Social Vs. Lifestyle Anarchism: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Rhodes

Nov 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Misc, News


Dr. Daniel Rhodes of GreensboroDaniel Rhodes completed his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies with a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from UNC-Greenboro in 2008. He completed his Masters in Social Work from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1996. During his career Daniel has served in different community based organizations working directly with various groups such as immigrants and refugees; individuals with mental illness; foster children; and individuals with HIV/AIDS. He currently teaches at Guilford College as a Visiting Assistant professor in the Justice and Policy Studies Department where he teaches courses in Community and Justice Studies. He enjoys riding his bike and writes bad poetry. He lives in a space he calls his “urban hut” that is filled with way too many books and has delusions that he is some kind of Taoist/Zen wandering ascetic. He thinks there is something poetically clumsy about the fact that, at one point every day, he manages to spill jasmine tea on himself.

Julie: What’s the general opinion of the students in your classes about the Occupy Movement in the US? Are any of them, or are you, involved with the local protest?

Daniel: I am teaching three classes this semester. One class is called Trust and Violence and we are actually looking at economic violence in this class and our primary text is Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This book was published in late 2007 early 2008. When you read this book in relation to the economic crises that happened in 2008, you can see all these indicators of a looming economic disaster. This book is a great historical document of a form of economics that is devastating (hence the title). I think it has been powerful for students to be reading this book in context to the Occupy Movement overall and specifically the Occupy Greensboro movement. The mainstream corporate media has been doing a great job clouding the issues and not accurately reporting what the Occupy Movement is about. Students have communicated to me that this book helps them have a greater understanding of what this movement is and the importance of the movement itself.

This class is a great mix of traditional Guilford students (young, going from high school to college) to non-traditional students (older, are in school because they either have lost their jobs or know they need to get an education to stay “competitive”). I have a cohort of younger traditional students that have been greatly involved in the Occupy Greensboro movement (attending general assembly meetings, traveling to Occupy Wall street and bringing information back, staying at the camp). These students have a strong understanding of the consensus based model that the Occupy movement is attempting to follow. For the older, non-traditional students, the march itself was something that made them feel like they can be a part of something. So I actually had older students that normally would not be engaged in this form of protest and social voice show up for the march and participate. The Occupy Movement has been a great part of our discussion, especially given the book we are reading now, and the economic concerns that students have. The younger students have done a great job helping educate the older students on the overall process within the Occupy Movement and this has generated interesting discussions and has created a unique pedagogical space.

There are some students who have not been involved, but the overall sense of the class is that the students at the very least understand (even if they don’t agree with) the process itself. Ultimately that is my goal in any class, is for students to have an understand of things, even if they do not agree with them. I personally attended the march itself and have worked with people who are directly involved (discussed the process, given suggestions) but have not attended any of the General Assembly meetings. My goal is to attend some later. What I find with this kind of process is that people are very involved and “gung ho” in the beginning and then kind of burn out a little. People begin to filter out and other people start to come in. I may become more active in this process later, especially if there is some sustainability with it and it needs ways to be sustainable.

Julie: Bank of America is one of the current targets of outrage in this country, raising fees and just being, well, corporate asshats. We’re being advised to move away to smaller, local banks and credit unions. Bank of America has lots tons of money over this. Is it possible that we’ll see this type of thing eventually happening to smaller banks and credit unions?

Daniel: When you ask “is it possible that we’ll see this type of thing eventually happening to smaller banks and credit unions?” do you mean is it possible that people will actually move their money from the bigger banks to the smaller banks and credit unions, or that the smaller banks and credit union will gain significantly over this and then in turn will become as corrupt as the bigger banks? To address the general issue, I have always been a member of the State Employees Credit Union (NSCECU). Since my uncle was my primary caregiver and a state employee I started an account with them when I was a teenager. I have also been a state employee so I would have eventually become a member anyway. I have always been a strong supporter of credit unions, especially community ones (such as the State Employees Credit Union, although you have to be a state employee to become a member). These credit unions are generally non-profit organizations (as it states on it’s web page NCSECU: A credit union is a cooperative financial institution, owned and operated by the people who use its services These people are members who share a common bond. Credit unions are not-for-profit, and exist to provide a safe, convenient place for members to save money and to obtain loans at reasonable rates). Credit unions actually weathered the economic storm a lot better than bigger, investment-oriented banks. I only have one credit card and it is through NCSECU. For me to increase the limit of my credit card I actually have to apply to the credit union requesting a limit increase (this has always been the case). I have had other credit cards that would just randomly increase my limit. I made a decision a long time ago however to limit my credit card to just one. I was very fortunate to deactivate other credit cards I have had in the past. I remember obtaining one while we were in college and how quickly that credit card could get out of control. One missed payment resulted in a $25+ dollar fee, rates were pretty high on these card, etc. Fortunately I did not let this get out of hand and eliminated any of these cards and made the decision to just maintain one credit card through the credit union. (There was a time, especially when we were in college, where students could just get these credit cards, with no financial advising and run these credit cards up, accumulating enormous debt with high interests and severe late fees). The irony is the rating organizations that rank banking systems (i.e. Standards and Poors) would rate the shaky investment banks as very high and the more “conservative” banking institutions as lower (i.e. credit unions). This was because the bigger banks were willing to lend money to people quicker and with less security. In other words if a bank was willing to gamble aggressively with peoples money the S&P would rate them higher.

Historically banks were more community based. So if a person wanted to obtain a loan, they usually would obtain it from a local banking institution. That local institution was invested in the community and would be directly impacted by the lending process. Once banks were being bought out and consolidated under fewer and fewer financial institutions, these institutions were willing to gamble with people’s money more, whereas credit unions were still being conservative in their lending practices. The benefit of being a member of a credit union is that loan rates are low, but the downside when the economy was doing well was that you did not get as much interest in your savings. That was the cost of security though. If people start to move their money into credit unions, and these said unions are non-profit, then the members of these credit unions are part owners (which makes members more invested). It may be harder to get a substantial loan, but at least the loan you get will be a little more realistic to your ability to repay it. When we were looking at buying a house (back when that bubble was expanding). Based on our credit scores (we were not looking at the credit union for a loan, for some stupid reason), we qualified for a home loan of around $500,000. This was fucking obscene and really downright stupid. We knew there was no way we could afford a $500,000 loan. It really demonstrated how crazy the system had gotten and how unsustainable it was. The predatory lenders were the worst since they would literally lie to people on how much they would owe each month.

Beyond people deciding to invest their money in something like a credit union, there is also a component of personal responsibility that has to come into play. Granted there were some people that fell victim to predatory lenders, but there were also people that just felt they deserved to live way beyond their means. There were legitimate economists that were saying that this economic crisis was going to happen and the mainstream media and schools of economics (which are actually some of the worst culprits in spewing out an “ideology”…another conversation) were dismissing these economists as being “crazy” and un-American. People were being encouraged to spend, consume and get into massive debt (Bush’s response after 9/11 was to go out and buy things). There is a great webpage which I show in a lot of my classes. There is a section that talks about how our economy, especially after WWII shifted to a one of consumption. In other words the government made a decision that we as citizens were to be crafted into consuming entities. As it notes on this webpage “retailing analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system. He said: ‘Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.’” I have personally attempted over the years to adopt a more voluntarily simplistic lifestyle. It is not something that I think we all need to do completely, but I think we all need to consider reducing our lifestyle habits. Unfortunately our measures of success are not based on how happy we are, or how meaningful we feel our lives are, but on what we own. It is based on outward expressions of wealth. When the economy was doing well people could get into massive amount of debt, live way beyond their means, and could bullshit everyone else into thinking they were successful because they had a whole lot of stuff. I personally do not have a lot of assets, but I also do not have a lot of debt. Being a member of the NCSECU has helped me strike this balance since I am not really able to borrow beyond my means through the credit union. Just moving money to a credit union or a small bank is only part of the issue that needs to be addressed. Redefining success as something a lot deeper than how much shit you own, what kind of car you drive, etc. is going to go a lot further in dealing with this economic crisis than just moving your money.

Julie: During a recent lunch you mentioned social vs. lifestyle anarchy. Can you expound upon that without being a total ponce?

Daniel: No.

Ha! Ok, so the idea Social Anarchism vs. Lifestyle Anarchism is from the anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin. The title of his book that this comes from is Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. It was published in 1995 by AK Press which is an anarchist, worker owned publishing company. To get into what he meant by lifestyle and social anarchism, you have to have a little bit of an understanding of who Murray Bookchin was (he passed away in 2006). He grew up after the first Red Scare (born in 1921) and was part of the radical labor movement of the time. He grounded himself in labor, economic and political history. He started off as a Marxist and eventually identified as an anarchist, then became involved with the ecology movement (calling himself a social ecologist). He worked on and wrote about connecting ecological ideas to anarchism. One of his more influential books is The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, where he writes about humans need to dominate others and how this stems from their needs and desires to dominate nature and other living beings. It is an amazing, well researched, well written book that weaves together anthropology, history, philosophy, politics and ecology. So this was a person who had a strong historical grounding in labor, political and ecological issues.

Bookchin increasingly become disillusioned by the social movements he saw emerging from the 60s and 70s. Not as much the civil right movement, but more the hippie movement in relation to drug use and lack of social responsibility. I think Bookchin had an understanding of the importance of the context within these movements, but he became alarmed with the co-opting of political ideas (i.e. anarchism) by groups as an excuse to be self-centered and selfish. Once the hippie movement started to wane and the punk movement began to emerge he once again saw a co-opting of terms to justify certain behaviors. Anarchism to him was becoming a lifestyle (i.e. t-shirt, music). Anarchism was increasingly connected to a flat out rejection of authority, but these so called anarchists were not guided by political principles. He was seeing people going around wearing anarchy t-shirts, making comments like “fuck authority” but were not organizing in coherent groups that were actually trying to change political ideas or work on labor issues. Bookchin understood anarchism as a social idea, a social movement, not an individualistic one. In his book on social anarchism Bookchin distinguishes these differences as “autonomy” and “freedom.” He writes, “While autonomy is associated with the presumably self-sovereign individual, freedom dialectically interweaves the individual with the collective” (p. 12).

Bookchin was grounded in the socio-political, historical context of anarchism. He read the works of Marx in relation to and contrast with anarchist political thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Mikhail Bakunin (among others). He studied the historical movements of anarchists from the 1800s that fought and died for labor rights, women’s rights, and social rights. He studied specific historical events such as the Haymarket Tragedy (1880s) where six anarchists in Chicago were organizing around labor issues and were falsely accused of detonating a bomb. Theses anarchists were subjected to a show trial, were convicted and then executed (a really great book about this event is titled The Haymarket Tragedy by Paul Avrich). Coming from this perspective, of being heavily grounded in political theory, he started to become very critical of what he deemed as “lifestyle” anarchism. As he wrote in his book Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, there is a “shift among Euro-American anarchists away from social anarchism and toward individualist or lifestyle anarchism. Indeed, lifestyle anarchism today is finding its principal expression in spray-can graffiti, postmodernists nihilism, antirationalism, neoprimitivism, anti-technologism, neo-Situationist ‘cultural terrorism,’ mysticism, and a ‘practice’ of staging Foucauldian ‘personal insurrections'” (p. 19).

I think what Bookchin was seeing in lifestyle anarchism however was the mainstream, corporate owned medias portrayal of this long standing, historical and political movement as nothing more than a bunch of privileged kids rejecting authority. Needless to say, it actually goes deeper than this and is part of what I disagree with Bookchin on in his book. I agree with him that there are people who engage in “lifestyle” anarchism. It’s cliche and kitschy and it’s individualistic. This is what I will argue with people when I make comments about anarchists “organizing.” People I have discussions with on this subject quickly point out that anarchists don’t “organize” (having absolutely no knowledge of what the word means, where it comes from and the historical background). Bullshit! Organizing is what anarchism is! It is not “chaos.” The word anarchy itself comes from the Greek word anarkhia, which translate into ruling oneself, or to govern oneself. Anarchism is not chaos and it is not individualistic, but is actually one of the few forms of a fully participatory democratic process. As Bookchin notes, “the fact remains that a free society will either be democratic, or it will not be achieved at all. In the very existential situation, if you please, of an anarchist society – a direct libertarian democracy – decisions would most certainly be made following an open discussion. Thereafter the outvoted minority – even a minority of one – would have every opportunity to present countervailing arguments to try to change that decision” (p. 17). There have even been historical accounts an anarchist military groups. Famed author George Orwell wrote about this in his book about the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia. This book was about his time with an anarchist military unit and he notes, “The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equlity. If you wanted to slap a general commending the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior. There were officers and N.C.O.s (non-commissioned officers) but there was not military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to produce within the  militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was not prefect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would have thought conceivable in time of war” ( p. 27).  In context to all of this you see that anarchism’s roots are in labor organizing and its rejection to oppressive authority. This is the distinction between the State (oppressive, hierarchical, bureaucratic systems) and governance (people governing themselves, fully engaged participatory democratic system).

My issue with Bookchin on lifestyle anarchism is that he took his ideas a little too far. He become so dogmatic in his view of anarchism that those who identified as anarchists and with whom he did not agree with, he would just call them “lifestyle” anarchists. Bookchin actually had a falling out with a fellow ecologist and anarchist Gary Snyder over this very issue. Snyder was identified with the Beat movement, considered himself an anarchist and a Buddhist and was part of the Deep Ecology movement (he wrote an essay titled Buddhist Anarchism. Bookchin heavily critiqued the Deep Ecology movement (I will say that some of Bookchin’s concerns of the Deep Ecology movement were genuine and legitimate). Bookchin’s criticisms also included the inclusion of religious and spiritual ideas, especially what he called “eco-mysticism” and the connection of Taoist philosophy to anarchism and ecology (see Bookchin’s book Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left, p. 223). Bookchin was following the old Marxist adage of religion being the opiate of the masses. What is interesting is that this statement by Marx is part of a broader concept that Marx was attempting to make. When Marx makes the statement “It is (religion) the opium of the people” this is actually the last sentence of paragraph. What Marx says before this is that “Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions” (See Karl Mark: Early Writings, p. 244). It is interesting that out of that paragraph, the one idea that comes out of it is the Marxist idea that religion is an opium for the masses. Acknowledging that is is also the “sigh” of the poor changes the dynamics of what Marx was attempting to communicate. Bookchin not only failed to acknowledged an individuals rights to include all aspects of who they are (i.e. religious or spiritual as being “mystical”) but he attempted to establish this binary concept of either you are a lifestyle anarchist or a social anarchist (hence his subtitle: an unbridgeable chasm). This is also interesting considering that Bookchin himself, in another of his famous works Post-Scarcity Anarchism notes that anarchism is “unrepressed sensuality and self-directed spirituality” (p. 37).

I agree with Bookchin that there are those who are “lifestyle” anarchist (i.e. individualistic, self-centered, and have little to no understanding of anarchist history). But I have an issue with Bookchin considering all those he disagreed with as being lifestyle anarchists. An example of this would be the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests. Note that his book on this was published in 1995. The WTO protests in Seattle occurred in 1999. Of course the mainstream/corporate media decided to focus on those anarchists that engaged in violent means (the Black Bloc anarchists), but failed to report on the other identified anarchists that were engaging in peaceful protests (the media was not innocent in this lack of reporting the other anarchists and socio-political groups). These anarchists that were engaging in peaceful protests “looked” exactly like the type of anarchists that Bookchin would identify as lifestyle anarchists. In actuality these were individuals and groups that had a clear understanding of neo-liberal economic polices and the damage that it was inflicting on the environment, undeveloped countries (what we would call the “third-world”) and the democratic process in this country. After studying this movement and the individuals that were involved, most of them knew that if these neo-liberal economic policies continued unchecked, the economic disaster that we experienced in 2008 would happen. These were not the “postmodern nihilists” and “Foucauldian personal insurrections” that Bookchin would have accused them of being. These were articulate and well versed anarchists (and other political and social groups) that decided to organize and fight for freedom (which, as stated earlier, Bookchin considerers freedom to be the dialectical interweaving of the individual and the collective) (p. 12). As Orwell states in his book on Catalonia “‘Revolutionary’ discipline depends on political consciousness” (p. 28). These were very much politically conscious individuals and groups.

Bringing this back to the Occupy Movement. The mainstream/corporate (let’s not forget capitalist) media has done a masterful job in clouding and confusing what this movement is and as portraying the participants as being unorganized with no direction or purpose. In other words, being the very lifestyle anarchists that Bookchin would accuse these individuals of being. I have seen these individuals in action and they are very much organized and politically conscious. They are anything but lifestyle anarchists. These individuals very much understand the consensus based models that anarchists and others engaging in participatory democracy are attempting to use, and are applying these model to this movement. You are not going to see “lifestyle” anarchists participating in the general assemblies that have evolved out of this occupy movement. On top of this the individuals that do not identify with anarchism are starting to gain a greater understanding of consensus based models of decision making and what anarchism is really about. Lifestyle anarchists have become media generated stereotypes that serve the corporate interest more than any social movement.  I understand where Bookchin’s frustration was coming from in regards to lifestyle anarchists and do believe that lifestyle anarchists exist. But these lifestyle anarchists are not grounded in political theory and are anything but politically conscious. To me, they are insignificant to any revolutionary theory or movement and their time as “lifestyle” anarchists will be so short-lived that they will not have an impact on those who are actually social anarchists.

Thanks to Dr. Rhodes for this fantastic (and mind-screwing) interview!

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4 Comments to “Social Vs. Lifestyle Anarchism: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Rhodes”

  1. Excellent interview and discussion. So much detail to absorb. I specifically enjoyed the discussion of the true nature of anarchy as a way to organize politically. Thanks for the insights into Orwell's book. I might suggest to the casual reader a book I read long ago for a history class, The Anarchists of Casas Viejas.

    It is a gripping account of one small anarchist town during the Spanish Civil War and how the authorities came in and smashed their hopes.

  2. daniel rhodes says:

    thanks for the response Jeffrey. I have not read that book, it will go on my list!

  3. vigo says:

    Mind screwing indeed. The above is a somewhat disengenuous article. Daniel Rhodes seems somehat confused on this.

    Its hardly possible to make the contention that from the criticism Bookchin made in a book published in 1995 based on the actions of previous of lifestyle anarchists he had observed in the 60s/70s/80s/90s that this can be pinned on to all anarchists protesting in 1999 as 'lifestyle anarchists'

    The WTO protests took place 1999 – after Bookchins comments which Daniel Rhodes egrariously attaches to that protest. The WTO protests were 1999. OWS took place 2011 – so therefore you syncretyically attach the medias use of 'lifestyle anarchism' to Bookchins definition of 'lifestyle anarchism' despite having no proof that he would have used the term lifestyle anarchist in such a context. Note – he said lifestyle anarchists – not anarchists.But also Rhodes does not go into too much detail (for that besty read Bookchin) of why – as shown by OWS there was a need for the kind of ideas proposed by Bookchin which ran counter to the 'lifestyle anarchism' that Daniel Rhodes, like Bookchin rightly disparages.

    Daniel Rhodes says;

    'After studying this movement and the individuals that were involved, most of them knew that if these neo-liberal economic policies continued unchecked, the economic disaster that we experienced in 2008 would happen. These were not the “postmodern nihilists” and “Foucauldian personal insurrections” that Bookchin would have accused them of being.'

    So if they were not 'postmodern nihilists' or 'Foucauldian personal insurrections” – then you have no proof that Bookchin would have accused them of being so – of course despite the fact that you refer to 2008 when Bookchin died in 2006. Rjhodes siomply makes the assumption that Bookchin would have. Similarly if they are not 'lifestyle anarchists'. then they must be something else – so you cannot apply the term 'lifestyle anarchists' to them. Of course there could be some who are, and even if they engage in protests a short time, do so because it becomes a lifestyle choice. Again – saying that there werent such temporary lifestyle anarchists is disengenuous – (especially when Bookchin clearly makes the distinction between 'lfestyle anarchist' as opposed to 'anarchist'. in the terms he and most anarchists understand it)

    Bookchin identified with Communalism from around 1999 – however he did not repudiate the idea of anarchists in earlier struggles in history but the context in which 'anarchism' was falsely presented as 'lifestyle anarchism' in a contemporary context. Neither do Daniel Rhodes views address the fact that participation in OWS was also taken by people who had no anarchist affiliation whatsoever;

    On OWS;

    ' When given the option of identifying themselves as Democrat, Republican or Independent/Other 27.3% of the respondents called themselves Democrats, 2.4% called themselves Republicans, while the rest, 70%, called themselves independents.[80] A survey of 301 respondents by a Fordham University political science professor identified the protester's political affiliations as 25% Democrat, 2% Republican, 11% Socialist, 11% Green Party, 0% Tea Party, and 12% "Other"; meanwhile, 39% of the respondents said they did not identify with any political party.[81] Ideologically the Fordham survey found 80% self-identifying as slightly to extremely liberal, 15% as moderate, and 6% as slightly to extremely conservative.'

    Love and Rage fizzled out. OWS fizzled out.A protest does not necessarily constitute an alive revolutionary consciousness – nor does it constitute the organisation of society with genuine anarcho-syndicalist, anarchist or Communalist ideas -and Bookchin understood this.

    • Daniel Rhodes says:

      Disingenuous (which is not spelled as disengenuous) is defined by Oxford dictionary as, "Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does." You may disagree with me, or feel I am off-base in my analysis, but I am not disingenuous in what I wrote. Thank you though.

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