Book review: Randall Amster’s Anarchism Today

Published online 6 May 2012.

This is a book review of Randall Amster’s Anarchism Today that will give me an opportunity to discuss anarchism in further detail.  The idea that anarchism actually “is” something fills me with a desire to deconstruct it as a concept, suggesting that people don’t have to call themselves anarchists but that anarchism is nonetheless valuable as a utopian form of freethinking.  Amster’s book provides a good vehicle for this meditation.

Anarchism, like conservatism, is another one of those political words which deserves revision in the era of late, late capitalism.  Nowadays I would argue for a definition of “anarchism” as the set of philosophies held by that species of freethinker known as “anarchists.”  Anarchists, in turn, are people who are labeled publicly as such, and it doesn’t matter much (to me at least) if everyone or nobody is labeled as an anarchist.  What matters is the result: a social order inherent in a world society living on a planet Earth.  The idea that some freethinkers self-identify as “anarchists” appears to me as a sort of secondary thing, a conceptual trend that will (if all goes well) minimally interfere with important tasks of freethinking.

I know this isn’t the way the word “anarchism” is typically defined.  Merriam-Webster Online: “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups .”    This is fine, except when you dig too deeply into what counts as “governmental authority.”  “Governmental authority” is wrapped up in a number of social structures which make “rule” possible and so “governmental authority” is to some extent part of us, our behavioral tendencies and so on — Foucault discusses this in terms of “governmentality.”

I would argue that a critical term for understanding what might count as “anarchism” would be the term the 20th-century Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci used to describe the voluntary consent of the masses in their own rule by powerful elites: hegemony.  “Anarchism” suggests a voluntary participation in a world outside of governmental order; “hegemony,” in Gramsci’s terms suggests a voluntary consent to being governed.  The point I’m trying to make here is that freedom can go either way.  Freedom can be freedom to organize an anarchist commune and to organize massive protests of injustice, or self-sufficient co-operatives, or freedom can be freedom to serve in police auxiliaries and spy on dissenters.  So using a definition of “anarchism” that pivots on “freedom” can confuse the issue of what “anarchism” is.  A better tactic, then, would be to identify anarchism as a belief that it’s more fun to pursue a utopian social concept in which people form “voluntary” societies in which horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relationships predominate.

The word anarchism, then, denotes a specific philosophy with a specific utopian content (and here I’m using “utopia” in the good sense of the word).  I’ve defended this philosophy in a previous diary, against the rubes who conflate anarchism with breaking windows.  But it’s just a philosophy.  Sure, it would be great to belong to a society of equality in which everyone belonged to a freely-chosen co-operative which satisfied her or his every need.  The realistic question is one of how it can happen.  The immediate question is one of what anarchism is in real life.

My perspective on anarchism is congruent with my perspective on politics as delineated in this diary.  As we live in a conservative age, sandwiched between the decline of capitalist growth and the vast increase of inequities in wealth and power between the rich few and the rest, so little of what we do politically is actually consequential.  Anarchists can either be another ineffectual species of utopian, or they can find new ways of thinking “outside the box” to create new reserves of meaningful political creativity.

Randall Amster’s (2012) book Anarchism Today addresses anarchism both in theory and in real life, voting for the latter of the two options spelled out in the paragraph above.  Its first chapter (pages 1 through 22) suggests a series of mental moves that can be performed in order to make “anarchism” come together as a term.  I suppose the first one is “suspending our disbelief” simply because it’s so difficult to imagine an anarchist utopia actually becoming a viable option.  The next seven of these moves, anti-authoritarianism, voluntarism, mutualism, autonomism, egalitarianism, naturalism, and anti-capitalism,  establish the philosophy that is aptly described as “libertarian socialism.”  Dynamism, pragmatism, utopianism, and decentralism establish a balance — anarchist activity needs to be dynamic and utopian, yet establish a presence in the real world.

There is a brief examination here of “anarchist institutions” — Amster gives Food Not Bombs, CrimethInc. (a publishing collective) and Indymedia (pages 38 through 41) as examples.  (I did feel that this section could have been longer.)  There is a chapter on anarchist questions of violence and a section on eco-anarchism.  There is a chapter on anarchist collectives — this is important, as anarchism will go nowhere without collectives.  There is a chapter on “from the local to the global,” which discusses anarchist networks (across national boundaries), and a chapter on “anarchism’s impact,” trying to suggest that anarchism has an impact (although this is largely confined to discussions of impact in the world of ideas).  The conclusion probes the possibility of an anarchist future, and mentions representations of anarchism in science fiction.

Overall, this is a brief and meaningful overview of anarchism as a type of freethinking, situating it in the current era and placing its concepts in a way which will no doubt stimulate discussion (especially if this book can make it into paperback publication).  Amster seems to understand that thought without action is of no consequence, and that action can itself be of no consequence if it’s not successful.  Amster’s attitude is appropriate: “I have attempted to depict a productive, proactive, and positive view of anarchism that indicates its simultaneous capacities for contestation and construction (161).”  Perhaps David Graeber’s list of activities for “laying a working (and no-prescribed) foundation for an anarchist society” is a good one:

cooperatives, infoshops, prisoner support networks, pirate radio, squats, independent media, community gardens, bicycle collectives, co-operative bookstores, Copwatch programs, homeless and immigrant rights campaigns, and Food Not Bombs chapters (Graeber, pages 218 and 236, qtd. on page 37)

This sort of thing looks more consequential to me than any protest.  The problem is that the police state apparatus has gotten so sophisticated in this era that it can easily co-exist with “free speech,” and certainly with “free elections,” and so the framework of public sphere, civil society and state that was the backdrop of Jurgen Habermas’ celebration of late 19th century society in the (1962) masterwork Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is no longer entirely relevant to social change.Instead, what happens in the 21st century world is that people take their relationships to society and to planet Earth into their own hands:

In communities, towns, and cities, people are mobilizing to regain political and environmental power, working in locales everywhere “to regenerate local food systems, develop locally controlled, renewable energy systems and, sometimes, to build solidarity with kindred movements around the world.” (page 86: quote is from Brian Tokar’s Toward Climate Justice)

In all seriousness, I think that when the Powers That Be descend to a certain level of ineptitude, most of us become anarchists after a fashion, and we join local community efforts in complete indifference to the hierarchies that dominate “normal life.”  I went to a talk recently held by Rebecca Solnit in which she described her research into the “extraordinary communities that arise in disaster” with respect to 9/11/01 and Hurricane Katrina.  At a certain level of total disaster, Solnit argues, many people are motivated by a strong tendency to help their fellow human beings, and to organize for collective survival.  This is indeed what the anarchists are doing now, and so we might legitimately expect more people to join their ranks as catastrophes accumulate with continued capitalist “development.”You can see, then, that there are a number of concepts in this book that are left “up in the air” (do anarchists really have to call themselves anarchists?), but that Amster has written a thoroughly thought-provoking overview book.

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