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.

IR13 Plenaries: identity, humanity, affective news, and the department of shameless studies

  1. This afternoon’s session was a knockout. Liesbet Van Zoonen‘s keynote, ‘From identity to fragmentation: fixating the fragmented self,’ was brought together a heap of information which I was at least vaguely familiar with into new configurations, making important connections between the commodification of identity on social networking sites, the policing of identity by the state, and the increased push from multiple directions towards singular, normative forms of identity. I highly recommend reading Axel Bruns’ summary, as well as reading the final version of the talk when it’s published in Media, Culture and Society early next year.
    After the keynote, Daniel Miller used Oliver Sacks’ work as a frame to introduce his own, starting with the way in which Sacks’ stories often focus on the loss of something that we think of as being quintessentially human, and using this as a platform to talk about ‘biological technologies’: our nervous system, brain functions, senses, and so on. This narrative allowed for a relatively smooth transition from a discussion of ‘internal technologies’ to one of ‘external technologies’, configuring our use of communicative technologies as part of what makes us human. Miller pointed out that even face to face communications are structured by social technologies: rules about what we say to whom, body language, and so on. Miller’s current ethnographical work focuses on social media use by people living in a hospice, which he argues allows a better understanding of the role communicative media will play in our lives than the current focus on young people’s use does.
    The second plenary talk, from Zizi Papacharissi, was full of extra reading and analysis that I want to dig into more deeply. She spoke about recent research into ‘Affective news streams and networked publics’, referring to Twitter use in the Egypt uprising and Occupy Wall Street. There are plenty of connections here with the research I’m doing with Tim: the use of Twitter as an alternative information channel, a tactical communication tool, and a way to strengthen bonds within the movement. Papacharissi looked in detail at what characterised the use of Twitter in the context of the #egypt hashtag: instantaneity (which was also linked to the spreadability of tweets); the emergence of crowdsourced elites (especially activists on the ground and those elsewhere who were acting as effective curators of information); the importance of solidarity in the semantic mapping of #egypt; and ambience (a constant presence of the Twitter stream, and the repetition of retweeting). She argued that this combines the practices of oral storytelling with more traditional approaches to news reporting, and doesn’t “rob movements of the leaders”: leaders emerge through crowdsourced practices.
    Terri Senft‘s performance was an amazing note to end on. She focused on the idea of oversharing online, of being “too much”, “shameless”, and the ways in which this is gendered, linking it to her work on cam girls. The content of Senft’s talk was excellent: like Van Zoonen, she talked about things you’ve probably heard of (Habermas! cam girls! Amanda Todd! abortion! feminism!) but made interesting new connections, perhaps the most useful of which is around the way shame is mobilised to shut down women’s involvement in public spheres (particularly online). You should check out more of her work. What was most inspiring about her talk, though, was her ability to speak poetically and personally, and to tie this to her analysis. The tweets (below) during and after her talk attest to the power of her presentation, and seem to have inspired quite a few people to think more about how they present their own work. It’s given me a little more encouragement to be brave, to leave in a few more of those sentences that I write and then read over and delete because they seem too personal.
  2. hollykruse
    So, @terrisenft starts speaking, and the #ir13 tweetstream blows up. That seems about right.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:42:35
  3. JennyKorn
    @terrisenft: “AND now” is better than “what now.” It means we are capable of what’s to come/what to do/how to handle #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:43:22
  4. scroeser
    #ir13 @terrisenft’s talk is poetry, and personal, and I hope someone in here is recording it because I want to share it very much.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:44:25
  5. scroeser
    #ir13 @terrisenft’s shifted from accepting the narrative of cam girls as “too much” to a feminist analysis that narrative. (YAY!)
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:47:46
  6. SteeleCat717
    Some of us thrive, some of us survive and some of us die in a culture of sexism – @terrisenft #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:57:14
  7. scroeser
    So, so happy to hear @terrisenft arguing for “writing that moves, holds, provokes, or comforts” and links with activism #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:03:31
  8. ldinstl_chimera
    “Write for the people who agree with you…” Professional advice to @terrisenft by a colleague. #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:05:42
  9. LizaWasHere
    Better, a little, maybe, with allies. RT @mamanin: It does get different, but only when you find better allies. Oh yes. @terrisenft #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:06:54
  10. raisecain
    .@tim_hutchings @terrisenft I agree we need this type of writing & so we need pedagogical shifts that facilitate it
    & legitimize it #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:13:14
  11. jakoblinaa
    @terrisenft shows the way to combine research, critical thinking and personal, honest , emotional involvement. waw ! #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:03:37
  12. witty_knitter
    #ir13 A commenter on @terrisenft’s presentation asking how we write about events that leave us speechless.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:07:54

Connecting to the Twitter Revolution

Right now my Twitter stream is full of tweets about the protests in Egypt, mostly retweeted information. It’s easy to get caught up in it. As I type this, protesters and journalists are being beaten up, shot at. Twitter is full of personal stories: video of arrests, messages from increasingly-worried protesters, notes about the international response. It’s hard to read something like this:

“@bencnn: Government-sanctioned mass lynch underway in Tahrir Square. #jan25 #Egypt”

and not feel like I must do something, right now.

Previously unpublished photos from the demonstrations in Thessaloniki on December 2008, over the murder of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police

I felt this way, to an extent, when the protests in Iran, Thailand, Greece, and Tunisia were happening. In some cases, I sat there through the night following a hashtag, retweeting now and then, reading the stream of articles and analysis that other Twitter users linked to. Today, I don’t really know what’s happening in Greece, or Thailand, or Iran, or Tunisia.

The people I followed during those times, people who were tweeting from the middle of the situation, sometimes still write something about the political situation, but it’s not enough to overwhelm my Twitter stream, to make me feel immersed, there. Life moves on, and there’s simply not enough time to stay up-to-date on everything.

This makes me curious: what does it mean when we (Australians? Westerners?) follow these struggles in other parts of the world? Perhaps it’s simply a particularly gripping new form of entertainment, a spectacle that is all the more engaging because we can feel like we’re part of it. Perhaps it actually leads, through an accumulation of small efforts, to concrete benefits for the people whose struggles we follow at such a distance and with such immediacy.

I also want to think more about the ways in which difference is (or might be) effaced through this process. My quick search turned up literacy rates of 83% for men and 59% for women (as of 2005), and around 20,136,000 Internet users among a population of around 80,471,869*, helped along by Egypt’s Free Internet Initiative**. The number of Twitter users based in Egypt also seems to be quite small. It will come, I assume, as absolutely no shock when I write that those tweeting from Egypt are not likely to be wholly representative of Egypt’s population. (The same would be true of tweets from any protest, including in Western states.)

The tweets we read, whether we follow a hashtag or particular users, are likely to confirm our feelings that the protesters are “like us”, because the information we’re getting is usually in English, written by people who read many of the same websites as us, who are at least on one level part of this shared culture that we are all building online. Recognising that similarity, the bond that comes from knowing that people like us are suffering right now, can be immensely powerful. There are so many areas, including the Australian debate around asylum seekers, where I wish there was a more widespread recognition that other people are, in important ways, like us, and they are suffering.

However, there is something about the way in which difference disappears in this process that makes me a little nervous. Because it is also important to recognise that many of those involved in these protests differ significantly from us in their outlooks, in what they want from life, in what they hope to gain in terms of political change. I’m not entirely sure yet why this matters, but I believe that it does. Perhaps because it might influence the ways in which we try to engage with others’ struggles, perhaps because it is important for our own understanding of the situation. Perhaps for a different reason entirely.

The question that I think I am most interested in is: are there ways we can engage in these struggles from a distance ethically and usefully, contributing to and learning from them while remembering that distance (and difference) matters?


Photo courtesy of Asteris Masouras, published under a creative commons license.

* These figures are courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, and are a little off as the Internet user estimate is from 2009 while the population estimate is from 2010.

** Readers may allow themselves a cynical laugh at this name, given the circumstances.