The “Anarcho-Liberal” Considered

Part I: Tactical Media — “Anarcho-Liberalism’s” Half-Wit Step-Parent

Bhaskar’s recent Dissent article, “The Anarcho-Liberal,” posits the post–New Left existence of an “anti-intellectualism that manifested itself in a rejection of “grand narratives” and structural critiques of capitalism, abhorrence for the traditional forms of left-wing organization, a localist impulse, and an individualistic tendency to conflate lifestyle choices with political action.”  While his suggestion that this current in leftism be dubbed “anarcho-liberalism” further stretches the already elastic term of liberalism, his recognition and naming of the deficits of the erstwhile “anti-globalization” movement is apt. And, perhaps now more than ever, it is a necessary corrective at a time when demonstrations appear to again be forming the visible tip, like the top third of the proverbial iceberg, of an active politics on the ground. However, I would like to deepen this conversation, if I can, over the course of two blog posts, so as to contextualize the “localist impulse” within its “globalized” context; link the “anarcho-liberal” movement to the long standing leftist enthusiasm for “tacticality” and its methodology, and point to some of the observations made by political scientist David Chandler, who has had anarcho-liberalism’s number pegged for years. This first installment will address tacticality and its popular manifestation as “Tactical Media” (TM). If the the anarcho-liberal is the offspring of anarchism and (a certain strain of) liberalism, Tactical Media is its adopted parent. Here’s why.

As Bhaskar notes, the organizational strategies of the Left changed dramatically in accord with the left’s marginalization in the 1980s. The Left’s disillusionment with mass politics may be an old story, but the organizational (or disorganizing) processes this disillusionment wrought is often not charted properly. Some key elements are sometimes glossed over. The standard explanation resides in the two-pronged explanation which saw eighties/nineties activist circles delve further and further into a politics of individual “conscience” and the ivory tower became enamored of biopower, difference, identity politics and the location of agency in the act of reception. In both instances, micropolitics eclipsed macro. Concurrent with these changes in scholarly and activist circles was the rise of the internet and the advent of “globalization.” Both the internet, the technological scaffolding for the “global village,” and its substructure, globalizing logics, extended tremendous pressures on social formations the world over. The effect of these developments were, as they say, “game changers.” Globalization, the global triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, twinned with technological apparatuses rendering communication instantaneous, had a profound double effect on the left: The end-of-history narratives of globalization seemed so daunting as to throw avenues of resistance for a loop, while the networking enabled by the internet seemed to proffer the possibility of new collectivities, subjectivities and forms of resistance. But conceptions of the organizational possibilities engendered by the latter carried with them anxieties wrought by the former.

Although the term “Tactical Media” may be unfamiliar to some readers, its ethos and freight are in evidence in bookstores, classrooms, activist canteens, and artist co-ops. And doubly so a decade ago. The phenomenon arose in late eighties / early nineties, unnamed, in the unholy union of techno-anarcho utopians (think R. U. Sirius, the triumphalist techno-fetishist spirit of Mondo 2000, and the brashness of industrial avant-garde) and the ascendant mode of political pranking dubbed “culture jamming” (think Adbusters and anti-advertising / anti-consumerist sentiment). The Practise of Everday Life, published in 1984, titled “ ‘Making Do’: Uses and Tactics” provided aspirant Tactical Media practitioners with theoretical flourishes and critical heft. Of particular interest was de Certeau’s distinction between “tactics” and strategies.” Divorced from de Certeau’s considerably dense text, the distinction between the two could be rendered: Tactics are the rapidly deployed practices of the guerilla, the immigrant, the powerless. They are the resort of the cultural consumer who has no place of her own. Strategies, meanwhile, are the domain of dominative institutional powers, of technical and scientific rationality. A key distinction here is that strategies enjoy dominion over a “propre,” which is best conceived of as a subordinating power over space (and time). Tactics, then, are always making incursions into “strategically” dominated areas. There they can momentarily disrupt strategic plans and/or carve out momentary autonomous space. Consequently, a tactical political project must be ephemeral. It must also think in terms of small units, not the large bodies, of, say, electoral politics. It is the sort of perspective which lends itself to concepts like Work Theft, of which de Certeau, indeed, is an advocate.

It is easy to see how the alluring schema applied to TM can overlay a multiplicity of activities and lend them a credibility they might not otherwise have. It is the sort of conception that can make activism fun (not such a bad thing!). It has sass. It has verve. And it appears to have allowed for the temporary disavowal of neoliberal global domination. TM interventions began to be understood as the oppositional form du jour (and petitioned for the adoption of the steadily growing Anarcho-Liberal). And why not? Tactical media was understood to be dynamic, playful, vigorous, colorful, and, perhaps most importantly, manifold. From Culture Jamming to internet and surveillance art to remix culture to internet activism, tactical media interventions, in their many forms, were understood to harness the power of prank, of jouissance, of a spirited subversion that promised to wake us modern myrmidons from the hebetude and subjugation of late capitalism. Whether de Certeau would consent to his work being marshaled in this way is debatable. In fact, it is fair to say that the most we could likely pull out of de Certeau’s writings before willfully misreading him is a conception of resistance as anodyne, not as a prescription for a political movement or the underwriting of the activist playbook. And it should go without saying that I am not suggesting some monocausal explanation for the anemia of the Left with de Certeau as the loadstar. But, whether retroactively or not, The Practise of Everday Life serves as a kind of urtext for tacticality. And, as can now see, features of tacticality informed much of the political project of the nineties; above all, the penchant for provisionality and subversion. It is worth thumbing through any old Adbusters from around this time to throw this fact into sharp relief. Calls to become “meme warriors” and “anti-branding activists” are interwoven with discussions of “mind pollution,” “guerrilla semiotics” and discussions of the power of partying for such endgames as temporary reclamation of public space. It is not that these strategems and concerns are worthless. The problem is that tacticality recasts what should be means into ends. In retrospect, it seems like what happened was that the least effective part of the sixties American variant of the New Left, i.e., its lifestyle-as-politics, get-your-freak-on individualism, was reanimated and divorced from its more effective elements, i.e., galvanizing vast swaths of the population to engage with, and activate on behalf of, goals set by the likes of the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement.

There is a dual character to TM that probably has something to do with its staying power. If it was simply the case that the features of TM — say, its unleashing of creativity and its seeming optimism — were things that people really liked, that wouldn’t necessarily be sufficient to explain the longevity of the Tactical Media ethos. But when it is perceived of as a part and parcel of neoliberalism itself, that is, as a sort of dialectical double, its endurance makes more sense. Tactical Media’s “nomadic agency” does, it so happens, mirror the neoliberal project, which is characterized by “extreme dynamism, mobility of practice, responsiveness to contingencies and strategic entanglements with politics.”1

TM’s artful guile, then, was not unreasonably thought to be the only feasible counter to the ambulatory ubiquity of neoliberalism. It carried with it nothing of the bulky, party-based structures of the old left. And furthermore, it facilitated greater digital interplay and so cashed in on already extant enthusiasm for electronic linkage, global counterculture and “networking” writ large. Geographical distance was no obstacle to the growing digital networks that began to proclaim a new politics of “rhizomatic” and horizontally organized multitudes. For these reasons, TM was marshaled in many different quarters and its ethos was thought to underwrite the disparate and multitudinous elements of (a perhaps self-styled) global civil society. Indeed, the case has been made that the Seattle protests themselves qualify as an example of Tactical Media due to their “hit-and-run” mobility, flexibility, and improvised and collective coordination.2

However, because TM’s allure was located in its dynamism and seemingly limitless potential — those selfsame characteristics that at once describe neo-liberal capitalism and the reasons that it seems inevitable — it carried with it anxieties, manifest in its own organizational forms, which foreclosed on its efficacy:

behind the appealing lightness and optimism of tactical media looms real ‘end of history’ despair about the failure of past revolutionary struggles and experiments and the impossibility of any ‘outside’ to capitalism. In a world without heroic visions or alternatives, the art of everyday resistance seemed preferable to the methodological work of building sustained opposition only to wind up with a new boss, the same as the old boss.3

Unfortunately, TM’s rejection of the hoary organizing strictures and appeals to grand narratives of the old left, while allowing for micro-political experimentation and versatility, coincided with a “corporate climate that celebrated dis-organising the organisation and thinking outside the box, two managerial mantras of neoliberal enterprise culture.”4

Recognition of the traits of neoliberalism within Tactical Media ethos is cause for considering a reckoning with the structures and forms of struggle of the traditional left — with its unexciting ties to labour, its advocacy of “establishmentarian” hierarchical organization, and the decidedly unsexy work involved in rousing the electorate (or at least in developing collective movements concerned with instrumentality). Whether or not this has happened remains to be seen.


Coming soon: “Part II: Global Civil Society and Post-Territorial Politics,” in which I will further address localism in a global context, discuss the mayhem resultant from territorially-diffuse constituencies, and will briefly engage David Chandler’s critique of the movement one or two people are calling “anarcho-liberalism.”

  1. Ong, Aihwa. “Neoliberalism as a Mobile Technology.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 32, no.1 (2007): 3–8. P. 3.
  2. Bruns, Axel. Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. P. 85.
  3. Ray, Gene and Gregory Sholette. “Introduction: Whiter Tactical Media?” Third Text. 22, No. 5 (2008). 519–524. P. 520.
  4. Ray, Gene and Gregory Sholette. “Introduction: Whiter Tactical Media?” Third Text. 22, No. 5 (2008). 519–524. P. 521.

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