photo by SG

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Withdrawalist Strategies

I've only been involved in the anarchist movement formally for about a year and a half now. Before I was in a rural area and had no other contacts.

But in my short time, I've become interested in what I see as the two "tensions" of anarchist praxis, which I brought up in the insurrectionary vs syndicalist/platformist thread, of "economic action" and "political action" line. I don't think they are mutually exclusive, of course, but they do reflect theoretical underpinnings.

In examining the "economic action" line, which I find more engaging and powerful, I've spent a lot of time hanging out with the Marxists. Unfortunately, modern anarchist theory just isn't developed with solid critiques of the economy (with the exception of the market anarchists, who have an advanced, if silly and incorrect one). Here some of the work of the extreme left-wing of the communist movement, particularly the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the U.S. (particularly Martin Glaberman) and the Autonomia movement in Italy have proved remarkably useful. But while their critique is powerful, they mostly analyzed capitalist society and class composition in their epoch. What they didn't do was spent a lot of time strategizing on where to go forward.

In searching for an anarchist strategy that privileges economic action, I've come to see an important line emerging. The two authors who present some of the most compelling critiques are the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and cranky working class intellectual James Herod. Herod's May 2007 book Getting Free takes some of the perspectives offered by Graeber (though he cities one of Graeber's lesser-known pieces instead of his hugely important Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, so it could be a coincidence) on how egalitarian societies have traditionally dealt with authority and turns them into specific suggestions for how to build an anarchist society.

Both of these thinkers' ideas boil down to what I'm calling "withdrawalism." In a few words, withdrawalism picks up on the Autonomist Marxists' notion of the "refusal of work" as a way to combat capitalism and applies it to all of social life. To me, this represents a qualitative advance on the Autonomists' position, which privileged economic struggles by marginal workers and ignored other parts of social life (at least in my limited reading of their works.) Herod calls this process "gutting capitalism," which I think is an apt description.

In the post-industrial societies of the West, anarchist strategy, I argue, cannot be constructed along traditional lines. Unions, and syndicalism broadly, have failed us. (The contradiction of being a dues-paying member of the IWW is not lost on me.) The "summit-hoping" of the white anarchist ghetto is not "breaking the spell," but rather reinscribing racist and classist dynamics and giving the primitivist and post-leftists a platform from which to speak for all anarchists.

To me, withdrawal from capitalist society reflects the newest and most important version of the historical slogan of "the new world inside the old". Organized communities of resistance, which organize along class lines in urban communities, could provide a new way forward for anarchist strategy.

(x-posted from RevLeft)


William said...

I'm glad to see you've finally converted to Agorism.

Setanta said...


Nate said...

Hey there,

Maybe I misunderstand the point (I've not read a lot by Graeber or by Herod), but this sounds a lot to me like mutualist/cooperativist socialism, which is at least as old as other versions of socialism and has a proud history in Minnesota. That's a more charitable read. A less charitable read is that this amounts to lifestylism, perhaps of the collective variety as practiced by radical feminists and others in the US in the 60s and 70s (and I think by utopian/communalist socialists in Europe in the 19th century).

Regardless of the historical parallel preferred, I think you're making a conceptual mistake here and I think the existence previous historical analogs for what you're suggesting help demonstrate this.

You claim that other strategies have failed, and you imply without argument that this past failure means that these strategies will fail in the future (put differently, you imply but don't argue that the past failure was/is somehow built into/inherent in the syndicalist approach). And yet, other past analogs to what you want us to do now have also failed.

If the failure of past analogs to syndicalism discredit present syndicalisms why don't the failure of past analogs to withdrawalism discredits present withrawalisms?


Setanta said...

I think withdrawalism, as I conceptualize it, is more than either cooperativism or lifestylism. It's a "fighting withdrawal" from capitalism.

That means taking whatever we can from capitalism and building alternative that challenge it. This engages with lifestylism, which builds alternative, but not challenging ones. Capitalism can survive if we only flee from it, but flight is also an act of struggle.

Herod's conceptual model is basically an update of the anarcho-communist one: he emphasizes the building of physical radical communities, fighting landlords, building shared spaces, providing mutual aid for community members, while also struggling against workplace exploitation in a manner similar to the way that we do in the IWW (I think Herod could be an ex-Wob, I thought he and Jon Bekkan were friends back in the day or something.) What's important is to connect these struggles explicitly.

My criticism, and I think Herod's, of syndicalism is that it remains disconnected from non-workplace struggles. That doesn't mean that syndicalists don't engage in non-workplace struggles, but that they're not explicitly connected by syndicalist strategies. Syndicalism doesn't call for the restructuring of communities, the development of popular assemblies, or the growth of class consciousness outside of the shop floor struggles. I think an anarchist strategy should be built on the idea that the struggle in the household and the struggle in the community is just as important to ending capitalism as the struggle in the workplace.

That's not to relegate class to a secondary position in struggle. Just the opposite, for me, the struggle to build radical communities must be seen as class struggle.

Based on your thoughts, and others, I'm reconsidering my use of the word "withdrawalist" because I agree that it bring to mind lifestylism and early utopian communities, of which it is neither. I really suggest checking out Herod though. He's wrong on a couple of really important issues, but he's got the gist real straight.

Nate said...

hey comrade,
I'm not sold on what I think you're suggesting but I'm willing to be convinced. I do want to read that Herod, I've asked DB if he can get me a copy. My point here, though, was not to argue against your views - the fact that I'm unconvinced is not itself an argument against your position - but rather just to point out that I think your setting aside of another option, syndicalism, is not convincing. Your setting aside of syndicalism seemed to be basically "this has been tried and the balance sheet afterward suggests that it's a losing strategy" followed by "here's a new idea which hasn't been tried." My point was to say that elements like what I think you're saying have been tried as well, and have failed, which means you need a different argument for your position and against syndicalism.

All of that said, I'll take your point on syndicalism. Clearly the waged workplace is not the only site of economic conflict, and clearly economic conflict is not the only important form of conflict. So "workplace organizing alone is a sufficient revolutionary program" is wrong. I think few people actually hold that idea today, though I may be wrong.

Two other caveats -
I think if we were to survey the practice of anarchists in the world at present we'd find economic conflict is not represented enough (given how much of our lives are dictated by economic factors), and workplace organization even more so.

Second, while I do hold that workplace activity and other economic activity are not the only important avenues of struggle, I think the meaning of "important" has to be qualified. On the one hand there's moral importance. Morally speaking no form of power-over is more important than another - capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, etc. But in terms of efficacy in changing the world this is not true. I think actions targetting the economy are often more effective than other types of actions, even when the aim is not explicitly "change economic power" but is something else like "push back racism" or "liberate animals." (Two examples - the Montgomery bus boycotts and the economic tatics uses by SHAC in the UK.) I'm not sure I've been clear here (I've got a terrible cold), let me know if I'm not making sense.

take care,