Friday, February 10, 2012

Modern Anarchism and "New Social Movements" Theories

Modern anarchism overlaps with many features of the NSM framework. I have argued—and this paper provides suggestive evidence—that the observations about modern movements made by NSM theories parallel contemporary anarchism and the greater anarchist movement. Still, certain themes relevant to the anarchist movement provide either contradiction or extension to the NSM typology offered by Sutton and Vertigans (2006). I suggest that anarchism differs from standard NSMs in its revolutionary anti-statism, radical practicality, anti-capitalism, and apparent connection to an earlier wave of Nineteenth Century anarchism. The tension between anarchism and NSM theory has important implications that have been unaddressed thus far by scholarly research.

Although NSMs do not aim to seize the power of the state, they also tend to prefer or tolerate co-existence with the state. Anarchists, on the other hand, seek not only to overthrow the state, but to dissolve its centralized power so it may not be utilized by any elite group. Thus, anarchist ambitions are not limited to non-state goals, but rather anti-state goals are pursued via non-state means. Movement strategies and tactics aim to usurp power through direct action that is designed to empower people—not political representatives. The typical approach of NSMs to utilize the state to achieve its goals finds little support with the anarchist movement.

The anarchist movement shares the same symbolic character as its NSM cousins, but does not neglect what it views as the more important goal of providing for people’s everyday needs. This radical practicality is present in all forms of anarchism activity, where symbolic direct actions are not merely symbolic, but also pragmatic, demonstrable, and functional. Whether Food Not Bombs providing food to the hungry, Anti-Racist Action protecting against fascist attacks, Earth First!’s blockading forest clear-cutting, or the black bloc disrupting “business as usual” during large demonstrations, anarchists aim to not only demonstrate, but also to pre-figure a different world. Such practicality is both radical in how it addresses fundamental needs, but also directly targets the perceived source of social problems. Anarchists’ practicality does not merely seek to defend “civil society” from state encroachment, but also from capitalism, patriarchy, White supremacy, and bureaucracy.

Whereas the NSMs apparently transcend the working class and industrial concerns, anarchism has only partially grown in a post-industrial direction. Instead, there is still a sizable participation of self-identified working-class anarchists in the movement, and the movement itself cannot be reduced to either purely working-class or middle-class interests. Instead, capitalism remains a central (although not the only) enemy of anarchism. It has not been dropped as a concern to be reformed or partnered with, as with other NSMs. All anarchist tendencies—and not merely the still-active anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists that have the most obvious ideological oriented in this direction—are by definition anti-capitalist. Class is not a “dead issue”, but remains a major form of inequality and domination in all societies, whether industrializing or “post-industrial”.

Last, many of Sutton and Vertigans characteristics were present in the early iteration of anarchism. Classic-era anarchism also involved radically democratic means, middle-class and even upper-class constituents (although it was dominated by working class members), a denouncement of political ambition within states, and the creation of alternate identities. Anarchists have always been united, not by ethnicity, disability, gender, or values, but rather by common ideology. The rejection of authority (even if sometimes limited in earlier definitions) has been a central factor since the Paris Commune to today’s anarchists. The horizontal and anti-authoritarian organizational forms chosen by anarchists are not recent characteristics, but qualities that pre-date the 1960s New Left. Affinity groups, federations, and cooperatives have been the main form of anarchist organization for over a century. Anti-“Political” politics are not new to anarchists, but rather were founding principles considered necessary for the construction of a new social order.

Thus, NSM theories help to categorize contemporary anarchism, but not perfectly. NSM arguments are somewhat over-extended (particularly in regards to class and capitalism) and the revolutionary quality of anarchist goals is over-looked by NSM theories. Yet, despite these contradictions and tensions, future research on NSM theory and contemporary movements should consider the prominent role that anarchism has begun to play in global movements and how its presence offers particular challenges to the received understanding of movements to date. The critique of the anarchists is radical, as is their solution to social problems. NSM theories have begun to appreciate these noteworthy characteristics, but have yet to consider their depth and their respective consequences. Potentially, with a deeper appreciation of the relationship between anarchism and social movement theory, scholarship may move closer to the development of a unique “anarchist-sociology”, which in turn could provide a new, critical framework for interpreting society and radical social movements.


Sutton, P.W. and Vertigans, S. (2006) “Islamic 'New Social Movements'? Radical Islam, Al-Qa'ida and Social Movement Theory”. Mobilization: An International Journal, 11 (1), March: 101-115.

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