As social movements move beyond the default anarchist sensibility that prevailed through Occupy, they must still reckon with hard questions about bureaucracy and cooptation.
In 2002, in the midst of a wave of global resistance to corporate globalization that would produce major protests at trade meetings from Seattle to Genoa to Hong Kong, a book appeared that captured much of the spirit of the period’s activism. Written by John Holloway, an Irish-born political theorist who had long made his home in Mexico, it was entitled “Change the World Without Taking Power.” The volume, which argued that “the radical change that is so urgent cannot be brought about through the state,” made Holloway a prominent voice on the international left. A decade later, U.S.-born anthropologist David Graeber gained a wide hearing while championing the anarchist elements of Occupy Wall Street and defending the movement’s suspicion of engaging with established political institutions. “[T]he refusal to make demands,” he would write, “was, quite self-consciously, a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the existing political order of which such demands would have to be made.”
In staking out such ground, these two thinkers took firm positions on a question of perennial concern to social movements: Should we maintain independence and function as a critical force outside of mainstream politics, or should we attempt to take hold of the levers of institutional power in order to create change?
In the period between the end of the Cold War and Occupy’s emergence in the Obama years, a pronounced anarchist disposition held sway on the left, both in the U.S. and internationally. This was particularly true in the mass protest movements that produced some of the era’s defining confrontations. This sensibility was profoundly distrustful of the American two-party system and wary of mainstream politicians who might attempt to co-opt movement issues and energies. For thinkers such as Holloway and Graeber, the price of playing the game of insider politics was simply too high. Movements, they believed, did better to work from the outside.
Recently, however, the prevailing mood on the left has changed — especially since the unexpectedly successful 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, who presented a vigorous challenge to Hillary Clinton while running as an open socialist in the Democratic primaries. Subsequently, interest in mounting radical drives from within the electoral system has greatly increased. In recent years, organizations ranging from Justice Democrats and People’s Action to the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America have entered electoral politics with new vigor. The dividends of this changed approach are already becoming evident with the rise of “The Squad” in Congress and with a variety of high-profile wins in city and state politics throughout the country. Veteran activists who have lived through earlier periods when the left’s political marginalization was taken for granted have noted the altered strategic orientation, as well as the reanimating spirit that has come with it.
There is certainly cause to celebrate this shift. And yet, a move toward insider politics cannot be undertaken lightly. While writers with anarchist or autonomist leanings such as Graeber and Holloway may have been unduly fearful of cooptation and overly pessimistic about the possibilities of creating change through entering the system, they also voiced some valid concerns. In fact, their critique of bureaucratic institutionalization presents a critical challenge to progressives looking to chart a path forward in the coming decade that involves entering mainstream politics. Their central warning: As much as activists may seek to transform the state, the state may succeed in transforming them instead.
* * * * *
Breaking out of anarchist self-isolation
The anti-statist mood that long prevailed on the left was a logical outgrowth of the end of the Cold War. As Leo Panitch, a Canadian political scientist and prominent socialist thinker, observed in 2020, “Following the demise of the communist regimes, and the collaboration of so many social-democratic parties in neoliberal, capitalist globalization, a strong anarchist sensibility emerged, quite understandably, on the radical left, and remained influential for a considerable period of time.” This predominant mood, Panitch remarked, “reflected a widespread suspicion, if not disdain, for any political strategy that involved going into the state.”
Panitch pointed to Holloway’s work as the key text that gave theoretical backing to this position. “Change the World Without Taking Power” expressed profound disappointment with a century of socialist failures to implement a truly transformative program through attempts to win state control. In it, Holloway argues that radicals who took up arms and established governments in the name of the people — in the Soviet bloc and beyond — “may have increased levels of material security and decreased social inequities in the territories of the states they controlled, but they did little to create a self-determining society or to promote the reign of freedom[.]”
Meanwhile, reformers who pursued change through electoral avenues gradually accustomed themselves to becoming part of the political establishment. By the 1990s, many center-left parties around the world ceased pursuing socialist aims at all, instead turning towards neoliberalism and becoming partners in deregulating the market and whittling away the welfare state. As Holloway explains, “most social-democratic parties have long since abandoned any pretension to be the bearers of radical social reform.”
In the end, the result has been the same: “For over a hundred years,” Holloway writes, “the revolutionary enthusiasm of young people has been channeled into building the party or learning to shoot guns; for over a hundred years, the dreams of those who have wanted a world fit for humanity have been bureaucratized and militarized, all for the winning of state power by a government that could then be accused of ‘betraying’ the movement that put it there.”
In the U.S. context, Bill Clinton’s implementation of “welfare reform,” his pursuit of corporate deregulation, and his championing of neoliberal trade deals dispelled any notion that, in the wake of the Cold War, the Democrats would reverse the advances of Reaganism. For David Graeber, Barack Obama’s subsequent failure to push radical policies was perhaps even more galling. After all, Obama was elected on a platform of “change,” came to power with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and possessed a sweeping mandate to address the failures of capitalism that were laid bare by the financial crisis of 2008.