This article was taken from the notes I had for a workshop that I did at the recent Twin Cities Anarchist Bookfair.
My personal history with anarchism has been a series of related evolving interests – from non-coercive parenting to communal living to polyamory to Nonviolent Communication to Client-Centered Therapy to Camphill communities. Underlying all of this has been a primary focus on changing the fundamental social relationship that is being used between people. In all spheres of life, this kind of basic social change is what I see anarchism as being about.
One quote sums it up nicely: “The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; ie, by people relating to one another differently.” This is perhaps the most famous quote that is attributed to the German anarchist Gustav Landauer. The importance of this quote is in its reminder of how basically what we are dealing with in anarchism are ways in which human beings choose to interact with each-other.
The things that anarchists are against – be it the state, capitalism, patriarchy, what-have-you – are often viewed sub-consciously as being like physical objects. It is said that these things should be “smashed”, “thrown out”, and “destroyed”. But how does one do such things?
There is a concept called “reifying”, which basically means “treating an abstraction as a real thing”. My concern is that this is what a lot of people are and have been doing with the abstract concepts of “anarchism” and “revolution”, and conversely with the abstract concepts of “the state”, “capitalism”, etc. as well. In a sense, none of those things really exist. What does exist are people, people who are relating with each-other in different ways, making choices and responding to each-other. At best, these abstract concepts are there to describe these different kinds of relationships that exist. And relationships, it must be kept in mind, are living, dynamic, constantly changing and are experienced subjectively by each person.
One can physically burn all of the cash that one has, one can cut up government-issued I.D. cards and documents, and one can even blow up buildings that are considered to be “government buildings.” But in the end all of these actions wouldn’t amount to much. Everything destroyed would just be replaced and rebuilt, and the person who did those actions would just be left financially broke and legally in trouble.
Even if one were to go down a more militantly radical path and choose to kill the people who are called “police”, “politicians” and “business executives”, other people would just come along after them and replace them. These vacancies would be seen by others as being opportune job openings, and other people would be happy to take these jobs. The specific individuals who have these jobs may change, but the roles themselves remain the same.
The point here is that destroying physical objects and getting rid of individual people are simply symbolic actions. No matter how big, spectacular, and publicized it all is it still exists in the symbolic realm. These are statements, they may be very strongly-expressed statements, but they are still statements nonetheless.
Another danger that I see in the world of “anarchism” is that people can get lost in their own radical rhetoric and intellectual theory. Big phrases, big concepts, and big ideas can come about and be quite amazing and beautiful even. But when it comes down to what these things actually mean or what they look like in the real-life world that we all inhabit, people can be at a loss for how to explain or apply it. I have fallen into this pit myself before, and if anything these kinds of frustrating experiences can be seen as a lesson for how anarchist theory should be useful for developing clarity and coherency in understanding the social relations in the world that we are a part of.
With this in mind, I would like to advocate that instead of thinking and acting in purely symbolic ways or getting lost in abstractions, we should make efforts to de-mystify our anarchism. Personally, when I first came across anarchist theory it was very helpful for me in that it made very clear and apparent how so many different kinds of social relationships around the world, throughout history, as well as in my own life, were functioning. However, I think that many (perhaps most) people do not have that kind of experience when they first come across anarchist theory. A lot of people find anarchist ideas to be very confusing, incomprehensible, and irrelevant to their own lives. To me this means that we are not doing anarchist theory right.
We must keep in mind that we are dealing with people here. And in dealing with people that means that we must take into account the whole variety of people’s actions, reactions, perceptions, interpretations, meanings ascribed to things and choices made in life, as well as people’s subjective emotional experiences throughout it all. People have all of this as they go about engaging in different social relationships, as they participate in various kinds of social structures, as well as when they are interacting with self-proclaimed anarchists and their theories and projects.
Underlying all of the things that anarchism is against is domination. Anarchism and anarchists are against a lot of different things, and to me that is indicative of how domination permeates so much of what we do and what we are surrounded by. The term “domination” is something that I would say has three different components to it: an attempt to meet a basic human need or needs, force or coercion, and structural inequality.
The concept of fundamental human needs comes from the Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef, and the basic premise is that underlying every human action, social relationship or institution is an attempt to meet some basic human needs. These needs include not just the commonly thought of material/physical needs, but also the human needs for social closeness, personal autonomy, mental understanding, self-expression, personal integrity, social belonging, as well as needs for joyful celebration, and even what might be called a “spiritual” component in life. The idea is that these are the things that people need present in their lives in some form in order to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives, as opposed to just looking at bare physical survival. These basic needs are finite and nameable, but the ways in which these needs can be met are infinite and ongoing.
Looking at the concepts of force or coercion, I would say that this all comes down to the “…or else” threat that is either implied or explicitly stated which is set up within human relationships. Force is when physical violence, removing or restraining somebody or something takes place. Coercion is the threat of that hanging over the relationship.
There are three main kinds of coercion that are commonly used in our society. The first one is that of laws and the institutionalized punishment of criminals. With this people are threatened with the possibility of people with guns coming and locking them in cages, or killing them if they resist, unless they agree to follow certain mandates. This kind of coercion threatens to deny people’s needs for basic freedom, autonomy, and life itself.
Another common form of coercion is that of “property” and “money”, where if one does not have such things one will be denied food, shelter, clothing, transportation and medical treatment. In order to get “money” one must agree to follow the rules, requirements and orders of others. Not following that would result in the lack of money, which then results in one’s basic physical needs not being met.
The third most common form of organized coercion in our society is that of social shunning and shaming. With this, people are threatened to have their needs for community, social closeness, acceptance and belonging not be met unless they agree to follow the various cultural norms and mores. This kind of coercion often comes up around issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, romantic relationship and family structures.
Sometimes these different forms of coercion overlap in some instances. For example, being unemployed one faces the coercion of both the lack of money as well as the social shaming, whereas making money through illegal means leads one to face the coercion of punishment for breaking the law as well as social shaming. Being a homeless vagrant leads one to face the coercion of all three forms simultaneously.
The third component of domination is that of structural inequality. With this, one person, group or class of people calls the shots, makes the collective decisions, and frames the public discourse. The other people follow orders, don’t have their voices heard, and live in fear of further marginalization. This takes place in many different realms – owners over users, bosses over workers, government officials over citizens (or “non-citizens”, for that matter), parents over children, men over women, white people over people of color, heteronormative people over queer people, able-bodied over “dis-abled” people, and so forth.
Underlying all of this are people unconsciously agreeing to hold collective stories that answer the questions “who are we?” and “what are we doing together?” This is the meaning that we ascribe to the things that surround us and the actions that we do. We are born, raised, and live in a society in which almost everyone is repeating the same collective stories. This then leads to us often not even noticing that these stories are even there in the first place.
People all agreeing to these collective stories creates the consensus reality that transforms a piece of paper into “money”, a person with a gun and a badge into a “police officer”, and a person with a ring on a certain finger of theirs into a “husband” or a “wife”. Without these stories, objects would just be objects, people would just be people, nothing more. These stories exist to inform and guide the actions that people choose to take in relation to each-other.
Not agreeing to these collective stories, and holding different more anti-authoritarian ones instead, would make one an anarchist in thought only. This is a start, an important part of the whole process, but ultimately social relationships by definition require more than one person to work. The anarchist endeavor then, in practice, is to create new kinds of social relationships between people based upon these new collective stories. The goal is to meet as many of the different fundamental human needs as possible, in as many different spheres of life as possible, while using these different kinds of social relationships that are characterized by non-coercion and equality of power.
These new relationships to meet people’s different basic human needs already do exist to some extent within anarchist circles, so in a way I am not saying anything new here. Some examples of anarchist relationships/projects that exist to meet people’s basic needs are: collective houses, communes, social centers, Food Not Bombs, Cop Watch, alternative relationships such as polyamory and co-parenting, Icarus Project, transformative justice, unschooling and community gardens. This is naming just a few of the different things that exist out there - and the potential of what can be created afresh is unlimited.
So then how do we go about forming and sustaining these new kinds of relationships to meet our needs? In order to help address this, I have discerned five aspects to look at when examining anarchist relationships/projects. Making sure that each one of these aspects is looked after, healthy and strong is essential to maintaining these new relationships.
The first aspect is to identify which fundamental needs are intended to be met with it. These needs are why you are even doing the whole thing in the first place. Without knowing what needs your relationship or project is trying to meet one cannot evaluate if or how successful it is at meeting these needs.
The second aspect is to ensure that the freedom and equality are maintained within the relationship. In other words, to make sure that everyone feels at choice within the relationship and that everyone has an equal say within the collective decisions that affect them. If the freedom and equality are no longer there, the project would be “anarchist” or “liberatory” in name only.
The third aspect is the ensuring of a healthy emotional relationship between the people that are involved in it. This means making sure that everyone is speaking honestly and openly as well as really listening to, understanding, caring for and valuing each-other. Ultimately, a healthy emotional relationship creates trust, which is absolutely vital for the project to succeed. This healthy emotional relationship is also the basis for the “solidarity” or “fraternity” part of the old slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
The fourth aspect is being mindful of how these relationships interface with the rest of the world that is outside of this relationship. Examples of the interface are group finances, property ownership, legal statuses, and relations with the next-door neighbors. In other words, your group is relating in one way, while the people surrounding and right next to your group are relating in a different way – so the intersections where these differences come into contact with each-other needs to be paid attention to.
The fifth aspect is to look at the question “who are we and what are we doing together?” and to create a new liberatory story to answer that. This relates back to the fourth aspect that I just mentioned as well, because the new story to answer this question will be different from the story that those outside of the relationship will be using. Part of the work to be done in this area is maintaining faith in this new story in the face of the world around you that is looking at you and what you are doing through the lens of a totally different story.
For example, one new story could be “we are a radical social center and safe space from oppressive behaviors for people to come together at to work on creating a new society”, while at the same time people outside of that relationship will be operating with the story “they are a bunch of kids with big ideas who have some sort of nonprofit and run a storefront whose rent is due in two weeks.” Another story for another project could be “we are a collective that distributes food to people with no strings attached because no one should live in fear of hunger or other forms of violence”, while other people outside of that relationship would be using the story “volunteer group without a permit that gives away free food in the park”.
Inside the relationship and outside of it are different stories about the same relationship. In essence you have two different groups of people looking at the same exact thing, one group sees one thing, and the other group sees something else. This difference in perception and interpretation needs to be kept in mind.
These five aspects of new anarchist relations can be used when looking at already-existing relationships/projects, and they can be used to frame the creation of new ones. Having the clarity of these five aspects in mind can help one to identify any weaknesses within a relationship/project that can be actively addressed and worked with. The key thing is that when approaching all of this more clearly and intentionally, we are a lot more likely to create and sustain the kind of fundamental change in social relationships that we are looking for.