ListenLarger documents may require additional load time.
Anarchy: past and present
Anarchist Studies. 18.1 (Spring-Summer 2010): p102+.
Full Text: 

Direct Action: An Ethnography, AK Press 2009, 568pp

David Graeber

ISBN 978-190485979-6, [pounds sterling]22

The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalization Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy, Pluto Press 2009, 284pp

Marianne Maeckelbergh

ISBN 978-0-7453-2925-3, [pounds sterling]17.99

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press 2009, 442pp

John C. Scott

ISBN 978-0-300-15228-9, [pounds sterling]20

The most exciting scholarship relevant to anarchist thought is today found in work of cultural anthropology. Recently published studies focus on two themes: the relationship between state and nonstate social organization and the anarchist prefigurative politics of the alterglobalization movement.

Yale political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Asia recalls Pierre Clastres' Society against the State. (1) This is an insightful history borne of years of careful study. Scott brilliantly describes the tension between state and nonstate social organizations in the Southeast Asian region of Zomia, 'one of the largest remaining nonstate spaces in the world'. (2) He persuasively argues that while today most people live under state control, historically many people deliberately and successfully evaded that control. 'Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a very real option', Scott convincingly demonstrates. (3)

This history is also an account of how the anarchist counter-history of Zomia has been occluded by a state-centric 'civilization narrative'. (4) This narrative codes those beyond state control as 'barbarians', because 'the ethnicized barbarians represent a permanent example of a defiance of central authority [...]. They remain an example--and thus an option, a temptation--of a form of social organization outside state-based hierarchy and taxes'. (5) Scott's anarchist narrative effectively counters the state-endorsed civilization narrative by stressing how fervently egalitarian and autonomous peoples have evaded state control by inhabiting strategic locations and remaining mobile. Concurrently, they practice 'escape agriculture' (6) which focuses on crops that are less easily appropriated, and designed 'social structures of escape', including 'simpler, smaller, and more dispersed social units' which are similarly resistant. (7) By rewriting the history of Zomia from a nonstate standpoint Scott reveals that anarchist social organization has been sought and achieved by innumerable people who prefer autonomy and freedom to the states' compulsory taxes and conscription.

Scholars and laypeople alike who consider anarchy utterly utopian will be surprised by Scott's findings. His history of Zomia, or as he characterizes it 'a fragment of what might properly be considered a global history of populations trying to avoid [...] the state', (8) demonstrates the historical authenticity of anarchist social organization. Committed anarchists will relish this confirmation. But they will also wince at Scott's acquiescence to the inexorable expansion of state power and the concomitant diminution of social organizations existing beyond its reach. 'In the contemporary world, the future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan', Scott writes, 'not evading it'. (9) It is ironic that a study that so effectively demonstrates the success of anarchist organization concludes that it is increasingly anachronistic. Ultimately The Art of Not Being Governed is a work of history, an account of what is past.

One of those who do envision a future beyond the state is Leiden University's lecturer in cultural anthropology Marianne Maeckelbergh. Her The Will of the People: How the Alterglobalization Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy is a provocative work of anarchist thought. The author focuses on the alterglobalization movement and asks: 'What is the movement for?' (10) She predictably answers that it is challenging the theory and practice of neoliberalism. Because this question has been asked and similarly answered by numerous authors over the last decade readers may prematurely dismiss Maeckelbergh's book as unremarkable. But it is remarkable. It is remarkable because the author chooses to concentrate on the anarchistic and radical democratic ethos and overall strategy of 'prefigurative politics' that animates that movement. She explains 'practicing prefigurative politics means removing the temporal distinction between struggle in the present towards a goal in the future; instead the struggle and the goal, the real and the ideal, become one in the present.' (11) Maeckelbergh's ethnography chimes with anarchist thought when she concludes that the alterglobalization movement 'is not a prefiguration of an ideal society or type of community or abstract political ideology; it is a prefiguration of a process, a prefiguration of a horizontal decentralised democracy, which is at once a goal and a current practice of the movement.' (12)

Thus the book focuses on one core element of the alterglobalization movement: the process of collective decision-making. In so doing, the author identifies six practices associated with that process: prefiguration, consensus/conflict, horizontality, diversity, democracy and connectivity. Among these practices horizontality, a 'less hierarchical networked relationships of decision-making and organising structures that actively attempt to limit power inequalities', receives the most attention. (13) On this point, Maeckelbergh correctly notes, the 'influence of anarchism' is most apparent. (14) Yet it is her account of how alterglobalization activists endeavour to collapse the past and future of radical democratic theory into a radical democratic present is the most noteworthy aspect of the study. Her emphasis transforms the widespread representation of reactive anti-globalization protestors into a proactive alterglobalization movement whose participants endeavour to channel their energy into the creation of a movement which resists neoliberalism by creating an anarchist way of life here and now. Maeckelbergh is understandably reluctant to formulate a theory of the alterglobalization movement. Yet her study would benefit from more theory. The examples she cites to further her argument are less compelling than they might be because they are not integrated into an explanatory theoretical framework.

One might similarly critique London University's anthropologist/activist David Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography. Here we find over five hundred pages of always insightful, often gripping, and sometimes humorous, observer-participant accounts and analyses of participation in the alterglobalization movement. Graeber asserts that his ethnography is 'not [...] designed to advocate a single argument or theory'. (15) Graeber, a serious anarchist, is conscious of the dangers associated with trying to realize a theory by force. His recent books, A Fragment of an Anarchist Anthology and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, attest to this. (16) He eschews such attempts by not presenting a theory of anarchy; nor does he construct a hypothetical anarchist society, but similarly to Maeckelbergh offers ethnography replete with exemplars of practice illustrating how sundry forms of direct action prefigure anarchist society. Do not spend your time merely imagining an anarchist future, he intimates, live it now.

The book is divided into two parts. The first recounts Graeber's involvement--mostly in diary form--with anarchist groups including the Direct Action Network (DAN) and its 2001 Summit of the Americas protests in Quebec City. While there are nuggets of insight to be found in this sprawling journal, it might have been pared down with no loss of impact. The second part functions as an analysis of the actions recounted in the first part. Graeber describes the process of the New York City DAN group meetings in revelatory detail. He also offers a wonderful list of inspired direct actions (e.g. affinity groups, bicycle parades, billboard improvement, classroom takeover, etc). He continues by discussing how these actions are problematically represented in the corporate media, how anarchists have responded, and the resultant 'mythological warfare' between the two. The concluding chapter considers 'political ontologies of the imagination', which is shorthand for thinking about how the world might be, rather than accepting the increasingly state-centred world that is.

The heart of the book, both philosophically and literally, is chapter 7: 'Direct Action, Anarchism, Direct Democracy'. Here readers find an outstanding conceptual differentiation of 'direct action' and 'civil disobedience' and, furthermore, a persuasive explanation why the practice of the former is a tactic properly associated with anarchy. As Graeber explains, 'direct action represents a certain ideal [...]. It is a form of action in which means and ends become effectively indistinguishable; a way of actively engaging with the world to bring about change, in which the form of the action [...] is itself a model for the change that one wishes to bring about.' (17) Echoing Maeckelbergh, Graeber's ethnography confirms that at the core of contemporary anarchy are the ideals of prefigurative politics and direct democracy.

These are powerful ideals that may enable anarchists to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle characteristic of all organizations: the 'iron law of oligarchy' famously described by Robert Michels. (18) This may be the most significant theoretical insight of Maeckelbergh's and Graeber's studies. But also analogous to Maeckelbergh's study, Graeber supplies no substantive theoretical framework from which to appreciate the magnitude of this insight. This is somewhat frustrating.

As Scott persuasively argues, the spaces on earth where state power does not extend are rapidly vanishing. Yet, after reading these exceptional books one is likely to agree with all three authors that the state is not the only possible form of social organization. It appears that another world beyond the state is possible, but only if we actively choose that option and are willing to work towards its actualization. Many have already made that choice. Scott effectively shows us what was possible in the past. But Maeckelbergh and Graeber encourage us to imagine not only what a stateless, radical-democratic, anarchist world may look like in the future, but rather to see what it already looks like in the present.


(1.) Pierre Clastres, Society against the State (New York: Zone Books, 1989 [1974]).

(2.) Scott, p.13.

(3.) Scott, p.9.

(4.) See Scott, pp.119-26.

(5.) Scott, p.125.

(6.) Scott, p.187 ff.

(7.) Scott, p.207 ff.

(8.) Scott, p.328.

(9.) Scott, p.324.

(10.) Maeckelbergh, p.4.

(11.) Maeckelbergh, p.66.

(12.) Maeckelbergh, p.94.

(13.) Maeckelbergh, p.69.

(14.) Maeckelbergh, p.70.

(15.) Graeber, p.vii.

(16.) David Graeber, A Fragment of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004); Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2007).

(17.) Graeber, Direct Action, p.210.

(18.) Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1966 [1910]). Michels argued that all organizations that claim to be democratic inevitably fall under the control of ruling elite.

Jeffrey D. Hilmer

University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Hilmer, Jeffrey D. "Anarchy: past and present." Anarchist Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 2010, p. 102+. Book Review Index Plus, Accessed 17 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A237066796