Among those fans of Alperovitz who wish to slink away from Marxism and revolutionary politics it has become customary to cite Lenin's essay “On Cooperation” from 1923. This shamefully dishonest tactic rips Lenin's praise of agricultural cooperatives from its context. Writing at the time of the New Economic Policy, Lenin emphasizes that cooperatives are only viable because of Soviet power, the monopoly of “political power is in the hands of the working-class.” He is crystal clear on the cooperative movement under the capitalist state:
There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old cooperators. Often they are ridiculously fantastic. But why are they fantastic? Because people do not understand the fundamental, the rock-bottom significance of the working-class political struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters. We have overthrown the rule of the exploiters, and much that was fantastic, even romantic, even banal in the dreams of the old cooperators is now becoming unvarnished reality.
“Fantastic, even romantic, even banal...”
Seasoned veterans of the left know that any strategy that promises to be non-threatening and enters through the front door of the monopoly media should be received with suspicion.
For the above reason, I read a recent The New Yorker article with a jaundiced eye. While nearly everyone acknowledges that the Occupy Movement is --if not dead --splintered and marginalized, a New Yorker “critic at large” Kelefa Sanneh, picked this moment to revisit it. Moreover, the usually attuned-to-the-cutting-edge editors indulged five full pages of copy to the movement's “godfather” and the allure of anarchism.
Just weeks ago, before the elections in Venezuela, the magazine published a long piece scathingly critical of the Bolivarian Revolution and its late leader, Hugo Chavez. No doubt with the approval of The New Yorker's dogmatic Cold War editor David Remnick, who still sees Stalin lurking under every bed, the author revived the tired canard of Chavez “preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” [my italics] Of course Chavez didn't come to office through a coup, a fact that The New Yorker later acknowledged with a small correction. Certainly joining with the mainstream media to trash Chavez and his socialism doesn't dispose me to expect The New Yorker to experience a sudden change of heart and promote any genuine alternative to capitalism. And they don't disappoint.
Paint Bombs: David Graeber's 'The Democracy Project' and the Anarchist Revival (5-13, 2013) is a stealth exercise in distraction and diversion. Where many of us saw the Occupy movement as an incipient anti-capitalist movement degraded through its failure to generate organization and focus, Sanneh sees a noble struggle against “verticals” and in defense of the procedures of the “horizontals.” Sanneh crows: “Occupy resisted those who wanted to stop it and those who wanted to organize it”.
Imagine wanting to organize the Occupy movement! The shame!
The self-styled and New Yorker-anointed guru of the “horizontal” movement is David Graeber, an anthropologist and author of an interesting, eccentric book on debt. Sanneh acclaims Graeber as “the most influential radical political thinker of the moment” (Take that, Gar Alperovitz!). The arch enemies of the “horizontal” movement are “verticals” represented by Marx, the Soviet Union, and parties, leaders, and demands. Sannah claims to see this through the prism of Occupy:
...instead of arguing about economics and ideology, the Occupiers could affirm, instead, their unanimous commitment to freedom of assembly. Occupy may have begun with a grievance against Wall Street, but the process of occupation transformed the movement , peopled by activists demanding the right to demand their rights...
Perhaps no one could say exactly what the Zuccotti Park occupation wanted, but lots of people knew how it worked.
At a critical moment in an economic crisis adversely affecting millions, the “horizontals” were able to transform a movement against Wall Street into a statement “demanding the right to demand... rights.” Thankfully, this does not characterize all Occupy experiences outside of Zuccotti Park. In many cases, Occupiers joined activists in their cities and neighborhoods fighting for health care, jobs, economic justice, and against US aggression. They found righteous demands and learned valuable lessons in organized struggle.
Sanneh concedes that the “rehabilitation of the anarchist movement in America has a lot to do with the fall of the Soviet Union, which lives in popular memory as a quaint and brutal place-- an embarrassing precursor that modern, pro-democracy socialists must find ways to disavow.”
So it's embarrassment and not ideology, disavowal and not commitment that drives the popularity of anarchism. Does this not reek of opportunism? An opportunism that prefers to swiftly and resolutely condemn and separate from the Soviet experience in the face of a “popular” inquisition rather than candidly address both the Soviet strengths and weaknesses?
However, embarrassment should be felt for the anarchist blueprint for forging a new society. Rather than the vision offered by “grim joyless revolutionaries,” Graeber wants “a kind of de-centralized socialism, with decisions made by a patchwork of local assemblies and cooperatives...” – in his own words - “something vaguely like jury duty, except non-compulsory.” Thus, the road to an other-than-capitalist future is paved with “open mics,” assemblies, cooperatives, and a fuzzy analogy.
Adding more to the anarchist strategy are the views of a fellow anthropologist and ally, Yale professor James C. Scott. Scott salutes anarchism for “its tolerance for confusion and improvisation.” He finds anarchism's foot print in such acts of resistance as “foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight.”
“Grim joyless revolutionaries” will be surprised to learn how easy is the road forward. Instead of tiresome organizing, demonstrations and marches, instead of demands and manifestos, instead of meetings and planning sessions, instead of party-building and coalition work, acts of individual and often covert defiance mark the way.
One suspects that despite the rhetoric of radical and participatory democracy advocated by Graeber, Scott, and other anarchist “influentials,” their ideas were not forged in the cauldron of struggle, their thinking was not the product of collective, “horizontal” decisions. The professors decry leadership, but contradictorily speak authoritatively for their movement with little hesitation. They are unsanctioned spokespersons for a leaderless movement. Strange.To appropriate an old expression: Scratch an anarchist and find an angry, embittered liberal. Like all liberals, modern-day anarchists are obsessed with procedure. It's not a program that defines their agenda, but the ritual of decision making. It's no surprise that the liberals at The New Yorker are fascinated. And it's no surprise that they take us no further from a decadent, crisis-ridden capitalism.