Rethinking Anarchism


Fascism in the USA
March 26, 2010, 5:30 am
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This last weekend I drove through the lower midwest. I visited the major cities, each separated by a three or four hour drive through rural areas from the next. These rural areas are the primary base of the so-called “Tea Party” movement, a loosely-organized network of extreme right-wingers opposed to Obama and any kind of basic liberal agenda. Since Obama took office, they have been stockpiling ammunition and arms, holding protests, and organizing. I”ve been hesitant to take them seriously. Their numbers are VERY small, but their voices have been amplified by the corporate media. They are a small white working class base for more reactionary, inflexible elements of the US elite.

Earlier this week, the US congress passed a health care reform bill. It’s still unclear how beneficial the changes will be to working class Americans, but the bill has been fought tooth and nail by the Republican Party and the Tea Party activists. After the bill passed, there were reports of vandalism of Democratic Party offices and death threats against Democratic politicians.

What is really going on here?

The reality is that the US ruling class has its back against the wall. There is currently no major mass movement for health care, education, or any other serious reform. The Obama administration is entirely oriented toward pre-empting the emergence of autonomous working class self-activity, ensuring Wall Street profits and stability.

This kind of pre-emptive counterinsurgency tactic is too much for the right wing of capital- they prefer to risk greater resistance and use brute force to put down rebellions. If they feel that the left wing of capital is becoming too socialistic, likely due to pressure from the working class, they will orchestrate a fascist coup. During FDR’s New Deal, a group of businessmen led by George W Bush’s great grandfather prepared exactly this kind of putsch.

The Tea Party movement are the Freikorps of American fascism. They are willing to overthrow the US government in order to install a government that would put down the workers movement with brute force.

Politics in the US are muddy and unclear, the actors often don’t understand themselves what they are doing, but the historical dynamics are clear. Should the working class begin to organize seriously, the Tea Party movement will provide the shock troops for a seizure of state power by the extreme right of corporate america.

What does this mean for us on the radical left? We may eventually find ourselves in the position of revolutionaries in the 1930s, stuck propping up an embattled liberal regime under attack by the fascist right. I don’t think this prospect is exactly around the corner, but things are developing in this direction.



“We, the Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937” by Stuart Christie
March 30, 2009, 6:58 pm
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we-coverI just finished Stuart Christie’s (yes, the guy who tried to assassinate Franco) study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation. The book not only attempts to “set the record straight” about what the FAI was and wasn’t, it uses the story of the FAI in the Spanish Revolution to look at the critical question of power and co-optation in revolutionary movements. The story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. In 1936, the workers of the Spanish National Confederation of Labor (CNT) thwarted a fascist uprising intended to topple the liberal state. In crushing the military coup attempt, they seized control of their neighborhoods and workplaces. Armed workers patrolled the streets. The revolution was an accomplished fact.

The revolutionary leaders were overwhelmed by their own success. Cracks immediately began to emerge in their own belief in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself. Most of the “notables” of the CNT and FAI sold out the membership, agreeing to the establishment of a provisional state apparatus and the repression of the anarchist movement’s own “uncontrollables.” Before long, the Stalinists and liberals had outmaneuvered the Anarchists in the government, leading to a collapse in revolutionary morale, and eventually, a fascist victory.

According to Christie, the fate of the FAI should serve as a cautionary tale to anarchists in struggle. As it turns out, we are our own worst enemies. We are not exempt from what has been termed the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in social groupings. A permanent leadership tends to emerge, which eventually becomes more invested in its own survival as an elite than in the success of the struggle.

This question is not merely theoretical navel-gazing. The dynamics of “oligarchization” play out every day in our organizations. How do we build a truly libertarian mass organization? Our ability to make a revolution depends on our ability to answer this question.



Some thoughts on “Radical Space: Building the House of the People”
November 22, 2008, 2:42 pm
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I just finished Margaret Kohn’s “Radical Space: Building the House of the People.” The book is an analysis of the role that autonomous spaces played in the Italian socialist movement before the rise of Fascism. I was partly motivated to read the book because I recently took on the responsibility of establishing long-term financial stability for a local radical community center. I didn’t get much out of the book in terms of practical hints, but it did move my thinking about the role of space in social movements in a new direction.

Kohn’s primary thesis is that rather than being socialized into revolutionary consciousness in the factory, Italian workers’ movements were rooted primarily in cooperatives, chambers of labor, and houses of the people. Most of these structures were non-partisan coalitional spaces shared by various political groups, trade unions, and popular associations. Kohn claims that the “Houses of the People” served to project political meaning onto everyday activities like drinking a glass of wine, relaxing with friends, or purchasing food. Kohn makes arguments about each type of social space in particular as well (cooperative, chamber of labor, factory, the bourgeois public sphere), but these probably aren’t necessary to go over. She also claims that learning how to run cooperatives and community centers helped build the compositional power of the working class.

On the whole I was very impressed by the book. It is surprisingly relevant and readable for an academic text. However, I thought that the argument suffered for the absence of a couple key conceptual tools for understanding capitalism. This became clear toward the end of the book when Kohn devotes a chapter to analyzing the geography of socialist municipalities in Italy in the inter-war years. As a result of her early choice to dismiss the role of the factory as a site of potential liberation, she actually overlooks the central goal of proletarian struggle: emancipation from work. Her emphasis on working class political movements instead must focus on control of local governments by social administrations. Kohn starts out with a promising dismissal of traditional notions of a linear progression of class consciousness to the formation of a working class political party, and ends up glorifying local socialist governments and downplaying the real failure of the socialist movement to seize the means of production.

That said, it is painfully clear that the closure of political space in the postmodern world has been much more than a metaphor. There are no places for people to meet, discuss, and make plans. Back on a metaphorical level, workers today are socialized almost directly by capital without the mediation of the bourgeois private sphere or the autonomous proletarian public sphere. The workplace still produces antagonism between workers and bosses, but the antagonism becomes submerged, continually collapsing back into fascist dependency. Revolution clearly will not spring out of the workplace without outside organization.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. There is no consciousness, to there is no organization, so there is no struggle, so there is no consciousness. How does one create something from almost nothing?

Perhaps here is where we can add to Kohn. Before there are spaces, there must be movements that need spaces, or at least an image of movements that might need spaces. This where we are at right now. First the prophets, then the people, then their house.