December 10, 2010


The State of Statelessness : a review of Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination by Benedict Anderson and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott (Henry Farrell, Jan/Feb 2011, American Interest)

While anarchism still inspires political action, anarchists do rather little to organize that action into a larger program for change. Like other activists, they have taken advantage of the Internet to organize protests, but the Internet is no substitute for a directed organization. It can create solidarities and facilitate simple forms of collective action, such as raising money or turning up in the same place for a protest. But it cannot easily sustain complex activities that require long-term commitments. Here, in particular, the Internet actually accentuates some of anarchism’s inherent weaknesses.

Unlike its great competitor, Marxism, anarchism was never associated with a coherent program of political change. While there were influential anarchist theorists, such as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, they tended to be non-systematic thinkers and to have highly romantic theories of politics. In some instances, this romanticism slipped into an indiscriminate enthusiasm for the emancipatory power of violence, a notion famously taken up by Georges Sorel. Most strains of modern anarchism do not emphasize violence, but they still do not provide a coherent strategy to provoke the radical changes that they would like to see. Noam Chomsky represents a broader pattern: While he is extremely specific in his criticisms of the “world system” that the Western industrialized powers have created, he has little to say about how best to replace it, let alone what to replace it with.1

Understanding anarchism today requires a better understanding of its past. Just such an understanding is provided in Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags and James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Both authors are academic sympathizers of sorts, but neither aims specifically to revive anarchism as a political force (although Anderson is a little more hopeful than Scott about its future possibilities). Rather, they tease out the historical role of anarchism before the onset of late modernity by taking two very different routes. Anderson’s anarchism lies in the 19th-century social milieu that gave birth to Angiolillo’s assassination of the Spanish Prime Minister and helped sustain a variety of nationalist insurrections. It is a crucial moment in the historical development of the modern state, when subversive newspapers, letters and novels helped build and sustain collective indignation at the viciousness of the colonial powers’ behavior abroad and their repressive regimes at home. Scott’s anarchism is more profound, but also far more difficult to recreate: It alights in the space of possibilities that surrounded nascent states before they were fully assured in their power.

Anderson’s political sympathies are complex. He is a former Marxist who lost belief in the explanatory power of Marxian materialism when the Soviet Union and China began to behave toward each other as states rather than as fellow participants in a global struggle for the liberation of the working class. He suffers from what Ernest Gellner once cruelly but aptly described as the “Wrong Address” theory of nationalism, under which History was supposed to confer group consciousness and solidarity upon Class, yet somehow ended up delivering it to Nationality instead. Unlike many of his fellow sufferers, however, Anderson clearly recognizes his ailment. Under Three Flags is perhaps intended as a cure in that it tries to show how nationalist sympathies and anarchists’ concern with class injustice can work together rather than against each other.

They're both driven by hate, you just have to get them to both hate the same foe and they can work "together".

Enhanced by Zemanta
Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2010 6:04 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus