Joyful Militancy: A Review
By David Camfield
December 28, 2017
Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have written a book with an appealing title: Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (AK Press & Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2017). After seeing that it promised to discuss “rigid radicalism,” I hoped that the book might contain some useful insights about this phenomenon (one of the things I became aware of in 2017 was the growth on university campuses in the Canadian state of two small far left groups that certainly fit that description) and about fostering a left that’s more attractive and effective. At the same time I suspected its theoretical perspective wouldn’t fit well with any politics of class and anti-oppression struggle that aim for the kind of rupture with capitalism that would launch a transition towards a self-governing society.
Unfortunately, the book is a disappointment. It’s much more about the authors’ theory – whose influences include the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, post-structuralism, autonomism, and the Canadian anarchist Richard Day – than about contemporary experiences of activism and organizing, which are only touched on in minimal and pretty superficial ways to support the book’s argument.
The book is a celebration of joy in the very specific sense in which the authors use the term: “the growth of shared power to do, feel, and think more.” This is a process made up of “common notions”, “shared thinking-feeling-doings that support joyful transformation... processes through which people figure things out together and become active in joy’s unfolding, learning to participate in and sustain new capacities.” “Joyful militancy, then, is a fierce commitment to emergent forms of life in the cracks of Empire, and the values, responsibilities, and questions that sustain them.”
As that last line hints, the authors believe that new forms of life “are always in the making in the cracks of Empire.” Although they’re not explicit, they seem to think that these might, someday, somehow, replace “the organized catastrophe in which we live today.” They endorse a politics that refuses “trying to rationally direct the course of events” and instead “is about learning to participate more actively in the forces that compose the world and oneself.”
This is a kind of anarchism that rejects strategic politics altogether. Participating in any campaign, struggle or movement inevitably throws up questions about what direction the organizing should go in. The politics of Joyful Militancy offer very little guidance about how to grapple with such questions because they refuse strategic thinking. From the authors’ perspective, what is to be done is completely a matter of what promotes joy in the specific context people are in. Their rejection of strategic thinking is part and parcel of their rejection of any and all radical politics of “directed social transformation brought about by deliberate intent,” to use a phrase (not found in the book) of the historian Willie Thompson that I think grasps the heart of the matter. Strategic politics only appear in the book in the form of vague references to “vanguardist” (what I prefer to call substitutionist) groups and a brief discussion of one of the worst of these to come out of the turn to Maoism by much of the US New Left at the end of the 1960s, the Weather Underground, a discussion that fails to recognize what specifically led this organization to become the disaster that it was.
This refusal of strategy is connected to the book’s hostility to “ideology,” by which is meant “having a preexisting set of answers for political questions.” Because everything is a matter of flux and context, questions are seen as good but answers can only be provisional and specific. In spite of this stance, the book hovers above history and geography, talking of a generic Empire and saying almost nothing about contemporary Canadian society (where the authors live) or any other society. While the authors write that any perspective can become an ideology, their most frequent example is Marxism, as they point to a kind of theory that does exist but that isn’t the only Marxism.
Although societies are processes in time not everything is flux. Where we are in time and space is tremendously important but social relations like class, gender and race aren’t completely different in every local context. The answers to some questions (for example, can capitalism be changed so that maximizing profit is not the system’s priority? can the capitalist state be used to put an end to the rule of capital? what group in society has the potential power to uproot capital’s domination? can a struggle against oppression be led successfully by people who don’t face that oppression themselves?) are a lot less provisional than others. This means that it is possible to develop social theory that can give helpful guidance to collective action for change today and inform how we answer questions that are more specific to particular changing contexts (how to fight austerity in Winnipeg today, where I live, is a question that can only be answered through experiments, but a strong analysis of the settler-colonial capitalist society in which Winnipeg exists can be useful for people involved in those experiments).
Like Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead (which influences it), Joyful Militancy is premised on “Making Friends with Failure,” to use the title of a perceptive review of Day’s book. It rejects strategic liberatory politics because of past defeats, instead celebrating worker co-operatives, indigenous land defence, communal gardening, new ways of people relating to each other as friends, and other ways of trying to live better within capitalist society. I think all of these can be valuable, in different ways. But many of the activities the book mentions favourably don’t build power to resist attacks and win gains through struggles that transform people. And none can open the door to a transition towards a self-governing society that dramatically changes our relationship with the rest of nature. Failure “cannot be buried under good intentions or changed into its opposite by holding it up to the mirror of wishful thinking.”
What makes this book so disappointing is that rigid radicalism, “hostile to difference, curiosity, openness, and experimentation,” which the authors rightly observe “often arises as a reaction to a decline of transformative and enabling movements” but that can also be a product of radicalization in a period when levels of social struggle are low and infrastructures of dissent that connect newly-radicalizing people with more experienced fighters are weak (as is the case in many places today), is a real problem. This rigidity matters because it’s an obstacle to building a new left committed to militant struggle and social revolution. In spite of a few interesting observations about ethics and relationships, Joyful Militancy doesn’t offer much to those of us who’re committed to that urgent endeavour.
 Rodrigo Nunes recently described strategic political thinking this way: “taking into account the broader context of a complex ecology of struggles and agents in order to find the most transformative thing possible in that concrete situation: what can best exploit the political potentials opened up by the conjuncture so as to transform its present constraints the most, what will take it the farthest from what it is and the closest to where you want it to be.” “It Takes Organizers to Make a Revolution,” Viewpoint Magazine, Nov. 9, 2017.
 AK Thompson, “Making Friends with Failure: A Critical Response to Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements,” Upping the Anti 3
 On infrastructures of dissent, see Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future.
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