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Thomas Nail, ‘Constructivism and the Future Anterior of Radical Politics’, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2010: 1, 73-94.

Amongst those who favor equality, there is, it might be said, a reluctance to confront its norms, premises and institutional tendencies. Yet, as a discourse and governance project, it is at least arguable that equality bears (or embraces) conventions of calculation, orderliness, categorization, legitimacy (as a precondition for equality or its result), boundaries and top-down assumptions of implementation and accomplishment. Unsurprisingly, critiques of equality, particularly more anarchist ones, tend to prefer difference, freedom, anti-identity politics, an aesthetic of non-equivalence, and open-ended non-institutional action.

Nail’s (2010) article, invested in building a new radical praxis, poses a way through and between these constructed polarities. While Nail doesn’t address equality directly, the issues he explores are hugely important to thinking more openly, and reflexively, about equality within the context of a radical change politics. At the heart of Thomas Nail’s article is the claim that radical politics needs to rebalance its focus; the almost exhaustive interest in cataloguing and pouring over what is wrong in the present needs to be supplemented more fully with greater interest in the social renewal posed by contemporary social experiments.

Intellectually, Thomas Nail’s article is grounded in (and by) post-anarchism: “the explicit conjunction between post-structuralist political philosophy and anti-authoritarian politics” (75). Two key features characterize this version of post-anarchism: “the critique of all forms of authoritarianism and representation”; and “the affirmation of difference” (76), as something infinite, and beyond (that is uncontained, and unanchored by) norms of social ordering. But what does this conception of post-anarchism mean for the kinds of organizations post-anarchism might seek to advance? And, importantly, how might post-anarchism respond to already existing social innovations, such as free schools, local currency networks and community councils?

In seeking to respond to these questions, Thomas Nail draws on two intellectual strands: the writing of Deleuze and Guattari, and the political project articulated by the Zapatistas. Brought into dialogue with each other, Nail explores three key dimensions of a post-anarchist political project. The first is a multi-centered approach to political diagnosis and engagement, in which no single struggle or social contradiction (class, gender, or race) constitutes the primary explanation for what’s wrong or the main axis (or vanguard) of struggle. Second, is the exodus from state-centered demands and representational frameworks to a do-it-yourself politics. Key here is the idea of prefiguration, a concept also popular within feminist politics. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Nail goes beyond the conventional temporal direction underpinning prefiguration, in which contemporary practices express – and thereby held to produce – a desired future. Arguing that prefigurative transformations aim to establish a new political present within the skin of the old, Nail explores how this present is also shaped by what is to come. Manifestations of these ‘backward-running’ currents may not necessarily be visible now. However, transformative processes work to change dominant conditions of visibility so that what was barely perceptible (the lines of the future) comes into view. The third dimension concerns participatory forms of governance. Representational politics has been deftly criticized within anarchist and anti-state scholarship; but far less has been said about what should take its place. Drawing on Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatista modes of decision-making, Nail briefly considers plastic, adaptive, responsive forms of organizational structure and governance.

I was drawn to this article, written in the course of Thomas Nail’s PhD research, for several reasons. I liked the fact Nail counters the romanticization of a call to arms – the tendency of theorists to imagine that now is the time when things should kick off, when global capitalism should be fought through the imaginative actions of the subaltern or multitude, utterly ignoring all the social innovations and grass-roots projects that currently exist. Nail also recognizes (in ways often scarce in much contemporary radical thinking) that change theorizing emerges from social movements as well as from scholars; and he raises important questions and issues about how to imagine radical change, including through a politics which refuses the amplification of institutional power that making demands on the state can generate. At the same time, he confronts directly and innovatively the question of (differently scaled) governance.

But what does this article tell us about equality? On one level, equality is presupposed as a core dimension of a radical politics; yet the emphasis on difference exceeding categories of gender, race and sexuality etc., and on grass-roots action begs the question: what forms of equality are at stake? Gender equality might mean parity between gender-encoded groups; it might also mean relinquishing gender as a meaningful category of difference, of pluralizing and multiplying gendered categories of difference; or refashioning them – so gender is only salient, for instance, as a stylization of the body or as culturally inflected modes of social interaction.  I take from Nail’s article that openness to difference, plurality and community-based lateral politics suggests different approaches to gender equality will emerge and be fought over, that certain possibilities may inhere in the future, but the development of these remains unclear to date. Part of the question of what equality is to become, of course, depends on how it is inhabited – the sites which take, and are given, responsibility to introduce or claim it. Nail’s article, as an exploration of post-anarchist thinking relinquishes an equality politics anchored in demands upon the state (to change or to advance equality). But post-anarchism leaves me with several questions: do state-inflected institutional structures have any legitimate part to play in undoing systemic forms of inequality, given their assembled presence in our current social landscape? Under what conditions, or in what ways, can they be used to do something more than to contain, diffuse and control equality aspirations? And if equality is a projection of non-institutional sites and spaces, how might it take shape – can equality look altogether different from the ordered forms of categorization associated with the contemporary state’s casting of equality governance?

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Cite as: Davina Cooper, Thinking About Post-Anarchism, JOTWELL (January 13, 2012) (reviewing Thomas Nail, ‘Constructivism and the Future Anterior of Radical Politics’, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2010: 1, 73-94),