Aragorn Eloff is a long time-time anarchist with a keen interest in different forms of grassroots struggle, ecological activism and animal liberation.
He is also an independent researcher working at the intersection of radical politics and continental philosophy, with a focus on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
He currently works for New Frame, a progressive media non-profit, as a technology manager and occasional writer, and is the co-convener of the biannual South African Deleuze and Guattari Studies Conference. When he is not reading, writing or arguing with strangers on the internet, Aragorn can be found running long distances through natural landscapes.
If your imagination is completely contained by the Oxford English Dictionary, then you’re not recognising how language has always had to evolve to capture new experience. – Aragorn Eloff
A friend and I met with Aragorn in Melville on a Sunday afternoon in late February where we spent several hours discussing anarchism, post-structuralism and various other subjects. What follows is part one of the discussion.
Dayna: Anarchism and many radical theories seem to be based off of one variable which is power. Isn’t it disingenuous to attribute full theories and critiques of society based on one variable?
Aragorn: I’m not sure a lot of the radical theory I engage with would reduce it to power. I think what it would say is that power inflects every part of society: the social contract, access to resources, what’s conceived of as the social good – all these different aspects that are driving or not driving society. Power relations are multiple right?
Dayna: What is your general opinion on what is generally referred to as ‘the left’ right now?
Aragorn: If you look at a lot of what is conceived of as the left nowadays, it’s liberal identity politics. Actually, there’s nothing radical about it, there’s nothing even ‘left’ about it. It’s a bunch of people who have accepted the liberal democratic contract and they’re merely trying to distribute equality within that contract, so its a tacit acceptance of the current framework.
I think ‘the left’ is also kind of an empty signifier, because if everyone from an Obama voter to a hardcore Marxist-Leninist can call themselves a leftist, the term starts losing meaning.
What’s very interesting about anarchism is that it’s operated outside of that dichotomy for most of its existence. Anarchists certainly aren’t on the right, and historically they have more of a relation to people who identify as being on the left, but anarchists themselves see this as a very constrained way of talking about social regimes, so the anarchist framework seems to step out of that discourse entirely.
Dayna: There seems to a sort of a deep post-structuralist ethos in the anarchist approach to well – everything?
Aragorn: What does Derrida say? I mean Derrida talks about deconstruction and about the metaphysics of presence. He says that the way we tend to describe society is in terms of the dominant term that relies on its absence and that if we frame our battles, if we frame the changes we wish to make in society, as the mere reversal of those dominant-submissive terms, we’re just reiterating the current order, right? So the deconstructive project has to go beyond inversion, and this is where identity politics falls up short, right? So, in that sense, and quite a few anarchist theorists have pointed this out, anarchists were the original post-structuralists. If you look at the kinds of fundamental epistemological and ontological claims that anarchists were making in the late nineteenth century already, they pretty much echo what Foucault, Derrida were saying in the sixties and seventies.
Dayna: So Derrida talks about logocentric language. Language and speech are obviously entwined. How do we then go about deconstructing language without impinging on freedom of speech?
Aragorn: Well there’s two different things there. Logocentrism is part of the critique of the metaphysics of presence in Derrida, but if you’re talking about speech, you’re always talking about an act, right? So we have this bizarre residual Cartesianism that we’ve inherited. We think of speaking as somehow different from doing, but all of action is bound up in thought and process. If I can get up on a stage and move my muscles, and move my vocal chords and make eye contact with people, and gesture, performing a whole set of physical actions, causing changes in ear pressure that vibrate in people’s ear drums and causing them to internalise what I’m saying… these are all physical things. The strict sort of divide we’ve drawn between speech and action is arbitrary so…
“So, in that sense, and quite a few anarchist theorists have pointed this out – anarchists were the original post-structuralists.”– Aragorn Eloff
Dayna: Okay but there is an obvious difference between the actions brought about within and through speech compared to other more directly harmful actions…
Aragorn: What I’m saying is that we need a different analytic framework with which to think about this. Deleuze and Guattari talk about what they called ‘incorporeal transformations’ and they say that the way language works is not through ideology and it’s not through concepts. Its through what we call ‘order words’, and what they say is that ‘order words’ are words that cause a transformation in material reality.
One of the examples they give, which I think is very useful, is, say you’re in court and you got arrested and you stand in front of the judge and the judge says to you, “you are guilty, go to jail.”
That speech act is having a very direct affect on your material reality. So, for every appeal that, typically, alt-right people will make to the sacrosanct nature of free speech, as soon as we recognise free speech as just an act that asserts power within a social framework, then we have equal right to countenance that speech act with other acts of power, whether those are speech acts or physical interventions or whatever.
Dayna: How would you do that? What would the actual mechanism be?
Aragorn: So let’s say there are people protesting the logging of an old-growth rainforest and they’ve barricaded themselves and they’re not allowing bulldozers in to chop down the rainforest. You’re a journalist and you’re standing next to the military, who have been called to shut down the blockade, and you’re standing next to someone who’s busy aiming his gun, and the person next to him gives the order: ‘open fire!’ It’s a speech act.
What is your ethical responsibility as the journalist standing next to the person with the gun? You could move that gun down. You could stand in front of the gun…
Dayna: Well according to society my responsibility is just to observe…
Aragorn: But if you interrogate the ethical underpinnings of that? Philosophically it makes no sense. Neutrality needs to operate on the assumption that society is neutrally structured, which it’s not.
Dayna: But how would a society run on post-structuralist principles? It just seems a little absurdist…
Danielle: Do you think that the fear of our own safety plays a large role in how people wouldn’t be able to accept de-constructive or a non-structured society? It’s a big hazard for people to rely on others for your own safety. People don’t trust each other enough to make our own rules and to abide by our own ethics.
Aragorn: You’re tapping into a very fundamental question that forms a core part of the anarchist project. You know, when people pose these questions like, ‘But how should we do things?’, ‘How should society be run?’, ‘Who would take out the trash?’ ‘But how are we going to make decisions?’, ‘How are we going to defend ourselves?’ The usual bullet point questions, or sort of anti-anarchist questions…
Well, underlying those questions is an assumption: ‘not us’. The anarchist project, at its core, is not about having quick answers to any of those points. It’s about asking who gets to decide. When we have these discussions about how we want to change society, we’re usually having them in incredibly disempowered ways, because we’re not the people who get to make those decisions. So we have these conversations in speculative ways, but the anarchist project of autonomy, equality and freedom is, at its core, all about us wanting the capacity to collectively decide what our lives look like.
Danielle: Would that be based on something like a statistical analysis in terms of deciding who’s going to decide? How are we collectively going to make a choice because, how would you know that everyone is collectively going to decide the same thing, necessarily?
Aragorn: We have tons of mechanisms and systems. It could be a statistical thing, but that’s the thing right? Who gets to decide what kind of a thing it is? Who gets to decide whether it’s a statistical thing or not? Again, in the current society, not most of us.
There’s a small bunch of bureaucrats and capitalists who make these decisions on our behalf, usually for their own interests, based on the values in our current society, which are antithetical to human thriving and the thriving of other species on the planet.
Danielle: Ya, but how are we going to deal with the quantity of all these individual’s minds, because it’s like a vast quantity if you want to apply it practically on a mass scale, right?
Aragorn: I mean, in terms of just practical technique, well, a couple of very good models exist on the planet today, including Zapatismo. The Zapatistas are an autonomous community in the South of Mexico where you’re talking about at least hundreds of thousands of people who organise in directly democratic decentralised ways, explicitly since 1994. So twenty-six years and hundreds and hundreds of communities have been regulating their lives in that way.
Dayna: Is there nothing about the context they’re in which could make it easier for them to implement this sort of society?
Aragorn: So jumping to another context, Rojava – the Kurdish people. The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless people, many millions of people without a state. Not because they decided as millions of people ‘we don’t want a state,’ but because states typically view them as outsiders. Kurds these days live in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq – regions within those countries – and all four of those countries hate the Kurds and repress them and push them out. You’re not even allowed to speak the Kurdish language, it’s really repressive.
In large parts of Northern Syria and I think Southern Iraq, I’m not one-hundred percent sure of the geography, there have been these Kurdish autonomy projects that have taken root in the last couple of years now, based in part on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, who is a US anarchist.
So, what you have now, is you have millions, like literally millions of Kurdish people, who are developing a project outside of the state in order to regulate their lives meaningfully – focusing on autonomy, on freedom and so forth… The way the Kurds organise is what they call Democratic confederalism and it’s basically a spokescouncil system.
A lot of large activist movements around the world have also used this system historically: the feminist movement in the seventies, the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-war movement.
Spokescouncils are basically nested direct democracies where consensus is achieved at different scales and then you have recallable delegates going from each spokescouncil inwards to the denser spokes councils and then…
Dayna: So it’s very much direct democracy…
Aragorn: Ya, it’s direct democracy: Everyone has to consent on every level, everyone is accountable to the base and it works in Rojava. They’re running food production, they’re running oil production, they’re running education that way. Everything is run on those principles.
Dayna: Um, I’m just wondering, I get a bit confused because I hear a lot about federalism in anarchy. So they use the world federalism a lot which is direct democracy according to what I understand, and unless I’m mistaken, isn’t the United States supposed to be a federal republic?
Aragorn: Sure, it’s also supposed to be a democracy but, you know…
Dayna: So if they were to function by their original principles, would they be functioning as an anarchist society or would would it be more like an anarcho-capitalist society?
Aragorn: I don’t think it’d be either because these terms change their meaning over time, right? I mean it’s like the term ‘libertarian’.
You go to France and you ask people where the libertarians are, they’re going to point out the left-wing anarchists. If you go to to the US, they’re going to point out the right-wing assholes.
What’s very important, I think, and this is something I think anarchism is usually pretty good at, is trying not to use overused terminology to describe itself, because I think it’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying precisely nothing because you’re using words like ‘democracy’, ‘equality’, ‘egalitarianism’, and it all sounds lovely and light but Hillary Clinton can use that language. Trump can use that language.
Dayna: I think it’s almost like you’ve been conditioned to use semantics instead of actual… To be completely honest, I’m sitting here listening to you and while I was doing the readings it almost felt like I was being de-conditioned, and so when I try speak about it, it’s almost like I don’t have the words for it. Is that a usual thing to go through when you’re learning about anarchism?
Aragorn: Well to some extent because it points outside of the current partitioning of the sensible, right? It’s literally trying to invent a language for something that’s outside of most people’s prescribed experience.
I think it’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying precisely nothing because you’re using words like ‘democracy’, ‘equality’, ‘egalitarianism’ and it all sounds lovely and light but Hillary Clinton can use that language. Trump can use that language. – Aragorn Eloff
Dayna: Almost like these linguistic boxes…
Aragorn: Ya, so you’re trying to articulate an experience that hasn’t been successfully put into words often, and when it has been put into words they’re so overused that they can mean anything anyone wants them to.
Dayna: And obviously the ‘powers that be’ will like, use these words to their advantage…
Aragorn: Of course. ‘Oh you want democracy? We want democracy! Oh we’re on the same page. Let’s fight together!’
One of my favourite anarchists is this guy Alejandro de Acosta, a contemporary anarchist theorist. He’s a really nuanced guy. He writes this great essay about what he calls ‘margarine words’.
He says that political circles are full of ‘margarine words.’ They’re these smooth slippery words that ease over conversations.
Dayna: That’s exactly how I felt when I was studying politics…
Aragorn: Right? It’s like how many times do you get terms like ‘the social contract’? The trick is to invent new words, to develop a language that’s sufficient to describing the world you want to live in, right?
If your imagination is completely contained by the Oxford English Dictionary, then you’re not recognising how language has always had to evolve to capture new experience.
Danielle: So I just wanted to know how anarchy would actually deal with things such as common shared resources? How would common shared resources get regulated? Like water, for example?
Dayna: Especially since we don’t have resources that are just – infinite…
Aragorn: So there are two ways to approach this question. The one is to ask ‘how are resources managed now?’ They’re not managed very well.
I mean, living in Johannesburg, our water quality is so fucked. There are so many heavy metals in our water. There’s so many chemical pollutants.
Danielle: Acid mine drainage…
Aragorn: There’s acid mine drainage that everyone keeps really silent about but which is a growing crisis. Water is pissed away by companies in the manufacturing sector who have direct access to power so they don’t need to abide by the same social standards as everyone else.
So, what you can say is that under capitalism and under the state, resources tend to be poorly mismanaged because power relations dictate who can abuse those resources the most. And under capitalism, of course, those resources can also be privatised and sold back to us, which forces you into a set of market relations and forces you into a very constrained idea of what life is, what the possibilities are.
The other way to answer the question is to look at how family circles and friendship circles work, and just expand from there and say well…
Dayna: Something like AfrikaBurn? I mean I know AfrikaBurn isn’t the best example…
Aragorn: I can have a whole rant about AfrikaBurn. Gift economy for rich people. Ya sure.
I mean anarchists are very big on the ideas of solidarity and mutual aid and also being able to make decisions based on how much you’re being impacted by something. Our current society, it’s absurd when you think about it, but just because something impacts on me in a major way doesn’t mean I have any say in it. If the factory next door to me is polluting the water I drink, I have no equal say in that.
In an anarchist society, to the extent to which you’re affected by something, you’re able to exercise your autonomy and your voice and say, ‘This isn’t working for me’.
Danielle: But if an individual at that factory is gaining an advantage, which advantage would get listened to? Who gets to decide which situation is more advantageous and which person is more important?
Dayna: Well I think, in an anarchist society, I could be wrong, but there would be a sort of what they call federalism so there’s no one single ruler but there’s sort of like, in a way I would call them unions or confederations where it goes from the bottom-up and then they sort of agree at every stage of that union and they tend to have a mixture of representatives from different parts of society to ensure that, um, everyone gets a voice. Am I wrong in saying that?
Aragorn: Sort of, I mean instead of describing it as bottom-up I would describe it as outward-in but again, we use these cognitive metaphors from statist society so we tend to see things in terms of pyramidal structures, but there are other ways of conceiving of abstract relations and that’s only of them right?
Seeing things from the outwards-in and from the inwards back out…
Dayna: But either way there are still people that are eventually making the decision…
Aragorn: Ah, but so what happens in these kinds of arrangements, in spokescouncils for instance, everyone talks about it in their groups right? They reach consensus, they each choose a delegate for that particular decision. The delegate isn’t someone with a position who gets to stay a delegate. Those roles are all cycled so no one can be entrenched in those power relations.
The delegates feed into the smaller spokescouncils and however many levels of that happen and then they report back and they have to reach consensus back out there on whatever decisions they made so no one feels left out.
Even when it gets right back to the outside, people still have the opportunity to go ‘Hang on, that doesn’t work for me.’
Dayna: You don’t think that would be too…
Aragorn: Inefficient? So the thing is, from having practiced this a lot, when you start it doing it, it is [inefficient] because people’s egos come into it, people want to say something just for the point of saying something, people’s weird petty shit plays out, people want to dissent because they want to dissent. Whatever, people are complicated. There are also narcissists in the making, and some people are just cranks.
But, what you notice as you practice it… so I was interviewing these guys from Rojava, and I was interviewing and asking them precisely these questions: ‘How effective is the spokescouncil decision making?’ and all this.
After a while, it’s so empowering to everyone. When they start reaping the benefits of it, they start going ‘fuck you know, we had the spokescouncil meeting, we chose the delegates, they came back, we decided on things. Now I’m reaping the benefits of what we’ve decided on. I’ve never had this much agency in my own life. I want more of society to look like this.’
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