In July of last year, we began the translation of Tomás Ibáñez’s Anarquismo es movimiento/Anarchism is movement. In the same month, we concluded the translation of the essay’s central chapters. With this post, we bring the labour to a conclusion, with the translation of the extensive addenda that close the argument.
In three addenda, Ibáñez treats a series of philosophical themes central to his elaboration of neoanarchism: modernity and postmodernity, post-structuralism and relativism. It would however be a mistake to see in this part of the work the elaboration of a philosophy of anarchism, or of an anarchism as a philosophy. For Ibáñez, the relation between anarchism and philosophy is an exterior one. If philosophy is an activity of thought, anarchism exists between practice and theory. In other words, modern anarchism is a social movement (or a series of such movements) characterised by the struggle against oppression. What thought or theory it has produced has been both the child and the parent of this struggle.
To speak however of the exteriority of anarchism to philosophy is not to say that anarchism, or anarchists, have not been influenced by the philosophical ideas of their time. And to the extent that anarchist thought has drunk from past and present critical theory, anarchism can be the object of philosophical reflection, but always with political practice on the horizon.
What follows then are philosophical reflections on contemporary anarchism, or on what Ibáñez calls neoanarchism, a kind of anarchist thought and practice which lies both within and beyond the horizon of contemporary anarchism, and from which the latter can learn.
For those who wish to return to the main body of the essay, the chapters are available on site:
As a sort of coda to our introduction, it is also worth recalling that last October, we began a series of posts – as yet unfinished – covering the critical work of Jaime Semprun, Miguel Amorós, Eduardo Colombo and Amadeo Bertolo, under the title of “May 68 writers“. And though we did not include Tomás Ibáñez in the group – because we have been translating and posting his work with Autonomies now for some time – he rightfully belongs in the group, because he directly participated in the events of the french May, because his own reflections bear the traces of the event and lastly because his theoretical work very often developed in direct dialogue with these other thinkers.
On this occasion, we would like to point to a significant difference between Ibáñez’s largely positive encounter with “post-modern” and “post-structuralist” thought, and the hostile attitude assumed by Semprun and Amorós in relation to the same corpus of theoretical work.
May the reader learn from both sides of the debate.
Ibáñez has published a more recently – or at least a second edition of – a collection of philosophical reflections and reflections on philosophers entitled Contra la dominación: En compañía de Castoriadis, Foucault, Rorty y Serres (Barcelona: Gedisa editorial, 2019).
(The translation that follows below also includes the essay’s final bibliography, as well as Ibáñez’s acknowledgements. What changes were made in the former are limited to updating internet links to works cited, whereas the latter were written for the spanish language addition of the work – and they should be taken in this context – published by Virus editorial. There are also french and italian language editions of the essay, as well as a spanish language edition published in argentina. The post closes with a video recording of a presentation by Ibáñez on neoanarchism, in french.)
Anarchism is movement: Anarchism, neoanarchism and postanarchism
Addenda 1. From modernity to postmodernity
Can the period in which we live, that of the beginning of the 20th century, be completely inscribed within the general coordinates of modernity? Or, on the contrary, are there already discernible indicators that a sufficiently radical transformation has begun, such that it is possible to speak of the emergence of a new historical epoch?
Opinions differ and, for the moment, there is no evidence that clearly favours one of the two options. However, I will risk supporting the thesis of those who believe that modernity is, effectively, a historical epoch that is still fully in force, but that it has nevertheless already initiated a phase of transition towards another epoch. Perhaps due to a lack of imagination, it is convenient for me to designate this new epoch “postmodernity”.
On the one hand, it is obvious that in a period of only a few decades, changes of great magnitude have taken place, as much in the field of technology, as in that of geopolitics and economics, changes that affect the ensemble of society. These changes are not only distinguishable by their magnitude, but by the constant acceleration of the rhythm by which they are produced. The current velocity of the processes of change undoubtedly constitutes an important differentiating factor with respect to the nature of the transformations during earlier centuries.
On the other hand, all epochs produce a legitimating ideology, an ideology that permits its development and acceptance. Modernity does not escape this rule and it also possesses a legitimating ideology which gained form during the Enlightenment and which, perhaps, as a sign of the change of epoch that has already begun, is ceasing to be accepted as the obvious and natural way to contemplate the world, becoming instead an object of radical critiques. But nor does postmodernity escape this rule and it is currently generating its own legitimating ideology through, among other things, a firm opposition to the postulates of modernity.
Let us now briefly examine the characteristics of modernity and postmodernity as historical epochs and as the legitimating ideologies of these epochs.
Modernity as an historical epoch
I understand that modernity is clearly an epoch which has, as with all epochs, a beginning and an end. To speak of “a beginning” should not be taken to mean an isolated, unique moment, but a more or less extensive process of constitution. The reference to “an end” alludes to a period of decline, also more or less extensive, that is a prelude to its exhaustion and the emergence of a new epoch. In effect, modernity does not appear at a precise moment, already equipped with all of its attributes, but rather the distinctive features that shape it constitute themselves progressively over a period of many centuries. Nor will its disappearance be sudden.
The modern epoch began to acquire form in Europe from the beginning of the 15th century, with, among other phenomena, the construction of a new scientific rationality, the decisive invention of the printing press, advances in the arts of navigation or the European discovery of the New World… All the same, it was still necessary to wait some time for the formation of some of its elements, such as the nation state or the declaration of human rights. And it was not until the 18th century, under the Enlightenment, that its legitimating discourse was articulated with a certain clarity.
Modernity is not separable from the constitution of the immense enterprise that “Science” represents, nor from the enormous effects that it has produced on our way of being, our form of life and our form of thinking. Modernity is born together with an ensemble of technological innovations that give rise to a new mode of production, that will slowly configure itself as the capitalist mode of production, giving birth in turn to the process of industrialisation that will accelerate and generalise itself in the later half of the 19th century.
To understand the process of the constitution of modernity, it is worth reviewing for a moment what some researchers, such as Pierre Levy, have called “intelligence technologies”. These concern technologies that inscribe themselves in the very process of thought, that have as their function and as effects, rendering possible certain operations of thought that were in no way realisable before these intelligence technologies were constructed; to render possible certain operations of thought, to give them greater efficiency or improve them and, therefore, change them in some sense; to definitively create new forms of thought. Thus writing can be considered an intelligence technology which undoubtedly affected the modalities of thought and had innumerable effects on knowledge. The printing press was another of these intelligence technologies.
The invention of the printing press or, more precisely, its crystallisation and the social diffusion of its use mark the beginnings of modernity. This innovation of intelligence technologies was a crucial element making possible the constitution of modernity, simply because it was fundamental for making possible the constitution of modern scientific reason. Modern scientific knowledge would be practically unthinkable without printed books and all that they imply. The printing press is not only a vector of diffusion and socialisation of knowledge, but it also influences the very form in which it is presented and produced and, therefore, it shapes its very nature. The effect of the printing press goes well beyond the simple facilitation of the circulation of texts. For example, the human subject – author or simple transcriber – is constantly present in the manuscript, even though her/his presence fades away on the printed page, something that helps to construct the idea of objectivity, so important to modern scientific reason. Graphs, tables, images that are reproduced in multiple copies, without the least difference between them, also contribute to objectifying the representation as something trustworthy, natural and secure, contributing thus to the development of one of the principal constitutive elements of the discourse of modernity, namely: the ideology of representation.
As with the printing press in the 15th century, all of the great innovations in the field of intelligence technologies have fundamentally changed societies, such that it is not difficult to understand that when the computer and the electronic processing of information appears in the middle of the 20th century, that this too will produce social effects of the first magnitude.
The ideology of modernity
Despite the considerable heterogeneity of the conceptions and the analyses that forged the world view specific to modernity, it is possible to outline the general features that define it. If Martin Luther’s Reformation and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s humanism, among others, contributed to constructing its discourse, it was the philosophy of the Enlightenment that gave it body, defining its contents with greater precision. We can synthesise them in the following eleven characteristics:
First, the hyper-valorisation of reason. On the basis of a teleological conception of history, according to which history moves towards a specific end, scientific reason and reason in general appear as vectors of progress and emancipation. History in effect has a point of origin and it progresses in a particular direction that will be appropriate as long as it is always guided by reason. In the process of making reason the central element, definitive of our I, according to Descartes, an intrinsic relation, an internal relation between reason and freedom, between reason and progress or between reason and emancipation came to be postulated. From this perspective, the increase of rationality would imply, connaturally, an increase in freedom, and would bring with it the possibility of social progress. Reason is simply emancipatory.
Second, the development of the ideology of representation. That is, among other things, the formulation of knowledge as representation of the world and the subordination of its veracity to the fact that it reproduces reality correctly. This means that knowledge is, in some way, a transcription of the real, a translation of reality to another level – the level of knowledge – that must be as faithful as possible, avoiding any alteration of the translated. The discourse of modernity affirms that this is in fact possible, and thereby automatically establishes a duality, a dichotomy, object-subject, that will drag itself through the whole period of modernity.
A third aspect consists of the attachment to universalism and the belief in the secure foundation of truth. That is, the affirmation according to which the truth – as well as values – can be grounded on indubitable, absolutely true bases. The discourse of modernity is totalising and presents itself as true for all human beings and in all times. This is why the grand narratives, the meta-narratives of modernity, always express themselves in terms of universal values and projects, providing explanations that have an unquestionable, ultimate foundation (for a deeper development of this idea, see the addenda below dedicated to relativism).
Fourth, the affirmation of the centrality of the subject and consciousness. The subject is autonomous, which is to say that in principle it can become the owner or master of itself and the agent of its own history. In like manner, consciousness can be transparent to itself. Important thinkers of modernity concerned themselves with suggesting paths by which consciousness ceases to be an alienated consciousness and comes to be transparent to itself. In this connection, it was Marx who formulated the most genuine social approach regarding what determines consciousness and clouds its transparency.
The fifth aspect concerns the attachment to a humanism based on the belief in the existence of an essential human nature and, more generally, in the adoption of an essentialist perspective. Even though essentialism is not exclusively modern, as it pervades the whole of western philosophy, it is one of the postulates of this ideology most incisively questioned by poststructualism.
Sixth, the figure of the individual was established and individualism as an ideology was fomented. The modern imaginary leads us to think ultimately as individuals who, as such, are all equivalent and who only belong, as if by circumstantial “addition”, to specific groups, communities or social categories. In this way, we can move through different communities or distinct social categories, without ever ceasing to be individuals. This signifies that the individual takes the place of the community as the constitutive unit of the social and constitutes itself as the subject of law of modern society.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, John Locke or Jeremy Bentham, among others, elaborated the ingredients of a new moral order that would slowly infiltrate and mould the manner in which we imagine society and our place in it. The principal ideas revolve around the basic notions of social contract, rights and moral obligations of individuals, and mutual self-interest. The basis of these ideas, what legitimates the structures of power that operate in society, is the acceptance of its constituent elements to submit to specific game rules under a sort of founding contract. This is an implicit contract that defines the manner in which the different members of society should behave in relation to each other so as to guarantee their own security and to extract the maximum common benefit. The contract gathers together an ensemble of rights and obligations which the society and the members of the society can demand and must grant to each other mutually.
The novelty is that the social bond is grounded in the rights and the interests of the individuals, such that the obligations imposed by society are justifiable only if they preserve these rights and interests. It is as if the modern individual says to those who govern something like the following: “I only concede your right to govern me if you do so for my benefit and if you recognise that it is I who conceded it to you …”
A seventh aspect has to do with the elaboration of the idea of progress and the subordination of the present to the future. Modernity is perhaps the first epoch that perceives itself as an epoch; that is, that thinks of itself as a particular moment in a specific process. The moment that an epoch considers itself as such, it is the past that gives meaning to the present. In other words, the current moment can only be understood in reference to the past and it makes the past responsible for the present. This also means that the present is burdened with the responsibility of configuring the future.
The present time transforms itself into a useful time for the future and it has the moral responsibility of assuring that this future be satisfactory. The faith in progress postulates that the present is necessarily better than what was before and worse than what will happen in the future, as long as obstacles are not raised to the correct functioning of reason. The underlying idea here is that the human being can make history, can govern it, instead of being carried by it, leading it in the right direction as long as it allows itself to be guided by reason.
Eighth, modernity is a project and a process of secularisation. The principles and the supreme values upon which is articulated the ideology of society are no longer to be found in the heavens; they abandon transcendence to situate themselves amidst humanity and in the very heart of society. This signifies the metaphorical death of God, understood as the ultimate foundation of the principles upon which society should be based. However, modernity does not leave the place occupied by God empty, but substitutes the figure of a supreme being with other absolute principles, such as universal reason, absolute values or transcendental truth, that tend to have, in practice, the same effects. God disappears, but its doubles enter into action. This does not of course take away from the fact that the process of secularisation has important consequences against religious obscurantism, against the arbitrariness of a power that presented itself as the simple executive arm of commands originating elsewhere.
The ninth aspect has to do with fidelity to a secular eschatology and the affirmation of the historicity of societies. Eschatological thought, so important in Christianity, places at the end of time this splendid moment when evil will be definitively defeated; when absolute happiness will be finally attained, when the subject will be fully realised and will leave behind itself a long path of pain and anxieties, finally reconciling itself with itself. Modernity secularised Christian eschatology, emphasising the historicity of our condition and elaborating a series of “grand narratives” about the irrepressible development of progress or the final illumination of all the mysteries of the world, which inspire hope and which promise a kind of final redemption.
This basically means that historicity is our condition. The introduction of historicity into our vision of the world and, thus, into the way in which we conceptualise, represents a substantial change in comparison to other societies. In effect, it assumes that we are no more than a particular moment in a history that has a direction and which advances ineluctably towards a specific end and which, furthermore, will be a happy end. Consequently, hope is fully justified and the great promise borne by the future completely legitimates and renders tolerable all of the suffering that the present may afford us. In this sense, the emancipatory discourses of the 19th century outlined a more or less distant horizon where the conquest of happiness awaits us.
A tenth feature refers to popular sovereignty. Modernity invents “the people” as a new collective agency and establishes popular sovereignty as the source of any pretense to legitimate government. Indeed, it is only possible to govern with the mandate of the people and for the good of the people, and this should give rise to certain means of expression. Some of these are formal and belong specifically to the political sphere, such as for example electoral processes. Others are informal and are found outside this sphere, while conditioning it; it is the case of “public opinion”, constructed as a central authority in the political imaginary of modernity.
Lastly, as the eleventh characteristic that should be mentioned, modernity is a process that has slowly led to the development of industrialisation and the “labour enlistment” of the whole population – even though certain sectors, such as women for example, took considerable time to integrate this process -. This social innovation, which required the development of a series of apparatuses and techniques, produced multiple consequences. Among them, the centrality conceded to work, the growth of the values associated with it, such as professional conscience and the theorisation of the reasons for which labour and its values should be central elements, even to define our dignity; an ensemble of elements that have continued to diminish in the present, which perhaps signals the incipient exhaustion of the modern epoch.
Let us not however precipitate ourselves. Modernity reached one of its most complete expressions in a very recent epoch, as recent as the 1950’s, with the process of modernisation (the very term “modernisation” is relatively recent). Modernisation appeared as one of the principal political values for those who govern, as that which populations should pursue and what countries should realise. It is a matter of increasing, as much as is possible, the rationalisation of the economy and society. Its discourse is formulated in terms such as “raising the per capita income of countries”, “maximising the development of productive forces”, “increasing productivity”, “expanding the capilisation and mobility of available resources”, “improving competitiveness”, “increasing purchasing power”, etc.
On the political level, modernity has endeavoured to generalise the democratic model of political participation, considered as the form of political functioning most adequate to making possible the process of modernisation and drawing out all of its benefits.
In addition to having propitiated certain social advances, modernity has had some very significant costs. It was necessary to pay a very high price for its very development, resulting in an enormous quantity of suffering for the victims of the process, that is, for all of those elements considered marginal with respect to the fundamental values of modernity, for everyone who was in a peripheral position with respect to the centres of power of modernity, and for all of those parts of the world which were colonised so that modernity could prosper and strengthen itself.
Postmodernity as a historical epoch
In the same way that the Modern Epoch began with a series of technical innovations, such as the printing press, postmodernity also began with an important technological innovation, the electronic processing of information. The power and speed that information technologies have introduced into the treatment and generation of information are not only at the basis of the knowledge society, they have also provoked the exponential development of communications, the acceleration of the process of globalisation, the establishment of a new economic order and the upsurge of biotechnologies, which, thanks to genetic engineering, have opened up the possibility of artificially selecting certain human characteristics. The simultaneous development, beginning in the 1990’s, of cyberspace, a network of electronic interconnections, has had a decisive bearing on all facets of the social fabric; relationally, economically, politically, symbolically, and so on.
In view of these elements, it is easy to understand that the transforming impact of the computer in areas such as production, work, commerce or science, are configuring new conditions of life and a new social framework which cannot but change our vision of the world.
Zygmunt Bauman, the sociologist, who prefers to speak of “liquid modernity” instead of “postmodernity”, captures with acuity some of the most significant aspects of the new social reality that is gaining form. To cite but one, acceleration, in all areas, constitutes one of the defining features of a new epoch where everything flows at a vertiginous rhythm. Thus, for example, the obsolescence of products, that until recently was a defect against which one had to struggle – duration was sold – has ceased to be a problem. Today, the speed of becoming obsolete has turned into an advantage for goods: everything ages with enormous velocity and must be quickly substituted. This programmed obsolescence and the necessity of change affects not not only industrial products, but extends to all of the phenomena of the work world and daily life: contracts are unstable, commitments are ephemeral. A permanent disposition to change must be manifest, changing direction with each little sign, seeking to be free of any long term ties and maintaining a flexible identity in a world of fluid and momentary connections.
All of these transformations, to which can be added the constant relocations, the reduction of the life cycles of the skills demanded of workers, the deregulation of labour relations, etc., daily feed the feeling of unpredictability and insecurity before the future. The idea that no one will exercise a single, unique profession, nor that they will dispose of the same employment for life, is consolidated and generalised; in the same way that no one is guaranteed the possibility of always remaining in the same place.
The perspective of professional migration, of territorial migration, of skills migration and the uncertainty of payment, sustain an imaginary where lasting, stable identities and, furthermore, permanent identities shaped on the basis of work, cease to be meaningful. This announces the end, therefore, not of work, but of the peculiar ideology of work which was so important in the last phase of modernity. And the end, also, of what we could call identity sedentariness, substituted by the perspective of identity nomadism.
The ideology of postmodernity
Two centuries had to pass, after the beginnings of modernity, for the conditions to be present for the elaboration of the legitimising discourse of this epoch and to gain awareness that it was effectively “an epoch”. Two centuries, in addition to the three or four decades that separate us from the beginning of postmodernity. Even taking into account the strong acceleration of historical and social time, the brevity of the time that has passed explains the confusing, diverse, contradictory, incoherent and fragmentary nature of the legitimising discourse of postmodernity.
In fact, the discourse of postmodernity presents a double aspect: it develops, first, a powerful criticism of the ideological presuppositions of modernity – in this sense, postmodernity is an anti-modernity – and it elaborates, secondly, the bases of a legitimising discourse for the new epoch.
While critical of the ideology of modernity, postmodern discourse invites us to see reason, presented as emancipatory, as having in practice totalitarian type consequences. In effect, reason constitutes, among other things, an apparatus of annihilation of differences, however not of differences in terms of inequalities, but of the diversity and the singularities which manifest themselves in all domains, including in the domain of cultures. Reason orders, classifies, universalises, unifies and, for this, it must reduce, expel, neutralise and suppress differences. As well, in its programmatic discourse, modernity promised social progress and wise dominion of nature, but these commitments were not fulfilled. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the depletion of the planet’s resources and the destruction of minority cultures are some of the consequences brought about by the modern pretension of converting ourselves into the owners and possessors of nature.
The great principles of modernity are, according to postmodern discourse, nothing but simple stories told to legitimate en epoch. The grande narratives are deceiving narratives that hide the enormous effects of power. Behind the beautiful declarations about the autonomy of the subject and about the self-transparency of consciousness, stalked practices of subjection. Truth, objectivity and the secure foundations of knowledge in fact hid particular values disguised behind the pretensions of neutrality, objectivity and universality. Indeed, modernity is not reproached for having killed God, but in having put in the place of absolutes rooted in the heavens, new absolutes that produced the same effects in a more cunning manner.
Considering now the second aspect of postmodern ideology, we see that the effort to elaborate the legitimising bases of the new epoch insists on the fragmentation of reality, of the subject, and also on relativism in the field of knowledge and values.
In the new ideological scenario, eschatology is weakening, the grand emancipatory narratives no longer seduce the imagination, and the horizon of hope that these drew and the great promise that they sheltered ceased to be believable. The perspective of a distant, but secure, goal, outlined by science, in terms of progress, or by politics, in terms of the end of exploitation and domination, is no longer satisfactory. The lines that sketched the path towards emancipation lost clarity, giving way to the idea that there is no pre-established path, no map that could safely direct the navigation towards a future of freedom and happiness. And all of this translates into a strong scepticism and towards a rejection of any long term project, whether of a political nature, or existential.
The feeling that the present should not be mortgaged to what the future may bring us has continued to increase and that we should live in the present instant against what some eventual better future has ceased to guarantee. Presentism, the desire to extract all that is possible from the present and to consume the instant, substitutes the sacrifice of investing for tomorrow. Precarious ways of life install themselves in the ephemeral, the immediate is what truly counts, because no hopeful future is guaranteed, and thus the idea that there is no future continues to gain strength.
The secularisation driven by modernity grounded itself in the conviction that our historicity propelled us necessarily towards a future of progress, sought after through the rationality of human actions. However, in those moments in which the conviction falters, when the future becomes uncertain and uncontrollable and when eschatology weakens, it seems that secularisation leaves us overly unprotected and that it is necessary to search for protecting transcendent realities which offer us security. We are accordingly witness to a certain return of religious sentiment, the proliferation of sects and esoteric groups, or a greater acceptance of the supernatural and of mysteries that refer to magical thought. It is perhaps for this reason that the ideology of the new times encourages the abandonment of a strict rationality, thereby weakening the border between facts and values, between the affective and the cognitive, or between the real and the virtual.
Perhaps it is also for this reason that the event exercises, currently, such an intense fascination on people. Resistant to historicity, the event is what cannot be predicted, what breaks with the logic of rational expectations and represents one of the highest expressions of discontinuity. There is no doubt that there is, currently, an enormous desire for events, a desire for exceptional incidents, even if they are catastrophic, a collective appetite for what surprises, for what is unique and for what occurs without previous warning. Populations are hungry for events. Perhaps, however, this is also a revenge against power, a kind of compensation for the feeling that everything is under control, a sort of challenge to a power that appears to be able to do everything, except, by definition, to predict an event, given that this would cease to be an event if it were predictable.
Before the ideal of a self-possessed individual and constituted as the supporting and legitimating unity of society, the desire of group fusion and intersubjective valorisation gains form. A tendency towards tribal identifications manifests itself. A necessity for strong identifications which certainly promote practices of solidarity and mutual aid, but which at the same time confine them to the interior spaces of the groups to which one belongs. The desire to fuse into the community and to dissolve oneself in the collective outlines a project that exhausts itself in the mere satisfaction of being together.
Despite the fact that people continue to mobilise in the streets and continue to participate in elections, symptoms of a global lack of concern for the political sphere are discernible. Scepticism gains ground and increases the distance between political representatives and those represented. After having been a key element in the political imaginary of modernity, public opinion not only appears as infinitely fragmented, but is also ever more perceived as powerfully instrumentalised by the communications media and by the powers which control them. It is obvious that if public opinion is constructed through power, it can no longer serve as an alibi to legitimate it and to have us believe that power respects the public will. Consequently, the problem that political power must now confront is that people desert it and that they neither desire to commit themselves to it nor to participate in it, limiting themselves to living in its shadow and abandoning it completely, in the hands of those who manage it.
To conclude these considerations on the epoch that is beginning to emerge, I want to emphasise that, as modernity established new forms of domination, so too is postmodernity doing the same. To be convinced of this, one has but to think of the effects that the social networks have on our ways of being and on how we relate to each other, or of the surveillance that ICTs make possible, or also the kind of governmentality that the medicalisation of life puts into practice. Therefore, it is by no means a matter of completely celebrating the entrance into postmodernity. What is to be thanked is the demystification and critique of modernity, a critique that, if it serves anything, makes us more sensitive to the effects of domination generated by the grande principles of modernity and to which we submitted without even knowing that we were doing so.
Should we mobilise ourselves against postmodernity? I believe that yes, but of course, not in the name of modernity … Should we turn away from the discourse of postmodernity? I believe not. To ignore it, to not wish to listen to it, to not want to understand it, is an enormous hoax, for as we reject the name, the thing continues to advance. Our subjectivity, our ways of subjectification, our closest reality, our social environment … all of this, whether we want it or not, whether we accept postmodernity or not, is changing. The still confused discourse of postmodernity must be studied and analysed seriously, as much as to better understand the modernity which has constituted us and which has shaped our way of thinking, as well as to try to see the nature of newly approaching forms of domination. If we want to understand the present and strengthen our capacity for action, then we must decipher the discourse of postmodernity.
Addenda 2. Post-structuralism as a turning point in ways of thinking
The influence of post-structuralism on the configuration of postanarchism is of such a magnitude that to gain a proper understanding of the latter, it is useful to examine it with care. Before we stop to consider three aspects – the question of the subject, the essentialist postulate and the problematic of power – which are of special relevance to rethink anarchism and which occupy a privileged place in the current of postanarchism, it is necessary to situate the immediate predecessor of post-structuralism, that is, structuralism.
Structuralism is a cultural movement that gestated in the early 1950’s, it affirmed itself throughout the same decade (1955, the year Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques was published, was emblematic) and consolidated itself in the decade of the 60’s. The apogee of the movement was possibly reached in 1966, a year baptised in France as “the structuralist year”. Structuralism’s decline however began in this same decade, in the wake of the critical impact of May 68. It nevertheless continued to shine until the mid-1970’s, giving way at that moment to post-structuralism.
Structuralism took from Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of modern linguistics, some of its principal conceptual tools. For Saussure, the sign, the constitutive unit of language, has no importance in itself, it lacks positive significance. Its significance does not result from its content but from its position, of the place that it occupies with respect to all of the other signs, that is, of the difference that it maintains with respect to other signs. This means that we should not concentrate on the terms that are in relation to each other, but on the relationships between these terms. In this manner, specific contents are excluded, the signifier is privileged over the signified, the code over the message, which is to say, essentially, the formal structure of the language over the circumstantial statements that can be produced by means of it.
Saussure also emphasised the dichotomy between language and speech. Speech is but one manifestation, one realisation, one particular expression determined by language, by the code. This means that to understand the system of a language, we have to set aside its circumstantial manifestations, we have to ignore speech. Linguistics constitutes itself excluding the one who speaks, pushing away the subject.
The dichotomy between synchrony and diachrony also reveals itself to be crucial and the metaphor of chess helps us to capture its meaning. In effect, Saussure says that to take a decision in playing chess, what is important is the position occupied by the chess pieces on the board, their differential value and the possible combinations between the pieces. How this situation was arrived at – that is, the history that led to this particular arrangement on the board – may be interesting, but, at the time of deciding, it is purely anecdotal. What else does the path along by which we arrived at this situation give? It is the configuration of the situation which conditions our decision. It is therefore necessary to analyse the structure as such; the way in which this structure arranged itself is of no concern. And this means that history must be excluded from our preoccupations.
Structuralism thus excluded a series of dimensions that had hitherto seemed important, such as the referent, contents, the subject, history.
On the level of philosophy, structuralism constituted itself in opposition to phenomenology and, more generally, against the philosophy of consciousness.
Phenomenology places the accent on the experiential, on the directly lived, on subjectivity as the constituent element of our experience of things and of ourselves. According to phenomenology, the world is transparent to the consciousness of the subject, provided that consciousness frees itself from everything that constrains and distorts it. The subject’s consciousness is also transparent to itself, as long as the necessary precautions are taken. For example, it is obvious that an alienated consciousness cannot be transparent to itself. Phenomenology places at the forefront the conscious subject, the consciousness of the subject and the power of consciousness. This means that knowledge involves the rigorous questioning of the subject’s consciousness.
Structuralism constitutes itself precisely against these presuppositions and sustains that consciousness is opaque to itself, that the subject and consciousness are not constituent, but rather constituted. They are constituted by language, by codes, by structures, by culture, by the unconscious … Accordingly, it is useless to interrogate the consciousness of the subject. What must be questioned is what speaks in and through the subject without the latter being conscious of it. And, consequently, the subject must be radically eliminated, the subject of modernity, of phenomenology, the subject as transparent consciousness of itself.
What must be sought out is what hides behind experience and what renders it possible; to investigate what, lying behind appearances, engenders the manifest and the visible. One has to go behind the facts to see what produces them; one therefore has to search for the latent and invisible structures. The truth hides behind what can be seen, lying in the depths covered over by appearances. The metaphor of the researcher is that of the diver.
Structuralism shares some of the fundamental presuppositions of modernity. It values scientificity and gives therefore a privileged place to reason – and to scientific reason in particular -; it assumes a certain essentialism and a certain belief in human nature; it participates in the search for universals, etc.
It nonetheless also questions some of the basic presuppositions of modernity. Concretely, it rejects the idea of an autonomous subject, of a subject creator of itself of itself and of history, and shares in the criticism of the subject as a consciousness transparent to itself.
May 68 and the decline of structuralism
Structuralism acquired an enormous influence in the heart of the cultural and intellectual world. It was however when it found itself at the apogee of its recognition, marking the thought of an entire epoch, that something surged forth that no one could predict – and even less the structuralists: the eruption of May 68 and this was lethal for structuralism.
In the first place, May 68 was an event and, as such, something that structuralism rejected, in principle, as secondary and insignificant. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan sought to play down the importance of the graffiti, the demonstrations and the street disturbances, saying: nothing important will happen because “structures do not fill the streets”. Later, before the magnitude of the event, Lacan sought to correct matters saying that “it was the structures that filled the streets …”. Lacan however doubly equivocated: what was happening was important, and it was not structures that were in the streets, it was subjects.
In the same way, May 68 also put into question totalising, globalising and universalising discourses, legitimating the local, the particular and the specific. This contestation could not but affect structuralism, given that it raised suspicion against a type of discourse that corresponded effectively with what it maintained.
May 68 strengthened the conditions for the implosion of structuralism and activated the time bomb that destabilised it and made way for post-structuralism. This latter was constituted on the basis of a denunciation of the former’s impasses and its acritical assumption of many of the presuppositions of modernity. Structuralism, for example, is questioned on the grounds that it takes for granted the universal character of scientific reason, accepting concepts such as the truth, certainty or objectivity, and that it seeks to ground knowledge on absolute and definitive foundations.
The humanism that beats in structuralism is also questioned. In effect, despite the fact that it advocated the elimination of the subject, its search for the invariable, for universals and transcultural constants, which are neither historical nor contingent, evidences a profound essentialism that joins with the belief in the existence of human nature.
Post-structuralism manifests a radical disagreement with structuralist ahistoricism. The exclusion of history is considered inadmissible and Foucault played an important role in this critique. Nevertheless, when post-structuralism reintegrates history and introduces movement to structures – giving to them their genesis and their dynamism -, it does not take up the concept of history specific to modernity. It rejects history as continuity, history as something with a direction and which advances progressively towards specific goals that always improve upon earlier ones. The post-structuralist conception of history is different, it is discontinuous, lacks any end or purpose and is not evolutionist. It is a historicised structuralism that is characterised by the re-introduction of history into the heart of structure.
Lastly, the exclusion of the subject is also questioned. The subject reappeared in an indirect way as a consequence of the consideration of non-discursive practices which form part of what is outside a text. It also appeared in a direct way as a result of the importance covered by enunciation and, therefore, the necessity of taking into account the spoken. In this manner, the subject re-integrates itself in structures, it is again present in them, but no longer as the former subject, not as the subject of modernity; it is not an instituting subject. It is a subject already constituted, but which, still, plays an active role.
What remains of structuralism in post-structuralism is, almost exclusively, the critique of phenomenology and the categorical rejection of the conscious subject of modernity.
Post-structuralism is characterised by its radical rejection of the essentialist perspectives that have accompanied a considerable part of philosophy since Antiquity and that pervade the ideology of modernity.
If the existence of being – of any kind of being – is always a concrete and situated existence that occurs in a particular world, then it is inevitable that the changing characteristics of this world condition and mould the concrete expressions of this being. The essentialist postulate however pretends that independently of the social and historical conditionalities which it may have suffered, being, endowed with a constitutive essence, remains fundamentally the same. Behind the contingent and variable modalities of being, as and how it manifests itself, there consequently exists a fixed and invariable, essential being.
Thus beneath the changing forms of that which represses it, is found our constitutive desire; beneath the fluctuating regimes of truth and the sinuous trajectory of reason, is found the truth in its unalterableness and rationality in itself; or beneath the extensive cultural, social and historical diversity which subjects present, is found invariable human nature, etc.
Essentialism takes us back directly to the game thought up by Plato which consists in turning our eyes away from the deceitful shadows that surround us, so as at to thereby accede to the essence of things, the unalterable and eternal truth of their being, well beyond the circumstantial distortions imposed by existence.
Accordingly, essentialism incites us to bring together, as much as possible, an existence with the essence that grounds it. Beyond that which appears to us to be, or that which the vicissitudes of our existence have led us to be, what we are, authentically, is a consequence of what is already inscribed in our essence. Consequently, we should rediscover this essence which lies beneath what obscures and deforms it, so as to attach ourselves to it as much as it is possible and, thereby, fully realise ourselves. It is necessary to break with the distance that separates us from our true self, from authentic reason, from the constitutive nature of the human being …, because it is in this same distance where is rooted precisely our infelicity and our alienation, our difficulty in realising ourselves fully or in acceding to the full truth. In sum, to find a happiness that is born of the coincidence between what we truly are and what we appear to be, it is clear that we have to endeavour to be faithful to our own essence.
Furthermore, in considering that existence is no more than the simple, temporary manifestation of the essence that sustains it, it follows that essentialism emphatically denies the possibility of creating and closes down the very possibility of freedom. In effect, as Castoriadis said, to create, in the strong sense of the term, is to produce something that is not already fully contained in what is given, in what already exists up to this moment. Accordingly, if what already exists is “the changeable expression of an immutable essence”, whatever we can produce will only represent an expression, distinct as regards form, of this unchanging essence. If things have an essence, our practices cannot create anything that is not already part of it. This marks the strict limit of our freedom, a freedom which can only transform, but which can never reach radical novelty.
Following Foucault, one of the principal elements that characterise post-structuralism is the desire to contradict the essentialist postulate. It is a matter of neutralising its implications and of demonstrating not only that it is an intellectual fallacy, but that it represents, in addition, a dangerous fallacy for the exercise of our freedom. There is not in fact behind the being that is, that is, of the being that truly exists, its true being which we could reach by cleansing it of its contingent and accidental aspects, which cover over its real existence. Essence is subsumed in existence, it does not exist as something separate from it – simply put, it does not exist -, and thus to search for it is completely vain. Essence is a useless, erroneous and deceitful concept and that is consequently dangerous for our practices of freedom. We only possess existence, with its irremediably contingent character.
One of the elements that best defines post-structuralism is its reformulation of the question of the subject. It not only reintroduces the subject where structuralism had eliminated it, but it also dismantles the essentialist conception of the subject inherited from modernity.
The philosopher Richard Rorty belongs to those who question the idea according to which people are constituted, in the depths of their being, by a true I, by an essential and immutable human nature, that had been repressed and covered over by historical institutions and practices. There is, according to Rorty, no intrinsic human nature that we could rescue, that we could free from alienation or that we have to go on progressively realising so as to finally find ourselves, as we really are.
There is no project for the human being that we might elaborate that would be legitimated by the claim that it is closer than others to its true nature, or that it is more in conformity than others with what is truly the case and which would allow for a more complete form of self-realisation.
Of course, we can elaborate transformative projects and we can desire to be differently, ceasing to be what we are today, but we must argue for these projects with justifications that make no appeal to our supposed essence. We can, for example, want to be more free, but not because freedom constitutes an exigency inscribed in our nature, nor because it is an exigency that we want to satisfy so as to be, thereby, more fully human.
We may want to construct ourselves one way or the other, but none of these ways will be more or less in conformity with our true nature; simply because there is no such thing.
Obviously and fortunately, we can come to be different from what circumstances have made us out to be because we can create ourselves in another way.
Foucault, following Nietzsche on the de-subjectification of the subject, shelved the category of the subject as a transhistorical element, the ground of experience, and radically inverted the basic assumptions of phenomenology. It is not the subject that is the condition for the possibility of experience, but rather, it is experience that constitutes the subject. Or, instead, it is experience that constitutes the plurality of subjects that inhabit the subject-form. It follows, consequently, that the subject, far from being a universal, transhistorical and foundational being, is but a changing historical product, as variable as experience itself may be.
In other words, the subject is always the result of specific practices of subjectification, historically situated, which need to be analysed if we wish to know how we came to be what we are. It is on this basis that eventually we can act so as to cease to be who we are, to think differently, to create other things, to feel distinctly, to desire in a different way and establish other values. Things neither have to be necessarily as they are – however difficult it is to imagine that they can be different – nor do we have to be as we are – however difficult it is to discern the very path of a possible alternative -.
Post-structuralism, above all in its Foucaldian version, distinguishes itself by the incisive re-conceptualisation to which it submits the question of power. According to Foucault, power must not be thought exclusively under the form of the law, the State, political authority, as what constrains our freedom, as what prohibits or sanctions our transgressions. Or rather, power is effectively all of this, but it is not only this. The error we usually make consists in taking the part for the whole, by reducing power to a single modality. Foucault does the opposite. He puts into parenthesis power’s most visible form, not to say the only form that is clearly visible, and centres his attention on the other diverse and multiple forms of the exercise of power, which were able to develop widely because they hid themselves from our sight.
According to Foucault, power is not a thing, it is not a property, it is not something which characterises specific entities, it is not something which is possessed or owned, but is a relationship; it is not something which is in a particular place, clearly located. Power is not something which descends – the traditional image -, power ascends; it is not something which pervades everything from above and which continues to irradiate and penetrate everywhere, controlling everything. Power is created and sprouts forth from all spheres of the social because it is immanent to it.
Through a very complex play of the constitution of an ensemble of effects, the distinct forms of power that emerge in different social fields reciprocally feed each other, to converge in large tendencies which initiate ascending movements and contribute to configuring the State and the centres of power.
Thus the form of the State is not independent of the relationships of power which are generated, which are woven, in the social fabric. Power above – the State and centres of power – is constituted in part, also, by what comes from below. However, from these centres and from the State, the exercise of power also flows and projects itself below, eliminating or, on the contrary, selecting and animating the relations of power that are forged there. It is obvious that to speak of an ascending power does not signify, far from it, that the power of the State is underestimated.
Power not only functions according to the model of the law, it also functions under the model of the norm and it is, basically, normalising. While the law is prescriptive, the norm is simply declarative, not only expressing a legitimised knowledge that tells us what we have to do, but what it would be normal to do. It does not oblige us to be in a specific way, but rather informs us of how the majority of our fellows are; and if, in comparing ourselves with them, it follows that we are not as we ought to be, then we endeavour to eliminate or reduce this difference so as to be normal. It is evident that the norm, and the process of normalisation, does not function like the law. The latter always needs a sanctioning mechanism, while the former only requires a prompting mechanism that can push us towards a greater conformity. On the other hand, power is not principally a negative authority which limits and constrains. Power is basically productive; it is in part constitutive of desire, freedom and the subject. This means that it is already present in these elements and that there is not, therefore, a possible exteriority to relations of power.
However, if power is a relation and, more precisely, a relation of forces, then, necessarily, where there is power there is also necessarily resistance. Power implies, ineluctably, resistance, for the mere fact that it constitutes itself within a relation of forces between things that are in confrontation. Let us not though celebrate this fact too quickly. This resistance is not in a relation of exteriority with respect to power, it remains within its fabric, it is one of its components and shares with it far more than we usually imagine. Even knowing that it does not represent a radical alterity to power, it is, for Foucault, a matter of multiplying the lines of resistance as lines of intervention by power are deployed. The resonances and the imbrications between resistances and power mean that there is neither a discourse nor a practice that is intrinsically liberating. This or that discourse, this or that practice, may constitute resistance to power in a specific moment, but not because they are intrinsically emancipating or liberating. We must suspect any discourse that pretends to be intrinsically liberating, for it is with this, precisely, that the danger begins.
I cannot resist including a long quotation from Michel Foucault to conclude these quick annotations on a conception of power that has been adopted by post-structuralism and, to a large extent, by postanarchism. In his last interview, just a few days before dying, Foucault said:
… what we can also observe is that there can be no relations of power unless subjects are free […] To exercise a relation of power, a certain form of freedom has to be present. This means that in relations of power, there necessarily has to be the possibility of resistance, for if there were no possibility of resistance – a violent type of resistance, resistance as flight, astute resistance, of strategies to change this situation, to modify it -, then there would be no relations of power. Given that this is how I approach the matter, I refuse to answer this question that I am so often asked: “if power is everywhere, then there is no freedom?” […] If there are relations of power throughout society, it is because there is freedom everywhere.
Addenda 3. Relativism against absolutism: truth and ethics
For many reasons, relativism merits considerable attention from our part. Firstly, because as it radically rejects some of the more questionable presuppositions of the ideology of the Enlightenment, it displays clear affinities with post-structuralism and postmodernism and consequently finds itself quite close to the kind of thought that inspires postanarchism.
It follows, furthermore, that as relativism undermines, by the same root, the principle of authority and radically questions every absolutist argument, that it is disposed to bring a greater flow of water to the anarchist mill than any other current of philosophy. This is even more so as it proffers tools to anarchism to make evident and neutralise traces of authoritarian principles that modern thought may have left in its midst.
There is still however a third argument for relativism which motivates our particular attention. It has to do with the extraordinary hostility shown towards it and the merciless ostracism to which it has been subject … “Vade retro Satanás” [“Step back, Satan”] has been, it might be said, the anti-relativist leitmotiv. In effect, relativist disqualifications and the blunt anathemas directed against relativist positions constitute a historical constant. We find these disqualifications in Plato, when he ridicules Protagoras; and we find it as well in the famous encyclical of John Paul II, published in 1993 and entitled Veritati Spendor, wherein it is proclaimed that the relativist questioning of truth is one of the worst threats that looms over humanity. A warning that, two days before becoming Benedict XVI, cardinal Ratzinger reaffirmed with vehemence in the homily of the mass Pro Eligendo Pontifice. In fact, it is quite frequent to hear conservative voices putting us seriously on guard against the devastating effects which relativism has on the moral values of our civilisation. But it is no less frequent to hear progressive voices proclaim that relativism is dangerous, even for simple peaceful and civilised coexistence, given that it would take us in the end to accept brute force as the ultimate means to settle our differences.
The fears which relativism gives rise to evoke those that the death of God caused among people some decades ago: “if God is dead, then all is permitted”, “the law of the jungle will impose itself”, “man will become a wolf to man”, and other nonsense of the same kind. We know that it was precisely the idea of God which covered over in fact the masked reign of the law of the jungle and that the abandonment of this idea does not end at an ethical precipice, on the contrary. And nor does the death of the truth and the farewell to universal principles lead to ethical catastrophes. It was precisely the respect for the divinity and the invocation of these grand principles that blocked the very possibility of an ethics.
This hostility is perfectly understandable when it comes from religious sectors, given that theistic belief demands the absolute, for obvious reasons. Faith may experience moments of doubt and stagger momentarily, but it is not fully itself except in absolute certainty. If one has faith, then God truly exists and exists for everyone since the beginning of time and forever; including for those who deny its existence. The relativist is therefore seen as an abominable unbeliever, given that s/he questions, in principle, all universals. Curiously, this same hostility also originates with those who defend that scientific reason transcends, necessarily, socio-historical circumstances and that it situates itself in the absolute. To the extent that it questions the universality of scientific reason, the relativist is seen consequently as a dangerous obscurantist.
Given this so generalised and intense hostility, relativism is condemned and rejected, more often than not, without even bothering to have a quick look at its arguments. In effect, it is as if since the time of Plato that the issue has been resolved once and for all and that nobody with any sense could do anything but energetically distance themselves from it.
It is a simple question of logic: if, as relativism maintains, truth does not exist, then neither can it be true that the truth does not exist. Therefore, the affirmation “the truth does not exist” is not true; and if it is not, then it is true that “the truth exists” and relativism is consequently false. The argument from self-contradiction deals a mortal blow that seems to bring to a definitive conclusion any discussion.
Nonetheless, instead of reassuring us, it is the very bluntness of the argument of self-refutation that should provoke suspicion. For if things are as clear as they appear to be, if relativism is such a foolish, ridiculous, inconsistent and unsustainable position, as Plato affirmed, it would have been logical for the question of relativism to have been closed at the very moment of its formulation. How can it be explained, then, that rather than passing away, that it has remained alive for centuries, that it has reached our own days and that it has even experienced a spectacular boom in the last decades?
It is very easy to show, as we will see further on, that the supposed self-contradiction, into which relativism falls, disappears as soon as we cease to play the game established by the absolutists. This is a game that sets up, as an imperative condition to start a discussion about the truth, that the discussion obey the argumentative rules established by the absolutist conception of truth. It is a matter then of a game that consists in using the criterion that is itself under discussion, namely: the truth, as an argument to settle precisely the discussion about this criterion.
It is evident that if it is demanded of the relativist that s/he affirm the truth of her/his affirmations, s/he cannot but fall into contradiction, given that it is the very criterion of truth that s/he disputes. It cannot be asked of someone who rejects the concept of truth whether what they say is true or false. They should rather be asked what reasons they have for believing that their position is better or what arguments make it more acceptable than another. The relativist only falls into self-contradiction when s/he claims for her/himself what s/he denies for others. However, in that case, not only is the relativist self-contradictory, but s/he also becomes an anti-relativist.
We can also see that, repeating the strategy that consists of enclosing relativism in a spiral of self-contradictions, the absolutists make it affirm that “all points of view are equivalent, and no one view is better or truer than any other”. This assertion would oblige the relativist to place her/himself in the absurd situation of having to present her/his view, immediately admitting that there is no good reason for considering it better than any other point of view and that no one, not even the relativist her/himself, have any motive to prefer it to anything else. Of course, as we will see shortly, relativism does not have to accept anything like the affirmation that there are no points of view which are not preferable to others.
It is because I am fully convinced that relativism provides tools of the highest quality to develop practices of freedom and because it does not appear to me to be correct that a millenarian tradition of disqualification should have succeeded in condemning it without due process, that it seems to me important to contribute to dissipating some of the errors that surround its image and to advocate here in its favour.
The ethical question
It is precisely on the terrain of ethics where it is usual to say that relativism constitutes the worst of all possible options. In effect, it is accused, among many other things, of dissolving moral values by affirming that all values are equal; of promoting ethical indifference by sustaining that nothing justifies ethical commitment; and of opening the door to the law of the jungle by allowing for nothing else but the use of force as the final resort to settle disagreements. These three accusations are sufficiently grave to have us ask whether they have any kind of foundation.
However, in the first place, the relativist does not affirm that all ethical options are equivalent and that no one option is better or worse than any other.
What the relativist in fact defends is that any moral option is as good as any other and that all ethical values are strictly equivalent, but only from the perspective of their ultimate foundation. It is from the point of view of the common absence of an ultimate foundation that the relativist traces a strict equivalence among all ethical values. It is the case that if the relativist had to turn to the criterion of the foundation or the objectivity of values to establish which are better, that s/he could only abstain from any choice, declaring them all equivalent. Nevertheless, what characterises relativism is precisely the categorical rejection of the criterion of ultimate foundation to discriminate between values. With the result that nothing obliges her/him to affirm that there are no values that are not superior to others.
From the affirmation according to which there are no values that are objectively better than others because all of them lack an ultimate foundation, the affirmation cannot be inferred according to which it is not possible to differentiate between values.
Therefore, a relativist can state, without contradiction, that her/his values are better than others, that certain forms of life are preferable to others and that s/he is eventually prepared to struggle for them. However, in contrast to the absolutist, s/he declares at the same time that these values which s/he assumes as better lack any ultimate foundation, being, in this respect, equivalent to any other value.
In contrast to the absolutist, a relativist cannot argue against a Nazi on the basis that the values that the latter defends are objectively reprehensible or that the practices that this same approves of transgress unquestionable moral norms. S/he can only counter her/his own values and present the reasons that s/he has to defend them, but without claiming a privileged status for them against those who question them.
With regards to the second accusation, relativism in fact does not defend that nothing can justify ethical commitment and that it is all the same whether one sets out to defend certain ideas or remains quietly at home watching a soap opera.
For what reason would we be only justified in defending our values, on the condition that they be assumed to be absolute and universal? To affirm that these depend on us, that they are relative to our practices and our decisions, is to assume that they stand only by the activity that we deploy to defend them. In the absence of any transcendent principle to establish the hierarchy of values, to make a determined normative choice obliges the person who makes it to defend the choice with all possible vigour, given that s/he knows that it rests upon nothing more than the defence, argumentative or of another kind, that is capable of unfolding it, and that the full responsibility for the choice made falls entirely upon her/him.
It is precisely because s/he does not feel her/himself pushed by any imperative necessity in the choice of her/his normative commitments that the relativist is far from, if not to say at the opposite pole of, a supposed moral indifference.
It is when values are postulated as absolute, it is when they depend on nothing and, above all, when they do not depend on ourselves, that then defending them becomes secondary. In forming part of an order which is not susceptible to change, for in such a case, it would not be absolute, then its adoption simply testifies that we submit to the imperatives traced by the straight path of the Good and of Truth. To accept a system of values which, in not depending on ourselves, only offers us the possibility of acceptance, leads to the abandonment of any critical thought and to the renunciation of any attempt to exercise our freedom.
Inhibition and de-mobilisation result when it is believed, as the absolutist does, that values exist anyway and that, to the extent that they are objective, they will exist in secula seculorum; whether we do anything for this to be the case, or not. It is precisely when one believes in the transcendence of values when it becomes secondary and dispensable to defend them or not. Furthermore, good conscious, the tranquility of the spirit and the absence of any trace of doubt, constitute the legacy of someone who knows that when they act according to the Moral law, that they do not have to give an account of their actions because these do not refer to one’s responsibility, but to what has been dictated by authorities which surpass her/him and which do not depend on her/him.
Accordingly, for example, no absolute moral imperative obliges us to struggle against privileges and injustices. It concerns a decision that is taken or not, influenced by circumstances. As with an absolutist, a relativist can take this decision or not, but if s/he takes it, then s/he cannot find encouragement in the idea that s/he is supported by universal principles which indicate the path to the Good and the Truth. S/he will limit her/himself to saying that this struggle constitutes her/his particular option and will try to argue in defence of this option without appealing to anything that transcends it.
The third reproach against relativism is that it opens the path to the law of the jungle. However, it still has to be seen if relativism appeals to force as the final argument to resolve differences.
The answer is yes. When all of the arguments are exhausted, nothing remains but relations of force. The relativist nevertheless asks: what is the difference that separates her/him from the absolutist, on this point?
And the response is … that there is not the least difference.
In effect, even though the absolutist presents her/his own position as what permits the use of force to be avoided, s/he cannot hide that s/he also resorts to it as the ultimate argument to settle the differences with those who do not assume her/his rules of play and refuse to be reasonable. However, they do this furthermore with the aggravating circumstance which consists in stigmatising the victim of this violence.
To the extent that, as the absolutist contends, ethical criteria do not depend on our decisions and possess an objective value, it is obvious that to not accept these criteria can only be a mistake or a demonstration of irrationality. If we reject what has been objectively established as morally good, it is because we are in no way normal, because we are perverse. This perversion excludes us from the treatment that other members of the community of rational beings deserve and dictates the use of force, given that we are impervious to reason. The case of the Inquisition is particularly exemplary. The violence is that much more intense when it is not only physical. Beyond questioning the rationality of those who do not share their system of values, the absolutists, sheltered by the objectivity of their values to the point that all rational beings should assume them, exclude from the human community those who question these values.
In the end, to defend their values or their form of life, the relativist, as much as the absolutist, have recourse to the use of force when all of the arguments are exhausted. However, the radical difference lies in the fact that the absolutist feels fully justified to do so and that this violence is not her/his responsibility, as she/he limits her/himself to being the docile instrument of the Good and of Reason.
If in relation to the question of ethics and moral values the opposition between relativism and absolutism is radical, it is no less intense as regards the question of truth.
The question of truth
Let us recall that the relativist does not say that “the truth does not exist”, still less that “it is true that the truth does not exist”, which would obviously be self-contradictory. S/he only says that the only thing which can be affirmed from the perspective of our way of thinking is that the truth “is”, but that it is “conditioned”; that is, that it always depends on a certain merker or context.
No one, including the relativist, puts into question that, within a specific context, certain beliefs should be accepted as true-in-that-context. What the relativist rejects is that the truth constitutes a property which, for reasons of principle, transcends any context. This attitude represents a serious threat to two fundamental beliefs which the absolutists consider indispensable: the belief in the universal nature of truth and in its objective character.
Universalism affirms that true beliefs are so “at all times, in all contexts and for all human beings”. The reference to all times means that nothing which occurs in the future can alter the truth of a proposition, if it is really true. The relativist sees no rational argument which can permit making wagers of this sort about the future and considers them the expression of a mere act of faith. As for the reference to all contexts, the relativist asks how anyone can come to know which contexts there are in all contexts. And as regards the reference to all human beings, the relativist is not only disposed to admit that certain truths hold effectively for all human beings, but sees in this fact a confirmation of her/his own point of view.
To the extent that all human beings share common characteristics – for example, of a biological type -, it is not surprising then that certain truths hold for everyone. However, this precisely redounds to the idea that truth is relative to a determined marker which, in this case, are human characteristics. If these characteristics were different, there would continue to be valid truths for all human beings; but because the context would be different, these truths would be distinct from those currently held (to offer an example, it could be true that pure hydrochloric acid was good for our skin).
The second basic belief threatened by relativism is objectivism. That is, the belief that the truth is independent of the procedures which establish it or of any characteristic of who establishes it. According to objectivism, a belief is true if it transcends the particular point of view from which it was formulated, if it is abstracted from the marker within which it was produced, and if it is not affected by the location of who enunciated it. This signifies that it is true if it expresses, therefore, a point of view from nowhere, that is, a generic location without qualities. As the relativist cannot see how it is possible to accede to something in complete independence from how it is acceded to, neither can s/he see any meaning in objectivism, unless s/he accepts the hypothesis that there exists a place that corresponds the point of view of God and that we can put ourselves in this precise place.
The effort deployed by the absolutists to demonstrate the inanity of relativism does not limit itself to signaling its dangers for reason and putting into doubt its logical consistency. This effort also seeks to show the inconsistency of relativism in daily life, given that the relativist would be obliged to deny in practice what s/he proclaims in theory. In effect, however much the relativist attacks truth in theory, it is easy to verify that this contradicts what s/he does in practice. It is obvious that in her/his daily life, that the relativist has no remedy but to permanently invoke the criterion of truth, to employ profusely the true/false dichotomy and assume, firmly, the true character of a very ample ensemble of beliefs.
To be able to live, an individual has to believe in the existence of truth. Those human beings who would be incapable of distinguishing between true and false beliefs would extinguish themselves immediately, if they were abandoned to their own fate. This does not mean that human beings have no false beliefs, but it does imply that the majority of our beliefs must be true and that we have to discern them as such to be able to develop in the world. In other words, the use of the true/false dichotomy constitutes one of the conditions for the possibility of our experience and it forms an integral part of the conditions for the possibility of our very existence.
Whether we defend a relativist position or not, it is true that if we put our hand in the fire we burn ourselves, that certain plants are toxic and others comestible; it is true that the extermination camps existed, that 2+2=4, that gender, racial, class, etc. discrimination exist; it is true that we cannot do without the concept of the truth, and it is true that to deny the truth of all of this is properly untenable. There is therefore a contradiction between what the relativist affirms theoretically and what he does in practice.
A contradiction between theory and practice would in effect be produced if the relativist rejected the concept of truth on the level of theory, but s/he does not do so. Relativism does not intend to abandon the concept of truth, but only to give it a new meaning, distancing it from its absolutist conceptualisation and marking it pragmatically. What the relativist questions is not the pragmatic value of the belief in truth, but the philosophical presuppositions assumed by the absolutist in this belief.
The usefulness that the fact of believing in the truth represents is in no way put into doubt by the relativist. However, we cannot but remember that usefulness as a value presupposes nothing more than this, and that no logical bridge exists which allows us to move from utility to truth. That something is useful does not imply that it is true. Consequently, that we appeal in our daily life to an absolutist conception of truth tells us nothing about the true or false character of this conception.
For example, we all use the truth in the sense of correspondence, when we agree that “a statement about certain facts is true, if the facts are effectively as the statement says that they are”. This way of using the truth is undoubtedly tremendously useful for our manner of relating to the world and, also, of dialoguing with others. Today, however, we all know that the correspondence notion of truth is logically and conceptually untenable, despite its doubtless utility.
When s/he plays a game of chess, the relativist assumes an ensemble of rules: s/he assumes, for example, that the proposition according to which the bishop can only move diagonally is true and that to accept it is part of the very possibility of playing chess. There is though no need to accept anything further, there is no need to accept that there is something like an essence of the game of chess or that there is something like a place where, independently of our decisions, the rules of chess are located.
The same occurs with the semantic rules of the absolutist type that govern the use of the true/false dichotomy. We have to assume these rules, to assure our existence; nevertheless, we do not have to commit ourselves to anything more than the unquestionable pragmatic value that the correct application of these rules has. Utility and truth are terms that refer to distinct conceptual fields; true and useful are predicates which do not function in the same semantic fields. The pragmatic value of truth only has value of course within the context of a specific form of life and for the kind of being that we are.
The relativist therefore defends a pragmatic conception of truth and recognises, furthermore, that in ordinary language the semantics of truth is of an absolutist kind, given that it fully assumes universalism and objectivism. Whether we wish it or not, absolutist type truth forms part of our use of the concept of truth in everyday life. This is comprehensible if we accept with Ludwig Wittgenstein that the grammar which governs any language must have a pragmatic value, that is, it must be such that it allows us to develop ourselves in the world. Language is in effect one of the principal tools elaborated by the human being to settle himself adequately within the surrounding world. But for this tool to have been effective, it had to connect to, join with, the characteristics of the world and, so to speak, these latter had to slowly inscribe themselves in our grammar. Accordingly, it is utility which presents the true/false distinction so that we could adapt to the world, the world as it would come to be reflected in our semantics of truth.
In the same way that our place in the world presupposes the existence of truth defined in absolute terms, the relation that we maintain with our fellows presents the same demands. However, this does not have to co-validate the absolutist conception of truth.
We cannot in effect generate meaning, if not within the setting of conventions and shared practices with our fellows, within a specific culture. Without this exchange and without this common background, communication would be totally impossible. In the same way that one cannot play chess without defining a certain number of rules valid for all players, neither can one communicate or exchange except in the context of a game of rules which constrains the acceptability of statements, thus impeding arbitrariness. The fact of admitting, as the relativist does, that these rules are purely conventional does not excuse us from following them if we intend to play, that is, in this case, to dialogue and to give meaning.
That the truth depends on our conventions does not mean that we can adopt this or that convention, according to our taste, because our practices and conventions are constrained by our characteristics, by our history and by the demands of life in common, especially those that concern communication. We are not authorised therefore to decide arbitrarily whatever we please to affirm as true. We cannot decide, for example, that a glass of sulfuric acid is good for our health, in the same way that we cannot decide that the extermination camps did not exist, because it was so decided. This would be to exclude oneself from any possibility of debate. If one intends to communicate with others, then arguments are necessary and the rules of argumentation have to be respected. To restore truth to our practices, to our conventions and to our characteristics does not mean to remit it to our free will. Relativism does not open the path to arbitrariness. Rather, it most certainly closes access to arguments from authority and demands that whatever is affirmed, including the existence of extermination camps, that it be argued for from within the framework of conventions made explicit as possible. Just as considering truth in absolute terms was renounced, so it is necessary to define as precisely as possible the conditions in which this or that affirmation will be admitted as true, and this of course does not tolerate any exception.
In conclusion, relativism – which is only self-contradictory if it is evaluated according to the criteria against which it constitutes itself – does not end at any ethical precipice and does not lead to any political inhibition. On the contrary, it demands a commitment as combative as if it had opted for a specific normative position. In like manner, relativism does not disarm us before choices made and it does not render debate futile, but rather the opposite, given that it makes us responsible for our choices and forces us to defend them, arguing for them. In fact, it seems that ultimately all of the false complaints made against relativism cannot forgive what is most fundamental to it, namely, a mortal blow dealt to the very principle of authority. The existence of Absolute Truths and Universal Values bestows on whoever has them in their possession the right and, even, the moral obligation to vanquish whoever moves away from these truths and these values. In rising up against these absolutes, relativism finishes in a certain way the enterprise undertaken by the Enlightenment; and it is no longer just God, but its doubles as well, that see themselves expelled from human affairs.
Finally, I want to call attention to the fact, certainly clearly evident, that our relationship to the world is not exclusively, nor primarily, a relationship of knowledge, but that it is also a relationship of action, of encounters, of sensations, of experiences and sentiments. It is certain that Plato contributed in an important way to privileging the will to know and to prioritising the search for truth above the remaining human practices. We however do not have to follow his footsteps. We can also question the privilege conceded to truth and prioritise an ethics and an aesthetics of existence, in the sense of constructing the possibility that all of us be able to create a beautiful life and one worthy of being lived.
It is obvious that for absolutism, the Truth offers no doubt. It is resplendent, brilliant, hard, unmistakable and overwhelming. Its edges appear clear, cutting and they offer themselves to us in terms of all or nothing: half-truths were never the Truth. Truth is not negotiable, it holds for everyone and it holds for ever. Universal, atemporal, absolute, it is indisputable, it imposes itself. We can look away from it, refuse to recognise it, but the truth will continue to be the truth above our decisions. No posterior evidence can change it and, should it change the truth, it is because it was not really true, it only seemed to be. The truth is either absolute or it is not the truth, and when we find it and proclaim it, we are appropriating time and dominating the future; that is, denying it. The future can only show that a truth was not true, but if it is, nothing can go against it. The will to Truth is, directly, a will to Power that seeks, furthermore, to legislate for eternity. From this perspective, it constitutes a danger and a weakening of our freedom.
The truth is an epistemological question, the construction of the way of life that deserves to be lived is an ethical question. Between ethics and epistemology, the choice, as a significant part of anarchism saw with clarity, offers no doubts, because to decide how we want to be is considerably more important than asking ourselves about, what can we know?
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– (1987): “Ontological Anarchy in a Nutshell”. In Bey, Hakim. Immediatism. Essays by Hakim Bey. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994.
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DAY, Richard (2005): Gramsci is Dead. Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press.
FERRER, Christian (Comp.) (1990): El lenguaje libertario. Montevideo: Nordan-Comunidad.
– (2004): Cabezas de tormenta. Ensayos sobre lo ingobernable. Logroño: Pepitas de calabaza.
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– (2008): Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.
GRAEBER; David (2002): “The New Anarchists”. New Left Review, 13, 61-73. Available at: https://newleftreview.org/issues/II13/articles/david-graeber-the-new-anarchists.
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– (1994): The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
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I also want to mention in this bibliography the following excellent journals:
A contretemps: http://acontretemps.org/
Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies: https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/adcs/index
Anarchist Studies: https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/anarchist-studies
Publications by the author used in or related with the text
1982. Poder y Libertad. Barcelona: Hora.
2001. Municiones para disidentes. Barcelona: Gedisa.
2005. Contra la dominación: Gedisa. Italian edition: Il libero pensiero. Elogio del relativismo. Milán: Eleuthera, 2007.
2006. ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas. Barcelona: Anthropos. Revised new edition (2007): Actualidade del anarquismo. Buenos Aires: Terramar Ediciones e Libros de Anarres (Ciolección Utopía Libertaria). Revised French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes. Paris: Rue des Cascades.
b. Selected articles
1981. “La inevitabilidad del poder político y la resistible ascención del poder coercitivo”, El Viejo Topo, 60, 28-33. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
1983. “Per un potere politico libertario”, Voluntà, 3. Republished under the title: “Pour un pouvoir politique libertaire”, en Considérations épistémologiques et stratégiques autour d’un concept. In Bertolo, Amedeo; Di Leo, Roosella; Colombo, Eduardo; Ibáñez, Tomás and Lourau, René (1984): Le Pouvoir et sa négation. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire. Spanish edition (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes. There is also a Greek version published in 1992.
1985. “Addio à la rivoluzione”, Voluntà, 1. French edition: AA.VV (1986): La Révolution. Un anarchisme contemporain – Venise 84. Vol. IV. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire. Spanish edition (1986): Utopía, 6 (Buenos Aires); in Ferrer, Christian (Comp.) (1990): El lenguaje libertario, Vol. I. Montevideo: Nordan-Comunidad, and in (1999): El lenguaje libertario. Antología, Buenos Aires: Altamira. English version (1989): Autonomy, 1. Available at: http://autonomies.org/2010/04/farewell-to-the-revolution/.
1990. “Adiós a la revolución … y ¡viva la gran desbarajuste!”. Archipiélago, 4. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
1993. “Sísifo y el centro, o la constante creación del orden y del poder por parte de quienes lo cuestionamos”, Archipiélago, 13. Italian version (1992): Volontà, 1. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes. There is also a Greek version.
1994. “Tutta la verità sul relativismo auténtico”, Voluntà, 2-3. French version: AA.VV (1997): Tout est relatif. Peut être. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire. Spanish version (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
1996. “Questa idea si conjuga all’imperfetto”, Voluntà, 3-4. Spanish version (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
2001. “Instalados en la provisionalidad y en el cambio … (¡Como la vida misma!)”, Libre Pensamiento, 37-38. French version (2002): “Installé entre le provisoire et le changement, comme la vie elle-même”. IRL – Informations Rassemblées à Lyon, 90. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo.
2002. “¿Es actual el anarquiso?”, Página Abierta, 123. Republished in (2003): La lletra A, 61. Portuguese version (2004): Utopia, 18. French version (2006): A Contretemps, 24 and in (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo.
2006. “A Contratiempo”, Libre Pensamiento, 51. Republished in (2006): ¿Por qué A?: fragmentos dispersos para un anarquismo sin dogmas and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo. French edition (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
2006. “A l’aube du XXI siècle: les clairs-obscures de la nouvelle donne”, Réfraction, 17. Spanish version (2007): Libre Pensamiento, 55, and in (2007) Actualidad del anarquismo. Also in (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
2007. “Neoanarquismo e società contemporanea. Diálogo com Manuel Castells”, Libertaria, 1-2. Original version in Castilian (2008): “El neoanarquismo, la libertad y la sociedad contemporánea. Diálogo con Manuel Castells”, Archipiélago, 83-84. There also exists a version published in Greece.
2008. “Points de vue sur l’anarchisme (et aperçus sur le néo-anarchisme et le post-anarchisme)”, Réfractions, 20. Italian version (2008): Libertaria, 3-4. There is also a version published in Greece. French version (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
2009. “Los nuevos códigos de la dominación y de las luchas”, Libre Pensamiento, 62. Italian version (2009): “Le nuove forme del dominio e delle lotte”, Libertaria, 4. French version (2010): Fragments épars pour un anarchisme sans dogmes.
2009. “Il post-anarchismo e il neo-anarchismo” (text for the Colloquium of Marghera) and “Apuntes sobre neoanarquismo” (text for the Colloquium of Pisa), Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli, 34. There is also a Greek version (2010): Eutopía, 18, 2011, and in French: “Conversations avec Tomás Ibáñez”, A Contretemps, 39.
2011. “Pouvoir et liberté: une tension inhérente au champ politique”, Réfractions, 27.
2011. “La Rivoluzione”. In AA.VV: Rivoluzione? Milán: Asperimenti. Spanish version (2012): “La revolución”, Libre Pensamiento, 70. There is also a version published in Greece.
2011. “El 15M y la tradición libertaria”, Polémica, 100.
2012. “Le temps saccadé des révoltes”, Réfractions, 28. Spanish version (2012): El sorprendente ritmo de las revueltas”, Libre Pensamiento, 71.
2012. “L’anarchisme est un type d’être constitutivement changeant. Arguments pour un neo-anarchisme”. In Angaut, Jean-Christophe; Colson, Daniel and Pucciarelli, Mimmo (Eds.): Philosophie de l’anarchie. Théories libertaires, practiques quotidiennes et ontologie. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire.
2013. “La raison governementale at les métamorphoses de l’État”, Réfractions, 3.
If it were not for the friendship and wisdom of Félix Vázquez, my Gallicisms and other grammatical and stylistic incongruities would have turned this book into a cruel linguistic affront. Many thanks, Félix, for the rigorous revision and the sensible suggestions. Were it not for the hope and the commitment of so many anarchists who gave their lives for this idea and the continuous, enthusiastic passion of those who continue to animate it, it is obvious that this book could simply not have been, and therefore my thanks also go to the broad libertarian horizon that has made it possible, and within it, I can fail to mention the collective that has continued to maintain, with its dedication and efforts, the Virus publisher.
A discussion with Tomás Ibáñez (in french): “Approximative philosophical reflections on anarchy, anarchism and neo-anarchism” …