Autonomy: Utopia or Realpolitik

[ 2013-01-05 21:29:25 | 作者Author: OUNING ]
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Flowchart of basic consensus decision-making process, by Grant Horwood(Frymaster).

Autonomy: Utopia or Realpolitik

Ou Ning

Autonomy is a key word for anarchism. As for anarchism, Peter Kropotkin provided the following explanation in the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica: “The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”(1) The term “anarchism” comes from the Greek “anarchos” (αναρχία), meaning “without ruler,” and this etymology points us to its core idea: that there is no need for a government, that a society can be maintained autonomously. The Chinese translation “wuzhengfuzhuyi”(which roughly comes out to “no-government-ism”) is not exactly imprecise, but after running through various historical contexts, particularly polemic disputes and conflicts with Marxism, the word has taken on a different meaning in Chinese society. Once Marxism became the mainstream ideology in China, anarchism was marginalized, its power diminished. The fact is, however, that many communists were anarchists at first, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchism had many followers in China. Many of the assassination activities carried out against Qing dynasty rulers were done so under the influence of the anarchist doctrine known as “propaganda of the deed,” which pertains to the use of demonstrative actions to promote and mobilize revolution.(2) Such individual violent tendencies led society to reject anarchism and to equate it with violence, chaos, nihilism, the “collapse of morals” and “resistance against existing government” (rather than the separation from any government and engagement of autonomy that is advocated by original anarchism).

As one of the most important human philosophical and political ideas of the past two centuries, anarchism has an extraordinarily diverse and complex spectrum, with the advocacy of violence accounting for only a small faction. For instance, the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy (which inspired Japanese Shirakaba writer Saneatsu Mushanokōji’s Atarashiki-mura practice) and the Buddhist anarchism of Taixu (which was later spread by American poet Gary Snyder), both advocate non-violence. Many anarchists also set a very strict moral code for themselves. Among the many people who make up the intellectual tribe of the anarchists, Kropotkin can be seen as the epitome, and he is also the one who made the most profound contributions towards the construction of gentle social ideals in anarchism. At the time, Marxism was spreading the world like wildfire, and the anarchist pioneers Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin were no match for it in the battle of ideas. Moved by this Kropotkin resolved to draw from the philosophy of empiricism that was popular at that time in order to reconstruct the anarchist system of thought. In the 1902 book Mutual Aid, Kropotkin attempted to use the scientific methods of empiricism to refute the social Darwinist theory of the “struggle for survival” from the perspective of evolutionary history and demonstrate that mutual aid is a human instinct and the driving force behind social progress: “Neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in men's understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution. What was the outcome of evolution since its earliest stages cannot be overpowered by one of the aspects of that same evolution. And the need of mutual aid and support which had lately taken refuge in the narrow circle of the family, or the slum neighbours, in the village, or the secret union of workers, re-asserts itself again, even in our modern society, and claims its rights to be, as it always has been, the chief leader towards further progress.”(3)

The idea of autonomy in anarchism was established upon the foundation of Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid — it is only because solidarity and mutual aid are human nature that lofty morals can be established, that production and economic development can be achieved through the direct exchange of labor and the bartering of goods (this economic model that avoids the use of currency has anti-capitalism in its DNA), and that the free energy of the individual can be released. There is no need for political agents (parties, governments or the state), no need for leaders, no need for authority, no force, no classes, no exploitation, no need for taxation and no need to rely on public services (that is to say there is no need for compulsory taxation in exchange for public services) when everyone shares “horizontal power” (all people participating together in shared decisions) and engage in “direct action” (spontaneous individual participation with no need for representation). Such ideas were often deemed utopian flights of fancy, lacking the “realpolitik” conditions for operation. In modern society, party politics, the taxations system and the state model are ubiquitous, with most people passively accepting this system’s plans for them all their lives, viewing its existence as inevitable. They have never imagined the possibility of a different society or different politics. One could say that in today’s mainstream society, the space for anarchism is very narrow, and anarchist autonomy has never been practiced on a grand scale. But anarchism does not demand a seat in mainstream thought. Its marginalized position is exactly the attitude it maintains: if an anarchist were to gain a seat in the university, gain recognition in academia or appear as a public intellectual on TV, that person would become a part of an organization or enter into a certain system, and this is against the principles of anarchism. They are more focused on action and practice, constantly refreshing their ideas within the possible social space and constructing their “prefigurative politics” (the prefiguration of future social and political modes).

The Paris Commune of 1871 has been held up by anarchists as a model of autonomy. Though it only lasted for two months, it encouraged later anarchists to engage in the grassroots practice of autonomy. In the Twentieth Century, the Spanish anarchist union organization Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) played an important role in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 and engaged in many experiments in autonomy. Later, the Situationist International Movement promoted by Guy Debord, the May 1968 protests in France and the 1971 establishment of the Fristaden Christiania in Copenhagen all added to the theories and political practices of anarchist autonomy from different angles. The emergence of “neo-anarchism” was marked by the establishment of an autonomous base and guerilla operations by the Zapatistas deep in the mountains of Mexico in 1994. The movement against neoliberalism that arose in Seattle in 1999, the words and deeds of the French philosophical group Tiqqun (they once published a pamphlet entitled L'Insurrection qui vient under the name of the Comité invisible; one of their core members, Julien Coupat, was arrested in 2008 as a suspect in attacks against French railways), the Arab Spring which began in 2010, and the Occupy Wall Street movement which began in 2011 have all successively pushed the grassroots political practices of neo-anarchism to new heights. Two thinkers, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have provided current theoretical support and academic summarizations of these movements that have emerged since the 1990s: “…the movements are immediately subversive in themselves and do not wait on any sort of external aid or extension to guarantee their effectiveness. Perhaps the more capital extends its global networks of production and control, the more powerful any singular point of revolt can be. Simply by focusing their own powers, concentrating their energies in a tense and compact coil, these serpentine struggles strike directly at the highest articulations of imperial order.”(4) The 2010 book Indignez-vous! by German-born French writer Stéphane Hessel directly catalyzed the Spanish Indignados movement, which together with the Arab Spring, influenced the occupation of Wall Street.

Most contemporary neo-anarchists are activists who do not seek fame or honor, and maintain their distance from the social elites, though there are those among them who strive for innovation and dissemination of anarchist thought. Much of the noteworthy discussion on neo-anarchism in recent years has come from David Graeber. Graeber was born and raised in the United States, and had become an anarchist by the age of 16. He participated in the 2002 World Economic Forum protests in New York City, and helped to start the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, coining the term “we are the 99%.” Graeber was an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University, and after missing tenure there, he moved to Goldsmiths College in London. Like Kropotkin, he had strong ambitions regarding the construction of anarchist theory. In the 2004 book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, he attempted to use anthropological methods to prove that the autonomous ideals and economic modes of anarchism were feasible in the real world. People have always been doubtful that anarchism could become a real political model, asking, “Can you name me a single viable example of a society which has existed without a government?” When you raise the many examples of primitive tribal societies, they then ask about contemporary societies. When you raise the many examples in contemporary times, they will respond, “These are small, isolated examples. I’m talking about whole societies.” When you talk of the Paris Commune and the Spanish Republic, they will say “Yeah, and look what happened to those guys! They all got killed!” Graeber responds that the skeptics often mistakenly believe that anarchism strives to establish a political body akin to the nation state, when in reality, anarchism is ultimately opposed to the organizational mode of the state: “There is a way out, which is to accept that anarchist forms of organization would not look anything like a state. That they would involve an endless variety of communities, associations, networks, projects, on every conceivable scale, over-lapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t. Some would be quite local, others global. Perhaps all they would have in common is that none would involve anyone showing up with weapons and telling everyone else to shut up and do what they were told. And that, since anarchists are not actually trying to seize power within any national territory, the process of one system replacing the other will not take the form of some sudden revolutionary cataclysm — the storming of a Bastille, the seizing of a Winter Palace — but will necessarily be gradual, the creation of alternative forms of organization on a world scale, new forms of communication, new, less alienated ways of organizing life, which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point. That in turn would mean that there are endless examples of viable anarchism: pretty much any form of organization would count as one, so long as it was not imposed by some higher authority, from a Klezmer band to the international postal service.”(5)

In the essay "The New Anarchists", published in the January/February 2002 issue of the New Left Review, Graeber explored the relationship between neo-anarchism and the anti-neoliberalism movement that is active around the world (which the American media calls the “anti-globalization movement”). The relationship is in terms of how to maintain Rousseau’s principle of civil disobedience through “direct action” and how to realize “direct democracy.” As many people see it, the anti-neoliberalism movement that arose across North America has attracted a lot of attention, but it lacks a clear central theme or coherent ideology. It is like a child making a fuss for no reason. As Graeber sees it, however, “This is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy. Ultimately, it aspires to be much more than that, because ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole.” (6) This direct democracy that Graeber and North American activists are striving to create has become the core methodology of neo-anarchist autonomy experiments. It was perfectly realized in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011: through the establishment of the New York City General Assembly at the occupy site, they used the method of “consensus decision-making” to decide on strategy. Each person had the opportunity to speak through the “people’s microphone,” and any person could “block” a motion, not through a “no vote” but through a “veto”; or they could choose to “stand aside,” neither taking part nor blocking. The entire process was overseen by a “facilitator” who helped the group to reach a consensus and make decisions. This method of consensus-building and decision-making was not like the voting system that “subjects the minority to the majority.” It did not reach decisions by suppressing the will of the minority but through ample discussion of proposals in order to reach a consensus.

The practice of the “consensus process” at Occupy Wall Street demonstrated that “another world is not impossible.” Realpolitik may be a solid slab of iron, but when imagination and creativity are disintegrated, melted and re-forged, it can loosen, changed and grown into new possibilities. Utopia may be far off, or even just a mirage in the mind, but through tireless explorations, it may perhaps be able to put roots in the ground and grow before your eyes. Anarchism is often called a flight of fancy, but anarchists are the most patient and energetic activists today. In this day and age, the desire for a sudden revolution and immediate transformation of society is impossible. If you wait for a hero, a team of pioneers or a class group to represent your desires, then your hopes will likely never be realized. Anarchism has not set excessively high or distant goals. Instead, it patiently and painstakingly strives for piecemeal progress. The path of individual action, starting with the self, participation for all, mutual aid and love, a constant accumulation in everyday life, the powers of each individual coming to form a river until the vision is realized, is perhaps the easiest path to take. Though Western researchers see Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu as the world’s first anarchist theorists, Graeber also views the “School of the Tillers,” (Nongjia) which emerged during the Hundred Flowers period, as anarchism’s earliest practitioners(7), however, in contemporary China, the room for anarchist practice is perhaps narrower than in other countries and regions. But if you stop waiting for the wave-like spectacle of a grand revolution but instead try to enter into the minutia of everyday life, then when you enter into shared life in urban communities, when you engage in volunteer work in exchange for time coupons, when you go to the countryside to learn about labor-exchange traditions, when you observe and take part in village autonomy and grassroots democracy, or when you create indie media in cyberspace, taking part in shared proposals as an individual, then you may encounter, learn about or practice in the ideas of anarchism. In this nation of constant, repeated ideological struggles, we have never learned to tolerate different views. Perhaps now it is time to “rehabilitate” anarchism’s good name.

Bishan, December 10, 2012


(1)Peter Kropotkin, The Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1910.
(2)One example is Liu Shifu, often called China’s first anarchist. Liu plotted the assassination of Guangdong Naval Commandant Li Zhun in 1907, and founded the “China Assassination Corps” together with Xie Yingbo, Gao Jianfu and Chen Jiongming in Hong Kong in 1910.
(3)Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, Dover Publications, New York, 2006. Page 241.
(4)Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2001. Page 58.
(5)David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2004. Page 40.
(6)David Graeber, “The New Anarchists”, New Left Review, January and February, 2002. Page 70.
(7)“In China, while many of the founders of the ‘hundred schools’ of philosophy that blossomed under the Warring States were wandering sages who spent their days moving from city to city trying to catch the ears of princes, other were leaders of social movements from the very start. Some of these movements didn't even have leaders, like the School of the Tillers, an anarchist movement of peasant intellectuals who set out to create egalitarian communities in the cracks and fissures between states. ” David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, New York, 2012. Page 237.
[最后修改由 OUNING, 于 2013-01-05 21:52:43]


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