Trajectory Through Anarchism

Trevor Blake: Trajectory Through Anarchism

1982 (age 16): I find Factsheet Five and by way of that magazine I find Kerry Thornley. By way of Kerry and Factsheet Five I find many anarchist periodicals and pen pals. Anarchism seems smart, strong, right. Looking back, I used the word to describe what I liked and wanted and what was ‘mine.’ It’s something about the sovereignty of the individual, or you can’t tell me what to do, or something in between. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think that these ideas are so good that the only reason they aren’t in practice now everywhere is that they haven’t been tried. Or perhaps tried just right. Or perhaps the ideas aren’t widely distributed, and if people only knew about anarchism they would sign on.

1987: I find an anarchist poster on the campus of the University of Tennessee and by way of the poster I find The Alternative, an anarchist group in Knoxville. We talk and do things, but anarchism does not flow out from us like a river. And while we’re all on the same team against a much larger and more powerful team, we certainly do bicker.

1987: I published Letter from the Graveyard Shift by Gerry Reith in my zine OVO. Early questioning

1988-1989: I attend anarchist events in many cities. I meet with anarchists in the South and on the East Coast. I am a guest lecturer on anarchism at the University of Tennessee. The same imp of the perverse that led me to read about anarchism pricks up his ears when he hears a friend say how concerned he is that another friend is reading Ayn Rand. Not that the friend is signing on as a true believer, but that the books themselves are wicked. Noted.

1991: I write “Anarchist: Think for Yourself,” published in the book Anarchy and the End of History. A high point in nine years of letters, essays and art published in anarchist magazines around the world. Factsheet Five continues to create contacts for me, including an unsolicited letter from George Walford in England. I correspond with George until his death in 1994.

1992 (age 26): I move to Portland, Oregon and find radical bookstore Laughing Horse Books. Make a friend who volunteers there.

1993: From a letter by George Walford: “You remark the scarcity of ‘real live human being stories’ in anarchist literature. Very perceptive. But it’s not an accident. Anarchism is not about people as we meet them, it’s about abstruse principles and theories (and, even more, about the resistance these encounter). The real human stories appear in the literature at the other end of the range, in the popular romances, thrillers, love-songs and — perhaps most of all — in tabloid newspaper stories, which go to extreme lengths to personalise (humanise) political events. Your own view of anarchism has it that people should be free to do what they want. The overwhelming majority of those who have encountered anarchism have shown very clearly that they do not want to do what anarchists want them to do. They prefer to do what they are doing now. We have no reason to expect the others, when they meet anarchism, to respond differently. Can your anarchism accept this? Or do you feel bound to impose (however gently and rationally) your ideas of what it is good for them to do? The dilemma of orthodox anarchism cannot be escaped by ‘practical living anarchy’ within present society. We cannot live without taking part in society, paying taxes and supporting capitalism by our consumption, and orthodox anarchism condemns all of this. The attempt to live the anarchist life is a living demonstration of the arid, empty, abstract unreality of orthodox anarchism; it cannot be put into practice, it is virtually nothing but theory.”

1994: My friend from Laughing Horse Books and I attend a meeting. The meeting is made up of people who want to start an anarchist bookstore in Portland. The bookstore is to be called 223. I offer to help write the mission statement, including a definition of anarchism. Not trying to define a thing into existence, not trying to exclude, not trying to control, just trying to clarify our goals and means and provide a base to start from. Having a definition of anarchism is discouraged, as it will be divisive and we all know what we mean anyway. Anarchism is smart, strong, right. I notice that in twelve years of being around anarchists, most of us are under thirty. Where are the older anarchists in a movement that started in the 19th Century? And what has anarchism done… ever? I work on a definition for myself, looking for the first time with any degree of seriousness into the history and accomplishments of anarchism for source material.

1994: From a letter by George Walford, responding to my essay in Anarchy and the End of History: “I have to say one or two things about the content. You ask one of the crucial questions: ‘if anarchy is so great, how come we’re not all anarchists?’ You ask it, but you don’t answer it, sliding off into discussing whether individuals can live as anarchists — also important, and certainly connected, but not the same question. Your omission is not surprising, for that question cannot be answered within the orthodox anarchism which your article accepts. The position is in fact even worse for anarchism than that sounds, because that is only half the problem, the other half being that some people, few but enough to form a movement, have become anarchists. A differential explanation is needed, and significant, enduring, social distinctions between groups of people orthodox anarchism cannot accept. Third (this one we’ve had before), your first new para on p.128, the one beginning: ‘Just as …’ in which you blame the personal inadequacies of individual anarchists for the failure of anarchy. This does not stand up any better than blaming individual supporters of capitalism for the failures of that system. In each case the failure is sufficiently constant and widespread to indicate a structural source, something built into the position. The only way to get past that sort of difficulty is to move on to another position. Examples of anarchist successes will be springing to your mind, but if you examine them you will find that (so far as they are successes in any field other than theory and argument) they are not distinctively anarchist. This of course links up with the first problem raised above. They both arise because orthodox anarchism, far from being “so great” is extremely limited. Not only can anarchy not be practiced under the state, it can’t even be thought out as an independent social system, in any concrete way, without running into contradictions that, appearing in practice, would wreck the new world.”

1994: I define anarchism as the belief it is possible and desirable to maintain the world’s population at the current standard of living without government and without a period of transition from the present to an anarchist world. The moment I put the definition on paper, I ask myself if that is what I believe and I answer myself no I do not. Thus I am not an anarchist. I go to my anarchist friends to see if they can find an error in my thinking – they run away from that conversation, and my doubts are not lessened for it.

1994: I read extensively in the works of George Walford and his peers. The idea of the ‘mass rationality assumption’ hits home. People project their values on others, and this includes intellectuals. Intellectuals think that most people would prefer to solve problems with intellect, and most people are capable of solving problems with intellect. Neither are true. Intellect and reason aren’t forbidden to most people, they just aren’t valued as much as convention and passion. Assuming otherwise is what keeps intellectuals in the political minority.

1995: One of George Walford’s best critics, David McDonagh, writes me. David proceeds to poke holes in my thinking from that point onward. Looking into what David considers good thinking, I am introduced to the works of Sir Karl Popper. Popper’s book Conjectures and Refutations causes the bottom to drop out of everything I knew about science, rationality, history and politics. What a rotten foundation it was. David also directs me to “The Impossibility of Economic Calculation under Socialism” by David Steele. This essay kicks the chair out from under socialist economics. I start reading about economics. What a fool I’d been, thinking I’d understood it before.

1996: Feeling free of anarchism and a little burned by what I now see was my own hooded thinking, I call up the imp of the perverse to see what other forbidden ideas might be out there. Ayn Rand is suggested, and I read her works. Having already shed one hood I’m less inclined to put another one on, and I do not become an Objectivist. But moving through Objectivism brings libertarian thinking to my attention. It’s something about the sovereignty of the individual… but I’ve walked down that path already and don’t sign on as a libertarian either.

2001 (age 35): September 11th. I’m at work at a homeless shelter. The base nature of much of humanity stops being abstract and my appreciation for individuals who are basically decent increases. The idea that we can all just get along stops scratching on its coffin lid. The need for having hard men on the payroll to keep away other hard men makes sense. I support the State, the army, the police as better than the alternative.

2005: The imp of the perverse continues to slip books into my hand, emboldened by the importance I place on reading one’s critics gained by my reading of Popper. Nothing seems more important than finding critics who will point out errors in my thinking – friends who think like I do never will. I read extensively about right wing politics and pay more attention to mainstream politics. All houses poxed long ago. That being said, when a fact or idea rings true I don’t turn up my nose if the source is otherwise unpleasant.

2010: What am I now? I try to be a good person and keep out of harm’s way. I hammer at the chains of religion and theocracy. My atheist efforts are small, but I’ve seen small changes from them and that is satisfying. I think humanity’s best hope is the open society described by Sir Karl Popper. I lean towards the free market and small government and the sovereignty of the individual, but I don’t see these as flawless or always appropriate. Whatever I am, I’m definitely not an anarchist.