One of the most fundamental social issues in previous centuries has been the ubiquitous rise of capitalism around the globe. Paramount to this global expansion has been capitalism’s ability to colonise–and infect–social and political institutions. While the emergence of globalisation has been well documented (and criticised) in the 21st century, approaches that challenge its socio-political hegemony are few and far between. This is especially the case with regards to pragmatic measures in which problematic aspects of globalisation, like the neoliberal privatisation of public spheres and the increasing segregation of society, can be resisted.
Anarchism, in particular, is a movement that enjoys a long history of challenging capitalism. Despite its emergence in many different forms – from activists, to workers, to university classes – and its colourful and radical history, anarchism offers a valuable methodological tool to the social and political sciences.
Anarchism, as a political idea, can be distinguished from the principle of anarchy along the lines that anarchy refers to a society without government, whereas anarchism suggests that such a society is desirable (Graham, 2004, p. xi). Anarchism, literally translated means ‘against central authority’. Thus, as a conceptual idea, it can be linked to a struggle for equality; struggles against authority that seek to redirect centralised power into less hegemonic, less dominating avenues for all people. This idea of anarchism should not be equated with the destruction of society but rather the destruction of the governing forces over society. It is an idea that attempts to return social control to those in the society rather than an abstract governing body over a society. In this sense, anarchism shares a (radical) democratic principle (Graeber, 2011; Newman, 2016; Springer, 2010) that seeks to return power to the people who ‘must bear the effects of such power’ (May, 1994, p. 57). As a concept, then, anarchism is synonymous with struggles for direct control, decentralisation, and anti-hegemonic power.
Despite anarchism’s steady opposition to capitalism since the 19th century, its application to social research remains sparse. Recently, Shantz (2014, p. 6) has pointed out the valuable contribution of anarchist thinkers to sociology, arguing that informal, cooperative, and mutualistic aspects of human social development “have been anarchist in character”. Certainly, Amster (2008) realises this anarchist potential to the social and political sciences in his analysis of neoliberalism and the deterioration of “public” space. Here, an anarchist approach supplements the narratives of “privatisation” and “urban justice” in Amster’s research by denouncing the integration of homeless people into mainstream economic society (against their will). Instead, this anarchist methodology leads an analysis around the control and exclusion of a group of people, the consumption of space, and the victimisation of homeless people, without stripping rights and agency from the homeless. Such a focus is especially useful in highlighting the capitalist aspirations of organisations that claim to “help” homeless people integrate into society.
So, too, has anarchist methodology been useful in the analysis of subordinated groups and their organisational capacity. Scott’s (1990) analysis draws from anarchistic forms of mutual organisation to illuminate the social interactions of subordinated groups whose labour, goods, and services have been institutionally appropriated over time. Central to Scott’s analysis is a focus on the ‘infra-political’ sphere in which subordinate classes operate beyond the visible spectrum of political activity (1990, p. 19). Such an approach is important, Scott argues, because it identifies the social activities of people who are forced to live within these dominating environments. It takes a practical approach to doing power that illustrates how people draw from social and local networks to collectively organise themselves amongst even the most dominating power discourses. Consequently, anarchism supplements Scott’s analysis of power by focusing on the social organisation of groups of people engaged in a political discourse. This social narrative illustrates how individuals draw on local networks, rather than [just] personal resources to struggle against problematic political relationships.
My research employs an anarchist methodology in a similar vein by illuminating the social interactions of isolated and insecure workers in highly organised workplaces. By analysing the responsibilities and obligations of workers to their workplace, I was able to highlight social commitments to other workers and demonstrate the importance of mutual forms of self-organisation by which workers come together, discuss, and strategise ways to cut corners, game the numbers, and simply avoid work. These strategies of ‘working smart’ are important in light of concerns about the highly individualised nature of resistance in workplaces that emerge from research into organisational deviance and misbehaviour. Rather than focus on individual workers and engage in a form of discursive identity politics, the anarchistic focus on mutual self-organisation was useful for focusing my research around local formulations of power as a means to contest the central organisation of the workplace.
In each of these cases, an anarchist methodology is employed with the intention of illuminating social conditions of mutuality and collectivity in otherwise informal, hidden, and often alienating environments. More to the point, each of these cases points towards a systematic and methodical inquiry into human social behaviour. By focusing on the means of collective interaction each of these projects was able to demonstrate a process in which human beings contest and struggle against forms of power from the wider global capitalist movement. Moreover, this methodology demonstrates that these struggles happen in the “here and now”; in real time and space. By illuminating the social dimensions of struggle, this research was able to demonstrate a form of social collectivity often underrepresented in contemporary theories of neoliberalism. Despite the emergence of a more individualised society in this era of “liquid modernity”, it is important to recognise this social sphere and its’ potential for organising individual behaviour and resistance. This sphere of resistance is important because if we neglect social sphere, then we there is nothing left to protect.
Amster, R. (2008). Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.
Graeber, D. (2011, November 15). Occupy and Anarchism’s Gift of Democracy. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/15/occupy-anarchism-gift-democracy
Graham, R. (2004). Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939). Montreal: Black Rose Books.
May, T. (1994). The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Newman, S. (2016). Postanarchism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Raymond, N. (2018, January 1). Anarchy Grunge Flag. Retrieved from Flickr.com: http://freestock.ca/flags_maps_g80-anarchy_grunge_flag_p1183.html
Scott, J. C. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shantz, J. (2014). Seeds Beneath the Snow: The Sociological Anarchy of Paul Goodman, Colin Ward, and James C. Scott. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 43(4), 468-473.
Springer, S. (2011). Public Space as Emancipation: Meditations on Anarchism, Radical Democracy, Neoliberalism and Violence. Antipode, 43(2), 525-562.