To oppose something is to maintain it.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
I have a memory. It was 1984: a presidential election year in the United States. We had a mock election in school. To learn about the process? To start practicing early? I was eight years old. Only one person in our class voted for Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan. When these results were read aloud, the girl in front of me turned around and pointedly asked, "It was you, wasn't it?" It wasn't.
After school (that day? another?) a boy from my class asked me if I was a Democrat or a Republican. When I said, "Neither," he was perplexed. "You have to be one or the other," he responded, with all the assurance of one stating an obvious and unquestionable Truth. "Well I'm not," I insisted. I knew you didn't have to be; my parents voted, but they didn't identify themselves with either party. In my mind’s eye, this boy's face screws up with outraged and frustrated disbelief. "You have to be one or the other!"
Democrat or Republican? Gay or straight? Man or woman? Capitalist or anticapitalist? Anarchist or archist?
Us or them?
I have a memory from a very different time and place: London, 2002. I traveled down from Edinburgh with a woman from ACE, the social centre we were involved in, to attend Queeruption. It was my first queer anarchist event. On the way, I learned loads about menstruation. Once there, I remember chatting to another guy. He found out I identified as an anarchist and started asking me, were you at such and such summit protest? Nope. How about this one or that one? No. No. He looked really puzzled and maybe even asked how I could be an anarchist without converging outside the G8, WTO, IMF, or other gatherings of elites. Isn't that what anarchists do?
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Anarchist politics are usually defined by their opposition to state, capitalism, patriarchy, and other hierarchies. My aim in this essay is to queer that notion of anarchism in a number of ways. To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross. What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, or overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in?
Hierarchy relies on separation. Or rather, the belief in hierarchy relies on the belief in separation. Neither is fundamentally true. Human beings are extrusions of the ecosystem—we are not separate, independent beings. We are interdependent bodies, embedded in a natural world itself embedded in a vast universe. Likewise, all the various social patterns we create and come to believe in are imaginary (albeit with real effects on our bodyminds). Their existence depends entirely on our belief, our obedience, our behavior. These in turn are shaped by imagined divisions. To realize that the intertwined hierarchical oppositions of hetero/homo, man/woman, whiteness/color, mind/body, rational/emotional, civilized/savage, social/natural, and more are all imaginary is perhaps a crucial step in letting go of them. How might we learn to cross the divide that does not really exist except in our embodied minds?
This, for me, is the point of queer: to learn to see the world through new eyes, to see not only what might be possible but also what already exists (despite the illusions of hierarchy). I write this essay as an invitation to perceive anarchism, to perceive life, differently. I'm neither interested in recruiting you, nor turning you queer. My anarchism is not better than your anarchism. Who am I to judge? Nor is my anarchism already queer. It is always becoming queer. How? By learning to keep queering, again and again, so that my perspective, my politics, and my presence can be fresh, alive.
Queering might allow recognition that life is never contained by the boxes and borders the mind invents. Taxonomies of species or sexualities, categories of race or citizenship, borders between nations or classes or types of politics—these are fictions. They are never necessary. To be sure, fictions have their uses. Perhaps in using them, we may learn to hold them lightly so that we, in turn, are not held by them.
Of Opposites & Oppositions
...how to be one's self and yet in oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one's own characteristic qualities. This seems to me to be the basis upon which the mass and the individual, the true democrat and the true individuality, man and woman, can meet without antagonism and opposition.
—Emma Goldman, "The Tragedy of Women's Emancipation"
If everyone inspired by anarchism agreed exactly on what it was, how it worked and how it felt, would it still be anarchism?
Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
their goodness is good
I notice how often anarchism, and anarchy, is defined in opposition to the State, capitalism, and all other forms of hierarchical structure. Not domination, but liberation. Not capitalist, but (libertarian) communist. Why?
Oh, I'm not opposed to opposition! I just have some questions. One is about borders—drawing lines on a map and then claiming that they are real. Isn't this the operation at the heart of the state? And isn't this what happens when you or I want to draw a clear line between us, good anarchists, and them, evil archists? We this, they that.
The questioning of borders is at the heart of queer theory.
Conventional lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender politics is based on opposites: we an oppressed minority and they the privileged majority. In this version, the problem is inequality and the answer is legal protection. Queer theory troubles this, suggesting instead, in my mind, that the problem comes from belief in the identities. The thing about opposites is that they depend on each other to exist: straight is not gay, gay is not straight and bisexuality still confuses people. This leads to all sorts of possibilities for control—we learn to ask ourselves and each other, is he really...? Is she really...? Am I really…? We're encouraged to believe that our sense of gender and who we fancy tell us who we are and where we fit in a sexual hierarchy imagined to already exist. Whereas a state-oriented LGBT politics tries to challenge the hierarchies of heter/homo, cis/trans, while keeping the identities, queer politics might ask how the identities themselves might already be state-like with their borders and policing.
I have similar questions about anarchist and other identities. How much energy that could go into creating other-than-state-like ways of living gets lost to efforts to appear anarchist enough? I know I'm not the only one who suffers from anarcho-perfectionism! Likewise, I've seen loads of energy go into arguments about whether so and so is really anarchist or not, or such and such is really anarchism.
On the flip side, I once had a very interesting conversation with a man who owned a furniture making company. We had a lot of areas of agreement and he seemed very interested in anarchism. I suggested that when he retired he could leave his factory to all of the workers to be run as a cooperative. He responded, plaintively, “but I'm a capitalist.”
What kinds of politics might become possible if we all learn to be less concerned with conforming to certain labels and more capable of listening to the complexity of our desires? My concern, here, is that opposition—a politics of opposites that push against each other, lean on each other—might get in the way of the listening.
A memory-story: a few years ago, I lived in a former mining village outside of Edinburgh. I was greatly distressed at hearing the single working-class woman next door shouting horrific things at her children nearly every morning. She would curse at them, sometimes shouting how she hated them. It was nearly unbearable. How could I talk to her about it? Then, I took a course on non-violent communication—a strategy without opposition (more on this below). It taught me to communicate in a way that made it easier for her to hear my feelings and desires. The opportunity came when I found a ball in "my" garden (we don't own land, we are part of land) and she was in "hers." I threw the ball over the privet hedge and asked her how she was finding single parenting. "It must be hard," I said. I then told her that when I heard her shouting in the mornings I felt frightened because it reminded me of things from my own childhood. She didn't say anything to me then, but the shouting stopped and her daughter started talking to me.
More recently, this skill again served me well. On my way to London, where I was going to speak about academia and activism, I got into a conversation about politics with a man who identified as conservative. Terrorism came up and I asked if we were any better than them; quoting a Chumbawamba t-shirt I said, "War is terrorism on a bigger budget." He looked thoughtful and a hippie-looking French guy behind him laughed and wrote it down. Then, a very big and very angry looking man stood up and asked if I had just said that war is terrorism. I nodded and he said, "I'm in the Army." He looked furious and I thought there was a good chance he might punch me. I suddenly found myself in his shoes, sensing what he might be feeling, wanting. I looked him in the eye and asked, gently, "Are you angry because you want respect for yourself and your fellow soldiers?" He looked away, his face and shoulders softening, and muttered, "I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion."
What might have happened if I had opposed him?
What might an anarchy refusing to be contained by the borders of its opposites look like? How might anarchism be continually queered, listening across lines of identity and ideology? Now, I'm not saying that anarchism should include everything. I am saying that interesting things are likely to happen if folk inspired by anarchism make connections with folk who see things differently, who do things differently. To do so is not simply to try to convince others that anarchism is right, but perhaps even to let go of such judgments.
Beyond right and wrong, there is a field.
I will meet you there.
This is an excerpt of a beautiful essay published by AK Press' Queering Anarchism.