Excerpt from "The mystery of `populism' finally unveiled
by G.A. Tamas, 3/31/2017
No one is justified in erasing the difference between oppression and emancipation.
This is not to say that there is no great chaos in politics. Take the example of the anti-corruption demonstrations in Romania – so much celebrated by the western and central European press. I shall not recount the story, more or less known to everybody, how the governing, allegedly ‘social democratic’ PSD party in a Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion passed a law which, among other things, would have excused corrupt politicians, and how gigantic demonstrations forced them to withdraw. There is absolutely no doubt that the PSD politicians are corrupt, nationalist and conservative (like their opponents), in spite of quite a few welfarist measures, and that huge shadowy networks linked to them are sucking out tax revenue from the state coffers in a country that, for all its undeniable economic success, is still very poor and unequal.
But the conflict in Romania is not between nice civil libertarians and nasty, thieving, anti-democratic nationalists, but something else altogether. It is the protest of a caste: young, educated, middle-class, urban, pro-European and pro-western, sweet-smelling, well dressed, with a withering contempt for the country bumpkins, the old-age pensioners, the ‘post-Stalinist’ workers – youngsters calling themselves and being called by the adoring media ‘the beautiful people’.
The trouble is that the protests are clearly authoritarian, calling for punishment.
The trouble is that the protests are clearly authoritarian, calling for punishment, prison, expulsion for the political adversary and are also clearly situated in favor of one party in the power conflict: president Klaus Johannis, plus the special prosecutor’s office bringing files into court put together by the proportionally largest secret service anywhere (30,444 collaborators, larger than the German service and twice the size of Ceauşescu’s infamous Securitate) that seems to have taken over the entire state and large chunks of the media. It is like under the Austrian version of enlightened absolutism: modernity and development are linked not to the public sphere and not to political deliberation, but to the secret state, unaccountable and impenetrable.
This is the kind of modernization – together with the demand of a severe punitive justice and of purges – that ‘the beautiful people’ want with a ‘rule of law’ which does not, in this case, imply popular participation, political pluralism and an autonomous Öffentlichkeit, only ‘transparency’: the transparency of the Panopticon, where everybody is watched and kept morally sound by the round-the-clock gaze of the spy. And like everywhere in eastern Europe, paranoias abound: the hidebound nationalists suspect the symbol George Soros (‘the Jew’) of being behind everything, while according to ‘the beautiful people’, it is the symbol Vladimir Putin (‘the Communist’) who is the ghost in this machine.
Elite uprisings and unpleasant opinions
While class conflict and its cultural expression is at the basis of the confrontation – the élite’s uprising against The People, and not vice versa – exploited and oppressed classes are everywhere turning against other oppressed people: nowadays mostly against the refugees or against minorities or gays or even against the young pro-western middle class who are not themselves the exploiters, but the dupes and the unwitting agents of the exploiters.
Their xenophobia, however, is only an opinion (unpleasant to be sure, yet still only an opinion). But the refugees are turned back by the great capitalist states. While the European press thunders against Donald Trump, the kind German government and its liberal allies are doing exactly what he so far just talks about. The European frontier police, Frontex is already more brutal with refugees than its US counterpart is intended to be. Viktor Orbán’s fence of shame at the Serbian border is now guarded by the Austrian army also, the army of a neutral country that has just elected itself an impeccable Green-liberal president, lovely, friendly Herr Van der Bellen. (By the way, the Hungarian law that gives police powers to the army, unprecedented in peacetime, has now been emulated by the Austrian powers-that-be.) Meanwhile, the decision of the socialist-led Austrian government to reward those entrepreneurs willing to employ more people, has recently been amended – by the social democrats! – so that employing immigrants would not count; a few days ago, the home secretary in Vienna proposed a bill according to which ‘anti-state activity’ and ‘non-recognition of the state authority of the Republic of Austria’ will merit two years in prison. It has a nice Stalinist sound to it, does it not?
Class conflict and its cultural expression is at the basis of the confrontation – the élite’s uprising against The People, and not vice versa.
Déjà vu while Rome burns
The Right is winning everywhere, the Left is being betrayed everywhere, and people are quarrelling about silly definitions.
The reactionary counter-revolution using (but not helping) the traditional proletariat and the lower middle class against the underclass, against the precariat – especially if it is ‘ethnic’ – and against the immigrant, creating a cross-class political alliance never seen since the days of colonial conquest, is destroying the Left.
The turning of the most important Anglophone countries (Britain and the US) against the European Union might parallel the break-up of the League of Nations which ends the longest peace on the European continent – the Yugoslav and Ukrainian conflicts being classified as skirmishes – and the peril of disorder or of conflagration usually stops progress, particularly towards greater liberty and co-operation.
Socialist treason is not new, either. As everybody knows, European socialists (infinitely stronger than today) capitulated in the summer of 1914 to the forces of imperialism and joined the ‘war effort’ by voting for the war credits and by mobilizing the notionally ‘internationalist’ working class. Intellectuals of Jewish origin like Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, Georg Simmel, supposed to be cosmopolitan and wary of the anti-Semitic imperialist-nationalist forces, were writing pæans about rebirth by battle and about their ‘host’ nation’s superlative virtues. Anarcho-syndicalists – previously radical pacifists – marched to the right, many becoming fascists later, with one ending up a minister in Pétain’s and Laval’s collaborationist, criminal government during the second world war.
The socialist idea was to prevent war by an international general strike. But instead, ethnicity defeated class, and the investment of the working class in the welfare state and in colonialism was continued in the hope of social dividends, with the results we know. Let’s call things by their rightful names.
Let’s call things by their rightful names.
Giving in to racism and xenophobia instead of dealing with the seemingly intractable problem of millions becoming ‘superfluous populations’ because of technological development (digitalization, robotization, automation) and of financial crisis and of the retrenchment of global demand; putting up fences to stop these millions trying to escape starvation and war instead of spreading the benefits universally; making deals with tyrants such as Erdogan, Modi or al-Sisi; being silent about the predicament of groups like the Rohingya; becoming more and more similar to the enemy – this is what the official Left are doing, and the name for this is treason.
It isn’t true that there is no difference between Left and Right, but it is true that the Left is disappearing fast, like it did in 1914.
The Anarchism Stereotype
Anarchists are not perpetrators of violence, but people who believe in reason without coercion - put that way, there are more of them than you think.
from New Debate
[This article published on July 16, 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/das-anarchismus-klischee.]
Chances are you've heard something about what anarchists are and what they supposedly believe. And chances are, almost everything you've heard is bullshit. Many people seem to think that anarchists are proponents of violence, chaos and destruction, that they are against any form of order and organization, or that they are crazy nihilists who just want to blow everything up. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists are simply people who believe that people are capable of behaving rationally without having to be forced to do so. This is really a very simple thought. But it's one that the rich and powerful have always found extremely dangerous.
by David Graeber
In their simplest form, anarchist beliefs are based on two elementary assumptions. The first is that under normal circumstances people are as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and that they can organize themselves and their communities without being told how. The second is that power corrupts. But above all, anarchism is about having the courage to take the simple principles of common decency by which we all live and follow them to their logical conclusions. Strange as it may seem, in most important respects you are probably already an anarchist - you're just not aware of it.
Let's start with a few examples from everyday life.
When you're standing in line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and not try to push past others, even if there are no police officers around?
If you answered yes, then you are used to acting like an anarchist! The most basic anarchist principle is self-organization: the assumption that people do not need to be threatened with prosecution to come to meaningful agreements with each other or to treat each other with dignity and respect.
Everyone believes that they themselves are capable of behaving reasonably. If they think laws and police are necessary, it's because they don't believe other people can. But if you think about it, don't these people all feel exactly the same way about you?
Anarchists argue that almost all of the anti-social behavior that makes us think it is necessary to have armies, police, prisons, and governments to control our lives is actually caused by the systematic inequalities and injustices that these armies, police, prisons, and governments enable.
It's a real vicious cycle. When people are used to being treated as if their opinions don't matter, they are likely to become angry and cynical, even violent - which, of course, makes it easy for those in power to say that their views don't matter.
Once they understand that their opinions matter as much as anyone else's, they tend to become remarkably understanding. To make a long story short: Anarchists believe that it is largely power itself and the effects of power that cause people to become stupid and irresponsible.
Are you a member of a club, sports team, or other voluntary organization in which decisions are not dictated by a leader but are made on the basis of general consent?
If you answered "yes," then you belong to an organization that operates on anarchist principles! Another fundamental anarchist principle is voluntary association. This is simply a matter of applying democratic principles to ordinary life. The only difference is that anarchists believe that it should be possible to have a society in which everything could be organized according to these principles, with all groups based on the free consent of their members, and that therefore all top-down military styles of organization, such as armies or bureaucracies or large corporations based on chains of command, would no longer be necessary.
Maybe you don't think that would be possible. But maybe you do. But any time you reach an agreement by consensus rather than threats, any time you make a voluntary agreement with another person, come to an understanding, or reach a compromise by giving due consideration to the other person's particular situation or needs, you are an anarchist - even if you are not aware of it.
Anarchism is simply the way people act when they are free to do what they want, and when they are dealing with others who are equally free - and therefore aware of the responsibility to others that this entails. This leads to another crucial point: that while people can be reasonable and considerate when dealing with peers, they cannot inherently be trusted when given power over others. Give someone such power and they will almost invariably abuse it in one way or another.
Do you think that most politicians are selfish, egotistical scumbags who don't really care about the public interest? Do you believe that we live in an economic system that is mindless and unfair?
If you answered "yes," then you agree with the anarchist critique of today's society - at least in its broad outlines. Anarchists believe that power corrupts and that those who spend their entire lives seeking power are the last people who should have it.
Anarchists believe that our current economic system prefers to reward people for selfish and unscrupulous behavior rather than for being decent, caring people. Most people feel that way. The only difference is that the majority of people don't believe there's anything that can be done about it, or at least - and this is what the faithful servants of the powerful are always most likely to insist on - anything that won't make things worse in the end.
But what if that were not the case?
And is there really any reason to believe this? When you can actually test them, most of the usual predictions about what would happen without states or capitalism turn out to be completely untrue. People have lived without state structures for thousands of years. In many parts of the world today, people live outside the control of governments. They don't all kill each other, though. For the most part, they just go about their lives as anyone else would.
Of course, all this would be more complicated in a complex, urban, technological society: but technology can also solve all these problems much more easily. In fact, we haven't even begun to think about what our lives might be like if technology were truly aligned with people's needs.
How many hours would we really have to work to maintain a functioning society - that is, if we got rid of all the useless or destructive jobs like telemarketers, lawyers, prison guards, financial analysts, public relations experts, bureaucrats, and politicians, and took our best scientific minds away from working on space weapons or stock market systems, and mechanized dangerous or tedious tasks like mining coal or cleaning the bathroom, and divided the remaining work equally among everyone?
Five hours a day? Four? Three? Two? No one knows because no one even asks that kind of question. Anarchists think these are exactly the questions we should be asking.
Do you really believe the things you tell your children (or that your parents told you)?
"It doesn't matter who started it." "Two wrongs don't make a right." "Clean up your own mess." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you ..." "Don't be mean to others just because they are different." Perhaps we should consider whether we are lying to our children when we tell them about right and wrong, or whether we are willing to take our own injunctions seriously. Because when you take these moral principles to their logical conclusions, you get to anarchism.
Take the principle that two wrongs do not make a right. If you really took it seriously, that alone would tear away almost the entire basis for war and criminal justice. The same is true of sharing: We always tell children that they need to learn to share, to be considerate of each other's needs, to help each other; then we go into the real world, where we assume that everyone is inherently selfish and competitive. But an anarchist would point out: Basically, what we tell our kids is right.
Pretty much every great worthwhile achievement in human history, every discovery or accomplishment that has improved our lives, has been based on cooperation and mutual aid; even now, most of us spend more of our money on our friends and families than we do on ourselves; although there will probably always be competitive people in the world, there is no reason why society needs to be based on encouraging such behavior, let alone making people compete for the basic necessities of life. That only serves the interests of the people in power who want us to live in fear of each other. That is why anarchists call for a society based not only on free association, but on mutual aid.
The fact is that most children grow up with a deep belief in anarchist morality and then gradually have to realize that the adult world doesn't really work that way. That's why so many become rebellious or alienated, even suicidal as teenagers, and eventually resigned and bitter as adults; their only solace is often the ability to raise their own children and fool them into believing that the world is just. But what if we really began to build a world that was at least founded on principles of justice? Wouldn't that be the greatest gift you could give to your own children?
Do you believe that people are fundamentally corrupt and evil, or that certain groups of people (women, people of color, ordinary people who are not rich or highly educated) are inferior beings destined to be led by their superiors?
If you answered "yes," then it looks like you're not an anarchist after all. But if you answered "no," then chances are you already subscribe to 90 percent of the anarchist principles and probably live your life largely in accordance with the principles.
Any time you treat another person with consideration and respect, you are an anarchist. Any time you settle your differences with others by coming to a reasonable compromise and listening to what everyone has to say, rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you are an anarchist. Any time you have the opportunity to force someone to do something, but choose instead to appeal to their sense of reason or justice, you are an anarchist. The same goes for any time you share something with a friend, or decide who does the dishes, or do anything at all with fairness in mind.
Now you might argue that all this is all well and good for getting along in small groups, but running a city or a country is another matter entirely. And of course, there is something to that. Even if you decentralize society and put as much power as possible in the hands of small communities, there will still be many things that need to be coordinated, from running the railroads to deciding the direction of medical research.
But just because something is complicated doesn't mean there's no way to do it democratically. It would just be complicated. In fact, anarchists have all sorts of different ideas and visions about how a complex society could manage itself. Explaining them, however, is far beyond the scope of a small introductory text like this. Suffice it to say that, first, a lot of people have spent a lot of time developing models for how a truly democratic, healthy society might work; and second, and just as important, no anarchist claims to have a perfect blueprint. The last thing we want is to impose preconceived models on society.
The truth is that we probably can't even imagine half the problems that will arise if we try to create a democratic society; yet we are confident that, human ingenuity being what it is, such problems can always be solved, as long as it is done in the spirit of our basic principles-which, in the last instance, are simply the principles of basic human decency.
David Graeber, born in 1961, is a U.S. anthropologist and publicist. He has written numerous books such as Free from Domination (original English title: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology), Direct Action: An Ethnography, and Fighting Kamikaze Capitalism (Reinventing Revolution). Graeber has been a professor of anthropology at Yale University, taught anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and since 2013 has been a professor in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He holds anarchist positions, is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union and the International Organization for a Participatory Society.
Editorial Note: David Graeber's article originally appeared in 2006 under the title "Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!" on the website nymaa.org, a project developed by the Technology Working Group of the New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists. The essay was archived by The Anarchist Library, translated by New Debate, and published under the title "Are You An Anarchist? The answer might surprise you!".