The anti-authoritarian current: sophisticated politics with powerful implications – a book review of “Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements” by Chris Dixon (University of California Press, 2014). Including 17min video interview embedded at end.
by Greg Macdougall
With such widespread challenges and injustice facing our society, combined with the shifting energies and momentum of people power, the ‘another politics’ Chris Dixon documents in Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements offers perhaps the most promising and exciting approaches to collectively addressing these problems while simultaneously moving us into the world in which we wish to live.
The book is based on in-depth interviews with 47 anti-authoritarian activists and organizers in major Canadian and U.S. cities and is organized into three main sections: politics, strategy and organizing.
The ‘another politics’ Dixon describes is most simply put as the ‘anti-authoritarian current’ in leftist social movements. It is also identified as being anti-capitalist, anti-oppressive and anti-imperialist in what it stands against. And it is pre-figurative in what it stands for, meaning that the ways in which the organizing is done in the present already contains the elements of the social relations and other aspects of the world that ‘another politics’ is working to build.
This book offers to readers who identify as belonging within this current the stirrings of a ‘political home’ — a term referencing community where shared analysis, reflection and support can be developed on the work being done. And to readers who may not identify themselves specifically in this anti-authoritarianism, it still provides a good understanding of this approach and what and how it contributes to broader movements for social justice and social change.
As Dixon writes, “in the best light, the anti-authoritarian current is a large set of projects and groups that play a leading role in many ongoing struggles and periodically kick off wider mobilizations.“ He also offers that the ‘worst light’ view might see the current as mostly tending to ineffectiveness and insularity.
The book addresses such challenges and brings out the best of what the current has to offer — learning from best practices, a grounding of principles and a setting of priorities, the insight and reflection developed over decades of experience, and the tensions and experimentation taking place.
Dixon situates ‘another politics’ as an embodiment of the intertwining of key elements of anti-racist feminism, prison abolitionism and reconfigured anarchism, and drawing upon more historical movements as well. He notes ‘another politics’ does not yet fully exist and its elements are neither entirely new nor unique, “but the ways in which the anti-authoritarian current is bringing them together indicate an increasingly sophisticated politics with powerful implications.“
He describes its development in part from the global justice movement, highlighted by the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and other such mobilizations, as organizers perceived the limitations of such large convergences and realized the need for more long-term, intentional and visionary organizing grounded in communities.
One of the criteria Dixon used in selecting interviewees was their grassroots organizing work outside of activist circles, which points directly to the “movement-building“ approach and the understanding that it is only through large-scale participation that we can actually create the change we’d like to see.
This collective organizing work is described as being ‘revelatory’ — that through transformative processes of action, we learn who we can be, how we can work and what we can achieve — rather than prescriptive; as one interviewee notes, “at the most basic level, people don’t join movements because we tell them how to think, but because we suggest how they can participate.“
A ‘correct line’ or ‘purity’ politics is outweighed by a focus on the importance of actually achieving change; Dixon describes this as dynamic experimentation in messiness, and highlights the connection of being “in the world but not of it“ or in other words, engaging with people’s current lives and social realities while still remaining committed to transformative visions.
Dixon sums up the ‘another politics’ organizing orientation of “widening participation, creating collectivity, fighting strategically, and building power“ — “a set of practices for creating more activists and organizers.“ It is a “non-instrumental organizing“ that brings people together as collaborators, rather than using them as mere instruments to obtain a predetermined goal.
Dixon describes “a growing attempt to be clear, conscious, and collective about leadership in describing different approaches to building non-dominant leadership, that include challenging power relations and ensuring skill-building, political education, and ’empowerment’ aka having each individual experience and understand their own agency.
Anti-authoritarian organization- and institution-building is examined as an area that needs work, to stay out of the ‘ruts’ of problematic models while still embracing the need for structures that meet both the context of the situation and the aims of the work. It sees them as different types of vehicles which can each have their own usefulness at different times, and it also urges a shift in focus from organizational forms to important features that can be included in whatever form may be used.
But “organizing without strategy is like watching pee-wee soccer,“ as one of the interviewees puts it, referencing the ad-hoc, unorganized rush of activity also seen in many activist settings. Another Politics examines the primary obstacles to anti-authoritarian strategy development — prioritizing principles over plans; the fetishization of certain tactics; and a tendency towards a ‘crisis’ mode of organizing — while putting forth what it means to have a long-term movement-building orientation that takes the work seriously and with intentionality.
The question of developing strategy is in part, as Dixon puts it, “about fostering a movement culture that enables collective and constructive strategic reflection.“
And later in the book, he adds, “… far too rarely do we more deeply explore the political assumptions underlying our efforts, what we believe we are accomplishing (rather than what we want to accomplish), what we’ve learned through our work, how we’ve made changes based on what we’ve learned, and what those lessons mean for our visions for change.“
Collecting together these reflections and insight that come from so much diverse experience in anti-authoritarian organizing, Dixon adds a great deal to this needed kind of “movement-generated theory,“ offering affirmation, clarity, and challenging questions that can help move ‘another politics’ forward.
Chris Dixon’s website is www.WritingWithMovements.com
Greg Macdougall writes and does multi-media work aimed at social justice and social change, based in Ottawa, unceded Algonquin territority. His website is www.EquitableEducation.ca
This review originally published on rabble.ca
Video interview with Chris Dixon about the book (17min):