The method one proposes for carrying out the struggle against the present order reflects the sort of existence one desires. The anarchist project has its origin in the desire of individuals to create their lives for themselves, on the basis of their own passions, inclinations and capacities. This aspiration becomes insurrectional when it confronts the institutions that presently define social relationships and determine the conditions of existence and the individual recognizes the necessity of destroying these institutions in order to realize this desire.
The dream of unfettered, self-determined life is the positive impulse that moves us to rebel. But it is not a blueprint for a new social order. It does not provide the answers in advance, but rather raises questions and draws us into the unknown. It presents us with the task of destroying our prison so that we can discover what lies beyond its walls.
Some anarchists find such a dream inadequate. They desire certainties, clear visions and answers. They come up with plans, schemes, programs and blueprints of the new society—usually based on models from some real or imagined past. But perhaps the proposal that I find the strangest is the one that calls us to start creating counter-institutions now to replace the institutions of domination.
The contention behind this proposal is that the institutions through which domination is maintained also serve essential functions for the maintenance of social life. Since the mechanisms of social life must not be interrupted, it is necessary to put new “non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian” institutions in place to take over these functions. Should we fail to do so, we would be leaving the field open for new form of domination to arise, one that may be even worse than the present form. This is what we are told.
And the questions are raised: “With what shall we replace the state?” “With what shall we replace capitalism?” It amazes me when anarchists ask such questions with a straight face. Does one replace the hated chains which held one captive? Does one rebuild the burnt-down prison from which one has escaped? But the proponents of counter-institutions have more foresight than this. They would have us forge the new chains and build the new prisons now in order to avoid the encounter with the unknown, with a wild world that may make our lives unpredictable. At least this new prison would be self-managed.
The actual counter-institutions that have been created are rarely anything more than alternative businesses, charities, NGO’s and the like. They offer no challenge to the present social order, but integrate quite well into its framework becoming dependent upon it. Certainly, anarchist bookshops, infoshops and publishers can be useful tools, but they are hardly models for a world in which every individual is free to determine her life as she sees fit with full access to all he needs to do so since they have little choice but to comply with the requirements of the economy. Undoubtedly, these counter-institutions would fall with the collapse of the social order upon which they depend.
From an anarchist perspective, perhaps the most absurd of the counter-institutional proposals is one that originates in libertarian municipalism, the proposal for the creation of institutions for directly democratic decision-making. (I will not go into the critique of democracy here, having done so several times in the past.) It seems to me that the institutionalization of decision-making is the basic description of socio-political authority. The power of decision is taken from the individual and placed into the hands of the institution representing society. This institution then decides for the individual, requiring that the individual abide by that decision. A structure of this sort is already an authority, a government. When it encounters self-willed individuals who refuse to abide by its decisions, would it refrain from creating further institutions to enforce its decisions—institutions which would constitute a state? In any case, there is nothing anarchist about this proposal; it is inherently authoritarian.
While in practice the conception of counter-institutions has only succeeded in producing mirror images of mainstream institutions, its theoretical foundation is a fallacy. The assumption that the institutions of domination serve any necessary social function that must be continued when they are destroyed is groundless as the inability of the proponents of counter-institutions to describe these functions shows. The fundamental function of every institution—what makes it an institution rather than a project, an activity, a free relationship—is the alienation of the creative energy of individuals and their capacity to grasp the conditions of their existence in order to take control of them and channel them into the reproduction of the social order and so of domination and exploitation. It has been said many times, but I will say it again: it is our activity that creates the conditions of our existence. Institutions simply take control of this activity to guarantee the continuation of that which is.
The idea that counter-institutions would function in a significantly different way is an illusion already exposed by the proponents of this method themselves when they tell us that the mechanisms of social life must not be interrupted. The very existence of a social life that can be considered as mechanistic originates in the alienation of our creative energy and our capacities. If each of us is to become the creator of his own existence in association with whom she chooses, then social life must cease to be a mechanism into which we are fitted like gears or cogs. It is necessary that we reappropriate our creative energy and the conditions of our existence so that we can carry out essential social functions in terms of our desires not in terms of social reproduction—society is only useful as a tool for the full realization of our lives. In itself, it has no value.
In this light, it should be clear that the revolution toward which we anarchists make our efforts would be far more than a mere interruption of the mechanisms of social life. It would aim to destroy these mechanisms in order to free social life from a mechanistic, instrumentalist framework, to transform it into a tool for individual realization. Such a project not only has no need for institutions; it is by its nature anti-institutional. It requires a fluidity that corresponds to our passions and desires, to our individuality. There could not be a blueprint for such a world; there couldn’t even be an outline. Any institution would be its enemy, the potential framework in which a new authority could arise.
So the argument for counter-institutions has gotten it backwards. Certainly, a disruption of the social order that opens every possibility is a gamble. No one would claim otherwise. Among the possibilities opened by an insurrectionary break is that of the return of domination. But providing such a potential power with the tools it would need to establish itself, institutional structures for defining and controlling social relationships, would only make their task easier. Institutions do not prevent domination; indomitable individuals do.
So the question is not that of what structures to create to replace those we destroy, but of how to go about destroying the present social order in such a way that we transform ourselves into indomitable individuals capable of creating and transforming fluid relationships reflective of our dreams and aspirations.
We all have a great capacity for self-organization. It is expressed every day as we go about our life, though in a form that is constrained to follow the limiting channels of the institutions that surround us. Proposals for counter-institutions and blueprints defining the new society in advance are simply more constraining channels, games of politicians looking for adherents to their cause. Such programs could only produce a society as alienated as the present one where the lives of individuals have already been defined for them before they even start living. Thus, in these kinds of proposals, the world that I see as the motivating force of anarchist struggle, the world in which every individual can create her life as he sees fit, has already been suppresses and the framework for new forms of domination set in place.
If, rather than starting from our fear of social rupture, our fear of upheaval, our fear of the unknown, we start from our dreams and aspirations and our capacity for self-organization, the need for programs, institutions and blueprints disappear. It becomes clear that what is necessary is revolt, insurrection, the destruction of the institutions that dominate our lives, or to put it more clearly, self-organized attacks against the institutions of domination. Rather than become politicians proposing programs and institutional frameworks into which to channel the struggle and seeking adherents to our programs, it makes much more sense for us to be comrades in struggle practicing and proposing methods of struggle free of formalization and institutionalization that encourage self-organization and self-activity in revolt. Only such self-organized revolt could ever create the indomitable individuals who would stop the rise of a new dominating power at its conception. Only in such a practice do we begin to see the glimmer of the new world we seek. Nothing is guaranteed by this, but if we hedge our bets in order to guarantee everything in advance, we have already lost.