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Being Black in America


Thoughts of an Anarcho-Negro, Part III


by Rayfield A. Waller



The question remains: How best is the establishment of a just society to be accomplished rationally? Ironically, there is no way to prevent the re-constitution of domination which anarchy is against unless we form bonds of cooperative group interests. Not one single bond, as in a government necessarily, but perhaps a thousand different bonds, groups, and collectives. An alternative, perhaps, to governments. Emma Goldman and Ursula K. LeGuin both speak to this seeming contradiction, and I've decided I will end with the two of them.

But first, back to the encounter I had with that cop. I started there, and I began this column because of the social tensions surrounding Black men and "crime." The cop who did a double take at me in 7-11 actually reminded me of my adolescence.

When I was an adolescent I was surrounded by the rhetoric of "crime" as a supposed "social problem." Typically, the image given me of "crime" was an image of me—of Black people, particularly Black males. Most of the rhetoric was Christian, and thus was moralistic rather than analytical in nature: crime is "bad" and those who commit crimes are bad people. Criminals are craven, lazy, evil, violent, and degenerate. Various law enforcement, educational and civic/racial institutions in Detroit maintained a constant saturation campaign of this rhetoric. They also saturated me with the "solution," to be "good" rather than "bad," to obey society's laws, adopt society's materialist, competitive and conformist values, and to perform an approved social role (that of good citizen, loving son, and "scholarship boy"). This conformity was supposed to function both as a means of dissociating myself from the negative image of "criminal," which could befall me if I strayed, and as a way of keeping even myself safe from crime.

Needless to say, this saturation ideology never focused upon the most egregious criminals in society. I remember wondering how the ideology could completely ignore such criminals as the FBI that, with its COINTELPRO program, was wantonly murdering Black citizens. Or the U.S. army, which was committing mass murder in Cambodia. Or Dow Chemical Corporation, which was manufacturing the napalm being dropped on women and children in Viet Nam. Or even the sadistic gym teacher in my Junior High School who took delight in brutalizing young boys in the name of "sport" by teaching us to be violent, aggressive, sexist, and masochistic.

But when I was an adolescent I read books. And not just the books they gave me in school. I read about popular culture, history, art, music, you name it. I even read George Orwell, and read the Italian anarcho-syndicalists of the early century. I consciously turned away from the ideology of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so predominant in my social environment, to embrace the ideas of people like John Lennon, Richard Wright, Che Guevara, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Errico Malatesta. People around me, including my family thought me insane, but ah, such is the price of free thought, and if I learned this uncomfortable truth at a tender and vulnerable age then more is the better for me, I've always suspected.

The cop in 7-11, strangely enough, rekindled my memory of some of the discussions Malatesta engaged in regarding crime. Malatesta saw "crime" as little more than an excuse for the state to deploy its coercive force across the fabric of the society, impinging upon the freedom of its (society's) citizens.

Anyway, Aldo Venturini challenged Malatesta's orthodox anarcho-individualist pronouncements against coercion and force mobilized by the state in its attempt to counter crime. Feeling that Malatesta was finding fault merely in the organized civil and governmental violence used to coerce, repress, imprison or kill the individual, Venturini pointed out a subtlety, which I wonder if "market-anarchists" are (conveniently?) missing. Venturini asked:

Going by the second part of your reasoning, it would almost look like only "a materially violent thrust" constitutes a violation of the justice principle that will be fundamental in the future society. Why force and physical constraint, although limited and inspired by the idea of a sheer necessity of defence, should not be used also in those cases (unfortunately these will be aspects of the moralizing crime of the new social environment) in which a serious damage can be still caused to one's fellow men without exercising a "materially violent" act? Is not the act of exercising material violence upon a person, to rob him of some belonging, equivalent to the act of succeeding in the same robbing without using any violence whatsoever? Moreover, what is the difference between, say, someone who violently kills a fellow man and someone who drives him to die by exercising a criminal and shifty persuasion?

The foregoing is just an example, not to say that hundreds of cases could be mentioned in which the offence, the damage to someone else's life can happen without material violence. On the other hand, there are a right violence and a wrong violence. Therefore, the injustice does not lie so much in the external act that carries it out, as in the fact itself that someone has to suffer anyway by someone else's nastiness and wickedness. On this topic you say: "We do not see any other solution than leave decisions in the hands of those concerned, in the hands of the people, i.e. the mass of citizens, which will act differently according to the circumstances and to their own varying degree of "civilization" However, 'people' is too generic an expression here, hence the question remains unsolved.

This kind of reasoning seems to repeat the error made by Kropotkine, according to whom the people is supposed to do everything, and for him the people is only a generic multitude. Saverio Merlino criticized very well this and other errors of Kropotkine's idea of anarchism; and, arguing with you, he offers the following solution to the relevant problem of social defence in his book "Collectivist Utopia": "Between the current system and the assumption that crime should cease, I believe there is room for intermediate forms of social defence that differ from a government function. Such social defence would be exercised under the people's eyes and control in every place, as any other public service, like health, transportation, etc. and therefore it could not degenerate into an instrument of oppression and domination."

Why should not we anarchists reach this concept? We want to abolish the present machinery of so-called justice, with all its painful and inhuman aspects, but we do not want to replace it with either individual liberty or the crowd's summary judgement. The sense of justice of men needs to be improved, and the forms of expressing and defending it need to be worked out. (Venturini, Letter to Malatesta, Bologna, September 8, 1921)

Malatesta, responding to this, wrote,

I believe that all that can be said and done to fight crime can only have a relative value, depending on the time, the places, and above all the degree of moral development of the environment where the events take place. The problem of crime will only find an ultimate and completely adequate solution when. . . crime will no longer exist. . .

As Venturini correctly points out, there are worse ways of offending justice and freedom than those committed by material violence, against which the resort to physical constraint can be necessary and urgent. Therefore I agree that the principle I put forward, i.e. that one has a right to resort to material force only against those who want to violate someone else's right by material force, does not cover all the possible cases and cannot be regarded as absolute. Perhaps we would come closer to a more comprehensive formula by asserting the right to forcible self-defence against physical violence as well as against acts equivalent in manner and consequences to physical violence. We are entering a case by case analysis though, which would require a survey of different cases, leading to a thousand different solutions, without touching the main point, the greatest difficulty of the question yet, i.e. who would judge and who would carry out the judgements?
(Letter to Aldo Venturini, Bologna, 1921)

As we can see from these exchanges, classic anarchism, at least as it worked itself out in the vigorous thoughts and in the writings of anarchists, did not take as its subject government per se, nor even authority per se, but freedom. All the talk about government, authority, violence, crime, hierarchy and the like was carried on only in relation to freedom. These people sought fervently after a way to construct a social arrangement, which would overturn coercion, and liberate humankind. In an attempt to hammer out a theory of human organization that would foster freedom, they worked over the details and discrepancies of human interaction. I would conclude that no, classical anarchism would not very easily accept the idea of the abolishment of collective cooperative self-government, because human collectivity and the constant reorganization of human collectivity was what they identified as the means to what they saw as the only desirable end. It seems to me that a classical anarchist would of course say that there is an immense difference between absolute individualism and collective individualism, and that the difference is a crucial difference. Radical individualism such as that implied by market anarchism, and cooperative, syndicalism of the type that makes collective anarchism possible, are opposite ideas. I have tended to side with their position since I first began reading as a nascent anarchist myself, but now I'm going to entertain and go on to elaborate on an alternative notion, just for the sake of discussion—the notion that maybe they were wrong.

For the sake of discussion then: perhaps there is not really any difference between anarchism as a concept of absolute individualism and anarchism as a collective form of self-determination (selves determining together). Perhaps the two stances need one another in order for either one to work and perhaps there is very little hope of either one achieving its goals without the other, and for what I have to believe must be painfully obvious reasons.

Does anyone seriously expect absolute self-determination to ever exist without corporate dystopia, without totalitarian oppression of the "less deserving" (those who Ayn Rand fascistically dehumanizes in her psychologie die uebermenschen, those who are not "rational" and not prepared for the freedom of the "market")? Is there anybody who thinks a "market" anarchy wouldn't quickly devolve into the plutocracy (the rule of the rich) that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the genitor of anarchist thought, warned us about? As for the collectivists, does anyone seriously expect that collective thought, any collective thought, socialist, Marxist, anarchist or otherwise could long stand for freedom of the individual without the opposing existence of absolute individualism free of collective influence as a healthy source of dissent?

Where does this leave us? It leaves us needing to think about the concept of the "unity of Opposites," an idea attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. One of his ideas was that opposites (opposite ideas, opposite ideologies, opposite objects in the physical world, etc.) are compresent, or, co instantiated: that one and the same thing may be both itself and its opposite, simultaneously. This is not nonsense. It is a wonderfully perceptive insight that precedes and intuits dialectical thought. Perhaps opposites are not alienated from one another but are actually just two differing aspects of the same thing. This ancient insight is currently being proven by astro-physics and by sub-atomic physics and quantum mechanics. Heraclitus's idea of unity between opposites was one that he used to uncover the underlying dynamics of the natural world. Much like Archimedes and Leonardo, he was very good at it long before the existence of microscopes and nuclear accelerators would prove how well they really did comprehend nature. "Nature loves to hide," Heraclitus observed, and he asserted that if we are to perceive how nature really works, we must learn to think differently, learn to shift our so-called common-sense understanding of how nature is structured. How nature is structured might not ultimately have much to do with how we perceive nature's objective phenomena.

I think in fact, that Heraclitus' idea is far more profound even than this, and not at all as contradictory as it at first seems. In the "fragments" of Heraclitus's writings and thoughts, one finds his widely known analogy of the bow. The bow represents the tension between opposing forces: the string pulls against the bow and vice versa, but this is necessary if the bow is to perform its function (to launch an arrow). The relation between the two opposing forces co-substantiate one another—is dynamic. Because the ideas in opposition of the bow and the string are not static but dynamic, they represent a complex. A complex is a combination of both opposing and mirroring forces or events or ideas. The totality would not exist as it is if not for these oppositions and associations within the complex. Opposition creates coherence. This is the unity of opposites. One of Heraclitus's fragments reads:

. . .the tension in the string of a bow or lyre, being exactly balanced by the outward tension exerted by the arms of the instrument, produces a coherent, unified, stable and efficient complex. We may infer that if the balance between opposites were not maintained, for example if "the hot" began seriously to outweigh the cold, or night day, then the unity and coherence of the world would cease, just as, if the tension in the bow-string exceeds the tension in the arms, the whole complex is destroyed. (Heraclitus, Fragment #193)

And so we'll end with Ursula K. LeGuin and Emma Goldman, because as I said, I think the women anarchists are the ones who see a way out of apparent impasses. Goldman's mind and her theories have always struck me as being so warm, so alive and so personal that I've always thought of her as my aunt—the aunt I never got to meet but whose life and struggles have so impacted my own. Ursula K. LeGuin, also, whose fictions are both intellectually rigorous and humanist has been influencing my thoughts and my life's course ever since I read her for the first time (A Wizard of Earthsea) as an undergraduate.

LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed is an antidote to the stringent writings and parched philosophies of Ayn Rand as realized in The Fountainhead. Inspired by the anarchist reformer, Paul Goodman, LeGuin constructs a utopia narrative in echo of Plato, of Thomas Moore and of Goodman, in which her protagonist, Shevek, is an inhabitant of the utopian/anarchist planet, Annares. Shevek is a good syndicalist-collectivist, believing in his heart, just as he has always been taught to think, that cooperative communalist anarchism is the best course for his race. However, LeGuin complicates Shevek's psyche by depicting him as a man of great scientific genius, and of supreme rationalism, who grows frustrated with the subtle, ideological control of ideas, which permeates personal relations, and to a lesser extent, public institutions on Annares. He is a scientist who wants, in some things at least, to think purely for himself, not for the collective. Though he is of course free to think and to do whatever he wants in an anarchist society, the reality of his work not seeming to have any "use for the collective" (no "use-value" as Marx would say) makes him a target of disapproval. LeGuin shows us that in reality, any collectivist society will almost certainly even if unconsciously, drift toward rewarding collective use value and punishing individualist surplus value; toward rewarding the majority and punishing the minority. This would be so however unintentional the "punishment" might be—the simple lack of an adequate personal, institutional and structural support for the kind of scientific work Shevek wants to engage in, becomes a crushing punishment for him on Annares. In a society that heralds freedom, Shevek feels that true human freedom is unobtainable for him.

So he travels to "the moon" of Annares, a sister planet called Urras. Urrastis, in contrast to Annarestis, are a planet-wide society of materialist individualists. They are a utopia of capitalism. Market forces, acquisition, self-interest, and the principles of free market competition animate the society on Urras. Shevek, who is a famous physicist even on Urras, is welcomed with open arms here. The Urrasti do not see his work as meaningless, because unlike his anarchist brethren, they can see unlimited commercial applications for his research. Shevek is overwhelmed by the possibilities of freedom here. The forces of market economics, unlike the more dour forces of socialist collectivism back home on Annares, have created a utopia of comfort, wealth, aesthetic pleasure, and idle intellectual pursuit for the Urrastis. Back home on Annares the geography is harsh, life and work are hard and exacting. Annares is simply not as beautiful, as developed as Urras.

Shevek ends up traumatized and wounded by his stay on Urras, however, due to his inevitable discovery of the soulnessness and almost mechanical materialism of the capitalist utopia of the Urrastis. He discovers also, that much of Urras' wealth has evolved off the oppression of a darker skinned sub-group on Urras who Shevek does not fully find out about until late in the narrative. Urrastis have no regard whatsoever for the health, welfare or even the lives of those among them who lose in the capitalist competition that suffuses everything Urrasti. Their system in fact has devolved into a plutocracy, and the haves benefit from the misfortune of the have-nots. Radical individualism allows the haves to dismiss the sufferings of the have-nots as the will of free market forces. Horrified by this amoral face beneath the surface charm of his hosts, Shevek returns to Annares. He returns, however, with the intention of retaining the things of value he has learned from the Urrastis: self expression, dissent, self-determination, and the concept of pointless enjoyment and of idle joy, without regard to what use the collective might or might not have for these attributes. He will presumably fight for reforms on Annares, and seek to make changes in the form of anarchism that is practiced there. Shevek concludes, as LeGuin wants the reader to conclude, that the rational thing to do is to combine the most crucial qualities of both societies if he is ever to truly obtain human freedom.

This is a wonderful illustration of the unity of opposites; the very thing that I believe the younger generation is showing signs of developing a sense of (the anti-globalist movements and the neo-humanist ecological movements in Europe among teenagers and 20-somethings, for instance). Thus, I'll end with the words of Emma Goldman, who in her essay, "Anarchism: What it Really Stands For," seems to me to be overtly asserting a theory of the unity of opposites:

Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man. There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence—that is, the individual—pure and strong. (Emma Goldman, "Anarchism and Other Essays," 1917)

As I said, like many more Black men than you'd suspect, I've been beaten up by the police. Like many more Black men than you'd suspect, I wonder if it's the police who are my real enemies, or if it's the social and political order of this country which continues my oppression as a essential component of that very social and political order.

Maybe my oppression is not a crucial part of this society simply because of racism and racism alone. Or to use the more dim-witted label for racism favored lately by journalists and politicians, maybe it's not simply because of "hate." Maybe I am oppressed because as long as everyone standing behind me in line counting their change fears my body and my identity they will be distracted from what is really oppressing them. Maybe they won't focus on the realization that they ought to rebel because the society doesn't protect them from me, but protects property from me. Maybe they won't realize as readily that they ought to rebel because they have nothing to lose. So far, nobody has said anything that convinces me that anything having to do with "free markets" is going to free me. My great-great grandmother after all, was sold on the free market as a commodity in America's slavocracy.

If you see me in a 7-11 one morning I just might be casing the slurpees. Or I might be thinking about the uses my body and identity are being put to by the social structure, by the government, and by the Judeo-Christian authorities in their pulpits and their pews. I'll trust that you now do suspect just how much even Black men are thinking about these things and waiting for a transformation of everyone's social conditions—even yours.

If you'll pardon me then, I have to get back to work.


1. Rand has said that her idea of 'mankind' is that Man is heroic; that this heroism can only be attained through the complete freedom of the rational individual (like Allen Keyes, she eschews the political correctness of interrogating patriarchy-instead, she aims to take part in it and get a piece of the spoils of imperialism for herself).

2. In astro-physics: astronomers are observing far-distant stellar events, which seem to be mimicking one another inexplicably. They have surmised that there is some as-yet undiscovered common relation underlying what we currently think of as disparate events. In sub-atomic physics: again, physicists are observing the strange natural tendency of particles to behave in unison though great distances separate them. In quantum mechanics: physicists have artificially imposed unison behavior on opposing photons through experimentation. The implication is that they have been able to influence some unseen third component of physical reality, which connects (co instantiates?) disparate photons.

3. Presumably, Shevek could simply seek out some semi-autonomous group of local, like-minded citizens in order to find the support he needs, or failing that, form a support group of his own, for such activities are lauded in a collectivist social system. But, LeGuin wants to force us to grapple with certain themes here. She makes Shevek a lone individual of such esoteric and specialized knowledge and interests that it is impossible for him to find very many Annarestis who would or even could have a simple conversation with him at the level of scientific expertise he possesses (his is somewhat like the specialized knowledge of an architect, in fact). Of those scientists on Annares who can understand what Shevek's research is about, none wish to engage with his ideas because, of course, his ideas are of no use to the collective, and collective thought is the predominant value on Annares. LeGuin has constructed a fine catch-22 for her protagonist here.


Don't e-mail unless you're wearing Che Guevera T-shirt.

Posted January 25, 2004 12:28 AM




I read Rayfield Waller's contribution with great interest because at a glance, we have much in common. I am Black (transitioning to the "African-American" moniker slowly), work as a post-doc at a university, and consider myself to be a thoughtful young scientist. I too feel that I am an anarchist of sorts. The suburbs, not the city, are my roots. I have a Ph.D., both my parents have terminal degrees, and while far from rich I grew up wanting for nothing. The images that I see in media of young black men rarely if ever are reflective of who I have become. In Mr. Waller's article, I got the sense (hopefully misguided) that he was affected strongly by what I refer to as the "trickle-down Negro philosophy," in which the images of blacks in pop culture play strong roles in the feelings of the majority who surround us in day to day life. My experience has shown me that beyond the initial impression, those people who I have significant relationships with are able to evaluate me independently of the latest rap video or what Colin Powell had to say on the tube about Iraq. It is true that many people buy into the negative images that are often presented of black people, but those people rarely have influence or any input on my life's direction. I control the product that I present and I am able to let those who come across my path know who I am. Denouncing ODB, Ghostface Killah, and Notorious B.I.G. while championing Scott LaRoc, Eric B, and Digital Underground as "critical artists" raised a red flag for this reader. This separation tells me that the author should spend more time working on being comfortable in his own skin and less time trying to include the a portion of the overall black experience that isn't his cup of tea. (Scott LaRock and Eric B are the DJs who were associated with the "conscious artists" KRS-ONE and Rakim, respectively, but neither qualifies as rap artist by any stretch of the imagination. Digital Underground are fine artists who received much critical acclaim but can hardly be regarded as conscious). There is room for ODB alongside Mos Def in Black America just as sure as Pauly Shore and Robert DeNiro coexist in Hollywood. (Plus, it's OK for a black guy to not be up on hip-hop, no matter what the perception at the water cooler is. No Bob, I haven't heard the new DMX album!) Rayfield Waller sounds like a good guy and I wish him well on his journey of anarchy. Be comfortable in your skin and change the world person by person as you meet them. The point of this rambling rant is that it's important to remember that there is ultimately a decoupling from the larger group for all people. Only thing is, there's nothing to hide behind when you're out there by yourself. . .

Posted by: Ed in Baton Rouge at October 4, 2008 6:19 AM



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