The lessons from the anarchist experiences on urban social cohesion

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“The lessons from the anarchist experiences on urban social cohesion”1

André Carmo2


During recent years anarchist political philosophy has regained a new strength not only in terms of the political action conducted by multiple movements and projects of anarchist inspiration (e.g. Chiapas, Seattle, Food not Bombs, Reclaim the Streets, etc.) but also within the rather rigid boundaries of the academia. Undoubtedly, one has to acknowledge that there has been a rise in anarchist scholarship in recent years (Amster, R. et al., 2009). This paper seeks to shed light upon the mutual relations which can be established between those two distant worlds. In order to do that some anarchist influenced experiences in terms of sociopolitical organization, whose main goal is to foster and consolidate urban social cohesion are discussed. This transversal analysis considers the multiplicity of scales where experiences operate, while trying to highlight their most relevant aspects for contemporary urban social cohesion. It is argued that some of the fundamental historical principles of anarchist thought and action (e.g. opposition to hierarchy, decentralization, commitment to freedom and autonomy, opposition to vanguardism as expressed in authoritarian socialist traditions) are still relevant today if one aims at developing social innovative strategies. Hence, one should not neglect the lessons from past experiences if the goal is to build a better future.

Keywords: anarchism, urban social cohesion, hierarchy, decentralization, autonomy

Preliminary remarks: Anarchism is back, with a vengeance!...or maybe not
When submitting the abstract for this paper I did lie or, to put it gently, I wrote it with a high dose of wishful thinking. Contrarily to what I argued there, anarchism renewed strength still has to work its way inside the rigid boundaries of the academia. Despite the fact that it has indeed become a fashionable idea among contemporary social movements, it still as not managed to be as popular among researchers. Arguably, during the last couple of decades, anarchist principles and praxis have replaced Marxist ones as propellers of social intervention, as catalysts of social movements and projects willing to change the hegemonic social order. Specifically talking, it has become the heart and soul of the anti-globalization movement (Graeber, 2002).

There are various reasons explaining this 21st century anarchist renaissance, since during the final years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th it was highly influential inside working-class organizations and other radical experiences. According to Graeber and Grubacic (2004), the single most important reason for this to happen was the failure and somewhat catastrophic outcomes of the attempts conducted during the 20th century to overcome capitalism through gaining control of governments and state apparatus. This modern(ist) understanding of historical development has been replaced by the sense that ‘the revolution’, i.e. that whole encompassing event able to radically transform power relations in a single blow has to be understood as a very long process constitutive of human history which maybe does not even has to have a conclusion. This understanding has obvious consequences not only for the visions about societal transformation but, more than that, for the guiding principles of action, i.e. for radical praxis.

On the other hand, Manuel Castells (2005) suggested that anarchism historical shortcomings were the result of its anachronic character, i.e. because anarchism was ahead of its time. Basically, he believes that contemporary technological transformations, while changing the way people communicate and relate to each other, also allowed network economic structures and organization to flourish. In addition, instead of having nation-states controlling and managing territory we now have city-states. This represents a scalar change allowing social autonomous organizations to develop, and individuals to organize and discuss using interactive communication networks. Thus, anarchism seems to be in tune with two of the trends, one socioeconomic and the other political, shaping contemporary historical contexts. Thus, as Castells suggested, ‘el neoanarquismo es un instrumento de lucha que parece adaptado a las condiciones de la revuelta social del siglo XXI’.

In relation to academia, things are not that clear and there is no consensus regarding its relations to anarchism. On the one hand, some events seem to imply that anarchism has been recognized as a relevant research/praxis subject, namely, the foundation of the Institute for Anarchist Studies in 1996, the creation in the UK of a specialist group for the study of anarchism (i.e. Anarchist Studies Network), more recently, in 2008, the organization of its first conference at Loughborough University and also, and perhaps surprisingly, the recent creation of a MA programme in ‘Activism and Social Change’ at the department of Geography at the University of Leeds (for a critique of ‘anarchist studies’ see Shukaitis, 2009). This illustrates the development of what Amster et al. (2009: 5) called ‘a distinctly anarchist scholarship’ whose contemporary roots can be traced back to Noam Chomsky, Murray Bookchin, Howard Zinn, Harold Ehrlich, Colin Ward, among others.

On the other hand, the academia still shows some signs of resistance towards the dissemination of anarchist ideas. For instance, it is still possible to ‘get a PhD from a major American University without knowing anything about anarchism’ (Zinn, 1997a: 644). David Graeber, from an anarchist anthropologist stance, carefully examined some of the reasons why there are so few anarchists in the academia. In his view, most academics have only vague and stereotyped ideas about what anarchism is about. It is usually understood as being Marxism’s poorer cousin both in terms of analytical development as well as theoretical depth, although it seeks to overcome its intellectual shortcomings with a passionate commitment to social transformation. As a result, Marxism ‘has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy’ (Graeber, 2004:6) while anarchism ‘has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice’ (ibid.). Therefore, both possess a different character and since the academia is predominantly concerned with the production of knowledge its institutional culture never quite suited anarchism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that anarchist theory should be dismissed or neglected as being of less importance. I believe the opposite to be true with the difference being the fact that anarchist theory requires a different understanding of what research, in particular, and the academy, in general, should be like.

In accordance, and against this contested and continuously evolving background, I will try to contribute to strengthen the linkages between anarchism and the academia through an exploration of some anarchist experiences and their contributions for urban social cohesion.

This paper consists of six sections. In the first one I start by providing some arguments with regards to what the anarchist political philosophy is not. I do this by identifying some of the most common features constituting what I think one can call the mainstream vision on anarchism. Four topics are identified and deserve close attention as I consider them to be representative of the kind of misconceptions underlying this widely spread understanding of anarchism. After these preliminary clarifications, the second section is concerned with the multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings of anarchist, drawing on its historical developments. Despite this fact, it is argued that there are some common features which constitute what can be called the foundations of anarchist perspectives.

Thirdly, I will look into urban social cohesion from a critical point of view. I start by describing some of the most recent developments on this topic, and after I deal with the fundamental constitutive dimensions of social cohesion. Fourthly, a number of anarchist influenced urban experiences are described. Experiences are taken from different historical contexts, i.e. the description will look upon historical as well as contemporary experiences. In addition, they also belong to different ‘categories’, namely, ‘urban laboratories’ and urban movements, which are taken out of different contexts. Fifthly, drawing on the anarchist influenced experiences previously described I elaborate on the possible linkages between anarchism and urban social cohesion. It is argued that anarchist experiences can be considered important in terms of research on urban social cohesion as they can provide some relevant and innovative insights on a number of relevant issues related to social cohesion. I end up with some brief concluding comments focused on the possibilities of utopian visions and experimentation goals.

1. Anarchism: what’s wrong with the mainstream vision?
Anarchism always meant different things to different people. Using an analogy with semiotics, it is a signified with several different and often contradictory signifiers, i.e. the concept is many associated with different formulations, thus making hard to acknowledge. Even if one chooses to consider only those who consider themselves and are recognized by other as being anarchists, there are some topics which have been addressed more often than others and whose content is contested. Nevertheless, the main objective in this section is to contrast what one can call the mainstream vision about specific anarchist topics with the assumptions and themes which are usually shared within the anarchist framework, thus representing the ‘anarchist canon’.

After presenting some general remarks concerning the mainstream understanding I then deal with each one of the four specific topics: i) anarchism and chaos; ii) anarchism, violence and destruction; iii) anarchism and societal development; iv) anarchism and utopia.

1.1. General remarks on the mainstream understanding
In the beginning of the 20th century Berkman (1972) highlighted that anarchism was not supposed to be equivalent to bombs, disorder or chaos; robbery and murder; a war of all against all; and a return to barbarism of to the wild state of man. Almost half a century later, Zinn (1997a: 645) also wrote: ‘the word anarchy unsettles most people in the Western world; it suggests disorder, violence, uncertainty’. More recently, in a more comprehensive and broad account, Marshall (1993: ix) noted that
Anarchy is terror, the creed of bomb-throwing desperadoes wishing to pull down civilization. Anarchy is chaos, when law and order collapse and the destructive passions of man run riot. Anarchy is nihilism, the abandonment of all moral values and the twilight of reason. This it the spectre of anarchy that haunts the judge’s bench and the government cabinet. In the popular imagination, in our everyday language, anarchy is associated with destruction and disobedience but also with relaxation and freedom. The anarchist finds good company, it seems, with the vandal, iconoclast, savage, brute, ruffian, hornet, viper, ogre, ghoul, wild beast, fiend, harpy and siren.
This brief historical review shows that there are some persistent formulations with regards to the meaning of anarchy and/or anarchism (used here interchangeably). It seems that the mainstream vision is haunted by Hobbesian nightmares about anarchism. It always surprised me that this has been the case and that the dominant formulation has often been associated to chaos, violence and destruction. It surprises me because it is as if the world, throughout the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, has not been violent, destructive and chaotic. In fact, the era running from 1914 up to 1991 has even been labelled ‘the age of extremes’ (Hobsbawm, 1994) and there has never been a time in which chaos has been so profoundly inscribed in socio-political reality. The First World War, the mass impoverishment of the 30s, the rise and dissemination of Nazism and fascism throughout Europe, the Stalinist regime with its ‘gulag archipelago’, The Second World War, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the use of atomic bombs, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the destruction caused by colonial powers in Algeria and Mozambique, tens of thousands killed by death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Argentina, hundreds of thousands of dead in civil wars in Croatia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Liberia, Afghanistan (Harman, 2008), the list is almost endless and keeps pilling up.

Thus, we find ourselves in a conundrum: despite the fact that anarchism is rejected as being a negative and destructive political philosophy, if we apply the mainstream interpretative grid to the reality just described we would have a perfect match. Therefore, either the mainstream vision is correct and, as a result, its advocates should assume that anarchism is not that bad since we already live under anarchist principles of chaos and destruction, or, the mainstream vision is filled with contradictions and fallacious interpretations and what anarchism really stands for is another world, different from the one we have today. Obviously, this is a caricature but one which will hopefully help me to demonstrate, that the mainstream vision differs from the ‘anarchist canon’ in that it fails to see the complexity of the subject, thus reducing it to an over simplistic and narrow understanding based on prejudice and misconception.

1.2. Mainstream anarchist principles
1.2.1. Anarchism is chaos
As we have already seen, popular visions tend to associate anarchism with chaos. In fact, the mainstream discourse often uses both words as synonyms. This raises interesting questions related to the legitimacy of power, its relation to authority, the role of organizations and even about ‘human nature’.

The mainstream vision suggests that government and rulers are always needed. Without them, there would be turmoil and mayhem. As a matter of fact, daily evidence seems to show that people are individualistic, selfish and combative ‘by nature’ and that without rule and coercion things would eventually degenerate into confusion, distress and, ultimately, chaos (Bouchier, 1996). People need rules, orders and obviously rulers able to maintain order, if necessary, through the use of coercion and/or violence.

The failure to understand the necessity of what can be broadly called government also means that the mainstream vision considers that anarchists have a narrow understanding of what human nature is, i.e. they tend to think, rather naively, that human societies can live without authority and coercion. Actually, this does not seem to be the case since the majority of anarchists believe that human beings are products of their own environments, but are also capable of changing them. There is no essential pre-fixed human nature, thus, people become the result of specific and time-space bounded structure-agency articulations.

Moreover, contrarily to the mainstream vision, anarchists do believe that organization is necessary, and, more than that, that it is totally necessary if one wishes to increase the management capacity of complex societies such as our own.

This understanding can be translated into the so called theory of spontaneous order, i.e. ‘the theory that, given a common need, a collection of people will, by trial and error, by improvisation and experiment, evolve order out of the situation – this order being more durable and more closely related to their needs than any kind of externally imposed authority could provide’ (Ward, 2008: 39). Thus, anarchists seem to have no problem with uncertainty and experimentation, both necessary to develop consistent and durable forms of organization. On the other hand, authority and coercion are quite contested making their understanding completely at odds with the mainstream one.

On the whole, it seems that the key misconception that we can find in this mainstream principle is the incapacity to understand the complex relation between authority and organization, perhaps because ‘mainstreamers’ fail to see that organization does not depend on authority. In fact, according to Walter (2002) it seems to work much better without any authority at all. Thus, if we were to re-write this 1st principle we would follow Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and, instead of ‘anarchy is chaos’, we would have ‘anarchy is order’.

1.2.2. Anarchism means violence and destruction
Closely related to the previous principle, this one suggests that anarchism is necessarily associated to violence and destruction. Even today, the old stereotype of the anarchist with a bomb under his cloak still manages to persist. Without denying the historical role of violence in relation to the transformation of specific power relations, what I intend to do here is to show that this understanding fails to grasp contemporary changes in the political praxis of anarchism.

One of the key aspects to take into consideration when discussing this issue is that anarchists have no monopoly of violence. Nevertheless, it is true that many have used violence to help them destroy the current system. As Walter (ibid: 45) said ‘there is a dark side to anarchism, and there is no point denying it’.

According to Uri Gordon (2005) there has been a change in the anarchism-violence nexus. Whereas in the past anarchist political praxis was often associated to armed mass insurrection, assassination of heads of state, industrialists and other members of the affluent class, nowadays, anarchist violence is almost exclusively mentioned in the context of violent protests and demonstrations. Frequently these are related to police confrontations and/or destruction of property. This qualitative transformation of violence is a result of wider relational transformations between socio-political contexts and anarchist praxis.

From the anarchist point of view, and I believe this constitutes another key aspect differentiating both visions, violence is not an absolute concept, i.e. it has to be considered in relation to the socio-political contexts in which it may operate. In simple terms, the violence of the oppressor is not the violence of the oppressed, i.e. one is legitimate and the other is not. On the other hand, the mainstream vision makes an immediate association between violence and anarchism, regardless of the contextual relations. Obviously, this makes it blind to specific relational contexts in which the use of violence may be legitimate.

1.2.3. Anarchism is antithetical to developed societies
This principle is qualitatively different from the previous two. Whereas these were clearly negative towards anarchism per se, this one, in line with what was said before, reduces anarchism to a rather simple and puerile radical political philosophy. This is not to say that this principle is less harmful to anarchism, although its subtleness does seem to make it easier to recognize as being true.

Basically, this principle suggests that it is possible to ‘imagine [anarchism] existing in a small, isolated, primitive community [but] it cannot possibly be conceived in the context of large, complex, industrial societies’ (Ward, 2008: 57). I believe that it has two basic flaws: on the one hand it, fails to see the linkages between anarchism and societal and technological development (see Castells, 2005), on the other hand, it commits an anthropological hara-kiri as it completely neglects the complexity of the so called ‘primitive communities’.

In this respect, Graeber (2004) seeks to ‘blow up the wall’ separating us (i.e. the ‘dominant species’) from others, by asking, from an anthropological point of view, ‘what makes us so special?’. In other words, he asks why do we still believe in the modernist, and I would add Eurocentric, assumption that there are fundamental moral, social and political differences between us and, for instance, the Piaroa, the Tiv, the Dinka or the rural Malagasy?

Therefore, what distinguishes the anarchist vision from the mainstream one is the fact that whereas the former is able to consider the possibilities and the socio-political experiments conducted by ‘others’ and is willing to translate and incorporate them into its own formulations and projects, the later, dismisses them has being too naïve, simple and primitive.

All in all, the sense we get is that whereas the mainstream model attempts to solve its problems ‘by fusion, amalgamation, rationalization and coordination’ (Ward, 2008: 67), the anarchist alternative is that of ‘fragmentation, fission rather than fusion, diversity rather than unity, a mass of societies rather than a mass society’ (ibid.).
1.2.4. Anarchism is a utopia
Finally, I will deal with the mainstream argument saying that anarchist principles are utopian, i.e. they will never be fulfilled because they are not realistic, overtly idealistic and sometimes mere fantasies. To this, anarchists would most probably answer that ‘nothing is more utopian than trusting representatives from the owning class to solve the problems caused by their own dominance, and nothing more impotent than accepting their political system as the only possible system’ (CrimethInc, 2008b).

This rejection is clearly targeted at those who think that utopias are representations of perfect societies, with no conflicts or mistakes, while being managed by perfect people (Price, n.d.). In a sense, this represents a strongly conservative stance very similar to the famous Margaret Thatcher motto ‘there is no alternative left’. It is almost as if the human capacity to think and act creatively should be reduced to an instrumental and pragmatic sense of reality.

Anarchists tend to dismiss this kind of visions as being less important than real transformational praxis. Instead, they tend to perceive utopias as dynamic processes and not as static places, thus the refusal to elaborate blueprints or to sketch rigid models of society (Amster, 2009; Seyferth, 2009). As a matter of fact, for most anarchists the question is not whether or not anarchism is possible but whether it is possible to widen the scope of influence of its principles.

This understanding underlined Daniel Guérin’s (1970: 41) argument that ‘anarchism [was] not utopian’ because it was constructive, i.e. based on a consistent historical analysis of society. In addition he also believed that, although constrained by hegemonic power structures, anarchist principles were still performed in the interstices of power. As CrimethInc (2008a) suggests, ‘being an anarchist doesn’t mean believing anarchy, let alone anarchism, can fix everything—it just means acknowledging it’s up to us to work things out, that no one and nothing else can do this for us: admitting that, like it or not, our lives are in our hands—and in each others’.

Instead of looking at utopia with the sense of incapacity which characterizes the mainstream perspective, anarchists are imbued with a sense of agency animating their political praxis.
2. No Gods, no Masters: what does anarchism really stands for?
Now that I have deconstructed some of the key tenets of the mainstream vision on anarchism, it is time to state what, at least to my understanding, anarchism really is. However, one should bear in mind, that it does not constitute a fixed and ossified terrain but a rather dynamic and fluid one. As a result, this personal interpretation should be seen as representing a necessarily incomplete portrait of such a wide and complex political philosophical perspective.

Moreover, I would argue that it is not possible to follow anarchist roots without noticing that they are arranged in a network fashion, i.e. a multiplicity of perspectives coexists, becoming dominant within specific historical and political contexts. Thus, historically, anarchism ‘presents the appearance, not of a swelling stream flowing on to its sea of destiny...but rather of water percolating through porous ground – here forming for a time a strong underground current, there gathering into a swirling pool, trickling through crevices, disappearing from sight, and then reemerging where the cracks in the social structure may offer it a course to run’ (Woodcock 1962: 15).

As a result of that discontinuity, anarchism can almost be seen as a dynamic polyhedric assuming several shapes throughout its relatively long history. Moreover, in general terms, it can also be argued that the anarchist influence has always emerged and been stronger during times of socio-political unrest and discontentment. Therefore, anarchist influence could almost be seen as a way to measure societal transformation.

This section has two main objectives: i) briefly present different types of anarchist traditions in order to capture their common traits, i.e. the foundational principles of anarchism as a whole; ii) based on the just mentioned principles, build and examine the vision-goals nexus.

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