In June 2015, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, a project of the Institute for Anarchist Studies, published an essay by Kevin Van Meter of the Team Colors Collective titled Freely Disassociating: Three Stories on Contemporary Radical Movements. Moved by his proposal for an anarchism with principles, I responded to Van Meter’s essay in July with Towards an Anarchism with Principles: A Response to ‘Freely Disassociating‘, also published on the IAS website.
In October, Van Meter offered a thoughtful reply to my piece, posted as a comment here. Shortly thereafter, IAS published another essay by Van Meter, Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles, an impressive document that takes the discussion deeper and in new directions. Rather belatedly, today I put forward my closing thoughts – for now – in response to Van Meter’s reply. My response can be found below and also in the comments section on the IAS website. Reading what follows makes more sense in the context of the aforementioned essays. If you have the time and interest, I encourage you to read the pieces linked to above before proceeding to this last entry. I would like to thank Kevin Van Meter for his insightful work and for encouraging my thinking around these topics. Similarly, I thank the Institute for Anarchist Studies for making the space available to have this discussion.
Firstly, I would like to thank Kevin Van Meter for his thoughtful and constructive response and encourage readers to take in his article “Insurgent Islands: A Continuing Conversation on Anarchism with Principles.” Secondly, I apologize for my much-delayed reply. In it, I will comment on some of Van Meter’s points/critiques and hopefully refine some of my arguments from my initial response.
In my original piece, I suggest that part of the process of arriving at and practicing an anarchism with principles requires individuals and collectives to respond rather than react to events, transgressions and conditions, calling upon intentionality to guide us, as opposed to formulaic reactivity. Van Meter proposes that this does not go far enough, advocating “reflection on a movement-wide scale” and that classifying behavior in the manner I lay out may encourage judgmental labeling of others’ activities as formulaic or reactive based on one’s own positions. I concede that such a possibility exists. I also concur with the necessity of reflection. Asking questions such as “Do our actions further organizations and community building efforts and strengthen the relationships within movements?” is very important and is more likely to lead to an intentional response as opposed to a formulaic reaction.
A concern I have is that answering such questions may not go far enough in ensuring a reflective, intentional response or action. I offer that in my construction of intentionality, I believe it is important to look at what aspect/facet/lens/part of us (the individual or collective) is speaking as the source of the answer. What so often leads to confusion regarding responses versus reactions is that one often reacts without being aware of it, or couches their reaction within enough rhetorical scaffolding so as to make it appear as a response. Reactions in humans are predictable, well-worn thought patterns or behaviors that originate in childhood, or as a result of social conditioning, or due to trauma. Many of us find that our reactions may at one point have served us, but no longer do so. Yet it takes much work to unlearn them and establish new behavioral patterns, new responses to life. The same could be said of political philosophies subscribed to on a collective level, which contain their own collective histories and traumas. Reactions serve as a kind of ideological defense mechanism. The picture only becomes murkier when we then overlay the collective and the individual stories together within social movements.
I propose it is necessary to hold this idea of the answer’s source in awareness when we set about examining the questions Van Meter suggests. That along with logically thinking through to an answer, to also look at if the answer or causal event brings up feelings of fear, anger, excitement, love, hate, etc. What stories are beneath those emotions? How might they be impacting our seemingly logical thinking? Are these narratives still serving us or is it preferable to modify them? Taking all of this into consideration is part of crafting an intentional response. It takes longer and seems messier, but is likely to lead to more coherent, consistent, constructive, holistic and healthy activity, both on the individual and collective level. Again, I appeal to collective and individual interiority as discussed in my previous piece as a key component of this process.
Perhaps the above can be illustrated by addressing another potential point of contention between Van Meter and myself. In my previous response, I wrote that anarchism is “a filter through which we interpret events and assign meaning.” Van Meter argues that, “If anarchism is going to be a living philosophy it needs to go beyond the idea that it is anything more than one tool to interpret events and assign meaning….Instead, practical, lived experiences of anarchism with principles produce their own meaning and then are arbitrated by this meaning.” I agree with this up to a point. Anarchism cannot remain stagnant. We can’t point to a text of anarchist theory and say, “That is anarchism, everything in existence can and must be interpreted according to what is outlined in those pages.” A rather extreme example, I admit. The idea of a living, adaptive, reflexive anarchism that makes its own meaning through the doing resonates with me. As I conceptualize it, however, I see two possible drawbacks. One being that in order to implement an anarchism with principles which produces its own meaning, we first need an anarchism with principles, bringing us back to the process of how to develop it. I believe what Van Meter is saying is that the development of it happens through the doing. Meaning is created through action, further refining meaning and guiding future actions, eventually becoming a lived experience. (Though he expounds upon this much more eloquently than I.)
I appreciate that this gives us an avenue to move forward, as opposed to merely wrestling in the theoretical realm over what an anarchism with principles would look like. An anarchism with principles emerges through praxis, and the foundations of that praxis are what I believe Van Meter and I have attempted to elaborate upon in this exchange. Nonetheless, I caution that even a living philosophy which creates its own meaning is a type of filter. It may be a healthy, supportive, liberatory filter that becomes so enmeshed is us that we move from responding according to an anarchism with principles to reacting according to an anarchism with principles. Not to sound too Kantian, but I believe we cannot experience the noumenal, ontological world. We experience phenomena as interpreted through filters, including paradigmatic ones such as an anarchism with principles. It strikes me as important to hold that in awareness, to always consider the source, lest we fall again into formulaic reactivity.
At the risk of dragging this discussion down the rabbit hole, or perhaps it is already there, I will close by echoing Van Meter’s statement that, “[W]e aren’t going to convince people to become revolutionary by simply making the ideas available. We need to be part of the lives, communities, and worlds that are becoming revolutionary.” It is my hope that this exchange manifests in its own small way as being a part of, rather than an offering to, the revolutionary worlds already in the making.