Anarchism as a Reality

Peter Gelderloos is an anarchist and author from Virginia. His books include How Nonviolence Protects the State, Consensus, Anarchy Works, The Failure of Nonviolence, the travel narrative To Get to the Other Side, and the collection of short stories Sousa in the Echo Chamber. He currently lives in Barcelona, where he takes part in ongoing social struggles.

In his book Anarchy Works (Ardent Press, 2010) Gelderloss argues that “free societies are not possible so long as governments try to crush any pocket of independence, corporations fund genocide in order to manufacture cell phones, and supposedly sympathetic people are more interested in writing ethnographies than fighting back.” (19)

Anarchy Works is a book I highly recommend for anyone (important because how we organize ourselves affects everyone) who wants to understand anarchism and how the objections to it being pie-in-the-sky, besides being a non-argument, do not hold much water.

The following is a recent interview I did with Peter Gelderloss by email.

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Kim Petersen: In Anarchy Works, you wrote, “It is no mistake that the institutions of power in our civilization — media, academia, government, religions — have exaggerated the prevalence of war and understated the possibility for peace. These institutions are invested in ongoing wars and occupations; they profit from them, and attempts to create a more peaceful society threaten their existence.” (26-27)

anarchyworks_DVTo paraphrase what you are saying here: there is profit in war and no profit in peace? Yet the profits go to the ones fomenting war and not to the people actually fighting the wars. How does such a system of violence perpetuate itself? Does patriotism blunt rationality? If so, how can patriotism best be overcome? Do you identify any other major non-historical factors that predispose people to fight wars?

Peter Gelderloos: On the contrary, in the society we live in today, there is plenty of profit in war and in peace. But when they talk about war, they mean common people in one country slaughtering common people in another country while generals, journalists, and business leaders cheer them on. And when they talk about peace, they mean stability, social order, and obedience. Peace, in the capitalist sense, is very dangerous for people like us. It means hundreds of thousands of people dying every year due to workplace accidents, pollution, bad food, driving to and from work, police violence, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. As long as sales are good in the holiday season, this is what they call peace.

What really threatens them is when we start fighting back. Not murdering our neighbors but turning on our bosses and leaders. So when I talk about a more peaceful society, I mean one without this fundamental antagonism that arises from exploitation and domination. It is an antagonism that splits the human community and one that also turns us against the planet that gives us life. If we get rid of that fundamental exploitation, there will still be conflict, but war as we know it will become both impossible and senseless.

So properly speaking, it’s not a system of violence but a system of exploitation that uses a great many tools to maintain order, from police torture and carpet bombing to dialogue and public education. It perpetuates itself by accumulating ever more wealth and power among those who rule, letting privileges and benefits trickle down to those who help them out, and convincing everyone else to go along with it, controlling the terms of the debate so they never even have to acknowledge that another world is possible. Patriotism definitely plays a role in this. It turns exploited people in one country against exploited people in another country, while those who do the exploiting laugh all the way to the bank. And it replaces a healthy love for one’s land with a love for the government or a more abstract national concept. You can kick a patriot off their land, poison their water, bulldoze the place where their relatives are buried, and give them a crappy job, and as long as they can keep waving their flag and blame it all on immigrants, they’ll do as they’re told.

Other factors that predispose people to fight wars? War isn’t inevitable, but it’s clearly a human possibility and always has been. Before the State, wars more often took the form of raiding, and sometimes the form of highly ritualized sports with very little actual death. Some societies chose never to engage in war. It’s a human choice. But today, a lot of people are so bored, and so eager to look for someone to blame, that signing up to go to war makes sense. For some people, it’s better than a video game. For others, it’s a way to avoid the violence of the city, the violence of prison, the violence of a really demeaning, low-paying job.

KP: You wrote, “Those who attempted to put themselves permanently in the role of chief or spokesperson were ostracized — or even treated to a pie in the face, as high profile organizer Medea Benjamin was at the US Social Forum in 2007.” (33)

It seems that much of the independent media inclines to the words of certain anarchist/leftist gurus — wannabe or not. What, for you, is the connection or disconnection between anarchists and other leftists when it comes to predilection toward experts or celebrity?

PG: Anarchists can sell out their principles just as easily as anyone else. The difference is, anarchists who aspire to the authority and power of professional expertise or fame isolate themselves. Anarchists who try to be media spokespersons, who go to the negotiating table and strike a deal with power, are generally treated with utter suspicion and contempt, both in our histories and in day-to-day communication. They are held up as examples of what to avoid. In many other political currents, those who “make it”, those who become famous or powerful, are held up as positive examples.

KP: In a somewhat related vein, much of the Left continues to put credence in elections dominated by well financed parties with corporate media backing and playing by the rules established by elitists. What role do you see that anarchists should play in elections? Should they participate? Is holding one’s nose and choosing a lesser evilist candidate, as one prominent anarchist has suggested, practical or worth considering?

PG: Anarchists have generally remained true to their anti-electoral and anti-political positions, neither taking part in elections nor assuming positions in government. I think this is the right position to take. There is no such thing as a good government policy. Even if the results of a government policy bear some similarity to outcomes we would like to see, these are outcomes handed down from on high in a completely alienated and authoritarian process. The crux of the problem is that we are prisoners of this society with no chance to meaningfully take part in the organization of our own lives. We are constantly turned into spectators and consumers of our own lives. Within such a framework, talk of better or worse candidates or policies is meaningless. Alienated means can never solve the fundamental problem of alienation. A ruler by definition cannot make you free. Dialogue of any kind with political powers increases their power over us. This is not a step in the direction of the self-organization of our own communities and our own lives.

There’s also the fact that governments that portray themselves as progressive have often done the most to institutionalize popular struggles and increase the power of the State to regulate and organize our lives. Look at Obama. His campaign, tapping into the grassroots, succeeded in simply shutting off a great deal of popular anger and initiatives that surfaced during the Bush years. For what? More torture, more drones, more spying, more surveillance, more police killings, higher border walls, the same wars by other means, and the most minimal of healthcare systems. Look at Evo Morales in Bolivia. His government has been able to institutionalize what were once powerful social movements and mobilize them to support some of the worst neoliberal development projects underway in South America.

Delegating power over our lives can never be a step towards winning back the power to organize our own lives.

KP: You wrote, “Technology is not blinking lights and whirring gadgets. Technology is adaptation. By adapting a complex set of techniques that have allowed them to meet all their needs without destroying their environment over 7,000 years, the New Guinea farmers have accomplished something Western civilization has never even approached.” (80)

You challenge the notion that invention of devices constitutes technology, and yet the Eurocentric viewpoint often fails to take into account disregarding the Precautionary Principle and the negative effects of technology; whereas Indigenous peoples often created or molded the environment to sustain them in ingenious ways. In his book 1491, Charles Mann argues that the Original Peoples of the western hemisphere were as technologically advanced as any European civilization. Mann described Indigenous agriscience as pre-eminent and considered the development of maize as “arguably man’s first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering.”

My father came to me to share an article he was reading in his newspaper. The title was “Is Technology Dangerous?” (Paul Mohapel, Times Colonist, 6 March 2014: A11) My immediate response was, “What about GMOs and nuclear technology?” To which I added, “Technology is not dangerous; it is the uses people put that technology to that renders it dangerous or not.” The writer warns, “Information technology usage may be making us dumber by impairing and possibly damaging our brains.”

How do you see anarchism vis-à-vis technology?

PG: I disagree with the view that technology is not dangerous, it is how we use it that is dangerous or not. Some people make a distinction between “technics” as devices or practices that serve as tools, and “technology” as a society-wide complex that uses new devices to transform how society is organized and how people relate to one another and to their environment.

In this latter sense, technology is not only dangerous, it is coercive. You might think, for example, that using a cellphone is a choice. But nowadays, it is almost impossible to get a job without a cellphone, and not having a cellphone has been used as evidence of political extremism in criminal trials. How about driving a car? Cars have caused a huge deal of damage to this planet, and there are many places where you can’t get to work or get to the store without a car. It’s not voluntary.

What about nuclear technology? This has directly caused cancer rates to go up, to the tune of millions of deaths. We’re all forced to accept nuclear radiation, which has become a planetary reality, because some governments have decided they want nuclear power. And with that power comes an excuse for new forms of emergency and disaster management, more dictatorial powers justified on the basis of public safety. It’s no coincidence that governments like technologies that give them such power.

The technologies I was talking about in the passage you cited are forms of adaptation that can help us feed ourselves or communicate and share information without damaging the planet or submitting ourselves to some authoritarian structure. Such technologies demonstrate people’s creative and adaptive capabilities, showing that we don’t need governments or private researchers to live well or come up with solutions to the problems that will arise. Examples of hyper-complex, intelligent adaptation from New Guinea and other places also shows that the idea of more or less advanced societies, the idea of progress as a line from less to more evolved, is a Eurocentric and often racist fiction.

KP: “… the institution of police emerged as a means to give the ruling class greater control over the population and expand the state’s monopoly on the resolution of social conflict.” (114)

Since the police are of the working class, why is it that you see that they are so often willing to do the bidding of the elitists?

PG: In any society, there are always going to be some people that have a mercenary sentiment. There will always be bullies. In a society where bullies are celebrated, given jobs, and called heroes, there’s going to be a lot more bullies, they will be encouraged to develop even more sadistic and arrogant methods, and the rest of us will be largely defenseless against them. In a society that discourages this kind of behavior, bullies and mercenary types won’t have free rein to do as they please, they’ll isolate themselves if they act the way police act in our society, and they’ll get the kind of encouragement they might need to solve some of their issues and work on being better human beings.

In many revolutions, even the military has deserted and joined the rebels. The police, on the other hand, stay true to power as long as power continues to exist. For those who are inclined to talk about good cops, they only need to realize that there would not be a police left in service, that all of them would get fired, if they refused to do what any healthy human being would refuse, like arresting someone for being homeless or kicking someone out of their house because the bank said so. If someone is an active duty cop, it’s because they’re okay with doing those things.

KP: “Borders don’t protect people; they are a means by which governments protect their assets, which include us. When the borders shift in a war, the victorious state has advanced, staking its claim to new territory, new resources, and new subjects. We are plunder — potential cannon fodder, taxpayers, and laborers — and borders are the walls of our prison.” (189)

This speaks again to patriotism, the belief that residing in the borders of a state demands fidelity to the state. Why do people accept borders that hinder their freedom of movement – or they accept this?

PG: Borders have been around for so long, they’re seen as natural. Being able to control a territory is essential to the existence of the State. People usually don’t respect borders when borders get in the way. Every year, millions of people cross borders without permission, or they overstay their permission, they work in countries where the government says they can’t, they don’t believe that they have any less right to go to a part of the world where certain governments want to prohibit or limit their access. Yet many people, especially those people who are considered civilized or sedentary, accept the existence of borders. They can’t imagine a world without borders and they’re told it would be impossible, though once upon a time there were no borders and even today, those horrid little imaginary lines governments base their sovereignty on are not fully a part of consensus reality, given how many people refuse to obey them.

KP: Your latest book is The Failure of Nonviolence, which I haven’t read yet (except for the review), but it seems in line with what I written a few times previously: that violent resistance against the violence of occupiers/oppressors is legitimate.1

For me, there is nothing that a oppressor would prefer better than to face a resistance that limits itself to non-violence. Your view?

PG: Of course I agree. Many proponents of nonviolence assert a conspiracy theory that governments secretly want us to use violence, but visible indications to the contrary abound. The media demonize us if we fight back, the police target us, the courts criminalize us, even punishing us as terrorists for simple property destruction. Time and again, people have peacefully taken the streets to learn that by confining themselves to nonviolence, they cannot transform society. They cannot even take over and defend spaces where no social relations can be put into practice. Nonviolence can’t exist without amnesia, without forgetting the lessons of past struggles.

KP: In line with gift-giving economies, your “book is priced at cost and our goal in distributing it is not to make money, but to share it with you.” I am interested further in your views on publication. You wrote, “Publishing is an enterprise we were supposed to leave to the professionals, and books were something we were supposed to buy and consume, not to make ourselves. But we forged ourselves the permission slip to pursue this project, and we hope to show that you can too.”

PG: I would like it if the book were even cheaper. That’s why we put the full text online. The printing of the book is not an attempt by anyone to make money. It’s priced so that an anarchist printing project can pay for its costs, pay for other books that it puts out, and go on publishing. The motivation is a desire to share ideas, to take part in a conversation that is unfolding among people who take to the streets, challenge authority, and commit themselves to the unending learning process that rebels, noncomformists, and revolutionaries always encounter when they decide to live freely and fully or to live for their own principles.

Unfortunately, many people who start off struggling against oppression eventually turn their projects into another business, another way to make a living. This has been especially true in the world of publishing. Many writers try to pay their bills by publishing, in other words by selling radical ideas, and many presses that spring up to make new ideas available take on an increasingly mercantile logic. But it’s not enough to get new ideas out there if we’re not putting our ideas into practice. After all, none of these are really new ideas. All of these complaints, all of these dreams, have been articulated a thousand times before. Democracy allows us to voice all the opinions we want as long as we never try to actually do anything. It’s the same logic as solitary confinement in a prison cell: total freedom of expression, zero freedom of action.

It’s not the ideas, but the practices that have been forcibly suppressed. Publishing is nothing but another opportunity to put the ideas of solidarity and mutual aid into practice. Writing about freedom without trying to live it is nothing but self-betrayal.

  1. See, for example, Kim Petersen, “The Duty of Progressives is to Speak Out Against Oppressors and Not Excoriate Their Resisting Victims,” Dissident Voice, 18 July 2006 and “Ending Violent Resistance: Target the Oppressor, Not the Resistance,” Dissident Voice, 23 October 2010. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.