In Defense of Lifestyle Anarchism

A great concern among anarchists, especially those of the far left, seems greatly in regards to a group they have dubbed “lifestyle anarchists”. This is specifically intended as a derogatory term used against those who, as Murray Boochkin puts it in his essay “Lifestyle Anarchism or Social Anarchism”, “eschew any serious commitment to an organized, programmatically coherent social confrontation with the existing order.” (Boochkin, 1) He goes on for about eighty-six pages afterward. In essence, the charge against the lifestyle anarchist is that they may walk the walk, talk the talk, but that in the end they are more concerned with achieving their own personal autonomy than they are about tackling hierarchy and participating in class struggle in an orderly and well-regulated manner, as a more proper anarchist ought to do. A correct charge if I ever saw one! But I do not consider this an argument against lifestyle anarchism; in fact, it is one for it. I say, instead, that the lifestyle anarchist is not the dunce of the anarchist world, but perhaps its best chance for a stateless society.

So why should the anarchist seek personal autonomy first over an organized battle against the state and corporate sector? Why not simply charge into battle, union pins on their chest and guns raised, demanding those on top of the totem pole remove themselves from office or be removed by a speeding bullet? Simply put, it is because you will probably get shot, slaughtered, and your entire movement be remembered by the rest of the working class getting a stronger metaphorical whip to the back and thinking, “let’s not try that one ourselves.” There are certainly some associations that have attempted overthrows of governing bodies, such as Rojava, the glory of the left-libertarian movement, and a small town in Mexico known as Chéran, recognizing that their government was conspiring with criminals and were in fact the real criminals themselves. But it seems their interest in force against their captors left them with a bit of an authoritarian edge: both have managed to keep a state, regardless of original intent. Both have kept forced association, both have maintained classes, and both even still have taxes.

What has happened in both these classes can be attributed, at least partially, to a lack of interest in personal autonomy. Many of those in Rojava, while having overthrown their former governments, were not fully anti-government themselves, and those who maintain themselves as both anti-government and anti-hierarchy are themselves not quite autonomous enough to be able to live outside of these party structures that have crept into Rojava. The people have not really learned to work for themselves, act for themselves, or think for themselves.

The same issue finds itself in Chéran. While this town has found itself without having any crime for almost seven years outside of a few bar fights, the people who are chosen by the town to be representatives have no choice in the matter. They are chosen. Unlike what Boochkin may claim, forcing one to do something they don’t want to do is neither representative of freedom or autonomy. And there is the question of poverty. The town is rampant with poverty, overflowing even, regardless of crime. And those who are poor find themselves stuck in this situation. These too could find themselves to benefit from self-sufficiency and personal autonomy. It is certainly much harder to convince one to follow a law outside of those of nature, much harder to find that same person starving even, if they have their own home, a garden with fresh vegetables, one or more means of production, and an M-16 strapped to their back.

So what then do I suggest the anarchist is to do? Are they not to recognize class struggle, long-standing hierarchy, or the state’s hand in their daily interactions? I do not suggest any such thing. But it is the pursuit of personal autonomy that ultimately demolishes all of these things.

A self-sufficient person cannot so easily be exploited. If one is self-sufficient, they are likely able to produce for themselves. A person who can produce for themselves may certainly be considered “working”, but I do not believe they could be considered the “working class”. The working class, instead, is characterized being worked by and for a ruling class at their own expense. This worker, instead, works for themselves, producing and laboring to feed their own belly, and directly interacting with the full produce of that same labor. Thus, the pursuit of self-sufficiency is the abolition of class, regardless of its recognition of it.

A fully or nearly autonomous individual need not have any hierarchy. They are not dependent on the generosity of a wealthy overseer for their food supply, their livelihood, or their collection of new possessions. If one seeking to dominate comes to an autonomous man saying, “do this”, or “do that”, they are most likely to have that man say “no thank you” and move on with their day. Even if the planned dominator presses, they will likely find they have to give a reason that the lifestylist agrees with outside of threat of force, such as a worthy goal or mutual trade. There is no system whose only alternative to participation is starvation to aid them here. Where there is no threat of force or death, there is no hierarchy.

Finally, a nation full of lifestyle anarchists would remove the existence of a government entirely merely by existing. The state is simply this: a ruling class of individuals exercising and enforcing their authority on a lower class. Wherever there exists a self-sufficient person, there exists one less person able to be exploited. Still, this does not bother the ruling class too much, as they can easily find someone else. But where there is a group of them, all having individually reached a point of autonomy, the ruling class have reason to be concerned, for they will find themselves unable to exploit anyone else’s labor, and having to finally rely on their own labor or someone else’s pity. Wherever one finds themselves unable to exploit another, rather than simply having to temporarily struggle against an angry minority to do so, that individual has found themselves in the midst of a stateless society.

But the reader may have noticed a bit of an issue with this proposal: this does not exactly seem like the thing a poor person can easily do. To the one working in a hierarchical business, getting barely anything in return for their labor, having to decide between paying for enough food to not have their belly aching through the week or paying enough rent to keep their landlord from driving them off of the property, I imagine my apparent claim of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just work hard to free yourself from the state and hierarchy” seems to be simply a case of bourgeoisie privilege claiming itself as some brilliant revelation. Nor can the proletariat simply take for themselves the wealth that was wrought out of exploitation, for the same reason that I condemned the common dream of angering the proletariat enough for them to toss off their chains, shoot up their oppressors, and start an anarchist society the next day – they’d be likely shot dead on the spot. The social anarchists could praise their valiant efforts in literature all day, and their fate would be the same.

This is not to say the anarchist movement is dead in the water, unable to do anything promising for fear of oncoming tear gas and lead. Certainly the poor cannot become self-sufficient in a day. Most certainly they cannot simply storm the embassies of the ruling class and expect all to go well, simply because they organized as the liberty-minded authors of old have told us to organize. But they may find small packets of freedom each day. They may not be able to build a garden, but perhaps they can find a pot and a seed packet, nurturing it till it becomes something to have a meal off of. They may not be able to remove themselves from the wage system immediately, but perhaps they can find a Buy-Nothing club in the meantime, finding a few things they can acquire and trade without depending on their master’s preferred tokens. They may not be able to buy a gun, but it’s always possible to nab a few parts from a local hardware store every week or so, eventually having enough parts to create a something for defense of the possessions they do have. (For those wondering how to do this, feel free to email.)

No, the poor cannot likely build a house anytime soon. They cannot start a full homestead, or have a wall of guns, or anything like this in the near future. Worry not. Every small stepping-stone towards freedom makes room for another. The speed of these actions can vary. And the further along each person becomes, with the help of others or not, the more able they are to spread that knowledge further. As the individual becomes more autonomous, the people become freer. They are able have truly free association, lacking the force so representative of the state apparatus. As wrote Johann Kaspar Schmidt, better known to many by his pseudonym Max Stirner:
“I say: liberate yourself as far as you can, and you have done your part; for it is not given to every one to break through all limits, or, more expressively, not to everyone is that a limit which is a limit for the rest. Consequently, do not tire yourself with toiling at the limits of others; enough if you tear down yours. He who overturns one of his limits may have shown others the way and the means; the overturning of their limits remains their affair.” (The Unique and Its Property, 79)

Works Cited

Boochkin, Murray. Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism. San Francisco: AK Press, 1995.
Stirner, Max. The Unique and Its Property. Underworld Amusements, 2017.

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