When I became an anarchist I was 18, depressed, anxious, and ready to save the world. I moved in with other anarchists and worked at a vegetarian co-op cafe. I protested against student tuition, prison privatization, and pipeline extensions. I had lawyer’s numbers sharpied on my ankle and I assisted friends who were pepper-sprayed at demos. I tabled zines, lived with my “chosen family,” and performed slam poems about the end of the world. While my radical community was deconstructing gender, monogamy, and mental health, we lived and breathed concepts and tools like call-outs, intersectionality, cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, safe spaces, privilege theory, and rape culture.
What is a radical community? For the purposes of this article, I will define it as a community that shares both an ideology of complete dissatisfaction with existing society due to its oppressive nature and a desire to radically alter or destroy that society because it cannot be redeemed by its own means. I eventually fell out with my own radical community. The ideology and the people within it had left me a burned and disillusioned wreck. As I deprogrammed, I watched a diluted version of my radical ideology explode out of academia and become fashionable: I watched the Left become woke.
Commentators have skewered social justice activists on the toxicity of the woke mindset. This is something that many radicals across North America are aware of and are trying to understand. Nicholas Montgomery and Carla Bergman’s Joyful Militancy (JM), published last year, is the most thorough look at radical toxicity from a radical perspective (full disclosure: I very briefly met Nick Montgomery years ago. My anarchist clique did not like his anarchist clique). As they say, “there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out.”
Montgomery and Bergman see radical toxicity as an exogenous issue. They do not wonder whether radicalism itself could be malignant. As a result, their proposed solutions are limp and abstract, like “increasing sensitivity and inhabiting situations more fully.” Perhaps this is because the solutions all exist beyond the boundaries of radical thought. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, “morality binds and blinds.”
Unfortunately, toxicity in radical communities is not a bug. It is a feature. The ideology and norms of radicalism have evolved to produce toxic, paranoid, depressed subjects. What follows is a picture of what happens in communities that are passionately, sincerely, radically woke, as seen from the perspective of an apostate.
Commentators have accurately noted how social justice seems to take the form of a religion. This captures the meaning and fulfilment I found in protests and occupations. It also captures how, outside of these harrowing festivals, everyday life in radical communities is mundane but pious. As a radical activist, much of my time was devoted to proselytizing. Non-anarchists were like pagans to be converted through zines and wheatpasted posters rather than by Bible and baptism. When non-radicals listened to my assertions that nazis deserved death, that all life had devolved into spectacle, and that monogamy was a capitalist social construct, they were probably bewildered instead of enticed.
Instead of developing a relationship to God and a recognition of one’s own imperfection, we wanted our non-anarchist families and friends to develop their “analysis” and recognize their complicity in the evil of capitalism. These non-anarchist friends grew increasingly sparse the longer I was an anarchist. They didn’t see how terrible the world was, and they used problematic language that revealed hopelessly bad politics. Frustrated with them, I retreated further and further into the grey echo-chamber of my “chosen family.”
Trent Eady says of his own radicalism in Montreal, “When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues.” When my friends and I did have theoretical disagreements, they tended towards the purely strategic or to philosophical minutiae. Are cops human? If we pay attention to the few white nationalists in town, will that stir them up? Is polyamory queer, or privileged?
Deep and sincere engagement with opposing points of view is out of the question. Radicalism is like a clan too suspicious of outsiders to abandon cousin marriage, and, like incestuous offspring, radicalism’s intellectual offspring accumulate genetic load. Narrow theories must perform increasingly convoluted explanations of the world. For example, Montgomery and Bergman describe Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s use of the term “Empire,” in their book of the same name, as both a miasma that “accumulates and spreads sadness” and an anthropomorphized figure that “works to usher its subjects into flimsy relationships where nothing is at stake and to infuse intimacy with violence and domination.”
No worldview maps reality perfectly. But when a worldview encounters discordant knowledge, it can either evolve to accommodate it, or it can treat it as a threat to the worldview’s integrity. If a worldview treats all discordant knowledge as threat, then it is an ideology. Its adherents learn to see themselves as guardians rather than seekers of the truth. The practical consequences of such a worldview can be devastating.
When I became an anarchist, I was a depressed and anxious teenager, in search of answers. Radicalism explained that these were not manageable issues with biological and lifestyle factors, they were the result of living in capitalist alienation. For, as Kelsey Cham C notes, “This whole world is based on fucking misery” and “In capitalist systems, we’re not meant to feel joy.” Radicalism not only finds that all oppressions intersect, but so does all suffering. The force that causes depression is the same that causes war, domestic abuse, and racism. By accepting this framework, I surrendered to an external locus of control. Personal agency in such a model is laughable. And then, when I became an even less happy and less strong person over the years as an anarchist, I had an explanation on hand.
There is an overdeveloped muscle in radicalism: the critical reflex. It is able to find oppression behind any mundanity. Where does this critical reflex come from? French philosopher Paul Ricœur famously coined the term “school of suspicion” to describe Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’s drive to uncover repressed meaning in text and society. Today’s radicals have inherited this drive by way of Foucault and other Marxo-Nietzscheans.
As radicals, we lived in what I call a paradigm of suspicion, one of the malignant ideas that emerge as a result of intellectual in-breeding. We inherited familial neuroses and saw insidious oppression and exploitation in all social relationships, stifling our ability to relate to others or ourselves without cynicism. Activists anxiously pore over interactions, looking for ways in which the mundane conceals domination. To see every interaction as containing hidden violence is to become a permanent victim, because if all you are is a nail, everything looks like a hammer.
The paradigm of suspicion leaves the radical exhausted and misanthropic, because any action or statement can be shown with sufficient effort to hide privilege, a microaggression, or unconscious bias. Quoted in JM, the anarchist professor Richard Day proposes “infinite responsibility”: “we can never allow ourselves to think that we are ‘done,’ that we have identified all of the sites, structures, and processes of oppression ‘out there’ or ‘in here,’ inside our own individual and group identities.” Infinite responsibility means infinite guilt, a kind of Christianity without salvation: to see power in every interaction is to see sin in every interaction. All that the activist can offer to absolve herself is Sisyphean effort until burnout. Eady’s summarization is simpler: “Everything is problematic.”
This effort is not only directed at the self, but also outwards. Morality and politics are intertwined in this system so that good politics become indicative of good morality. Montgomery and Bergman skewer this tendency mercilessly: “To remain pious, the priest must reveal new sins … The new Other is the not-radical-enough, the liberal, the perpetrator, the oppressor.” Because one’s good moral standing can never be guaranteed, the best way to maintain it is to attack the moral standing of others. As Montgomery and Bergman point out, this is also a thrilling and actionable alternative to the discouragement that haunts radicals after each loss in conflict with capitalism and the state. This is how cliques and status games emerge in communities that purport to be opposed to all hierarchy, turning people into what Freddie DeBoer once dubbed “offense archaeologists.”
Bland friendships and events are the result. Conversations are awkward and tense as radicals contort to avoid the risk of hurting each other. As an anarchist, I did not engage with individuals as individuals, but as porcelain, always thinking first and foremost of the group identities we inhabited.
Escape from the paradigm of suspicion is hindered by kafkatrapping: the idea that opposition to the radical viewpoint proves the radical viewpoint. Minorities who question it have internalized their oppression, and privileged individuals who question it prove their guilt. The only thing radicals are not suspicious of is the need for relentless suspicion. As Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write of similar norms on campuses, “If someone wanted to create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict, this would be an effective way to do it.”
Radical communities select for particular personality types. They attract deeply compassionate people, especially young people attuned to the suffering inherent to existence. They attract hurt people, looking for an explanation for the pain they’ve endured. And both of these derive meaning for that suffering by attributing it to the force that they now dedicate themselves to opposing. They are no longer purely a victim, but an underdog.
However, radical communities also attract people looking for an excuse to be violent illegalists. And the surplus of vulnerable and compassionate people attracts sadists and abusers ready to exploit them. The only gatekeeping that goes on in radical communities is that of language and passion—if you can rail against capitalism in woke language, you’re in.
Every group of people has some mixture of stable, vulnerable, and predatory individuals. That radicals have a poor mix does not doom them. However, radicals also dismiss longstanding norms that would protect them, in favour of experimental norms. They are built with the best intentions and are aimed at solving real problems. But intentions do not matter if one does not consider incentives and human nature.
Abusers thrive in radical communities because radical norms are fragile and exploitable. A culture of freewheeling drug and alcohol use creates situations predators are waiting to exploit. A cultural fetishization of violence provides cover for violent and unstable people. The practice of public “call-outs” is used for power-plays far more often than for constructive feedback. Radicals value responding to claims of harm with compassion and belief. But abusers exploit this the way children exploit parents and teachers—crybullying becomes a way of punishing opponents or prey. While norms such as “believe claimed victims” are important in families and close friendships where trust and accountability are real, they become weapons in amorphous communities.
One particular practice illustrates this well. The accountability process is a subcultural institution whereby survivors can make demands of perpetrators and the community must hold them accountable. Radicals are hesitant to report abusers and rapists to the police, for fear of subjecting comrades to the prison system. But turning victims into judge and jury and shared friends into executioners is a recipe for injustice that satisfies no one. And in light of the instant truth-value given to claims of abuse, accountability processes are an oddly perfect weapon for actual abusers. As one writer for the zine the Broken Teapot says, “The past few years I have watched with horror as the language of accountability became an easy front for a new generation of emotional manipulators. It’s been used to perfect a new kind of predatory maverick—the one schooled in the language of sensitivity—using the illusion of accountability as community currency.”
Entanglement with such an individual is what finally broke me from my own dogmatism. Having somebody yell at me that if I didn’t admit to being a white supremacist her friends might beat me up and that I should pay her for her emotional labor, was too much for my ideology to spin. The internal crisis it induced led to gradual disillusion. In the end, however, this was the greatest gift I could ask for.
What is the alternative to radicalism, for the disillusioned radical? She could abandon the project and commit talent and energy elsewhere. Flee the cult. As Michael Huemer says, “Fighting for a cause has significant costs. Typically, one expends a great deal of time and energy, while simultaneously imposing costs on others, particularly those who oppose one’s own political position … In many cases, the effort is expended in bringing about a policy that turns out to be harmful or unjust. It would be better to spend one’s time and energy on aims that one knows to be good.” Slow, patient steps are a more reliable road to a better world than dramatic gestures that backfire as often as not. Conversation is less romantic than confrontation, small business ownership than Steal Something From Work Day, soup kitchens than vandalism. If an individual wants to end suffering, she should think hard about why she’s joined communities that glamorize violence, vengeance, and anti-intellectualism. Having left that scene, I am amazed at how much effort we put into making the world a more painful and difficult place than it is in service of a post-revolutionary utopia.
Radicals should take stock of the progress liberal democracies have made. As Steven Pinker points out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, nobody in the West has an argument for wife-beating or denying women the vote anymore. Infant mortality rates have cratered, and extreme poverty rates are falling precipitously. With trends like these and more, liberal capitalism appears less like the arch-nemesis of humanity, and more like a miracle machine. It could even be improved by the compassion and devotion of former radicals. It is worth noting that this progress does not mean that exploitation and oppression have been solved; but it does mean that our current society is the only one to have made significant inroads against them.
Most of all, radicals should learn to abandon false truths. The only way to escape dogmatism is to resist the calcification and sanctification of values, and to learn from the wisdom of different perspectives. As Haidt argues, there are grains of truth in opposing political positions. Radicals do themselves a disservice by seeing the world of thought outside the radical monoculture as tainted with reaction and evil. There is a rich diversity of thought awaiting them if they would only open their minds to it. One of the achievements of liberalism has been a norm of free speech wherein individuals can both share and consume that spectrum of thought. Every new and challenging school of thought I discovered after anarchism rocked my worldview, as somebody who formerly thought that wisdom could only be found through “the struggle” or in esoteric French theory. Even if opposing views are not assimilated, the ability to contend with them on the intellectual field instead of silencing them is a sign of a seeker of the truth, not a guardian.
Young adults often become radicals after they realize the immensity of the cruelty and malevolence in the world. They reject a society that tolerates such suffering. They sanctify justice as their telos. But without truth to orient justice, seekers of justice will crash and crash again into reality, and will craft increasingly nightmarish and paranoid ideological analyses, burning out activists, destroying lives through jail or abuse, and leaving the world an uglier, more painful place. To paraphrase Alice Dreger, there is no justice without wisdom, and no wisdom without surrender to uncertainty in the pursuit of truth.
Conor Barnes is a student, writer, and poet. His writing has also appeared in Areo Magazine and the Mantle. You can follow him on Twitter @ideopunk