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.