Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
After the recent death of beloved anarchist science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, a lot of opinion pieces appeared throughout the anarcho web assessing her legacy, with special focus given to her most overtly anarchist work: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. The novel explores, through the eyes of its scientist protagonist Shevek, the ins and outs of a fictional anarchist communist society on a desert moon; organised through free federations of cooperative syndicates, without markets or money of any kind, and with a general anti-authoritarian culture.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s a piece of utopian speculation on what a better society could look like, albeit one – again, as the subtitle indicates – tinged with ambiguity, and unafraid to point out some of the hurdles faced when trying to create a world without hierarchy, such as the potential for creeping cultural conformism and bureaucratisation.
What’s surprising about most of these aforementioned opinion pieces is so few of them seem to bring up the long legacy of utopianism (in the positive sense of the word) that’s core to the social anarchist tradition itself.
After all, at the heart of the desire for social anarchy is an impulse towards a truly radical kind of social betterment. Social anarchy, a society without rulership, is not only an image of a world freer than any other, but one which exercises constant vigilance against any potential attempts to make it less free via the emergence of new forms of archic power.
It’s even more surprising given that we now live in a time rich with possibilities for realising the very kinds of utopias anarchists tried to dream up – in the sense of eutopia (good place), rather than outopia (no place); with the former referring to visions which guide social progress and the latter referring to abstract dreams which thrive on their own impossibility of being realised. Yes, there are also more dangers and obstacles than over before, but for some reason we can’t seem to stop focusing on everything setting us back to the extent that we most often fail to examine new openings for transforming the political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres along libertarian lines.
Through a combination of social-political and technological factors, the people of the planet are more interconnected than ever before. With this interconnectedness providing a potential basis for a new global universalism; “a world in which many worlds fit” to borrow an aphorism from the Zapatistas, in which unity is rooted in a desire for complementary diversity rather than a desire for sameness and the exclusion of otherness. In technology, we now have a greater capacity than ever before to eliminate human and animal toil through automation, to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in favour of ecological and decentralism sources of energy, and to make the control and development of new technologies cooperative and participatory, benefitting the populace rather than the elite.
So why is the possibility of utopia being ignored by anarchists at best and dismissed as delusional at worst? At least part of the reason may lie in a general feeling of hopelessness anarchists get upon being faced with what seem like insurmountable problems: an ever-expanding capitalist state system, a frying planet, and now a widespread turn towards cultural reaction in much of the global north and south.
However, other political traditions seem to have wasted no time coming up with their own trajectories towards a better future, despite grappling with the same obstacles. Marketarians (the ones who call themselves “libertarian” but aren’t) devote a great deal of effort to proselytising their vision of a fully-privatised world run by tech billionaires. Liberals and neoliberals like Steven Pinker expound a vision called “ecomodernism” which combines green capitalism with a love for technocratic centralism which puts the professional classes in charge. More decentralism-oriented progressives like Jeremy Rifkin a “collaborative commons” based on a coming “internet of things” which will eventually reduce scarcity to the point of near-nonexistence. Even a handful of Marxists have jumped on, with “ecosocialism” and “fully-automated luxury communism” being Marxian reinventions of the very things social anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin once advocated.
There’s no shortage of futurisms floating around the political imaginary. And while enthusiastic proponents of futurist utopianism from an anarchist perspective do exist, they are small in number and confined to a smattering of blogs, Facebook groups, and subreddits. A few proponents of Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchism here, a handful of anarcho-transhumanists there, but little in the way of overarching vision to tie them together and draw more people in.
The majority of anarchists can’t seem to stop devolving into mere resistance to the existing systems of domination, holding on to the dream of a world without states, capitalists, or hierarchy as little more than a spectral “happy place” to retreat to when the realities of oppression, exploitation, war, and ecocide become too much to bare. While social anarchist thought was once overflowing with inspiring and inspired images of the future, both in its classical and new left periods, it seems to lack most of that inspiration today.
Most of the major social anarchist organisations and commentary outlets today tend to be focused on either struggles to defend the social programs established in the post-war era, pursue most of the same cultural changes to expand the autonomy of the underprivileged sought by liberals, or muse about the achievements of anarchists and other libertarians of the past. It’s rare to even see anarchist speculations on new ways we could organise a libertarian socialist world; for example incorporating new ideas from frontier disciples like cybernetics, robotics, bio-engineering, or ecological science, just as Kropotkin and Bookchin incorporated the latest scientific and technological ideas into their analyses and
We need to reinvigorate that thought, injecting a fresh dose of techno-ecological utopianism into it. We need to feel less afraid to make ridiculous claims of how awesome and fantastical we want the rest of the 21st century and beyond to be. We need to take seriously a certain oft-repeated meme from the French general strike and student uprising in 1968: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!”
That’s why I’d like to sketch out the fundamentals for something I find to be fatally lacking within contemporary social anarchism: a hopeful, reinvigorating, inspiring, and realistic future-vision; imbuing anarchists and other libertarians with both a trajectory of where we ought to be going, and a renewed drive for getting there.
To clarify things a little, let me define what I mean by futurism. I use it here to refer to a special kind of vision of the future, which is more detailed and normative than a mere notion of how things could turn out beyond the present, but less mapped-out than a blueprint (such as the late Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project). In other words, a general template of the future based on a certain set of values and features.
In this sense, almost all of classical anarchism had its own unique futurism, guided, as it was, by a desire for a new order in which the state gave way to free confederations of autonomous communes, productive resources were placed in the hands of all and managed by those who worked them, technology was repurposed to increase well-being and reduce toil rather than increase profits and reduce the power of labour, and a culture of gods and masters gave way to a culture of free individuals and mutual cooperation. With regard to the (now) more defining feature of futurisms – technology – as early as 1880, in his essay Communism and Anarchy, Carlo Cafiero speculated that as technics advanced to the point where production began to outstrip consumption and toil was eliminated through labour-automation, the old commons maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” would evolve towards a new maxim of abundance: “from each, and to each, according to their will”.
Social anarchist futurism could be said to be characterised by a desire to expand the scope of will relative to the scope of toil. But this was not rooted in the kind of naive technological determinism so common in Marxism, in which technological advancement is always necessarily progressive. The social anarchist assessment of technics (techniques and technologies) was one of continual critique, emphasising the need for technologies which made labour pleasurable rather than rote, and designed so as to maximise local self-sufficiency, direct participatory control of the productive process, and decentralist organisation.
Anarchists welcomed new technologies when they enhanced self-determination – with Kropotkin being enthusiastic about the invention of greenhouses and washing machines – but attacked the brutal and centralist systems of mass production beloved by both market capitalists and state socialists. Lewis Mumford, taking many cues from Kropotkin, later developed an analysis of technical development as libertarian as any devised by a self-defined anarchist, stressing the need for “democratic technics” relative to the “authoritarian technics” lauded by both western industrialists and soviet bureaucrats. Murray Bookchin in turn followed both Kropotkin and Mumford in his theories of liberatory technology, adding an ecological dimension to anarchist futurism. Bookchin not only called for a technics of human-scale, direct participation, decentralism, and local self-sufficiency, but an ecological technics which generated energy from renewable restricted and mended the rift between humanity and nonhuman nature.
While Bookchin and others in his Institute for Social Ecology experimented with new forms of eco-technics from an anarchist perspective in the mid-to-late 20th century, and produced scholarly critiques of more centralist future-visions, such as those of Buckminster Fuller, the initial optimism of the 1960s and 70s gradually faded into a more pessimistic view of the future as the century drew towards a close. With the triumphalism of neoliberal capitalism taking over the social imaginary from the 90s onwards, there seemed to be fewer and fewer anarchists interested in new technology and using it to build a brighter future, save for a few important exceptions in those who became early adopters of the internet and free software as an important tool for decentralist organising and establishing global connectedness. But even this seems to have declined as of late.
In the meantime, a handful of radical leftists have stepped in to recreate what Bookchin and others called post-scarcity anarchism, but (sadly) without the anarchism.
Marxists such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have offered some compelling suggestions in their book Inventing the Future, calling for such things as full-automation of all toilsome labour and the common ownership of the means of production. Though their vision is too mired in too much of the same old statism and centralism which has always plagued Marxism as a tradition. The same goes for the “fully-automated luxury communism” memed by Aaron Bastani and his friends at Novara Media.
Full automation and common ownership of technologies won’t be that liberating if control over those technologies remains in the hands of the state, most likely a new state-form directed neither by capitalists nor traditional bureaucrats, but a new “techno-bureaucracy” composed of technicians, engineers, scientists, and other monopolisers of skills, knowledge, and techniques. The “savants” Mikhail Bakunin warned of in God and the State.
This is why it’s vital to restate and reestablish a specifically social anarchist futurism, to steer not only all futurisms, but the radical wing of futurism away from centralism and hierarchy, underpinning its aims with an ethos of anti-authoritarianism, decentralisation, and individual autonomy.
If the long-term goal of social anarchism is freedom and well-being for all, then what technologies should anarchists seek to develop and adopt?
They would, ideally, be technologies which were ecologically sound – using solar, wind, wave, and geothermal energy rather than oil or gas to generate electricity – human-scale and build for local production rather than mass production, capable of ensuring a large degree of self-sufficiency in consumables at the local level, and designed so as to bring about the maximum degree of direct control by users and horizontal cooperation in the process of production. In other words, they should be consistent with the aims of Peter Kropotkin’s hypothesised science of meeting human needs, social physiology: meeting the maximum amount of needs, in the shortest time, using the minimum possible amount of energy (including human labour).
None of these things are fantastical dream inventions which exist only in science-fantasy. All of these things exist right now. At the time of writing, they remain in the hands of a few nerds and specialists. But imagine if they were not only proliferated, but their use organised via social-libertarian methods. That is, through community-stewardship, cooperative enterprises, and horizontal participatory control by free producers.
Kevin Carson does a wonderful job of documenting their existence and potential uses by anarchists in his exhaustive studies The Homebrew Industrial Revolution and The Desktop Regulatory State. They include free and open-source software, open-source hardware, small-scale fabrication laboratories, micro-manufacturing, 3D-printing, and countless examples of commons-based peer-production online.
Most of these liberatory technologies already have an innate tendency towards decentralist and participatory usage, given their human-scale, relative simplicity, and operations which don’t require a strict division of labour between specialist technicians and workers carrying out rote instructions; as well as eliminating labour where possible.
Imagine, for example, getting up in the morning and being able to walk into a fully-automated supermarket, with a robotised vertical farm overhead where all the food is grown, and being able to take any goods you like without any money being exchanged, while computers keep track of demand and supply levels so as to figure out what to grow and how much of it to stock. Then you could walk down to your neighbourhood centre, located where the gaudy shopping mall used to be, filled with creative teams of local specialists in fabrication and repair, using decentralist technics to make everything from computers to home appliances to works of art; their work and tools longer hindered by the artificial scarcity of intellectual property laws and distributed on the commons principles of “to each according to need”, or at most trading favours.
This is a brief glimpse of what a libertarian technics could look like in a future economy of the commons, though it’s one we’ll likely never see if the route of technical change isn’t directed away from the statist and capitalist imperatives towards centralised control and mass production; useful for making weapons and surveillance, but not so useful for meeting human and ecological needs.
What social anarchists need to do in response to this changing technological milieu get serious about the course of technological development, actively push it in the direction of ecological design, decentralism, smaller scaling, and participatory control. We can’t just take over the ecocidal, centralised, and bureaucratic infrastructure of the capitalist state system and expect to make it run according to worker self-management. Authoritarian technics can’t be made to run according to libertarian logics.
New worlds have to exist in the social imaginary before they exist in recognised reality. Before a thing can be actualised through a society’s “megapolitics” (governance and jurisprudence) it must gain credence through the society’s “infrapolitics” (culture and ideology). Infrapolitics – infra- coming from the Greek “under” – refers to forms of social action which are not usually counted as political, but have political resonance through their effects and affects on people’s thoughts and behaviours. Infrapolitical struggle refers to the ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual fights to alter the mental and behavioural composition of a culture; which in turn has a long-term effect on the composition of the political and economic system.
Looking back at the classical anarchist and libertarian socialist literature of Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, Emma Goldman, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, and others, it was brimming with flowery expositions of culture would be invigorated by a libertarian social order; with the arts ceasing to be the preserve of an intellectual elite and instead became suffused into the lives of the common people. The drab and brutal architecture which coated working-class life would give way to beautiful and ornate streets, mixing the ecological with the technological, and the ancient with the modern. The best of painting would no longer be confined to professional galleries, but adorn public areas. Every individual would become, in a sense, an artist; a sculptor of their life in communion with others.
As Herbert Read put it a few decades later, we can assess the artistic worth of a society by the aesthetic richness of its most functional objects: pots and pans. The good Society of the future would be one in which culture – in the “high art” sense of the word – ceased to be a distinct domain of life and became an integrated feature of everyday reality.
This is the kind of cultural transformation we should seek to bring about, one in which the functional and ornamental principles are fused, where the line between economical and aesthetic choices becomes blurred, as the orientation of both is geared towards continually increasing the bio-psycho-social well-being of people and planet.
While social anarchists have always had a presence in arts and culture – from early modernism, to experimental theatre, to hippiedom, to punk, to alternative comics, to science-fiction literature – this has, for the most part, been in the form of individual anarchists using art to explore alternative states of being on a personal level, rather than growing a mass cultural presence across media and (artistic) mediums, with the aim of transmitting specifically anarchistic values and images of what things ought to be like. That’s what we need to do in order to gain the high ground in the infrapolitical arena.
One of the most promising developments in this regard has been the birth of solarpunk subculture in the early-to-mid 2010s. Solarpunk, with its name being a cute spin on both cyberpunk and steampunk – evoking solar power and thus ecological consciousness – is an aesthetic and cultural scene which responds to the social and technological questions posed at the start of the 21st century in much the same way steampunk responds to the social and technological questions posed at the end of the 19th century; with both asking “what if society and technology took a different route?”
Steampunk rejects the actual future that happened in favour of a fantastical future filled with democratised technologies and anti-authoritarian sky-pirates fighting the forces of empire. Solarpunk, in turn, rejects the hypothetical “cyberpunk” future in which states and corporations rule an even more dispossessed populace in an ecologically devastated landscape. Instead, it imagines the future we might have if we took the very “alternative route” which now lies before us: replacing states and corporations which free federations of communities and cooperatives, using decentralist and ecological technologies to create a world beyond economic scarcity and social hierarchy, defined by autonomy, mutual aid, diversity, and inclusiveness.
At present, solarpunk is quite small, with only a few short story collections and a moderate online presence of artists and hobbyists. But it’s potential as soil for growing a larger libertarian counter-culture – whose general orientation is ecofuturist – more than makes it a worthwhile avenue for anarchist focus.
With the imaginary universes underpinned by our increasing reliance on the internet becoming a bigger and more important aspect of ours lives – in particular among the younger generations – anarchists need to pay more attention to the infrapolitical aspects of social struggle, rather than dismiss them (as so many do) as mere window dressing relative to “real” practice.
It can’t be emphasised enough that social anarchists placing a renewed emphasis on cultural transformation should not be taken as a call to place less emphasis on economic or political transformation. If anything, a richer vision of the future should reenergise anarchists and libertarians organising in workplaces, communities, and civil struggles.
Let’s divide social anarchist practice into two rough families of approaches: combat anarchism and venture anarchism. Combat anarchism refers to acts of insurrection and struggle, typically mass insurrection and class struggle. Venture anarchism refers to acts of exodus and creation, typically exodus from the dominant system by way of living off-grid or adopting an anti-systemic lifestyle, and creation in the form of building non-hierarchical settlements or enterprises, or artistic and technological creations.
Both are necessary. But successful action means knowing how much of one or the other to employ in a given situation. In the last few decades, anarchists have perhaps placed too much focus on what’s wrong we the current world we’re fighting against (for understandable reasons), and not enough on the kind of world we’d like to replace it with. In other words, we’ve had too much combat anarchism and not enough venture anarchism. We need to appeal to people with discourse and optics which stress the positive features of the alternatives we want to build, emphasising the values of caring, vitality, cooperation, and creativity, and tone down (without dispensing with) the discourse and optics of revolt, struggle, attack, and negation. To repeat, we need both, but as of now, we need to alter the balance to favour the politics of creation.
And in practice, a renewed politics of creation means putting greater energy into building alternative associations to those of the state and capital, then linking those associations together – a feat which is made easier than ever given the instant and costless communication between nodes of a free federation made possible by the internet.
Most people can’t, as of present circumstances, picture a far-off future beyond scarcity and hierarchy. What they can picture is an immediate future which contains more of the kinds of things they can see for themselves in the everyday operations of anarchistic associations which help them in their daily lives, such as participatory budgeting programs, popular assemblies in neighbourhoods, worker cooperatives, free and open-source software/hardware, online groups of peer-producers, and horizontal networks of cooperation between all of the above. And all of the above is what we need to get working on, in addition to existing labour and territorial work in workplaces and communities, and issue-based activism on all other fronts.
Thus far I’ve avoided giving specific recommendations, due to the need for individual anarchists to tailor a general vision to their particular circumstances, but I believe the following projects deserve to be highlighted:
Revolutionary movements which trace their lineage back to the 1800s tend to have a view of social transformation as an apocalyptic rupture, a violent and sudden cataclysm which tears a society away from everything which came before and puts something radically new in its place. A view no doubt conditioned by the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” of the 1700s, in particular the American and French examples.
With numerous attempts to enact this model in the twentieth century, the results have been a mixture of state socialism and postcolonial capitalism. In all cases, swapping one set of rulers for another. Only one, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, got its society anywhere closer to social anarchy.
Élisée Reclus was correct in seeing evolution and revolution as two parts of the same process of transformation, the former being the slow and gradual build-up of small changes, the latter being the rapid and radical shift from one set of conditions to another. Both matter. And transformative social movements have erred when and where they’ve seen change as a choice between the two, rather than the most apt selection of how both evolution and revolution should be pursued.
It’s no longer sensible to believe, as past generations of anarchists did, that social anarchy will come into being after a single definite event in the form of a popular uprising, even in a single location. There’s no doubt they’ll be moments of sudden rupture with what came before, and most of these will involve popular uprisings of some kind. But there won’t be an identifiable “before” and “after” in which we can call what came before as archistic and what came after as anarchistic.
Nor will those movements (plural) which push us in the direction of social anarchy call themselves anarchist, at least not as their primary name. As of right now, they call themselves anti-authoritarians, municipalists, syndicalists, peer-producers, democratic confederalists, Earth defenders, and movements for the commons. Anarchists must be a part of them, helping to push them in a more consciously libertarian direction from within.
What drives both those movements and the anarchists within them must not only be their immediate and short-term goals, but an animating vision of an ecological, decentralist, libertarian, egalitarian, and cooperative future. Not as some prefect and pristine image which can never be replicated in practice, but as an ideal which we continually strive to approximate. A practical futurism.
As of 2018, we face some dire circumstances: ecological degradation at the hands of the capitalist state system’s unquenchable thirst for growth, the continuing centralisation of wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller number of dominant owners, and cultural reaction at the moves of marginalised groups for greater freedom and inclusion.
Despair may be an understandable reaction in the face of such an all-consuming set of problems, but it’s not only counterproductive, but mistaken. It’s mistaken because when you look at all the possibilities, there’s just as much rational justification for hopefulness.
Given the cacophony of competing futurisms – many authoritarian, some libertarian, most somewhere in-between – social anarchists need to steer the futurist conversation in a more libertarian and egalitarian direction, calling for the fruits of technological enrichment are both shared by all, and directed by all from the bottom up.
We need to suffuse the social imaginary with a future-vision rooted in the ideal of the commons (decentralised cooperation) and in libertarian management of those commons. At the same time, we need to put that vision into practice through continued combat against the forces and relations of rule, as well as new ventures to creatively generate and sustain alternatives to them. Sometimes this will involve working specifically as anarchists among other anarchists, guided by a general agreement on ideas and tactics. Other times it will mean working within broader popular movements and projects among non-anarchists, trying to steer them in a more anarchistic direction: away from centralism and towards free cooperation.
It’ll be hard-going, and most of us probably won’t see a fully-realised anarchist world within our lifetimes, but if we keep that vision of a world beyond domination in our minds, every step we take towards that ideal will at least be a step in the right direction, making our universe a little bit freer and a little bit more caring in every moment.