Anarchism vs Infrastructuralists

I keep my feet in two worlds politically and it is baffling how much shared value they have, and how little shared context there is.

Anarchists are an outsider politics. It’s primarily people who have disavowed the system, or never learned how to enter it. I don’t mean capital-A Anarchist groups, though those are mostly unfairly branded, too, and explicitly disenfranchised from the bureaucracy of the United States, but I do mean the little-a anarchists: anarchism includes a lot of people the system does not admit easily. It’s got a lot of good ideas and sometimes a lot of energy. But anarchists are also, culturally, allergic to the idea of modifying our existing systems. I don’t actually believe this is a value held, but a belief, sometimes born of experiences, sometimes out of not understanding, sometimes out of the system rejecting them (or expecting to be rejected).

On the other hand are a cadre of people who are, more or less, democratic socialists. Not like card carrying members of any organization, necessarily, but really working in policy, in tech, in government, in consulting, in engineering, and trying to build a better world. The people i love most in this space shy away from the technocratic controls of liberalism, and understand deeply that the state, the government, the system, only ever operates in response to an imperfect model of the world. They understand the problem of legibility and illegibility, and try to moderate the systems they build to fail more gracefully—or, when possible, succeed fully still—when they meet the real world. They work to reduce harms. They’re socialists, on average, because socialism is the end of a political spectrum where people get what they need. It’s not big-S Socialism. They’re democratic, because to be responsible to the people you represent or work to support means actually listening. They are process-democratic, not just vote-democratic. They build consensuses, sometimes rough, as best they can. A vote that doesn’t get everyone on board is at least in part a failure.

I wish these groups would talk to each other more, because they have a lot of good ideas, but they don’t speak the same language very often.

Anarchists have long tried to build systems of mutual aid, but so often it devolves into endless streams of GoFundMes to prop up the abject failures of our broken systems. There are better, too: Bikes not Bombs, Food not Bombs, all the pop up kitchens serving food to all comers, those are the kinds of systems—and infrastructures—that anarchists build. They have such modest resources, usually, and they stretch them far. They could do so much more with more resources. But then they would have to learn to scale. And they’d have to learn to deal with the responsibility of failure. If you’re just picking up already broken pieces, there’s such small harm you can do.

On the other end, our global infrastructures are in many ways the largest works of mutual aid ever devised. The systems involved are massive. The best of them have enabled a standard of living undreamt of in previous centuries. The sheer love put into them is astounding, and the care when they are well built shows deeply.

But these infrastructures have, through neglect, overuse, mis-design, shortcoming, or worse, working as intended, caused environmental catastrophe that affects and will affect our world for a long long time, with the greatest burden on the people least legible to societies, least able to speak for themselves in systems of power, the least represented. The people most in need of mutual aid right now.

I wish more of the people building those policy works had lived homeless — not that I wish homelessness upon them, but I wish they understood, viscerally. I wish they understood the burdens of racism, colonialism, ableism, and capitalism, in the day to day way it plays out world over. The best of them do understand. Those are my people.

These groups mix poorly. Anarchists habitually reject anyone with access to the system as privileged, or worse, a liberal.

The people who maintain our infrastructure, social, legal and engineering, get exhausted trying to correct takes by people with no inside understanding of the systems. And who want to throw away the systems and start over, despite them holding the lives of billions in the balance.

Watch out for the people who do manage to hold all of this in their heads, the dissonances and conflicts and really try to see, really try to help shape the world to be better. They have some success at it.