Anarchism Today

Image of a bee and a flower with the text, "choose cooperation not competition"Presenters at the Anarchism Today workshop will, along with others, be included in an upcoming publication from Routledge. In the meantime, if you’re interested in more reading you may want to check out Anarchist Studies (which, oddly and sadly, is not open access) or Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education.

Carl Levy began by giving a brief outline of how anarchism has influenced the humanities and social sciences, including the interaction between anarchism (and particular anarchists) on the development of Marxism, post-war sociology (including Daniel Bell‘s work), sociobiology (such as work looking for the ‘altruistic gene’, which draws heavily on Kropotkin), and fiction authors like Thomas Pynchon and Ursula Le Guin (I’d also recommend Kim Stanley Robinson and Marge Piercy).

Mohammed Bamyeh followed, talking about the Arab Spring (with a focus on Egypt) as his first experience of anarchism in practice: what it actually felt like to be amidst a society which was organising itself. Bamyeh argued that although most of the Arab Spring uprisings were largely liberal in intention, their methods were anarchist, with a suspicion of leadership (there was no ‘party of the revolution’); a knowledge system based on intuitive understandings of what would work and what wouldn’t; a unity based on opposition to the existing regime, conviviality and discussion rather than commitment to a particular ideology; individual creative expression and the use of multiple slogans and hand-made, rather than mass-produced, signs.

Image of Tahrir Square crowded with people and banners.
Image courtesy of Hossam el-Hamalawy

I also liked Bamyeh’s description of Egypt as a revolution of conversations: when people went out to Tahrir and said they would stay there until the regime fell, well, what was there to do while waiting except for talk to each other? The debates that happened were never concluded, but showed a willingness to work together to develop the movement’s demands rather than having them come prepackaged. Finally, Bamyeh emphasised that the Arab Spring revolutions were based on links between revolutionaries and reformists, because once they had begun reformists recognised that the instability they feared would come with revolution was there anyway, and only a change in regime would offer safety.

David Graeber, who got a gentle ribbing for mainstream media’s focus on his role in Occupy, talked about the relationship between his academic career (as an anthropologist) and his activism. He’s tried to separate the two, and as part of this hasn’t applied for grants or submitted work for peer review when writing about activism, not wanting to taint his activist work with the logic of academia. However, it’s clear that his anthropological research has informed, and been informed by, his anarchism. For example, he talked about his fieldwork in Madagascar as something which he recognised later as giving him experience of anarchism in practice: although government officials were around, they had no power and the state had basically withdrawn, facilitated by the creation of alternative, community-based institutions and practices.

Graeber also talked about his experience with activism following the emergence of the Northern global justice movement since 1999, saying that while reading anarchist publications might give the impression that all anarchists are either Zerzanites advocating the destruction of civilisation as we know it or syndicalists, there are many ‘small-a anarchists’ who are working at the community level and who don’t fit these stereotypes. He argued that ‘small-a anarchists’ are good at self- criticism, but don’t do enough to tell others about what we do right, and what works well with anarchist practices.

Graffiti with the anarchist A and "You are not alone"Chris Rossdale critiques security studies (in a similar, but more fully theorised, vein to my paper on human security and the global justice movement), arguing that anarchism provides a useful way to overcome the problems with seeing the state as both the key guarantor of security and the main referent. Instead, anarchists refuse the myth that security should be ‘done’ by the state to secure national borders, and instead see security as a constant process that communities must engage in. This involves not only dealing with internal issues (such as inequality and sexist and racist violence) but also resisting the violence of the state by trying to disrupt militarisation and war.

Saul Newman rejected the idea (happily not one put forward by anyone at the workshop) that anarchism needs to be homogenous; anarchism should be heterodox, and need not be limited by trying to work within the scientific paradigm of claims about ‘absolute’ human nature.

Ruth Kinna, current editor of Anarchist Studies, talked about the relationship between anarchism and political science (and, beyond this, to the model of the natural sciences). Kinna cited Acklesberg‘s recommendation that anarchists should be concerned with our exclusion from academia because we need to transform mainstream thought if we’re ever going to succeed. We should follow Kropotkin in using clearly-worded, well-framed questions to drive our research, engaging with the dominant frameworks of debate in order to gain space for our ideas.

Images of sculptures, buildings, and fabric, which echo each other's forms.
Luis Jacobs, Album III (detail), 2007

Allan Antliff looked at the development of Luis Jacob’s artistic practice (also citing Edward Carpenter‘s Love’s Coming of Age). Jacob has shifted towards a more open incorporation of anarchism into his artistic practice, which results in a ‘transformative tension’ with the mainstream art world. Jacob’s art presents the world as heterogenous, full of objects which connect and echo each other.

Alexandre Christoyannopolous addressed anarchism and religion, focusing predominantly on Christian anarchism.

Judith Suissa’s presentation covered similar ground to Anarchism and Education, which I read a little while ago. She argued that it’s not enough to just think about different teaching methods, instead we need to question the idea that education takes place in the classroom, and look at shifts to the education system that involve radical shifts to society, also. While she sees some free schools (particularly at the tertiary level) as offering the possibility for change, Suissa thinks that anarchists should oppose the current free schools legislation in the UK, as similar quasi-market reforms in other parts of the world have tended to widen existing inequalities, and these schools still need to work within the state’s regime of standardised testing.

Finally, Carissa Honeywell‘s ‘Social Policy and Anarchism’ drew on Colin Ward‘s work, critiquing the story of the British welfare state as a victory. Instead, Honeywell showed the community-based models of welfare provision (such as working-class mutual aid societies and schools) which might have formed the model for a different way of thinking about welfare and work.

There is beauty in struggle.While all the talks were interesting, I was struck by the contrast between discussions of prefigurative politics and the form of the workshop. Rather than experimenting with a more open format, it worked more or less along the usual model of expert dissemination of knowledge to the inexpert. The question time was limited, there was no attempt at a progressive stack for questions (apart from an invitation for questions “from any ladies” near the end of the day), and discussion was firmly circumscribed. While we’re always constrained by the systems we work within, I think that perhaps we can step outside existing models a little more than this.

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