Critical book review from Black Flag #218 1999.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY ANARCHISM: UNORTHODOX IDEAS FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM
A Review Article by Graham Purchase
Twenty-first Century Anarchism: Unorthodox Ideas for a New Millennium
Various authors, edited by Jon Purkis and James Bowen. London, Cassell,
This collection of essays is optimistically introduced with the statement: "Modern anarchism has long since needed a major overhaul, and this book...while happily rejecting much of the historical baggage...is part of a new theoretical and practical tradition which has started to develop over the last few years." There is little that is futuristic or original about this book. It is an ethnocentric survey of the last few decades of Twentieth century British (sub) culture by a group of trendy academics and PhD students. The "new theoretical tradition" is that of the completely fraudulent gibberish collectively known as post-modernism/structuralism. This is blended with a generous serving of liberal environmentalism and a little post-modern feminism. The "practical" revolutionary tactics of the next millennium are, we are told, best illustrated/foreshadowed by aspects of youth subculture and the road protest movement. The unnecessary "historical baggage" is a neat euphemism that really means the authors reject any meaningful industrial and class analysis whatsoever. In this respect the book can be likened to "new labour" in comparison to traditional labour party politics.
The introductory essays are rather traditional academic articles. The first examines concepts of human nature. It concludes that the traditional anarchist notion of the environmental malleability of human nature conflicts with the rather deterministic assertion that power always corrupts. This contradictory duality, it is suggested, rather than theoretically undermining the anarchist position is a creative antinomy grounded in empirical fact. The essay ends by warning (as if we needed warning!) anarchists against new rightism/libertarianism, (with its inherently authoritarian notion of a minimal state) and existentialism (with its emphasis on human choice--as the people can equally well choose fascism or anarchism!). This typically parasitic academic essay is entirely unoriginal and adds nothing whatsoever to anarchist theory. The second essay criticises state-welfarism on the familiar grounds that it is biased in favour of the middle classes (in terms of access to health facilities and uni education), it merely contains capitalism, and encourages individualistic atomism through discouraging spontaneous and local mutual aid. Many anarchists, and no/low state socialists have been saying this for years. The essay argues for the development of participatory neighbourhood self-help groups but offers no practical suggestions nor examines any contemporary examples. The third essay focuses on non-violent resistance. It liberally quotes from (the ascetic state-nationalist) Gandhi and focuses upon road protests in the UK. The industrial aspects/origins of the concept and practice of direct action within the workers" movement are not discussed at all!?
The second part of the book examines contemporary (alternative) culture. The first essay examines the "Anarchy in the UK Festival", chiding members of the Black Flag group and other old-fashioned workerist fanatics for ridiculing bizarre sub-cultural critiques and their blanket rejection of popular (TV) media as a monolithic vehicle for promoting undiluted capitalist propaganda. With a fair-wack of meaningless post-modern jargon the author surveys some examples of "subversive" British cultural trends/movements/writings. There is a long discussion of "Mr Blobby", some trash TV personality, of whom the rest of the world (out side Britain) are thankfully unfamiliar. As usual with so many British political works (which seem to unintentionally assume that they are still the Centre of some vast world wide empire) this analysis is ethnocentric, insular and of no interest or relevance to people from other countries (including other English speaking former colonies such as Australia). The second essay continues with the same themes. It asks us to reject traditional (read: economic, class, industrial, workerist) methods of social resistance in favour of "symbolic, playful and culturally expressed" ones (since when has anarchism not been interested in culture?). A number of self-edited/produced xerox zines are reviewed. These reviews are remarkable only in the degree of vacuity and fatuity they exhibit. Self-indulgent, occasionally humorous, but essentially useless marginalia is certainly symbolic and playful. Nobody denies that symbolic playfulness (re political humour) is a part of life, and a nice part, but it is hardly the stuff of revolutions. Political humour is more a way of letting off steam by laughing at those who oppress, rule or frustrate you. Beyond this, the political cartoon and other forms of satire have a long history in both mainstream and revolutionary media, but the author seems painfully unaware of this historical dimension. The next essay is more interesting and examines the rise and fall of DIY culture and record labels during the punk music/fashion era (in which I grew up and am familiar with the bands/labels he mentions). Again, however, the author assumes that this is a completely new phenomenon. There is however, a long tradition of youth and other marginalised groups (eg Black Americans) creating their own unique entertainment with very limited resources. The cotton pickin" blues singers which started rock n roll was co-opted and commercialised by white imitators. And every new generation have created their own interpretation and expression of it. Fashion and musical expression has always come from the people. The media did not create rock n roll, flower power, punk, or the rave scene etc. Again and again in the twentieth century young people who can"t afford the pre-packaged entertainment offered them and wishing to differentiate themselves from the previous generation have generated their own expressions. Commercialisation comes later. The entertainment/fashion industry is big business and has always lived off the popular creativity of the masses. This is undoubtedly an interesting area of inquiry. However, fashion, and the youth who create it, are transient and epiphenomenal aspects of life. We cannot and should not ignore it, but politics is essentially about economic and social battles, not teenage fashion statements. The last essay on culture examines the ambiguous notion of "subversion" as a literary, legal and political term. It begins by raising a few interesting points but degenerates behind a smokescreen of post-modernist verbiage.
The final section of the book is cryptically entitled "If Not Now, When?". It contains 4 essays. The first examines transport. It is a largely unoriginal philosophical overview of personal-transport politics in relation to spatial (re geographical) and environmental issues. It offers no practical solutions (other than individual lifestyle choices) and adds little to an important and ongoing debate. The next essay thinly examines the decline in full-time employment/work-ethic and uninspiringly promotes the anti work/why work? position. It ends by suggesting that May 2nd should be declared a "day of idleness". Even this idea is not original but attributed by the author to a bunch of Argentinain beach bums. I might point out that orthodox Jews (re: Sabbath) have practiced this on a weekly basis for four or five thousand years. The penultimate essay looks at sexual transgression and how the public exhibition of unorthodox sexualities sometimes fails to address broader issues of social change. To this is added a few scattered comments on post-modernism and cyber-sex. The ending of this book is truly bizarre. It consists of a series of quite unrelated and half-baked paragraphs by some would-be futurist/novelist who fictionally presents some pessimistic and optimistic flashes of several imagined futures. Although the idea of ending a book (which is purportedly futurist) with a short work of fiction is not inherently silly, what we are presented with is very, very silly and completely incoherent. In order to deconstruct presumably one must construct something first.
Although this book contains a few scattered insights and some of the discussions are in themselves interesting or entertaining, as one would hope from an anthology comprising of the work of many (university lecturer and student) brains, from the point of view of anarchist theory it has absolutely nothing of value to offer. In so far as it does not provide any introduction to anarchism for someone unfamiliar with the idea/movement, and explicitly rejects traditional anarchist ideas/practices, it is positively harmful. It can only serve to confuse and obfuscate. Utter Crap! Shame on all of you!