First published on TeleSUR 16 December 2014
In Another Politics, Chris Dixon presents a part of the North American left, defining it early on in the book as the “anti-authoritarian current”. A significant part of the book is dedicated to defining this current, its ideology, and its practices. Dixon is explicit about being a part of this current, and while the book raises some of the dilemmas and internal criticisms of the current, it is largely a celebration of the current’s beliefs and methods.
How is the current defined? Dixon identifies three strands: Antiracist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. Antiracist feminism is Dixon’s summary for what is sometimes called intersectional analysis or anti-oppression politics: the idea that there are multiple oppressions, along lines of gender, race, and class, and that true liberation requires liberation from all of these oppressions. Moreover, in this current, none of these oppressions can be assigned a place of primacy over the others. Prison abolitionism is “a set of politics aimed at the complete elimination of the institutions of incarceration” (pg. 38). On anarchism, Dixon emphasizes that this current is defined by a “reconfigured anarchism”, a bundle of features fusing “consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and direct action”, “a strongly prefigurative movement culture based on working together collectively, sharing resources equitably, challenging power relations, and supporting one another”, “along with a commitment to egalitarianism, mutual aid, and freedom as well as a far-reaching critique of domination.” The “glue that largely held it all together was a shared counterculture and template of activities” (pg. 42).
After defining these three strands, Dixon goes on to further define the current according to four “antis”: anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. The four “antis” help define what the current is against; a chapter on prefigurative politics discusses the positive aspirations of the current as its members try to redefine relations within their groups as they challenge oppressive institutions in society.
Dixon traces the lineage of the anti-authoritarian current to North American left movements and organizations of past decades. For the book, Dixon interviewed dozens of members of the current across North America and studied dozens of existing organizations (listed at the end of the book pg. 239). Organizations whose work and analysis is given special emphasis in the book include: No One Is Illegal, Colours of Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. As a member of the political current under study, Dixon states that the research borrows from:
“’ethnography’ (analyzing lived culture by experiencing it), ‘participant observation’ (understanding how and why people do what they do by participating it), and ‘oral history’ (gathering history by inviting and listening to people’s stories). However, none of these methods has fully satisfied me, largely because they still rest on inside/outside distinctions between movements and researchers.” (pg. 12)
As the title of Dixon’s blog (http://writingwithmovements.com/) suggests, Dixon’s interest is in “writing not about or even for but with movements”. (pg. 12)
Dixon’s attempt to remove the “inside/outside distinction between movements and researchers” raises some philosophical questions: what is the role of an individual’s thoughts, or contributions, in the anti-authoritarian current? Another Politics has a high proportion of quotes from members of the current. Dixon’s writing practice is to lend weight to other voices. But it is clear that the interview subjects, the organizations, and the quotes were all selected by Dixon, and the presentation of Another Politics is Dixon’s vision of these politics.
Another philosophical question arises: can someone who writes with movements, who refuses inside/outside distinctions, be critical enough to challenge these movements? Can movement weaknesses and failings be seen from that inside position of a writer who writes with movements? On the other side, can criticisms of movements from the outside be ignored based on their outside origins?
Certainly the book is full of self-criticism, by both the author and the interview subjects. Pitfalls to prefigurative politics mentioned include “getting fixated on particular forms of talking rather than how those forms are connected to practical activities”, as “when organizers… master specialized anti-oppression vocabulary without substantially changing how their organizations function,” (pg. 98) or of focusing “narrowly on anti-oppression politics as a fixed set of behaviors and understandings that we can grasp individually, rather than as a dynamic set of politics, practices, and sensibilities” (pg. 100). What results is “absolutism”, involving “scrutinizing one another’s behavior, creating our own status hierarchies, and excluding those who don’t live up to our righteous standards” (pg. 101).
Pitfalls to the current’s strategic thinking include “a tendency to focus on principles over plans”. Based on “a legitimate concern that radicals may sacrifice our core values in order to win”, “focusing exclusively on principles slips into a kind of magical thinking” (pg. 111). Another strategic weakness is “a tendency to fetishize particular tactics”, especially direct action. Since the 1990s, “a narrow understanding of this tactical approach has gained some popularity among radicals. This mainly involves street protests and confrontations and confrontations with police, often including black bloc tactics.” (pg. 113) While “there is nothing wrong, in principle, with any of these tactics,” radicals can get stuck, “focusing most of our attention on debating the validity of certain tactics rather than on considering how those tactics fit into overall plans to achieve something” (pg. 113). Finally, Dixon criticizes “crisis mode organizing”, a tendency to work on urgent problems at the expense of long-term strategy (pg. 114).
Another Politics offers some thoughts towards addressing these pitfalls. The solution to the problems of prefigurative politics, Dixon proposes, is to remember that “prefigurative praxis… is genuinely transformative only as long as it is part of movements that are fighting to win a new world” (pg. 105). As for the strategic pitfalls, Dixon proposes a “movement-building orientation”, including anti-authoritarian notions of leadership that go beyond patriarchal notions of charismatic (usually male) individuals who lead organizations, and organizations that go “beyond subcultures and service providers” (pg. 139).
In a section about “minding the ruts” (pg. 201), Dixon criticizes traditional left organizational forms: the political party, the revolutionary party, the NGO, and the affinity group – all of which are one or another kind of “rut”. Here, Another Politics admits that organizations that don’t fall into these ruts are “something that another politics doesn’t yet fully have – a way to be critical, conscious, creative and constructive in how we approach organizational structures” (pg. 207).
Another Politics is well-organized and well-researched, a comprehensive look at the anti-authoritarian current in North America. As a result, the book’s limitations are really the limitations of the current itself. I, too, see myself as part of this current. But my assessment of the current’s doctrine and practice is less positive, and less optimistic than Dixon’s.
While I agree with most of the self-criticisms posed in Another Politics, I believe that the problems mentioned in the book (self-destructive internal dynamics and deficits of strategy) have been a major brake on political progress within the current and, thinking in terms of missed opportunities, in the society as well. If, as Another Politics reports, the anti-authoritarian current came into its own in the 1990s, this means that the current has been active for some two decades. In that period, established power has become stronger, inequalities have increased, union organization has declined, the political spectrum has shifted to the right, and US intervention has destroyed several countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Haiti, Libya, Syria). It would be terribly unfair to attribute these declines to a set of small groups of radicals in North America’s major cities, of course. But decades ago, when we were becoming politically active, the anti-authoritarian current defined itself against not only the systems of oppression in society, but also against the established left. Now, the anti-authoritarian current is becoming the establishment: in the two bases of the current, nonprofits and the academy, left politics are defined by the anti-authoritarian current more than any other rival left currents (such as old socialists). Another Politics reflects the anti-authoritarian current’s youthful attitude, arguing on the basis of potential and that the best is yet to come. I fear that our record so far does not match this prediction.
Part of the anti-authoritarian current’s limitations have to do with the lack of a base. The organizational forms mentioned as “ruts”, especially political parties, have been disdained by the activists of the anti-authoritarian current. But before that current even came into its own, the left had been largely kicked out of political parties and then kicked out of unions. Today, most Another Politics-type radicals in North America work through nonprofits or on campuses, both of which have severe limitations. The lost history of radicals in elected office is told in books like Eric Leif Davin’s Radicals in Power (2012), and Lipset and Marks’ It Didn’t Happen Here (2013). Some radical victories through unionism are discussed in Pizzigatti’s The Rich Don’t Always Win (2012). Another Politics devotes pages to discussing the pitfalls of sectarianism and the importance of a non-sectarian approach, but the anti-authoritarian current has been as sectarian as any other left current, which has meant that these other histories have not been incorporated into the anti-authoritarian current’s thinking.
In other words, if Another Politics is based on writing with movements, it could have offered a much stronger challenge to those movements. It is clear to me that there is a great deal to be learned before the left in North America is up to the task it is faced with. We learn more to the extent that we are willing to be uncomfortable. To the extent that Another Politics is celebratory, it makes its movement readers comfortable rather than uncomfortable, and it misses opportunities to make criticism and proposals that could strengthen movements.
Another Politics has a tension within it. On the one hand, it is trying to explain the movement – of which Dixon is a part – to outsiders, with all of its features, many of which are an important part of the author’s political identity. In these parts, Dixon writes like someone who is just discovering these remarkable people and organizations, and who is greatly impressed by them. On the other hand, Another Politics is written for the anti-authoritarian current, trying to show its members what kinds of dilemmas and problems its activists are thinking about. In these parts of the book, Dixon writes very gently and emphasizes that the weaknesses and pitfalls that are raised are in the process of being worked out.
The movement audience for the book could benefit from more discussion of our failures and limitations, as well as Dixon’s own thoughts and speculations about how to get beyond them, even if these thoughts go beyond what Dixon’s interviewees say.
In building up a picture of the common points and ideas of the current, Another Politics also left me wondering about areas of difference among members of the current. Such differences are the seeds of future splits and internal conflicts, and they, too, deserve more space.
Despite these criticisms, Another Politics is an invaluable snapshot of the North American left today. In recent years, a number of studies have attempted to measure the state of the left in North America. Alex Khasnabish’s 2008 book, Zapatismo Beyond Borders, followed North American radicals influenced by the Zapatistas of Mexico. The Ear to the Ground Project (http://eartothegroundproject.org/) is another massive initiative that is still yielding results. Dixon’s Another Politics is an important contribution in this literature. To understand the state of the left in North America, in all its aspirations and its limitations, Another Politics is an important book.