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Anarchist as Gadfly

 

It happens at any given moment: I'm having a discussion with friends that turns towards the events of the day, or perhaps a piece of history, such as the atomic bomb or what have you, when I find a debate boiling. This isn't troublesome in and of itself, but what I usually discover in the course of that debate often is. It might sometimes be a questioning of my own opinion due to some new perspective, but many times it is a realization of the fundamental values that reside underneath people I know and respect. Suddenly I'm confronted with a fact that I try to suppress everyday: my view of the world is rooted in a philosophy that is completely different from those of many others.

I think everyone who interacts with people beyond the leftist social movement knows that a person's fundamental values (what drives their opinions about specific issues) are not always what that person expresses. Often this comes out in the face of certain events or discussions. One example of this is the belief, even among people that are open to anarchist ideas, that the masses are separate from the individual; in other words, that only the speaker is capable of the kind of virtue, be it rational thought or social empathy, that is being discussed. This is an almost instinctive reaction to a world that is so large, crowded, noisy, and connected. It is easy to either slip into a solipsist mentality or to view yourself as insignificant. The conclusion is usually that there will always be government, because either nobody reaches the level of individualism that you have, or because you can't see any possibilities for making a difference.

What the above two attitudes fail to consider is the existential power that each individual has over their small part of life; the power to make decisions and take action based on input, and the power to take initiative, to imagine and act upon that. Each and every human being is born with some level of that ability, which makes centralized organization so tempting to people, and ironically so impossible to perfect. To be an anarchist in this world, you have to have an acute awareness of this potential within yourself, and you have to be willing to search for it in others. It manifests itself in different ways.

The other day I had an experience that made me reconsider the role we anarchists play in our society. Eating dinner with some of my dormmates, we somehow touched on the subject of the atomic bomb. A very friendly self-described communist expressed his belief that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only saved lives, but also prevented World War III by bringing a third party into global politics.

While I don't want to get into the as-of-yet unfinished debate this sparked, the argument brought to light an attitude that I find frightening in a time when corporate and state powers and grassroots democracy movements are all struggling over the same empowering technologies. This goes beyond objective historical fact, beyond even simple argument. What I saw was an attitude, prevailing among otherwise openminded (and even pro-anarchist) people, that the physical, environmental, and social effects of an extreme action could be morally justified in numerical/tactical terms. In other words, if you can prove that an atrocity was necessary, if you can measure morality with a calculator, then there was no atrocity, but a justifiable action.

Getting away from the subject of WWII, the meaning of this attitude becomes apparent. To engage in an act that forever changed the world and threatened everyone's right to exist, indeed that continues to threaten even the health of Earth herself, is a decision that does not belong in the hands of a select group of people. In fact, to make decisions that you know will create a frightening new world for your future generations is to violate the rights of those generations, and so even a majority in support of the bomb would have had no right to use it, or even to create it. But the majority did not create the bomb, and certainly people the world over were frightened of its potentials.

 

Might and Right

While Americans are not willing to see their country as a global threat, they do unwittingly hold many of its values. Just as many people are racists in denial, so it can be seen, in the course of a simple conversation, how the "might makes right" mentality pervades all of us. Terrorist nations are labeled as such because they don't have power, among other reasons, but America is justifiably dominant.

One of the manifestations of the "might makes right" paradigm is the idea that a historical or social context can actually be out of place in a given argument. Many college professors use the argument of relevance to throw out student arguments, or to limit the course of a class dialogue, keeping it to a certain set of pre-stated subjects. While there are indeed certain examples that are brought up in the course of a discussion that have nothing to do with the subject, and that often serve to change the subject, it has to also be recognized that the attempts of students to bring in irrelevant examples may be the start of a connection being drawn. Academia today is increasingly growing towards a cross-disciplinary approach, in which the ideas of one field can be applied in another.

Conservative, and even left, voices in the academic debate on history tend to dismiss "revisionist" historians, claiming that the previous statements of obviously biased people were correct. One tool that conservatives use is the leeway given by Alan Bloom, who lamented the oppression of the Eurocentric viewpoint in his book, The Closing of the American Mind. What this did was to redefine oppression to fit anyone who felt "inappropriately" challenged.

Thus, while historians could skew the image of anyone they liked, and while philosophers could hold one-way dialogues about how and why their values are Truth, anyone who challenged these ideals immediately became an oppressor. The image this brings to mind is of a rather large man with a stick suddenly finding himself surrounded by too many of his victims, who hides his weapon behind his back, paints a smile of innocence on his face, and extols the virtues of tolerance and nonviolence.

What does this mean for anarchists? The image of modern democracy brings two problematic rights to light: one is the right of the majority (or the minority of oppressors) to continue asserting their own views to the same degree as they previously had, and without "inappropriate" (loosely defined) challenge. The other is a sub-category of the first. It is the notion that pluralism is impossible and "undesirable," and that the easiest thing to achieve is some form of plurality under the iron boot of "might makes right.

 

Justifications

In his manifesto Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord states that "All the branches of knowledge, which continue to develop as the thought of the spectacle, have to justify a society without justification, and constitute a general science of false consciousness." (194) When engaging in intellectual argument or discussion, it is impossible to avoid the assumption that has become fact, or the argument that has a weak presumption. Unfortunately, the polemics of most disciplines take on a form of intellectual badgering that doesn't allow a word in edgewise until the argument has been completed in such a way that recourse to the previous fallacy becomes difficult if not impossible.

I've been in many conversations where I was cornered by more than one person in such a way, as the example at the beginning of this essay shows. In such a situation, to dig into the ideological roots and their fallacies is to open a can of worms. While arguments can often provide a good idea of where a person's core beliefs lie, they also tend to create a sense of overwhelming frustration. Anarchists are especially vulnerable to this feeling, since we express ideas that people almost instinctively react to with a sense of cautious objection at best, and a vehement denouncement at worst. Unlike certain authoritarian sects, our method of agit-propaganda does not happen from a stance of authority. We don't claim absolute knowledge of our arguments (how can anyone?), and some people are willing to take advantage of this. After all, we are socialized to believe that the absence of authority is a cue for aggressive seizure of power ­ if one person is unwilling to dominate the argument, it is up to the other to do so.

While the need to dominate the discourse is not unique to Western civilization alone, the philosophical roots of such a competitive notion of dialogue are at the core of western thought. With such a history of intellectual combat and posturing, it is easy to see why authoritarianism always seems to find its way into seemingly good western ideas like democracy, education, and communism. To defend your ideas from opponents, you must either spend all of your time arguing and researching on behalf of them, or simply use violence to enforce them, which, as I've shown above, is the chosen method of the bureaucracy and the state. The former is left for the rest of us. Scholastic life is an endless routine of argument, counter argument, and the constant search for better citations and sources, all of which seem to have their antithesis. This is the reason there is so much disparity between theory, research, and action. Ideas can never be implemented, because the system of academia ensures that radicalism is ghettoized, and the bureaucrats of the government and business retain a monopoly over the power to implement.

What we have to do is to actively work to define our role in social discourse. This means that, wherever and whenever possible, we need to present what we (as individuals) feel best represents an anti-authoritarian and egalitarian point of view as a possible third option to many issues. These can be in response to problems at work, school, over left / liberal discussions about modern politics, or towards conservative speakers. I would caution against throwing around the term anarchy, even among people we feel might understand better what it is, just because of the way it would alter the course of a discussion.

Better to simply describe egalitarian ideas with a rhetoric that implies the best anarchism has to offer. Likewise, aggressive confrontation, though it has its place, is not good all the time. People unfamiliar with your politics, even those somewhat open to them, are not very likely to be swayed by your refusal to compromise your values. Chances are, you'll be preaching to the converted and driving away many others.

There is a reason for this. In recent issues of Z Magazine, Michael Albert has stated that people are saturated with negative feelings about the system; we all expect the worst, it comes as a surprise to very few. Many people are even willing to cynically justify injustice simply to avoid thinking about it, or doing anything. Albert argues that this is partly the fault of the left in constantly bringing public attention to the negative, but not working to demonstrate a positive alternative. One friend of mine once said "I think even if these people had things their way, they'd still find something to complain about." That's a hard statement to argue with when so much of leftist literature is informing me about yet another atrocity, while we all seem confused about a workable solution.

Activists do a lot of hard work, but I think we may be long overdue for an evaluation of our methods. Are we simply alienating the general public, the very body of people we hope to persuade, through our actions? I've always thought the best propaganda was through action, but many people don't see protest as action. I've heard many a comment that protesters are effective at screaming and holding pickets, but "don't do anything."

In most political discussions, the role of the anarchist would preferably be one of a gadfly. The anarchist brings up ideas and possibilities, factors and problems, that many people might not consider or might purposely bypass. The anarchist should constantly nag society with a new perspective.

Unfortunately, being a gadfly is not easy in a society in which flies get swatted. Make no mistake about it, as disempowered peoples, we are victims of violence. It is the violence of ignorance, of intentional suppression. We need to counter this violence, to defend ourselves from it, or risk being trampled. One way to do so is to expose the ways of the system. Sometimes the best way to change someone's behavior is to accuse them of it, and embarrassment handles the rest. But we also need to remember that the power structure is vast and larger than people, and that the ideologies we are up against have a hold even on us. For this reason, it is necessary to become schizophrenics ­ in the sense that we must fragment ourselves, recognizing that, while we are outside the system, we need to learn how the system works.

he possibility of a popular anarchist revolution is minuscule, but with a bit of creativity and strategy, we can help to increase that possibility. One way is to expand the methods of propaganda from the traditional direct and confrontational (though somewhat futile) approach to a more indirect one. This happens in our day-to-day lives. For example, as a Masters' student in Library Science, I'm concentrating on the democratic potentials of the library as a public space, as a method of alternative education, . . . I'm noticing an increasing recognition that para-professionals within the library setting often do the same types of jobs as professionals and deserve equal respect (and perhaps equal pay, if not the opportunity to go to school and become professionals). While the funding of libraries makes this impossible, the point is that, as a public service, this resource has the potential to be a catalyst for change. Before this potential is realized, the staff of the library must be able to work as a unified force, facing off against conservative elements in the community and the library board itself. The point is that in our day to day lives, we need to constantly empower ourselves and our coworkers by making serious and thought-out comments on the workplace.

As if you didn't already know that.


-- Eric Enriquez-Battaglia

 


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