There are few common activist catchphrases that have been more misinterpreted in North American anarchist circles than "The Personal is Political". If we give the benefit of the doubt and assume it is error rather than deliberate distortion, one has to conclude that a simple logic error is the culprit. Even though A is B does not necessarily imply B is A (a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square), many activists still seem to believe that if "The Personal is Political" it must mean "The Political is Personal" as well. The phrase first arose out of the New Left, when women's liberation struggles became more and more pressing and orthodox Marxist tendencies rejected feminist arguments on the basis that they were of a personal nature, that is that the class struggle should take priority and that the issues of relationships between men and women should remain confined to the private sphere. Feminists replied that the personal is political, that IN FACT the issues of control of men over women in relationships was part of a global system of oppression (patriarchy) which necessitated collective action, not simply personal action, to dismantle.
So the purpose of the phrase is to demonstrate how what seem to be personal choices are in fact influenced by the greater political struggle. When a woman chooses whether to wear makeup or not, or keep her last name when she gets married, her choice is in fact socially conditionned by a particular social context. Whether her partner is a perfect feminist (you know, the mythological perfect feminist man) or not, she still struggles against *the entire* patriarchy. The actions of a single woman compared to an entire system composed of millions of men (AND women) aren't going to make a dent. It is the organized struggle of women as a whole (which took its form through the feminist movement) that was able to make social changes.
It follows from this that even what may appear to be insignificant and apolitical choices are in fact socially conditionned by the various systems of oppression of which we are part: capitalism/class oppression, white supremacy/racial oppression, and patriarchy/gender oppression.
However from there many people use this fact to reverse entirely the meaning of the phrase 'the personal is political' by focusing their action on personal change. The idea, that ' the political is personal', puts this saying on its head and asserts that personal change will result in political change. But this is a sterile praxis. While personal change in order to conform with our political beliefs is beneficial, it does not lead to a global change in politics without collective action.
There are numerous traps with the Cult of Individual Change as a praxis. For one, it has often obscured the central issue at hand. Environmentalists of a reformist variety often champion individual change, by promoting awareness of recycling, energy saving, etc. But households are a minimal part of the environmental problem. Most of the garbage production and energy use is done by corporations. Further, capitalist economy as a whole causes much more damage than individual choices, through industrial practices like planned obsolescence and a lack of research in sustainability. Since it doesn't profit as much to build, say, computers that are designed to be upgraded continuously rather than thrown out for new models, capitalism results in huge waste. But our elites easily recuperate environmentalist language when it is couched in terms of individual responsability. Hey, it's not the system that's broken, it's all you dumb workers that aren't taking time to compost your trash!
For another, it often leads to a certain holier than thou attitude in certain activists. In fact, some of the allure of this form of activism is exactly this. When I was a student I was working with a reformist group that tried to bring fair trade coffee in the student cafeteria. We succeeded, in particular since we proved to the administrators that the coffee in question would cost *less* than the one they were buying previously. However, it didn't sell very well. So the administrators, instead of selling it for under the usual cost, decided to charge a premium to students who wanted to get fair trade coffee. The sales jumped up. The moral of this story is that nobody seemed to care much about the coffee being fair trade until they thought they were sacrificing something to get it. A marketing guru would say that they were probably willing to pay extra for the branding. Which is just another way of saying they were paying for the privilege of feeling like they were more politically advanced than their fellow students.
But most troubling is the reasoning shown by some of the more individualistic branches of anarchism and left-wing thought which posit the need to drop out of society in order to preserve a certain brand of political purity. It is my belief that this is actively counterproductive to 'the cause', as it were, as it disconnects activists from the general population which is needed to be brought on board to get a mass struggle. I must admit that when I first started down the road of radicalism, drop out culture was appealing, because it meant I could renounce my responsabilities as a contributor to 'the System'. But the most common response I get from reactionaries when I discuss the anarchist political programme is "why don't you just go off in the woods and build your little anarchist society and leave us in peace?" Isn't it weird when you agree with your political enemies? Shouldn't that trigger some introspection?
The politics of Personal Liberation that is frequent in individualist anarchist practice and in punk rock are basically a giving up of the fight. The most misanthropic individuals I've known were all part of this submovement within anarchism. Their belief system usually resolves around the idea that humanity as a whole is mostly hopelessly corrupted and beholden to capitalism as a system, that they'll never grow out of it or seek to tear it down, and that only a few enlightened individuals (themselves) recognize the truth and have the moral fortitude to drop out of society and live at its margins. It's a corrosive belief system. At some point I couldn't sustain that hatred anymore. I would have burned out and killed myself from it. One of the myriad ways in which I got out of that death spiral was when I read "Mutual Aid: A factor of evolution" by Peter Kropotkin and I got to see the other side of the coin: in spite of all the systemic ways in which capitalism and the state try to kill human cooperation, it is still a part of human nature that can never be killed and always resurfaces.
There is a lot of personal investment in the identity of 'radical' when you believe that you're one of the few who has his eyes wide open while the rest of the masses are sleeping. There is a danger when you're feeling all holier than thou that this feeling of being the only person in the world intelligent enough to know the truth becomes more important than the truth you claim to hold. There is a point when some anarchists seem to me to be more invested in *being anarchists* in a non-anarchist world than actually bringing about a freer world. What is more important to you: your view of yourself as a 'pure' individual, or moving the world closer to your view of a better world?