Freedom News

First things first…

Review taken from Freedom, February 2012
Joe Maguire on a welcome new overview of our age-old aspirations

Introductions to anarchism are always going to be hard work. Anarchism is a pretty hetero­geneous entity, with a lot of scope for emphasis on organisational forms, strategies and tactics. That’s why calls for recommending a beginners’ text are always likely to go way beyond the bounds of aesthetic or literary appeal.

Even more so, the problem is compounded because the canon of often recommended texts like Berkman, Goldman, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Meltzer, etc., etc., can come across quite one-sided as they don’t immediately address the practical circumstances confronted by people in the 21st century, however well they are written.

Cindy Milstein steps up and takes a valiant attempt to address the contemporary implications of anarchism in her primer Anarchism and Its Aspirations. She notes that the anchor of her vantage point is anti-globalisation struggles, mainly ‘The Battle for Seattle’ which she contrasts with the political fallout of 9/11 and Katrina. Although it has to be said the book covers most of the philosophical and historical bases of anarchism.

The framework of anarchism is conveyed in the book primarily through the construct of ethics. My initial baulk at this was rather unjust, because the term is used not as it has come to be understood within consumerist jargon about lifestyle choices, but in the old-fashion meaning; a set of values. As Cindy explains: “Anarchism contends that people would be much more humane under non-hierarchical social relations and social arrangements. Hence my concentration on the ethics – the values pertaining to how humans conduct themselves” (page 12).

She expands on this further, putting other concepts together as a ‘unity of ethics’ which inform anarchism. These include social responsibility, liberation, the concept of positive and negative freedom, egalitarianism, your classic notions of mutual aid, co-operation, free association, but also joy, spontaneity, pluralism and regard for due process.

Initial misreading aside, I still feel packaging this as ethics is not the best way to present the anarchist project. It’s not explicitly stated, but it almost lends itself to a discussion of values between various people rather than a common framework for emancipation. Maybe this is just an issue of semantics on my part. But in the same vein, the old adage about anarchism being the best of liberalism and communism, repeated in the book, probably made more sense in an age when people could remember liberals were anything other than regressive. But, alas, Rousseau is long behind all of us.

The book rattles through a good deal of history capturing well the influences and the processes which all fuelled classical anarchism – as good an overview as you’re going to get considering the brevity. Cindy illustrates the splits within the early International Workingmen’s Association and rightfully points to the early failings of the anti-authoritarians in addressing oppressions beyond those imposed by the state and capital, namely race and gender. I just don’t think it’s enough to challenge the false dichotomy of Marxism and Anarchism and say there are libertarian strains within Marxism though. Mark Leier I think covered this best in his biography Bakunin when he talked about there being a clear overlap between the best of both.

A chapter in the book is given over to developing the anarchist origins of anti-capitalism. So a line is traced from Godwin and Proudhon all the way through to it being ‘rediscovered’ in the ’50s and it being reinvigorated by the New Left and the Situationist International. Along the way ecological and cultural influences are thrown in, along with input by Automon, squatters, anti-nuclear activists, the black bloc, Zapatistas which all culminate together in the watershed event of Seattle.

Milstein argues that the shot in the arm for the anarchist project was Marx’s misunderstanding of ‘statecraft’ and then the pluralism that’s become implicit in anti-globalisation struggles. I note that, although she acknowledges anarchism’s keen ability to adapt, she doesn’t pick up on the fact that without a mass base to attach itself to, its main reference points are never explicitly about the working class. This speaks to me that anarchism is still a skewed project reeling from the entrenched orthodoxy of the left and simply moving into a comfortable niche left vacant. It’s telling that in the book as a whole the organising of work and the possibilities of post-capitalist production are not discussed at any length. And this is further complicated by the examples of self-organising she gives being biased towards sub-cultural groups (a point which she concedes).

Alongside the ethical framework, the basis for a good deal of the book is given over to the prospects of building an alternative set of institutions through direct democracy. Direct democracy is important to social anarchists but it’s clearly part of Milstein’s ‘reconstructive vision’ strategy, and the place where the influences of her mentor, Bookchin resound the clearest. Milstein wants to see a move towards dual power, building popular assemblies which contest our collective strength against capital and the state, and pre-empts the limitations of the current movement.

“[D]irect action protests remain trapped. On the one hand, they reveal and confront domination and exploitation… [But w]ithout this ability to self-govern, street actions translate into nothing more than a countercultural version of interest group lobbying, albeit far more radical than most and generally unpaid” (pages 112–3).

The book is a great introduction to a healthy current that abounds through the anarchist movement. And with the Occupy movement in full-swing only a little time after its production, it seems as relevant as ever. It’s upbeat, has a clear vision and is not trying to reinvent the wheel. My prevailing problem is that it lacks the bite and antagonism I feel the new world requires and it leaves a number of unanswered questions pertaining to the role of the working class as an agency for political change.

Anarchism and Its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein, published by AK Press, 2010, £9.00.

Review taken from Freedom, February 2012

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