Anarchy’s dancing friends

for n.m.and a.b.

for the members of the Paideia collective

Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused.  “I don’t know why.  Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.

                                                                  John Steinbeck

Friendship, this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters, passes by way of the recognition of the common strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to speak to them.

                                                                  Maurice Blanchot

Errico Malatesta spoke of Anarchy as a “society of free people”, a “society of friends”.  What friendship is this which defines the free?  Is Anarchy a politics of friendship, friendship as politics?  It is said of the first days of the workers’ defense of Barcelona against the fascist rebellion in 1936, that Durruti at the loss of his friend Francisco Ascaso became blind to the risks for his own life in an assault on the last barracks to resist in the city.  Friendship as a bond beyond death, in which there is no death, or there is death as a permanent possibility and friendship is that relation which keeps it at bay, even as it holds death before itself.  In friendship, I and the friend are one in and through each other.  There is no claim upon the other, nothing resembling a contract or any other identity construction technique, which holds us.  It is not even possible to separate from the other what is properly one’s own, because friends do not know, in friendship, what belongs to each.  Without the friend, one ceases to be in so profound a way that it is as if to lose a part of oneself, or more, to lose oneself.  And what is the melancholy of old people if not that of surviving their friends; they are alive, but in fact they are no longer.  They live, but they but wait for death.

Malatesta’s statement that Anarchy is a society of friends is perhaps one of the most profound descriptions of anarchism ever proffered.  What follows is a modest exercise in imagining what this society might be.

In a less than common reflection on the Anarchist House, Colin Ward addresses the question of whether or not there is an anarchist aesthetic, as opposed to a bourgeois aesthetic, to which he promptly answers no.  A quotation from painter and anarchist Camille Pissaro brings the matter to a close.

Y a-t-il un art anarchiste? quoi décidément ils ne comprennent pas.  Tous les arts sont anarchistes quand c’est beau et bien ! (175)

All the arts are anarchist which are beautiful and good, and we could add, the result of a free creativity.  Ward’s anarchist house has much to do with all three of these virtues.  In other words, the anarchist in art is not to be found in its content or form, but in a certain ethics of freedom which gives rise to beauty and goodness.

Let us then pose the question: is there an anarchist politics?  Should there be a parallel between the question about anarchist aesthetics, then the answer is again no.  The defense of such an idea is in like manner ethical, that is, that anarchism as a politics is essentially an expression of a certain way of being.  It was Bakunin who would state on more than one occasion that “freedom can be created only through freedom”.  Poverty and desperation, by themselves, can never cause a revolution.  What is indispensable is that “people be inspired by a universal ideal”; an ideal rooted in history, but never reducible to it. (335)

[Excurses: Gilles Deleuze: In historical events such as the revolution of 1789, the Commune, the revolution of 1917, there is always one part of the event that is irreducible to any social determinism, or to causal chains.  Historians are not very fond of this aspect: they restore causality after the fact.  Yet the event is itself a splitting off from, or a breaking with causality; it is a bifurcation, a deviation with respect to laws, an unstable condition which open up a new field of the possible. … The possible does not pre-exist, it is created by the event.  It is a question of life.  The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity (new relations with the body, with time, sexuality, the immediate surroundings, with culture, work …)” (233-4)]

The freedom expressed in Bakunin’s ideal is one that enhances the people of all nations, “developed” and “undeveloped”, an ideal broad enough that it destroys “all the dogmatic, metaphysical, political and juridical fetters by which everyone is today loaded down, which will give everybody, collectives as well as individuals, full autonomy in their activities and their development.” (284)

Freedom, autonomy, is a gesture which defines a mode of life.  Whatever political program or cause Bakunin may have defended, they were, at least in principle, those which best expressed the ideal.  And therefore Bakunin could say “that the masses themselves create their own exploiters, their own despots, their own executioners of humanity”. (245)  Authority does not exist outside us, for it is we who sustain it, make it; it is thus embodied in a State as well as in every act/event.  Anarchy cannot be anything else but the transformation of every dimension of human life; a way of being, an ethics.

There must be anarchy, there must be – if the revolution is to become and remain alive, real, and powerful – the greatest possible awakening of all the local passions and aspirations; a tremendous awakening of spontaneous life everywhere. (180)

[Excurses: Gustav Landauer often spoke of revolution as a spiritual, ethical transformation that occurs in the present and is constant.  The ethical character of his anarchism is captured in this eloquent and often quoted statement: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it behaving differently.”]

Kropotkin, in like manner, when asked to define anarchism, would describe it as …

a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial or professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being. (284)

Anarchist society and its political and economic organization have in other words their origin in and display to the greatest degree possible, freedom.  That difficulties, problems, imperfections will haunt such a society is obvious.  If anarchism is utopian, it is not naively so.  Freedom then as a “principle of conduct” is also a principle of struggle, collective struggle.

To struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life.  Then you will have lived; and a few hours of such life are worth years spent vegetating. (113)

Malatesta, priding himself on being first and foremost an advocate of freedom, would describe anarchy as follows:

From the free participation of all, by means of the spontaneous grouping of men according to their requirements and their sympathies, from the bottom to the top, from the simple to the complex, starting with the most urgent interests and arriving in the end at the most remote and most general, a social organization would emerge the function of which would be the greatest wellbeing and the greatest freedom for everybody, and would draw together the whole of mankind into a community of comradeship, and would be modified and improved according to the changing circumstances and the lessons learned from experience. (31)

And Emma Goldman, rejecting talk of an anarchist method or program, (74) will instead speak of it as proposing …

to rescue the self-respect and independence of the individual from all restraint and invasion by authority.  Only in freedom can man grow to his full stature. Only in freedom will he learn to think and move, and give the very best in him.  Only in freedom will he realize the true force of the social bonds which knit men together, and which are the true foundation of a normal social life. (72-3)

With no intention to further belabour the point, and even less to speak from an accumulated canon, the above is sufficient to identify a theme that runs through a great deal, if not all of anarchist thought, namely, that anarchism is a politics of freedom, a freedom that is only possible through equality and solidarity with others.  And that is why Paul Goodman, as Kropotkin before him, could discern anarchy in all manner of political movements, even if they did not bear its name.

… [T]he anarchist principle … far from being “utopian” or a “glorious failure”, … has proved itself and won out in many spectacular historical crises.  In the period of mercantilism and patents royal, free enterprise by joint stock companies was anarchist.  The Jeffersonian bill of rights and independent judiciary were anarchist.  Congregational churches were anarchist.  Progressive education was anarchist.  And so forth, down to details like free access to public libraries. … [T]his relativity of the anarchist principle to the actual situation is of the essence of anarchism.  There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called “anarchist.”  It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite … (177)

How then to understand anarchist politics, if it is not susceptible to summary in a program, a manifesto or organization?  The latter are part of how we typically conceive of politics, a conception that then permits distinctions among ideologies, movements, parties, governments and the like.  (The recent and constant call for clarification of the demands of the indignados of spain or of occupy wall street, along with debates about the need for some kind of organization beyond passion and spontaneity are further testimony to this).  It is however precisely in opposition to such a view that we began by answering the question of whether there is an anarchist politics negatively.  What manner of politics then, if any, is anarchism?

At the centre of the philosophy of the Cornelius Castoriadis is the concept autonomy and his various efforts to clarify, analyse and elaborate the idea can take us some way to answering our question.

Tracing the origin of politics to ancient greece, Castoriadis contends that it was here that can be found the first example of a society that explicitly deliberates over its laws and changes them.  Formerly inherited from ancestors, or given by the gods, the ancient Greeks create their laws following a confrontation and discussion over which laws are good or bad, a discussion which raises a more fundamental question about the nature of justice.  Politics is thereby sister to philosophy.  But the politics in this instance is not the daily joust between conflicting interests of different social groups (the politics of manifestos and parties), but a “collective activity whose aim is the institution of society as such”. (353)  In other words, the essence of political life in ancient greece is the historical, permanent and explicit process of self-constitution, (357) the meaning of which is autonomy.

The community of citizens, the demos, governs itself through its own laws, possess an independent jurisdiction. (358)  It also affirms political equality, the sharing of constituting activity and the exercise of power. (358)  This implies far more than an equality of rights; it is an equality of participation, formally organized but also the very ethos of the polis. (359)  The participation becomes real in the assembly, the space and time where the people are made one as actor, where each has the right to speak, where each voice has the same weight and where everyone is under the moral obligation to speak with sincerity. (359-60)  The autonomy of the people in assembly is direct democracy, a democracy not of representatives, experts or to be identified with the State, if by the latter is understood an institution distinct and separate from the citizens. (360-3)

In one sense, as Castoriadis states the matter, the existence and the unity of the political body are pre-political realities to the extent that we have to do with an explicit self-constitution which lays the ground for a politics of the everyday, without ever receding from the horizon of possibility.  Pre-political politics in effect creates a community; it is both an end in itself and that through which a particular kind of community is made.  According to Castoriadis, in ancient Athens, it was a community of human beings living with beauty, wisdom and loving the common good. (382)  Or perhaps more simply, and more generally, autonomous community brings about a collectivity of free human beings through freedom.

What Castoriadis calls autonomy is part of the answer to the question of what an anarchist politics is.  In rejecting the anarchist adjective in this case, what is being refused is a strict identification of anarchist politics with an anarchist program and/or organization.  There is no specific and exclusive form to anarchy.  It is the politics of an ethos, an ethos of freedom that may carry different masks as circumstances dictate, but what underlies it is the freedom to make and re-make oneself in equality.

Where then is friendship in this picture?

Here, we follow a different teacher.

In a remarkable essay on friendship, Giorgio Agamben argues that the concept of “friend” belongs to a category of terms that are defined as non-predicative, i.e., they attribute no quality to a thing and therefore do not permit the constitution of a class of objects.  “White”, “hard”, “hot” are predicates which permit a classification.  However, what class of objects does “friend” point to? (16)  By analogy, “insults” are non-predicative terms.  They do not refer to a kind of object, but rather function like a proper name, a name to be accepted or refused. (17)  What offends in the insult is the pure experience of language, not a denotation. (17)  The term “friend” then shares this quality with insults, but also with a variety of philosophical terms that denote nothing objective, but rather simply being. (18)

The implication of this for friendship is significant, for it suggests that it is a proximity which cannot be represented, conceptualized. (23)

To recognize someone as a friend means not being able to recognize him as “something”.  One cannot say “friend” as one says “white”, “Italian”, “hot” – friendship is not a property or a quality of a subject. (23)

To pursue his reflection further, Agamben quotes a passage on friendship from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (1170a28-1171b35)  What follows is a summary of the manner in which he works the text.  There is, according to Aristotle, a sensation or experience of pure being, an experience of existence, an experience that is in itself pleasant. (31-2)  And there is an equivalence at this level of sensing oneself to exist and sensing oneself to live; one’s being is experienced in living. (32)

There is nevertheless a further experience that is specifically human, which shares the sensation of existing.  It is the shared experience of the existence of the friend.  Friendship is an example of co-experience, the co-experience of the existence of the friend in the sensation of one’s own experience of existence. (33)  The sensation of being/living is always already shared and friendship is the name of this sharing. (33)

There is no intersubjectivity – that chimera of the moderns – no relation between subjects; it is rather being itself which is divided, that is not identical to itself, and the self and the friend are the two faces, or the two poles of this sharing. (33)

It is for this reason that the friend is another self, another myself, not as an alter ego, but as an alterity immanent to self-sameness, a becoming other of the self. (34)  And this to the extent that as I perceive my existence as pleasurable, my experience is run through by a co-experience which dislocates it and carries it towards another.  “Friendship is this desubjectification at the very heart of the most intimate experience of oneself.” (35)

The political dimension of friendship lies in the human community that friendship is, a participation in a living together; a living together without purpose.  Friends do not share something (a law, a place, a preference); they are always already shared by the experience of friendship. (40)  The sharing of friendship precedes all other sharings, for it is the sharing of existence, of life.  And, to conclude with Agamben, it is this sharing without purpose, this original co-experience that constitutes, that is, the first politics.

Agamben’s friendship is political in being constitutive of community.  But the community is not the end of friendship, as that which is made through the action of friendship.  And nor is it friendship to be understood as activity whose end is the activity itself.  The politics of friendship is rather a means without ends: a showing, a being, a form of life, an ethics.  Autonomy could be said to characterize this relationship, but it is not a relation of, or between subjects, and which could therefore be described as sovereign, as Castoriadis contends.  (“The sovereignty of the people – a term, incidentally, which we detest, since all sovereignty is to us detestable.” Bakunin, 143)  Agamben’s autonomy is that of assuming, supporting the relation of self and friend.  It does not construct a type of relation (friend is not a predicate); it is, it lives a relation.  No separation can be made here between form and being, which is why there is no sovereign constituting act in friendship.  Indeed, it would destroy politics as Agamben endeavours to elaborate it in connection to friendship.

The free society of friends that is Anarchy is virtual, to use Deleuze’s term, not in that it lacks reality, but in that it is a process of actualization that follows the I-friend relation which sustains it.  Any particular politics as doctrine and/or organization would confine, identify that reality, rendering it sovereign.  If an anarchist politics is of such a nature, then there can be no anarchist politics, for Anarchy defies/escapes all such identities in an ethics of freedom.  It is a form of life lived in friendship, the most revolutionary of all ways to live.

To dance is to make the means of dance visible.  Anarchists are dancing friends.

(Two other essays complement the reflections above: 15M: A Philosophical Concerto in Three Unfinished Movements and The Government of the Economy or the Economy of Government: Notes on/for Giorgio Agamben)


Works referred to:

Errico Malatesta, Anarchy, Freedom Press, 1974.

Colin Ward, Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader, AK Press, 2011.

Michael Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, Black Rose Books, 1980.

Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness, Semiotext(e), 2007.

Peter Kropotkin, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, Dover, 1970.

Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, Schocken Books, 1983.

Paul Goodman, Drawing the Line: The Political Essays of Paul Goodman, Free Life editions, 1977.

Cornelius Castoriadis, Domaines de l’homme: Les carrefours du labyrinth 2, Seuil, 1986.

Giorgio Agamben, L’amitié, Rivages poche, 2007.

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