Last night i went to hear Richard Day – author of Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements – speak about his book, along with a panel of local activists commenting on their own experiences/observations about “hegemony”, “affinity”, solidarity and radical social change.
I had some misgivings about going: my mother had bought me a copy of Gramsci Is Dead for Christmas, and i had given up about half of the way through. It wasn’t only the constant references to post-modernist and post-structuralist authors who i have never read (and have no desire to read), it was more the fact that i couldn’t see how the book related in any way to my own experiences and observations about what activism is all about.
After hearing Day speak, i now suspect that i was deeply mistaken in my initial appraisal of his book. Which isn’t to say that i agree with his conclusions, but i do think the questions he is tackling are very relevant to radical social change, and he represents ideas that must be confronted and wrestled with by serious revolutionaries - even if only for us to reject (some of) them.
I write this without having read the entire book (add it to the reading list!) but only on the basis of last night’s talk, so perhaps it is best to actually deal with what was said last night…
Day argues that radical movements have to “overcome a logic of hegemony” in favour of a “logic of affinity.” He identified this position as being “post-anarchist”.
The term “hegemony” seemed to be understood in quite different ways by almost everyone who spoke last night, so i will try to explain how i understood Day to be using the term here:
Day claims that hegemonic (or revolutionary) strategies rely on offensive force (i.e. violence, and not just in self-defense) and involve “organizing others”. By this last criterion, i am not sure if Day meant that hegemonic strategies involve activists substituting themselves for “the masses”, or if he meant that they act as a vanguard (i.e. trying to lead the way), or if it is a matter of hegemonic strategies designating one specific “revolutionary agent” (such as the proletariat, oppressed nations, indigenous people, etc.)… but from what i could gather he kind of meant all three of these… making his position quite the anti-revolutionary critique!
Looking around at the “newest social movements” Day is encouraged by what he sees as a lack of hegemonic thinking, and in his talk he did a good job of distilling what this “non-hegemonic” approach entails. This he called “the logic of affinity”, and as it too was misunderstood by most of us, it too is worth defining.
This is not an affinity group, nor does it mean organizing with those whom we have an affinity for (i.e. with our friends). Rather, it means organizing with those who recognize that they have common interests with us, and with whom we have a shared approach.
When i asked Day how affinity differed from class consciousness, he said that affinity is not restricted to questions of class (i.e. one can also unite on the basis of “race”, gender, nation, or really anything else that works for you) and that as he understands it class consciousness is something people have to be taught as opposed to an awareness people can come to on their own. (That this last generalization is either confused or grossly simplistic is not really important to his argument.)
For what it’s worth, i think a better term than “affinity” would be “antagonism”, as this word does a much better job at describing a consciousness of being opposed to and in struggle against the system…
Day anticipated many criticisms of the “logic of affinity” in his talk, and by doing so he showed (to me) that his position is not simply some shallow deviation. He acknowledged that by abandoning revolution people may assume he embraces reformism, but he denied that this was the case. The goal of (post-)anarchist groups should not be to reform capitalism or the State, but to set up spaces outside of the system – “the way to make a different world is to construct small-scale experiments” as he put it – which would federate, encourage others, snowball, and eventually… well, eventually was left somewhat up in the air…
Day also acknowledges that even when successful spaces or alternative structures have been established, they are all too often co-opted and re-integrated into the system, or else (if they resist this) the system just flows around them, untroubled by their “non-hegemonic” alternative.
So Day is not pretending to have all the answers. He seemed to suggest that we should just continue working on and struggling with these questions, while resisting any temptation to adopt hegemonic strategies.
Day fielded several questions after his talk – almost all of which quite hostile to his downgrading of class struggle and his retreat from revolution. Although i think most if not all of the audience was unfamiliar with “post-structuralism”, and somewhat confused by the terms hegemony and affinity in how they were used, there was a sense that Day was rejecting essential elements of the anarchist tradition. I point this out because i am aware that some M-L comrades reading this might see it as proof of their worst impressions of anarchism, so (just to keep the record as accurate as possible) it bears telling that most anarchists have certainly not staked out a “non-hegemonic” or “post-anarchist” position.
Not having read it, i cannot comment on Day’s book itself. I have put it on my list, and hopefully at some point over the next month i’ll get through it, and then i’ll let you know. However, as i have spent a lot of time thinking about the questions he raised last night, i do have a thing or two to say about them. Here it goes…
There has never been an anarchist revolution anywhere, nor has there been a revolution led by Marxists that has managed to establish a classless society. But by abandoning Revolution and embracing a far less ambitious “affinity” (or “antagonism”), Day is merely making a virtue of our failures.
Indeed, the defensive posture of Day’s “logic of affinity” – not attacking the State or capitalists, rather trying to out-maneuver them or limiting one’s response to self-defense – is suicidal. As political prisoner David Gilbert (formerly of the Weather Underground and the Revolutionary Armed Task Force) has put it: “[Self-defense] can be important, especially when it is done to help sustain mass struggle. But people also have to be aware of the strategic danger of being trapped in a static, defensive position where the government can bring in their overwhelming superiority of force.”
In other words, by rejecting any offensive strategy against capitalism or the State, comrades merely abandon any possibility of choosing the terrain upon which they will eventually be forced to struggle. We are not going to be “left alone” – telling ourselves that this is a viable strategy is not a solution – and if we do not even try to determine the terms on which we will struggle, the State will determine them for us. While Gilbert was discussing armed struggle, this fact applies to all levels of confrontation.
Furthermore, missing in Day’s talk last night was an explanation of why revolutionary goals should not co-exist with antagonistic organizations. In other words, why can’t different groups operate with what Day would call “affinity”, working on practical solutions to people’s everyday problems, while at the same time thinking in terms of strategies which will eventually (and sooner is better than later!) abolish rather than merely circumvent capitalism and the State?
So far as i am concerned, it is precisely through building such antagonistic movements with revolutionary goals that we will best effect radical social change. But it is not just a seamless quantitative progression of this struggle combining with that struggle, this infoshop federating with that commune, etc. – at some point the quantitative does become qualitative, and it will either be a matter of Revolution or else Reaction winning out.
Choosing to not fight that battle – or closing your eyes to its inevitability – will not prevent you from being defeated.
p.s. Though it did not come up last night, I should also mention that by turning it into a contradiction like all others, we risk forgetting that “class” (no matter how problematic as a be-all-and-end-all category) is nevertheless fundamentally different from “race” or “gender” or “nation”. By making class no more central than anything else that gives rise to subjective feelings of antagonism/affinity, i wonder if we do not (unknowingly) abandon the very concept that binds the revolutionary left to the struggle for human liberation.
To put it simplistically: “class warfare” has a liberatory and humanist connotation because by abolishing class differences, the human misery that comes from poverty and exploitation will also be abolished. “Racial warfare” and “national warfare” contain within themselves none of this inherent humanism, except inasmuch as particular circumstances may invest entire nations (or “races” or genders) with specific class attributes, in which case – temporarily - these other struggles can embody this liberatory dimension of class warfare. (Fanon’s Wretched Of The Earth is an excellent book that deals with this...)
p.p.s. as luck would have it, just a few days ago i was reading one of my favourite blogs – Red Flags – where there has been a long string of comments by (mainly) Leninists about precisely this kind of “non-revolutionary” trend in anarchism. While i think they grossly exaggerate the degree to which the anarchist movement had given up on revolution, some of those M-Ls do make some good points – so i recommend you check it out.
Categories: anarchism, identity-politics, revolution