Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm

For some two centuries, anarchism — a very ecumenical body of anti-authoritarian ideas — developed in the tension between two basically contradictory tendencies: a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom. These tendencies have by no means been reconciled in the history of libertarian thought. Indeed, for much of the last century, they simply coexisted within anarchism as a minimalist credo of opposition to the State rather than as a maximalist credo that articulated the kind of new society that had to be created in its place.

Which is not to say that various schools of anarchism did not advocate very specific forms of social organization, albeit often markedly at variance with one another. Essentially, however, anarchism as a whole advanced what Isaiah Berlin has called ‘negative freedom,’ that is to say, a formal ‘freedom from,’ rather than a substantive ‘freedom to.’ Indeed, anarchism often celebrated its commitment to negative freedom as evidence of its own pluralism, ideological tolerance, or creativity — or even, as more than one recent postmodernist celebrant has argued, its incoherence.

Anarchism’s failure to resolve this tension, to articulate the relationship of the individual to the collective, and to enunciate the historical circumstances that would make possible a stateless anarchic society produced problems in anarchist thought that remain unresolved to this day. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, more than many anarchists of his day, attempted to formulate a fairly concrete image of a libertarian society. Based on contracts, essentially between small producers, cooperatives, and communes, Proudhon’s vision was redolent of the provincial craft world into which he was born. But his attempt to meld a patroniste, often patriarchal notion of liberty with contractual social arrangements was lacking in depth. The craftsman, cooperative, and commune, relating to one another on bourgeois contractual terms of equity or justice rather than on the communist terms of ability and needs, reflected the artisan’s bias for personal autonomy, leaving any moral commitment to a collective undefined beyond the good intentions of its members.

Indeed, Proudhon’s famous declaration that ‘whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy’ strongly tilts toward a personalistic, negative freedom that overshadows his opposition to oppressive social institutions and the vision of an anarchist society that he projected. His statement easily blends into William Godwin’s distinctly individualistic declaration: ‘There is but one power to which I can yield a heartfelt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictates of my own conscience.’ Godwin’s appeal to the ‘authority’ of his own understanding and conscience, like Proudhon’s condemnation of the ‘hand’ that threatens to restrict his liberty, gave anarchism an immensely individualistic thrust.

Compelling as such declarations may be — and in the United States they have won considerable admiration from the so-called libertarian (more accurately, proprietarian) right, with its avowals of ‘free’ enterprise — they reveal an anarchism very much at odds with itself. By contrast, Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin held essentially collectivist views — in Kropotkin’s case, explicitly communist ones. Bakunin emphatically prioritized the social over the individual. Society, he writes, ‘antedates and at the same time survives every human individual, being in this respect like Nature itself. It is eternal like Nature, or rather, having been born upon our earth, it will last as long as the earth. A radical revolt against society would therefore be just as impossible for man as a revolt against Nature, human society being nothing else but the last great manifestation or creation of Nature upon this earth. And an individual who would want to rebel against society . . . would place himself beyond the pale of real existence.'[1]

Bakunin often expressed his opposition to the individualistic trend in liberalism and anarchism with considerable polemical emphasis. Although society is ‘indebted to individuals,’ he wrote in a relatively mild statement, the formation of the individual is social:

‘even the most wretched individual of our present society could not exist and develop without the cumulative social efforts of countless generations. Thus the individual, his freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not vice versa: society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the higher, the more fully the individual is developed, the greater his freedom — and the more he is the product of society, the more does he receive from society and the greater his debt to it.'[2]

Kropotkin, for his part, retained this collectivistic emphasis with remarkable consistency. In what was probably his most widely read work, his Encyclopaedia Britannica essay on ‘Anarchism,’ Kropotkin distinctly located the economic conceptions of anarchism on the ‘left-wing’ of ‘all socialisms,’ calling for the radical abolition of private property and the State in ‘the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the center to the periphery.’ Kropotkin’s works on ethics, in fact, include a sustained critique of liberalistic attempts to counterpose the individual to society, indeed to subordinate society to the individual or ego. He placed himself squarely in the socialist tradition. His anarchocommunism, predicated on advances in technology and increased productivity, became a prevailing libertarian ideology in the 1890s, steadily elbowing out collectivist notions of distribution based on equity. Anarchists, ‘in common with most socialists,’ Kropotkin emphasized, recognized the need for ‘periods of accelerated evolution which are called revolutions,’ ultimately yielding a society based on federations of ‘every township or commune of the local groups of producers and consumers.'[3]

With the emergence of anarchosyndicalism and anarcho-communism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the need to resolve the tension between the individualist and the collectivist tendencies essentially became moot. Anarcho-individualism was largely marginalized by mass socialistic workers’ movements, of which most anarchists considered themselves the left wing. In an era of stormy social upheaval, marked by the rise of a mass working-class movement that culminated in the 1930s and the Spanish Revolution, anarchosyndicalists and anarchocommunists, no less than Marxists, considered anarcho-individualism to be petty-bourgeois exotica. They often attacked it quite directly as a middle-class indulgence, rooted far more in liberalism than in anarchism.

The period hardly allowed individualists, in the name of their ‘uniqueness,’ to ignore the need for energetic revolutionary forms of organization with coherent and compelling programs. Far from indulging in Max Stirner’s metaphysics of the ego and its ‘uniqueness,’ anarchist activists required a basic theoretical, discursive, and programmatically oriented literature, a need that was filled by, among others, Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread (London, 1913), Diego Abad de Santill’n’s El organismo econ’mico de la revoluci’n (Barcelona, 1936), and G. P. Maximoff’s The Political Philosophy of Bakunin (English publication in 1953, three years after Maximoff’s death; the date of original compilation, not provided in the English translation, may have been years, even decades earlier). No Stirnerite ‘Union of Egoists,’ to my knowledge, ever rose to prominence — even assuming such a union could be established and survive the ‘uniqueness’ of its egocentric participants.

Individualist Anarchism and Reaction

To be sure, ideological individualism did not fade away altogether during this period of sweeping social unrest. A sizable reservoir of individualist anarchists, especially in the Anglo-American world, were nourished by the ideas of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as Stirner himself. Home-grown individualists with varying degrees of commitment to libertarian views littered the anarchist horizon. In practice, anarcho-individualism attracted precisely individuals, from Benjamin Tucker in the United States, an adherent of a quaint version of free competition, to Federica Montseny in Spain, who often honored her Stirnerite beliefs in the breach. Despite their avowals of an anarchocommunist ideology, Nietzscheans like Emma Goldman remained cheek to jowl in spirit with individualists.

Hardly any anarcho-individualists exercised an influence on the emerging working class. They expressed their opposition in uniquely personal forms, especially in fiery tracts, outrageous behavior, and aberrant lifestyles in the cultural ghettos of fin de si?cle New York, Paris, and London. As a credo, individualist anarchism remained largely a bohemian lifestyle, most conspicuous in its demands for sexual freedom (‘free love’) and enamored of innovations in art, behavior, and clothing.

It was in times of severe social repression and deadening social quiescence that individualist anarchists came to the foreground of libertarian activity — and then primarily as terrorists. In France, Spain, and the United States, individualistic anarchists committed acts of terrorism that gave anarchism its reputation as a violently sinister conspiracy. Those who became terrorists were less often libertarian socialists or communists than desperate men and women who used weapons and explosives to protest the injustices and philistinism of their time, putatively in the name of ‘propaganda of the deed.’ Most often, however, individualist anarchism expressed itself in culturally defiant behavior. It came to prominence in anarchism precisely to the degree that anarchists lost their connection with a viable public sphere.

Today’s reactionary social context greatly explains the emergence of a phenomenon in Euro-American anarchism that cannot be ignored: the spread of individualist anarchism. In a time when even respectable forms of socialism are in pell-mell retreat from principles that might in any way be construed as radical, issues of lifestyle are once again supplanting social action and revolutionary politics in anarchism. In the traditionally individualist-liberal United States and Britain, the 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who — their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside — are cultivating a latter-day anarcho-individualism that I will call lifestyle anarchism. Its preoccupations with the ego and its uniqueness and its polymorphous concepts of resistance are steadily eroding the socialistic character of the libertarian tradition. No less than Marxism and other socialisms, anarchism can be profoundly influenced by the bourgeois environment it professes to oppose, with the result that the growing ‘inwardness’ and narcissism of the yuppie generation have left their mark upon many avowed radicals. Ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the antirational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence (pluralism), a basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life, reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades.

During the 1970s, writes Katinka Matson, the compiler of a compendium of techniques for personal psychological development, there occurred ‘a remarkable change in the way we perceive ourselves in the world. The 1960s,’ she continues, ‘saw a preoccupation with political activism, Vietnam, ecology, be-ins, communes, drugs, etc. Today we are turning inward: we are looking for personal definition, personal improvement, personal achievement, and personal enlightenment.'[4] Matson’s noxious little bestiary, compiled for Psychology Today magazine, covers every technique from acupuncture to the I Ching, from est to zone therapy. In retrospect, she might well have included lifestyle anarchism in her compendium of inward-looking soporifics, most of which foster ideas of individual autonomy rather than social freedom. Psychotherapy in all its mutations cultivates an inwardly directed ‘self’ that seeks autonomy in a quiescent psychological condition of emotional self-sufficiency — not the socially involved self denoted by freedom. In lifestyle anarchism as in psychotherapy, the ego is counterposed to the collective; the self, to society; the personal, to the communal.

The ego — more precisely, its incarnation in various lifestyles — has become an id&eacuatae fixe for many post-1960s anarchists, who are losing contact with the need for an organized, collectivistic, programmatic opposition to the existing social order. Invertebrate ‘protests,’ directionless escapades, self-assertions, and a very personal ‘recolonization’ of everyday life parallel the psychotherapeutic, New Age, self-oriented lifestyles of bored baby boomers and members of Generation X. Today, what passes for anarchism in America and increasingly in Europe is little more than an introspective personalism that denigrates responsible social commitment; an encounter group variously renamed a ‘collective’ or an ‘affinity group’; a state of mind that arrogantly derides structure, organization, and public involvement; and a playground for juvenile antics.

Consciously or not, many lifestyle anarchists articulate Michel Foucault’s approach of ‘personal insurrection’ rather than social revolution, premised as it is on an ambiguous and cosmic critique of power as such rather than on a demand for the institutionalized empowerment of the oppressed in popular assemblies, councils, and/or confederations. To the extent that this trend rules out the real possibility of social revolution — either as an ‘impossibility’ or as an ‘imaginary’ — it vitiates socialistic or communistic anarchism in a fundamental sense. Indeed, Foucault fosters a perspective that ‘resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. . . . Hence there is no single [read: universal] locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary.’ Caught as we all are in the ubiquitous embrace of a power so cosmic that, Foucault’s overstatements and equivocations aside, resistance becomes entirely polymorphous, we drift futilely between the ‘solitary’ and the ‘rampant.'[5] His meandering ideas come down to the notion that resistance must necessarily be a guerrilla war that is always present — and that is inevitably defeated.

Lifestyle, like individualist, anarchism bears a disdain for theory, with mystical, and primitivistic filiations that are generally too vague, intuitional, and even antirational to analyze directly. They are more properly symptoms than causes of the general drift toward a sanctification of the self as a refuge from the existing social malaise. Nonetheless, largely personalistic anarchisms still have certain muddy theoretical premises that lend themselves to critical examination.

Their ideological pedigree is basically liberal, grounded in the myth of the fully autonomous individual whose claims to self-sovereignty are validated by axiomatic ‘natural rights,’ ‘intrinsic worth,’ or, on a more sophisticated level, an intuited Kantian transcendental ego that is generative of all knowable reality. These traditional views surface in Max Stirner’s ‘I’ or ego, which shares with existentialism a tendency to absorb all of reality into itself, as if the universe turned on the choices of the self-oriented individual.

More recent works on lifestyle anarchism generally sidestep Stirner’s sovereign, all-encompassing ‘I,’ albeit retaining its egocentric emphasis, and tend toward existentialism, recycled Situationism, Buddhism, Taoism, antirationalism, and primitivism — or, quite ecumenically, all of them in various permutations. Their commonalities, as we shall see, are redolent of a prelapsarian return to an original, often diffuse, and even petulantly infantile ego that ostensibly precedes history, civilization, and a sophisticated technology — possibly language itself — and they have nourished more than one reactionary political ideology over the past century.

Autonomy or Freedom?

Without falling into the trap of social constructionism that sees every category as a product of a given social order, we are obliged to ask for a definition of the ‘free individual.’ How does individuality come into being, and under what circumstances is it free?

When lifestyle anarchists call for autonomy rather than freedom, they thereby forfeit the rich social connotations of freedom. Indeed, today’s steady anarchist drumbeat for autonomy rather than social freedom cannot be dismissed as accidental, particularly in Anglo-American varieties of libertarian thought, where the notion of autonomy more closely corresponds to personal liberty. Its roots lie in the Roman imperial tradition of libertas, wherein the untrammeled ego is ‘free’ to own his personal property — and to gratify his personal lusts. Today, the individual endowed with ‘sovereign rights’ is seen by many lifestyle anarchists as antithetical not only to the State but to society as such.

Strictly defined, the Greek word autonomia means ‘independence,’ connoting a self-managing ego, independent of any clientage or reliance on others for its maintenance. To my knowledge, it was not widely used by the Greek philosophers; indeed, it is not even mentioned in F. E. Peters’s historical lexicon of Greek Philosophical Terms. Autonomy, like liberty, refers to the man (or woman) who Plato would have ironically called the ‘master of himself,’ a condition ‘when the better principle of the human soul controls the worse.’ Even for Plato, the attempt to achieve autonomy through mastery of oneself constituted a paradox, ‘for the master is also the servant and the servant the master, and in all these modes of speaking the same person is predicated’ (Republic, book 4, 431). Characteristically, Paul Goodman, an essentially individualistic anarchist, maintained that ‘for me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one’s own way’ — a view worthy of an aesthete but not of a social revolutionary.[6]

While autonomy is associated with the presumably self-sovereign individual, freedom dialectically interweaves the individual with the collective. The word freedom has its analogue in the Greek eleutheria and derives from the German Freiheit, a term that still retains a gemeinsch’ftliche or communal ancestry in Teutonic tribal life and law. When applied to the individual, freedom thus preserves a social or collective interpretation of that individual’s origins and development as a self. In ‘freedom,’ individual selfhood does not stand opposed to or apart from the collective but is significantly formed — and in a rational society, would be realized — by his or her own social existence. Freedom thus does not subsume the individual’s liberty but denotes its actualization.

The confusion between autonomy and freedom is all too evident in L. Susan Brown’s The Politics of Individualism (POI), a recent attempt to articulate and elaborate a basically individualist anarchism, yet retain some filiations with anarcho-communism. [7] If lifestyle anarchism needs an academic pedigree, it will find it in her attempt to meld Bakunin and Kropotkin with John Stuart Mill. Alas, herein lies a problem that is more than academic. Brown’s work exhibits the extent to which concepts of personal autonomy stand at odds with concepts of social freedom. In essence, like Goodman she interprets anarchism as a philosophy not of social freedom but of personal autonomy. She then offers a notion of ‘existential individualism’ that she contrasts sharply both with ‘instrumental individualism’ (or C. B. Macpherson’s ‘possessive [bourgeois] individualism’) and with ‘collectivism’ — leavened with extensive quotations from Emma Goldman, who was by no means the ablest thinker in the libertarian pantheon.

Brown’s ‘existential individualism’ shares liberalism’s ‘commitment to individual autonomy and self-determination,’ she writes (POI, p. 2). ‘While much of anarchist theory has been viewed as communist by anarchists and non-anarchists alike,’ she observes, ‘what distinguishes anarchism from other communist philosophies is anarchism’s uncompromising and relentless celebration of individual self-determination and autonomy. To be an anarchist — whether communist, individualist, mutualist, syndicalist, or feminist — is to affirm a commitment to the primacy of individual freedom’ (POI, p. 2) — and here she uses the word freedom in the sense of autonomy. Although anarchism’s ‘critique of private property and advocacy of free communal economic relations’ (POI, p. 2) move Brown’s anarchism beyond liberalism, it nonetheless upholds individual rights over — and against — those of the collective.

‘What distinguishes [existential individualism] from the collectivist point of view,’ Brown goes on, ‘is that individualists’ — anarchists no less than liberals — ‘believe in the existence of an internally motivated and authentic free will, while most collectivists understand the human individual as shaped externally by others — the individual for them is ‘constructed’ by the collective’ (POI, p. 12, emphasis added). Essentially, Brown dismisses collectivism — not just state socialism, but collectivism as such — with the liberal canard that a collectivist society entails the subordination of the individual to the group. Her extraordinary suggestion that ‘most collectivists’ have regarded individual people as ‘simply human flotsam and jetsam swept along in the current of history’ (POI, p.12) is a case in point. Stalin certainly held this view, and so did many Bolsheviks, with their hypostasization of social forces over individual desires and intentions. But collectivists as such? Are we to ignore the generous traditions of collectivism that sought a rational, democratic, and harmonious society — the visions of William Morris, say, or Gustav Landauer? What about Robert Owen, the Fourierists, democratic and libertarian socialists, Social Democrats of an earlier era, even Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin? I am not sure that ‘most collectivists,’ even those who are anarchists, would accept the crude determinism that Brown attributes to Marx’s social interpretations. By creating straw ‘collectivists’ who are hard-line mechanists, Brown rhetorically counterposes a mysteriously and autogenetically constituted individual, on the one hand, with an omnipresent, presumably oppressive, even totalitarian collective, on the other. Brown, in effect, overstates the contrast between ‘existential individualism’ and the beliefs of ‘most collectivists’ — to the point where her arguments seem misguided at best or disingenuous at worst.

It is elementary that, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ringing opening to the Social Contract notwithstanding, people are definitely not ‘born free,’ let alone autonomous. Indeed, quite to the contrary, they are born very unfree, highly dependent, and conspicuously heteronomous. What freedom, independence, and autonomy people have in a given historical period is the product of long social traditions and, yes, a collective development — which is not to deny that individuals play an important role in that development, indeed are ultimately obliged to do so if they wish to be free.

Brown’s argument leads to a surprisingly simplistic conclusion. ‘It is not the group that gives shape to the individual,’ we are told, ‘but rather individuals who give form and content to the group. A group is a collection of individuals, no more and no less; it has no life or consciousness of its own’ (POI, p. 12, emphasis added). Not only does this incredible formulation closely resemble Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement that there is no such thing as a society but only individuals; it attests to a positivistic, indeed naive social myopia in which the universal is wholly separated from the concrete. Aristotle, one would have thought, resolved this problem when he chided Plato for creating a realm of ineffable ‘forms’ that existed apart from their tangible and imperfect ‘copies.’

It remains true that individuals never form mere ‘collections’ — except perhaps in cyberspace; quite to the contrary, even when they seem atomized and hermetic, they are immensely defined by the relationships they establish or are obliged to establish with each other, by virtue of their very real existence as social beings. The idea that a collective — and by extrapolation, society — is merely a ‘collection of individuals, no more and no less’ represents an ‘insight’ into the nature of human consociation that is hardly liberal but, today particularly, potentially reactionary.

By insistently identifying collectivism with an implacable social determinism, Brown herself creates an abstract ‘individual,’ one that is not even existential in the strictly conventional sense of the word. Minimally, human existence presupposes the social and material conditions necessary for the maintenance of life, sanity, intelligence, and discourse; and the affective qualities Brown regards as essential for her voluntaristic form of communism: care, concern, and sharing. Lacking the rich articulation of social relationships in which people are embedded from birth through maturity to old age, a ‘collection of individuals’ such as Brown posits would be, to put it bluntly, not a society at all. It would be literally a ‘collection’ in Thatcher’s sense of free-booting, self-seeking, egoistic monads. Presumably complete unto themselves, they are, by dialectical inversion, immensely de-individuated for want of any aim beyond the satisfaction of their own needs and pleasures — which are often socially engineered today in any case.

Acknowledging that individuals are self-motivated and possess free will does not require us to reject collectivism, given that they are also capable of developing an awareness of the social conditions under which these eminently human potentialities are exercised. The attainment of freedom rests partly on biological facts, as anyone who has raised a child knows; partly, on social facts, as anyone who lives in a community knows; and contrary to social constructionists, partly on the interaction of environment and inborn personal proclivities, as any thinking person knows. Individuality did not spring into being ab novo. Like the idea of freedom, it has a long social and psychological history.

Left to his or her own self, the individual loses the indispensable social moorings that make for what an anarchist might be expected to prize in individuality: reflective powers, which derive in great part from discourse; the emotional equipment that nourishes rage against unfreedom; the sociality that motivates the desire for radical change; and the sense of responsibility that engenders social action.

Indeed, Brown’s thesis has disturbing implications for social action. If individual ‘autonomy’ overrides any commitment to a ‘collectivity,’ there is no basis whatever for social institutionalization, decision-making, or even administrative coordination. Each individual, self-contained in his or her ‘autonomy,’ is free to do whatever he or she wants — presumably, following the old liberal formula, if it does not impede the ‘autonomy’ of others. Even democratic decision-making is jettisoned as authoritarian. ‘Democratic rule is still rule,’ Brown warns. ‘While it allows for more individual participation in government than monarchy or totalitarian dictatorship, it still inherently involves the repression of the wills of some people. This is obviously at odds with the existential individual, who must maintain the integrity of will in order to be existentially free’ (POI, p. 53). Indeed, so transcendentally sacrosanct is the autonomous individual will, in Brown’s eyes, that she approvingly quotes Peter Marshall’s claim that, according to anarchist principles, ‘the majority has no more right to dictate to the minority, even a minority of one, than the minority to the majority’ (POI, p. 140, emphasis added).

Denigrating rational, discursive, and direct-democratic procedures for collective decision-making as ‘dictating’ and ‘ruling’ awards a minority of one sovereign ego the right to abort the decision of a majority. But the fact remains that a free society will either be democratic, or it will not be achieved at all. In the very existential situation, if you please, of an anarchist society — a direct libertarian democracy — decisions would most certainly be made following open discussion. Thereafter the outvoted minority — even a minority of one — would have every opportunity to present countervailing arguments to try to change that decision. Decision-making by consensus, on the other hand, precludes ongoing dissensus — the all-important process of continual dialogue, disagreement, challenge, and counter’challenge, without which social as well as individual creativity would be impossible.

If anything, functioning on the basis of consensus assures that important decision-making will be either manipulated by a minority or collapse completely. And the decisions that are made will embody the lowest common denominator of views and constitute the least creative level of agreement. I speak, here, from painful, years-long experience with the use of consensus in the Clamshell Alliance of the 1970s. Just at the moment when this quasi-anarchic antinuclear-power movement was at the peak of its struggle, with thousands of activists, it was destroyed through the manipulation of the consensus process by a minority. The ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ that consensus decision-making produced permitted a well-organized few to control the unwieldy, deinstitutionalized, and largely disorganized many within the movement.

Nor, amidst the hue and cry for consensus, was it possible for dissensus to exist and creatively stimulate discussion, fostering a creative development of ideas that could yield new and ever-expanding perspectives. In any community, dissensus — and dissident individuals — prevent the community from stagnating. Pejorative words like dictate and rule properly refer to the silencing of dissenters, not to the exercise of democracy; ironically, it is the consensual ‘general will’ that could well, in Rousseau’s memorable phrase from the Social Contract, ‘force men to be free.’

Far from being existential in any earthy sense of the word, Brown’s ‘existential individualism’ deals with the individual ahistorically. She rarefies the individual as a transcendental category, much as, in the 1970s, Robert K. Wolff paraded Kantian concepts of the individual in his dubious Defense of Anarchism. The social factors that interact with the individual to make him or her a truly willful and creative being are subsumed under transcendental moral abstractions that, given a purely intellectual life of their own, ‘exist’ outside of history and praxis.

Alternating between moral transcendentalism and simplistic positivism in her approach to the individual’s relationship with the collective, Brown’s exposition fits together as clumsily as creationism with evolution. The rich dialectic and the ample history that shows how the individual was largely formed by and interacted with a social development is nearly absent from her work. Atomistic and narrowly analytic in many of her views, yet abstractly moral and even transcendental in her interpretations, Brown provides an excellent setting for a notion of autonomy that is antipodal to social freedom. With the ‘existential individual’ on one side, and a society that consists of a ‘collection of individuals’ and nothing more on the other, the chasm between autonomy and freedom becomes unbridgeable.

Anarchism as Chaos

Whatever Brown’s own preferences may be, her book both reflects and provides the premises for the shift among Euro-American anarchists away from social anarchism and toward individualist or lifestyle anarchism. Indeed, lifestyle anarchism today is finding its principal expression in spray-can graffiti, post-modernist nihilism, antirationalism, neoprimitivism, anti-technologism, neo-Situationist ‘cultural terrorism,’ mysticism, and a ‘practice’ of staging Foucauldian ‘personal insurrections.’

These trendy posturings, nearly all of which follow current yuppie fashions, are individualistic in the important sense that they are antithetical to the development of serious organizations, a radical politics, a committed social movement, theoretical coherence, and programmatic relevance. More oriented toward achieving one’s own ‘self-realization’ than achieving basic social change, this trend among lifestyle anarchists is particularly noxious in that its ‘turning inward,’ as Katinka Matson called it, claims to be a politics — albeit one that resembles R. D. Laing’s ‘politics of experience.’ The black flag, which revolutionary social anarchists raised in insurrectionary struggles in Ukraine and Spain, now becomes a fashionable sarong for the delectation of chic petty bourgeois.

One of the most unsavory examples of lifestyle anarchism is Hakim Bey’s (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson’s) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchism, Poetic Terrorism, a jewel in the New Autonomy Series (no accidental word choice here), published by the heavily postmodernist Semiotext(e)/Autono’media group in Brooklyn.[8] Amid paeans to ‘Chaos,’ ‘Amour Fou,’ ‘Wild Children,’ ‘Paganism,’ ‘Art Sabotage,’ ‘Pirate Utopias,’ ‘Black Magic as Revolutionary Action,’ ‘Crime,’ and ‘Sorcery,’ not to speak of commendations of ‘Marxism-Stirnerism,’ the call for autonomy is taken to lengths so absurd as to seemingly parody a self-absorbed and self-absorbing ideology.

T.A.Z. presents itself as a state of mind, an ardently antirational and anticivilizational mood, in which disorganization is conceived as an art form and graffiti supplants programs. The Bey (his pseudonym is the Turkish word for ‘chief’ or ‘prince’) minces no words about his disdain for social revolution: ‘Why bother to confront a ‘power’ which has lost all meaning and become sheer Simulation? Such confrontations will only result in dangerous and ugly spasms of violence’ (TAZ, p. 128). Power in quotation marks? A mere ‘Simulation’? If what is happening in Bosnia with firepower is a mere ‘simulation,’ we are living in a very safe and comfortable world indeed! The reader uneasy about the steadily multiplying social pathologies of modern life may be comforted by the Bey’s Olympian thought that ‘realism demands not only that we give up waiting for ‘the Revolution,’ but also that we give up wanting it’ (TAZ, p. 101). Does this passage beckon us to enjoy the serenity of Nirvana? Or a new Baudrillardian ‘Simulation’? Or perhaps a new Castoriadian ‘imaginary’?

Having eliminated the classical revolutionary aim of transforming society, the Bey patronizingly mocks those who once risked all for it: ‘The democrat, the socialist, the rational ideology . . . are deaf to the music & lack all sense of rhythm’ (TAZ, p. 66). Really? Have the Bey and his acolytes themselves mastered the verses and music of the Marseillaise and danced ecstatically to the rhythms of Gliere’s Russian Sailor’s Dance? There is a wearisome arrogance in the Bey’s dismissal of the rich culture that was created by revolutionaries over the past centuries, indeed by ordinary working people in the pre-rock-‘n’-roll, pre-Woodstock era.

Verily, let anyone who enters the dreamworld of the Bey give up all nonsense about social commitment. ‘A democratic dream? a socialist dream? Impossible,’ intones the Bey with overbearing certainty. ‘In dream we are never ruled except by love or sorcery’ (TAZ, p. 64). Thus are the dreams of a new world evoked by centuries of idealists in great revolutions magisterially reduced by the Bey to the wisdom of his febrile dream world.

As to an anarchism that is ‘all cobwebby with Ethical Humanism, Free Thought, Muscular Atheism, & crude Fundamentalist Cartesian Logic’ (TAZ, p. 52) — forget it! Not only does the Bey, with one fell swoop, dispose of the Enlightenment tradition in which anarchism, socialism, and the revolutionary movement were once rooted, he mixes apples like ‘Fundamentalist Cartesian Logic’ with oranges like ‘Free Thought,’ and ‘Muscular Humanism’ as though they were interchangeable or necessarily presuppose each other.

Although the Bey himself never hesitates to issue Olympian pronouncements and deliver petulant polemics, he has no patience with ‘the squabbling ideologues of anarchism & libertarianism’ (TAZ, p. 46). Proclaiming that ‘Anarchy knows no dogmas’ (TAZ, p. 52), the Bey nonetheless immerses his readers in a harsh dogma if there ever was one: ‘Anarchism ultimately implies anarchy — & anarchy is chaos’ (TAZ, p. 64). So saith the Lord: ‘I Am That I Am’ — and Moses quaked before the pronouncement!

Indeed, in a fit of manic narcissism, the Bey ordains that it is the all-possessive self, the towering ‘I,’ the Big ‘me’ that is sovereign: ‘each of us [is] the ruler of our own flesh, our own creations — and as much of everything else as we can grab & hold.’ For the Bey, anarchists and kings — and beys — become indistinguishable, inasmuch as all are autarchs:

Our actions are justified by fiat & our relations are shaped by treaties with other autarchs. We make the law for our own domains — & the chains of law have been broken. At present perhaps we survive as mere Pretenders — but even so we may seize a few instants, a few square feet of reality over which to impose our absolute will, our royaume. L’etat, c’est moi. . . . If we are bound by any ethics or morality, it must be one which we ourselves have imagined. (TAZ, p. 67)

L’Etat, c’est moi? Along with beys, I can think of at least two people in this century who did enjoy these sweeping prerogatives: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Most of the rest of us mortals, rich and poor alike, share, as Anatole France once put it, the prohibition to sleep under the bridges of the Seine. Indeed, if Friedrich Engels’s ‘On Authority,’ with its defense of hierarchy, represents a bourgeois form of socialism, T.A.Z. and its offshoots represent a bourgeois form of anarchism. ‘There is no becoming,’ the Bey tells us, ‘no revolution, no struggle, no path; [if] already you’re the monarch of your own skin — your inviolable freedom awaits to be completed only by the love of other monarchs: a politics of dream, urgent as the blueness of sky’ — words that could be inscribed on the New York Stock Exchange as a credo for egotism and social indifference (TAZ, p. 4).

Certainly, this view will not repel the boutiques of capitalist ‘culture’ any more than long hair, beards, and jeans have repelled the entrepreneurial world of haute fashion. Unfortunately, far too many people in this world — no ‘simulations’ or ‘dreams’ — do not own even their own skins, as prisoners in chain gangs and jails can attest in the most concrete of terms. No one has ever floated out of the earthly realm of misery on ‘a politics of dreams’ except the privileged petty bourgeois, who may find the Bey’s manifestoes amenable particularly in moments of boredom.

For the Bey, in fact, even classical revolutionary insurrections offer little more than a personal high, redolent of Foucault’s ‘limit experiences.’ ‘An uprising is like a ‘peak experience,” he assures us (TAZ, p. 100). Historically, ‘some anarchists . . took part in all sorts of uprisings and revolutions, even communist & socialist ones,’ but that was ‘because they found in the moment of insurrection itself the kind of freedom they sought. Thus while utopianism has so far always failed, the individualist or existentialist anarchists have succeeded inasmuch as they have attained (however briefly) the realization of their will to power in war’ (TAZ, p. 88). The Austrian workers’ uprising of February 1934 and the Spanish Civil War of 1936, I can attest, were more than orgiastic ‘moments of insurrection’ but were bitter struggles carried on with desperate earnestness and magnificent ‘lan, all aesthetic epiphanies notwithstanding.

Insurrection nonetheless becomes for the Bey little more than a psychedelic ‘trip,’ while the Nietzschean Overman, of whom the Bey approves, is a ‘free spirit’ who would ‘disdain wasting time on agitation for reform, on protest, on visionary dreams, on all kinds of ‘revolutionary martyrdom.’ Presumably dreams are okay as long as they are not ‘visionary’ (read: socially committed); rather, the Bey would ‘drink wine’ and have a ‘private epiphany’ (TAZ, p. 88), which suggests little more than mental masturbation, freed to be sure from the constraints of Cartesian logic.

It should not surprise us to learn that the Bey favors the ideas of Max Stirner, who ‘commits no metaphysics, yet bestows on the Unique [i.e, the Ego] a certain absoluteness’ (TAZ, p. 68). To be sure, the Bey finds that there is a ‘missing ingredient in Stirner’: ‘a working concept of nonordinary consciousness’ (TAZ, p. 68). Apparently Stirner is too much the rationalist for the Bey. ‘The orient, the occult, the tribal cultures possess techniques which can be ‘appropriated’ in true anarchist fashion. . . . We need a practical kind of ‘mystical anarchism’ . . . a democratization of shamanism, intoxicated & serene’ (TAZ, p. 63). Hence the Bey summons his disciples to become ‘sorcerers’ and suggests that they use the ‘Black Malay Djinn Curse.’

What, finally, is a ‘temporary autonomous zone’? ‘The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself, to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it’ (TAZ, p. 101). In a TAZ we can ‘realize many of our true Desires, even if only for a season, a brief Pirate Utopia, a warped free-zone in the old Space/Time continuum)’ (TAZ, p. 62). ‘Potential TAZs’ include ‘the sixties-style ‘tribal gathering,’ the forest conclave of eco-saboteurs, the idyllic Beltane of the neopagans, anarchist conferences, and gay faery circles,’ not to speak of ‘nightclubs, banquets,’ and ‘old-time libertarian picnics’ — no less! (TAZ, p. 100). Having been a member of the Libertarian League in the 1960s, I would love to see the Bey and his disciples surface at an ‘old-time libertarian picnic’!

So transient, so evanescent, so ineffable is a TAZ in contrast to the formidably stable State and bourgeoisie that ‘as soon as the TAZ is named . . . it must vanish, it will vanish . . . only to spring up again somewhere else’ (TAZ, p. 101). A TAZ, in effect, is not a revolt but precisely a simulation, an insurrection as lived in the imagination of a juvenile brain, a safe retreat into unreality. Indeed, declaims the Bey: ‘We recommend [the TAZ] because it can provide the quality of enhancement without necessarily [!] leading to violence & martyrdom’ (TAZ, p. 101). More precisely, like an Andy Warhol ‘happening,’ a TAZ is a passing event, a momentary orgasm, a fleeting expression of the ‘will to power’ that is, in fact, conspicuously powerless in its capacity to leave any imprint on the individual’s personality, subjectivity, and even self-formation, still less on shaping events and reality.

Given the evanescent quality of a TAZ, the Bey’s disciples can enjoy the fleeting privilege of living a ‘nomadic existence,’ for ‘homelessness can in a sense be a virtue, an adventure’ (TAZ, p. 130). Alas, homelessness can be an ‘adventure’ when one has a comfortable home to return to, while nomadism is the distinct luxury of those who can afford to live without earning their livelihood. Most of the ‘nomadic’ hoboes I recall so vividly from the GreatDepression era suffered desperate lives of hunger, disease, and indignity and usually died prematurely — as they still do, today, in the streets of urban America. The few gypsy-types who seemed to enjoy the ‘life of the road’ were idiosyncratic at best and tragically neurotic at worst. Nor can I ignore another ‘insurrection’ that the Bey advances: notably, ‘voluntary illiteracy’ (TAZ, p. 129). Although he advances this as a revolt against the educational system, its more desirable effect might be to render the Bey’s various ex cathedra injunctions inaccessible to his readers.

Perhaps no better description can be given of T.A.Z.’s message than the one that appeared in Whole Earth Review, whose reviewer emphasizes that the Bey’s pamphlet is ‘quickly becom[ing] the countercultural bible of the 1990s . . . While many of Bey’s concepts share an affinity with the doctrines of anarchism,’ the Review reassures its yuppie clientele that he pointedly departs from the usual rhetoric about overthrowing the government. Instead, he prefers the mercurial nature of ‘uprisings,’ which he believes provide ‘moments of intensity [that can] give shape and meaning to the entirety of life.’ These pockets of freedom, or temporary autonomous zones, enable the individual to elude the schematic grids of Big Government and to occasionally live within realms where he or she can briefly experience total freedom. (emphasis added) [9]

There is an untranslatable Yiddish word for all of this: nebbich! During the 1960s, the affinity group Up Against the Wall Mother*censored*ers spread similar confusion, disorganization, and ‘cultural terrorism,’ only to disappear from the political scene soon thereafter. Indeed, some of its members entered the commercial, professional, and middle-class world they had formerly professed to despise. Nor is such behavior uniquely American. As one French ‘veteran’ of May-June 1968 cynically put it: ‘We had our fun in ’68, and now it’s time to grow up.’ The same deadening cycle, with circled A’s, was repeated during a highly individualistic youth revolt in Zurich in 1984, only to end in the creation of Needle Park, a notorious cocaine and crack hangout established by the city’s officials to allow addicted young people to destroy themselves legally.

The bourgeoisie has nothing whatever to fear from such lifestyle declamations. With its aversion for institutions, mass-based organizations, its largely subcultural orientation, its moral decadence, its celebration of transience, and its rejection of programs, this kind of narcissistic anarchism is socially innocuous, often merely a safety valve for discontent toward the prevailing social order. With the Bey, lifestyle anarchism takes flight from all meaningful social activism and a steadfast commitment to lasting and creative projects by dissolving itself into kicks, postmodernist nihilism, and a dizzying Nietzschean sense of elitist superiority.

The price that anarchism will pay if it permits this swill to displace the libertarian ideals of an earlier period could be enormous. The Bey’s egocentric anarchism, with its post-modernist withdrawal into individualistic ‘autonomy,’ Foucauldian ‘limit experiences,’ and neo-Situationist ‘ecstasy,’ threatens to render the very word anarchism politically and socially harmless — a mere fad for the titillation of the petty bourgeois of all ages.

Mystical and Irrationalist Anarchism

The Bey’s T.A.Z. hardly stands alone in its appeal to sorcery, even mysticism. Given their prelapsarian mentality, many lifestyle anarchists readily take to antirationalism in its most atavistic forms. Consider ‘The Appeal of Anarchy,’ which occupies the entire back page of a recent issue of Fifth Estate (Summer 1989). ‘Anarchy,’ we read, recognizes ‘the imminence of total liberation [nothing less!] and as a sign of your freedom, be naked in your rites.’ Engage in ‘dancing, singing, laughing, feasting, playing,’ we are enjoined — and could anyone short of a mummified prig argue against these Rabelaisian delights?

But unfortunately, there is a hitch. Rabelais’s Abbey of ThŽl?me, which Fifth Estate seems to emulate, was replete with servants, cooks, grooms, and artisans, without whose hard labor the self-indulgent aristocrats of his distinctly upper-class utopia would have starved and huddled naked in the otherwise cold halls of the Abbey. To be sure, the Fifth Estate’s ‘Appeal of Anarchy’ may well have in mind a materially simpler version of the Abbey of ThŽl?me, and its ‘feasting’ may refer more to tofu and rice than to stuffed partridges and tasty truffles. But still — without major technological advances to free people from toil, even to get tofu and rice on the table, how could a society based on this version of anarchy hope to ‘abolish all authority,’ ‘share all things in common,’ feast, and run naked, dancing and singing?

This question is particularly relevant for the Fifth Estate group. What is arresting in the periodical is the primitivistic, prerational, antitechnological, and anticivilizational cult that lies at the core of its articles. Thus Fifth Estate’s ‘Appeal’ invites anarchists to ‘cast the magic circle, enter the trance of ecstasy, revel in sorcery which dispels all power’ — precisely the magical techniques that shamans (who at least one of its writers celebrates) in tribal society, not to speak of priests in more developed societies, have used for ages to elevate their status as hierarchs and against which reason long had to battle to free the human mind from its own self-created mystifications. ‘Dispel all power’? Again, there is a touch of Foucault here that as always denies the need for establishing distinctly empowered self-managing institutions against the very real power of capitalist and hierarchical institutions — indeed, for the actualization of a society in which desire and ecstasy can find genuine fulfillment in a truly libertarian communism.

Fifth Estate’s beguilingly ‘ecstatic’ paean to ‘anarchy,’ so bereft of social content — all its rhetorical flourishes aside — could easily appear as a poster on the walls of a chic boutique, or on the back of a greeting card. Friends who recently visited New York City advise me, in fact, that a restaurant with linen-covered tables, fairly expensive menus, and a yuppie clientele on St. Mark’s Place in the Lower East Side — a battleground of the 1960s — is named Anarchy. This feedlot for the city’s petty bourgeoisie sports a print of the famous Italian mural The Fourth Estate, which shows insurrectionary fin de si’cle workers militantly marching against an undepicted boss or possibly a police station. Lifestyle anarchism, it would seem, can easily become a choice consumer delicacy. The restaurant, I am told, also has security guards, presumably to keep out the local canaille who figure in the mural.

Safe, privatistic, hedonistic, and even cozy, lifestyle anarchism may easily provide the ready verbiage to spice up the pedestrian bourgeois lifeways of timid Rabelaisians. Like the ‘Situationist art’ that MIT displayed for the delectation of the avant-garde petty bourgeoisie several years ago, it offers little more than a terribly ‘wicked’ anarchist image — dare I say, a simulacrum — like those that flourish all along the Pacific Rim of America and points east’ward. The Ecstasy Industry, for its part, is doing only too well under contemporary capitalism and could easily absorb the techniques of lifestyle anarchists to enhance a marketably naughty image. The counterculture that once shocked the petty bourgeoisie with its long hair, beards, dress, sexual freedom, and art has long since been upstaged by bourgeois entrepreneurs whose boutiques, caf’s, clubs, and even nudist camps are doing a flourishing ‘business, as witness the many steamy advertisements for new ‘ecstasies’ in the Village Voice and similar periodicals.

Actually, Fifth Estate’s blatantly antirationalistic sentiments have very troubling implications. Its visceral celebration of imagination, ecstasy, and ‘primality’ patently impugns not only rationalistic efficiency but reason as such. The cover of the Fall/Winter 1993 issue bears Francisco Goya’s famously misunderstood Capriccio no. 43, ‘Il sueno de la razon produce monstros’ (‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’). Goya’s sleeping figure is shown slumped over his desk before an Apple computer. Fifth Estate’s English translation of Goya’s inscription reads, ‘The dream of reason produces monsters,’ implying that monsters are a product of reason itself. In point of fact, Goya avowedly meant, as his own notes indicate, that the monsters in the engraving are produced by the sleep, not the dream, of reason. As he wrote in his own commentary: ‘Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters. United with reason, she is the mother of all arts, and the source of their wonders.'[10] By deprecating reason, this on-again, off-again anarchist periodical enters into collusion with some of the most dismal aspects of today’s neo-Heideggerian reaction.

Against Technology and Civilization

Even more troubling are the writings of George Bradford (aka David Watson), one of the major theorists at Fifth Estate, on the horrors of technology — apparently technology as such. Technology, it would seem, determines social relations rather than the opposite, a notion that more closely approximates vulgar Marxism than, say, social ecology. ‘Technology is not an isolated project, or even an accumulation of technical knowledge,’ Bradford tells us in ‘Stopping the Industrial Hydra’ (SIH), that is determined by a somehow separate and more fundamental sphere of ‘social relations.’ Mass technics have become, in the words of Langdon Winner, ‘structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments,’ and thus of the very social relations that brought them about. Mass technics — a product of earlier forms and archaic hierarchies — have now outgrown the conditions that engendered them, taking on an autonomous life. . . . They furnish, or have become, a kind of total environment and social system, both in their general and individual, subjective aspects. . . . In such a mechanized pyramid . . . instrumental and social relations are one and the same.[11]

This facile body of notions comfortably bypasses the capitalist relations that blatantly determine how technology will be used and focuses on what technology is presumed to be. By relegating social relations to something less than fundamental — instead of emphasizing the all-important productive process where technology is used — Bradford imparts to machines and ‘mass technics’ a mystical autonomy that, like the Stalinist hypostasization of technology, has served extremely reactionary ends. The idea that technology has a life of its own is deeply rooted in the conservative German romanticism of the last century and in the writings of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Georg J’nger, which fed into National Socialist ideology, however much the Nazis honored their antitechnological ideology in the breach.

Viewed in terms of the contemporary ideology of our own times, this ideological baggage is typified by the claim, so common today, that newly developed automated machinery variously costs people their jobs or intensifies their exploitation — both of which are indubitable facts but are anchored precisely in social relations of capitalist exploitation, not in technological advances per se. Stated bluntly: ‘downsizing’ today is not being done by machines but by avaricious bourgeois who use machines to replace labor or exploit it more intensively. Indeed, the very machines that the bourgeois employs to reduce ‘labor costs’ could, in a rational society, free human beings from mindless toil for more creative and personally rewarding activities.

There is no evidence that Bradford is familiar with Heidegger or J’nger; rather, he seems to draw his inspiration from Langdon Winner and Jacques Ellul, the latter of whom Bradford quotes approvingly: ‘It is the technological coherence that now makes up the social coherence. . . . Technology is in itself not only a means, but a universe of means — in the original sense of Universum: both exclusive and total’ (quoted in SIH, p. 10).

In The Technological Society, his best-known book, Ellul advanced the dour thesis that the world and our ways of thinking about it are patterned on tools and machines (la technique). Lacking any social explanation of how this ‘technological society’ came about, Ellul’s book concluded by offering no hope, still less any approach for redeeming humanity from its total absorption by la technique. Indeed, even a humanism that seeks to harness technology to meet human needs is reduced, in his view, into a ‘pious hope with no chance whatsoever of influencing technological evolution.’ [12] And rightly so, if so deterministic a worldview is followed to its logical conclusion.

Happily, however, Bradford provides us with a solution: ‘to begin immediately to dismantle the machine altogether’ (SIH, p. 10). And he brooks no compromise with civilization but essentially repeats all the quasi-mystical, anticivilizational, and antitechnological clich’s that appear in certain New Age environmental cults. Modern civilization, he tells us, is ‘a matrix of forces,’ including ‘commodity relations, mass communications, urbanization and mass technics, along with . . . interlocking, rival nuclear-cybernetic states,’ all of which converge into a ‘global megamachine’ (SIH, p. 20). ‘Commodity relations,’ he notes in his essay ‘Civilization in Bulk’ (CIB), are merely part of this ‘matrix of forces,’ in which civilization is ‘a machine’ that has been a ‘labor camp from its origins,’ a ‘rigid pyramid of crusting hierarchies,’ ‘a grid expanding the territory of the inorganic,’ and ‘a linear progression from Prometheus’ theft of fire to the International Monetary Fund.’ [13] Accordingly, Bradford reproves Monica Sj’o and Barbara Mor’s inane book, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth — not for its atavistic and regressive theism, but because the authors put the word civilization in quotation marks — a practice that ‘reflects the tendency of this fascinating [!] book to posit an alternative or reverse perspective on civilization rather than to challenge its terms altogether’ (CIB, footnote 23). Presumably, it is Prometheus who is to be reproved, not these two Earth Mothers, whose tract on chthonic deities, for all its compromises with civilization, is ‘fascinating.’

No reference to the megamachine would be complete, to be sure, without quoting from Lewis Mumford’s lament on its social effects. Indeed, it is worth noting that such comments have normally misconstrued Mumford’s intentions. Mumford was not an antitechnologist, as Bradford and others would have us believe; nor was he in any sense of the word a mystic who would have found Bradford’s anticivilizational primitivism to his taste. On this score, I can speak from direct personal knowledge of Mumford’s views, when we conversed at some length as participants in a conference at the University of Pennsylvania around 1972.

But one need only turn to his writings, such as Technics and Civilization (TAC), from which Bradford himself quotes, to see that Mumford is at pains to favorably describe ‘mechanical instruments’ as ‘potentially a vehicle of rational human purposes.’ [14] Repeatedly reminding his reader that machines come from human beings, Mumford emphasizes that the machine is ‘the projection of one particular side of the human personality’ (TAC, p. 317). Indeed, one of its most important functions has been to dispel the impact of superstition on the human mind. Thus:

In the past, the irrational and demonic aspects of life had invaded spheres where they did not belong. It was a step in advance to discover that bacteria, not brownies, were responsible for curdling milk, and that an air-cooled motor was more effective than a witch’s broomstick for rapid long distance transportation. . . . Science and technics stiffened our morale: by their very austerities and abnegations they . . . cast contempt on childish fears, childish guesses, equally childish assertions. (TAC, p. 324)

This major theme in Mumford’s writings has been blatantly neglected by the primitivists in our midst — notably, his belief that the machine has made the ‘paramount contribution’ of fostering ‘the technique of cooperative thought and action.’ Nor did Mumford hesitate to praise ‘the esthetic excellence of the machine form . . . above all, perhaps, the more objective personality that has come into existence through a more sensitive and understanding intercourse with these new social instruments and through their deliberate cultural assimilation’ (TAC, p. 324). Indeed, ‘the technique of creating a neutral world of fact as distinguished from the raw data of immediate experience was the great general contribution of modern analytic science’ (TAC, p. 361).

Far from sharing Bradford’s explicit primitivism, Mumford sharply criticized those who reject the machine absolutely, and he regarded the ‘return to the absolute primitive’ as a ‘neurotic adaptation’ to the megamachine itself (TAC, p. 302), indeed a catastrophe. ‘More disastrous than any mere physical destruction of machines by the barbarian is his threat to turn off or divert the human motive power,’ he observed in the sharpest of terms, ‘discouraging the cooperative processes of thought and the disinterested research which are responsible for our major technical achievements’ (TAC, p. 302). And he enjoined: ‘We must abandon our futile and lamentable dodges for resisting the machine by stultifying relapses into savagery’ (TAC, p. 319).

Nor do his later works reveal any evidence that he relented in this view. Ironically, he contemptuously designated the Living Theater’s performances and visions of the ‘Outlaw Territory’ of motorcycle gangs as ‘Barbarism,’ and he deprecated Wood’stock as the ‘Mass Mobilization of Youth,’ from which the ‘present mass-minded, over-regimented, depersonalized culture has nothing to fear.’

Mumford, for his own part, favored neither the megamachine nor primitivism (the ‘organic’) but rather the sophistication of technology along democratic and humanly scaled lines. ‘Our capacity to go beyond the machine [to a new synthesis] rests upon our power to assimilate the machine,’ he observed in Technics and Civilization. ‘Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human’ (TAC, p. 363, emphasis added).

Denouncing technology and civilization as inherently oppressive of humanity in fact serves to veil the specific social relations that privilege exploiters over the exploited and hierarchs over their subordinates. More than any oppressive society in the past, capitalism conceals its exploitation of humanity under a disguise of ‘fetishes,’ to use Marx’s terminology in Capital, above all, the ‘fetishism of commodities,’ which has been variously — and superficially — embroidered by the Situationists into ‘spectacles’ and by Baudrillard into ‘simulacra.’ Just as the bourgeoisie’s acquisition of surplus value is hidden by a contractual exchange of wages for labor power that is only ostensibly equal, so the fetishization of the commodity and its movements conceals the sovereignty of capitalism’s economic and social relations.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.