How is it that the very substance of life itself, the soil, the mud, the dust, the soot, the debris, the Earth, became the primary metaphor assigned to anarchists? Given that the descriptor “dirty anarchist” is intended as derogatory, and most anarchists feel their persuasions are positive and their actions affirmative, one might assume that there would be significant resistance against such a characterization. Should anarchists attempt to wash away the sins of defamation to somehow cleanse the anarchist ideal of this representation?
I resolutely answer ‘no’. Let us instead rethink what it means to be dirty. Doing so can help us to welcome the grunge of this grudge, to wallow in the mire of such antipathy and be guilty of its ragged accusations, proudly tattered and besmirched by its indictments.
Children know all too well the joy of playing in the dirt, where connecting with the Earth in the most physical way provides an endless source of nourishment for their curiosity (Toro 2016). They lose themselves to time and space when playing outside in the world, connected only to the immediacy of the moment they find themselves in, enthralled by the sheer beauty of nature’s messiness (Springer et al. 2016).
Scraped knees, smeared faces, and blackened fingernails. These are the consequences of connection, of oneness with the planet. They offer testament to a primal and permanent union with nature. Done right, what is ‘the child’ and what is ‘the Earth’ becomes muddied and indistinguishable through the unfolding of play. It is in these moments of communion that the meaning of life is revealed and we can feel our Being as an enmeshment within the infinite fabric and eternal structure of existence itself.
When, in childlike wonder, we allow ourselves to unite with the planet by becoming completely engaged in what we are doing in the here of this space and now of this moment, we create a sense of purpose. We get our hands dirty, and in so doing we come alive. When arising from our own volition and committed alongside and in the interest of our families and friends, the toil of work is transformed into the exuberant joy of play and we start to feel our connection to the Earth and the wider mystery we call life (Ward 1973). We become conscious, deliberate, and mindful that every individual is a unique manifestation of the whole, contributing to it through a reciprocity born of immanence.
The bewildering complexity of difference that comes to light by way of the multiple flowerings of Being does not negate the synergy and symbiosis that exists. Dishevelled, bedraggled, and soiled though it may be in its multifarious expression, oneness remains. If it is anything at all, anarchism is a celebration of this contagion of connectivity. So by all means, drag its good name through the dirt!
Only through a politics of division can one conceive of themself as a distinct and disconnected entity. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the rise of the ego has developed alongside the pursuit of both nationalism and capitalism. They are, each one, related distortions that attempt to make sense of the world through a partitioning of the self from all else. Whether expressed as an individual, as a state, or through the process of accumulation, all of these ideas seek to carve out and define what is ‘mine’ from an inalienable connection to the source of all life and what rightfully belongs to the entirety of existence.
This ideology of division has recently culminated in the perverse hyper individualism of the present neoliberal moment, a condition of profound hallucinatory separation wherein the ‘I’ cleans itself of all ethical virtue. We are told to stand alone as obelisks of conceit. Yet the estrangement of humans from nature has long been considered a false dichotomy within the experimental philosophy-religions of the so-called ‘East’, while what is considered as ‘Western’ science has begun drawing similar conclusions. The ‘all against all’ struggle of nationalism and the ‘survival of the fittest’ ethos of capitalism are clear expressions of antipathy for the Earth, adhering instead to the myopic sensation of a separate ego.
An anarchist’s connection to the planet represents a threat to the present circumstances precisely because our dedication to mutual aid and convivial togetherness are a constant source of anxiety in the face of borders, bisections, and boundaries. Our refusal of hierarchy and domination threaten the myth of separation that contemporary society is founded upon. We place ourselves within the world, content to dwell in the complexity of its spectacular messiness, rooted firmly in the clay, the loam, the dirt. There is no clean separation for humanity, only a thick morass of endless entanglements. At the deepest level of immanence we are inseparable from the soil, for we all inevitably return to it.
Our lives are a blossoming of consciousness, but we know all too well that this beautiful illusion is a state of fragile impermanence. When we surrender ourselves to this moment, to the power and possibility of the here and now, we feel the fullness of presence and the gift of Being. The project of modernity invests all of its energy into insisting on the departure of humans from nature. It places its faith in the reactionary idea that the Earth might ever succumb to our will, and with this prophesized submission, we might somehow be able to escape the fate that awaits us all. Yet the death of the individual should not be feared for the soil is alive. Every ‘I’ is a mere expression of the entirety of existence where the source of all life remains. Even as its ability to sustain human life is being compromised, the Earth stands forever fast. It will survive our hubris.
As with all other organisms, humans are woven within the ebbs and flows of the planet. But we are not just part of this forever shifting process, we are the process itself. All that we do and everything that we are can only be understood in relation to the wider environment, the biosphere, and indeed to the infinity of existence. Anarchism implicitly understands this connection, and so the notion of “I, dirty anarchist”, is purposefully intended as a contradiction. It is not the embrace of an identity, nor is it an acceptance of the descriptor that has been assigned. My title should instead be read as an oxymoron. Just as no organism or thing can exist or act on its own, anarchism is about recognizing this vital connection.
As Peter Kropotkin (1902) and Élisée Reclus (1894) both documented over a century ago, it is our tie to each other that matters most, an unbreakable bond that doesn’t begin and end with the category of ‘human’, but rather extends to all of nature. Their visions were of a relational geography that spoke to an integral anarchism (Springer 2016). Put differently, anarchism situates us not as pieces of the whole, as though we compose our connections as one might assemble a jigsaw puzzle, but rather it understands that the whole is a pattern that has no separate pieces. To think in terms of pieces is to perpetuate a calculus born only of language (Watts 1989), when the reality is much, much dirtier.
So to all the dirty anarchists among us, let us revel in the filth that the ego of authority and the authority of ego ascribes to us. We are not the vestiges of its civilization, responsible for all that is wrong in this world. No, not at all. It is the long march of ‘progress’ and its attempt to wash away the footsteps of our evolution that instead produces the ruins. The tides of this piety may sweep us around, but dirt always remains dirt. Not even an ocean of distorted moral righteousness can clean us.
We are forever the indignation, the grime under the heel, the antithesis of the false separation that pits us against each other and establishes a series of mistaken dominions over the planet. Raining threats, intimidation, coercion, and harassment upon us is of no use. The deluge will pass and the sun will shine again. Embracing us in its warmth and baking the mud on our backs, the light reminds us once more that we are always cradled in the arms of our loving Earth. We are nature becoming self-conscious (Reclus 1864).
In moments of quiet stillness we can feel the frequency of this immutable connection thrumming within us. We are the human expression of Being. Earthlings. The great unwashed.
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Reclus, E. 1864 . Man and Nature. Sydney: Black Cat Press.
Reclus, E. 1894. The Earth and Its Inhabitants: The Universal Geography. Vol. 1. London: J. S. Virtue.
Springer, S. 2016. The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Springer, S., Souza, M. L., and White, R. 2016. Introduction: transgressing frontiers through the radicalization of pedagogy. In The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt. Springer, S., Souza, M. L., and White, R. eds. London: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-26.
Toro, F. 2016. Educating for earth consciousness: ecopedagogy within early anarchist geography. In The Radicalization of Pedagogy: Anarchism, Geography, and the Spirit of Revolt. Springer, S., Souza, M. L., and White, R. eds. London: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 193-222..
Ward, Colin. 1973 . Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom.
Ward, Colin. 1988. Child in the City. London: Bedford Square.
Watts, A. 1989. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Vintage.
Springer, S. 2018. I, dirty anarchist. Durty Wurds. Ed. Kate O’Shea.