Green Anarchism: a Self-Interview

landfill_beale_joravsky_magnumQ: Are you a Green Anarchist?
A: The short answer is, “I don’t know.” I have more questions than I have answers about this. Like most things, it depends how the term is defined.

Q: Well let’s start with definition, then. How do you understand the term?
A: There has to be some sort of pre-requisites to make the term meaningful at all. The operative word is “Green”, which would mean that a green anarchism would be concerned with the Earth in some way. That satisfies some things, but not enough. A green anarchism would be a form of concern with environmental issues that is particularly anarchist. So something about the manner in which someone cares about the environment would lead to some kind of anarchism being meaningful. I don’t want to say that it would conclude that anarchism is a solution to environmental problems, nor that anarchism would logically include concerns about the environment. Just that anarchism would be one of the main features of the theory.

Q: If you are being this vague already at the point of definition, you either don’t know what you’re talking about at all or you are hesitating to make sense of the complexities involved. Which is it?
A: It’s almost both. I’m not very well versed in green anarchist literature. However, I have explored some of the philosophical problems with environmentalism in the context of phenomenology and in some more-or-less formal group settings. So I’m familiar with the complexities, but I’m hesitant to make any solid statements about the way that anarchists have dealt with them. I could provide some superficial overviews of something like… anarcho-primitivism or green syndicalism, but on a deeper level I haven’t familiarized myself with any literature that addresses the questions I have coming out of my own way of turning the environment into a problem.

Q: Ok. What are these environment problems? Clearly there are ugly things happening around us, particularly related to organic life on the planet. Even more-so tied in with the technological systems that human beings have developed over the course of civilization’s existence. Especially those of the 20th and 21st Centuries. You certainly recognize that there are some problems here, correct?
A: Well yeah of course I do …it’s all very depressing. But even in your brief summary of the situation, I become hung-up on the details: civilization, technology, the relationship between me, the context I live in, humans generally, and organic life on the planet. What makes this even more difficult for me is the anarchism part of these considerations. Where is the connection between my depression about this and my anarchism? Is there anything fundamental about these concerns to my particularly anarchist thoughts?

Q: You seem to be leading with that question. Why don’t you just continue and I’ll interrupt when I have something to work with.
A: Alright. So my anarchism develops out of an existentialist outlook on life and the concerns that come with living in this world as I interpret it. At bottom I fundamentally understand my own life to be meaningless, to be a situation that I’m constantly trying to make sense of without any interpretations being acceptably concrete. The desires that come from existing as an embodied consciousness – concerns that come from a body that wants to live – an interpretation of those desires isn’t even given concretely. They can be a compass, but those desires are suggestions, more-or-less. I can interpret them as obstacles to some other project, I can comprehend my own urges to eat, sleep, and shelter myself as some kind of weakness that must be overcome to …I don’t know, die for the Cause …or some other nonsense. This problem of interpretation sits like an anchor upon a bed of meaningless stuff, which is attached to this ship that I call, “anarchism”.

To summarize the logic: when you begin to think about life from this position, you don’t have any easy methods for evaluating your decisions. You can kill yourself or you can continue living without any reason at all, without any rationale… but the moment that you want a rationale, you need to sort through some very basic problems. Should I live, or shouldn’t I? Why should I keep doing these things that I need to do so that I can survive? Those problems. Well it turns out that when you obsessively attempt to answer these questions, there isn’t a very good rationale for killing yourself or allowing yourself to die. It turns out that when you create a rationale for suicide, you admit that you have already decided that all sorts of stuff is meaningful to you. Somehow the act of killing yourself is the best conclusion you can come to about all of this meaningful stuff. But that’s paradoxical: you’re basically responsible for deciding that all of that stuff is meaningful to begin with, so how do you take the meaning of it all seriously enough to kill yourself? The consequence of killing yourself is that you annihilate the agent that came up with these meanings, so killing yourself amounts to the same consequences as just simply changing what you think is meaningful in the first place.

There’s a lot of follow-up questions and answers about this, but to stay on topic, I’m just going to say that there isn’t a good way to answer those follow-up questions, either. Suicide is out of the question. So, I’m stuck with a life of irrational non-decisions, and the necessity of deciding what is meaningful about my own existence when I want to act rationally. This leads to some of the more interesting questions that eventually lead to my anarchism. An easy way to put it is that if I need to be the source of my life’s meaning, that meaning doesn’t and can’t come from authority, or an appeal to popularity, or a religious system. Those are all irrational, passive methods of establishing meaning. If I’m the source of what I find meaningful in life, that says something about the nature of my agency and my relationship to other human beings. It says something about my participation in creating myself. It also denies other human beings their rationale to dominate me, to force their meaning upon me …meanings that are ultimately based on the choices they made from their own experience. Not to mention the systems human beings come up with to support such a rationale. As if formalizing the problem of meaning has somehow changed the situation. Well none of it is acceptable. I don’t think there is any acceptable form of someone dominating me.

This doesn’t actually make me an anarchist yet. There’s still an opportunity for me to be comfortable with others being dominated, or even dominating others myself. Long story short, I also do not find any of that to be acceptable …at least insofar as the domination of others is contingent upon a system existing that subjugates me at the same time as it subjugates others. I could give less than half-a-fuck if two people on an island play power games. However, when power is formalized into systems of domination that I am also subject to, it becomes my problem. This is when I become an anarchist. I develop a self-interest in annihilating those systems, simply for my own liberation.

There is more to this though and it relates directly to the nature of power games. I don’t accept an interpretation of life that considers all relationships to be relationships of dominance and submission, master and slave. Whether those roles are crystallized into a formal structure or they’re in a fluid exchange with each other, I reject this comprehension of life because of its limits. Power dynamics may be common, but they’re not absolute in any sense. There is a boundary to these roles (or, positions) of power that is defined by relationships among equals. I’ll use an abstraction to help elaborate on this limit. Let’s say that there are two things in space …waffles. These two waffles aren’t simply floating about as if there aren’t any other forces at play to influence their trajectory. These waffles are acted upon by gravity, wind, whatever. They are put on a path by external forces… and only external forces …after-all they’re waffles. A power dynamic would come out of these two waffles having interfering trajectories, but they can also have parallel trajectories. There is nothing about the waffle nature that determines them to come into a dynamic of exchanging force with one another. If the waffles are on a parallel trajectory, then although they are separate units, they’re heading in the same direction in the same way. Without any need to depend upon a notion of intentionality, the waffles have become complimentary parts of a larger system.

People are a bit more complicated, but the analogy holds. The problem with people is that we’re intentional creatures, we choose meanings, we act upon those choices, we have a role in determining our own trajectories. However, like the waffles, we can project ourselves in directions away from each other, in parallel with each other, and towards each other. It is only when we project ourselves towards each other that we determine ourselves to exchange force: power dynamics. Well that’s not my ideal mode of relationship. My project is to maximize my own force by acting in concert with others, preferably because we’re in parallel trajectory.

There’s a range of power games that I think are acceptable, but as an anarchist I want to annihilate systems that dominate me. Despite Machiavellian techniques for doing this, I don’t recognize much benefit to existing in perpetual conflict with others. If not for any other reason than my own laziness, I prefer the company of others on the same trajectory. My preference is, at the very least, to not waste energy sorting out conflicts where there needn’t be conflicts. There’s also an interpretation of human psychology that studies what is called “flow”. This notion of “flow” is very important to me and my sense of satisfaction. You could also think about it with dancing as a model, or by reference to some forms of martial art. The interplay of force doesn’t come in a dichotomous pair of motion, there’s always a third variable of parallelism.  There’s a form of power that comes out of increasing the quantity of particles traveling in the same direction. That’s just basic. It’s not even taking something like emergence into consideration.

Q: Ok, so that’s interesting, and waffles. How does this relate to green anarchism?
A: That’s exactly the problem. Where can an interest in non-human, organic life come from with this sort of approach? It’s difficult enough to define “organic,” “life,” and “environment” in an especially green-friendly way, but to then recognize my own role in defining these things and interpreting their meaning… Something very easy to do is accept an egoistic rationale for the way that I interact with the organic systems that I am tangled up with. That doesn’t really mean a lot compared to some of the more traditional approaches to environmentalism, though. It says less about a particularly anarchist environmentalism, a green anarchism. Do I think that anarchism will fix the problems that are tied up with the way humans, technology, social systems, and the rest of organic life all relate to each other? Where does my anarchism become tied up in these concerns?

Q: Well you said that you’re against domination, or that you find it unacceptable. What about the domination of nature, of animals, of technology?
A: So that’s the catch, but only in some ways. It wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to elaborate the details of how the State and its capitalist economics depends on technology and ideological notions about so-called nature to perpetuate itself as a force of domination over my life and others. There’s some excellent thought that comes out of analyzing these things. The issue for me with this is that it’s very difficult to take the specific problem my own agency existing in conflict with systems of domination, and then expanding that problem beyond myself or beyond other human beings. I don’t want to settle for a mere transference of the relationships I’m familiar with as a human being, to my comprehension of non-human existence. What exactly justifies such a transfer of meaning? That’s one problem, then betting on anarchism is another one.

Let’s unpack this a bit. To begin with, I don’t specifically seek to protect all organic life. There are many organisms that are in my best interest to annihilate completely, like disease-causing organisms. There are other organisms that I’m ignorant of, apathetic towards, or benefit from consuming …even on the strictest vegan diet. So there’s no answers that come out of defining my interests in relation to “all organic life”. I’m specifically concerned with the way that I relate to particular organisms and how systems that I am part of relate to particular organisms. In some ways, the particulars set me against those systems from an interest in perpetuating the health of organisms I depend on. In some other ways, I must admit that these very same systems align with my interests on the point of annihilating disease-causing organisms. There happens to be many more reasons for me to destroy those systems, but even without them I wouldn’t suddenly seek to perpetuate the existence of all organic life. At face value I’m just not interested in “all organic life”, but at a very deep level my own existence competes with the existence of other organisms.

It doesn’t follow from this competition that I must dominate these particular organisms. It requires some sophisticated techniques to actually dominate and control organisms in an agricultural sense. I don’t need to participate in agriculture. I could even extend this argument to an anarchism that refuses to dominate the organisms a human being finds themselves in competition with. What I doubt is that even with such an extension, that this anarchism would be fundamentally “green”. It is still fundamentally existentialist. With or without “green” considerations, it still exists as anarchism. I would need to prove that this anarchism would fall apart if my concerns for non-human organisms didn’t play a role in it. I don’t think that I can argue that it would. It’s an anarchism that is consequently concerned with “green” issues, not an anarchism that extends from a central concern with “green” issues. Also as I was saying, I’m not confident that the anarchist societies would solve such issues. I’ll admit they’d likely be an improvement for strictly economic reasons, but I don’t think that the relationships between human beings and other organisms is specifically beneficial to other organisms. I think that these relationships are particular and that they are partially contingent upon the way other organisms become meaningful to particular human beings.

Q: If you’re going to admit that it is in your interest to fight technological civilization, then why would it matter if your anarchism is “fundamentally” green?
A: It matters because my anarchism can’t be understood if I call it “green” or suggest that it ought to be comprehended through a green lense. The consequences of my anarchism are a sort of do-it-yourself ethics that actively combat the State, capitalism, and other forms of my own subjugation and domination. This means that there is a lot of potential for combating systems that dominate non-human forms of organic life, but that potential is tied up with the specific choices I make when it comes to the meaning of an organism …or the choices that those I am in affinity with make about this. Too much of it depends on my active participation in these decisions after-the-fact to blame the anarchist conclusions of my philosophy. While I don’t think that my personal concern about organic life is less important than my anarchism, the two concerns come from distinct sets of questions and answers. I could care about other organisms without the anarchism just as much as I could care about anarchism without thinking of other organisms. So I am an environmentalist and I am also an anarchist. My concerns about the conditions of the Earth and organisms that depend upon those conditions are very strong. They just aren’t the result of my conclusions about domination. They’re the result of my conclusions about how I want to live when I am not dominated, when I am intentionally relating to other organisms. I guess what I can say is that my existentialist trunk branches off into these two directions of concern. I think that these concerns parallel each other in fascinating ways, but I recognize that they are cleaved from each other at their base.

Q: If these two things are distinct for you, then what about looking at the path that your environmentalism takes. Doesn’t it also become an anarchism on its own?
A: It’s possible. I could say what that would look like, but I’m not sure that I’m there. It would look like a basic conclusion that my relationships with other organisms forms the basis for a rebellion against domination. I would have to somehow bridge this gap between the way that I conceptualize the meaning of my own life and the same sort of no-turning-back conflict with the State/etc. There’s a lot of obstacles to this kind of conclusion. For the most part, my life has been and it continues to be a series of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social choices. My relationship with other organisms is mostly limited to consumer choices. The relationships are mediated by the systems that result in what I go shopping for. There’s my relationships with pets, with antibiotics, and with whatever other organisms are in my immediate environment. That’s a far distance from the sort of relationships that I imagine an especially meaningful green anarchism coming from.

The way I think about this now is that I depend on thought experiments to make environmental decisions. I think about relationships of production and consumption, about commodities, about macro-level impacts of agricultural production, and other such things that I minimally participate in. These considerations would be more immediate if I were to produce my own food and medicine, for instance. Right now they’re not immediate. In a somewhat hypocritical way, I could recognize that if I were to produce my own food and medicine, I wouldn’t do it by setting up these insane systems of industrial agriculture and pharmaceutical production. I could consider this “Good Enough”. What I think is difficult is ditching the sense that I’m merely pretending at an anarchism rooted in these concerns.

Q: Why does it matter if you’re making a choice based on a hypothetical situation?
A: How about I return that question with another question, “How meaningful would my hypothetical conclusions be?” I can say anything I want about what “I may do if” given this or that situation. The fact of my life is that I am not producing my own food, medicine, clothes, etc. I’m consuming things. I can stop consuming things based on how they’re produced, but that isn’t an anarchist action …it’s a consumer choice. It is a solution that fits into a consumer politic. It is a consideration after-the-fact of having already accepted my own participation in this system of capitalism. And if I were to to annihilate the separation between my activity as a producer and my activity as a consumer, I don’t know if I could sincerely suggest that I have annihilated that separation because of my concern for other forms of organic life. At least, not unless I were to first come up with that rationale. Currently, any environmental actions I take that would be anarchistic would be the consequence of how my anarchism shapes the environmental decisions I’m willing to make. I’d be lying to you if I said that my environmentalism has lead me to conclude with a strictly anarchist approach.

Q: How does this effect your perspective on existing green anarchisms then?
A: I recognize that they’re foreign to me, I guess. I would need to learn more about them first.

Q: It seems like your main issue is with your situation. At the level of the type of situation you want to be in, isn’t it an anarchist situation that “flows” with nature?
A: That’s an interesting perspective… Yes, the situation I want for myself isn’t this mediated existence where my decisions about other organisms are the result of subordinating myself to this shitty social order. At that level, yes I have a green anarchist opinion where the two blend together nicely. Although, that only means that I’ve replaced all of the reasons that go into these desires with a comparison of “situations”. That isn’t the sort of thinking that I come to anarchism from. I also don’t mind if others do come from that sort of thinking. I suppose that conclusively, I just have more to think about.

Q: I’d suggest that you consider it this way: your ability to survive currently depends upon these systems of mediation and domination that you detest. Therefor, it is in your own interest, in relationship to non-human organisms, to be able to be self-sufficient. That very self-sufficiency depends upon the annihilation of the division between your consumption of food and medicine from the way that it is produced. It depends upon forming an immediate relationship to the production of your own sustenance. This would be a green anarchism.
A: Well, thank you. I’ll consider that!

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