Posts tagged anarchism
good point/totally agree/been feeling a serious case of analysis paralysis for the last five years or soI didn’t realize he got into anarchism later in life, but that may explain his enthusiasm and lack of disillusionment. I suspect most theory is developed *after* engagement by embittered former activist types like me. That can be a problem too…
Reading David Graeber is such a weird experience for me. he had all these political opinions and then realised quite late in life, after he’d already forged a solid career as an anthropologist, that he could actually act on them as part of a Social Movement. then he started writing on anarchist social movements in North America. I actually really like most of the things I’ve read by him, but it’s strange to see this guy who clearly knows a lot more than me about lots of things get really excited about the idea of “spokescouncils” and want to explain them to me like it’s something I’ve never heard of before. And I mean, I want to challenge that reaction in myself, because I want to challenge the idea that if you don’t get involved in social movements when you’re very, very young, you’ve lost your chance. But it also does actually shit me? I’ve been active in anarchist-y social movements about as long as he has, why don’t I have a desk? I am also wondering what this says about anthropology and about the rest of Graeber’s work. What does it mean that I am vaguely annoyed by some of his work, but only the ethnographies of environments I’m familiar with?
I should mention here that I don’t trust people who are not constantly challenging themselves — which describes a lot of the people I’ve met who critique theory as “inaccessible”. I’m mostly talking about white, professional-class humanities students with English as a first language and no learning/developmental disabilities that make it particularly difficult to parse nonstandard language. That is the #1 population I have heard make this critique of theory, by a huge distance. But theory’s not inaccessible — to them. The word you are looking for is “challenging”. I don’t understand how you even justify going to uni and doing a humanities degree if you don’t see the value of theory. and like — I know so many people for whom this knowledge is a lifeline, who’ve struggled so hard just to get in the door — and then there’s a bunch of losers just vaguely percolating about because university seemed like the Thing To Do and it was the easiest choice for them, talking shit about what kind of loser actually thinks this is important, lol, eat pills, meet people who go to cool parties, complete your socialisation into the middle+ classes, that’s what university is for, that’s way less self-indulgent than theory.
Obviously there are a lot of ways to challenge yourself and develop your understanding of the world, and some people are challenging themselves just by getting up every morning, or 70% of mornings, or staying alive at all, and there are a lot of problems with the applicability and accessibility of the loose conceptual lineage we call theory — but c’mon, some of us are just being lazy, and that’s a fundamentally untrustworthy quality, if you ask me. to contextualise this, I once had an anglo Art History intentional drop-out from an elite uni throw their hands in the air and snap at me for my “academic language”. The language in question was the phrase “social democracy”. if this isn’t you, I’m not talking about you, but trust me, these people exist, and they make me a bit defensive sometimes, yes, okay, that’s true.
However, I also don’t trust people who spend a lot of time developing their theory and then decide to put this elaborate conceptual framework into practice. I’ve organised with sheltered radical theory nerds before and it’s a fucking nightmare. they think they know more than everyone but actually they’re pretty useless. theory needs to develop in concert with action or it gets weird and floppy and self-indulgent.
I suspect this was what was going on with a lot of the problems with Occupy but I don’t really know. this wasn’t even really about Graeber in the end.
deep ecology: not even once
anyway, about that mark fisher discussion of The Lathe Of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven is a novel by Ursula Le Guin about a man called George Orr whose dreams have the power to retrospectively change reality — he dreams, and sometimes he wakes and finds that his dreams have always been true. Orr visits a psychologist, Haber, who decides to harness this power to change the world for the better, hypnotising Orr into dreaming that this or that social problem has been fixed. in every case it is disastrous — kind of a monkey’s paw situation, you know, where your wishes come true but in the worst and most vindictive way.
the name George Orr is a pretty direct (and frankly rather naff) reference to George Orwell, of course. the scenes where the world changes following one of Orr’s dreams recall Winston Smith in 1984 throwing away old newspapers that contradict IngSoc’s current party line on what the world has always been like. Fisher links this to Wendy Brown’s work on Stuart Hall’s idea of “dreamwork” under late capitalism. Brown argues that neoliberal capitalism deals with its contradictions simply through producing a retrospective narrative that papers over them.
following this, Fisher critiques the narrative arc of the novel as fundamentally quietist, too attached to the world as it currently is to envision an alternative that isn’t disastrous. in The Lathe of Heaven, he says, even dreaming of an alternative to the status quo is dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted.
Even though Le Guin is far too canny, too committed to a certain dialogic model of literary craft, to fully demonise Orr, it is hard not to take from the novel a familiar, conservative message, quintessentially anti-modernist: trying to change things only leads to worse catastrophes.
but I think it’s lazy reading not to comment on The Lathe Of Heaven’s anti-authoritarian politics. the dreamer, Orr, is not the villain, not even an ambiguous villain. that would be the psychologist, Haber, if anyone. he believes he can take on the responsibility of changing the world, he, as an individual. He does this through literally controlling the dreams of our protagonist, Orr, who you pretty much have to read as a victim here. It’s specifically that authoritarian control over the very dreams and therefore reality of another that the narrative critiques.
consistent themes in Le Guin’s writing: the danger of imposing your will on others, the unintended consequences of our actions, the limits of our knowledge of the world, the need for humility. her stories are really challenging and interesting and complex but I think they do sometimes push the reader into an endorsement of straight-up passivity. but you gotta have context when reading Le Guin. She’s absolutely a post-Marxist leftist, influenced primarily by feminist and anarchist traditions. Her narratives stress contingency, the possibility of betrayal, the calcification of vanguardist revolutionaries into an oppressive overclass.
she’s also got a longstanding interest in Taoism, and The Lathe Of Heaven is perhaps her most explicitly Taoist-influenced work. The title comes from an old, apparently rather flawed translation of the writings of Taoist Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi:
To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven. (知止乎其所不能知，至矣。若有不即是者，天鈞敗之。)
Zhuangzi is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his anti-state politics. Anarchists love him because he makes us look less like a bunch of white crusties, Austrian school economists love him because in the contemporary context, a lot of what he says sounds like straight-up neoliberal soundbites. “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone”, stuff like that. Buuuuuut I think it’s pretty sketchy to attempt to claim him for any particular contemporary anti-statist political stance, left or right. Zhuangzi wrote in the Warring States period, i.e., in a period of state formation/expansion characterised by brutal violence — but also a period where it was less possible for the state to project unquestioned sovereignty to the limits of its borders, and where many people lived outside day-to-day state power. basically, a period where capitalism and neoliberalism as we currently live under them weren’t around, and neoliberal dogwhistles like “the government governs best that governs least” can’t be assumed to have had the same resonance.
so Le Guin’s political position is informed by a whole raft of pre- or postmodernist intellectual traditions, it’s not simply unreflective endorsement of the status quo. And to be fair, fisher is critical of these traditions, he’s not unaware of them, but to be honest I still think it’s a fucking lazy critique. “…the late capitalist-Pomo liquidation of social projects as such - the defeat of modernism in other words” is a ridiculous and wholly unjustified elision of “social projects” into “modernism”. it’s crazy disingenous to sneakily collapse all opposition to modernism or modernist political frameworks into anti-communism and therefore neoliberalism. in any case, as I’ve said before, capitalism as we know it is totally dependent on state authority to create and maintain the conditions for its survival. The idea that neoliberalism is in any way anti-state is like the idea that capitalism preserves diversity against the attacks of the Left’s homogenising impulse — pure propaganda, manifestly false.
like, you can make an argument against a leftist tradition that you don’t think is gonna work, in fact you probably should, but don’t just say “it’s not Approved Modernist Communism, therefore it’s reactionary” and act like your argument’s been made for you! that shits me.
The Lathe of Heaven does creates a few problems for me as a reader, though. It’s just that I think it’s more interesting to approach it not as a reactionary but as a left melancholic text. Left melancholy is a term coined by Walter Benjamin to describe the Left’s attachments to our past failures. Wendy Brown has written on left melancholy as a condition of lassitude and directionlessness and doubt affecting the post-Soviet Left — what does it mean to be a Leftist after both Stalin and Fukuyama?
Relatedly, it’s interesting to think about The Lathe of Heaven in terms of Brown’s theory of “wounded attachments” — the persistent investment in the politicised suffering that creates us as subjects, and consequent unwillingness to envision a world truly without such suffering. there is a major character in The Lathe Of Heaven, a woman of colour named Heather Lelache, who cannot, does not exist, has never existed, in the world Orr is told to dream without racial injustice. It’s either kind of amazing or totally fucked depending on how you read it.
more about left melancholy and wounded attachments in a bit.
all my political understanding and organising beyond the vague leftism I was brought up in is grounded in feminism and specifically in movements against violence against women
I’m not saying it’s the only issue I care about or act on or the Foundational Oppression, just that I approach everything from that angle and from that theoretical tradition
(incidentally that’s partly why I enjoy wendy brown so much, because she’s firmly grounded in feminist theory but generally takes that perspective to not-specifically-feminist concerns)
more specifically, my anti-statist politics are grounded in feminist critiques of mainstream legalistic/state-dependent anti-violence feminist politics, mostly from radical women of colour like the INCITE! collective
also in 1960s-1970s New Left/radical feminist critiques of the hierarchical organising methods of liberal feminists and the male Left
also in my contact with the prison abolition movement in Australia which in fact is dominated by women advocating for women in prison, like Sisters Inside and Flat Out, which is what got me into reading Angela Davis, etc etc
my point here is that it’d be really good if theory bros could stop assuming that everyone on the Left falls somewhere between Stalin and Crimethinc on a one-dimensional scale of State or Not To State