To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of fucking trolls,
Or to take arms against a sea of deadshits,
And by opposing end them?
A short while ago, some BANANAs got dropped in San Francisco. The resulting mess has been splattered over several gritty sidewalks on the information superhighway, including anarchistnews.org (see : ‘Post-Immigration March Scuffle Targets National Anarchists’; a re-post of Lauren Smiley’s article from SF Weekly). This fact prompted me — somewhat foolishly, I admit — to have another crack at explaining why it might be considered a good idea for anarchists to distance themselves from both the BANANAs and the other white supremacist groupuscules who’ve recently elected to carry black flags (‘stolen to replace swastika filth rags’) into battle. (See also : Anarchist statement on the New Right, October 21, 2007.)
One commenter, whose contributions I’ve re-published below, argues that this effort is impractical, if not impossible. Instead, readers of anarchistnews.org (and anarchists in general) are urged to “stop using the label of anarchism in public” in order to avoid misunderstanding, and to allow for the articulation of anarchist ideals — minus the er, ‘anarchism’ — through ‘non-branded’ forms of activism.
Or something like that.
Below is the exchange, followed by a final reply. I’ve placed it here rather than on anarchistnews a) because I can and b) because my blog it’s there (and because I think it more likely to be read here rather than there… by which I mean here).
So if you read Bakunin he talks about this entire concept of an invisible dictatorship. Most anti-authoritarians don’t think he’s a closet authoritarian because the “invisible dictatorship” basically meant anarchist radicals and revolutionaries joining up with various social causes out in the open.
But look what happens when we use the term “anarchist”. Face it, there isn’t now (nor has there every really been) any theoretical unity between what different anarchist groups want or stand for. Groups like BANA exploit this. Notice that the SF Weekly did not deny that BANA were anarchists. Notice also that they did not quote the SPLC in pointing out that virtually all “real” anarchist groups (whatever the hell that really means) oppose racial separatism. Notice also that they could easily ignore that active anarchist presence in pro-immigrant organizing, etc. It is very easy to simply discredit what “actual” anarchist groups do, and it is very difficult to argue that BANA is not an anarchist group because every anarchist cult has its own concept and definition of what anarchism is.
Anarchism and anarchy are therefore useless terms when used in public, and probably just as useless when used in private amongst people who “know what you mean” (even though we all know that even within the avowedly anarchist community there are different ideas of what we are all collectively fighting for). In the event that the public were to even finally understand that we are different from the likes of them, they still hate the concept. The idea of abolishing the State and abolishing capitalism, both of which are regularly painted with a good light and only tarnished as oppressive structures when something extreme happens (ie capitalism is bad because of sweatshops; we need more anti-sweatshop laws, beyond that everything is fine. The state is bad when our civil liberties are violated. Call the ACLU, beyond that everything is fine) is not something that appeals to the vast majority of people, including the “oppressed” whatever the hell that means.
So, my conclusion is — stop using the label of anarchism in public. If Yeoman wants to put on a black bandanna and fight alongside minutemen, let him. It won’t be any real skin off our bones if we do organizing work amongst the actual communities affected as an ACTUALLY invisible movement. When it comes time for more radical and violent confrontations, they will not be able to write us off as “those anarchists who were ripping off the peaceful protesters,” they will see us AS the peaceful protesters turned violent at the hands of the cops (which, let’s face it — considering our relative impotence, that’s usually what it is anyway. How often have anarchists you know ACTUALLY done what cops accuse them of doing? You can maintain your innocence or your lack of impotence[?], pick one). We won’t have to worry about the guilt by association. When it comes time to organizing ourselves for a real, collective purpose, our ideas will align us. We won’t have to say “we’re all anarchists” and then suddenly realize upon coming together that we all have different interests, different backgrounds, and different end goals. Our goals, interests, and backgrounds themselves will align us with where we need to go.
Drop the labels, clothes, and masks. Hopefully by doing so, BANA people will drop their labels, clothes and masks as well. They are only doing so now in order to appeal to pissed off leftists.
(You obviously don’t understand Bakunin.)
Anarchism is a living tradition to which anyone is free to associate themselves; racists and fascists, however, do so at their own risk. When fascists choose to adopt anarchist colours, therefore, they should expect to be confronted. That was the case in post-WWI Italy, and it’s still the case in pre-WWIII United States. Obviously, what form this confrontation takes depends upon the context.
A few more points:
Anarchism is as anarchism does.
There has been both unity and division within anarchist movements — the same is true of every other social movement. What BANANA ‘exploit’ is anarchist symbology. Anyone is free to engage in this exploitation, and many do, for all sorts of reasons (mostly commercial). Nonetheless, engaging in this sort of behaviour — that is, dragging the name of anarchism through the mud — also generally has a cost attached to it. Because fascists are, in general, rather stupid individuals, the lesson — sadly for them — is likely one that will have to be taught again… and again… and again. Boo hoo.
Relying upon the ‘SF Weekly’ to make ideological distinctions is silly, especially as the point had already been made by the individuals who confronted the BANANAs.
It’s not at all difficult to reject BANANA’s claim to be ‘anarchist’. In fact, it’s very easy.
Words derive their meanings from their use and their context. In this instance, ‘anarchist’ means confronting racist supporters of the repressive laws in Arizona. Anarchists have a long history of confronting racist and fascist groups / challenging racist institutions / fighting fascist movements / subverting racialist and fascist discourses, and will continue to do so, even — or perhaps especially — if it appears on the street in anarchist drag.
All the best to the comrades who got nicked.
Considering everything you wrote in this comment (dissected below), I think it’s clear you didn’t understand anything I was advocating for, so I don’t trust you when you say I don’t understand Bakunin.
If you’re going to tell me I don’t understand Bakunin, please explain. I’ve read and analyzed his ideas about the invisible dictatorship several times. Look, for example, at this quote (I pulled it from wikipedia for the sake of time):
…We are the enemies of any sort of publicly declared dictatorship, we are social revolutionary anarchists. But, you will ask, if we are anarchists, by what right do we want to influence the people, and what methods will we use? Denouncing all power, with what sort of power, or rather by what sort of force, shall we direct a people’s revolution? By a force that is invisible, that no one admits and that is not imposed on anyone, by the collective dictatorship of our organization which will be all the greater the more it remains unseen and undeclared, the more it is deprived of all official rights and significance…[Secret organizations] would finally have the strength of that close solidarity which binds isolated groups in one organic whole…These groups would not seek anything for themselves…and they would be in a position to direct popular movements…This is what I call the collective dictatorship of a secret organization.
At no point did I suggest that anarchists should or should not confront fascists, racists, etc. I’m aware that fascists and racists do not “fit” in terms of anarchist theory and practice. That is irrelevant to my entire previous comment that surrounded tactics, public perception, etc. Even if we know they aren’t us, the public has no clue and is already pretty clueless about anarchism. Trying to explain the difference when whackos like them are allowed to latch on just by putting on an outfit leaves us in a bad position.
There has been both unity and division within anarchist movements — the same is true of every other social movement. What BANANA ‘exploit’ is anarchist symbology. Anyone is free to engage in this exploitation, and many do, for all sorts of reasons (mostly commercial). Nonetheless, engaging in this sort of behaviour — that is, dragging the name of anarchism through the mud — also generally has a cost attached to it.
Yeah, costs. To anarchists. Now we’re all primitivists, collectivists, bomb-throwers, street-fuckers, Nazis, racists, Ron Paul supporters, “anarcho”-capitalists, left-communists, Leninist tools, angry Democrats, etc. It’s one thing to say social movements have divisions, it’s another when those divisions are so significant that you have groups advocating things that [...] are diametrically opposed latching on to the same label. You suggest that BANA exploits anarchist symbology. This is true. It is also the same accusation that every anarchist sect accuses its anarcho-opponents of. Face it, [primitivists] and industrial communists have little in common. Likewise, Benjamin Tucker suggesting that it is a factory-owner’s moral right to break strikes does not have any place in the company of the ideology of anarcho-syndicalists and others who were organizing said strikes. The divisions are so deep that at the end of the day there is a question of whether or not any of these groups really do have anything in common other than the symbology.
Because fascists are, in general, rather stupid individuals, the lesson — sadly for them — is likely one that will have to be taught again… and again… and again. Boo hoo.
They are most definitely not stupid. They are very good at organizing, they know how to exploit public ignorance, etc. In all the areas of political organizing that require intelligence, they know what they’re doing regardless of how shitty their ideology is. The fact that you like kicking fascists’ asses once again says nothing about my argument nor anything about how to promote anarchist ideals to a public that largely sees us as trouble-makers, bomb throwers, and idiots.
Relying upon the ‘SF Weekly’ to make ideological distinctions is silly, especially as the point had already been made by the individuals who confronted the BANANAs.
Ideology is the main function of mass media. There’s a reason SF Weekly doesn’t care to correct itself. The individuals who confronted BANA are in no place in the article labelled as anarchists or anti-fascists. They sound instead like pissed off immigrants’ rights activists (which is A) a fitting description, B) a good thing for anarchists to sound like, and C) exactly what I am advocating). If SF Weekly is not going to distinguish between anarchists and non-anarchists (something anarchists themselves largely fail to do), then why call ourselves “anarchists”? For the fashion?
The remainder of your comment seems irrelevant. I’m aware they aren’t anarchists, that anarchism has a definition, etc. But even in the name, anarchism now and always has only focused on what anarchists are opposed to (essentially, rulers). What anarchists are in favor of is very different depending on which group. As such it’s a useless and damaging label. Why be “anarchists” against BANA instead of pissed off pro-immigrant folks against BANA? Why be “anarchists” for Palestine instead of activists for Palestine? Why be anarchists for civil liberties instead of just people for civil liberties? IMO [it] seems that being an anarchist doesn’t say much to most people, and whatever it does say is very easily corruptible. I don’t call myself an anarchist anymore, at least not publicly, but I’m still engaged in addressing a lot of the same causes.
I’m not really interested in discussing what Bakunin ‘really’ meant by the phrase “invisible dictatorship”; rather, I’m disputing the apparent use to which this “Idea” is being put in the context of the apparently confrontational approach taken by some anarchists to some BANANAs on May Day in San Francisco. That said:
• An Anarchist FAQ — J.3.7 Doesn’t Bakunin’s “Invisible Dictatorship” prove that anarchists are secret authoritarians? — has further disco on the spectral dimensions of Bakunin/ism, including in reference to Mikhail’s letter to that cheeky monkey Nechaev, dated June 2, 1870, and from which the quote is derived. (See also : ‘Review Essay : The Russian Revolutionary Movement: The Intelligentsia and Populism’, T.R. Ravindranathan, Studies in History, Vol.6, No.2, 1990 | Philip Pomper’s review of Violence dans la violence by Michael Confino and Michel Bakounine et ses relations avec Sergei Nečaev, 1870-1872 by Arthur Lehning, Russian Review, Vol.33, No.4, October 1974);
• the Idea that anarchists should seek to exert influence upon current events / ‘join up with various social causes’ is hardly noteworthy, but insofar as Bakunin’s “invisible dictatorship” has relevance in this context, it would seem to be by way of providing a precedent to your argument that anarchists should be seen, but not heard… or at least, not as ‘anarchists’.
With regards this latter point, which I think forms the crux of your argument:
I think that, while in some circumstances (and leaving aside the potential circularity of this argument), the conscious decision by some anarchists to not describe themselves, their ideas, or their actions as peculiarly ‘anarchist’ may be appropriate, as a general strategy — especially when conceived of as being a means of surmounting broader public ignorance of or hostility towards anarchism — this attempt at becoming invisible is mistaken.
There are several reasons for this.
The first concerns the obligation to be open and honest with others. That is: if my actions are informed by my ideas and my ideas are, in general, and in an ethico-political context, those which, it may be argued, constitute or are drawn from a particular political tradition known as ‘anarchism’, then it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise — even if by being frank there is some added risk of being misunderstood. That’s a general principle. With regards anarchism in particular, it should also be noted that, historically speaking, it’s been under cultural and ideological assault from its inception, as a mass movement, in the late nineteenth century (see, for example, William M. Phillips, Nightmares of Anarchy: Language and Cultural Changes 1870–1914, Bucknell University Press, 2004). Of course, context is important, as is the possibility of ongoing dialogue. In a context in which there is no possibility of ongoing dialogue, it may make sense to avoid reference to ‘anarchism’. At the same time, the reasons for avoiding such terminology are of general applicability; that is, they are not confined to this or that term, but instead derive from more general considerations of intelligibility and understanding. It may also, and more simply, not be important to identify some thing as ‘anarchist’. Or, more frequently perhaps, the line of argument being pursued, or the action being undertaken, may not be peculiarly ‘anarchist’ in any case. Arguments against ‘racism’, for example, usually proceed from more general ethical considerations — regarding, say, some concept of human equality. By the same token, forms of capitalist exploitation, instances of state oppression, civil rights violations, police violence, and so on, are the subject of numerous social analyses, none of which are necessarily ‘anarchist’, or even sympathetic to anarchist opposition to capitalism and the state, but which may, nevertheless, be utilised by anarchists in their own political projects.
Secondly, I think it worthwhile conceding to others the ability to think: in this case, to critically explore anarchism / anarchist ideas / anarchist activity / anarchist history / anarchist movement. What distinguishes an anarchist from a non-anarchist is not smarts. Further, despite the frequently absurd claims of tabloid media, there’s nothing terribly secret or especially mysterious about anarchist organisation or its history. At the very least, these certainly present no difficulties which an individual with a genuine interest in learning moar (and the time and energy to do so) would find insurmountable. Thus, if you or I or some other person is aware that fascists and racists do not “fit” in terms of anarchist theory and practice, it’s not because we’re especially clever; nor does this incompatibility render Bakunin’s anti-Semitism or Proudhon’s sexism any less real. Rather, what it does is point to the logical constitution of anarchist philosophy; further, the many examples of opposition to organised fascism that may be drawn from anarchist history.
Thirdly, and on a more general level: why call ourselves anything? Partly, because we have to.* The moment somebody speaks they are engaged in the act of naming: the alternative is silence. An appeal to those-with-anarchist-ideals to refrain from naming themselves as anarchists, it seems to me, means essentially abandoning the field to others, whether pin-headed racist BANANAs, lazy journalists, or bourgeois historians. Ideas no more drop out of the sky than do cities: history is what’s happening.
3) Anarchism, ideology, ‘mass’ media
Ideology is the main function of mass media…
Hmmm… yeah, I suppose so: depends what you mean by ‘ideology’, I guess. Leaving those questions aside: ‘why call ourselves “anarchists”?’ Well, I call myself an anarchist because it’s the political philosophy — or ideology, if you prefer — to which I feel the greatest affinity. (What that philosophy consists of is something which can be elaborated upon, and I do so at some length — on my blog, obviously, but in conversation, and in other forums.) In any case, the point I was attempting to make was not that the SF Weekly was not ‘ideological’ (hence incapable of making “ideological distinctions”; therefore “silly” to rely upon it to actually do so), but to draw attention to the fact that such journals routinely publish uninformed opinion, and poor reportage on the subject of the BANANAs is therefore unremarkable. Beyond this, the political economy of the mass media has been famously, and I think credibly, dissected by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky — their ‘propaganda model’ is reviewed by Jeffery Klaehn in ‘A Critical Review and Assessment of Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Propaganda Model” (European Journal of Communication, Vol.17, No.2, 2002 [PDF]). In terms of reacting to corporate hostility, An Open Letter to Glenn Beck (kate, Revolution by the Book: The AK Press Blog, May 14, 2010) details how AK Press has responded to Glenn Beck’s drawing attention to one of their publications; a response which, while acknowledging Beck’s ideological confusion, does not arrive at the conclusion that anarchists — “the actual ideas they espouse, the real work they do” — and anarchism must therefore be abandoned.
4) Stoopid BANANAs
They are most definitely not stupid…
Calling the BANANAs “stupid” was a cheap shot, yes; perhaps I should have written ‘obstinate’ instead. Nevertheless, two things. One, they are notclever; two, they don’t appear to be any more, or less, capable of capitalising upon public ignorance than any other white supremacist groupuscule. Further, I don’t believe that they are “very good at organizing” but, being a relative concept, and not knowing the criteria by which you judge such matters, you may be right (at least in your own terms): I dunno. Beyond this, I agree that whatever mischief a handful of BANANAs may be capable of, and whichever method is used to reinforce the contradiction between anarchism and BANANA, is a relatively trivial matter when compared to the other ‘public relations’ issues which present themselves when considering anarchism and its public reception. That is, on the one hand, there is an argument, of sorts, regarding ‘what is anarchism?’; on the other hand, ‘how might anarchist ideals best be promoted to a hostile public?’.
Anarchism now and always has only focused on what anarchists are opposed to…
I don’t agree. That is, I don’t think that the only thing which has united ‘anarchism’ during the course of its history is its opposition to rulers.
Rather, ‘anarchism’ describes an historical movement, or series of movements, which have not only ‘opposed rulers’, but sought to construct society upon a new basis, and in doing so developed a wide range of ideas, organisational modes, practices, institutions and cultures. These movements emerged during the nineteenth century as one of a range of popular responses to (and formed one of the conditions for) a newly-developing, global, capitalist order. This history has been the subject of a number of popular, and many not-so-popular, accounts, which identify leading thinkers and organisations, pivotal events and actions, motivating ideas and philosophical frameworks: I won’t list them here, but a recent account which seems appropriate to draw attention to is Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, CounterPower Vol. I by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt (AK Press, 2009).
Finally, similar questions could be raised with regards the meanings of what are assumed to be the straightforward terms which, it is suggested, could be substituted both for ‘anarchist’ but also — and moreover — the various things the nominated ‘activists’ are said to be in favour of. In other words: what does it really mean to be “pro-immigrant”? Or to be “for civil liberties”, or “for Palestine”? Like ‘anarchism’ and ‘anarchist’, the meaning of these terms are contested: historically-situated; politically-loaded. These meanings, in other words, are not fixed, and are rarely transparent. So too anarchism…
See also : Which Anarchism? Which Autonomism? Between Anarchism and Autonomist Marxism (Heather Gautney), January 7, 2010 | Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology by James L. Gelvin, May 6, 2009 | Anarchy: Against Capital, Against the State, June 23, 2007.