The Identity Chapter (or, what I’m thinking about for the next month)

26 May

This is the roadmap for the second-to-last chapter of Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. It’s written – just needs to be revised. I’m pumped.

So far, this book has examined specific practices of anarchist lifestyle politics. For the most part, these discussions have assumed subjects acting in the name of a coherent political identity. In this chapter, I want to dig deeper into the very idea of anarchist identity. My previous chapter, on sexuality, argued that self-identification is itself a political practice, which as such can be analyzed in similar fashion to other everyday activities which are of concern in this study of lifestyle politics. This chapter will look at anarchist identification: how anarchists experience, think about, and talk about their identification with anarchism. I open anarchist identification up to critical assessment, to questions of meaning, effects, and strategy, much as I have done for other aspects of lifestyle politics throughout this book. I ask, what do people mean when they say they are anarchists? Why do they choose to identify themselves in this way? How does anarchist identity function as a disciplinary discourse? What kinds of subjects and behaviors does it produce and foreclose? How does the construction of a particular kind of “authentic” anarchist identity performance work to reinforce the stereotype of the young, white, male as the quintessential anarchist activist? These questions are important because they can shed light on why and how certain assumptions about anarchist activists persist. Even though women, people of color, and other socially marginalized groups are arguably the lifeblood of contemporary anarchist movements—bringing not only significant physical participation but also perspectives and critical discourses that give contemporary anarchism its relevance to current political conditions—their presence and contributions continue to be underplayed. It is strikingly easy (and common) for outsiders to a movement like Occupy Wall Street to write off the anarchist element as privileged white male youth who have no legitimate claim to organizing against social problems to which they are the least vulnerable. My analysis will explain why it may be the case that anarchist ideologies are not the exclusive purview of young white males; rather, the performances which we interpret as signifying anarchist identity may be disproportionately associated with young white males. The middle aged woman of color who espouses anarchist principles—but not the stereotypical trappings of anarchist identity—will go unrecognized as an anarchist, thus reinforcing the interpretive framework begun with. The question then arises, is “anarchist” useful as an identity category? Or does it do more harm than good? Can “anarchist” as an identity category be disarticulated from its attendant lifestyle practices? Should it? While I don’t think it’s my place to answer the final question, I will draw on the theoretical contributions of scholars of identity politics, to offer some historical perspective on the strategic utility—and strategic pitfalls—of identity as an organizing principle for radical social movements, with a particular eye toward considering the role of lifestyle in the history of identity politics. This will set the stage for my final chapter which will take a close look at the debate around “lifestylism” that is a seemingly infinitely renewable source of internal conflict for the strategists of contemporary anarchist movements.

Returning to this a day later, I’m less than pumped. Does it even make sense? Does it meaningfully communicate what I do in this chapter? Maybe it communicates the questions I’d like to ask, but my job as a writer is not to ask the questions, but to answer them (at least provisionally). Asking a string of complicated questions and then expecting the reader to figure out how the writing that follows actually answers these questions is a bad habit I picked up (*gives Judith Butler the side eye*). So I’m going to take a stab at rewriting a chapter abstract that actually says what my chapter does.

As an identity label, “anarchist” is both descriptive and prescriptive. As a description, “anarchist” describes a certain set of ideologies, orientations, and, yes, lifestyle practices held by the person (or organization or community for that matter) who claims the label. As a prescriptive force, the label “anarchist” can push a person (or organization or community) toward certain practices. When used as a descriptor, the person to whom the label is applied is subject to questions of authenticity: “Am I a real anarchist?” “Is this lifestyle practice what a real anarchist would do?” Inversely, definitions of authenticity can work to bring a person’s behavior in line with certain norms, in order to make a more convincing claim to the identity “anarchist.” In this way, “anarchist” serves as an aspirational identity label, and the anarchist community is a site where one is held accountable to upholding the norms one must aspire to in order to claim authenticity for one’s anarchist identity. These processes are not without their troubles though. Descriptive identity labels are troublesome because they can fail to capture empirical reality–there may be differences between what one says and what one does. They may also reduce a diversity experiences to an essentialist definition, which is necessarily exclusionary. Furthermore, there are often disagreements among claimants to the label about the definition of authentic anarchism. And there are disagreements about the extent to which lifestyle practices serve as a defining or essential characteristic of anarchist identity. On the other side, the prescriptive character of anarchist identity can be troubling in its normativity. As queer theorists such as Warner have argued, normativity necessarily implies division and exclusion of those whose behaviors fall outside a community’s prescribed norms of practice. Because of the close relationship between lifestyle practices and the constitution of anarchist authenticity, taste and lifestyle choices become the basis for battles over who has the right to call themselves “anarchist” and even which groups anarchists will find themselves in political solidarity with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the norms of anarchist identity often shake out in similar ways to the queer movement Warner was himself critiquing–recentering the young, white, male subject through the privileging of particular lifestyle choices that are most available to these kinds of subjects. While it is not the case that anarchist movements are exclusively inhabited by or attractive to privileged individuals, it is true that the dynamics of anarchist identity constitution outlined above may work to exclude more marginalized subjects from the label “anarchist.” Previous theories and histories of identity politics in radical movements, and the practices of some anarchists themselves, suggest that the anarchist identity label is most effectively used in a “strategic” way, rather than in an absolute way that relies on inherently exclusionary judgements of authenticity.

God, that’s a mouthful, but I think it’s better. And I think each sentence corresponds with the actual work that will be done by each passage in the chapter. So it makes a good map, both for the reader, and for me to figure out how the hell to arrange the evidence I’ve collected and the paragraphs I’ve already written.

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