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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Whither anarchism? An interview with Kristian Williams

Whither anarchism? An interview with Kristian Williams

Andony Melathopoulos and Conrad Cartmell

Platypus Review 134 | March 2021

On December 22, 2020, Andony Melathopoulos and Conrad Cartmell interviewed Kristian Williams. Williams has been active in the anarchist movement since the early 1990s. He is the author, most recently, of Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell.

Andony Melathopoulos: In Whither Anarchism, you deliberately avoid talking about your political history. Can you explain this decision?

Kristian Williams: An over-reliance on personal narrative is typically used to justify someone’s political commitments, rather than the arguments you would use to persuade others to take up ideas. I would say the things that I like about anarchism are largely based on the theory and the things that I dislike about anarchism are largely the result of the experience of it. It's perplexing how often those two things are actually at odds. We have a theory about freedom and equality and each individual developing in their own way and we have a practice that expects a very high level of conformity and rigidity. That led me to notice some other things which had bothered me, like the fact that ideas that are influential in anarchism will be hot for a while until people get tired of them and then something else will take over the trend, but there's not a clear relationship between the new ideas and the old ideas. They're not even necessarily a reaction to the old ideas. For things like taste and clothing or music that's probably fine, but for things like the ideas that are supposed to shape a political movement that will restructure the world, that's kind of a problem.

Conrad Cartmell: The specific issue of how anarchist ideas and practices fall short of those that animated anarchism in the 19th and early 20th century is a major theme in your pamphlet. Can you sketch out this history?

KW: The history that I trace out is a synthesis of two recent studies, one being Andrew Cornell's Unruly Equality,[1] which finds an organizational continuity between anarchism of the early and later 20th century. Cornell shows that in fact there were transition figures who helped turn what had been the largely immigrant based working class movement of the early 20th century into the more bohemian movement of the later 20th century. The other source that I use is Spencer Sunshine's dissertation on post-1960 anarchism,[2] which looks at the theoretical development of later 20th century anarchism and demonstrates that the main theorists of that period actually don't rely on the theories of the classical anarchists at all. They don't rely on the same conceptions of the world or the same rhetoric or the same sociology. On one hand we have this organizational continuity and on the other hand there is this theoretical gap.

Between the early period and the later period, there was a loss in translation. I wouldn’t characterize it as a setback in terms of the internal development of the movement, but rather, in the external development in the world. And it clearly was a setback. What prompted the crash of the first period was ruthless repression from the state, which basically destroyed the movement. That created a historical accident where during World War Two anarchists and pacifists were in prison together, which led to the cross-pollination of ideas, which then helped shape the subsequent movement. That tendency to turn inward and retreat from building a mass movement that happened in the mid-20th Century—roughly between the 1940–50s—kept the movement alive. I don't want to give the people of that period too much of a hard time, because they were doing absolutely the best they could.

The transition, however, resulted in a scaling down of ambition to the level of a cultural scene and had very little political effect. In the late 1960s anarchism had influence, but no real power of its own. There were important anarchist actors and organizations within different movements, but the anarchist movement wasn't itself very much of a threat or even very much of an actor.

CC: The pamphlet was published in 2018 in the second year of the Trump Presidency. Was it prompted by the election of 2016, or were you reflecting on something different?

KW: No, the Trump Presidency didn’t occasion the work, but something earlier, namely the state of disarray that anarchists fell into following Occupy. It was a moment characterized by a broad movement, organized on horizontal leaderless principles, in which anarchists had a large degree of influence. Yet the aims of the occupy movement were never clear, even to people who were participating. They basically employed one tactic that was going to be repeated until we win; to take over space and hold it until it precipitates some sort of crisis. Certainly, it lasted for longer than anyone expected, but in reality it didn’t last long. At the end it left a lot of people burned out, disillusioned, confused, resentful. People inside the movement looked at each other to blame. It showed up the theoretical paucity of the circulating anarchist ideas.

I recognized that the issues surrounding Occupy were really just the most recent manifestation of the same set of problems that I had seen over my lifetime. I saw similar lack of direction, lack of vision and failure to move beyond the same few tactics of the anti-war movement or the anti-globalization movement. It became clear that we were unable to use these experiences to develop theories about social change. Theoretical questions passed us by in the euphoria of tear gas and giant puppets. In fact, it began to occur to me that as far back as I can remember there has been this repetition of brief successes that seem to be full of promise, followed by disappointment. There hasn’t been a concerted effort to take stock of the lessons from any of those experiences. I felt like I had understood the situation that anarchism had found itself in, even if I didn't understand exactly what the solution would be.

CC: Do you think these moments held opportunities that were not advanced on?

KW: With the anti-globalization movement there was the opportunity to connect different groups having the same set of enemies; the notable example was the Teamsters and Turtles coalitions of environmental groups and unions.[3] At the time, it held the promise of bringing those two together more than tactically; of getting the labor movement to take seriously on its own behalf, environmental concerns and of getting environmentalists to take seriously the needs and interests of working class people. I think that a lot of us just thought that that was going to happen by osmosis, because of contact. But at the end of the day, it turned out that the actual alliances were entirely tactical. Neither side really had the stomach for the kind of debate and compromise, and sometimes conflict, that would have been necessary to bring those two movements together. If that kind of convergence were going to happen, in retrospect, it seems like it would have had to have come from: ‘we're already part of both of these movements and have environmental commitments and also have labor commitments,’ and that wouldn't have just been anarchist, but that would have also been anarchist.

Similarly, the anti-war movement in 2003 mobilized what were at the time the largest demonstrations in recorded history and never managed to really do anything. It didn't develop a strategy beyond endlessly repeating the same tactic, and it didn't manage to build the kind of organization that could mount actual resistance to the war. There was a lack of both strategic and organizational vision. I think anarchists were too reluctant to do anything that looked like exercising leadership. That meant that by default the tone was set by people who were committed to the endless repetition of tactics rather than to building an organization or tactical diversity or developing anything like a strategy that would escalate or branch out from the giant demonstrations. There's a built-in reluctance among anarchists to use the influence that we develop, but that often means that we then let opportunities just pass us by.

CC: Both Occupy and the anti-WTO protests could be said to be motivated by discontents associated with a specific period of capitalism: neoliberalism. I thought it was interesting that in Whither Anarchism you mark an earlier failure within anarchism associated with another transition in capitalism: the inability of syndicalism to meet the political and social demands associated with the New Deal in the 1930s. It’s interesting to me because the discontents with state management of the economy by the 1970s would appear most suited to the anarchist opposition to the state. Instead the discontents with the New Deal were not organized and led politically by anarchists, but by conservatives, leading to neoliberalism. It is striking that the position taken by anarchists at the beginning of the 20th century, of opposing the state, is essentially the opposite of the 1990s, where it appeared as a defense of the welfare state. Why do you think anarchism in the 20th century had difficulty anticipating change and transformation in capitalism?

KW: Syndicalists were not prepared for the New Deal because they had stereotyped analysis of the state. There's the capitalist class that owns everything and oppresses us, and there's the working class, which does all the work and is barely kept alive. The role of the state is to beat up the working class for the sake of the capitalist class. It's not like the state ever stops doing that, but as the state acquired—sometimes deliberately and sometimes by default—other responsibilities in the areas of utilities, public services, social services, and human welfare, it becomes a much more complicated picture. By the 1930s it was no longer immediately clear that the state was just a tool of capitalist repression or that it is necessarily the enemy of the people who live under it. This development demanded anarchists not only to relate to different parts of the state differently, but also to have some sort of scheme of how the society outside of the state can organize so that those same needs are met without relying on a centralized monopoly of violence.

The disorientation around the welfare state was compounded in the 1990s with Clinton in the White House and Gingrich in the House [of Representatives], and Clinton running on the promise of ending welfare as we know it. Obviously, the food stamps and social worker version of providing for people's needs isn't what anarchists want. But nevertheless, that precipitated such a crisis in anarchism that it did put a lot of us on the side of defending those services, needing to defend that kind of spending. We had neither developed alternatives that could be put in place nor had we developed the kind of radical credibility that when we said to people that alternatives were possible, that they would have any reason to believe us. We spent half a century ignoring the fact that the relationship between capitalism and the state was changing. And then when that change produced a crisis, we didn't have either the political tools or even the theoretical framework to address it.

AM: What this account leaves out is the high point of the welfare state, and the response of anarchist figures like Murray Bookchin. Bookchin saw the 1960s as a moment to reconsider anarchism, but through a different set of concerns, namely the failure of Marxism, and the appeal of a return to Marxism by a new generation. In Listen, Marxist! he calls attention to the young New Left turning to the working class through Progressive Labor. He warns that this generation is destined to repeat the horrors of the 1930s. Rather than the 1930s version of the working class, he considers a turn to some of the new cultural trends, something you have identified as being a liability in the present moment. If we were to consider Bookchin’s moments as one that is between the emergence of the welfare state and its crisis and transformation into neoliberalism, how do you assess his efforts to return to anarchism? Do you consider this moment in the 1960s as being decisive, or one where the damage to anarchism was already inflicted?

KW: For the sake of simplicity, you can picture anarchists in the 1960s as being split between two emerging strategies. One was the strategy of going into the factories and the other was the dropout strategy. The dropout strategy entails leaving conventional society aside as far as you can and developing other things. And both of these approaches had some real successes. There were some people who did some serious organizing in factories in the 1970s, had influence over their coworkers and sometimes had an effect on their working conditions. David Ranney’s memoir recalls this period working in factories in the South side of Chicago. [4] On the other side, the counter-cultural tendency had real effects; the Movement for a New Society and how the counter-cultural dimension was critical for the anti-nuclear movement, followed by the anti-war movement, ultimately resulting in the kinds of cultural norms and the organizational sort of assumptions that characterize anarchism into the 21st century.

Both of those approaches also have real limitations. Clearly whatever successes are associated with the factory organizing, it did not create a proletarian revolution. And clearly, whatever the practical contributions of consensus decision-making, co-housing, and things like that, it also didn't develop into the kind of moral flowering that the proponents were expecting. So, there's credit to be given to both of those tendencies, but also real shortcomings. In my pamphlet, I really only looked at the shortcomings of counterculture because that was the predominant dominant path taken up by anarchism. And that has set us up for the problems that we have now. However, the problem wasn't vegan potlucks and free love, right? The problem wasn't the things that were added and developed in the counter-cultural milieu, it was that the emphasis on class struggle dropped off the agenda altogether. The idea that anarchism could organize at the level of a broad based movement, capable of changing society, largely fell aside. So instead anarchism existed entirely as this constellation of scenes of totally marginalized people who were mostly interested in what was happening within the scene and secondarily interested in how their group could affect the world.

Kristian Williams

AM: Do you think the exhaustion of anarchism in the face of neoliberalism was associated with the growth of neo-social democracy in figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and organizations like the DSA?

KW: I think that there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that, especially after 2016, the sense that normal electoral politics had failed us and that the Democratic party was not only not interested in change, but not even interested in winning. So there was a real urgency to pursue some other way of doing politics. That being both at the level of joining different kinds of organization, but also at the level of society, maybe we need to organize the society differently. There were a lot of people looking around for something to do without a preconceived notion of what that should look like and the DSA was there. They had chapters and offices and phone numbers and such, and you could just call them up and join. There's really nothing like that in all of anarchism. Even the organizations that kind of wish that they were something like that, like, Black Rose or May 1st, tend not to be very ready to just take a total newbie who's really upset about the election and doesn’t really have any ideology and find something useful to do with them.

The growth of neo-social democracy reflects an organizational failure on the part of anarchism to build stable organizations. Related to that organizational failure, there's a kind of cultural failure, which is that we expect people to arrive as fully formed, totally enlightened spotless anarchists. If they arrive instead like human beings, with flaws and gaps in their knowledge, we're not prepared to deal with people in a way that would either take advantage of the energy and talents that they bring with them, or help them to develop in a way that would be politically more useful.

AM: But beyond these organizational issues, you also identify the problem of prioritizing tactics at the expense of ideological clarification. The more shocking thing to me is that anarchists are not only losing people to the DSA, but are themselves organizing in the DSA. It’s unclear to me whether the anarchist critique of social democracy even resonates with anarchists anymore.

KW: You're right. There's a relationship between the failure to examine theory and a fetishizing of tactics. And I think a lot of what happens is that we start thinking about the tactics as the thing that characterize the movement and what differentiates a radical from a reformist. That leads to people fetishizing particular tactics, repeating them no matter what the situation is. The other thing is that it tends toward is a fetishizing of militancy, such that militancy is made equivalent to radicalism and therefore the more militant, the more radical, which can lead to not only bad tactical, but also political situations, because the Right is perfectly happy to fetishize militancy as well.

I think there's also some specific characteristics of anarchism that have put us in that position. There’s a problem that's endemic to anarchist organizations, which is that we don't have very good ways of resolving conflict. And if you don't have good ways of resolving a conflict, disagreement becomes very dangerous. If people have different ideas about what you should be doing and you're trying to do something together, sooner or later, that's going to result in some level of struggle. And, and if we don't have mechanisms for incorporating disagreement into our decision-making it makes everybody reluctant to look too hard at the ideas for fear of ending up in an irresolvable political conflict. It's easier to rely on some vague points of unity and go on. And this problem is rooted historically in the anarchist allergy against structure and an over-reliance on consensus as the only way to make decisions. That abruptly died after Occupy, but we never replaced it with something different. We went from a situation where disagreement was dangerous, to a situation where disagreement was impossible.

The other historical reason, which relates to why we didn't see a robust anarchist critique of social democracy, is that most anarchists don't take their ideas from anarchism. They take their ideas from other sources and assemble it into an anti-authoritarian casserole that they call anarchism. We aren’t left with the right material in which to launch a critique against the traditions that we borrow from. It also means that most anarchists aren’t aware they are increasingly disconnected from the roots of anarchism. As time goes on it becomes hard for them to articulate why anyone else should share our ideas and it becomes hard to argue for our ideas. Increasingly there's a notion that our conclusions are just obvious and therefore to even have to argue for them [is unnecessary].

AM: If we are talking about classical anarchist ideas, one would like to return to older classical liberal ideas of freedom and equality. Liberal thought was not only influential to the foundations of anarchism, but also Marxism. Proudhon, for example, credited Hegel and Adam Smith as being inspirational in his ability to theorize society and how it might be transformed. But this liberal legacy seems to have soured for anarchists since at least the 1960s, but particularly during the Trump presidency. Given this recent turn, how do you envision liberal ideals being taken up in anarchism in the present?

KW: I wouldn't have described freedom and equality as liberal ideas, but that's fair. Although it's important to distinguish between classical liberalism and actually existing liberalism. The first philosophical anarchist, William Godwin, would not have called himself an anarchist, as he was definitely writing in the liberal tradition. But he was also writing in the liberal tradition in a historical context where these ideas could get you tried for holding the liberal views that were associated with the revolution raging across the channel in France. There's an incipient radicalism to the core ideas of the liberal tradition, ideas which are worth preserving. These ideas are worth preserving even if they are connected to assumptions about society that turned out to be wrong, for instance that society consists of isolated self-interested individuals. They are worth preserving even if the political direction that liberalism developed was one toward a representative democracy, and then ultimately, a representative democracy which is dominated by the capitalist class. We should acknowledge the influence of liberalism on anarchism and reconsider why anarchists initially were drawn to the ideas of freedom and equality, whether we can adopt that argument of why freedom and equality are important and how we might need to adjust their [classical liberal] conception of what freedom and equality consists of for the present.

Part of the reason that I think it is important to reconsider these ideas of freedom and equality is that they were central tenets of anarchism during the classical period. I think it's fair to say that until roughly the end of the 20th century these ideas remained important. In the last 20 years, that language has almost completely disappeared; the rhetoric of freedom and equality has almost completely dropped out of the language of anarchism. I'm not sure exactly when that happened. I'm not sure exactly why that happened, but I think this loss is connected to the theoretical problems we've discussed.

Let me characterize it this way: you have a central core that is roughly freedom and equality, and you're looking at other traditions and their ideas and you're sort of seeing which ones you can borrow. If the yardstick is measured in terms of freedom and equality, then you can see how new ideas might be incorporated into anarchism. You can assess new approaches in terms of their usefulness and coherence; in terms of their capacity to solve a problem. A reconsideration of what we are doing in terms of freedom and equality would solve the theoretical problem anarchism faces. Without a core project of advancing freedom and equality, you don't have obvious criteria for which of the various ideas you borrow, which I think has tended toward that sort of faddish element that I was talking about before. Anarchism was always influenced by liberalism, but it's also always been critical of liberalism. But it has been a tense relationship. Over the last ten years though, that relationship has moved from a criticism of liberalism to an active illiberalism in a lot of anarchist thinking. Where there's no tolerance for debates, there's no room for disagreements; the notion that your position should be justifiable by arguments is seen as a power play. There is a real hostility to the culture of open debate and discussion, and tolerance of a certain amount of difference, especially ideologically. This turn has had very authoritarian implications and also makes it practically impossible to make an assessment about political positions.

But the important question you asked is how do we recenter freedom and equality. There is a certain amount of work that individuals can do in terms of keeping these ideals alive in their minds and being conscious of the ideas they take up and how they are related to their actions. How we recenter these ideas more broadly within anarchism, I am not sure. But this problem was central to me writing the pamphlet. |P

[1] A. Cornell, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

[2] S. Sunshine, Post-1960 U.S. anarchism and social theory (New York: City University of New York, 2013).

[3] The Seattle WTO protesters were described as “teamsters and turtles” for the unity demonstrated between the labor and environmental movements.

[4] D. Ranney, Living and Dying on the Factory Floor: From the Outside In and the Inside Out (Oakland: PM Press, 2019).