How might being “against” systems oppression and domination actually support those systems? How might “being radical” end up distancing radicals from the people they want to be engaging? This is a summary and analysis of “Anarchy without Opposition,” by Jamie Heckert, a chapter in Queering Anarchism. Heckert unpacks the ways that anarchists often set themselves in opposition to systems of oppression, and he claims that this opposition can actually be a kind of counterproductive attachment. By defining themselves against what they’re not (oppression, capitalism, the State, and so on), anarchists can end up reinforcing those very structures. As an alternative, Heckert suggests a queering of anarchism, which would make it more open-ended, relational, dynamic and compassionate. He draws together strands of queer theory, anarchism, permaculture, non-violent communication, and buddhism, creating a narrative that is both theoretical (highlighting ideology and opposition as bordering practices) and personal (sharing stories of his own attempts to navigate spaces with openness and compassion). He writes:
My aim in this essay is to queer that notion of anarchism in a number of ways. To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross. What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, to overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in? (64).
In the simplest terms, I think, Heckert’s problem is the way in which (LGBT and anarchist) identities and ideologies can end up preserving rigid borders and oppositions, which close off possibilities for more openness, compassion, and newness. At stake in this problem is the capacity to embody anarchy: ways of being and relating that are fluid, loving, kind, creative, and open to difference. He asks:
what kinds of politics might become possible if we all learn to be less concerned with conforming to certain labels and more capable of listening to the complexity of our desires?(66)
Heckert differentiates State-oriented LGBT politics from anarchist queer politics, suggesting that the State-oriented version seeks to sustain and legitimize identity, whereas queer politics “might ask how the identities themselves might already be Statelike with their borders and policing” (66). He makes a similar point about anarchism, asking about the way its borders are policed:
How much energy that could go into creating other-than-State-like ways of living gets lost to efforts to appear anarchist enough? I know I’m not the only one who suffers from anarcho-perfectionism! Likewise, I’ve seen loads of energy to into arguments about whether so and so is really anarchist or not, or such and such is really anarchism (66).
The general problem he’s getting at is the ways in which identity and ideology function as bordering practices that close off possibilities: “when I again get caught up in my own thoughts, my own desires, my own stories about who I am, and who you are, what should have happened, how the world should be… then I see so little outside the dramas of my own mind. Everything I see, everyone I meet, I reinterpret through the lens of those fictions. I take myself and my beliefs very, very seriously. Just like the State” (74).
In this sense, Heckert is arguing that ideological and identitarian boundaries are part of seeing and thinking like the State (or more radically, that those are the State, insofar as the State is a way of seeing and organizing the world):
“Here’s a queer proposal: the State is always a State of mind. It’s putting life in boxes and then judging it in terms of those boxes, those borders, as if they were what really mattered. It’s trying to get other people to do what you want them to do without so much regard for their needs, their desires. It’s self-consciousness, self-policing, self-promotion, self-obsession. It’s anxiety and depression. It’s hyperactivity stemming from the fantasy that being seen to be doing something is better than doing nothing, even if what you’re doing might cause more harm than good. It’s resetnment at self and others for not doing it right, for not being good enough. It’s the belief that security comes from control. And it’s a source of temendous suffering in the world. It’s also something I do…” (73).
So what’s the alternative? “What might an anarchy refusing to be contained by the borders by its opposites look like?” (67). For the skeptics, he explains that he’s not saying anarchism should include everything; he’s saying that “interesting things are likely to happen if folk inspired by anarchism make connections with folk who see things differently, who do things differently” (67). This isn’t recruiting, either: “To do so is not simply to try to convince others that anarchism is right, but perhaps even to let go of such judgments” (67).
At some points, Heckert calls for an anarchism with “no borders, no purity, no opposites,” which seems a bit unrealistic in practice, since our lives are full of all kinds of borders and boundaries, some of which are desirable, and others that we can’t simply get rid of (refusing to “see” the borders of private property will probably land you in jail). But I think his main point is that we don’t have to take these borders for granted; they can be queered, unsettled, and shifted. In this sense, this isn’t a call to get rid of all borders or divisions or oppositions, but to pay attention to what happens to them; to attend to them, to loosen them up, rather than assuming that they’re necessary or good or right. Heckert admits that identity and other borderings can be useful:
Taxonomies of species or sexualities, categories of race or citizenship, borders between nations or classes or types of politics–these are fictions. To be sure, fictions have their uses. Perhaps in using them, we may learn to hold them lightly so that we, in turn, are not held by them (64).
Furthermore, the really important and interesting stuff happens at the borders, not inside them. Heckert draws on permaculture’s insight that edges are the most productive and fertile parts of ecosystems, suggesting that anarchism would benefit from attending to the social edges, where people and communities permeate and connect: “The more that anarchism, a many branched river in our social ecosystem, mixes and mingles with swamp and stone, soil and soul, the more diverse forms of life will benefit” (69).
An important problem with all this (and I wished he spent more time on this) is the fact that these ways of being aren’t just beliefs that we can change by thinking critically or declaring ourselves otherwise. As Heckert puts it: “declaring a politics to be nonhierarchical, anarchist, feminist, safe, or queer does not magically make this happen. It takes a different kind of magic: practice” (70). Both the positive and negative ways of being are held in our bodies; they’re accumulated habits of relating to ourselves and to each other, and they’re often-unconscious attachments and investments. And working at being otherwise means working that through our bodies, and shifting our unconscious desires. How? I think Heckert’s suggestion is that we practice radical acceptance: of ourselves, of others, of the world, and of its hierarchies and borders (even if we want to tear them down): “there is no such thing as evil; there is nothing to oppose. Instead, we might learn to both empathize with the desires of others, and to express our own” (71). This is a politics “that starts off accepting everything just as it is. From the basis of acceptance, we might then ask, what service can be offered? How can anarchy be nurtured, rather than demanded, forced?” (71). His final questions in this paragraph are particularly important, I think:
What ways of living and relating can we practice that are even more effective at meeting the needs of everyone for life, love, and freedom? And in what ways might we learn to accept the pain we feel when that doesn’t happen, instead of distracting ourselves with resentment or chocolate? And in what ways might we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we realize we’ve been drawn to strategies of distraction or even domination? (71).
So is he saying that we should just accept the status quo, try to love everyone, and be nice? I don’t think it’s that simple. I think that acceptance is the alternative to moral judgement, for Heckert. It’s about escaping the normative fictions that encourage us to think about how things are wrong and bad and should be different. This closes off our capacity to work with what’s actually here, because the here-and-now is too imperfect and messy for rigid borders of identity and ideology. In contrast, acceptance entails finding ways out of the borders that constrict our perceptions and affections, we can see and feel more, be open to more, and create new relationships that have been closed off by the borders we’re transgressing. Radical acceptance entails a recognition that domination and exploitation are happening, with or without our acceptance. When domination becomes something that’s not monstrous, totally unacceptable, and something outside us that we can oppose, then we can also begin to work with ourselves more gently, because we’re prone to dominate and mess things up too:
to hold tightly–to shame, resentment, or any emotion or any story of how the world really is–is to be held tightly. This is not freedom. To hold gently is to be held gently. This, to me, is freedom. No opposition, no tension, between intimacy and spaciousness (72).
Another strength of Heckert’s piece is his clear, personal, and humble writing style. It can be really challenging to speak to the importance of compassion, love, and openness without sounding naive, and I think Heckert pulls it off. It’s even more challenging to point to the ways that anarchism can be hypercritical, ideological, holier-than-thou, and so on, without lapsing into this tendency oneself, by claiming a new critical insight that reveals yet another thing that people are doing wrong. In short, critique of being hypercritical is still critique. Heckert moves on and beyond this paradox by gesturing towards alternatives, foregrounding compassion, empathy, openness, and discussion. There’s a danger here, too, which I think he avoids pretty effectively. The danger consists in turning this alternative into a new imperative, a new ideology, or a new prescription for behaviour. I think part of the strength of this essay is that Heckert admits that these open ways of being aren’t a static destination, and that he lapses into ideological certainty often; he doesn’t have it all figured out. After proclaiming that his anarchism “has no straight lines, no borders, no purity, no opposites,” he readily admits:
Okay, I’ll be honest. My anarchism can grow rigid, bordered, oppositional. I know the satisfaction of imagining myself more radical than others. The thing is, this comes with the risk of being not-radical-enough, or even not really anarchist. It also gets in the way of betting along with people, of working together, of even meeting (68).
I can relate to this. As someone who became politicized through learning about oppression and exploitation through university and anarchist activism, I was (and still am, sometimes) attached to a politics fuelled by resentment: of myself, my friends and family, and my guilt about my own privilege and complicity in systems of oppression. I think Heckert is talking about this kind of resentment, and it’s different than anger: this kind of resentment makes me afraid of not being radical enough, it makes me want to hit people over the head with the Truth rather than having a conversation, and it keeps me from being able to meet people where they’re at and be open to difference and new insights. Being more open, for me, has meant cultivating some of the qualities that Heckert is talking about: accepting and loving myself, being curious and open to learning, and understanding the ways that I’ve reproduced rigid borders in the ways that I relate to people when I’m trying to be pure or self-righteous, or when I’m feeling insecure. I used to think “love” and “openness” was a bunch of hippy shit. Now I find myself agreeing with Heckert: I want love, intimacy, and openness to be at the core of my politics, not as a new moral imperative or strategic insight, but because these are things that make me feel more alive, connected, and capable of transformation.