Contemporary critiques of contemporary anarchism

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darren p
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Feb 23 2020 15:58
Contemporary critiques of contemporary anarchism

Finally got round to reading the rather excellent book Libertarian Socialism - Politics in Black and Red.

In chapter two, Paul Blackledge argues that anarchism fatally suffers from its conception of human nature, which is borrowed from liberalism (for example the aphorism 'all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' comes from the pen of the liberal Lord Acton). Blackledge argues that this transhistorical conception of human nature prevents anarchists from formulating forms of democracy that could transcend capitalism.

Another good book I read fairly recently was Matthew Wilson's Rules Without Rulers: The Possibilities and Limits of Anarchism. (The thesis version of the book is freely available online). This book argues that there are unresolved issues in anarchisms conception of freedom that pose problems for it, mainly concerning the issue of how insoluble conflicts could be dealt with.

I was wondering if anyone else has read these books and if any responses have been published anywhere?

if people want to discuss further I guess I could flesh out some basic possible objections..

Black Badger
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Feb 23 2020 20:35

every time i read someone's objections to anarchism saying that we're all a bunch of starry-eyed idealists attached to a romantic view of human nature, i have to suppress my desire to explode in derisive laughter. the only times i've seen any anarchists discuss this beast called human nature, it's never to invoke the supposedly inherent good of it, but rather to dismiss it as irrelevant. so when non- or anti-anarchist observers bring it up, it's a red (and black) herring.

here's my unpublished review of Wilson's book:

Some books grab you by the title; some by the reputation of the author; some by the content. Some books disappoint; some are impossible. Matthew Wilson, “a political activist with a PhD in Political Philosophy,” (back cover) has written an impossible book. His offering is a disappointment, most probably due to his house-training in an academic arena that combines two of the worst subjects ever to emerge as distinct fields of inquiry.
Wilson’s title is intriguing; I am constantly willing to delve into the limitations of anarchist theory and history. Good faith analyses (from anarchists and non-anarchists alike) are invaluable for strengthening the appeal of anti-authoritarian projects. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that Wilson is trapped by his own liberal presumptions and assumptions. Given its prominence in the Introduction, I suspect his first major public protest experience — at the Gleneagles anti-G8 protests in 2005 — started with the possibilities and posed the limits question within days.
On page 2, he plunges head first into the euphoric possibilities of anarchism:

"…I left for Scotland from London, on a bike, with sixty other cyclists. The G8 Bikeride travelled through the country, without motorised support, to join in the protests. Although the ride was never explicitly anarchist, it was organised along anarchist principles, and certainly most of the people who took part would have identified…with the principles of anarchism." (my italics)

Two problem immediately jump out:
1. there is no actual explanation anywhere for how this ride was organized, and
2. how are we supposed to know that “most of the people” on it “would have identified” as anything other than bicyclists? In both cases, readers must simply take Wilson’s word for it. This is hardly satisfying, at least to this reviewer. Perhaps this occurred prior to his (presumed) increased familiarity with anarchist ideas.
This line of analysis didn’t bode well for his methodology or analytical ability. In case poor storytelling weren’t enough of a problem, on the same page he continues, relating a rare moment of self-stultifying activist catatonia. Our intrepid participant-observer has his smug, peaceful protesting, bicycle riding, team-building exercise interrupted by an annoyed Geneagles local.

"‘Bloody anarchists’ he yelled, ‘we’ve been sat in traffic jams all morning thanks to you lot. I thought you believed in freedom! What about my freedom’? …the fact is, he had a point… by the end of the day, the feeling of animosity towards (simply) ‘anarchists’ was plain to see. By blocking roads, not only world leaders, but also a great many protesters had been disrupted by a relatively small number of anarchists. Their tactics had, undeniably, prevented people exercising their freedom to protest. Yet freedom, as my one-man blockader correctly suggested, is usually understood as being a fundamental principle of anarchism: so how was the denial of this man’s freedom justified?" (italics in original)

There’s so much to unpack here, from his curious use of a non-anarchist objection to a not-necessarily-anarchist action, to his strange mea culpa for somehow preventing the motorized mobility of other protesters. A careful reader might think that someone who proudly describes himself as an activist might have at least a short answer for such challenges — unless all of his activism had, up to that paralyzing moment, taken place in safe and isolated realms.
Perhaps, like me, he’s unable to think of a witty (or even marginally informative) comeback in the moment; all of the best options come to me hours later… Or perhaps his activist career up to then had never involved the slightest inconvenience to anyone. No matter; for whatever reason(s), Wilson was dumbfounded, incapable of engaging in what the kids nowadays call a teachable moment. Rather than patiently and empathetically explaining how civil disobedience and social protest always involve a certain level of public inconvenience, Wilson had no way out of a basic anti-protest conundrum. To be fair to Wilson, I had more practice at invoking this short explanation (not that it’s all that convincing) for more than a decade; I used to work with and around people who think Oscar Grant and Eric Garner shouldn’t have “resisted,” who find protests to be nothing more than childish tantrums, and who think the Constitution they’re so proud of doesn’t apply to people who gather in downtown Oakland.
Disrupted traffic flows have been part of most demonstrations since at least the time of the first gulf massacre, with the storming and temporary occupation of the lower deck of the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as a banner drop from the Golden Gate Bridge. Large roving groups of protesters shut down traffic and businesses in San Francisco’s Financial District at the start of the second gulf massacre. Demonstrations commemorating the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART cop consistently create problems for BART riders. Occasionally, protesters walk onto freeways. Recently, people protesting police executions have disrupted consumers during the big shopping days of Black Friday and the day after Christmas. Acts of civil disobedience require the breaking of laws, which necessitates the mobilization of police, which in turn creates traffic jams. Wilson obviously hadn’t thought of that; I’d venture to guess that none of the other allegedly anarchist-identified bicyclists had thought of it either, or if they had, they hadn’t let Wilson in on different ways to respond. Simply put, Wilson lost the opportunity to lay the blame on those whose presence and activities were the real reason for the traffic jams in and around Gleneagles: the G8 politicians and their ubiquitous and inexhaustible supply of private and public police protectors.
The fact is that even the most Non-Violent™ protest will inconvenience some people. As much as Wilson was struck dumb by the local’s annoyance and lack of comprehension of who was actually to blame for his frustration, I’m gobsmacked at Wilson’s complete ignorance — despite (or is it because of?) his doctoral degree — as to the history of how protests are supposed to affect people. Without at least minimal effort to try to explain what it is that protesters are doing and hoping to accomplish (what’s usually called outreach), there’s nothing for a curious (or annoyed) bystander/observer to relate to. For a person who’s clearly committed to being an activist, this sort of blind spot is more than a little embarrassing. By now, given a durable history as integral parts of the activist toolbox, disruptions of the circulation of people and commodities are — or should be — unremarkably acceptable by organizers and readily explainable to other participants, as well as onlookers.
After spending a few pages summarizing various successful models and examples of anarchic social experiments (from tribal cultures to Spanish anarcho-syndicalism), Wilson starts to get into the meat of his thesis: freedom cannot be absolute. That is, it cannot be so considered since all forms of society need to have recourse to coercion and authority to curb anti-social excess (presumably, at some point he will discuss the challenge of politicians everywhere: the legitimacy of authority). Using the thoroughly liberal philosophical framework of Isaiah Berlin to discuss negative and positive forms of freedom, soon enough Wilson has to invoke Berlin’s most famous one-time anarchist champion, Murray Bookchin (to Wilson’s credit, he does subject Bookchin to a non-heroic, critical reading). However, by the time that discourse got going, I had already given up. Maybe he goes on to discuss the idea that absolute freedom (at least as he’d begun to outline it) is a bourgeois liberal ideal; maybe he goes on to discuss the infamous Social Contract theory; maybe he goes on to discuss the idea that freedom is contingent, contextual, and in need of a dance of constant rediscovery. Maybe. But I didn’t bother to find out.
It is a rare thing for me to put a book away before finishing it. I am more drawn to reading that challenges and provokes me to expand my thinking, that spurs me to further investigation and research, rather than material that makes me cranky or bores me. Wilson didn’t hook me in his introduction or his first chapter, and by the middle of chapter three, I’d had enough of suffering through the confines of his doctoral-level Political Philosophy straightjacket. I felt like his frustrated Scottish interlocutor; Wilson’s perspectives, while recognizable to those familiar with the pacifist-activist wing of anarchism, are impeded by his allegiances to the various liberal assumptions of political science and philosophy. That makes his writing even more grim than the usual left/academic/activist anarchism. I wanted to yell at him: “What about my anarchy?”

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darren p
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Feb 23 2020 22:55
Black Badger wrote:
every time i read someone's objections to anarchism saying that we're all a bunch of starry-eyed idealists attached to a romantic view of human nature,

The criticism wasn't that the anarchist view of human nature is romantic (if there really is such a thing, or if all anarchists share the same conception) in Blackledge's article.

Quote:
it is a rare thing for me to put a book away before finishing it.

Thanks, but I was kind of looking more for things that engage with his arguments, rather than dismiss them without consideration..

alb
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Feb 24 2020 08:39
Quote:
In chapter two, Paul Blackledge argues that anarchism fatally suffers from its conception of human nature, which is borrowed from liberalism (for example the aphorism 'all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' comes from the pen of the liberal Lord Acton).

I think I’ve heard this argument before. It seems familiar. Hasn’t it been around for a while?

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darren p
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Feb 24 2020 11:32
alb wrote:
I think I’ve heard this argument before. It seems familiar. Hasn’t it been around for a while?

Of course similar, or even the same, things have been said before, and my two sentence summary is an over simplification.

But I was wondering if this is necessarily true for *all* types of anarchism, and if anyone has written a reply to the article in particular.

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Feb 24 2020 14:50

Anarcho wrote a review of Politics in Black and Red here, incl. criticism of Blackledge's chapter:

https://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/libertarian-socialism-beyond-ana...

alb
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Feb 24 2020 16:26

I see what Anarcho means. Blackridge is writing as a Leninist. While Marx can be acquitted of being a Blanquist (advocate of a minority coup to seize state power or, rather in Blanqui's own case, the Hotel de Ville in Paris, and then rule), Lenin cannot.

Whatever he wrote on paper, in practice Lenin did organise the seizure of state power in Russia in 1917 by a minority in the name of the proletariat and he did envisage and practise the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat" as the dictatorship of a vanguard party claiming to represent the proletariat (but in practice ruling over it.) As regards the Paris Commune, Trotsky even wrote a pamphlet saying the reason it failed was that there was no vanguard party to lead it. I think Blanqui concurred.

Although a case can be made for saying that Marx toyed with Blanquist ideas in 1848 and for a couple of years after, from then on he was committed to the working class campaigning for and using the vote to further its interests, and went on record as endorsing the idea of mandated and recallable delegate democracy, based on the delegates chosen -- and recalled if need be -- by universal suffrage.

Anarcho
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Mar 1 2020 10:45

I also blogged about Blackledge's terrible chapter and this expands on my review. It is in five parts and these are most easily found in the fifth installment:

Yet another SWP numpty on anarchism (part 5)

All in all, he is just another Leninist exposing their ignorance of anarchism -- and often Marxism itself.

The rest of the books is very good, though. Well worth getting.

alb
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Mar 1 2020 15:32

Anarcho, this is a historical rather than a theoretical question, but as the expert on Proudhon why do you think the Proudhonists took part in the 1871 elections to the Paris Commune which after all was a legislative assembly elected by universal suffrage?

According to this article, before 1871 they had been divided on the issue. Proudhon himself had of course been a candidate in elections and was actually elected on one occasion. The article also says that he called for a vote for the extreme left candidate Raspail in the 1848 French presidential elections. As did Marx. Not that it made all that much difference as Raspail only got 0.5 percent of the votes cast.