Thursday, January 14, 2021

Anarchism and Poststructuralism

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For some, anarchism is portrayed as being congruent with the philosophy of post-structuralism. It is claimed that the post-structuralist' celebration of difference with its anti-authoritarian impulse, it's rejection of top-down power in favour of localised bottom-up resistance and its rejection of political representation is said to find its political expression in anarchism. However, doubts remain as to the validity of such claims. While anarchists do advocate such post-structuralist elements, post-structuralists such as Todd May and Andrew Koch omit any reference to solidarity and equality of wealth and social resources which are inimical to anarchism.

What lies lurking in the murky waters around the 'pristine' island of post-structuralism are notions of ontological and epistemological relativism, a rejection of universalism, an hostility towards humanism and an all out assault on objectivity. "Taken together - the relativity of both ontology and epistemology, the plurality of language systems, and the impossibility of communicating intended meaning" argues Koch, subverts the "potential to reach consensus without either deception or force". To suggest that individuals are not always able to agree on certain points is a valid one and one that is not in opposition to anarchism. For difference generates increasing complexity resulting in a vibrant and dynamic society. But to suggest that we all live in individuated closed systems for which there is no congruence with other closed language systems is over-stated. Besides negating the possibility of groups of people having any common experiences at all, whether black people in Harlem, Brixton, Notting Hill, homosexuals in Tasmania, or Muslims the world over etc., this line of thinking is overstating the extent to which our world views are hermetically sealed. Regardless of their incessant ramblings on difference, plurality, etc., about how we are constrained and constituted in externality, in heterogeneous discourses and discursive practices, we do share a commonality with others in the respect that, despite the differences between individuals, groups and cultures, we can reach consensus on the incommensurability of the so called heteromorphous epistemes. But more importantly, we can comprehend and agree on how and why such incommensurability exists. In this regard, Lyotard's "little narratives" need not be so hermetically sealed, or "sutured" to use Laclau and Mouffe's terminology, since we are able to advance and retreat in the permeation of other language systems. This ability to permeate other world views is the mechanism by which reality is altered. Without such a notion of permeation, without a belief that individuals are not totally individuated and sutured, any notion of consensus is obviously a fiction. But it is this very notion that individuals can communicate, can be value-neutral, can step outside their own frame of reference that contribute to the sense of sameness which is lacking in the poststructuralist's emphasis on plurality and difference. Certainly, there is no such thing as moral 'Truth' with a capital 'T', as both Stirner, Nietzsche and Foucault declared, but to argue with Foucault that 'nothing is man - not even his body - is sufficiently stable to act as this basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men', is going too far. The total denial of any degree of idealism, of any sense of a self-referential autonomous subject, is to reduce the subject to exactly a zero net sum, and in doing so, pave the way for atrocities and misery. For the moment you perceive your neighbour in terms of nothingness and difference, without any sense of sameness, then what is to prevent one from treating another in a manner which denies their dignity?

A great deal of the confusion emerges when notions of the impossibility of objectivity and the impossibility of being value-neutral become one and the same thing. If to be objective one needs to encapsulate all facts in times of representation, then clearly one cannot be objective. But if to be objective means that individuals do not allow their preconceptions to colour their vision, then one can, I believe, be objective. The fact that the media, scientists, philosophers, political theorists and individuals do not start from a value-neutral position does not offend the possibility that one can step outside of one's frame of reference. To state with Foucault that discourse is produced by power and that, conversely, discourses produce new power relations, is to assert that all knowledge (or belief systems to use a more correct terminology) is the result of power. But what such circular reasoning does is exclude any notion of value-neutral reason, of careful observation or steady deliberation as explanations for the current state of affairs. This is, I believe, the main problem with Foucault and other ideologues of power. Certainly, one can always look at the present and find inequalities of one kind or another, but to attribute the outcome purely in terms of some Nietzschean "will to power" is a spurious, if not illogical conclusion. Certainly, there are many occasions when individuals start from a certain value and frame of reference and attempt to fit reality to their given world view, but the existence of these multitudinous instances can not rule out the possibility that individuals can be value-neutral in their quest for understanding.

The fact that the various systems of domination under which we exist and the emphasis on a very narrow definition of "success" defined in terms of wealth and power do not always nurture a desire for critical distancing and value neutrality is certainly obvious. But to deduce all outcomes from the same "power" imperative, leaves Foucauldians susceptible to the critique of not only a "presentist historiography" (a la Habermas), but also the notion of the impossibility of stepping outside of our own world view as sincere truth oriented, value-neutral individuals. It is because we are able to do this that we can account for the disruptions in both discourse on identity and 'knowledge'. However, the poststructuralist notion that identity is not biologically determinate is a valid one, as is their insistence of the historical and context specific production of 'knowledge'. But we all know, that while there may be no such a thing as 'Objective' knowledge, as something which exists independent of the observer, there certainly cannot be said to be a system of equidistant equivalencing among such 'knowledges'. For 'knowledge' is theory based and, as we all know, there are theories which fit reality, others which are worth a great deal of scrutiny, some worth a pinch of salt and some not worth a pinch of anything. And, because reality places constraints upon theories, sooner or later certain theories will be disposed to the waste-paper basket. While not having any "fixed concept" of the subject, the anarchist hopes and has faith in the ability of individuals to see through the various forms of legitimation in order to appeal to a desire for freedom, self-reliance and self-representation of which May and Koch articulate.

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However, understanding self-representation as having access to the centre stage without altering the stage itself is by no means equal representation. For without changing the terms of reference by which such representation takes place, previously marginalised groups or individuals are given equal voice but only in so far as the dominant frame of reference dictates. In such situations, the dominant discourses, the hegemonic frames of reference (namely liberalism and capitalism with a touch of welfare socialism), become obfuscated in the scramble for equal voice resulting in their protection from transformation thereby maintaining existing constellations of power. Therefore, while having access to voice and self-representation in this sense of 'adding on to', while certainly preferable to having no representation at all, it falls short of adequate in so far as one's self-representation is defined in terms of the dominant political, economic, and social groups, thereby only advancing the interests and causes of the latter. When Todd May talks of the "the indignity of speaking for others" and to only allow oppressed groups to "determine themselves to the oppressed" with the poststructuralist "intellectual tools" tools of ontological and epistemological deconstruction, what is he saying? It seems, according to May, that all that is required is ontological and epistemological deconstruction to free one's self from imposed constraints. If only it was that easy. It seems to me that the Jews in Nazi Germany required a little more than the poststructuralist "tools" in order to be treated fairly and have their voice shifted from the periphery to the centre. Such tools only tend to have any noticeable effect in times of political, economic and social stability. While there certainly is an indignity in speaking for others without their consent, speaking with others who do not have access to self-representation is the only way that oppressed groups may be brought in to the centre. It is therefore not merely sufficient to have one's voice shifted to the centre, for in order for one's voice to be truly heard, others must be prepared to enter into a genuine dialogue in which listening is as important as speaking.

Being solely concerned with epistemological and ontological representation, poststructuralists such as May and Koch tend to neglect the importance of equalising the current system of wealth. Their recognition that the previously marginalised should be given equal place on centre stage is certainly welcome and compatible with anarchist thought. However, probably the greatest contribution anarchism has brought to the table of social understanding, and one that both May and Koch tend to omit in their comparative analysis of post-structuralism and anarchism, is the understanding that equality of wealth and individual freedom naturally imply one another. While freedom of speech, assembly, movement, the right to disagreement etc., are held in high esteem by anarchists (as also by liberals), so also, for anarchists, is the importance of equally distributing wealth and nurturing solidarity. What kind of freedom can an individual enjoy if they are so poor or weak through being denied access to the necessities of life? As Berkman rightly points out, monopoly and the private means of existence is "an abridgment of the equal opportunity of all". Equal access to the necessities of life must be available to all. For the "moment you begin discriminating against the less capable", the moment you deny people equal access to life's resources, then you begin to "establish conditions that breed dissatisfaction and resentment" resulting in "envy, discord, and strife". The disharmony resulting from any individualistic scramble for possessions and wealth can never by understood as being advocated by anarchists.

The reliance of Koch on Max Stirner as the founding apostle of post-structuralism can only lead to social disharmony. The rejection of the state, religion or anything which impedes the individual ego must be circumvented according to Stirner. His advocation of a "union of egoists" and for each individual to "take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared", appeals more to the free-market tooth and claw approach of Libertarians rather than attempting to foster any kind of solidarity through benevolence, trust, sincerity, openness, cooperation and mutual aid as advocated by social anarchists. As Marshall Shatz argued, "whether there could be any real cooperation among individuals enjoying the kind of freedom Stirner gives them remains open to question". But, moreover, as Alan Ritter argued, while Stirner denounced the state as a fetter on the individual's ego, a "state is admirably suited to a seeker of personal advantage" because, in "situations where he controls it", it becomes a mechanism "for making others serve his ends". In this respect then, authoritarian statism may be compatible with notions of narcissistic autonomy, for the latter may give birth to the former. What May and Koch tend to exclude in their misconstrued understanding of anarchism, is the recognition that in an anarchist society, each will value the freedom and self-reliance of all as an imperative for our own freedom and self-reliance; and, in this respect, it will be society that sets the parameters of freedom.

While a celebration of difference is compatible with both post-structuralism and anarchism, the concomitant anarchist notions of solidarity and equality are omitted in the comparative analysis by Koch and May. The anarchism represented by May and Koch has more in common with a free-market anything goes approach of Libertarianism rather than communal anarchism. It appears that the only kind of difference that can spring from post-structuralism's politics of difference, is one of political self-representation without its concomitant redistribution of wealth. And, as all social anarchists would agree, one cannot have equal political self-representation and social solidarity as long as there exists obscene unequal access to the resources of life. In this respect, while post-structuralists advocate and celebrate difference alone, the social anarchist argues that equal access to the necessities of life does not automatically spring from some Stirnerite individualism and that the celebration of difference can only come from a celebration of equality and solidarity.

Barrett, M., 'Ideology, Politics, Hegemony From Gramsci to Laclau and Mouffe', in Slavoj Zizek, Mapping Ideology, (New York Verso Press, 14), pp.5 - 64.

Berkman, A., The ABC of Anarchism, (London Freedom Press, 171), Chap. 5, 'Will Anarchist Communism Work?", pp.18-8.

Habermas, J., 'An Alternative Way out of the Philosophy of the Subject Communicative versus Subject-Centred Reason', in Lawrence Cahoone (ed.), From Modernism to Postmodernism An Anthology, (Cambridge, Mass; Oxford Blackwell Publishers, 16), pp.58-616.

Koch, A., 'Poststructuralism and the Epistemological Basis of Anarchism', Philosophy of the Social Sciences, () Sept. 1, pp.7-51.

Lyotard, J-F., 'The Postmodern Condition A Report on Knowledge', [trans.] G. Bennington and B. Massumi, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 184), Introduction and Sections to 11, and 14, pp.xxiii-xxv, 1- 47, 64-7, In L. Cahoone (ed), From Modernism to Postmodernism An Anthology, (Massachusetts, Blackwell, 16), pp.481-51.

Malik, K., 'Universalism and Difference Race and the Postmodernists', in Race & Class, 16, Volume 7 (), pp. 1-17.

May, T., 'Is Post-Structuralist Political Theory Anarchist?', Philosophy and Social Criticism, 15() 11, pp.167-18.

Nursey-Bray, P., 'Autonomy and Community William Godwin and the Anarchist Project', Anarchist Studies, 4 (1) 16, pp.7-11.

Ritter, A., Anarchism A Theoretical Analysis, (Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 180).

Stirner, M., 'The Ego and His Own', trans. Steven T. Byington, (New York Benj. R. Tucker Publisher, 107), pp.0.14; 5-4; 78-85; 1-44; 84-1; -5, in The Essential Works of Anarchism, (ed.) Marshall S. Shatz, (New York & Chicago Quadrangle Books, 17), pp.4-80.

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