Political organizing the anti-authoritarian way

Chris Dixon, Another Politics: Talking across Today’s Transformative Movements

Oakland: University of California Press, 2014; 363pp; ISBN 978–0–520–27902–5

Reviewed by Brian Martin

An abridged version of this review is forthcoming in Anarchist Studies

 

Chris Dixon is an anti-authoritarian organiser. As well, he is a researcher. He set out to investigate the latest thinking about goals, strategy, methods and organisation among young anarchist-inspired activists and organisers in Canada and the US. The result is his book Another Politics, filled with insights and worth reading by anyone interested in anarchist theory and practice.

Dixon interviewed dozens of activists, with a few restrictions and emphases. He contacted only younger figures, less than 35 years old, seeking views from those involved in current struggles. He made sure his sample included more women than men and overrepresented ethnic minorities. In this way he counteracted the usual bias towards older white males.

Some of his interviewees thought of themselves as anarchists; most, through, did not, but were inspired by similar ideals. Dixon refers to the ‘anti-authoritarian current’, which encompasses a variety of perspectives, closely aligned with anarchist thinking but broader.

The context

To those outside North America, and most of those living there, the anti-authoritarian current is almost invisible. News reports about the US received internationally focus on conventional politics, for example presidential races, with seldom even the slightest indication that there is a stratum of activism operating outside party politics and seeking participatory alternatives to representative government. Inside the US, the mass media likewise concentrates on mainstream politics, with alternative models even less present than outside the country, where at least the possibility of different systems is apparent by the contrast between the US and the rest of the world. In Canada, there is greater awareness of political differences. Even so, the existence of a Canadian anti-authoritarian current is seldom newsworthy in its own terms.

Furthermore, as Dixon acknowledges, the anti-authoritarian current is neither large nor highly influential. He interviewed organisers in several large cities, but even there the numbers of activists are comparatively few, and outside the cities the current is even less present. Despite its limited numbers, the current is quite influential in a variety of social movements and struggles. Furthermore, it is developing an approach to social change efforts that, if taken up more widely, has the potential for laying the basis for revolutionary change. But that is down the track.

Another Politics is told from Dixon’s point of view, in both an individual and collective voice. He is quite willing to present his personal views, but much of the book is told through the words of his interviewees, via both short and extended quotes. In part, Dixon imposes his own sense of order to the exposition, while in part it emerges from the priorities and perspectives of those he interviewed. Of course Dixon chose his interviewees and the topics, but there seems quite a bit of commonality to the issues addressed and the views offered, no doubt because of commonalities in struggle. Because of this collective dimension, Dixon often and legitimately refers to ‘we’. He is part of the movement. He does not speak for it, but through his research he can offer movement-oriented perspectives.

Challenges

Dixon tackles topics that are among the most difficult facing anti-authoritarians, in particular strategy and organising. The preliminary task is vision, namely the goals of the movement. He says they can be conceptualised as four antis: anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression and anti-imperialism. Oppositions are far better developed than visions of an alternative society: it is much easier to know and agree on what you are against than what you are for, because forms of domination are here and now whereas future alternatives remain to be fully articulated.

Strategy, which involves planning how to get from the present to a desired future, has long been a weak area for social movements. Many groups focus on campaigns, and are reactive: there is a racist incident, a police beating or the threat of a new law or war, and activists mobilise. This is worthwhile, but it means long-term perspectives are submerged and that activism is driven by contingencies and by government and media priorities.

However, it is hard for groups to adhere to efforts moving toward long-term visions without short-term actions and occasional victories to maintain morale. Dixon sees some hope in overcoming this challenge by what he calls a strategic framework. What it involves, in many cases, is a mixture of the immediate and the long-term.

In prefigurative politics, campaigners attempt to live the alternative, in other words to behave according to their vision of a future society. This has ramifications. It means fostering non-competitive, supportive interpersonal relationships, building egalitarian organisations, developing a healthy attitude towards leadership and designing campaigns in which the methods are compatible with the goals.

For strategic purposes, prefigurative politics ideally involves a combination of a focus on the here-and-now and a connection to the ultimate goal. Dixon quotes many activists on the need to become engaged with messy current politics, because being purist, for example setting up a model commune, will have little impact on dominant power systems. On the other hand, focusing on current politics holds the risk of becoming trapped within a reformist dynamic. For example, campaigners need to figure out their relationship with elections. Totally abstaining from electoral politics is a purist option; conventional campaigning for candidates is reformist. Somewhere between is selective engagement while promoting alternatives to electoral systems.

Dixon canvasses a range of issues, including ones that have plagued anarchist politics for decades without satisfactory resolution. One such issue is leadership. Many anti-authoritarians are turned off by dominant models of leadership, which assume hierarchical organisations and unhealthy interpersonal behaviours. However, by rejecting conventional leadership, activists may fail to address the need for different forms of leadership, involving role modelling, mentoring, skill sharing and expertise at the service of the cause. Rather than tearing down anyone who takes a leadership role, the challenge is to construct processes that recognise useful roles for leadership within an egalitarian framework and that nurture leadership skills in many individuals.

Dixon cites an overwhelming number of writings from both academic and movement sources; Another Politics is an impressive piece of scholarship. His interviews are woven into a journey through anti-authoritarian activism, presenting contemporary views on the most vexing issues facing activists. All this is done within a framework that makes ‘transformative politics’ seem hopeful while acknowledging the enormous difficulties involved.

Next?

For all its strengths, there are still some things that Another Politics does not do and are worthy of investigation for those inspired by Dixon’s work. Another Politics is based on interviews with the younger generation of activists. It would be fascinating to undertake a parallel study probing insights from older anarchists. Of course, it could be said that older anarchists, many of them white men, are over-represented in writing about anarchism and in shaping anarchist practices, so a project focusing on them would be shining a light on a place that is already well lit. But there may be ways around this, because the legacy from old activists is multi-faceted, with many insights not well known today.

Another Politics focuses on Canada and the US. The rest of the world is a backdrop. Dixon treats international developments, for example decolonisation struggles, as inputs to the Canadian/US story. There is more to be learned by undertaking a parallel investigation in other countries. After all, strategies for Canadian/US activists should take into account movements elsewhere.

By some accounts, the US government is the coordinator of a contemporary world empire, as suggested by the presence of US military bases in dozens of countries, worldwide monitoring of communications, imposition of economic arrangements, shaping of media coverage and interference in political affairs across the globe. If the US state is thought of as coordinating an empire, then activists around the globe should have a strategy to bring down or transform the empire into an egalitarian alternative.

In this context, concentrating on anti-authoritarian politics in the US is both important but inadequate. It is important because opposition within the core of the empire plays a special role. It is inadequate because opposition within the core should take into account forms and methods of opposition in the periphery, namely everywhere else in the world. Activists in the US through their campaigns (especially on topics such as militarism and international trade agreements) can probe the dynamics of the US state-military-capitalism complex and learn lessons that can be communicated to campaigners elsewhere. Likewise, activists throughout the world can gain insights through their campaigns that can be taken on board by US activists.

Study this book!

Another Politics is a vital contribution to the sort of activist dialogue that can build stronger and more strategic movements. It covers theory and practice, and especially the connection between the two. It presents views from many activists and organisers who are most attuned to the opportunities and challenges of anti-authoritarian politics. It tackles several of the most difficult issues for anarchists — organising, leadership, and organisations — with insights. It recognises the weaknesses and shortcomings of ‘transformative movements’, for example the lack of learning from previous struggles, so new activists often end up making the same mistakes as their predecessors. Finally, it offers a model for activist-researchers in other parts of the world who can investigate anti-authoritarian organising and campaigning.

Brian Martin, University of Wollongong


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