Anarchist economics


by Uri Gordon

 It cannot be enough to criticize capitalism, even from a distinctly anarchist point of view. Nor will it do to merely construct models of free and equal economic arrangements, no matter how inspiring and realistic. In addition to these, the discussion of anarchist economics must also involve a look at ways of getting from here to there. In other words, it requires that we examine anarchist economics in terms of concrete, present-day practices and assess their role within the more general context of anarchist revolutionary strategy.

In this chapter I attempt to initiate such a discussion, by surveying and examining the significance of the actual economic practices undertaken by anarchists and their allies today. In what ways are anarchists organizing to engage in economic practices that depart from the conventional, profit-oriented capitalist economy? What challenges and opportunities do anarchist economies confront in the contemporary landscape of social struggle? And to what degree do they serve as a meaningful contribution to revolutionizing society and replacing capitalism with non-hierarchical, unalienated forms of production and exchange?

In what follows, I begin by examining various economic practices that anarchists display in their everyday organizing, which can be meaningfully understood as a form of resistance to capitalism. I then attempt to situate these practices within the context of several key contemporary terms in anarchist revolutionary thought: direct action, propaganda by the deed, and the politics of collapse. To be sure, most anarchists also regularly participate in the conventional economy – working for wages, purchasing goods and paying for services. Yet what interests us here are the kinds of practices that anarchists undertake as against these prevalent modes of production, consumption and exchange.

Before turning to a survey of the various types of economic practice in which anarchists engage, there is a preliminary point to be made about the broad choice of examples. Some readers may object to the inclusion of certain examples, arguing that they do not in fact qualify as anarchist. Alternative currencies and workers’ cooperatives, for example, would receive criticism from anarcho-communists since they retain, respectively, the use of symbolic means of exchange and the payment of wages. Thus they are not only islands inside capitalism, but also not sufficiently prefigurative of an anarchist-communist society – one in which there are no wages, and products are not exchanged but distributed according to need. Similarly, anarchists who strongly endorse the primitivist critique of civilization would almost certainly object to most of the examples given here, since they continue to be anchored in domestication and rationality.

There is certainly substance to these objections. Nevertheless, I have chosen to keep the tent as wide as possible, if only for the reason that readers new to anarchism and less familiar with its internal controversies deserve to be introduced to the entire variety of practices that broadly fall within its sphere and left to make up their own minds. More generally, however, I would like to emphasize that the entire discussion of anarchist economics in practice must necessarily take place under the lens of imperfection and experimentation. This has to do with the distinction that Terry Leahy makes between purist and hybrid strategies, that is, between strategies that completely embody anarchist ideals and ones which continue to rely on aspects of capitalism (Leahy 2004). Hybrid strategies have always been part of the anarchist repertoire of social resistance; yet the relevant question is whether hybrid strategies are viewed as already embodying the end-point of desired social change (that is, a reformed capitalist system), or as necessary but temporary compromises with the ubiquity of capitalist social relations, a stepping-stone towards more comprehensive social change. As Leahy argues,

To an extent hybrid strategies are symbiotic with capitalism. They can be seen as productive for the capitalist class in ameliorating some of capitalism’s excesses. Yet they are also antithetical to the culture and economy of capitalism as a system. Given enough time and enough proliferation they will replace capitalism with something completely different…For those who ultimately want nothing but the best that an anarchist utopia can offer, the thing to do is to be mobile and seize opportunities for hybrids as they arise and move on as they grow stale.

It is in this inclusive and experimental spirit that I offer the following examples. While limitations of space mean that the discussion is necessarily cursory, I have referenced some relevant literature throughout the exposition, and the reader is invited to consult it for further information and analysis.


Varieties of Anarchist Economic Practice


Perhaps better defined as a “non-practice” than as a practice, the term withdrawal here indicates the various ways in which anarchists may abstain from participation in central institutions of the capitalist economy – primarily the wage system and the consumption of purchased goods. The goal of such a strategy is to weaken capitalism by sapping its energy, reducing its inputs in terms of both human labor and cultural legitimation. To be sure, the ubiquity of capitalist relations means that the options for withdrawal remain partial at best. Most of us must work for someone else to survive, and buy necessities that are not otherwise available for acquisition. Nevertheless, there are ways in which participation in capitalism can be significantly reduced, or undertaken on its qualitatively-different margins. Rather than seeking full employment and aspiring to a lifelong career, anarchists can choose to work part-time or itinerantly, earning enough to supply their basic needs but not dedicating more time to waged work than is absolutely necessary – perhaps on the way towards the abolition of work as compulsory, alienated production (cf. Black 1986). In the area of housing, squatting a living space rather than renting one also abstains from participation in capitalism, though this option is less sustainable in most countries since it will almost certainly end in eviction. Anarchists may also reduce their participation in the moneyed circulation of commodities by re-using and recycling durable goods, and by scavenging or growing some of their own food rather than purchasing it from the supermarket (Shantz 2005). Such practices can never by themselves destroy capitalism, since in the final analysis they remain confined to the level of personal lifestyle and rely on capitalism’s continued existence in order to inhabit its margins and consume its surpluses. Nevertheless, strategies of withdrawal do complement other practices in carving out a separate space from capitalism, as well as in expressing a rejection of its ideologies of dedication to the workplace and of consumption as the road to happiness.

Anarchist unions

For the majority of us who cannot escape wage labor, joining an anarchist union can be a useful way to defend our rights and struggle for improved conditions within the capitalist workplace. The largest anarchist labor unions today are in Spain (CNT, CGT) and France (CNT-AIT). In English-speaking countries the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is the most prominent one with about 2,000 members, most of them in the United States but also in Canada, Britain and Australia (Lee and Bekken 2009). Though very small compared to its heyday a century ago, the IWW is very active in several small and mid-sized firms – primarily in the printing, recycling, retail, and social services sectors. In the last decade, it has gained prominence through organizing immigrant warehouse workers in New York City as well as the struggles of its affiliated baristas in the Starbuck’s chain of coffee-shops. Anarchist unions, in the view of their members, are not merely organizations that struggle on workers’ behalf within the capitalist system, but rather part of the radical social movement that seeks its abolition. As the Preamble to the IWW constitution states, the struggle between the working and the employing classes “must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth” (IWW 2009). This is the strategy of anarcho-syndicalism (Rocker 1989), which strives to get the majority of workers in all sectors of the economy to join militant workplace organizations, weakening capitalism through their organized force and building up to a General Strike where the workers would not only halt production to negotiate better conditions, but seize the factories and land to establish an anarchist society with the same workers’ unions now running the economy through democratic planning along with communities.

Workplace and university occupations

Another tactic related to syndicalism in its realization of action “at the point of production” is the workplace occupation. In such actions, workers lock themselves into the factory – either a means of resisting layoffs, or during a strike to prevent the employment of strikebreakers, or, under conditions of more widespread economic crisis and social revolt, in order to take over manufacturing and manage it themselves. Waves of workplace occupations have occurred throughout the past century, most prominently during the 1920 “hot summer” in Italy  (Spriano 1975), the May 1968 events in France (Gregorie and Perlman 1970) and the Argentine rebellion of 2002 (Gutiérrez 2004). Most recently, in the wake of the current financial crisis, a number of factory occupations have already taken place in response to layoffs and plant closures – including the Visteon car factories (formerly Ford) in Britain and Northern Ireland, the Aradco auto parts supplier in Canada, and the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. While these occupations ended in agreements with management to provide the workers with improved severance packages, they also displayed a powerful example of solidarity and indicate a rise in workers’ militancy which can be expected to expand.

Extending the logic of the workplace occupation to the “knowledge factory” (Aronowitz 2001), occupations of universities can also be seen as a form of anarchist economic practice in their resistance to the corporate takeover of higher education and their practices of self-management. University occupations have characterized periods of large-scale protest, as with the May 1968 events in France and the Greek riots of winter 2008 (Inoperative Committee 2009). Most recently, the New School in New York City was occupied in protest of the reorganization policies of its president Bob Kerry, and in Britain over 30 were occupied in protest of the Israeli army’s attack on Gaza.

Cooperatives and communes

Cooperatives are democratically-run associations which can be established for production, consumption or housing. Thus workers’ cooperatives are businesses that are owned and managed by their workers. Unlike normal private firms where decisions on production, spending and pay are made authoritatively by the managers and dictated to the workers, in cooperatives such decisions are made democratically, in meetings where each worker has an equal say. A consumer cooperative is a group of people that comes together to regularly purchase goods (most typically food) in bulk, and thus at reduced cost, later distributing them among the members. Housing cooperatives will typically own a building, with members occupying bedrooms and sharing the communal resources. Cooperatives usually adhere to a set of principles similar to the seven “Rochdale Principles”, adopted in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, an early consumer cooperative in England. In one contemporary version (Radical Routes 2008) these are: open and voluntary membership; equal control amongst members; limited returns on investment as interest or dividends; fair distribution of profits among members; educational and social objectives in addition to commercial ones; cooperation with other cooperatives; and concern for the community. Communes can be viewed as intentional communities that combine the three types of cooperative in one arrangement. Members live together in one house or in separate units in a village, jointly own their productive resources (which can include agricultural land and workshops as well as collectively-owned service businesses or tourist facilities), and collectively manage their consumption. Communes are thus perhaps the most ambitious variant of anarchist economics, since they are settings in which anarchist economics can be practiced comprehensively, in all aspects of daily life, rather than as a specialized activity.

Local currencies

Voluntary, self-managed networks through which participants exchange goods and services without profit or the use of standard national currency have proliferated worldwide in the last two decades. The Complementary Currency Resource Center currently lists 152 such systems in 32 countries, with a total membership of close to 338 thousand people and a yearly volume of trade exceeding 56 million dollars (CCRC 2009). Instead of their national legal tender, such systems use various forms of local currency and credit as an independent means of exchange. These credits, vouchers or notes may be equivalent to the national currency or they may account for a different standard such as a working hour. In English-speaking countries the most common variety is the Local Exchange Trading Scheme (LETS). Each year the members of a LETS receive a directory in which they all advertise the skills and services they offer and their contact details. Each new member receives a number of “credits”, normally equivalent to a working hour, which they can spend or earn by receiving and giving services to other members. Local currencies encourage the consumption of local produce and thus keep wealth circulating within the community rather than being taken away by large corporations. The exchange networks created can also serve to build solidarity and mutual aid in the community. Although such systems are usually not explicitly anti-capitalist and are promoted as complementary to the standard economy rather than as an all-out alternative, anarchists do initiate and participate in such systems as a hybrid strategy.

Food Not Bombs

In these organized events, practiced most widely in the USA, anarchists cook nutritious vegan food and distribute it for free in a public space. The first FNB group was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980 to accompany a campaign against nuclear and other weapons. The practice rapidly proliferated, with over 400 groups active today worldwide. Explicitly presented as an act of protest rather than charity, FNB events promote the idea of food as a basic human entitlement, detached from ability to pay, while at the same time publicly opposing the massive funding of the military and the arms industry at the expense of social needs. According to the movement’s handbook, “the major contribution to stopping bombs is our withdrawal from the economic and political structures of the death culture. As individuals, many of us engage in war-tax resistance; as an organization, we operate outside the dominant economic paradigm. We do not operate for a profit; in fact, we operate with very little money compared with the value of the food we distribute” (Butler and McHenry 2000). Despite their entirely nonviolent nature, FNB events are often subject to repression and arrests, reflecting many municipalities’ hostility to the poor and homeless. In addition to regular events, FNB groups have also supplied food for activist gatherings and protest camps, and have been some of the first to appear on the ground and offer food to the survivors of major disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake and in hurricane Katrina. The network has also been one of the major contributors to popularizing the practice of decision-making by consensus in activist groups.

Free shops and “Really, really free markets”

These are permanent or temporary spaces where goods such as clothes, books, tools, and household items – as well as services from bicycle repair to Tarot reading – can be given and taken without the use of money. Free shops are permanent spaces, usually located in squats and social centers, whereas “really, really free markets” are regular events, usually taking place the last weekend of each month. Both of these initiatives – as well as Food not Bombs – manifest and propagate the idea of a gift economy. Gift economies have been widely studied by anthropologists in the context of tribal and traditional societies, but they are also easily discerned within any family or friendship network (Mauss 1935, Carrier 1991). In gift economies, individuals freely give goods or services to one another without immediately receiving anything in return. Yet by maintaining through their actions the practice of gift-giving, they too can expect to receive gifts themselves as part of a generalized culture of reciprocity. In attempting to launch an entirely different culture of exchange, anarchist practices of gift economy are the most distant from capitalism and do the least to partake in its structures.

DIY cultural production

Anarchism has a long history of association with artistic and countercultural movements, from Dada and abstract expressionism to beat poetry and science fiction (Antliff 2007, MacPhee and Reuland 2007). In more recent decades, a prominent aspect of anarchist involvement in visual arts, theatre and music has been the promotion of a Do-It-Yourself ethos of cultural production. This is an approach to the creation of art and culture as a popular and non-professional activity, independent of corporate interests and the pressures of the capitalist culture industry. As an economic practice, the DIY ethic displays anarchist values of accessibility, community, autonomy and self-sufficiency in cultural production. As a political practice, it is most often accompanied by anarchist messages and social critique, and has been a major inspiration for the rise of contemporary anarchist activism (McKay 1998). Perhaps the most important field in which this approach was developed was the punk movement. Most punk bands start their way by producing their own self-recorded music on independent labels and putting on shows in homes and garages rather than commercial venues. Among punk fans, DIY culture has created a steady stream of amateur fan magazines (known as fanzines or simply ‘zines), which contain reviews of records and shows alongside poetry, comics, articles and recipes, all produced using photocopied and collaged images and a combination of hand-scrawled and typewritten texts (Triggs 2006, Duncombe 2008). Apart from punk music, the DIY ethic is clearly on display in the work of street theatre troupes performing in public spaces, anarchist art collectives who put on exhibitions in squatted venues, and collaborative web design projects online.

The Electronic Commons

Though not by itself an anarchist initiative, commentators have drawn attention to the Internet’s libertarian and communitarian features, particularly “its nonhierarchical structure, low transaction costs, global reach, scalability, rapid response time, and disruption-overcoming (hence censorship-foiling) alternative routing” (Hurwitz 1999). Though there is another side to this coin (e-consumerism, surveillance, social isolation), the decentralized structure of the Internet has given rise to a free informational economy online, based on “commons-based peer production” and “group generalised exchange” (Benkler 2002, Yamagishi and Cook 1993). Contributors to projects such as the GNU/Linux operating system or Wikipedia produce and manipulate information without monetary compensation, motivated instead both by social recognition and the intrinsic enjoyment of their work associated with the “hacker ethic” (Himanen 2001). Many anarchists are active participants in contributing to the development of the electronic commons, and in Europe there is also a developed network of HackLabs – community spaces housing self-assembled computers that offer free internet access and training in programming.


Anarchist Economics and Revolutionary Strategy

Having looked at some concrete examples of anarchist economics as they are practiced today, I move to the second stage of discussion: in what way can such examples be tied to broader anarchist revolutionary goals, and what opportunities and challenges do they face in this context? In order to clarify these questions, I would like to offer three different strategical outlooks under which we can interpret these practices: constructive direct action, propaganda by the deed, and the politics of collapse.

The ethos of direct action, central to anarchist politics, is too often recognized only in its destructive or preventative guise. Thus, for example, anarchists who object to the clear-cutting of an ancient forest will take direct action by chaining themselves to the trees, blockading the bulldozers or sabotaging their operation. This sense of direct action is often invoked in opposition to other courses of action such as petitioning politicians or mounting legal challenges through the courts – a “politics of demand” that extends symbolic legitimacy to the same institutions that anarchists oppose by appealing to them to rectify injustices. Yet direct action also has a creative and constructive aspect, manifest in the practice of anarchist economics in the present tense. Constructive direct action means that anarchists who seek a world based on different social relations undertake their construction by themselves. On such an account, for social change to be successful, the modes of organization that will replace capitalism, the state, patriarchy and so on must be prepared and developed alongside (though not instead of) the attack on present institutions. Therefore, the cooperatives, DIY cultures and gift economies that anarchist practice today can be seen as the groundwork for the realities that will replace capitalism or, to use the familiar Wobbly slogan, as “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” (IWW 2009).

The insight that anarchist economic practices ultimately function within rather than outside capitalism is important in this context. As we have seen in the survey above, most forms of anarchist economic practice are by no means entirely detached from the capitalist economy. Most of them, in fact, can be seen as islands that operate within capitalism, albeit with a different internal logic, and in a constant attempt to eat away at the prevailing system from the inside by propagating and proliferating alternative social relations among people. Contamination is the name of the game, yet the attempt to contaminate capitalism also carries the risk of being contaminated in return, a process of co-optation or, to use the Situationist term, recuperation. Can anarchist economic practices avoid becoming just another form of business enterprise, wherein the financial sustainability of the project gradually comes to take precedence over its political significance? This is not an easy question to answer. Yet as Andy Robinson (2007) comments,

to remain anarchist, an anarchist business operates as a means, as the tool of a flow leading out of the system, never as an end in itself. It may, in a certain sense, be working inside the system, using dominant forms and means; but it should remain outside on the level of intentionality and desire, never reducible to these forms and means, always treating them as strategic choices, as means to be used for a purpose and discarded should they fail to serve it. To be sure, the tightrope of the danger of recuperation is not taken away by conceiving it in such terms…but it is possible to negotiate this risk in more or less creative ways, in ways that are more or less effective in sustaining the insurgent desire in exteriority.

These comments on recuperation occasion two further remarks. The first is to mention that alongside the strategic dimension, anarchist economic practices should be related to the broader ethical commitment among anarchists to a “prefigurative politics” – that is, to using political means that are by themselves an embryonic representation of an anarchist social future. Thus anarchist values are expressed in everyday activities and practices, stressing the realization of egalitarian social relations within the fold of the movement itself, rather than expecting them to only become relevant “after the revolution” (cf. Goldman 1923). The second remark is that an individualist anarchist motivation can be seen at work within constructive direct action, quite separately from its strategical and ethical dimensions. From an individualist point of view, activists participate in anarchist economic practices not only in order to change society, but also simply out of the desire to inhabit such different social relations, and live equally among their comrades rather than conforming to the expectations of capitalist society.

Returning, however, to the strategic dimension, a question immediately presents itself: if the construction of a new society is to be the work of anarchists themselves, then the small number of participants surely means that this is a hopeless prospect. Without transforming current anarchist economic practices into the stuff of a mass movement, they will remain inspiring but insignificant efforts. Can this be overcome?

This brings us to the second prism under which we can view the practice of anarchist economics – that of propaganda by the deed. Despite the ill repute gained by this term, which became narrowly associated with bombings and assassinations in the last decades of the nineteenth century, propaganda by the deed can also be understood more broadly as pointing to the potentially exemplary nature of all anarchist action. On such an account, the most effective form of anarchist propaganda is the actual implementation and display of anarchist social relations. The practice of anarchist economics in a publicly visible manner serves to demonstrate the possibility and desirability of alternative economic arrangements to a wide audience. The living practices of resource-and income-sharing, gift economies and so on may directly inspire people by way of example, and encourage them to take up these practices by themselves. It is easier for people to engage with the idea that people can exist without bosses or leaders when such existence is displayed, if on a limited scale, in actual practice rather than merely argued for on paper. Thus Gandhi’s assertion that “a reformer’s business is to make the impossible possible by giving an ocular demonstration of the possibility in his own conduct” (Gandhi 1925:68). Or, in the words of a commentator on the practice of “Really, really free markets” (CrimethInc. 2009):

Long-term participation in ’Free Markets dispels the materialist programming that makes people covet useless items by denying access to them, and demonstrates just how possible and fulfilling the anarchist alternative is. It also presents a point of departure for further struggles: if this is what we can do with the scanty resources we’re able to get our hands on now, what could we do with the entire wealth of this society?

At the same time, all of these strategies seem to have some inherent limitations. After all, the various anarchist economic practices discussed in this chapter have had a continuous presence in western societies for the past forty years. Still, they do not seem to have precipitated anything like the large-scale social transformation intended. On the one hand, the anarchist movement is so small that even its most consistent and visible efforts are but a drop in the ocean. On the other hand, political elites have proven themselves extremely proficient at pulling the ground from under movements for social change, be it through direct repression and demonization of the activists, diversion of public attention to security and nationalist agendas, or, at best, minimal concessions that ameliorate the most exploitative aspects of capitalism while contributing to the resilience of the system as a whole. It would seem that ethical commitments to social justice and the enhancement of human freedom can only serve as a motivation for a comparatively small number of people, and that without the presence of genuine material interests among large sections of the population there is little hope for a mass movement to emerge that would herald the departure from existing social, economic and political arrangements.


And here we come to the final point: fortunately or unfortunately, the conditions for such motivations seem to be rapidly emerging. The converging crises of the twenty-first century – climate change, financial meltdown and the imminent peak in oil production – may be the only “hope” for large-scale social transformation. As capitalism becomes literally impossible to maintain under conditions of dwindling energy reserves and climate instability, the populations to which the anarchist minority in the West is appealing may finally conclude that a break with the system is in their material interest. Rather than a gradual and piecemeal social change, then, it may be that the tasks of anarchists and their allies is to create the kinds of initiatives that will allow populations to revolutionize the process of industrial collapse. The successful result of such efforts would be neither a continuation of hierarchical social relations in more locally self-sufficient forms (perhaps resembling feudalism more than capitalism), nor yet the deterioration into a “Mad Max” scenario of barbarity and gang warfare, but rather the emergence of qualitatively-different societies in those places where people will have managed both to carve out a significant degree of autonomy and to use that autonomy in order to reconstruct the way they live. Yet there is no guarantee for any of this. The crystal ball remains murky.


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[Thank you Uri for this timely contribution]

The writer is an anarchist theorist and activist teaching at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Ketura, Israel. He has worked with Indymedia, Peoples’ Global Action, and Anarchists Against the Wall. He is also the author of Anarchy Alive!

This piece was first published as “Anarchist Economics in Practice”, in The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics, eds. John Asimakoupolos, Anthony J. Nocella, II and Deric Shannon. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.