Preface to An Anarchist’s Manifesto
Below is the preface to the SNB-related book An Anarchist’s Manifesto. I hope you will consider reading the book.
The impossible is the least that one can demand. —James Baldwin
Are You Already An Anarchist?
When driving in traffic, do you take care to avoid accidents? What about in a grocery store? Do you navigate your shopping cart cautiously through the crowded aisles, and wait your turn (however impatiently) in the checkout line? Going through the security check at the airport can be very aggravating. Do you nonetheless inch forward with everyone else, place your shoes on the conveyer belt, and walk through the security station? If you do all of this not out of a sense of duty and deference or mere respect for the law, but because you desire to contribute to the smooth operation of the shared, collective task at hand, then you already cherish two central values of an anarchist way of life: order and cooperation.
Do you actively strive, wherever possible, to help out family, friends, neighbors, work associates, maybe even strangers? Would you expect the same from them if you were in need? Do you have this attitude not out of a sense of obligation, guilt, indebtedness, or quid pro quo insurance, but because of a sense of interdependent connection with others? If so, you already cherish the central anarchist value of mutual support.
Imagine that you’re in a discussion, say, in a classroom with fellow students, around a dinner table with a group of friends, or at a conference table with colleagues at work. Do you believe that, in such situations, people are more likely to express their views in engaged, creative, and perhaps even bold ways if no overshadowing authority figure is present (for example, the teacher, a mansplaining male, the boss)? If you believe that groups of people are capable of intelligently determining matters on their own, without the need of a coercive figure, then you possess the crucial anarchist dispositions of being anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical, or, positively expressed, egalitarian.
Do you believe that all people should be granted every privilege and access afforded the most advantaged members of society? Do you believe that protection and dignity should be extended to animals? Do you believe that we should treat the environment with the utmost care? If so, you share the anarchist conviction that we must strive to eliminate all forms of domination.
On reflection, do you believe that the problems illustrated here are the result not merely of individual belief and behavior, but of larger structures, such as families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, economic systems, and society as a whole? For example, at the very moment I am beginning this text (summer 2020), more and more people are expressing the view that eliminating racism should no longer be considered a matter of changing people’s opinion about black people. Racism in America, this view goes, does not exist in this or that private head. It exists in a vast network of shared imagery—on the internet, on television, in movies, advertising, the nightly news, and literature—often extending back decades and even centuries: the black person as poor, uneducated, angry, violent, or sexually voracious. Racism exists in the damaging metaphors and tropes embedded in our ordinary, everyday, perfectly acceptable language usage: a dark mark on a person’s reputation; the black stain of a nation’s history; a black soul, dark thoughts, dark humor, a dark future, a dark (metaphorical) cloud, a dark outlook or forecast, dark despair, a literal and figurative dark horse; black knight; blackguard; a dark political speech; the dark web (of illicit activity); the black sites set up as secret illegal interrogation sites for terror suspects; black market, blacklist, black out, black magic, blackball, blackmail, black sheep. While not all of these terms have roots in our racist past in the same way that “darkey” or “black Barbie” do, their invariably negative meanings contribute to racial stereotyping. We could continue in this fashion indefinitely. We could, moreover, perform the same kind of broad social analysis for patriarchy and misogyny, anti-LGBTQ views, and views toward animals and the environment. If you believe that such an analysis, and that only such an analysis, is capable of getting to the heart of the matter, than you share two essential, interrelated anarchist views: material structures have formative primacy over an individual’s consciousness; and thus, to change the world we must first of all change these structures.
Do you believe that the government is made up, to a consequential extent, of a class of people with vested interests in protecting one another’s wealth, advantage, influence, and privilege? Do you believe that this ruling class values profit over people, in particular the profits of corporations over the wellbeing of the very people in whose name they govern? Do you believe that this class of people should be irrevocably removed from power, and that, in principle, “the people” be free to create mechanisms for direct democracy, unencumbered by corporate interests? If so, you embrace the animating spirit of anarchism: the state is a major part of the problem, and it’s converse, stateless governance is a major part of the solution.
Finally, do you believe that the structures I have mentioned here, including those of the government and corporations, are inextricably bound up in the all-pervasive social, political, economic, even psychological, formation known as “capitalism,” as I will prove shortly? Do you therefore conclude that, at this moment in time, capitalism itself is at the root of our most pressing problems—political divisiveness, corporate plunder of resources, widespread hunger and poverty and deprivation, racism, misogyny, and countless other varieties of oppression, environmental devastation, unspeakable animal cruelty, and perpetual warfare? If so, you stand, with those on the far left of the political spectrum, and possibly with anarchists, who hold the conviction that no less than the complete abolishment of capitalism is required for any change worthy of the name to unfold.
If you are already a confirmed anarchist, I would recommend a doctrinal-historical overview of anarchism, not a manifesto. If not, regardless of whether you are open to going that far, I am hoping to catalyze in you several realizations regarding anarchism. In short, the following principles can be extrapolated. At its core, anarchism is decidedly ungrand. In the first instance, and most essentially, it is an approach to living in community with other people, animals, and the natural world. Asking you to picture anarchism happening in the grocery store or at a traffic light might seem trivial; but the purpose is to suggest an image of anarchists drastically different from the one we commonly see: black-clad hoodlums rampaging through our city streets, smashing windows and setting fire to Starbucks. That image, of course, is not wholly unjustified. Such acts have been carried out in the name of anarchism. But to engage it as the dominant image in your awareness is akin to picturing a camo-clad, M249 automatic weapon-toting member of the United States Marine Corps Ambush Unit as a prototypical advocate of western-style democracy. Both figures operate far removed from the daily unfolding of their respective value systems. (And if you view the former figure as extreme, how do you view the latter?) So, I hope this exercise stimulates in you an image of an anarchist as, principally, a person who holds to, and acts on, certain values. At the same time, I hope to enable you to see that the values and actions of an anarchist, just like those of, say, a liberal democrat or conservative republican, have the potential of extending indefinitely outwards, further and further, ever more deeply into our shared daily interactions, and into the very institutions—family, friendship, neighborhood, school, work, local government, society—that make up our common world.
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