Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Power to Do

The Cathars were a Christian sect popular in parts of Europe during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. The most popular strain of Catharism had a dualist theology, which posited a fundamental incompatibility between love and power. The god of the present world was material, and was named Rex Mundi. This god controlled material manifestation which was identified with power and evil. Another god, who was worshiped by the Cathars was a god of pure principle and untainted by material existence. Catharism defined itself to a great extent in opposition to a Catholic church which it identified with materialism and corruption. It saw the cause of the spiritual degeneration of the Catholic church as related to its power.

The Cathar movement has interesting parallels with various strains of anarchism and council communism. Anarchism and council communism have posited themselves an antidote to the corruption present in the Leninist acquisition of power, thereby defining itself to a large extent as an oppositional tendency. This opposition, however, has largely been defined in the same way that the Cathars responded to the Catholic church. That is, rather than dealing with the concrete manifestations, it instead attempts to divorce itself from responsibility by adhering to a principle of inaction and the complete absence of power.

As the Cathars discovered, power can not be ignored. The Albigensian Crusade of (1209-1229) fairly well eliminated the Cathar threat to the Catholic church. Anarchism has suffered a similar fate, once in the Russian revolution, falling finally and terminally at Kronstadt and again in Spain being crushed between the Hammer of Fascism and the anvil of Stalinism. These failures are of course tragic, but this does not absolve us of a study as to how they occurred, but rather entreats us to find out how they might not have occurred.

Transcendence was the goal of the Cathar movement. That is, they viewed God, Love and the desirable qualities of purity as completely outside of and beyond the world. Immanence is the contrasting philosophy of what is material, that God is manifested in the world.

The idea that we can simply remain uncorrupted by power if we simply fail to wield it is a theology of transcendence. In fact we necessarily exist in the material world, and any theory of power which will make real anarchist communism viable, must be entirely immanent to the material world. It must learn, itself, to be a theory for the weilding of power, rather than an abdication.

The Perfecti

The Cathars were broadly divided into two camps. The first group, the Perfecti, styled themselves the "true Christian Church", adhering unyieldingly to the ascetic denouncement of the material world. This group was always small, yet it formed a pole of a attraction that existed throughout the time of Catharism's popularity.

Within capitalist social relations it is inevitable that the vast majority of people will continue to engage in selling their wage labour to capitalists and buy goods from capitalists. However, periodically anti-capitalists invent some strategy which attempts to avoid the problem.

The most obvious example of the anarchist Perfecti are those who posit a drop-out lifestyle, involving squatting, dumpster diving as a way to escape the social relations of capitalism. While of course, this does in fact work, especially in the rather richer countries, to escape wage labour and the purchase of commodities, it is unable to provide a challenge to capitalism, and it can only ever exist as an adjunct. Just as the Perfecti were only ever a tiny minority of the Cathar movement, so too is the drop out lifestyle.

A recurring theme in utopian socialism is to make a commune of some form in remote location. The antiquity of this idea can be shown by Kropotkin's treatise "Advice to those about to Emigrate"[1]. This strategy shares the problem that it can only ever be an answer to a small minority, and does not challenge the basis of capitalism.

Primitivism also is a tendency with a similar ideological stance. It posits that the basis of capitalist social relations are in technology itself, and hopes for an extreme form of ascetism which at times even rejects language itself.

Clearly, any method that requires extreme ascetism and the complete rejection of capitalist social relations by individual or small group disaffiliation, rather than a collective struggle to overcome them, is doomed by design to remain marginal. Only the primitivists have some hope of having their dreams realised, if we are in fact nuked into the stone age by war mongering lunatics, or hit by a comet or some equally horrific disaster takes place.

No Solution - Revolution

The tension between reform and revolution has two poles which are reconciled in a number of ways. The most conservative and popular model is the typical liberal model of reforming the system from within. This of course is in the interests of the capitalist class to promote, and is thereby the dominant ideological tendency throughout society.

Anarchists have been the most consistent in objecting to parliamentarian approaches. Of all revolutionaries ideology, few have managed to remain so staunchly in opposition to electoralism.

However, this adherence has often come at a price. The simplest way to defend such a position is to say that reform is impossible. Hence this argument itself has often come to define anarchism. Revolution is viewed in some sense an instantaneous transcendence, not an achievement of struggle.

In fact, the rejection of electoralism should not be found on these grounds at all, but rather the pragmatic difficulties which electoralism represents. Reform is in fact possible, something shown by the 8 hour day, the 5 day work week, the improvement in living standards, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement.

The problem with electoralism is not that reform is impossible, but rather that electoralism is fundamentally antagonistic to a more positive conception of the mechanism of revolution. If reform comes via parliament it is 99 times out of 100 because of the power of a mass movement. The legitimacy of the change is only later formally recognised through some act of parliament. In the 1 time of the 100 that it comes from within parliament itself, without a mass wielding of real power, it serves no purpose. It serves no purpose because it has not allowed us to build power, but has wielded power in our stead.

When concrete demands are made of the capitalist class, some purists will cry out that capitalism can not provide such things. Again this mistakes the world we seek as being the pure transcendent, and not something we immanentise. A call for a maximum on wages for bankers could in fact be enacted with a sufficiently strong union movement. The power to do that should be a part of the world we seek.

If this power doesn't exist, and the demand is purely aspirational, then such a demand may in fact not be reasonable. However, the demand should not be rejected on the basis of being a reform of capitalism, or one to manage capitalism for the capitalists.

The Trade Unions

The Credentes were the other section of the Cathars. While they weren't required to live the pure ascetic lifestyle of the Perfecti, they were to refrain from eating meat, dairy or from swearing oaths. The failure to swear oaths in a time when most people could not read meant that no contracts between people could be made for the vast majority of population. Purity becomes a form of isolation.

It's almost a universally accepted fact among anarchists that the Unions are hopelessly reformist. The three most commonly articulated strategies to deal with this problem are rejection of workplace struggles, anarcho-syndicalism and informal workplace organising.

The total rejection of workplace struggles finds greatest currency in the United states. The tendency does, however, exist elsewhere, including Europe. This is partly based in the internalisation of anti-union propaganda and to some extent based on the relative conservatism of the current trade union movement. Some sections of the post-left even go so far as to claim that syndicalism is inherently authoritarian.

More interesting are the approaches to workplace struggle advocated by the modern anarcho-syndicalists and those who push for informal methods.

Many anarcho-syndicalists effectively ask that people join a revolutionary syndicalist organisation. This of course is not going to attract the majority of people in a work place in the present climate. While some percentage may join, it's hard to imagine very many workplaces becoming instantly revolutionary. Thus, anarcho-syndicalism generally reduces to attempting to organise people at the unit of a workplace with only a minority in the anarcho-syndicalist union.

This approach of minority unionism means that the resources of a union, with its strike funds, full time staff and publications are not really available. In essence the anarcho-syndicalists are advocating a specific political group rather than a union properly and are thereby not really syndicalist at all.

Again, some of this is because of the truly deplorable state of the unions currently, after having been smashed by neo-liberalism, we have gone into a long period of low class struggle. The residual substance is left in the union seems to be some admixture of business unionism and Trotskyists who have been involved in entryism since time immemorial. The current state of the unions should not however be taken as a permanent situation that is dictated by objective circumstances. We appear to be entering into a period of increased class struggle, and further global crises seem likely to many in even the established economic community. It would be a mistake to assume this period will be like the last.

While the real problems existing in the unions should not be ignored, we can not afford to avoid oaths. We must not confuse what does exist with what must exist.

Vaccination against the Transcendental Virus

Anarchism has certain strengths that make it an important political ideology. It is the original libertarian socialism with a continuous lineage which has accumulated both negative and positive experiential knowledge. The critique of electoralism has not been as deeply established in any other strain. The extension of democracy to all aspects of society which confront us makes it the most radically democratic movement in existence.

It has however, periodically dissolved and dissipated as a movement. During the period following the first international and leading up to the syndicalist period, anarchism lost its traction and descended into a marginal current, even as Marxism began growing to grow. During the syndicalist period we see anarchism playing catch up in almost every revolutionary situation, excepting perhaps for Spain in Catalonia. Since then things have only been worse. Anarchist ideas have had virtually no influence for over a half of a century.

This oscillation around a pole of disorganisation doesn't reduce simply to anti-organisational sentiment, though this does appear as a manifestation. Often there are anarchist organisations in the lulls between struggles. However, when these organisations exist, they have a tendency to exist purely as propaganda organisations.

The root of the problem is in the fear of immanence. This fear is rooted, as the Cathar's fear in a horror and revulsion at what actually exists. Rather than have to cope with the very real problematic realities of the material world, it instead accepts a transcendent revolutionary moment which will in some singularity transcend all of the problems of the material world and the exercise of power. This does not mean accepting those things which are currently immanent, but, instead, actualising immanence.

If Anarchism is again to be a force in the world, we need to find a way to dislodge ourselves from an orbit around the pole of transcendence. In order to do this, I propose that anarchism must start taking power seriously, not just in the sense of critiquing those in power, but in developing a theory of how we can exercise power. Not just in creating distinct groups of Perfecti, but how we can be fully immersed in the material as a process of becoming. We can not afford to reject all oaths, but must rather have ways of making oaths that bring us closer to the society we want to see.

[1] Advice to Those About to Emigrate - Kropotkin

1 comment:

  1. Brief comment from Tom Wetzel mentioned on the Beyond Resistance site:
    “One of the weaknesses of anarchism historically was there was a lot of confusion about power. People say we’re against power, but actually, the mass of people, the working class people, can’t liberate itself without actually creating new structures of power to run things. To run the society, that’s power."