vol.8, no.1, (March 2002)


Response to Democracy & Nature Editorial on “Violent Myths”

Thomas Martin


Dear Takis:

Here is a much-delayed response to your comments about my Sorel article in number 11/12.  As I said in an earlier e-mail, I offer the following in the spirit of open debate and in great appreciation for the broad-mindedness you show in airing diverse points of view.  I don’t know of any other anarchist or left-libertarian journal that ‘puts its money where its mouth is,’ so to speak, as Democracy and Nature does.  Keep up the good work!

In your editorial summary of the articles, you say that the irrational trends now flourishing in “Anglo-Saxon” (?!) anarchism push away from rationalism, democracy and autonomy toward irrationalism, nondemocratic forms of social organisation and individualistic autonomy.  I’m not sure I understand that.  Certainly I reject rationalism as the primary or central way of perceiving and dealing with the world (though it does have its place, as in mathematics or logic).  But I would call the alternative “non-rational” rather than “irrational,” with all the negative connotations the latter word carries.  One can be intuitive, emotional, even spiritual without being “irrational.”  One can also use a form of dialectical reasoning without being “rational” in the sense of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the whole modern scientific world-view.  In no sense do I reject democracy, but I do believe that “individualism” and “autonomy” are terms that need to be re-thought in light of what we now know about the interconnectedness of all things (and minds).  If we argue that the “autonomous individual” does not really exist in the commonly accepted sense, but is really just a component of an eco-systemic Self (as in Arne Nζss’ ecosophy), then we can go in one of two directions.  Western thought, with its deadly habit of dichotomising everything, would tell us that the only alternative is the absorption of the individual into the whole: the essence of fascism.  I would argue for the second direction: a post-Western philosophical paradigm that will have to develop a world-view in which “individualism” and “holism” are not mutually exclusive.  Systems theory, the ideas of Gregory Bateson and others (Nζss as well as Bookchin) may point toward this solution.  We need to build anarchism on an assumption that we can simultaneously be autonomous individuals and inseparable elements of a greater whole.  This is admittedly a tall order, and would require a non-rational expression.

I probably should not have written the line you quote: A. . . attempt to reorganize anarchism on a nonrational or even irrational basis.”  I should have left out “or even irrational.” 

I don’t exactly agree with Sorel’s remark that “only the establishment of a mythical goal can draw us onward and upward to the next stage of history,” or at least I don’t agree with the choice of words.  I do not believe that history has stages, or that, even if it does, we ever move “onward and upward” from one to the next.  History is seamless and largely directionless.  It changes constantly in all sorts of bewildering ways, but it is not teleological or even logical.  However, the “mythical goal” idea is sound.  “Rational argument” only works up to a point in a putative “face-to-face democracy” or “democratic society” (your words).  At best we get endless debate, preventing us from doing other useful things as we grope for rational consensus; at worst we get the corruption and manipulation that characterizes every so-called democracy in human history.  Many non-Western societies have functioned quite well as egalitarian democracies, without hierarchy or domination, because they all agreed on a “mythical goal” that transcends each individual in the society.  (Of course they also had other advantages, like matricentrism or small populations.)  What I am objecting to is your knee-jerk, very Western-minded reaction to the word “myth.”  Our dichotomising mindset demands that we divide all statements or ideas into “fact” or “myth.”  Fact is true, and therefore good; myth is false, and therefore bad.  This dichotomy will have to be overcome in a post-Western way of thinking.  Non-Western people understand that myth is neither true nor false; the categories are irrelevant; myth is a story about who we are and why we are like that.  The great and deadly error made by (for example) the Nazis was to insist that certain myths (Aryan superiority, the irrational centrality of the Leader, etc) were objectively true.  Inevitably, ethnic pride became racism.  My own family, if I may be permitted a personal illustration, is Quιbecois in origin.  I’m proud of that, and fascinated by French-Canadian culture, history, language, and, yes, myth.  I like being Quιbecois.  I do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that ethnic Quebeckers are somehow objectively better than other people.  A genuine anarchist society (to me, that means ‘nonrational’) will need its unifying myths, but certainly must not make the mistake of reifying or objectifying those myths as universal truths.  This is one of the things that attracts me to Sorel: he had a non- or post-Western way of defining myth, and saw its true value.

I don’t agree at all that non-rational trends in anarchism are “compatible with the dominant trends in world society at large” or “could well form an integral part of the neoliberal consensus.”  This is just another form of Murray Bookchin’s accusation of “lifestyle anarchism.”  The dominant trends in today’s world are capitalist greed, ecological shortsightedness, political manipulation, and above all, the cynical eradication of individual will and desire by a handful of ‘leaders’ motivated by nothing but money and power.  We must all believe (and love!) what the corporations and their tame governments tell us; we must all feel unfulfilled without a pair of sweatshop Nikes and a chemo-burger at McDonald’s.  We must all be walking unpaid billboards for Hilfiger.  We must all accept the end result of materialistic Cartesian rationalism: “I shop, therefore I am.”  I don’t see how any form of anarchism, yours or mine, bolsters all that.

It is surely true, as you say, that the collapse of socialist statism offers anarchism a unique chance to grab center stage and make its first real contribution to human liberation.  This will not happen, however, as long as anarchism is mired in the same nineteenth-century assumptions and priorities as Marxism and capitalism themselves.  All the “archist” traditions depend on reason, dichotomy, reification and linear thinking to dominate the human mind.  The “anarchist” alternative should not try to fight them with their own weapons.

In your lead article (p. 39ff) you reiterate your main points about my piece but also add a few more specific charges.  You are entirely right that in the history of the West, reliance on faith or intuition has produced vast and frightening stupidities, ranging from witch hunts to gas chambers.  I do not advocate faith or intuition as currently defined as desirable foundations for action.  Sorel was trying to redefine these concepts -- in a rather fumbling way, as the project of overthrowing Western civilization was not far developed yet in his time.  I would agree with you that “the way out of the present impasse is forward . . . toward . . . a new kind of democratic rationalism,” if you would agree to redefine “rationalism” in a manner that would not set it up as the opposite of “non-rationalism” or “myth” or “intuition.”  (I think I would rather leave the word “faith” out of this discussion; it’s been irreparably soiled.) 

I agree with Sorel that science and religion are equally valid in their own spheres, but you twist that argument somewhat by using the loaded word “hallucinations.”  There are surely certain deep truths accessible through intuition or myth that one would not call “hallucinations” (and of course religion often does generate hallucinations or worse).  I would not equate Zen satori with the experiences of those folks who flock to see images of the Virgin in tortillas or the peeling paint on water towers. [Both have actually happened in recent years, the latter not far from where I live!]  When you do equate them (as you must, if you dichotomize “truth” and “myth”) then you do indeed get holocausts. 

You argue that although “it is right to assume that the revolutionary shift is beyond predictability, it is obviously wrong to go further and assume that it is also beyond logical understanding.”  Obviously?  It cannot be predicted because “we cannot assume a rational process of History . . . and not because the shift occurs in the mythical realm.”  I must confess that I fail to see a difference between ‘history not being rational’ and history unfolding ‘in the mythical realm.’  You say that the moment of revolution (the ‘bifurcation point’ in systems language) may appear to be mythic “because the break with tradition, in many people’s minds, takes mythical dimensions.”  Where else but in people’s minds, may I ask, does this break take place?

I agree that twentieth-century irrationalism has not allowed any rational discussion of its doctrines, and that fascism and totalitarianism have indeed often been the result.  I would still argue that the false dichotomy of rationalism and irrationalism is the real cause of such unpleasant outcomes, insisting (to borrow your words) that we either take it or leave it.  When the proponents of myth demand that we take it as truth, or fact, we get genocide and mind control.  It is my fervent hope that a post-Western synthesis will not demand that we see myth as either ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but rather as a story about ourselves -- who we are, where we’re going.  Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority, for example, was fixed and not to be questioned.  The myth (whatever it is) of a future anarchist society will be open to constant revision and evolution, as were the myths of pre-classical Greece or of today’s tribal peoples.  It will be too protean and emergent, I hope, ever to be a solid foundation for eco-fascism or any other sort of totalitarianism.

The real value of objective rationality, you claim near the end of your comments on my piece, is that we can use it to show whether core beliefs are valid or not.  Objectivity is in fact an impossible dream (this is currently a raging controversy among historians, who have always been taught to write and teach ‘objectively’ about the past).  No human being can be truly objective, since our emotional and intuitive (and yes, spiritual) habits are more central and fundamental than our reasoning ability.  The former evolved first, and are more or less resident in the older, pre-mammalian part of the brain (the limbic system).  The latter operate in the neocortex, and are a fairly recent development in our evolutionary history.  Not much we can do about it.  We can, however, use our rational and conscious abilities to study and comprehend our emotions and intuitions.  We can come to understand our emotions, our mythical sensibility, our gut feelings, if you will.  This was what Sorel was suggesting (and others, like Nietzsche and Freud).  One might say that twentieth-century fascism was a first effort to put these ideas into practice.  It failed horribly and brutally -- the results were ‘inhuman,’ by every definition of that word.  Unfortunately the atrocities of the twentieth century tainted the mythic and intuitive world view so completely that radicals and libertarians are afraid now to touch it, for fear of contamination -- an irrational fear, if I may say so.  This world view was perverted and put to nightmarish uses because the foundations of Western civilization (patriarchy, domination, hierarchy) were still too strong for it.  This was not at all, as you infer on page 42, “accidental.”  Paradoxically, the resulting horrors generated a backlash that has now in fact undermined those foundations, giving us an opportunity to put things right.