Sunday, September 25, 2011

From the Anarchist Book Fair:

“Anarchism and its Aspirations” – by Cindy Milstein, 2010

This short book has been described as a good introduction to modern anarchism. I’ve reviewed several books in the anarchist tradition or close to it: “The Coming Insurrection,” “Non-Violence Protects the State” and “Facing Reality,” the work of CLR James (however, a council communist), and the Situationist ‘Society of the Spectacle,” (all reviewed below.) However, this book is different in that it tries to layout the politics of anarchism in 122 pages.

I expected much more. In fact I was somewhat shocked by how naïve this book seemed. Of course, there are various brands of anarchism, and not all of them can be judged by these writings. Milstein points out that anarchism is primarily an 'ethics.' And the ethic leads to the destruction of capitalism, any state and hierarchy – and this all in one time period, simultaneously. In other words, communism now. And it is to be done by free and happy people who will reach the true, the good and the beautiful. Milstein centralizes the role of ‘ethics’ in anarchism – as if anarchism was kind of a hyper-humanism or hyper-liberalism. She uses the term ‘substantive humanism’ and ‘libertarian socialism’ to describe it. The phrases “class consciousness’ and ‘class struggle’ are nowhere to be read. The working class makes no appearance. Milstein does endorse much of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, but not his view of the state. Milstein considers the state to be a separate entity from capital, representing a third force in society, not the expression of the ruling class, as Marxists understand it. However, what economic class this ‘state’ represents is unclear. She brings forth no factual basis for the existence of this ‘third force’ or economy, but her intent here is not factual or scientific analysis.

Hatred of an abstract 'state' is also popular on the libertarian right, which some say is the anarchism of small capital. And it is, of course, the main target of the Republican Party - or at least those parts of the state that don't benefit them. So the left anarchist attack on the 'state' finds echoes in the broader culture. And this may explain the ease with which some youth accept anarchism.

Milstein insists that modern capitalism can exist without corporations – and indeed that is a truism. But monopoly indicates what form is really in control now – and it is not shoe-store owners. She praises anarchist attempts to build counter-institutions, and I have no problem with this. Of course, a counter-culture is not the product of anarchism alone – populism, Marxism and simple cooperation among people lead to various co-operative endeavors being constructed. You have only to look at the grain co-ops from the 30s or the food co-ops of the 1960s to see this. However, a ‘counter-culture’ was tried in the 60s, and failed to overwhelm the capitalist system – because you cannot ignore the system away. Capital, as it did to the former workers’ states, will attempt to destroy or undermine anything that does not conform to it.

This leads to another thing missing from Milstein’s book – the idea of a revolution to overthrow the state. Milstein ignores the question of force, as if the capitalists will just disappear when their oil wells, car factories, steel mills and wealth are taken from them. The implication is actually that you can just ‘work around’ the state, and ignore it. She praises what could only be called ‘charity’ efforts by anarchists in this regard. Yet, as even churches understand, the scale of misery in the society cannot be ameliorated by charity alone. Much as Republicans theorize otherwise, and evidently, some anarchists too. Without Welfare/WIC, unemployment insurance or social security/Medicare, etc., the working classes in this society would be even more destitute.

Milstein’s argument against Marxism is a somewhat inaccurate one – that a ‘classless yet statist society’ is undesirable. (p. 81) Well of course it is. Because it is impossible. States do not need to exist if classes disappear. Milstein evidently does not agree that a state exists because classes exist. It is not really clear why she thinks states exist except perhaps that ‘mean people’ organize them! People do not set up a bureaucracy, system of laws protecting private property, and back them up with many armed bodies of men if there is no significant economic privilege to maintain. In a way, Milstein also disappears economics, replacing it with a hostility to ‘hierarchy’ in any form. Of course, what is actually behind her criticism is the very real experience of Stalinism and bureaucracy in the workers states, and the congealing of the Leninist party into a bureaucratic organization. However, anarchism is not the only political force in the world that noticed this.

Milstein believes in direct democracy (although she makes some nods to the practical necessity of electing delegates at times) but, along with the other invisibilities, never mentions elections or voting. Anarchists believe on principle in not engaging in the political arena, I suspect, and that is the reason.

Milstein is not totally sanguine about anarchism. She seems to be aware of some of its limitations – even calling the anarchist founders ‘naïve’ over their endorsement of the essential ‘goodness’ of human nature. She also says that some ‘street actions translate into nothing more than counter-cultural version of interest group lobbying…” And her take on small-group actions (perhaps the ‘black bloc’…)? “There is ultimately something slightly authoritarian in small groups taking matters into their own hands …”

What Marxists, democratic socialists and anarchists can agree on, I think, is that society should eventually be run by workplace and geographic councils. Of course, the whole issue right now is just getting there. And there's the rub.

And I bought it at the Anarchist Book Fair from Mayday Books!
Red Frog, September 25, 2011

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