I’ve been having an ongoing discussion about the the distinction between ‘political’ action, and ‘personal’ or ‘lifestyle’ action with a friend of mine. Lifestylism is considered a political slur amongst anarchist circles, and is almost as bad as petit-bourgeois is considered in Marxist circles. However, I feel the debate around it is really quite ill-thought out.

To be a lifestylist is to, apparently, falsely believe that personal decisions can be political… or something like that. The usage of the word came about in Bookchin’s vitriolic polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An unbridgeable chasm from around 1995, by which point he was well past his prime of writing. From his conclusion (note the insulting use of ‘petit-bourgeois’ – you just know he has Marxist roots!):

Minimally, social anarchism is radically at odds with anarchism focused on lifestyle, neo-Situationist paeans to ecstasy, and the sovereignty of the ever-shriveling petty-bourgeois ego. The two diverge completely in their defining principles – socialism or individualism. Between a committed revolutionary body of ideas and practice, on the one hand, and a vagrant yearning for privatistic ecstasy and self-realization on the other, there can be no commonality. Mere opposition to the state may well unite fascistic lumpens with Stirnerite lumpens, a phenomenon that is not without its historical precedents.

My contention, firstly, is that there should not be an opposition between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’, and rather that political, indeed all macro social structures, are actually constituted through practices of everyday life. My second contention is that the aim of anarchism shouldn’t be either socialism or individualism, but rather what a number of authors have called communal individualism.

The collapsing of the macro and the micro into a single field of relations and practices has been attempted by a number of theorists: this is Delueze and Guattari’s ‘plane of immanence’ and the ‘abstract machine’; it is Bruno Latour’s ‘flat social’ (a quite conservative social theorist otherwise however); and it is the turn to everyday life of the Situationists, of Lefebvre, and of much of post-structuralism. Put simply, it is the idea that when we talk of ‘the State,’ for example, we are not talking about a concrete thing but rather a conglomeration of social relations that, through their repeated performances of certain key practices and their collective orientation that is, on the whole, the same, they create the notion of the State. The State is therefore not the reified conception that some are prone to, but rather a mass of social practices in which certain key practices (ie. obedience to agents of the State, obedience to the Father) are critical in maintaining the overall illusion. The State is constituted through practices of repression and violence, but similarly through obedience and consent.

What this means is that there is no secondary sphere of political action, nor a sphere that is simply personal, but that relations of everyday life are already political. The distinction between lifestylism and politics ceases to make sense, except for the Statists who consider only those actions within the sphere of the State as political (a claim which makes no sense for those seeking the abolition of the State).

It is obvious what those who make the attack of ‘lifestylism’ are getting at. It is usually a charge of a lack of collective action, or a charge of consumer-oriented change. That it is always up to individuals to change their behaviour is always going to be the reality, but it is also a reality that freeing ourselves from oppressive social relations comes through a mass refusal to perpetuate those relations. This is not a charge against ‘lifestylism’ per se, but rather a distinction of effective action, and one which could easily be levelled against the mass marches that are so fetishised as being political, and which so often fail to count as “mass” at all. Secondly, the critique of consumer-oriented change is similarly valid but not against lifestylism, instead against naive liberal notions that we can buy buy buy our way to a better world.

Secondly, Bookchin sets up a fantastic division between egotistical individualists and social revolutionaries, and of course this is nothing but the classical distinction between individualists and socialist anarchists. The former puts the self above everything else, while the latter instead prioritises the collective. As for me, anarchism only makes sense when it is concerned with the freedom of the individual (what sense does it make to talk of the freedom of collective?), but it is both a negative freedom-from and a positive freedom-to. Certainly, the latter can only be generated through communal action. This is the notion of communal individuality, where the measure of freedom is based on the freedom of the individual, but that this freedom is extended and fostered through communal action. The development of the ego (in the Stirnerite conception of ‘the unique one’, NOT the popular conception) should therefore be of primary concern; that is, the development of selves both willing to defend their freedom, and to extend it further, à la Stirner’s ‘union of egos.’ Any ego freed from the ‘spooks’ in their heads will immediately realise the paralysing and repressive social order with which they are met and that any desire that they may have for ‘privatistic ecstasy’ immediately becomes a social desire aimed at abolishing the conditions that make that desire impossible.

The charge of lifestylism maintains the division between the public and the private spheres, between the personal and the political. I believe instead that the terrain of political action is the terrain of everyday life; there is no secondary or tertiary spheres of politics or ideology. Moreover, the development of selves radically desiring of freedom is essential to any revolutionary project aimed at communal individuality, one that is opposed to the subjugation of the individual to yet another collective spook.