A Brief Examination of Lifestyle Anarchism
Graffiti. Squatting. Dumpster Diving. Tattered Clothes strewn with patches of hardcore bands and anti-capitalist slogans. Train hopping. These are the hallmarks of what is known as “lifestylism,” or what is sometimes more specifically identified as lifestyle anarchism. The term was first coined by American political philosopher Murray Bookchin, and is most often referenced in his essay “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.” Bookchin demonstrated an opposition to an emerging trend in the American anarchist movement, a tendency towards a strain of “anarchism” that began and ended with the individual rather than the collective, focused on personal egoism and immediate gratification rather than solidarity with the oppressed, and at its worst was reactionary rather than revolutionary. Bookchin writes: “[Lifestyle anarchism] presents itself as a state of mind, an ardently antirational and anticivilizational mood, in which disorganization is conceived as an art form and graffiti supplants programs.” His opposition to lifestyle anarchism opens a wider discussion to the critique of individualist anarchism as a whole, but what this essay seeks to focus on is the issue of lifestylism in the political movement. What is often thought of as a miniscule issue or simply a pejorative, lifestylism – whether Marxist or anarchist – is a bad form of politics.
This disconnect between internal belief and external behavior is discussed by Mark Fisher, who explores the system that unconsciously ingrains in us an ideological framework in which there is no “real” alternative to capitalism. Commenting on Slavoj Žižek, Fisher writes “Capitalist ideology in general… consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange. According to Žižek, capitalism in general relies on this structure of disavowal… we are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.”
Often, lifestyle anarchists delude themselves into thinking that they are outside of the capitalist system. However, capitalism has a way of, in a phrase, capitalizing on anti-capitalism. Spray paint canisters are expensive, no matter how many times they are used to write “eat the rich” in alleyways and on dumpsters. Tattered clothes from thrift stores are still products alienated from the workers that produced them. Some lifestyle anarchists recognize this, and go to even greater extremes to extract themselves from capitalist society and consumerism, perhaps squatting in an abandoned building or only eating food grown at home or scavenged from the trash, but this very lifestyle of rebellion is underpinned by material conditions that produce it.
We as leftists should be understanding of the desire to lead a life like this, and stand in contrast to the capitalist who believes one’s worth stems purely from how much labor they contribute to the pursuit of personal wealth and property. After all, no one who embraces communism would want to be a bigger part of the capitalist system of exploitation than they have to be. However, we should also recognize that extracting oneself from consumerism does not constitute a meaningful challenge to capitalism. These sorts of activities do not proletarianize the rebel. Most of these activities in and of themselves are not counter-revolutionary, but are no substitute for organization around intersectional oppression. For example, a group of people living in an abandoned house is not by itself very good praxis. Using that house as a node in a network of mutual aid, working alongside colonized communities to provide things like food and healthcare to those who don’t have them, while more work and often less glamorous, is far more effective.
Another issue with lifestyle anarchism is the “movement,” if it can be called a movement, is that it is overwhelmingly white, and so the perspectives of its proponents often come from a place of privilege. This is true of the anarchist movement in the United States as a whole, and is something that Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin wrote about:
“Clearly, a movement which is all White, middle-class, self-absorbed, and naive about our struggle is not one we can unite with. In addition, it is a movement which can do very little for itself, let alone for our struggle. So it is time for some frank talk with Anarchists if we are to move forward from here toward the realistic possibility of a social revolution.
For over 15 years, since I have been in the so-called North American Anarchist movement, I have been at war with it. I have continually pointed out in my letters, articles in Anarchist publications, speeches, and personal conversations that the North American Anarchist scene is not what it must be if it is to be taken seriously. I even doubt that it is a social movement at all, but rather a White youth counter-cultural scene… There is also the question of elitism and racism from those Anarchists like the Love and Rage group who feel they can think and speak for Black revolutionaries and the communities they are from. These people are from privileged households, have left home to play the big bad revolutionary and fake being poor. The truth is a pair of combat boots, ripped jeans, and a dirty t-shirt does not make one a poor person or an expert on American racial politics. This is nothing but missionary work to these people. They may have changed attitudes; they are arrogant, doctrinaire, and condescending to the max. They feel they have the answer, and that everyone, especially Blacks, should follow them to the Promised Land…
This is reflected in their movements — almost all-white movements against “fascism” or what they call racism, usually crude KKK/Nazi organizing. They never deal with institutional racism or the white supremacy differential in the quality of life in this country. It’s all sophomoric, idealistic, and emotional, and it certainly doesn’t do Blacks and other non-whites any real good. We are no safer from fascism because of these white radical do-gooders.”
Ervin touches on the cornerstone of the problem of this lifestylist version of anarchism: it alienates and condescends People of Color, rather than working with and for their empowerment. He also makes the interesting observation that white anti-fascist movements tend to ignore inequality at a structural level. Here he echoes the sentiments of the anarcho-punk band Crass, who, perhaps somewhat ironically, embody the “combat boots, ripped jeans, dirty t-shirt” aesthetic. In their song “White Punks on Hope,” Crass sneers at the Rock Against Racism performances of the late 70s, singing:
They won’t change nothing with their fashionable talk
All their RAR badges and their protest walk
Thousands of white men standing in a park
Objecting to racism’s like a candle in the dark
Black man’s got his problems and his way to deal with it
So don’t fool yourself you’re helping with your white liberal shit
Does this mean that all activists should slice off our “Fuck Nazis” patches, sell our combat boots, sew our jeans back up, and go home? Not at all. Being provocative, and employing techniques like shock value, can be a valuable tool in any leftist’s tool belt, when used correctly. I sport all kinds of provocative slogans and statements of solidarity on my patchwork clothing that would perturb any reactionary, and hopefully provoke some critical thought in people who have not had any exposure to leftist ideas. But we should also should not fool ourselves that these things on their own form the foundation for any sort of productive revolutionary politics. Nobody should be deluded that dressing a certain way, engaging in vandalism, or breaking arbitrary laws are a substitute for real intersectional praxis. Instead of simply engaging in individual displays of our own anti-capitalist sentiments, we should also work collectively to address structural problems of racial inequality and disparity. As Ervin wrote at the end of his editorial: “Who knows if it will be possible for the U.S. anarchist scene to coexist with, let alone work with a newly emerging Black anti-authoritarian movement? One thing that White Anarchists must understand it that is not merely a question of getting Blacks and other non-whites to join Anarchist associations, just to say they have a Black face. We must work to build a non-racist society and we must have principled unity.”
Bookchin was correct to diagnose the problem when he wrote that “What stands out most compellingly in today’s lifestyle anarchism is its appetite for immediacy rather than reflection… Lifestyle anarchism allows no room for social institutions, political organizations, and radical programs, still less a public sphere, which all the writers we have examined automatically identify with statecraft. The sporadic, the unsystematic, the incoherent, the discontinuous, and the intuitive supplant the consistent, purposive, organized, and rational, indeed any form of sustained and focused activity apart from publishing a ‘zine’ or pamphlet — or burning a garbage can.”
Patches, spikes, and paint do not constitute politics, in and of themselves, but rather a wardrobe. However, there is no reason that one cannot profess radical politics if they feel more comfortable in a pair of black boots than tennis shoes. Politics is not measured by an individual’s rejection of the mainstream trends of consumerism, because there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Dr. Martens, after all, despite their reputation as “Nazi-stompers” are mass produced in a factory in Thailand, and sold to a rather well-to-do demographic in the Western world for hundreds of dollars. It is easy to understand the position where Bookchin is coming from. While some forms of lifestylist anarchism can certainly be problematic, what is salvageable is the rebel’s emphasis on making the world a better place. The publication of the zines and pamphlets that move people, even just a few people, to do political work is well worth it. The duty of the author is not to interpret the world in their fashion but rather, the point is to change it. One can dress provocatively while doing work in communities to make change while recognizing that nobody is less of a leftist for not dressing in black or adorning themselves with spikes. Direct action and organizing should be complimented by reading and examining history and theory. Most of all, let’s remember that we don’t work simply to enlighten ourselves or just to destroy the system for destruction’s sake, but to stand up with and empower the oppressed.
 – Bookchin, “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm”
 – Fisher, Capitalist Realism, p. 13
 – Ervin, “Speaking of Anarchism, Racism, and Black Liberation.”
 – Bookchin, Ibid.
 – Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”