Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Keith Preston on Balkanization and the state of exception (archive 2012)

Keith Preston writes the blog Attack the System,  which attempts to tie together both left and right anarchism in a Pan-secessionism against the empire.   While I come from a radically different perspective than Keith, I find his critique of the way many left anarchists are militant shock troops of liberalism to be a serious and disturbing critique as well as the Nietzschean critique of modernity to be taken seriously and not softened as it has been in French post-structuralism. 

Skepoet:  You started out in the libertarian socialist tradition but have moved towards a pan-anarchist movement than includes decentralized nationalists and non-socialists.   Could you describe how you left “left” anarchism in its socialist variety?

Keith Preston:  I never really renounced “socialist-anarchism.” I’m still interested in schools of thought that fall under that banner like syndicalism and mutualism, and I still very much consider the founding fathers (and mothers!) of classical anarchism to be influences on my thought. But I did abandon the mainstream (if it could be called that) of the socialist-anarchist movement. The reason for that is the left-anarchist milieu in its modern form is simply a youth subculture more interested in lifestyle issues (like veganism and punk music) than in revolutionary politics. And to the degree that these anarchists have any serious political perspective at all, it’s simply a regurgitation of fairly cliched left-progressive doctrines.

If listen to what the mainstream anarchists talk about-gay rights, global warming, immigrants rights, feminism, anti-racism, animal rights, defending the welfare state. the whole laundry list-they don’t sound much different than what you would hear in the local liberal church parish, or at a Democratic party precinct meeting, or a university humanities course. Eventually, I came to the realization that a serious anti-state movement would need to be grounded in population groups whose core values really do put them at odds with the mainstream political culture. There are plenty of these: the urban underclass and underworld, religious sects whose exotic beliefs get them in trouble with the state, ethnic separatists, pro-gun militias, radical survivalists, drug cultures and sex cultures that are considered deviant or criminal, etc. I’ve been very happy to witness the growth of the anti-civilization movement within the ranks anarchism. What you label “decentralized nationalists” and non-socialists who oppose the state also fall into this category. So it’s not so much about abandoning what I was before as much as building on that and expanding my perspective a bit.

S:  Well, these movements have been around since the middle 1990s on my radar, but I have noticed that Occupy movement seems to have pushed this tensions back into the radical milieu, so to speak. What have you noticed in the past year on the ground?

K.P.:  I consider Occupy Wall Street to largely be a recycling of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I am skeptical as to whether it will fare any better than the anti-globalization movement did. From what I have observed thus far, OWS is a fairly standard representation of the left-wing subculture, in the sense that the OWS movement seems to roll out a hodge-podge of relatively conventional left-of-center issues in a very chaotic way that lacks direction or vision. OWS is a movement that is easily ignored or coopted by the establishment because it is does not threaten the system in any particularly significant way.

I essentially see OWS as the left’s counterpart to the Teabaggers who were easily coopted by the neocons. Where are the Teabaggers today? It will be fairly easy for the Democrats to coopt OWS over the long haul. Look how easily the New Left of the 1960s was coopted and that was a far more radical movement than OWS. The problem is that OWS offers no radical vision that is fundamentally at odds with the survival of the system. OWS has not developed a position of what might be called “radical otherness” in regards to its relationship to the political establishment.

I should probably add to my answer to your first question that I still very much consider socialist-anarchism of the leftist variety to be a legitimate part of the anarchist paradigm. My criticisms of that milieu are based on my perspective that it is too narrowly focused and that it is ineffective at actually attacking the state. The number of strands of anti-state, libertarian, or anti-authoritarian radicalism are quite numerous. I consider all of these, from anarcha-feminism to Islamic anarchism to queer anarchism to national-anarchism, to be different denominations of the broader anarchist philosophy, just like the Christian religion has all of its different denominational or sectarian variations. The problem I have with the left-anarchists is that I regard them as playing the same role in anarchism that a form of sectarian fundamentalism might play in Christianity. I wish to embrace of all of the different tribes of the anarchist paradigm as brothers and sisters within the anarchist “faith,” if you will, despite our own tribal, sectarian, or denominational differences and however much the different types of anarchists may hate each other.

My goal is for a civilization to emerge eventually where anarchism becomes the prevailing political, social, and economic philosophy, just as Christianity dominated medieval European civilization, Islam dominates the civilization of the Middle East, or Confucianism dominates traditional Chinese civilization.

I try to approach controversial social, political, or economic questions from an objective, scholarly perspective  and I try to understand all different sides of issues and glean what tangible facts are available rather than simply relying on the established left-liberal paradigm that dominates the academic world as most anarchists seem to do. This ultimately leads to my taking a lot of unorthodox positions, although my primary concern in the the area of anarchist strategy. I think philosophical abstractions are worthless if they can’t be transmitted into real life action. I’m interested in question like what should the priorities of anarchists be given our current political conditions? What should be our principal goals? What are some real world goals we can set for ourselves that are actually achievable? What is the most practical approach to the question of what a civilization where the anarchist paradigm is the prevalent paradigm might look like? Questions of that nature.

S:  It has been interesting to see your post-left readings of Carl Schmitt who is a jurist whose work was ignored for a long time and I think re-popularized primarily by the works of the left-wing philosophy Agamben and by thinkers on in the European New Right.  How is an anarchist like yourself informed by Schmitt?

K.P.: Schmitt’s thought really unmasks the essence of the state in a way that I think is more penetrating that even much anarchist thought because it lacks the ideological predisposition towards attacking the state that an anarchist would obviously have and there’s also a lot of moral pretentiousness found in much anarchist writing. Schmitt is writing from the perspective of a brutally honest realist. He is one of those rare political theorists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Nietzsche that is able to analyze politics without much in the way of illusions.

Schmitt considered the true nature of the political to be organized collectives with the potential to engage in lethal conflict with one another. His concept of political sovereignty is also quite penetrating. As Schmitt said: “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of the exception.” What he meant by that is that the real power in any society resides in those who are able to set aside the formal rule-making process and codified system of laws when it suits the interests of the state. The law is intended for subjects rather than rulers. The state is a ruler or collection of rulers who act in their own interests. The law serves to restrain subjects, and not to restrain rulers in any authentic sense. Within the realm of the truly political, rulers engage in perpetual brawling with other rulers or potential rulers.

S.:  The sovereign exception is an interesting issue. So what is the anarchist answer to the idea of the sovereign exception?

K.P.:  I think that in a civilization where anarchism was the prevailing political perspective the sovereign would be non-state entities that were capable of repelling physical threats to the anarchist polities. For instance, there might be anarchist-led militias, citizen posses, or private defense forces that would serve the function of resisting either an external invasion or the attempted seizure of power by any one political faction for the purpose of creating a new state.

This one reason why I think fourth generation warfare theory is so interesting because it postulates that the sovereignty of the state is receding and giving way to non-state actors in the realm of military conflict.

There are some interesting historical examples of sovereignty without the state. The Icelandic Commonwealth existed for several centuries minus a single sovereign entity with a monopoly on coercion. During the Spanish Civil War, the anarchist militia confederations essentially replaced the state in certain regions of Spain. An interesting contemporary example is Hezbollah, which has for the most part replaced the Lebanese state as the sovereign in Lebanese society. Of course, Hezbollah are not anarchists, but they are an illustration of how a sovereign can emerge that eclipses the state.

S.: On the Fourth generation warfare:  This seems to also seem to be used as an excuse to strengthen the state.  Do you see this is a trend that is, at root, a sign that elements of the larger culture(s) are separating and going into radically different directions?

K.P.:  Sure. I think a major part of the premise behind the US’s “war on terrorism” is awareness on the parts of the overlords of the empire that the fourth generation resistance is rising and challenging the state in many different areas. So the state is trying to strengthen its position.

At present, most serious fourth generation efforts come from the periphery and conflict between these regions and the empire which is for the most part centered in the West has existed for centuries, of course. So there’s nothing particularly new going on there. However, within the center of the empire itself there does seem to be a separation taking class due to a lack of cultural cohesion. In Europe, the conflict is fueled by mass immigration into what were until very recently mostly homogenous societies. In America, I think the conflict is largely a class conflict on two different levels. First, there is the broader widening of class divisions that has simultaneously generated a strengthened plutocracy at the top, a shrinking middle class and a growing lower prolertarian and lumpenproletarian classes. Large scale immigration has played a role in this obviously, but I don’t think it’s the principal cause. Second, there seems to be a particularly intense class struggle between the dying WASP elites and their constituents among the traditional middle class and the rising upper middle class that is informed by the values of political correctness or what I call totalitarian humanism. This is what I consider to be the source of the US culture wars.

K.P.:  I think what you call “totalitarian humanism,” I call liberalism without the gloves on.  This, however, confuses people since the term liberal is linked to the center-left, which is only one of its manifestations.  Do you see the contradictions within totalitarian
humanism leading to more or less balkanization?

S:  Oh, more balkanization. Very much so. In fact, I think the contradictions within totalitarian humanism will be what eventually brings about its demise. Totalitarian humanism will end when the PC coalition fractures and its component parts eventually turn on each other. A key fault line is going to be the incompatibility of Western liberalism with the social conservatism endemic to most non-Western cultures. For instance, I’ve seen some research that shows anti-gay attitudes are more prevalent among African-Americans than any other ethnic group in the US. Secularism is certainly far more prevalent among Western liberals than among Third world immigrants. Right now, the line that the totalitarian humanist Left takes is something along the lines of “Oppressed peoples everywhere, unite against the white bourgeoisie!” or some variation of that. But these fault lines are very real and will increasingly find their way to the surface over time.

S.:  Is this why you have done so much work with alt right? That the Marxist and anarchist left no longer distances itself from liberalism in a meaningful way?

K.P.:  I’d say there are four things that drew me towards the alt right. First, the alt right is about 100% consistently opposed to American imperialist military adventurism. The Left often falls down on this question and gets taken in by supposed “humanitarian interventions,” for instance. The alt right also has a strong Nietzschean foundation which overlaps quite well with my own philosophical and meta-political stance. The alt right is much more willing to critique or criticize Christianity in a way that would be unthinkable to American-style conservatives and in a way that offers a lot more dept than the reflexive secular humanism or theological liberalism found on the Left. Lastly, as you point out, the alt right is the only political tendency that consistently criticizes totalitarian humanism and does so in a penetrating way.

I consider totalitarian humanism to a very dangerous force that is on the rise in the West, and despite their professed oppositional stance, the Marxist and anarchist left have swallowed the totalitarian humanist bait hook, line, and sinker so to speak, essentially making them the useful idiots of the liberal establishment.

S.:  A friend of mine says the same thing: “Lately the rhetoric between liberals and leftist, you’d think the far left would be an alternative to a lot of PC platitudes, but it isn’t anymore.”   This leads me to some serious questions: I have noticed a lot of professed anti-Fascists using fascist-style intimidation against other forms of anarchism. I suspect you see these anarchists essentially reflecting the anarcho-liberal confusion and becoming a sort of militant-wing for liberal identity politics?

K.P.:  The “anti-fascists” are the mirror image of the Nazi stormtroopers who went about physically attacking Jews and Marxists during the Weimar period. Essentially they are the brown shirts of totalitarian humanism. The tendencies that I refer to as the “anarcho-leftoids” are a kind of parody of PC. Describing them as a “militant wing for liberal identity politics” would be apt in some ways, though perhaps too charitable. They are the new fascists in every essential aspect.

Your question here brings up a very important point. I’ve stated before that my ultimate goal is to build a kind of confederation or agglomeration of tribes of anarchists, libertarians, and another anti-authoritarian radicals who may have many, many profound differences of opinion or ways of life but who are united in their commitment to attacking the state. And, of course, I’ve developed the concept of pan-secessionism as a tactic to be used towards that end. I am sometimes asked if whether my persistent criticisms of the left-anarchists in these areas is not antithetical to my larger goal of a unified anarchist resistance. Am I not acting as a divider rather than as a bridge-builder?

But the immediate problem that we are confronted with is the fact that this totalitarian leftist mindset dominates the mainstream of the anarchist movement, certainly in the English-speaking countries. The leftist-anarchists insist on excluding the other anarchist tribes from their midst on the ground that they are not pure enough in doctrine. For instance, anarcho-capitalists, national-anarchists, Tolkienesque anarcho-monarchists, Nietzschean anarchists of the right, religious anarchists, conservative anarchists similar to the late Joe Sobran, sometimes even left-libertarians like the agorists, mutualists, or voluntarists are rejected for their supposed deviance from official doctrine in one way or another. The leftist fundamentalism that dominates the mainstream anarchist movement is comparable in many ways to the Protestant fundamentalism that dominates American Christianity. I know because I’ve been both a Protestant fundamentalist and a left-anarchist at various points in my life.

So I’m in a situation where in order to pursue my long-terms goals of unifying anti-state radicals against our common enemy, it’s necessary to become a divider in the short-term. I’m divisive because I attack the grip that doctrinaire leftism has on the movement, particularly in the USA. Whenever you speak out against the prevailing trend, you automatically become a divisive figure. So of course those within the mainstream anarchist movement will often come to regard someone like me as the equivalent of heretic who has rejected articles of the true faith. But then there are other anarchists who start to think, “well, you know, maybe Preston has a point with some of his criticisms” and maybe I provide a platform for those anarchists who are aware of some of these problems and have been hesitant to speak up. I’m also opening the door for those anarchists whose own beliefs differ from those of the hard leftists to eventually become accepted by and integrated into the wider anarchist milieu. There are a number of trends in left-anarchism that I see as encouraging such as the post-leftist, situationist, and Stirner-influenced tendencies. While I have my differences with primitivists I have not found them to be as hostile towards other types of anarchists as the leftoids. I also very much appreciate those anarchist tendencies that assert a kind of tribal identity among minority ethnic groups, such as Anarchist People of Color or native anarchists. This is of course very consistent with my broader goal of building a confederation of anti-state tribes.

S.:  Do you see the tribe as the only viable and possibly just political unit?

K.P.:  I should probably clarify what I mean by “tribe.” I’m using the term as a metaphor for any kind of voluntary association sharing a common purpose or identity and functioning independently of the state. So in this context there could certainly be anarchist “tribes” in the common sense of a population group sharing a particular language, culture, religion, or ethnicity, but there could also be tribes committed to a specific political stance, or economic system, or lifestyle interest. For instance, some years ago I came across a group advocating a “stoner homeland” for potheads in northern California. Presumably, there could be stoner anarchist tribes and there could be straight edge anarchist tribes just like there can be tribes representing Christians or Muslims or other kinds of identities. Within in the anarchist tradition, for instance, I would consider the syndicalists to be a tribe, the individualist-anarchists to be a tribe, the Kropotkinites to be a tribe, the Catholic Workers to be a tribe, and so forth.

I think tribes are the most natural form of human social organization. Therefore, they are probably the most viable in terms of durability as well. As to whether they are the most just, I think that’s a subjective question. I don’t really believe in the concept of abstract justice found in much of traditional Western metaphysics of the kinds associated with, for instance, Plato or the Church fathers or the natural rights theorists of the Enlightenment. I’m very much a Nietzschean, possibly a Foucaultian, on this question.

S.:  What do you think is Nietzche’s relevance to anarchism?

K.P.:  Of all the great thinkers of the modern era, Nietzsche was probably the most prescient and penetrating. He recognized that the core foundations of Western civilization-philosophical, cultural, moral, religious-had essentially been overthrown by the advancements in human knowledge that came out of the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the Enlightenment. Not only had Christianity been discredited, but so had traditional Western metaphysics. What distinguishes the thought of Nietzsche is that he takes things a step further and attacks the intellectual systems that grew out of the Enlightenment and had taken hold among educated people in his own era. In particular, he understood the progressive faith associated with movements like liberalism and socialism to essentially be secular derivatives of Christianity. Nietzsche regarded the intellectuals of his time as not having really abandoned faith in God, but rather as having invented new gods to believe in like progress, utopianism, equality, universalism, nationalism, racialism, anarchism, and so forth. All of these became forms of secular millenarianism in Nietzsche’s day.

Nietzsche considered all of these trends to be efforts to come to terms, or perhaps avoiding coming to terms, with the death of the foundations of traditional values. He saw these new gods as creating a cultural powder keg that would explode in grotesque warfare in the twentieth century, which is precisely what happened. He also believed it would be the twenty-first century before Western people began to really confront the crisis generated by the erosion of the foundations of their civilization and that cultural nihilism would be the greatest obstacle that the West would have to overcome. We see this today in the self-hatred and wish for cultural self-destruction that exists among Western peoples, particularly the educated elites. For instance, it is quite obviously seen in the thrill with which Western intellectuals anticipate the potential demographic overrun and cultural dispossession of the West.

What is ironic is that the leftist fundamentalism that dominates the mainstream of the anarchist milieu is perhaps the most advanced form of this nihilism. They’ve essentially absorbed the nihilism of the Western elites and amplified it several times over. In particular, they often epitomize the slave morality Nietzsche regarded as having its roots in Christianity and having been carried over into its secular derivatives on the political left.

So I think that the thought of Nietzsche, properly understood, could contribute to an awakening in the anarchist community, and provide us with the intellectual armour necessary to effectively combat our establish overlords rather than simply parroting them as so many of us do now. It does no good to simply regurgitate the values of political correctness when these are simultaneously the legitimizing values of the ruling class.

S.:  Thank you for your time. Anything you’d like to say in closing?

K.P.: Just to say that the first principal of any authentic radicalism has to be independence of mind above all other values. It’s not about how much you agree or disagree with me. Rather, it’s about your ability to apply critical analysis to every question and to every situation. It’s about being able to see every side of every question and giving due recognition where it’s merited. Any set of ideas, no matter what they are, can become menacing when they are dogmatized to the point of becoming unquestionable articles of faith, particularly when intertwined with the authority of the state. No matter how righteous a particular crusade may seem if its presumptions are not subject to regular critical scrutiny then it becomes a potential foundation for yet another tyranny.

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