Oppression is oppression is oppression. Whatever the roots of oppression: whether economic exploitation, or sexism, racism, militarism, or any other form of domination, they are to be targeted by the anarchist critique. As a political project, anarchism cannot claim many notable successes, save for a brief flowering during the Spanish Civil War. While that anarchist experiment could be classified as a qualified success, it is by no means certain whether it would have lasted, or whether it was a brief outburst of cooperative effort during a period of Civil War.
The gradual disintegration of the anarchist-influenced Mondragon Collective in Post-Franco Spain, into a bureaucratic, corporatist, capitalist entity, shows the delicacy of this species of
flower. The implosion of authoritarian Marxist-Leninist models (there are still many hold-outs for plain-old Marxism) has given anarchism a new lease on life as the only game in town, but the failure of one revolutionary model does not necessarily validate a rival model.
What explains the disappointing results of anarchism? And what explains its longevity in spite of its demonstrated ineffectiveness? I offer for your consideration the possibility that anarchist principles constitute a way of life, and that this principled way of life requires as much peace and
stability as possible, while at the same time, these principles are less effective guides to action during conflicts with ruthless, unscrupulous competitors.
Anarchist principles have developed, and are developing, into the admission that domination and hierarchy are problems universal in scope, requiring constant criticism and struggle. I like to think of anarchism as being liberalism brought to its ultimate conclusions. The best liberals sought to champion the rights of individuals against the state. The liberals’ problem is that they are encumbered with incoherent ideas about hierarchical gradations of humanity; with white, wealthy, educated males occupying the apex, and non-white, poor, uneducated men and women occupying the base of the human pyramid. Anarchists are free of these useless preconceptions, and are gradually working out ways to eliminate the dehumanizing effects of all of the baseless pyramids of human hierarchies.
Anarchists attack the state, seeing its origins in the desires of political and religious elites to compel submission to centralized authority and thought. Anarchists attack economic oppression, seeing its basis in the first day when one human devalued another human into worthlessness, and compelled that human to work in slavery in return for survival. Anarchists attack gender oppression, seeing its origins in selfishness and brutality.
Anarchists attack racial prejudice, seeing it as the product of cynical attempts by the powerful to pit the exploited against one another. Anarchists attack the domination and exploitation of the natural environment, seeing it as the product of an unhealthy socio-economic system, and as a process which might lead to the extinction of all life on this planet.
Of course, with all of this attacking, anarchists could be forgiven for not getting much done. Anarchists aren’t predisposed to following orders and making sacrifices for the good of the team, just because some self-proclaimed leader told them to. In some cases, recently oppressed (or still oppressed) peoples take the opportunity of first experiencing freedom and use it to celebrate that freedom, and not to listen to condescending instructions about what they are supposed to do next.
This is not to say that anarchism cannot work. This is to say that anarchist principles need lots and lots of time to work. They need periods of stability when people can test the boundaries of their oppressions and then break them. Times of peace and stability are also necessary for the
unconscious oppressors (I count myself as one of them) to be able to reflect without fear and hostility on the truth about their behaviour. Freedom fighters, especially those whose natural abilities have placed them into positions of temporary leadership have to realize that their temporary elevation has created a distance between themselves and their colleagues, and that they have to learn to accept it when others decide that they have ideas too, and, more unsettling, that their followers are no longer happy with their claims on leadership.
Tactically (or anyway, so I believe) the constant dispersal of powers, centres of action and ideas, the constant splitting of groups when these groups no longer serve any purpose but to perpetuate some bureaucratic leadership, is not the most effective way to challenge a unified, ruthless, and focussed, system of oppression. But I nonetheless do believe that abandoning anarchist principles wholeheartedly, and adopting blatantly authoritarian models, will prove counterproductive, no matter what temporary benefits may occur. I also believe that the strength of those systems that celebrate individual creativity and autonomy, and that can naturally contain all of this internal activity, will be the most successful in the long run.
Finally, I would just like to say that all of us should realize that we are all prone to acting oppressively, and that our first response to fair criticism should not be defensive self-righteousness. Take the time to reflect upon the criticisms you have received, and to realize that if they are true, you have merely fallen prey to a common human foible, and that to admit to this behaviour is not acknowledge that you are evil.
As well, for those who are unmasking oppression, take the time to realize that often the activities you are criticizing are often not understood as being anything but natural, and it might take time for people to see that they are behaving badly. The time for anger is when people have acknowledged that what they are doing is oppressive and wrong, but that they will continue in their ways because it suits them personally.
At least, that’s what I think. But maybe I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, and probably never will.