Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review of Mohammed Bamyeh's "Anarchy as Order"

[My book review of Mohammed Bamyeh's recent Anarchy as Order: The History and Future of Civic Humanity (Rowman & Littlefield), in the online journal from Sociologists Without Borders (SSF), called Societies Without Borders.]

Unlike the many activist and activist-scholar written books about anarchism in recent years, Anarchy as Order is written by a solidly professorial author. Consequently, the book under review here originates from a different source than works like Anarchy Alive! by Uri Gordon or Gramsci is Dead by Richard Day. These latter books are informed by the immediate, highly potent anarchist movements that have proliferated around the world in recent decades, and that have spread multi-faceted views and critiques of the societies in which they are embedded (as well as the globalizing spaces in-between cultural groupings). Still, Anarchy as Order is likely the best and most serious of the non-activist written books on anarchism, perhaps since established works by folks like James Joll or Peter Marshall. Yet, even that sort of praise does not do justice to the fascinating and highly-sociological interpretation Bamyeh gives of anarchism (or, more appropriately, anarchy). Unlike many bookish academics who have a perverse view of anarchism—more informed by the paranoid lies and misconceptions of mass media spokespersons, delusional free-marketeers, and government spies than by anarchists themselves—Bamyeh's account is sympathetic, learned, and true to the intent of classic anarchists like Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin (and even, later in the book, with a nod to Stirner!).

Reading Anarchy as Order is like digesting a more philosophical and academic version of Colin Ward's modern classic Anarchy in Action, the English-speaking world's best work of anarchist-sociology (the major distinction between Bamyeh and Ward is the latter's emphasis on anarchy as an already-existing tendency in present society: sometimes obscured, but still there). As such, Bamyeh's work is a thoughtful indictment of modern societies—in particular the state (of which he provides a unique, digested analysis of the anarchist critique of the state)—and thus has much in common with an assorted collection of other critical and Marxist sociologists. However, like all anarchist writing, there is a clear, practical Utopian strand that prefigures the future. As with Ward (and most comparable anarchist thinkers, especially Kropotkin), Bamyeh's view of anarchical society is not one devoid of order, but rather a highly just, civil, and organic order. Due to this focus, Bamyeh inadvertently, but instantly, will draw comparison between his argument of a civil society consumed by the state and the Habermasian claim of “the system” colonizing the life-world.

Bamyeh argues—correctly and creatively—that anarchism emphasizes freedom, indeterminate outcomes, and fluid solidarity, and an anarchical society would contain these elements, as opposed to other social qualities many societies are now tainted with (such as hero-worship, obedience, war-making, control, and inequality). Thus, one of Anarchy as Order's clearest successes is framing anarchist ideas as potential (and maybe even latent) conditions in a future society—thus “anarchy”. To rescue the word “anarchy” from the semantic slaughterhouse it has historically been subjected to, Bamyeh instinctively adopts Proudhon's claim that “anarchy is order”, while contemporary society (as dominated by the nation-state, capitalist ravish, and religious oppression) is a society wracked by disorder, chaos. Bamyeh also smartly makes a distinction comparable to that of Alexander Berkman who once wrote that although some people were ready and willing to adopt the philosophy and tenets advocated by anarchism the ideology, few were able to successful practice and live in a world of unimposed and non-hierarchical anarchy (yet, anyway).

Anarchist Studies scholars may be surprised by the credit extended to the “individualist” American faction in the United States (an attribution that seems to include modern Libertarianism, itself highly allergic to anti-capitalist anarchist movements). But, given the sympathies that “individualists” like Benjamin Tucker had for collectivists like Bakunin, it is unclear if such simple distinctions can be drawn. Anarchy as Order's otherwise appropriately culled reading of anarchist philosophy and movement history excels beyond most scholarly works on anarchism, and can be seen to occupy a middle-ground between purely philosophical scholarly works (so abstract in character as they do not even acknowledge the existence of a movement) and the descriptive anarchist movement histories usually authored by activists (for use by their own movements). One weakness of this compromise is that nearly no attention is given to modern anarchist theory and movements, except abstractly. The explosion in new anarchist strains (or ideological subvariants) in recent decades—such as anarcha-feminism, Black anarchism, queer anarchism, post-leftism, especifismo, primitivism, and so on—have (even though sometimes controversially) changed anarchism's focus to a systematic critique of domination. Whereas Bamyeh's work is sympathetic to this contemporary consensus, most of his analysis focuses on the state—and far less so on patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, Western civilization, and so on. In doing so, Anarchy as Order is a solid work on the state/civil society dichotomy, but is less mature in its analysis of other institutions of domination. This is not, I believe, a fatal deficit, since Bamyeh's highly nuanced and provocative analysis of the state furthers anarchist-sociology more than anything in the academic discipline has up to the present moment. Hopefully, future anarchist-sociology works will take up Bamyeh's agenda and extend it with the same seriousness, compassion, and commitment shown in Anarchy as Order.

Readers looking for an empirical analysis from an anarchist perspective (and I was, at times, one of these readers) may feel slightly let down by this very abstract and philosophical work. There is no “research design” to follow, as so far as I can tell, and no dialogue with existing anarchist movements whose actions and ideas could inform Bamyeh's independent analysis. Thus, in contrast to some of the best recent case studies of modern anarchism, like Jeff Shantz's Constructive Anarchy (which follows labor struggles, anarchist tech geeks, anti-poverty and anti-border organizing, political squatters, and alternative educators) based on participant observation (a.k.a. “militant ethnography), Bamyeh seeks to construct a theoretical argument built by his own substantial intellectual force.

Post-colonialist readers (and sociologists who lack the desire to respect the confines of nation-states, such as Sociologists Without Borders) will enjoy Anarchy as Order. The book will be of interest not merely because such an orientation is crucial to modern anarchism, but also due to Bamyeh's vast knowledge of non-Western (particularly Islamic) thought and history, world-systems theory, and radical civil society claims. Still, as alluded to above, these parts of the book tend to avoid both classic anarchism's advocacy for internationalism (“one big union”, cross-national worker solidarity, etc.) as well as modern global justice and anti-border activism.

Ultimately, the principal audiences for Anarchy as Order are sociologists who want to know more about anarchism and anarchists who seek a sociological interpretation of their philosophy. A good example of this is the intriguing discussions of subjects of interest to both sociologists and anarchists, including: trust, alliance, personality, alienation, and the common good. Bamyeh has the ability make the superficially-mundane fascinating and unpredictable. One of the best examples of this talent is Table 6.1, where he contrasts democracy, types of society, and the state, thereby illustrating an anarchist view of potential social forms. The emerging typology here is provocative and intellectually stimulating.

Personally, my own preference for “anarchist-sociology” (at least as an academic project) would be conceived of as a “big tent” under which sympathetic authors can bring together their varied collection of works, based on many theoretical perspectives, strategies, empirical data, methodological approaches, and such. These works could all inform each other, with a cacophony of different voices engaged in a diverse conversation of understanding. If this is a sensible strategy to an incipient anarchist-sociology, then Anarchy as Order is an amazing contribution to that project.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Democraps

[From February 2004]

I come from a Democrat-voting household. I've got no reason to suspect that either of my parents have ever voted anything other than Democrat. They likely have a few [unfortunate] disagreements in general ideology, such as on the issue of a woman's right to choose, but otherwise are what I'd call strong Democrats.

That said, the Democratic Party is the most worthless excuse for a political organization this country has today. I don't just mean in its lack of a cohesive ideology or vibrant vision; I mean in it's ability to do anything, to stand up to adversity, or to even speak out against the Republicans. Not that I'm all broken up inside because of this -- I'm an anarchist and thus opposed fundamentally to the idea of party politics (at least as its constructed in its current configuration).

Outside of this strong disdain for electoral and party politics, there's still more to criticize. The Democrat Party tends to select the most moderate candidates possible. Sure, their traditional support may be liberal or even Left, but they always pick the most soda pop candidates (would you like Coke or Pepsi?) Thus, the Party was stuck with the horrendously lame Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential election. Can you think of a more boring candidate? Even in this example, however, Gore was more of a conservative than even his moderate (yet Republican-leaning) pal Bill Clinton.

Election in and election out, the Democrats focus on little more than complaining about their Republican counterparts. Sure, there's a lot to complain about, but frankly it's really easy to do so. And many liberal-leaning constituencies of the Democrats take up this Republican-bitch-fest, too. It's like Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin's criticism of Anti-Racist Action for focusing only on the obvious racists like the Klan or Nazis, when the real problem with racism in this country has other names: the police, the courts, the prison system, the "War on Drugs", capitalism...

Thus, when Democrats open their mouths to make “strong statements”, it's usually against the Republicans (who often act much like the Democrats). Around election time it's the same story. Complain about either the Republican candidates or the incumbent Republicans. Heaven forbid they should actually bring up “daring” issues (outside of the usual “law and order” and tinkering with Medicaid) like universal health care, dismantling America's war machine, stopping the drug war and the prison industry, attacking corporate rule, and so forth. Instead, they are much more content to complain about Republicans and then argue amongst themselves over “safe” issues. How lame!

Even more cowardly is the tendency of the party to rally-round-the-flag during war. Sure, the Democrats may feel confident to challenge the Bush regime for its WMD claims nearly 11 months after invading Iraq, but do they ever bother bringing up the fact that the war was highly illegal, unpopular, unethical, etc.? Or, more fundamentally, did they even open their mouths before the war started to criticize it? Well, some did. But, the war resolutions in Congress couldn't have been won without strong Democrat support. And then as soon as the war started even these Democrats tucked their tails between their legs and mumbled platitudes about “supporting the troops” and the “Commander-in-Chief”. It apparently takes a lot of effort to resist the urge to lick boot leather.

The Democrats are equally shameless in their pursuit of Big Money. Sure, they can't seem to out-raise the Republicans, but it's not for a lack of trying. Enron was paying off lots of Democrats, too. Of course, if they ever pumped their efforts into actually speaking to real people as opposed to stalking every potential millionaire donor, they might actually find their message resonates more. And, they might not be perceived as the utter hypocrites they are. These politicians snap to attention when their corporate overlords come calling. Take a look at how happily the Clinton-Gore machine gave away the National Forests to mining and logging interests.

The sad thing is how uncritically the traditional Democratic Party base continues to support these characters, particularly unions and minorities. These politicians have sold down the river the rights of working people to corporations along with the dream of racial equality and economic justice. Being in neither demographic, I am not in a position to say why this support continues, nor should I say that they are necessarily wrong to do so. But, I fantasize about a day when the people can utilize their collective strength to push this party (kicking and screaming, if need be) out of the right-wing that controls it, back into the Left. Either that or start supporting other alternatives, like the Green Party.

All these criticisms stem from a strong cynicism of electoral and party politics. I'm not one to denigrate someone for wanting to vote, even if for a Democrat candidate, but I believe that true societal transformation -- an r/evolution that can achieve social and economic justice -- must be arrived at through a revitalization of democracy, not electoral/party politics, and definitely not through this whack Democrat Party.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Presidents are Kings are Shit

[Written in early-2003, but just as appropriate in 2012. Appeared once in a friend's 'zine, named Misadventure.]

For a long time I've wondered why the U.S. has presidents. It doesn't seem to make much sense to me. Why? Because I've been under the impression that the U.S. attempts to be a democracy. So what, right? Lots of democracies have presidents or prime ministers. Maybe that's the problem: everyone thinks it's normal that a free, democratic society should be entrusted to one individual.

Well, of course, there's the crap we learn in high school-- there's “checks and balances”!! Isn't it genius?!? Every branch of the government checks everyone else? Perfecto! Well, call me skeptical, but I fail to see how giving one individual 1/3 of the decision making for a country of 285 million people is democratic, let alone fair.

Does the Judicial system really “check” the Executive branch? Does the Legislative branch really bother checking the Executive or the Judicial? When was the last executive nominated Supreme Court justice turned down by Congress? When does the Judicial care at all about the Executive? Even in the days of Richard Nixon, it could barely wrestle public property (Presidential tapes) from Nixon's corrupt fingers.

Isn't a “president” really nothing more than a glorified Monarch? It's a King you vote for. Sure, the president can't just wave his arms and get anything done, but damn close. Why in the world would people be foolish enough to give anybody that much power? Here's someone who is only supposed to make treaties and command the military, but now does pretty much anything, including run roughshod over Congress, the Bill of Rights, and the rest of the world.

If we believe in democracy-- really believe in democracy-- why are we stupid enough to fall for the “Great Man” philosophy? If only we had the right president, then the country would be better! Heck, even leftists think this way: if only we elected Ralph Nader, then everything would be all better! How ridiculous it is to assume that a country as diverse as our's is could ever be properly represented by any person (man or woman, Ralph Nader or not)?

Where are all the political scientists writing about how hierarchical this all is? How in the hell can anyone claim that this is democratic? My understanding of democracy is that the people run society. No, George W. Bush runs society (mainly, of course, because we let him). When was the last time you were consulted about what the U.S. should do regarding Iraq? Do you actually think Bush cares about your opinion? He only cares about what he can get away with!

Perhaps it's a fault of human nature that most humans look for one powerful, charismatic person (usually a White male) to lead them out of darkness. But, I think it's because that's what society tells us to do. That's what the media tells us, our high school “civics” classes tell us, and everyone else tells us.

We spend so much time worshipping the memory of former leaders: JFK, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and so on. Well, who worships Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, King George the First (of Great Britain, not the U.S.)? None, but they too got their people mired into the same wars, poverty, and decadence that the aforementioned presidents did. What's the difference?

During the Roman Empire (a predecessor to the American Empire), there formed a triumvirate of power. Three men would control ultimate power in Rome. Not exactly a great idea (although that's 2 more heads of state than the U.S. has). But, of course, two of them turned on one, until he was gone, then the two remaining turned on each other, consolidating power along the way.

When the U.S. was formed, it was intended as a weak union with local authority taking precedence over federal control. Not a bad idea at all, but then the Articles of Confederation was scrapped in favor of a more centralized constitution, with a stronger President (much more like the King of England that they had fought to escape from). Over time, the President compiled more and more power, establishing executive powers far and wide.

Now, we put so much stock in what the president says. We tremble at every word, watch every action, discuss every policy that trickles out of his administration. His decree becomes the direction of the country. His emotions are channeled through the press and felt by the American people (those who still believe presidents, at least). When the president decides to goto war, the country goose steps behind him-- especially the congress, who is supposed to declare war in the first place. When in the hell was the last time a president asked people at the grassroots level of decision making in this country what they think? When was the last time any of them relinquished their own power to local governments and decision making bodies?

The president isn't my father-- I don't trust his advice. The president isn't my god-- I will never worship him or plead for my life. The president isn't my favorite philosopher-- none of his actions mesh with his words. The president isn't (and never will be) my friend-- how could I be “buddies” with anyone who has so much power over so many?

If we believe in democracy-- and I hope the American people and the world does-- we would radically redistribute power. And not just to a higher number of “elected officials”. Democracy does not necessarily mean voting. Voting is only one mechanism of decision making, it isn't democracy itself. We need councils, boards, collectives, cooperatives, affinity groups, spokescouncils, and more councils. None of this hero-worship bullshit, but actual practiced democracy, where no one is more powerful than anyone else.

A president is a King with a good P.R. agent. Only a fool would vote for a King and think they are free.