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PEREIRA, Irène. “On Vivien Garcia’s L’Anarchisme aujourd’hui.
Translated by Jesse COHN
Article published on 26 July 2009
last modification on 27 April 2015

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Vivien Garcia’s L’anarchisme aujourd’hui offers an introduction to American postanarchist literature. It calls into question, on the basis of the work of D. Colson, among others, the thesis that the classical authors of anarchism must be linked to philosophical modernity in favor of a postmodern reading of these authors. In this review, Irène Pereira discusses the interpretations of modernity and postmodernity as they are applied to anarchist thought and practice.

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Introduction by Jesse COHN

Editions L’Harmattan has just published the book by V. Garcia, L’anarchisme aujourd’hui, the result of a Master’s Thesis, with a foreword by D. Colson [1]. It seemed interesting to present this work and respond for several reasons, even though we admit our ignorance of the Anglo-Saxon postanarchist literature that V. Garcìa analyzes and discusses in the first part of his book.

The primary interest of this work is in constituting contemporary anarchist political philosophy as an academic subject in France. In addition, this analysis is based on recent work published across the Atlantic and on the very contemporary work of D. Colson. More importantly, we believe that this book merits attention because it goes to the heart of a fundamental contemporary philosophical problem that anarchism runs up against: where is anarchism situated in relation to the philosophical positions emerging from modernity, and in relation to those emerging from postmodernity?

We believe it is important to clarify exactly how we understand this problem. The concepts of modernity and postmodernity do not refer to temporal categories but to philosophical positions. The notion of modernity is based on philosophical positions associated with so-called Enlightenment philosophy. These positions include the following theses:

1) An essentialist ontology: nature is an immutable, determined, and fixed order from which it is possible to derive principles of political organization.

2) An essentialist anthropology: there is a human nature that is fundamentally good.

3) History is oriented by a principle of progress arising from the progress of science and technology.

4) Power is a substance that is concentrated in the State, Capital, or the Church.

For postmodernity, it means a position that would find its philosophical paradigm in the left Nietzscheanism of authors such as Foucault or Deleuze. This position can also be called poststructuralist or “French Theory”. The theses that characterize this position are as follows:

1) An anti-essentialist ontology: reality is a stream, constantly changing, without order, given to randomness.

2) An anti-essentialist anthropology: the “I” is a constantly changing composite of multiple forces, the product of a cumulative process.

3) There is no principle of progress in history; the history of science does not unfold according to a cumulative process.

4) Power is a relationship, it is multifaceted and present in all relationships between human beings. The debate between Chomsky and Foucault on human nature and power in 1971 certainly crystallizes this controversy.

We are aware, moreover, that modernity and postmodernity are philosophical positions, rather than temporal categories, inasmuch as a writer such as Diderot is closer to the positions called postmodern than he is to the modern. Faced with this problem, how does V. Garcìa locate anarchism and especially the authors of so-called classical anarchism there? V. Garcia reproaches the postanarchist authors for considering modern and postmodern positions as temporal categories and reading the classic anarchist authors as proponents of the positions of modernity. For his part, he makes a “postmodernist” reading of the classical anarchist authors close to that of D. Colson. However, it seems to us that he is trying to go beyond certain limits of the duality between modernity and postmodernity. In what follows, therefore, we propose to comment on some of the positions advocated by V. Garcia in his book both with respect to his theoretical positions and to the practical consequences of these positions.

V. Garcìa maintains that anarchism is characterized by a paradoxical ontology that could be described as anti-essentialist ontology. We believe it is important before discussing this position to expose what we believe to be the whys and wherefores.

The term ontology comes from the Greek root ontos, participle of enai (to be). The ontology is, verbatim, the rhetoric of Being. Now, and this is the meaning of the opposition between Plato and the Sophists, for example in the Theatetus, to be able to hold a speech on the Being, is possible only if Being does not change. If the reality is subject to constant change, it is impossible to speak truth about what is. Therefore, in classical philosophy, ontology presupposes an essentialist conception.

The modern philosophy of the subject consists in founding discourse not on Being, but on the subject. It is, in the sense that Kant gives this term, a philosophical anthropology. This philosophical anthropology must nevertheless be distinguished from the naturalist anthropology of the modernist position that we have outlined above. For Kant, indeed, it is a matter of a transcendental subject and not a human nature. The contemporary anti-humanist theory shared by the structuralists and post-structuralists has consisted in calling into question the idea of an anthropocentric knowledge based on the concept of the subject and the idea of human nature.

Post-structuralism, however, is distinguished from structuralism by its desire to think the possibility of change, the event, the random . . . The problem that arises here is how it is possible to believe this without resorting to the concept of a subject with a free will, thus reverting to a philosophical anthropology. The path chosen by Deleuze, for example, is the return to an ontology, but this time one that is anti-essentialist, via Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Since V. Garcìa refers in his book to the questions that we posed to D. Colson in “Is There an Anarchist Ontology? Reflection on Nietzsche and Others,” we will explain in a more structured way the problem raised for us in speaking of an “anarchist ontology” that would be anti-essentialist.

The difficulty, from our perspective, is twofold. The first difficulty is gnosiological: it concerns the issue of the formal validity of such an assertion and its status. What poses a problem for us is not that one can begin with the methodological presupposition of an anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist conception of reality, but the gnosiological status one gives this statement [énoncé]. In asserting it, we fall into logical difficulties. Indeed, the notion of “ontology” presupposes a discourse on what Being is. Now, to say that Being is constantly changing appears to pose several problems. If Being constantly changes, then it is not possible to predicate anything constant about it. Even the assertion that it is constantly changing must itself be subject to change. To assert something about Being, as a totality, in a philosophical conception that rejects any transcendence is to try to have it both ways [à la fois être juge et partie], and it is problematic to reintroduce an absolute knowledge of the totality. Moreover, the notion of ontology implies a deductive conception that consists in starting from an a priori knowledge of Being in order to infer certain anthropological, political and ethical consequences.

For our part, we prefer a pragmatist approach that consists in inferring [induire] hypotheses about reality starting from their practical consequences. Ontology, on this account, is no longer primary but a consequence. What bothers us, thus, in the notion of ontology is that it involves the possibility of absolute knowledge. For us, anti-essentialism, applied to the totality, can only have the status of a methodological hypothesis, which is why we prefer the expressions “methodological anti-essentialism” or “hypothetical anti-essentialism.” In regard to speaking of an anarchist ontology, I suggest that we should, in fact, in the context of a pluralistic assumption of reality, speak of a variety of anarchist philosophies, some of which are anti-essentialist and others essentialist. It seems to us that we have arrived at a confusion between Being and the rhetoric of Being: “a circle is different from the idea of a circle” [2]. For our part, we prefer the anti-essentialist philosophical perspective, believing that the assumption is more justifiable, but that does not mean that there are not other discourses that claim to be anarchist and that defend other philosophical positions.

However, if V. Garcìa takes a postmodern position the question of ontology close to that of G. Deleuze and D. Colson, on other issues, he adopts a position that tends to exceed what we believe to have been the limits of postmodern positions. But for us, that is where the challenge lies in the philosophical renewal of anarchism. While we accede to a number of criticisms and philosophical positions defended by post-structuralists of Nietzschean inspiration, we believe that their position has led to theoretical impasses rendering it unable to meet a number of practical challenges. V. Garcìa explicitly emphasizes one of its limits when he speaks of the question of power in Foucault, – a limit on which Foucault himself has been confronted, and which led him to move towards a reflection on practices of subjectivation as a means of resistance to power. Indeed, what V. Garcìa stresses is that the philosophy of the dissemination of omnipresent micro-powers seems to render any challenge to power impossible. More importantly, if any relationship at the same time is a power relationship, how is it possible to envisage relations that are not relations of domination? V. Garcìa proposes to distinguish, among relations, between authoritarian relations and relations of legitimate authority.

While we agree with this analysis, it seems to us important to note that the more or less explicit reference that V. Garcìa makes elsewhere to the Nietzschean critique of equality should not make us forget that this critique in Nietzsche is aimed not only against Christianity but also against the socialists and anarchists. Now, such a critique of the notion of equality in social anarchism, in our opinion stems from a confusion between political and economic equality on the one hand and ontological identity on the other. If the motto of communism is “from each according to his ability, to each according to their needs,” it is because every individual is different.

Another case where V. Garcìa attempts, we believe, to go beyond the dichotomy of modern and postmodern positions is in the pages he devotes to Kropotkin. V. Garcìa is justified, we believe, in showing how Kropotkin goes beyond the dualism between egoism and altruism in a non-essentialist manner. For Kropotkin, who is a Darwinian, it is not a matter of relying on an unchanging human nature. Human sociability is linked to the relational character of the mode of life of living beings; human beings live in society, and because they live in society, it is in their own interests to be altruistic. V. Garcìa also uses Kropotkin to go beyond moralism, immoralism and amoralism in an immanent ethics. This is not the postmodern ethics of a Foucault, for example, inspired by Nietzsche, in whom the concern for the self can be developed at the expense of others: the concern for the self

“implies complex relations with others insofar as this ethos of freedom is also a way of caring for others. [...] But I don’t think that one can say that the Greek who cares for himself should first of all care for others [...] Care for others should not be put before the care of oneself. The care of the self is ethically prior in that the relationship with oneself is ontologically prior.” [3]

For Kropotkin, ethics is different from morality, not because it is a search for pleasure which would exclude others [ferait abstraction d’autrui], but because it is not based on a transcendence, because it is immanent to the relational character of the existence of living beings. An individual who manifests bad behavior is the one who acts contrary to the behavior of mutual aid and who thus injures himself and others. Anarchism does not react to this with punishments and repression. But if we could respond to Kropotkin, we would ask : does an anarchist society presuppose the disappearance of every transgression or the introduction of a law that protects the weak against the strong, yet without being a repressive law? Again, V. Garcìa turns to Proudhon to show us how the only ethical approach is to go beyond the law. Collective reason allows us to produce an immanent anarchist right, guaranteed by collective power, that protects the weak, focusing on the protection of victims and reparation of injustice rather than repression. Proudhon shows that ethics is not a substitute for any juridico-political dimension in anarchism.

The last point that seems important to address is the practical consequences of a positioning of anarchism on the side of modern or postmodern philosophies. For the postanarchist authors, critics of modern anarchism, it seems that modern anarchism is characterised by an insurrectionary revolutionary conception aimed at the destruction of the State and Capitalism. The revolution having been accomplished, power would be totally destroyed. For postanarchists, such a conception is illusory, because power is not concentrated in centers, but is immanent to every relationship. Faced with this, it seems to us, postmodernity has taken several directions.

The first has consisted in falling back on care for the self, what some have called postmodern individualism. This postmodern individualism does not seem unrelated to left Nietzcheanism’s neglect of the social dimension. Indeed, it seems to us that during its development, left Nietzscheanism attempted to hold two positions that are difficult to reconcile: an aristocratic critique of bourgeois morality joined to a socialist critique of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism. But in the 80s, some, abandoning the left dimension of this Nietzscheanism, developed a kind of position that might be described as liberal-libertarian. Among those who underwent this process, we might cite the case of François Ewald. Similarly, the discourse of difference was subject to a recuperation in the early 80s by the new right around A. de Benoist. These trends seem linked to the theoretical weaknesses of postmodern theories inspired by left Nietzscheanism.

Within the framework of the renewal of libertarian practices related to postmodern theories, V. Garcìa rightly cites the TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones) inspired by the work of H. Bey, which he relates to the milieux libres [the anarchist communal movement]. With the TAZ, we are indeed within the framework of a postmodern practice. Indeed, it is no longer a matter of seeking to produce an overall transformation of society, but rather to implement a temporary space of freedom in which a group of individuals is linked by relations of affinity. Here, we are really within the framework of what we may call lifestyle anarchism, born from minoritarian practices of insurrection, rather than a form of social anarchism. The limit of such practices, we believe, comes from the fact that they constitute elitist forms of practice in which a minority constitutes itself as an artificial micro-society at the margins of society. This form of association is not intended to address and incorporate the greatest number. It is indeed rightly that V. Garcìa connects these practices to the anarchist communes of Belle Epoque individualist anarchism. But the problem of the Belle Epoque individualist anarchism is that it is caught up in a relatively ambiguous current, as is the postmodernism of today, which is the individualism of the Belle Epoque. This current exceeds the limits of anarchism. In its left-wing version, it joined anarchism, but these philosophical positions can also lead to the much more reactionary conceptions that are called right-wing or liberal anarchism, inspired by Herbert Spencer. Nevertheless, V. Garcia disagrees that “postmodern anarchism” is limited to lifestyle-anarchist practices, and he also sees in it manifestations of the social anarchism of revolutionary syndicalism. D. Colson, in “Nietzsche et l’anarchisme” [4], has demonstrated the proximity of Nietzsche’s thought to some elements of revolutionary syndicalism. We do not dispute the correctness of this position. Indeed, it is with good reason that V. Garcìa underscores this point in relation, for example, to the revolutionary syndicalism of G. Sorel. But it is not clear that the Nietzschean dimensions that have been able to develop in revolutionary syndicalism in the past are those that we should value in our current practice of the syndicalism of direct action. It can indeed be questioned whether the contempt for passive majorities, the confusion between democracy and the critique of “democratism,” and a certain fascination with violence are not the very elements that allowed fascism, via Sorel, to lay claim to revolutionary syndicalism. It is nevertheless true that revolutionary syndicalist practices, as G. Manfredonia has demonstrated in “Anarchisme et syndicalisme: quels rapports?” [5], implementing both gradualist practices of education and mutualist economics, via the Bourses du Travail, and practices of revolutionary transformation via preparations for the general strike. This pluralistic dimension of revolutionary syndicalism constitutes the richness of this movement, which also goes beyond the dualism between a modern anarchism and a postmodern anarchism, between lifestyle anarchism and social anarchism.

Two contemporary directions in anarchism, then, seem to be taking shape. On the one hand, practices emerging from the autonomy movement combine the practices of lifestyle anarchism and practices of insurrectional rioting. From a theoretical point of view, they also seem to rely on the renewal of postmodern theories by way of Spinozist notions of the multitude or of common concepts. On the other hand, practices emerging from revolutionary syndicalism combine gradualist practices with practices of mass insurrection. They are trying to break with the limits of the positions of modernity by the integration of problematics arising from the emergence of autonomous feminist movements or movements of ethnic minorities as well as from the ecology movement. From the theoretical point of view, the collection titled Liberating Theory, including works by Michael Albert and Noam Chomsky, is an example of such an attempt.

Irène Pereira

Continued:

Vivien Garcia’s Reply

Notes :

[1Vivien Garcìa, L’anarchisme aujourd’hui. Foreword by Daniel Colson. Paris: L’Harmattan (La librairie des Humanités); 2007. 265 p.

[2Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

[3Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in The Essential Works: 1954-1984, Vol. 1.: Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 287.

[4“Nietzsche and the Libertarian Workers’ Movement” “[Nietzsche and the Libertarian Workers” Movement,”] in I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite!: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition, ed. Jonathan Purkis et al (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

[5Presentation at colloquium organized by Les éditions de la CNT on the Charter of Amiens, 2006.


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