From Libertarian Labyrinth by Shawn P. Wilbur
“Let us not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us.” — Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation”
Let’s get a bit topical, if only for a few moments, and address the events of the last couple of weeks. I think there are lots of interesting discussions to be had about the shortcomings of democratic institutions in general, the influence of fascism on US politics, etc. This could easily be our lead-in to the discussion about the defining features of governmentalism—and we’ll undoubtedly cover some of that ground. But I’m drawn at least as much to the pious nature of the responses from both right and left, the appeals to the “sacred” nature of the Capitol and the invocation of tradition against whatever it is that just happened.
My own background as an “Americanist” (in the scholarly sense) and as the descendant of early colonists tend to direct my own analysis and critique away from the patriotic “this is not us” and the radical emphasis on “the fascist creep” (etc.) and toward a recognition of what is all too familiar in this latest resurgence of nativist and theocratic tendencies. Loose talk about “witch hunts” is obviously deflection or projection, coming from the defenders of Trump & Co., but it certainly resonates with the general atmosphere of moral panic, which is about as perennial an element as we could hope to find in “the American political tradition.”
We’ve been having these freak-outs as long as there has been an us to have them. We have built conspiracy theories around antinomians, Quakers, witches, freemasons, foreigners (usually just more recent immigrants), etc., etc. almost from the moment that Europeans came to North America in any great numbers. And, of course, we have fought over what to call the upheavals for most of that time as well. But perhaps we can forego a discussion of whether “moral panic” is really a thing for now and just recognize that there are ways of thinking about tradition in the political life of the United States and the colonies that preceded it in the context of which the recent events in Washington, DC are hard to dismiss as alien.
That way of looking at things might lead us to recognize that the difficulty we have in distinguishing anti-government sentiment and purely political activism, particularly among right-wing elements, arises in large part from the fact that the wild agitation is just as traditional as the games played with governmental procedure. This is, in important ways, who “we” have always been, but with the elements displayed in unfamiliar (or at least recently unfamiliar) proportions and on an unfamiliar scale. Tendencies that have, for the most part, been kept in check—while still shaping US politics, to some degree, decade after decade—find themselves comparatively unchecked.
It’s been difficult in recent years, particularly as the astonishingly empty references to constitutional “originalism” have become fodder for comment-section debate, not to think about the little that my generation learned about governmental organization—and how completely it seems even that little bit has been forgotten. What I recall more than anything was an emphasis on “checks and balances.” The genius of “the American system” was presumably its ability to contain a considerable amount of conflict and channel it in generally positive ways.
That really worked out relatively well for a good long time—things being, of course, very relative, particularly for anarchists. Lately, however, not so much…
It turns out that the governmental apparatus is much like any other machine: abuse it and fail to maintain it for long enough and it’s likely to break down. But the breakdown we are witnessing seems to be quite complex. It is not just that the rules of law and governmental procedure seem to have been increasingly used in ways that threaten their continuing function—witness the emphasis on filibusters, walk-outs, preemptive legislation to head off reform, legal attempts at voter suppression, etc.—but also that the guiding rationale that should have made citizens sensitive to the possibility of this kind of abuse and vigilant against it—surely an integral part of a well-functioning political tradition—has been similarly neglected, abused and largely forgotten. In some cases, it has been quite directly rejected—though almost always in the context of some thoroughly revisionist appeal to “the American political tradition,” “the intention of the founders,” etc.
We get a bit numb to this stuff, but it wasn’t all that long ago that we watched the Trump administration try to break with the “nation of immigrants” narrative, essentially stripping the Statue of Liberty of a familiar role (“New Colossus,” “Mother of Exiles.”) Treating the “tired and poor” as “not the best people” is arguably the clearest testimony we’re likely to see to the diminishing expectations about American “greatness.” But the ease with which the change was made, as a matter of bureaucratic detail, and the lack of real resistance to it from “patriots” have to be considered striking. When, in the wake of the January 6 events, we are treated to a bipartisan chorus about all that is “sacred” about the US government and its monuments, we have to understand that even the symbolic aura clinging to the various representative structures is not necessarily what it was even just a few years ago.
I don’t want to waste too much time discussing the circumstances that encouraged “patriots” to show their dedication to the constitution and fair elections by reenacting the British side of the Battle of Bladensburg. I’m not all that concerned, for the moment, about the process by which “patriotism” has come to so often mean nativism and the Americanism of the Know-Nothings, the John Birch Society and the Klan. It’s enough to note that popular perceptions of “the American political tradition” have undergone changes that not only make these things possible, but also almost completely eliminate any checks that that tradition might have imposed on what now passes for “democratic practice,” instead now at least potentially supporting the most unlikely abuses.
If stuff is important to your project—even if its fairly abstract stuff—you should probably take care of it. This doesn’t seem to be a principle subject to much debate. The question, as we move back to the question of anarchism, is the extent to which the forces transforming American politics at the moment should be a concern for anarchists. It would be nice to think that we’re looking at something that is just a GOP problem or just a political problem, but, however much we sometimes like to think of ourselves as “in the world, but not of it,” it’s hard to be so sure that we are not creatures of our era.
Anarchists pride themselves on the fact that ours is a living tradition, a body of thought not reducible to some particular utopian scheme or fixed ideology. Sometimes, no doubt, we overstate the case, but in any event there seem to be reasons to think that, as appears to be the case with American democracy, fluidity does not always translated into resilience or constancy in the pursuit of particular goals or ideals.
If we were to make the best case for a resilient democracy, we would probably point to the combination of democratic ideals—including “liberty and justice for all”—and democratic mechanisms, with both evolving in response to the indications of the other. In a functioning anarchy—assuming it makes sense to talk about social relations in those terms—we might expect to see something similar, if undoubtedly quite a bit more fluid and probably much more complex. Norms and institutions would emerge, adapt and find themselves abandoned as they succeeded or failed to resolve real, present problems within the limits of anarchist expectations. And anarchist theory—whether of a formal nature or simply existing as the “common sense” of anarchist societies—would almost certainly shift its references and emphases in accordance with the lessons of anarchist practice. Stable, resilient anarchy—if I can be allowed that slightly provocative phrase—would probably again be a matter of checks and balances, though obviously not of a formal or governmental nature, as that “common sense” and various common practices helped to create a different kind of social fabric.
The question, perhaps, is whether the existing anarchist milieus, within which there no shortage of passion and a good deal of more-or-less useful theory-talk, but perhaps a real lack of opportunities to test out ideas in varied forms of practice, are more or less vulnerable to the kinds of problems we are witnessing in mainstream political circles.
When we see nativism capture the space previously reserved for a different sort of patriotism, we can look at the history and say that both inclusive and exclusive visions of “American democracy” have been perennial, as have theocratic visions and visions based in a clear separation of church and state. And we have to acknowledge that there has been an ongoing and ultimately effective work to keep what had been the more marginal visions alive and viable through the periods where they did not find particularly fertile ground in the political mainstream. When we look at the embrace of centralized “big government” by factions that had once clung—and in some contexts might still cling—to political theories centered on county sheriffs and “sovereign citizens,” it’s not too hard, I think, to quickly begin to see the ways in which ideology and even religious beliefs can rapidly transform in the face of altered practical opportunities.
If you wanted another context in which to test Voline’s notion that, in practice, the ideas of movements are often sacrificed to the demands of partial struggles, I suspect that nominally “Christian” political movements might provide some interesting data. We know how rapidly the content of “Christian” political demands has changed and how little biblical support many of those changes have had. We don’t always know if the authors of “Christian” political programs can tell the Old Testament from the New or the New Covenant from the Old, but that’s really just another sign that Christianity and the politics it has inspired are still evolving—for better or for worse.
The interesting thing about Christianity, of course, is that the stakes are presumably quite high: everlasting life, eternal damnation, etc. So perhaps the fact that the core doctrines of Jesus have presumably led believers to focus on concerns like white identity, the wealth gospel, the Enneagram and such, as well as driving murderous policies and wars, is one that we can consider when we’re trying to assess the utility of Voline’s vision of synthesis for anarchism.
It’s certainly the kind of thing I think about when, in the course of anarchist debate, I find anarchists unclear about the nature of anarchy—or even resistant to any kind of serious engagement, often in the name of practical concerns. I’m all for practical application—but of what, if not some fairly clearly developed notion of anarchy? I’m suspicious of the approaches—chief among them, I’m afraid, the anarchist embrace of “pure” or “direct democracy”—where the ideas that can be associated with anarchism seem to be constrained by visions of “reality” or “necessity” that appear to exclude meaningfully anarchistic relations from the git-go. When I am told—as I have been quite recently—that approaches of that sort are within “the mainstream of the anarchist tradition,” it’s hard to say in any decisive way that that is not presently the case. This is, in fact, part of the reason that I have defined tradition as I have, designating with the term the full range of plausible present possibilities—no matter how regrettable some of those possibilities might seem to me and how at odds with the bulk of the anarchist literature they might appear.
If stuff is important to your project—even if its fairly abstract stuff—you should probably take care of it. That has to mean, I think, taking care of the anarchism that we have, rather than the anarchism we wish we had or might have had. We can “make anarchism our own” by applying elements of the tradition to our particular circumstances—and perhaps “activate” elements in the process. We can “make our own anarchism” by clarifying our sense of various anarchistic elements and how they fit together—and perhaps better prepare ourselves for some more ambitious intervention. But I think we have to recognize that, if there is such a thing as anarchism per se, it is a product of collective reason, something unable to exist all in one head, subject to forms of adaptation that would be hard to safely separate from the general shifts taking place in the culture around us.
This is, I recognize, a somewhat different kind of writing than much of what has appeared so far. But it does seem like this is a moment with at least some potential lessons for anarchists—even if so much of what is going on around us is in many ways not a fight we are particularly well prepared to take part in—and as it has seemed possible to mark it without taking us too far afield from the project at hand, that has seemed like the thing to do.
The admonition of Emma Goldman, to “not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us,” plays for me in a couple of different ways. There is the matter of the life of traditions—and of the alternatives that haunt them, much as Paul Virilio has talked about characteristic accidents that haunt particular systems. Seeing the forest for the trees is a skill I think we have to cultivate, in the face of so much constant distraction. But I think it is also important to recognize that the focus on what is presently practical does not always keep us focused on what is most vital in our projects. Daily life being what we know it to be in a world dominated by archic and exploitative relations, lots of the problems we’re compelled to address are still trifles alongside the vital relations we strive for.