Radical media, politics and culture.

Michael Glavin, "Power, Subjectivity, Resistance: Three Works on Postmodern Anarchism"

"Power, Subjectivity, Resistance:

Three Works on Postmodern Anarchism"

Michael Glavin, New Formulation


Postmodern Anarchism

By Lewis Call, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002

The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism

By Todd May, University Park: Pennsylvania
State University Press, 1994

From Bakunin to Lacan:
Anti-Authoritarianism and the
Dislocation of Power

By Saul Newman, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001

"If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to
worry about," my formerly liberal father turned Fox
News devotee said as if he were uttering a simple,
elegant truth. "But Dad, my brother just bought me
Postmodern Anarchism on the Internet, you don't think
that will show up as a blip in some government
database?" With that my father looked down at his
filet mignon and asked my younger sister to pass the
butter.How did we get to this moment in U.S. history where
this conversation could even take place? How can it be
that "Total Information Awareness," the Computer
Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II),
and the Patriot Act are anything more than the
fantastical writings of some hyperbolic science
fiction writer?

Postmodern theorists, especially
Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, have given us a
critique of Western society where these programs of
surveillance and control do not appear as an
aberration, but rather as a logical unfolding of the
Enlightenment. These theorists provide us with an
understanding of power, identity, and resistance that
resonates deeply with anarchism, yet, at the same
time, undermines the very foundation of anarchist
thought and practice.

Todd May, Saul Newman, and Lewis Call have recently
examined the intersection between anarchism and
poststructuralist/postmodern thought, or rather, I
should say, created intersections between these
discourses. Each theorist tries to show the anarchism
in postmodernist discourse and also tries to draw out
the implications of postmodern theory for anarchism.
They each focus on a different set of theorists and
draw different conclusions for the future course of

Todd May in The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism
focuses on Michel
Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Francois Lyotard
and calls for an ethical practice that would be
consonant with poststructuralist anarchism. In From
Bakunin to Lacan,
Saul Newman draws primarily upon
Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan and
puts forth ?postanarchism? which he conceives of as an
anti-essentialist anarchism. Lewis Call bases his
work, Postmodern Anarchism, on Friedrich Nietzsche,
Jean Baudrillard, and the cyberpunk authors William
Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Call seeks alternative
political, economic, and cultural systems based on
radical gift-giving, the details of which are to be
worked out by cyberpunks, "who have no need for this

The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist

I will not spend time recounting May's discussion of
the failure of Marxism, because those failings are
well known to anarchists, suffice it to say that May
reads Marxism as being a "strategic" political
philosophy in that it sees power as emanating from a
single place — the economic substructure; whereas,
anarchism is primarily a "tactical" political
philosophy which sees power as existing at multiple
sites (e.g., the state, capitalism, the church,
patriarchy). May presents an illuminating reading of
anarchism by saying that a central theme of anarchism
is its rejection of representation. "To the
anarchists, political representation signifies the
delegation of power from one group or individual to
another, and with that delegation comes the risk of
exploitation by the group or individual to whom power
has been ceded."(2)

Yet, he notes that anarchists do
not reduce all oppression to the political realm, but
rather see a network of "intertwined but irreducible
oppressions."(3) These two central thoughts — the
rejection of representation and the understanding of
power as existing on multiple levels — tie anarchism to
another "strategic" philosophy, that of
poststruturalism, in which these concepts become more
fully articulated.

Where May takes issue with classical anarchism, and I
think rightly so, is its reliance on essentialism or
naturalism to ground its political theory. The basic
assumption of most anarchist projects, according to
May, is that the individual has a good or benign

State power from this perspective then is
seen by anarchists as repressive of an innately good
human subject and repressive of the natural tendency
of society toward mutual aid, as in the case of Peter
Kropotkin. Liberation is the removal of these
unnatural blocks that restrict the free expression of
an individual or group. Anarchism's naturalism serves
as the ethical grounding for the anarchist project. It
serves as the rationale for calls for human
liberation; the individual or the group is to be
liberated from the oppressive, external power of the

An anarchist critique of power is thus a critique of
power over others, a critique of power as a repressive
force. A traditional anarchist critique of Total
Information Awareness (T.I.A.) and the Patriot Act,
therefore, would be that these programs further the
concentration of power in the hands of a few
individuals and authorize the type of state repression
that we experienced under The Counter Intelligence
Program (CoIntelPro). So what's wrong with this

Foucault does not deny the brutal repression that
happens to individuals or groups at the hands of the
state, but for Foucault, these incidents are only part
of a broader spectrum of the everyday practices of
power. As May points out, suppression is one of
power's "modes of enactment" but suppression does not
define the whole of how power operates.(5)

Foucault and other postmodern theorists would say that
this critique is founded on an outdated understanding
of power.

Foucault has challenged the
pre-Enlightenment conception of power as emanating
from the top (the monarch) and suppressing a subject
below. He shows that, with the spread of Enlightenment
thought, power has come to operate in a much more
insidious way on what he calls a "micropolitical"
level through the technology of power called

May points out that discipline comes from
the French word "surveiller" which implies both
conformity and surveillance.(6) "He who is subjected
to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes
responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes
them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in
himself the power relation in which he simultaneously
plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own

The technology of disciplinary power
is focused on the individual and has been applied
throughout society — prisons, schools, mental
institutions, armies — to the extent that we now have
what Foucault calls a "disciplinary society."(8) Thus,
Foucault and other poststructuralist have taken the
anarchist conception of power as existing on multiple
levels and have extended that understanding to include
practices throughout all of society.

"If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to
worry about." What type of individual would one have
to be in order to have nothing to hide? What
constitutes what should be hidden? My father doesn't
want to do anything that could be construed as "wrong"
by a faceless FBI agent sifting through his credit
card receipts; because he doesn't want to do anything
that he will have to hide, or explain later, he might
take a pass on buying a new book on the IRA. His own
self-policing takes the place of external repression.

Of course, because "what constitutes what should be
hidden" is not known, self-policing becomes an
unending task that invades every aspect of life:
e-mail, phone conversations, library check-outs,
online activity. What a traditional anarchist critique
of T.I.A. misses is that the effect of T.I.A is not so
much the repression of radical groups, but rather, the
construction of self-policing subjects. (The effect of
jailing Sherman Austin, a Black anarchist webmaster,
is that it makes people on the internet think twice
about creating a website espousing their political

On the flip side, May points out that for Foucault,
"power creates its own resistance."(9) My "buying a
book" becomes an act of rebellion. It isn't illegal to
buy a book, the form of power that is being exercised
is not the power of law or suppression in a
traditional sense, what is being exercised is the
power of the norm. The norm sets both what is to be
internalized — not doing anything that could be
interpreted as "wrong" — and, more importantly,
constitutes what is transgressive: buying a book on

It is observation itself that creates, in
the subject, something to hide. The previously
innocuous activities of daily life become split so
that many practices become transgressive. T.I.A. will
create its own resistance; it will create a new
underground. It will foster the creation of fake
identities. As activists are cut off from social
movements and forced underground and the public space
for social change is closed off, T.I.A. will create
terrorists as transgressive subjects. To choose either
horn of the dilemma is not to escape the play of
power. Rather, transgression reinscribes the power of
the norm. Transgression is reactive; the question for
anarchists is how to become proactive?

This is a difficult question to answer because of the
poststructuralist conception of subjectivity. Power
does not act as an external force upon an essential
pre-existent subject; rather, power constitutes
subjectivity itself. If the subject is thusly
constructed, through language, myth/ritual,
disciplinary practices, etc., then the individual has
no essence. There is no longer anything to "liberate."
For May, poststructuralists continue the critique of
representation into the realm of subjectivity and
demonstrate that the subject itself, the subject of
anarchist liberation, is itself a representation. It
is an abstract concept that is a "stand in" for actual
existing human beings. As an abstract notion, "the
subject" is a product of an Enlightenment discursive
practice and, as such, cannot serve as an anarchistic
ground for resistance or as an object of liberation.

On what basis then can anarchists fight against
domination? May goes against poststructuralist thought
by arguing that ethical discourse can legitimate
anarchist practice. May sets constraints on this
practice by asserting that ethical principles cannot
be known beforehand and that ethics cannot be grounded
in anything outside of ethical discourse itself; that
in the end there is either common agreement among the
discussants on at least one principle or there is not.
One cannot appeal to anything outside of an ethical
framework to solve an ethical dispute.(10)

Unfortunately, although May articulates the
poststructuralist critique of essentialism, he misses
their critique of universalism, so that he ends up
calling for a poststructural anarchistic practice of
ethics that is "universal in scope."(11)

May fails to
be able to conceive of an ethical practice that is not
universal by setting up a false dichotomy between
universal claims and "mere personal reactions to

This false dichotomy can only be
articulated from the very standpoint that
poststructuralism denies — the universal subject

Postmodern theorists have pointed out that claims of
universalism have masked the specific interests of
historically embedded subjects.(13) The practice of
ethics also involves the play of power; moreover, it
is very good at blinding its participants to that very
play and lends itself to becoming a practice of

May himself defines ethics as "binding
principles of conduct," and as such, ethics are
directly linked to coercion. Ethics on an individual
level involves constraining behavior to that which is
consciously valued. Foucault's concept of "care for
the self" is an example of this

In groups, ethics
serves as legitimation for social control. It?s a form
of social control where members subscribe to
principles and willingly submit to living up to those
shared values. What is the point of ethics when
applied to those outside of one's value system? In
this case, the primary purpose of ethics is to make
domination more palatable. When you "bind" someone to
"principles" you hide oppression and legitimate

From Bakunin to Lacan

The benefit of Newman's text is his persistent
questioning: how can anarchism keep from reproducing
the very forms of oppression that it seeks to
overcome? Since anarchism is based on Enlightenment
notions of subjectivity, power, and liberation, how
can we avoid furthering, in more subtle ways, the
various practices that we oppose? Unfortunately, I
think Newman misunderstands anarchism and misses the
point of poststructuralism and thus his contribution
stands as an example of how not to think through these

Newman starts off his text by conflating power and
domination. He posits that anarchists oppose power as
such, not state power, the power of the church, and
the economic exploitation of capitalism, but rather,
simply "power." One wonders how Newman can miss the
anarchist calls for "decentralization of power" and
the anarchist practices of trade unions, federations,
confederations, affinity groups, collectives,
syndicates, and credit unions, etc.

These are clearly
forms of power. Anarchists do not oppose power as
such, but rather, as May pointed out, representative
power: the exercise of power in the name of someone
else. In Foucault's terms, anarchists oppose
domination defined as the codification of the power of
one group or individual over another.

How can Newman take this view of power as domination?
It is only from the perspective of an extreme
individualism that all forms of power, especially
social power, can be seen as equally
oppressive — oppressive of the sacred individual.(15)
Newman does well to dust off the individualist
anarchist Max Stirner and bring him to the table to
join in the discussion.

Stirner provides Newman with a
thoroughgoing critique of Enlightenment thinking.
Stirner critiqued Enlightenment Humanism as a
replacement of religious categories wherein "Man" has
replaced "God." For Stirner, this abstract fiction
called Man oppresses and "mutilates" the individual.
The abstract category of "Man" denies an individual's
uniqueness. For Stirner, there is no human essence,
there is only at base a "nothingness." It is from this
nothingness, according to Stirner, that an individual
can create his own identity.

The idea that an individual does not have an essence,
that s/he is essentially nothing, is important for
Newman because as he states: "The lack that Stirner
finds at the base of identity will allow the
individual to resist this modern subjectifying
power."(16) Newman fortifies this position by using
Jacques Lacan and his concept of "lack." For Lacan,
the process of subjectification is never complete,
there always is a gap between the individual and its
representation as a subject.(17) It is this "empty
space" that Newman thinks will provide a ground for

So what's wrong with this conception? Newman valiantly
tries to construct a subject who has nothingness as
its center and from this nothingness can create who
one wants to become — sui generous ex nihilo. But who is
the subject that can create his own subjectivity? This
conception of subjectivity is itself an historical
product arising out of Western philosophic, and I
might add, Enlightenment discourse. It is the very
practices of socialization based on Enlightenment
principles that Stirner and Newman critique that make
this individual possible. What's more, Newman takes
this product, "the individual," and posits him as
existing prior to this socialization process, and then
claims that the socialization process (which produced
him) is oppressing him.

Moreover, I think that Newman misses Foucault's point
about the positivity of power — that we are created as
subjects from practices. This creation sets both the
limits as well as enables us to take action. I would
agree with May's reading of Foucault that "we are
subjects," "we think of ourselves as subjects," "we
act as subjects."(19) Why do we need to ground our
resistance in an "empty space" when we can ground
resistance in our own particularity? As anarchists, we
have been constructed in opposition to the dominant
values of our society. We already are resistant; there
is no need to look elsewhere.

This is not to say though that we have only been
constructed as anarchists. I would agree with May's
reading of Deleuze and before him Nietzsche and
Kropotkin, that what we call the individual is a
multiplicity; the individual is the site of multiple
subject positions. In our conflicted society, we have
been constructed in many different and conflicting
ways. Each subject position is a reflection of a
discursive practice. However, this is not to posit a
subject behind the various subject positions choosing
among them, as Newman would have it. The individual is
this multiplicity.

The sea change in my father from liberal to
neo-conservative was not the result of his own
construction of a new subjectivity out of nothingness.
Rather, it can be seen as the overtaking of one
subject position by another under particular
historical circumstances; specifically, the period
following 9-11. My father was and is both a liberal
and a neo-conservative. However, his neo-conservative
subject position has won this internal struggle,
swayed by the events of 9-11, and has, for the moment,
won the right to say "I."

Postmodern Anarchism

As I cracked open another crab leg, I wondered about
the dilemma my discussion with my father presented.
How could I, how could we as anarchists, move beyond
the either/or of being either a self-policing subject
or a transgressive, and thus, reactive subject?
Luckily, I would later read the book that started the
debate in the first place: Postmodern Anarchism.

Although this work is filled with hyperbole and
strange characterizations of theorists, Lewis Call,
after a misstep, does help us think through at least
one way in which we can become proactive anarchists
and he puts forth an example of a proactive practice.

Based on the work of Deleuze, Call advocates a
politics based on desire asserting that desire is
inherently revolutionary.(20) However, I would agree
with Newman that desire in Deleuze achieves a
metaphysical quality operating functionally as a
replacement to modernity's essentialism. Instead of
power repressing a benign individual essence, power in
this conception is repressing an inherently
revolutionary desire.(21)

Moreover, I would argue
along with Foucault that desire is also asocial
construction. There is nothing inherently liberatory
about our desires. As products of our societies we are
filled with conflicting desires, many of which are
bound up in domination.(22)

Call does admit internal conflict in his conception of
self, similar to May, wherein the individual is the
site of multiple subject positions. Call goes on to
argue that the goal of postmodern anarchism is to
"reprogram or redesign ourselves."(23)

But Call does
not tell us upon what basis. I would argue that any
creation of a "new identity" is going to be based on
one?s already internalized identities. They will
either be an extension, negation, or blending of who
we already are. However, it is through the mediation
of this conflict that the creation of something new
can occur. I think this is how we can become proactive
at an individual level.(24) Call, though, denies
"human intentionality" and free will. What I think he
means is that there is no meta-subject, no subject
behind the subject positions freely choosing between
them. Agency lies in the acting out of these subject
positions, but I would argue that individual freedom
exists in the mediation of their conflicting
tendencies through creative action.

On a societal level, Call puts forth an example of one
proactive practice, one that revolves around the
concept of the gift and its radical potential. In
tracing the concept of the gift starting with Mauss,
moving through Bataille, and ending in Baudrillard,
Call raises the struggle over the sharing of
information on the internet to a potentially
revolutionary status — one that falls outside of the
logic of capitalism.

In paraphrasing Baudrillard, Call
writes, "the symbolic violence of the gift without
return is the only violence which has any chance
against the omnipresent semiotic codes of political
economy."(25) In other words, the capitalist system is
based upon the logic of commodity exchange; a gift
without return
— as a unilateral principle — cannot be
accounted for within that logic and so disrupts it.

Call takes this concept in the direction of computer
discussion boards where individuals give the gift of
advice; however, Call's insight can also be taken in a
more literal way — the sharing of information including
software, music, and text. In the capitalist system
commodity exchange is the norm (theft and piracy are
transgressive) and thus the gift without return (Open
Source Software) is a proactive practice that escapes
capitalism?s binary logic.

The Open Source movement is
an articulation of the strong anti-capitalist ethic in
regard to the internet, summed up by the hacker credo:
information is free and should be freely available.
It?s easy to see the revolutionary potential of file
sharing on the internet, not just in its own right,
but additionally because of the logic that it
introduces. When people engage in these alternate
practices, they create a different power articulation.
The practice of sharing information freely, without
expectation of return, runs counter to capitalist

This is not to say that the internet will
overthrow capitalism, but rather, the internet has
opened up a space where non-capitalistic practices can
be played out. Call demonstrates the value in trying
to further these practices.(26)

Call's notion of the potential of the gift without
return can also be applied to the offline world as
well where the practice of gift giving without
compensation already happens in scattered, fragmented
ways: soup kitchens, libraries, charity groups,
non-governmental aid organizations, etc.

What if these
practices were networked so that one could get all of
their goods and services from a gift-giving network?
If a woman had a baby, she wouldn't register at a
store, she would put out a call to the network and
receive everything she needed: clothes, diapers, a
crib, shoes, babysitters. What if such a network grew
to become the dominant mode of exchange in our

For Call, following Baudrillard, power is less stable
than indicated by Foucault's rendering. Power exists
through signs and symbols and is thus open to
reinterpretation and quick reversals. All the prisons,
gulags, and monitoring of citizens could not prevent
the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Call notes that the
collapse of the Soviet Union, which seemed as if it
only took a few minutes, demonstrates what Baudrillard
says about the unstable nature of power.

is attempting to unmask the state's deepest, most
closely guarded secret: that its power is unreal, that
the state exists only as simulation."(27)

Call quotes
Baudrillard here: "The spectacle of those regimes
imploding with such ease ought to make Western
governments — or what is left of them — tremble, for they
have barely any more existence than the Eastern
ones."(28) If anarchists could cultivate practices
that move beyond the norm/transgression dichotomy, so
that they circulated as common currency throughout
society, there is the potential that one day Western
governments will disappear as quickly as their
counterparts did in the East despite "Total
Information Awareness."


If we accept the postmodern worldview, we are at the
same time humbled and empowered. Postmodern theory
takes the anarchist insight that we cannot speak for
others and furthers it to include even speaking under
the guise of "universal emancipation" or an ethics
"universal in scope," no matter how well intended. In
doing so, we must give up our ethical grounding. Our
principles are not "objectively true;" they are our
values. They are that which defines us as a group, or
as an individual. They come from our culture and our
particular historical location.

This is a conception
of ethics without grounding and without universal
claim. This however does not negate the principles of
anarchism but rather limits their implementation and
leaves them open for debate and modification. Our
principles would then not be a ground, but a beacon
that enables us to decide the best course of future

One of the most important lessons to be learned from
Foucault is that since all practices involve power,
the practice of anarchism must admit that it is also a
power formulation. Anarchists need to get over the
self-delusion, in which Newman participates, that
anarchists "oppose power." Anarchism is based upon its
own exclusions; e.g., participatory democracy is a
form of political organization in which the individual
participant is beholden to the will of the majority.

Participatory democracy offers the most opportunity
for all of its members to directly affect the decision
making process, but it is still a practice of power.
Anarchists need to focus on creating new power
formulations that reflect our principles. The practice
of the gift without return is one such practice, but
others are awaiting discovery or creation.

Poststructuralists have also shown that what anarchism
takes to be inherent in all human beings is a
fabrication of Enlightenment discourse. Postmodern
theory puts forth a conception of the individual as
the site of a multiplicity of subject positions in
conflict with one another. It is through mediation of
this conflict in creative action that we can escape
the dilemma of being either a self-policing or a
transgressive subject and become proactive anarchists.

As my conversation with my father spanned the history
of U.S. foreign policy since WWII — the Vietnam war,
Iran-Contra, the death squads in El Salvador — I could
not help but think about my sister who was sitting
there absorbing every word. She has entered a world
where, on the one hand, she expects to freely give and
receive information through the internet, and on the
other, these practices are becoming criminalized and
her private information will be freely available to
the state and corporations. There is a struggle going
on now to determine who will control the digital
representation of who she is. How these conflicting
logics play themselves out through her future
practices, and the practices of her generation, will
determine to a large extent the society that is to


1. Lewis Call, Postmodern Anarchism (Lanham: Lexington
Books, 2002), 139.

2. Todd May, The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism
(University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 47.

3. Ibid., 54.

4. Ibid., 63.

5. Ibid., 68.

6. Ibid., 102.

7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth
of the Prison
(New York: Vintage Books, 1995),

8. Ibid., 216.

9. Ibid., 73.

10. Todd May, The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism,

11. Ibid., 119.

12. Ibid., 119.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals exposes
many universal claims of morality as being rooted in
the particular interests of those initially espousing

14. Foucault discusses his conception of "care for the
self" at length in: "On the Genealogy of Ethics" in
Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1984), 340-372.

15. Saul Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan:
Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power

(Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), 59.

16. Ibid., 60.

17. Ibid., 138.

18. Ibid., 153.

19. Todd May, The Political Philosophy of
Poststructuralist Anarchism,

20. Call, Postmodern Anarchism, 124.

21. Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan, 109.

22. Call admits as much when he pleads, "kill our
inner fascist" (Postmodern Anarchism, 53). But he
cannot tell us why because to answer that question
would lead us away from desire as a simple
revolutionary force and straight back to the realm of

23. Ibid., 52.

24. Ibid., 131.

25. Ibid., 97.

26. Whether or not the people involved in struggles in
cyberspace call themselves anarchists is less relevant
than the fact that they are organizing in anarchistic
ways and acting according to anarchist principles.
Recently at a hackers convention in New York, H2K2,
Jello Biafra was the keynote speaker and many of the
workshops concerned anti-authoritarian themes: The New
FBI and How It Can Hurt You, "I Am Against
Intellectual Property," Face Scanning Systems at
Airports, The Patriot Act. This is fertile ground for
anarchist organizing not because these individuals
would be open to anarchist ideas, but because they are
already practicing anarchism. The combination of
off-line anarchist organizers and anarchistic
cyber-activists could be a very potent force.

27. Lewis Call, Postmodern Anarchism, 109-110.

28. Ibid., 110.