‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.15
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Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – An Unbridgeable Chasm
Murray Bookchin (1995)

The problem with the label, ‘anarchist’, is that the moment it is defined, it contradicts the principles it claims to represent. It was this contradiction that Murray Bookchin sought to explore in his 1995 book.

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I wrote this script some time ago, but I was never sure about how well it worked. Then I saw the first episode of the HBO series, ‘The Anarchists’: I realised my review was right the first time.

Bookcover image, ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – An Unbridgeable Chasm’
‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism – An Unbridgeable Chasm’:

First Edition, AK Press, 1995. ISBN 9781-8731-7683-2.

Free on-line text, via Anarchist Library.

Free PDF version, via Libcom.

Forty-five years ago, ‘punk’ seized the headlines with the Sex Pistols’, ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Arguably the Sex Pistols, likewise reified in a recent TV drama, represented not ‘anarchism’ but a self-indulgent bourgeois individualism – like that of the new HBO series.

So who will make the point that anarchism consists of more than just a label?… OK then, I will!

The problem with the label, ‘anarchist’, is that the moment it is defined, it contradicts the principles it claims to represent. Like the ‘uncertainty principle’ in quantum mechanics, anarchism negates itself when it rigidly defines its principles. The question is, does that imprecise nature leave anarchism open to easy debasement or exploitation through misguided claims over what it represents?

It was this contradiction that Murray Bookchin sought to explore in his 1995 book, ‘Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism’.

As Bookchin says at the start of the first essay:

“Anarchism developed in the tension between two basically contradictory tendencies: A personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom. These tendencies have by no means been reconciled in the history of libertarian thought. Indeed… they simply coexisted within anarchism as a minimalist credo of opposition to the State rather than as a maximalist credo that articulated the kind of new society that had to be created in its place.”

Murray Bookchin photograph
Murray Bookchin

Bookchin considers a few examples of ‘lifestyle anarchism’. For example:

“The black flag, which revolutionary social anarchists raised in insurrectionary struggles in Ukraine and Spain, now becomes a fashionable sarong for the delectation of chic petty bourgeois. One of the most unsavoury examples of lifestyle anarchism is Hakim Bey’s ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’… the call for autonomy is taken to lengths so absurd as to seemingly parody a self-absorbed and self-absorbing ideology… in which disorganization is conceived as an art form and graffiti supplants programs.”

Poster for the HBO series, ‘The Anarchists’
Poster for the HBO series, ‘The Anarchists’ (2022)

Representing a previous generation of anarchists, borne of the struggles of the 1930s, Bookchin might sound like he’s nit-picking with the younger generation. But he sets this criticism against the complex political transformation that occurred in the wake of the 1960s.

Reactionary to the core, from the 1970s neoliberalism weaponised ‘economic individualism’ as a polarising force against socialism. In relation to anarchism, neoliberalism’s claim to promote ‘freedom’ created a cognitive dissonance that, driven by commercialised fashion, used ‘lifestyle anarchism’ to appropriate the space in the public’s consciousness once occupied by political anarchists.

Just as today’s ‘culture war’ focusses on ‘wedge issues’ that skew debate towards the populism of the Right, the cross-over between economic libertarianism and lifestyle anarchism negated truly radical calls for social change – transmuting them into ‘bourgeois’ fashion, symbolic art, or, as in the case of the HBO new series, neocapitalist social nihilism.

Poster for the FX series, ‘Pistol’
Poster for the FX series, ‘Pistol’ (2022)

As Bookchin says:

“The price that anarchism will pay if it permits this swill to displace the libertarian ideals of an earlier period could be enormous. …egocentric anarchism, with its postmodernist withdrawal into individualistic ‘autonomy’, threatens to render the very word anarchism politically and socially harmless – a mere fad for the titillation of the petty bourgeois of all ages.”

Perhaps the most direct criticism is provided in the book’s introduction:

“At a time when popular distrust of the state has reached extraordinary proportions in many countries… anarchists have formed neither a coherent program nor a revolutionary organization to provide a direction for the mass discontent that contemporary society is creating… It is due in no small measure to the changes that have occurred among many anarchists over the past two decades [who] have slowly surrendered the social core of anarchist ideas to the all-pervasive Yuppie and New Age personalism that marks this decadent, bourgeoisified era.”

Perhaps because of the difficult questions it raises this is one of Bookchin’s less-examined books. Perhaps because it challenged ‘anarchists’ to justify their projects and actions objectively, criticising a number of figures in the movement, people would rather leave it alone. And twenty-seven years after its publication, before the Internet boom, many of Bookchin’s visionary observations apply especially to the digital ‘techno-libertarians’.

Meme: ‘Anarchy’ versus ‘Not Anarchy’

I appreciate the ideas of Hakim Bey. Likewise the book picks apart John Zerzan and anarcho-primitivism. But I also give weight to Bookchin, and I agree that, without a practical vision based within people’s basic needs for life, many of these ideas fail to qualify objectively as ‘anarchism’: At best they’re ‘symbolic’; at worst, and with the antics of the Sex Pistols or ‘Anarchopulco’ in mind, they descend into nihilism and mental masturbation – delivering no practical liberation from authoritarian hierarchies.

The simple answer here, the fall-back test we must to apply to any ‘uncertainty’, is the ‘objective reality’ which any strand of anarchism claims to represent – contrasting these to the all-to-common cultural nihilism Bookchin opposes. In the final analysis, ‘symbolic change’ is not ‘physical change’; ‘lifestyle anarchism’ may be a popular fashion statement, but it doesn’t represent an actionable project for revolutionary liberation. To believe otherwise is simple self-deception.

HBO’s new series, ‘The Anarchists’, represents exactly the kind of debasement of anarchist ideals that Bookchin warns of. It’s a phoney show, made by libertarian capitalists, who will freely exploit the poor and marginalised for their own gain. It is, in Bookchin’s words, a meaningless “erosion [of] the word anarchy [to the point where it] becomes part of the chic bourgeois vocabulary of the coming century.”