Tag Archives: anarchism

Doing it Together: Youth Liberation and Deschooling – An interview with carla bergman

Last month I interviewed my friend carla bergman on deschooling, youth liberation, and other things, for The Peak magazine in Guelph.  Read the full interview here.  My favourite excerpt:

“Ultimately, my personal work and activism is about creating alternatives to school, so I am less interested in the binary between school or no school and more interested in rethinking entirely how we can create free, accessible spaces and projects for and by youth. I want to challenge the conditions that underscore youth oppression by having our communities sincerely engage kids into the architecture of all areas of society, and that’s going to mean directly challenging ageism against children and youth. It’s worth emphasizing that most folks don’t even include youth oppression (childism) on their list of oppressions. We have lots of work to do, and it’s going to have to be together and it’s going to have to be lead by youth.”

When Unicorns Speak

Cindy Milstein on the nastiness (and the patriarchy) of the anarchist milieu: “Too many times, anarchists have told me that they are too scared to write or speak publicly. They are rightly worried that they will be dragged through the mud, particularly in highly personal ways. I can’t say I blame them. It shouldn’t be a necessity that one needs a thick, hard skin to give voice to ideas and imagination, to share our sharp and inquisitive minds as gifts with each other. It shouldn’t be a requirement that one have to deal with lies, insults, and nastiness.”

Outside the Circle


One of my great sorrows — as a critically constructive, “prefigurativist” anarchist writer — is that a small number of loud antiauthoritarian voices, too often patriarchal ones, seem to enjoy bullying the vast majority of anarchistic folks into silence. Such bullies are frequently male writers and/or males who control various DIY means of production/publication. They cow into submission those who want to engage in dialogue, grapple with hard questions, think aloud, do experimental and theoretical writing, and in these and other ways, help to cultivate many politically engaged street intellectuals — and just plain nice, caring people who happen to be anarchists.

Too many times, anarchists have told me that they are too scared to write or speak publicly. They are rightly worried that they will be dragged through the mud, particularly in highly personal ways. I can’t say I blame them. It shouldn’t be a necessity that one needs…

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Summary: amory starr – Grumpywarriorcool

ignitingarevIn this accessible, perceptive short essay from Igniting a Revolution, amory starr criticizes what she calls “grumpywarriorcool:” ways of being in activist spaces that are unkind, unfeeling, and exclusive.  She unpacks the way that whiteness and patriarchy has been “smuggled in” to radical organizing spaces, despite solidarity work and explicit opposition to these forms of oppression.  This is a summary of her article, and because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, some of my own experiences and reflections are in here too.  This relates closely to Jamie Heckert’s argument in “Anarchy without Opposition,” which I summarized last week here.

starr is arguing that grumpywarriorcool is a symptom of whiteness and patriarchy in spaces that are often explicitly anti-oppressive.  She discusses subtle forms of conduct at meetings and other organizing spaces that ‘smuggle in’ practices and behaviours that appear neutral or even liberatory, but may actually reflect and reproduce patriarchy, whiteness and classism, alienating communities of colour in particular.

In this sense, she explains, “it’s not what we work on that makes our politics racist, it’s how we do it that matters… What I have finally begun to realize is that the how is deep and subtle” (377).

She identifies and unpacks a few behaviours, assumptions, and practices in particular, which come together to create grumpywarriorcool:

1) Blanket ‘diversity’ or ‘equality’ can mask internalized oppression or exclusivity: starr argues that invoking ‘culture’ to defend individualistic behaviour “claims a socio-moral status beyond reprove and a horizontality which obviates critique.  It is this framework of cultural diversity which makes it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression within radical and revolutionary countercultures” (378).  starr gives a polemical/sarcastic example: “i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this ‘cultural diversity’… meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants” (379).  This also connects to the idea of ‘taking up too much space’ at meetings.  A familiar concept to radicals, the idea of sharing space says that we should all pay attention to how much space each of us is taking up, and we should make sure there’s space for everyone to speak and share ideas.  It has emerged in response to real problems: white dudes like me are often louder, and they talk forever, silencing others.  starr quotes her friend Jane here, who argues that the resulting ethic of ‘not taking up too much space’ can be part of the problem: “Get over it.  You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life” (384).  How can we figure out how to avoid dominating spaces while also bringing our passion and excitement?  Are there ways of being that actually open up or create space?  starr isn’t pretending there’s a perfect solution here: “while no culture can be universally welcoming landing pad, that doesn’t mean that organizers are absolved of any responsibility for culture” (378).

2) Norms of fearlessness, self-sacrifice, and bravery: starr argues that these norms can obfuscate the value of fear, hesitations, doubts, and silences.  “Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind behind profound doubt and fear” (378).  Norms of fearlessness make it difficult to share (and work through) fears, anxieties, and doubts.

3) Individualism and the dream of shedding the past to find community in the future: “a hallmark of white countercultures is the vision of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off, and political compassion embraces what might best be theorized as ‘imagined community‘” (380).  This describes my process of radicalization to a tee: i came to see my middle-class, white, suburban upbringing as the thing I had to unlearn, and (parts of) anarchist subculture became the community i belonged to.  This isn’t a problem in itself (well, there were lots of problems with this anarchist community, but that’s different).  The problem is that this experience gets universalized, and “many find it hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action” (380) because my reality (and the one I impose on everyone else) is that people have an ‘awakening’ sometime in their 20s, and they organize in ways that work for other, twenty-somethings.  In contrast, starr argues, many activists of colour “envision social movements in intimate terms; fighting racism is protecting their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children.  Struggle and survival are principles learned at home, from family and elders, at church” (380).  Indeed, I’m just starting to recognize in concrete terms that it tends to be white, middle-class people (NOT all people) who lack community.  I’m just starting to learn about and prioritize care, vulnerability, trust, and generosity, while recognizing that these values and practices are second-nature to folks with different backgrounds than my own.

4) This individualism has important implications beyond misunderstandings and false universalisms.  It means that intellectual and formal aspects of politics are often privileged over everyday life and the nitty-gritty face-to-face interactions that happen in organizing.  This one hit a chord with me: “when activists focus energy on clever communications and/or disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness and surprising courage of these actions will excite people to participate in various capacities” (380).  This is the classic anarchist fantasy of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  Disruption leads to inspiration leads to politicization and recruitment leads to creating a community of resistance: “joining a movement is understood as an individual intellectual act, not a social one” (381).  To admit that this is a fantasy connected to whiteness and masculinity doesn’t mean that it’s totally ineffective, but it’s likely to attract more people like me: people who’ve felt alone, and get attracted to politics for intellectual reasons, or because it seems exciting and daring.

5) Similarly, starr points to ‘smart radicalism’ as a fundamental premise of white organizing: a commitment to radical principles and theories, a ‘correct’ interpretation of these principles and theories, and the assumption that this correct radicalism will avoid fetishism or mistakes (382-3).  I’ve participated in this one, too: being part of spaces where people are hungry to correct each other and ‘get it right.’  starr suggests that this is often connected to an attack on ‘reformism’ within radical groups, where the militancy of members is judged by their willingness to engage in high-risk direct action.  She contrasts this to the priorities of anti-rarcism: “while ideological and tactical radicalism exist in antiracist organizing, they are not the standard by which organizations and organizers relate with participants.  Instead, friendliness, comfort, safety, generosity, and reliable personal connection are the necessary elements of ‘good’ political work (383).

6) Direct democracy can end up substituting formal equality for genuine relationships and exchange.  In direct democracy, leadership often exists in the form of ‘facilitation’ and tends to be temporary, rotating, and random “affirming that all participants have equal (and equally limited) authority (381).  starr isn’t dismissing this tradition, explaining that they’re “similar to anti-racist practices in that they are local (unlike mass actions and international campaigns), building community, and empower marginalized people” (381).  But, she says, these meetings themselves aren’t often comfortable or empowering, and this isn’t a priority because “white organizing assumes that activists arrive at meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in the service of their commitments” (382).  This was another place where starr’s diagnosis hit home for me.  I’ve been to lots of meetings where people aren’t welcomed, ideas aren’t affirmed, and people aren’t friendly to each other.  When people are hesitant to commit to things, or complain that meetings suck, or stop showing up, I’ve often told myself it’s because they lack commitment.

7) This is one of the problems starr is pointing to: an everyday activist culture emerges lacking kindness, trust, generosity and vulnerability.  She calls this cool: “the reification of self-indulgent insecurity” (384).  It’s a problem because “it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable smiling, approaching someone, talking to strangers, or being unilaterally friendly” (384).  I don’t think this means making everything fun or easy; this mixes up ease with openness.  Nor is it about telling oppressed people to be more cheerful in their struggle: starr’s criticism is aimed clearly at privileged folks like me.  This really resonates: recognizing the reality of structural oppression and my privileged place within it not only made me feel guilty, it made me terrified of messing up.  And the best way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate others: never let your guard down, be relentlessly critical, and display your anti-oppression for the world to see.  As I cultivated this way of being, I found others who shared similar tendencies.  The result was an activist culture that was terrifying for newcomers and often cold even to insiders.

It’s not just that we have to be ‘critical’ of culture; we have to be open and able to having a range of conversations about subtle cultural behaviours and norms, in different ways.  The trap is to assume spaces or actions are culturally neutral and therefore inclusive, which starr argues amounts to “an act of indifference or disregard for other people” (which is often reflective of white and male privilege) (379).  starr frames this analysis as a way to “discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests, and then what is the face, the gesture, the relationship with strangers, and the greeting?”

All of these elements intersect and reinforce each other to create what starr is calling grumpywarriorcool.

Grumpywarrior cool is the intersection of blanket ‘diversity’ that masks whiteness and patriarchy, norms of fearlessness and self-sacrifice, individualism and struggle-against-our-upbringing narratives, the fetishization of disruptive direct action and publicity, intellectual radicalism and correctness, and cool unwelcoming judgmental activist spaces.

So what are the implications of this critique?  These aren’t just failures of analysis, but deeply ingrained ways of being: just because I read this article and find it convincing doesn’t mean I’m going to start being vulnerable, open, and kind.  If starr’s analysis is correct, then grumpywarriorcool is something white activists are steeped in, and it will take a lots of work, dedication, and experimentation to create different ways of being.  These are the limits of critique: it’s one thing to unsettle and critique ways of being that have come to be natural or normal.  It’s another thing to displace them with an alternative; that’s a much bigger challenge. And if part of the problem is relentless critique that fetishes the ‘correct’ analysis, then this criticism of white activist culture is always in danger of participating in this dynamic.  The critique of grumpywarriorcool and end up being just another trump card to display radical/intellectual superiority.  As starr laments, it’s a strange challenge to talk to people about subtle behaviours, assumptions, and the looks on their faces–is this about telling people how to behave?

What’s the alternative?  starr suggests an ethic of discovery: “not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which, as it turns out, have a huge impact on the shape of our political work” (379).  I am just starting to see grumpywarriorcool as a problem in my own community, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on alternatives that are more convivial, kind, and vulnerable.  In some ways, they’ve always been there, and I’ve dismissed them as wishy-washy, too hippy-ish, or they just freaked me out because I had to be vulnerable to share in those spaces.  In general, the spaces I’ve encountered are no less radical or militant, but there’s space for people to be silly, kind, joyful, sad, scared, supportive, vulnerable and angry.  It’s messier and more dangerous: when we open up to each other, there really is more danger of humiliation, getting hurt, and hurting others.  But this isn’t about yet another duty that tells white men like me that we need to do this or that: it’s about being really present and feeling alive.  For me, this has always been scarier than sneaky direct action.  starr ends the article with an updated exhortation from Black Panthers to white allies: “Let us see as central to our politics the replacement of indifference with discovery” (385).

Summary: Anarchy without Opposition by Jamie Heckert

queeringanarchismHow 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.


Random Not-so-Random Acts of Kindness

Cindy Milstein’s words on kindness, generosity, care and love in the context of the struggle for radical change: “It’s not that random not-so-random acts of kindness constitute revolution, or that if we accumulate enough of them, those acts will tip the imbalance of power, bringing all those structures of social domination, exploitation, and oppression to their knees. Yet they are part of (re)schooling ourselves in how to practice, routinely, the lost arts of caring, neighborly, and empathetic face-to-face social relations. And as many of us have personally experienced during uprisings like Occupy, the lack of such rigorous yet tender practices on a daily basis makes us woefully unprepared to be the people we want to be during our own experiments with egalitarian and directly democratic forms of social organization.”

Outside the Circle


It’s night 5 of Hanukkah in my Brooklyn home. Colorful little candles are casting a warm glow against the tarnished-golden metal of the menorah — bringing light into the world, even if only temporarily.

Night 1, also in Brooklyn, was an evening of pausing and remembrance for me — good practices for nearly any day (http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-light-of-remembrance/).

Nights 2 through 4 were missed, and instead replaced with a two-hour trip north by train to the hilly, rural, calming landscape of the Hudson Valley for warmth, pauses, and remembrances of other kinds — calling forth illumination, too, but in different ways: woodstoves, sunsets near the end of hikes, star-studded skies, and most especially, friends old and new.

At this dark time, light becomes crucial to sustain our spirits, our humanity. Perhaps, to be generous, the tacky-kitschy-comic displays of electrified outdoor Christmas (and increasingly Hanukkah) lights starting to reappear could be…

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Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

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. 

boschmagI 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 nationhoodecosystems, 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.