Anarchy and autonomy: Contemporary social movements, theory, and practice

By Jeff Shantz

In an earlier article (Shantz 1998), written almost three years before the dramatic anarchist interventions during the Seattle WTO meetings of 1999, I suggested that theories of social movements were ill-suited either for understanding or even appreciating the innovative practices and ideas then being undertaken by anarchists in North America.  That article, and a series of follow-up articles, predicted the return of anarchist movements to a place of great importance within anti-capitalist struggles and offered the view that sociological movement analysis would largely be taken by surprise by the development (Shantz, 1999a; 1999b).

Unfortunately, in the years following Seattle change has been slow in coming for social movement analyses that might properly understand the political practices and visions of anarchism and their significance in the development of political movements, particularly within North America.  Former Yale anthropologist David Graeber (2002: 61) uses rather bracing terms to discuss the gap that exists between social movement activists and analysts in the social sciences:

It’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners.  Writers who for years have been publishing essays that sound like position papers for vast social movements that do not in fact exist seem seized with confusion or worse, dismissive contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging.  It’s particularly scandalous in the case of what’s still, for no particularly good reason, referred to as the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, one that has in a mere two or three years managed to transform completely the sense of historical possibilities for millions across the planet.  This may be the result of sheer ignorance, or of relying on what might be gleaned from such overtly hostile sources as the New York Times; then again, most of what’s written even in progressive outlets seems largely to miss the point – or at least, rarely focuses on what participants in the movement really think is most important about it.

In even more provocative terms Graeber (2002: 61) goes on to suggest that part of this gap relates to a conscious refusal on the part of some social scientists to engage with the ideas and practices of anarchism.

Much of the hesitation, I suspect, lies in the reluctance of those who have long fancied themselves radicals of some sort to come to terms with the fact that they are really liberals: interested in expanding individual freedoms and pursuing social justice, but not in ways that would seriously challenge the existence of reigning institutions like capital or state.  And even many of those who would like to see revolutionary change might not feel entirely happy about having to accept that most of the creative energy for radical politics is now coming from anarchism – a tradition that they have hitherto mostly dismissed – and that taking this movement seriously will necessarily also mean a respectful engagement with it.

There has been, for the most part, a disconnection between studies and theories of social movements and studies and theories of direct action.  Similarly, interest in movement strategies and tactics has taken a back seat to studies of movement organizations and resources, ideological frames or broader political processes or contexts (Schock, 2005).

Schock (2005) notes that the weaknesses of social movement scholarship might be addressed by drawing upon insights from the literature on direct action, which has, unfortunately, remained largely beyond the purview of social movement scholars.  The primary reason for this lack of engagement between the two literatures is, according to Schock (2005), the fact that the literature on direct action draws on anarchist and Gandhian theories and philosophies that remain peripheral to mainstream sociology.  At the same time, the academic literature on social movements draws heavily on Marxist theories and philosophies that are central to mainstream sociology and which privilege macro-structural analysis.  Such theories also tend to emphasize the role of violence in social change, while overlooking the everyday activities that build the social or community groundwork in periods before revolutionary uprisings.  Schock (2005) also notes that much of the literature on direct action is directed at activists rather than academics.  This has left a gap between what he identifies as the instrumental-normative discourse of the direct action literature and the social scientific discourse of the social sciences.

In order to address this situation, with an eye toward developing alternative approaches to social movement analysis, it is important to look at the context in which new movements are emerging, especially the shifting social relations experienced in the transformation from Keynesian to neo-liberal capitalism.  It is also necessary to examine the various ways in which activists have responded, and are responding, to these changing, and changed, conditions and the innovations they are constructing in terms of movement organizations and repertoires of action, as well as their development of values and ideas, strategies and tactics.

In attempting to re-think social movements in the current context I focus on overlooked or under-appreciated tactics, practices and forms of organizing that have been central to recent movement development and which pose important challenges to conventional thinking about politics.  The key principles of contemporary movements that I identify and examine in the following sections of this work are affinity-based organizing, self-valorization, as discussed in autonomist Marxism, and do-it-yourself (DIY) politics, as developed in anarchist and punk movements.  Taken together these aspects of movement practice express a striving for autonomy and self-determination rather than a politics of dissent or demand.

Keynesianism and the sociology of social movements

Theories of social movements must become attuned to the specifics of the current context and prepared to recognize the new movements and antagonisms that are only now emerging in North America.  These movements necessitate a rethinking of the social movement theorizing typical of Keynesian sociology.  To begin that rethinking it is useful to examine the contextual shift signaled at the level of state-society relations by transformations from a Keynesian social citizenship state to a neo-liberal crisis state.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the threat of militant working-class movements pushed advanced capitalist societies to shift from a Rights State, in which government activity was limited largely to securing the conditions for the free market, to the social citizenship state, or what some autonomist Marxists call a Planner State.  Movements in response to the “insecurity of access to the means of survival for citizens” (Del Re, 1996: 102) pushed the state to assume expanded responsibilities for the population.  The social citizenship, or Planner State “administratively distributes legality so as to reintegrate the underprivileged classes within the fiction of a guaranteed community in exchange for renouncing the virtual subversiveness of difference” (Illuminati, 1996: 175).  Under the Planner State the reproduction of labour power was managed by the state through the institutional networks of schools, hospitals, welfare programs and unemployment provisions (Dyer-Witheford, 1999).  This is the general framework of what has come to be understood as the welfare state.

These structures of welfare under Fordist relations were based on the logic of “the reproduction of the norm of the wage relationship” (Vercellone, 1996: 84).  Welfare state provisions and the distribution of social services, such as social assistance, social security, and public health represent a form of income (Del Re, 1996: 101).  Part of this is a crucial shift from the sphere of production to the sphere of reproduction “where what is guaranteed and controlled (without direct links to production but nonetheless aimed at it) is the reproduction of individuals” (Del Re, 1996: 101).

Most social movement analyses in North American sociology are largely confined to the forms of the Keynesian state and those movements which emerged during the epoch of Keynesianism (or the first years of its demise).  This leads to a restricted focus, as in much social movement analysis, upon statist or reformist or integrative movements and strategies.  “Protesting by using the language of rights obviously means asking the State’s permission for protection.  ‘Rights’ are invoked, contested, distributed, and protected, but also limited and appointed by the law” (Del Re, 1996: 107).  Mainstream social movement theories give attention to structures, organizations and practices that are relatively effective for making such rights based demands upon states or for gaining recognition or legitimacy for marginalized or “excluded” identities.  All of this reflects the priorities of state-centric or integrationist politics or what has been called a politics of demand.

Craig A. Rimmerman (2001) discusses the assimilationist “civil rights strategy” that many postwar movements have adopted.  These movements focus primarily on reforming the legal system to protect their constituency or identity group, gaining political access and increasing acceptance so that members might integrate into mainstream society (Rimmerman, 2001).  This approach to social justice seeks to assimilate people into an inherently oppressive system founded on exploitation.  Rather than a fight for the abolition of oppressive social institutions the focus is on a fight for recognition and inclusion within those institutions.  It also neglects to acknowledge that equal opportunity means something quite different than liberation (Rimmerman, 2001: 56).  The civil rights strategy that has been adopted by so many movements and movement theorists prioritizes people gaining the equal opportunity to be exploited, which might, of course, represent a real temporary gain but is also certainly confined within a logic that allows for the reproduction and extension of the very processes that allow for exclusion in the first place.

None of which is to dismiss or reject the significance of such movements.  Rather it is a question of emphasis and the recognition of a need to understand the important emerging movements that are mobilizing, and have mobilized, according to different political priorities and for which mainstream sociological theories are less appropriate.  Recognizing these limits, emerging political movements have turned away from the politics of demand with its symbolic demonstration or marches, and towards a politics of autonomy.1

In many cases people do not have access to resources, in money or technology, that are deemed necessary for movement success.  This is true of all situations where class inequality exists.  Because of this, among other reasons, people resort to non-conventional forms of political action (Brym, 1998: 346).  The last twenty years have been marked by the emergence of a wide and diverse range of social and political uprisings that have suggested important innovations in the strategies and tactics of radical movements for social change.  Even more these movements have raised interesting questions about the character of what might be understood as revolutionary activity.

The emergence of crisis states

The vast social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, including the struggles of the new social movements, began to corrode the basis of the Planner State. “Movements of workers, the unemployed, welfare recipients, students and minority groups began to make demands on the vast system of social administration that transgressed the limits set by capitalist logic” (Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 101). These various and often overlapping cycles of struggle elicited multiple responses from the constituted authorities of state and capital.  As Dyer-Witheford suggests: “In the realm of government, the Planner State is replaced by the ‘Crisis State’ – a regime of control by trauma” (1999: 76).  Under the Crisis State, the state governs fundamentally by planning or, more commonly, simply allowing crises within the subordinate classes.  Dyer-Witheford (1999: 76) suggests that the post Fordist phase, in which the Fordist organization of the social factory is dismantled “must be understood as a technological and political offensive aimed a decomposing social insubordination.”

The Crisis State emerges as part of shifting forms of accumulation, notably the projects of capitalist globalization “in which certain sectors throughout the world, capital is moving away from dependence on large-scale industries toward new forms of production that involve more immaterial and cybernetic forms of labor, flexible and precarious networks of employment, and commodities increasingly defined in terms of culture and media” (Hardt, 1996: 4).  This might be called “the post-modernization of production.”   These new forms of production marked a radical break from the Fordist arrangement of mass concentrations of labor power and have impacted the conditions under which opposition movements might be expected to emerge and the types of strategies and practices they might be encouraged to undertake.

Recent transformations to bring the state more in line with the needs of global capital have led to the emergence of what might be called a “crisis state”2 which claims to be feeble in the face of global forces while flexing its muscles against the poor and oppressed.  Ruling elites have been hard at work removing reforms won from capital, through great struggles, over the past century.  Social programs continue to be dismantled with cuts to health care and public education, the introduction of new anti-labour legislation, restrictions upon social assistance (and workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance), and “loosened” environmental regulations being among the more familiar minarchist initiatives.  Rather than offering a “safety net” or some manner of “social security,” these policies create various crises within the working classes of Western industrial nations, crises which undermine attempts to expand demands for services or to resist transformations which favour capital.

Notably these policies have been embraced by mainstream political parties of both the Left and the Right.  In the U.S., for example, the Democratic Party has routinely adopted positions quite similar to the Republicans on matters such as welfare, affirmative action and NAFTA.  One sees similar shifts in Britain and Australia under so-called Labour governments.  In response to this convergence, anarchists refer to the “Republicrats,” signifying their belief that there is no difference between these parties of the ruling classes.  Anarchists mobilize against Republicrat policies which advocate building more prisons and developing tougher sentencing practices including mandatory terms.  For anarchists such policies appeal only to “racist crime hysteria” (Subways, 1996: 11) and sentiments which demonize the poor.

These “crisis state” transformations have given shape to an austerity politics with the conversion of the Welfare State into a penal state, the primary function of which is understood to serve as a law and order mechanism.  Worthy social services now include boot camps, “workfare”, changes to Young Offenders legislation, and violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and contravention of previously recognized rights to freedom of speech and assembly.  Dismantling of the Welfare State, without simultaneously developing adequate alternatives, has meant an increase in poverty and more extreme disparities between rich and poor (Heider, 1994).  These conditions have been ideologically justified through a vigorous redeployment of laissez-faire discourses.  The broken record of neo-liberal policies, in harmony with manipulated debt “crises” and a chorus of pleas for competitiveness, have provided the soundtrack for the current box office smash, “Return to 19th-Century Capitalism.”

Lines of affinity

Among the most notable forms of resistance recently have been the variety of “new poor people’s movements that have emerged since from the late 1980s to today in response, partly, to the intensifying destruction of social safety nets” (Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 103).  Significantly, these movements have refused confinement within the parameters of actions or activism considered appropriate for “responsible citizens.”  Beyond the practices of civil disobedience characteristic of many new social movements, these new poor people’s movements have developed and practiced a diverse repertoire of “uncivil practices.”  These movements are engaged in projects to develop democratic and autonomous communities/social relations beyond political representation and hierarchy. The political significance of their politics is found less in the immediate aims of particular actions or in the immediate costs to capital and the state but “more in our creation of a climate of autonomy, disobedience and resistance” (Aufheben, 1998: 107).

Contemporary movements for autonomy, of which anarchists are a major part, take a critical stance with regard to the statism of both the revolutionary left and the more reformist social movements.  For anarchists, both so-called revolutionary and so-called reformist positions converge around a representational politics that substitutes a generally hierarchical and authoritarian form of organization for a politics of self-determination and autonomy. As the editors of the libertarian communist newspaper Aufheben suggest: “What both leftist and eco-reformist positions have in common is that they both look outside ourselves and our struggles for the real agent of change, the real historical subject: leftists look to ‘the party’ while eco-reformists look to parliament” (1998: 106).

Key aspects of movements such as anarchism include an emphasis on autonomy and the construction of alternative social structures (Hardt, 1996). Through the daily experiences of “thoroughgoing struggle” these movements constitute  “a positive pointer to the kind of social relations that could exist: no money, the end of exchange values, communal living, no wage labour, no ownership of space” (Aufheben, 1998: 110). Autonomist Marxists refer to these radical and participatory forms of democracy which thrive “outside the power of the State and its mechanisms of representation” as a constituent power, “a free association of constitutive social forces” (Hardt, 1996: 5-6).

For many contemporary anarchists, including prominent commentators such as Richard Day and David Graeber, those who conceive of theory as a struggle against power work according to a logic of affinity rather than a logic of hegemony.  This logic of affinity, which includes inter-subjective reasoning as one of its modes, also involves typically discounted affects such as passion, strategy, rhetoric and style (Day, 2001: 23).

This mode of shared decision-making in a terrain of undecidability, this kind of community, cannot take the form of a Sittlichkeit, or even a multicultural civitas.  It cannot, in fact, be a community at all as these are currently conceived. Rather, individuals and groups linked by affinities that are temporary and always shifting are best seen as examples of what Giorgio Agamben has called “coming” communities (Day, 2001: 23).

In my view glimpses of these coming communities, are already here, prefigured in the bund or affinity groups and heterotopias of contemporary anarchism. As Epstein (2001: 10) and others suggest:

This anarchist form of organization makes it possible for groups that disagree in some respects to collaborate in regard to common aims.  At the demonstrations in Quebec City in May 2001, affinity groups formed sectors defined by their willingness to engage in or tolerate violence, ranging from those committed to nonviolence to those intending to use “unconventional tactics.”  This structure made it possible to incorporate groups which otherwise would not have been able to participate in the same demonstration.

This non-centralized and adaptive form of organization allows for an inclusive movement that is open to a diversity of tactics, perspectives and goals.  This is an important aspect of organizing in a post-Fordist context as participants eschew the more stable forms of organization such as unions or community groups in favour of a flexible and variable coming together of generally small affinity groups.

Hetherington (1992: 92) suggests that the emergence of such groups relates to two specific processes: “the deregulation through modernization and individualization of the modern forms of solidarity and identity” and the “recomposition into ‘tribal’ identities and forms of sociation.”  Transformations in capitalist economies encourage reflexive forms of individualism which are not easily referred to such structural characteristics as class.

These non-ascriptive ‘neo-Tribes’ as Maffesoli calls them, are inherently unstable and not fixed by any of the established parameters of modern society; instead they are maintained through shared beliefs, styles of life, an expressive body-centredness, new moral beliefs and senses of injustice, and significantly through consumption practices (Hetherington, 1992: 93).

It is suggested by Hetherington that the concept Bund, expressing an intense form of solidarity which is highly unstable and which requires ongoing maintenance through symbolic interaction, better expresses the character of these forms of sociation than does community.  Active involvement in anarchist projects provides participants with important experiences and lessons in solidarity, mutual aid and collective action, all cornerstones of anarchist politics.

According to Epstein (2001: 2) the anarchist practice “combines both ideology and imagination, expressing its fundamentally moral perspective through actions that are intended to make power visible (in your face) while undermining it.” For anarchists, the convergence between ideology and organization is crucial.

It is not opposed to organization.  It is about creating new forms of organization.  It is not lacking in ideology.  Those new forms of organization are its ideology.  It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.  Ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole (Graeber, 2002: 70).

Anarchist tactics, such as black blocs, exhibit another characteristic of bund, as described by Epstein (2001: 2) who suggests that “today’s anarchist activists draw upon a current of morally charged and expressive politics.”  This moral approach to politics is expressed through a focus on tactics of direct action.  As Graeber (2002: 62) suggests, direct action tactics like the black bloc are symbolic of the “rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state [and capitalist] power.”

Beyond affinity

Recent celebrations of the supposed newness of anarchist affinity groups, as offered especially by Richard Day and David Graeber, neglect important debates and developments within actual anarchist projects.  They also fail to contextualize affinity as itself a contested and varied aspect of broader practices and relations that are engaged in what might be called anti-systemic struggles.  Thus neither Graeber nor Day offer much engagement with critics who offer cautions about the limits of uncritical celebrations of affinity-based lifestyles within contemporary anarchism.  Similarly they have little to say about the renewal of explicitly class struggle oriented forms of anarchism that have emerged recently as contemporary anarchists come up against limits in the politics of affinity.  Thus, where class struggle anarchism, or anarchist communism, is addressed at all, Graeber, explicitly and Day, implicitly, relegate these manifestations of anarchist organizing to the status of anachronistic holdover from a so-called “old anarchism” (see Graeber, 2002).

Affinity, which because of its playful and affective expression within anarchist movements has gained the most attention from recent anarchist theorists, especially those informed by sociological and anthropological perspectives, is perhaps not even the most significant aspect of contemporary anarchist politics.  While affinity is crucial in developing networks and cycles of struggle, clearly in terms of contesting state and capital, affinity is not enough.

Much of new social movement theory, including the new anarchist social science, is based on a premise that capitalist societies have entered a “post-modern” age in which conflict over class has given way to cultural issues. Certainly the class locations of participants within recent social movements (especially students and radical youth) and the issues raised by those movements (environmentalism, gay and lesbian rights, feminism) have posed a compelling challenge to class analyses.

Clearly new categories of subordination have emerged as points for mobilization.  Recognition of these categories and the practices which sustain them is important in overcoming the economism of much of Marxist theory.  Explanations which view new movement issues as secondary to class or as diversions from class struggles are obviously inadequate.  Class must be contextualized as it is lived and the lived experience of class includes problems of race, gender, sexuality and environment.

However, the actions of new social movements also have real effects upon the exercise of property rights and state power (Adam, 1992: 39).  “To confine them to a form of cultural expression is to ignore their effects on the amplification of civil liberties, on curbing the violence of state and capitalist institutions, and on more equitable distribution by employers and bureaucrats” (Adam, 1992: 39).  As several authors (Adam, 1992: Darnovsky, 1995: Starn, 1997: Tarrow, 1994) stress, social movements are resistant to unicausal explanations. As Starn (1997: 235) suggests, the decision to mobilize “underscores the need to insist on social analysis that avoids the extremes of an ungrounded culturalism or a deterministic economism to examine the inseparable intertwining of cultural meaning and political economy in human experience.”

Even movements which are viewed as being expressive of “new values,” such as environmentalism, have interesting intersections with class movements which are largely excluded in new movement theories.  Adam (1992: 46) raises, for example, the significant and sustained efforts of union health-and-safety committees to control industrial impacts upon nature.  To separate these efforts from “environmentalism” proper is purely arbitrary.  This is especially so if one considers that environmental contaminants and their consequences are concentrated and most severely felt in working-class communities.

Against claims that new social movements reflect a shift to “post-industrialism” or “post-modernism” Adam (1992: 50) further points out that “all of these movements have representation in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.”  Similarly, Starn (1997) finds new movement themes and strivings in the mobilization of Andean peasants who have hardly moved beyond conflicts over property and the government.  Additionally recent movements against global trade organizations such as the WTO and IMF and World Bank have strongly challenged the imperialist practices of global capital and its agents in national states.

In the face of economic restructuring and “downsizing,” dismantled social services and declines in real wages since the mid-1970s one might well conclude with Brym (1998: 475) that the claim that most people in industrialized nations are satisfied materially is quite dubious.  Likewise increased levels of poverty and homelessness forcefully suggest that conflicts over class, property and government, far from diminishing, have become more prevalent in the first years of the 21st Century.  Theories which ignore political economy in favour of cultural issues or “postmodern values” do a disservice by denying the ways in which the origins, identities, and development of subordinated categories of people remain fully rooted in the dynamics of advanced capitalism.

Both Adam (1992) and Brym (1998) argue that the focus on social movement “newness” reflects a short historical memory.  Adam (1992: 46) suggests that the perception of movement newness more likely results from a new recognition of movements which had long been discounted or devalued or a revival of movements after decades of Nazi, Stalinist or McCarthyite repression.

What is now necessary is an explanatory framework which accounts for the intersection of cultural transformations with both the ongoing and emerging practices of the state and capital.  “To ignore the dynamics of capitalist development, the role of labour markets in reorganizing spatial and family relations, and the interaction of new and traditional categories of people with dis/employment patterns is to ignore the structural prerequisites that have made the new social movements not only possible, but also predictable” (Adam, 1992: 56).  Analyses which ignore political economy also fail to understand the lived experiences through which new movement identities and practices emerge and the ways in which they are related to state and capital.

Do-it-yourself class struggle: Self-valorization

The new subjectivities emerging from the transition to neo-liberalism have sought to contest and overcome the impositions of productive flexibility within regimes of capitalist globalization. Rather than accepting the emerging socio-political terrain or, alternatively and more commonly, attempting to restrain it within the familiar territories of the welfare state, recent movements have  “appropriated the social terrain as a space of struggle and self-valorization” (Vercellone, 1996: 84).

For many contemporary activists and theorists the concept of self-valorization offers an important starting point for thinking about “the circuits that constitute an alternative sociality, autonomous from the control of the State or capital” (Hardt, 1996: 6).  Originating in autonomist Marxist reflections on the social movements that emerged most notably in Italy during the intense struggles of the 1970s, the idea of self-valorization has influenced a range of libertarian communist and anarchist writers.  As Hardt (1996: 3) suggests:

Self-valorization was a principal concept that circulated in the movements, referring to social forms and structures of value that were relatively autonomous from and posed an effective alternative to capitalist circuits of valorization.  Self-valorization was thought of as the building block for constructing a new form of sociality, a new society.

A key aspect of self-valorizing, affinity-based politics is a focus on direct action tactics and do-it-yourself (DIY) activities. For participants in a diversity of contemporary movement groups, DIY activities offer a context for coming together, a shared opportunity for mutual expression and, perhaps most significantly, unalienated labor.  Contemporary usage of the term DIY in underground movements comes from punk rock and its visceral attack on the professionalization of rock and the related distance between fans and rock stars.  This anti-hierarchical perspective and the practices that flow from it are inspired by a deep longing for self-determined activity that eschews reliance on the products of corporate culture.

As an alternative to the market valorization and production for profit embodied in corporate enterprises, anarchist DIYers turn to self-valorizing production rooted in the needs, experiences and desires of specific communities. In place of a consumerist ethos that encourages consumption of ready-made items, anarchists adopt a productivist ethos that attempts a re-integration of production and consumption.

It is perhaps highly telling that in an age of multinational media conglomerates and gargantuan publishing monopolies a number of younger people have turned towards artisanal forms of craft production in order to produce and distribute what are often very personal works.  Even more than this, however, are the means of production, involving collective decision-making as well as collective labor in which participants are involved, to the degree that they wish to be, in all aspects of the process from conception through to distribution.

While cultural theorist Walter Benjamin spoke of disenchantment in the “age of mechanical reproduction,” DIY projects offer expressions of re-enchantment or authenticity.  This authenticity is grounded at least in the sense that such works help to overcome the division between head and hand that reflects the division of labor in a society of mass-produced representation.  As attempts to overcome alienation and address concerns with overly mediated activities, DIY activities suggest a striving for what an earlier era might have called control over the means of production and what has now come to include control over the means of representation.  Perhaps ironically this has been aided by the availability of inexpensive desk top publishing and other means of “mechanical reproduction” since the 1980s (though not all anarchists choose to use it).

Along with DIY production often comes the collective production of alternative subjectivities.  For many the content as well as the process of DIY production expresses a confrontation with the cultural codes of everyday life.  While such activities express a variety of styles and viewpoints, they tend to present a vision of a desired society which is participatory and democratic.  In production, content and, often through distribution in gift economies, they advocate active production of culture rather than passive consumption of cultural (or even entertainment) commodities.  Self-production provides an opportunity for producers to act against the proprietorship of information.  Most DIY literature, for example, is produced as anti-copyrights or as “copylefts” and sharing of material is encouraged.  Indeed as a key part of gift economies, DIY takes on an important place in experimenting with communities that are not organized around market principles of exchange value.  They help to create a culture of self-valorization rather than giving creativity over to the logics of surplus value.

Twentieth century notions of self-valorization echo the arguments made by classical anarchist communists such as Kropotkin and Reclus, regarding the construction of grassroots forms of welfare developed through mutual aid societies.  Self-valorization is one way by which a variety of recent theorists have sought to identify social forms of welfare that might constitute alternative networks outside of state control (Hardt, 1996; see Vercellone, 1996 and Del Re, 1996).  As Del Re (1996: 110) suggests, part of the new parameters for change includes “the proposal to go beyond welfare by taking as our goal the improvement of the quality of life, starting from the reorganization of the time of our lives.”

For radical political theorists in Italy, the experiences of the social movements “show the possibilities of alternative forms of welfare in which systems of aid and socialization are separated from State control and situated instead in autonomous social networks.  These alternative experiments may show how systems of social welfare will survive the crisis of the Welfare State” (Vercellone, 1996: 81).  These systems of social welfare, however, are based on social solidarity outside of state control through practices of autonomous self-management. Beyond providing necessary services these practices are geared towards freeing people from the necessity of waged labour, of valorization for capital.

We might refer to Manuel Castells, Shujiro Yazawa and Emma Kiselyova in suggesting that autonomy movements offer “alternative visions and projects of social transformation that reject the patterns of domination, exploitation and exclusion embedded in the current forms of globalization” (1996: 22).  In constructing these alternatives, anarchists often develop practices that disrupt the smooth functioning of capitalist economics or liberal democratic politics.  This suggests, following sociologist Leslie Sklair, that that anarchist movements exemplify a “disruption” model of social movements and resistance to capitalism which does not seek an organizational model that would allow for greater integration within mainstream political channels. Through their uncompromising rhetoric and immodest strategies anarchist movements resist attempts to divert their disruptive force into normal politics.  Activists attempt to reject the entire context within which they can be either marginalized or assimilated; they occupy their own ground.  Thus one must also move beyond Sklair’s focus on disruptive politics to look at the constructive projects which make up so much of contemporary anarchism.

Politics which impede the capacities of states and capital to impose their global agenda offer possible beginnings for revolutionary politics in an age when many thought revolutionary politics had run their course. The collapse of authoritarian communism and the seeming triumph of neo-liberal capital throughout much of the world led many to lower their sights to little more than a radical democracy.  Anarchism shatters such “end of history” scenarios and provides a radical vision for the renewal of struggles for a future beyond statist capitalism.

Towards the coming communities?

For anarchist sociologist Richard Day, we now require an analysis of the relation of projects of social transformation with “actually existing democracy.”  Despite the contributions of the liberal-democratic state (redistribution of wealth, “rights” enforcement), liberal democracy “remains a frighteningly arborescent form which relies upon dead power to achieve its effects.” The analysis undertaken by contemporary anarchists is, for Day, compatible with a move away from subject positions associated with the system of liberal-capitalist nation-states, in favour of identifications produced by what Giorgio Agamben has called “coming communities.” Such a perspective provides a way to think about “community without universality” and “history without teleology.” For Agamben the task of contemporary politics will no longer be “a struggle for conquest or control” of power as domination, but will involve the creation of “a community with neither presuppositions nor a State”

Day rejects the idea of a radically democratic society, especially as expressed in the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, because it maintains a global-singular level of community with a specific identity which would contain a plurality of spaces.  As I have argued above, and as has been suggested in an earlier work (see Shantz, 1998), this radical democratic vision has generally appeared as something like “global civil society” or cosmopolitan democracy or cosmopolitan citizenship.

It would seem that this form of radical democracy is reliant upon something akin to, if not formally identical with, the nation-states that make up the current system of states, within which ‘the liberal institutions – parliament, elections, divisions of power – are maintained’ (Day, 2001: 34)

In both Marxist and social democratic visions the answer to questions posed by the presence of difference within subordinate groups and movements has been the unifying space of the party.  For Day, contemporary radical projects seek alternatives that may not be in need of a universalistic component.

Rather, let us imagine that they will thrive only as a multiplicity of coming communities, working together and in disparateness to simultaneously ward off corporate, national and state identifications, and to nurture new forms of creative commonality (2001: 36)

For Hakim Bey, another anarchist writer influenced by postructuralist theories, the greatest hope for resistance (revolution) rests in the assertion of difference against capitalist hegemonism (sameness).  Difference is revolutionary in an age of one-world capitalist globality precisely because it disrupts the single-world, the mono-culture (1996: 25).  To be revolutionary, however, particularity must not seek hegemony, it must remain anti-hegemonistic in character.  As in classical anarchism, the two forces of the opposition are autonomy and federation. Autonomy without federation would be reaction, whereas federation without autonomy would end self-determination.  Authentic difference is non-hegemonic and must be defended against the hegemonism of reaction (and capital). Against (one world) sameness and separation, difference and presence.  Bey’s favourite example of revolutionary difference, and indeed the favourite of many anarchists including Graeber and Day, is the Zapatistas of Mexico because they defend their difference (as Mayans) without asking others to become Mayans.


Anarchy encourages a critical re-conceptualization of politics as currently constituted.  It offers a glimpse of politics which refuse containment by any of the usual containers such as protest, “civil disobedience” or the state. Thus, it may further challenge the meanings of sovereignty in the current context. Such manifestations may open spaces for a (re)constitution of politics by destabilizing tendencies towards enclosure of any totalizing discourse, be it one of state, class or identity.  Just as global transformations de-stabilize “state-as-container” metaphors, reformulations of identity and community as in anarchism de-stabilize “identity-as-container” notions.  Political spaces are created in defiance of political containers.

Following Castells, Yazawa and Kiselyova (1996), one might suggest that autonomy movements respond to the processes of social precarization and cultural alienation currently associated with global processes of governance by challenging the global order, disrupting circuits of exploitation and asserting counter-institutions.  Attempts are made to (re)construct cultural meaning through specific patterns of experience in which participants create meaning against the logics of global intrusions which would render them meaningless. Radical social movement alliances are largely engaged in transforming the normative cultural and political codes of emerging global relations.

Autonomy movements are movements involving individuals, social groups or territories excluded or made irrelevant by the “new world order”.  This distinguishes them somewhat from institutional global social movements which seek increased participation by members who are not yet rendered irrelevant (and who thus have something with which to bargain).  In any event, how does one ask a global (or national) body to grant the “subversion of the dominant paradigm” or the “liberation of desire?”

Theory requires a more sophisticated understanding of those struggles which allow for the (re)production of categories, which inhibit or encourage the forging of community or solidarity, and which prevent alternatives from emerging.  Conventional social theories have failed to recognize alternatives, in part due to their uncritical acceptance of dubious metaphors.  Studies of social movements have under-theorized the significance of “unreasonable” or affective aspects of movement behaviour.  The present work offers an attempt to understand such “unreasonable” discursive strategies, beyond condemnation (or rejection) as illegitimate or impractical. “Interests and groups defined as marginal because they have become ‘disturbances’ in the system of social integration are precisely the struggles which may be the most significant from the point of view of historical emancipation from social hierarchy and domination [emphasis in original]” (Aronowitz, 1990: 111).  Anarchy asks us why we should assume that a “global civil society” will be any better than the civil society that brought poverty, homelessness, racism, and ecological annihilation in the first place.


1. Anarchists are respectful of the reforms which oppressed people have been able to secure and especially of the struggles it has taken to win those reforms.  Anarchists actively defend those reforms against neo-liberal governments and their capitalist backers who seek to dismantle them.  At the same time anarchists do not privilege reforms as ends but view them as reified moments of struggle.

2. See Antonio Negri (1989).


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[Thank you Jeff for your continued contribution and support]

The writer is a community organizer, rank-and-file union activist and anarchist. He has contributed articles to Anarchy, Social Anarchism, Green Anarchy, Earth First! Journal, and Northeastern Anarchist. His books include Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance, Active Anarchy: Political Practice in Contemporary Movements and Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination. He is also editor of Racism and Borders: Representation, Repression, Resistance and A Creative Passion: Anarchism and Culture. His website is

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