EssaysThe Left

Autonomous Politics and Liberal Thought-Magic

In response to Nancy Fraser

Anarchism is often dismissed as incoherent, naïve, and ineffective. This is Nancy Fraser’s position in a recent article called “Against Anarchism.” Fraser’s criticisms are worth engaging not because they’re particularly perceptive or unique, but because they’re exceedingly common: these are some of the reasons that people dismiss anarchism all the time. What is it about anarchism that’s so threatening to people like Nancy Fraser? I think Fraser (and many others) are actually threatened by what I’ll call “autonomous politics,” which is both narrower and broader than anarchism, encompassing currents of Marxism, indigenism, queer politics, feminism, and anarchism. My suspicion is that Fraser hates autonomous politics not because it’s ineffective or undemocratic, but because it undermines her whole worldview and political project. Autonomous politics destabilizes liberalism, opening up more productive ways of thinking and relating.

Fraser’s broad argument is that democratic politics works on “two tracks.” On the first track, “publics in civil society generate public opinion,” and on the second track “political institutions make authorized and binding decisions to carry them out.” Chief among these formal institutions is the State, and she explains that anarchists reject this second track, because they think “the administrative logics of the political system are bound to colonize the independent energies of society.” Fraser’s charge is that this single track politics is fundamentally undemocratic: anarchist politics becomes isolated, unaccountable, and vanguardist without engagement on this second track.

So are anarchists accountable (like a good liberal) or are they unaccountable (and therefore undemocratic)? Will you be a good citizen, or a bad outsider? This is liberal thought-magic: the strange spell that funnels everything back into “State” and “public,” making it difficult to imagine any other kind of politics. There is no escape, no alternative.

I think the current of anarchism that’s particularly threatening to Fraser is the one that dissipates the spell of liberal thought-magic. Some currents of anarchism (and other radical political traditions) aren’t simply anti-State or anti-institutional: they point to the ways that institutions always pull us back into relation to these organizations, like black holes. Autonomous politics short-circuits the relationship between formal institutions and publics, enabling new, open-ended relationships and practices to emerge, which just don’t fit into the liberal framework.

This makes autonomous politics—practices and actions that don’t aim at reforming institutions or mobilizing publics—frustrating, confusing, and menacing to liberal thought-magicians. Autonomous isn’t just “outside” Fraser’s two tracks; it threatens to undermine the whole edifice and break the spell. How?

First, the persistence of autonomous politics is a reminder that the modern conceptions of “State” and “civil society” are only a few centuries old. Part of the thought-magic is to insist that life beyond the State is nasty, brutish and short, and it will continue to be, without the rigidities of the two liberal tracks. But before and beyond and after the State, there was (and is) an incredible diversity of ways that people organize themselves, resolve conflicts, engage with neighbours and more distant ties, and relate to land and their home places. This infinite complexity is politics, and it will always be more complex than liberal thought-magic.

Fraser gestures briefly at “isolated indigenous communities struggling to subsist off the grid,” lumping them in with “relatively privileged but downwardly mobile youth.” These are the main subscribers to autonomous politics, she thinks (the rest of us know better). Of course, insisting on the necessity of the State probably doesn’t sound as good to undocumented workers, prisoners, indigenous land defenders, and others being crushed, criminalized or erased by the State and other modern institutions. But it’s not just about being privileged (or not) by the State and its politics: it’s also about the effect on our political imagination; this is what makes liberal thought-magic so magical.

Second, autonomous politics threatens the role of the liberal political theorist: liberal magicians make recommendations for how things should be, in terms of the “proper” relationship between formal institutions and publics. This liberal thought-magic is always augmented by admitting that formal institutions are not really all that democratic and responsive: that’s all the more reason to keep trying to make them better.

However, my experience has been that from the perspective of folks trying to change things—even people trying to influence formal institutions—the role of the liberal political theorist isn’t much use. It encourages us to see everything in terms of the two tracks: State and public, and encourages us to answer the abstract question of how things should be.

With this in mind, I should situate myself: I’ve spent lots of time reading about liberal politics, and I was once firmly under its spell. I can’t say that’s all gone and I see everything clearly, but I’ve become critical of liberalism (obviously) and I’ve found other forms of thought-magic (including currents of anarchism) more useful in thinking through the ways I relate to people, and to the political projects I’m part of. I’ve developed priorities and values that don’t make sense from the perspective of the dual tracks of State and public. I don’t have a replacement for Fraser’s thought-magic because I’m trying to inhabit (and be open to) a diversity of traditions and encounters, beyond Fraser’s “two tracks.”

Third, autonomous politics threatens to proliferatethe tracks of politics. There aren’t one, or two, but many tracks, relationships and actors. Many of the most prominent and radical tendencies of anarchism, feminism, indigenism, and queer politics gesture at the infinity of political “tracks.” Not all of these tracks are “publics” or “formal institutions”; these categories erase the complexity of allegiances, alliances, tensions, anxieties, adversaries, and enemies that criss-cross contemporary political actions and groups.

Autonomist politics is often perceived as isolationism by people like Fraser, who conflate isolationism with a refusal to engage with the State and other institutions on their own terms. Police, bureaucrats, politicians, and other institutional representatives have no a priori legitimacy or authority here; it’s up in the air: they might be obeyed, attacked, engaged or ignored. This is not because autonomous politics embraces an anything-goes nihilism: they often point to authorities and values that are erased by liberal thought-magic, such as family, community, indigenous nationhood, ecosystems, and non-humans. This is because autonomous politics enables new (and old) relationships, alliances, solidarities and connections.

Autonomy doesn’t just mean separation. Warding off the myopic two tracks of State-public interchange enables other relationships and practices to emerge: it becomes possible to think and act differently. I’m sure Fraser would have no problem jamming these emergent values and solidarities back into the liberal paradigm: it’s some powerful magic. But for many people, the spell is losing its power. It’s increasingly obvious that States and other formal institutions are not only undemocratic; they’re increasingly designed to absorb, placate, divide, and destroy grassroots movements while defending the exploitative status quo.

Autonomist politics appears more realistic here, rather than naive: we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.

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Nick Montgomery

  • Scott

    I’m quite surprised that this post has not generated more
    discussion. Possibilities for innovating how a democracy can work is a debate we should be having. I agree that “we need to relate to each other, figure things out together, and struggle together, without guarantees.” (Who would disagree?) Yet the referent of “we” here is problematic. Because if disengaging from the political establishment is, at least, part of the path to large scale social change, what exactly does “we” then become? More importantly what does such a “we” create? It automatically creates a “they” to which another group, or groups I should say, are opposed. This turns out to create a real dilemma.

    Although it is currently impossible to reform the system entirely from the inside out (I would certainly agree with that), the strategy of dis-engagement does not address a real problem which is riddling politics in the United States and elsewhere: political narrowness. “We” turns out to be quite a small group which often draws boundaries based on minute distinctions. The nuances of ideology are of course quite significant. But individuals and groups often accord them greater significance than is necessary in an effort to distinguish themselves from others and generate group solidarity. This is a problem
    within conventional politics and it is certainly a problem amongst the often relatively small “we”s of autonomous publics. These exaggerated differences often prevents individuals from actually seeing how much they have in common, and I believe this applies to the authors of these two posts.

    Lest I be misunderstand, I certainly think a multiplicity of tracks is a great thing. It ensures that more people will be heard. But to be utterly practical, the danger that they may ultimately begin to fight amongst
    themselves due to “the narcissism of minor differences” can’t be denied. I’ve seen it happen again and again. In addition to corrupt and exclusive politic establishments, this also prevents real change from occurring. It also just happens that, in some sense, if “we” are to really work things out, “we” must also include a good many which are trying to work for social change within the basic frameworks of political liberalism (from one end) while also including those working with more experimental strategies (on the other).

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