4. Anarchism as Chaos

Anarchism as Chaos

Whatever Brown's own preferences may be, her book both reflects and provides the premises for the shift among Euro-American anarchists away from social anarchism and toward individualist or lifestyle anarchism. Indeed, lifestyle anarchism today is finding its principal expression in spray-can graffiti, post-modernist nihilism, antirationalism, neoprimitivism, anti-technologism, neo-Situationist 'cultural terrorism,' mysticism, and a 'practice' of staging Foucauldian 'personal insurrections.'

These trendy posturings, nearly all of which follow current yuppie fashions, are individualistic in the important sense that they are antithetical to the development of serious organizations, a radical politics, a committed social movement, theoretical coherence, and programmatic relevance. More oriented toward achieving one's own 'self-realization' than achieving basic social change, this trend among lifestyle anarchists is particularly noxious in that its 'turning inward,' as Katinka Matson called it, claims to be a politics -- albeit one that resembles R. D. Laing's 'politics of experience.' The black flag, which revolutionary social anarchists raised in insurrectionary struggles in Ukraine and Spain, now becomes a fashionable sarong for the delectation of chic petty bourgeois.

One of the most unsavory examples of lifestyle anarchism is Hakim Bey's (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson's) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchism, Poetic Terrorism, a jewel in the New Autonomy Series (no accidental word choice here), published by the heavily postmodernist Semiotext(e)/Autono'media group in Brooklyn.[8] Amid paeans to 'Chaos,' 'Amour Fou,' 'Wild Children,' 'Paganism,' 'Art Sabotage,' 'Pirate Utopias,' 'Black Magic as Revolutionary Action,' 'Crime,' and 'Sorcery,' not to speak of commendations of 'Marxism-Stirnerism,' the call for autonomy is taken to lengths so absurd as to seemingly parody a self-absorbed and self-absorbing ideology.

T.A.Z. presents itself as a state of mind, an ardently antirational and anticivilizational mood, in which disorganization is conceived as an art form and graffiti supplants programs. The Bey (his pseudonym is the Turkish word for 'chief' or 'prince') minces no words about his disdain for social revolution: 'Why bother to confront a 'power' which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence' (TAZ, p. 128). Power in quotation marks? A mere 'Simulation'? If what is happening in Bosnia with firepower is a mere 'simulation,' we are living in a very safe and comfortable world indeed! The reader uneasy about the steadily multiplying social pathologies of modern life may be comforted by the Bey's Olympian thought that 'realism demands not only that we give up waiting for 'the Revolution,' but also that we give up wanting it' (TAZ, p. 101). Does this passage beckon us to enjoy the serenity of Nirvana? Or a new Baudrillardian 'Simulation'? Or perhaps a new Castoriadian 'imaginary'?

Having eliminated the classical revolutionary aim of transforming society, the Bey patronizingly mocks those who once risked all for it: 'The democrat, the socialist, the rational ideology . . . are deaf to the music & lack all sense of rhythm' (TAZ, p. 66). Really? Have the Bey and his acolytes themselves mastered the verses and music of the Marseillaise and danced ecstatically to the rhythms of Gliere's Russian Sailor's Dance? There is a wearisome arrogance in the Bey's dismissal of the rich culture that was created by revolutionaries over the past centuries, indeed by ordinary working people in the pre-rock-'n'-roll, pre-Woodstock era.

Verily, let anyone who enters the dreamworld of the Bey give up all nonsense about social commitment. 'A democratic dream? a socialist dream? Impossible,' intones the Bey with overbearing certainty. 'In dream we are never ruled except by love or sorcery' (TAZ, p. 64). Thus are the dreams of a new world evoked by centuries of idealists in great revolutions magisterially reduced by the Bey to the wisdom of his febrile dream world.

As to an anarchism that is 'all cobwebby with Ethical Humanism, Free Thought, Muscular Atheism, & crude Fundamentalist Cartesian Logic' (TAZ, p. 52) -- forget it! Not only does the Bey, with one fell swoop, dispose of the Enlightenment tradition in which anarchism, socialism, and the revolutionary movement were once rooted, he mixes apples like 'Fundamentalist Cartesian Logic' with oranges like 'Free Thought,' and 'Muscular Humanism' as though they were interchangeable or necessarily presuppose each other.

Although the Bey himself never hesitates to issue Olympian pronouncements and deliver petulant polemics, he has no patience with 'the squabbling ideologues of anarchism & libertarianism' (TAZ, p. 46). Proclaiming that 'Anarchy knows no dogmas' (TAZ, p. 52), the Bey nonetheless immerses his readers in a harsh dogma if there ever was one: 'Anarchism ultimately implies anarchy -- & anarchy is chaos' (TAZ, p. 64). So saith the Lord: 'I Am That I Am' -- and Moses quaked before the pronouncement!

Indeed, in a fit of manic narcissism, the Bey ordains that it is the all-possessive self, the towering 'I,' the Big 'me' that is sovereign: 'each of us [is] the ruler of our own flesh, our own creations -- and as much of everything else as we can grab & hold.' For the Bey, anarchists and kings -- and beys -- become indistinguishable, inasmuch as all are autarchs:

Our actions are justified by fiat & our relations are shaped by treaties with other autarchs. We make the law for our own domains -- & the chains of law have been broken. At present perhaps we survive as mere Pretenders -- but even so we may seize a few instants, a few square feet of reality over which to impose our absolute will, our royaume. L'etat, c'est moi. . . . If we are bound by any ethics or morality, it must be one which we ourselves have imagined. (TAZ, p. 67)

L'Etat, c'est moi? Along with beys, I can think of at least two people in this century who did enjoy these sweeping prerogatives: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Most of the rest of us mortals, rich and poor alike, share, as Anatole France once put it, the prohibition to sleep under the bridges of the Seine. Indeed, if Friedrich Engels's 'On Authority,' with its defense of hierarchy, represents a bourgeois form of socialism, T.A.Z. and its offshoots represent a bourgeois form of anarchism. 'There is no becoming,' the Bey tells us, 'no revolution, no struggle, no path; [if] already you're the monarch of your own skin -- your inviolable freedom awaits to be completed only by the love of other monarchs: a politics of dream, urgent as the blueness of sky' -- words that could be inscribed on the New York Stock Exchange as a credo for egotism and social indifference (TAZ, p. 4).

Certainly, this view will not repel the boutiques of capitalist 'culture' any more than long hair, beards, and jeans have repelled the entrepreneurial world of haute fashion. Unfortunately, far too many people in this world -- no 'simulations' or 'dreams' -- do not own even their own skins, as prisoners in chain gangs and jails can attest in the most concrete of terms. No one has ever floated out of the earthly realm of misery on 'a politics of dreams' except the privileged petty bourgeois, who may find the Bey's manifestoes amenable particularly in moments of boredom.

For the Bey, in fact, even classical revolutionary insurrections offer little more than a personal high, redolent of Foucault's 'limit experiences.' 'An uprising is like a 'peak experience,'' he assures us (TAZ, p. 100). Historically, 'some anarchists . . took part in all sorts of uprisings and revolutions, even communist & socialist ones,' but that was 'because they found in the moment of insurrection itself the kind of freedom they sought. Thus while utopianism has so far always failed, the individualist or existentialist anarchists have succeeded inasmuch as they have attained (however briefly) the realization of their will to power in war' (TAZ, p. 88). The Austrian workers' uprising of February 1934 and the Spanish Civil War of 1936, I can attest, were more than orgiastic 'moments of insurrection' but were bitter struggles carried on with desperate earnestness and magnificent 'lan, all aesthetic epiphanies notwithstanding.

Insurrection nonetheless becomes for the Bey little more than a psychedelic 'trip,' while the Nietzschean Overman, of whom the Bey approves, is a 'free spirit' who would 'disdain wasting time on agitation for reform, on protest, on visionary dreams, on all kinds of 'revolutionary martyrdom.' Presumably dreams are okay as long as they are not 'visionary' (read: socially committed); rather, the Bey would 'drink wine' and have a 'private epiphany' (TAZ, p. 88), which suggests little more than mental masturbation, freed to be sure from the constraints of Cartesian logic.

It should not surprise us to learn that the Bey favors the ideas of Max Stirner, who 'commits no metaphysics, yet bestows on the Unique [i.e, the Ego] a certain absoluteness' (TAZ, p. 68). To be sure, the Bey finds that there is a 'missing ingredient in Stirner': 'a working concept of nonordinary consciousness' (TAZ, p. 68). Apparently Stirner is too much the rationalist for the Bey. 'The orient, the occult, the tribal cultures possess techniques which can be 'appropriated' in true anarchist fashion. . . . We need a practical kind of 'mystical anarchism' . . . a democratization of shamanism, intoxicated & serene' (TAZ, p. 63). Hence the Bey summons his disciples to become 'sorcerers' and suggests that they use the 'Black Malay Djinn Curse.'

What, finally, is a 'temporary autonomous zone'? 'The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself, to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it' (TAZ, p. 101). In a TAZ we can 'realize many of our true Desires, even if only for a season, a brief Pirate Utopia, a warped free-zone in the old Space/Time continuum)' (TAZ, p. 62). 'Potential TAZs' include 'the sixties-style 'tribal gathering,' the forest conclave of eco-saboteurs, the idyllic Beltane of the neopagans, anarchist conferences, and gay faery circles,' not to speak of 'nightclubs, banquets,' and 'old-time libertarian picnics' -- no less! (TAZ, p. 100). Having been a member of the Libertarian League in the 1960s, I would love to see the Bey and his disciples surface at an 'old-time libertarian picnic'!

So transient, so evanescent, so ineffable is a TAZ in contrast to the formidably stable State and bourgeoisie that 'as soon as the TAZ is named . . . it must vanish, it will vanish . . . only to spring up again somewhere else' (TAZ, p. 101). A TAZ, in effect, is not a revolt but precisely a simulation, an insurrection as lived in the imagination of a juvenile brain, a safe retreat into unreality. Indeed, declaims the Bey: 'We recommend [the TAZ] because it can provide the quality of enhancement without necessarily [!] leading to violence & martyrdom' (TAZ, p. 101). More precisely, like an Andy Warhol 'happening,' a TAZ is a passing event, a momentary orgasm, a fleeting expression of the 'will to power' that is, in fact, conspicuously powerless in its capacity to leave any imprint on the individual's personality, subjectivity, and even self-formation, still less on shaping events and reality.

Given the evanescent quality of a TAZ, the Bey's disciples can enjoy the fleeting privilege of living a 'nomadic existence,' for 'homelessness can in a sense be a virtue, an adventure' (TAZ, p. 130). Alas, homelessness can be an 'adventure' when one has a comfortable home to return to, while nomadism is the distinct luxury of those who can afford to live without earning their livelihood. Most of the 'nomadic' hoboes I recall so vividly from the GreatDepression era suffered desperate lives of hunger, disease, and indignity and usually died prematurely -- as they still do, today, in the streets of urban America. The few gypsy-types who seemed to enjoy the 'life of the road' were idiosyncratic at best and tragically neurotic at worst. Nor can I ignore another 'insurrection' that the Bey advances: notably, 'voluntary illiteracy' (TAZ, p. 129). Although he advances this as a revolt against the educational system, its more desirable effect might be to render the Bey's various ex cathedra injunctions inaccessible to his readers.

Perhaps no better description can be given of T.A.Z.'s message than the one that appeared in Whole Earth Review, whose reviewer emphasizes that the Bey's pamphlet is 'quickly becom[ing] the countercultural bible of the 1990s . . . While many of Bey's concepts share an affinity with the doctrines of anarchism,' the Review reassures its yuppie clientele that he pointedly departs from the usual rhetoric about overthrowing the government. Instead, he prefers the mercurial nature of 'uprisings,' which he believes provide 'moments of intensity [that can] give shape and meaning to the entirety of life.' These pockets of freedom, or temporary autonomous zones, enable the individual to elude the schematic grids of Big Government and to occasionally live within realms where he or she can briefly experience total freedom. (emphasis added) [9]

There is an untranslatable Yiddish word for all of this: nebbich! During the 1960s, the affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers spread similar confusion, disorganization, and 'cultural terrorism,' only to disappear from the political scene soon thereafter. Indeed, some of its members entered the commercial, professional, and middle-class world they had formerly professed to despise. Nor is such behavior uniquely American. As one French 'veteran' of May-June 1968 cynically put it: 'We had our fun in '68, and now it's time to grow up.' The same deadening cycle, with circled A's, was repeated during a highly individualistic youth revolt in Zurich in 1984, only to end in the creation of Needle Park, a notorious cocaine and crack hangout established by the city's officials to allow addicted young people to destroy themselves legally.

The bourgeoisie has nothing whatever to fear from such lifestyle declamations. With its aversion for institutions, mass-based organizations, its largely subcultural orientation, its moral decadence, its celebration of transience, and its rejection of programs, this kind of narcissistic anarchism is socially innocuous, often merely a safety valve for discontent toward the prevailing social order. With the Bey, lifestyle anarchism takes flight from all meaningful social activism and a steadfast commitment to lasting and creative projects by dissolving itself into kicks, postmodernist nihilism, and a dizzying Nietzschean sense of elitist superiority.

The price that anarchism will pay if it permits this swill to displace the libertarian ideals of an earlier period could be enormous. The Bey's egocentric anarchism, with its post-modernist withdrawal into individualistic 'autonomy,' Foucauldian 'limit experiences,' and neo-Situationist 'ecstasy,' threatens to render the very word anarchism politically and socially harmless -- a mere fad for the titillation of the petty bourgeois of all ages.