- What is Postanarchism “Post”?
Newly resurgent anarchist movements, shaking the streets from Seattle to Genoa, are caught in a field of tension between two magnetic poles: Eugene, Oregon, and Plainfield, Vermont. Eugene is the home of John Zerzan, author of Future Primitive (1994), who has pushed anarchist theory in the direction of an all-encompassing negation of “civilization.” At the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield in 1995, Murray Bookchin issued his much debated challenge to the “anti-civilizational” anarchists, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. Bookchin’s “social anarchism” is in the tradition of the anarcho-communism theorized by Peter Kropotkin, calling for the replacement of nations and markets with a decentralized federation of self-managing communities. Zerzan’s “primitivism” calls for the destruction of the “totality,” including the abolition of technology, language, and history itself, in favor of a wild, primordial freedom (Future Primitive 129).1 The “chasm” between Eugene and Plainfield is wide, certainly. Zerzan and Bookchin agree on one thing, however: both hate postmodernism.
Bookchin calls it a form of “nihilism” tailored to “yuppie” tastes (19). “Postmodernism leaves us hopeless in an unending mall,” Zerzan complains, “without a living critique; nowhere” (134). For Bookchin, theorists such as Foucault and Derrida simulate a kind of individualistic rebellion while vitiating social anarchist commitments to reason, realism, and ethical universals (9–10). For Zerzan, on the contrary, they bolster the reigning order by liquidating any notion of the autonomous individual: “the postmodern subject, what is presumably left of subject-hood, seems to be mainly the personality constructed by and for technological capital” (110).
This dispute is one of the significant contexts in which Saul Newman’s From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power arrives. Another is the rediscovery by the academy of the anarchist theoretical tradition, where until recently anarchism had endured an official oblivion even longer and deeper than its erasure from public memory. The rediscovery of anarchist theory is a timely gift for theorists such as Todd May (The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, 1994), who are eager to politicize poststructuralism but leery of bolting their concepts onto ready-made Marxist frameworks. Both May and Newman see Marxism, in all its varieties, as an ineluctably “strategic” philosophy (to use May’s term), perpetually drawn to the postulate of a “center” from which power must emanate (May 7; 10).
“In contrast to Marxism,” writes Newman, “anarchism was revolutionary in analyzing power in its own right, and exposing the place of power in Marxism itself—its potential to reaffirm state authority” (6). Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx tore the First International asunder in 1872 over the question of the State: was it a mere instrument of ruling-class power, as Marx thought, in which case it could be seized and used by the proletariat, or was it an “autonomous and independent institution with its own logic of domination,” as Bakunin argued, in which case any “transitional” State would merely constitute a new reigning regime (Newman 21)? History has given a poignant weight to Bakunin’s premonitions of a “red bureaucracy,” of course, but for a poststructuralist rereading, his importance lies in his challenge to Marx’s method—the “strategic thinking” for which “all problems can be reduced to the basic one” (May 10). Anarchist critique undermines the confident assumption that power is merely an “epiphenomenon of the capitalist economy or class relations,” which in turn opens the way to a post-Foucauldian apprehension of the ubiquity of power relations—the “dispersed, decentered” power which comes from everywhere (Newman 2; 78).
At the same time, Newman and May concur, classical anarchism ditches its own best insight: “anarchism itself falls into the trap of the place of power” (Newman 6). Both Bakunin and Kropotkin found resistance on a certain notion of human nature as an “outside” to power—a pure origin of resistance. Power, as incarnated in the State, represses and distorts the goodness of humanity; once it is eradicated by the revolution, “human essence will flourish” and power will disappear (Newman 13). For Newman, however...