Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why We Can't (and Shouldn't) "Win"

My views on the subject of this post have changed since the post was written. I am leaving the post up, but please note that it is no longer consistent with my opinion.

No, I'm not talking about the possible meaningless shift from rule under a Republican to a Democrat come November. As they say, "No matter who wins, we lose."

I am talking about the big picture, the struggle against authoritarian government and capitalism that can broadly be termed "anarchism." Many of the people fighting this fight wouldn't think of themselves as anarchists, of course, so it's not quite proper to term the amorphous mass of civil unrest and resistance to neoliberal globalization and war an anarchist movement per se. But the ideals of the movement as a whole -- self-determination, participatory democracy, opposition to capitalism -- are fundamentally anarchist.

There are still many anarchists and other leftists of the traditional varieties who believe there will be a capital-R Revolution at some point in the future, near or far. They believe, and the idea isn't entirely without merit, that once the exploited class of workers gets some political motivation, they will overthrow the present system in a most-likely violent revolution of the sorts that have periodically occurred throughout history. And after the capitalists have had their riches expropriated and the government has been overthrown, the left will rebuild society along the lines of whatever vision the holder holds -- most often, something like directly democratic workers and community councils confederated at the regional, national, and global levels.

I freely indulge in utopian visions of what the ideal society would look like. I've posted pieces before, and I will post pieces again. But this is not my point.

To illustrate the problem with the traditional view of revolution in the modern world, allow me to quote David Graeber:
In way of illustration, consider this: what would it have actually meant for the Spanish anarchists to have actually “won” 1937? It’s amazing how rarely we ask ourselves such questions. We just imagine it would have been something like the Russian Revolution, which began in a similar way, with the melting away of the old army, the spontaneous creation of workers’ soviets. But that was in the major cities. The Russian Revolution was followed by years of civil war in which the Red Army gradually imposed the new state’s control on every part of the old Russian Empire, whether the communities in question wanted it or not. Let us imagine that anarchist militias in Spain had routed the fascist army, which then completely dissolved, and kicked the socialist Republican Government out of its offices in Barcelona and Madrid. That would certainly have been victory by anybody’s standards. But what would have happened next? Would they have established Spain as a non-Republic, an anti-state existing within the exact same international borders? Would they have imposed a regime of popular councils in every singe village and municipality in the territory of what had formerly been Spain? How exactly? We have to bear in mind here that were there many villages towns, even regions of Spain where anarchists were almost non-existent. In some just about the entire population was made up of conservative Catholics or monarchists; in others (say, the Basque country) there was a militant and well-organized working class, but one that was overwhelmingly socialist or communist. Even at the height of revolutionary fervor, most of these would stay true to their old values and ideas. If the victorious FAI attempted to exterminate them all—a task which would have required killing millions of people—or chase them out of the country, or forcibly relocate them into anarchist communities, or send them off to reeducation camps—they would not only have been guilty of world-class atrocities, they would have had to give up on being anarchists. Democratic organizations simply cannot commit atrocities on that systematic scale: for that, you’d need Communist or Fascist-style top-down organization, since you can’t actually get thousands of human beings to systematically massacre helpless women and children and old people, destroy communities, or chase families from their ancestral homes unless they can at least say they were only following orders.
You don't have to be incredibly familiar with the Spanish Revolution to see the point here. In a movement committed to anti-authoritarianism, you can't force people to change. Previous revolutions have relied on authority to work. Traitors were killed, governments imposed on people, and so on. An anti-authoritarian revolution cannot do those things and remain opposed to authority. You would have to have a truly vast majority that is not just sympathetic to the aims of the revolutionaries, but that is completely on board with the outcome. You would have to either become authoritarians and command respect for your values, or allow others to reorganize as they see fit and reestablish the very systems of domination you fought so hard to overthrow.

The anti-authoritarian revolution must be a different kind. This is not something would-be insurrectionists want to hear. They decry it as nothing more than reformism or, with a bit more bile, lifestylism. But this is a genuine battle for hearts and minds, and the way forward is to simply build the future as we can, bit by bit, challenging authority and expanding democracy wherever and however we can. This ranges from direct action and protest and civil disobedience to starting coops and collectives and unions to educating ourselves and our children. Any changes we demand from the government are not means to repair the system, but to take what we need in spite of it.

Rudolf Rocker said, "I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal." This is the spirit of the revolution we face today.

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