Social anarchism is made of fundamentally different stuff, heir to the Enlightenment tradition, with due regard to that tradition’s limits and incompleteness.
Depending upon how it defines reason, social anarchism celebrates the thinking mind without in any way denying passion, ecstasy, imagination, play, and art. Rather than reify them into hazy categories, it incorporates them into everyday life.
Social Anarchism is committed to rationality while opposing the rationalization of experience; to technology, while opposing the mega-machine; to social institutionalization, while opposing class rule and hierarchy; to a genuine politics based on the confederal coordination of municipalities or communes by the people in direct face-to-face democracy, while opposing parliamentarism and the state.
This Commune of communes, to use a traditional slogan of earlier revolutions, can be appropriately designated as Communalism. Opponents of democracy as ‘rule’ to the contrary notwithstanding, it describes the democratic dimension of anarchism as a majoritarian administration of the public sphere. Communalism seeks freedom rather than autonomy.
Social Liberty sharply breaks with the psycho-personal Stirnerite, liberal, and bohemian ego as a self-contained sovereign by asserting that individuality does not emerge ab novo, dressed at birth in natural rights…but sees individuality as the ever-changing work of historical and social development, a process of self-formation that can be neither petrified by biologism nor arrested by temporally limited dogmas.
The sovereign, self-sufficient ‘individual’ has always been a precarious basis upon which to anchor a left libertarian outlook.
Individuality is impaired when each man decides to fend for himself… The absolutely isolated individual has always been an illusion.
The most esteemed personal qualities, such as independence, will to freedom, sympathy, and the sense of justice, are social as well as individual virtues.
The fully developed individual is the consummation of a fully developed society.
— Max Horkheimer
If a left-libertarian vision of a future society is not to disappear in a bohemian and lumpen demimonde, it must offer a resolution to social problems, not flit arrogantly from slogan to slogan, shielding itself from rationality with bad poetry and vulgar graphics.
Democracy is not antithetical to anarchism; nor are majority rule and non-consensual decisions incommensurable with a libertarian society.
That no society can exist without institutional structures is transparently clear to anyone who has not been stupefied by Stirner and his kind.
By denying institutions and democracy, lifestyle anarchism insulates itself from social reality, so that it can fume all the more with futile rage, thereby remaining a subcultural caper for gullible youth and bored consumers of black garments and ecstasy posters.
To argue that democracy and anarchism are incompatible because any impediment to the wishes of even ‘a minority of one’ constitutes a violation of personal autonomy is to advocate not a free society but Brown’s ‘collection of individuals’ — in short, a herd.
No longer would imagination come to power. Power, which always exists, will belong either to the collective in a face-to-face and clearly institutionalized democracy, or to the egos of a few oligarchs who will produce a tyranny of structurelessness.
Kropotkin, in his Encyclopaedia Britannica article, regarded the Stirnerite ego as elitist and deprecated it as hierarchical. Approvingly, he cited V. Basch’s criticism of Stirner’s individual anarchism as a form of elitism:
The aim of all superior civilization is, not to permit all members of the community to develop in a normal way, but to permit certain better endowed individuals fully to develop, even at the cost of the happiness and the very existence of the mass of mankind.
In anarchism, this produces a regression toward the most common individualism, advocated by all the would-be superior minorities to which indeed man owes in his history precisely the State and the rest, which these individualists combat.
Their individualism goes so far as to end in a negation of their own starting-point — to say nothing of the impossibility of the individual to attain a really full development in the conditions of oppression of the masses by the ‘beautiful aristocracies.’
In its amoralism, this elitism easily lends itself to the unfreedom of the ‘masses’ by ultimately placing them in the custody of the ‘unique ones,’ a logic that may yield a leadership principle characteristic of fascist ideology.
In the United States and much of Europe, precisely at a time when mass disillusionment with the state has reached unprecedented proportions, anarchism is in retreat.
Dissatisfaction with government as such runs high on both sides of the Atlantic — and seldom in recent memory has there been a more compelling popular sentiment for a new politics, even a new social dispensation that can give to people a sense of direction that allows for security and ethical meaning.
If the failure of anarchism to address this situation can be attributed to any single source, the insularity of lifestyle anarchism and its individualistic underpinnings must be singled out for aborting the entry of a potential left-libertarian movement into an ever-contracting public sphere.
To its credit, anarcho-syndicalism in its heyday tried to engage in a living practice and create an organized movement — so alien to lifestyle anarchism — within the working class. Its major problems lay not in its desire for structure and involvement, for program and social mobilization, but in the waning of the working class as a revolutionary subject, particularly after the Spanish Revolution.
To say that anarchism lacked a politics, however, conceived in its original Greek meaning as the self-management of the community — the historic ‘Commune of communes’ — is to repudiate a historic and transformative practice that seeks to radicalize the democracy inherent in any republic and to create a municipalist confederal power to countervail the state.
The most creative feature of traditional anarchism is its commitment to four basic tenets:
- a confederation of decentralized municipalities
- an unwavering opposition to statism
- belief in direct democracy
- vision of a libertarian communist society
The most important issue that left-libertarianism — social libertarianism no less than anarchism — faces today is: What will it do with these four powerful tenets? How will we give them social form and content? In what ways and by what means will we render them relevant to our time and bring them to the service of an organized popular movement for empowerment and freedom?
Anarchism must not be dissipated in self-indulgent behavior like that of the primitivistic Adamites of the sixteenth century, who ‘wandered through the woods naked, singing and dancing,’ as Kenneth Rexroth contemptuously observed, spending ‘their time in a continuous sexual orgy’ until they were hunted down by Jan Zizka and exterminated — much to the relief of a disgusted peasantry, whose lands they had plundered.
It must not retreat into the primitivistic demimonde of the John Zerzans and George Bradfords. I would be the last to contend that anarchists should not live their anarchism as much as possible on a day-to-day basis — personally as well as socially, aesthetically as well as pragmatically.
But they should not live an anarchism that diminishes, indeed effaces the most important features that have distinguished anarchism, as a movement, practice, and program, from statist socialism.
Anarchism today must resolutely retain its character as a social movement — a programmatic as well as activist social movement — a movement that melds its embattled vision of a libertarian communist society with its forthright critique of capitalism, unobscured by names like ‘industrial society.’
Social anarchism must resolutely affirm its differences with lifestyle anarchism. If a social anarchist movement cannot translate its four-fold tenets — municipal confederalism, opposition to statism, direct democracy, and ultimately libertarian communism — into a lived practice in a new public sphere;
If these tenets languish like its memories of past struggles in ceremonial pronouncements and meetings; worse still, if they are subverted by the ‘libertarian’ Ecstasy Industry and by quietistic Asian theisms, then its revolutionary socialistic core will have to be restored under a new name.
Certainly, it is already no longer possible, in my view, to call oneself an anarchist without adding a qualifying adjective to distinguish oneself from lifestyle anarchists.
Social anarchism is radically at odds with anarchism focused on lifestyle, neo-Situationist paeans to ecstasy, and the sovereignty of the ever-shriveling petty-bourgeois ego. The two diverge completely in their defining principles — socialism or individualism.
Between a committed revolutionary body of ideas and practice, on the one hand, and a vagrant yearning for privatistic ecstasy and self-realization on the other, there can be no commonality. Mere opposition to the state may well unite fascistic lumpens with Stirnerite lumpens, a phenomenon that is not without its historical precedents.