Forms of politics: Anarchism and organisation

S’organiser n’a jamais voulu dire s’affiler à la même organisation. S’organiser, c’est agir d’après une perception commune, à quelque niveau que ce soit.

Dormir, se battre, manger, se soigner, faire la fête, conspirer, débattre, relèvent d’un seul movement vital.  La différence est notable.  L’un appelle la gestion, l’autre l’attention – dispositions en tout point incompatibles.

Un geste est révolutionaire non par son contenu propre, mais par l’enchaînement des effets qu’il engendre.

Ce qui ne se structure pas comme un État, comme une organisation, ne peut au reste qu’être dispersé et fragmentaire, et trouve dans son caractère de constellation le ressort même de son expansion.  À charge pour nous dórganiser la rencontre, la circulation, la compréhension et la conspiration entre les consistances locales.  La tâche révolutionaire est devenue partiellement une tâche de traduction.  Il n’y a pas d’esperanto da la révolte.  Ce n’est pas aux rebelles d’apprendre à parler l’anarchiste, mais aux anarchistes de devenir polyglottes.

comité invisible, A nos amis

What follows is a partial translation of and critical commentary on a recent text by Carlos Taibo, Por una nueva organización libertaria, published on his blog, Nuevo DESorDen.   What motivates this commentary is the significance of the text, as well as the questions that it invites, and shared political ends.  It is not the desire for dispute, for it has never been the aim of Autonomies to animate polemics, a vain luxury for political idealists.

In a recent reflection, Carlos Taibo calls for the creation of a new libertarian organization, testimony of the desire of many for the existence of such a body, something which “horizontal and transversal, would permit reducing many of the tensions inherited from the past and open the path for a more effective intervention in reality.”

The context is spain, with a possible extension to portugal.  The urgency to think through such an organisation is born of, first, changes in the current socio-political scenario characterised by growing repression (e.g., operation Pandora, the ley mordaza, etc.), a disturbing demobilisation of people, and the fact that political parties, parliaments and related institutions apparently continue to appeal to people who until not so long ago seemed to position themselves elsewhere politically.  It is also however born of the obligations that derive from the consciousness of what the terminal corrosion of capitalism and the imminent collapse that is announced signify.

Equally important are the effects of the bubble that many have lived in the last years, “product of a belief – that today we know to have been unjustified – that in May of 2011 a change in cycle had begun.  In virtue of this change, separations, hierarchies and political parties were said to be entering an irreversible crisis, while, by contrast, a general embracing of self-management and autonomy gained ground.  Today we know that even though something of this germinated in the heat, above all, of 15-M, the intensity of the process was far less significant than what our desires announced.”

Though there be divergences about the time necessary for and the form of a new organisation, there seems to be little disagreement about the principles that should serve to articulate it: “self-management, democracy, direct action, the rejection of hierarchies and personalisms, and, in sum, mutual aid.”  Such principles would serve to contest liberal pseudo-democracy, the State and capitalism.  They respond also to the certainty that in “a scenario marked by the resurgence of class struggles, that it is necessary to place at the centre … future generations and the other species that accompany us on earth, women and the many inhabitants of the countries of the South, in a project indelibly marked by the contestation of developmentalism, patriarchal society and militarism.”

“In my understanding, in this project the principal roles should fall to people who, without ideological identification, have demonstrated in daily life their commitment to self-organisation, self-management and autonomy.  This in no way implies the marginalisation of those who describe themselves as anarchists, or more broadly, as libertarians; it is a matter of joining together what these last bring and that which other people contribute, and to outline an open organisation in which, far from dogmatism and sectarianism, the coherence of practices has greater weight than the rigour of doctrinal adherence.  The organisation in question will have, furthermore, only one enemy: the system that we suffer under in its many manifestations.  Under its umbrella, no one will ask of any anarcho-syndicalist force, of any libertarian cultural centre, of any affinity group, of any self-managed centre or of any social movement that it dissolve or that it take a step back.  What the new organisation above all will bring will be an impulse to the activities already mentioned.”

“Additionally, it seems that one of the principal tasks of this organisation will consist of defending and amplifying the spaces of self-managed autonomy, of de-commodified and hopefully de-patriarchalised relations that have appeared in the last years, in a clear demonstration of what our predecessors called, a century ago, “propaganda by dead”.  It is understood of course that such a proposal should be complemented by a growing effort of coordination between these spaces and of stimulating their dimension of confrontation with the system.”

“This new organisation can have no other nature than confederal.  It is unimaginable that under it directive structures of an intrusive nature should gain form, as it is unimaginable that it serve as the basis for full-time and professional politicians.”

“The organisation that concerns me will have lastly an important symbolic dimension: that of recalling that we are here and that we are not some minor school.  But work will have to be done over time on the outline of an alternative that this organisation will promote when, in the coming years, many illusions will fade away – and it is certain that they will.  Let us not avoid our obligations in this respect.”

Taibo’s reflection, which he presents as no more than his personal beliefs, resonates as much as it raises questions, questions that he himself is conscious of.  The motive for the proposal of a new libertarian organisation is perhaps self-evident in the context of post-15M spain, and all that it animated and contributed to in the creation/sustaining of spaces and collectives of self-managed autonomy; but also in the context of a new, essentially social-democratic political party, Podemos, and other similar initiatives at the regional and municipal level, seemingly embraced enthusiastically by many and claiming to a greater or lesser degree allegiance to the ideals and practices of 15M; and lastly, against the background of the country´s still very active, diverse and relatively large anarchist movement(s)/organisations.  In other words, there is both enormous potential for such an organisation on this terrain, as well as the danger that a great deal can be lost; thus Taibo´s urgency.  But urgency can also have us take a false step, to grasp for apparently obvious solutions to problems that defy them; urgency may in other words obfuscate as much as illuminate.

Taibo’s concern of course is neither entirely novel, nor simple.  Indeed, it is as old as modern revolution itself: what type of organisation is best fitted to articulate, express, the desire and practice of revolution?  In parallel, what institutional form can give body to revolution as an act of liberation?  Is organisation incompatible with revolution as the practice of freedom?  Are revolutions fated to die once “successful”, once the creative event reaches its “end”? (Hanna Arendt)

If we place the “rise and fall” of 15M at the heart of Taibo´s suggestion, then it is to the nature of anti-capitalist social movements, and more specifically, autonomist and libertarian movements, that we should turn.  If such movements are conceived as antagonistic to capitalism (the good movements members up against the bad capitalists), then at least three problems arise.  The first is that of identifying the antagonists.  It is too simple to say that our enemy is Capital (conceived of as a system or power that somehow lies outside of us and to which we stand opposed): Capital “is horribly real, it dominates our lives but it is an abstraction.  We experience it in its effects, which means that the antagonisms it produces run right through us. (The Free Association, Moments of Excess, p. 97)  Secondly, the tendency to see capitalism as an external antagonist tends to personalise it, creating a moral scapegoat for our ills, when capitalism is comprised of relations of power that permeate the whole social body; to be more precise, it is a form of government in which all, in a diversity of ways and variety of forms, participate.  And lastly, and more fundamentally, to define oneself in opposition to capitalism is still to define oneself in relationship with Capital, the very reality that one supposedly aims to surpass.

“Because an antagonistic relationship with capital is still a relationship with capital, it still involves defining ourselves in relation to capital.  But we don’t want any relation with capital (or the state), antagonistic or otherwise.  We want to destroy these relationships, just as we want to refuse definition.  We want exodus, autonomy.  And this is the paradox.  Although autonomy is about movement – ‘by our own efforts bringing ourselves to happiness’ – it still has to contain some sort of ‘No´, a break with the world-as-it-is.  It is difficult to start swimming in open water: it’s much easier to push off against something.  Antagonism provides that ‘No’ by simplifying social space enough to offer some purchase on the world and so allow political action.” (Moments of Excess, p. 98)

If antagonism exists and one cannot simply wish it away, organising politically around it, however necessary, also carries with it then a simplification, a falsification, which translates potentially into an organisation that seeks to create a relatively stable political agent (the “revolutionary subject”) deemed necessary for consequent political action.  There are echoes of such a notion in Taibo´s reflection.  However, the danger is the reification of this subject and of the revolution that it is responsible for; a reification that imposes an identity on political agency and conceives of revolution as a process that can be guided by that same agency.  Taibo is aware of what is at stake, for he defends that for the proposed organisation, the “coherence of practices” must have “greater weight than the rigour of doctrinal adherence”.  But in prioritising practice over identity, as one must, and if one is not to fall into the fetishism of revolutionary vanguards, it is not clear what the new organisation brings to already existing practices.  Taibo speaks of bringing an “impulse” to activities already elaborated, of “defending and amplifying” spaces of autonomy that have emerged in the last few years, of symbolically testifying to a libertarian presence.  It remains however terribly unclear how an organisation can contribute to any of this, without becoming an organisation in a more structural sense of the term, and this bringing with it the aforementioned dangers.  And it is also not clear why already existing anti-capitalist practices, in their remarkable recent proliferation in spain and elsewhere, should need an additional entity to do what they have been doing already, and in some cases very well, without such an organisation.  In other words, the impulse is part of the very creativity of these practices, and their defence and amplification are a consequence of their very creativity. (e.g., Can Vies)

To suggest that what anti-capitalist, libertarian practices require at this moment is a new “federating” organisation is of course to assume that there is something missing; that the practices lack a more unifying agency.  Yet unless this agency can only come from without, and thus the need for the new organisation, it is not obvious that existing practices cannot engender it by themselves, should the desire/possibility be present.

This is not to throw us back into the old controversy that opposed spontaneity to organisation.  But the apology for organisation re-introduces a dualism, that between the unorganised, or the not organised enough, and the organised, which is problematic.  First, because no practice or movement is ever unorganised; the fact that it expresses itself, makes itself present, is testimony to its reality as a form of resistance.  And whatever further organisation may emerge will be, indeed should be, the consequence of its growing strength and resonance among those agents who daily construct society.

But if no practice is ever without an immanent organisation, this does not mean that the practices constitutive of anti-capitalist movements control the processes of change or revolution.  The call for an organisation, and this is a second difficulty, suggests that this is possible, if not completely, at least then to a greater degree than present practices permit.  Rebellions or revolutions however cannot be engineered; they cannot even be properly conceived of as singular events, a rupture susceptible to strategic planning and programming.  They are rather moments of excess in a social movement’s process of becoming other: a becoming that reveals problems formerly unknown, constitutes antagonistic destituent subjectivities and composite agencies that may give rise to new forms of life.

“If our politics is one of active experimentation, of setting and then breaking limits, then it’s a gamble: we don’t know the outcome, and we can’t measure our success.  Instead we find ourselves working with a different idea of time and space, experiencing moments of intense creativity which resonate and amplify with others, throwing up new worlds, and new possibilities.” (Moments of Excess, p. 81)

In such processes, “we’re not in control”; in fact, movements only work “by fucking up, by our learning from our mistakes and daring to try new things.”  Before such a changing reality, it is the “transcendent role of the activist” that must be given up, along with whatever organisation that activist’s position and role is institutionalised in. (Moments of Excess, p. 59)

How can an overarching, even if confederal, libertarian organisation be justified if fundamental change is not the intended outcome of a subject taking “history” into its hands, to be moulded at will?

“Fundamental change starts with small, localised, material innovations, perhaps the introduction of new tools, technologies or ways of thinking.  But every now and then these incremental changes build up into an event, a moment of excess, where so much life is produced that it overflows existing social forms.  We spend most of our political lives developing such tools but we never quite know when an event will arise or what the effect will be.  Nevertheless, ‘we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” (Moments of Excess, p. 65)

To question then the nature of revolution and of revolutionary agency, as contemporary social movements have done, in response to the changing nature of capitalist political and social relations, poses serious difficulties for any presumed radical political organisation.  To define the latter antagonistically (as anti-capitalist, for e.g.) is already a problem, because the designation of a common enemy never establishes by itself effective and affective relations between social movements.  “The enemy is not simply something that one designates once one has freed oneself from the ensemble of its determinations, once one is transported onto some unknown political or philosophical level.”  The “enemy” is rather given in the contact/friction between different forms of life. (comité invisible, A nos amis, p. 230)  Ideological identification is therefore pointless, when not treacherous, because the enemy is never far.  Again and again, “the most productive place to start is with the question of what we want, not what we’re up against.” (Moments of Excess, p. 50)  And it is in the affirmation of what we want, in any and the many dimensions of our existence, that the “enemies” will reveal themselves, as well as the “friends”.

It is not at all clear that Taibo’s proposal falls to the observations and questions raised here.  But then it is not that which matters, for our exercise has been one of trying to nudge, to shift, to walk with, an idea, as friends are wont to do with each other, so as to engender greater possibilities for a politics of freedom.

“… true discipline does not have for its object external signs of organisation, but the interior development of power.” (A nos amis, p. 236)

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