Cheerleaders for Anarchism

General assembly at Occupy Wall Street, 9/2011. Courtesy of Caroline Schiff Photography/Flickr.

Books discussed in this essay:

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play
by James C. Scott
Princeton, 2012, 198 pp.

The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement
by David Graeber
Spiegel & Grau, 2013, 352 pp.

Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina
by Marina A. Sitrin
Zed Books, 2012, 224 pp.

The financial crisis of 2007–2008 inspired a shallow but significant revival of Marxist analysis in academic life. A violent upsurge in theory, however, has corresponded to no particular insurrection in practice. If any radical left tendency has been responsible for inspiring action, the palm should go to Marxism’s historic antagonist on the Left—anarchism. Wherever movements have been provoked against neoliberalism, black flags have tended to outnumber red. Autonomista and other kinds of left-libertarian thought were major currents running through movements in Greece and Spain. The cornerstone for the occupation of Zuccotti Park was laid by anarchists, who also developed the consensus procedures by which the movement participants made (or occasionally failed to make) decisions. Even where demands have seemed social democratic, many of the more creative and disruptive protests fueling them have been anarchist.

The ongoing confinement of Marxism to the academy is in some ways to be expected—it is, as David Graeber often quips, “the only great social movement that was invented by a Ph.D.” More surprising, however, is the relative absence of anything like a professedly anarchist viewpoint—whether anarchist social science or anarchist literary theory—in theoretical work. It’s not the case that anarchists, with classic bodies of work and debates on natural selection and evolution as a model for cooperation (Kropotkin), the nature of revolutionary action (Bakunin), or the origins of private property (Proudhon), have nothing to say about matters long the province of Marxists. Still, anarchism seems to be chiefly visible and successful in the world of activism, rather than in that of social thought. It’s as if (to cite a point also made by Graeber) Marxists and anarchists have submitted to a tacit division of labor: you handle the organizing, we’ll handle the theory.


But it appears as if the more recent anarchist movements are beginning to leave their mark, with a spate of books that attempt to consolidate what may be a kind of anarchist theory for the twenty-first century. Like Marxist analysis, which often seeks to unmask the real tendencies of history beneath the surface of the quotidian, anarchist theory, too, has an unmasking strategy: it sees fervent activity where one might be tempted to see stasis and homogeneity. What looks like consent is actually resistance; what looks like capitalism’s domination over everything actually conceals systems of mutual aid. Anarchist theory doesn’t just advocate anarchism; it rather reveals that, beneath everything, we’re more anarchist than we thought.

James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist at Yale, has pursued anarchist themes, mostly in Southeast Asian history, for more than three decades. Though not an anarchist himself (he has described himself as a “crude Marxist, emphasis on the ‘crude’”), his analysis of protest movements is ecumenical in an anarchist way, acknowledging all kinds of disruption as “political.” And though he discusses inequalities of economic distribution, the focus of his disapprobation is usually unchecked exercise of state power, attempts by states at social engineering, something that distances him from more traditional socialists. In Scott’s hands, anarchism isn’t so much a socio-political doctrine as an anti-authoritarianism practiced, unselfconsciously, in everyday life—a means of insubordination running across societies everywhere.

Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism (its title echoes E.M. Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, and, less happily, Irving Kristol’s neoconservative Two Cheers for Capitalism), a rambling bagatelle of a book, distills these arguments. Made up of a number of short prose sections, which the author self-exculpatorily dubs “fragments,” Two Cheers recapitulates themes from Scott’s previous books: that resistance takes a number of forms, very often hidden, and that states tend to suppress practical knowledge and human self-organization. For Scott, social movements gain influence through their will to disruption and the violent reactions disruption inspires—a rejoinder to moderates obsessed with policing movements internally. Scott holds up local or “vernacular” knowledge as superior to seemingly more enlightened, technocratic exercises of power. Local names for streets, regional languages, musical traditions, land-use practices: all are forms of practical knowledge that nation-states find “illegible” and seek to homogenize in the interests of hierarchical coordination, often destructively. Scott describes the failed attempts of scientific forestry to introduce standardized tree growth as an example of experts misreading the vernacular landscape.

Scott’s book recasts anodyne liberal accounts of the past as evidence that movements were more anarchic than we remember. The reason that we recognize the name-brand organizations of the black freedom movement, such as the NAACP or SNCC is because, Scott tells us, “organized progressive interests achieve a level of visibility and influence on the basis of defiance that they neither incited nor controlled.” Protests exceed the grasp of the organizations: “The widespread voter-registration drives, Freedom Rides, and sit-ins were the product of a great many centers of initiative and action….The enthusiasm, spontaneity, and creativity of the cascading social movement ran far ahead of the organizations wishing to represent, coordinate, and channel it.” These sentences could equally describe Occupy Wall Street, which brought to birth many different forms of activity and organizations only after the start of the encampment-protest.

The difficulty is that, in Scott’s hands, the failure of states tends to become axiomatic, whereas the failure of social movements hardly registers. Thus, he admits in one section that “massive disruption and defiance can, under some conditions, lead directly to authoritarianism or fascism rather than reform or revolution,” without pursuing the implications. Meanwhile, he tends to treat the state as a transnational abstraction—“high modernist” in character, more interested in clean lines and smooth surfaces than in actual human practices. This ahistorical view of the state rarely takes into account changes over time, undermining Scott’s overarching thesis.


In one symptomatic instance, Scott cites the failure of the enormous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis as a prime example of the high modernist state’s failure. Built in the 1950s but demolished only two decades later, in 1972, after a steady deterioration, Pruitt-Igoe has long been taken to be a paradigmatic example of modernism’s failure as an ideology: its insistence on tall, single-use buildings and complexes, arrayed orthogonally, against the low-rise haphazard density that most people seem to prefer. Unfortunately, this portrait is a myth that conceals vast changes in American political economy and the multifarious nature of state power. As architectural historian Katherine Bristol argued in a canonical 1990 article, Pruitt-Igoe deteriorated not because of the state’s “high modernist” viewpoint, but because it was built for a city—expanding, prosperous, diverse, with a strong manufacturing base—that was disappearing. Moreover, the final form of the project, unsatisfactory as it was, emerged from a political struggle, not bureaucratic indifference. The original plans allowed for a mix of high-rise, mid-rise, and walk-up buildings. But the costs of this housing were higher than the federal limit—and, moreover, there was substantial political opposition to increased public housing budgets in the conservative 1950s. The net result was a seriously compromised project with inadequate funding, in a city already suffering economically from the flight of its tax base to the suburbs.

In the end the project did fail, but Scott’s design-centric analysis provides the wrong explanation. Where he sees yet another sorry example of the high modernist state pushing its ideology, the real problem lies in organizations, electoral politics, and bureaucracy. Bundling these things together as “the state” only brackets and delays addressing the problem at hand. The sort of bureaucratic reasoning peculiar to the modern nation-state may finally turn out to be the enemy, but such a conclusion would carry more force if Scott examined that bureaucracy with as much care as he takes with the local, practical knowledge it destroys—or if he at least conceded the obvious limits of local knowledge. This is all the more imperative because Scott never denies the need for a state of some kind (only two cheers for anarchism), and he occasionally mentions activities that work only when coordinated by experts and impersonal mechanisms (transportation networks, space exploration, disease control). Without more significant gestures in favor of contravening arguments, however, his brief in favor of local knowledge seems to have all the passion, and weakness, of a moral preference—nothing less, but not more.


If the state and its bureaucracy routinely fail us, even when they try to make things better, what is the solution? David Graeber, in The Democracy Project, goes farther than Scott in turning the critique of the state into an occasion for outlining a positive project. He uses as his main case study Occupy Wall Street, with which he was intimately involved, and the theoretical basis of which he helped to articulate when the movement was at its visible peak in the fall of 2011. In this lucidly written but—by the standards of his other work—slight book, Graeber spends much of his time explaining the origins of Occupy Wall Street and defending its strategic choices and ideological profile against its critics. The book’s most interesting material, however, consists of reflections on the sham of American democracy and Occupy’s attempt to form a more democratic model.

Graeber has no patience with liberal pieties about U.S. freedoms and systems of representation. For him, the central proof of the system’s illegitimacy is lobbying, which he rightfully prefers to call “bribery.” “Once there was a time when giving politicians money so as to influence their positions was referred to as ‘bribery’ and it was illegal,” he writes. “Now soliciting bribes has been relabeled ‘fundraising’ and bribery itself, ‘lobbying.’ Banks rarely need to ask for specific favors from politicians, dependent on the flow of bank money to shape or even write the legislation that is supposed to ‘regulate’ their banks. At this point, bribery has become the very basis of our system of government.” But Graeber doesn’t believe that the original American system was a purely democratic ideal, either. He reminds readers that the endlessly invoked Founders were in fact hostile to democracy as such. He speculates that any genuinely democratic aspects of the system may have come from the early Americans’ proximity to less hierarchical societies, such as the Iroquois, and even from the comings and goings of pirates (themselves part of a larger transatlantic network of motley “primitive rebel” anticapitalists depicted in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra). These historical speculations call to mind some of the anecdotes in Graeber’s previous book, the inspired and brilliant Debt, where ethnographic examples about hierarchy and obligation spun out effortlessly into questions of moral and political philosophy. In these accounts, bureaucracy enters as a way of preserving the state’s unaccountability through administration, despite its veneer of democracy. Anarchism is simply the superior form of democracy, Graeber seems to be saying, and its physical presence during the height of the occupations called into question everything that seemed to be less democratic—including the supposedly democratic American political system itself.

Of course, Graeber isn’t breaking new ground in exposing the vacuousness and open criminality of the American system. It’s so corroded that, even when it holds a regularly scheduled national election, a near-majority of the eligible regularly shirks its supposed citizenly responsibility. Thus, when Graeber explains why the Occupy movement deemed the American neoliberal state illegitimate, his reasoning gains force from its congruence with a broad spectrum of political opinion. He points out that Occupy’s basic posture of refusal is what made it more successful than more timid and heavily organized past attempts to challenge the financial system. “It was only when a movement appeared that resolutely refused to take the traditional path,” he writes, “that rejected the existing political order as inherently corrupt, that called for the complete reinvention of American democracy, that occupations immediately began to blossom across the country. Clearly, the movement did not succeed despite the anarchist element. It succeeded because of it.”

Yet radical intransigence alone did not draw in socialists and other non-anarchists. Graeber spends little time on local demands that arms of the movement did make. In New York, members of the labor working group helped fight for contracts at Verizon and Sotheby’s, while Occupy the SEC exhaustively details failures by the country’s largest banking authority. More recently, in my own city of Philadelphia, activists from the labor working group have formed a broad coalition to fight school closings and privatization. These demands were partial acknowledgments of the existing political system’s legitimacy, whether through the role of labor unions, of regulatory bodies, or public schooling—in other words, bureaucracies. Graeber’s view that Occupy set itself the task of creating a superior form of democracy to the spurious one on offer is well taken. But rather than preventing negotiations with the state, such an attitude led many activists to see existing institutions as potentially open to democratization. Despite the veneer of demandlessness, Occupy often modeled democracy by pushing within, rather than over and against, what we already have. Many Occupiers were as compelled to defend as they were to attack.


Like Scott’s and Graeber’s works, Marina Sitrin’s Everyday Revolutions is a work of advocacy. But unlike theirs, it presents new scholarship based on fieldwork and focused on experiences of autonomous organizing in a particular geographic region in a particular era. Over the last decade, Sitrin’s reports of the Argentine movements’ “horizontalist” form of decision-making have inspired activists elsewhere, including at Occupy Wall Street, and her new book constitutes her most thorough account of the movement.

Everyday Revolutions follows the movements that erupted following the spectacular collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001—the movements often referred to as “19th and 20th December,” the days when the dispossessed took to the streets, famously banging pots and pans (cacerolazo is the neologism describing this type of protest, coming from the Spanish for “stew pot”), crying “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“They all must go”) at some of neoliberalism’s favorite children. But—following Scott’s model—direct actions soon precipitated intertwined organizations: unemployed workers’ protests, neighborhood assemblies, and “recuperated factories,” now operating under workers’ control.

Although the outward form of these movements have historic precedents, Sitrin flags their newness. One four-sentence paragraph uses the word “new” ten times to describe their various features. Sitrin argues that the Argentinean debacle exposed the entire state apparatus as illegitimate, leaving radical autonomy as the path not taken (“The wake of the break is the beautiful opening up of possibility,” she writes, with an unfortunately characteristic infelicity of style). Rather than drawing sustenance from Argentina’s rich radical past, the new movements have produced a “rupture” with that past, whether the populism of the Peróns or the left-wing guerrillas of the 1960s and 1970s who sought state power. Horizontalidad, “horizontality,” is the word used by movement participants to encapsulate their process—it encompasses a non-hierarchical relationship between participants, a desire to strive for consensus, and an organization free from political party or state intrusion. It is this horizontal autonomy that, Sitrin further argues, is creating “new subjects,” political actors who see themselves as protagonists of their own story, rather than constituents content with mere representation. In turn, the new forms of assembly lead to a politica afectiva, an “affective politics”—a politics based more on interpersonal relations, such as love for one another, than ideology. “It seems to me that other forms which were more ideologically based, such as ‘we leftist revolutionaries,’ ended up fragmenting the assemblies and alienating participation, because they were more closed,” one of her interview subjects says (here quoted in a previous volume of oral history, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina). “In this respect, the new politics need to have some affective quality.” As for a comparative framework, Sitrin rarely strays from Argentina, except for occasional overnight flights to Chiapas, Mexico, where once again the Zapatistas are called upon for folktales, slogans, and watchwords for inspiration.

Sitrin’s transcripts of factory workers and neighborhood assembly members describing their own actions make for the best reading in the book. And yet Sitrin’s methodology, because it places a special emphasis on speaking from within the movement, renders some of her more expansive claims about the novelty of the movements harder to believe. She tends too often to celebrate their accomplishments, obfuscating those aspects of her analysis—when they briefly break free from the crushing embrace of the social movements—that suggest missteps, setbacks, and failures.


The autonomous movements’ relationship with the state is one such point of ambiguity. Most social movement theory makes the state central to its analysis, viewing movements as chiefly concerned with making claims “on public authorities, other holders of power, competitors, enemies, and objects of popular disapproval,” as Charles Tilly has it. Sitrin rightly wants to explain the movements in front of her, some of which, at least initially, don’t follow this pattern, preferring instead to “build a new society in the shell of the old.” She furthermore wants to judge success from the perspective of the movements themselves: if the “new subjects” see themselves as successful, then who is some observer social scientist to tell them otherwise? But then when the movements silently defect from the scholarly dictate of “autonomy” and engage the state, however partially, the theory shows its rigidity: it can neither sufficiently account for defections from the ideal nor describe them in any terms that would reflect badly on the movement. Caught between the twin aims of studying the movements and exalting them, Sitrin habitually defers to the latter.

In her final chapter, on the rise of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández (Kirchner’s widow and successor as Argentina’s president) and the subsequent re-establishment of state legitimacy, Sitrin’s writing becomes more dispassionate and analytical, and the record of the movements begins to appear more checkered than the overall tone of the book might indicate. The movements in 2001 called for the downfall of the government—¡Que se vayan todos!—and they succeeded in pushing out four of them; but just two years later, the election of the left-leaning Peronist Kirchner was enough to tamp down the movements’ activities. Unlike his more blatantly neoliberal predecessors, Kirchner pursued some egalitarian measures, while co-opting many segments of the movement and repressing with judicial measures more confrontational groups. He invited certain middle-class activists to participate in his government. Members of the piqueteros—the “picketers” who formed the core of the cacerolazo—formed groups in support of Kirchner. Among the recuperated workplaces—the most extraordinary and promising of the movement activities—there are many that have institutionalized by adopting forms of subcontracting or reorganizing as shareholding cooperatives. Sitrin admits that while some “have slightly different opinions of the state…as a whole there is no policy of ‘autonomy’ or [one of] working within the state.” In other words, there is no overarching ideology at all, except keeping factories open and providing jobs to those who need them. The fact that many workplaces “are breaking with capitalist modes of relating but…not actively striving to eliminate capitalism” leads Sitrin to voice one of her few strategic criticisms, challenging the recuperated factory movement to develop a network of “national and international coordination.” Versions of such networks actually exist. It would have benefited Sitrin’s analysis if, instead of tediously invoking the Zapatistas, she had at least gestured toward a more relevant Latin American comparison—the worker-run industries of Venezuela and Brazil, which have at once productive and vexed relationships with the state.

Sitrin concludes on a note of hopefulness. “If the perspective is that of the movements, those people creating transformations within themselves and their communities,” she writes, “then the answer is that they now feel more dignity and power—they are social subjects and agents in their lives, finding new ways to survive, together and with affect. They are successful.” After she has listed a string of defeats, this declarative seems decidedly unearned. The movements may not have succeeded so much as shifted their aims, so as to define success more narrowly. As Sitrin herself, in her less guarded moments, seems to allow, the enduring problem of autonomous movements is resilience, the ability to carry the movement and expand it over the long haul. Though Sitrin assures us that the movements continue to carry out “quieter, everyday revolutions” in subjectivities and relationships on a small scale all over the country, the success the Kirchners had in suppressing its vital force indicates that its durability remains an open question.


One finishes these books impressed by their optimism. Where classical Marxism maintained an abiding faith in the role of the working class in constructing international socialism, anarchism retains a similar faith in the ability of human beings to self-organize, free from instruments of coercion. “We are already anarchists,” writes Graeber, “or at least we act like anarchists, every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement.” With that basic understanding in place, the causes for hope are enormous—expanding already existing forms of mutual aid and reciprocity seems like a huge, endless task for coming generations, but in some ways an imaginable one. It helps, too, that historical experience ratifies the anarchist belief more readily than it does the Marxist analogue: entire societies have operated without states, with systems broadly resembling those of anarchist cooperation.

Yet as a theory of change, anarchism remains fragmentary, perhaps inevitably so. Seizing hopefulness away from the poised guillotine of history, anarchists celebrate the isolated examples they have saved. This has the peculiar effect of making anarchist theories of social movements less flexible than many others, tending to ignore instances in which bureaucracies or institutions have played important roles or interacted productively with autonomist movements. While the accounts on offer affirm otherwise hidden action and resistance (an analytical “propagandism of the deed”), states and affiliated institutions descend like large, unyielding, ahistorical monoliths—silent, menacing, inexorable. But the lessons of the political history provided in these books often can be read as inversions of anarchist dicta: states are more varied and malleable than we often believe; existing bureaucracies can administer justice as well as injustice; and social movements endure often by finding institutional forms, and by inserting themselves in, or overturning, the state apparatus. To be fair, each author would probably concede versions of these statements—Graeber and Scott, at least, have admitted the need for impersonal institutions and have noted how alliances between radicals and liberals can provoke banal “progressive” political changes.

The result, nevertheless, is an attitude of avowed political openness that is less pliable than it seems to be: one that defers to social movements to determine future arrangements but prescribes the kind of social movement activity that is worth supporting. This has consequences for the theoretical power of anarchism. Developing a complex and durable society requires not just inspiration from ethical examples, but a kind of pessimism over the past and future, an honest awareness of historic obstacles and movement failures alongside hidden victories and “everyday revolutions.” In one section, Graeber implies that the revolutionary surge of 2011 may herald deeper undercurrents of change than the movement’s superficial defeats presage—akin to what happened after the supposedly vanquished worldwide revolts of 1848 and 1968. Such optimism is bracing; but the basis for such speculation is still slim, with evidence for successful reactionary retrenchment as widely available as that for incremental political transformation. It’s difficult to extrapolate a plausible future from promising moments of direct action alone. Resolving the disjunction between action and strategy remains the pressing task for anarchist theory: to imagine how spectacular moments of political freedom for some can be turned into longterm movements and into victories that secure lasting freedoms for all.


Nikil Saval is an editor of n+1 and a researcher for UNITE HERE in Philadelphia. He is writing a book on the history and future of the office.

×