The Anarchist at the End of the Universe

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


November 28, 2011

The Anarchist at the End of the Universe

David Graeber is the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the term that Businessweek has settled on in a recent profile about him, his anarchist philosophy and his steadfast refusal to take responsibility for the protests. In the article, he frames opposition to anarchism in the following way:

“Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea. They think it’s insane,” says Graeber. “Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?”

But to me, the problem with anarchism is the opposite one: behind the formal non-hierarchical, non-coercive structures, someone or some group controls the organization in secret. Often these are the “facilitators” or “coordinators” of meetings and assembles, and according to Ross Wolfe, this is what happened at Zucotti Park.

As things stand right now, the club of anarchists who run the General Assembly and have been stifling every sort of attempt at structured organizations have (paradoxically) established a bizarre authoritarian regime under the banner of anti-authoritarianism

The problem arose in the context of a dispute about whether OWS should issue demands. A group of Marxists created the Demands working, and the anarchist “facilitators” of the General Assembly have attempted minor acts of sabotage - disrupting meetings, taking down the Demands working group information from the web site, etc., because they don’t agree with the idea of demands. A key instigator of this effort is a young woman going by the name of Ketchup, who was coincidentally interviewed by Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report. Colbert asks why she is acting as a spokesperson, and she claims (of herself and her fellow interviewee): “The Press Group came to consensus that we would be good people to talk to, but we’re just here as two autonomous individuals.” But we know from the reports of the Demands working group that she is not merely one individual in a leaderless, horizontal movement, but somehow it is necessary to deny this, just as David Graeber denies his influence over the movement.

And the similarities don’t stop there. Graeber has written about his own minor sabotage against leftist activists he disagreed with, successfully displacing them from the occupation site. In this same article, he claims the “We are the 99%” slogan as his invention, while also immediately denying it: “I wouldn’t be surprised if a half dozen others had equally strong memories of being the first to come up with it.”

This anarchist habit of holding power while denying it is the true danger of anarchist collectives. The formal structures they create do not prevent power from concentrating in a few hands, but this fact is consistently denied and hidden from view, making us more vulnerable to the arbitrary use of power, not less.

This tendency has not gone unnoticed by anarchists – it was identified at least as far back as 1970, when Jo Freeman wrote The Tyrrany of Structurelessness, and I’m sure she wasn’t the first.

But I think if they really thought about this problem, they couldn’t be anarchists, so for me, any anarchist thinking about this issue is trying to find away around it. Two approaches are possible: the first is to locate the problem in some contingent implementation of anarchist theory – the ideas are fine, but we need better, more pure practices. The second says maybe the anarchist idea is incomplete, that within anarchist theory, there is some hidden residual authoritarianism – like maybe anarchism assumes a white, male, heterosexual subject, so the result is a structure that is non-hierarchical, but only for that group of people.

Both of these are ways of purifying anarchism, of locating and eliminating the residue that is believed to corrupt the good intentions of anarchist movements. They’re saying the ideal is good, but does the theory/practice live up to the ideal? Are we really being radically anti-authoritarian enough?

But I think the problem is much stranger: it’s the very fact that anarchist do live up to the ideal that creates the problem. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams gives the clue as to why. In a short, 5-paragraph chapter, Adams outlines his view on the problem of power:

… it is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job… Who can possibly rule if no one who wants to do it can be allowed to?

This is a typical “power corrupts” political theory, one that I think is often held by anarchists. The problem is understood as enjoyment or lust for power, that people in power hold on to it at all costs because they love the status and admiration they get from the people they rule over.

This analysis sets up the revelation that the Galactic President is a figurehead, and all the real decisions are made in secret by the Ruler of the Universe, who is an anonymous, eccentric man living in a tiny metal shack on a remote planet. Occasionally, the administrators of the universe visit him to make decisions that affect everyone. The reason he is the Ruler of the Universe is that he is a radical solipsist - he doubts that anything exists outside of his own mind. In this quote, Zarniwoop and his fellow travelers have arrived at the shack to interview him:

"And they ask you," said Zarniwoop, "to take decisions for them? About people's lives, about worlds, about economies, about wars, about everything going on out there in the Universe?"

"Out there?" said the man, "out where?"

"Out there!" said Zarniwoop pointing at the door.

"How can you tell there's anything out there," said the man politely, "the door's closed."

"But you know there's a whole Universe out there!" cried Zarniwoop. "You can't dodge your responsibilities by saying they don't exist!"

The ruler of the Universe thought for a long while whilst Zarniwoop quivered with anger.

"You're very sure of your facts," he said at last, "I couldn't trust the thinking of a man who takes the Universe - if there is one - for granted."

Zarniwoop still quivered, but was silent.

"I only decide about my Universe," continued the man quietly. "My Universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay."

This is the fantasy of the uncorrupted/uncorruptable ruler. The idea is that he is effectively the dictator of the entire universe, but he can be trusted to not be corrupted by power because he refuses to believe that he is in power. Since he lives in total anonymity and doubts even that other people exist, he cannot enjoy any admiration he gets.

Maybe this is how anarchist collectives work. There are a few people in power but they refuse to acknowledge it, perhaps even to the point of self-delusion. Ketchup claims that she is not a spokesperson and only speaks for herself despite the evidence to the contrary, and Graeber claims not to be the leader of the movement - we can hear in that echoes of the Ruler of the Universe claiming “I only decide about my Universe.”

The logic of this almost seems to be “If I repress the fact that I have power and deny that I am a leader, I cannot be admired as a leader, so I can’t be corrupted by power. Since I can’t be corrupted by power, only I am allowed to have power.” This is how anarchism transforms itself into a secret authoritarian regime, not because they aren’t radical enough but precisely because they are. The more they believe themselves free of the corruption of power, the more they are justified in holding power and sabotaging opponents to keep it.

Update: Providing more supporting evidence of the tendency for anarchists to undermine their fellow activists, Malcolm Harris confirms that he spread rumors about a Radiohead concert at Zucotti park and faked an email from the band’s manager for the purpose of discrediting the OWS Arts and Culture committee. He applies the logic of “why are you hitting yourself?” as a justification:

The Arts and Culture committee bought it completely, and the prank was helped along by their concentrated authority. Had we tried this stunt on a larger group in which individuals weren’t empowered to speak for the collective like the General Assembly, which operated through consensus, they probably would have left the media to figure it out for themselves.

I was honestly hoping they would just keep their mouths shut and let the gossip mills work. But that didn’t stop me from laughing my ass off when I heard [Harris’ friend] Willie’s incredulous voice on the phone: “They just confirmed it. Officially. ‘It is confirmed.’” What the hell were the words “confirm” or “official” supposed to mean? It was a pompous exercise in the exact sort of discourse the occupations are about undermining.

Behind the appearance of a light-hearted prank, there is a serious purpose - to eliminate the enemy within.

A second source that I discovered is John Heilemann’s report on the movement, where he specifically looks at the claims of leaderlessness.

Since the sixties, starting with the backlash within the New Left against those same celebrities, the political counterculture has been ruled by loosey-goosey, bottom-up organizational precepts: horizontal and decentralized structures, an antipathy to hierarchy, a fetish for consensus. And this is true in spades of OWS. In such an environment, formal claims to leadership are invariably and forcefully rejected, leaving the processes for accomplishing anything in a state of near chaos, while at the same time opening the door to (indeed compelling) ad hoc reins-taking by those with the force of personality to gain ratification for their ideas about how to proceed. “In reality,” says Yotam Marom, one of the key OWS organizers, “movements like this are most conducive to being led by people already most conditioned to lead.”

There is an uncanny conjunction between uncontrolled chaos and authoritarian control, as if the extreme tension between the two allows them to flip suddenly and reverse into the other. In The Limits of Peer Production, Daniel Kreiss makes some similar observations about P2P organizations like Wikipedia that the General Assembly supposedly takes inspiration. Drawing from Max Weber, he points out that the original purpose of bureaucracies and formal roles of authority was as a solution to the problems that are created when charisma, connections, status and other forms of social capital form the basis of control. Bureaucracies are attempts to institute transparency, accountability and visibility of those who have authority. When investigative journalism is necessary to uncover who holds the reins of a group, something is wrong.