Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Subjects and Scale of Anarchist Movement Research

All movements exist at multiple social scales. This means that there are different-sized configurations of anarchists and their groups. For example, movements consist of individuals, groups of individuals, formal organizations, and large networks or federations of individuals and groups. Consequently, any given movement is best viewed as a network of these various collections of people and their created structures (whether loose or firm).

Thus, when speaking about anarchism and anarchists, it is crucial to distinguish between the type and scale of one's research frame. When the FBI describes “anarchists” as a threat to the internal security of the US or propertied interests of corporate America (FBI 1999), to what and whom is it referring? Is the FBI referring to random anarchist individuals (probably), anarchist scenes (implicated, undoubtedly), formal organizations (yes, such as the Anarchist Black Cross, or less formal with the Earth Liberation Front), or broader networks (perhaps)? Or, when the mass media warns (read: rants hysterically) a community that anarchists are about to descend upon them during a large demonstration, does it mean to implicate all anarchists (perhaps living throughout the city), specific anarchist groups or organizations (maybe a “counter-summit” coordinating organization), or large anarchist networks (a regional anarchist federation)? Of course, it is unclear whether the FBI and mass media are really interested in these important issues of scale and specificity, or if they are more interested in fear-generation, retaliation, and suppression. Yet, if the anarchist movement is to be genuinely and accurately understood, these questions are of prime importance!

Individual anarchists could be any person (young or old, employed or unemployed, short or tall) who has a conscious identification with some sort of anarchist-specific ideology. Although there are problems (as noted above) with accepting any self-identified ideology into the anarchist movement, all could theoretically be counted. Ideologies may range from syndicalist, ecological, or feminist to communist, primivitist, punk, post-left, and so on. These individuals exist at what sociologists call the “micro-level”. Individual interaction and relationships occur between people, first and foremost. The micro-level is where encounters take place, friendships occur, and community begins. Symbolic interactionists are apt to note the importance of the micro-level in constructing reality from the ground-up, interaction-by-interaction, relationship after relationship. Most anarchists likely know more individuals than they know groups or organizations, and probably interact more frequently with individuals on a one-to-one basis than within the context of a larger structure.

Still, society is not merely composed of random individuals casually bumping into each other and living their lives without deliberate order. Groups are some of the most routine configurations created by anarchist individuals yet are one of the most difficult to locate and observe. For example, anarchist “scenes”, collections of anarchist friends, or crowds of anarchists are all casual, informal, but deliberately-created groups in the anarchist movement. Groups represent a great epistemological challenge and raise crucial questions. How does one delineate the boundaries of a city's anarchist scene? How do you locate pockets of anarchist friends or comrades, who might live in the same house together, but probably not? Or is it even possible to predict when and where crowds of anarchist individuals will form (and for how long), and then for a researcher to swoop in quickly to study that crowd?

Anarchist organizations are intentionally-created, formally-designed, and usually named. Organizations exist on the meso-scale (or “between level”); they are not composed of mere individuals, nor are they large superstructures, institutions, or bureaucracies. The possible structures of such organizations are incredibly varied. For example, small affinity groups are made of trusting individuals who intermittently re-form for specific purposes. Collectives aim to accomplish explicit goals like publish an anarchist magazine, run a Food Not Bombs food distribution project, or drive fascists out of their local political scenes. Cooperatives are member-based economic organizations that have strong anarchist characteristics, and may be organized to produce some sort of item or provide a service (a book publisher or bicycle manufacturer), or to consume something (a food cooperative or punk rock record store). Such formal organizations create systems for dealing with decision-making, structures for who can participate and how, and work towards some type of collectively-determined goals. These organizations often, but not always (the exception being many affinity groups), are visible to the wider anarchist scene and mainstream society. To the extent that they are visible, they are more easily studied from the outside; the less visible (and the more covert), the more it may be necessary for direct participants to analyze them.

It is difficult to conceive of the anarchist movement in “macro-level” terms. There are no real large-scale structures to speak of, since a core anarchist principle is decentralization (Ehrlich 1996). But, anarchists have constructed international federations and networks—such as the International Workers' Association, Independent Media Center network, the Anarchist Federation, and others—but none qualify as hegemonic institutions like states, bureaucracies, religious institutions, or capitalist marketplaces.

Consideration of the appropriate geographic scale may not be enough to account for the temporal condition of anarchist groups and organizations. The relative permanence of a grouping will indicate the ease or extent to which it may be studied. An important anarchist group may be difficult to study if it is short-lived, while an organization that has little meaningful impact over decades may have a greater chance of impacting movement history since there is more opportunity to study it. Thus, the variation in organizational longevity will effect those attempting to understand how organizations persist within the movement environment. Often, if movement participants to do not personally document their roles and activities in these groupings, such episodes may be lost from history, as will the decisions and rationale that generated that history.


Ehrlich, Howard J. 1996. Anarchism and Formal Organization”. Pp. 56-68 in Reinventing Anarchy, Again, edited by H.J. Ehrlich. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1999. Terrorism in the United States. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Issues That Complicate Operationalization and Study of Anarchist Movements

Assuming we can grapple with these questions and realize their full-gravity, we are still left with countless practical conundrums that inhibit the study of anarchism. Even if the theoretical conceptualization of “anarchism” were easily accomplished, the crucial issues of operationalization remain. In other words, we must find a way to locate, observe, measure, and evaluate our concepts if they are to be useful in enhancing understanding. How to define terms so as to observe the correct real-world phenomenon that we seek to observe?

One immediate problem is the casual distinction between “anarchism” and “anarchy”. Both are used interchangeably by activists and the broader public. But, are they truly the same? Anarchism is an ideology, idea, and ideal. It refers to aspirations, values, and identity. Anarchists get together in their collectives to discuss anarchism, to create anarchist projects, to fulfill anarchism. Anarchy is a social condition, the real-existing anarchist practices that fulfill the anarchist ideal. Consequently, it could be viewed as the end-goal, the utopian result of anarchist struggle. These distinctions may be minor, but how can researchers study the meaning and intent of actual anarchists without appreciating this? Content analysis or interviews could easily overlook one term and its meaning, or inappropriately associate one with the other. In sum, when studying the anarchist movement, are we interested in anarchism or anarchy? [1]

Does anarchism need to be identified as such in order to be anarchism? Undoubtedly people and groups may behave in an anarchist fashion, but have little or no affiliation to anarchist ideas. For example, researchers could study something (e.g. a group, a protest event, a project) that is explicitly “anarchist” and uses the word openly. Or, researchers could direct their attention to things that are anarchistic: that which acts in accordance to anarchist values and practice, but does not use the word. In this latter case, participants could be unaware that their behaviors involve anarchist tendencies or, they could be—at least on the surface—strong, vocal opponents of what they perceive to be “anarchism” (perhaps relying on the media-fueled stereotypes of chaos). Thus, despite the anarchistic ideas of founder Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker rarely openly identifies with anarchism. Still, anarchism has had—and continues to have—an undeniable influence upon the Catholic Worker, in terms of societal critique, expressed values, and organizing practices.

Related to this, are we interested in anarchists who identify openly as such? To publicly apply the word “anarchist” to oneself or one's actions is bound to distinguish one from those who may do identify as or act the same exact way, but do not use the same language. Consequently, overt or covert anarchists are likely to have many different characteristics. We ought to consider the reasons why people choose overt or covert anarchism. Those who choose to publicly identify with anarchism may be interested in attracting others based on principles they see in practice (e.g. mutual aid, anti-authoritarianism, self-management), to put a real-world face to abstract idea, to reclaim the word “anarchist” in a positive way, or to distinguish one's ideas from other forms of radicalism. Others, relying on equally rational thinking, may choose to not identify publicly with anarchism to avoid the predictable stereotyping and preconceptions that accompany the label, to prevent attack by authorities, or simply not wanting to be pigeon-holed as “only an anarchist” (when one could also adopt other labels, such as “feminist”, “revolutionary”, “socialist”, etc). This legitimate issue of visibility creates practical epistemological problems. How to find both groups? How to count them? How to contrast them? Can covert anarchists be part of a “movement”? Can overt anarchists be considered part of other movements?

If we seek out anarchists only within anarchist organizations, settings, or social spheres we are likely to overlook anarchists and anarchist activity outside the realms of the anarchist movement. Many anarchists, of course, do their anarchist activism within explicitly anarchist organizations, functioning within “scenes” composed only of other anarchists. For example, organizations like the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communists, the Anarchist Black Cross, or the International Workers Association are explicitly and wholly anarchist. They practice anarchism directly, by name, and place anarchism at the center of all activities. Many other anarchists (and it is obviously unclear how many) practice their anarchist activism within non-anarchist organizations (but still as anarchists). Witness the anarchists who regularly participate in organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, or the AFL-CIO. Being an anarchist within a non-anarchist setting is unlikely to completely diminish one's anarchistic qualities, although one's anarchism will undoubtedly be muted. So, what are the motivations for anarchists acting outside the anarchist movement? Hypothetically, these anarchists may be “missionaries” of a sort, acting to encourage these organizations to be more anarchist. Or, less ambitiously, anarchists may simply desire engagement with non-anarchists, or because they agree with the short-term goals sought by reformist organizations (however much these anarchists may wish to eventually surpass such reformism).

As anarchist identity is liquid and easily adopted by people, there is also no strong reason for people to have immediate contact with the “formal” anarchist movement. In fact, during modern times when access to information is readily available through mail-order books or the Internet, people can learn about movements and ideologies easily. Non-movement anarchists are people with no formal attachment to anarchist organizations or movements at large, but still identify with anarchist ideologies and politics. Consequently, anarchists may appear and exist in geographical areas where there is no anarchist scene, organization, or other individuals. It is far more difficult to locate these individuals since there are no visible markers (like an anarchist newspaper, anarcho-punk bands, an Industrial Workers of the World chapter, etc.) that would indicate the presence of anarchists. It is also possible that unaffiliated individuals have independently discovered anarchism, even when there is an organized anarchist presence in their area. Whether such individuals are simply unaware or uninfluenced, they may still be worthy research subjects.

Unlike many other movements, anarchism is not a “single-issue” movement. Comparatively, the environmental movement is focused upon matters related to the natural ecosystem, the feminist movement upon things that affect women and gender relations, and the labor movement upon the conditions of paid labor amongst workers. Anarchism sympathizes with and participates in all of these movements to some extent, but does not focus on one to the neglect of others. The anarchist movement overlaps with many social movements, participating in their most radical wings. Thus, instead of an emphasis upon a particular issue of localized struggle, anarchism is more an aesthetic or general approach to such issues. The few identifiable, core “issues” that link anarchist action together are matters related to hierarchy and authority. Consequently, anarchist activism could—theoretically, at least—be located in nearly all areas of society, as well as within many social movements. For example, Earth First!ers and community gardeners may be part of the anarchist movement and the environmental movement. Anarcha-feminist collectives, reading groups, and individuals are just as much part of the feminist movement as the anarchist movement. While the Workers Solidarity Alliance is an anarchist organization and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review an anarchist magazine, both also represent the radical, anarchist-wing of the labor movement.

Finally, it is worth making a bell hooks'-like distinction (2000) regarding anarchism. To speak of “the anarchist movement” is highly naïve. There is no hegemonic character to anarchism throughout the world. Anarchist activity in different geographic locations is undoubtedly different and unique. For example, witness the strains of especifismo in South America, Platformism in the United States, or autonomism in Central and Southern Europe. Perhaps a way to address this overgeneralization would be to note multiple anarchist movements (plural) as opposed to one uniform anarchist movement (singular). Thus, we could consider slight regional flavors or those differences amongst anarchists of varying ideological orientations. hooks, writing about feminism, recommends using “movement” as a verb. Movements move; they are in a constant state of evolution, changing to meet new conditions and challenges. It may be useful to refer to “anarchist movement” as the effect of countless anarchists acting within an abstract “movement”, engaging in struggles against very different forces of domination. Seen this way, movements are not static, nor are they strictly space-specific, but are liquid configurations of people struggling to reach their goals.


[1] But, the term “anarchy” is popularly maligned, often used derogatorily. Mass media uses both terms (but especially the latter) as synonyms for ideas, behaviors, and conditions far-removed from the anarchist tradition. For example, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spurred such non-theoretically-rooted correlations with anarchy in the news, such as “violence”, “chaos”, and “looting” (Stock 2007). The associations with states in disorder—such as Somalia—are also endlessly propagated in the news.


hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Stock, Paul. 2007. “Katrina and Anarchy: A Content Analysis of a New Disaster Myth”. Sociological Spectrum, 27: 705-726.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dialectical Inequality and Domination

... Embedded in all relations of domination is a dialectical need that each position has for the other. Consider any such relationship centered around different forms of power. For example, consider the power of parents over children, police over citizens, boss over worker, celebrities over the unfamous, officials over voters, officers over soldiers, clergy over laity, experts over the unskilled, or teachers over students. In each, those in the dominated position (less power) often need or identify with those in the dominant position (more power). Sometimes the whole reason why they are in the subordinated position is due to this need (e.g. children need parental protection and other necessities, laity seek religious guidance, voters want leaders, the unskilled want help, or students require knowledge), whether perceived or real. Consequently, this results in patterns of dependency or identification with one's dominators. Yet, the reverse is true of the dominators: their position of privilege is premised upon needing the presence of those they dominate. Without subordinated workers there are no bosses, if the unfamous do not watch-out for “greatness” there can be no celebrities, officials need voters to put them there, and teachers need students to listen to them. Dominators perceive themselves to be indispensable and may construct an identity for themselves based upon their position of privilege (in respect to others) rather than based on their own intrinsic characteristics. Thus, the very relationship of domination creates adherents who need the unequal relationship to define themselves by. This need illustrates some of the formidable challenges in convincing people to avoid, undermine, or overturn domination.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

More Questions Than Answers: Problems of Conceptual Definition

[Continuation of "Anarchist Movement Epistemology"]

It is very likely that the first question asked by journalists covering protest demonstrations that include the participation of anarchists is: “Who in the hell is an anarchist?” Likewise, most well-intentioned observers would like to know what anarchism is. Thus, the issue of definition is paramount. So, what is “anarchism” and how do we know it “when we see it”? We could approach the identification of “anarchism” from countless vantage points using a variety of methodological approaches. First, we could identify anarchism by its core values: anti-authoritarianism, solidarity, autonomy, mutual aid, liberty, cooperation, decentralization, egalitarianism, direct action, voluntary association, and so forth. If people espouse such values, they are more likely to be anarchists. But, do not many other movements share some of these values? Could non-anarchists not easily adhere to and practice these values without ever realizing they are “anarchist” values? Must we guarantee that all such values are present in order to label something “anarchist”?[1] Does this imply that everything anarchist includes all these traits at all times? And how do we identify these values? If we wait for anarchists to identify these values aloud, we may never notice they are anarchists. We may instead [somewhat] incorrectly categorize many others who use these phrases, but in un-anarchistic ways—for example, many patriotic Americans likely believe in “liberty” as do fanatical consumers who love being able to purchase products created under abominable social and environmental conditions. Yet such “liberty” is very different from that defined by anarchism, who intend it to refer to freedom to live as one chooses, unrestrained by hierarchical power.

Second, we could rely upon people to use the word “anarchist” to describe themselves. We could assume that these self-identified “anarchists” possess anarchist characteristics. Then, by inference we could know what anarchism refers to. But could not anyone simply call themselves an “anarchist” and “make it so”? In fact, this happens semi-regularly, especially in the modern-era. Can capitalists really be anarchists? Sizable collections of ultra-individualists—who seem to have very little real world presence and tend to lurk on the internet together (appropriately so!)—identify as anarcho-capitalists. Murray Rothbard and others may theoretically claim the label of anarchism, but they do not oppose all authority, as other anarchists do—they are highly enamored with markets, class inequality, and authority in the workplace. Thus, most “movement anarchists”--those active in community-based protest movements—argue against the inclusion of these folks in the anarchist camp.[2] Can people who advocate violence against civilians be anarchists? How about people who vote? There are even groupings of people who call themselves “national anarchists”, who subscribe to a thinly-veiled “third position” fascist ideology who identify as anarchists (Macklin 2005)! Spanish anarchist militants who fought Franco in the 1930s would surely roll in their graves knowing the linguistic gymnastics the label “anarchist” is being put through.

The problem plaguing these approaches is that there is no way of “properly” establishing one set of values or social actors as “legitimate” anarchists. The movement lacks an “approval agency” or central committee that could verify memberships or one's adherence to strict party-lines. Perhaps it is the general failure of anarchist politics throughout history that has ironically created its flexibility as well as its promiscuity.[3] Had anarchist been forcefully entrenched somewhere—like Marxist-Leninism was under Stalin's multi-decade rule in the Soviet Union—maybe it would be easier to explicate commonly accepted criteria for anarchism. Instead, all varieties of people with no experience with anarchist history, practice, philosophy, relationships, or understanding, can call themselves anarchists. Consequently, this looseness allows for easy adoption of an anarchist identity, while simultaneously watering down the central factors that make it a distinct movement. This ambiguity not only exists with new recruits and the founders of new “spin-off anarchisms”, but also within the consciously, self-affiliated anarchist movement.[4] The anarchist press debates this question all the time (in newspapers and now on Internet message-boards/listserves): who is or is not an anarchist? To outsiders, this holier-than-thou posturing comes off as sectarian. Such behavior is likely the by-product of a small movement, incidentally populated by a number of paranoid and self-righteous people. The phenomenon is divisive of unity, solidarity. For social scientists, ideological looseness poses a terrible problem of reference and validation. One grouping or ideological subvariant of anarchists thinks the other is not anarchist (and vice-versa); just witness debates between “organizationalists” and “anti-organizationalists”, reds and greens,[5] or anarcho-syndicalists and post-leftists. Who is to be believed? Who is right?

Third, it is confusing enough that adherents disagree about what anarchism is, but the supposedly objective, rational, and learned intellectuals seem to have an equally poor—if not worse—understanding of anarchism. Select nearly any social science or humanities discipline, and one is unlikely to receive a definition of anarchism that is borne of an analysis of current anarchist movements. For example, the political science literature is rife with theorizing of “anarchy”, referring to the international relations between states where no centralized system controls these relations (see Kaplan 2000). Curiously, no one seems terribly bothered by the simple fact that the major actors in this conception of politics are all states! How un-anarchist can such a theory be?[6] In economics the situation is little better: anarchism is apparently best used as a synonym for laissez-faire capitalism, a dog-eat-dog economic system in which each individual must fend for themselves in a Wild West marketplace. Absent again is the easily verifiable history of modern anarchism as an anti-capitalist movement, solidly in opposition to private wealth, greed, and parasitic wage slavery. Philosophy and history are both fond of abstracting the ideas of classical age anarchists or developing new applications to old anarchist ideas; the problem is that these ideas tend to be generated in isolation from actual anarchist movements. For example, philosophers debate anarchist epistemology for science generally, while historians dig deeper into the archives of late 19th century labor unions. Far less emphasis and effort is focused on the here and now. The field of sociology gives scant attention to anarchist characteristics of social order, baffling me and legions of anarchists who seem acute and appropriate students of society. These shortcomings and missed opportunities provide insight into why activists tend to not take intellectuals more seriously.


[1] One probably needs to consider how these anarchist values persist or perish within all areas of society—not just in the government and economy—including within the family, peer groups, cultural organizations, schools, etc.

[2] For example, the popular Anarchy FAQ (McKaye 2007) includes a thorough critique of so-called “anarcho-capitalism” and gives extensive attention to why such a position is at odds with the anarchist tradition.

[3] This perception that anarchism lacked an agreed-upon core set of values and strategies led some Russian anarchists to create a “platform” that anarchists could subscribe to, thereby uniting anarchists upon some common ground. See Skirda (2002) for more on the Platform.

[4] New recruits—almost by definition—join movements knowing less about them than long-experienced participants. Is it methodologically-appropriate to generalize about a movement if only analyzing the newest participants? Also, new ideological subvariants—new anarchists such as post-leftism, post-structuralist anarchism, primitivism, etc.—regularly define themselves in opposition to other, more-established strands. This requires a selective adoption and rejection.

[5] See Williams (2009a) for a study on red and green anarchist ideological subvariants and their geographic dispersion in the United States.
[6] Thankfully, some recent work in international relations has been done, such as that by Alex Prichard and others, that takes anarchism and its traditions seriously—such as the ideas of P.J. Proudhon—instead of treating “anarchy” as if it were merely a word pulled from a dictionary.


Kaplan, Robert D. 2000. The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. New York: Random House.

Macklin, Graham D. 2005. “Co-opting the Counter Culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction”. Patterns of Prejudice, 39 (3), September: 301-326.

McKaye, Iain. 2007. An Anarchy FAQ: AFAQ Volume One. Edinburgh: AK Press.

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

Williams, Dana. 2009a. “Red vs. Green: Regional Variation of Anarchist Ideology in the United States”. Journal of Political Ideologies, 14 (2), June: 189-210.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Horizontalism review

Published during 2008 in Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 20: 518-522. The AK Press blog also ran it awhile back.

Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina
Edited by Marina Sitrin, 2006, Oakland, California: AK Press. Pages 251. $18.95 (paper).

Horizontalism is not just the first English-language account of the most recent social movements in Argentina. It is also an in-depth exploration of the ideas—prefigurative politics and direct democracy—driving those movements. Editor Marina Sitrin, considers a variety of topics in turn, including horizontalism, autogestion and recuperated factories, autonomy, creation, power, feminism, and protagonism. As the editor states in her introduction, many of the words currently used in Argentina's movements—such as horizontalidad or autogestion—have no exact English translation, so she rightly keeps the original Spanish word and allows her subjects to explain the new words and their meanings. This approach is appropriate given the dramatic and quick changes taking place that require new language to describe.

Sitrin has compiled a book that has a structure that mimics the very thing it helps to explain. Horizontalism discusses the dramatic changes in social life in Argentina following a devastating financial crisis in 2001—changes that created wide-spread democratic, autonomous, self-determined, collective-minded, and empowering groupings and organizations—by the use of passionate and articulate oral histories. Following the premise of horizontalism, Argentina's movements respect the diversity of participating voices, and this book's characters provide an equally nuanced and diverse explanation of movement activities. Just like in their popular assemblies, the book's subjects generally agree on what they describe, but there are large, healthy portions of comradely disagreement. Each interviewee contributes his or her own understandings of a variety of phenomena occurring in Argentina, ranging from the December 2001 rebellion, reclaimed and cooperative factories, and neighborhood assemblies, to a movement of unemployed workers, feminism, middle-class revolt, and horizontalism.

During the past few years, activist documentaries have been permeating the political left, films like The Fourth World War, The Take, and i: Argentina, Indymedia, and the Questions of Communication. These films have introduced English-speaking audiences to upheaval taking place in this country and have favorably displayed the creative actions of everyday Argentinians for all to see. This book adds the necessary texture and analysis to the social revolution presented in the films. Who would not be inspired? Or at least shaken (and depending who you are, maybe even scared) to the bone? This social revolution is not one that is debated by arm-chair Marxists or heady intellectuals in the Ivory Tower. The revolution—and in some respects, Argentina's very future—appears in the tight control of the movement participants themselves.

The book details the social revolution following the economic crisis of late-2001, and in doing so, reveals the new language and vision of Argentina's social movements. Within the span of a few weeks, five successive governments disintegrated as countless thousands of citizens gathered outside the Presidential palace in Buenos Aires chanting “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“they all must go!”). People met by the hundreds on street corners and held meetings (assembleas) with their neighbors—by consensus—after reading chalked messages on sidewalks asking for people to converge at a certain time (horizontalidad). In these assemblies, neighbors discussed community problems and worked collectively to address needs unmet by conventional government. Workers who had been unemployed by corporations fleeing the ruinous economy decided to seize and cooperatize their former workplaces and run the machines themselves (autogestion). Other unemployed workers organized into small-trades with each other, while creating road blockades to prevent corporate trucks for carrying products and raw materials of Argentina out of the country (piqueteros). And families and whole communities occupied spaces as varied as abandoned land and bankrupt banks, turning them into squatter neighborhoods and community centers.

Social movement participants interviewed in the book name-drop the various influences and inspirations for the explosion of activism and social revolution. Some mention Zapatismo, others the patron-saint of the Argentinean radical left, Che Guevara, and one mentions the circulation of John Holloway's book Change the World Without Taking Power amongst the movement. However, most interviewees say the horizontal approach bubbled-up naturally from the bottom and was formed out of necessity. In fact, movements' self-organization is derived from the failure of all establishment methods; to succeed, movements had to do things in a radically different way.

The book's best contribution for readers interested in social theory, is likely to be its insights into radical democracy and decentralization. Democracy—something frequently talked about by scholars, pundits, and politicians, but rarely attempted (or achieved) in the real world—is being theorized in tandem with everyday practice by Argentinians trying to find popular, empowering, and autonomous ways of acting to support themselves in both a weak economy and reeling political state. “Horizontalism” is the name that Argentina's movement use to describe this approach to democratic decision-making. It serves as a way to decentralize the power held formerly in the political party machines and re-distribute it amongst people who are clearly interested in making more active use of such power. The recuperated workplaces serve as a dramatic economic example of horizontalism: workers self-managing their jobs via direct democracy and not allowing decision-making (or profit) to be centralized in the hands of managers and owners.

With all these heady efforts to transform institutions and social relations, it is difficult for a reader to resist comparisons to other incipient, revolutionary situations. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 is an ideal reference point: both Argentina and Spain include the rise in cross-movement solidarity, the de-centering of political authority, the appropriation of land and workplaces, large networks of counter-institutions established to sustain alternatives to hierarchical institutions, and a spirited increase in rebelliousness and optimism. Yet, elements which did and can prove detrimental to sustained movement activity are also present in both examples: increased repression by the counter-revolutionary forces (primarily the state and its police), leeching of energy by the authoritarian left (and electorally-oriented liberals in Argentina), and rough, never-ending vigilance against a re-establishment of centralized power. The Spanish experiment in anarchism was militarily crushed by Stalinists and fascists in-turn; the fate of Argentina's horizontalism remains to be seen.

Horizontalism's prose is powerful, but more importantly, clearer than most academic writing, a benefit clearly attributable to the non-academic origins of the participants. Consequently, the book is on-topic, intricate, and treats complex ideas thoroughly—using straight-forward language in a compelling interview-style format. Sitrin expertly edits her interviews to encapsulate the various threads into chapters that are (relatively) neatly packaged and cohesive. Still, as with any social movement still in its formative stages, the book's main sister topics (horizontalism, autogestion, autonomy, etc.) have many points of overlap and potential synonym confusion, which may cause some readers to struggle to keep ideas separate and unique (particularly given most English-speakers' inexperience with these concepts and practices). Equally, by the end of each chapter, there is a fair amount of repetition on many points, which may lead a reader to become slightly impatient—but redundancy is to be expected in an oral history. The book also includes a good number of photos (over 60), and while none are large resolution, they help prop open a compelling window into the surreal and normal aspects of the extraordinary events being described.

I do have a few questions, concerns, and issues I would have liked to see included or discussed. First, there are no dates attached to the interview snippets, leaving the reader curious as to what point in time the events related by interviewees occurred. Are these reflections from the immediate aftermath of the 2001 rebellion? Or the result of a few years worth of gestation and internalization? Enthusiasm in the wake of the economic crisis is predictable; but, if people's passions remain years later while organizations and practices are solidifying, then the movements have been gathering a terrific momentum even after the initial outburst.

Even though autogestion, horizontalism, autonomy, and other ideas are intricately described by the interviewees, few arguments against the merit of these ideas are offered. It makes sense that activists would be generally supportive of the ideas dominating their movements, yet it is curious that there are few (even friendly) criticisms of the overall agenda. Do popular arguments exist, perhaps outside the movements, that criticize the goals or methods of these ideas? Equally important, it is difficult to know how widespread the ideas and practices described are, not to mention the movements that such things are embedded within. One could calculate the size of the movement based on the estimated population of Argentina and the eye-witness accounts of participant accounts at events or in organizations. Still, Sitrin's subjects do not speak to the numbers involved in assemblies or other neighborhood projects, or the ratio of those who would prefer to engage in horizontal activities compared to party politics (or neither). Of course, such questions may serve as an interesting future research project for a curious quantitative-oriented social scientist.

Finally, while the response to Argentina's newest movements by the Right has been clear—repression and smear-campaigns—what is the “established Left” (parties, unions, etc.) currently doing in Argentina and what has their overall response been to these movements? Cooptation has occurred in some instances, it appears, but have there been efforts to appropriate the movements' ideology to the advantage of parties? Political systems do, of course, try all they can to absorb and redirect outpourings of dissent and creative expression. Thus, if the horizontal tendency in Argentina's newest movements is to remain, holding off the incursion of formal, representative politics seems paramount. Although these may be frustrating and open-questions, in reality they are minor issues that should not tarnish an otherwise excellent book.

It was incredibly difficult to pry myself away from this book and I found it easy to imagine an excited tone of the voices behind the transcribed words. I think, this engaging content is relevant and important for two audiences. The first would be anyone who cannot imagine everyday people's ability to self-organize in a directly-democratic fashion, without the use of bureaucracy, elected representatives, or charismatic leaders. A second audience would be anyone who knows that such possibilities exist but have yet to witness such an eloquent description of such futures. Sitrin's volume will surely inspire and fascinate students of social movements, organizations, and social change, as much as it will inspire activists wishing to emulate Argentina's impressive moves towards horizontalism.

It is tempting to wonder aloud if similar precipitating factors, such as an economic collapse in the US, could trigger a popular rebellion like that witnessed in Argentina. If anything, this book conveys a strong sense of optimism and faith in human potential that generates confidence in our neighbors and fellow citizens given a possible future collapse as devastating as Argentina's.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sampling of Anarchists Discussing Sociology

Curiously, anarchists were kinder to sociology, than the sociologists were about anarchism. Still, anarchists had the tendency to either view sociology as a great intellectual liberator (and even the basis upon which "socialist" thought rested) or as a shill for the system, obscuring reality and justifying the status quo (although this indictment also seems to broadly include many other scholarly/academic disciplines, too)...

Alexander Berkman:
"Learned men have written big books, many of them, on sociology, psychology, and many other 'ologies', to tell you what you want, but no two of those books ever agree. And yet I think that you know very well without them what you want."

Voltairine de Cleyre:
"He [Mozersky] questioned me into all kinds of holes, from which I extricated myself most awkwardly, only to flounder into others he had smilingly dug while I was getting out of the first ones. The necessity of a better foundation became apparent: hence began a course of study in the principles of sociology and of modern Socialism and Anarchism as presented in their regular journals."

Emma Goldman:
"There are many who deny the possibility of such regeneration on the ground that human nature cannot change. Those who insist that human nature remains the same at all times have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They certainly have not the faintest idea of the tremendous strides that have been made in sociology and psychology, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that human nature is plastic and can be changed. Human nature is by no means a fixed quantity. Rather, it is fluid and responsive to new conditions."

Peter Kropotkin:
"To maintain this superstition whole systems of philosophy have been elaborated and taught; all politics are based on this principle; and each politician, whatever his colours, comes forward and says to the people, "Give me the power, and I both can and will free you from the miseries which press so heavily upon you." From the cradle to the grave all our actions are guided by this principle. Open any book on sociology or jurisprudence, and you will find there the Government, its organization, its acts, filling so large a place that we come to believe that there is nothing outside the Government and the world of statesmen."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sampling of Sociologists Discussing Anarchism

The following is a small sampling of a variety of well-known sociologists, speaking their minds on the subject of anarchism. Obviously, sociologists have had very mixed opinions on the subject (some highly favorable, others jaundiced and cynical)--including some very fanciful notions of what anarchism is (not to mention what "human nature" is). These quotes (and many others like them) will be combined with comparable perceptions from anarchists on the subject of Sociology in an upcoming paper. Until then, enjoy...

Charles Horton Cooley:
"Anarchy would benefit no one, unless criminals, and anything resembling a general strike I take to be a childish expedient not likely to be countenanced by the more sober and hardheaded leaders of the labor movement."

Vilfredo Pareto:
"Communism, collectivism, protectionism, state of 'pulpit' socialism, bourgeois socialism, anti-semitism, nihilism, anarchism—all are offshoots of the same stem. They spring directly from an incomplete observation of the laws of social science—and very often from passion serving in the stead of reason..."

Robert Park:
"Black and pestilent as anarchy may seem, it contains within it the germ of an idea that is the salvation of the world—I am certain of it—people die for that idea. Until a man is prepared to die for what he believes, he does not believe."

Talcott Parsons:
"Anarchism would be all very well in the unlimited plenty of the Garden of Eden; in the hard conditions of actual life man should be thankful for the protection of institutional restraints."

Georg Simmel:
"The technique of civilized labor requires for its perfection a hierarchical structure of society, “one mind for a thousand hands”, a system of leaders and executors. The constitution of individuals and the claims of objective achievement, as well as the workers and the realization of their aims—all coincide in the necessity of domination and subordination."

Lester Ward:
"Above all, the working people should realize that the government is their own, and will be just what the make it... If they are to secure from government that protection which forms its only claim to exist, they must throw off all party allegiance. They need no revolutionary schemes of socialism, communism or anarchy. The present machinery of government, especially in this country, is all they could wish. They have only to take possession of it and operate it in their own interest."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Anarchist Movement Epistemology

A dynamic area within the discipline of Sociology is the study of social movements. This field of research is far more dynamic than in the past—now various theories compete with each other, scholars advance new ideas and twists to old ideas, and scholarship has broken out of the stodgy ghetto of “collective behavior” to grow into its own vital area. The questions of “what is a movement?”, “where do movements come from?”, and “how do movements behave and succeed?” are vital questions that have been addressed for decades now, with many fascinating (although sometimes conflicting) answers (della Porta & Diani 2006). Yet almost none of this scholarly work has focused on the anarchist movement, surely one of the more dynamic and fascinating movements active today.

Anarchism is not, of course, merely a socio-political philosophy, as it has been mainly referenced in earlier chapters. Its proponents constitute a “movement”, a large collection of people who share similar attitudes, identities, and goals, and who are working towards (however awkwardly) some form of radical social change. This is how sociologist Mario Diani (1992) defines movements: networks of individuals and organizations who are linked by their common identification with that movement, who act in deliberate, extra-institutional ways to modify the structure of a society. Thus, even though “anarchism” refers to a set of immaterial culture (beliefs, theories, and traditions), it also refers to a constituency of real people who take that culture seriously enough to act upon it in the present. It is this present-day activity, this movement (as in “motion”, “trajectory”), that makes anarchism a subject worthy of study by sociolgoists.

Although movements are now routine research subjects for sociologists, some movements offer particularly complicated, contradictory, or counter-intuitive characteristics that befuddle scholars and impede scholarship. The objective of this chapter is to explore these problems of epistemology—the means by which we know something—in order to further the quest to better understand the anarchist movement. In doing so, we will tackle sticky issues of definition, the hurdles that stand in the way of studying anarchists, and the factors which make the aforementioned epistemological problems more formidable for anarchism than for most other movements.

The issues discussed in this chapter may be focused in order to serve a number of practical ends. For example, conventional scholars—say, sociologists—may wish to study anarchists or an anarchist movement. The matters to be discussed herein could help such scholars to focus their research questions, properly operationalize their variables, define appropriate sampling frames, design and administer surveys, or even locate and navigate an anarchist scene ethnographically. Equally important, is this chapter's value to journalists, whether mainstream news reporters, college newspaper editors, web-bloggers, or zine writers. Knowing more about these epistemological questions helps to provide the important nuance necessary to understand anarchism in a way that facilitates useful and meaningful communication to desired audiences. Or, anarchists themselves may benefit from this chapter, as it raises issues—and in some instances, controversies—about that movement. Presumably, to grapple with a wide range of epistemological questions serves not to just intellectually challenge anarchists, but to provide them with appropriate analytical ideas that could grow and strengthen their movement.


della Porta, Donatella and Mario Diani. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Diani, Mario. 1992. “The Concept of Social Movement”. The Sociological Review, 40 (1), February: 1-24.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Program Notes: Special Issue of Working USA on Anarcho-Syndicalism and Unions

Contemporary anarchists have played an increasingly central role in social movements, as witnessed by militant protest at global economic summits. In terms of participation and theoretical contribution and aesthetic, anarchists have strongly influenced the direction of the global justice movement, as well as been themselves influenced by radical grassroots efforts throughout the world, such as the Zapatistas and Peoples' Global Action. It is safe to say that the anarchist movement—thought dead and buried from the early 20th century—has been resurrected and is alive and well.

This special issue of Working USA attempts to take stock of these new developments and what their implications are for class analysis, working class struggle, and labor movements. Part of this accounting involves the study of on-going anarchist actions, while also demanding a historical perspective that considers the integral role of labor in the anarchist movement's development. Numerous contributors to this issue address these concerns, while others step-back to appreciate the theoretical relationships between anarchism and Marxism, technology, and the working class more broadly.

The issue begins with Williams noting a mixture of “new social movement” (NSM) and class-based characteristics in modern anarchism. The NSMs (such as environmental and peace movements) have allegedly rejected class-based struggle in favor of political and cultural forms of struggle. Additional NSM concerns include new constituencies, radical and horizontal organizational structures, and new collective identities, which do pertain to the anarchist movement. Yet, the conceptual landscape is so muddled that it calls into questions the relevance of categories like “NSM”, especially regarding a revolutionary movement, where many anarchists identify as “working class”, belong to labor unions, and claim economic-oriented ideologies such as “anarcho-syndicalist” and “anarcho-communist”.

Robinson's study shows that anarchists living in the central United States—supposedly uninterested in class, unions, and the like, and far away from the more “red anarchist” East Coast—regularly articulated claims revolving around class, participated in radical unions (namely the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), and critiqued capitalism as a major corrupting influence in society (in the “criminal justice system”, militarism, and day-to-day economic existence). This research gives the necessary qualitative texture to compliment Williams's quantitative study by providing in-depth evidence from an individual anarchist collective. This anarchist collective's actions point to the “continuing significance of class” in anarchist organizing. Robinson's essay also critiques the recent tendency of social movement observers to overlook or ignore class elements and she advocates for a continued appreciation of class inequality and class struggle.

Anarchists have also frequently participated in the labor movement itself. Shantz's essay reflects the consistent anarchist concern for working people and their rights to workplace freedoms, while simultaneously critiquing hierarchical business unionism that dominates many large labor unions. He argues for radical activism within mainstream unions, through a strategy of “flying squads”. These autonomous groupings of unionists within unions can provide support for the organizing work of marginalized groups, such as immigrant workers, as Shantz documents with the example of the overwhelmingly female and immigrant hotel workers in Ontario, Canada. Flying squads represent an anarchist appreciation of organization and democracy, while attempting to create self-empowered workers who are collectively independent of both their supervisors and union leadership.

Still, despite the undeniable presence of working-class anarchists and anarchist participation in the labor movement, this does not mean that modern anarchism is wholly analogous to the anarchist-infused labor movements of the early 1900s. There are categorical differences between the contemporary anarchist movement and the militant anarcho-syndicalist movements that began in the late 19th Century and had their heyday (and brutal curtain call) in Spain in the 1930s. James Joll and others have noted elsewhere that there is no strong, continuous connection between “classic” anarchism and the movement's re-birth in the 1960s. Christiansen addresses the interesting question of how a rejuvenated movement can continue a decades-old legacy. His multi-method study of the IWW in the US explores how the radical union has re-established itself using both its traditional principles of direct action, but also influenced by the ideology of anarchism. The fall of the USSR benefited both the IWW and modern anarchism, and each benefited from the other in this post-Soviet period. Symbiosis has results as anarchists joined the IWW and the IWW has become more anarchist. Although Christiansen notes some problems between the two, the IWW's classic “narrative” has helped to introduce modern “Wobblies” and anarchists to the IWW's history.

Another historical episode running in tandem with the Wobblies in the US was the Italian-American Galleanisti movement. Wellbrook’s reconsiders the Galleanisti and situates them within the US's violent labor history, portending to show that their militancy was not wildly out-of-step with militant working-class resistance that regularly faced-off against violent capitalist offensives. Combined with the death sentence to two Galleanisti Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder, the Galleanisti's radical rhetoric and bombing campaign (notably their suspected bombing of Wall Street) helps to conjure up the worst, rigid caricatures of “mad-bomber anarchists”, but Wellbrook presents them as merely one violent element within an intensely turbulent period of American class conflict (also see the review of Adamic's re-printed Dynamite! on American class violence in this issue). The fierce rhetoric and action of the Galleanisti dovetailed with the US entry into World War I to provide justifications for the social repression of anarchists, labor unionists, and immigrants (especially Italian-Americans and Russian-born), although employer-initiated violence and WWI were clearly responsible for more death and chaos in the US.

Even earlier in US history, and definitely prior to the USSR, the lines between Marxism and anarchism were less clear, although not unimportant. Pinta contributes to a synthesis of these two ideological strains by discussing another prominent incident in labor history (which also happened to involve a bomb): the Haymarket Affair. The efforts to establish the Eight-Hour Day came to be known as the Chicago Idea, which Pinta describes as a unique amalgamation of revolutionary unionism, post-Paris Commune socialism, and pre-figurative and anti-authoritarian anarchism.

Turcato also sees strong connections between labor and anarchism, largely through the words and actions of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta. For Turcato, the various anarchist ideologies of the 1890s are not so interesting for their theoretical differences, but for their tactical approaches. One approach favors labor organization and collective action, while another approach tended to be wary of large organizations and unions, instead favoring autonomous actions. Although collectivists and communist strains of anarchism (as well as organizationalists and anti-organizationists) were strongly rooted in working class communities, activists differed about the constitution of the future anarchist society as well as the means to achieve it. Malatesta and others constructed a pluralist anarchism that would tolerate ideological differences, treating such differences as “hypotheses” for which sufficient evidence was not yet available. This “anarchism without adjectives” is still a useful concept in modern anarchism, especially with “small-a anarchism”.

The theoretical basis of old anarchism is a worthy subject of debate – particularly how it informs the present – but anarchist theory is still being developed and merged with other theoretical traditions (e.g. feminism, post-modernism, post-colonialism). The ideological and organizational differences present in anarchism also appear in the division between anarchism and autonomist Marxism. Gautney explores the positions held by various contemporary anti-authoritarians, which she argues partially reflects historical differences between anarchism and Marxism. New anarchism shares commonalities with the autonomous Marxist tradition, for example the Italian Autonomia, in principles of prefiguation, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-capitalism. Both anarchism and autonomism have coalesced to inspire projects throughout the world, including social centers, Food Not Bombs collectives, and direct action-oriented networks. Gautney's essay raises the question of where autonomism ends and anarchism begins (or the opposite), and whether this question is ultimately worth answering.

Other philosophical and tactical questions that persist through the anarchist movement include the role of technology in revolutionary movements. Gordon explores this theme, building on his recent book Anarchy Alive (also reviewed in this issue). He compares Promethean anti-capitalism – which sees (limited) technology as useful for liberation – and modern-day primitivism that cynically considers all technology to be created out of unequal power relations and authority. Although some claim that technology is “neutral”, Gordon discusses Langdon Winner's arguments that wide-spread technological developments change patterns of social relations, thereby changing society. Consequently, the invention and deployment of technology has clear political consequences, particularly as it is used for the control and domination of some people by others (namely the state and corporations). Alternately, many technologies have enabled greater (or perhaps merely different) forms of social relationships, which have benefited anarchist organizers: computers, telecommunications, and information technologies. Gordon's appraisal of technology is smartly nuanced, principled and practical at the same time, calling for an applied application of certain discarded technologies, classic folk knowledge, and other scaled technologies useful in anarchist efforts.

This special issue of Working USA is rounded out by a philosophical discussion of anarchist theory, particularly as an ethical theory and practice. Jun argues that classical anarchism has always had a solid ethical foundation, routinely dismissed by other leftists as Utopian, unscientific, or anti-intellectual. However, anarchism involves strong, principled values of freedom and equality, which, according to Jun, cannot be easily disentangled. More importantly, for this issue, classical anarchism has been deeply rooted in the working classes of European societies. The very method of delivery for anarchism – serials, pamphlets, soap-box speeches – contains a uniquely populist character that sets it apart from much of the Marxist left. Anarchism has tended to emphasize both thought and action, considering them to be entwined practices, which demonstrates that anarchism has not been adverse to theory, but merely inappropriately suited for the kind of theory typically generated by “intellectuals” and academics. Although Jun thinks that the character of contemporary anarchism has yet to be as working class as “classical” anarchism, he notes trends that could be changing this—trends observed within this issue's first three essays. He ends his essay with a call to enliven efforts to generate anarchist theory, via inspirational words and actions.

These ten essays may be viewed as calls for greater attention to anarchism within the labor movement and its connection to working class politics. The editors of this special issue of Working USA hope that the ideas contained here will be useful for deeper reflection, future re-articulation, and reinvigorated action on the part of labor and social movement scholars, anarchist activists, and the rank-and-file of today's working classes.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Other Critiques and Conclusions of Work and Organization at Mondragón

Hacker and Elcorobairutia (1987) argue that although Mondragón does facilitate better conditions for women – mainly as surpluses returned back to the community in the form of health, education, and welfare – “women’s place in noncapitalist workplaces is as disadvantaged as in capitalist workplaces” (p. 373). They attribute much of this problem to the dual responsibility women have for home and children that “supposedly excludes them from equal roles in participatory workplace or community democracy” (p. 374). However, women usually earn higher wages in Basque cooperatives than in private firms, although not on par with the men in such firms. Women also played a major role in the Ulgor strike, and after the strike was broken, two-thirds of the members fired were women (Kasmir 1996).

Anarchists have lobbied similar criticisms as those noted above at Mondragón. While observing approvingly that the fundamental nature of a capitalist enterprise – the monopolization of capital and control by use of hired labor – is subverted, management is still not elected directly by managers.[1] Additionally, Benello (1996) observes that most of Mondragón’s output is not designated for local consumption, it makes little effort to export its ideology outside of the complex to other firms, and is openly antagonistic (in fact, bans) unions. Even so, Benello argues that Mondragón is unique for its synthesis of both collective and individual interests, its very clear alternative to both capitalist and state-socialist modes of production, and for offering a strong model for both organization and decentralization (two highly-valued anarchist principles).

Mondragón has created a unique and valuable alternative to typical corporations by forming relatively autonomous cooperatives that are owned by the members who work in them and are run democratically by decisions made in elected councils. In the spirit of this cooperatism, the role of workplace democracy has been experimented with and implemented in varying ways with varying degrees of success. Many have argued that although there have been great victories won in terms of cooperative ownership, governance and (less-so) in the workplace, Mondragón is losing its cooperative nature and becoming more like other multinational corporations. In one key respect – un-elected management – Mondragón has always been like such mainstream corporations. Through all these changes, it continues to be one of the most discussed, praised, criticized, debated, and studied cooperative projects in recent human history, and its importance continues to grow.


[1] In fact, the mere existence of management hierarchy is, in this respect, problematic.


Benello, George. 1996. “The Challenge of Mondragon”. Pp. 211-220 in Reinventing Anarchy, Again, edited by H. J. Ehrlich. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Hacker, Sally L. and Clara Elcorobairutia. 1987. “Women Workers in the Mondragon System of Industrial Cooperatives”. Gender & Society, 1 (4), December: 358-379.

Kasmir, Sharryn. 1996. The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Effects of Internationalization and Globalization on Mondragón

Gunn (2000) and others (Errasti, et al. 2003) argue that the increased international integration of the world economy (a.k.a. “globalization”) have adversely affected Mondragón, primarily in its ability to retain its unique and democratic features. “[T]he trend toward greater reliance on markets of the past two decades has made it more difficult for initiatives in workplace democracy to survive” (p. 448). He also notes that “the day-to-day objective of democratically-managed firms is the maximization of some combination of income per member and employment stability” (p. 451), factors which are beginning to disappear. For instance, some Mondragón firms have begun hiring non-member workers (cooperative equivalent of other companies hiring “temp workers”). Cultural pressure has arisen for greater individualism and hierarchy in place of the ideal of “socially-coordinated governance structures”. There has also been continual pressure within management for increased pay differentials.[1] All of these factors have contributed to a greater gap in power amongst workers and managers in Mondragón.

Some potential “pros” of globalization – or “the marketization of employee participation” – are detailed by Cheney (2001/2002): a sense of realism about market pressures, a sense of greater customer and consumer responsiveness, increased competitiveness in industry, a unity of objective and language for all employees, and an aesthetic of entrepreneurship at the individual and work team level. Cheney, however, does not describe all these changes positively, and further notes the following globalization “cons”: the [further] subordination of the member’s role as employee with an overriding emphasis on external and internal markets, undermining opportunities for greater cooperation in and outside of the organization, displacement of key social values of Mondragón (for the sake of “efficiency”), increased responsibility and stress without substantial self-determination for employees, and a neglect for the potential role that such larger firms can play in promoting social values and shaping the market itself. In short, Mondragón is facing similar, if not more extreme due to its originally progressive nature, threats to its traditional organization that standard capitalist firms are due to international integration and “globalization”.

Miller (2001/2002) comments that during a visit to Mondragón, he heard a lot of internal discussion about “responding to the market”, but little about “shaping the market”. Both approaches assume a standard capitalist interaction, while a change in workplace roles and organization is neither implicit nor necessary for either. As Johnson and Whyte (1977) remarked about labor unrest in the 1970s and Mondragón’s less than sympathetic response to it, Miller criticizes Mondragón for not fully supporting and working with labor unions for creating “alternatives to the unfettered free market” – although still honoring a General Strike in Spain during 1994. Moye (1993) cites an internal study of Mondragón that found nearly one-fourth of members interested in leaving the cooperatives if private firm positions of a comparable nature were available, and only two-thirds were confident they would stay. Although job satisfaction is still favorable compared to most capitalist firms, this is an especially high-level of dis-ease for Mondragón.


[1] The original maximum pay differential was 1:3 (worker to management), but has since increased in some firms to as much as 1:10.


Cheney, George. 2001/2002. “Mondragon Cooperatives”. Social Policy, Winter: 4-9.

Errasti, Anjel Mari, Inaki Heras, Baleren Bakaikoa, and Pilar Elgoibar. 2003. “The Internationalisation of Cooperatives: The Case of the Mondragon Corporation”. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 74 (2): 553-584.

Gunn, Chrostopher. 2000. “Markets Against Economic Democracy”. Review of Radical Political Economy, 32 (3): 448-460.

Johnson, Ana Gutierrez and William Foote Whyte. 1977. “The Mondragon System of Worker Production Cooperatives”. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 31 (1), October: 18-30.

Miller, Mike. 2001/2002. “Mondragon: Lessons For Our Times”. Social Policy, Winter: 17-20.

Moye, A. Melissa. 1993. "Mondragon: Adapting Co-operative Structures to Meet the Demands of a Changing Environment". Economic and Industrial Democracy, 14: 251-276.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Workplace Reorganization Within Mondragón

The classic work done by William Whyte (1977, 1988, 1999) has shown the greatest detail and attention towards the specific changes in workplace organization itself. Cooperative governance – through the general assembly, governing councils, and social councils – were the only ways that members usually participated in decision making in Mondragón until the early 1970s. Although is was democratic in the sense that workers voted for representatives for these councils and assemblies, they could not vote directly for those who had the greatest immediate impact upon their lives: managers.[1]

As of that point, worker democracy was slowly and selectively extended to the workplace itself in certain Mondragón firms. Whyte and Whyte (1988) ascribe this change to progressive managers and the influx of information about worker democracy experiments in other places in Europe. Javier Mongelos, a new general manager at Fagor Electrontécnica, was originally a trained physicist who took Mondragón’s values to heart. He came to three main conclusions that helped spur change: 1) the personnel department should link economic and technical objectives to the social concerns of members, 2) growing discontent at work was the result of a fundamental conflict between worker democracy and Taylorist “scientific management”, and 3) new forms of work organization that are both economically efficient and “in harmony with the social values on which the cooperative movement [is] based” should be explored (p. 114).

Whyte and Whyte note that the Copreci firm was the first to attempt and had the greatest success in adapting production organization processes to benefit workplace democracy. The production technology it used was relatively easy to re-adapt and management was overall sympathetic to the changes Mongelos had devised. Copreci’s personnel department conducted a job satisfaction survey, from which they discovered “substantial dissatisfaction” with two specific work sections. The firm decided to target reorganization efforts at the section most easily changed. It formed a committee to study management changes to make, a committee that was made up of more than half by workers themselves. The committee “studied and discussed the productivity and quality problems in its operations, production requirements, and the relations among workers and between them and management” (p. 116).

From this committee, an experimental group formed that would try out the new scheme it had developed. A work table, where workers were seated around, replaced the standard conveyor belt where workers stood along. They set their own work rhythm and were able to exchange information and ideas about the work process itself. The workers rotated tasks and would switch what they were doing to pick up the slack when certain tasks needed more attention. This allowed the workers to learn all tasks and to manage their own labor requirements. Over time, they gained skill and confidence for the entire product, and began taking over supervisory and staff functions like requisitioning tools and materials and recording their own output. In effect, these Copreci workers began taking on the role of both worker and manager, as in many traditional cooperatives that lack a workplace hierarchy. Insofar as supervisors were retained, their responsibilities – especially previous disciplinary responsibilities – changed.

A review done over a decade later regarding the changes at Copreci found that workers could more easily visualize their own contributions to the product they made, workers and management concentrated efforts on total product (making themselves more flexible to consumer demands), and the “research and development” process was strengthened. Uniquely to Copreci, both workers and management spoke highly of the changes, and were glad to be relieved of the “terrible monotony” of assembly lines.

None of the following firms went as far as Copreci or were as successful in their work changes, but the successes and failures are both interesting and often noteworthy. A report from 1985 notes that ULARCO (a major component of the Mondragón complex) had 83 active workgroups from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Whyte and Whyte (1988) conclude that new work changes had gone relatively dormant after this period.

Ederlan eliminated foreman positions as work groups took over supervisory responsibilities. The change did not last, and the firm reverted back to its original organization. Fagor Electrotécnica divided its large workforce into small work groups, and began rotating tasks, organizing their own work, doing quality control inspections, and requisitioning their own materials and tools. Ulgor attempted to change from an assembly line to smaller work groups, but there was a lack of physical space for this. In the end, “changes proved to be neither far-reaching nor enduring” (Whyte and Whyte 1988, p. 120). Lenniz’s re-organization was also a complete failure, with workers lacking the knowledge and skills to run newer machines without management coordination, which had been eliminated.

Arrasate started holding biweekly meetings to exchange information and plan its work. In doing so, workers began to take on greater responsibilities and eventually eliminated the position of quality inspector. Then, management switched the organization of production from function-based to product-based. In doing so, the workplace was greatly disrupted and the transition was very slow. While production languished, the recession in Arrasate’s main industry (machine tools) forced the cooperative to refocus on the old process.

In one unique case during this experimental period, a brand new factory was to be built, and it was designed with a work group organizational model in mind, not the traditional assembly line design. This plant was part of the firm called Vergara. In this plant there were no foreman, only a few people who were responsible for overseeing various work groups and helping out when problems arise and getting necessary tools and materials. The plant’s organization continues to be wildly popular with its workers, but it hasn’t been a financial success yet. Whyte attributes this to the recession and the glut of Vergara’s main product, dishwashers, on the market.

Changes seemed to be most successful when there was a sympathetic existing management, an empowering and enfranchising process that allowed workers to have a say in changes to be made, and supportive external factors like a good economic situation for the product being made.


[1] Greenberg (1986) elaborates more cynically: “the general assembly meets only once a year… At this meeting, moreover, the agenda is largely controlled by management… Opportunities for participation are few and far between at Mondragón amounting, in the end, to little more than plebiscite-style elections once a year to approve or disapprove the current leadership team.” (pp. 103-108)


Greenberg, Edward S. 1986. Workplace Democracy: The Political Effects of Participation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte. 1988. Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of The Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithica, NY: ILR Press.

Whyte, William F. 1999. “The Mondragón Cooperatives in 1976 and 1998”. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 52 (3), April: 478-481.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Introduction to Work Changes Within Mondragón

[The Mondragón cooperatives in Spain's Basque region have been very interesting to me in the past (and a good number of other people I know, too). As a friend of mine once said: we in the US focus on creating little coops, like grocery stores, while the Mondragón are making industrial-scale stuff like refrigerators! Even given their many flaws (including ever-increasing corporatization and layers of internal-hierarchy), they are still an example of collective enterprise that flies in the face of neo-liberal arguments that "workers need bosses". Written [somewhat painfully] for a sociology of work class in Spring 2004.]

The Mondragón is a complex of worker cooperatives – primarily industrial in nature – located in the Basque region of Spain. It continues to be the largest federation of such cooperative corporations outside of the former Yugoslavia and China, and has, in many respects, been able to successfully compete with capitalist firms in a number of ways.

Due to the cooperative nature of these firms, the work relations are different than nearly any other capitalist company. Workers exercise not only ownership over the firms, but also a substantial level of governance over the firm’s macro-level decision making as well. In later decades, workers have taken on a greater role in work democracy for their day-to-day tasks. As members of the cooperative, they have an ownership share in the firm, and contribute to the governance of the firm directly on the job and through elected representatives of various councils.

Unlike some cooperatives where there is no delineation between management and worker[1], Mondragón firms typically have layers of management. Since there is a management structure, the Mondragón has not been immune from labor discontent and struggles. In the 1970s, workers and progressive managers spurred a number of work place reforms. But, this was not able to stop a strike at the Ulgor firm, one of the largest producers of refrigerators in Spain (Johnson and Whyte 1977).

The problem I wish to address is how work has changed within the Mondragón complex, both in terms of the organization of the workplace for members and the structural relationship within firms, such as that amongst worker and manager. A large part of this is how have democratic channels and the nature of self-determined work changed in the complex. Have some firms had easier times with democratic reforms than others? Which firms have had greater successes with work democracy and has this translated into greater success for these firms? How has recession and globalization affected how Mondragón operates? Has there been increasing worker discontent during the existence of Mondragón, or has it decreased since the 1970s? And how democratic has Mondragón as whole been evaluated? In answer the above questions, along with a brief history of Mondragón’s evolution, I hope to understand in what ways work and democracy has changed.

In Moye (1993), four distinct periods in Mondragón history are noted: expansion (1956-59), programmed development (1970-84), adaptation to the market (1985-90), and sectoralization (1991-present). These strategic periods describe the various changes that Mondragón has gone through as a group of cooperative companies and also in terms of work.

The early period of Mondragón (expansion) involves the initial formation and design of the complex, an idea that is commonly attributed to a Catholic priest named Fr. José Maria Arizmendi. He laid out the first draft of the constitution and by-laws for the first cooperative. These documents have formed the basis for every cooperative since. It was at this time (and under the influence of Arizmendi) that low wage ratios and the direct deposit of member shares into accounts were established as norm to keep both a low management hierarchy and a large pool of capital for a cooperative. With the establishment of a credit union to help the funding of additional cooperatives, the Caja Laboral Popular, and a cooperative educational system to help in job training, Mondragón began creating institutions to fulfill important needs that neither the marketplace nor the state would provide to cooperative organizations.

The period of “programmed development” saw both a rapid increase in the number of Mondragón firms and also the onslaught of a Spanish recession. As noted above and will be noted below, this period also saw an increase in labor struggles within Mondragón, including a strike (including retributive firing afterward), in addition to external union organizing throughout Spain. These efforts increased employment in Spain and the Basque region, and also led to much higher wage levels. Experiments and strategic changes in on-the-job work organization will be dealt with in the section titled “Workplace reorganization”. Bradley and Gelb (1986) write and analyze four responses typical of cooperatives in regards to recession, including 1) efficient adjustments by the more flexible wage labor, 2) cautious investments, 3) attempts to diversify, and 4) moral authority of a tight community and better information flows between members.

Adaptation to the market and sectoralization have both occurred in tandem with increased global integration (which is discussed in the section “Internationalization and globalization”) and corporatization following a multinational model whose essence is captured by the formation of the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC). Taylor (1994) remarks that by the late 1980s, the economic challenges faced by Mondragón were answered by “a more narrowly economic conception of efficiency” (p. 483). The preoccupation with “standard” capitalist concerns like “efficiency” continued to grow through out the 1990s.

Before looking at how work was reorganized in the 1970s, I would like to preface the discussion by looking at how workers have not behaved as theories have commonly predicted those in cooperatives to behave. Moye (1993) details four theoretical problems that besiege most cooperatives on a firm and societal level. First, theory suggests that members will restrict employment to increase the per member income. Second, it is thought that cooperative firms with collective capital funds will not offer sufficient incentives for its members to reinvest in the firm itself – and thus be driven to invest outside their firms. Third, new cooperatives will not have proper “external market discipline”. And fourth, there is allegedly a danger of a sale by cooperative members, since this is said to be the best way members can gain the full value of their investments. Moye concludes that, on all these accounts, Mondragón has overcome such issues by dealing with the related problems both directly and indirectly.


[1] See Rothschild-Whitt (1979) for more on cooperative alternatives to the rational-bureaucratic model, that eschews a separate management structure and hierarchy.


Bradley, Keith and Alan Gelb. 1986. “Cooperative Labour Relations: Mondragon’s Response to Recession”. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 25 (1), March: 77-97.

Johnson, Ana Gutierrez and William Foote Whyte. 1977. “The Mondragon System of Worker Production Cooperatives”. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 31 (1), October: 18-30.

Moye, A. Melissa. 1993. "Mondragon: Adapting Co-operative Structures to Meet the Demands of a Changing Environment". Economic and Industrial Democracy, 14: 251-276.

Rothschild-Whitt, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models”. American Sociological Review, 44, August: 509-527.

Taylor, Peter Leigh. 1994. “The Rhetorical Construction of Efficiency: Restructuring and Industrial Democracy in Mondragón, Spain”. Sociological Forum, 9 (3): 459-489.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Against the Mere Study of Domination

Anarchist-sociologists argue that domination and inequality should not just be studied, but also actively opposed. Study is (maybe) a good first step, but then domination must be reacted and responded to. Large numbers of sociologists share this position, too (e.g. so-called “public sociologists”). The world-renowned academic linguist (and anarchist) Noam Chomsky (2005) discusses how such a critique must be followed by action:
I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. (p. 178, emphasis added)

Thus, according to Chomsky, the task is to first understand domination and inequality and then do away with their manifestations. Anarchist-sociology is interested in the study and transformation of society.

But, what is problematic with pure study, which is the usual endpoint for most sociologists? Studying inequality (and those who are dominated) turns the phenomenon (and the people affected by it) into objects of inquiry, thus abstracting and fetishizing the dominated and their needs. The distance implicit in research (with the exception, maybe, of militant ethnographic research methods) creates a crucial disjunction, and further dominates the dominated and privileges the already privileged.

Scholarship feeds the career of academics and policy-makers—thus keeping hierarchical systems like universities and governmental agencies humming along without challenge. Research is conducted in such a fashion that it serves the interests of academics’ careers. The placement of articles in academic journals or presentation at conferences does little to reach those most immediately impacted by hierarchy and domination. In fact, most research exaggerates that social distance, not only in the forum chosen, but also the esoteric and jargon-laded delivery. Even if such research could have liberatory potential for the dominated, it cannot reach them (especially in an unfiltered form) as it is sequestered away in the archives of the Ivory Tower (Martin 1998).

Dominated people need ammunition in their hands to fight back against oppressive power and hierarchy. Research on inequality and injustice can provide this firepower, but who will wield the weapons? To the extent that research is used at all, the traditional scholarly peer-review process within the world of academic journals has tended to only further enable the agency of politicians, policy-makers, and bureaucrats. According to Saul Alinsky (1972), the father of modern community organizing (and a once-aspiring sociologist), speaks to this troubling and lop-sided disconnect:
As an undergraduate, I took a lot of courses in sociology, and I was astounded by all the horse manure they were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery and despair. I mean, Christ, I'd lived in a slum, I could see through all their complacent academic jargon to the realities. It was at that time that I developed a deep suspicion of academicians in general and sociologists in particular, with a few notable exceptions.… So I realized how far removed the self-styled social sciences are from the realities of everyday existence, which is particularly unfortunate today, because that tribe of head-counters has an inordinate influence on our so-called antipoverty program. Asking a sociologist to solve a problem is like prescribing an enema for diarrhea. (n.p.)

Who determines what weapons should be available, and how useful or liberatory they should be? Presently, the isolated researcher, operating within the confines of academia and only influenced by peers, makes these decisions. The resources, intellectual toolkits, and expertise are generally not made available to dominated communities; when studied, the dominated usually find themselves to be research objects poked and probed in ways they do not necessarily control, value, or benefit from.

So, who should use research findings to oppose inequality and how should that opposition be manifested? Should non-dominated individuals (e.g. straight, White middle-class men) be advocates or spokespersons for dominated groups? How about academics who are themselves members of disadvantaged groups? How exactly should any academics contribute and in what ways? When academics attempt to answer this question—as we are presently trying to do—we exercise not only our privileged positions, but also impose our own preferences, world-views, and biases.

These issues are important since they inform the question of who ought to act to eliminate inequality. Anarchists strongly claim that people must be active agents in their own liberation. Consequently, the liberal claim that the welfare state will help the poor is not just troublesome, but incorrect. When the state acts it is taking away the important, empowering experience that the poor could—and should—be having. The state is not necessarily acting how the poor would choose to. There is also ample evidence (e.g. Piven & Cloward 1993) suggesting that social welfare policies—even if well-intended (itself debatable)—serve to squelch revolutionary action and social disorder that could overturn hierarchical institutions. Once rebellious disruption diminishes, the welfare state retracts its “generous” assistance, thrusting the disadvantaged back into a position of austerity and want.

While assistance to the disadvantaged from well-read and researched state, technocratic, and intellectual figures can be perhaps helpful in the immediacy, it has negative long-term consequences. According to anarchist theory, saviors should not be trusted (or at least entrusted with one’s future). One needs to save oneself. Even “altruistic” saviors—such as charismatic social movement leaders—are problematic as they rob people of their autonomy, confidence, experiences, and right to rebel. Instead, anarchism argues for the immediate and direct action of the disadvantaged to oppose domination and inequality, action that does not rely on authority to create a more equal and just society. Authority figures who can hierarchically grant assistance create new forms of inequality; according to anarchism, one form of authority should not replace another (even if they represent a more benign and “kind” form).


Alinsky, Saul. 1972. “Empowering People, Not Elites”. Playboy. Available:

Chomsky, Noam 2005. Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland, AK Press.

Martin, Brian. 1998. Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education. Date accessed: July 28, 2006.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1993. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Sociology of Decentralization

Even though many things have been centralized in modern societies during recent decades and centuries—tax-collecting, census-taking, customs and border patrolling, policing—other things remain decentralized. An anarchist-sociology would note these elements and raise-up their enduring importance. As Mildred Loomis (2005) explains:
Decentralization is not turning back the clock. Through decentralization, independence would replace dependency; honesty and justice would replace delinquency. Health would prevent disease and degeneracy; creative work and folk art would replace decadent and inhuman activities. For these desired ends, Decentralization would organize production, control, ownership, government, communication, education, and population in smaller, more human units. (pp. 23-24)

Thus, decentralization refers to the social relationships and organization lacking a a centralized mechanism, structure, or authority, while not precluding coordination, cooperation, or communication. In fact, many people like smaller things, such as being able to talk with individuals, and tend to identify with their local areas, immediate surroundings, and lived situations. The desire for an immediate connection to others—not one mediated by large, impersonal institutions—is a very real one. Decentralization is not simply a means of facilitating a more thoroughly lived life, but also an avenue to being more democratic and participatory. As Robert Michels (1958) argued, centralization and largesse causes problems of leadership consolidation and elitism within organizations, thus stunting the potential for rank-and-file democracy.

If humans live in scaled-back, local communities, trust is likely to develop in people living elsewhere. Others are apt act in ways roughly similar to one's own community. If larger structures of coordination seem to be required between locales, they can connect via horizontal federation. Thus, it is possible to create a complex society, based around direct democracy, local control, and larger-scale coordination, all without resorting to authoritarian leadership or bureaucracy.

These sorts of phenomena—decentralized groupings and federation structures—exist throughout society, from computer networks like the Internet to collections of friends and neighborhood groups. All sorts of organizations have chosen to federate with each other, as shown by the massive networking between individuals and organizations that compose modern social movements. The study of social networks has been exploding within sociology, hinting at the extraordinary ways in which most people interact with each other in largely—although not completely—horizontal patterns. Decentralization can be witnessed in the protest strategies regularly employed by anarchists at demonstrations: autonomous affinity groups that work separately within the larger protest event, all pursuing their own independent goals and objectives, but often coordinating actions between affinity groups through horizontally-organized spokesperson councils.

To practice a sociology of decentralization would require the placement of sociologists in all sorts of places in society—not just clustering them within universities and government agencies. Social movement organizations, community groups, and neighborhoods ought to have their own sociologists who help people to understand their social environments. Or, more radically, all could learn to think more sociologically and to exercise their anarchist imaginations. The means by which people share such sociological analysis ought to simulate a network-style approach modeled upon principles of horizontalism and decentralization—no one able to tell others what information they may or may not have. In other words, it is important to put knowledge and the power to use that knowledge in the hands of anyone and everyone, regardless of one's ability to pay for or monopolize it.


Loomis, Mildred J. 2005. Decentralization: Where It Came From, Where Is It Going? Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Michels, Robert. 1958. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.