Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective. This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent essay called “Against Anarchism.” It’s an excerpt of a longer essay, part of a book entitled Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: Nancy Fraser to Debates Critics (coming out in 2014). For those who don’t know, Nancy Fraser is a famous political theorist (for academics, at least). Imagine being famous enough that you need a whole new book to respond to people who disagree with you!
Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time. I’m not out to mount a systematic defense of anarchism here (or ‘neo-anarchism,’ as Fraser calls it), in part because there’s no coherent, singular political tradition to defend. Anarchism means many things to many people (which makes it pretty silly to proclaim you’re against ‘it’). What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser? I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call ‘autonomous politics,’ which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism. Autonomous politics is also too complex to be a coherent whole, which is part of what makes it so threatening. My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project. Autonomous politics threatens to destabilize liberalism and the tired old tricks of conventional politics, revealing their irrelevance for changing things here and now.
Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on ‘two tracks.’ On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.” Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.” Anarchism, she says, rejects this second track in favour of “a single-track understanding of democratic politics.” This is the spectre of autonomous politics: practices that short-circuit the relationship between institutions and the publics they are supposed to represent. Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist.
So, anarchists, are you accountable (like a good liberal) or are you unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)? Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider? This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into ‘State’ and ‘public,’ making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics.
I think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic. Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes. Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge that don’t fit into the liberal framework. In the anarchist tradition, this autonomist current can be traced to folks like Gustav Landauer, who insisted that the State can’t be attacked or destroyed. The state and other formal institutions are social relationships:
The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.
For practitioners of liberal thought-magic, the prospect of ‘behaving differently toward one another’ is naive, if not dangerous. There are always two tracks: formal institutions and publics who contest and transform them. This is crux of liberal democratic thought-magic: two tracks of politics locked in communication and change. There is no escape, no alternative.
This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians. Autonomous isn’t just ‘outside’ Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell. How?
First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ are only a few centuries old. Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks. Of course, there was incredible hierarchy, violence, and patriarchy before the rise of the modern State (in some places—particularly in Europe). The State has transformed these brutal relationships, institutionalizing and industrializing some of them while subjugating others. But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places. This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic wants it to be.
Liberal thought-magic insists that because some of these non-State relationships were and are brutal, we must dismiss autonomous politics as a scary, violent, unthinkable way of living and relating. It sneaks in the racist and Eurocentric view that indigenous peoples and other autonomous currents are primitive, naive, savage, unrealistic, or it simply erases their existence. Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.” These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better). Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions. But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.
Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the ‘proper’ relationship between formal institutions and publics.
Critical liberals like Fraser come up with ideas about how they could be much different, but not too different (the dual tracks of State and public needs to be preserved). In her article, she mentions her contemplation of “hybrid strong publics,” which aims “not at collapsing the two tracks of the public sphere model, but at softening the border that separates them, making them more porous to each other, and enhancing the flow of communication between them.” Fraser’s role is to talk about how this relationship could work better, and (as she demonstrates here) to police threats to this relationship, reasserting the necessity of the two tracks.
This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better and nicer! Ignoring them is irresponsible, tantamount to giving up. A theorist’s role is to criticize this relationship, and present a normative argument for the way that things should be.
The liberal theorist tends to speak from a mystical non-place, with little reference to the people and places to which they’re connected in everyday life, or to the concrete political practices they’re engaged in. But once the spell starts to dissipate, the categories of ‘State’ and ‘public’ start to appear more and more as one kind of politics among others, and liberal political theorists start to sound shrill and particularistic, protecting a centuries-old political project that has been globalized through colonization and imperialism. Indeed, from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use. It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and civil society, and encourages us to inhabit the mystical non-place where we get to fantasize about how things could or should be. To experiment with other ways of seeing and being in the world tends to be perceived as ineffective and naïve, if not outright undemocratic and dangerous.
With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell; I read about how the State should be, and how institutions could be different. I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of. I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public. I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to be open to a diversity of traditions and encounters. Can we work together politically, will we be adversaries, or will we ignore each other? For me, that’s a question I’ll try to figure out when I meet you. Even if you’re committed to liberal thought-magic, we might be able to work together, depending on how we relate. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own commitments, baggage, and ideas; it means I’m trying to be open to the encounter, and meet you where you’re at.
Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferate the tracks of politics. There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, institutions, and actors. It’s not about pretending that ‘the State’ and ‘the public’ don’t exist: they’re no less (or more) real than other social categories. They’re not exactly irrelevant, either: they continue to exert a strong pull on most people (all the more reason to be critical of them and the kinds of politics they normalize). Fraser accuses anarchists of assuming a single, autonomous track (and therefore they’re unaccountable to anyone outside this track). But many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political ‘tracks’. Not all of these tracks are ‘publics’ or ‘formal institutions;’ these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.
From the perspectives of autonomous politics (and there are many), questions of accountability are diverse, determined not by abstract ideological arguments but often by one’s everyday lived relationships to people, communities, places, and ecosystems. These kinds of people are dangerous to the State (and to liberal thought-magic) because their loyalties and commitments can never be easily fitted into the liberal tracks of ‘public’ and ‘State.’ More worrisome still, they often insist on relating to others horizontally and across difference, refusing to accept the authority of formal institutions. Fraser would like to dismiss these currents as particularistic, vanguardist, or isolationist. There are isolationist, vanguardist tendencies of anarchism, but there’s more to autonomous politics. Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms. Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored. This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhood, ecosystems, and non-humans. This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.
Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation. The categories of liberal thought-magic (‘the State’ and ‘the public’ or ‘civil society’) are like powerful black holes, sucking everything in and erasing the complexity of political life. By the same token, warding off these categories and necessities enables other values and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently. I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic. But for many people, the spell is losing its power.
Who ensures that autonomous politics is accountable? There’s no universal arbiter or judge. You will have to find out for yourself what different forms of politics are like by engaging with the people who practice them. For those who yearn for a universal arbiter of justice or accountability or democracy, it may be useful to remember that it has never existed: the universalist dream is a fantasy that has never succeeded in representing everyone, and it is one that has tried to erase and subjugate the political universe in order to live out this fantasy. Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.
I think these are the reasons why Nancy Fraser hates anarchism and autonomous politics. At a time when liberal thought-magic works on fewer and fewer people, the magicians are getting worried. It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo. As Fraser points out, it’s dangerous to pretend the State and other formal institutions don’t exist (it’s one of many tracks), but it’s at least as dangerous to pretend that there are only two tracks to politics, fervently conjuring liberal thought-magic. Fraser has written a whole book ‘debating her critics,’ but many proponents of autonomous politics won’t be interested in debating her; they’ve dislodged themselves from the black hole of the State and the public, and these orbits appear strange and dangerous to liberal magicians. But I think even the liberals like Fraser know that there’s a whole political universe beyond their myopic orbits; they’re just trying really hard to ignore or condemn the political aliens.
This post, I hope, is somewhere in between engagement and departure from liberal thought-magic: I’m hoping to help ruin the spell, and try out some other forms of thought-magic. I don’t have a coherent alternative to Fraser, in part because autonomous politics refuses any singular alternative: there needs to be room for all kinds of different magic, and there are no guarantees to politics.