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.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dialectical Challenges to Progress [to Overcoming Inequality and Domination]

[A final section of the chapter on Inequality & Anarchism... looking forward!]

These strategies struggle with a number of dialectical challenges, which are not easily resolved by change agents. First, the strategic issue of reform versus revolution. Should one apply considerable effort in a local matter of social injustice that may have only a limited scope of impact (even if a successful campaign), or channel energy into building for long-term and more radical change? While the latter is ultimately more desirable, to ignore the former conflicts risks the possibility of losing ground in an already imbalanced playing field of injustice, as well as missing the opportunity to engage with folks in day-to-day struggle on big-picture, revolutionary ideas. Put another way, this dialectic involves the contradictions between reactive politics and prefigurative politics. Anarchists warn that people ignore immediate struggles to their own detriment, but also caution against the trappings of reformism and the exhaustion induced by treading water. While always cognizant of the need to stop on-going domination (the so-called “social problems” emphasized by sociologists), anarchist-sociologists argue for the importance of also focusing upon how such forms of domination could be avoided in the future.[1]

A second dialectic challenge is posed by the reactions to past domination and atrocity: consolation versus reconciliation. It is important for dominated peoples to be comfortable in the present, to have apologies for past wrongs, and to have the sympathies of others for their plight. For instance, the consolation extended by the US government for its genocidal actions (which was not put in such strong—or accurate—language, of course) against indigenous peoples is good and meaningful. But is it “enough”? Does it constitute justice? Does it help indigenous peoples in any substantial way? As the saying goes, “talk is cheap”. Sometimes an “apology” is a rather bad outcome, since it gives the illusion that an unjust situation has been rectified; i.e. “What is their problem? We already apologized for all that stuff from the past!”. Barring the outcome of dramatic separation—which is unlikely for most disadvantaged groups, particularly for women from men—dominated peoples should be able to live with or alongside their [hopefully, former] dominators. If the crimes of past atrocity (e.g. slavery, relocation, or forced sterilization) or the hopefully soon-to-be-ended crimes (e.g. class exploitation, sexual violence, or discrimination) can put an end to the disadvantaged position of the dominated, does that truly solve their problems? Domination tends to have a residue, which creates a multi-generational disadvantage that needs to be intervened upon. Consider the example of South Africa's formal efforts in the aftermath of Apartheid: a “truth and reconciliation” committee investigated past crimes and sought ways to bring victim and perpetrator together, not unlike restorative justice aims to do.

Lastly, there is a strategic, dialectical conundrum posed by the complex sources of hierarchy's power. Hierarchies are premised upon legal rules, social tradition, and unreflective practice. Yet, the easiest way to “attack” a hierarchy is on moral grounds: it is unethical, wrong, and unjust. In fact, such a moral argument is often not difficult to make and even get quick agreement from others (even people who may benefit from such hierarchies). The immoral basis of hierarchy is likely the easiest claim to make, and, consequently, the least effective. Surely it is necessary to eliminate support for the values that undergird hierarchy, but this alone does not undue hierarchy's power. Removing the legal structures to hierarchy is a formidable challenge and even more difficult if no ethical claim has been made against these structures. Tradition can be changed, but it takes dedicated efforts to shift cultural priorities and to reconfigure socialization. And, it is very possible—especially in the midst of great bureaucracies—for a scary inertia the take hold and for immoral acts to continue even in the absence of moral argument for them. Although hierarchy is often depicted as a ladder or a pyramid, it is not as easily undone as pushing over a ladder or detonating a pyramid with dynamite (especially via mere moralizing). Hierarchy's complexity aids its staying-power, and provides great challenge to anarchists and others who aim to ultimately up-end it.


[1] Or, as one activist puts it: “Let's take time to sit-down together with our colored-pens and crayons to draw-out our vision!”.