They say it takes a certain type of personality to be a radical. Questioning of the status quo, anti-authoritarian, angry perhaps, undoubtedly rebellious, critical rather than accepting of what is. Complex analyses and algorithms are deployed to compare shared psychological traits, relationships to authority figures, level of socio-economic privilege, and even birth order. If any of this attributive, long-form speculation is correct, I may be more of an anomaly than my grade school report cards alluded.
I started my career under the same veils and presumptions as most youth growing up in a Western, capitalist state—seduced by rationalism, consumption, growth, and competition. I wanted to be a lawyer or some such technocratic, middling career that would satisfy my immigrant parents’ desire for white acceptance and simultaneously uphold the logic of the system that put the whole house of cards together. I grew up in a poor part of the relatively affluent city of Vancouver, Canada. I maintained mediocrity with the occasional hints of rebelliousness that would be produced in any sentient being living in the Canadian suburbs.
It was not my love for Trotsky or Proudhon or Sankara that radicalized me. Even if I had read fragments, I couldn’t fully understand them in my state of pre-consciousness. It was, in fact, the influence of my mother’s spiritual values that seeded my initial morality. The influence of her brand of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, self-cultivated within me, even though I explicitly rejected Islam from a young age. I started to adopt some of its principles as the basis for my own spiritual journey, both rejecting and accepting its tenets at my discretion, while incorporating other modalities including Buddhism, Taosim, Ayurveda, and Shamanism.
As I progressed on my journey, those initial seeds blossomed within me as a reaction to the total disgust I felt for a world that lacked empathy, compassion, and signs of progression to a higher plane. After all, every religion especially the esoteric traditions are, at their core, a moral philosophy. The illusion of reason and the animalistic drive for self-interest that are the main features of late-stage capitalism challenged my spiritual values.
How could I continue to legitimize the structures of this world while holding true to my spiritual ideals? How could I subtly regurgitate the premises of Cartesian dualism when I knew they had no model to explain the torment and anguish and heartache that existed all around me? This tension awakened my political sensibilities. I started to understand that one’s politics are simply their morality put into action. I could no longer not act.
Regardless of my awakenings, I never attributed my identity to the coming together of these two modes of being. I did not self-select into the dual camp of the mystical anarchist, both in the hopes of maintaining my political friends who would be embarrassed by such a ‘new age’ sentiment and my spiritual community that would see me as divisive, judgmental, and living in ‘non-acceptance.’
As I kept these identities separate, I found that my central quest — to help create an emancipatory political and economic system, to create the better world we know is possible—was also suffering from the central schism in my life. Despite what my Leftist sensibilities tell me, I know that simply changing the rules of the economic and political system will not be enough. And despite my spiritual disposition and what many ‘spiritual gurus’ propose, I do not believe that shifts in our individual consciousness, even at mass scale, will change the outcomes of our material reality in the absence of a superstructural overhaul that more closely resembles revolution than reform. So what then shall we do? What must be done? And most importantly, what should we believe in?
At its core, anarchism states that creativity and self-organization will always lead to better societal arrangements than the arbitrary commands of disconnected technocrats. Concentrating power at the top of the pyramid will unequivocally lead to the capture of the democratic process and a tyranny of plutocratic rule.
We cannot deny that there is a metaphysical and moral code deeply embedded within all political philosophy, but one that can never be expressed without the admonition of rationalist judgment. The highest values in anarchism are the simultaneous upholding of freedom and equality. The traditional Right values freedom over all else (e.g., they champion property rights and fight against redistributive taxes), or at least they value the rhetoric of freedom.1 And the traditional Left values equality over freedom (e.g., they are willing to bear the costs of societal levelers and safety nets such as healthcare, welfare, etc. at the expense of some personal freedom). But for anarchists, both of these conditions must apply. True freedom is equality of choice and equality of opportunity for everyone to thrive in his or her own way. It has nothing to do with private property or ownership per se. If we can decide on our own arrangements for how to live, the majority of us will not be subjected to the greed and wealth extraction of a tiny elite and, therefore, will not need to reduce our freedom or equality to compensate for this. This fundamental belief in the dignity of the human soul, the desire for collective liberation, the intuitive understanding of a shared consciousness, and the faith in a human creativity greater than any one individual are in many ways all recognitions of a greater ‘source’ in each of us.
The other two tenets of anarchism that have spiritual corollaries are disintermediation and consciousness. Anarchists don’t require the mediation of the state, feudal lords, popes, imams, ayatollahs, sun gods, or any other arbitrary source of ordained power. ‘No gods, no masters’ as the famous dictum goes. Anarchists also believe in the conscious individual as the unit of free societies. This requires sovereign women and men who understand the structure of power, consent to rules they themselves have legitimized, and consciously choose to live within their own communities according to their shared principles and values.
Living as a conscious individual, of course, requires significant investment of time. It requires active and mindful consent. It requires the infrastructure for direct democracy. None of us ever consented to the way things are in the current system. We couldn’t—not only because it was built and calcified before we were born, but also because it requires learning and interest and patience and humility to study the vast power structures we have today. Anarchism offers a relationship to power that is grounded and consensual, which means power can only be so big and so distant. Power too easily and rapidly grows out of conceptual and practical reach left to its own devices. Anarchism believes in keeping group power under a shared, transparent, and democratic ‘system’ rather than putting society under the boot of a small group of elites and experts.
Both the material and mystical aspects of anarchism lead to the ontological need to create a world that reflects these political and spiritual values. If this is the case, why do we never authentically explicate the spiritual underpinnings of our political beliefs?2 Why do our political decisions exempt meaningful spiritual source material? After all, aren’t freedom and equality, the disintermediation of power, and conscious, free individuals also the hopes and aims of most mystical and esoteric spiritual traditions?
On First Principles
Politicos have a tendency to begin or end every debate with two questions: what is your theory of change? by which they mean, what is your strategy for achieving some outcome? and what is the viable alternative you seek? by which they mean, what’s the answer? I have either tiptoed around these questions or I have gone straight into the bluff. I have laid out the play-by-play policy plan that gave them confidence that there is, indeed, a better way. But these answers are illusory salves. I was answering the question with the wrong level of consciousness, as E.F. Schumacher would say. We are asking questions on the material realm that, in fact, require spiritual answers.