A new way of life, not a new faith….
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist
To speak of anarchism as a way of life, as an ethics, takes us to difficult questions about what it is to be, to act, as an anarchist. And perhaps among what is most important about the written work of Tomás Ibáñez is that he has never shied away from confronting them directly, as he does in the work that we share below, translated from the French and published with Grande Angle Libertaire. And it is a reflection which calls up again the centrality of mutual aid in anarchist practice.
(Grande Angle Libertaire, 25/05/2020)
If the reference to the “existential element” of a political option refers to the fact that, apart from a membership of simple convenience, people who commit to it integrate this political choice as a structuring element of their social and personal identity, with all of the repercussions that this has on their lives, it is clear that this is certainly present in anarchism, but also, from left to right, in the whole, broad range of political ideologies.
On the other hand, if this reference refers to the fact that a political option carries an existential dimension, the range narrows considerably and anarchism then presents itself, not only as one of the options which satisfy this condition, but again as one of those where it asserts itself most clearly. From my point of view, there is no doubt as regards this matter, the existential element is constitutively part of anarchism.
Anarchism as “revolt”
a) A first approach to this existential dimension of anarchism, perhaps the most immediate, emphasises the “revolt” which often accompanies it. Always just below the surface, springing forth from one’s guts, the libertarian revolt in the face of impositions was felicitously expressed by Michel Onfray in a book(1) written long before his sovereignist deviations occurred: “I have known my anarchist fiber since my earliest years … From the first hand raised against me,… I encountered revolt, experienced insubordination. Authority is unbearable to me, dependence is unlivable, submission is impossible. … There is a visceral inability to bear any ascendancy.” It should also be noted that to not bear to be ordered about is only part of the path, and that it is necessary to make “one more effort” to reach the anarchist way of rebelling against authority. Not complying is necessary, but insufficient; it is also necessary to “refuse to command” and to refuse to cultivate an ascendency over one’s fellows.
The weak theoretical systematisation of anarchism and its anchoring in practice made some say of anarchists that they were magnificent rebels but ingenuous revolutionaries, who spoke from their sensibilities and feelings more than from cold political rationality. According to this description, anarchism would be more “a way of being” than a theoretical discourse, and it would stem more from a vital experience, from an existential and ethical commitment, than from a rationally constructed doctrine, which would make it much more receptive to calls for revolt than to plans for revolution.
Anarchism as “way of being and living”
b) A second, more substantial, approach further reinforces the importance of the ethos in anarchism. The simple fact that one can say of a person that they are an “anarchist without knowing it”, which is quite frequent, shows clearly that anarchism is a way of being, of behaving, of reacting, a type of sensitivity, in short, an existential choice, and a particular ethos. Apparently, anarchism can therefore unfold and express itself without any direct references to a theoretical corpus, a tradition of struggles, militant practices, and a political identity assumed as such.
But even when this identity is explicitly claimed, the anarchist insistence on the close link that exists between political choices and life choices points to anarchism as a “way of being and living”, as a fusion of the political and the existential.
The interpenetration between the theoretical principles of anarchism and the way in which anarchists “lead their existence” finds one of its reasons in the fact that theoretically anarchism constitutes a radical rejection of domination in all fields and in all its forms. However, as most areas of daily life are saturated with practices and apparatuses of domination, it follows that anarchists can only implement these principles in the sphere of everyday human existence.
As we know, May 68 helped to emphasise that far from being confined to the sphere of the economy, domination is exercised in a multiplicity of fields, and that resistance must manifest itself in each of them. However, as the horizon of political antagonism widens to all areas where domination is exercised, it is all aspects of daily life that fall within its scope of intervention. And what gains form then is a new relationship between life, on the one hand, and politics, on the other hand, because both cease to occupy, at the same time, separate spaces. This is undoubtedly why the forms of anarchism revitalised or engendered by May 68 have accentuated its existential dimension.
Anarchism as present practical alternatives
c) A third approach includes the libertarian ethos as a form of struggle.
At the beginning of the last century, Gustav Landauer wrote that “anarchism is not a thing of the future but of the present, not a question of demands but of life”. If credit is given to these words, then the importance of the existential dimension is clear. Some time ago, while endeavouring to underline its fragility and its contradictions, I was able to write that anarchism is “conjugated in the imperfect”. Today, following Landauer, but above all the new generations of anarchists, I would add that it is “conjugated in the present”.
In effect, for them, it is a question of creating the conditions to be able to live “today”, and without waiting for a hypothetical revolutionary change, as close as possible to the values that this change should promote if it were to successfully come about. This involves, among other things, “the creation of social realities” which do not obey the logic of the system, and which range from self-managed spaces to networks of exchange and mutual aid, to squats and cooperatives of all kinds. It also involves accepting only non-sexist relationships devoid of any patriarchal trace, including in language use, or still, establishing solidarity relationships that escape the hierarchical or mercantile logic specific to our type of society.
We can see an expression of this “revolutionary presentism” in texts like the one published by the United States collective, CrimethInc, a few years ago:
“Our revolution must be immediate and reach everyday life … We must seek first and foremost to modify the content of our existence in a revolutionary sense, rather than directing our struggle towards a historical and universal change that we cannot see in our lifetime. “
Furthermore, we know very well that making human beings bend and slavish are not the only effects of the apparatuses and practices of domination; these also constitute – as they have always – “modes of individual’s subjectivation”, shaping their imagination, their desires and their way of thinking so that they respond freely and spontaneously to what the dominant authorities expect from them. Knowing that capitalism holds us, in good measure, by the multiple satisfactions that it is able to offer, it is a question of modifying our desires so that it ceases to be a system capable of satisfying them. However, we can only change our desires if we change the form of life that produces them. Hence the importance of creating forms of life and spaces for developing “practices of desubjectivation” as an essential component of revolutionary action.
With implicit Foucauldian overtones, we can perceive in what I have sometimes described as “neoanarchists” the desire to transform ourselves, to “invent ourselves outside the matrices that have shaped us”, in seeking in the relational fabric, in collective practices and in common struggles, the materials and the tools to carry out this work of oneself on oneself.
The importance of “practices of desubjectivation” today goes against the famous dichotomy that Murray Bookchin established in the mid-1990s between “social” and “lifestyle” anarchism. The so-called existential revolts are, according to this dichotomy, completely harmless to the system. However, if anarchism is a problem for the system, it is, in part, because this existential choice offers solid resistance, not only to its repressive intimidation, but above all to its maneuvers of seduction and integration. The adoption of a lifestyle antagonistic to that promoted by the established system, and the refusal to assume its norms and values, constitute a form of struggle which undermines, at the base, its pretensions to exercise “the ideological hegemony” necessary for its proper functioning, and which creates social conflicts with often unpredictable and sometimes significant consequences.
To state it summarily, to renounce the existential dimension of anarchism is, in large measure, to renounce anarchism itself.
Barcelona, 24 May 2020