here are the texts of the lexicon pamphlets Anarchism and Racism. I suggest (we can talk about it more on the night of) that we do a couple of weeks of readings on the lexicon series (it includes also colonialism, power, and gender), with the following questions in mind: what is the purpose of these pamphlets? if you were to accept the purpose, how would you do it? what do you agree with, what sounds good but you don’t agree with–perhaps you would agree under certain circumstances–and what seems straight up wrong to you? if you were going to write a series of introductory primers on ideas that are significant to anarchists, are these the key words/topics you would choose? etc. If you feel uncomfortable stating your own opinions (or don’t know), then consider how what you consider the general opinion of the study group is different from, similar to, or other than, what is expressed here.
At its core, anarchism is indeed a spirit—one that cries out against all that’s wrong with present-day society, and yet boldly proclaims all that could be right under alternate forms of social organization.
There are many different though often complementary ways of looking at
anarchism, but in a nutshell, it can be defined as the striving toward a “free society of free individuals.” This phrase is deceptively simple. Bound within it is both an implicit multidimensional critique and an expansive, if fragile, reconstructive vision.
By anarchist spirit I mean that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind. —
Errico Malatesta, Umanita Nova, April 13, 1922
Here, a further shorthand depiction of anarchism is helpful: the ubiquitous “circle A” image. The A is a placeholder for the ancient Greek word anarkhia —combining the root an(a), “without,” and arkh(os), “ruler, authority”—meaning the absence of authority. More contemporaneously and accurately, it stands for the absence of both domination (mastery or control over another) and hierarchy (ranked power relations of dominance and subordination). The circle could
be considered an O, a placeholder for “order” or, better yet, “organization,” drawing on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s seminal definition in What Is Property? (1840): “as man [sic] seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.” The circle A symbolizes anarchism as a dual project: the abolition of domination and hierarchical forms of social organization, or power-over social relations, and their replacement with horizontal versions, or power-together and in common—again, a free
society of free individuals.
Anarchism is a synthesis of the best of liberalism and the best of communism, productive, harmonic dissonance: figuring out ways to coexist and thrive in our differentiation.
Anarchists create processes that are humane and substantively participatory. They’re honest about the fact that there’s always going to be uneasiness between individual and social freedom. They acknowledge that it’s going to be an ongoing struggle to find the balance.
This struggle is exactly where anarchism takes place. It is where the beauty of life, at its most well rounded and self-constructed, has the
greatest possibility of emerging—and at times, taking hold.
Although it happens at any level of society, one experiences this most personally in small-scale projects—from food cooperatives
to free schools to occupations—where people collectively make face-to-face decisions about issues large and mundane. This is not
something that people in most parts of the world are encouraged or taught to do, most pointedly because it contains the kernels
of destroying the current vertical social arrangements. As such, we’re generally neither particularly good nor efficient at directly
elevated and transformed by the best of traditions that work toward an egalitarian, voluntarily, and nonhierarchical society. The project of liberalism in the broadest sense is to ensure personal liberty. Communism’s overarching project is to ensure the communal good. One could, and should, question the word “free” in both cases, particularly in the actual implementations of liberalism and communism, and their
shared emphasis on the state and property as ensuring freedom. Nonetheless, respectively, and at their most “democratic,” one’s aim is an
individual who can live an emancipated life, and the other seeks a community structured along collectivist lines. Both are worthy
notions. Unfortunately, freedom can never be achieved in this lopsided manner: through the self or society. The two necessarily come into
conflict, almost instantly. Anarchism’s great leap was to combine self and society in one political vision; at the same time, it jettisoned the state and property as the pillars of support, relying instead on self-organization
and mutual aid.
Anarchism as a term emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, but its aspirations and practices grew out of, in part, hundreds of years of slave rebellions, peasant uprisings, and heretical religious movements around the world in which people decided that enough was enough, and the related experimentation for centuries with various forms of autonomy.
Anarchism was also partly influenced by Enlightenment thought in the eighteenth century, which—at its best—popularized three pivotal notions, to a large degree theorized from these revolts. First: Individuals have the
capacity to reason. Second: If humans have the capacity to reason, then they also have the capacity to act on their thoughts. Perhaps most liberating, a third idea arose: If people can think and act on their own initiative, then it literally stands to reason that they can potentially think through and act on notions of the good society. They can innovate; they
can create a better world.
A host of Enlightenment thinkers offered bold new conceptions of social
organization, drawn from practice and yet articulated in theory, ranging from individual rights to self-governance. Technological advancements in printing facilitated the relatively widespread dissemination of this written material for the first time in human history via books, pamphlets, and periodicals. New common social spaces like coffeehouses, public libraries, and speakers’ corners in parks allowed for debate about and the spread of these incendiary ideas. None of this ensured that people would think for themselves, act for themselves, or act out of a concern for humanity. But what was at least theoretically revolutionary about this Copernican turn was that before then, the vast majority of people largely didn’t believe in their own agency or ability to self-organize on such an interconnected, self-conscious, and crucially, widespread basis. They were born,
for instance, into an isolated village as a serf with the expectation that they’d live out their whole lives accordingly. In short, that they
would accept their lot and the social order as rigidly god-given or natural—with any hopes for a better life placed in the afterlife.
Due to the catalytic relationship between theory and practice, many people gradually embraced these three Enlightenment ideas, leading to a host of libertarian ideologies, from the religious congregationalisms to secular republicanism, liberalism, and socialism.
These new radical impulses took many forms of political and economic subjugation to task, contributing to an outbreak of revolutions throughout Europe and elsewhere, such as in Haiti, the United States, and Mexico. This revolutionary period started around 1789 and lasted until about 1871 (reappearing in the early twentieth century).
Anarchism developed within this milieu as, in “classical” anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s words, the “left wing” of socialism. Like all socialists, anarchists concentrated on the economy, specifically capitalism, and saw the laboring classes in the factories and fields, as well as artisans, as the main agents of revolution. They also felt that many socialists were to the “right” or nonlibertarian side of anarchism, soft on their critique of the state, to say the least. These early anarchists, like all anarchists after them, saw the state as equally complicit in structuring social
domination; the state complemented and worked with capitalism, but was its own distinct entity. Like capitalism, the state will not “negotiate” with any other sociopolitical system. It attempts to take up more and more governance space. It is neither neutral nor can it be “checked and balanced.” The state has its own logic of command and control, of monopolizing political power. Anarchists held that the state cannot be used to dismantle capitalism, nor as a transitional strategy toward a noncapitalist, nonstatist society.
They advocated an expansive “no gods, no masters” perspective, centered around the three great concerns of their day—capital, state, and church—in contrast to, for example, The Communist Manifesto’s assertion that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” It’s not that anarchists didn’t take this history seriously; there were other histories, though, and other struggles—something that anarchism would continue to fill out over the decades.
As many are rediscovering today, anarchism from the first explored something that Marxism has long needed to grapple with: domination and hierarchy, and their replacement in all cases with greater degrees of freedom. That said, the classical period of anarchism exhibited numerous blind spots and even a certain naïveté. Areas such as gender and race, in which domination occurs beyond capitalism, the state, and the church, were often given short shrift or ignored altogether. Nineteenth-century
anarchism was not necessarily always ahead of its day in identifying various forms of oppression. Nor did it concern itself much with ecological degradation.
Of course, comparing classical anarchism to today’s much more sophisticated understanding of forms of organization and the myriad types of domination is also a bit unfair—both to anarchism and other
socialisms. Anarchism developed over time, theoretically and through practice. Its dynamism, an essential principle, played a large part in allowing anarchism to serve as its own challenge. Its openness to other social movements and radical ideas contributed to its further unfolding. Like any new political philosophy, it would take many minds and
many experiments over many years to develop anarchism into a more full-bodied, nuanced worldview—a process, if one takes anarchism’s
initial impulse seriously, of always expanding that worldview to account for additional blind spots. Anarchism was, is, and continually sees itself as “only a beginning,” to cite the title of a recent anthology.
From its beginnings, anarchism’s core aspiration has been to root out and eradicate all coercive, hierarchical social relations, and dream up and establish consensual, egalitarian ones in every instance. In a time of
revolutionary possibility, and during a period when older ways of life were so obviously being destroyed by enormous transitions, the early anarchists were frequently extravagant in their visions for a better world. They drew
on what was being lost (from small-scale agrarian communities to the commons) and what was being gained (from potentially liberatory technologies to potentially more democratic political structures) to craft a set of uncompromising, reconstructive ethics.
These ethics still animate anarchism, supplying what’s most compelling about it in praxis. Its values serve as a challenge to continually approach the dazzling horizon of freedom by actually improving the quality of life for all in the present. Anarchism always “demands the impossible” even as it tries to also “realize the impossible.” Its idealism is thoroughly pragmatic. Hierarchical forms of social organization can never fulfill most
peoples’ needs or desires, but time and again, nonhierarchical forms have demonstrated their capacity to come closer to that aim. It makes
eminent and ethical sense to experiment with utopian notions. No other political philosophy does this as consistently and generously, as
doggedly, and with as much overall honesty about the many dead-ends in the journey itself.
Anarchism understood that any egalitarian form of social organization,
especially one seeking a thoroughgoing eradication of domination, had to be premised on both individual and collective freedom—no one is free unless everyone is free, and everyone can only be free if each person can
individuate or actualize themselves in the most expansive of senses. Anarchism also recognized, if only intuitively, that such a task is both a constant balancing act and the stuff of real life. One person’s freedom necessarily infringes on another’s, or even on the good of all. No common good can meet everyone’s needs and desires. From the start, anarchism asked the difficult though ultimately pragmatic question: Acknowledging this self-society juggling act as part of the human condition, how can people collectively self-determine their lives to become who they want to be and simultaneously create communities that are all they could be as well?
Anarchism maintains that this tension is positive, as a creative and inherent part of human existence. It highlights that people are not all alike, nor do they need, want, or desire the same things. At its best, anarchism’s basic aspiration for a free society of free individuals
gives transparency to what should be a democratic processes. Assembly decision-making mechanisms are hard work. They raise tough questions. But through them, people school themselves in what could be the basis for collective self-governance, for redistributing power to everyone. More crucially, people self-determine the structure of the new from spaces
of possibility within the old.
Anarchism gives voice to the grand yet modest belief, embraced by people
throughout human history, that we can imagine and also implement a wholly marvelous and materially abundant society.
That is the spirit of anarchism, the ghost that haunts humanity: that our lives and communities really can be appreciably better.
And better, and then better still.
Biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. As hard as they’ve
tried, scientists have never been able to come up with an adequate
definition of it. Yet the social and political effects of race are very real.
Race is like a dollar bill—a human creation rather than a fact of nature
that has value only because people say it does. And like money, people
give race “value” because it serves a function in society. That function
in the United States is to suppress class conflict.
In the United States, the system of race (what we now call “white supremacy”) emerged in the late 1600s to preserve the land and power of the wealthy. Rich planters in Virginia feared what might happen if indigenous tribes, slaves, and indentured servants united and overthrew them. Through a series of laws, they granted the English poor certain rights and privileges denied to all persons of African and Native American descent: the right to be excluded from enslavement, move about freely without a pass, acquire property, bear arms, enjoy free speech and assembly, change jobs, and vote. For their part, they respected the
property of the rich, helped seize indigenous lands, and enforced slavery.
In accepting this arrangement, the English poor (now called “whites”) went against their class interests to serve their “racial” ones, and thereby reinforced the power of the rich.
This cross-class alliance between the ruling class and a section of the
working class is the genesis of white supremacy in the United States. It
continues to this day. In this system, members of the cross-class alliance get defined as white, while those excluded from it are relegated to a “not-white” status. By accepting preferential treatment in an economic system that exploits their labor, too, working-class members of the white group or “race” have historically tied their interests to those of the elite rather than the rest of the working class. This devil’s bargain has undermined freedom and democracy ever since.
As this white alliance grew to include other ethnicities, the result was
a curious form of democracy: the white democracy. In the white democracy, all whites were considered equal (even as the poor were subordinated to the rich and women were subordinated to men).
At the same time, every single white person was considered superior to every single person of color. It was a system in which whites had an interest in and expectation of favored treatment, in a society that claimed to be democratic. It was democracy for white folks, but tyranny
for everyone else.
In the white democracy, whites praised freedom, equality, democracy,
hard work, and equal opportunity, while simultaneously insisting on higher wages, preferential access to the best jobs, informal unemployment insurance (first hired, last fired), full enjoyment of civil rights, and the right to send their kids to the best schools, live in the nicest neighborhoods, and receive decent treatment by the police. Even white
women, who were otherwise denied full citizenship, enjoyed the benefits of white democracy, such as the right to legal representation, favored access to certain occupations (teaching, nursing, and clerical work), easier access to better housing (including indoor plumbing, heat, electricity, and time-saving household appliances), and/or the all-important guarantee that their children would never be enslaved.
In exchange for these “public and psychological wages,” as W.E.B. Du Bois
called them, whites agreed to enforce slavery, segregation, genocide, reservation, and other forms of racial oppression. The result was that working-class whites and people of color were oppressed because the working class was divided. The tragic irony is that many poor whites often did not get to make use of these advantages, yet despite this, they defended them bitterly.
The white democracy continues to exist, even after the end of slavery
and legal segregation. Take any social indicator—graduation rates, homeownership rates, median family wealth, prison incarceration rates, life expectancy rates, infant mortality rates, cancer rates, unemployment rates, or median family debt—and you’ll find the same thing: in each category, whites are significantly better off than any other racial group. As a group, whites enjoy more wealth, less debt, more education, less imprisonment, more health care, less illness, more safety, less crime, better treatment by the police, and less police brutality than any other group. Some whisper that this is because whites have a better work ethic. But U.S. history tells us that the white democracy, born over four hundred years ago, lives on.
The white race, then, does not describe people from Europe. It is a social system that works to maintain capitalist rule and prevent full democracy through a system of (relatively minor) privileges for whites along with the subordination of those who are defined as not white. The cross-class alliance thus represents one of the most significant obstacles to creating a truly democratic society in the United States.
This is not to say that white supremacy is the “worst” form of oppression. All oppression is equally morally wrong. Nor is it to imply that if white supremacy disappears, then all other forms of oppression will magically melt away. It is simply to say that one of the most significant obstacles to organizing freedom movements throughout U.S. history has been the white democracy, and that it remains a major obstacle today.
In a global economy (and a global recession), corporate elites no longer
want to pay white workers the privileges they have historically enjoyed. Instead, they want to pay everyone the same low wages and have them work under the same terrible conditions.
Generally speaking, whites have responded to this attempt to treat them
like regular workers in two ways. One is through “multiculturalism.” This
approach, popular in universities and large corporations, seeks to recognize the equality of all cultural identities. This would be fine, except multiculturalism regards white as one culture among others. In this way, it hides how it functions as an unjust form of power. Multiculturalism therefore fails to attack the white democracy. It leaves it standing.
The other response is color-blindness, or the belief that we should
“get beyond” race. But this approach also perpetuates the white democracy, because by pretending that race doesn’t exist socially just because it doesn’t exist biologically, one ends up pretending
that white advantage doesn’t exist either. Once again, this reproduces white democracy rather than abolishes it.
There are right- and left-wing versions of color-blindness. On the Right,
many whites sincerely insist they aren’t racist but nonetheless support every measure they can to perpetuate their white advantages, including slashing welfare, strengthening the prison system, undermining indigenous sovereignty, defending the “war on drugs,” and opposing “illegal immigration.” On the Left, many whites assert that race
is a “divisive” issue and that we should instead focus on problems that “everyone” shares. This argument sounds inclusive, but it really maintains the white democracy because it lets whites decide
which issues are everyone’s and which ones are “too narrow.” It is another way for whites to expect and insist on favored treatment.
Multiculturalism and color-blindness (on the Right or Left) are no
solution to white supremacy. The only real option is for whites to reject the white democracy and side with the rest of humanity. Fighting prisons, redlining, anti-immigrant laws, police brutality, attacks on welfare (which are usually thinly disguised attacks on African Americans), and any other form of racial discrimination are valuable ways to
undermine the cross-class alliance. So are struggles to defend indigenous sovereignty, affirmative action, embattled ethnic studies programs in high schools and colleges, and the right for people of color to caucus in organizations or movements. All of these struggles—which people of color engage in daily, but whites only occasionally do, if at all—seek to
undermine whites’ interest in and expectation of favored treatment. They point out the way toward a new society.
We can see this in U.S. history, when fights to abolish the cross-class
alliance have opened up radical possibilities for all people. Feminism in the 1840s and the movement for the eight-hour day in the 1860s came out of abolitionism. Radical Reconstruction (1868–76) very nearly built socialism in the South as it sought to give political and economic power to the freedmen and women. The civil rights struggle in the 1960s not only overthrew legal segregation, it also kicked off the women’s rights, free
speech, student, queer, peace, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and American Indian
movements. When the pillars of the white democracy tremble, everything is possible. An attack on white supremacy raises the level of struggle against oppression in general.
Even today, the white democracy stands at the path to a free society like
a troll at the bridge. The task is to chase the troll away, not to pretend it doesn’t exist or invite it to the multicultural table. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people currently defined as white would have no role or influence in such a society. It only means that they would participate as individuals equal to everyone else, not as a favored group.
Political movements in the United States must make the fight against any
expression of white democracy an essential part of their strategies. The
expansion of freedom for people of color has always expanded freedom for whites as well. Abolishing white interests is not “divisive,” “narrow,” or “reverse racism.”
It’s the key to a free society.