The “Anarcho-Liberal” Considered, Pt. II

Post-territorial politics, OWS, and the bugbear of demands.

Following a post from several weeks ago, wherein I touched on Tactical Media’s relationship to what Bhaskar Sunkara has dubbed the “anarcho-liberal,” I would like to further explore some of the forebears to the phenomenon referred to by this neologism. The anarcho-liberal character is best summarized, in Mr Sunkara’s words, as “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.” If, as seems to be the case, OWS marks the passing of the primacy of the anarcho-liberal, then now is the time to start historicizing and anatomizing the bastard in an effort to stave off the recurrence of past foibles. To this end, it may prove fruitful to further discuss the shadow cast by enthusiasm for Tactical Media (TM), and how easily the methods of TM merge with what David Chandler has referred to as “post-territorial” politics. Also, I’m keen to see if we can get liftoff with the term anarcho-liberal. Maybe from this point forward, I’ll never write about anything else.

As many commentators have noticed, OWS has no specific demands. Some have speculated that the presence of the protestors themselves constitutes a set of demands. I don’t think that it does. What matters is that OWS has been truly electrifying. And that perpetual occupation of Liberty Square and its correlates is not tenable, especially what with the impending arrival of winter. So questions of “what next?” are warranted. This question can be framed as as an inquiry about “demands,” but it is maybe easier to simply see it as the comprehension that some sort of follow up is mandated by the passage of time. Accordingly, talk of demands is merely recognizing the oppression meted out by Chronos. The passing of time demands that OWS eventually implement a strategy of some kind.  Chronological time is a harsh taskmaster. For OWS to enjoy permanent encampment would necessitate some kind of temporal stasis that I imagine, as someone who never has watched the show Doctor Who might be able to effectuate with that phone booth of his. But Doctor Who, like the proverbial watched kettle, is not going to arrive. And it is because of the merciless forward march of time that recalling the WTO protests in Seattle is worthwhile. Those protests, no less exhilarating than OWS in their impact on global media, were also burdened by the question of “follow through.” If anarcho-liberal denotes the left in retreat, the era of the late- and post-New Left, it must also refer to the “anti-globalization” movement, which can be seen as the apotheosis of what mobilization anarcho-liberalism was capable of. Needless to say, the aftermath of the “anti-globalization” demonstrations — to say nothing of the anti-Iraq war protests of 2003, which constituted the largest demonstrations in the history of the world — was decidedly anti-climatic.

Discussing the political force wielded by the anti-globalization activism of the late nineties and the anti-war protests of the early aughts, David Chandler points to the presence of “post-territorial” politics. This phenomenon is easy to understand: the opposition to globalizing economic trends necessitated solidarity amongst communities across state borders, just as it contributed to the dismantling of faith in representational politics. Consequently, Chandler claims, “territorial state-based politics is held to institutionalize the structuring of grand narratives of ‘the nation’ and to universalize particularist and narrow interests on the basis of those ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the territorial boundary.”1 This facilitates the argument that politics are not understood to be “mediated through the divisive institutions of territorial communities, [but rather that] the individual can engage directly in the ‘politics of the human,’ in the ‘global civil society,’ or in the struggle against ‘power’ or ‘empire.’ ”2 Chandler notes that these developments have had a profound effect on the way that politics are mobilized:

the decline of territorial political community does not appear to have led to new forms of political community (in territorial or post-territorial forms), but rather to the individuation of ‘being’ political. Therefore ‘being political’ today takes the form of individuated ethical activity in the same way as ‘being religious’ takes a highly personal form with the rejection of organized churches. Being religious and being political are both statements of individual differentiation rather than reflections of social practices and ways of life.3

“Being political” coheres fiendishly well with tactical politics, which I outlined in my last post as

always making incursions into “strategically” dominated areas. There [tactics] 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.

As for “being political” being framed in a negative light, I can already hear the response from my anarchist friends: “being” political is what it’s all about. Why bemoan active participation? To do so must simply be the venting of spleen. The sour grapes of those not “being political”! If OWS causes activity, not passivity, then it, as with the dubious claims made on behalf of possession, ought to be understood to constitute nine-tenths of the law. It is to be celebrated and understood as the beginning of a new political orientation where people are not mere observers.

Even so, perhaps Chandler’s broader point still stands: In the absence of limits such as, say, territorially-based representational politics, where coherent and/or instrumental political projects emerge from collective interests, it is difficult to “do” politics: “to ‘do’ politics, rather than make claims to ‘be’ political, would necessitate the revival of constraints on the freedom of the political.”4 In other words, in order to “do” politics, demands must exist. In the absence of demands, we might ask if we are we left simply with spiritual salve or symbolic protest. Symbolic politics, Chandler claims, are “highlighted in the increasingly popular framework of ‘raising awareness’ . . . Raising awareness about issues has replaced even the pretense of taking responsibility for engaging with the world — the act is [imagined to be] ethical in itself.”5

But surely raising awareness of economic justice is ethical in itself? Perhaps OWS proves the exception to the rule and instances the first truly effective piece of tactical politicking. If this is the case, then we are not seeing the expiration of the anarcho-liberal, exactly, but a deepening of her/his strengths and abilities. Perhaps s/he has become a leaner, meaner beast. S/he does seem to have evolved. Perhaps s/he has transmogrified into something entirely new. After all, the tactical adherence to temporariness seems to have been abandoned. Perhaps tacticality and post-territorial politics are weapons whose time has come. Is this the Left’s New Hope?

Arguably, OWS is not simply practicing symbolic politics. Its sheer physicality, endurance and determination seem to belie a politics of symbolism. Nor is it making any claim to represent “global civil society.” Perhaps Chandler’s criticisms of the politics of the nineties / early aughts do not have significant relevance. But if that were the case, then some of the similarities between then and now wouldn’t be so striking. Moreover, it’s hard to not note that the original call to occupy Wall Street came from Adbusters, the flagship magazine for TM interventions. With recent articles in the left blogosphere arriving fast and furious commending OWS’s lack of demands as a move which will forestall co-optation or disregard — an anxiety expressed most succinctly by The Onion headline, “Nation Waiting For Protesters To Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them”  — we find ourselves faced yet again with the frequently reiterated mainstay of anarcho-liberal tacticality: extemporary flexibility.

A recent post by Adam Curtis conjures a party held in the heady days of the spring of 1968 via Curtis’s quotation of theater critic and party attendee, Kenneth Tynan. Held in Black Dwarf cofounder Clive Goodwin’s storied Cromwell Road flat in London and boasting eminent guests, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Tynan’s diary entry from the time recalls this vignette:

The barricades were up in Paris: everyone was talking about ‘instant revolution’: and when Cohn-Bendit held a question and answer session, I made myself immediately unpopular by asking: ‘What’s your strategy? What is the next step the students will take?’ Cohn-Bendit said impatiently ‘the whole point of our revolution is that we do not follow plans. It is a spontaneous permanent revolution. We improvise it. It is like jazz.’ Everyone applauded and reproved my carping.

That we are hearing similar sentiments today is undeniable. That there are an intervening forty-four years is cause for concern. That the context has changed is also undeniable, and I will further address this point in due course. But first I’d just like to pause for a moment to breathe, while the phrases “jazz-hands,” “permanent revolution” and “spring of 1968” float in the air. What a ponderous odor. But somehow, so bracing. Like whiskey foreshots, it is still too full of volatile compounds and is in need of further distillation.

The progeny of ’68 is precisely what we are talking about when we discuss anarcho-liberalism. The offspring of the 1968 protests, that which David Chandler calls the “new social movements,” and which have been called by others, the “movement of movements” and the “anti-globalization movement” are precisely ground zero for imagining symbolic politics as effective. “Radical”? Maybe. Effective? Rarely. David Chandler traces their ascension:

The radical struggle [against traditional political engagement] was shaped by a rejection of the conservative politics of the organized left; particularly in France, where the left (including the Communist Party) supported the war in Algeria, discrediting its claim of representing universal interests. However, rather than dispute the claims of the old left to represent a collective political subject, the new left rejected the existence of collective political interests per se. The resulted, by default, in either a reduction of emancipatory claims to the ‘self-realization’ of the individual . . . or in the search for subaltern subjects on the margins of society. Instead of the construction of new collectivities, radical consciousness was dominated by a critical approach to organization, a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ which derided mass politics and inevitably reduced political aspirations.6

OWS, in creating a soon-to-be-two-months old multi-headed hydra, cannot be accused of  rejecting collective political interests. But so far, articulating these interests to “the man” is beyond the pale. Chandler’s critical explication of the reasons why this is so is compelling, but it is not really too far removed from the language used by advocates of the anti-globalization movement during its heyday.

Jeffrey Juris, who was “embedded” for years with anti-globalization activists, and whose writing champions “networked” (read: horizontal) activism, explicitly demarcates tactical organization from the dreary plodding of the old left:

While the command-oriented logic of leftist parties and unions is based on recruiting new members, developing unified strategies, political representation through vertical structures, and the pursuit of political hegemony, networked-based politics involve the creation of broad umbrella spaces, where diverse organizations, collectives, and networks converge around common hallmarks, while preserving their autonomy and specificity.7

The tedious process of “recruitment,” that humdrum process of the traditional left, is argumentation by another name. That is, the dreary process of learning about the issues at stake, campaigning on these issues — in a door to door fashion if need be — in an effort to drum up common support for a given issue in order to legislate and change state policy.  That this now seems more an impossibility than ever is understandable. The state is, for good reason, considered to be exactly that which signs off on its own dispossession in this day and age. But the state is a site of contradictions. A post-territorial politics disavows the persistence of state power in mediating between “the global” and “the local.” The state forms, simultaneously a sanctioning and tyrannizing mediator of capital, on one hand, and a social safety net and public shield, on the other. It seems recalcitrant and perilous to overlook the latter part of this paradox.

There are those, of course, who would take umbrage with any dallying with the state, electoral politics, or indeed any “institutionalization” of the political. In fact, what Chandler derides as the desire to ‘be’ political is not far from the desire for a project of liberation concerned with “radical autonomy.” Social Movements theorist Alberto Melucci, Chandler tells us, contends that “traditional electoral measures of political success miss the point ‘because conflict takes place principally on symbolic ground . . . The mere existence of a symbolic challenge is in itself a method of unmasking the dominant codes, a different way of perceiving and naming the world.’”8

Overcoming internalized dominative coding is probably not a bad idea. (But arguably, it is a bad idea is to put this goal ahead of more fundamental needs). But even if this were the endgame, it would have to be articulated as such. The central problem, as it were, with the anarcho-liberal methodology, is its ambiguous relationship to the political. Chandler, parsing Melucci, throws this quandary into sharp relief in a single paragraph:

[Mulucci notes that] ‘A new political space is designed beyond the traditional distinction between state and “civil society:” an intermediate public space, whose function is not to institutionalize the movements or to transform them into parties, but to make society hear their messages . . . while the movements maintain their autonomy.’ This ambiguity is the key to the ‘bottom-up’ ethics of global civil society, understood as a space whereby political movements can make their claims but also maintain their difference and specificity. They become ‘visible’ but are not institutionalized; that is they do not have to make claims to legitimacy based on electoral or financial support. This, in Melucci’s words, is the ‘democracy of everyday life,’ where legitimacy and recognition stem from ‘mere existence’ rather than the power of argument or representation.’9

This must be why Jeffrey Juris, discussing the “open network model,” writes, with unabashed candor, that “collective decisions [are] restricted as much as possible to technical coordination as opposed to abstract political debates, allowing diverse actors to organize within a common platform.”Heaven forbid that political debates come to bear on an explicitly political operation like agitating against the Washington Consensus.

But, as they say, that was then. This is now.  The call to “improvise” comes in an entirely different context than its predecessors of ’68 and the late nineties. The sustained civic engagement; the focus on economic rights; the olive branches extended to labor; the resurrection of the general strike; hell, just the phrase “we are the 99%,” all work in concord to dispel many of the problems exhibited by the anarcho-liberal. That having been said, there are obviously profound similarities in OWS’s refusal to make demands and the character of “post-territorial” or symbolic politics. Does this matter? Probably. One hopes that it foments significant discussion, disagreement, dialogue and reckonings with past mistakes. But these concerns — i.e., worry that engaging the question of “what next?” will be forestalled by placing organizational regard over the articulation of a platform — are not a call for a return to traditional forms of political engagement. Desiring to go “backwards” to the golden era of welfare capitalism is hardly advisable and probably isn’t possible anyhow. We can’t ignore the Dialectic bellowing in the streets. In optimistic moments it is worth imagining that OWS represents, finally, a union of the New Left with the Old. If the anarcho-liberal was the negation of any last vestiges of the Old in the New, then perhaps OWS, negating anarcho-liberalism, represents a synthesis of the two. The plodding organizational predilections of the Old may well help to ground the New’s speedy virtuosity and provisional acrobatics. I’m not holding my breath, but maybe there can be dancing at the revolution, and hopefully it won’t just be Don Quixote kicking out the motherfucking jams.

  1. Chandler, David. “The Possibilities of Post-Territorial Political Community.” Area: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 39, No. 1 (2007): p. 116.
  2. ibid.
  3. Chandler, David. “The Possibilities of Post-Territorial Political Community.” Area: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 39, No. 1 (2007): p. 118.
  4. ibid.
  5. Chandler, David. “The Possibilities of Post-Territorial Political Community.” Area: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 39, No. 1 (2007): p. 117.
  6. Chandler, David. “Building Global Civil Society ‘From Below’?” Millennium – Journal of International Studies. 33, No. 2 (2004): p. 321.
  7. Juris, Jeffrey. “The New Digital Media and Activist Networking within Anti-corporate Globalization Movements.” The Annals of the American Academy. 597 (2005): p. 199.
  8. Chandler, David. “Building Global Civil Society ‘From Below’?” Millennium – Journal of International Studies. 33, No. 2 (2004): p. 322.
  9. Chandler, David. “Building Global Civil Society ‘From Below’?” Millennium – Journal of International Studies. 33, No. 2 (2004): p. 323.
  10. Juris, Jeffrey. “The New Digital Media and Activist Networking within Anti-corporate Globalization Movements.” The Annals of the American Academy. 597 (2005): p. 198.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.