This excerpt is from Derrick Jensen’s unpublished book “The Politics of Violation.” It is part 2 in a series. Part 1 can be found here. The piece discusses the difference between what has been called lifestyle anarchism and social anarchism.
The excerpt has been edited slightly for publication here. The book is in need of a publisher. Please contact us if you wish to speak with Derrick about this.
A Matter of Perception
Just today I was talking with a friend about an economist who says that contrary to the fable commonly presented by boosters of capitalism, currency didn’t evolve to facilitate barter exchanges; members of functioning communities don’t generally barter, but rather participate in gift economies and the building of social capital. Instead, currency was created in the autocratic regimes of ancient Egypt and Sumer to facilitate taxation and debt peonage (a form of slavery).
My friend interrupted me to say, “Oh, of course. Currency exists for the same reason governments exist: to facilitate commerce, and to shift more power to the already powerful.”
So he’s an anarchist, right?
Not on your life. He can’t stand anarchists, because too many of them, he says, don’t believe in rules. “How can you have a community without standards? It’s ridiculous to think you can, and ridiculous to think that even if you could, anyone else would want to put up with your bad behavior.”
Whether his perception of anarchism is accurate isn’t the point. The point is the prevalence of this perception, and the reasons for this prevalence.
My Introduction to Anarchism
The first time I encountered anarchist literature, in my twenties, I was new to the understanding that states are inherently oppressive and set up primarily to serve the governors, and I was excited to learn more about this political theory called anarchism. I went into an anarchist bookstore, and asked for a recommendation from the black-haired, black-bearded man behind the counter. He pointed me toward a small anarchist ‘zine, which he said would be a great introduction. I bought it, took it home, and started to read.
I quickly became disgusted: the ‘zine contained all sorts of transgressive horrors. In one story the author admired someone getting a job at a mortuary so he could “cornhole” (as he put it) the dead people. I remember thinking, “The anarchist at the bookstore thought a ‘zine promoting necrophilia was a good introduction to anarchism?” I threw the ‘zine into the recycling bin. This experience was so revolting it kept me from reading any books on the history of anarchism, many of which are very good, for several years.
How many other possible recruits have been driven away by these aspects of anarchism? Perhaps equally important, what sorts of people would not be driven away by these aspects? What sorts of people would find this an inviting entry to a political philosophy? Would you want to share a movement with them?
Easier Said than Done
I have a friend who has been a radical, revolutionary activist for twenty-five years. He’s not a fan of anarchism. When I told him I was writing a book about this war in anarchism between those who simply believe governments primarily serve the powerful and those who oppose any constraints on their own behavior, he urged me on.
I asked him why he disliked anarchists so much.
He said, “When I first became politically aware, in college, I became fascinated by anarchism. It was obvious, from reading Chomsky and others, that the United States is an imperial power, and that a primary purpose of the state is to provide both rationale and muscle for economic exploitation. From my reading it seemed that anarchism stands in opposition to that. So I joined an anarchist book group. That was fine for a few months, but then I wanted to do something besides argue about books. I wanted to figure out what issues were most important to me, organize campaigns around those issues, and begin the real work of social change.
“That’s when the problems began. So long as we didn’t do anything but argue about theory, the anarchists were fine. As soon as I started trying to accomplish something in the real world, the anarchists refused to help. I soon realized these anarchists were more interested in arguing than in creating social change. And sadly, with only a few absolutely wonderful exceptions, this has continued to be my experience of anarchists.”
This particular activist has been fortunate in that those anarchists merely refused to help. While I, too, know some wonderful anarchists who are reliable friends and comrades, I also know a lot of people who will no longer work with anarchists because so many anarchists have actively sabotaged their campaigns, using: malicious gossip and other disinformation; physical destruction of campaign materials; rushing the stage and stealing microphones; de-platforming, assaulting, or shouting down those who deviate from anarchist ideology and identity; and co-opting the activists’ work away from the original intent and toward the anarchists’ own ends. For many activists, attempting to organize with—or even interact with—anarchists has been a complete nightmare.
While at dinner with an activist friend, I asked her what’s wrong with anarchism. She said, “Misogyny. By nature I should be an anarchist. I fully recognize the oppressiveness of the state. And I want to be an anarchist. But it’s so completely saturated with misogyny that I can’t do it. It’s not even that anarchism has misogynistic tendencies. It is misogyny.”
I asked her if I could use her name in the book. She said she would prefer I not, because every time she has publicly critiqued anarchism for its misogyny, she has received routine rape and death threats.
Today I spoke with an extremely well known anarchist, who is a decent person—one of the “few absolutely wonderful exceptions” my activist friend mentioned, and certainly to my mind one of the anarchists fighting on the right side of the struggle for the direction of anarchism. He doesn’t perpetrate or promote the sorts of community-destroying behavior I describe in this book.
He told me he believes that anarchism, while flawed, is worth saving.
“I see a few problems with anarchism,” he said. “The first is that it’s a very small movement, and so while there will be nutters in any movement, in anarchism their influence on both the movement and public perception of the movement will be magnified. I’m sure there are complete nutters in the Democratic and Republican Parties, and in the Sierra Club, and for that matter among stamp collectors and chess players. But anarchism is much smaller, which makes the obnoxious outliers all that more obvious.
“The next problem is that there are some strains of anarchism—and I’m thinking of anarchoprimitivism and other extreme forms of libertarian (as opposed to communitarian) anarchism—that encourage community-destroying behavior. These strains will draw an even more disproportionate percentage of nutters, and will cultivate them, to the detriment of all, and to the detriment of anarchism as a whole.
“The third problem is that anarchism is perceived by many as a self-definition: Someone becomes an anarchist by simply deciding he or she is an anarchist. This means that among a lot of self-declared anarchists, anarchism can mean whatever they want it to mean, which means it doesn’t really mean anything at all. I don’t agree with this, and I don’t believe that a lot of people who call themselves anarchists actually are. I believe anarchism has a very specific meaning, and has a long tradition of resistance to empire, a long tradition of working for communities, and I don’t want to give up on that tradition just because a bunch of nutters are causing problems.
“But there we run into another problem with anarchism, which is that it’s an open membership, by which I mean there really isn’t a process by which we can kick people out who are harming others, and who are harming anarchism. And any anarchist who does try to get the nutters to behave is immediately labeled a fascist or worse. This is a terrible problem in anarchism, and one we need to resolve.”
To work toward solving that problem is one reason I wrote this book.
 I’ve often wondered if the recommendation was this anarchist’s terrible idea of a joke: “Let’s freak out the newbie!” But even if it was, that leaves two questions: Why did the bookstore even carry a ‘zine promoting necrophilia, and, why did the bookstore allow this person anywhere near the public?