further. The concept of progress and the piece-meal approach that is its practical expression point to another quantitative aspect of the leftist conception of social transformation. This transformation is simply a matter of degrees, of one’s position along an ongoing trajectory. The right amount of adjustment will get us “there” (wherever “there” is). Reform and revolution are simply different levels of the same activity. Such are the absurdities of leftism which remains blind to the overwhelming evidence that the only trajectory that we have been on at least since the rise of capitalism and industrialism is the increasing impoverishment of existence, and this cannot be reformed away.
The piece-meal approach and the political need for categorization also leads the left to valorize people in terms of their membership in various oppressed and exploited groups, such as “workers”, “women”, “people of color”, “gays and lesbians” and so on. This categorization is the basis of identity politics. Identity politics is the particular form of false opposition in which oppressed people choose to identify with a particular social category through which their oppression is reinforced as a supposed act of defiance against their oppression. In fact, the continued identification with this social role limits the capacity of those who practice identity politics to analyze their situation in this society deeply and to act as individuals against their oppression. It thus guarantees the continuation of the social relationships that cause their oppression. But only as members of categories are these people useful as pawns in the political maneuverings of the left, because such social categories take on the role of pressure groups and power blocs within the democratic framework.
The political logic of the left, with its organizational requirements, its embrace of democracy and the quantitative illusion and its valorization of people as mere members of social categories, is inherently collectivist, suppressing the individual as such. This expresses itself in the call for individuals to sacrifice themselves to the various causes, programs and organizations of the left. Behind these calls one finds the manipulative ideologies of collective identity, collective responsibility and collective guilt. Individuals who are defined as being part of a “privileged” group – “straight”, “white”, “male”, “first-world”, “middle class” – are held responsible for all the oppression attributed to that group. They are then manipulated into acting to expiate these “crimes”, giving uncritical support to the movements of those more oppressed than they are. Individuals who are defined as being part of an oppressed group are manipulated into accepting collective identity in this group out of a mandatory “solidarity” – sisterhood, black nationalism, queer identity, etc. If they reject or even deeply and radically criticize this group identity, this is equated with acceptance of their own oppression. In fact, the individual who acts on his or her own (or only with those with whom s/he has developed real affinity) against her or his oppression and exploitation as s/he experiences it in his or her life, is accused of “bourgeois individualism”, in spite of the fact that s/he is struggling precisely against the alienation, separation and atomization that is the inherent result of the collective alienated social activity that the state and capital – so-called “bourgeois society” – impose upon us.
Because leftism is the active perception of social struggle as a political program, it is ideological from top to bottom. The struggle of the left does not grow out of the desires, needs and dreams of the living individuals exploited, oppressed, dominated and dispossessed by this society. It is not the activity of people striving to reappropriate their own lives and seeking the tools necessary for doing so. Rather it is a program formulated in the minds of leftist leaders or in organizational meetings that exists above and before people’s individual struggles and to which these latter are to subordinate themselves. Whatever the slogan of this program – socialism, communism, anarchism, sisterhood, the African people, animal rights, earth liberation, primitivism, workers’ self-management, etc., etc. – it does not provide a tool for individuals to use in their own struggles against domination, but rather demands individuals to exchange the domination of the ruling order for the domination of the leftist program. In other words, it demands that individuals continue to give up their capacity to determine their own existence.
At its best, the anarchist endeavor has always been the total transformation of existence based on the reappropriation of life by each and every individual, acting in free association with others of their choosing. This vision can be found in the most poetic writings of nearly every well-known anarchist, and it is what made anarchism “the conscience of the left”. But of what use is it to be the conscience of a movement that does not and cannot share the breadth and depth of one’s dreams, if one desires to realize those dreams? In the history of the anarchist movement, those perspectives and practices closest to the left, such as anarcho-syndicalism and platformism, have always had far less of the dream and far more of the program about them. Now that leftism has ceased to be a significant force in any way distinguishable from the rest of the political sphere at least in the West of the world, there is certainly no reason to continue carrying this millstone around our necks. The realization of anarchist dreams, of the dreams of every individual still capable of dreaming and desiring independently to be the autonomous creators of their own existence, requires a conscious and rigorous break with the left. At minimum, this break would mean:
As I see it, these are what constitute a real break with the left. Where any of these rejections are lacking – whether in theory or practice – vestiges of the left remain, and this is a hindrance to our project of liberation. Since this break with the left is based in the necessity to free the practice of anarchy from the confines of politics, it is certainly not an embrace of the right or any other part of the political spectrum. It is rather a recognition that a struggle for the transformation of the totality of life, a struggle to take back each of our lives as our own in a collective movement for individual realization, can only be hampered by political programs, “revolutionary” organizations and ideological constructs that demand our service, because these too, like the state and capital, demand that we give our lives to them rather than take our lives as our own. Our dreams are much too large for the narrow confines of political schemes. It is long past time that we leave the left behind and go on our merry way toward the unknown of insurrection and the creation of full and self-determined lives.