Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Public Affairs

A few months back I wrote up a proposal on this blog about how a new nation-wide anarchist organization could be created that is based on organizing various big public gatherings of anarchist-identified people using an event-structuring format called “open space technology”. Looking at what has occurred at various big public events for the U.S. anarchist milieu since I last wrote that piece, I have changed my mind about that proposal. I now think that the U.S. anarchist milieu in general currently does not have the maturity and self-responsibility necessary to be able to successfully pull off something like that.

To be more specific, this year, so far, there was the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair which took place with a lot of controversy surrounding it before-hand, and then at the event itself there was an altercation between one of the event organizers and some other people which resulted in the organizers calling the police.

With the New York City Anarchist Bookfair there was a lot of controversy surrounding it before, during and after the event itself, and after the event was over there was a statement publicly released where someone threatened to shut down the bookfair next year.

With the Anarchist Convergence in Olympia, Washington somebody attending the event had their camera equipment destroyed, that person then called the police, and that event was then subsequently shut down.

And most recently, there was the Law and Disorder Conference in Portland, Oregon, where one group tabling there had some of their literature destroyed and one of the tablers was physically assaulted.

All of these different incidents at big public anarchist events that I mentioned lead me to a conclusion – the anarchist milieu as it exists today is just too immature to be able to have big public events that are meaningful and productive. The basic mutual respect and tolerance that is necessary to be able to successfully pull something like that off is just not there. With things being the way they are now, continuing to organize these kinds of big public events is just providing people a public forum to “act out” their own unexamined personal neuroses and dysfunctional relationships, and essentially it is “enabling” unhealthy patterns to repeat themselves. Maybe this will all change sometime in the future, when the current crop of young anarchists “grows up”, or when most of them eventually burns out and gives up on the anarchy thing, and are then replaced with the next generation of anarchists.

As it stands now, though, the unfortunate general trend within anarchist circles is for one to mock, yell at, threaten, and ultimately use physical force against those whom one disagrees with. All meaningful dialogue between people is gone as soon as people start breaking things, using physical violence or calling the police on each-other. One of the basic claims of anarchism is that human beings can live together in healthy harmonious communities without the presence of a state or other authorities. The kind of behavior that is popular now in anarchist circles works directly against this claim. One does not build solidarity by intimidating those whom one wants solidarity with. And likewise, one does not build trust and cultivate the desire for mutual aid by habitually insulting and threatening people in various ways.

All of these big controversies that surround these big public events involve people who believe that they are in the right and that they have been wronged. They are each fighting valiantly for the side of good against that which is bad. Each person involved would gladly give reasons and justifications for the things that they do and the positions that they take. And all of this eventually finds its way to the internet where everything is then publicly shat upon. I believe that everybody starts out with good intentions but that the ways that these situations have generally been dealt with are ultimately unhealthy, unproductive and not sustainable for the people involved in the long run.

What I think needs to happen instead of big public anarchist events are smaller more focused anarchist events whose participants are there by invitation only. Looking at the various big public anarchist events that I mentioned earlier, one commonality that they all share is that each of them had an incident where some person, or group of people, was present at the event where others thought they should not be there. If the event was by invitation-only, where the only people present are those whom were specifically chosen to be there to begin with, these incidents would not have happened. One could say that the anarchist milieu already has the fault of being an insular and cliquish scene, but perhaps it would be best to say that for right now that is the best that we are capable of achieving.

One rationale that is given for having these big public anarchist events is that they serve as a means to introduce the general public to anarchism and other related ideas. If this is the point, then I don’t think that they serve that function very well either, for these events are often an eclectic mix of all kinds of different people, groups, and messages all spewing out their opinions to whomever cares to listen. For the person who is totally new to anarchism, going to an anarchist public event would be giving them a grab-bag of various different fringe radical whatever. No clear and coherent general overview of anarchist ideas is being presented. If one really wants to effectively introduce the general public to anarchism, a totally different approach needs to be thought out and implemented.

If some people want to continue on organizing different big public anarchist events, that is their choice. I won’t try to stop them - although others might, on the pretext of one big controversy and set of principles or another. However, as I think about all of this, another thought occurs to me...

Perhaps my reaction to all of these things is more based on old pre-existing personality types and how they interact with other personality types. For example, when I was a child going to school, I used to totally hate the whole set-up. For one, there was the very existence of school, which is itself an authoritarian institution. But then, in the rare moments when there was no teacher or other adult authority figures in the class-room, the other kids went nuts, screaming, running around, throwing things, jumping up on tables. At those times, I was relieved that there was no teacher or adult authority figure present, but I also hated how the other kids were behaving. I wanted to be off quietly doing my own thing, ideally with other kids who were similarly quiet and respectful. At around the age of 16, I learned something – I can drop out, and avoid the whole thing altogether. Let the kids do their own foolishness if they want to, I’m going somewhere else.


Jaime Hokanson said...

Hey Ian!

Good post. I feel like some of it could have been written by the Obvious Monster though ;-) Oh anarchism...

I think one important thing to recognize that your post leaves out, is that while a lot of anarchist kerfluffles are just silly nonsense, and/or a lack of understanding of how to respond to real problems productively, it seems like a number of the things you linked to are rooted in very real issues of oppression. For example, there should really be no excuse at this point for a large public anarchist event with lots of planning time to not have childcare, to have an organizing committee that is completely unrepresentative of the participants, or to host transphobic bigots. All these things and others show just how little many anarchists actually understand the struggles in real people's lives.

Personally, most of my best anarchisty friends, people I admire, and favorite people to work with are those who may or may not identify as anarchists, but who don't lead with that term, and instead just go about the work of creating a better society. After all, isn't the goal not just promoting an ideology, but changing the world?

I'm reading Staughton Lynd's book Accompaniment: Pathways to Social Change, which is about the difference between what he calls organizing (having a predetermined idea and rallying other people together to try and enact it), versus accompaniment (walking the path of social change together, learning together and sharing skills and methods without a preplanned agenda). A lot of explicitly anarchist activities seem like the former to me -- "Here, anarchism is the way! Follow us! But... do what you want, too, I'm telling you!" Which I guess is at the core of why I've chosen to step away from anarchism as an ideology.

anyway, more later maybe, thanks again!


Anonymous said...

To me, the people who are regularly perpetuating oppressions that I experience or observe are being produced by folks that do not identify as anarchists. The anarchists I know are generally wonderful people, whether they lead with the term or not.

Alycia said...

This is cool!