Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sociologist Knowledge of Anarchism Project

Statement of purpose
To explore what sociologists know about an alternate theoretical paradigm that is also concerned with society: anarchism. Sociologists have a very diverse familiarity with anarchist ideas, with some who have had much experience with anarchism, while others know very little beyond crude, popular caricatures. This interview project will engage with sociologists who have substantial familiarity about, knowledge of, or experience with anarchism.

Topics of interest
Interviews will focus on a variety of subjects, but will include theorists of particular note, contributions, and potentialities of an anarchist-sociology, as well as sociologist's knowledge, experiences, and opinions regarding anarchism.

Ground rules
A few rounds of questions and answers will be exchanged, at the pace established by the interviewee (read: no pressure!), over email. Interviewees can provide as much of an answer and as many details as they wish. The published interview transcripts will retain the sociologists' names—i.e., identities will not be confidential or anonymous. Thus, the final product will resemble an “oral history” of sorts. Interviewees will be sent the final interview transcript for their review, in order to correct any mistakes or other things that the interviewee decides to not ultimate include. Finally, the transcripts will be posted to the “anarchyandsociety” blog.

If you are a sociologist interested in participating with this interview project, please write to:  sociology ((at)) riseup ((dot)) net.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

International Blacklist: An Anti-Authoritarian Directory (1983)

More recently, anarchist organizations and projects have been catalogued by the "Anarchist Yellow Pages" or Slingshot's "Radical Contact List". In earlier periods, other comparable lists existed, too. These directories open up a door into the diverse anarchist milieu, identifying curious patterns between the types of organizations and geographical spaces where they reside.

Thirty years ago, the 1983 "International Blacklist" was released. It included contact information for anarchists in dozens of countries, as well as a cross-listing for specific types of organizations. The "Blacklist" listed organizations, projects, unions, college professors, punk bands, bookshops, newspapers, and other anarcho-friendly things. While they included listings for the Catholic Worker and syndicalist unions, they [wisely] decided not to include so-called "anarcho-capitalists". The "Blacklist" also has numerous graphics, photos, and cartoons that are representative of the era.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Debt, Obligation, and Sociality: A Review of David Graeber's "Debt"

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House Press.

Typically, “debt” is only viewed as an economic phenomenon, with very simple rules and principles: when someone owes another person something, then this debt is as official and non-negotiable as a contract. David Graeber dismantles this myopic conceptualization of debt via an expansive analysis of many millennia of human history. He finds that “debt” is not as simple or clear as most people assume. The most immediate observation readers will be struck by is that the etymology of many words are linked to the social concept of debt, including: honor, sin, guilt, forgiveness, reckoning, redemption, freedom, credit, and interest. It is helpful to know that the background of these words derive from centuries-old debates about debt or that their histories intersected with debt debates at some point in time.

According to Graeber, “debt” is a social obligation we hold to each other. Although debt is often considered only in monetary terms (“How much money do we owe someone for that product or service?”), it is much broader, and refers to all the ways in which we find ourselves obligated to each other (economically or otherwise). Since debt is ultimately about our social relationships, debt is therefore a social construction. The answer to the question “What do we actually owe to each other?” is never quite certain, since debt is socially-arbitrated and can, thus, be re-negotiated. Graeber goes to great lengths to demonstrate—philosophically as well as through copious anthropological evidence—that most people actually want to be in debt to each other. People enjoy doing things for each other, both feeling gracious for giving (and thus incurring other debt) as well as receiving gifts from each other (and landing in each other’s debt). Even though free-market economic theory pretends humans do not like this, the truth is that most of us actually seek out debt, because we enjoy the social relationships that come with exchange.

Much of Graeber’s Debt is focused on the oscillations between credit and money, which define general periods in human history over the last five-thousand years. Despite the popular assumption that pre-money economies operated on principles of barter (two parties exchanging things of equal value or desire), Graeber argues this is an unsubstantiated myth and that no society has ever been discovered which has operated strictly on the basis of barter. The reasons are self-evident, according to Graeber: squaring and settling one's debts indicates a lack of desire to continue associating with others (“Okay, we both have what we want, so this transaction and our relationship is completed”). Thus, if direct, bartered exchange happens it usually indicates that the people involved lacked faith in each other or are strangers, and they do not expect or wish to see the other person again. In other words, an “even trade” often indicates a lack of trust or that we are unsure of our ability to get what we are owed from that person in the future. Consequently, it is also usually uncouth, even offensive, to keep track of what friends and neighbors owe each other. This is clear in close, intimate relationships: friends or lovers who always demand an immediate, equal trade of kindness, pleasantries, or favors—and who keep track of any debt the other party has—are likely to be characterized as pathological.

Another reason why no economy has ever been based wholly upon barter is that it is generally impractical: what are the chances that two people have exactly what each other need? Instead, a loose system of “credit” is more practical; we approximate our general indebtedness to each other (at least in less-intimate relations) and we know that we can rely on the other party to help out when there is the need. A system of credit (accounting either goods or services) also mandates that we stay in each other’s debt, thereby ensuring constant interaction and sociality. This is one of Graeber’s most compelling arguments: human sociability (and, even solidarity) is premised on debt (i.e. social obligation).

Graeber dedicates a sizable portion of Debt to discussing the epochal fluctuations between credit and money, starting during the early Agrarian period, then the Axial age (sometimes called the classic age), the medieval era, the industrial age, and finally the period following Nixon's decision in 1971 to detach the US from the gold-standard. During each period, the general human relationship to debt changed. Graeber argues that money, slavery, markets, and states arise alongside each other during the Axial age, in what he calls the military-coinage-slavery complex. Most of these phenomena disappear during the medieval period, shrink, or go into latency. Yet, the industrial age rekindles them again. For example, slavery (by definition, the consequence of a debt that cannot be paid back) makes a comeback and war begins, once again, to predominate relations between large, centralizing states, all of whom resume the use of coin money.

The present-day political ramifications of Debt could scarcely be clearer: debt is not only important to economies but is also fundamental to human relationships. To eliminate all debt—such as what Right-wing forces seek for the US federal government (as in the 2011 “debt ceiling” debate in the Congress)—is not merely preposterous, but would represent a deathblow to social relations. Contrary to popularly-incanted mantras, debt is not universally bad, nor is it something to avoid at all costs. A deeper question emerges for Graeber: why do we “have to” pay back our loans, especially for those debts that are created by unethical, hierarchical practices (e.g. International Monetary Fund-created debt for poor countries, decade-long crippling student loans, or predatory home loans that end in foreclosure)? Those who hold monetary debt over people tend to be wealthy and powerful people (i.e. affiliated with banks, landlords, loan-sharks, credit card companies), and, let's face it, they can handle losing the obligation that the poor “owe” them, which creates non-free relations more akin to slavery than mutual aid.

Graeber's suggested solution to the enslaving characteristics of some debt and the socially constructed qualities that make it negotiable, is proposed at the end of Debt: he calls for a Biblical-style “Jubilee” to wipe-free the slate on these arduous forms of debt existing between unequal parties. Jubilee was a commonplace practice in many earlier periods of human history—in fact, it was regularly done, not only for purposes of social justice, but also to re-balance societies that were on the brink of revolution. The latter is likely the very thing that motivated the Saudi Arabian monarchy when it wiped-out some forms of consumer debt for its citizens, gave government employees pay raises, and offered cheap, subsidized loans—all in the wake of the Arab Spring. Autocratic regimes watched with fear as the Egyptian dictatorship was overthrown; so, instead of letting the burdens of debt become so extreme that they threaten the monarchy's hold over its citizens, the Saudi Arabian government deemed it smarter for the oil-wealth coffers to be used to soften the worst injustices of capitalism. Jubilee could help eliminate un-payable debt and thus return us to the socially-useful sort of debt that obliges us to keep working together in social communities (what Graeber simply identifies as “communism”).

While there is an abundance of wisdom to admire with Debt, Graeber's incredibly-fine attention to detail sometimes distracts from the general argument. Also, although his prose is fascinating, Graeber has the odd habit of starting nearly every single paragraph via direct, yet non-obvious reference to the prior paragraph (e.g. writing “this” without indicating exactly what previous thing he is referring to). Thus, putting down and picking-up the book makes for a discordant experience. Yet, such minor aesthetic concerns aside, Debt is not only timely and consciousness-expanding, but also an entertaining read. Students of solidarity, altruism, mutual aid, and human relations generally would benefit greatly from Debt’s insights.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Occupy a Small Southern City? No.

A local “Occupy” began in the small Southern city I live in. The folks who started it were from a student environmental group—the closest thing to an activist group on the local campus—and were joined by professors and community activists. At the first meeting I attended, someone asked: “Does anyone want to set-up an encampment somewhere?” there was silence followed by a bevy of reasons from individuals why they couldn't participate in it (thus, implying they would like to, but just couldn't). The new group of “occupiers without intent to occupy” debated the legality of a sidewalk march, looked into acquiring a permit, and even announced their route to police (who sent a bike-cop to the march). The occupiers were a remarkably self-disciplining group. I was very curious to see what all this would lead to.

The event itself inspired youthful, first-time participants, as well as elders, who expressed excitement at the number of protesters. The turn-out was relatively large, due to the influence of “bigger cities”; people had heard about #OWS in NYC and elsewhere. Very positive media coverage resulted, just as with lead-up coverage to the protest. (Very little activism takes place here and there's usually a direct regurgitation of talking-points by the media.) Attendees were a mixture of optimistic, excited newcomers and battle-scarred, cynical political veterans. People vented righteous rage, but afterward did not know how to translate it into long-term struggle. Some of us inserted some class-war flavor, including a “you are the 1%” line into the liberal, repetitive “we are the 99%” chants as we approached a Bank of America branch. The chant went great, and was the event's most intense and exciting moments. But, ultimately, the town's “Occupy” was just that: a one-time protest event, not a movement.

As always, multiple factors contribute to an outcome. In this case, certain things prevented the movement from moving forward, growing, and gaining militancy. First, low trust, experience, and stable residency existed amongst those active with Occupy. The town’s small activist “pond” caused problems: activists must interact with a small number of fellow activists who do not get along. Thus, many interested people stayed-away from Occupy due to personality conflicts. Debates between seasoned activists, who share long histories, drowned-out other voices. Like many other Occupy groups, this one includes Democrat partisans who—in the country's most conservative region—position themselves as the local radicals. FaceBook served as a safe “place” for trading information. But, if online “activism” is the extent of a community's collective experience, translating talk into real-world action is difficult.

The local university, the most progressive zone in the small city, is also the site of a restrictive “free speech” policy, vindictive administrators, and a transient student population. The town itself has a history of political repression (including being adjacent to the historic “lynching capital” of the US), a small number of incredibly large land-owners, and crony politicians. Finally, conservative Christianity not only provides the theoretical framework for most people's lives, but also tends to numb people's sense of self-empowerment from collective acts of resistance.

The biggest challenge to the city's attempt at Occupy involved the lack of activist or progressive infrastructure, critical-mass, or inertia. Yes, culture can change, but it often takes long years of organizing. People do what they know or what they think others are doing—thus if little radicalism or reference to radical ideas exists, where are people to gain experience with radical action? Radical ideas (e.g. occupations, GAs, direct democracy, consensus) can get watered down due to misunderstanding, lack of experience, timidity, a “that wouldn't work here” attitude, a less politically-adversarial culture, and people refusing to work with others. The challenge remaining: introducing more folks in small cities to radical ideas (of praxis, strategy, tactics). It's possible—and I hope—that Occupy can still help satisfy this need.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Institutional Confidence and Social Trust

The anarchist understanding of social relations is not paradoxical. Authority figures deserve challenge, while average humans deserve greater trust (since they lack the motivations and position for malice). This understanding suggests ways to empirical measure anarchist orientations towards others in society. Perhaps a simple, but useful, way of measuring this is by constructing a "two-by-two" typology regarding an individual's confidence in hierarchical institutions and their social trust in other people. Various surveys (such as the international World Values Survey) asks two key questions that could help measure respondents' orientations. This orientation could be conceived of as a continuum ranging from hierarchicalism to horizontalism.

One variable is a respondent's confidence in different institutions. Certain institutions have regularly and widely been asked about, and are clearly hierarchical in character: armed forces, police, parliaments, and churches. A second variable is a respondent's social trust, measured dichotomously as either "most people can be trusted" or "you can't be too careful". By contrasting responses to having or lacking confidence in institutions with trusting or not trusting others, four possible categories emerge.

1) Hero-worshippers/boot-lickers: people who have confidence in hierarchical institutions, but lack trust in others.
2) Paranoid/individualists: people who lack confidence in hierarchical institutions as well as trust in others.
3) Gullible: people who have confidence in hierarchical institutions as well as trust in others.
4) Horizontalists/anarchist-inclined (?): people have lack confidence in hierarchical institutions, but have trust in others.

Conceivably, these different categories have variant social positions, beliefs, and behaviors. Hypothetically, category #1 may justify social inequality and protest less than #4. Such hypotheses could be empirically tested, in a cross-national fashion even.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Conclusions About Anarchist Political Opportunities

This article has affirmed established claims that opportunities are a consistent quality necessary for movement success and anarchism is no exception. However, the conventional view of “political opportunities” makes less sense for an avowedly anti-state movement, since such opportunities are typically oriented towards engaging with the state, not disengaging from it—to say nothing of dismantling and abolishing it. Nonetheless, opportunities have been seized by the anarchist movement, as demonstrated by a review of the histories of a sample of country’s movements. Moreover, anarchists in different countries have perceived the importance of certain common opportunities and a few consistent patterns are discernible. We found evidence of both country-specific and common opportunities in the subjective narratives in our sample, as well as the broader literature, with the common opportunities perhaps being the most decisive in shaping the anarchist movement around the world. One key pattern shows the antagonistic, yet symbiotic, relationship of anarchism to Marxism. Bolshevism all but silenced anarchism in the late-1910s, draining it of political appeal. Still, each loss of face to the Soviet Union enhanced the anarchist movements. The New Left in mid-century benefited from disillusionment with Stalinism, and then the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union gave rise to even more anarchist organizing in the 1990s. This pattern clearly illustrates the importance of non-state-based, but still political, opportunities (in this case, the nature of global Marxist regimes or domestic Left movements) in affecting the chances of anarchist movement mobilization.

Another observed pattern is anarchism’s parallel development with other anti-mainstream movements, particularly labor during the classical period and punk in recent years. A fruitful, cultural synergy developed between anarchism and both of these movements. These other movements seemed to be sources of new members and inspirational frames for the anarchist movement, and should not just be considered mere “allies” to anarchism. Such patterns were common opportunities in many countries, not just one or two.

These shared narratives indicate a number of possible conclusions, which point in divergent directions. First, there have been real empirical opportunities that have facilitated anarchist movement growth and an equally real closing of opportunities that have stymied the movement. In other words, anarchist movements have experienced opportunities that are structurally comparable to other movements, albeit more anti- and non-state in character.

Second, modern anarchists have generalized specific anarchist “opportunities” to many of their local contexts based upon universal narratives that are widely exchanged within the global movement. Thus, present day anarchists may be articulating claims about opportunities that circulate within the intellectual milieu of anarchist culture, and claims may be an inaccurate or inappropriate extrapolation of opportunities from one societal context to another. Activist interpretations may also be derived from scholarly sources, thus indicating a perceptional-feedback loop.

Or, some third option may best explain our findings. A combination of substantial and objective opportunities have likely shaped anarchist movement success over time, while modern anarchists may also be selectively framing their analysis as to generalize those histories and unite disparate local factions of the movement in a common, internationalist narrative.

Our findings appear to be reliable, in light of other secondary evidence. The anarchist movement narratives from A-Infos were overwhelmingly supported by additional anarchist history sources, not just from the same case study countries under investigation, but also for prominent countries that fell outside of our data sample. This congruency confirms the strength of the movement narrative as reflective of external scholarly opinion. It also indicates that the opportunities noticed in the A-Infos histories were in-fact major opportunities broadly shared globally—but not universally by all countries—and that the authors were astute observers of that history.

With these general patterns in mind, we advance the following expectations based on our subjective data that should be tested in future research. This work should advance both our understanding of the anarchist movement and political opportunity theory. First—contrary to our main finding about the generalized importance of political opportunities—anarchism in some countries (e.g., Venezuela) has not directly benefited from political opportunities at all, but is rather the result of cultural forces. In other countries, factors related to economics (Greece), culture (Britain, Czech Republic, Japan)—or both (Bolivia)—combined with the “political” to shape the movement. So we expect the relative importance of political opportunities to vary across countries, even though they are also shaped by common opportunities that transcend state boundaries. “Objective” research could further explore and refine these findings from our subjective accounts. Second, extreme state repression has historically limited anarchist mobilization, so some minimal level of political freedom is required for the movement to exist. But once this minimal threshold is reached, state repression may advance rather than hinder the movement (as with Greece and the Czech Republic). Further research should explore the conditions that transform state repression into a positive political opportunity beyond the tentative data we have presented here. Finally, anarchist mobilization has been reduced by the existence of other strong, Left political movements (e.g., Bolshevism), as well as declines in distrust of the state that are associated with increased freedom and rights. These ironies, at least for anarchism, of ostensibly positive social change should be more fully explored.

As hinted in the methods section above, our findings raise cautions about how to measure and evaluate the usage of POs. Not all movements take advantage of opportunities in the ways typically expected. Anarchism possesses extra-legislative goals that aim to achieve the overthrow of major social institutions like the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and others. Consequently, there have been no pure, explicit victories for the anarchist movement (perhaps with the exception of the short-lived Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939). Our case study narratives instead had to focus upon the perception of movement “growth” or “decline” as opposed to legislative victories. Measuring movement activity in this fashion is out of sync with not only most other movements, but also prevailing theoretical assumptions about how movements operate. Some movements do not seek to influence of alter the state, but to abolish it altogether—as well as other hierarchical institutions.

This study calls into sharp question the unchallenged assumption that the state is a strategic location for opportunities from the perspective of radical, anti-state movements. The applicability of existing theoretical tools is limited because anarchism has been studiously avoided in social movement analyses. Movement theories have largely been constructed via analyses on reform-oriented movements that lobby government in some fashion or request other elites modify their practices, and revolutionary movements that seek to merely substitute current ruling elites with themselves. However, this research oversight does not mean that existing movement theories are of no use; instead, they require a serious re-working and reflexivity to appreciate the radical, anti-state character of movements like anarchism. Although anarchism has not enjoyed the same level of “success” that other comparable radical movements—such as Bolshevism and Maoism—have enjoyed, there have clearly been periods of increased anarchist activity, mobilization, and short-term goal achievement. Obviously, ultimate anarchist goals—the dissolution of all forms of economic, political, and social hierarchies—would be difficult to achieve, and the state would be an unlikely partner in such a mission. Consequently, the notion of “opportunity” is still important to the study of anarchist movements, but it needs to be re-operationalized in order to remain relevant. This re-operationalization would seem to require a focus on the subjective opportunities perceived and sought by movement participants themselves, a de-emphasis upon strictly political (and especially state-based) opportunities, and a broadened appreciation of other forms of opportunity (such as economic and cultural) that may assist in the social revolution anarchist movements aim to inspire.

Due to certain methodological limitations—a small number of countries and only one central narrative per country—our study is not necessarily a definitive analysis on anarchism. Instead, we consider the study to be an important step towards a new approach in considering opportunities, especially amongst anti-state movements. Future attempts to consider supposedly “political” opportunities should be sure to distinguish what sorts of opportunities movements seize upon, even though the typical understanding of such opportunities rely upon the state for fulfillment. The radical character of the anarchist movement illustrates the need to consider non-state-based opportunities and, potentially, opportunities that are more economic or cultural. Additionally, as other research has shown, movements may have multiple, non-state targets. For anarchism, these targets of critique and attack are many, including all forms of domination and authority. How these claims find resonance with different audiences is poorly understood. Where do anarchist movements make their demands: to the polity, the state, specific groups of disadvantaged persons, or society at large? Each is likely to have different levels of appreciation for anarchist critiques and goals. The lack of movement success could be partially due to the strong social control mechanisms and self-interest operating in each aforementioned audience, which in turn circumscribe potential opportunities.