May 3rd, 2012

Contemplative Anarchism - Its Not About Blowing Up Bridges.

This article was reprinted in the May 2012 edition of The Catholic Worker. 
Monday, 30 January 2012
This article is licensed under the Creative Commons. 
[See also: The Communitarian Anarchism of Gustav Landauer. ]
Eric Englada: A Contemplative Anarchism : Re-Introducing Gustav Landauer.

"The real transformation of society will come only in love, in work, and in stillness." – Gustav Landauer, 1907

For two centuries, anarchism has been a dynamic conversation centered around the nature of freedom and authority, the roots of domination, practices of decentralization and organization from below, the relationship between means and ends, and visions of what an alternative to authoritarian society might look like. This conversation has encompassed a dizzying array of perspectives: syndicalist, primitivist, red, green, left, post-left, anti-left, feminist, insurrectionary, platformist, post-structuralist, individualist, communitarian, violent, pacifist, and on and on. While frequently trenchant in their social analysis, and sometimes beautiful in their practice, these myriad anarchisms have nevertheless suffered from a dogged secularity and superficiality - and have neglected the necessity of an inward, spiritual revolution.

But gradually, the anarchisms of the 21st century are shedding their modernist trappings (e.g. progress, rationality and scientism). Hopefully this opening will provide space in the conversation for one person from the past who could shed light on the next step forward: Gustav Landauer. Landauer - writer, journalist, translator, activist, mystic, university dropout, and, many believe, saint - has remained relatively anonymous due to his penchant for mysticism as well as the dearth of English translations of his works. In recent years, however, that has begun to change, thanks in part to the new translation of Gustav Landauer's political writings (Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader). We now have the opportunity to welcome a one hundred-year-old voice back into the conversation of re-imagining a new society. This voice, which I'm calling ‘a contemplative anarchism,' rests on two pillars: an inward transformation and prefiguring alternatives to power and domination.

Born in 1870 to middle-class, Jewish parents in southern Germany, in his youth Landauer began to flirt with Marxism and worked as a union organizer. He saw up close the vast misery of the poor and working class of Berlin. More than their material poverty, however, the "spiritual degeneration" Landauer witnessed left the biggest impact on him. He observed the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Germany and deemed it noxious to the spiritual lives of Germans. He began to develop an anti-political politics that sought the abolition, rather than the dictatorship, of the proletariat, and fleshed out his evolving anarchism in the paper that he helped edit, Der Sozialist (ironically, an anarchist paper.)

Repeatedly imprisoned in the 1890's for his ‘libelous' writing, Landauer found in jail a kind of monastery where he discovered the sermons and writings of the medieval Dominican monk, Meister Eckhart. Following his prison experience, Landauer wrote that if we "allow ourselves to sink to the depths of our being and to reach the inner core of our most hidden nature, then we will find the most ancient and complete community: a community encompassing not only all of humanity but the entire universe." Freedom, Landauer discovered, was only in a political activism borne out of spiritual experience. The anarchist, he mused, was one who "has unearthed the desire that tells him who he truly wants to be." This was not some ethereal escape, however; Landauer believed that in the end this mystical consciousness led to life in relationship and community.

Not surprisingly, Landauer was viewed as highly idiosyncratic by many of his radical contemporaries. He had little interest in the industrial order, the anarcho-syndicalist program, or cities - this last fact illustrated by his move in 1903 from Berlin to an old village outside the city with his wife and children. Reverberating through his writings are words and phrases like quiet, stillness, contemplation, spirit, life, creativity, regeneration, and inner balance. To be radical is to be the opposite of superficial. "Those who want to create life," he wrote in 1901, "must be reborn from within."

In the anarchist conversations of his day, Landauer was never averse to criticizing those who saw the ends as justifying the means. In the midst of his spiritual awakening, anarchism suddenly erupted on the world scene: in September of 1901, U.S. president William McKinley was assassinated by a self-described anarchist. Shortly after, Landauer published an essay, perhaps his finest, "Anarchic Thoughts on Anarchism." "Whoever kills," Landauer seethed, "dies." The anarchists of the so-called ‘propaganda of the deed' were not "anarchic" enough, reminding him of "simple-minded reform politics." In contrast to the violence of both the state and these anarchists, Landauer asserted that there is only "one real power: the power of the spirit - as demonstrated by Jesus."

Though Landauer never became a Christian - his spirituality was often nebulous and hard to pin down - he was inspired by Peter Chelcicky (who he calls a "Christian anarchist") and the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. In part because of his friendship with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Landauer always maintained his Judaism, later in life becoming fascinated with the Hasidics and in particular the great spiritual master, the Baal Shem Tov. Landauer had the reputation for being sometime of a conservative, for he saw, unlike the Bakuninist anarchists of his day who believed in the destruction of all customs and institutions, much worth conserving from the past. For instance, in a letter written to a woman who proposed abolishing marriage, Landauer responded, "It would be madness to dream of abolishing the few forms of union that remain to us! We need form, not formlessness. We need tradition."

Many of the traditions of the past Landauer admired were found in what he called "the Christian era" - i.e. the middle ages. With its folk traditions, guilds, peasantry, mysticism, and art, Landauer saw in their social organization a "society of societies" much healthier than the urban, technological world of modern Germany. With a medieval nostalgia, he called for autonomous rural communities: places where people could return to "natural labor" and the "union of intellectual and manual labor, of artisanry and agriculture, of education and work, of play and work".

Landauer wanted his critics in the movement to understand that a contemplative anarchism did not imply isolation, insularity or resignation:

"Oh, no! One acts with others…[O]ne supports farmers', consumers', and tenants' cooperatives; one creates public gardens and libraries; one leaves the cities and works with spade and shovel; one simplifies one's material life for the sake of spiritual luxury; one organizes and educates; one struggles for the creation of new schools and forms of education…[But] [n]one of this will really bring us forward if it is not based on a new spirit won by the conquest of one's inner self."

In these words we find a manifesto-like description of his entire project: economic alternatives via cooperatives, work on the land, pursuing alternative education, voluntary poverty, and, most significantly, a robust (albeit vague) spirituality.<

Landauer's most famous words appear in a 1910 article, "Weak Statesmen, Weaker People!" in which he was the first to break with classical anarchism's notion that domination primarily came from capitalism and the state, and therefore the physical destruction of those institutions would bring about a radical transformation of society:

"The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently."

These words anticipate the 21st century anarchist analysis that power is a network, residing throughout society and even within the individual. Although the state is certainly a network of institutions and places (prisons, police stations, armies, INS, etc.), it is also, significantly, a vast decentralized network of surveillance and power relations in which we govern each other (what Foucault called ‘governmentality.') "[I]t is becoming increasingly obvious," Landauer wrote, "that the state is not based on men of strong spirit and natural power. It is increasingly based on the ignorance and passiveness of the people." We have voluntarily, if unconsciously, become slaves to power.

Landauer did not believe that we need to wait for ‘The Revolution' to topple ‘The System.' Instead, it is something we can begin now by "relating to one another differently." Rather than ‘smashing the state,' Landauer sought to ‘opt out' - that is, refuse to give any positive energy to the state through voting, lobbying, or paying taxes. The General Strike was important to Landauer's tactical strategy. If people could work for themselves and their needs within small, decentralized communities, and not for their capitalist bosses, there might be a chance of rendering the state superfluous.

Occupy Wall Street, the latest movement to join the ongoing anarchist conversation, appears to be putting into practice elements of Gustav Landauer's anti-political politics. To the extent that this movement becomes a protest movement - making demands on, and thus legitimizing, the powers-that-be - Occupy will lose its value. But if it continues to follow (consciously or not) the strategy of Landauer, which seems to be happening, a new culture could emerge. "Look for the cracks in capitalism and find ways to escape the economic war," Landauer cautioned. "Figure out how to no longer produce for capitalism's commodity market, but to satisfy your own needs." The proliferation of kitchens, libraries, health clinics, media centers, and new economic structures such as perma-banking (based on the gift economy), are all manifestations of people acting on their real freedom here and now.

Any individual or community attempting to create a vibrant, healthy society free from domination - whether Occupy, the Catholic Worker, or one of Hakim Bey's "autonomous zones"–would do well to take seriously Landauer's advice that we need to be spiritually rooted, and able to live now in the society we wish to create. Without spiritual rootedness, movements will lack the interiority to resist dominating one another or to be a subject of domination. And without a means to sustain our bodily needs, these movements will be forced to depend, ultimately, on the oppressive relationships that fuel capitalism and the state. Landauer believed both practices could happen best on the land, for he saw that the profound damage we have incurred from the afflictions of domination could most acutely be healed when closer to the rhythms of nature and the land, and that these roots offer a locus to meet our basic needs. So let's welcome the wise voice of Gustav Landauer back into this critical conversation.

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