Fencerow anarchism as a response to Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) died a frustrated man.  The son of Russian immigrants and lifelong social anarchist activist watched his vision of social anarchism rapidly fading and increasingly surpassed by what he called lifestyle anarchism.  In his 1995 critique of contemporary Anarchism in the West, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, Bookchin wrote that the surpassing of social anarchism by a new, ineffective lifestyle anarchism had diluted the anarchist movement and diminished its prospects for revolution against the state.  So frustrated with anarchism’s failures, Bookchin renounced the anarchist label, calling himself a communalist or socialist.

Bookchin argued that only social anarchism with its fourfold tenets of “municipal confederalism, opposition to statism, direct democracy, and ultimately libertarian communism” offered a political program to bring down the state and a vision of libertarian society that would follow.  His anarchism was the traditional red anarchism of Kropotkin and Bakunin that flourished in Europe in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but it never fully captured the imagination of American anarchists, in whom rugged, economic and religious individualism were deeply ingrained.

Bookchin derided lifestyle anarchism as individualistic, egoistic, polymorphous, antirational, apolitical, anti-organizational, and chaotic, not the ingredients needed for a disciplined, revolutionary movement that could systematically deliver a post-state libertarian society.  Within the lifestyle anarchism milieu, Bookchin included the immediatism of Hakim Bey, the anti-civilization thought of John Zerzan, all mystics, Stirnerite egoists, and students of Nietzsche.

One of Bookchin’s beefs with lifestyle anarchists is that they are transfixed on personal liberty rather than freedom.  Freedom, according to Bookchin, can only be realized as social freedom.  “While autonomy is associated with the presumably self-sovereign individual, freedom dialectically interweaves the individual with the collective.”  Bookchin said that only within the collective could individuals develop the “reflective powers” that derive from social discourse, a collective emotional psyche that nourishes “rage against unfreedom,” the collective desire for radical change, and a sense of social responsibility.

In expressing his disdain for immediatism, Bookchin criticized Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z., or Temporary Autonomous Zones.  These short-lived insurrections of art, theater and poetic resistance were “ardently antirational and anticivilizational.”   Bey’s commitment to chaos delays social revolution and supplants meaningful libertarian programs with fits of “manic narcissism.”  Bookchin’s fundamental condemnation of Bey’s T.A.Z. is that they do not foster lasting revolutionary change but rather quickly dissolve, only to form elsewhere in a polymorphous, impermanent, landless and, ultimately, meaningless insurrection.  Bookchin viewed immediatism as mystical hogwash that perpetuated human oppression.  Bookchin would rather anarchists turn their attention to overthrowing captialism, which was the real source of society’s horrors.

Bookchin also criticized lifestyle anarchists of the anti-civilization ilk for their wholesale rejection of technology.  While acknowledging that many technologies are inherently domineering and ecologically dangerous, Bookchin maintained that the breakdown of society and vast ecological devastation began long before modern technology.  “Even before railroads reached out to all parts of the land,” wrote Bookchin, “much of this devastation had already been wrought using simple axes, black-powder muskets, horse-driven wagons, and moldboard plows.”  Bookchin continued to hold to the belief that it was not technology but capitalism that wrought ecological ruin and human misery.

Bookchin also questioned the anti-civ movement’s veneration of preliterate, hunter-gatherer cultures.  Indeed, these cultures demonstrated a “spirit of in-group cooperation and…egalitarian.”  Yet, Bookchin was convinced that what he considered the antirational and technophobic nature of the anti-civ movement was leading humanity to “a return to mere animality…a return not to freedom but to instinct.”  A devolution to instinct, Bookchin argued, would lead to the biological and social enslavement of humanity.  “There is no freedom in ‘wildness’ if, by sheer ferality, we mean the dictates of inborn behavioral patterns that shape mere animality.” For Bookchin, hunter-gatherer societies represented a “shadowy world of brutishness,” void of intellect and progress.

Liberty only came through a long, social struggle within history, not from what Bookchin saw as the make-believe, mystical, naïve machinations of the lifestyle anarchists.  Lifestyle anarchists lacked the firm anchor of objectivism that material history offered.  Stirnerite egoists claimed there was no such thing as facticity or a reality of truth, while Nietzsche’s disciples said there are no facts only interpretations. Lifestyle anarchists move in an egoistic world of abstraction anchored in “mere animality.”

Bookchin’s last analysis is this:

“If anarchism loses its socialist core and collectivist goal, if it drifts off into aestheticism, ecstasy, and desire, and, incongruously, into Taoist quietism and Buddhist self-effacement as a substitute for a libertarian program, politics, and organization, it will come to represent not social regeneration and a revolutionary vision but social decay and a petulant egoistic rebellion.”

Bookchin’s critique of lifestyle anarchism was unrelenting and unforgiving.  On the one hand, Bookchin’s harsh warning that the soul and fire of revolutionary anarchy was being snuffed out by a quietist, retreating, interior anarchy void of exterior muscle and force is worth a second-look.  Anarchy can never only exist as a fantasy inside our heads, a virtual world with its own language and nomenclature, where battles are fought with the sharpest of mental swords but never in the flesh.

Yet, what is concerning about Bookchin ideological fervor for red socialism is its inherent forcefulness and its reliance on rhetoric and democracy.  His vision of anarchism was founded on large democratic assemblies.  We know from anthropological studies that after a group grows beyond 12, 25 or 50 at the most, that individual and social freedom is surrendered.  Emotional and familial-like bonds give way to cold, transactional relationships.  Men and women rise up through the assembly through the powerful use of rhetoric and charisma to “represent” the interests of members, a representation that eventually is corrupted by power and money.  In assemblies, legalism replaces custom and kinship as means of relating.  Mutual association and aid gives way to obligation.  Shame, guilt and resentment follow.  The organic surrenders to the contrived.  Organism is crushed by Apparatus.

Bookchin’s critique was too kind to technology.  Machines are not monsters, according to Bookchin.  The monsters are unenlightened men who create terrible technologies like nuclear weapons, dams and pesticides and put them to use.   Yet, anywhere technologies appear on the landscape, no matter how small in scale,  they become tools of destruction, even the well-meaning ones.  Prior to technology, agricultural technique and its accompanying instrumental reason, humankind was not a monstrous creature among creatures.  Only when humankind embraced technology and became enlightened did humans become a scourge on the world.  Bookchin’s social anarchism embraced technology as part of the solution, when, in fact, technology, has been the central problem for over 10,000 years.

As with most polemical tracts that pit one extreme position against another, Bookchin’s Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism did not entertain a third way, a middle path, of anarchist expression outside of the social and lifestyle anarchist milieus.  In fact, a third way does exist and has been practiced for millennia.  This third way, demonstrated, for example, by Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers, is an effective, revolutionary expression of anarchism practiced through a small collective of post-civilization bands of men and men, characterized by minimalism, movement, gleaning off the empire, mutual cooperation, and association with other small, post-civilization bands.

I call this third way fencerow anarchism.  Fencerow anarchists do not dwell in the physical wild lands of the anti-civilizationalists or the mental wildness of immediatists and mystics, though they acknowledge and practice elements of both (lifestyle anarchism).  You will also not find fencerow anarchists enthusiastically participating in the municipal, technological, democratic sphere of society (social anarchism).  Fencerow anarchism is lived on the margins, connected to the earth that the anti-civ anarchists venerate, while also engaging the victims of failed institutions of the centralized powers, calling them to the fence rows and serving as a bridge between the wild and the civilized.  Fencerow anarchism is the bridge that crosses the chasm that Bookchin said could not be bridged.  Neither individualist nor socialist, neither revolutionary nor exclusively mystical, the Fencerow anarchist is a feral and free man or woman, once domesticated, becoming free, but not necessarily wild, not Bookchin’s much-feared “mere animality.”

The trajectory of fencerow anarchists is away from the center, a movement beyond the reach of the Apparatus, away from debt, mortgages, careerism, and sedentaryism but not yet donning the face paint of the indigenous tribesman.  They give to Caesar as little as they can, knowing that the less they give, the less goes to support the brutal war machine, which means they work outside the system as much as possible.  Long live agorism!  Fencerow anarchists glean what they can from the empire.  It has taken so much, so when something is left unattended, they are off with it.  They do not vote.  They do not obey or honor the proclamations of the assemblies when they can get away with it.  They unplug often.  They walk, meander and saunter.  They speak to others about the fencerow, that temporary layover on the way from domestication to wildness, and invite them to come follow me.  They sit by campfire with a small band and imagine ways they might further trip up the empire and escape the Apparatus.

There is always more than one way or two ways to freedom.  Bookchin fell in the trap of the false dilemma, the failed logic that only two choices are before us.  Fencerows come in many shapes and sizes, and these fencerows will eventually decay and give way to wildness.  But the fencerow is a good place to be in the meantime.  There is wildness there, but from there we can also jump over the fence into Mr. McGregor’s imperial garden and take a few beets and carrots for sustenance.  Over time fencerows are grown over by brush and vine.  Wildness comes in time, through the generations, as we deliberately turn from the center and saunter toward the wild, in mind, body and soul.


Bookchin, Murrary. Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. 1995.  Link: https://libcom.org/library/social-anarchism–lifestyle-anarchism-murray-bookchin

White, Damian. “Murray Bookchin’s New Life.” Jacobinmag.com.  Link: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/07/murray-bookchin-ecology-kurdistan-pkk-rojava-technology-environmentalism-anarchy/


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