Deeper Than Politics, More Than Ideology
Featuring: An essay by William C. Anderson on ideology, Black anarchism, and his forthcoming book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism & Abolition.
If there’s one thing I learned from Black anarchism, it’s to transcend. I am not just a Black anarchist because I want to systematize or institutionalize Black anarchism. I’m not wed to it and I’m not dedicated to any cause like that because the entire point is not to be. However, I have internalized its lessons and that’s why I wrote The Nation on No Map. The lessons Black anarchism offers can help show us how to transcend the pre-arranged narratives that hold us back. I believe that Black anarchism has done so in many ways and provided a framework that we can observe. Social movements have long been plagued with orthodoxy, cultism, and limitations that I feel have poisoned the roots. People have put ideology before liberation at the expense of progress and it’s blatant how much this is deterring us in a world that’s facing rapidly compounding unimaginable crises. I learned a long time ago that a lot of people don’t actually want liberation, they just want control, authority, and power. Furthermore, they don’t make any distinctions between these things. Oftentimes with oppression, people start thinking that having what the oppressor has (the ability to oppress) is the goal; it’s not. Ultimately, I think it’s time to gather what we need from the history we’ve been offered and move beyond the stories we like to tell ourselves about the past and the present for the realization of something far greater. Black anarchism can provide helpful insights.
Founding Black anarchist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin familiarized me with the task at hand to “raise the contradictions.” He was talking about exposing the inconsistencies between what the state, society, and what the world promises but does not deliver. I’d already been thinking about something similar in terms that expanded beyond ideological positions to something much deeper. I was beginning to ask questions about things that Marxism, classical anarchism, and doctrinaire politics could not answer. They have always had to be reshaped and extended in ways by those that are most marginalized within their ranks. This led me to interrogate questions of contradictions within ourselves and how we internalize them. Autonomous Black radicalisms of all sorts gave me a model and method which I found most useful in guiding my own political growth to do so.
The Nation on No Map is a humble attempt to use my own understanding and the lessons I’ve learned to trace a liberatory path. I believe that challenging the supposed necessity of the nation-state and removing the ways of thinking that feed into it are top priorities. I examine different relationships that Black America has with certain aspects of the past and use Black Anarchism to interrupt and trouble them as I look around. I can see clearly that the importance of an actual radical struggle is more important than just having the appearance of one. That is to say, some of the radicalism and revolutionary politics around us are held back by a lack of imagination. And we’re certainly going to need new ideas amid the flourishing discussions of abolition which I believe need an anti-state emphasis. A free future remains out of reach when antiquated, conservative ideas get repeatedly recycled. For Black America, the problems we experience as it relates to things like citizenship, migration, and nationhood illustrate the point I hope to make. The truth is in the mirror.
There’s so much to talk about but there are barriers getting in the way of our growth because people assume we’ve already figured things out. We haven’t, and we should call everything into question if we’re willing to admit as much. There are a wide array of self-proclaimed liberatory politics we have before us that impede liberation when they become cloaks for rigidity, religiosity and unthinking reformism. If the answer to questions about the future is to endlessly parrot the dead politics of yesteryear, we’re failing. Not knowing things (yet) isn’t always bad, but assuming we know everything already because we don’t want to question prescribed beliefs is dangerous. What history gets overlooked? What questions go unanswered? Whose stories get erased? Which ones get revised, edited, and written over? The questions that go unanswered because some are unwilling to ask are many.
I try my best to highlight this in my work. For example, this is a problem that plagues the Western left and radical movements who are drowning in their own dogma because of a staunch unwillingness to rise above doctrine. The left is stuck because it cannot get over the idea of itself and its self-centered infatuation with its past, and this prevents it from overcoming oppressions that are constantly reconfiguring. Our worst nightmares reorganize themselves while leftists desperately await the return of a dream they once had. They long to stay asleep, anticipating that the same heroes, villains, and storyline will reappear so they can reclaim the past fantasies they cling to. Sometimes when they can’t find victory around them, they’ll even excuse the very forms of violence they claim to be against as a means of defending ideological delusion, not oppressed people. Oppressors are warmly embraced by those who haven’t yet figured out, or are unwilling to admit, that tyranny can change clothes.
It’s this sort of orthodoxy and hagiography holding back our hopes of achieving liberation because they force creativity to fall by the wayside. Furthermore, they gloss over limitations and contradictions in favor of faithful dedication to ideas that may very well be expired, exhausted, or even lifeless. The new must be born so that we can overcome, but the movements and traditions I lament are overly obsessed with venerating what’s bygone to such an extent that they preserve too much of the old. That history is usually only recalled to be praised despite the horrors, killings, and betrayals that would tarnish the reputations of radicals’ favorite heroes if they even believe those things happened at all. Growth is lost because there are no recognizable problems to grow from. You can’t fix a historical issue you refuse to acknowledge. Patriots are patriots no matter where you go.
Maybe some critics will dislike my text and will attempt to make it an ideological conflict, but the real confrontation is inside of us. It lies in the hurdles we fail to surpass because we’re more dedicated to supposedly being right than admitting what’s wrong. To make any of this simply about ideological disagreements, is to attack a house The Nation on No Map is not even in. This is one reason I find great parallels in the study of Zen Buddhism, which carries strains of thought dedicated to a needed self-destruction. Those insights underscore this entire book. The Nation on No Map is a self-immolating text that I truly struggled to finish. I felt aflame while I was writing it and the fear that arose imagining plumes of smoke around me made it hard to focus. I fought amongst past and present versions of myself in a furnace of my own making. When I completed this attempt and the ashes settled I came across the death poem of the Zen monk, Kogaku Soko, who died at 84 years of age in 1548 saying:
My final words are these:
As I fall I throw all on a high mountain peak –
Lo! All creation shatters; thus it is
That I destroy Zen doctrine.
The arrogance of orthodox ideology is the assumption that someone can know everything about the outside world while refusing to step outdoors to gain an internal critique. Self-reflection is crucial, but far too many among us are scared of the uncomfortable realization they might find. We will have to tear down idols and be willing to tell the truth about the monuments we’ve built. We will have to get over ourselves because a lot of us may very well be blocking our own path. Black anarchism can help us trace how that happens and give us organizing principles to fight back, meet material needs, and transcend radicalisms that are not taking us far enough, and that may not even be so radical at all. Much has to be overturned and some of that will occur from within. In order for revolution to happen, we will actually have to think and do things revolutionarily.
William C. Anderson is a writer and activist from Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of The Nation on No Map and the
co-author of As Black as Resistance. He is the co-founder of Offshoot Journal and also provides creative direction as one of the producers of the Black Autonomy Podcast. His writings have been included in the anthologies, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket 2016) and No Selves to Defend (Mariame Kaba 2014).