File spoon-archives/postanarchism.archive/postanarchism_2003/postanarchism.0311, message 59

Date: Sat, 8 Nov 2003 10:50:29 -0800 (PST)
Subject: [postanarchism] Cohn and Wilbur: "What's Wrong With Postanarchism?"

What's Wrong With Postanarchism?

by Jesse Cohn and Shawn Wilbur

What is now being called “postanarchism” by some
thinkers, including Saul Newman, can take on many
forms, but the term generally refers to an attempt to
marry the best aspects of poststructuralist philosophy
and the anarchist tradition. One way to read the word,
thus, is as a composite: poststructuralism and
anarchism. However, the term also suggests that the
post- prefix applies to its new object as
well—implying that anarchism, at least as heretofore
thought and practiced, is somehow obsolete. Together,
these two senses of the word form a narrative: an
aging, spent force (anarchism) is to be saved from
obsolescence and irrelevance by being fused with a
fresh, vital force (poststructuralism). We would like
to question this narrative's assumptions and
teleology, but not without some appreciation of what
it has to offer.

Anarchists can indeed usefully take several things
from poststructuralism:

1.	Howard Richards has said that "what is sometimes
called 'post-modern consciousness'... could more
modestly be called an improved understanding of
symbolic processes" (Letters From Quebec 2.38.8). 
Rather than seeing human beings as autonomous
individuals who perceive the world objectively—a naïve
realist position which would imply that the choices we
make to participate in hierarchical and exploitative
systems are made with open eyes —poststructuralists
point to the many ways in which our consciousness of
the world is filtered through social “texts” which
script our lives.

2.	In so doing, poststructuralism opens up a new
terrain of struggle for political analysis: the
struggle over signs, symbols, representations, and
meaning in the media environment and everyday life.
This has been particularly important for feminist
theory over the last forty years, and it ought to be
so for anarchism as well.

3.	As long as we think of language as a tool distinct
from its users, we can't adequately criticize the
notion of “the individual” as an isolatable,
self-contained unit, and that means we will still have
trouble thinking beyond (or convincing others to try
to think beyond) the sacred categories of capitalism.
By undermining naïvely individualistic conceptions of
subjectivity, poststructuralism furnishes a powerful
confirmation of the importance anarchists have always
accorded to community and sociality.

4.	All of this provides us with some splendid tools
for ideological critique.  Poststructuralism trains us
to think critically in ways that allow us to see
through the seeming political/ethical "neutrality" of
certain discourses. We can use poststructuralist
analytical approaches to read texts for the way they
use language to construct identities and divisions, to
frame issues and distort them, to lie by omission, to
center certain perspectives while marginalizing
others, and so on.

5.	To understand that some things which seem “natural”
are culturally constructed is to be aware that they
might have been constructed otherwise.
Poststructuralists challenge the notion that people
have “natures” or “essences” that limit and determine
what they can be—a point that should remind us of
Kropotkin's riposte to the Social Darwinism of
scientists like Huxley, who proposed that capitalism
and war are merely social expressions of the natural
struggle for “survival of the fittest.”

6.	Anarchists should also take to heart some of the
ethical implications of poststructuralism.  A
poststructuralist emphasis on “otherness,” on
historical and cultural locatedness, on the
multiplicity of perspectives and “subject positions,”
on the inescapable plurality of representations—all
should confirm and deepen our awareness of our own
limitations, our sense of respect for others.  When
Derrida's mentor, Emmanuel Levinas, says that ethics
is the true “first philosophy,” he delivers the best
possible rebuke to Marx and other critics of
anarchism, with their contempt for a theory which was
too “simple” to be adequate (based as it was on an
ethical position—the rejection of domination and
hierarchy, the embrace of social freedom—rather than
on some speculation about the laws of economics or the
ultimate goal of history).

7.	Poststructuralism can strengthen anarchist
commitments to a social conception of freedom, as
opposed to a simpleminded “liberationism” for which
every social relationship is merely a constraint to be
rejected. Despite the tendency of some to read
poststructuralist accounts of the constructedness of
things as an endorsement of a “deconstructive”
liberationism, it does offer at least some resources
for thinking about the necessity and possibility of
social reconstruction.  Foucault, for instance,
ridicules liberationism in its left-Freudian forms
(centered on the concepts of a naturally good desire
which must be “expressed” rather than “repressed” by a
bad society), and ultimately proposes a kind of
“ethics” premised on our ability to construct
ourselves.  It's not an entirely successful effort
(Foucault is still somewhat captive to a liberationist
discourse in much of his writing), but it's
suggestive. Derrida appears to be developing gradually
a politics of “friendship,” “memory,”
“responsibility,” “hospitality,” etc. Jean-Luc Nancy,
Giorgio Agamben and others have given us a wealth of
engagements with “community.”

At the same time, we see a number of serious problems
with postanarchism's manner of wedding
poststructuralism to anarchism:

1.	Postanarchism has, as one of its core narratives, a
drastically reduced notion of what “anarchism” is and
has been. The “classical anarchist” tradition treated
by Andrew M. Koch, Todd May, Saul Newman, and Lewis
Call, usually restricted to a limited number of “great
thinkers” (Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin),
is reductive at best. As the late John Moore noted in
his reviewof The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism, postanarchists omit any
mention of “second wave” or “contemporary” anarchism,
reducing a living tradition to a dead “historical
phenomenon” called “classical anarchism.” Reiner
Schürmann is content to dismiss “Proudhon, Bakunin,
and their disciples,” in a single paragraph, as
“rationalist” thinkers, plain and simple. There is
almost complete inattention to the margins of the
“classical” texts, not to mention the margins of the
tradition. Such “minor” theorists as Gustav Landauer,
Voltairine de Cleyre, Josiah Warren, Emma Goldman, and
Paul Goodman, to name just a few of those excluded,
would seem to merit some consideration, particularly
if the project is a rethinking of “normal anarchism.”

2.	Conflict, as well as diversity, is smoothed over in
the historical accounts of anarchism given by
postanarchists. Anarchist history is a terrain
occupied by materialists and mystics, communists and
mutualists, nihilists and scientists, progressivists
and primitivists alike. Terms taken for granted in
much postanarchist critique—“science,” for
example—were the explicit subject of complex struggles
within anarchism and socialism broadly. To fail to
look at this history of internal difference can also
blind us to the related history of organizational
conflict and strife—the other set of forces at work in
shaping anarchism and socialism as we have had them
passed down to us. Marc Angenot notes that “the point
of departure for Proudhon” is not “an axiom,” but a
sense of “scandal”—a provocation into thought by
“something unthinkable.” Just as we have to read
Kropotkin's theory of “mutual aid” as a response (or,
as Kingsley Widmer calls it, a “countering”) to
Huxley, we ought to analyze other key developments in
anarchist theory in the context of an anarchist milieu
traversed by a continuing series of disputes,
controversies, and epistemological “scandals.”

3.	Where Koch, May, Newman, and Call examine specific
“classical anarchist” texts, the passages they cite
often seem far from representative of the actual
arguments made by those writers. Particularly when
using texts like G. P. Maximoff's Political Philosophy
of Mikhail Bakunin—a patchwork of translated
quotations from some twenty-nine source texts in three
languages—close attention to the overall use of
concepts is necessary to compensate for the
unsystematic nature of the original sources. Lack of
such attention, together with preconceptions about
anarchist “rationalism,” can lead to curious
misreadings. In Newman's “Anarchism and the Politics
of Ressentiment,” for example, the argument proceeds
by reading “classical anarchism,” represented by
Bakunin and Kropotkin, as follows: at certain points,
these anarchists depict the human subject as naturally
opposed to power, while at other points they seem to
say that power naturally emanates from human subjects.
>From this premise, Newman goes on to conclude that
classical anarchism is riven by a fundamental
inconsistency, a damaging “contradiction.” The
unstated assumption which warrants this move from
premise to conclusion is that these two
characterizations of the human subject are mutually
exclusive—that Bakunin and Kropotkin cannot intend
both. This assumption begs the question: why not? In
fact, a close reading of texts by these theorists
would support a different conclusion—that for both of
them, it is the human subject itself which is the
site, as Kropotkin writes in his Ethics, of a
“fundamental contradiction.” What Newman misses is the
possibility that, in Dave Morland's words, “anarchists
are proprietors of a double-barrelled conception of
human nature” as composed of “both sociability and
egoism.” Of course, for Anglophone writers and
readers, the difficulties of understanding are
compounded by a linguistic barrier: for instance, of
the thirty-nine texts collected in fifteen volumes of
Proudhon's complete works, only four have ever been
translated into English, so the only glimpses of his
more ambitious “theoretical” work available to
us—including his paradoxically “absolute” refusal of
“the Absolute”—are in Selected Writings of
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a collection of scattered

4.	Poststructuralist critiques of “classical
anarchism” tend to place it in intellectual
contexts—“humanism,” “rationalism,”
“Enlightenment”—which are likewise treated in the most
reductive terms. For instance, Cartesian rationalism
is conflated with movements directly opposed to it—and
is applied to texts from the late 19th century, as if
there was no significant developments in ideas about
subjectivity, truth, or rationality after the 17th
century. Rather than artificially tying the ideas of
anarchist theorists to those of philosophers they
directly oppose (such as Rousseau), we might be better
off looking at Kropotkin's use of Wundt's psychology
and Guyau's ethics, Goldman's reading of Nietzsche,
Godwin's engagement with the epistemology of Hume and
Hartley, Malatesta's flirtation with pragmatism, or
what Bakunin might have learned from Schelling's call
for a “philosophy of existence” in opposition to
Hegel's “philosophy of essence.” Contemporary French
sociologist Daniel Colson's recent essay on
“AnarchistReadings of Spinoza” in the journal
Réfractions is suggestive of what can be done along
these lines.

5.	Having constructed, on such an impoverished basis,
an ideological ghost called “classical anarchism,”
postanarchists then subject this phantom entity to a
critique based on some drastically undertheorized
concepts, tending to proceed as if the meaning of key
terms like “nature,” “power,” and even
“poststructuralism” were both self-evident and
unchanging. They act, as Foucault hears Nietzsche
complain of Paul Rée, as if “words had kept their
meaning... ignor[ing] the fact that the world of
speech... has known invasions, struggles, plundering,
disguises, ploys.” Moore, again, fingered this
difficulty: “'One would not call all exercises of
power oppressive,' May states. But surely that depends
upon who one is.” Why assume that what Bakunin meant
by the word “power,” in one particular essay, is the
same concept designated by Foucault's use of the word,
or Moore's, or May's—or even that named by the same
word in a different Bakunin essay? Indeed, even Newman
seems to allow the meaning of the term to slide in a
strategically convenient manner: on the first page of
>From Bakunin to Lacan, he uses “power” as synonymous
with “domination,” “hierarchies,” and “repression,”
but soon shifts over to a Foucauldian usage which
defines “power” as “something to be accepted as
unavoidable,” while defining “domination” and
“authority” as things which are “to be resisted.” The
problem is that, depending on which definition is in
play, Newman could be contradicting Bakunin or simply
reiterating him. In his “Reflections on Anarchism,”
Brian Morris makes a distinction (similar to the
Spinozan opposition between “potestas” and “potentia”
to which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt apeal)
between “power over” and “the power to do something.”
It is only “power” in the first sense that anarchists
categorically oppose, while “power” in the second
sense, as what Hannah Arendt calls “the human ability
not just to act but to act in concert,” is central to
anarchist theorizations of the social. Bakunin
considers what he and Proudhon call “social power,”
conceived as the non-coercive influence of individuals
and groups on one another, to be absolutely real and
ineradicable, condemning as “idealist” the “wish to
escape” the play of “physical, intellectual, and moral
influences” which is continuous with society itself:
“To do away with this reciprocal influence is death.”

6.	The intended sense of the prefix “post-” in
“postanarchism” often seems to be uncritically
progressive, as if “anarchism” per se is something
that belongs to the past; this is reinforced by the
frequent suggestions that anarchism is merely a
continuation of a clapped-out “Enlightenment” thought.
This is far too simplistic. First of all, you don't
have to be Noam Chomsky to think that the
Enlightenment produced some ideas of lasting value: as
Donna Haraway suggests, “Enlightenment modes of
knowledge have been radically liberating” because
“they give accounts of the world that can check
arbitrary power.” Secondly, it is by no means clear
that poststructuralism places itself categorically
outside, after, or beyond the thought of
“Enlightenment,” nor that it can or ought to. Lyotard
defines the “postmodern” as that within the “modern”
which keeps it lively and resists reification, and
these days, even Newman acknowledges that for Foucault
there are not one but two “Enlightenments”—“the
Enlightenment of continual questioning and
uncertainty” as well as that of “rational certainty,
absolute identity, and destiny.” We can also recall
here Derrida's guarded defense of “the projects of the
Enlightenment” and Haraway's “insider strategy” where
science and development are concerned,
characteristically preferring “blasphemy” to
“apostacy,” emphasizing choice within a conflicted,
dangerous field instead of simple opposition to what
is ultimately a “naturalized” structure rather than a
natural one. “Non-innocent” resistance and the
business of dealing with complicity seem to be common
to many poststructuralist positions. Having shifted
away from simple opposition, poststructuralism has to
abandon some simple forms of moralizing as well. This
is why, finally, Haraway rejects the “postmodern”
label, preferring Latour's formulation that “we have
never been modern.” And it's why folks from
Baudrillard to Derrida have such a dismissive attitude
toward “good souls” who think they can attack
something like “the Enlightenment” from the outside,
without complicity. In any case, poststructuralists
have provided us with many, many reasons to be
“incredulous” towards “grand narratives” of linear
historical progress and to remain open to what is
open, living, and potentially radical in tradition.

7.	The way in various critical missteps can compound
one another is perhaps clearest in the discussions of
“essentialism.” Much postanarchist critique echoes
Nietzsche's charge that anarchism is “poisoned at the
root” (a rather essentialist claim); for
postanarchists, ironically the “poison” is
“essentialism.” This notion however, is compromised to
begin with: for some time now, theorists from Diana
Fuss to Hubert Dreyfus have been complaining that the
term “essentialism” has become a mere pejorative
epithet, so flexible in its usages (Nick Haslam counts
no less than six distinct concepts lumped together
under the one word) that it can be applied to almost
any statement qua statement, and feminists like
Gayatri Spivak have argued that some uses of
“strategic essentialism” are endemic to any politics
whatsoever. Nonetheless, for Koch, May, and Newman
alike, Godwin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin are
representative of a hopelessly “essentialist” or
“ontological” anarchism: as Koch writes, “eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century anarchists' attacks on the
state were based on a 'rational' representation of
human nature” in which a basically static human
subject is innately possessed of “reason, compassion,
and gregariousness”; on this view, “corruption takes
place within social institutions and is not an
essential part of human nature,” since “the human
being is seen as a rational, cognitive, and
compassionate creature.” Certainly, if these theorists
believed in this sort of innate goodness, they would
have a hard time explaining the prevalence of
violence, inequality, and domination; however, they
affirm no such thing. For instance, in his Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice, far from assuming a
spontaneously good, rational, or gregarious human
subject, Godwin depicts the subject as the result of
social construction: “the actions and dispositions of
men are not the off-spring of any original bias that
they bring into the world in favour of one sentiment
or character rather than another, but flow entirely
from the operation of circumstances and events acting
upon a faculty of receiving sensible impressions.”
Thus, he ridicules the idea that complex behavioral
patterns such as a favorable disposition towards
“virtue” are “something that we bring into the world
with us, a mystical magazine, shut up in the human
embryo, whose treasures are to be gradually unfolded
as circumstances shall require,” and denies equally
that “self-love” (egoism) or “pity” (compassion) are
“instincts”; both, to him, are learned behaviors. The
“representation” of the human subject that emerges
from Political Justice is far from “fixed” or
“closed”—it is dynamic, endlessly mutable: “Ideas are
to the mind nearly what atoms are to the body. The
whole mass is in a perpetual flux; nothing is stable
and permanent; after the lapse of a given period not a
single particle probably remains the same.” This, in
fact, is why Godwin thinks we are capable of doing
better, and it is why he wrote so extensively on
questions of pedagogy and culture: just as government
is ultimately founded not on physical coercion but on
popular obedience springing from culturally learned
“opinions” and “prejudices,” a non-authoritarian
society would have to be the product of cultural
change—not “human nature.” His real argument against
“the state, as a coercive institution” (and against
every other coercive institution) is simply that it is
coercive, when cooperation is possible. Human
beings—whatever else we are—are capable of negotiating
conflicts and coordinating efforts without resorting
to force or manipulation. In Godwin's words: “The
evils existing in political society... are not the
inseparable condition of our existence, but admit of
removal and remedy.” This is all that ever need be
argued ontologically, and all that Proudhon, Bakunin,
and Kropotkin really require: the possibility of free
cooperation, which is the possibility of a life in
which no one is treated merely as an instrument.

8.	The “epistemologically based” or
“poststructuralist” anarchism that Koch traces back
through Nietzsche to Stirner, on the other hand, is
precisely the conception of the world in which all
relations are held to be instrumental—and here is
another major problem with postanarchist projects. In
criticizing the supposed “essentialism” of “classical
anarchism,” rather too many postanarchists throw the
baby out with the bathwater, rejecting the broadly
communitarian, populist, and working-class character
of that tradition, and preserving only Stirner's
radical individualism. Indeed, for Newman, Stirner's
value is precisely that he “perpetuates” Hobbes's “war
model” of society, while Koch finds in his
thoroughgoing nominalism a weapon to use against “the
tyranny of globalizing discourse,” ultimately against
all “universals.” The problem is that Stirner's notion
of “uniqueness” denies legitimacy to any universal and
every collectivity: if, as Koch says, any “concepts
under which action is coordinated” can be dismissed as
mere “fictions,” while only the “individual” is
“real,” then it must follow that any coordinated
action or “consensual politics” is simply a form of
domination, the “impos[ition]” of “one set of
metaphors” on the infinite plurality of society.
Newman insists that “Stirner is not opposed to all
forms of mutuality,” citing his concept of a “Union of
Egoists,” but this, too, is an inadequate and
implausible conception—a kind of laissez-faire utopia
in which the social is replaced by the utilitarian,
equality produced by the equal exertion of force, and
the common good is reducible to an infinity of private
whims. Ultimately, for Stirner, “community... is
impossible.” Nor is it clear that Stirner manages to
avoid his own form of essentialism in positing a
“fixed” concept of the subject as an self-identical
“nothingness.” Where anarchists have articulated sharp
critiques of Stirner—Landauer's objection was
precisely that Stirner's “ego” is something that never
develops or grows, since anything it takes in, it has
to spit out, lest it become a “fixed idea”—some
poststructuralists have been prone to overlook
problems: thus, Koch uncritically endorses Stirner's
claim that “socal liberalism robs people of their
property in the name of community,” as if this did not
appeal to a rather flagrantly essentialist notion of
the “person” and what is “proper” to it. While
Stirner's attack on the bloodless abstractions of
liberal political philosophy is still relevant, they
can be and have been articulated by others (such as
Bakunin) without the accompanying endorsement of an
all-too-ideologically-suspect individualism.

9.	Seeing how postanarchism constitutes itself via a
rhetoric which dismisses the categories of the natural
and the universal tout court, we should not be
surprised to find that it takes on board a substantial
quantity of subjectivism and relativism. It is
instructive to trace Mike Michael's arguments
demonstrating what he takes to be the relevance for
anarchism of Bruno Latour's sociological critique of
science, for which agreements are only ever a matter
of “power,” produced through a process of
“interessement” or “recruitment” in which “one aims to
convince actors that, rather than maintain a
particular set of self-understandings... they should
really be conceptualizing themselves through the
categories that you provide.” From this kind of
poststructuralist perspective, there is no way to
distinguish between free agreements and
instrumentalist manipulation: cooperation is always a
con game. As May has noted recently, in a review of
Newman's From Bakunin to Lacan, these varieties of
poststructuralism take such a “deconstructive approach
to language and politics” that they seem to preclude
“the kind of collective action that seems necessary
for political success”: “Indeterminacy is, to my mind,
a weak basis for political thought and organizing. It
tends to drive people apart rather than bringing them
together.” Koch likewise declares that “the relativity
of both ontology and epistemology, the plurality of
language systems, and the impossibility of
communicating intended meaning” imply that “the
potential to reach consensus without deception or
force becomes impossible.” It is not to his credit
that Koch terms this miserable result “anarchy.” 

The anarchist tradition is not a complete, perfect
whole which is beyond question or criticism; it stands
in need of rigorous and permanent critique, and
certain elements of poststructuralist theory might be
valuable in this reconstructive work. In this respect,
Colson's recently published Petit lexique
philosophique de l'anarchisme de Proudhon à Deleuze,
while it has recourse to some dubious
poststructuralist rhetoric (in phrases such as
“rejecting all mediation”), seems to illustrate some
of the more interesting intersections between
19th-century anarchist ideas and practices, on the one
hand, and Deleuze's “strange unity... which never
speaks but of the multiple” on the other. Here,
Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Stirner are
revisited, but so are Makhno, Bookchin, Grave, Michel,
Pelloutier, Reclus, and Landauer, as well as Agamben,
Serres, Latour, de Certeau, Balibar, and Negri. Rather
than unidirectionally projecting poststructuralism
back onto anarchism (“correcting” its supposed
humanist, foundationalist, rationalist, and
essentialist “errors”), Colson places the two
discourses in dialogue, allowing each to illuminate
the other in its turn.

We are excited to find social philosophers attempting
to rethink anarchism in connection with
poststructuralism—and impatient with what we see as
the shortcomings of these attempts. We value the
poststructuralist work in large part because it
strikes us as concerned with going to the limits,
finding its own breaking points. Poststructuralism
acknowledges the dual responsibilities of radicals to
engage in potentially “interminable” analyses while
not letting us forget how immediately urgent the
problems that face us are. But it has very little
specific analysis of its own, and is hesitant in its
engagements with the traditional forms of the struggle
for freedom. It is our hope that by putting its
insights into play with the older insights of the
libertarian socialist tradition, we can overcome some
potential misconceptions about the road towards a free
society and put back into play some otherwise “lost”
strategies and insights.


Jesse Cohn lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he is a
Green activist and an Assistant Professor of English
at Purdue University North Central. Recent
publications include “What is Postanarchism 'Post'?”
in Postmodern Culture (September 2002) and “Anarchism,
Representation, and Culture” (in proceedings of the
Culture and the Modern State conference, forthcoming).
He is currently completing a book on anarchist
literary theory, focusing on the question of
“representation” as it affects the three realms of
interpretation, aesthetics, and politics, with the
working title of Anarchism and the Crisis of

Shawn P. Wilbur is a bookseller, electronic musician,
live sound engineer and independent scholar. He holds
an MA in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green
State University. He is a member of the Spoon
Collective, which provides online forums for the
discussion of various political and philosophical
subjects, including postanarchism. He is currently
working on a history of anarchism in the United
States, with an emphasis on the individualist and
mutualist currents within the movement. His work in
various areas can be found at

===="“Marx says, revolutions are the locomotives of world history.  But perhaps it is really totally different.  Perhaps revolutions are the grasp by the human race traveling in this train for the emergency brake.” 

- Walter Benjamin

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