Class, “Identity Politics” and Stigmergy: Why We Don’t Need “One Big Movement”

In a post at the Students For Liberty (SFL) blog, (“Between Radicalism and Revolution: The Cautionary Tale of Students for a Democratic Society,” May 6), Clark Ruper uses the example of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a warning against factionalism and division within the libertarian movement. The libertarian movement, he says, should be united on a broad common agenda that appeals to as many people as possible — one that focuses on the “most important” issues like fighting corporatism and foreign interventionism and protecting civil liberties. Ruper seems to focus mainly on anarchists, revolutionaries, social justice advocates and left-libertarians as the sources of potential schism. And he makes it clear that his post was motivated, in large part, by recent controversies over the “thick libertarianism” or “non-brutalism” endorsed (among others) by Roderick Long and Charles Johnson, Gary Chartier, Sheldon Richman and Jeffrey Tucker:

Some argue that “real” libertarianism or an improved libertarianism must also include anarchism, or progressivism, or critical race theory, or any number of perspectives….

For us today, it often seems that libertarianism is not enough; what we really need is left-anarchism or thick libertarianism or non-brutalist libertarianism or any number of camps out there.

In response Jeff Ricketson at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) (“Radicalism as Revolution: A Call for a Fractal Libertarianism,” May 18) has challenged Ruper’s call for monolithic unity and instead praised fractalism as a positive good:

What he should have called for is a libertarianism united under the common banner of freedom, with passionate, friendly discussion on the issues therein, and a fractal nesting of smaller, more specialized groups.

Fractalism and specialization, he says, are good because they increase the agility, resilience and adaptability of the larger movement in the face of change.

And this is quite true. It’s hard for libertarian activists working in specific communities to relate basic libertarian values to the particular needs and life situations of the people they’re working with, if they have to clear everything with the agenda approval authorities at Party Central Headquarters.

I myself, along with others at C4SS, have come under criticisms similar to those of Ruper for what our critics see as excessive attention to social justice concerns. They say we have lost our rightful focus on the “real” issues, the “big stuff” — like the corporate state, economics, class, war and civil liberties. Instead we have been distracted by “Political Correctness” and “Identity Politics.” We should stick to a simple, common libertarian agenda with broad appeal, limiting our focus to those “important issues” and avoid saying anything that might alienate white cultural conservatives who agree with us on the economic stuff.

Of course this is ironic, given that much of this hand-wringing over narrow, “inflammatory” agendas that might alienate someone in Flyover Country comes from a “pan-secessionist” movement that welcomes neo-Nazis and national anarchists, and whose leader called for purging the anarchist movement of LGBT activists. So apparently alienating the Chick-fil-A and Duck Dynasty crowds who wallow in their own sense of victimhood is a big no-no, but not showing support for gay or transgender people who are genuinely victimized every day by structural injustice isn’t so bad.

In any case, calls for One Big Movement, united around a simple common platform with the broadest possible appeal, are fundamentally wrong-headed. This is essentially the same argument that the old establishment Left — some of whom proudly call themselves “verticalists” — have made against the horizontalist direction the Occupy movement has taken. It’s the standard patronizing criticism from managerial-centrists in the liberal and “Progressive” community:

Appoint leaders and adopt a platform!

The thing is, Occupy came very close to doing that. The people from Adbusters and New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts who showed up at the early planning gatherings were all set to agree on One Big Demand for their common agenda, appoint public spokespersons, and all the rest. Had they done so, Occupy would have been another flash-in-the-pan movement that disappeared from the news in a few days. But David Graeber and a handful of other horizontalists — Wobblies and veterans of the Seattle movement — coalesced into an opposition group that quickly replaced the establishment people as the dominant culture within Occupy.

Instead of adopting an official leadership and agenda, Graeber and the horizontalists chose to follow the loosely networked model of the M15 movement in Spain. Instead of one common demand, or a short platform with a few key points, they decided to center their message on the “We are the 99%” meme — in loose opposition to things like the power of corporations and banks over the state, neoliberalism, imperialism, etc. — and let the various subgroups, communities and individuals that made up the broader movement set their own agendas relating their particular needs and concerns to that broader theme.

In other words, Occupy didn’t have a platform — it was a platform. It was a ready-made toolkit, brand and library of imagery and slogans to be used and adapted to the specific needs and agenda of any group that shared the general opposition to neoliberalism and the power of finance-capital.

Both Ruper and the center-left critics of Occupy are appealing to an outmoded mid-20th century organizational model. In this model, celebrated by Joseph Schumpeter and John Kenneth Galbraith, industrial production required large, hierarchical, capital-intensive organizations that possessed economies of scale and extensive divisions of labor, and were governed by Weberian-Taylorist work rules, job descriptions and “best practices.” And agitating for political change was a function that required large size, capital and hierarchy just like GM, GE and all those industrial dinosaurs.

But guess what? Those industrial dinosaurs are obsolete. They are doomed. And their organizational model, and all who follow it, are likewise doomed. Technological changes have destroyed the material basis for most hierarchical institutions and caused capitalization requirements for duplicating their functions to implode. Cheap micromanufacturing tools, desktop technology that outperforms the work previously done by publishing houses and music studios, and networked many-to-many communications with virtually zero transaction costs, have enabled individuals and small horizontally organized peer groups to do things that previously required powerful institutions in giant glass and steel buildings, full of thousands of drones in cubicles, run by a bunch of men in suits at mahogany desks on the top floor.

The dominant economic and organizational paradigm today is networked, horizontal — stigmergic. It’s the organizational model of movements ranging from Wikipedia and the file-sharing movement to Anonymous and Al Qaeda. In this model, everything is done by individuals or small self-selected affinity groups united around many different agendas. Everything is done by the individual or small group most interested and motivated to do it, most qualified to do it, without waiting for anyone’s permission. And rather than “detracting” from some common mission, the contributions of the individuals and affinity groups are synergistic and mutually reinforcing. In file-sharing networks, when anyone cracks the DRM in a song or movie, it immediately becomes the common property of the whole network. When a new and improved IED is developed by a cell in Al Qaeda Iraq, it can be immediately adopted by any other cell that finds it useful — or left alone by any cell that does not. A stigmergic network is the ultimate in Hayekian distributed knowledge.

We no longer need to aggregate ourselves into large institutions in order to accomplishing anything, or get everybody together on the same page before anyone is allowed to take a step. The activists are already doing it themselves. What they need is simple: support and solidarity. They can decide for themselves what is important to the communities they are part of and work with, and how the broader libertarian agenda relates specifically to them. And meanwhile any of the rest of us can do the same with our own local concerns, while wishing our comrades well in the other sub-movements and offering them solidarity and support whenever we are in a position to do so.

All this means that it is totally unnecessary — not that it ever was necessary — for those seeking gender or racial justice to throw themselves under the bus and support the common economic-class agenda “Until After the Revolution” or “For the Good of the Party.” In fact it is counterproductive. The kind of forced unity and subordination to “important” issues that Ruper advocates is, paradoxically, the one way guaranteed to foster discord and division.

Based on my own conversations with friends, I think it’s pretty clear this tendency to subordinate “divisive” (race and gender) issues to the “important” (politics and economics) stuff is the main reason libertarianism and anarchism are perceived by women, LGBT people and People of Color as the province of “white anarchist dudebros.”

I’ve seen the same thing in online establishment liberal circles of the sort that call themselves “Pragmatic Progressives” (and are derided by others as Obots) and use the #UniteBlue hashtag. No matter what the issue — Obama’s use of drones to murder innocent civilians, NSA surveillance, corporate collusion in drafting the TPP — their standard responses are “So would you rather Romney was in office?” or “How will this affect Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016?” This kind of cynical opportunism at the expense of the needs of real human beings is ugly — wherever we find it.

If this forced unity around the “real” issues fosters division and resentment, then the way to foster unity is to actively address and take into account the specific interests and needs of different segments of the population. The practice of intersectionality — that is, taking into account the way different forms of oppression like class, race, gender, etc. oppression mutually reinforce each other and differentially affect different subgroups within activist movements — was not developed for the sake of a “more oppressed than you” competition. It was developed precisely in order to prevent internal fracturing of racial justice movements along class and gender lines, feminism along class and race lines, etc., by being mindful of the special needs of the least privileged within each movement.

If you want to see what happens to a movement that focuses on the “important” (economic) stuff without regard to intersectional issues, just look at the sharecroppers’ unions in the 1930s, that split into separate black and white movements — separately defeated — thanks to COINTELPRO-style efforts by the planter class to exploit racial divisions among the membership. Or you could take a look at the typical mainstream gathering and take note of how many attendees are white males, and ask yourself why the One Big Movement is so unappealing to the majority of the population who are women and People of Color.


Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory