Social Anarchism, Individualism and Lifestyle Politics

In this article, I’ll look at two key tendencies in anarchist theory – individualist anarchism and social anarchism – and look at some important differences between them. Advocates of both tendencies put forward a range of different ideas about strategy and how we should think about society, and they lead to different forms of action and understanding. I’ll argue that while social anarchism arose from the workers’ movement and forms of collective struggle, individualism was born out of both bourgeois intellectualism and the despair of individuals at the failure of movements.

As you can well imagine by its name, individualist anarchism appears to start, and end, with the demand of maximum liberty for the individual. There are to be no fetters on the development of the so called natural qualities of the individual, and while everyone should be free, it really begins with personal struggle and ends with the individual’s struggle. The only freedom you have is what you can take. Society is also thought to be as much a crushing source of authority as the state. There are to be no programs set for what anarchism might look like, because everyone has different wants and needs. Rebellion is emphasised over revolution – revolution will either lead to a new state or to a new social tyranny. Despite rhetoric against capitalism, market economics are permissible provided there is no boss-worker relation-ship (although sometimes that’s okay too!). It is this retreat into the self that actually shares a lot of parallels with new age spirituality, with existentialism and most importantly with neo-liberal capitalism.

As a political ideology, individualism did not have much influence during the emergence of the working class, nor did it do much to shape collective politics of rebel-lion. Individualists often expressed their ‘anarchism’ and ‘freedom’ through forms of dress, individual acts of insurrection, and living in small communities of other radicals only. While today we use the word ‘insurrection’ to mean some-thing like when a community/class violently attacks a regime/authority, the connection between the term insurrection and anarchism actually comes from the work of Max Stirner, who believed revolution was impossible, and that individual ‘insurrection’ was the only tactic that would keep authority at bay, however temporarily. It was during times of severe social repression, when little other avenue for struggle existed, that individualist anarchism did come to attention – usually with assassinations and bombings – and this image of the anarchist bomb thrower still exists. Terrorism became, and to a large degree remains, the peak form of struggle for this tendency. I don’t want to say much on it, but I believe that the terrorist and guerrilla war is a Leninist strategy, not an anarchist one, despite the flowery rhetoric. The most famous example of this strategy today is the Conspiracy of Fire Cells in Greece. They’re a group known for robbing banks, having shoot outs with police, and bringing ‘left wing terrorism’ back to Europe. They’re all arrested now, and have been involved in struggles for prisoners’ rights and hunger strikes over the last few years.

So then, what’s social anarchism?

Taking freedom as the basis of anarchism, I want to start with a quote from the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. He writes: “The individual, their freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not vice versa; society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the greater their freedom – and the more they are the product of society, the more do they receive from society, and the greater their debt to it” (1).

Here we find a definition of freedom based entirely on social bonds – what Bakunin is saying is that we are all products of social development – it is through relationships and education we find the ideas, motivations and influences that will make us free. With-out the development of all, without equality, we will never know real freedom. The freer the person beside you is, the freer you are. Social anarchism is therefore inherently committed to collective methods of organisation – be it through forms as various as unions, affinity groups, syndicates, communes, or whatever. Social anarchism is also socialist in its economics. We owe a great debt to Marx for the under-standing of economics he developed – it’s over questions of political organisation that we divide.

It’s this idea of freedom through solidarity that found such fertile ground in the workers’ movement. The ideas of social anarchists, particularly Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta flourished in many parts of the world, namely Spain, Italy, Argentina and had pro-found influence on the mass anarchist organisations like the CNT in Spain and the FORA in Argentina. In comparison, while social anarchism first found its roots in the federalist sections of the First International, in the Paris commune, and in the emerging union movements, individualism came to prominence as anarchism lost its connection with the working class. This loss of social influence for anarchism in most countries has never been recovered. The withdrawal of self-styled anarchists from social movements for activities that don’t require long-term commitment, thinking, responsibility or coherence is a serious problem if we ever want anarchism to be a philosophy that can change the world again.

It’s pretty clear that the irrelevance of a coherent and social anarchist philosophy is also tied to the reactionary and conservative societies we live in. Despite efforts to break out of the leftist ghetto, much like our socialist mates, today we remain largely irrelevant. The anarchist principles of federalism, direct action, anti-parliamentary politics, and mutual aid are barely connected to a class struggle that is largely institutionalised. With no radical collective movement to use our tactics, we don’t feed back into the movements, we don’t test our ideas and fresh activists are few and far between. It’s a two-way street. The end result of this isolation can often be liberalism dressed in radical clothing, and the dominance of ‘lifestyle anarchism’ is basically the black flag version of the socialist politics that believes in the revolutionary potential of Bernie Sanders, Syriza and Jeremy Corbyn.

Now I want to skip back to individualism. I want to explain why I argue that when individualist philosophies are put into practice they can often be damaging to social movements, and can become anti-social rather than anti-capitalist. I think this confusion that starts from the concept of imminent rebellion against authority, meaning that things that aren’t actually anti-authoritarian can end up with tacit anarchist support.

Groups like Crimethinc tend to border this line, advocating and fetishizing sub-cultural practices as anti-capitalist in and of them-selves with little conceptualisation of how they assist in the struggle against capital and the state, if at all. Squatting, sabotage, petty crime, theft, arson, and assassinations all register in the arsenal of insurrectional-individualist tactics. Actually, I think this is the definition of the vague term we throw around, ‘lifestylism.’ A comrade has raised with me that it is perhaps not only that, but it’s the result of despair at the failures of long-term organising that leads to believing only immediate actions and ‘living politics’ can be revolutionary.

It’s not that social anarchists don’t use tactics like insurrection, sabotage and so on too. But the key thing to consider is if the action is beneficial or negative, collectively empowering or just alienating and anti-social. For example, tactics like sabotage have often been used during union campaigns, the syndicalist organisation the Indus-trial Workers of the World (IWW) was pretty famous for this historically. When used as an individual tactic, workers often risk alienation from others, punishment from the state, or a waste of the re-sources of those who bail them out or organise legal support. Individuals may get a small benefit from stealing, squatting, living on the dole as an ideological choice, but there are always consequences. So when sabotage is done collectively, it can be a powerful tool against the boss, especially so because everyone has each other’s backs, and the decision to take action has been made together. It’s the small sums of collective actions that be-come a movement.

In an article on Crimethinc, ‘W’ argues that: “Shoplifting, dumpster diving, quitting work are all put for-ward as revolutionary ways to live outside the system, but amount to nothing more than a parasitic way of life which depends on capitalism without providing any real challenge” (2).

It’s important to acknowledge that some people may be forced to do some of these things, like stealing, to survive under capitalism, and they shouldn’t be demonised for this. We all need to survive in the current system. However, what ‘W’ is saying is that if you have the option to make these choices, if you can always move back in with your folks or whatever when life gets hard, you’re not actually contributing to anti-capitalism – you’re just living out some kind of radical liberalism.

The rich, politicians, and any-one in a position of power surely have plenty of time for people who become ‘non-participants’ in the system. They do not actually challenge power, they do not help organise collectively, they may create small concessions and ‘spaces’ of existing without the yoke of capitalist burden, but the potential for this to both spread and lead to collective empowerment has to be considered. The truth is, you cannot, ever, completely drop out of capitalism or get away from the state. The people in power are afraid of collective power that makes demands. Not hippie communes.

At this point, it’s useful to talk a little about how all of this translates into differences in tactics, politics and strategy.

Firstly, we have politics. This is the level at which we identify the philosophy we believe in – which is anarchism. So starting from the vision of building a world with-out states, systems of oppression like patriarchy or racism, and capitalism, we have to decide on the appropriate strategies for making that happen.

So, strategy. Here’s where we do the most reflection – what does our current society look like? What kind of changes do we need? How could we start making them happen? Are we insurrectionists, are we syndicalist, are we into community organising, should we be concentrating on propaganda? There is a lot to be figured out.

Finally, tactics. The tactics we employ are the specific details of the strategy we decide upon, as in, what particular actions we undertake to implement the strategy. For example, if you did believe you needed an insurrection, you might form a cell that wants to annihilate capitalists and cops or something (definitely not the Anarchist Affinity line!). If you chose syndicalism, you might look at what industries are most important to organise in right now, and if you want to start a specifically anarchist union or if you want to radicalise existing ones by building shop stewards networks and advocating wildcat strikes. Within social anarchism there are a variety of ideas about strategies, these are just two, very different and broad examples.

Those of us involved in anarchist organising in Australia can tend to fetishize one or the other, or completely muddle them up. Remember, here I’m not just talking about individualists; most anarchist groups in Australia are completely guilty of this too. But at the same time, I think what we like to call ‘lifestylism’ can be traced back to the early individual-ism, where personal rebellion and individual, violent insurrection are considered as the ultimate strategy against the state.

Squatting (occupying unused housing) is a well-known tactic. But if we believe that it’s inherently political, we’re going to get stuck repeating it over and over when it’s not the right strategy. Or when squatting is not an option, where does your political organising go? This kind of thing happens all the time. It’s a really big problem in the environmental movement. I’m not really involved in that any-more but it’s where I started back in Newcastle, and I saw a fair bit of this confusion.

Squatting is not really a huge thing in Australia, though I do know a number of squatters and there are a few in Melbourne – it’s a much bigger thing in Europe. Many anarchists seem to consider squatting as a lifestyle choice (though there are some, I’m sure, who do it because they haven’t any other option – I know at least one person who fits this category). There’s a difference between a choice and survival here. Living in a squat would appear to give people the space to exist outside typical property relations, maximising personal freedoms and somehow ‘propagate’ the idea that squatting is an option to the broader community. There is an element of truth in this, but it’s actually extremely limited.

Creating ‘liberty’ for oneself doesn’t necessarily mean creating it for others, and sometimes it can even limit the freedoms of others. Squatting isn’t necessarily one of those times, but it’s not always as helpful a tactic as other options. There is a difference between punks who want to live in a squat cause its free and they can have parties, and a squat that’s used as an accessible social centre that, for example, that helps house refugees. The first is fine, it doesn’t really matter to anyone except the landlord. But the second has collective and social power. I’d argue that as anarchists this is exactly our task. We don’t just want revolution for ourselves, we want it for everyone.

To turn a squat into a viable social centre it needs resources, organisation, community outreach, and importantly the backing of other social groups willing to defend it when eviction time comes. This is a task anarchist organisations can help with. Let’s look at the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) in Ireland, they’re an anarchist group who doesn’t operate, control or dominate any squats. What they do however, is help initiate them, have activists involved in their on-going upkeep and daily activity (one squat in Ireland that has a few WSM members used the workshops to build heaters to send to refugees in Calais), and help defend them and their autonomy against repression from the state. They also organise forums and do the important task of political propaganda helping legitimate squat-ting as a strategy against capital-ism. I use WSM as an example of this because they’re particularly successful – they have an anarchist publication reaches thousands of people monthly, and they have public attention for being at the forefront of several social movements. Imagine what such a powerful anarchist organisation can bring to the defense of autonomy. On the other hand – it doesn’t take an anarchist organisation to make squatting a valid social project – I’m just pointing out what I think some important tasks for anarchists are.

Now I’d like to ask: what is a squat compared to a rent strike? This I believe is where we begin to see real collective action forming. Rent strikes aren’t a thing here anymore, but Australia does have some history with them. Actually, I almost never hear people talk about them! If you don’t know what a rent strike is, it’s basically like this: the community in a particular area organises against inflated rents and evictions, you hold some mass meetings, do some propaganda and whatever, maybe you target on the basis of community, maybe you target a particular landlord, but you get to a point where collective power is established and people stop paying rent. When the cops turn up, you picket in defence of whoever they try and evict, maybe you go hassle the state department or the rental agents or something. Not really something we’re in a position to do now – but it’s worth remembering this exists for when struggle around housing intensifies even more.

What makes rent strikes so much more powerful is that, unlike squatting, they’re a viable tactic for a huge portion of the population. Squatting is unavailable to so many people, for so many reasons. There are only so many places, it can be unsuitable for families, for people who need to keep stuff secure for work or whatever, for people with disabilities, for people who want to be guaranteed a hot shower. For those who require stability and security, things we all deserve, squatting is not a real option. Even for many of Australia’s homeless, squatting wouldn’t be viable – what they need is secure, free housing. Wouldn’t it be better if we could organise a mass renters and housing movement committed to direct action and direct democracy, with total autonomy from political parties and the capitalist class? Social movements provide the space to lay the real foundations of a society built from the bottom up.

At the current moment, I think we need to stop and reflect where anarchist political organising needs to go. What are our politics? What strategies do we have which could make anarchist politics relevant again? Do they reflect what Australian society looks like today? We can’t just take the CNT model from revolutionary Spain in the 1930’s and make it happen here.

Anarchism is the most completely social philosophy – we seek a world based on solidarity, mutual aid and co-operation. We are anti-capitalist, because capitalism is toxic for a healthy social system, not because we’re angsty teenagers.

The considered undertaking of practical activity, connecting it to a broader political program, and the building of dedicated anarchist organisations will only strengthen our ability to make a difference and increase the scope of human freedom both in the here and now, and to lay the groundwork for a revolutionary situation. I’d urge any who believe anarchism is achieved by autonomous, atomised and unorganised individuals to seriously re-consider how they believe revolution is possible, and if it is, what it will take to get there. If we refuse to acknowledge the lessons of the past we will let the state continue to exist, either in its capitalist or socialist form.

(1) Mikhail Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, edited by G. P. Maximoff (Free Press, 1953),p. 158.

(2) W, ‘Rethinking Crimethinc’, 2006.

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