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A Few Words: On Being Who We Say We Are

I call myself an anarchist not because the word sounds good, nor because it will make me appear more radical, nor even merely because I desire the disappearance of the state (even Lenin claimed that he ultimately desired this much... when the time was ripe). I call myself an anarchist because I have chosen to go about my struggle against the world of domination in a particular way. In these times when the degradation of language drains words of their content, undermining the capacity for meaningful dialogue, it is particularly important for anarchists to maintain the significance of this term.

It has been rightly said that "anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone". But this is not because it can mean anything, but rather because, as the same writer said, "it is a way of conceiving life, and life... is not something definitive: it is a stake we must play day after day." The anarchist is one who chooses to play this stake on her own terms to the extent that this is possible. In particular, the anarchist is one who chooses to carry on his struggle on her own terms, without any room for compromise or negotiation with the ruling institutions. This refusal does not stem from a desire for purity, as some have tried to claim, but from the recognition that any compromise on the field of struggle would be a further relinquishment of the lives that have already been stolen from us, the lives we are struggling to take back.

Perhaps the most basic anarchist principle, the one from which all the others spring, is the recognition that freedom can only be realized in freedom, that self-determination - that is to say, the creation of lives that are truly our own - can only be won through a struggle that is truly our own. This is what is meant when we say that our ends must exist in the means we use to achieve them.

This principle is not merely, a fine, ethical stance. Above all, it is a hard lesson that has been brought home over and over again in every revolutionary experience. Compromise with the ruling institutions, with the so-called oppositional institutions that claim to represent the people in struggle or with any form of hierarchy or representation is always the death of the struggle against all domination. Such compromises are the points where either the old power begins to establish itself (as in France in 1968) or the new power begins to take hold (as in Russia after the October 1917 revolution). So this principle, in fact, has a solid foundation.

But this principle is also the primary distinction between an anarchist revolutionary perspective and any other revolutionary perspective. All forms of communism call for the eventual withering away of the state. But an anarchist perspective recognizes that the state and every other institution must be rejected from the start, because institutions usurp the capacity of people for self-organization. And it is here that the anarchist wager - the staking of one's life spoken of above - comes into play. Having not merely called for the eventual end of the state, the institutions of domination and all hierarchy and representation, but having also rejected them here and now as means for carrying out one's revolutionary struggle, one has no choice but to actually pursue a methodology that relies only on oneself and one's trusted comrades, a methodology based in autonomy and self-organization, direct action in its true sense - i.e., acting directly to achieve one's aims for oneself - and total conflict with the ruling order.

Quite clearly there is no place in such a choice for voting, for petitioning the state, for litigation, for promoting legislation of any sort or for fooling oneself that any means by which one legally gains one's survival in any way reflects an anarchist or revolutionary perspective. But to fully comprehend what it means to carry out one's struggle in a self-organized manner, it is necessary to recognize the full extent of the institutions of domination. If one refuses to vote because one rejects the idea of being represented, then logically one would also refuse to talk to New York Times journalists or television reporters for precisely the same reason. The image they paint of the anarchist is also a representation, and the argument that we should talk to them in order to put out a more accurate representation follows the same logic as that which calls us to vote in order to get better representation in the halls of government. The anarchists in Greece who smash television cameras and attack journalists have a much better idea of how to deal with the misrepresentations of the media.

The economic blackmail of capitalist society will force us to make some compromises in terms of how we get the things we need to live (even robbing a bank is a compromise, since, in fact, we'd rather live without money and banks or the system that creates them). There is not currently a strong enough movement of social subversion to counteract this, one in which the taking and sharing of goods is a widespread, festive practice. But in terms of our various social and personal struggles against this society, no such coercion exists, and one can choose to struggle as an anarchist - refusing to turn to any of the institutions of domination to accomplish the tasks we consider necessary to accomplish the social transformation we desire. Such a refusal means rejecting all the various ideologies and practices of the capitalist cult of efficiency for its own sake - the quantitative illusions that judges a movement in terms of numbers of participants, the pragmatic acceptance of "whatever works", the fetish of organization which creates invisible hierarchies with its theoretical and practical programs to which people are to adhere. Thus, from an anarchist perspective, the phrase "by any means necessary" becomes counter­revolutionary. It is the opening of the door to the Reign of Terror or the slaughter at Kronstadt.

So if it is to mean anything when we call ourselves anarchists, we need to keep this primary principle in mind: our struggle against this world must be completely our own. Of course, this is no simple task. It requires the use of practical imagination in order to figure out how to carry out the various tasks that we place before ourselves. It requires a willingness to make a constant critical assessment of what we are doing, refusing to make excuses. It requires a willingness to recognize our current limits while, of course, perpetually seeking to expand our possibilities.

To a great extent, the term "anarchist" has been drained of meaning due to its increasing popularity as a self-description since the fall of the traditional left and particularly since the demonstrations in Seattle at the end of 1999. But this loss of meaning has also been advanced by anarchists who have been in the movement for years, who choose to embrace an evangelistic project, placing numbers and visibility in the spectacle above the concrete attempt to live out their revolt and to create their struggle as their own. This leads to an embrace of that capitalistic sort of pragmatism in which the ultimate aims have been lost in the striving for immediate effect - the methodology of the advertiser. To counter this, it is necessary to clarify once again what the anarchist project actually is. It is not an attempt to win followers to a particular belief system. It is not an attempt to make this society a little more bearable. Rather it is an attempt to create a world in which every individual is free to pursue the creation of his life on her own terms in free association with others of her choosing, and thus also to destroy every institution of domination and exploitation, every hierarchy including the invisible one's that grow out of evangelistic and programmatic schemes. With this in mind, we can carry out our struggle by those means that reflect the world we desire and, thus, make our lives fuller, more passionate and more joyful here and now.

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