Total opposition - interview with anarchist writer Paul Cudenec
In an interview with The Vast Minority, writer Paul Cudenec calls for anarchists to unite in "total opposition" to the global capitalist system.
He says he is trying to unearth the primal force behind the philosophy and argues that anarchism has the potential to become a new "religion" for the current age.
Q: Your book The Anarchist Revelation is very much focused around presenting an anarchist spirituality. Why?
That’s the question I hopefully go some way to answering over the course of some 150 pages! In short, there are two separate, and yet interwoven, strands. Firstly there is the individual question – how can an alienated individual such as an anarchist, who is sane enough to find the contemporary capitalist world insane, carry on living in that world? Involvement in the anarchist struggle is part of the answer, but you also need something more than that, some greater perspective to fall back on in times of doubt or isolation.
I think anarchism, historically, has always offered a depth of vision that can sustain and propel an individual through adversity but, if we start to regard anarchism not as a life-philosophy but as a narrowly defined social movement, we will lose contact with that vital force.
Secondly, there’s the spiritual depth of the anarchist movement as a whole. To me, it stands opposed to the modern materialist mindset at a fundamental level. It’s not just that we reject all those assumptions about the legitimacy of authority, property or privilege, but we also reject the blinkered and one-dimensional thinking of the current age.
Anarchy is lateral thinking, creative thinking, poetic thinking in many ways, and in that it has a lot in common with something like Sufism, the esoteric strand of Islam. It’s not stuck on the one level - like Marxism is, for example. And I think we need to reconnect to that imaginative and fluid side of anarchist thought.
Q: But there’s a difference between the vitality or fluidity of a philosophy and this idea of “spirituality”. Why does that come in? Why does it have to come in?
Spirituality for me is all about using the parts of our mind that are left to wither away in a purely materialist society, where nothing it considered valid unless it can be “empirically” proven to be so. These are the powers we need to reignite, on both an individual and collective level.
Q: But what about the religious aspect to “spirituality” that you do evoke in your book? Are you suggesting that these unused parts of our mind are something to do with a supernatural element?
Not supernatural, no. But my definition of what is natural, and real, would go a lot further than what’s generally understood by that. As far as religion goes, the only religion I’m promoting is anarchism. OK, maybe it’s not quite a religion at the moment, but I think it has the potential to be, if it doesn’t cut itself off from the less materialist aspects of its philosophy that take it up in that direction.
Q: So what kind of religion would anarchism be? A religion with no god?
There doesn’t have to be a “god”, in the sense in which it’s normally meant in the West. It’s all about an holistic vision, understanding that on every level of existence everything is interconnected and ultimately part of the one entity. On a human level, this is already the anarchist position – mutual aid, co-operation, solidarity and so on. On a planetary level this is the environmentalist position – the Gaia idea of a living Earth. On a cosmic level, this becomes a Buddhist or Taoist idea of the ultimate unity.
I think that anarchism naturally embraces the holistic approach on the other levels, as well, thus expanding itself into a complete vision of life, rather than remaining merely a social or economic programme spiced up with a confrontational attitude.
Q: Is this a bad thing, then, a “confrontational attitude”? Should anarchists be adopting the quietism of Eastern mystics?
Not at all. A confrontational attitude is essential for anarchism. I think we need to be more confrontational, in fact, in contexts other than street battles with the police or fascists. We need to be more confrontational in our refusal of the moral claims of the state, by stating clearly that we don’t accept that they have the right to rule us, to jail us, to control us in any way. Of course, we recognise the reality that they can do so, in the same way that a large man with a knife has the physical ability to rob me in the street, but we should make it clear that we don’t buy into their lie that there is any moral legitimacy behind this.
We also need to be more confrontational in attacking the limits that are placed around possible futures. Although it’s often a tactically good idea to work with reformist campaigns, if only to help stem the tide of increasing capitalist domination, we should never stop talking about the completely different society that is our vision and inspiration. It doesn’t matter if people can’t grasp that this could ever happen, that they are conditioned by society to think that such a future is not only undesirable but also impossible.
We have to keep our black flag flying so that the vision stays alive, at least on an abstract level, and it’s there for people to turn to one day when they finally realise that the only alternative is going to be a future of slavery and misery for the vast majority of humanity. What we need to reclaim is the total opposition to the current system that was historically offered by anarchism. There’s such a strength in that.
Also, by the way, there’s nothing necessarily quietist or pacifist about faiths like Buddhism – take the Tibetan monks in their struggle against Chinese occupation, for a start. Many religions are used by authorities to promote obedience and submission, and Buddhism is no exception, but that doesn’t reflect on its innate qualities or its potential as an aid to human liberation.
Q: Total opposition? That sounds quite full-on!
In the context in which I just used it, I meant total opposition in a philosophical sense – attacking the current death-system at its roots, rather than focusing on trimming it back here and there. But I do think that’s what we need, at every level. Otherwise nothing will change, all possibilities of improvement will remain blocked and the future will be like this, only a thousand times worse.
Q: There’s a strong environmental current running through your work. Would you describe yourself as an eco-anarchist?
I have done, yes, though I’m tending now to focus on just being an anarchist, which I think is enough. For a start, I can’t see that anything other than anarchism – and the total opposition that it involves – is going to save the planet. The system is not going to reform itself or voluntarily concede any power or control. I also don’t feel there’s a need for any of us to qualify our anarchism with adjectives.
I’ve been playing around with the notion of an Anarchy Threshold, this being the “finishing tape” that all anarchists are aiming at, the point at which humankind can said to be liberated. The idea is that we don’t really have to argue about what happens after that, because, as anarchists, we’re saying that the people around at the time (whenever it actually happens!) will decide that, by their actions and views, among themselves.
So it doesn’t matter if my vision of a better future is one without factories, while my comrade sees the need for a continuation of some form of industrialism. Neither of us will be in a position to decide that. As anarchists we’re not about imposing our views on others anyway, even if we could do so. So it’s purely theoretical – our only input is in putting forward our own visions of how life could be. If we have faith in a free humanity, we will have faith in the future it will create for itself in an anarchist society. Personally, I can’t see that a post-capitalist world would be industrial in any way, because industrialism is capitalism.
The capitalists are right when they say that without the profit incentive, we wouldn’t have what they call “progress” – it’s the forces of money and power, feeding off each other, that have spawned the industrial hell in which we are all forced to live today and the moment that there is no more capitalism there will be no raison d’être for factories, oil refineries, nuclear power stations, shopping malls and so on.
I don’t have to argue too much with other anarchists about what a future anarchist society would look like, though. Firstly, because it’s not my call – or theirs. Secondly, because I know, in my own heart, that an anarchist society would not be an industrial one. It will all unfold in due course. And in the meantime, before the Anarchy Threshold has been reached, our only aim should be to work towards that point with a diversity of tactics and a respect for each others’ personal visions.
Q: Isn’t that a bit naïve, to think that anarchists could all work together happily ever after?
It’s not naïve to think we should all work together – or at least not snipe at each other. If we can’t, then perhaps that’s something to do with the egos of individuals concerned (not just inflated egos, but fragile ones as well) – and that is something that can be addressed by an individual spiritual approach that is a microcosm of our social struggle, as I describe in the book. It’s about rediscovering our strength and clarity, both individually and collectively.
Q: The language in your book can be quite academic at times – do you feel that this can create a barrier to people understanding what you’re saying and limit the numbers who are going to read your message?
Firstly, I’m not a professional academic and I try to make my meaning clear to readers. It’s difficult, though, to express complex ideas without using the short cut of a certain vocabulary – otherwise the end result would be both long-winded and a little patronising.
Secondly, when you’re quoting writers like Herbert Marcuse or Karl Jaspers it would be strange if the surrounding text was in a completely different register – the flow wouldn’t be there. Thirdly, part of theme of The Anarchist Revelation is the lowering of the intellectual level and the denial by the narrow positivist mindset of people’s ability to think clearly and profoundly. Dumbing-down the language in which that sort of argument is expressed seems to me like something of an own goal!
It’s not just a question of vocabulary, but also the way ideas are expressed. Everything doesn’t always have to be compressed into soundbites. I do take on board the criticism to a certain extent, though, and I would like to work on ways of communicating these ideas in a way that they can be more readily absorbed.
Q: Finally, your book draws on the work of a whole range of writers, many of whom are not anarchists. How would you respond to criticism that you risk diluting the anarchist message and confusing it with unrelated strands of thought. Is this some kind of “post-anarchism” that you’re serving up?
No, it’s not “post-anarchism”. If anything, I’m trying to unearth an “ur-anarchism”, a primal force behind the philosophy, hence my foray into the worlds of hermeticism, alchemy, Sufism and Taoism.
I think it’s a mistake to imagine that anarchism is, or should be, some kind of self-contained bubble of consciously-limited political analysis. It’s not airtight, but porous. Anarchism influences the world around it and it is, in turn, influenced by that world. The fact that an idea is expressed by a particular individual does not make it “their” idea anyway; it’s all drawn from the common cultural resource of humanity.
So if a writer expresses something that seems valid and interesting to me, I don’t have to agree with everything else they ever wrote or did in order for me to make use of it in my work and acknowledge where I read it. To me, it’s actually exciting to find anarchist ideas bubbling up in unexpected places, as it makes it clear that our vision is not as peripheral as the thought-authorities would like to make out.
Anarchism is the political label we give to a massive underground river of suppressed thinking that is flowing under the streets of our materialist capitalist civilization, waiting to rise up and sweep away its factories, prisons and city halls. Ultimately, it’s the life-force itself and as such it’s unstoppable.