Just do it?
This is the second post in an effort to think through the political experiences of the libertarian left in the last ten years. Like the other posts, it is highly subjective and more an attempt to make sense of my own perspective than anything else. It focuses on the anarchist tendency to privilege action over political argument in the light of the institutional turn. In making these points, I am aware that I conflate tendencies associated with the ‘new anarchists’ and anarchism more broadly. All the same, I think that on this score the conflation is justified, and I include a couple of examples of ‘old’ anarchists operating along these lines. At the same time, the motivation for writing this post is to reflect on my own thinking and priorities of the last ten years, which shared what I now see as the drawbacks of this approach.
In last week’s piece about the 2011 movement of the squares, I mentioned the presence of conspiracy theorists and cranks at the assemblies. I can recall at least three occasions when I noticed various elements of a cranky worldview being expressed and going more or less unchallenged. At the time I didn’t give this a second thought; it seemed obvious to me that ‘fringe elements’ and gullible people would be among the thousands attracted to the squares. If someone had said to me that conspiratorial nonsense would grow so much over the next ten years that it would outstrip anarchism in numbers of adherents and organisational and ideological coherence, I would have thought that was about as likely as Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party. To me, at that time, the important thing was not whether cranks got an easy ride in the assemblies, but whether those same bodies were generating political alternatives and a basis for concrete activity.
I now see that reluctance to make a political argument as a mistake, but one which was symptomatic of a broader approach to direct action. By 2011, this practical orientation had been the default mode of much of the left for twenty years. Its attraction might have been a response to the aftermath of the historic defeats of the organised working class in the 1970s. Direct action had the advantage of shifting revolutionary politics out of the smoky rooms to which it had retreated, where rote-learned arguments on party, class and history were rehearsed by ever decreasing circles, onto the terrain of responding to immediate needs with actions aimed at strengthening collective power.
In ‘The New Anarchists’ (2002), David Graeber observed that, among the partisans of direct action in the anti-capitalist movement, ‘Debate always focuses on particular courses of action; it’s taken for granted that no one will ever convert anyone else entirely to their point of view. The motto might be, “If you are willing to act like an anarchist now, your long-term vision is pretty much your own business”.’ Far from being something worth arguing about, the ideology of the ‘new anarchists’ was ‘immanent in the anti-authoritarian principles that [underlay] their practice’.
I think we should acknowledge the limitations of this approach in the light of the institutional turn. There are two key problems with it as far as I can see: one to do with avoiding political argument and the other to do with the supposedly inherent politics of direct action. In the first case, a tactical decision to avoid doctrinal debate in a period of defeat and sterility is turned into a point of principle. In general, we do not benefit from keeping shtum about our politics. The occasional advisability of doing so is symptomatic of a broader historic defeat. In periods of upsurge, people want to learn, reflect, and talk politics. We can see an example of this in the flurry of book recommendations and reading groups that followed the BLM protests last summer. It might be worth stating here that an openness to arguing a point should not necessarily mean a dogmatic insistence on its correctness and rejection of alternative possibilities. Rather, by arguing we are forced into an interrogation of our own ideas that has the potential to alter and renew them.
In the second case, the institutional turn has shown that, for many people, ‘acting like an anarchist’ in square occupations and anti-eviction mobilisations has proven compatible with a long-term vision of channelling that energy into parliamentary projects. After Podemos and Corbynism, we perhaps have to accept that there is no ideology immanent to direct action politics. For thousands of people, joining a political party after taking part in the direct-action cycle of 2011 (which of course included a sizeable proportion of veterans of nineties and noughties direct action) was not a contradiction — it was continuous. This came as a shock to me when it happened and I guess to others too. On reflection, however, the continuities are not so hard to perceive. People were attracted to direct action because it allowed them to do something positive there and then. It didn’t require tedious doctrinal debate and it enabled the left to claw back a degree of momentum and a sense of being protagonists after a disorienting and disempowering period of defeat. The institutional turn offered a similar kind of consolation. As to the long-term vision, well… what long-term vision was that again?
A failure to recognise the elements of continuity between direct action and the institutional turn characterised one of the few English-language attempts to confront it from an anarchist perspective. Thoughts on the Movement, or why we still don’t even Corbyn, by libcom stalwarts Joseph Kay and Ed Goddard, didn’t argue against the politics of Corbynism as such but made the case that activists who wanted to reform the UK state would spend their time better by getting involved in direct action-oriented groups. Criticised in the comments beneath for failing to advance a specifically anarchist case against Corbynism, the article’s defenders pointed to the work both had put in to establishing the libcom archives and forums. Acknowledging that work is important, but its distance from the matter at hand is revealing and somewhat depressing. Wouldn’t it make sense for an anarchist archive and an anarchist argument to have something in common? The unfortunate end point of the logic described above by Graeber is that while anarchism is an interesting point of view to be stored in an archive, anarchists don’t argue about politics, just tactics.
This is perhaps why the anti-parliamentary left has been largely subdued in its response to the institutional turn. Firstly, it is out of practice when it comes to arguing politics, secondly for this argument to carry any weight it requires us to remember what we’d decided was irrelevant: a long-term vision.
A recent article by the Leeds local of Solidarity Federation shows that this problem hasn’t gone away: ‘Above all, we orient ourselves around direct action, in other words: actually doing things. It is important to dispel the idea that Anarchists are idealistic at all costs, with nothing better to do than sit around fruitlessly discussing an “inevitable” revolution.’ As should hopefully be clear by now, I think that this line is symptomatic of an imbalance in present-day anarchism that needs to be addressed. Aside from which, I’ve never met an anarchist who sat around fruitlessly discussing an inevitable revolution, which is a pity as they sound nice and I could do with that kind of optimism in my life.
There is a danger that anarchists will see in the decline of Corbynism a vindication of their position that direct action beats parliamentary politics if you want to have a practical impact. This would be to misread the significance of the institutional turn, which is that thousands of people involved in direct action politics could be persuaded to join and campaign for political parties, more or less at the drop of a hat. If it is true that the decades prior to the institutional turn had seen the ‘new anarchist’ position become broadly hegemonic on the direct-action oriented left, then the ease with which the institutional turn was effected suggests that hegemony was highly superficial.
I am not arguing that anarchists should eschew direct action, or that the institutional turn in itself negates the justification of a direct-action focus. What I want to suggest is that there is no necessary link between direct action and anti-parliamentary politics. If we think that such a link can and should exist, then we need to make that case, first and foremost to ourselves.
PS: In future posts, this newsletter will hopefully make a contribution to that discussion, but the next couple of editions will be more historical in focus. Hope you had a good May Day!