This is first essay in the Liberation Lens Series
The Myth of Anarchism
A specter is haunting the United States, the specter of anarchism. It lies on the edge of the political imagination as something unimaginably perverse. What could be scarier to a people whose self worth is tied to the supposed greatness of their nation-state tradition than people who question whether the state needs to exist at all? What could be more divergent from a society obsessed with partisan politics than to suggest that maybe instead of focusing our energy on getting the “right” leaders into political office we might need to abolish political leadership as a concept in order to create the world we want?
The anarchist is cast as a mad idealist or perhaps an angry disaffected youth who is always white and always male. The anarchist is always denying some fundamental facts about human nature and what we would really do when left to our own devices. The anarchist is an extremist, unreasonable, and demanding the impossible. A brick thrower. An arsonist. Egoist. The chaos he brings is all the proof we need to reject his so-called political beliefs, which are really just a license to do whatever he wants.
The Reality of Anarchism
Meanwhile, in Black neighborhoods around the country, people can’t name a single state system that is functioning how it’s supposed to. Getting by requires staying with friends or having our aunties watch our kids or borrowing our neighbor’s car. We make every Black person a child meets an aunt, uncle, or play cousin because the village model is the closest thing to a functional system we have ever experienced. Black people across and beyond the gender spectrum labor for hours on end making a way out no way, subverting expectations and using every resource available to them in ways other than intended to achieve an outcome that is implicitly prohibited: the thriving of Black life in so called “America.”
To be Black in this place they call “America” is to live under a regime that refuses to play by its own rules. To be Black is to live in a politically obsessed society with no real rules, just the prerogatives of whiteness, imperial masculinity and capital. To be Black is to create your own social order out of the scraps that the political order leaves you.
To this we say, to be Black is peer into the shadows of the society you are forced to exist in and become aware of the ways that anarchy exists everyday in order to survive. To be Black is to have witnessed something beautiful, sustaining and fundamentally human outside the gated confines of the dominant culture, indeed, outside of dominance itself.
Many of us, Black, crippled, Latinx, neurodivegent, Asian, Indigenous, Queer, Trans, Muslim, Jewish, Broke, Cash poor, odd balls, outcast, empaths, incarcerated, or some beautiful combination of the above resonate deeply with that reality. All of us who are or have been unruly–in some sense outside of the generally accepted rules of order–can resonate with the fact that we have had to rediscover how to care for each other and be cared for as what you might call beautiful undesirables. We call it Black because that is how we as the authors and contributors of this series, have interacted with it in our lived experience. It is the social language in which we learned to love it.
For others, whose unruliness manifested in seeking pleasure in limbs and hearts of those we were told we are not supposed to explore or in ways were told we were wrong, we might call it queer. Those whose unruliness manifested in needing something deeper and more immediate than the stilted religion of our parents might call it the sacred. Those of us for whom unruliness was found in refusing to accept double-duty or invisible labor might call it feminism or womanism. Those of us who learned unruliness from our grandparents, who almost had it beat out of them in colonial schools, might even call it tradition.
It is, fundamentally, a way of being human together that people seeking liberation rediscover over and over again and call many names. It is not natural in the sense of genetics but rather it is a disparate set of responses to oppression, cultures of extraction, histories of exploitation, legacies of colonialism and all other forms of fuck-shit we call domination. We believe that we can construct a through line through these reactions to oppression. We choose to call that through-line anarchism because it is under that name that the practices of those who refuse to be governed by the dictates of the powerful, the legitimized or the conventional have been criminalized and demonized in the society where we find ourselves today.
We are defining Anarchism here to mean actions that arise from the desire to find or offer belonging, kinship and care by defining oneself and one’s ways of life by the relationships we voluntarily enter into as we choose to enter them. It means rejecting imposed “shoulds” about relationships and creating space for meeting wants and needs with dignity. This is especially true when these ways of relating go against the grain of empire (that habit of relating in which people are broken into binary groups [black/white, man/woman, native/settler] in which one group extracts resources or exploits the labor or resources of the other.) We are asserting an Anarchism that cannot really be seen as an individualist way of thinking, it is fundamentally relational. Anarchism does not mean I can do whatever I want, it means I am the sum total of every relationship that I have and thus I should be able to choose the nature of the relationships which define me.
Thus Anarchism as the praxis of making and offering belonging against the grain of empire is a Liberation Logic aligned lens for looking at and interacting with the world. Anarchism focuses on the relational, understanding that the individual and the collective co-create each other. Anarchism understands passion of the heart and yearning for what Audre Lorde called the erotic- that deeply felt feeling of excellence. It understands the analytical understanding of the inherent inhumane limitations of the logic of capital, the state and all social hierarchies of worth. Anarchism, perhaps more than most political ideologies, understand the need for dramatic change of revolution and the slower deeper change of evolution.
As the diversity of Black life in the U.S shows, anarchism is not random destructive chaos or a lack of social organization but the pro-human, pro-community and ultimately vulnerable response to the inherent chaos of a complex world that communities build together. For instance, my sister and I rent a house in historic Anacostia in D.C. Up the street from us there is an older couple who feeds and occasionally adopts housing insecure youth in the neighborhood. They are not wealthy but unbelievably generous and have, over the years, probably donated more food to the community than a small non-profit. Inside their house you see pictures of dozens of children, grand-children and play cousins they have supported over the years. They have a unique relationship with each child they support, especially the ones they are not blood relatives to. They are clear examples of what anarchism is in the Black experience in the US: the re-enactment of African village life to fill in the cracks in the “america” social and political order that many Black people fall through.
The Myth of Political Leadership
As Black people, our anarchism is rooted in the Black Radical Tradition. Thus we find Cedric Robinson’s take in his seminal work Terms of Order that the “political” is a mythical construction useful for our liberation. We see the political as a set of stories about how a society, or what you might call the social order, is created and maintained from above. It is a myth that is rooted in Aristotelian philosophies and the dialogues of Plato.
Here man (and only men) is made human through entering a community governed by a state. To be outside of the polis, is to be either beast or god, superhuman or slave (or woman). As Socrates points out in the Republic, the state can only exist with a noble lie, a story of divergent leadership that justifies the rule of the political leadership (a lie that the political leadership must also believe). Under this mythological regime, leaders like Barack Obama are divergent from the people (from them but not of them as my father would say) and it is through this useful deviance that they are able to lead and unite us to some greater “American” future.
This should not be taken as an academic abstraction. The current political leader of the U.S government is obsessed with a deluded made-for-tv vision of leadership. He thinks of himself as president at the end of Independence Day (a movie, it is important to note, that got funding from the U.S government). Kept in the dark about the real threats facing humanity by his intelligence community, he later rallies the world (who were just sitting waiting for the Americans to have a plan apparently) through emphatically asserting our greatness. In real-life–if thats what we are calling 2020–the massive gaps in coherence of Trump’s reign are filled in with the mythology of his supporters wildly fantastical and virulently anti-semitic conspiracy theories in which Trump is fighting a deep state of pediphilic lizard people (QAnon). Mythologies that will see their communities delivered by his divergent and messianic leadership just like the script of the 90’s action movies they love so much. .
His opponents are not without their own mythologies. They tell stories of great leaders who also led through force of personality but with personalities that are tempered, moderate and considerate. They hearken to mythological leaders who were able to call forth “the better angels of our nature” and unite us around the common principles and values that “make America good” so that it might live up to its potential greatness. This is despite the overwhelming evidence that this nation was founded by men who–despite their genius and foresight–were an eclectic mix of ideological eccentrics, private despots and moral cowards and has been ruled by them ever since.
Madisonian Democracy places the rights of those who own profitable property (stolen, in all cases from indigenous people) as equal to all other human rights. It seeks to avoid land reform-the redistribution of property from the haves to have nots–at all costs. Jeffersonian democracy, based on a homesteader model that might be more egalitarian for white people, was still based on the conquest of indigenous land by a superior force that relied on enslaved Africans to power it. Jacksonian democracy, also based on slavery, is a type of proto-fascism that seeks to extend property rights to all white people through sustained, government supported genocide and land theft of indigenous people and war against the other nations in the hemisphere.
Through this reframe we can see that at its core the mythology of the moderate democrats is not that different from Trump’s right-wing evangelical followers. Flawed leaders lead chosen people to great ends at the expanse of the “undeveloped” or the “undemocratic.” So what if Jefferson and Washington owned slaves, they spoke so eloquently about freedom?
All of these myths seek to instill a persistent, ignoble lie. That the political order is the guaranteer of the very possibility of social order. To put it plainly, the lie is that these lofty government institutions where men go to smoke cigars, harass interns (or occasionally their younger Afro-latinx colleagues) and accept bribes and the racist, belligerent cops that carry out their orders are the only thing standing between you and your neighbor hacking each other apart with machetes. It is the lie that the English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes put succinctly, life outside of state-governed society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
This would be news to all the radically egalitarian societies that have flourished the world over without states. It would not really jive well with what we know of the pre-columbian Iroquois Nation who, actually managed to have a society based on individual autonomy and deliberation WITHOUT a formal state with a monopoly on violence and agents tasked to do its bidding. How about the many west African societies that Black Americans are descended from that, provided lives for its people that were communal, rich, clean, harmonious and rather long?What about the zapatistas in Chappas or the Kurds in Rojava would also stand in stark relief to this claim?
I am not claiming that any of these societies were perfect but rather they cultivate social order from below without a government punishing people into compliance.
My point is that working class Black people have lived in substandard housing, racist over policing and economic marginalization under the leadership of President Johnson and his great society, the honest ineptitude of Jimmy Carter, or the highly mythologized leadership of Ronald Wilson Regan. At all times, no matter the quality or type of leadership in the white house, Black life under the “American” political order has been poor, often nasty and far too often brutish. In fact, for many Black people and for the vast majority of indigenous people on these lands, the political order is the source of its misery not its salvation.
It would be much more accurate to say that the particular political order of the U.S is one of many guarantees of our particularly unequal social order.
This is not to say that the political order has done no good or can do no good. Even as anarchists we can’t help but be a bit nostalgic for the reconstruction era when Black equality was enforced at the barrel of the gun. The larger point is that it is all the political order can do to change the social order: impose it through the barrel of the gun (whether physical or economic). That’s what the political order actually is: an entity that seeks to organize all or the majority of the guns under one agenda. This is why the police think the right wing militias are on their side. They have the same agenda of keeping the guns pointed at those without property (especially those who used to be property) so that the rest of the country can continue to consume far more than they will ever produce.
We Need Alternative Forms of Belonging
A society where the majority of firepower is pointed in one direction is not really a free society. This is doubly true when your community is constantly staring down the barrel of a gun. The constant struggle to stay out range, to stay low, or to try to get to the other side of the firing line is not really living. To put this system and its integrity above the needs of ALL the people it is supposed to survive is absurd. That is the deepest lie of the political order, not only that secures social order but it is, in itself, more important than your basic needs. Why follow rules that can’t get you bread and dignity?
Anarchism stands against this monopoly of violence. It suggests a world of voluntary association where no organization is more important than the people it is supposed to serve. This doesn’t mean that the individual comes first, but that the individual comes before the organization. Unlike capitalism, anarchism doesn’t believe that individuals seeking their own self interests makes for the best society. Most things worth doing are better together. Hell, some of the best things like dance parties, block parties, family cook out, sports and sex all take other people.
Anarchism is the practice of co-creating our belonging everyday in every relationship. It means deciding for ourselves how we want to be together. It also means abolishing the systems that try to force us to be a certain way. It means dismantling the structures through which our bodies, thoughts, actions and even our desires are policed. In that freedom from control we are able to express the joy of belonging and love freely given.
Anarchism as the same questions that Liberation Logic asks:
what if we saw Liberation–not as the license of liberty–as an empowered freedom where we have the capacity, skill and willing partners to co-create our freedom to thrive and freedom from harm? What if we saw Liberation as the creative-love–mind/heart/body–force inside of us, waiting to be unleashed?
Liberation Logic is an invitation to a practice of holding ourselves and each other without grasping.
It means sensing what truly is with spaciousness and through multiple layers of perspective—
accepting what is without accepting it has to be–
and responding by embodying our true selves rather than who we want to be seen as.
Liberation Logic is a practice of using the best means for the best ends. Using the strategies of previous movements for Liberation as tactics for our collective liberation.
Liberation Logic cannot be proactively learned because it is a framework for unlearning, for losing the habit of moving with the grasping, purely analytical and defensive egoic-mind without overlooking the systems of domination that seek to occupy our very being.
Liberation Logic is an invitation to a practice of unlearning the illusion of certainty, control or absolute truth in favor of relearning how to bring love, joy and support to each other, while holding multiple truths and building power. Rather than using the logic of domination in our collective theories of change [denial, coercion and vilification], Liberation Logic pushes us to use Insight, Interdependence, and Transformation to move us collectively towards freedom as our most authentic selves.