Thursday, May 15, 2008

Radical Principles vs. Poisonous Politics

It would be nice to always see "the big picture", to be able to act fully informed, to see every angle. You could then act on a case by case basis, always sure that you were not being misled or manipulated, that you were not wasting your energy or working against your own interests.

In life, however, such happy circumstances rarely if ever present themselves. We often must act on partial information, on rumour or hunches. We risk being wrong, and having our own efforts prove to be detrimental to our own goals. We thought we were advancing, only to learn later that we were heading down a blind alley.

To the degree that this is so, that we cannot be sure that our next step is actually bringing us closer to our destination, principles, including but not limited to morals or ethics, become important. Principles establish a way of acting and relating, a methodology or stance, and by acting in a principled manner we become better at adopting this stance, one which will serve us well even if it was first developed in the service of some dead-end activity in the past.

This does not have to be some grand exercise with deep moral implications (though it can be). It may be as simple as taking ourselves seriously. For instance, if we are working on some campaign, just the fact of learning to be on time, to do the work we promise to do, to not dominate conversations or allow them to be dominated, will all serve us well in the longterm even if at some point we realize the campaign we were working on was ill-advised. That stance or principle of being a responsible comrade is worth developing regardless.

i normally don't write about the pissing contests and sectarian shit between activists, in part because it's demoralizing, and in part because it can often feed the noise, contributing to problems that i have found do some harm both to activists and to the radical scene in general. Plus, i myself have been involved in a fair number of squabbles, some of them intensely unpleasant, and i don't want to allow this blog to become a part of that.

Nevertheless, at times it's irresponsible not to say what you think. If you're wrong, speaking out gives others an opportunity to correct you and thus you have an opportunity to learn. And if you're right, then the responsibility is obvious.

So here it goes.

John Zerzan, an anarcho-primitivist intellectual, is coming to speak at Montreal's anarchist bookfair this weekend. Zerzan is not only against class society and the state (like all good anarchists) he also holds some beliefs most people find shocking, namely that the key technical advances people have made - literacy, music, metal-working, agriculture - were all bad things which led us to the oppressive society we live in today.

To be clear, i disagree with Zerzan. i'm not going to critique him here, because that's not the point of this post, but i find his ideas unconvincing, no matter how intriguing they might be on a science-fiction level.

Furthermore, i tend to have little in common with so-called "primitivists" and "post-leftists", those anarchists who find Zerzan most useful. Often these folks are amongst the most narrow minded when it comes to dealing with other currents of the left or learning from the real experiences of the oppressed. Their arrogance can be phenomenal, breath taking in fact. While i have friendly exchanges with some primitivists who i meet briefly in other cities, i think i'm probably on bad terms with every single primitivist in Montreal, and happy to stay that way.

It is because i disagree with Zerzan, and because i am less than chummy with "primitivists" locally, that i feel i have to publicly express how disgusted i am with the post-situationist "hors d'oeuvre" website, which has publicly posted threats to Zerzan, warning him not to come to Montreal because it's "primitivist season". The folks behind this website are doing the state's work with shit like this.

i am also concerned at the email circulating calling for a demonstration against Zerzan outside the bookfair. As i said at the beginning of this post, i do not know what everyone's angle is, and i don't know what connection this demo and the "Coalition for Progress in the Anarchist Milieu" which organized it have to the "hors d'oeuvre" website. However, the wording of the email in question (also posted to CMAQ), which calls for a "war" against Zerzan, manages to combine macho posturing with a very superficial critique.

Within the radical milieu, threats of violence or even just exclusion of those we disagree with have to be justified. In the case of people with coercive personal behaviour, or people who make the scene unsafe or unfriendly through their sexism, racism, or other shit, there is sometimes a place for threats or actual violence to get rid of them (although over the past ten years a number of groups have pioneered more interesting strategies). But that is not the case here.

As for the idea of demonstrating against Zerzan at the bookfair, with the view that he should not be allowed to speak, one has to wonder what will be gained. While such an action will certainly underscore the fact that not all anarchists are "primitivists", and that there may be unresolvable contradictions between the "primitivists" and the rest of us, don't most of us know that already? If the idea is to challenge Zerzan's ideas, couldn't that be done in the form of debate, which the workshop he is giving would seem to facilitate?

Like i said above, i'm not a Zerzanite, i'm not a primitivist. i don't have to be, in order to think that using threats to solve political disagreements within the radical left is reactionary. Similarly, if one is a part of a campaign in which others are making threats, one has a responsibility to denounce this behaviour. To not do so means one risks discrediting oneself.

Finally, on a strategic level, nothing could please the police more than this kind of setup, whereby a public call is made to demonstrate against an anarchist event, where public threats are made. Not only do such threats undermine solidarity and poison the political culture in which resistance is grounded, they can also serve as a pretext for surveillance, repression and suppression.

Living in an imperialist country, riddled with sexism and racism and a moribund culture, we certainly cannot prefigure a communist or anarchist society in the here and now. It's an uphill battle, and it's bound to fail. But in trying to do so, and persisting in these efforts despite inevitable failure, all the while taking up the necessary work as best we can, we develop a stance, a set of principles, which will serve us well.

If we stop trying to do so, one has to ask - what's the fucking point?


  1. Franchement, je pense que vous capotez pour rien (je dis vous parce que c'est pas la première dénonciation que je vois). Dans la vie, il y a des choses à prendre avec un grain de sel et Hors d'Oeuvre en fait partie.

    C'est pas mon trip pantoute, je ne pense pas avoir de temps à perdre avec ce genre de loisir, mais j'avoue que depuis leur première intervention il y a quelques années --au Salon, justement-- je rigole à chacune de leur sortie. Si j'étais à Montréal dimanche, j'irais à la manif, juste pour voir.

    J'affectionne pas le ton Hors d'Oeuvre. Ça fait trop avant-garde artistique à mon goût. Et je ne trippe pas sur la violence non plus (quoi qu'il faudrait me convaincre qu'on parle vraiment de violence ici). Ceci dit, ils ont du style. Et ils disent souvent tout haut ce que plusieurs pensent tout bas.

    La vérité c'est qu'il y a quelque chose de pourri au royaume de l'anarchisme. Il y a des "camarades" qui mériteraient sérieusement de se faire remettre à leurs places (voir de récolter des baffes). Hors d'Oeuvre a le mérite de secouer les puces des uns et des autres.

    C'est une perte de temps à mon avis. Mais je ne suis complètement choqué que certains s'en chargent. Et puis, soyons franc, les anarchiants et les anarchie-istes sont loin d'être des victimes innocentes. Ça fait des années qu'ils vargent à tour de bras --et pas toujours symboliquement--sur la gauche libertaire. Ils ne font que recevoir la monnaie de leur pièce si tu veux mon avis.

  2. I agree with Nicolas. It's unclear to me if Hors d'Oeuvre is using a "no platform" approach to Zerzan speaking. I tend to see their protest as more of a way of uniting critics of primitivism and making their collective voices heard louder. Not all protests end in violent direct action, right?

    Obviously, my interest is debating Zerzan at his workshop, mainly arguing against the primitivist idea that freedom and equality are incompatible with mass society. I see that as a break with anarchism...

    I think your jumping to conclusions in thinking that being at "war" with a political opponent automatically leads to machismo. Platformists use the concept of the "battle of ideas" to explain how we want to debate other revolutionary left tendencies and make our ideas popular within the broader left and social movements. That "battle" is usually waged in publications, public forums,etc.

    Anyways, I think i'm going on a tangent...I did enjoy reading your post and it's nice to see more people voice their opinion about the Zerzan controversy.

  3. Both Malateste and Nicolas feel i'm exaggerating or being hypersensitive with my reactions to the the Sunday protest against Zerzan. Perhaps. That said, one of the reasons i chose to comment on this is because it was already public, and i have so much personal animosity with local primitivists that it should be clear my defense is not of them, but of a principle as to how we should conduct debates.

    Nicolas seems to object that (a) threats of violence are not going to lead to actual violence and (b) local primitivists and postleftists are such assholes, we shouldn't be concerned or surprised that people hate their guts.

    But threats of violence, even if they are never acted on, poison a political environment precisely because nobody can ever be sure if they will or won't be acted on. It then leads to a kind of scene-ism whereby a threat from people one knows to be blow-hards, like Hors d'Oeuvre, is ok, but a threat from someone else is worrisome.
    A critical weakness of anarchism is its reliance on informal mechanisms of social regulation, ranging from peer pressure to informal hierarchies, this kind of "we know those guys, they always shoot shit like that" attitude exemplifies this weakness. What is someone new to the scene - precisely the kind of people the bookfair hopes to attract - to make of this? It's just like first year at a new high school...

    As to the second objection, Montreal anarchists have tolerated and worked with postleftists and primitivists for years, at times in some very dubious sectarian undertakings. Back then folks were working together, now they're not speaking (again, very first year high school, no?). People have been lazy in not elaborating a critique of primitivism or postleftism, and they have been equally lazy in not examining these trends for ideas which may be worthwhile. Those who are quietly smiling at Hors d'Oeuvre's antics have not publicly engaged in the theoretical debate, or brought anything new to the argument. That is the first responsibility of radicals when faced with ideas within our movement that we disagree with.

    Certain local individuals involved in Zerzan's tour may indeed by assholes. As i wrote, there is no love lost between me and them. But rather than deal with them, all this hulabaloo is aimed at Zerzan - who to the best of my knowledge has not been at all involved in the local shenanigans. It's simply an ass-backwards way of making a political critique, and an incorrect way to deal with local anti-social elements, if that is the justification.

    Finally, to respond to the "why do you care? these guys are freaks and the whole thing is funny" line. Primitivism is a dead-end. In a Monty Python movie, where i first saw this all, it was hilarious. But the whole point i was trying to make about principles and stance is that one's behaviour can be perfected, or corrupted, in any context. You can't say you oppose threats except when they're directed against "losers" or "freaks". Either this kind of stuff is acceptable or it isn't. If it's fine to threaten Zerzan, then it's fair play to threaten someone invited by NEFAC. i know where this leads, i've been threatened, i don't think it does anyone any good.

    As to Malateste's point, i think it's great if people go to Zerzan's workshop - and his other public events - and ask him hard questions. Zerzan makes some incredible claims, and it is difficult to see how a primitivist praxis could develop except in an authoritarian manner, unless it's merely a passive "wait until capitalism runs out of steam" millenarianism, or a "leave me alone in my cabin in the backwoods" utopianism. By all means, he should be confronted with people's objections.

    But again, what is the point in organizing a demo outside his workshop? How does that deliver a critique?

    i am well aware that the use of "war" is rhetorical, just as most threats are just macho posturing. But in this case the call for war also strikes me as macho posturing, because it is being made in a context that the Hors d'Oeuvre website is making these public threats of violence. By doing so, Hors d'Oeuvre has basically handed a victory of sorts to the primitivist side - the demo now appears alongside the threats, as examples of some anarchists trying to tell people who should or should not be allowed to present a workshop at the bookfair. In some cases this may be justified, but prior to even elaborating and sharing a critique of Zerzan's ideas, which have been tolerated within the milieu for years, i don't think it is.

    Again, one of the weaknesses of anarchism is that hierarchies and control structures are made invisible while not being eradicated. This can lead to a lack of accountability, and a good sign of this is the frequency with which threatening and intimidating behaviour is not only tolerated, but actually glorified. In some cases this is transparently a personal coping mechanism by petit bourgeois comrades trying to claim some proletarian cred, in some cases it's macho posturing, in some cases it's just a sign that someone's fucked up, but it all cases it degrades the level of debate and undermines the ground in which our resistance must be rooted.

  4. Bon, peut-être que tu as raison. Je ne sais pas. J'ai lu aussi la lettre du collectif du Salon, sur le CMAQ et ça s'embrouille pour moi.

    N'empêche, j'ai relu les trucs d'Hors d'Oeuvre et je vois mal comment on peut prendre leurs "menaces" au sérieux...

    Quand je lis:
    Warning (to John Zerzan)
    Montreal’s a dangerous place. Stop. Especially for you. Stop. It’s primitivist season. Stop. Stay where you are. Stop. A message from Hors-d’Øeuvre.

    Je vois plus une provoc au goût douteux que d'autre chose. À priori je rentre ça dans la section "parodie" (bordel, c'est le style d'un télégramme!).

    Sur le reste, mon expérience personnelle m'amène à penser que le débat et la discussion sont impossible avec les pogos et cie. Dès que tu n'es pas d'accord, tu deviens un oppresseur. De plus, ils ne sont pas fairplay dans les débats et ont systématiquement recours à des procédés malhonnête.

    Ma conclusion c'est que le mieux c'est de les ignorer. On fait nos trucs et on fait comme s'ils n'existaient pas. That's it.

    Ceci dit, il existe une critique communiste libertaire du primitivisme. Les ultragauche de La Sociale diffuse des critiques. Et il y a aussi Andrew Flood qui a fait une brochure là dessus (par ici pour le pdf.

  5. I generally agree completely with K, from what I can tell of the situation.

    The only thing I can add, is, geez, if we are supposed to never take threats of violence from anarchists seriously because, geez, they're just anarchists, you don't believe they really MEAN it do you---damn, talk about not taking our movements seriously. We should mean it when we say it precisely because there are times when we ARE going to need to mean it. This is not a game.