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Fear of Dying

“You only become a slave when you’re afraid of dying”

Lately, in the anarchist circles in which I am involved, there has been a lot of talk about strategy and tactics, a lot of questioning of “What is to be done”. Of course, such conversations are important. But when they become repetitive, going around in circles to no avail, I have to wonder if this constant talk about “what is to be done” might not be a way to put off taking the risk of actually doing anything.

In Portland (Oregon, where I lived when I wrote this), these conversations usually seem to have an air of desperation, helplessness and confusion. The same things are said over and over again, and the most common refrain is: “None of us know what to do”. All rather tedious and not particularly enlightening. But I think this stems from the way these questions are raised.

For me, such questions are only of interest when posed on these terms: what do I desire, what do you desire, what actions can we take to get us there… It is, thus, not a matter of activism, of a moral duty to do something, but of taking responsibility for one’s own life. On these terms, the discussion has to move out of the purely abstract. The longer it remains abstract the more obvious the impoverishment of our practical imaginations becomes. But it is easy to complain about the failures or limits of these conversations. The important thing is to understand and get beyond all this.

Most of the discussions that I have heard on this subject do not pose the question in the terms I outlined above. Rather they seem to start at the largest expanse and try to work their way back to each of us as actors. An example of this can be found in those discussions that start by asking how social change actually takes place. This is such a broad and complex question that I doubt that it can ever be brought back down to the practical level of our daily lives, because “social change” covers far too much territory to provide focus for deciding what to do. But far more often, these discussions of strategy are opened with no clear framework whatsoever. The unsaid assumption is that since we are all anarchists we are starting the discussion from our shared anarchist values. In either case, I think that by starting from far too broad social and historical expanses to bring the discussion back down to ourselves, we are coming at the question in an ass-backwards way.

With this ass-backwards method, it isn’t surprising that almost every discussion ends up focusing on the enemy, its power, its real or imagined capacities for fucking us over. This isn’t the least bit useful. It means that we are basing our discussions on our fears, not our desires and dreams, and, thus, the discussions are not happening in freedom. Where freedom is lacking, imagination cannot help but be impoverished.

The confusion that marks so many of these discussions shows how misty, how disembodied, our dreams and desires have become. They are not a fierce welling up of creative energies demanding that we focus on their realization. That would stimulate a practical imagination that could rally our many capacities in a projectual manner. These discussions show that our dreams and desires have instead become mere longings, what William Blake called “the ghost of desire”, not able to act, not able to project anything. Instead we hope that some answer will present itself and draw us out of our quandary.

Recent events make this fear-centered way of looking at the world understandable, but this approach has dominated much anarchist thinking about what to do since well before the latest round of repression. The entire logic of “security culture” starts from this sense of fear. I contrast this attitude with that of anarchists I am familiar with in other countries where they have been experiencing fierce repression for years. Of course, these anarchists carry out certain specific acts with great care, but apart from the specific context of these acts (about which they use basic common sense, not a set of “security culture” guidelines), they are quite open about who they are and what they think and desire. They refuse all specialization, and thus have no division of labor between those who express themselves publicly and those who take some anonymous action. Thus, they can openly participate in a wide variety of social struggles, making connections with a broad spectrum of people in the society in which they live. But here we are often even afraid to be open with each other. And many anarchists, while proclaiming a rejection of division of labor in the abstract, accept it as a necessary aspect of their practice.

In any case, these discussions of what to do keep coming back to the strength of our enemy and our own weakness. But how weak are we really? We are only “weak” to the extent that we continue to define strength on our enemy’s terms – terms in which “strength” and “weakness” are simply different degrees of the same thing. And that thing is defined in terms of the capacity to control. But we, as anarchists, aim for the destruction of all control, considered as an external imposition for maintaining social order. So on our enemy’s terms, we will always be weak. Due to our aims, we need to begin to think about strength on completely different terms. I think most anarchists would agree that freedom is not simply “a reduction of control” – that would imply that someone on a longer chain or in a bigger prison cell has more freedom than those with shorter chains or smaller cells. In the same way, we need to recognize that strength is not simply “less weakness”. It is rather something qualitatively different from weakness, something that can therefore exist within us side by side with the real weaknesses that all of us have. I think that the central aspect of this new conception of strength is the refusal to define oneself as a victim. Most people with whom I feel any affinity are quite clear about refusing the blatant type of victimism that is inherent to political correctitude and identity politics. But we too easily start reciting our own litanies of victimization – those that stem from a constant focus on our enemy that goes far beyond what is necessary for understanding what we face. The endless sighing over not knowing what to do is simply another way of proclaiming oneself a victim of circumstances and forces beyond one’s control. It is an excuse for letting our weaknesses dominate us. As I see it, strength is choosing to act as the creator of one’s life in spite of and against the ruling order and every other circumstance that may stand against this choice. But since life only exists in relationship, this project of creating one’s life has to happen in relationship with others. In other words, one needs accomplices for this. Strength is increased in the strength of others. And this can be where it becomes quite frustrating. When everyone you know and care about seems to be focused on their inability to do anything in the face of the ruling juggernaut, where do you find accomplices?

Ultimately, I think that a paralyzing fear has taken hold of many anarchists here. I think that paralyzing fear is a form of the fear of dying or the fear of the unknown, which are arguably the same fear. The quote at the beginning of this essay comes from a film about slave rebellions in 18th century Brazil. But this negative correspondence between the fear of death and the capacity to act freely has been made often. On the most superficial level, I do not fear death. I am convinced that death is merely the end of the particular fluid “I” that I have lived, the end of “my” struggles. What is there to fear in that?

But there is a deeper level to all this, because I am not a crystallized “I” made once and for all, unchanging. I am an interweaving of desires, passions, dreams, ideas, relationships, activities, projects, experiences, experiments, etc. Since all of these things go into making my self, inevitably, I see them all as extensions of my self. Thus, we talk of “living on” in the products of these activities and relationships, finding a kind of “immortality” therein. And this opens the door to another, more subtle form of the fear of death: the fear that what we do will come to naught, will leave nothing behind it. This fear as surely robs us of our freedom as the fear of physical death, because it compels us to measure every act in terms of a supposedly objective conception of effectiveness that is supposed to guarantee some sort of success.

Of course, we desire “success”, in that we want a world in which every individual creates his life in free relationship with other individuals and the surrounding environment without any institutions to interfere in this process and impose standardized relationships. But we are living here and now and so must find an immediate joy in what we do that goes beyond any possibility for future “success”. So fear of death in the form of the fear of failure also needs to be overcome.

In the discussions of strategy, of “what to do”, in which I have been involved, I think this fear of failure has played a central role. Some of those involved in these discussions seem to be looking for guarantees, and no guarantees exist. There is a point where one simply has to decide to start acting as she sees fit, willing to make mistakes, willing to fail. This is when the practical freedom to act on one’s own terms begins. It is also when the discussion of strategy begins to make sense on a practical level, because one has taken up a concrete practice to which the discussion applies.

Of course, overcoming this fear and embracing practical freedom does not happen once and for all. Rather it is an ongoing struggle, an ongoing tension, lived in every moment. At each step, the fear of failure has to be overcome in order to take the next step. Life is won in each moment by willingly risking death, by willingly taking the chance of failing. In striving to avoid failure, we lose life. Of course, we want it to be simpler; we want to be able to grasp freedom once and for all and put an end to our struggling. But that is the christian and islamic dream of salvation, not the anarchist dream of self-created living.

To draw all this to a close, I will go back a bit. Discussions of strategy only begin to go anywhere if each of us starts from herself, his dreams, desires and aspirations, and the specific projects these have moved us to created, and expands out from there. If we continue to start from outside ourselves, whether from abstract conceptions of what constitutes social change, abstract anarchist ideals or the strengths and weaknesses of our enemy, we will continue to flounder, feeling paralyzed before the apparent vastness of what we want to do. Starting from ourselves, we can expand to fit our most radical ambitions by finding the tools and accomplices that can bring our dreams of a world that has never been together in concrete projects aimed at destroying what is and creating something never known before. But if we continue to start from the vastness outside of ourselves, we will collapse under the pressure.
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