It’s difficult for me to articulate my thoughts about anarchism because in many respects I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps this obscurity of anarchism belongs to its essence. In ordinary language anarchy generally signifies chaos and disorder. I do not think this is the case. In my mind, anarchism isn’t the absence of order, nor law, but is a question of where order and law come from. I’m not, however, firm on that hypothesis. Perhaps anarchism could denote a form of social and political organization without any law, but that would require a number of qualifications.
My thesis is that anarchism is the form of political organization that haunts all politics. However, this formula is liable to misinterpretation. “Haunting” generally has negative connotations. Someone might therefore take this statement to denote the idea that anarchism is a danger that threatens all forms of political organization. Under this characterization, anarchy would be something to be defended against.
This is not what I mean when I say anarchy haunts all forms of social and political organization. Rather, I mean something closer to Marx’s claim that communism is a specter that haunts Europe. To my thinking, anarchism haunts all political thought and all actually existing political institutions in two ways: First, there is the positive way. Anarchism is the political ideal– recognized as such or not –that all emancipatory politics aspires to. All truly just political organization strives to be egalitarian and without hierarchy, whether hierarchy be organized around a privileged leader, economic class, privileged institutions (such as corporations or parties), a privileged gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. When we think the concept of emancipation to its logical conclusion, anarchism stares back at us. Anarchism is what emancipatory and egalitarian politics strives to be without being it. It is the regulative ideal that both functions as the aim this politics strives towards and the standard it falls short of.
On the negative side, anarchism functions as the passion of critique– the ruthless critique of all existing thought and institutions –revealing the lie behind every hierarchical form of political organization. Rightwing politics always makes a single claim, though it takes a variety of forms: the people aren’t fit to govern themselves, therefore they need a leader, party, particular religion, particular ethnicity, father, gender, a manager, a boss, a general, etc., to govern them. People are like animals or work too hard to determine their own destiny. Here, of course, it is crucial that we understand “people” in the plural, for the question is always one of the plurality, of the common, of the multitudes, not of individuals. The question is not one of whether individuals can govern themselves (libertarianism), but of whether multitudes can govern themselves without an arche, autarch, leader, and so on. It is a question of the “common-ual”. Everywhere we find evidence both in support that people cannot govern themselves and that they can govern and lead themselves. We find worker collectives, despite the fact that we’re told that labor renders people too exhausted, worn down, fatigued to do anything else (cf. Ranciere, Nights of Labor). We’re told that various minorities lack either the education– or worse yet, biological constitution –to govern themselves. Yet we find absolutely new forms of political organization among these collectives that defy what we’re told are their limitations. We’re told that the youth lack the wisdom, experience, and understanding to grasp the reality of the “real world”, but we see them developing new collectives and forms of life that manage to stand over time.
Yes, we find many instances of institutions born of the egalitarian ideal that fall apart, where people take advantage, where a new form of regimentation ensues (here I think of La Borde breaking up romantic relationships in the name of an egalitarian model of love), but we also find many successes. We occasionally find an inventiveness without leaders, where the egalitarian ideal comes first and laws only arise as provisional norms later. We find many forms of political organization without need of a “subject believed to know”. These brief glimmerings of another form of social organization– one might here think of Badiou’s event or Ranciere’s part-of-no-part –are a threat to the rightwing thesis; and make no mistake, the rightwing orientation even occurs in leftwing politics (there we call it “microfascism”); we hear it when we’re told that we need a party or a master –threaten the core ontological assumptions of hierarchical politics. They threaten the core thesis that an autarch, a patriarch, a master in Lacan’s sense of the discourse of the master, is necessary for social and political organization. They suggest that another form of political organization is possible. Hierarchical politics, left and right, must then set about generating ideologies that purport to demonstrate how flat politics is, in fact, impossible; demonstrating how we always need a master. Notice, for example, how some of the socialist organization argue that a party is always required because without a party nothing takes place (a pragmatist argument in the worst sense). Somehow it’s ignored that party always creates a hierarchy of privileged insiders that somehow manage not to act on behalf of their own interest and privilege.
It will be objected that in speaking of the “people” (persons), I am defending a hierarchical politics organized around speciesism. This is a commendable critique, for it shows that the critique is deploying anarchism, radical egalitarianism, as a regulative ideal used to evaluate existing institutions and theoretical orientations. However, what constitutes a person is itself an open question. In the United States, we’re told that legally two entities constitute persons: human beings and corporations. During Hurricane Katrina, people’s behavior towards their cats and dogs suggested that we think of these species as persons. Those people refused to be rescued without their cats and dogs, indicating that they saw such acts as egregious wrongs on par with leaving a disabled and elderly relatives behind. Attitudes towards eating cats and dogs further reflect this, as does outrage over horse meat. India recently extended personhood to dolphins. The point is that we don’t know what a person is, but can certainly say that it isn’t defined by being a member of a particular species. Some entities probably shouldn’t be in this category (corporations), while others very likely should. If it is true that we are unsure what constitutes a person, we’re also unsure of just how far membership in a collective extends.
I think ultimately that anarchism is the politics of the Real. Lacan defines the Real as both that which always returns to its place and as the impossible. As that which haunts every political configuration– including those that are avowedly anarchist –anarchism is both the ideal and the problem that always returns. Every existing political organization and institution always falls short and is experienced as falling short. We say “this is not it” and that “there is more to do”. Students spray paint “be realistic, demand the impossible” on the walls of buildings. And they are being realistic, for anarchism is of the Real, of the impossible. This is the true meaning of “regulative ideals”. Kant taught us that the paralogisms, antinomies, and ideals of reason are regulative ideals that are impossible to realize in practice, but that govern all reason and lead it to strive for complete knowledge. Complete knowledge, he said, will never arise, but nonetheless there are regulative ideals immanent to reason that drive us to forever produce more knowledge and systematize the knowledge that we do have. It’s the same with the social world. Egalitarianism and emancipation might never fully happen, but the Real drives us to everywhere pursue it, critiquing existing institutions, and creating new institutions. Evil, perhaps, is what occurs when we say and believe that it is complete, that it has happened, and create institutions accordingly. Someone then must always be rounded up or killed.
Anarchism, I think, is not something that only pertains to the social and political world. It pervades all aspects of thought. There are anarchistic issues in ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, our attitudes towards the history of philosophy and theory, etc. Does our ontology have a God at the top, forms, or a governing principle or not? It pertains to our epistemology. What is our attitude towards authority, is our system organized around a subject-supposed-to-know, a master, such as Heidegger, Plato, Deleuze, Lacan, Badiou, Newton, etc., or are these just voices that made particularly valuable contributions that are nonetheless flawed? To what degree do we treat all claims as contestable by the least among us? Do we think theology provides a privileged knowledge and expertise, or can even the lay trump the theologian? What is our attitude towards discourse and communication in general? Yes, there’s even anarchist rhetorical theory. Do we believe that the speech of others is particularly privileged, or do we welcome discourse form all– until they become abusive –even if their “credentials” are different? There’s anarchistic ethnographic and colonial theory. Does the ethnographer call into question his or her privileged position with respect to “other cultures” as an ethnographer, or does she place those who she seeks to understand on equal footing with herself even as they don’t share her theoretical categories (reflexive ethnography and sociology). A similar question could be asked of the psycho- and schizoanalyst. Above all, does the ethnographer recognize the contingency of his own epistemic values– his discipline arose in the West, perhaps beginning with Rousseau… Indeed, the very idea of “culture” is probably a Greek or Roman idea, a rhetoricians idea –or does he treat this framework as an obvious given (and therefore a hierarch or arche)? Anarchism isn’t just an ethics and politics, but is a passion of thought that is Real, that is impossible to embody, but that haunts all thought and practice as a regulative ideal pushing us always on to better theory, practice, and institutions. Like a teacher, politician, or statesman, it is impossible to be an anarchist, but it is the only orientation of thought, affectivity, and social relation worth striving towards; and in saying this, I betray my own anarchist commitments for I have formulated yet another autarch.