Monday, December 6, 2010

New Social Movement (NSM) Theories and Anarchism: 1. Post-Industrial Politics

[Part 1 of 6 from a now-scuttled essay on anarchism and new social movement theories. Reviewed by numerous referees and rejected by four successive peer-reviewed sociology journals. I await the spare time, clarity of mind, and enthusiasm to re-draft the entire thing... Read at your own risk.]

The early non-social psychological view of social movements was often Marxist: class conflict led to social movements, revolutions, and social change. NSM theories took issue with the Marxist interpretation of social movements, particularly the emphasis upon struggle at the point of production. Anarchists are not aligned with authoritarian Marxists and likewise consider the exclusive emphasis that political Marxists put upon class exploitation as a perpetual blind-spot of Marx (see Bookchin 1991). Marx (and his contemporary followers have) tended to ignore or reduce the many other forms of non-class based inequality—such as privilege, status, and power (as well as domination by gender, race, and sexuality, etc.)—that exist in society, particularly political inequality manifested in the state. Although not all Marxists have prioritized an analysis of industrial capitalism and class exploitation, this is more common than not.

Unlike Marxists, Touraine (1981) argues that modern social conflict in advanced capitalist countries is post-industrial or non-class based. He principally observes cultural and political conflict, a sensible claim considering the dramatic rise of the peace, feminist, environmental, and gay rights movements since the late-1960s. Superficially, these movements were not inherently concerned with class or economics. But, is the modern anarchist movement overall equally dismissive of class matters as these “new social movements”? While many anarchists are not engaged directly in class-struggle efforts, other strands of anarchism are still intimately concerned with class and capitalism (e.g. Robinson 2009). Not only does class figure prominently in the anarchist critique of modern society, but anarchists are also explicit anti-capitalists.

Anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism are two ideological variants that advocate anti-capitalism and emphasize activism around class issues. The anarcho-syndicalist unions of France and Spain (the CNT and UGT), the Industrial Workers of the World in Anglo countries, and others view class-struggle in the workplace between bosses and workers as a central struggle. Anarcho-syndicalists advocate cross-industry solidarity, direct action tactics, and worker self-management (Rocker 2004). The International Workers Association (IWA) is a global anarcho-syndicalist federation with over 200 member organizations, including some of the above unions (Williams & Lee 2008). While not explicitly anarcho-syndicalist, the British Class War organization also highlights the role the working class plays in community struggles, external to unions, and has argued that the class has a central role in revolution.

Anarcho-communists are similar to their anarcho-syndicalist counterparts, but advocate a more community-oriented version of anti-capitalist class-struggle. They envision a future communist society that is different from the Bolshevik version—a collective society without a central party, vanguard, or “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Anarcho-communist federations exist, including anarchists referred to as “Platformists” that adhere to a general platform of beliefs and action (see Skirda 2002). One such US-Canadian grouping is the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC), while globally, the International of Anarchist Federations (IAF) links together over 80 anarcho-communists organizations (Williams & Lee 2008).

Even more broadly than anarcho-syndicalism or anarcho-communism, anarchism is itself anti-capitalist. This means that all anarchists—not just those who adhere to the two aforementioned tendencies—advocate the elimination of capitalism, so-called “free markets”, and the modern business corporation.[X] This attention to class conflict has been around since the origins of anarchism in the mid-19th Century, when anarchists argued that capitalism destroys communities, the human spirit, and the Earth. The recent global justice movement, which has featured prominent anarchist participation, is propelled by a strong anti-capitalist streak (Epstein 2001). The Direct Action Network (Polletta 2002) and Peoples' Global Action (Maiba 2005, Wood 2005), which are laden with anarchist values and highly anarchistic organizational structures, have played a pivotal role in planning cross-national “days of action” to challenge capitalism at international economic forums and meetings. On a local-level, a case study of a small Midwest US town found strong class-based themes throughout its local movement, including a broad critique of corporate capitalism and participation in anarchist unionism (Robinson 2009).

The anarchist movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries were nearly indistinguishable from the labor movement (individualist tendencies in North America aside)—or the general swell of activity we associate with the resistance to Industrial capitalism. Nevertheless, anarchism does not exclusively focus on class and class struggle today. Some anarchists have actually emphasized the decreasing importance of industrial capitalism and class in modern movements. Why might this be? Sheppard (2002) has suggested that divergent values, lifestyles, and occupational patterns have kept anarchists and labor unions apart in recent decades. More importantly, anarchists and other radicals have long been critical of hierarchical business unionism that conducts professional labor negotiations in which rank-and-file union members take little, if any, role in decision-making and planning. Often, collective bargaining is favored in place of strikes. Conflict is kept to a bare-minimum as workers are essentially bought-off by corporations in a supposed “capital-labor truce” (Aronowitz 1973, Brecher 1997). Anarchists like Zerzan (1974) and Black (1997), and others have criticized anarchist participation in labor unions, concluding that labor unions—and their industrial-age structures and strategies—should not be considered viable revolutionary organizations in the struggle against modern capitalism.

A new strand of anarchism termed “post-left anarchism” has arisen in the wake of such critiques of Leftism. Post-leftists reject large federations—like the aforementioned IWA and IAF—as old, sloth-like super-organizations, that build organizations for the sake of organization. As such, post-leftists are more apt to characterize “organizationalists” as the “Stalinists of anarchism” than to admire their revolutionary gumption. Post-leftist criticisms implicitly replicate many similar concerns and observations raised by NSM theories, while still asserting that people are exploited in terms of class and remaining anti-capitalist in orientation.

Another recent, vaguely-anarchist philosophy called “primitivism” challenges not only unions and capitalism for their hierarchical and destructive capacities, but industrial society itself. It is debatable whether or not primitivism’s concern over the near-apocalyptic destruction of the environment by “civilization” and primitivism’s advocacy for a return to a less-destructive hunter-gatherer existence can be considered to be “post-industrial”. This desire for a future designed by the past could be both “post-” and “pre-industrial”. However, a non-genocidal strategy for activists to achieve these ends is unclear from primitivist literature. Despite primitivist critiques of anarchist activity within the industrialized world, some anarchists do consider union syndicalism to be well-suited to the task of re-charting a more environmentally-sustainable course via labor-environmental coalitions, “green-bans”, and other strategies (Shantz & Adam 1999, Shantz 2002, Purchase 1994).

Touraine's (1981) observation of increased cultural-conflict (in place of industrial conflict) finds support since anarchists reject a narrow emphasis upon class-conflict. Post-class conflict now includes engagement with gender and race domination. Anarchists have been active, and in some respects, major actors in radical feminist and anti-racist movements. Radicals in feminism's second wave included anarcha-feminists who demanded not only a rejection of sexism and patriarchy, but also an end to capitalism and the state, which they argued all oppress women (Ehrlich 1977, Kornegger 2002). Anarcha-feminists in the US came to play an influential role in the activities of the anti-nuclear movement of the late-1970s (Epstein 1991). Anarchism today also clearly incorporates a rejection of White supremacy. Some Black radicals in the US, who were militants in the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, have become relatively widely-read theorists, injecting critical race theory into anarchism (see Ervin 1993, Balagoon 2001). Since the fall of Communism and the re-appearance of so-called “White power” activism (neo-Nazi and other fascist organizing), anarchists have participated in anti-racist struggles throughout Europe, North America, and South America, in organizations such as Anti-Fascist Action (or “Antifa”), Anti-Racist Action (ARA), and Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH). New identities based on these distinctions will be explored more in Section 6 below. While these new forms of conflict have added on to the original anarchist critique of the state and capitalism, they have not displaced such concerns.


[X] Anti-capitalist anarchists participate in typical movement behavior: they engage in protest, extra-electoral political activity, and conflictual social discourse. Still, some people with free-market orientations do identify as anarchists, while lacking social movement qualities. “Anarcho-capitalists” or “Big-L Libertarians”, in the view of the anarchist movement, are not anarchists, but pro-capitalist individualists (McKay 2008).


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Balagoon, K. (2001) A Soldier's Story: Writings By a Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist. Montréal: Kersplebedeb.

Black, B. (1997) Anarchy After Leftism. Columbia, MO: C.A.L. Press.

Bookchin, M. (1991) The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Montréal: Black Rose.

Brecher, J. (1997) Strike! Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Ehrlich, C. (1977) Socialism, Anarchism, and Feminism. Baltimore: Research Group One.

Epstein, B. (1991) Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Epstein, B. (2001) “Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement”. Monthly Review, 53 (4), September: 1-14.

Ervin, L.K. (1993) Anarchism and the Black Revolution. Philadelphia, Mid-Atlantic Publishing Collective.

Kornegger, P. (2002) “Anarchism: The Feminist Connection”. Pp. 21-31 in Quiet Rumours: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader, edited by Dark Star. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Maiba, H. (2005) “Grassroots Transnational Social Movement Activism: The Case of Peoples' Global Action”. Sociological Focus, 38 (1) February: 41-63.

McKay, I. (2008) An Anarchist FAQ: Volume I. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Polletta, F. (2002) Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Purchase, G. (1994) Anarchism & Environmental Survival. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.

Robinson, C. (2009) “The Continuing Significance of Class: Confronting Capitalism in an Anarchist Community”. Working USA: The Journal of Labor & Society, 12 (3), September: 355-370.

Rocker, R. (2004) Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Shantz, J.A. and Adam, B.D. (1999) “Ecology and Class: The Green Syndicalism of IWW/Earth First Local 1”. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 19 (7/8): 43-72.

Shantz, J. (2002) “Green Syndicalism: An Alternative Red-Green Vision”. Environmental Politics, 11 (4), Winter: 21-41.

Sheppard, B.O. (2002) “Anarchism and the Labor Movement”. Z-Net.

Skirda, A. (2002) Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Touraine, A. (1981) The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, D.M. and Lee, M.T. (2008) “'We Are Everywhere': An Ecological Analysis of Organizations in the Anarchist Yellow Pages”. Humanity & Society, 32, February: 45-70.

Wood, L.J. (2005) “Bridging the Chasm: The Case of Peoples’ Global Action”. Pp. 95-117 in Coalitions Across Borders: Transnational Protest and the Neoliberal Order, edited by J. Brandy and J. Smith. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Zerzan, J. (1974) “Organized Labor Versus 'The Revolt Against Work': The Critical Contest”. Telos, 21, Fall: 194-206.

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