On Makhaevism: Knowledge Capitalists and Authority-Discourses

Jan Wacław Machajski was a Polish anarchist that lived from 1866-1926. His big idea, sometimes called Makhaevism, was an attempted synthesis of anarchist politics, Marxist political economy and historical materialism. The aim of Machajski’s work was to prove that, as he believed due to being heavily influenced by the works of Mikhail Bakunin, the radical intelligentsia aimed not at establishing a classless society, rather they wanted to replace the capitalists of the privileged stratum themselves. Machajski predicted that this class would use Marxist ideology as the new religion, the new opiate which clouded the minds of the labouring masses, obfuscating the antagonism between mental and manual labourers.

This was not to say that Machajski, Bakunin and other anarchists were fervent anti-intellectuals that rejected all authority, including the authority of the expert. They saw authority as fallible; something to be questioned constantly. Further, they recognised that the simplified Marxist classification of many, what we call today knowledge workers, intellectuals as proletarian, ignored the fact that they possessed an unfair monopoly on knowledge which gave them a privileged position in society. Bakunin famously wrote it is natural that he who knows more will dominate him who knows less.

I believe that Foucault takes this idea further when he showed how power evolved to take new, more mystified forms- power isn’t just over an individual, like the sovereign power to take life, but acts through individuals to anonymise domination. The particular form of oppressive (or at least potentially so) relations is generalised in such a way that not only are we forced to behave and act in certain ways, but we are told to freely choose to behave in these appropriate ways. We do what we’re told because it’s for our own good, or so we are told.

Foucault shows how discourses with public authority, such as medical science or criminology, shape and regulate the body of the population by acting upon the individuals it consists of. Another peculiar result of the evolution of power exemplified by Slavoj Zižek is the situation in which a father disciplines his child- unlike the traditional style of authority wherein the child is told unequivocally he must go to see grandma, the post-modern father authority is guilt-tripped into visiting. The child is not forced to behave and act in certain ways, but told to freely choose to behave in the appropriate way.

Just as Foucault shows how technologies of control are interlaced with medical-scientific discourses which legitimate domination, Zižek reveals the implicit un-freedoms in our formal freedoms. The call to action from this thought is to examine the concrete situations in which oppressive relations reveal themselves. Perhaps inspired by Bakunin, we can see how intellectual property makes the modern intelligentsia into a class of knowledge capitalists; through Foucault, we can see how their discourses legitimise and enable oppressive governmental controls; through Zižek, we can see how control is not shown by what we do, but by what we do not.

In this sense, Makhaevism is alive and well within the academy but it ironically causes an anti-Makhaevism, as the intelligentsia in finding the limits of its authority gains the ability to overcome them. The intelligentsia as the holders of knowledge are also privileged with the ability not to teach certain things which might undermine their own authority, ironically, such as the ideas of Makhaevism. The solution to this problematic, I think, requires 3 things of us:

The abolishment of intellectual property laws.

Freedom of inquiry for any individual doing knowledge work (as long as it does not breach ethical principles).

Freedom of education for all (including abolishment of university tuition fees).


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