Obedience & disobedience

Image: Nora at the London Anarchist Book Fair

By Nora Ziegler

The casual manner in which an array of anarchist slogans, banners, book titles, t-shirts, zines, and badges mock and deride my religious faith masks the fragility of secular anarchist ideology. I used to help run stalls and sometimes workshops with the London Catholic Worker at the London Anarchist Bookfair. As a Christian anarchist, just being who I am felt like an act of disobedience. I felt intimidated but, to be honest, also thrilled by the power of my subjectivity to cause such offence.

The way that a lot of anarchists can’t make sense of religious anarchism, suggests that they can’t think beyond obedience as obedience to the state. The slogan “no gods no masters” equates state authority with divine authority, and political with spiritual obedience, thereby reinforcing the universality of the state instead of undermining it. Ironically, this kind of anarchism reinforces the idea that there is really nothing beyond the imperialist capitalist state.

The anarchist emphasis on disobedience is important. It is important to cultivate our ability to refuse authority, to take direct action, and organise independently in our communities. However, if disobedience doesn’t lead to the formation of new and different forms of authority, it leaves the old authority intact. A liberating disobedience also requires openness towards positive experimentations with spirituality, sexuality, femininity, cultural identity, and organising structures.

If obedience is not universal, then neither is disobedience. To recognise this is to admit that anarchism is an ideology, rooted in a particular historical and cultural tradition.

Nora Ziegler

In isolation, these experiments are always in danger of being recaptured by conservative religious institutions, liberal identity politics, and top-down organising approaches. However, our religious, activist, gender, sexual and cultural identities often contradict and unsettle each other, and yet co-exist dynamically within our bodies and communities. This contradictory nature of our social identities and relationships resists being fully absorbed by institutional or ideological structures.

The activist Jessica Reznicek says that her religious faith enabled her to do courageous direct actions and survive the state repression that followed. Her disobedience to energy corporations and the state is enabled by a spiritual obedience. It could be argued that this way of thinking subordinates disobedience to obedience. However, this is only the case if we think of obedience as a universal category that includes both spiritual and political obedience. While spiritual and political obedience may overlap and mutually impact each other, they don’t fully translate.

Image: Sisters Against the Arms Trade blockade an MBDA missile factory

If obedience is not universal, then neither is disobedience. To recognise this is to admit that anarchism is an ideology, rooted in a particular historical and cultural tradition. It means that anarchists are not automatically anti-racist, anti-sexist or anti-imperialist just by virtue of their rejection of the state. Recognising the validity of faith would push a lot of anarchists off their high horse, which would perhaps explain their hostility to religion.

Disobedience only really challenges obedience if it enables new and different kinds of obedience. It therefore makes more sense to speak of “disobediences” and “obediences”. Disobediences show that obediences are contingent and can be withdrawn. They show that although we rely on ideologies, norms, rules, and institutions, we often use these in incoherent and disobedient ways.

Chris Rossdale gives the example of a Sisters Against the Arms Trade action that I was part of [1]. We blockaded a missile factory wearing red lipstick. As Rossdale points out, part of the reason we did this was to subvert the idea that radical women should not wear makeup or care about looking pretty. However, our obedience to beauty norms was not purely performative. I for one also very much wanted to look pretty. I wanted to conform to beauty standards. Being able to use my obedience to beauty norms to disobey and subvert activist norms felt empowering. 

Similarly, the disobedience of women wearing hijab and playing punk gigs is not an absence of obedience but a provocative obedience that centres the agency of the women as Ghazal Tipu suggests in her review of We Are Lady Parts. The different communities, traditions, and subcultures we are part of expose each other’s contingency. Our agency and individuality are grounded in the fact that none of these structures fully owns or defines us. And yet we don’t exist without them.

This doesn’t mean that we simply pick and choose our beliefs and traditions without fully investing ourselves. That would make both obedience and disobedience meaningless. Similarly, obedience and disobedience would be meaningless if authority was absolute and universal. They would simply be two sides of the same coin.

My Christian faith destabilises anarchist ideology and my anarchist politics destabilises my faith. Wearing make-up challenges macho norms within activist cultures and taking part in direct actions challenges mainstream ideals of femininity. The paradoxical relationship between obedience and disobedience can’t be sustained in theory without subordinating one to the other. However, in practice the dynamic between obedience and disobedience is sustained by the incomplete and contradictory nature of our social relationships and identities.

[1] Resisting Militarism

Nora Ziegler is an anarchist organiser and writer.

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