Review by Michael Glavin
“If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about,” my formerly liberal father turned Fox News devotee said as if he were uttering a simple, elegant truth. “But Dad, my brother just bought me Postmodern Anarchism on the Internet, you don’t think that will show up as a blip in some government database?” With that my father looked down at his filet mignon and asked my younger sister to pass the butter.
How did we get to this moment in U.S. history where this conversation could even take place? How can it be that “Total Information Awareness,” the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II), and the Patriot Act are anything more than the fantastical writings of some hyperbolic science fiction writer? Postmodern theorists, especially Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, have given us a critique of Western society where these programs of surveillance and control do not appear as an aberration, but rather as a logical unfolding of the Enlightenment. These theorists provide us with an understanding of power, identity, and resistance that resonates deeply with anarchism, yet, at the same time, undermines the very foundation of anarchist thought and practice.
Todd May, Saul Newman, and Lewis Call have recently examined the intersection between anarchism and poststructuralist/postmodern thought, or rather, I should say, created intersections between these discourses. Each theorist tries to show the anarchism in postmodernist discourse and also tries to draw out the implications of postmodern theory for anarchism. They each focus on a different set of theorists and draw different conclusions for the future course of anarchism. Todd May in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism focuses on Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Francois Lyotard and calls for an ethical practice that would be consonant with poststructuralist anarchism. In From Bakunin to Lacan, Saul Newman draws primarily upon Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan and puts forth “postanarchism” which he conceives of as an anti-essentialist anarchism. Lewis Call bases his work, Postmodern Anarchism, on Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Baudrillard, and the cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Call seeks alternative political, economic, and cultural systems based on radical gift-giving, the details of which are to be worked out by cyberpunks, “who have no need for this book.”(1)
Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist
Where May takes issue with classical anarchism, and I think rightly so, is its reliance on essentialism or naturalism to ground its political theory. The basic assumption of most anarchist projects, according to May, is that the individual has a good or benign essence.(4) State power from this perspective then is seen by anarchists as repressive of an innately good human subject and repressive of the natural tendency of society toward mutual aid, as in the case of Peter Kropotkin. Liberation is the removal of these unnatural blocks that restrict the free expression of an individual or group. Anarchism’s naturalism serves as the ethical grounding for the anarchist project. It serves as the rationale for calls for human liberation; the individual or the group is to be liberated from the oppressive, external power of the state.
An anarchist critique of power is thus a critique of power over others, a critique of power as a repressive force. A traditional anarchist critique of Total Information Awareness (T.I.A.) and the Patriot Act, therefore, would be that these programs further the concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals and authorize the type of state repression that we experienced under The Counter Intelligence Program (CoIntelPro). So what’s wrong with this critique?
Foucault does not deny the brutal repression that happens to individuals or groups at the hands of the state, but for Foucault, these incidents are only part of a broader spectrum of the everyday practices of power. As May points out, suppression is one of power’s “modes of enactment” but suppression does not define the whole of how power operates.(5) Michel Foucault and other postmodern theorists would say that this critique is founded on an outdated understanding of power. Foucault has challenged the pre-Enlightenment conception of power as emanating from the top (the monarch) and suppressing a subject below. He shows that, with the spread of Enlightenment thought, power has come to operate in a much more insidious way on what he calls a “micropolitical” level through the technology of power called discipline. May points out that discipline comes from the French word “surveiller” which implies both conformity and surveillance.(6) “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”(7) The technology of disciplinary power is focused on the individual and has been applied throughout society—prisons, schools, mental institutions, armies—to the extent that we now have what Foucault calls a “disciplinary society.”(8) Thus, Foucault and other poststructuralist have taken the anarchist conception of power as existing on multiple levels and have extended that understanding to include practices throughout all of society.
“If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.” What type of individual would one have to be in order to have nothing to hide? What constitutes what should be hidden? My father doesn’t want to do anything that could be construed as “wrong” by a faceless FBI agent sifting through his credit card receipts; because he doesn’t want to do anything that he will have to hide, or explain later, he might take a pass on buying a new book on the IRA. His own self-policing takes the place of external repression. Of course, because “what constitutes what should be hidden” is not known, self-policing becomes an unending task that invades every aspect of life: e-mail, phone conversations, library check-outs, online activity. What a traditional anarchist critique of T.I.A. misses is that the effect of T.I.A is not so much the repression of radical groups, but rather, the construction of self-policing subjects. (The effect of jailing Sherman Austin, a Black anarchist webmaster, is that it makes people on the internet think twice about creating a website espousing their political beliefs.)
On the flip side, May points out that for Foucault, “power creates its own resistance.”(9) My “buying a book” becomes an act of rebellion. It isn’t illegal to buy a book, the form of power that is being exercised is not the power of law or suppression in a traditional sense, what is being exercised is the power of the norm. The norm sets both what is to be internalized—not doing anything that could be interpreted as “wrong”—and, more importantly, constitutes what is transgressive: buying a book on anarchism. It is observation itself that creates, in the subject, something to hide. The previously innocuous activities of daily life become split so that many practices become transgressive. T.I.A. will create its own resistance; it will create a new underground. It will foster the creation of fake identities. As activists are cut off from social movements and forced underground and the public space for social change is closed off, T.I.A. will create terrorists as transgressive subjects. To choose either horn of the dilemma is not to escape the play of power. Rather, transgression reinscribes the power of the norm. Transgression is reactive; the question for anarchists is how to become proactive?
This is a difficult question to answer because of the poststructuralist conception of subjectivity. Power does not act as an external force upon an essential pre-existent subject; rather, power constitutes subjectivity itself. If the subject is thusly constructed, through language, myth/ritual, disciplinary practices, etc., then the individual has no essence. There is no longer anything to “liberate.” For May, poststructuralists continue the critique of representation into the realm of subjectivity and demonstrate that the subject itself, the subject of anarchist liberation, is itself a representation. It is an abstract concept that is a “stand in” for actual existing human beings. As an abstract notion, “the subject” is a product of an Enlightenment discursive practice and, as such, cannot serve as an anarchistic ground for resistance or as an object of liberation.
On what basis then can
anarchists fight against domination? May goes against
poststructuralist thought by arguing that ethical
discourse can legitimate anarchist practice. May sets
constraints on this practice by asserting that
ethical principles cannot be known beforehand and
that ethics cannot be grounded in anything outside of
ethical discourse itself; that in the end there is
either common agreement among the discussants on at
least one principle or there is not. One cannot
appeal to anything outside of an ethical framework to
solve an ethical dispute.(10) Unfortunately, although May
articulates the poststructuralist critique of
essentialism, he misses their critique of
universalism, so that he ends up calling for a
poststructural anarchistic practice of ethics that is
“universal in scope.”(11) May fails to be
able to conceive of an ethical practice that is not
universal by setting up a false dichotomy between
universal claims and “mere personal reactions
to situations.”(12) This false dichotomy can only
be articulated from the very standpoint that
poststructuralism denies—the universal subject
Bakunin to Lacan
Newman starts off his text by conflating power and domination. He posits that anarchists oppose power as such, not state power, the power of the church, and the economic exploitation of capitalism, but rather, simply “power.” One wonders how Newman can miss the anarchist calls for “decentralization of power” and the anarchist practices of trade unions, federations, confederations, affinity groups, collectives, syndicates, and credit unions, etc. These are clearly forms of power. Anarchists do not oppose power as such, but rather, as May pointed out, representative power: the exercise of power in the name of someone else. In Foucault’s terms, anarchists oppose domination defined as the codification of the power of one group or individual over another.
How can Newman take this view of power as domination? It is only from the perspective of an extreme individualism that all forms of power, especially social power, can be seen as equally oppressive—oppressive of the sacred individual.(15) Newman does well to dust off the individualist anarchist Max Stirner and bring him to the table to join in the discussion. Stirner provides Newman with a thoroughgoing critique of Enlightenment thinking. Stirner critiqued Enlightenment Humanism as a replacement of religious categories wherein “Man” has replaced “God.” For Stirner, this abstract fiction called Man oppresses and “mutilates” the individual. The abstract category of “Man” denies an individual’s uniqueness. For Stirner, there is no human essence, there is only at base a “nothingness.” It is from this nothingness, according to Stirner, that an individual can create his own identity.
The idea that an individual does not have an essence, that s/he is essentially nothing, is important for Newman because as he states: “The lack that Stirner finds at the base of identity will allow the individual to resist this modern subjectifying power.”(16) Newman fortifies this position by using Jacques Lacan and his concept of “lack.” For Lacan, the process of subjectification is never complete, there always is a gap between the individual and its representation as a subject.(17) It is this “empty space” that Newman thinks will provide a ground for resistance.(18)
So what’s wrong with this conception? Newman valiantly tries to construct a subject who has nothingness as its center and from this nothingness can create who one wants to become—sui generous ex nihilo. But who is the subject that can create his own subjectivity? This conception of subjectivity is itself an historical product arising out of Western philosophic, and I might add, Enlightenment discourse. It is the very practices of socialization based on Enlightenment principles that Stirner and Newman critique that make this individual possible. What’s more, Newman takes this product, “the individual,” and posits him as existing prior to this socialization process, and then claims that the socialization process (which produced him) is oppressing him.
Moreover, I think that Newman misses Foucault’s point about the positivity of power—that we are created as subjects from practices. This creation sets both the limits as well as enables us to take action. I would agree with May’s reading of Foucault that “we are subjects,” “we think of ourselves as subjects,” “we act as subjects.”(19) Why do we need to ground our resistance in an “empty space” when we can ground resistance in our own particularity? As anarchists, we have been constructed in opposition to the dominant values of our society. We already are resistant; there is no need to look elsewhere.
This is not to say though that we have only been constructed as anarchists. I would agree with May’s reading of Deleuze and before him Nietzsche and Kropotkin, that what we call the individual is a multiplicity; the individual is the site of multiple subject positions. In our conflicted society, we have been constructed in many different and conflicting ways. Each subject position is a reflection of a discursive practice. However, this is not to posit a subject behind the various subject positions choosing among them, as Newman would have it. The individual is this multiplicity.
The sea change in my father from liberal to neo-conservative was not the result of his own construction of a new subjectivity out of nothingness. Rather, it can be seen as the overtaking of one subject position by another under particular historical circumstances; specifically, the period following 9-11. My father was and is both a liberal and a neo-conservative. However, his neo-conservative subject position has won this internal struggle, swayed by the events of 9-11, and has, for the moment, won the right to say “I.”
Based on the work of Deleuze, Call advocates a politics based on desire asserting that desire is inherently revolutionary.(20) However, I would agree with Newman that desire in Deleuze achieves a metaphysical quality operating functionally as a replacement to modernity’s essentialism. Instead of power repressing a benign individual essence, power in this conception is repressing an inherently revolutionary desire.(21) Moreover, I would argue along with Foucault that desire is also a social construction. There is nothing inherently liberatory about our desires. As products of our societies we are filled with conflicting desires, many of which are bound up in domination.(22)
Call does admit internal conflict in his conception of self, similar to May, wherein the individual is the site of multiple subject positions. Call goes on to argue that the goal of postmodern anarchism is to “reprogram or redesign ourselves.”(23) But Call does not tell us upon what basis. I would argue that any creation of a “new identity” is going to be based on one’s already internalized identities. They will either be an extension, negation, or blending of who we already are. However, it is through the mediation of this conflict that the creation of something new can occur. I think this is how we can become proactive at an individual level.(24) Call, though, denies “human intentionality” and free will. What I think he means is that there is no meta-subject, no subject behind the subject positions freely choosing between them. Agency lies in the acting out of these subject positions, but I would argue that individual freedom exists in the mediation of their conflicting tendencies through creative action.
On a societal level, Call puts forth an example of one proactive practice, one that revolves around the concept of the gift and its radical potential. In tracing the concept of the gift starting with Mauss, moving through Bataille, and ending in Baudrillard, Call raises the struggle over the sharing of information on the internet to a potentially revolutionary status—one that falls outside of the logic of capitalism. In paraphrasing Baudrillard, Call writes, “the symbolic violence of the gift without return is the only violence which has any chance against the omnipresent semiotic codes of political economy.”(25) In other words, the capitalist system is based upon the logic of commodity exchange; a gift without return—as a unilateral principle—cannot be accounted for within that logic and so disrupts it.
Call takes this concept in the direction of computer discussion boards where individuals give the gift of advice; however, Call’s insight can also be taken in a more literal way—the sharing of information including software, music, and text. In the capitalist system commodity exchange is the norm (theft and piracy are transgressive) and thus the gift without return (Open Source Software) is a proactive practice that escapes capitalism’s binary logic. The Open Source movement is an articulation of the strong anti-capitalist ethic in regard to the internet, summed up by the hacker credo: information is free and should be freely available. It’s easy to see the revolutionary potential of file sharing on the internet, not just in its own right, but additionally because of the logic that it introduces. When people engage in these alternate practices, they create a different power articulation. The practice of sharing information freely, without expectation of return, runs counter to capitalist practices. This is not to say that the internet will overthrow capitalism, but rather, the internet has opened up a space where non-capitalistic practices can be played out. Call demonstrates the value in trying to further these practices.(26)
Call’s notion of the potential of the gift without return can also be applied to the offline world as well where the practice of gift giving without compensation already happens in scattered, fragmented ways: soup kitchens, libraries, charity groups, non-governmental aid organizations, etc. What if these practices were networked so that one could get all of their goods and services from a gift-giving network? If a woman had a baby, she wouldn’t register at a store, she would put out a call to the network and receive everything she needed: clothes, diapers, a crib, shoes, babysitters. What if such a network grew to become the dominant mode of exchange in our society?
For Call, following Baudrillard, power is less stable than indicated by Foucault’s rendering. Power exists through signs and symbols and is thus open to reinterpretation and quick reversals. All the prisons, gulags, and monitoring of citizens could not prevent the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Call notes that the collapse of the Soviet Union, which seemed as if it only took a few minutes, demonstrates what Baudrillard says about the unstable nature of power. “Baudrillard is attempting to unmask the state’s deepest, most closely guarded secret: that its power is unreal, that the state exists only as simulation.”(27) Call quotes Baudrillard here: “The spectacle of those regimes imploding with such ease ought to make Western governments—or what is left of them—tremble, for they have barely any more existence than the Eastern ones.”(28) If anarchists could cultivate practices that move beyond the norm/transgression dichotomy, so that they circulated as common currency throughout society, there is the potential that one day Western governments will disappear as quickly as their counterparts did in the East despite “Total Information Awareness.”
One of the most important lessons to be learned from Foucault is that since all practices involve power, the practice of anarchism must admit that it is also a power formulation. Anarchists need to get over the self-delusion, in which Newman participates, that anarchists “oppose power.” Anarchism is based upon its own exclusions; e.g., participatory democracy is a form of political organization in which the individual participant is beholden to the will of the majority. Participatory democracy offers the most opportunity for all of its members to directly affect the decision making process, but it is still a practice of power. Anarchists need to focus on creating new power formulations that reflect our principles. The practice of the gift without return is one such practice, but others are awaiting discovery or creation.
Poststructuralists have also shown that what anarchism takes to be inherent in all human beings is a fabrication of Enlightenment discourse. Postmodern theory puts forth a conception of the individual as the site of a multiplicity of subject positions in conflict with one another. It is through mediation of this conflict in creative action that we can escape the dilemma of being either a self-policing or a transgressive subject and become proactive anarchists.
As my conversation with my father spanned the history of U.S. foreign policy since WWII—the Vietnam war, Iran-Contra, the death squads in El Salvador—I could not help but think about my sister who was sitting there absorbing every word. She has entered a world where, on the one hand, she expects to freely give and receive information through the internet, and on the other, these practices are becoming criminalized and her private information will be freely available to the state and corporations. There is a struggle going on now to determine who will control the digital representation of who she is. How these conflicting logics play themselves out through her future practices, and the practices of her generation, will determine to a large extent the society that is to come.