On Being an Empiricist Anarchist in an Era of Tribal-Sectarian Warfare

By Keith Preston

Every so often, I like to provide readers with an updated description of who I am and what I do as newer readers are constantly coming to Attack the System who are unaware of this site’s history.  I’ve written previous narratives containing the backstory of ATS in the last couple of years commemorating the now 20+ year history of ATS-related activities. See here, here, here, here, and here.

As the masthead of this site indicates, I am an anarchist. But I take a different approach to anarchist theory than what will typically be found in most anarchist-related media. The majority of anarchists, at least in North America, are what I call “anarcho-social democrats” or “anarcho-progressives” who are mostly about embracing whatever center-left causes happen to be popular at a particular time, whatever alternative lifestyle issues are currently en vogue, or, alternately, simple 19th-century “workerist” reductionism. And those anarchists who reject this paradigm often go in the other direction and become “anarcho-Republicans” or “anarcho-neo-reactionaries” or something to that effect. An example would be the kinds of folks who are always enthusiastically promoting anything and everything that violates progressive taboos as “based.”

My interest in anarchism as a collection of political philosophies began about 35 years ago, and I have never really been anything other than an anarchist, at least not as an adult. During the past few decades, I have worked with a wide range of political tendencies on many different kinds of projects. Over time I have been tactically aligned with the far-left, left-wing anarchism, Wobblies, right-libertarians, populist-right, European third positionists, left-libertarians, European New Right, paleoconservatives, alternative-right, Shiites, Greens, and Marxist-Leninists. It all depended on the issue and the context.

While I prefer the anarchist perspective from the menu of ideological paradigms, I don’t really hold to rigid ideological constructs. I see ideologies as secular religions. None of them are “true.” They’re collections of myths, narratives, and archetypes people use to order their own psyche and build communities (“tribes”) around. But ideologies and religions (along with economic, philosophical, ethical, sociological, and psychological theories) are also like lenses on a microscope or telescope where you can look at things from different vantage points even if you’re not really getting the “big picture. My general approach to anarchist theory is contained in the ATS Statement of Purpose and most contributors to ATS activities or regulars to this site are folks who agree with at least the majority of the views expressed in the statement. But, at Attack the System, we have published liberals, progressives, socialists, social democrats, communists, environmentalists, feminists, left-libertarians, and left-anarchists along with conservatives, reactionaries, traditionalists, monarchists, right-libertarians, nationalists, populists, regionalists,  and third positionists.

And I’ve also dealt with quite a few hyphenated anarchist tendencies. The problem with all of these approaches was that the hyphens usually take precedence over the anarchist part, and the alliances end up becoming diluted by other things. For instance, Noam Chomsky has probably been the biggest influence on my thinking on international relations. But he has largely become an anarcho-Bidenist in his old age. Kevin Carson is probably my biggest influence on economics, and he has gone the same way as Chomsky. Ditto the man who recruited me into the IWW 33 years ago, and the man who nominated me to the national committee of the US section of the IWA around the same time. Walter Block is one of my favorite writers in the anarcho-capitalist tradition but instead of “defending the undefendable” he has become a “Libertarian for Trump” (although maybe Trump counts as being among the undefendable). It seems most people who are anarchists or libertarians are only such to the point that it advances the perceived interests of their reference groups (“tribe” or “sect”), favorite social cause, preferred economic system, or lifestyle preference. The “paleo” folks see the state as a threat to their preferred bourgeois Christian lifestyle, just like there are other types of libertarians for whom the state is a perceived threat to their preferred sex/drugs/whatever lifestyle.

My approach to political analysis and political theory is empirical. In many ways, Attack the System could be considered to political and socio-cultural conflict the equivalent of what ESPN is to sports. It’s about the sport, the teams, the game, the players, and the individual plays rather than rooting for any particular team per se. And ATS covers both mainstream and fringe politics the same way a sports news outlet might cover everything from the NFL to professional dart-throwing contests.  As an anarchist theorist, my approach is descriptive and analytical, and sometimes predictive or speculative, rather than prescriptive or normative, or at least any prescriptive or normative element would be submerged in an empirical framework. For example, one of my favorite works on anarchism is Paul Eltzbacher’s landmark study of classical anarchism from over 120 years ago, which examined anarchist theory as it was then from a value-neutral perspective. Elsewhere, I have described my approach as “operational anarchism.

For most of the history of ATS, the main focus of my work here was the cultivation of opposition to neoliberal imperialism and the domestic US police state that has developed over the past 40 years under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, guns, terrorism, and many other things. The strategic formulation of “pan-secessionism” was developed for the purpose of fracturing centralized state, plutocratic, and imperial institutions. Nowadays, such ideas have become mainstream, as I have explained here, here, here, here, and here. The power of the imperial core appears to be receding due to overreach, loss of legitimacy, and challenges from other power centers. The domestic system is likewise imploding, and the various ruling class factions are seeking to form one-party states of their own.

Meanwhile, the wider society is fragmenting into tribal-sectarian warfare, which is a quasi-religious war over existential values. The Red Tribe is comprised of the traditional American civil religion, traditional metaphysical religion, Lockean liberals, the historic WASP ethnocultural core, the sinking working to middle classes, and the industrial bourgeoisie. The Blue Tribe is comprised of “citizen of the world” cosmopolitans, Enlightenment rationalists and proponents of “scientism,” Rousseauan liberals, and/or “progressive” religion (the descendants of the deists, Unitarians, transcendentalists, etc), the rising professional-managerial class, upwardly mobile minorities, and the forces of digital capitalism. The different libertarian and anarchist factions are largely just micro-tribes within one of these macro-tribes.

At present, the major questions for anarchists would be these: What are the implications for anarchist theory of a multi-order world without a global hegemon that is instead fragmented into regional orders and, for North American anarchists, what are the implications of a post-America where the USA has either fractured into smaller states (like the collapses of the former Eurasian Communist expanse at the end of the Cold War) or alternatively, where the USA is simply the EU of North America, a common market, trade zone, and currency union presided over by a transnational elite that identifies with its class and with other elites rather than any nation, with Latin American-like socioeconomic stratification, and with tribal-sectarian conflict rivaling that of the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, or Northern Ireland?



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  1. I read stuff from all manner of political viewpoints, but I can’t stand most of the people. As you were saying on Cotto-Gottfried lately, it’s so easy to peg someone on everything based on knowing a couple of their positions or tribal identity. I find this narrative herd mentality, lack of genuine curiosity and uncritical attitude toward things that fit their propaganda tastes extremely tedious.

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