A FEW WORDS: On dispossession and individual responsibility
Due to the immensity of the current social order and the facelessness of the bureaucratic and technological systems through which it maintains its power, one can easily come to see it as inevitable, as a predetermined system of relationships in which we have no choice but to play our role. The aim of the state and the ruling class is total domination over all of existence, and here in the heart of this monster it can seem as though they have, indeed, achieved this aim. Aren’t we forced, day after day, to engage in activities and relationships not of our choosing?
This is what defines us as proletarians. We have been dispossessed of our capacity to determine the conditions of our own existence. But this dispossession is not an inevitable and predetermined historical development. Right now, at the fringes of the capitalist order, in places like Bougainville and West Papua, one can see how this dispossession takes place. Individuals with names and face, the institutions they establish in order to exercise their power and those who choose to obey them due to the extortion of survival act with violence to dispossess those who still have some freedom to create their lives on their own terms. And in the face of these violent intrusions, those who have not yet been proletarianized often take up arms against those who are trying to steal their lives from them. It is not an inevitable historical process that is—often literally—bulldozing their lives into the ground, but the force of arms of those in power. Real individuals are responsible for the social conditions that exist. Real individuals benefit from them and, thus, do everything in their power to expand them.
But it is not just the activities of those who rule that reproduce the current order of domination and exploitation, but also—and more essentially—the activity of those who obey them. Here, in the heart of the beast, our dispossession seems to be complete. Unlike West Papuans and the people of Bougainville, we have no social life of our own creating. Every choice we make is made under duress, the extortion of survival’s domination over life hanging over our heads like a sword. Nonetheless, obedience is a choice. The mutinous activities in the American military that played a major role in forcing US withdrawal from Vietnam is proof enough of this, as are the little acts of insubordination carried out everyday by the exploited to make their lives a little bit more bearable, a little bit more dignified. And it is in such acts that one begins to take responsibility for one’s life.
The social order of the state and capital leaves us very few options. One can understand when some, like Daniel Quinn, suggest that we “just walk away”, but against a system that requires expansion this is no solution. If the mountain people of West Papua have been forced to take up arms against the intrusion of the civilized order, we who live in its heart can’t pretend that we can simply run away. If we do not want to accept our exploitation and choose obedience with the occasional petty transgression, then we are forced to live outside the law, quite literally to try to steal our lives back as best we can against all odds.
Increasingly, a similar life is being forced upon more and more of people. The multitudes of tribal and peasant peoples being forced off the lands where they made their lives do not find jobs waiting for them in the cities to which they are forced to migrate. And even in the affluent nations of the North, many people find themselves falling out the bottom. The only place for these people is the realm of the illegal economy, the so-called “black market”. But this is still the market, these people are still exploited and here survival still reigns over life.
For anarchists and revolutionaries, the issue is not mere survival, but the reappropriation of life, the overturning of the conditions of existence that have been imposed on us. This project ultimately requires the active revolt of the multitudes of exploited and excluded people, as well as those on the margins resisting the efforts of capitalist institutions to steal their lives from them. But unless one has faith in some form of historical determinism or spontaneism, there is no sense in simply sitting back and waiting until “the time is ripe” and the multitudes rise.
Our activity creates the circumstances in which insurrection can flower; our refusal to obey, our insistence upon creating our lives as our own against all odds here and now and attacking the institutions of domination and exploitation as we confront them in our lives are the seeds of revolution. If revolution is the collective struggle for individual realization (and this seems to me to be the most consistently anarchist understanding of the term) and, thus, against proletarianization, then it develops with the solidarity that grows between individuals in revolt as they recognize their struggle in the struggles of others. For this reason, and for the joy it gives me here and now, I will not wait until the time is ripe, but will begin to take my life back here and now.