Political opportunities (PO) help to create options more conducive for action, thereby helping social movement organizations to achieve goals. McAdam described four central POs that past researchers have consistently deemed relevant to social movements: (1) increased access to political participation; (2) shifts in the alignments of ruling elites or cleavages amongst elites that create space for challengers; (3) the enhanced availability and accessibility of influential elite allies; and (4) a decline in the capacity or tendency for the state to repress dissent (McAdam 1996). Do anarchists benefit from or utilize such opportunities that are either available from or interact with the state or elites? Although anarchists, almost by definition, are not interested in affecting state reform, they may indirectly benefit from state action. For example, a decrease in repression allows for overt anarchist organizing. On the other hand, increased state repression may have also encouraged anarchism by providing groups with the motivation to resist domination. Conversely, a nascent anarchist movement may be crushed by state persecution. This suggests a complex relationship between state action and the growth or decline of anarchism. In addition, increased accessibility to political participation in general can allow anarchists to ride the coattails of other movements; thus, during elections, anarchists can point out limitations in representative democracy and the indirectness of voting. Cleavages within ruling elites—although often making one faction look “better”, nicer, or electable—can create a weakened or unstable power structure that is more susceptible to attack and overthrow.
There is evidence of a connection between anarchists and these traditional POs. Williams and Lee (2008) demonstrated a positive and statistically significant relationship between the concentration of anarchist organizations per country listed in the Anarchist Yellow Pages (AYP) directory and various forms of rights and access, including civil liberties, political rights, press rights, and the level of democracy. Yet, rather than being a direct relationship, this positive association is likely mediated through other phenomena. Anarchists do not utilize political rights in a conventional activist fashion by lobbying the government or electing favorable candidates, although they likely do benefit from press rights and other civil liberties. But the correlative relationship makes more sense as a general measure of tolerance to the challenge of formal authority in a country; the greater the tolerance of dissent, the more likely a state’s strongest critics (e.g. anarchists) will overtly organize in public. Anarchist organizations are likely more willing to list themselves in the AYP—and to be “above-ground” generally—when they believe the risk level is acceptable. In this respect, the anarchist organizations listed in the AYP may be the result of a selection effect and the impact of political opportunities on the underground or clandestine anarchist movement remains unknown.
Even if anarchists do benefit from some “standard” PO’s—albeit indirectly—a number of empirical and theoretical issues prevent us from drawing any concrete conclusions about the appropriateness of a traditional PO view for the anarchist movement. First, Shantz (2003b) argued that social movement research has tended to focus on reform movements and has shied away from analysis of radical movements (such as anarchism) that seek to transform the entire foundation of social relations—especially those whose goals do not include the seizure of the state itself. In such a research milieu, it is a mistake to assume that “political opportunities” crafted to explain movements with moderate goals (e.g. policy advocacy) can adequately address the objectives of radical movements. Even radical movements like Marxism may be measured using conventional research, as the intended outcomes are clearly-articulated and are assumed to be linear. Marxism represents a mere adaptation to reform movements, as it aspires to a similar ascension to power as do other movements. But a movement such as anarchism, premised upon deliberate practices that reflect “the means are the ends” and a diffusion of power, cannot be analyzed as easily or rigidly. Thus, anarchist movements are vastly understudied and the theories available to scholars are likely to need some revision and some may not be applicable.
Second, PO theory generally takes for granted the assumption that the state is the target of protest. Yet, in actuality, Van Dyke et al. found that many movements do not just target the state. Only slightly over half of the targets in 4,654 protest events from 1968 to 1975 in the US were state targets; the remaining protests were aimed at educational institutions, “the public”, business, individuals, cultural and religious organizations, unions, and medical institutions. In fact, the government was targeted less than 50 percent of the time by the civil rights, gay and lesbian, and women’s movements (Van Dyke et al. 2004). More generally, Melucci (1996) notes that social movements of all stripes in the contemporary era, “no longer [coincide] either with the traditional forms of organization of solidarity or with the conventional channels of political representation”. He suggests moving beyond simple dichotomies such as “state” versus “civil society,” or “public” versus “private”, as well as the “reductionism” inherent in exclusively “political” analyses, in order to more fully comprehend the interrelationships among different sectors of society (pp. 3-6). Although anarchists have most notoriously and famously targeted the state, anarchism’s broad critique of authority and domination is not limited to political actors. Anarchism’s critique is not mere protest, but radical opposition to the very existence of hierarchical institutions. Thus, the movement does not simply target the state, but also many other hierarchical institutions, ranging from White supremacy and patriarchy to capitalism and militarism.
Third, although activists’ agency to exploit opportunities is implicit in PO theory, anarchists themselves do not try to actively use many of these opportunities. If open windows of opportunity are not actively exploited, do they really constitute “opportunities” for anarchists? For example, unlike other movements, anarchists do not engage in standard political activity: they are not apt to engage in letter-writing campaigns against politicians, to vote for (or against) certain candidates, or even to run for office themselves. Anarchists (obviously) do not try to lobby the state or pressure for constitutional amendments that would lead to the elimination of a constitution. Could anarchists actually “utilize” progressive politicians who claim to oppose policies and practices that anarchists also do? Ostensibly, such politicians would be elite allies; the presence of such “allies” would not seem to ultimately benefit the anarchist movement if it is opposed to negotiating or working with these allies. In fact, a central principle to anarchism is “direct action”, where one does not request or wait for others to act on their behalf. Instead of relying on representatives, one acts directly—either individually or collectively—to immediately accomplish the desired goal, without the facilitation, approval, or agency of elected elites, officials, or bosses.
Fourth, commonly-studied POs might actually be detrimental to anarchist organizing and activism, as opposed to being helpful. Increased access to elites, political space, or participation might direct activists and the public towards reformism and electoral politics, not radicalism. Rifts between elites (like Democrats and Republicans, or politicians and capitalists) might appear to undermine the anarchist claim that “all elites are similar and serve the same end”—and thus maybe do not need to be overthrown. Thus, POs could either channel rebellious energy for radical change into reformist, institutional mechanisms or undercut any popular impression that radical change is necessary. Consequently, anarchist movement activity appears paradoxical within the PO framework.
On a strictly theoretical level, there is much to criticize in the standard view of POs. Of central importance is the assumption—and perhaps leap of faith—regarding the ultimate goal of social movements. As witnessed by McAdam’s (1996) overview of the literature, many scholars have tended to assume and effectively operationalize “political opportunities” as “state opportunities” useful to influence state-based policy making. As such, movements benefit from actions and conditions in which the state is the key adversary or target. Yet, this logic conflates “political” with “state” (and, more narrowly, with elections and politicians), which is the common interpretation of “politics”, generally. Anarchists strongly criticize limiting “politics” to the domain of state officials, elected or otherwise. Instead, anarchism argues that politics is the realm of public decision making and debate, of which the state is only one component, albeit the dominant one. It is entirely possible to engage in “politics” without the reliance upon the state. Also, to entrust the state with the ability to serve as final arbitrator for what constitutes human rights (or any other right), is to restrict the universality of such rights. Anarchists argue that rights are not guaranteed by the state, but by birth (Turner 2009). In this view, to rely upon the state to approve of and administer human rights is to reify the state as an essential institution for people’s everyday lives. However, many states actively attempt to restrict rights and succeed because states tend to be viewed by many citizens as the proper authority for the distribution of rights in a society.
Critics of PO theory have also alleged that to view characteristics like access, allies, and declining repression as part of an opportunity structure implies that such things are not opportunities that can come and go, but instead are quasi-permanent elements of a polity (Goodwin & Jasper 1999). Properly construed, opportunities ought to be temporal and impermanent. Opportunities should open—like windows—for a certain time, and then close, cutting off movement chances. However, certain kinds of political opportunities are permanently closed to anarchists, because of the anti-statist nature of the movement.
Additionally, “opportunities” are often measurable only in retrospect; movement actors may not actually perceive legitimate opportunities even if there is empirical evidence for them. What may be considered opportunities by social movement scholars, may have little meaning for activists. Instead, movement participants tend to continuously act for social change, regardless of whether recognizable opportunities exist—even in times of extreme repression with few political allies to be found. For example, Kurzman’s (1996) analysis of the Iranian Revolution shows that Iranians perceived great opportunities when, in actuality, the monarchy was very stable. Revolutionaries in Iran acted as if opportunities objectively existed and created a self-fulfilling prophecy for themselves and their followers.
This distinction between objective and subjective opportunities is particularly important for the anarchist movement. Most movements tend to have occasional victories with concrete, definable successes, while anarchism has rarely had victories and none that have lasted for any substantial length of time. Consequently, discussing useful objective opportunities for the anarchist movement is challenging because it is unclear which “opportunities” have or have not led to the few, short-lived anarchist rebellions. A more useful approach, and the one we develop in this paper, may be to consider anarchist mobilization through the eyes of anarchists themselves and their subjective understanding of useful opportunities. Since it is difficult to say with any certainty that a particular “opportunity” did objectively and sufficiently cause a particular outcome, we argue it is often more appropriate to consider what movement actors themselves conclude.
Most research that considers cross-national differences of protest tends to analyze the differences between countries (Kitschelt 1986), and does not look for commonalities across countries’ movements, particularly how they share common narratives that are not specific to their own society. These “common opportunities” are of major importance to internationalist-oriented movements. For example, della Porta (2008) noted the benefit that unemployed movements in all six of her case study countries (all European) received from labor unions and positive popular opinion. An internationalist movement like anarchism seems an ideal candidate to use such border-crossing common opportunities, particularly as it relates to resisting the “dominant logic” (Mulucci 1996:7) of all hierarchically organized societies, regardless of whether they constructed on capitalist, socialist, or some other economic foundation.
Regardless of an opportunity’s universality, what do movements try to achieve? Meyer’s overview of political opportunity research noted half a dozen different forms of movement outcomes, including policy changes, changes in the level of appropriations for established government programs, policy implementations, running candidates for office, creating alternative institutions, and changing actual practices (Meyer 2004). Creating alternative institutions comes closest to an actual anarchist goal, but the example of this outcome is Andrews’ (2002) study of private segregationist schools in the US South that helped to subvert school integration for White and Black students—far from an anarchist objective. The applicability of these outcomes for anarchist movements is questionable. None of these movement outcomes includes the elimination of various hierarchical institutions, a central premise of anarchism. Even “protest”, in which anarchists are involved, is usually narrowly defined as attendance at protest events and precludes the idea of resistance or rebellion. For these reasons, we can see some clear weaknesses to the assumptions implicit in the PO framework, at least as it has been conceived in the existing literature.
Despite the apparent shortcomings of PO theory, a major empirical question remains: are there political opportunities that benefit the anarchist movement? We argue that anarchist movement activity has coincided with actual and perceived periods of greater freedoms, and, in times of state repression, anarchist organizing may go underground or disappear altogether. But, we can also broaden the contextual factors that foster movement activity to include cultural and economic opportunities. Although Goodwin and Jasper (1999) warn against watering down the operationalization of political opportunities to the point where anything constitutes such an opportunity, the anarchist movement suggests a unique exception to the rule. Since the anarchist movement has a strong non-interest in greater political access (of the stereotypical, state-based variety), it is prudent to expand the concept of opportunities to other forms, including those that are cultural and economic in character and to inquire about the extent to which cultural, economic, and traditionally “political” opportunities have shaped the movement in different contexts. These realms are potentially of equal importance to anarchists based on their opposition to all forms of social domination that are perpetuated in a variety of social, economic, and political domains (such as racial, gender, and sexuality-based oppression) and to capitalism. Given this widened spectrum of investigation, what are some possible factors that have aided in the mobilization of current anarchist movements.
 Communes and popular assemblies are frequently cited examples of this understanding of politics (McKay 2008).
 See Martin for the anarchist principles behind the anti-globalization movement's resistance and alternatives-creation (Martin 2007).
Andrews, Kenneth T. 2002. “Movement-Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of “White Flight” Schools in Mississippi”. Social Forces, 80 (3): 911-936.
della Porta, Donatella. 2008. “Protest on Unemployment: Forms and Opportunities”. Mobilization: An International Journal, 13 (3): 277-295.
Goodwin, Jeff and James M. Jasper. 1999. “Caught in a Winding, Snarling Vine: The Structural Bias of Political Process Theory”. Sociological Forum, 14 (1): 27-54.
Kurzman, Charles. 1996. “Structural Opportunity and Perceived Opportunity in Social-Movement Theory: The Iranian Revolution of 1979”. American Sociological Review, 61, February: 153-170.
Martin, Carolina. 2007. “Creating Another World, One Bit At a Time: Understanding Anti-Globalization Resistance”. Conference presentation at the American Sociological Association Annual Meetings, New York.
McAdam, Doug. 1996. “Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Directions”. Pp. 23-40 in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, edited by D. McAdam, J. D. McCarthy, and M. N. Zald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McKay, Iain. 2008. An Anarchist FAQ: Volume 1. Edinburgh: AK Press.
Melucci, Alberto. 1996. Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meyer, David S. 2004. “Protest and Political Opportunities”. Annual Review of Sociology, 30: 125-145.
Shantz, Jeff. 2003b. “Beyond the State: The Return to Anarchy”. disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory, 12: 87-103.
Turner, Scott. 2009. “Anarchist Theory and Human Rights”. Pp. 133-146 in New Perspectives on Anarchism, edited by N.J. Jun and S. Wahl. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
Van Dyke, Nella, Sarah A. Soule, and Verta A. Taylor. 2004. “The Targets of Social Movements: Beyond a Focus on the State”. Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, 25: 27-51.
Williams, Dana M. and Matthew T. Lee. 2008. “'We Are Everywhere': An Ecological Analysis of Organizations in the Anarchist Yellow Pages”. Humanity & Society, 32, February: 45-70.