Saul Newman On Anarchism Today

Saul Newman is a political theorist & post-anarchist.

This is a clip from an interview recorded in London in March 2011, for a documentary never finished by its original producers, which hoped to show anarchism in all its forms around the world today and in history. But, I think it succeeds even better at that task as a video catalogue for those interested enough to find the clips that piqued their curiousity.

To see the full catalogue of interviews click here.

Saul Newman On Anarchism Today

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Saul Newman, I teach politics, mostly political theory, here in the Politics Department at the University of London. I have an interest in anarchism, anarchist political theory, have been interested in anarchism for many years actually. And I do quite a lot of research in this area, exploring various aspects of anarchist political theory, try to apply to contemporary radical political struggles. I’ve written a number of books on anarchist, and what I call post-anarchist, theory, which is an attempt to rethink certain central aspects of anarchism.

How did you discover anarchism?

I first discovered anarchism when I was a university student and prior to that time I was a bit interested in Trotskyism, actually. Then I started reading about the Trotskyist and Bolshevik suppression of the anarchists after the Bolshevik revolution 1917. And, you know, I started becoming interested in sort of anarchism as a critique of some of the more authoritarian central aspects of Marxist-Leninism. And, I think the emphasis in anarchist theory on freedom and autonomy and the indispensable nature of freedom along with the quality of which pretty much appealed to me. And so I started looking into anarchism more and exploring it and. To me it seems like the political philosophy which makes the most sense and which I find most appealing.

What is anarchism?

Anarchism is a heterodox political philosophy, by which I mean that it encompasses many different voices and perspectives and positions, but these I think are generally united by an anti-authoritarian ethos, a radical skepticism about the nature of political power, a critique of all authoritarian social and political and economic structures, such as the state, such as capitalist economic relations, such as family relations and patriarchal relations and so on, and a general belief I suppose in the ideals of freedom, autonomy, solidarity and equality.

Isn’t anarchy just chaos and disorder?

Not according to the anarchists. On the contrary, the classical anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin and Kropotkin argued that chaos in the Hobbesian sense is actually fomented by the state. In other words the state as a centralized political structure is the organisation which creates war and violence and inequality and therefore sows the seeds of chaos and disorder. So, their contention was that a different type of society was possible, and that the best chance for stability and peaceful coexistence would actually be established once the state was actually abolished and replaced with self-governing, autonomous, community-based structures.

Didn’t the 20th century prove socialism can never work?

Anarchism is not socialism of course and I think we have to make a very important distinction here. The experience of socialism during the 20th century of course was symbolised by the disastrous totalitarian regimes that one found in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union which had very little to do with the original conception of socialism, certainly very little to do with Marx’s original conception of communism, which, if we read Marx properly, was actually very close to anarchism. So Marx characterised communism as a society without a state, a society in which state power had withered away or had been transcended, a society of free association where one could get to explore one’s human subjectivity in the fullest sense. So I think it’s quite misleading to talk about socialism in that sense and to look at the experience of the 20th century and to understand statist, bureaucratic, totalitarian structures as socialism as such, even though they obviously drew on certain elements of socialism and Marxism and it’s even more misleading to point to the experience of actual existing socialism or so-called socialism and to associate that with anarchism. Anarchism of course, even though it’s related to socialism, is also quite different and I think probably the most important aspect of anarchism is its very radical critique of what it saw as some of the more authoritarian aspects of socialist thought. So no, I don’t think…the 20th century experience of socialism really tells us much at all about anarchism other than pointing out some of the disastrous mistakes that were made by the Marxist-Leninists.

Why do anarchists tend to focus on the working class?

The working class as the central revolutionary agent is obviously still important. I don’t think we can say the working class has disappeared. I think on the contrary with the crisis of global capitalism more and more people are thrown into the ranks of the underclasses, even in our apparently prosperous capitalist societies, but nevertheless, I think one of the key differences between anarchism and Marxism was that anarchism had a much broader notion of class. For the anarchists like Bakunin for instance, class was not a sort of strictly defined socio-economic demographic, and as a matter of fact Bakunin preferred the term mass to class. The word mass was something which expressed the heterogeneity if you like of the revolutionary subjectivity, and in this mass he included not just members of the proletariat, the industrial proletariat, but also peasants, intellectuals declasse, the lumpenproletariat and various other forms of subjectivity which were not typically included within the traditional conception of the working class as defined by the industrial proletariat. So my answer to that question is that we have to have sort of a broad and heterogeneous conception of what the working class actually is. Many people of course in white collar professions are still exploited, they still work long hours, they still work under terrible conditions doing labour and so on, so I don’t actually think we can restrict the revolutionary agency to the traditional blue-collar worker.

Would anarchism be a more democratic means of organizing society than what we see today?

Obviously anarchism and democracy are in some respects closely related, but I think that once again you have to make a few distinctions here: certainly anarchism has very little to do with formal parliamentary democracy. I think we need to rethink actually what democracy really means. To me, democracy really has nothing to do with representation and with the formal practices and formal rituals of voting and electing representatives and so on. To me this is a kind of a discourse and a ritual which only reaffirms state power. So I think when we talk about democracy and its relation to anarchism we have to think about a different, more radical conception of what democratic politics actually means, and this would be closer to certain forms of direct democracy and consensual decision making rather than formal representative democracy. But certainly there is a relationship, and a very important relationship, between anarchism and democracy as defined by the notions of political autonomy and equality. One of the dangers, one of the tensions, possible tensions, between anarchism and democracy is always the danger of the so-called tyranny of the majority, whereby the majority as defined in terms of popular sovereignty overwhelms or overpowers the wishes and desires and the freedoms of certain minorities, so I think it’s quite useful to reconceptualise democracy through anarchism and to try to sort of think democracy in slightly different ways, ways which avoid the perils of popular sovereignty. So in other words we have to try to balance or reconcile the democratic will with the freedoms and the autonomy of minorities and individuals. Maybe we should think about a democracy of singularities rather than democracy in the classical sense.

Is anarchism a form of liberalism?

There are certain parallels but there are also certain very important differences. I don’t think it’s correct to just see anarchism as a version of liberalism, but nevertheless, anarchism bears certain similarities to it, particularly in terms of the emphasis on freedom, on individual freedom, which has always been one of the central values or core values of classical liberalism. But I think that the main difference lies in the fact that even though classical liberalism values…well actually there’s two differences. The first is that classical liberalism values the individual and individual freedom. It always sees the state as a condition for preserving individual freedom, so classical liberalism is usually based on contractarian theory, whereby we in the state of nature give up or sacrifice our natural rights and freedoms and we inaugurate a sovereign who establishes a system of law and order which is designed to protect my freedom from the freedom and the desires of other people. So the point is that it’s always freedom within certain limits, it’s always freedom which is sort of guaranteed and secured by the state, but the problem with that is that to some degree it’s a logical contradiction because if you have freedom which is secured by the state, then the logic of securatization often works against freedom, and of course we’re seeing this now aren’t we, with the securatization of the neo-liberal state. So I think anarchism is obviously…anarchism claims that individual freedom can only be guaranteed in the absence of the state rather than through the state. The other major difference of course is that classical liberalism is based upon notions of private property and the capitalist free market, which anarchists see as actually working against individual freedom, because private property and capitalism only offers you a very sort of narrow conception of freedom, it’s only freedom for property owners, it’s only the type of consumerist freedom or the freedom of exchange in the marketplace and it only enshrines the rights to exploitation which of course works against the freedom and the autonomy of the majority of people. So let’s say that even though there are certain parallels between classical liberalism and anarchism in terms of the emphasis on individual freedom and the suspicion of the state, anarchism wants to see individual freedom in the absence of the state and in the absence of capitalism and the institution of private property.

How do hierarchies of power work today?

I don’t think today that resistance to power, resistance to state power, resistance to capitalism, can really be expressed with the revolutionary paradigm which characterised not just classical anarchism but also classical Marxism and so on, in which the forces of society were pitted against state power, where state power was visible and identifiable and it was simply a matter of demolishing this kind of political structure, which was seen as oppressive and dominating and exploitative and so on. I think one of the problems is that power today is much more complex, much more decentralized, I mean, where does one actually locate power today, therefore, how does one have a clearly identifiable revolutionary target which is easy to topple or demolish or destroy. I think it’s much harder, I think power is much more dispersed, it’s obviously much more globalised, it’s much more networked. So therefore it seems to me that the whole notion of resistance to power has to be rethought, has to be seen I think in terms of more localised struggles for autonomy or around particular issues, rather than a sort of totalising revolution with a capital R. So yes, post-anarchism certainly points to the way in which resistance to power is much more complicated today; this is something which radicals and revolutionaries and those who resist have to contend with.

What do anarchists like yourself mean when you talk about micro-politics?

By micropolitics I mean not only the localisation of struggles, but also the way in which our subjectivity, in other words who we are, how we identify ourselves, is very closely bound up to the power that we closely resist. So in other words, we have to critically investigate the ways in which we are attached to the power that we claim to resist, the ways in which power bestows upon us a kind of identity. In other words there is a kind of statist structure or a certain kind of authoritarianism in all of us. This is something which people like Wilhelm Reich pointed to, the internalised authoritarianism which makes, well he said this is the kind of thing which makes fascism possible or rather authoritarian political movements and so on. So, what we have to do, I think, is kind of work ourselves out of the bind of power, we have to try to invent or create new ways of living, new practices, new forms of relating to other people which are non-authoritarian. Until we do that, until we sort of work ourselves psychically out of the state, then we’ll always be doomed if you like to reinventing the very forms of power that we claim to oppose.

Isn’t anarchism completely utopian?

There is a utopian dimension to anarchism, certainly, but think this is one of the things which makes…which gives it its radical force. I don’t think that any sort of radical politics worthy of its name can really dispense with the utopian dimension. The point I would say is that utopianism, or the concept of utopia, has to be rethought here. In other words, the idea of setting out a blueprint for a future society, I think that that way of thinking is doomed to disaster. It has a certain sort of totalitarian implication. I think utopia should be seen, on the contrary, as an attempt to sort of think the future within the present. In other words, to actually invent autonomous space and alternative practices, ways of living, ways of relating to other people, alternative conceptions of community within the present, precisely as a way of reflecting upon the very limits of our contemporary society. In other words, we have to, I think, retain some notion that our current society has limits that we can always have a different type of society or a different way of living, but that doesn’t actually involve you know, setting out revolutionary blueprints, what it involves is a certain kind of experimentation with different practices, and to me I think that this is the kind of utopia which is the most important in anarchism.

Why is there so much unproductive infighting on the left?

I remember reading an old slogan, an old anarchist slogan actually, which said something like, with all of the mud that we keep slinging at each other, all of the rocks that we keep on throwing at each other, we could have brought down the state already. I think one of the problems within contemporary anarchism is a certain kind of desire to sort of totalise and rigidify one’s own particular perspective to the exclusion of other perspectives. One finds this quite a lot actually, in many debates amongst anarchists. One also finds this actually with the sort of out and out rejection of, for instance, post-structuralism and other perspectives. Anarchism to me has never been a sort of total unified theory. To me the strength and the originality of anarchism has always lain in its heterodox nature, by which I mean that it has always been open to different voices and articulations and perspectives and so on, and I think that this is what makes anarchism vital and interesting as a political philosophy. So I think the sectarianism one finds in many debates in contemporary anarchism is only damaging it really as a form of politics. Anarchism has to be open to a sort of multitude of different perspectives. It also has to be open to forming relations and even political alliances with people who don’t identify themselves as anarchists. People who, while they might be attempting to live non-authoritarian lives, and might be struggling around certain issues which share a common ground with anarchism, don’t see themselves as anarchists. I think if anarchism closes itself off to this, if it tries to turn itself into a doxa, into some kind of revolutionary orthodoxy, then it really is doomed to irrelevance in our contemporary age.

What are the greatest challenges for anarchism going forward?

So what are the challenges to anarchism today? A number of challenges actually. I think anarchism has to once again make itself relevant to the contemporary struggles of ordinary people around the world. I think it has to, to this end, overcome some of its sectarianism, and open itself up to different perspectives and viewpoints and articulations and so on. Anarchism has to increasingly situate itself upon a sort of global terrain. Of course struggle has become globalised as well as becoming localised as well, so anarchism has to try to understand itself in terms of the horizon of globalization. It obviously has to engage in a variety of different struggles, whether trade union struggles or struggles on behalf of environmentalists or indigenous people or the general struggles for equality and autonomy that one finds around us today. I think also anarchism has to rethink certain tenets of its own theory or its own philosophy. I’m not necessarily suggesting that post-anarchism offers all the answers here, certainly not, but nevertheless I think that anarchism has to rethink the concept of revolution with a capital R, it has to try to, as I see it, dispense with a certain universal meta-narratives which characterise classical anarchism. It also has to see itself as a theory as well as a practice. One of the things that I’m often struck by when I have a look at certain debates about anarchism on the internet for instance, or on chat groups, is the hostility to theory, the hostility to anything which suggests intellectual work. Many people have this idea that anarchism is just simply about smashing the state, it’s got nothing to do with theory, it’s not a philosophy it’s simply a practice. To me I think anarchism has to acknowledge the fact that it is theory, it comes from a certain philosophical tradition, it’s a way of thinking as well as a way of practicing and doing politics and the two are very much interrelated, and I think that there’s certainly a very important role that theory has to play in forming political struggles today. So I think anarchism has to recognise itself today as a theoretical as well as a praxis.

What is post-anarchism?

Post-anarchism is not supposed to mean the end of anarchism or the fact that we’re living in a period after anarchism for instance, in other words it’s not supposed to signify a being-after anarchism, or the exhaustion of anarchism; on the contrary I see post-anarchism as an attempt to rethink and to revitalize certain aspects of the anarchist political philosophy, mostly through post-structuralist theory, through the theoretical interventions of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and so on. The main project I suppose of post-anarchism is to try to think about what anarchism means without the deep ontological foundations which I see as characterising classical anarchism. What I mean by that is that if you read the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Godwin and various other 19th and 18th century anarchist thinkers, what you find is certain claims about human nature, about human essence, a certain ontology based upon notions of natural law, a certain positivist conception of social relations, so for instance Bakunin and Kropotkin believed that one can take a sort of a scientifically objective view of the world and observe certain natural tendencies at work in social relations which will unfold towards an anarchist society. Kropotkin, for instance, believed that you could find the tendencies towards mutual aid and assistance within animal species, so he had a certain, he drew upon evolutionary biology to explain human behaviour and to point to the elements of solidarity which he claimed were essential to us as human beings. I think to some extent we have to abandon some of these notions. Radical politics generally can no longer rely on this type of foundationalism within human nature, or within the laws of society and so on, so I think anarchism as a theory today has to come to terms with the very instability of identity and the absence of some of these deep ontological foundations and also what Lyotard referred to as the crisis of meta-narratives. So we have to think, in other words, about what anarchism means today in the contemporary world, in a world which can no longer be expressed or summed up in a universal meta-narrative, whether it’s human nature or emancipation or revolution…so that’s what I see the project of post-anarchism as being: the attempt to rethink, to revitalize and to update certain aspects of anarchism while at the same time reaffirming and holding onto what I see as really central to anarchism which is the ethics of equal-liberty, anti-authoritarianism and solidarity.

How optimistic are you that we will ever reach this better world?

I have some optimism and some pessimism here. It seems to me that with the general crisis of global capitalism today, more and more people have become radicalised, more and more people are becoming disenchanted with formal politics, with formal representative politics, many people are seeing the sham that representative democracy represents, or embodies. Many people are seeking alternative forms of politics and so on. I think we can see this in many places. Today for instance, many people are taking to the streets, engaging in protests and other forms of dissident activity and so on, and there’s certainly a very important role that anarchism can play here in informing some of these struggles and allowing people to see their place within these struggles in a slightly different way. Whether we’re actually moving towards a kind of anarchist society, in other words a society without a state, I think…I’m somewhat skeptical about that actually. I don’t there’s any sort of revolutionary telos here, or revolutionary unfolding. There’s nothing inevitable about anarchism and anarchist society to the extent that we can actually think about what that means. It has to be something that is fought for, struggled for, struggled over. So yes, I’m hopeful in some respects, pessimistic in other respects, because I also think that there’s going to be a reaction, and a reaction from the right, not from the left. What we often find of course in times of economic turmoil and recessions and depressions of course isn’t so much a kind of, well not only a resurgence of radical left, but also a resurgence of the radical right, and we can also see this in terms of increasing racism and xenophobia and the hostility towards immigrants and multiculturalism and so on. So I think all these forces and tendencies being generated at the moment in the current climate, there’s obviously nothing inevitable about a sort of anarchist sensibility emerging here, but there are nevertheless certain hopeful signs in certain sort of important respects.

What can each of us do to bring about this better world?

What can anarchists do? A number of things: they have to both think and act, not simply act. They have to think about, I suppose, what anarchism means to the average person, they have to try to perhaps overcome this fear I suppose that people might have about what anarchism actually means; people usually associate it with chaos and instability, the violence of the state of nature. So I think one of the main responsibilities is for anarchists to try to explain what anarchism actually is, or what it really is, and try to sort of communicate this to people who don’t necessarily identify with anarchism, people who might be hostile to the very idea of anarchism. Also, of course, most anarchists are of course involved in various radical political struggles and so on, but obviously there’s a very important role for them to play in politics on the ground and getting involved with social movements and trade unions and community action groups and so on. All of this is happening of course, so it’s going on, but what I’d say is that anarchists have to communicate more effectively about what their political objectives are and try to develop or promote certain non-authoritarian relations and ways of living.

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