ASR Review of An Anarchist FAQ

“It is impossible to do justice to the 1,136 pages in these two volumes… It will serve as an invaluable reference to those unfamiliar with our ideas and our movement, or to those who have recently embraced anarchism but have yet to explore and reflect upon the tradition.” (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, no. 59)

ASR Review of An Anarchist FAQ

This two-volume compilation includes the great bulk of the material assembled online in the Anarchist FAQ by ASR contributor Iain McKay and other comrades over more than a decade. Established to confront misrepresentations of anarchism that have proliferated particularly in the online universe (allegedly anarchist tendencies exist there that have no apparent manifestation in the material world in which the rest of us live), AFAQ quickly evolved into a much broader overview of anarchism, as a social movement and as a set of ideas.

It is impossible to do justice to the 1,136 pages in these two volumes. Volume 1 opens (after three introductions which explain the origins and evolution of the project) with an overview of anarchism, followed by sections explaining why anarchists oppose hierarchy, capitalism and the state; summarizing the anarchist critique of capitalist economics; reviewing how statism and capitalism operate as an intertwined system of exploitation and oppression; offering an anarchist analysis of the ecological crisis, and refuting the notion that there could be some sort of “anarcho”-capitalism. An appendix reviews the origins of three major anarchist symbols: the black flag, the red-and-black flag and the circled A. Volume 2 opens with a survey of individualist anarchism, which remains implacably hostile to capitalism despite its differences with the social anarchism embraced by most anarchists; followed by an explanation of why anarchists (who McKay rightly insists are part of the broader socialist movement) reject state socialism; an overview of anarchist thinking about the shape of a future, free society; a section addressing contemporary anarchist practice (involvement in social struggles, direct action, organizational approaches, alternative social organizations, child rearing, and social revolution); followed by a brief bibliography.

Each major section is divided into smaller sections and subsections (presented in question form and using an outline numbering system that probably works better online) addressing specific aspects of the topic. The writing and organization are clear, if rarely captivating, and the tone is reasoned and constructive. However, at times, McKay does show his exasperation with the persistent misrepresentations of the Marxists and the “anarcho”-capitalists (who, as he rightly points out, have nothing whatsoever to do with anarchism and receive attention here far out of proportion to their actual significance in the world in large part because of their early adoption of and highly vocal presence on the Internet). Evidently, the ravings of the “anarcho”-primitivists have received less attention online and so they pass unmentioned here. As the book is devoted to political and social thought and action, there is also virtually no attention given to anarchist tendencies in art and literature, or to the post-modern “anarchisms” which dominate so much academic publishing on the subject of late.

McKay and his fellow contributors give serious consideration even to anarchist tendencies with which they clearly disagree. Thus, platformism, syndicalism and synthesis all receive respectful treatment, presenting the arguments proffered for and against. Thus, Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism is presented on its own terms before a short critical assessment (1092-93). (This tolerant policy can extend too far, as with the citations to the notorious police informer Bob Black, who can evidently be excerpted to make it appear as if he has a coherent social analysis, though nothing could be further from the truth.) Here and throughout the two volumes there is heavy reliance on direct quotations. The FAQ draws upon and tends to synthesize a wide array of (primarily anarchist) sources, in keeping with its broader mission of presenting a broad anarchist approach to a general public, rather than exploring differences within the movement or advocating for a particular school of thought. The emphasis is definitely upon the classics of anarchist thought, but McKay and his contributors have read widely and include citations not only to anarchist writers but also to social scientists and historians whose work tends (whether intended to or not) to bolster the anarchist position.

By way of summation, and to give a bit of the flavour of the whole, I will briefly discuss Section I: What would an anarchist society look like? This 168-page section is broken up into subsections on libertarian socialism, a discussion of the balance between the insanity of drafting blueprints for the future and thinking about the sort of society we wish to build, considerations of the structural aspects of an anarchist economy and an anarchist society, consideration of how an anarchist economy might function, a review of the Spanish Revolution as an example of anarchism in practice (if also under severe constraints), and short discussions of the balance between individualism and society and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons.

This is a lot of terrain to cover, but the questions are essential. McKay’s discussion is grounded in the classics, and (correctly) presuppose that anarchism represents a particular strand of socialism, quoting Bakunin:

“We are convinced that freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” (839)

The text then methodically establishes the necessity of socialism, the practicality of our vision, explains why any lover of freedom must reject markets, and refutes the absurd (but oft-preached) notion that capitalism distributes social resources efficiently. And that’s just the first 30 pages. The section refutes mainstream economists’ critiques of self-management (critiques based not on examining actual practice but rather on mental exercises based on assumptions that nowhere exist), and reviews the long history of self-management in practice.

However, as McKay argues, social ownership of the means of life, and of production, is essential to any meaningful freedom. While anarchists have advocated for different methods for distributing the product of our necessarily social labour, and hence for different systems for organizing the economy, all anarchist visions are necessarily based upon social ownership and free access to the means of production. McKay explores the ways in which overlapping federations of syndicates and associations (most organized for specific purposes, as anarchists have generally been sceptical of schemes which try to centralize the entire sphere of human life into a single, totalized organization) can cooperate to meet the incredibly varied range of human needs and desires.

Throughout, McKay raises and refutes the objections we have all heard a thousand times, not only theoretically but with extensive examples from real life (something far more congenial to anarchist theory than to the doctrines of either the capitalists or the state socialists). Anarchism, he shows (like Kropotkin and Dolgoff before) offers an eminently practical approach ideally suited to coordinating large, complex societies.

My main objection to this section is the part where McKay suggests (to quote the title) that “anarchists desire to abolish work.” In the actual text, he is more clear, noting that

“Work (in the sense of doing necessary things or productive activity) will always be with us. There is no getting away from it; crops need to be grown, schools built, homes fixed, and so on. No, work in this context means any form of labour in which the worker does not control his or her own activity.”

But what purpose is served by using commonly understood terms such as “work” in so technical a way? It must necessarily lead to confusion, on the one hand, and on the other enable charlatans such as the aforementioned Bob Black to sneak their obfuscations into the anarchist camp. Far better to speak of wage slavery, or, as Chomsky often does, to authoritarianism in the economic sphere.

Far too much of our labour is of course wasted under present arrangements, and our workplaces are sites of subjugation and misery. In an economy controlled by workers and organized around meeting human needs, we could soon slash the work week to 16 hour or less, reorganize workplaces to make them both safer and more fulfilling, abolish the ruthless division of labour that has some think and others serving as the minions of those who decide, and redirect the entire sphere of production in fundamental ways. This would transform our relation to our work, as well as to the products of our labour. But while we might well take genuine pleasure from joining with our fellow workers to fulfil our needs and our desires, not all work will be pleasurable in and of itself, as is suggested here.

Anarchists have not come to agreement as to how production will be coordinated and social priorities decided upon, and so McKay leaves these questions open (while discussing some of the leading proposals). This is an issue ASR has been exploring in our series on anarchist economics, and which I suspect is at the root of the otherwise inexplicable attraction many feel to the Parecon scheme. Personally, I find Kropotkin’s treatment of these issues more compelling, even if it is a century old. AFAQ does effectively integrate the experience of the Spanish Revolution (also presented in a well-crafted 31-page section that concludes this chapter) into the discussion. But in general, I fear the pluralistic approach embraced in this treatment – while capturing the diversity of the movement – undermines the coherence of the argument, as well as eliding the congruence between our broader social visions and the means we advocate that is one of the unique strengths of the anarcho-syndicalist approach.

In short, McKay and his fellow contributors have made a substantial contribution in creating and maintaining the online introduction to anarchism, and refutation of the endless objections of those who can not conceive of a society free of oppression and exploitation. It will serve as an invaluable reference to those unfamiliar with our ideas and our movement, or to those who have recently embraced anarchism but have yet to explore and reflect upon the tradition. However, its breadth and pluralism are both its greatest strength and its most notable weakness.

review by Jon Bekken, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (ASR), number 59

Iain McKay, An Anarchist FAQ Volume 1 (AK Press, 2008), 555 pages, $25 paper. Volume 2 (AK Press, 2012), 561 pages, $25 paper.


Above: Blah, blah, blah,

Above: Blah, blah, blah, msanthropic bullshit, blah, blah, blah, anti-civ bullshit, blah, blah, blah.

No doubt that workers'

No doubt that workers' control of the means of production would offer a great improvement over today's society, but McKay has clearly not considered the facts of (pre)history and the origins of hierarchy, and so 1) falls short of his own ideals, 2) lacks context.

Experts consider the Holocene extinction, beginning around 10,000bc with the advent of civilization (and continuing to this day) the worst extinction event perpetrated by any single species in the history of the planet.

By any objective standard, this constituts the most important--and most immoral-- event in the whole of human history; certainly in any general discussion of environmental destruction.

Yet McKay makes no mention of it. Or the fact that it started when we had a population of just about 5 million, with much lower production/consumption levels than any modern anarchist society could achieve. Things as basic as agriculture, roads and tree-felling sufficed to cause major habitat destruction.

Most experts also believe that humans had a role in the (less extensive) Quaternary extinction that began with the upper paleolithic 50,000 years ago (hunting hypothesis), which would imply that we can only reach the ecological balance of other predators at even lower middle paleolithic population/production levels.

At any rate, though civilization did lead to great population/production growth, the biggest driver was the industrial revolution (hockey stick population increase)--leading up to state/corporate capitalism and our current ecological crisis.

Thus any objective person looking at the human species compared to the rest would have to conclude the following:

1-Bad: humans (mainly because of our greater potential for evil)
2-Worse: civilization
3-Worser: Industrialism
4-Worsest: state/corporate capitalism

McKay wants to go from 4 to a self-managed 3, which would indeed constitute a great improvement. But to present this as some sort of great ecological position seems to me disingenous. Even in the highly unlikely scenario that anarchists could cut the current population number (7.2 billion) in half and make them all anarchists, does he really think that 3.6 Billion humans in an industrial society can cause fewer extinctions and habitat destruction than 5 million neolithic farmers who were already causing the Holocene extinction?

Then of course, we have the issue of the origin of hierarchy and authoritarianism. Mckay, in an effort to bypass the logic of primitivism, and without any evidence, tries to solve this question by adhering to some Reichian theory about children not having sexual freedom.

But because he cannot accept civilization and its culture as an authoritarian step in relation to nature, he misses on the explanation that makes most sense: Terror Management Theory, which has 25 years of evidence to back it up (look up the 1000s of studies on Google scholar). Since it originated from Ernest Becker's ideas, I'll quote him:

"Civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that [art], science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible... The real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe. Immortal in some ways... If we were to peel away this massive disguise, the blocks of repression over human techniques for earning glory, we would arrive at the potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men? "

The evolutionary explanation goes something like this:

++Hominids began using their emerging cognitive abilities to understand their world and meet basic needs for nutrition, mates, and other resources. But this happened before they had reached the point where significant self (and thus death) awareness arose. Death awareness thus developed as an unfortunate byproduct of prior adaptive functions--not as an adaptation selected for its advantages. Anxiety in response to the inevitability of death threatened to undermine adaptive functioning and therefore needed amelioration.
Any social formation that was to be widely accepted by the masses needed to provide a means of managing this terror--which we mostly bury in the unconscious. Thus humankind used the same intellectual capacities that gave rise to this problem to fashion cultural beliefs and values that provided protection against this potential anxiety. And while the emergence of morality and mutual aid evolved to facilitate co-existence within groups, the struggle to deny the finality of death, co-opted and changed morality's more primitive function.++

Hunter-gatherers themselves had religious beliefs and a place in the tribe that granted them meaning and value, but by and large seemed to have supressed their death fear by staying busy thinking about their next meal, doing interesting, immersive, purposeful, physically demanding work and by having a kind of contextual humbleness--seeing themselves as part of the natural world instead of the human-centric world of civilization.

No industrial society, no matter how anarchist, can provide this contextual non-human-centric humbleness. Even work, which is much of anarchism's focus, poses some problems, as even if unpleasant jobs like mining could be minimized, how can one compare the purposefulness of a hunt with that of, say, a curtain designer in an anarchist society? The latter will likely have to compensate for this lack with either other surrogate activities or delusions about the importance of his job. And this is quite apart from Ted Kaczinski's notions of technology changing the social landscape too quickly for our stone age brains to adapt.

In general, if humans need a certain level of ego delusion to supress their death anxiety, we shouldn't advocate for this delusion to take on a material form. In other words, material culture--civilization--materializes the ego delusion. It violates empirical reality by elevating humans above other animals and encouraging the pursuit of symbolic immortality--striving to become an individual of value in an illusory world of meaning. True, together with this great delusion and loss of contextual reality come small pockets of deeper understanding--some of the discoveries of science. But clearly these can't offset the delusion of a whole society.

In this sense, God creates a more powerful sense of immortality than other aspects of culture, which only provide a strong sense of symbolic immortality to those who can become individuals of value in its trumped-up world of meaning and continuity--most prominently its masters.

And so in saying No Gods, No Masters, the anarchist wants to eliminate some extremes of ego delusion in civilization--not its sociological foundations, which deny the reality of impermanence expressed by a Kalahari Bushman song:

"The day we die a soft breeze will wipe out our footprints in the sand. When the wind dies down, who will tell the timelessness that once we walked this way in the dawn of time?"

Of course, in these discussions certain more "pragmatic" considerations are always brought up , such as that (despite primitives' superior physical and mental health) modern medicine has great advantages over primitive medicine--without which child mortality would be enormous--as it was before the industrial revolution.

But unfortunately, this assumes that humans have the right to grow in number and continue the Holocene extinction. It ignores that if we use a balance scale like blind Justice holds, place all the species going extinct on one side, and place us on the other—giving us about a 500,000 times more weight because we invented the scales—the sales will tip in favor of our extinction, even with our weighted advantage.

And so not only does civilization encourage delusion, but morally speaking, humans don't have the right to it, or to a population above 5 million.

As the VHEM says, we should abstain from reproducing to "live long and die out", at least till we reach that number--to stop acting as a tyrannical, murderous elite over all the other species.

Context matters, even if we only want to go from 4 to 3. And even if we cannot reach the goal, we should always start with the truth.

 I don't mention it because

 I don't mention it because it is irrelevant.

The notion that we have to reduce human numbers to around five million raises the question how. the "anti-civilisation" crowd don't have much to say about that because either it will be done voluntarily and so take hundreds of thousands of years of negative population growth (using contraception, families have no children, etc.) and this means the retaining of "civilisation" or it is done fast and coercively, which would be genocide.

There is a section in An Anarchist FAQ on this (section A.3.9) because, at the time, it looked like the primitivists had to be mentioned. Now, less than a decade later, it is clear that more and more of them have realised its a dead-end. Sure, the likes of Zerzan are still around, but it was clearly a waste of time to bother with them. 


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