Tuesday, November 22, 2011

anarchism - book - 1995 - Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm

Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm
Murray Bookchin
1995
AK Press
86 Pages

Heya out there, surfers, I bought my copy of Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism from Willow Books near the corner of Bloor st w. and St. George st. in Toronto.

This is the second book by Murray Bookchin that I have profiled for this blog.  In my post about Remaking Society, I noted how I had come to read (and to appreciate) Bookchin after an adolescent interest in the writings of Bob Black, including Black’s elaborate anti-Bookchin essay, Anarchy after Leftism.  Well, Black’s text (and his more recent anti-Bookchin eBook, Nightmares of Reason) were inspired by Bookchin’s brief attack on the anarchist ideas put forth by Black and a number of the other prominent anarchist voices of the 1980s and 1990s, including Hakim Bey, David Watson (who himself wrote his own Bookchin critique titled Beyond Bookchin) and John Zerzan (whose book Elements of Refusal has been profiled here).  Bookchin terms these thinkers (minus Black, Bookchin actually never mentions his most vocal opponent) the lifestyle anarchists, who he argues bring anarchist praxis into concert with consumer culture via Max Stirner’s egoistic-anarchism.

This book comes in two parts: the first is the admonition of this emerging trend in anarchist thought in that period.  Bookchin was primarily concerned that the quasi-mysticism of Hakim Bey or the return-to-the-primitive calls of John Zerzan sidestepped the need for critique of actual social conditions that have concerned multiple generations of earlier anarchist philosophers.  Bookchin assess these philosophies as taking the view that society is something to be dropped out of, or obliterated completely, rather than reformed according to specific critiques that address specific, material social problems.

The second part of Bookchin’s short book is a brief essay titled “The Left that Was”.  This essay is a look back at what may be considered the “old left” of the pre-1960s, when the first signs of the ideas expressed by the lifestyle anarchists began to creep into leftist thought.  In this essay, Bookchin laments the past activity of organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Anarchists of the Spanish Civil War (and early subject in Bookchin’s writing).  While recent writers such as Terrence Kissack note that this is a past that is gone, current trends in activism such as the now global Occupy movement suggest that the social aspect remains a vital part of activism.

The Lifestyle anarchists are charged, by Bookchin, with basing their theories on faulty science and anthropology.  I’ve wondered, when reading the primitivist texts of Zerzan and others, whether or not the anthropological texts he cites were themselves rooted in an ideology partially formed by the era it came out of, and according to Bookchin, they were.  Many of the Primitivist understandings of early man come from the published papers of a specific symposium called 'Man the Hunter' held in 1966 at the University of Chicago, where its participants portrayed man as living in paradise before civilization.  Bookchin disagreed and, more recently, Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) also disagreed based on his own experience of living the lifestyle Zerzan advocates. While the anarcho-primitivists describe pre-civilization life as easy-going, Kaczynski, in his essay 'The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarcho-Primitivism' describes the demands such a lifestyle places on labour needs as quite high.   Kaczynski was speaking from personal experience, having lived a mostly hunter-gatherer lifestyle for over twenty years of his life.

Bookchin critiques the 'lifestyle' anarchist theories as not simply being ungrounded but also as operating in accordance with contemporary consumer culture.  The realization of the unique individual, the unlocking of the personality, these are things that the lifestyle anarchists seek, and things that consumer culture offers.  Thomas Frank’s edited anthology Commodify Your Dissent addresses this same issue but from the end of critiquing the advetising that advocates rebellion, and the subcultures they feature.  By now we have had at least thirty years of commercials saying things like “Toothpaste as unique as you are”, and there’s little reason to believe that these sentiments are not mutually exclusive from the ideas of the Lifestyle Anarchists, even if those writers would inevitably deny any commonality with advertising slogans.

This consumer/activist-anarchist dichotomy, however, is not particularly helpful, coming from Bookchin, as it currently provides an incredibly shallow argument to pundit types to discredit activists of many stripes.  That is not to suggest that pundits now discredit activists for using consumer items because they read Bookchin’s attack on Hakim Bey and David Watson, but I am suggesting that just as Bookchin’s found a tense consonance between consumerism and certain strains of anarchist theory, that very line of thought has found its own consoance with current right-wing attitudes towards leftist action.  In particular, the idea that activists are not truly committed to any cause unless they can prove themselves free of all consumer objects.  For example when Occupy Wall Street began, photographs circulated across Internet channels that highlit all of the commercially available objects that appear....







....as though there’s some possibility for an Occupy protester to be using an indie digital camera.  Furthermore, this critique assumes that anyone who owns a piece of consumer electronics is implicitly dedicated to capitalism, acquired all of their possessions at retail, and in fact presumes one of what Bookchin implies as a potential byproducts of lifestyle anarchism, that activism can be merely a series of consumer choices.  That activists are also consumers is almost inevitable in contemporary society, but that activists accept consumerism as a necessary social condition is not inevitable.  That activism can be practiced through ethical consumerism is essentially new, however, and has produced interesting byproducts, such as the phenomena of the hipster whose persona is built upon consuming products that have acquired a subcultural cache.  

Bookchin refers to the difference between these two forms of anarchism as radically divided, so that an individual cannot commit to both.  This argument appears extreme, and it is not explicitly clear why concepts from “lifestyle anarchist” writers cannot be integrated into forms of social anarchism.  This text, however, is relevant for opening up an ongoing debate between two generations of anarchist philosophers.  

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