<table><tr><td><blockquote>Absurdity was the most logical fact of all.
Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, <em>X-Ray of the Pampa</em></blockquote>
Some of us feel anarchism is beautiful in practice, but in theory it doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work wonders.
Perhaps the best explanation why this should be so may be found in considering the imbalance between objective critique and subjective presentation of that critique.
Over recent decades, anarchism has developed a critique of civilization that deepens and broadens the traditional antagonism to capitalism. Anarchist scholars like John Zerzan have scrupulously monitored academic research and conventional reporting to systematically demolish from the inside, as it were, any rational justification for civilization whatsoever.
Poets, writers, and editors, however, who might have been expected to translate this elegant critique into more accessible and popular forms, have been notable in their failure to match the advance of anarchist scholarship. Their preferred form—the long essay—is essentially an academic form, vital as such to the triumph of anarchism’s objective critique, but fatal to any hope of such triumph on the part of subjectivity.</td><td><img title="luckily it isn't a battle of subjectivity vs the world" src="http://anarchistnews.org/files/pictures/2012/manrobotrainbow.jpg"></td><...
One finds little doggerel, whimsy, caricature, burlesque, lampoonery or other such low forms in anarchist writing. Clearly, we are still far from appreciating Oscar Wilde’s insight that it’s better to be interesting than to be good. And having for many years taken to task SCARS (Scribbling Clods of Anarchist Realism) for their obtuseness, I must now confess my own contribution to witlessness.
In reflecting on my mother’s recent death, I came to realize how profoundly I had misunderstood her. Because she aspired to be Christian and middle-class, I assumed she was. In fact, I was the Christian (indifferent to wealth) and middle-class (always reading). She was, I realize now, a peasant, and not just because she only obtained her high school equivalency late in life. My father, too, was a peasant, from Oklahoma, even though he was the first person from his family to go to college.
My father told me again and again that America had gone wrong when during WWII women entered the workforce. I would hear him say during the Sixties that we wouldn’t be seeing these protests if Joe McCarthy were still around.
My mother burned the earliest stories I wrote because she believed they represented wicked lies (those would come later, actually).
Now I know many Christian and middle-class people supported McCarthy but many did not. Most middle-class, professional parents would be pleased at evidence of their child’s creativity and few, I think, would confuse fiction with mendacity.
Perhaps another incident from childhood will make this point even more clearly. In junior high in 1969 my English teacher organized a debate shortly after the revelations of a massacre occurring in My Lai in Vietnam. Interestingly, the terms of the debate were not about who was responsible; they were simply whether or not the massacre should have taken place.
I argued no. One other person argued that as well. Almost everyone else (10 – 12 people) argued yes. Even the cool hippie kids got very upset by the end at our insistence that no, Americans shouldn’t just kill whoever they wanted to, even if they could.
The thoughtful Christian teacher was not part of this frenzy. So what else may have accounted for this adolescent enthusiasm for American exceptionalism (apart from the essentially adolescent quality of American exceptionalism itself)?
However conservative my parents were in regard to authority; they were not Republicans, although they voted for Reagan in 1980, and certainly my grandmother, something of the family matriarch, always voted Democrat. It would be accurate to describe them as authoritarian, but not in a way that was coherent or owed anything to contemporary conservatism. I believe that they were best described as pre-modern.
So I began to wonder how many others hold values appropriate to the thousands of years when there was authority, there was patriarchy, there was religion, and there was property, but before there was double-entry bookkeeping? Why would my father instinctively feel threatened by women in the workforce (actually, at that point, just remembering they had been in the workforce)? Why would he instinctively feel sympathetic to Joe McCarthy, for Christ’s sake? Why would my mother burn her child’s expression of creativity?
Could it be that education, at best, does little to corrode the peasant values inculcated in most of us for thousands of years? Could it be that we as anarchists are confusing workers with peasants, and that’s why we’re not enjoying the influence we should?
Consider the classic worker: vital to the working of capitalism, he has a right to feel confident of her place in the productive process. In theory, of course, that power could be used to smash the whole apparatus at once. In practice, it has not been used for that at all. But subversive or not, the worker knew her efforts were needed, and he had the pay to prove it, at least once upon a time. Now technology has eroded substantially that power, and it’s tempting to view the universal progressive enthusiasm for technology as a lot like someone who slowly slits his or her own throat and marvels at the sound of the cut.
But what about all those who never enjoy the privilege of rational, limited exploitation and the confidence of knowing they’re a vital, if tiny, cog in the economy? Isn’t insecurity rather more likely to be what we feel? Anxiety? Confusion? What did Lennon say in “Working Class Hero”? “They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool.”
Things don’t add up for the vast, superfluous majority of us. How could they? We come from an institution, the Family, where we experienced the pain of discipline, abuse or neglect and were told it was love. Yeah, right, we eventually figure out—and that cynicism stays with most of us,I suspect, unwittingly undermining our capacity to be moved by the coherence and plausibility of the primitivist critique, among other things.
So an eminently rational critique may be lost on the very people who might be expected to embrace it, because those people have been conditioned by all the irrationality associated with the Family to expect a world where nothing makes sense.
Our ancestors from the heroic age of anarchists one hundred or more years ago were not so dismayed by this difficulty. Back then, novels were being written in three lines. (Felix Feneon) A little later, novels were written, drawn might be a better word, with no words at all. (Masereel, Ward, et al.) Anarchism might still be interesting to people who didn’t talk like professors or professionals or those who want to be professors or professionals.
Now that’s not the case so much. Albertina in <em>The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman</em> by Angela Carter says, “Be amorous. But also, be mysterious.”
We would like to be subversive. But we should have to also be mysterious.
We may be forgiven for overlooking the peasants among us. After all, we’ve been taught that mechanized agriculture reduced the agricultural workforce to next to nothing. But all the ignorance contained in the agricultural workforce has hardly disappeared. If you think of the South in this country as the seat of American peasantry, the migrations of the 20th century simply spread that ignorance throughout the rest of the country, north and west. Arizona certainly got more than its fair share of the dregs of the Confederacy.
And that is perhaps yet another sobering truth. People fight very hard in very bad causes. The last two years of the American Civil War and the last two years of The Great Patriotic War prove this maxim. Even when defeat is certain, as it must have been to intelligent Confederates and Germans, they fight on, perhaps if for no other reason than to escape accountability for their legacy. Some fights have to be to the death. No useless leniency!
Ultimately, of course, what could not be won on the battlefields of the Civil War—white control of the black population—was won through the terror of the “Redemption.” Ever since, the utility of night raids has been appreciated by America, as currently in Afghanistan.
And how convenient that the accompanying squalor of the segregated South provided a steady stream of cheap labor to the factories of the North and the West throughout the 20th century. My family escaped Oklahoma for California, where they worked in the fields of the Central Valley and the shipyard at Mare Island near Napa.
Now it seems to me that few of us escape the legacy of millennia, when we were cowed by arbitrary aristocratic authority, cramped in every way by constant toil, stupefied by pathetic consolations, from religion to alcohol, and enchanted by dreams of property, forever resentful of anything whimsical, unforced, elegant or sublime.
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom may be the great American novel because it portrays a peasant resentful at his humiliation at the hands of the rich, a peasant who will not scruple to commit incest but regards miscegenation as taboo. Lest we forget, only in the 1960’s did the U.S. Supreme Court rule unconstitutional laws forbidding inter-racial marriages.
If the past is not dead; it’s not even past, as Faulkner said somewhere else, maybe our capacity for tolerance of irrationality is much greater than our capacity for rational thought. Have we really sloughed off the legacy of centuries, which insisted, per the intellectual ascendancy of the South in America from early on, that miscegenation should be forbidden?
In another of his novels, The Mansion, Faulkner describes an election in Mississippi in which a decorated officer from WWII who has commanded black troops is running against a hard-core segregationist. Despite his earnestness and experience, he is losing.
I seem to recall it’s at a 4th of July picnic where the candidates will speak that Ratliff, the sewing machine agent, despairing at the prospect of the segregationist victory, notices a tree where all the dogs piss. He takes a switch from that tree and unobtrusively rubs it against the back of the segregationist’s legs, whereupon he becomes a laughing stock as the day goes on and every dog at the picnic finds him irresistible.
Ratliff’s switch might be akin to Philoctetes’ bow in the myth of the Trojan War: we can’t win without it. Reason has its uses, but they’ve been largely exhausted in the creation of the primitivist critique. We have use now for other methods, other weapons, those speaking to the crudity which has always characterized peasants.
For example, why shouldn’t we recognize the freedom anarchism promises has not been welcome? We can then promise security: anarchy is order without authority.
Some talk of change as if it’s attractive. But in this ever-changing world in which we live, more of us, I suspect, view change as threatening and unwelcome. By contrast, we can note that gatherer-hunter life was very stable for a very long time. As they say, give me that real old time religion!
Can’t we play on people’s fears as well as authority? How about the fear of never knowing power, pleasure or wisdom? Isn’t that pretty much what anyone can expect from a conventional life?
To return to the objective vs. subjective distinction, one reason for the success of the primitivist critique is that its coruscating lucidity has been focused for decades almost entirely on the leading edge of domination. This is what distinguishes it from the sentimental impatience of progressives with the persistence of outmoded forms of exploitation. We are far removed from the days when business and corporate leaders recognized that you can’t buy nothing if you don’t make nothing. If they have forgotten this, or feel it’s simply cheaper to introduce the stick everywhere the carrot formerly clouded consciousness, what do we care?
The outmoded thinking we care about is our own. We have not considered, as popularizers of primitivism, that consciousness lags behind conditions. Brilliantly profiling conditions is only half the battle; the other half is altering consciousness, specifically to provide the good faith necessary for revolt to truly threaten the occupiers of land and language.
Perhaps a subjective focus on the trailing edge of domination will be as successful as the objective focus on its leading edge has been. The terms of success, of course, will be quite different.
How do we measure the erosion of the ghost theories that prevent us from seeing the world in front of our face? That world is in the first place very, very old, as our indigenous comrades remind us. Can we cultivate an attitude that nothing civilized is not alien to us? It seems possible.
Can we recognize the possibility that wisdom, pleasure and power are still available to us, as the Judgment of Paris, also from the myth of the Trojan War, suggests, and look to where we might find them? Can we embrace our own lack of self-importance as the best hope of discovery?
More to the point, can we devise arguments that have no answer? Only these will complement the labors of our scholar comrades who have won every argument, but convinced few, as the province of reason shrinks more rapidly every day.
We have to face arguments that have no answer, such as why should I think anything will change whatever I do, given the steady regress of the past few thousand years? Another argument it’s hard to answer is, has there ever been a successful revolution other than the bourgeoisie revolution? And hasn’t that bourgeoisie revolution made everything worse? So why do you even use that word?
Why can’t we too devise arguments that really can’t be answered?
There’s no accounting for taste, as they say. So how can the civilized answer our sincere indifference?
There may be taste for accountability, however. Can we bring this wretched racket to account?
We might ask, Where is the original title to the infinitely sophisticated and oh-so-dynamic institution of Property obsessed these many centuries with demarcating with relentlessly increasing nicety every square inch of this planet?
We might also ask, Why is every document of civilization a document of barbarism, as Walter Benjamin asserted?
Then again we might ask, Who are you, members of the educated and propertied classes, to dismiss us as fearful and prone to fear mongering? Who has more reason to feel terrified than us?
Your insularity is lethal. What you don’t know hurts us. Our world grows more uncertain and unsafe by the day.
We would be crazy not to be afraid, but fear does complicate the retention of sanity, and accordingly it’s easy to wind up fearful of shadows. Before that happens, can we turn fears into jeers?
My own fear is that not enough of us want to think about thinking. How else explain the miserable impotence of anarchism in a world where the ravages of authority are everywhere unmistakable?
We are clearly not up to the task before us: simply to confirm the good faith of subversion. It was, after all, no less an authority than Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century French statesman, who noted that in any confrontation with authority, all other things being equal, the king would have the advantage due to the bad faith of the rebels.
Anarchists are noteworthy merely for making important ideas uninteresting. One more effort, anarchists, if you want to be enchanters!