Why Anarchism Should Be Part Of The Left

San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair and Conference 2001

I wasn't surprised to see the anarchist bookfair consisted of shopkeepers peddling wares as hopelessly progressive as any you could find at any other left-liberal gathering.

The works of government anarchist Chomsky competed for space with pamphlets supporting the liberal establishment's war against freedom, amalgamating gun-owners with the Ku Klux Klan. For example, The Beast Reawakens: Fascism's Resurgence from Hitler's Spymasters to Today's Neo-Nazi Groups and Right-Wing Extremists. Anarchy magazine's review is characteristically uncritical: "The links between supporters of Reagan-Bush and the Third Reich, along with many of the militia groups in the US are explicitly documented" (issue 51). Elsewhere on this site (/dees1119.html) we explain how anti-fascists help reinforce the power of the state.

I did expect the conference on the second day, March 25, to be a little better. Organized by Berkeley Anarchist Students of Theory and Research and Development (BASTARD), the agenda looked promising. Primitivist and anti-civilization arguments have clearly established themselves as a major force - among anthropology students in their twenties, anyway.

The subjects for discussion on the panel encompassed Green Anarchy, Primitivism, Technology and Domination, and the speakers included John Zerzan and Wolfi Landstreicher, who have done much to insist that the purpose of social revolution must be, not to take over technology and run it more democratically, but to break our dependence on it completely. Wolfi made the good point that "direct action" does not mean hanging banners from buildings telling people what you think, it means directly acting against what ails you. Zerzan was also in good form, but they "shared the platform" with a pathetic shower of liberal academics and students. What I was not prepared for was that the anti-civilization current already has an evil twin, undermining the hard-won insights of Zerzan, Perlman and the Fifth Estate: Green Anarchism. If the American left is chiefly driven by white guilt, the green anarchists go further. They argued that we as humans should be ashamed to exist, because we are consuming the earth's resources. Not a trace of a class analysis appeared to have sunk into their heads, despite the vicious prosecution of some of them by the police, given long prison sentences for minor incidents in demonstrations and so on. They shamelessly (or should that be shamefully?) defended the worst aspects of "deep ecology", a modern variant of the views of Malthus: the world's problems, ecological destruction, starvation and so on, derive from the fact that there are just too many people. In order to save the earth, most of us must die.

Eugene, Oregon, where the green anarchists came from, is a university town, but it is not a university. It may have hippies and crunchy granola, but it also has classes and class struggle. Even lifestyle anarchists could relate to that instead of defending Thomas Malthus's explicitly anti-working class views. (The Reverend Malthus used crude biological analogies to justify starvation, transportation and the rest of the Georgian/Victorian arsenal of violence against the dangerous classes). Green Anarchists in Europe, for all their moralism, do solidarize with the working class.

One of the sessions was entitled Should Anarchists Be Part Of The Left?. Even Zerzan came close to arguing the commonplace anarchist position that the left is dead, and that something new is needed to replace it, as if we are looking at a market opportunity. The left in one form or another will never die as long as industrial civilization needs a fifth column to sterilize nascent resistance. It mutates as the proletariat gets wise to its real nature. If you're a political animal trying to find a way to trick the working class into doing what you want by telling it things you don't believe, Marxism won't get you far today, but maybe Anarchism could be more successful. From what I saw of it at this conference, I can only hope not.

The Tyranny of Anarchy

There was limited time available, so it was crucial that the chairperson, or facilitator, or whatever s/he is called these days, took questions in order, and generally policed the debate to ensure a fair go for anyone who wanted to speak. Instead, the meeting degenerated into long exchanges between the green anarchists and their friends, the latter getting in several questions apiece. I had my hand up for half an hour, but wasn't selected. I got my five cents' worth when John Zerzan was taking questions. I asked John what he thought of the corpse of deep ecology being disinterred in his milieu, and he did a good job of setting matters right. I asked him whether he thought his views lead to the idea that the world's population is much too large. He responded in the negative: industrial society is so wasteful, paving thousands of acres a day, transporting food across continents instead of growing it locally. The cattle industry alone consumes liters of water for every gram of diseased flesh that comes out the other end. The world currently produces enough grain to feed the world's poulation. Some of it is destroyed because it cannot be sold at a profit, and much of it goes to livestock, losing an order of magnitude of food value in the process. (Roughly, if you feed ten grams of protein to an animal, you get a gram back, and of course you lose fiber, vitamins and minerals). In a remarkable display of common sense, John argued that there are forms of agriculture, permaculture being the best known, which are sustainable and can support large numbers of people. One thing John didn't do, and in my opinion should have, was to have criticized the green anarchists in something like the following words:

The toxic wastes produced by industrialism are not "unavoidably created by our life processes", they are the result of capitalist looting and a pathological culture. People need neither vast energy consumption nor toxic-waste production to be kept alive; in face, we are being steadily poisoned by them - How Deep is Deep Ecology?, George Bradford, Times Change Press, 1989.

Human society is not like "bacteria in a petri dish" as one of the green anarchists asserted; it does not consist of organisms frantically eating all the available resources, breeding as fast as possible, heading for apocalypse as the food suddenly runs out. Human beings have less children when they can afford not to trade the short-term security of a large family for long-term environmental sustainability. In other words, poor people have large families. For example, look at Holland and Bangladesh. In some ways, they are similar countries - low, alluvial, flood-prone, densely populated intensive farming areas at major estuaries. If humans were like bacteria, people in these countries would behave similarly, but in reality, they could hardly be more at variance. In one, population growth has stabilized thanks to a high standard of living, freedom for women and a welfare state. In the other, millions are forced to divide their land among growing families which they have to support them in their old age, which women reach at thirty-five thanks to a dozen babies born in primitive (I use the word loosely) conditions, and the basis of their existence is being washed away by increasingly serious floods as the forests are cut down for building and firewood.

Unlike bacteria, humans live in a class society in which most people are forced to contribute to a force which leads to their extinction by slaving in offices, farms and factories for a minority of executives, generals and politicians. There is nothing inherent in homo sapiens which makes it destroy the earth. As every speaker at the anarchist conference recognized, the war against life is a recent deviation from the way we lived for ninety-nine percent of our time on earth. Although the hunter-gatherer way cannot be recreated, a more sustainable society is within our grasp. The revolutionary movement that is emerging, having rejected the old left, must be careful not to degenerate into a new one, if we are to succeed, and time is running out.