Reviewed: Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements, by Chris Dixon.Oakland: University of California Press, 2014, 233 pages, $27.95.
A Catholic friend once said to me that he is less concerned with what religion a person practices than where they place themselves within their tradition. Are they more like Dorothy Day, or more like Cardinal Ratzinger? Are they closer to Yankev-Meyer Zalkind or Ariel Sharon? Malala Yousafzai or the Taliban gunman who tried to kill her?
Chris Dixon takes a similar approach to understanding the left. Rather than profile any particular ideology, organization, or movement, he has criss-crossed the U.S. and Canada interviewing organizers and documenting a certain style of politics, which he describes broadly as “the anti-authoritarian current.” This current, he argues, is not defined by any particular doctrine: it includes people who call themselves “‘abolitionists,’ ‘anarchists,’ anti-authoritarians,’ ‘anti-capitalists,’ ‘autonomists,’ and ‘radicals’—and some … [who] avoid political labels entirely.” Similarly, it is not limited to any particular issue or movement. Its proponents are involved with “migrant justice, anti-militarism, prison abolition, feminism, labor struggles, anti-racism, environmental defense, anti-austerity, economic justice, student democracy, and queer radicalism.” The common features, as Dixon discerns them, are these:
“1. Struggling against all forms of domination, exploitation, and oppression. . .
2. Developing new social relations and forms of social organization in the process of struggle. . .
3. Linking struggles for improvements in the lives of ordinary people to long-term visions. . .
4. Organizing that is grass-roots and bottom-up.”
Undoubtedly, there is something to this. Much of what Dixon describes will sound familiar to anyone who was active during the multi-issue, multi-generational, non-sectarian, anti-globalization movement during its teamsters-and-turtles, “this is what democracy looks like,” direct action, millennial (not to say millenarian) heyday. But precisely because it is so familiar, I am skeptical of the depiction of that approach as a developing tendency full of raw potential, as “something that does not yet fully exist,” rather than as an approach to politics that crested a dozen years ago, but never quite disappeared. (Why it crested, how it survived, and whether it could be renewed are separate issues, which Dixon’s framing prevents him, and his interview subjects, from addressing.)
I want to state at the outset that I am extremely sympathetic to the “anti-authoritarian current” Dixon is trying to portray. My first formative political experiences involved something similar, back when anarchism existed as a movement within movements, and those movements—most notably labor and environmentalism—were united against common enemies like the World Trade Organization. Over the past decade both my political and my intellectual work have drawn from precisely the same sources that Dixon points to as inspiring and informing this emerging tendency. Many of Dixon’s interview subjects happen to be people I know and like, and with whom I would gladly work. Most of the projects he discusses I support in spirit, and would likewise support in practice should the opportunity present itself. On the whole, I am enthusiastic about the sort of organizing this book describes and the kind of movement the people profiled in it are trying to build. Of course it’s hard not to be positive about anything described like this:
“We believe in the power of people to fight for justice and dignity, and to shape history in the process. We oppose all forms of domination, exploitation, and oppression, and we maintain a critical stance towards the state. We carry a rich democratic vision of everyone being able to directly participate in the decisions that affect them in their relationships, homes, communities, workplaces, schools, and elsewhere. We believe in the equality of all people and we struggle on the basis of solidarity and cooperation. We ground ourselves in the day-to-day work of building mass movements capable of fundamentally transforming the world. . . . We are skeptical of political approaches based on purity, understanding that there are no easy answers and that we all have to get our hands dirty in the process of organizing for radical social change. We attempt to avoid dogmatism and sectarianism in our work and strive to engage in respectful dialogue with other sectors of the left and communities in struggle. We try to develop horizontal organizing that isn’t subcultural, ways of transforming social relations that aren’t flaky or individualized, organizations that foster movements rather than fracture them, ways of strategically fighting systems, organizing spaces that people can enter as whole people, modes of struggle that improve the lives of ordinary people while building emancipatory capacities and moving us toward a new world, and visionary politics rooted in liberatory dreams.”
Who could speak ill of that?
On the other hand, who is the “we” invoked repeatedly in the above passage? What is this “current” if it is not a movement, a faction, a party, or a subculture? Is it something more than a style of politics, an approach some people happen to share, an outlook or an ethic? Is there some connection between the dozens of activists Dixon interviews, the projects they’re engaged in, and the practices they employ? Or has Dixon simply picked out some things he likes about the left, discarded those he disapproves of, and declared the result “another politics”? At times, Dixon presents his investigation in anthropological terms, but the boundaries of the phenomenon he is studying are clearly normative. The result is necessarily prescriptive as well as descriptive. The book is thus only partly about the movement as it exists; it is also about the movement Dixon longs for.
Dixon’s project is perhaps best understood as a study of the left’s current challenges and best practices—the challenges being, unfortunately, the more common of the two. Another Politics is at its best when it considers the real difficulties of organizing, the paradoxes and uncertainties, and offers practical advice for avoiding predictable mistakes. That is, I am happy to report, most of the book’s actual content—especially in Parts Two and Three, “Strategy” and “Organizing.”
For example, Dixon and his interview subjects warn against the danger of “prefigurative” imperatives creating self-isolating enclaves engaging in what Amy Miller calls “secular puritanism.” Likewise, they note that the left tends “to focus on principles over plans” and to “fetishize particular tactics,” both of which obstruct strategic thinking. They astutely observe that non-hierarchical groups often begin from the premise that everyone has “more or less the same skills, kinds of knowledge, and levels of confidence,” and so simultaneously ignore people’s real talents and fail to encourage and support less experienced members. And they take on hard questions about fitting means to ends, adopting demands for reform within a revolutionary strategy, and the tensions between mobilization-oriented “activism” versus base-building “organizing.”
The weakest part of the book, and the main confusion inherent to Dixon’s project, unfortunately falls right at the beginning—Part One, “Politics.” Dixon is strong when discussing the means of social change, and weak when discussing the ends. That’s ironic, since he repeatedly faults the left, and its “prefigurative” aspirations especially, for the same failing. He tries to put a brave face on it, emphasizing the virtues of fluidity and multiplicity; but his efforts to formulate the politics common to “another politics” founder badly. He points to multiple traditions, the convergence of which, he says, have characterized the tendency he is describing:
“The anti-authoritarian current . . . has grown out of dense political lineages and histories of struggle[:]… Anti-racist feminism provides a set of politics and practices for understanding interrelated systems of oppression and exploitation, linking interpersonal and systemic forms of domination, and elaborating intersectional strategies for social transformation. Prison abolitionism contributes an analysis connecting state violence and dominant social relations, a nonreformist approach to strategy, and experiments aimed at reducing harm and resolving conflict without resorting to the state. And reconfigured anarchism supplies nonhierarchical practices, prefigurative visions, and a confrontational orientation.”
Unfortunately, one cannot just add a bit of this and a bit of that and have it fit together into a coherent whole. Or, perhaps one can, but so far the left hasn’t. The resonances between these constitutive elements, while certainly real, are under-developed in Dixon’s treatment of them; and the “tension[s]” between them, and the difficulties reconciling their “different. . . political vocabularies and approaches” are mentioned, but never directly explored. Of course the fault is not his alone. The standard (non)theoretical practice of “the anti-authoritarian current” has been to selectively adopt conclusions from disparate traditions without engaging the arguments for them. In other words, individual ideas have survived, but in isolation from any theoretical framework that might give them support; they are advanced as principles, but without reference to the reasons behind them. As a result, these notions cease to be working theories and become points of doctrine accepted on something like faith. (For more on this process, and its distorting effect on anarchism, see Spencer Sunshine’s stubbornly unpublished dissertation: Spencer Sunshine, “Post-1960 U.S. Anarchism and Social Theory,” PhD dissertation, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology, 2013.)
Tellingly, the politics this process has produced turn out to be a series of No’s. Dixon characterizes them as “the four anti’s”: “anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism.” That’s all fine, for as far as it goes—but it doesn’t really go very far. What we end up with is the sort of thing one might expect to see as the “points of unity” for an extremely open (and, likely, short-lived) coalition—that is, intentionally broad, purposefully general, avoiding specifics in favor of an overall inclusiveness. In that kind of setting, a list of four Things We’re All Against may serve perfectly well as a minimal base-line. It may even be that social movements, taken as a whole, tend to be characterized by this sort of general opposition, more than by particular demands, programs, strategies, tactics, or theories. But it is strange, here, to see what is purportedly an emerging current within and across movements being defined in this same vague way. And the particular characteristics being put forward are so broad as to make it hard to know what “another politics” are “other” to. “Anti-capitalist” may position this tendency to the left of the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO—but surely, among self-identified radicals, it is going to be hard to find groups or individuals who think of themselves as authoritarian, imperialist, and pro-oppression. Framing the issues this way comes pretty close to simply liking good things and opposing bad. Fair enough, in a sense. We all like good things and oppose bad. But that won’t necessarily mean we understand “good” and “bad” in the same way—or have anything else in common.
Dixon’s mistake, I think, is to assume that because people have practices that in some respects resemble each other’s, they must also have compatible, if not identical, ideas—and then to suggest that it is the congruent ideas that produce the similar practices. In terms of applied politics—the day-to-day struggles, working together, and getting things done—the practices usually matter much more than the ideas. But the failure to distinguish the two renders the first third of Another Politics useless—perhaps worse than useless, as it may discourage any deep engagement with political thinking and promote in its place the rote absorption of pre-digested No lists.
Fortunately, Another Politics gets the ratio between theory and practice about right, so the muddle of its ideological section does not matter that much, if we can only get through it—or skip past it. (My recommendation is to begin reading on page 82.) Despite its clumsy start, the book goes on to ask some penetrating questions and offer sound advice for social movements and those in them. As such, Another Politics can serve as a useful tool for organizers and may make a contribution to the self-understanding of our movements. But the book will only do its job if it serves as a basis for discussion and debate, not if it is treated as a field manual, a recipe book, or a bible. Dixon at least understands as much. The book is strongest when it is challenging rather than cheerleading, and it ends with six sets of questions for which he offers no answers. One hopes that study groups may take it up as a text, and collectives use it to reflect on their organizing and re-examine their practices.
Another Politics may have its faults, but in many respects its problems are our problems. Its confusions are the left’s confusions. But if we take seriously the questions it poses, the book may also help us to find our own answers.
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America,American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy. He lives in Portland, Oregon.