A whole series of alienations has spread to separate us from all that surrounds us; social alienations, so commented upon by anarchists and Marxists alike, include private property, exchange, and the division of labor: all that separates us from our conditions of existence. Within capitalism, social alienations interpose themselves between humans and their activity. Most directly, alienation is the gap between desire and what is socially valued (for capitalism, valued as productive of surplus value). Yet alienation occurs on another level as well: that of the alienation of power, our power to act, which is separated from us and instituted in the State form. The young Marx commented on this, although in later Marxists a critique of alienated power is painfully absent. The maintenance of alienated power is what politics is all about: it is the apportioning or arrangement of alienated power. Parties are political in that they try to claim a portion of alienated power by claiming to represent the interests of a section of society. An anti-politics is a self-organization of people’s power not a claim on alienated power; it is the self-activity of people reclaiming their power by using their power and the fight against its realienation into permanent institutions.
Unfortunately, many anarchists today also seem to lack any critique of alienated power: this has become especially clear during the recent sweep of anti-globalization protests. Some anarchists are calling for a shift to a form of alienated power different from the one we have at present, and yet not questioning the alienation of power in general: this usually takes the form of a vague call for more democracy, which maintains and institutionalizes a separation between decision and action (See our article “The Anarchist Ethic in the Age of the Anti-Globalization Movement” in this issue for a more in depth discussion of alienated power and the current anti-globalization protests.) Secondly, it is important to understand value as an activity and pertaining to activities; in this society, economics usually defines value as pertaining to objects, thus activities and processes are ideologically reified into things. Therefore, capitalist valorization also alienates us from our power to act, from our activity, and from our desires.
Yet some anarchists take the critique of alienation much further. Social alienation, in the form of private property, exchange, the division of labor, and alienated power, can be thought of as second order alienation. These are specific forms that first order alienation takes in our society. The split between Subject and Object is a first order alienation; it is based in a consciousness which is self-reflexive in its understanding of itself. This alienation of Subject and Object, of human and nature, is mediated by productive activity and language. However, rejection of all mediation and alienation in general is close to a mysticism in its idealization of the identity of the Subject and Object. This is an idealization of nature and demands forgetting species consciousness, language, etc.
While we certainly believe it is important to have a more critical perspective on these second order alienations, we think it is a mistake to believe that social revolution can bring about a unity between Subject and Object, between self and nature, in the fullest sense. Overcoming first order alienations, of course, is impossible without first overcoming second order alienations, and if a successful social revolution were to finish off the State, and private property and the division of labor were to disappear, individuals may wish to attempt the task of overcoming first order alienations. Those who try to overcome the first order in the present usually wander off into the realm of the mystical, Hakim Bey being a notable example (this is not to suggest this is something individuals should avoid—it is, of course, entirely up to them whether to undertake such a task—only that to begin with the first is to attempt a mystical unity and to depart from humanity and from any attempt to overcome second order alienations socially). It seems like the focus on first order alienations is in part derived from an extreme pessimism towards the possibility of any fundamental change in our society; in this sense it is a symptom that is closely related to New Age philosophy.
Primitivism distinguishes itself in part by its thorough critique of all forms of alienation of first and second order. Yet as a critique it tends to concentrate its force on first order alienations. Most primitivists clearly understand that the first order of alienations could not be overcome without a social revolution, but a focus on the first order instead of the second offer little insight to how we are to overcome either orders of alienation: this is because most of these critiques grow out of philosophical reflection rather than a theoretical reflection upon practice.
If we are to develop an insurrectionary anti-politics, we need to be clear and thorough in our critique of alienation without falling into mysticism or politics, and without idealizing a unity that may never have existed and to which social revolution cannot return us.
- Killing King Abacus
Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path. The commune is perhaps what gets decided at the very moment when we would normally part ways. It’s the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end. It’s what makes us say “we,” and makes that an event. What’s strange isn’t that people who are attuned to each other form communes, but that they remain separated. Why shouldn’t communes proliferate everywhere? In every factory, every street, every village, every school. At long last, the reign of the base committees! Communes that accept being what they are, where they are. And if possible, a multiplicity of communes that will displace the institutions of society: family, school, union, sports club, etc. Communes that aren’t afraid, beyond their specifically political activities, to organize themselves for the material and moral survival of each of their members and of all those around them who remain adrift. Communes that would not define themselves – as collectives tend to do – by what’s inside and what’s outside them, but by the density of the ties at their core. Not by their membership, but by the spirit that animates them.
A commune forms every time a few people, freed of their individual straitjackets, decide to rely only on themselves and measure their strength against reality. Every wildcat strike is a commune; every building occupied collectively and on a clear basis is a commune, the action committees of 1968 were communes, as were the slave maroons in the United States, or Radio Alice in Bologna in 1977. Every commune seeks to be its own base. It seeks to dissolve the question of needs. It seeks to break all economic dependency and all political subjugation; it degenerates into a milieu the moment it loses contact with the truths on which it is founded. There are all kinds of communes that wait neither for the numbers nor the means to get organized, and even less for the “right moment” – which never arrives.
Get organized in order to no longer have to work
We know that individuals are possessed of so little life that they have to earn a living, to sell their time in exchange for a modicum of social existence. Personal time for social existence: such is work, such is the market. From the outset, the time of the commune eludes work, it doesn’t function according to that scheme – it prefers others. Groups of Argentine piqueteros collectively extort a sort of local welfare conditioned by a few hours of work; they don’t clock their hours, they put their benefits in common and acquire clothing workshops, a bakery, putting in place the gardens that they need.
The commune needs money, but not because we need to earn a living. All communes have their black markets. There are plenty of hustles. Aside from welfare, there are various benefits, disability money, accumulated student aid, subsidies drawn off fictitious childbirths, all kinds of trafficking, and so many other means that arise with every mutation of control. It’s not for us to defend them, or to install ourselves in these temporary shelters or to preserve them as a privilege for those in the know. The important thing is to cultivate and spread this necessary disposition towards fraud, and to share its innovations. For communes, the question of work is only posed in relation to other already existing incomes. And we shouldn’t forget all the useful knowledge that can be acquired through certain trades, professions and well-positioned jobs.
The exigency of the commune is to free up the most time for the most people. And we’re not just talking about the number of hours free of any wage-labor exploitation. Liberated time doesn’t mean a vacation. Vacant time, dead time, the time of emptiness and the fear of emptiness – this is the time of work. There will be no more time to fill, but a liberation of energy that no “time” contains; lines that take shape, that accentuate each other, that we can follow at our leisure, to their ends, until we see them cross with others.
Plunder, cultivate, fabricate
Some former MetalEurop employees become bank robbers rather prison guards. Some EDF employees show friends and family how to rig the electricity meters. Commodities that “fell off the back of a truck” are sold left and right. A world that so openly proclaims its cynicism can’t expect much loyalty from proletarians.
On the one hand, a commune can’t bank on the “welfare state” being around forever, and on the other, it can’t count on living for long off shoplifting, nighttime dumpster diving at supermarkets or in the warehouses of the industrial zones, misdirecting government subsidies, ripping off insurance companies and other frauds, in a word: plunder. So it has to consider how to continually increase the level and scope of its self-organization. Nothing would be more logical than using the lathes, milling machines, and photocopiers sold at a discount after a factory closure to support a conspiracy against commodity society.
The feeling of imminent collapse is everywhere so strong these days that it would be hard to enumerate all of the current experiments in matters of construction, energy, materials, illegality or agriculture. There’s a whole set of skills and techniques just waiting to be plundered and ripped from their humanistic, street-culture, or eco-friendly trappings. Yet this group of experiments is but one part of all of the intuitions, the know-how, and the ingenuity found in slums that will have to be deployed if we intend to repopulate the metropolitan desert and ensure the viability of an insurrection beyond its first stages.
How will we communicate and move about during a total interruption of the flows? How will we restore food production in rural areas to the point where they can once again support the population density that they had sixty years ago? How will we transform concrete spaces into urban vegetable gardens, as Cuba has done in order to withstand both the American embargo and the liquidation of the USSR?
Training and learning
What are we left with, having used up most of the leisure authorized by market democracy? What was it that made us go jogging on a Sunday morning? What keeps all these karate fanatics, these DIY, fishing, or mycology freaks going? What, if not the need to fill up some totally idle time, to reconstitute their labor power or “health capital”? Most recreational activities could easily be stripped of their absurdity and become something else. Boxing has not always been limited to the staging of spectacular matches. At the beginning of the 20th century, as China was carved up by hordes of colonists and starved by long droughts, hundreds of thousands of its poor peasants organized themselves into countless open-air boxing clubs, in order to take back what the colonists and the rich had taken from them. This was the Boxer Rebellion. It’s never too early to learn and practice what less pacified, less predictable times might require of us. Our dependence on the metropolis – on its medicine, its agriculture, its police – is so great at present that we can’t attack it without putting ourselves in danger. An unspoken awareness of this vulnerability accounts for the spontaneous self-limitation of today’s social movements, and explains our fear of crises and our desire for “security.” It’s for this reason that strikes have usually traded the prospect of revolution for a return to normalcy. Escaping this fate calls for a long and consistent process of apprenticeship, and for multiple, massive experiments. It’s a question of knowing how to fight, to pick locks, to set broken bones and treat sicknesses; how to build a pirate radio transmitter; how to set up street kitchens; how to aim straight; how to gather together scattered knowledge and set up wartime agronomics; understand plankton biology; soil composition; study the way plants interact; get to know possible uses for and connections with our immediate environment as well as the limits we can’t go beyond without exhausting it. We must start today, in preparation for the days when we’ll need more than just a symbolic portion of our nourishment and care.