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“I am an anarchist.”

A dinner with friends and friends’ acquaintances: we are sitting around a table, on chairs or stools or each other’s laps. The food has come and gone, and now we are speaking. “What we do” comes up, and with it the various gripes that come with work. One of the guests, a well-groomed professor, complains that a university where he teaches makes him join a union. “You don’t like unions?” I ask, curious. “No,” he says, “I am an anarchist.” I press him, asking him his opinion on the fact that, statistically, union workers are more likely to have health care and higher wages than non-union workers. “That’s just it, ‘statistically’,” he responds. I remark that I’d go with statistics as long as my health and well-being are concerned; after all, the plague doesn’t kill everyone, just the statistical majority of those who are left untreated. He furrows his brow and asks “Where is this coming from?” Conversation moves elsewhere.

Categories: Anecdotes.

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13 Responses

  1. Oh my fucking god.

  2. As an anarchist, it makes sense for him not to want to be pressured or forced into any contractual agreement as a matter of principle. But the idea of simply being against unions because he’s an anarchist doesn’t make any sense at all and seems a little naïve. Every mature form of anarchist thought of which I am aware depends upon voluntary contractual arrangements.

  3. I’m an anarchist (as some measure of evidence, I’m at least nominally a member of two anarchist organizations) and I don’t accept that there’s any anarchist principle such that one ought to resist all pressure or requirement into a contractual agreement. That seems silly to me, like a caricature of anarchism along the lines of “anarchism makes a principle out of not linking to be told what to do.” Sadly, there are such walking caricatures, but they’re not representative of anarchism as such. I mean, isn’t there a bit of a conceptual imposition in that move, in them forcing other anarchists such as myself into their definitions, despite our lack of consent to that definition?

  4. Anarchists make principles out of not conceding, though.

    …Joining a union may seem like a big concession for someone who wants nothing less than total self-management.

    Workers are often forced to join a “company union”. That is, a union which the management at the company has more control over than the workers. This way, the workers do not get very much out of it, and the management can always tell the workers to take their complaints through the union, etc. etc.

  5. It may seem like a big concession for someone who wants nothing less than total self-management, but then he or she might want to come back to reality, which exceeds the scope of the will and desire of any given individual.

    As far as this particular situation is concerned, adjunct professors are one of the more dicked segments of the working class. The New School’s policy of employing union teachers is to this guy’s benefit. But he comes from the sort of situation where he can stand on principle — and not have to worry about being fired on a whim and running up short on rent.

  6. Ah, for the old days, when anarchists launched pipe bombs and shot kings! Now they try to get tenure and grumble about union dues. Anarchy is a friggin life style choice, dude, not a marked down commodity in the ideological goods to go section of the grocery store. If this guys an ‘anarchist’, ask him what he thinks about the assassination of King Umberto. A real anarchist, a pacifist one, named Tolstoy, spelled it out.
    This is what a real anarchist sounds like:

    The teaching of Christ repeals the law, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’; but those who have always clung to that law, and still cling to it, and who apply it to a terrible degree-not only claiming an eye for an eye,’ but without provocation decreeing the slaughter of thousands, as they do when they declare war- have no right to be indignant at the application of that same law to themselves in so small and insignificant a degree that hardly one King or Emperor is killed for each hundred thousand, or perhaps even for each million, who are killed by the order and with the consent of Kings and Emperors. Kings and Emperors not only should not be indignant at such murders as those of Alexander 11. and Humbert, but they should be surprised that such murders are so rare, considering the continual and universal example of murder that they give to mankind.”

    Any suit living the vida loca of the middle class in the U.S. and claiming to be an anarchist is a phony, right down to the socks.

  7. Thanks for the Tolstoy quote, roger. This anarchist continues to do things that make me chuckle the chuckle of a spiteful grumbling. But artists! They cannot be taken seriously, for what they say or do.

  8. JCD,

    It is not about reality superceding utopia. Unions are a product of the struggle between workers and capital. They are recuperated, compromised organizations for the most part. They no longer can be considered “fighting organizations” — they no longer fight for the abolition of the proletariat, but instead negotiate for meager pay raises while dividing the skilled/unskilled, working/non-working within that system of production.

    Here is a similar point of view written in Red&Black Notes from 2004:

  9. If this guys an ‘anarchist’, ask him what he thinks about the assassination of King Umberto.”

    The problem with anarchism is that it’s become removed from peoples’ lives. No one on the street gives a fuck about King Umberto. He has no relation to their life. No one needs a story about King Umberto to prove to themselves their worthiness to “anarchism”. This perpetuates the stereotype that anarchism is a game that only educated people play.

  10. Ah, utopia or bust, substitute the assassination of any current leader you want to pick - because that of course is the point. Tolstoy was writing right after the assassination of King Umberto. Imagine him writing right after 9/11. We are talking about pouring the same bile on the myths of the elite, the same assymettry of deaths, which allow the press to, say, create righteous indignation about Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the Iraqis while shuddering with horror if someone suggested that Bush should share that fate. Far from being removed from people’s lives, people - like, you know, the Iraqis, the Pakistanis, the Haitians - would resonate much more to Tolstoy’s grip on justice and injustice than they would to another investigation of the factional politics of unions going back to 1962.

  11. I don’t dispute that many unions are reformist, or that the federal laws regulating trade unionism in the states are deeply flawed. But it’s unadulterated stupidity — purity in thinking usually is — to argue that because unions are not right now revolutionarily smashing capitalism no one ought to join them, when the alternative for workers is the precarity of Walmart employment.

    And, all of that said, this guy’s point with claiming to be an anarchist had little to do with with a revolutionary critique of unions.

  12. better late than never, I hope …

    I think the “the unions are recuperated!” thing is pretty played out, and should be contextualized better. Among other things if it’s used as a tacit argument for scabbing (that’s basically what this ‘anarchist’ in question was implying, that he wanted to scab) then it’s a pretty fucked theoretical position. But then a lot of anarchism is fucked, and not really anarchism in my opinion. There’s a recent book out, Black Flame, that argues that anarchism has always been a class based and class oriented political perspective. Part of the agenda is to write certain perspectives out of the tradition, and yay for that in my view. A guy I know makes a similar move, distinguishes between revolutionary anarchists and counter-revolutionary anarchists, that’s a fine distinction too.

    Also self-management vs unionism is a false dichotomy at least historically. Particularly if one recognizes that self-management is always collective — individual self-management is a robinsonian fantasy of the sort that Marx (rightly) loved to hate.

  13. Of course, just because someone calls themselves an anarchist does not make it so. For example, he may be an “anarchist” of the “anarcho”-capitalist type — that is, not an anarchist at all but rather a propertarian. Propertarians actively hate unions.

    Most anarchists I know support unions, if they are critical of the bureaucratic structures of reformist rather than syndicalist unions. Even those who are extremely critical of unions favour workers self-organisation and use of direct action to improve their wages and conditions. So this “anarchist” professor sounds very atypical.

    I am a union member, I should point out

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