[This is an excerpt from a paper published in a special issue of Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, focused on anarchism, syndicalism, and working people that I co-edited with Immanuel Ness. The earlier part of the paper featured analyses of anarchists who did and didn't belong to labor unions, based on data from the 2002 Infoshop.org user survey.]
Union members represent a sizable sector of the anarchist movement (as per the Infoshop data). Yet, how do various aspects of NSM [new social movement] theories explain characteristics of the modern anarchists found in the Infoshop survey? There are points of convergence and departure with the theories and empirical observations. The level of union membership of employed Infoshop respondents in the US (19 percent) was somewhat higher than in the general American population. This unionization level is half that of employed respondents from Europe (40 percent). Compared to the height of the anarchist movement in the early-1900s, these levels of union membership are likely to be lower than in the past. NSM theories apply to developed Western nations and thus the higher European membership rate should be included when considering anarchism and NSMs. This suggests that other regions may deviate from the NSM framework more clearly than North Americans. The Infoshop survey was dominated by North American respondents and thus the focus is upon anarchists in that region whom were only slightly more likely to be in a labor union than their fellow, mainstream citizens.
While NSM theories emphasize the importance of new, emergent collective identities, anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism are nothing “new” per se. They are, however, oriented towards the goals of achieving autonomy from the dominant economic order, as other collective identities like “feminism” or “gay liberation” might infer. Neither of the economic anarchist ideologies wishes to be embedded within a “business union movement”, but rather wish to see the economy transformed into a more equal, liberatory, and cooperative institution. Yet, since the types of unions that Infoshop respondents belong to is unavailable, it is possible that even these respondents with non-assimilation ideologies are members of assimilated and reformist unions.
This paper has begun the task of creating quantitative research looking at North American anarchists in regards to NSMs. The statistics presented suggest a number of key socio-economic, demographic, ideological, and identity-based differences for anarchist union members within the Infoshop survey. It has sought to address the assumptions of anarchists as participants in a middle-class movement, as is the case with NSMs generally. As for the portion of anarchists who are also union members, the working class is more likely to be the participating class—insofar as self-identification matches an empirical reality. This strengthens the NSM argument about the so-called old social movements (like labor), as the working class, and not the middle-class, is labor’s main constituency. Yet, the current anarchist movement still does belong, in part, to this old social movement.
It should be noted that although this research has tested the characteristics of anarchists who do or do not belong to labor unions, it does not suggest anything beyond that. Active participation or activism within unions is unknown for these individuals. Since NSM theory suggests that traditional movements were active labor and class-based movements, it is not possible to claim that simple membership in a union constitutes participation in a labor movement. Other organizations that also engage in class-focused activism include Food Not Bombs, Homes Not Jails, or others.
Future research should consider the philosophical and real support of unions as part of anarchist ideology, not just that which is economic in focus. It may be that “anarchists without adjective” are equally likely to participate in unions as their economic-focused counterparts, a conclusion impossible to derive from the way the Infoshop survey was conducted. Questions that expand on simple union membership, such as activity within a union or union-organizing itself, would be useful.
Unions are not the only working class or economic-focused organizations that exist, but they are the most prevalent and prominent. Future research should consider other organizations that derive from the working class or focus on economic issues. Anarchist participation in such organizations is likely to be different than membership or participation in labor unions. This possibility would strengthen the confidence that other structures of traditional movement values are still being utilized, even if in new organizational forms with new strategies, not just unions. The extent to which unions may be viewed as “social movement organizations” also needs to be considered, since some unions are remarkably more activist-oriented and radical than others. Clawson (2003) also differentiates between unions and the labor movement—the former being a “circumscribed institution” while the latter is a “fluid formation… [which] depends on high-risk activism, mass solidarity, and collective experiences” (p. 24).
Using a different measure for class, such as annual income, may provide a different result than the question used by the Infoshop survey, which asked respondents to determine their own class background. Anarchists may have ideologically aligned themselves with the working class, regardless of the economic background of their parents or their current occupation. The ability to separate certain sectors of the middle-class—non-profit workers, students and academics, and retirees—would aid in testing who in the middle class is supportive of the anarchist movement according to NSM. Educational status would facilitate analysis of NSM theory’s traditional characterization of middle-class activists as intellectuals. Finally, efforts to seek out anarchists of older generations to further test the impact of age upon union membership would help provide a richer context for how anarchism has changed.
More importantly, future research may wish to seek a better way to more comprehensively explore connections between the anarchist movement and NSM theories. This study did not test anarchist values and attitudes, so a comparison based upon these criteria is not possible. It is difficult to answer these larger questions with just one survey, especially a limited one. One way to evaluate anarchist beliefs and action in lieu of other NSM characteristics is to consider the other characteristics suggested by Sutton and Vertigans (2006), such as anti-hierarchical organization, symbolic direct action, and self-limited radicalism.
Subsequent work on this highly under-analyzed movement should heed these considerations. Anarchism’s complex, contentious, and sometimes contradictory advocates and organizations deserve greater study.