Friday, November 14, 2014

A New, Complicated, and Discomforting Mission for the Discipline: The Radical Challenge to Study, Envision, and Practice Social Alternatives

Books reviewed
Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia”. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ward, Colin. 2004. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

A few people have written the phrase “anarchist sociology”, but it does not really exist. Not yet. If we seek a window into what anarchist sociology could be, we need to imagine. In an established discipline like sociology we have to use our imaginations to see beyond its limitations, its blind spots. I argue—as I assume most anarchist sociologists would—that sociology's blind spot is its myopic subject matter. The average sociologist might cringe at the suggestion that sociology is narrow, comparable to how mainstream media narrows the range of potential discussion, but it is limiting.
Sociology focuses all of its attention on a myriad of institutions and interactions, roles and organizations, trends and collectivities. We use qualitative and quantitative methods; we use small n-size observations and huge cross-national databases. Nevertheless, we usually seem to focus on the same things: social problems or things that result in social problems. While this is not bad—we clearly need to know what is going on in the world—it constrains our abilities to see a way out of the modern madness, to chart a better path.
Anarchist sociology ought to engage in good, old-fashioned dialectical work: critiquing hierarchical societies, but also trying to figure out how to reconstitute that society along more egalitarian, cooperative, and horizontal lines. So, yes, let us focus on problems. However, I sometimes wonder if we are obsessed with this social problems project, in a rather unhealthy, masochistic way. We have a hard time doing the second, perhaps more important task: discovering, studying, and advocating for social alternatives.
Why are few sociologists prefiguring a more just, revolutionary society, or analyzing strategies for achieving social change? Sure, some study social policy, but they usually speak to or even for the powerful. Some are “applied sociologists”, but they will work for whoever pays them (states, corporations, or other bureaucracies). Even public sociology may be too vague, I fear; the world needs transforming, better examples, and provocation.
The few who are pursuing this anarchist sociology project rarely self-identify as sociologists. Sure, there are many sociological works by anarchists (Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Gustav Launder, Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, and others quickly come to mind). Today, the few people who are writing scholarly works about how to transition to a revolutionary anarchist society or studying anarchist societies themselves are not sociologists—although they ought to be and probably need to be sociological in the future.
In this review, I focus on three books that do this kind of anarchist sociology: two new books, that focus on the recent and distant past, respectively, and one slightly older book that is time-period-neutral. Each asks questions of key sociological concern to anarchists: what is hierarchy, how does it work, and how to overcome it in practice? These works are scholarly books and while authored by non-sociologists, I will show they connect immediately and intimately to the sociological tradition (and thus ought to be appropriated). These three books are David Graeber's Direct Action, James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, and Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action.
These works share a common concern for “society”—they study it and some of the attempts to transform it—and social relationships in general. The authors consider efforts to create societies that aspire to the above standards of egalitarianism, cooperativism, and horizontalism. Each describe efforts to keep the state and capitalism at bay, and how people work in the newly liberated free spaces. These spaces are either vacated by those in power or are when the powerful have been excluded or evicted, whether they be powerful nation-states, police, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), ancient states, powerful warlords, or landlords.
Graeber and Scott concentrate upon very different populations, but both address highly analogous questions: communities organizing outside of state influence, using horizontalists and directly democratic decision-making structures. Graeber focuses upon Western activists within the Global Justice movement who, while not always anarchists, consciously use anarchist practices (including direct action, prefiguration, and mutual aid) to gain further autonomy from large, bureaucratic institutions, like the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, or FTAA. Scott's book focuses upon so-called “primitive” peoples, who are not consciously anarchist and who live outside the sphere of the state in Southeast Asia, in a region Scott calls Zomia. While Graeber and Scott are anthropologists by training, they address questions of deep concern to radical sociologists, who wish to both study and reconfigure social relationships, and thus to lessen and ultimately eliminate mechanisms of domination. The distinct subjects these authors focus upon illustrate deliberate and incidental paths toward anarchist sociality. Graeber considers how anarchist and non-anarchist activists created micro-communities and organizational structures, which permitted ideologically-consistent and anarchist value-based action. Activists hoped that such communities and structures could be transported and enlarged to absorb more social territory. Scott, instead, focuses on how people avoid being “legible” to the state (i.e. understandable, monitor-able, controllable), and how communities engage in a variety of passive and active forms of resistance to the external imposition and internal development of hierarchy.
Ward was also not a sociologist (or even an academic), but a comparable intellectual mission drove his work: to study society and explore alternative ways of acting without hierarchy and authority. His work—much of which was formulated from the 1940s through 1960s on the pages of the British newspapers he helped edit, Freedom and Anarchy—is deeply indebted to the anarcho-communist Kropotkin, who wrote proto-sociological works during his day, especially Modern Science and Anarchism (which debated Comte and Spencer). At the time he died, Ward was likely the most widely-read and identifiable British anarchist, and his Anarchy in Action is a modern classic in the anarchist pantheon. Although it might surprise some, I suspect a very large cross-section of sociologists would appreciate this work. This is especially true for those sympathetic to critical theoretical tendencies who would recognize the book as fitting within their tradition. In contrast to the focused studies from Graeber and Scott, Ward presents a strong, sociologically-informed anarchism that could provide a theoretical anchor for the other two. Ward focuses on the theoretical matters that the other two authors describe in empirical detail: non-coercive organization, top-less federations, housing and residence, education, play, leadership, and “spontaneous order”.
There are numerous dimensions across these three books that demonstrate the potential diversity in an anarchist-sociology. For example, each focuses on different populations and times. Graeber concentrates on the global justice movement in the West during the 2000s, of whom many, but not all, are consciously anarchist. Scott, on the other hand, considers ethnic minorities in South East Asia over many previous centuries of history, who while behaving anarchistically, are not consciously anarchist. Ward writes a more ahistorical study (that uses historical and current day examples), about pretty much anybody. He mainly focuses upon Westerners who are often anarchistic, sometimes without an awareness of this fact. Thus, a commonality across all three books is an acknowledgment of the potential to do anarchism without having to be a self-avowed anarchist (although I would argue that such a self-identification ought to be a central part of anarchist sociology, since it anchors anarchism not just in practice, but also in anarchist values and history).
The books also describe the creation of an anarchistic world, accomplished through diverse means. For Graeber, anarchists behave prefiguratively to create anarchist decision-making and action structures, while Scott's subjects are concerned with developing methods for evading the state. Graeber's subjects appear pro-active, while Scott's appear reactive—but I think this is only partially correct, as both populations are acting defensively and offensively, all at once. Ward uses examples of “seeds underneath the snow” to show countless pathways to such a future society that parts of already exist, seeds that simply need the proper conditions to germinate. Widely varying quantities of social anarchist theory are present in each book. Graeber presents a bit of this theory in his chapter on “Direct Action”, but he focuses mainly upon exploring anarchistic practices that he connects in ad hoc fashion to anarchist theory. Scott eschews direct connections in his book, although previous works—particularly his Seeing Like a State—give a more deliberate nod to anarchist influences. Of course, Ward's work is a full-on interrogation of anarchist theory, where he extracts key anarchist precepts, values, and practices, and then illuminates their many manifestations in society.
The kinds of relationships described in each book vary as well. Graeber describes the extent to which people possess social trust, mediated by deliberate mechanisms that constrain selfish ambitions, particularly in activist “general assemblies” where decisions are made by consensus. For Scott, trust occurs because others who live in the hills of Zomia are equally weak and unable to dominate. Ward describes average people as worthy of trust and by nature good, when given the proper conditions under which to be trustworthy and good. None collaborate or negotiate with the state (or other authority figures), choosing to interact only with social equals. The authors also address the question of how to avoid the stagnancy and bureaucracy so emblematic of modern life. Graeber's activists create collective structures in which autonomy is possible, and where spontaneity and small group initiative is welcome and essential. The state-fleeing characters in Scott's book respond to situations and pursue their needs whenever possible: centralized states will lose parts of their populations to the hills if there is disease, war, tyrannical rulers, or hard economic times. Ward dedicates an entire chapter to the anarchist idea of spontaneous order, where people develop and negotiate social relations, plans, and practices when and where needed, without top-down leadership.
Anarchist sociology attempts to see past the obscurantist features of contemporary social structure, to identify what is actually essential. There are necessary components of human societies, but they do not have to include centralized states, greed-driven economic enterprise, domination by certain racial or gender groups, or other institutions of stratification. In fact, all the needs that current systems provision (poorly, by the way) for people, may be done in alternative ways. According to Graeber, decisions can be deliberated in small groups (e.g., affinity groups) or larger communities (e.g., spokes-council meetings). Likewise, as Scott writes, people can consciously engineer communities—in economic, cultural, psychological, even geographical terms—that help them to avoid the centrifugal forces of both outside hierarchies as well as forestall the development of internal hierarchies. Ward sees the evidence (and further potential) for people to manage their own lives and affairs, pursue their desires, and when needed develop stronger social bonds and even create far-reaching, but non-coercive, federations with others. These constitute a crucial intervention, because social scientists often accept as givens, prerequisites, or essential features of human societies these very unnatural, human-made institutions, which are in fact non-essential, like the state. Part of the mission of anarchist sociology is to reveal the un-necessity of these colonizing institutions and to point a way towards social practices that accomplish the ends we seek—food, shelter, human care, community—yet without the things that stunt or brutalize our humanity.
In summary, there are many books—I have only reviewed three—that feature central anarchist sociological concerns, even if they do not identify with that label. If anarchist sociology continues to develop, it will undoubtedly take on a more conscious and deliberate quality—an identity, as such. There are many points of departure worth exploring in Graeber, Scott, and Ward, but a synthesis of the three shows what I see as a key anarchist sociological question: how to develop anti-authoritarian alternatives, which empower communities and lead to individual self-management?
One could take these three authors to task for downplaying or neglecting the value in both having active, self-identified anarchists and studying explicitly anarchist movements. Surely, an anarchist sociologist might. By missing the actual practice of self-identified anarchists—the things they do, don't do, dream, and oppose—we are left guessing what behavior approximates those who do not accept that label, for whatever reason. Graeber's global justice activists seem influenced by anarchism (or at least ideas and practices that anarchists have adopted from others since the 1960s), like affinity groups, consensus decision-making, and direct action street politics, but the gap between conscious anarchist and activist acting like an anarchist is, as Graeber himself notes, a gray area which may or may not be significant. Scott's anti-state peasants in Zomia may identify with “anarchism” if it had meaning to them, but it is likely just another Western philosophy that seems foreign in Southeast Asia (comparable to a Roman emperor identifying with “fascism”). Ward's analysis precludes worrying about what explicit anarchists do or do not do, since he focuses on the latent anarchism residing within much of social life. Sociologists have so rarely analyzed anarchists and the few anarchist communities that have existed, that it may be unwise to state with certainty what it means to act anarchistically.
Nevertheless, is there not great value in having people act in non-hierarchical ways, expressing solidarity, directing their own affairs, regardless of the ideology that drives it? I think there is; yet, anarchist theory and principles helps to ground such practice and the application of these ideas amongst those who are trying to reconfigure their societies is still deserving of our attention. To be clear, Graeber, Scott, and Ward all identify as an anarchists, of one sort or another, so they do have personal experience as well as intellectual experience with anarchism and the anarchist movement.
I think there are many places to expand these inquiries. For example, efforts could involve studies into anarchist movements, updating Kropotkin's analysis of mutual aid and social solidarity, or synthesizing anarchist and sociological theorists. Another significant project would be to apply social science research to anarchist projects, and directly study other subjects and phenomenon that aim to supplant hierarchical social forces (e.g., capitalism, the state, patriarchy, White supremacy, militarism, and bureaucracy). In other words, much more writing (and action) remains to be done.

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