The Politics of Liberation: From Class to Culture

John P. Clark

Published in Black Rose, Vol. 2 no.1 (Spring 1981),

and The Anarchist Moment (Montréal: Black rose Books, 1984)

It was not so long ago that to pose the question of the nature of "the libertarian problematic" must have seemed a rather quixotic undertaking. Where could such a "problematic" be situated? In the dreams of survivors of long-dead labor movements? In the fantasies of concocters of utopian visions? True, libertarian practice had never wholly died, but a once historically momentous movement had certainly dwindled to practical insignificance. The heroic idea that had once moved masses seemed relegated to the realm of nostalgia, if not that of science fiction. Anarchism had never been abolished, despite even the efforts of those dictatorial regimes that had striven so hard to annihilate it and all its adherents. Yet, ironically, it certainly seemed well on the road to withering away.

Yet dormant historical forces have to slumber somewhere, and it is perhaps appropriate that this one retreated temporarily into the sphere of the imagination. It is no doubt better to have imagination without a movement than a movement without imagination. Perhaps now we can have both. For to the surprise of practically all observers (excepting the small remnant of believers and visionaries) the movement began its return to the historical stage in the late 60's. It now becomes possible to speculate that anarchism is capable of being much more than a noble dream, and, in fact, that its future role in history will make its past appear to be only faltering first steps, a minor episode in its evolution. What basis is there for such hope?

While it is true that only a generation ago anarchism had been (to use the language of bureaucrats) "taken off the agenda," the time may be coming when it is capable of forcing its way back onto the agenda, perhaps rewriting it, and maybe even tearing it up. It seems that we are now at a juncture in history in which the relevant problems begin to pose themselves, the concrete historical project begins to take form, and the problematic therefore begins to situate itself in the real world. The two reigning world ideologies are now definitively revealing their bankruptcy. For the masses, whether they are subjected to capitalist or socialist systems of domination, the old faith is entering a period of deep crisis. The growing mood of these masses is one of cynicism and hopelessness, dangerous dispositions for all ideologies founded on the myth of unlimited progress and worldly messianism. This is not to say that people no longer accept; but they do it with ill-natured resignation and poorly disguised resentment. They are quickly moving to the point at which a new set of options arises: not capitalism or socialism, but rather fanaticism or rebellion. They must choose either unprecedented depths of bad faith and self-deception, or the recognition of the brokenness of the old symbolic structures; either the kind of mindless, spiritless dogmatism which is required to perpetuate a dead religion, or the creative negation of illusions which have been revealed for what they are. Perhaps for the first time human beings (and not merely theorists) begin to see the essential opposition not as that between one distorting ideology and another, but between ideology and reality. As Nietzsche prophetically saw, the naked power relationships which underlie all ideologies, no matter how "democratic," "humanist," or "socialist" are finally being revealed, and the terrifying prospect of conscious choice lies before us.

In the context of this decay of traditional ideologies, both of the Right and of the Left, the task of formulating the libertarian problematic takes on increasing urgency. The question is whether the libertarian movement will shake off its own attachment to the remnants of these moribund ideologies, and give some sort of conscious direction to the construction of a new social reality, or whether it will pass up this opportunity for making its contribution to the break with past forms of domination. While we can point to both "objective" and "subjective" factors which constitute the material social and psychological basis for the developing crisis of the dominant world systems (depletion of resources, ecological stress, economic stagnation, resistance to neocolonialism, internal social disintegration, decline of repressive structures of motivation, weakening of institutional legitimacy, etc.), the importance of the emerging struggle cannot be underestimated, since there is no assurance that alternative liberatory possibilities will be developed, except in so far as adequate theoretical and practical agents of social transformation are created. We cannot rely on some inexorable march of history to save us if our own historical self-transformation is a failure. Furthermore, as the prevailing patterns of domination become increasingly threatened by internal disintegration and external challenges, the amount of overt psychological and physical force which will be used to maintain them can only be expanded. For this reason there is growing truth in the old saying that the new society must be created within the shell of the oldboth because the old must be transformed as rapidly as possible into a mere shell, which is increasingly perceived as a contrivance, a mechanism, and a barrier to human development; and because this relative unreality must be placed in contrast to the new society's growing fullness and reality.

If this does not occur, we will once again revert to the patterns of the past, although perhaps in even more destructive forms. On the one hand, a critically unconscious and underdeveloped radicalism, which is itself a mere reaction, will generate an entrenched reactionary dogmatism that will secure itself through even greater repression. On the other hand, should such a radicalism succeed in harnessing the energies of fear and frustration, we will see more "revolutions" which themselves turn out to be the most advanced transformations of the old forms of domination. After having observed the history of this century we should not be at all shocked by the idea that underdeveloped and one-sided "revolutionary" activity can be a powerful contributor to the conquest of power by the authoritarian forces of both Right and Left. In fact, we must recognize that the fetishism of "the Revolution" has itself been one of the most powerful mechanisms of domination.

What, then, is the libertarian response to this historical predicament? It seems to me that there are two lines of development within the libertarian left, or, more specifically, the social anarchist movement, which have deep historical roots, and which are presently reemerging. On the one hand there are those who continue to conceive of the project ofsocial emancipation primarily in terms of the mode of production, economic class analysis, and class struggle. On the other, there are those whose approach is more multidimensional, and might be described as a cultural orientation. Both perspectives find numerous adherents at present within the libertarian political movements of both the United States and Western Europe, although the relative strength of the two factions varies considerably from country to country.

In the United States the libertarian tradition of class-based organization and strategy can be traced back to the European immigrant labor movements of the late 19th century and also to the largely native-American revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW. The ideas of these movements coincided on many major points with the principles of European anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The roots of domination are seen to lie above all in capitalism and the state. The essential project is to organize the working class into a force which can successfully overthrow the state, the effective power behind economic exploitation, the paradigm for, and root cause of, all forms of domination. When the workers succeed in fulfilling their historical mission, either through insurrection ("the Revolution") or economic class action ("the General Strike") a new economic order based on self-management can be established, and with it a society of equality, freedom, and justice. The story is quite familiar, for this faith once exerted powerful force in much of Southern Europe and Latin America, in the days before the labor movements in these areas became dominated by Marxism and reformism, or were crushed by Fascism. The unique American contribution was the version presented by the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), who sought to develop an even more radically economistic program based entirely on economic class analysis, and in which the religious and political questions so central to European anarcho-syndicalism were rather unrealistically (yet appropriately for an American movement) relegated to the domain of "private opinion." For the Wobblies, the picture presented of the future society was that of a world organized economically by the workers according to the IWW system of industrial unions. Thus there was no anti-state linemembers were free to participate in political activity, to refrain from it, or to oppose it, so long as their political stance did not intrude into the One Big Union. The IWW thus sought to form a broadly-based class alliance, a kind of radical version of American pragmatism, attained at the expense of coherence and comprehensiveness on the levels of both theory and strategy. Yet despite these problems and ambiguities, for a long time it was (and to an extent, still is) within the IWW that numerous libertarians chose to work, especially after the possibilities for organizing large and enduring immigrant anarcho-syndicalist movements failed to materialize.

The second current, which I have called the cultural orientation, has always existed as part of the American libertarian tradition, and, given the relative weakness of class-based organizations in the United States, it has been disproportionately strong in comparison to its place in the European movements. Thus in the Nineteenth Century the communitarian movement was an important sphere of libertarian activity, in which a myriad of problems of everyday life, including many issues related to sexuality, childraising, and small group decision-making were confronted. Although the Nineteenth Century communities remained peripheral to American society, they have been a continual source of inspiration for the renewal of the movement for communalism. In the twentieth century, this tradition was carried on by a number of groups which emphasized cooperative production, decentralization, and, often, non-violent patterns of living. Movements like the Catholic Worker and the School of Living were among those that perpetuated such values. Yet it was only in the 1960's, with the emergence of the Counterculture, that this tendency became once again a central focus of libertarian creative activity. The explosive growth of communalism was only one area in which libertarian cultural developments began. In addition, strong libertarian impulses underlay much of the activity in the many movements for liberation which then proliferatedthe free school and alternative education movement, children's liberation, women's liberation, gay liberation, radical psychiatry, ecology, black liberation, the Native American movement, the antiwar movement, the student movement, the co-op movement, the alternative media, and the development of neighborhood organization. Although these movements were diverse in makeup, they all contained significant currents emphasizing participation, decentralization, cooperative modes of interaction, and liberation from entrenched patterns of domination. Furthermore, the Counterculture itself (which might be seen as a more generalized movement for social recreation, only partially overlapping with these more particularized movements) exhibited a strong cultural dimension, stressing the importance of consciousness, values and personality structure, and raising questions about the repressive/liberatory implications of forms of language, communication, music, art, and the symbolic dimension in general.

In short, a kind of libertarian proto-culture began to develop, and it was in many ways one of the most advanced foreshadowings of what a future libertarian society may be. Yet it was, unfortunately, merely a foreshadowing more a revelation of possibilities than an achievement of actualities. Its roots were not deep in American society. It was too much a product of fortuitous events and ephemeral conditions. It embodied a positive vision to a degree, but on the whole it was still shaped by immediate negativity, by a largely unreflective, undeveloped (as it said, "gut") reaction against the dominant culture. It lacked a sense of history to the extent of a failure to grasp ever, the very forces which created it, or those with which it contended. It failed to comprehend the magnitude of the power of commodification, and the dominance of the code of values of the spectacle. It was therefore an easy prey for absorption into the spectacular system. (For striking evidence of how thoroughly the themes of the Counterculture have been absorbed into this system of commodity consumption, we can take the depressing example of the film Hair. In this 1980 vision of the Counterculture, there remain no traces of a liberating "new sensibility" or a quest for community, but instead the picture of the most egoistic self-indulgence. We are presented the image of rebellion as radical conformism for the amusement of the spectator.) The Counterculture was theoretically impoverished and incoherent, as is not surprising given its fragmented, rather than totalistic, nature. It was capable of giving rise to brilliant insights and brave experiments, yet could not reach the needed synthesis that would give it strength and durability. In short, it developed many of the materials necessary to create a libertarian culture, but could not become such a culture.

The result was the 70's, and its disintegration and recuperation. It is possible to argue that many of the gains of the 60's were preserved, or that some of the values which emerged took root and even developed further during the next decade. And it is true that we cannot judge historical evolution by the content of media coverage. Yet for those who saw intimations of a movement toward a culture founded on libertarian and communal values, the 70's could only be pervaded by a sense of failed possibilities: the period of humanization of work, black mayors (and even black Republication mayors!) women executives, "decriminalization" of marijuana, porno theaters, Gov. Jerry Brown, Quaker natural Cereal, and Friends of the Earth; in short, the confrontation between the old reality and, as it has been aptly put, "artificial negativity." If we are fortunate enough to fight off the old patterns of dominationnationalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.which seem to be making a powerful comeback lately, we are confronted with the alternative of a perfected society of commodity consumptionone in which all achieve the equal right to be commodity consumers and to offer themselves as commodities to be consumed.

What is the libertarian response to this dilemma? Is it a revival of class politics, a new attempt at cultural transformation, or some synthesis of the two?

First, it should be understood that the traditional politics of class struggle had in its own way a cultural dimension, and, even more, that it embodied an implicit view of humanity and nature. From its perspective, the person is above all a worker, a producer. The great tragedy of history is therefore seen to lie in the fact that the workers, who produce all the good necessary for life and well-being, and on whose activity the future progress of society depends, are robbed of the benefits of their production. Work is the essential means toward social progress, the liberation of humanity from want, from bondage to nature. Being a worker is therefore a virtue, while being a non-worker is a vice, inseparable from exploitation. The problem is to transform all people into workers, and to gain for these workers control over productionto establish universal self-management. When this is attained the utopia of production will be achieved. As the IWW put it, "all the good things in life"meaning products and services, the "goods"will no longer be monopolized by the capitalists, but will be shared by all.

This ideology, while encompassing a bitter attack on capitalism and those who benefit from its system of exploitation, is, in spite of itself, a particular formulation of the productivist ideology of developing capitalismthe version formulated from the perspective of the working class, (and it should be remembered that the proletariat, like the bourgeoisie, is an eminently capitalist class). On almost all key points it is identical with the early capitalist project of salvation through material production. In a sense it is the protestant version of the religion of our practice has been left lamentably underdeveloped. For the mainstream of the Left, while it challenged the system of domination in many ways, still defined its problematic in terms of the politics of class struggle, and therefore still accepted many of the presuppositions of authoritarian society. Thus, even in its best historical moments it remained largely uncritical of the industrial system of technology and the project of human domination of nature.

The libertarian problematic today is, of course, to develop a coherent, systematic, and thoroughly critical view of reality, and a practice adequate to transform reality in accord with this vision. If we are to successfully challenge the system of domination, we must achieve an understanding of reality as a whole, including the whole symbiotic universe by which we interpret and indeed construct reality. Consequently, we must confront a multitude of questions of ontology, social theory, and psychology.

Fortunately, libertarian thought has been moving slowly but consistently in the direction of such an all-embracing vision in recent years, especially as it has come to see the ecological perspective as the macroscopic correlate (indeed, the philosophy of nature) of the libertarian conception of a co-operative, voluntarily organized society. It has been moving toward a fully-developed, organic theory of reality, a theory which proposes a distinct view of nature, of human society, of the group, and of the self or person. Further, it points toward a coherent practice which can successfully found a new libertarian culture which challenges the social, political, economic and psychological dominance of the official culture, with its values of atomistic individualism, egoistic consumption, and the will to power. In the place of this view of the world as a collection of fragmented, antagonistic parts (whose metaphysics, ethics, and social philosophy are epitomized in the deterrence theory used by "criminal justice" specialists) the organic, ecological worldview delineates a reality in which the whole is a unity-in-diversity, in which the development and fulfillment of the part can only proceed from its complex interrelationship and unfolding within the larger whole. The universe is seen not as a lifeless mechanism but rather as an organic whole, a totality consisting of non-discrete, interpenetrating processes. Society must become, like nature itself, an organic, integrated community. Human beings can only realize their personhood, their individuality in the fullest sense, through non-dominating interaction, or as Martin Buber put it, in a society which is a community of communities. The existence of such a society depends on the growth of a multitude of small personalistic groups which are the organic fabric of the organic society. These groups must be founded on human social instincts and needs, on the one hand, and offer a framework for the development of creative desire and social imagination on the other. And underlying all must be a new vision of the selfa self which is itself organic, and having the nature of a process. It must be a self which is not objectified, or divided against itself, but rather is a harmonious synthesis of passion, rationality, and imagination. Such a self is a social creation, an embodiment of our common human nature in its process of historical development, yet also the most individualized and unique self-expression of reality, and therefore the most ultimately creative process.

What does this imply on the level of concrete practice? It means that the libertarian problematic in the field of action and organization is above all a problematic of social regeneration. Confronted with the final truths of Western Civilizationdisintegration, atomization, egoism, and dominationthe libertarian movement must place the highest priority on creating libertarian (and even more, communitarian) patterns of interaction at the most basic level, the affinity group. This means that organizations like anarcho-syndicalist unions and anarchist federations will be, at best, incapable of social transformation, and, at worst, frameworks for reproducing the system of domination, unless they are rooted in a firmly established libertarian culture, in libertarian human relationships, and in a libertarian perception of reality.

The problem is thus in a sense to again take up the task of the Counterculture of the 60's, but this time within the framework of a self-conscious libertarian cultural movement. None of the concerns of the 60's have lost their relevance. Therefore the movement must not only be firmly rooted in the affinity group, and concern itself with the development of libertarian primary relationships, but it must also strive toward building a larger cultural and organizational structure. While discarding the fatal illusion that any mere organizational form can lead to liberatory social tranformation, it must regenerate the impulse toward the establishment of cooperatives, collectives, and communes as necessary elements in the evolution of a libertarian culture. It will continue the development and application of decentralist, liberatory technology. It will once more grasp the centrality of libertarian education, an area ofthe most advanced libertarian practice from the time of Tolstoi to the most mature and historically conscious experiments of the 60's. And it will never forget the importance of the esthetic dimension, continuing the rich tradition of libertarian self-expression, for anarchism is as much as anything the synthesis of art and life, and as Murray Bookchin has said, the conception of the community as a work of art.

In this confrontation between the values of egoism, commodification, and domination and those of libertarian communalism the struggle is no longer a struggle of classes in the traditional sense. It is rather the struggle of the community against class society, the society of division, the society of domination. It is therefore not the struggle of socialist worker to succeed the bourgeois individual as the subject of history. Rather it is emergence of the person, the organic social self, who must through social, communal self-realization combat those forces and ideologies which reduce this self to asociality (individualism, privatism) or being a producer (productivism).

Whatever the impression may be that I have given so far, it should be understood that none of the foregoing means that class analysis and class struggle in the broadest sense of these terms have lost their meaning. In fact, one of the key elements of the libertarian problematic is the development of a more adequate analysis of the class structures of both contemporary and past societies. Libertarian theory has already begun to show great promise for considerable contributions in this area. Not being tied to the fetishism of the working class, it can show the creative role which peasant societies and tribal cultures have played in history and even prehistory, and their amply manifested potential for the development of libertarian and communitarian social forms. Furthermore, it can continue to document the fact that the working class itself has been most revolutionary, most libertarian, most critical, and most socially creative in its transitional stages, rather than at the points at which it has been most classically "proletarian" and "industrial." This is exemplified in the past by those groups which were torn out of traditional, communal society, and were only beginning to be socialized into the industrial system, and can be expected to reoccur in the future only in so far as the classic working class continues to disintegrate and a growing number of its members come under the influence of, or begin to participate in, a developing libertarian communalist post-industrial culture. Furthermore, recognizing the irreducible reality of political power, libertarian theory can more fully delineate the role of the developing techno-bureaucratic class in state capitalist and corporate capitalist society. Substituting the more adequate concept of the system of domination in the place of obsolete reductionist, economistic conceptions, it can contribute to understanding the interaction between such forms of domination as patriarchy, political power, technological domination, racism and economic exploitation, thereby showing the interplayboth the contradictions and the mutual reinforcementwithin the total system between economic class, sex class, political class and ethnic class. Such a formulation turns out to be especially fruitful in linking the structure of domination in classical capitalist society to that existing in pre-capitalist, late capitalist, and post-capitalist societies.

Corresponding to this expanded conception of class analysis, there must also be an amplified practice of class struggle, though certainly not in the traditional sense of finding the most suitable present-day strategies for the messianic working class. Rather, the task of the libertarian movement must be to combat the material and ideological power of all dominating classes, whether economic, political, racial, religious, or sexual, with a multi-dimensional practice of liberation. Such a practice must integrate within the framework of this many-sided fight against domination a variety of sorts of activity. It must certainly include economic actions, like strikes, boycotts, on the job actions, occupations, organization of direct action groups and federations of libertarian workers' groups, and development of workers' assemblies, collectives, and cooperatives. It must also entail political activity, including not only anti-electoral activity, but in some cases strategic voting, especially in referenda and local elections. In addition there must be active interference with implementation of repressive governmental policies, like non-compliance and resistance against regimentation and bureaucratization of society, including technological surveillance and control of the population; and participation in movements for increasing direct participation in decision-making and local community control. There must also be ideological struggle, including the development of arts, media, and symbolic structures which expose the forces of domination and counter-pose to them a system of values based on freedom and community. And in all cases there must be a practice of psychological transformation, in which all groups functioning to combat domination self-consciously seek to maintain their basis in personalistic human relationships, direct participation, non-hierarchical internal structure, and respect for the integrity and individuality of each member. One lesson of the 60's is the futility of any attempts to merge, or rather submerge, the libertarian presence into basically non-libertarian mass organizations or vague ecumenical "Movements." If the libertarian movement is to experience organic growth it must fiercely defend the libertarian character of primary groups, and realize the fundamental nature of all libertarian organization, not as mere forms of mobilization for struggle against any or even "all" kinds of domination, but above all as elements in the more comprehensive process of cultural recreation.

The libertarian problematic is indeed a problematic which entails negationthe negation of all forms of domination, alienation, and social disintegration. Yet a movement which degenerates into pure negativityinto mere collective ressentiment on the part of the alienated is condemned to impotence and lack of creative energy. The revolutionary subject was once described as a class with radical chainsone which says "I am nothing. I should be everything." Yet the attempt to move from total nothingness to a fullness of being is something that might be accomplished by the Absolute Idea, and perhaps even by the Proletariat, but it is beyond the capacities of mere mortals. Our need is therefore not merely a class with radical chains, but a culture with radical freedom.

The most radical bonds are not those of class oppression but those of free community.