By Steve D'Arcy, New Socialist, March 18, 2015
If there’s one thing that activists often lack, it is opportunities to reflect about what they’re trying to do, and how it might be done differently and better. Often overworked and pressured to focus on pragmatic and tactical questions under urgent timelines, it can be difficult to give political and strategic reflection the attention it deserves.
Just in the past couple of years, however, a number of widely discussed and important books have been published, inviting serious thinking and sometimes rethinking about what left activists are up to when they organize for social change. Examples that come to mind include Alan Sears’ book, The Next New Left: A History of the Future, Joan Kuyek’s Community Organizing: A Holistic Approach, Umair Muhammad’s Confronting Injustice, Aziz Choudry, Jill Hanley and Eric Shragge’s collection, Organize!, Joel Harden’s Quiet No More, and the Kino-nda-niimi Collective’s The Winter We Danced, to name only a few. These books, and others like them, have tried to reflect on a range of anti-systemic movements, with a view to situating left-activist work historically and analytically and fostering reflection about the difficulties organizers face and how they can strengthen and deepen the work they do and the organizations they are trying to build.
The anti-authoritarian current
Chris Dixon’s important new book, Another Politics is an outstanding contribution to this genre of writing -- a genre that Karl Marx described as “the self-clarification of struggles.” Dixon’s book is perhaps distinctive, however, in that it addresses itself mainly to activists who identify, broadly speaking, with what he calls “the anti-authoritarian current,” which serves as both his subject matter and his main intended audience. The argument of the book is grounded in dozens of interviews with experienced and perceptive participants in that “current,” mainly in the USA and Canada outside Quebec (although most of what he and they have to say would be of much wider relevance and interest).
Dixon describes this anti-authoritarian current as a sort of convergence between three originally distinct strands of left-activism: first, the anarchist tradition, or at least the “reconfigured” anarchism that emerged out of the global justice movement; second, what he calls “anti-racist feminism,” and which in years past was known as “anti-oppression politics,” now often framed in terms of “intersectionality”; and third, the movement for prison abolition and related struggles against the police and the “prison-industrial complex.”
But the reference to this cluster of political projects serves Dixon less as a basis for drawing a boundary around the anti-authoritarian current than as a way of drawing attention to some of its historical roots and ongoing sources of inspiration. “The convergence of [anarchism, anti-racist feminism, and prison abolitionism] has provided crucial space for the mutual articulation and influence of anti-authoritarians and popular struggles in ways that have transformed both,” he writes (p. 5).
Politics, strategy, organization
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, “Politics,” Dixon tries to give content to the idea of an anti-authoritarian current and the related idea of “another politics.” He does this in part by situating it historically, as emerging from the history of social struggles of recent decades. The first chapter, devoted to retrieving the history of those movements, does an excellent job of reminding (or informing) readers of the rich history of resistance that has shaped the political culture and strategic assumptions of contemporary left-activism. To be sure, one could point out omissions, especially in the area of labour struggles, but given how much he does cover it seems unreasonable to dwell on the point. The historical opening chapter is followed by chapters that add detail to the picture of the anti-authoritarian current, notably an emphasis on a broadly “horizontalist” approach to decision-making and a broadly “prefigurative” commitment to adopting methods and structures that are consistent with the radically egalitarian and radically democratic aspirations that motivate movement activism in the first place.
In the second part, “Strategy,” Dixon draws out a framework that plays a big role in the book: the “against and beyond” frame. According to Dixon, the core strategic principle animating anti-authoritarian activism is that systems of domination and oppression have to be defeated by determined direct action and community organization (that’s the “against” part) This has to happen at the same time as new systems and structures of equality, democracy and ecological responsibility are built up in their place through a constructive and experimental process of institution-building and the cultivation of new forms of interpersonal relations (that’s the “beyond” part).
In practical terms, this means finding ways to organize that are empowering and effective, but also grounded in mutual respect. And it means building “counter-institutions” that both serve as “long-haul infrastructure” for oppositional movements and also anticipate ways of interacting that as far as possible, aren’t exploitative or oppressive
In part three, “Organizing,” the book offers a nuanced and perceptive look at problems of organizational form in left-activism. Dixon notes that activists can become fixated on specific organizational forms, as if one form were always best and always effective: the popular assembly, the affinity group, the cadre organization, the neighbourhood-based membership-organization, the political party, or whatever else.
Instead of this Dixon advocates a focus on “features, not forms.” He suggests certain traits or practices, not particular structures, are what really matters. There is no guarantee that a certain organizational form will, in practice, embody a certain feature (like fostering participation, or control from below); an organizational form that facilitates these features in some settings, may serve only to mask their absence in other settings.
Even this very condensed summary conveys the fact that Another Politics is a very wide-ranging book. Far from being superficial, however, it is so thorough and so perceptive in its analysis of contemporary left-activism in the US and Canada (outside Quebec) that it serves as a reliable and informative guide to this broad subject.
The depiction of left-activists
One remarkable feature of Another Politics is that it depicts the activist left, especially the anti-authoritarian current, in a very flattering light. In so doing, it cuts sharply against the grain of both the dominant culture and the prevailing habits of left-activists themselves. It is quite refreshing to read a book in which activists are depicted as insightful, thoughtful, and constructive people who not only attempt to make the world a better place, but actually succeed in doing so. The combination of contempt and condescension that one expects to be aimed at left-activists is nowhere to be found in this book (a virtue Dixon’s book shares with many of the books I mentioned above).
Of course, this optimistic assessment is perhaps encouraged by the fact that Dixon is writing mostly about the anti-authoritarian current, with which he identifies, rather than, say, marxists, syndicalists or eco-feminists. Nevertheless, even activists from other radical-left currents, are portrayed in a broadly positive way when they are mentioned. In this respect, he seems to want to model a cast of mind that he advocates for all political organizers: a non-sectarian, open-minded willingness to assume the best about others and to appreciate their insights.
Interestingly, though, precisely because he highlights the thoughtful and insightful side of left activists, and refuses to caricature them as self-serving, cliquish and ineffectual, the picture he paints of activists is one that underscores their immersion in a world of complex challenges and sophisticated, subtle debates. Such a world will no doubt seem daunting and unapproachable to even an interested outsider keen to get involved.
As one works through the many tactical, strategic, moral, and analytical questions posed in the book, and the searching and perceptive answers given to these questions by the activists Dixon interviews, it is easy to conclude that the sheer attentiveness to complexity and difficulty on the part of activists (and the complex vocabulary and styles of speech and thought developed to grapple with that complexity) might encourage the distance that separates left-activists from the wider community.
It is good that left-activists grapple with these difficult questions. That’s part of what makes books like this one so important. The danger is that they may find themselves increasingly immersed in the construction of arcane and semi-impenetrable subcultures rather than immersing themselves in the lives and struggles of ordinary people.
The good-enough activist
Perhaps there is no escaping this dilemma. But, just as the British doctor DW Winnicott introduced the idea of “the good-enough parent” to liberate parents from the idealization and perfectionism that sets up impossible standards, so too it might be worth developing some notion of a good-enough activist.
This would involve some basic ground rules or guidelines about what newly politicizing people need to learn about how to do activism well, in the sense of well enough. After all, activism for most people will never be a vocation or calling, into which they pour endless hours and which they place at the centre of their lives (like Dixon’s conversation-partners). Instead, for most, it will be something they take up occasionally, as the need arises, pulling themselves away from their primary concerns of family, friends, paid work and other interests.
If it took to heart the idea of the good-enough activist, the radical left would be better positioned to respond quickly and effectively to influxes of activists into its ranks, as happened during the 2011 Occupy movement (which Dixon thinks the activist left bungled, to some extent). Suddenly long-time organizers were surrounded by thousands of people who did not share their understandings of capitalism or colonialism or the nature of the state, and dozens of other matters. This posed a new kind of problem: not, as before, how to socialize small numbers of individuals into left-activist subcultures, but instead how to make the left-activist subculture useful in a context where organizers have to make numerous basic arguments about racism or capitalism or colonialism to large numbers of people who have their own, very different ideas about all these things.
Dixon himself points out that the activist left generally, and the anti-authoritarian current in particular, did not necessarily rise to the occasion of the Occupy upsurge as well as one might have hoped. “[M]any of us in the anti-authoritarian current -- and the left more broadly -- have become accustomed to not working” with large numbers of non-activists, Dixon points out. “So much left political work happens in bubbles, among activists who share very similar backgrounds and vocabulary and are largely disconnected from broader layers of working-class people in all of their diversity. This creates big problems,” as it did during the Occupy influx (pp. 225-26).
This set of concerns seems especially important in light of a question that Dixon’s book doesn’t try to address, but which will no doubt occur to many readers. Given the energy and insight of the activists who inhabit the anti-authoritarian current, and the dynamism of that current’s politics, why does it seem to have so little capacity to mobilize or organize large numbers (hundreds of thousands, or millions) of people? Why, more pointedly, are the mobilizing capacities of today’s anti-authoritarian organizations and networks so much more limited than the capacities of earlier organizations (even ones plagued by organizing cultures that were sometimes quite toxic) like Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, or the Communist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World in the US, both of which had thousands of members in the early 1920s?
Was there something -- some skillset or some strategic insights -- that these earlier generations of activists possessed, which today’s activists have forgotten or abandoned? Or was it a matter of a variable -- “spontaneity,” it has been called by some -- upon which activists are dependent, but which they can’t control or generate on their own? Or is it something else? These are questions that Dixon’s book (and the others I mentioned at the outset) may not answer directly or completely. However, Another Politics can help us to think about these issues as we work to rebuild and renew left-activism in the years to come.
Steve D’Arcy is a climate justice activist, author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and co-editor of A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.