October 2020Theory

Anti-Concepts: What They Are and How to Use Them

I was introduced to anti-concepts through the following short clip of philosopher Roderick Long. I recommend watching the video in full, but here is the important bit:

[Ayn] Rand used to identify certain terms and ideas as anti-concepts—that is, terms that actually function to obscure our understanding rather than facilitating it, making it harder for us to grasp other legitimate concepts.

… Capitalism, if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. Most people mean neither the “free market” simpliciter, nor “the prevailing neo-mercantilist system” simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by capitalism is “this free market system that currently prevails in the Western world.” In short, the term “capitalism” is generally used to conceal an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact largely one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary usage of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term “socialism.” Most people don’t mean by socialism anything so precise as “state ownership of the means of production.” Instead they really mean something like “the opposite of capitalism.” Then if capitalism is a package-deal term, so is socialism. It conveys opposition to the free market and opposition to neo-mercantilism, as though these were one and the same.

And that, I suggest, is the function of these terms: to blur the distinction between the free market and neo-mercantilism. Such confusion prevails because it works to the advantage of the statist establishment. Those who want to defend the free market can more easily be seduced into defending neo-mercantilism, and those who want to combat neo-mercantilism can more easily be seduced into combating the free market. Either way, the state remains secure.

And Ayn Rand gives her broader definition of anti-concepts:

An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.

I find that so many political arguments (especially on social media) come down to a basic difference on how the sides are defining their terms. “Racism” is an easy example—the left may define it as systems of white supremacy, and the right may define it as specific, intended hate acts. When people discuss this issue, they don’t use these more precise categories, but their preferred term which assumes its definition without clarifying to the listener.

But my idea of anti-concepts goes a bit further than the way Long and Rand are using it—I don’t think anti-concepts are “unusable” but are just a descriptive fact of our discourse. And further, the mainstream discourse today is primarily defined by corporate media (including the corporate social media platforms), which shapes what Long calls these terms’ ordinary usage. Media bubbles—people’s preferred corporate media sphere where the assumed definitions align with their own—by their very nature are creating Kellyanne Conway’s "alternative facts."

Consider the term “antifa.” To the left, it is simply short for “antifascism” and is rooted in the history of a popular front combatting fascist politics especially before and during World War II. Within the left’s media bubble, primarily Twitter and other social media platforms, this definition is a default assumption and most people don’t bother explaining what “antifa” means to them. But to the right, “antifa” is defined as “violent anarchists” and “far-left extremists,” coming primarily from Fox News, Donald Trump, and GOP power centers.

And most importantly, centrists—the majority of people, who either don’t follow politics or watch “liberal” corporate media like CNN—end up receiving mixed definitions because CNN and the rest of corporate media try to remain “objective” and make no normative claims for/against antifa, except to condemn “violence” (another anti-concept). This means the centrists end up either (1) accepting the left or right’s definition and arguing against the other (falling into a debate trap, where you argue rather than build a common understanding of the issue), (2) accepting both sides’ definitions—historically grounded antifascists are violent far-left extremists—viewing the threat of antifa as equal to that of the rising fascist movement (the “both sides” trap), or (3) not understanding the debate and simply tuning it out. The outcome here is not that the state wins, as Long suggests, but that the supremacists win—the debate is obscured, fascist ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are able to reach wider audiences, and antifascist activism—critical work to prevent fascist organizing—is stifled.

This breaks down further: within each of these three broad media bubbles—left, right, centrist/liberal—anti-concepts are deployed at more and more granular levels. The more specific an argument gets, the more it has to signal to the audience about prior assumptions and information—what Rand called “giving the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.” This results in the speaker using their limited time with your attention to develop the concept and arguments further, relying on you to have the proper background information.

The prevailing incentive in corporate media and for politicians is to avoid this by “dumbing down” their topic in order to stay politically accessible to the “lowest common denominator” (best exemplified by Trump). But it is a pressing problem for movements—where new political ideas, strategies, and arguments emerge. Rather than engaging with the content of someone’s idea, strategy, or argument, the audience tends to return to the original debate about the definition of the terms the speaker is using, and the end result is any potential activity or further ideas are deflated. This is true both intra-movement and when attempting to persuade “outsiders” (for lack of a better term)—we continually get bogged down in these debates about terminology while the task of addressing the ongoing crisis remains urgently at hand.

So what do we do about this? Movements should embrace the reality of anti-concepts by utilizing how their definitions are processed along the following six stages of a movement’s evolution:

  1. Individuals define political labels around a pluralism of ideologies and take on the “without adjectives” approach. (“anarchism,” “democratic socialism,” and “democracy”)
  2. Movements define themselves by catalyzing in response to shared needs, issues, crises, etc. (Green New Deal, Black Lives Matter)
  3. Movements define a popular sense of guiding principles. (a “just transition,” reparations)
  4. Movements define their policy demands in line with the shared principles. (a federal jobs guarantee, defunding the police)
  5. Movement politicians and experts propose specific programs in response to movements’ guiding principles and demands.
  6. Deliberation among the movement continues as the issue becomes mainstream and legislative negotiations occur, until eventually a demand is won.

Before movements can develop, there needs to be a latent group of people with shared affinities and ideologies. By people’s nature, they sort themselves into political identity categories—liberal, socialist, capitalist, conservative, libertarian, etc. We’ve seen Long’s example of how these can be anti-concepts. But they still provide a starting point. The debate within these identity groups shifts from being about what these words mean to uniting around their shared affinities toward a strategy for change—this is what I identify as the “without adjectives” approach.

The “without adjectives” idea comes from the anti-concept problem philosophical anarchists have found themselves embroiled in since the 19th century. In response to the divergent tendencies suffering from in-fighting and inability to challenge the system, the label “anarchist without adjectives" embraced the various schools of thought—mutualist, individualist, communist, etc.—as a form of pluralism in order to unite them against their shared value of opposing non-consensual hierarchy. (This seems to be a logical outcome for a philosophy premised on voluntarism, or people’s inherent capacity to “choose their own path” toward freedom. See Karl Hess’ “Anarchy without Hyphens."

But I want to take this “without adjectives” approach in two directions: first, toward the left, and second, toward democracy.

First, the term “anarchist” is disputed on the left; the unifying “anarchist without adjectives” may move the anarchist milieu in the right direction, but it still alienates leftists who fundamentally disagree with anarchism (by their preferred definition), even though they share anti-capitalist principles. But largely thanks to Bernie Sanders’ specific choice to use the term, “democratic socialism” has become the similar term for the left—a kind of “leftism without adjectives.” This is represented in practice by the Democratic Socialists of America’s “big tent” philosophy. (“Big tent" here refers to the fact the DSA does not have an official “line” or particular favored tendency, in contrast with a "democratic centralist" political organization, which binds all of its members to the group’s decisions for the sake of effective administration.) While the left may debate the term “democratic socialism” and how it’s used, it now serves as a broad tendency that captures a pluralism of ideologies united in anti-capitalist principles.

Second, while “democratic socialist” may be a comfortable and normal term within the left media bubble, it still functions as an anti-concept for the Fox News and CNN bubbles. No matter what the left does to make coherent and persuasive arguments about ideas and strategy, the basic breakdown of geographic power via Congress, the Electoral College, and state legislatures makes any politics premised on accepting the left’s preferred definition “democratic socialism” an extreme uphill battle.

Instead, the left can define its politics as genuinely democratic, which becomes a substantive point itself about the nature of movements. I recently watched Astra Taylor’s wonderful documentary "What is Democracy?" and this question posed by the film is one of the longest standing and universally considered. But the fact the question remains open is important—it is a challenge for every person and every generation to continue defining it in their own terms.

Status-quo politics today doesn’t attempt to give an answer (shockingly not even the Democratic Party, despite their namesake), which leaves it up to movements to do so since they’re in practice “what democracy looks like.” As I've pointed out elsewhere, the fundamental difference between the rising movement and the dominant neoliberal systems is their open versus closed nature—are they changeable via collective action (i.e., movements) or do we accept the values and institutions of the world as they are presented to us? The advantage here is that the basic shared American value of liberty, if extended consistently, would flow into having to agree with self-rule for the individual and democracy in order for the individual to be able to consent with collective action.

For all of Bernie’s rhetorical flaws, he does a good job navigating the anti-concept problem. When questioned on his definition of democratic socialism, he consistently refers to Franklin Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., and the “Nordic model,” which ground his ideas in a common American narrative that the majority of people believe in. This month, Bernie made an appearance at the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives’ 2020 conference and gave his perspective on worker-owned industry, fleshing out a clearer and more substantive conception. Bernie’s democratic socialism serves both of these “without adjectives” approaches:

  1. Internally, he created new “big tent” space for various tendencies to organize under a unified banner and continue developing ideas, strategies, and arguments.
  2. Externally, his argument gave new content to the term “socialism” counter to the dominant association with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezeula, etc., rooted in the more common assumption that the New Deal, MLK, and Nordic countries are generally good models to aspire toward.

All of this isn’t to say people should forego all political labels or all the values those labels represent—instead, we need to meet people where they’re at, or, know our audience and build arguments based on shared definitions.

So if labels like “anarchism” and “democratic socialism” are initial umbrellas to coalesce under, the next step is to begin defining a policy program, which is what we’ve seen develop with recent movements. For our purposes, I'll look at the Green New Deal and Black Lives Matter. While both of these ideas have a rich theoretical background to draw from to define them and their policy programs, in ordinary usage they are signifiers used to approximate understanding in the listener—making them ripe anti-concepts.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal resolution to Congress in February 2019, one of the main criticisms from both the left and the right was in defining the GND—the left wanted specific policy proposals in order to carve out a clear aspiration rather than an “empty resolution,” and the right boogeyman-ed the proposal as the “end of airplanes and hamburgers.” But the resolution’s lack of specificity of what the GND actually contains is exactly its benefit.

In order to genuinely be a movement demand, the movement needs space to deliberate and fill out the idea’s content. The two years following the resolution’s introduction have seen historic levels of activism from young people, universally calling for something like a GND. The anti-concept issue here is that the critical left and right saw the GND resolution as stage 5 above—proposing a specific program—but GNDers recognized they were in reality at stages 3 and 4—aiming to generate a popular sense of guiding principles and policy demands for the movement to utilize and build on. (See GND co-author Robert Hockett’s February 2019 article "Who Will Make The Green New Deal? Literally All Of Us" where he makes this theory of change explicit.)

So through an ongoing dynamic process, the movement provides a democratic mandate for politicians, experts, and policy wonks to develop specific policy prescriptions, which the movement can hold accountable to the preceding principles and demands. And now there are competing versions of the GND from presidential campaigns, think tanks, nonprofits, grassroots organizations, etc.—all aiming to meet the movement’s vision—and the GND’s success is all the more likely because of it.

Black Lives Matter has faced a similar definitional battle from the start. The contrasting “All Lives Matter” slogan illustrates how BLM functions as an anti-concept—opponents define BLM as not “race neutral,” meaning it must be racist toward white people. (“Race neutrality” has been an ideological weapon of choice for reactionaries post-segregation, especially within the legal system, not-coincidentally playing into a neoliberal zero-sum scarcity framework.) Since 2013, the policy program of BLM has been incubating around a set of guiding principles: ending police brutality, prison/police abolition, and reparations.

With a movement catalyzed (stage 2) and with a sense of guiding principles (stage 3), “defund the police” emerged as the popular demand of this summer’s mass protests (stage 4). As another anti-concept, liberal “tone police” reject it for something more “consensus-building,” and the right take it as advocating a descent into violent lawlessness. The demand’s advantage is its concrete specificity—it builds on the guiding principles to make a clear demand of politicians to divest public resources from unaccountable police and invest in the unfinished post-slavery project of Black reconstruction. And now any politician, expert, or wonk claiming to represent movements must provide their specific policy answer on how they will defund the police and invest in community. (Congress has been able to get away with avoiding the question so far since the Senate and White House remain in GOP control, but the next Democratic Congress will have to reckon with the defense budget and U.S. imperialism as directly relevant movement questions.) All this came about because, as a movement, BLM has had space to develop decentralized activist networks and infrastructure over the past years—making the resulting explosion of activity an organic outcome of the gasoline of COVID poured on the already-raging crisis of police brutality and racialized poverty.

So, in order to successfully realize these movement visions, it requires building infrastructure that can translate them into policy. Your next step is to figure out where they fit within this theory of change—keep building collective power to define our terms, movements, principles, demands, and policies until we win!

See more in categoryReturn to Issue