The anarchist principle is by and large true. And far from being "utopian" or a "glorious failure," it has proved itself and won out in many spectacular historical crises. In the period of mercantilism and patents royal, free enterprise by joint stock companies was anarchist. The Jeffersonian bill of rights and independent judiciary were anarchist. Congregational churches were anarchist. Progressive education was anarchist. The free cities and corporate law in the feudal system were anarchist. At present, the civil rights movement in the United States has been almost classically decentralist and anarchist. And so forth, down to details like free access in public libraries.Everywhere we are faced with the banalization and corruption of ideas that were once at the forefront of avantgarde thought--that were once interesting. Marxism staggers on, zombie-like. (Years ago I was waiting for a bus in Los Angeles, when a demonstration marched by, carrying an enormous pig and screaming "What do we want? The end of property! When do we want it? Now!"). Nietzschean tropes resurface in self-help books. Critiques of technocracy and reification are repurposed into New Age platitudes. The Jeffersonian war against "any form of tyranny over the mind of man" has become an insipid and insincere source of legitimation for the lowest common denominator of democratic ideology. Enlightenment freethought turns into Dawkins; Diogenes the Cynic becomes domesticated.
Of course, to later historians these things do not seem to be anarchist, but in their own time they were all regarded as such and often literally called such, with the usual dire threats of chaos. But this relativity of the anarchist principle to the actual situation is of the essence of anarchism.
There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called "anarchist." It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems.
- Paul Goodman, "The Anarchist Principle"
How are we to respond to this relentless movement? With an equally boring critique of consumer capitalism? With a Mandarin scoff at low culture? With a fatuous attempt to maintain these ideas in their purity and "relevance"? None of these seems wholly adequate. Elitism, nowadays, always entails provincialism as well. And consumer capitalism is just as welcoming to critiques directed against it as it is to plaudits. To speak of pure ideas is an unachievable Oakeshottian ideal, and "relevance" may as well be banality.
What Paul Goodman proposes, mutatis mutandis, is a much more profound and practical approach. An idea is not radical--or anarchist--in itself. Radicalism is the name for a particular relationship between an idea and the conventional wisdom of its time. For Goodman, by implication, even ideas traditionally considered immutably anarchist (the One Big Union of anarcho-syndicalism, for instance) will become corrupted into forms of power, and must in turn be confronted from an anarchist "outside." The question is always one of responding to the present context with a challenge, not defending and institutionalizing a particular complex of ideas. By no means is this solely a question of political radicalism: Socrates was a radical, just as Heraclitus was, just as Ezra Pound was. One must always keep on the move.
This conception has three clear advantages. The first is that the world is no longer something to be reshaped to fit a fixed ideal of perfection. In the classless society of communism, in the anarcho-primitivist wonderland, the radical still remains to point an accusatory finger. (For those of us who have few other skills, this is a valuable result). The second is that the lifeless ideas of today can be attacked without a denial of their substantive truth. Feminism, undoubtedly, makes true claims; but it is equally clear that much of it today is worthless and derivative, no longer radical but status-quo, as evidenced by the various polemics surfacing during Hillary Clinton's campaign. The third is that it allows us to dredge up old ideas in the service of critique, without doing violence to their real commitments. For instance, we can read Swift and Burke without making them into proto-Marxists in our image and likeness, although agrarian paternalism can only go so far. If these ideas have a pragmatic use for a contemporary radical, they can and ought to be deployed; when they lose it, they can be just as easily abandoned. And even outside of the pragmatic context, they can be admired aesthetically: the violence of a radical critique is beautiful, whether it's in Ned Ward or in Savonarola.
It is a hard road, the via negativa. And in some ways it leads to a dead end, if one begins from the presumption that there ought to be a concrete and positive destination. Still, in this endless and pointless struggle, there is something of a justification for the intellectual's existence. If Socrates can come down to the Piraeus, if Zarathustra can abandon his mountain, then we can go down too, even if its only to teach the people the error of their ways.