Last week, as tallied votes revealed a somewhat surprising (if not altogether shocking) result in the US presidential election, the scholar-journalist Nathan Schneider tweeted: “back to anarchism.”
It was a simple yet poignant call to a deeper, more compelling humanity, to apply our imaginations once again to the work of subversion, protest, participatory co-operation, and alternative forms of social organization.
That a man so morally bankrupt and politically unfit for public office has risen to the state’s primary seat has seemingly lit a fire under activists. As the colloquialism goes, leftists are getting religion.
Already, many have begun planning creative, disruptive tactics that would militate against the potential political fallout from Trump’s presidential policies.
As some online pundits and journalists have noted, Trump’s election seems to have stirred the sleeping giant of anti-statist, transgressional politics in a country where experimentation with political alternatives has long sat dormant. It seems that Schneider’s insight is prescient: perhaps it is time to begin pulling on that old anarchic thread that runs through the fabric of western liberalism.
Of course, this is not the anarchism of the political aristocracy, who denigrate it as a catch-all theory of everything chaotic. Quite the opposite is true. As political philosophers have argued, the political theory of anarchism is a theoretical tradition that centers upon alternative organizational configurations in the social, political, religious, and economic spheres.
From its emergence in the nineteenth-century as a theory and praxis that rejected the specters of philosophical idealism and representation, it persists in the belief that, for centuries, men and women were able to govern their own concerns without interference from the coercive maw of the state. Furthermore, it did so while advocating for a positive liberty of being-with the other—of mutual aid, as Kropotkin put it—which sets it apart from the market-legislated social separation championed by contemporary libertarian voices.
Moreover, anarchism possesses an ontogenetic vitality that can be seen in its ability to redefine its lines of flight even as it stretches itself across historical and political contexts. As political philosopher Todd May writes in his introduction to the volume New Perspectives on Anarchism, “changes in historical contexts provoke changes in the way issues are approached, earlier thinkers interpreted, and action conceived.” (5) To think anarchism in this way, as a theoretical tradition—especially as one that deals with problems to be solved in novel ways—means one can identify common streaks connecting nineteenth-century anarchist writers, theorists, and practitioners with the burning issues of our own contemporary world. Stated plainly, anarchism is a network of common concerns that stretch across time and cultural contexts.
However, there is something deeper going on in this revival that is inherently religious. Religion might appear to be a non sequitur in discussions about anarchism, but as we will see, the two are inextricably connected. Indeed, the religious question among anarchists and the anarchist question among religionists has a long and complicated history.
The British literary critic and anarchist Herbert Read grappled with this predicament and attempted a synthesis that seems to speak to our current moment. In a short missive entitled “Anarchism and the Religious Impulse”, Read argued that nobody can construct an enduring society without also including the mystical ethos brought about by religion.
And while he certainly recognized a transcendent idealism creeping in to this thought (which is verboten in anarchist sensibilities), he qualified it by recognizing that 1) all civilizations in all of history have had religions of some form, 2) that its social necessity could be read to reveal religion as a ‘necessary human sensuous activity’, and 3) that any attempt to ignore religion in the construction of new social realities will only guarantee a later resurgence of old religious sentiment. Religion is an essential good for societies, not only as a collective force but also as an aesthetic that nourishes the social imagination.
While this is well and good, Read takes a step further by differentiating between “old” and “new” religion, which he sees through a biological lens. Old religion concerns socio-political movements that once gained critical mass and traction but for a variety of reasons calcified over time into stasis. This religion becomes the people’s opiate, or the systematic moralizing authority whose chief concern is to consolidate power and authority. On the other hand, Read’s new religion is a cohesive, congealing force. It not only acts as the common denominator needed to arbitrate between personal interests of militants in a community, it is also essential to the group’s opposition to the artificial authority of the State.
Taking this in a Simondonian-Deleuzian register, new religion it is the ontogenetic realization of a force’s potential, or its entelechy. It synthesizes contextually appropriate transgression and creative organic experimentation in order to generate radical possibilities. Read wrote that a society could retain the buoyancy of its organic nature only when it mediated this ‘spirit’ through processes of fluidity, repositioning, and creative reinterpretation.
Read concludes that anarchism, constituted as it is by its own mystic strains, is religion itself. With his eye on the Spanish Civil War, Read wrote that, “many observers were struck by the religious intensity of the anarchists. In that country of potential renaissance anarchism has inspired, not only heroes but even saints—a new race of men whose lives are devoted, in sensuous imagination and in practice, to the creation of a new type of human society.” (See George Woodcock, The Anarchist Reader, 78)
Though the invocation of religion for the sake of leftist politics may strike a dissonant tone to some, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with the so-called ‘return of the religious’ in contemporary critical thought. As Razmig Keucheyan writes in his cartography of modern critical theory, The Left Hemisphere, critical theorists from A to Z (from Agamben to Zizek), invoke religion, theological concepts, and historical religious figures as indispensable sources for emancipatory thought and praxis.
On this note, Jones Irwin argues in his article “Nietzsche and Anarchist Thought” that there is a deep affinity between Nietzsche’s “eternal return” as a specific critique of religion (as the opposition to a very particular “moralization of religion by Christianity and Judaism”) and the religious impulse found in anarchist thinkers such as Read (223). Religion, it seems, offers much to the anarchist mind.
However, the opposite might also be true. It therefore must be asked: if anarchism is a type of radical politics that is inextricably bound with the religious imagination, in what ways might it hold sway on the confessional? In other words, a religious philosophy of anarchism is a double-edged sword. If the left gets religion, might it also be possible for the faithful to get anarchic? Can religion harness the force of its insurrectionary and revolutionary heritage for the sake of societal change, not only in the pews but also in the streets?
After all, roughly 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, which dwarfs the support garnered among evangelicals of color. As the Atlantic religion writer Emma Green wrote recently, this not only exposes a deep racial divide amongst self-proclaimed evangelicals, it also undermines the reconciliatory work undertaken by certain evangelicals who are seeking a more racially diverse church. Indeed, as Green notes, the fallout will soon begin.
Who knows, then? Perhaps Trump’s election signifies a conversion moment for the left and a revolutionary moment for the religious. The President-elect is currently setting his sites on the oval office. Already we are seeing nationalist-inspired violence against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, all of which is authorized by the soon-to-be Commander in Chief’s searing rhetoric and desire to restore the mythology of a purified America (even though Trump, in an interview on Sunday with CBS’ 60 Minutes, told his followers, to “stop it”).
Could a revamped religious philosophy of anarchism (or, alternatively, his anarchistic theory of religion) aid in the taking-effect of new relations and new societies as they imagined in leftist and religious social imaginaries? Could anarchist-religion be the dynamic common denominator shared between the political left and the confessional in a time of Trump?
Jeff Appel is a PhD student in the Joint Doctoral Program of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. His research interests include continental philosophy, media theory, and political theology.