Poly And Anarcho-Communist

In a late submission for Poly and Politics week, Anthony, from LA, gives us a crash course in anarcho-communism and discusses polyamory from the communist perspective. We discover that polyamory is as communist as Sesame Street: all 3 believe firmly that sharing is caring.

               It’s hard to explain this kind of experience--of the 'political' and the 'personal'-- to someone not well-versed in Marxist theory or practice. If you grew up in the US, chances are you learned from school and the culture industry (all the industries and arts that go into making what we experience as our ‘culture’(s): literature, film, music, art criticism, popular explanations of ‘what we like/want’’, etc.), and even just through living here, that the 'political' and 'personal' are different. You probably learned that the political is some separate sphere of tastes and thought as narrow and limited as say, ‘literature,’ or ‘psychology,’ or ‘physics’.  

               But that view is actually part of a very particular political philosophy/practice—late capitalism or neoliberalism. That form of political system features things like open markets, privatization, corporatization, and most importantly, hyperindividualism--careful separations of people from each other, and areas of society/culture from each other, to ensure the system functions.  

               If you are a Marxist, you see the political as intersecting with everything.  For us, there is no such thing as the ‘nonpolitical’.  When it feels like that, chances are you’re somewhere neoliberalism has ruled for so long it feels like common sense or human nature. Look at the way universities (or sets of knowledge) are organized: into departments and disciplines that have very little interaction which each other. They lead us to believe there’s such a thing as ‘economics’ outside of ‘sociology’ and ‘philosophy’, or that sociology/philosophy are to be kept distinct from literature. The result: literature that doesn't trace ideological ‘causes’ or ‘motives’ in their plots and characters, and philosophy that becomes abstract and unconnected to people's experiences.

               With that in mind, you can see how it’s not a stretch for us to think polyamory is connected to the political. We think that about everything, not just polyamory!  

               Some quick basics: communism, like anarchism, is not just an ‘economic system’ or ‘political philosophy.’ It is a philosophy in the greater sense of the word, like existentialism or pragmatism; except it only counts if that philosophy is coupled with a life of action/manifestation of these ideas. This concept, called 'praxis,' is the reason so much critical theory in academia is ‘Marxist,’ even though the author may have a more capitalist economic sensibility.  Nowadays, Marxism has been so influential that many are using its arguments without realizing where they're from.  Examples: the critique of ‘disembodying’ practices/beliefs; and the practice of analyzing sexist, homophobic, ablest, monogamocentric, racist, and other forms of bigotry—not just classism—as part of the agenda of ruling power. There are also healthy critiques of individualism, property, disembodiment, and exploitation (any time the worker doesn’t share in the profits of her labor), all funneled increasingly into feminist, queer, body-positive and other critical interventions. The idea that power belongs not just to politicians but is also displaced across business interests,  the media, and entire ‘complexes’ (military industrial, prison industrial, etc) also comes from Marxism.   

               Of course, some things lend themselves better to certain ways of living. For communism or anarchism, I think polyamory is one of them. 

               In terms of commitments, I understand communism or Marxism (there are many varieties—mine borrows from many) to mean the commitment above all to what I learned from my mother—sharing.  Sharing resources, sharing the burden of various natural disasters and economic hard times, freely sharing knowledge for everyone's use; sharing land, community space, governing power, profits, decision-making, and everything from childcare to education.  Any practice related to prizing property (including marriage as its commonly understood in this country, real estate, copyright, and more) is a practice better suited to neoliberal ideology than communism.  

               In fact, I find the narratives around relationships to be parallel to the narratives around property.  Polyamory is quite anarchist in the sense that viewing your partner as property is a theft of their autonomy, and really a theft of their ability to participate in a healthy community. This theft creates all sorts of alienation, and opens potential doors to all sorts of romantic and social profiteering off the way it divides and disconnects community. I've started to become more aware of the many ways we're kept from acting as a community and interacting with each other; I think polyamory could serve as a healthy dissolving of the more typical social borders between roles (like friend/lover/life partner/coworker).  The common uneasy (and often vehemently scandalized) response to hearing that poly people share bodies, souls, and sometimes finances, property and child-rearing duties, is what woke me up to how important it must be for the dominant system to keep us more separate and possessive.

                As for anarchism, it shares a similar love for community and sharing, and similar disdain for property.  I think anarcho-communism most closely describes my sensibility and commitments, because it takes communism and includes an opposition to hierarchy, domination, and political power. Anarchy doesn’t actually mean chaos or lack of order, like many imply, though; There are leaders, and there is order. It’s just that we all are those leaders, and we determine the order we want. You might recognize the consensus-model of decision-making, made famous in anarchist groups in the Occupy movement--mostly an anarchist idea.

                What in my experience of polyamory intersects with these political commitments?  

                I think you may have guessed some of what goes so well with polyamory: the distrust of hyperindividualism. The emphasis on sharing as a fundamental virtue fits well--‘selfishness,’ theorized as so healthy for society in capitalism, is much harder when your family is bigger and requires more compromise and communication. The way polyamory often encourages more sharing of resources and living situations also resembles what any anarchist or communist would want to see on a larger scale across the country.  

                Marxists in general, as I said, are concerned about the interconnectedness of everything, like the way most of society is an expression of its ideology. This kind of thinking is naturally available to a poly person, too: As a minority, poly people tend to have an easier time seeing how the dominant paradigm is oppressive for many, since it is also oppressive for us. Poly relationships also involve many alternative ways of organizing oneself in society (property, housing, resources, watercooler talk about love, response to the media, problems with psychologists who don’t get it, etc). Because of the stigmatization poly people encounter, there is also an unavoidable level of consciousness about what those who practice the approved form of social organization do without interference from the state (or workplace, school, or community). Polys also share the natural ideological questioning that happens when what feels right and natural to you is relatively rare, and is often ridiculed and excoriated. In those circumstances, it is easy to see the normalcy of the 'other' way promoted everywhere: entertainment, art, news, and legal theory, and more. It’s a big clue that we live in one big ideological production, as anarchists and communists argue, not a world that has ‘Politics’ but then has all these separate apolitical realms like art and psychology.

                What else?  The consensus model works best for many in polyamory, where more than two voices/sets of needs requires that kind of respect for a plurality of voices, and where a simple ‘majority rule’ will feel as oppressive as it does to anarchists.  There’s also what my partner Vanessa calls a resistance to the ‘scarcity’ model of love…or of anything.  That anxious sense that we’re going to ‘run out’ of love, or money, or land or anything if we don’t protect what’s ours and look out for ourselves or our one partner, rather than trusting that if we all work together, no one will get left without the essentials.  This belief is somehow easier, it seems, if you don’t experience love or romance as a finite resource.  

                Another thing I love about polyamory is the effect of New Relationship Energy (NRE), which for monogamous couples can only exist once unless they break up and find someone new.  For us, we can experience it at later points in life, either with new committed partners or lighter lovers for those who do that.  Either way, that energy is often reflected back on the original couple(s), allowing you to see and experience your partner anew.  This is also the virtue of plurality of voices and leaders in anarchism and some communism—it limits the capacity for laws and institutions and power itself to grow stale and hegemonic, unchecked by new energy and alternative voices.

                Are there ways being poly grates up against being anarchist or communist?  Yes, but I attribute that to a sadly common oversight among radicals. Some see relationships as a minor issue compared to class warfare or feminist struggle, often not considering that this kind of relationship may be related to both.  It doesn’t help that many communist and anarchist friends, raised in the US or another chiefly monogamist society, are by default monogamous. This tends to make them a little defensive about the idea that a new and foreign way of living and loving may fit better with their general commitments to social change and justice.   There is also a sad reality present in activist circles: many want to avoid a second, third, or fourth controversial position when the main one they’re committed to faces enough obstacles. They're concerned that it could be written off easily by being associated with another subversive, misunderstood, and arrogantly dismissed (by the dominant ideology) practice.  I disagree heartily with this stance, and think for Marxists it’s truly hypocritical, since we’re supposed to distrust any compartmentalization or pretending everything isn’t related. However, these frictions are minor compared to the friction with most other people. In fact, polyamory is quite popular in many anarchist circles.

                I can’t really say whether I found myself poly and then noticed its anarcho-communist tendencies, or if my commitment to polyamory came as an offshoot from my anarcho-communism. (In true Marxist fashion, it was a dialectic!)  Sharing was ingrained by mother much more deeply than my friends seemed to think: I always naturally questioned the possessiveness and competitiveness people had with their partners (and really, in friendship and work relationships as well). But I don’t think I would have had the guts to really pursue polyamory beyond the initial struggle of stigmatization, judgment, and lack of understanding/support from friends and professionals, if I hadn’t started to see it as a responsible and healthy alternative due to my burgeoning Marxist studies. That made things like coming out easier, since it was now a duty I owed to a philosophical commitment,  not 'just' a ‘lifestyle preference.' 

                Would I deny that many Americans' experience of being poly is quite different? Of course not. But I think this is partially because many don’t think about the political consequences (and influences on) their beliefs. Most have been raised in a culture where 'the political' is artificially separated from everything else. The very word ‘lifestyle’ leads us into this assumption, as if something with as potentially far-reaching consequences in destabilizing the family, marriage, legal system, property, collectivity, community, and roles we assign to each kind of relationship could be 'just' a ‘style’.  You could make it just a style, but isn’t it more helpful to think about polyamory as placing people directly in the struggle against the dominant paradigm, and therefore capitalism? Activism around various "liberation" movements is often derailed into basic recognition of "my" tribe, and and attempt to carve some space out for "us" to live and exist unmolested within the capitalist paradigm. What about polyamory and activism subverting that paradigm instead? Not just capitalism, but the ways that sexism, homophobia, etc., are tied into it for us, too. If die-hard capitalists also want to be poly—go right ahead! But I'm really curious to see how most would think about polyamory if they were conscious of the idea that a ‘lifestyle,’ as separate from the political, was already a political commitment… and maybe one they can’t get behind.

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About the Author

Anthony Cristofani - Writer - Active Contributor

 Anthony Cristofani is a PhD student and Italian instructor at the University of California, Riverside.  After a 3-year stint in prison and a 5-year stint touring in a rock band, he now spends his time writing fiction and nonfiction, teaching, and community organizing.  He lives in a triad with his wife and their girlfriend.