Monday, February 7, 2011

We Are Everywhere (Introduction)

[Co-authored with Matthew Lee, published in Humanity & Society in 2008]

The past decade has seen a pronounced resurgence in anarchist movement activity throughout the world (Gordon 2007). This increase activity can be witnessed by large-scale protests featuring sizable (and organized) anarchist contingents, focused media attention on anarchists active in social movements, and the expressed concerns and accusations made by politicians of a new anarchist menace. Still, even though this resurgence is clearly factual, it is unclear why anarchism has reappeared now, to what extent it exists, and where it is most active.

There has also been a resurgence of interest in anarchism—both academically and in popular media—but very little of this treatment has offered a comparative examination of the international anarchist movement as it has been differentially shaped across geo-political contexts. Specifically, research has not comprehensively assessed the factors that influence where anarchism thrives and its particular domains of activity. For example, are anarchist media organizations more prevalent in countries with strong press rights, or do such organizations flourish in the absence of these rights? Most recent studies have been theoretical (Day 2004, Shantz 2002a, 2003), anecdotal (Katz 1981, Graeber 2002), or qualitative and focus on only one organization (Blickstein & Hanson 2001, Boehrer 2000, 2003, Ingalsbee 1996, Luke 1994, Maiba 2005, O'Brien 1999, O'Connor 1999, Roy 2003, Shantz 2002b, Shantz & Adam 1999).[1] Yet, there is very little organizational consistency in anarchist organizations, particularly when surveying their distribution across the world. These organizations may focus on local, national, and/or global struggles; address political, cultural, and economic concerns; and target government, corporate, religious, or cultural authorities. Some members of such organizations may perceive their involvement as contributing to a larger anarchist social movement with the explicit goal of fundamental societal transformation; others may have become involved for more prosaic reasons and share the anarchist ideology to a lesser degree, if at all. Regardless, anarchist organizations are “everywhere,” as a movement slogan argues. But, few attempts have been made to disaggregate their content across national boundaries. Even less research has sought to account for the appearance of particular types of anarchist organizations in specific social and political contexts.

A central problem associated with attempts to understand anarchist organizations is that they are, by their very nature, decentralized so no master source of information on anarchist organizations exists. The best existing resource available to researchers is the Anarchist Yellow Pages (AYP). This paper analyzes the AYP to build upon the empirical knowledge of anarchist social movement organizations. This paper offers an initial descriptive and analytical account of the geographic clustering of types of anarchist organizations, with special emphasis on the role of political opportunities in shaping this distribution. As such, our approach contributes to the study of anarchism by exploring the macro-level forces that shape the characteristics of populations of organizations (c.f., Hannan and Freeman 1989; Friedland and Alford 1991), as well as the political opportunity variant of social movement theory (McAdam 1996). We begin by offering a brief description of anarchism and anarchist organizations.

Anarchism is surely one of the most misunderstood political and social philosophies of the modern era. Any discussion of anarchism requires a preface that distinguishes fact from fiction and between what anarchists say about themselves and what others say about them. First, anarchism is not about chaos, violence, terrorism, or disorganization. Anarchism does not advocate a dog-eat-dog world or a nihilist future of an uncaring society (Zinn 1997). Concerted media propaganda campaigns have been waged against anarchists, both in the past (Cobb-Reiley 1988 and Hong 1992) and the recent present (McLeod & Detenber 1999), campaigns that have strongly influenced this popular misperception. Thus, it is unsurprising that most people today expect an image of anarchists that reflects a Walt Whitman-esque male draped in black cape, clutching lit bomb, ready to hurl it wherever his glee suits, or the image of a young person—surely White and over-privileged—wearing a black hooded-sweatshirt, face covered with a bandanna, and intentionally antagonizing police officers. However, these two stereotypes—mad bomber or violent street fighter—do not represent the wide range of tactical repertoires, nor the aspirations or goals of modern-day anarchists.

Second, anarchism can be defined by what it is for and what it is against. Anarchism opposes hierarchy, authority structures, and domination, which are embodied in various institutions: capitalism, the state, patriarchy, heterosexism, White supremacy, militarism, fundamentalist religion, and bureaucracy (Berkman 2003, Ehrlich 1996). Anarchism supports freedom, cooperation, decentralization, and horizontal relationships (Goldman 1969, Rocker 1990, Ward 1996). The whole of society's dominant institutions and power structures need to be, according to anarchists, radically restructured. Through a complete transformation of society and its power relationships, a more just, peaceful, egalitarian, and humanist world will emerge.

Third, anarchism has almost always been part of the broader socialist movement (with the exception of some individualist or post-leftist tendencies that have occasionally emerged). It constitutes a libertarian, non-state, and non-vanguardist alternative to Marxism (Chomsky 1973). As such, anarchists have always found common cause with the general ends of socialists, but have disagreed with the means suggested to achieve those ends, primarily the need of a centralized leadership or state apparatus (Berkman 2003). Fourth, anarchism is both a theoretical and applied ideology—there is a tight link between putting values into action. It is within this point that anarchists find their sharpest critique of Marxists, who anarchists argue, “talk the talk” but are incapable of moving to a more liberated future because they wish to control the process toward socialism.

Fifth, social relationships in anarchist organizations exist on a smaller scale than dominant society: organizations tend to be deliberately small (cooperatives, collectives, and affinity groups being the typical organizations of choice); if there are many members in an organization, it tends to be a federation of smaller groups participating in an equal fashion (Martin 1990). Simpler and smaller structures are desirable because anarchism values direct action as opposed to representative action (Polletta 2002). Whereas many conventional definitions of “organization” include components such as a chain of command and a relatively permanent formal structure, Ehrlich (1977:6) argues that this excludes “virtually all organizational forms that an anarchist would take to be central to community life.” Some anarchist organizations have no membership roster or formal procedures because anarchist thought suggests that decision-making is more democratic, empowering, and easier with fewer involved constituents, less structure, and minimal standard operating procedures. This aspect does not mean to imply that industrial society is incapable of becoming more liberating, but that social relationships must be made as horizontal as possible.

Finally, some organizations and people are either openly anarchist or have anarchistic tendencies. Sympathizers with anarchism occasionally shy away from labeling themselves as “anarchists” due to the stigma attached to the label. Although there has been no “purely” anarchist revolution, anarchist influences may be seen throughout various movements, events, and cultures in recent history: syndicalism (Rocker 1990), the Spanish Civil War (Bookchin 1998), the New Left (Brienes 1982), the American anti-nuclear movement (Epstein 1991, Katz 1981), punk rock (O'Connor 1999, O'Hara 1999), European squatters and anti-fascists (Katsiaficas 2006), the Zapatistas of Mexico (Albertani 2002), and the global justice movement (Epstein 2001).

This paper has two goals, which should be viewed as small steps toward a more quantitative and theory-grounded critique of the modern anarchist movement. First, using the AYP directory, we offer the first systematic description of the types of organizations that comprise the contemporary anarchist movement, as well as the geographic patterns that the movement assumes internationally. To our knowledge, no previous study has explored the contours of the distribution of anarchist organizations across countries. This gap in the literature becomes especially problematic when trying to account for the ecological features of countries that might be shaping the births, longevity, and deaths of anarchist organizations in specific environments. Our second goal is to begin to understand this “population ecology” of anarchist organizations at the national level (c.f. Hannan and Freeman 1989), through the initial step of looking at anarchism through the lens of political opportunity theory. In order to do this, we utilize additional international data sources that address issues raised by the political opportunities variant of social movement theory (McAdam 1996). We argue that political opportunities theory is particularly relevant for understanding how features of country-specific ecological environments might facilitate or inhibit the development of certain kinds of anarchist organizations.

Because we are breaking new ground with our focus on anarchist organizations, and because our data are cross-sectional, we do not push the “natural selection” metaphor too far. But we believe that the patterns that we have uncovered are highly suggestive with regard to the environmental pressures that shape the preponderance of types of organizations in specific countries. We have no doubt that political opportunity theory does not capture all of the myriad forces impinging on the development of anarchist organizations. However, the historical record on the repression of anarchists by various political regimes suggests to us that the political rights available at the beginning of the 21st century may be providing new opportunities in some nations for the development and growth of some, but not all, types of anarchist organizations.

Generating specific research expectations is difficult given the lack of prior studies on the topic. But given the history of anarchism we do anticipate that the majority of the world’s anarchist organizations will be located in European countries (Hypothesis 1). And we do expect that greater political freedom and democratic governance will be associated with higher levels of anarchist organizing (Hypothesis 2). For example, at the country level, freedom of the press will encourage the development of anarchist media organizations, trade union rights will facilitate class-based organizations, and rights related to political participation will foster anarchist community spaces and social centers. These kinds of logical speculations were used simply to help guide the selection of appropriate variables; we would not be surprised if contradictory or otherwise unexpected findings emerged from the analysis.


[1] In disciplines beyond sociology and the field of social movements, “anarchism” usually refers to conceptions that are entirely theoretical, thus uncoupling anarchist movements from their historical and contemporary context, and ignoring the usage of the term “anarchism” by the very activists who call themselves anarchists. Political Science uses the phrase to reference international politics sans a global system of governance, Philosophy usually treats it as an abstraction for chaos or statelessness, Economics usually means “free-market capitalism” when it speaks of anarchism, and History rarely studies anarchists or anarchist movements after WWI.


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