The Individual and Society

Hence we are driven from the individual back to the social structure. If there is a taint, it lies not in the ‘soul’ of the individual but rather in that of the environment.
— Frantz Fanon

From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation.
— Wilhelm Reich

If we look at ideas of the individual and society, we can articulate differing theories, but they can usually be situated via two extremes. One extreme is centered on the individual which is a priori to their social existence/experience with structures in the world. Here individuals have complete autonomy and agency based on self-creation. On the other extreme, the individual subject is only a by-product of structures in the world. Social phenomena are completely autonomous and outside of individuals. Here the individual is a blank sheet to be written on or an empty container to be filled. Individuals are created by history, culture, language or genetics completely removing human agency and creativity. Both positions are problematic and I argue for a more dialectical relationship between the individual and society which takes into account both how the individual is created by the world and at the same time creates the worlds as well as themselves.     

The idea that the individual is completely a product of structures outside of themselves is central to the theories of evolutionary psychology/sociobiology (human behavior is primarily determined by biology/genetic), varieties of sociology and anthropology (human behavior is primarily determined by cultural), many Marxist tenets (human behavior is primarily historical and determined by the economic base), and varieties of critical theory coming out of structuralism (human behavior is primarily determined by language.) In each of these theories, the individual and their behavior/beliefs are solely constructed by these perspective outside forces removing all creativity and agency. As anarchist who are actively working to create a new world, these theories counter our ability to create a new world by alienating us from our active power [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] and making all forms of change determined by biological evolution or external culture or an objective crisis of capital. In all of these cases, the only way for change to happen is through external forces; thus, the only role for anarchists are sitting around and waiting for the world to change around us or external conditions to be right for revolt. Our active and creative power to change the world through insurrection or individual and collective action is erased.

The idea of the autonomous self-creating individual is equally problematic because it removes the individual from the external power and forces of domination as if exploitative and oppressive relations have no foundational effect on the individual. This position minimizes structural and moral forces imposed on the individual producing and constructing their understandings, relations and desires. As anarchist Feral Faun wrote, “It implies that domination is mainly a matter of personal moral decisions rather than of social roles and relationships, that all of us are equally in a position to exercise domination and that we need to exercise self-discipline to prevent ourselves from doing so” [3]. Fanon address this issue of individual in relations to society in the settler-state context in his book Black Skin White Masks.

Fanon explains that in the production of subjects, the individual is usually understood as being produced in relation to “The Other.” But in the settler state (and this applies both the US and Canada), there is first off a reference point of “White” that the subject must be situated against. If a white body (the white body is seen as just a body) acts violently, that body is understood as an individual who is acting violently. If a black body acts violently, that body is seen as a violent black body which represents all black bodies. This relationship between the marked body and behavior has a long history which is produced through the sciences (by criminology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology etc.), through The State (by policing, social services, courts, public policy etc.), the media (by representations in news, movies, literature, tv shows, sports etc.) as well as through charities and philanthropy. Fanon argues that the individual internalizes these racist ideologies coming to believe and reproduce them in their own bodies and behavior.

Wilhelm Reich argued that specific political, religious and economic institutions deny women and adolescents, in particular, the full expression of their sexuality and produces hierarchical relations of gender and race that both structure society and the individual. He believed these institutions, in their relationship to the moral/normative family structure [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on The Family], enforces sexual/desire repression that then manifest in other forms of submission and obedience structured around race/gender articulations through morality. These forms of repression cause psychic injury that children carry into adulthood which Reich argues makes individuals extremely susceptible to authoritarian power and obedience [4]. In discussing Reich’s idea of “character” and its relationship to anarchist ideas, Jay Amrod and Lev Chernyi argue that most people don’t consciously condition children, but as result of a whole organization of forces (the economy, the parents of the parents, social mores, etc.) that continually reproduce alienated power relations [5]. These ways of seeing the connection between differing marked bodies and behavior are forms of “the cops in our heads” that structure how individuals relate to and understand each other and themselves. This is about structures and social roles, but it is also about how individual resist, react and build relations within and against the structures of society.

Both Fanon and Reich argue that the only way to break out of the force of these roles and structures is through revolt or insurrection. Individually and collectively people must take control of there lives, build new worlds, and create new social relations. Individuals are constructed by the world/structures they live and are raised in, but they are not determined by they. Individuals construct the world/structures they live in by how they react and engage/create the world/structures. Individuals are products of society and produce society simultaneously.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of "Population."

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Family and The State

Posted on May 16, 2016 .

The State

Yet the State is nothing but a name. It is an abstraction. Like other concepts—the nation, race, humanity — it has no organic reality.
— Emma Goldman

States do many things. They test students, imprison individuals, make roads, adjudicate property disputes, track the health of populations, issue identity documents, provide benefits to those deemed deserving, safeguard markets, regulate the poor, drop bombs, and patrol borders.
— Paisley Currah

“The State” demarcates the anarchist from other socialists, communists, activists and social critics. As anarchists, we do not see social change as a result of either appealing to The State or take over control of The State. Anarchists see the alienating power [see Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] of The State as part of the social relations we are struggling against. But as we struggle against The State, we need to ask ourselves what is this thing we are struggling against. Can it be “smashed” as the anarchist slogan goes? I would argue that The State is not an “it” that can be “smashed.” The State is a complex network of social practices and disciplines. If we are struggling against social practices and disciplines, how we organize ourselves and our communities could reproduce the same alienating power produced by The State.

When pressed, most people cannot give a clear definition of The State or point to where The State actually is materially. We can look at different examples to illustrate that The State-Society divide is not simple or total. Look at the relationship that exists between The State and financial institutions which are connected to schools and scientific research interlocked with medical knowledge and practices [see Changing Suns Press book A Labour of Liberation by Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay]. The State-Society divide is a line drawn internally within a network of institutions, knowledges, and social practices that maintains certain (historically situated) social and political orders through disciplines, measurements and normative standards [3]. This complex network of social practices and disciplines appear as a separate freestanding object that intervenes on individuals. This does not negate The State’s use of force or violence, but The State is not an actor that uses force on society. This image of The State simplifies and abstracts The State, which impacts our strategies, as anarchists, to struggle against alienated power.   

We, as anarchists, need to understand the kinds of articulations that can separate—with machine-like precision—an organization or institution and the individuals who comprise it. We need to understand the techniques of organization and articulation that produce the effects that make The State appear as a freestanding apparatus that can act on individuals. Michel Foucault’s analysis of discipline and disciplinary power is a helpful analytic to think with. [4] When looking at discipline, we are not looking at the “entire” society but at the level of the local because we are trying to understand the power that works from within not from outside. By this I mean, understanding how discipline, knowledge and social practices produce individuals not just “restrain” them.  Discipline functions in the particular by taking social processes and separating them out by different functions. Disciple then reorganizes the parts to improve efficiency and precision. This process creates productive and powerful combinations. Foucault’s work on disciple parallels arguments Karl Marx made in Capital regarding factory discipline and George Woodcock made in “The Tyranny of the Clock” about the measurement and control of time. [5] Marx writes, “In each individual workshop it enforces uniformity, regularity, order and economy.” [6] He argued that this abstracted peoples’ activities so their activities could be homogeneously measured. At the same time, The State started categorizing labourers into biological categories like “adult males,” “adult female,” and “children” as well as differing racialized categories that could be analyzed and managed. It is though this process that a dialectical relationship emerged that produces both the modern individual and modern society (including The State as it functions today.) Simultaneously this process created the image of structures that stand outside of individuals like The State and The Economy. [The next Firebrand Dictionary will look at the productive relationship between Individual/Society]. Through discipline-knowledge-social practices individuals are constructed as disciplined and industrious subjects. Alienated power does intervene on individuals by force or violence, but the individual is already a product of these relations when they are confronted.

Think of the quintessential agent of The State—the police. When I have made these arguments about The State in the past [7], anarchists have responded arguing that “cops beat people and this is more then discipline and social relations.” It is true that police “beat people” which is itself a social practice and functions only in a complex network of discipline-knowledge-social practices. The police do not assert force on individuals randomly, but within a network of knowledge about populations. The police assert force on individuals from populations that are categorized and organized via specific markers (could be ethnic/racial markers, poverty, geographic etc.). These categories are produced and reproduced through knowledges (statistics, sociology, criminology, colonial histories, media, literature, criminal code, charter of rights etc.). Individuals identify or understand themselves in the category through their life experiences within and interacting with different institutions (schools, churches, clubs, community groups, social services etc.).  The police are demarcated from other populations (through specific training, uniforms, social status, legal code, legal use of violence etc.). Police are in a relationship with different communities and community representatives that produce and reproduce them as intermediaries between The State and Society (church leaders, community leaders, lawyers, judges, social workers, city council representatives etc.). This complex network of discipline-knowledge-social practices creates the image that The State is separate from society and that the police are the representatives of the State. When we—and many of us do—struggle against police violence and racism, where exactly is The State; at which point in this network is the power of the police?

All of this is important for anarchist organizing and struggle. If The State is not an object, but a set of discipline-knowledge-social practices, then how we organize ourselves matters. If we organize ourselves in ways the reproduce or mimic the disciplinary power of our present society, then even if we think we are “smashing the state” (or capitalism) we can actually be reproducing relations of alienated power. The State is a form of transcendent power only to the extent that it intersects with other forms of transcendent and alienated power and knowledge, all of which measures and organizes our lives (settler-colonialism, the economy, the family, morality, the church, gender, race, etc.). Anarchists usually struggle against many (if not most) of these institutions and ways of knowing/living. We argue that these are forms of authority that can not be isolated. This means that as we struggle against the forces of violence, regulation and control, we also need to struggle for different ways of knowing and living in the world—together. We need to be attentive to how we organize our communities. We need to be attentive to how we live in our communities. Attentive to the disciplinary power we are producing and a product of. The “cops in our head” can be just as violent to the future world we are trying to create as the “cops on the street.”

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept(s) of “Individual/Society.

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Family and Individual and Society


[1] Emma Goldman (1998)  “The Individual, Society and the State” In Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader ed. Alix Kates Shulman Humanity Books: Amherst pp. 109-123

[2] Paisley Currah (2014) “The State” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1(1-2): 197

[3] Michel Foucault (1991) “Governmentality” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller Chicago: University of Chicago Press pp. 87–104.

[4] Michel Foucault (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison New York: Vintage Books

[5] Karl Marx (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1 New York: Penguin and George Woodcock (1972) “The Tyranny of the Clock” In The Rejection of Politics and other essays Toronto: new press pp. 46-50

[6] Karl Marx (1990) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1 New York: Penguinp. 465  

[7] Chris Kortright (2003) The State and Economy as Regimes of Discipline: beyond state fetishism Santa Cruz: Saloon Anti-League

Posted on December 18, 2015 .

The Family

The Family is a moral and ideological unit that appears, not universally, but in particular social orders.
— Jane Collier, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, Sylvia Yanagisako

The State and the Church approve of no other ideal, simply because it is the one that necessitates the State and Church control of men and women.
— Emma Goldman

When a person speaks of “family,” there are two different (yet connected) sets of relations that this person could be talking about. The first set is the personal relations of an individual understood as “my family.” This is my relationship to my parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and partner. The second is a cultural unit, or institution, that mediates the proper or normative structure of social relations in the personal relations of “my family.” Part of the power of the The State is the ability to produce the cultural unit called “the modern family” which is understood to be the universal form of the family. In this entry, I am interested in the second, institutional, set of relations because of the effect and power this institution has over how individuals and communities organize “their families.” In other words, I’m interested in the institution of The Family because of its power to produce normative/moral forms of social relations that are thought to be more natural, thus, the healthier way to organize this specific set of social relations.  

The family has been, and continues to be, an important location of control over the organization of culture, intimacy, child rearing, property relations, and sexual relations to just mention a few. “The modern family” as a normative/moral unit in US and Canada, as well as much of Europe (and many of Europe’s formal colonies), is comprised of the relations of a male and female (parents) and their children. With industrialization of the 19th century, “the modern family” was organized with the male as the breadwinner and the female as the homemaker who were in a monogamous relationship. This unit is in relation to the parents and siblings of the male and female parents. This is the normative/moral unit of organization, in the lived lives of many families the female parent needed or chose to work. In the resent past, there has been a semi-successful struggle to open this normative/moral unit allowing breadwinners to be both male and female. Today the struggle for same-sex marriage is generally a struggle to be accepted into the normative/moral constitution of “the modern family” with all the legal “rights” and “responsibilities."  

The State has used The Family as a weapon to control different populations [Note: a future entry will focus on the concept of “population”]. During the establishment of the present settler-states of the US and Canada, The State disrupted many matrilineal and extended kinship systems through treaty rights and land titles that were only available through or to male heads of nuclear family units. The nuclear family as a normative/moral unit was seen as a “civilizing” tool. This was followed by Residential and Boarding School that sought to break indigenous traditions and struggles by destroying the kinship systems and family structures while “killing the Indian within the child.” In Canada when this did not work, Indigenous children were taken from their families by The State and placed in foster and adopted homes in what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. Today the practices continue under different policies such that there are more Aboriginal, First Nations and Métis children in the custody of The State than during the height of the Residential Schools.

During Reconstruction after the US Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau promoted the morality of monogamous marriage and the nuclear family among former slaves. Because of the political and economic structures of slavery (i.e. slaves were property and could not create a legal family), many slaves engaged in serial cohabitation, multiple sexual partners, and different forms of plural marriages. The nuclear family as a normative/moral unit was seen, again, as a central tool for “civilizing.” All forms of polyamory—be it polygamy, polyandry and group or conjoint marriage—were, and still are, seen as deviant and less “civilized.” The Republican Party platform of 1856 tied together polygamy with slavery as the “twin relics of barbarism.” Laws were not only established against how many people could constitute a family, but who could constitute a family. Same-sex individuals could not be a family, nor could individuals of different “races.” Anti-miscegenation laws were an important part of the US race relations both legally and socially. Anti-miscegenation laws banned the marriage of white individuals to non-white individuals—primarily African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian-Americans. Although anti-miscegenation laws ended in 1967 with Loving v. Virginia, the social and cultural stigma of multi-racial relations continues to the present.

The struggle over the normative/moral value of “The Family” has been central to the anarchist movement from its inception. Large portions of the anarchist movement have struggled for gender and queer liberation as well as the abolition the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy, and the age of consent. For many anarchists, the struggle for a better world is aimed at the personal as much the social. Because we are struggling to live in a world where people have active power not alienated power [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] all social relations that produce alienated power are in question for anarchists. Questions around the institution of The Family and marriage has run through most anarchist currents from anarchist communism to egoism. Individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Voltairine de Cleyre, anarchist communists like Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta and and anarcho-syndicalists like Lucy Parsons all engaged in debates over the marriage, the family, free love and child rearing. Journals and newspapers such as (but not limited to): The Alarm, Clothed with the Sun, Egoism, The Firebrand, The Kansas Liberal, Liberty, Lucifer: the Light Bearer, Mother Earth, Regeneración, Social Revolutionist and Twentieth Century carried long standing discussions over the question of an anarchist position on the family. These discussions covered an enormous range of questions regarding marriage; abolition of marriage; children and divorce; the importance and structure of the home; sexual abuse in the family; The State’s interference with the family; as well as motherhood and specifically radical motherhood. These discussions not only addressed the family in the context of the present society, but also the future societies anarchists were struggling for. So what does it mean to have an autonomist or free family; what is the ideal or mixed family unit of the future; and how will children live under anarchy? In the struggle for a new world, the creation of non-alienated personal and social relations is as important as creating new economic relations.  

I am arguing for families as liberatory and experimental spaces. Here, I mean “families” with a small “f,” not “The Family” as the normative/moral unit.  In other words, I am arguing that the understanding of families needs to be open to a diversity of possibilities. I am not saying that there should not be families that are structured in a nuclear family (male/female and their children), but I am arguing that it should not be the measure by which the family is understood—normative/moral unit. In Families We Choose, Kath Weston argues for the importance of a “more comprehensive attack on the privilege accorded to a biogenetically grounded mode of determining what relationships will count as kinship.” [3] The structure and organization of families must be opened up to satisfy the needs of those living in these families. There is no reason that two mothers (in a sexual or non-sexual relationship) co-parenting children are not a family, but that is a simple move from the normative unit we have today. A family could also be made up of multiple partners made up of interrelated sexual relations co-parenting as well as any configuration of sexual partnering that does not involve raising children. Also, a family need no be centered on sexual relationships, but could be based on the mutual living and caring of individuals who do not have a sexual relationship. The configurations are limitless, but they must be based on the needs of the individuals involved and their relations with each other and their larger communities. The family should not be a normative-moral unit reinforcing and supported by alienating institutions like The State or The Economy, but it should be one of the many units of active social relations of support we are apart of. We need to support individuals who desire building new family units. We must actively engage in building new relationships that meet the physical and emotional needs of everyone. Most importantly we must be prepared to defend those who come under attack by The State for living in new egalitarian family units because The State might open up its definition of The Family to let a few more people in, but The State will not give up the normative/moral unit of measure that defines how families need to be structured.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of “The State.”   

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Sate, The Individual and Society


[1] Jane Collier, Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Sylvia Yanagisako (1982) "Is there a family? New anthropological views.” In Rethinking the family: Some feminist questions. London: Longmans
[2] Emma Goldman (1914) “Marriage and Love” In Anarchism and Other Essays
[3]  Kath Weston (1991) Families We Choose. New York: Columbia University Press

Posted on October 29, 2015 .


Power therefore never dies out: tracked, pursued wornout, or driven away here, it will always reappear there, where I expect it least.
— Trinh T. Minh-ha [1]

… the model to which political power is referred and the unit by which it is measured are constituted in advance by the idea Western civilization has shaped and developed.
— Pierre Clastres

Power is a central concern for anarchists.

How we understand power has serious consequences on our actions, analysis and organization. Many anarchists argue that power is the problem as an external force that is imposed from outside the individual or community by the State, Capitalism or the Church [there will be future entries on the concepts of “the State” and “Capital”]. Often, I hear anarchists talking about “destroying power” or fighting power. Power is articulated as The State, and we, as anarchist, are attempting to “smash the state.” This is framed as if The State was an object or thing that where destroyed, and if it was, we would immediately live in a free and egalitarian society.  I would like to move in another direction thinking about power differently.

To quote sasha k and Leila from Killing King Abacus: “Power is the potential to exert force, the ability to act in a creative, transformative, productive or destructive way, the state as a transcendent institution is that which cuts us off or separates us from our active power.” [3] If we think about power this way, power is not a “thing” that is pushed on us, but a set of relationships and practices we engage in as individuals, collectives and communities. Power, then, is manifested in how we understand, conceptualize and engage with the world and people around us. So when thinking about power, I want to think about power as active power and alienated power.

Active power is our creative/transformative/productive activities. This is different from the concept of “empowerment” because empowerment is the external giving or recognition of power or authority. Active power, unlike empowerment, is not the recognition by an outside authority that you can act for yourself. Active power is people living and creating individually and collectively without the permission of an external authority. This power is open ended, but examples can be building communities and kinship on our own terms or producing the needs and subsistence for our communities or organizing forms of resistance to liberate ourselves and communities on our terms. In each of these examples, the people who are living/experiencing the situations are in control of their lives, the direction, and outcome of their actions.

In contrast to active power, there is alienated power. Alienated power are the forces of power exerted by institutions like The State and Capital. We can see these forms of power when individuals need to sell their labor or starve because they are separated from their creative/productive potential which is controlled by someone else (an individual or a committee or institution.) This form of power can also be seen in the physical force of the police as they arrest and incarcerate those who deviate from the norms codified into law. In each of these cases, the standards, deviations, and expertise are created externally from those who are effected by the situations. The decisions and outcomes are abstracted by experts who are not tied to, or directly responsible to, individuals who are living in the outcomes of these institutions. The institutions maintain their power by separating people from their active power individually and collectively.
One of the central techniques of alienated power is though convincing people that The State and Capital are needed for safety and survival. If we look at Capital, it is argued that people can not collectively or individually produce subsistence and basic needs on a global level, so we need experts and managers to control production (the argument is used equally for corporate or state management.) If we look at The State, we can take the example of the police. People are taught that the police are necessary for the safety and well being of their communities. People do not believe that they have the power to work as community members to resolve conflict within their own communities. Instead people bring in external experts. These experts, and these experts alone, have the training, skills, knowledge and institutional infrastructure to "protect people." Traditional and/or alternative forms of conflict resolution are not seen as “effective” or trust worthy. Because of external expertise, communities trust these forms of external intervention as well as the standards of normality and deviancy used by the interventionist. Street checks of youths of color become invisible/acceptable because the police can produce abstracted and statistical knowledge that categorized this group of people as having a higher risk of deviating from the norm.   

When I was young and first getting involved in the anarchist milieu, one of the things that stuck with me and has focused my analysis was the idea of “the cops in our head.” I bring this up because “the cops in our head” help alienate people from their active power and maintain the alienated power of institutions like The State. How we know the world and categorize the world is very important to the potential we see in our active power as well as the possibilities to create a new world. An example of the “cops in our head” speaking up would be when in a meeting to plan an action and you become uncomfortable as an individual who might be categorizes as “mentally ill” volunteers to speak to the media. You are happy that they are a part of the group and you know that their voice needs to be heard, but you are afraid that their nonlinear and often fragmented way of communication is not the most “effective” voice for the action. You might think that it would make more sense to have someone with experience talking to the media. But by privileging the language/forms that are understood to be logical and intelligible as articulated by social norms, the individual is then alienated from their active power/voice. While choosing another speaker might be strategic, it also reproduces the categorizations and knowledge of The State within our anarchist organizing which is then a form of alienated power. Instead of silencing the individual in the name of "efficiency," we can work with, or accompany them, as they use their active power to voice, create or activate their desires and resistance.    

Why should this different way of seeing power matter to anarchists? The State and Capital are still a problem and if we “smash” them we will be free. I disagree for two reasons both tied to the “cops in our head.” (1) is tied to our own organization: When we are organizing ourselves do we reproduce forms of alienated power or do we engage active power? This can be in the structures of our organizations: do we practice informal or formal organizations. Are we reproducing forms of divisions of labor that alienate people from their active power? In the name of efficiency or experience, do our groups reproduce experts that speak or decide “for people?" Do our practices challenge or reinforce categories that alienate people from their active power—for example based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, mental illness or ability. (2) is tied to our forms of organizing and resistance: Is it based on alienated power or active power? When we engage in resistance do we “organize other communities” or do we accompany them in collective resistance? Do communities have autonomy or are they organized by others outside of the community? Are we struggling for ourselves side by side with others (and other communities) to create a world where everyone has active power? Or are we speaking and acting for others? There is no absolute or abstract answer to these questions because they need to be answered in the particular, but they are necessary questions if we are to create a new world.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of “The Family.”   

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: The Family, The Sate, The Individual and Society


[1] Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989) Woman, Native, Other. Writing postcoloniality and feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Pierre Clastres (1989) Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

[3] sasha k and Leila (2016) “The Anarchist Ethic in the Age of the Anti-Globalization Movement” In Killing King Abacus Anthology. Regina: Changing Suns Press. pp. 133-152 [Chick here to go to Changing Suns Press’s Books]

Posted on September 22, 2015 .