Us left anarchists have fucked some things up – but we’ve also been granted an opportunity to critically reflect on some of those failures.
As all aware, Donald Trump is now the president-elect, following a long (and ultimately absurdist) campaign built on a foundation of rekindled nationalism. This nationalism, in turn, has been expressed in two primary ways. The first of these has been an ethnic nativism, entailing the stirring-up of racist sentiment, the empowering of white supremacist groups, and calls for a hardline stance on immigration – legal and illegal alike. The second way, on the other hand, has been economic populism, which has fervently rejected the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” that prescribes so-called ‘free trade’ deals, deregulatory policies, and strategic incentives the way to kick-start economic growth. In the place of this consensus, which moves far beyond the Beltway and halls of corporate think-tanks, talk of protectionism has risen. In a turn almost unthinkable for those familiar with the dynamics of American politics, the repealing of ‘free trade’ deals like NAFTA have become a common demand in the mainstream. For Trump and his supporters, there is no distinction between ethnic nativism and economic populism; both are intricately bound-up under the auspices of a sinister and internationally-minded liberalism – the only ground for combatting which is the by invoking the nation and its future greatness.
In reality, Trump is an aspect of a global wave, and a late arrival at that. Ethnic nativism and economic populism have been sweeping the world wherever neoliberalism has taken root, playing on existing racial biases to bring to power far-right groups and policies (Brexit springs to mind, but so does the fascism rising in the streets of Greece, Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere). It is also important to acknowledge that this phenomena is not limited to the political (or grassroots) right. The darling of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, has taken a line not at all dissimilar to Trump when it comes to trade – and like Trump he too has revealed a less-than-desirable perspective on the border situation. Despite being progressive on many issues, he has been on record calling for a more strict approach to immigration, and has gone as far to call open borders “a Koch Brothers proposal” that would harm the working class by “doing away with the concept of the nation state”. Such is the great liberal resistance to neoliberalism! Replace the term “neoliberalism” with the far-more vague “globalism” and swap the Koch brothers for, say, Obama, Clinton, or George Soros, and you have the makings of a standard far-right talking point.
Combatting the ethnic nativist contingency of the nationalism impulse has been one of the most important aspects of the left anarchist movement in its recent history; where it has erred magnificently has been on the issue of economic populism. This isn’t to say that every left anarchist or social anarchist has been standing front and center demanding tariffs, defending domestic businesses against international businesses, or been raising awareness through red, white and blue jingoism. But what has happened far too often is an indiscriminate usage of terminology, which in turn not only entailed the opening of possibility spaces for forces wholly antagonistic to our struggles to move forward, but the routing of analysis, critique, and even action into certain cul-de-sacs. What I’m talking about, of course, is how we articulate our revolt against neoliberalism and the way we allowed the image of the neoliberal phase of despotic power to cloud the horizon of struggle.
In Europe and elsewhere, neoliberalism, capitalism in general and the state have been opposed under the term “alter-globalization” (or “counter-globalization”, alternatively). Influenced by Autonomist philosophy that, in contradistinction to orthodox Marxism, emphasizes the free-flowing nature of society and technology outside of domination by power relations, both terms had currency in the anarchist scenes in the states – but it all-too-often played second-fiddle to the far more problematic “anti-globalization”.
It’s easy to dismiss this term, anti-globalization, as a mere phrase, as a rhetorical device, and brush off that looming negativity by pointing out that it refers only to economic globalization – itself yet another buzzword signifying the integration of the global economy into a network system where sclerotic corporations serve as the critical nodes. And while this may be true (with the role of the state shifting around depending on which analysis one is reading at a given moment), the usage of this signifier has led to odd, contradictory, and at times dangerous alignments. Consider, for instance, some of the alignments that arose during the infamous 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle: we had Mike Dolan, a Ralph Nader crony, funding the American wing of the People’s Global Action and coordinating actions on one hand, and acting as a booster the far-right nationalist and virulent racist Pat Buchanan simultaneously on the other. It is no exaggeration to say that the likes of Buchanan, along with other lesser-known neo-fascist and so-called ‘Third Way’ types took advantage of the popular momentum against the WTO; at the same time, there was a sharp increase of the far-right deploying left anti-globalization rhetoric and iconography as a recruiting tool. This trend has not dulled in the slightest: we saw Buchanan stumping for Trump back during the campaign while attacking economic globalization from the ground ecological justice and using concepts and phrases drawn from the Occupy toolbox (fun fact: during the WTO protests, Buchanan was the presidential candidate the populist Reform Party; Trump himself had attempted to secure the party’s domination that year, but exited due to Buchanan’s extremism. Let that sink in).
Ultimately, the left’s analysis of ‘globalization’ is at once nuanced (see: tracing out effects of ‘free trade’ deals and zones on economies in the developing world, revealing the conditions of labor that these generate, drawing attention to the dynamics of global uneven development, etc.) and simultaneously un-nuanced. As pointed out above, the sort of uncritical usage of terminology and action provided cover and ammunition for the far right – but this aspect is tangled up in at least two (though in all honesty, probably many more) oversights that derive from the treatment of ‘free trade’ deals like NAFTA – or more recently, TPP – as something that actually is “free trade”. Per classical liberalism (in theory, not in any historical practice), free trade is marked by the distinctive lack of intervention into networks of exchange by the state. Hence Sander’s misguided attempt to describe the opening of borders by way of NAFTA or TPP as a withering away of the nation state: neoliberalism has come to be understood as the rolling-back of the state.
Here one might do well to remember the complex argument detailed in Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics. For Foucault, neoliberalism is indeed an affair of markets and of organizing society through them, yet more importantly it is a form of govermentality, a logic of the state and a means for economic interventionism and regulation of individuals and society in ways that stand apart from Keynesianism. Indeed, deals like NAFTA were never about eliminating state power, and constitute instead the deployment of state-centered mechanisms in both the developed and the developing world to allow the smooth functioning – and protection – of what Joan Robinson called “monopolistic competition”. Far from granting pure autonomy to the flows of money, goods, people, whatever, neoliberalism is best understood as a means to modulate these flows as opposed to their pure containment. Thus, while it has been essential for anarchists to oppose neoliberalism, the identification of its mode of economic globalization with a theoretical presentation of free trade puts into play a fragile dialectic that sets up series of limitations and brackets on critique of action – that is, the dialectic of economic populism and globalism. And here, again, we find ourselves in that liminal space between the left and right.
For Foucault, neoliberalism was but a part of a broader shift in the operations of governing regimes, from regulation by way of discipline to that used the supposed ‘naturalness’ in the actions of the governed as its foundation. This “re-centering/de-centering of governmental reason”, as he called it, moved the locus of command and control from the state itself to civil society. As trading things, in one form or another, appears as universal as the various methods of co-operation we’ve seen throughout history, it would make sense for the neoliberal program to latch onto the term “free trade” as a reflection of its claim to an organic state of nature. It would not be too much to suggest that to by granting the state this conflation, the left played right into their hands and allowed this unfortunate piece of propaganda to move forward. It also made it possible for folks like Naomi Klein to set up simplistic – yet now so widespread and influential – dichotomies between the good guys who promote the state and the bad guys who want to do away with it. Or, in another instance, it made it possible for the aforementioned Mike Dolan to declare right before the Battle of Seattle that “the enemy isn’t these governments that comprise the WTO. The enemy is the transnational corporate, free trade lobby.” And finally, it is in this conflation that the sinister image of the globalist emerges – as well as the specter of its nationalist adversary.
The far-right in Europe – and now in the United States – has won a series of victories against neoliberalism by attacking the globalist boogeyman. This referendum, however, has not only been for neoliberalism, but on an entire constellation of things, concepts, and positions that neoliberalism claimed to have, but never truly held. When we look at the various elements that compose the spectacle of globalism, we find a roster of positions to which anarchism should aspire to. Global interconnection? Check. Diverse, evolving communities and hybrid identities? Check and check. The abolition of borders? The destruction of state power and the decline of the nationalist impulse? Cosmopolitan thinking, the rejection of tribalism, modernity? Checks all the way down. And – as controversial as this can be for left anarchists – the acceptance of actual free trade? Check once again. For whatever many, many other flaws are to be found in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s manifesto for the alter-globalization movement, they wrote that the global arrangement of despotic power could “not be resisted by a project aimed at a limited, local autonomy. We cannot move back to any previous social form, nor move forward in isolation.” In this moment when the new far-right is attempting to do just that, we should heed Hardt and Negri’s suggestion that we “have to accept the challenge and learn to think globally and act globally” – a subtle but massive shift from the usual buzz-phrase of ‘think globally, act locally’. Such a shift is necessary and vital.
This opens us to a wider plateau of concerns. While it is clear that in addition to invoking economic populism, the far-right has managed to build a resilient politics forged not only from nationalism, but a more complex sense of localism. Nationalism has never been the problem for the left anarchists, but localism, and even more micro-scale tribalism, has been one in both thought and practice. We spent a decade opposing the march of the neoliberal machine by trying to establish temporary autonomous zones and penning text after text celebrating these spontaneous outbreaks of the carnivalesque. We fought economic inequality by declaring a small patch of territories ours and fetishizing an immobile, cumbersome system of direct democracy. This is not to say symbolic acts such as these are not important – they are so important! But in the paranoia of anything resembled the processes of modernization that we opposed, we came to take symbolic acts and other events of resistance as the end points of struggle and not the ground. In the process, we abandoned that sense of modernity that anarchism has always been wedded to. And in the end, the far-right were the ones to pick up the tools we left scattered on the ground, repurposed them to their own ends, and rode to a political victory that is nothing less than a devastating blow for any proponent of decentralization, individualism, cosmopolitanism and futurity. This is where we fucked up.
So with this in mind, let’s change some things up. Let’s build long-term durable infrastructures for revolt and for living. Let’s celebrate complexity, interconnection, and openness. Let’s reclaim modernity for ourselves, and defend it from those who wish to drag it backwards. And most of all, let’s be unrepentant globalists.